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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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 www.naomifoyle.com.
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.