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Niall McDevitt (1967 – 2022):  Entering the Mystery

Writer Naomi Foyle joined the funeral service and wake to celebrate fellow poet and Blakean Niall McDevitt just a few days ago. Here she shares the spirit of that gathering for a friend, and memories of Niall — in an expanded version of a post she first shared on her Facebook page the following day.

Mors Janua Vitae – Death, the Gate of Life … and so it proved on October 12th, Niall McDevitt’s starkly beautiful funeral service at the Kensal Green cemetery East Chapel energised by a Blakean – and Yeatsian ‒ challenge to the priest, who tried to hurry things along, not counting on Niall’s brother Roddy McDevitt, who leapt up from his pew, vigorously refusing not to sing ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ to Niall’s setting!

Mors Janua Vitae
‘Death, the Gate of Life’. Photograph: Naomi Foyle 2022

The overflowing proceedings — people sitting in the aisle and standing out into the carpark — were also graced with a defiant rendition of ‘Jerusalem’, cut from the programme but led by a choir of women as the mourners slowly filed out, the funeral a hallowed portal to the wake at the Tabernacle in Powis Square – a rambunctious, epic, life-affirming event, generating over two hours of music, song, poetry and heartfelt testimonials in Niall’s honour. Anglo-Irish poet, self-taught Blakean scholar, Londonist literary walking tour guide, urban shaman, loyal friend, and devoted partner to the artist Julie Goldsmith, one of Niall’s phenomenal legacies is the vibrant and loving community his generous spirit has bequeathed us.

The service was live-streamed and will be available for viewing soon. All the contributions spoke to the heart of Niall’s presence and absence but, having not met Niall’s family before, along with his brother’s, those of his sister, the filmmaker Yvonne McDevitt, and niece, Dixie McDevitt, stood out for me. Yvonne sang an exquisite rendition of the Gaelic poem ‘Ag Críost an Síol’ (‘Christ is the Seed’), set by Seán Ó Riada, the renowned Irish composer and arranger who also tragically died young. Listening to Yvonne was an otherworldly experience, her spectral voice transforming the chapel into an ethereal chamber of yearning and solace. Dixie gave a passionate eulogy, recounting how Niall had taken her on a private Blake walk, and later (sitting under an overpass, I think) sang ‘The Wildflower’s Song’ with her and Roddy, so many times that she could recite it at her Cambridge interview — in response to the provocative question ‘Isn’t William Blake a little twee?’ She said that was the moment she got in. Like her uncle, Dixie was ambivalent about academia, but thanks to her he stormed the Ivory Tower: Niall took her entire cohort on a London walk, he and Roddy outdoing each other to ‘disturb passers-by with Shakespeare’, a lecture her peers agreed was the best on their course.

A wake — the fullest range and depth of love

Wake for Niall McDevitt
“Niall’s mother Frances listening to ‘Hyacinths’ performed by Kirsten Morrison Nev Hawkins and Niall’s brother Roddy McDevitt.” Photograph: Naomi Foyle 2022

More than these achievements for them both, though, I was just so glad to learn that Niall had enjoyed such a close relationship with her; as he did with his stepson, the writer and editor Heathcote Ruthven, 32, who told me how Niall had become more and more loving and giving over the decade that he, Julie and Niall lived together. Niall’s life was cruelly cut short and he will be dreadfully missed. But I’m comforted to know that in, the time he had here on Earth, he experienced the fullest possible range and depth of love — profoundly romantic with Julie, of course, whose dignity and kindness to all present was notable on the day, but also intergenerational, paternal and familial. Helping to nurture the gifts of those two exceptional young people must have given him such a sense of pride and belonging. And meeting Niall’s mother Frances, who embraced me at the wake and told of her son’s firm grip on her arm the day before he died, I felt I’d touched the source of his famous vitality and warmth. It is also strengthening to know that Heathcote, in his work at New River Press, and Julie as Niall’s artistic collaborator, are imminently publishing Niall’s magnum opus, London Nation — a book that sounds by all accounts like a Four Quartets or Four Zoas for our accelerationist age, an advance copy of which, poet James Byrne told us in his tender eulogy, Niall was holding in his coffin.

Niall McDevitt in Hyde Park, with green parakeets. Photograph: Julie Goldsmith 2016

I met Niall over sixteen years ago, and in my tribute at the wake I spoke about the birthdate we shared, Feb 22, 1967 — the night Jimi Hendrix played the Roundhouse. There is an urban legend that the famous London green parakeets are descended from a pair that Hendrix brought with him and set free. Niall, I’m sure, would approve of apocryphal glory, so I’ll always associate the birds with him too, emblems of his style and vibrancy and defiant internationalism, darting like rare emerald kingfishers over the city he loved — the ‘kingfisher of poetry’ being evoked as well in the river of tributes Niall flowed through at the wake. Later Julie sent me a photo of Niall in Hyde Park, two parakeets eating out of his hands.

Wake for Niall McDevitt. Showing Naomi Foyle reading Niall's 'Visions of Sophia'
Naomi Foyle reading ‘Visions of Sophia (gardenless)’ from ‘b/w’. Photograph: Kirsten Morrison 2022

Immortal Dissenters

There was much talk on the night of Niall being always with us, and personally, I have always found that when someone dies they make their presence felt for a good while afterwards. At the wake I read Niall’s poem ‘Visions of Sophia (gardenless)’ from b/w, his debut collection from Waterloo Press, so on the way back home to Brighton, I accepted the gift of a black-and-white polka dotted scarf left for me at the entrance to Victoria Station — and the following morning I simply wasn’t surprised to see a b/w tyger framed by angel wings and a pirate skull burning bright on the train to work … Niall is with the Immortal Dissenters now, and we’re going to need all their help to get humanity back in balance with the planet: as I honour his endlessly creative Blakean spirit in the ways that I can, I’m keeping my eye out for all future messages.

“Nope, not surprised to see a b/w tyger on the train to work this morning … Niall McDevitt, ever will you burn bright xxx” Photograph: Naomi Foyle 2022


This post is an expanded and modified version of Naomi’s original Facebook tribute (13/10/22).

Naomi Foyle is a novelist and poet – author of ten poetry pamphlets and three full collections and has collaborated with artists, musicians and filmmakers on projects and spoken word CDs. Naomi’s website is

London Nation, Niall’s new poetry collection, is published by New River Press in November and can be pre-ordered now. “Niall McDevitt’s commanding new and final collection sees him return from Jerusalem to London via Babylon. These Londonist, dissenting, occultist poems take on as many forms as themes to reveal a linguistic shapeshifter in the Joycean vein. London Nation is a fourfold work in a beautiful hardback edition with artwork by Julie Goldsmith.”

His debut collection b/w (2010) is published by Waterloo Press: “His is not a brick-by-brick London but a London of the psychosphere, densely populated with genies, spies, artists, prostitutes et al on their chosen edges. A suite of mystical songs to ‘Sophia’ offsets the eviscerating satires. The Queen’s English is shadowed by Pidgin English. Political correctness is trashed, not from the right but from the left. Shakespeare, Blake, Rimbaud, Yeats are the city psychopomps. This is a unique book: Judeo-Apache, avant-folk, urban sha-manic. Read it with drum.”

You can read other tributes to Niall on our post in memory of this much-loved friend of Finding Blake, Niall McDevitt, 1967 – 2022. And Niall’s own post for us, from June 2018, is My Streets Are My, Ideas of Imagination.

Niall McDevitt, 1967 – 2022

It is with incredible sadness that Finding Blake has learned of the death — ridiculously early in life — of our friend and contributor, poet Niall McDevitt on 29th September.

Niall McDevitt in Bunhill Fields.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Niall was a generous giver from his great wealth of knowledge and understanding, not just of Blake but of many fellow visionaries and creative souls. His walking guides of Blake’s London (with Watt Tyler, John of Gaunt, Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan and many many more making appearances along the way) were full of insights and humour. He shared some of this in his first (as we hoped – sadly, his one and only, but treasured) post for us: My Streets Are My, Ideas of Imagination. It is well worth a reread, and you will find links to some of his other writings there.

Scrolling down the Recent Blakean Events page of our Blakean Archive will provide a flavour of the many walks Niall devised and shared, while a scan of the Blakean articles page will take you to some more of his fascinating writing on the man.

On Niall’s poetopography blog — among many other gems — there is A Thank You Letter to My Fellow Blake Walkers, where Niall gives a typically humorous run-through of the five different walks through Blake’s London — central, east, south, north and west — that he organised on consecutive Sundays in 2019.


Thank you, Niall, for everything.

Niall McDevitt 1967 – 2022


Among the tributes to Niall is “Farewell to Niall McDevitt, a Blakean radical”, from Alan Morrison in The Morning Star. Here is an excerpt:

A self-described flaneur, anarchist and republican, Niall was unafraid of ruffling feathered nests and throwing down gauntlets before establishments of all kinds.

His poetry was richly figurative, deeply polemical; it had Symbolist aspects, and often incorporated pidgin, portmanteaus (“luxembourgeois,” one of my favourites) and linguistic experimentation reminiscent of such diverse poets as Arthur Rimbaud, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, EE Cummings and Allen Ginsberg.

Niall managed in his poetry to merge the historical and contemporary in an almost mystical, shamanic alchemy. This mystical aspect was Niall’s own particular Blakean spark, his having been a lifelong admirer, champion and, one might almost say, poet-apostle of Blake, grasping the immanence and sempiternal qualities of his timeless poetry.

There was something mediumistic about how Niall spoke and wrote about Blake, almost as if he actually, somehow, knew him personally, or at least on a spiritual plane.

New River Press — of which Niall was a founding member and which promoted his walks as well as his poetry — published Niall’s obituary on its site. Here is an extract, but the full tribute is well worth a read for its insights into this unique Blakean.

McDevitt dedicated his life to poetry, to a Blakean vision that celebrated freethinking and resisted the rule of the philistine establishment. His poetry is by turns solemn and sage, with a melancholic romance, or in the words of Heathcote Williams, ‘savagely witty’. A charismatic and sometimes provocative performer with a low, booming voice, McDevitt was more acutely perceptive than first appeared. His loyal, scrutinous attention championed the creativity of all he met. With uncomplaining dignity, he lived to the full while ill. Only four days before his death, McDevitt visited the grave of Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne in Bonchurch, Isle of Wight. Though wheelchair-bound, beaming with delight, he mustered a lecture on Swinburne’s colourful private life and advocacy for Blake.

McDevitt brought many to the path of poetry. A Londonist who led highly original literary walks to uncover traces left by great world writers on the city, in particular the four McDevitt called his ‘personal Kabbala’: Shakespeare, Blake, Rimbaud, and Yeats. His ‘wandering lectures’ revealed a whirlwind of history on unassuming streets. An industrial alley behind The Savoy is shown to have been set ablaze in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1377; to have witnessed the death of William Blake in 1827 and Bob Dylan giving birth to the music video in 1965 in Subterranean Homesick Blues.

The product of six years’ work, London Nation returned from the printers on the day McDevitt died — just in time for the poet to hold a copy. The golden hardback shows Thomas De Quincey with ‘Ann of Oxford Street’, who reputedly once saved the young De Quincey’s life with smelling salts. The paintings are by artist Julie Goldsmith, McDevitt’s partner, collaborator, and now literary executor. Goldsmith and McDevitt made a glamorous pair in pinstripes and leopard print. 

The New River Press piece also mentions that Niall recently worked with filmmaker Sé Merry Doyle to record his ‘poetopographical’ walks, in a series called Blakeland. You can see the official trailer for that here, with Niall introducing Blake’s two headstones at Bunhill Fields in London.

Fellow poet Helen Moore shared her memories of Niall in a moving eulogy on Facebook. Here is an excerpt:

One of the qualities I most admired in Niall was his willingness to speak truth to power. I was alongside him for the final stages of his writing and editing of b/w, (Waterloo Press, 2010), his debut collection, and saw this incredible mind that erupted onto the page in taut, finely crafted, cutting-edge poetry, which calls out oppression, corruption, injustice. And celebrates the spirit soaring beyond charismatic personality.

As a great Blakean, Niall’s work synthesised the mystical and the political, and brought a highly unique vision to a contemporary (poetry) world that often separates these dimensions into oppositional binaries. Niall was also a talented actor and musician, and his settings of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, which I first heard him sing and play accompanied by Lisa Hayden at the launch of The William Blake Birthday Book in Bath in 2008, touched me in ways I still find hard to articulate

An independent literary scholar, with a memory as prodigious as a Whale’s, Niall was a voracious reader and talented literary sleuth, in the years we were together focussing his sharp intellect on the identity of Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’. Shakespeare, Blake, Rimbaud, Yeats. Niall’s poetographic London walks were always feats of knowledge, entertainment and stamina, and having been deeply influenced by the theatre and character of Ken Campbell, were also often darkly humorous and zany.

Helen’s Facebook post also features her 2013 video Greenspin, on which Niall performed.

An update from the New River Press: “Since Niall’s death there have been a wealth of tributes to him, in newspapers, magazines, blogs, and social media posts. Here we endeavour to collect as many of them in one place as we can. The list will be periodically updated. Feel free to email any suggested additions to”

On Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ & Our Fallacy of Albion

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White shares his recent experience of Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem — a play addressing big themes and offering a Blakean vision and comment on modern Britain.

“He who is unable to live in society is either or beast or a god.”
— Aristotle

I’m just home from seeing Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem in the current revival on the London stage, and am chewing the cud on this urgent theatre work for our time. Entering the theatre, a massive St George’s Cross on the stage curtain greets us and the play opens with a beautiful faery nymph dressed in green coming out in front of the curtain and sharing a stunning rendition of Parry’s Jerusalem.

Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem

Mythic thinking

The play focuses on the extraordinary character of Jonny Rooster Byron, whose immense and extraordinary history we get bites of, mixed within the embellished stories that emerge from his gutsy mouth throughout, as well as what the other characters — his coterie of “sub-educated friends” — know or believe of him. This is a drama of epic myth, and Butterworth has described it himself as logos and mythos (see Newsnight Interview 29/09/2011 below). The circumstances are forcing logic and functional thinking, but Rooster himself (an incredible dynamic and reflective performance by Mark Rylance) is deeply steeped in mythic thinking and being — the tale of meeting the giant ‘who built Stonehenge’ is a fantastical example of this.

Many big themes appear throughout the play: rural life, the rural economy and the sense of isolation that can be rife in such communities, development, land access, earth care, and our strange and varied sense of what Albion and Englishness mean.

Photograph: James Murray-White 2022

The central character lives a rich bawdy life, with threads of trauma that we learn of through Rooster’s history, plus an extraordinary sense of defiance and rebellion. He has survived in this woodland on the edge of the (fictional) village of Flintock in Wiltshire — though based on the real village of Pewsy, where Butterworth grew up — for 30 years. It is an exceptional dramatic device that we meet him on the day when Kennett & Avon Authority are moving for the eviction. A digger and vans of police are massing nearby. The play opens with two officials posting the eviction notice upon the caravan door, and they return at 5 pm to serve the notice in person. They are brushed off like gnats. We never see an eviction — the dramatic tension leaves what may happen hanging.

Rooster has become an elder, attracting all the elements of the area in towards him — lost, searching kids, old friends, old lovers — one appears with their child Marky in awed tow, and prying. Teenagers show up at his rusty old airstream caravan, hoping for fun, drugs, drink, a party culture, maybe guidance and advice. And they get it in spades from this bruised soothsayer, who remains solidly stoic to his own inner yearnings. There are two moments in the play where Rylance channels an inner shamanic power, the first to his ex-partner Dawn — curiously played with his back to the audience, as with several other key speeches, which I found brave and exciting staging. And again finally, at the end, sheathed in a single light from above, with a wind rustling through the trees, and bloody and badly bruised from a beating — Rooster’s final stand. Heroic, with no audience of his crowd of stooges, just us, the external world looking in.

Over the three hours, while watching I thought of many folk like him, or on a similar journey, washed up and at the edges, that I’ve met in my own perambulating life. Indeed I came away wondering how much of me is in Rooster — as we all should; and I feel this gripping tragic drama should really force us to look at our own part in society: how much are we the glue that binds a community? And how much do we challenge authority? How do these elements of Rooster’s life on the edge roll around within our inner wild worlds, and how close to them are we, really? This is a rich feast for anthropological study: the character at the edge, channelling power and Green Man or shamanic energy. Blake had that while living in the centre of the great Metropolis; and he also accrued a cohort of admirers who came to sit at his feet, led by painter Samuel Palmer, whose own visions of a pastoral Albion remain admired artworks of a bygone idyll.

Back in the distant past, my first degree was in drama. I and my cohort were shocked to discover that the ‘Modern Theatre’ module stopped after John Osbourne’s Look Back In Anger (1958). That had heralded the ‘New Wave’ of theatre, but we were hungry for a contemporary energy and at that time (the early 90s) most contemporary British culture seemed to be folding into the political reality of capitalism and safe commercialism — stories and spectacle that makes you laugh or launches into escapism.

A Blakean vision of spiritual uplift

I fell out of love with the potential of theatre to really hold the mirror up to nature and to really be a change agent. Jerusalem has been ticking in the back of my knowledge since it first came out, and I felt sad not to have got to a show. I’m pleased to report that when I heard about this latest run I made the effort to get to it. It has all those elements of a bitter critique of our society, a kind of ‘anti-theatre’ spectacle that grips and brings us railing into the reality of exclusion on the margins, and the rare strength of an outsider in the middle of it all, indulging in the drama of Flintock’s annual St George’s Day fair, with the minstrels at play and full of shenanigans. All the while this heavy authoritarianism is hanging over.

A largely older (probably retired) white middle-class audience was visibly moved at the end, and many around me were in floods of tears. I considered offering to take folk to the many protest camps up and down our Isle: where brave souls are taking a stand against the felling of an ancient oak in Queen Camel on the A303; or the anti-HS2 camps where so much valuable habitat is being destroyed, needlessly; or indeed to Stonehenge, where for purely economic reasons, a tunnel has been planned under this most sacred of places. People standing up to destructive idiocy.

A Blakean vision of spiritual uplift while living a life on this extraordinary planet is something aspirational and achievable, and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is that golden moment of watching and then discussing and reflecting upon the human drama playing out upon this earth. It’s a must-see drama, oft-called ‘“the play of the century” (Guardian, first review, 2009). Highly recommended.

Photograph: James Murray-White 2022

After the play, I felt duty bound to go and pay homage at Blake’s grave. I hadn’t seen it since the ceremony (detailed here on the site and in the film), and was nervous that it might be quite weathered. However the Blake Society members who clean it regularly are keeping it in great condition, and with many flowers around it it’s clearly a venerable pilgrimage site amongst the London Plane trees and on the edge of the other graves, and a relaxing space for busy Londoners. If we still don’t know our place within Albion and what our ‘Englishness’ is all about, or even our place in the world let alone on this small Island, William Blake’s work and continuing legacy is a great place to start.


You can find out more about Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem at Wikipedia and find out about future performances at Jerusalem.

Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker about the resonance of its current revival: The Tensions of Modern Britain in Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem”. And Arifa Akbar reviews the play for The Guardian: Mark Rylance’s riveting return as ‘Rooster’ Byron.

You can read about the public celebrations marking William Blake’s new gravestone in The Unveiling, our post from August 2018.