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 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.
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 email@example.com”