To coincide with television and radio broadcasts of a concert of the songs of Leonard Cohen performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra alongside a host of guest artists, writers also contribute to the celebration.

Here, from a series of short articles especially written for RTÉ Arts and Culture is writer Cathy Sweeney.


The song Alexandra Leaving by Leonard Cohen, from the album Ten New Songs released in 2001, was inspired by the poem The God Abandons Antony written in 1911 by the poet Constantine P. Cavafy.

A civil servant by day, Cavafy spent his life in the modern Egyptian city of Alexandria, conjuring in words the more ancient city, buried in the dust under his feet, which had been founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great.

The first time you hear this song should be when you are young. On a warm summer's afternoon, in a garden. You have spent the morning in bed with a lover and then got up, showered, put on something loose and made of cotton, and now you are standing under a larch tree, dappled in sunlight, smoking a cigarette before you walk barefoot into the cool tiles of the kitchen to drink some wine and eat some bread and cheese.

From somewhere in the background you hear Alexandra Leaving, and you close your eyes and listen, knowing that soon you must say goodbye to the lover still sleeping in your bed. Through the music you taste the dark lemons of this, the saltiness, the pain. But you must do it with courage and with grace, as the song commands:

As someone long prepared for this to happen

Go firmly to the window. Drink it in

Exquisite music.

The next time you hear the song should be when you are in the prime of life. Perhaps you have married or embarked on a career or are raising a family. It is an autumn afternoon in the city. You are walking along a busy street, passing traffic and glass and the smell of bitumen from roadworks, in a hurry to be somewhere else. Your breath is coffee, your skin has dust on it and inside your leather shoes your feet are heavy. You pass a basement café and there it is again, that song by Leonard Cohen. Pausing for a moment, you suddenly understand that youth is leaving and that you must say goodbye to it with courage and with grace.

Goodbye to running into the blue of the sky, to thoughtless excess of alcohol and sex, to pleasing reflections in the mirror. In your stomach the hard-to-digest meat of this, the vinegar, the loss. But you must say goodbye with courage and with grace You must do it as the poem commands, written by a man who spent his life in the ashes of the past, delving illicit kisses from the mouths of young men:

Above all, don't fool yourself, don’t say

it was a dream, your ears deceived you:

don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.

The last time you hear the song is when you are old. It is winter now and the nights have grown longer. At dawn you sit at the edge of your bed staring at the blank square of the window, watching the birds in the garden. They delight you with their comings and goings, especially the sweet-voiced blackbirds and the pigeons with their ridiculous waddle. In the afternoons, when the mood is on you, you pour a small whiskey and think back to a garden where you stood many years before under a larch tree, smoking a cigarette.

Cathy Sweeney

And there is that song, playing in your memory, reminding you that soon you must say goodbye to all this, with grace and with courage, like a king who fell asleep one night and dreamed a city, marked it out in chalk, working all day under a hot sun, and when the chalk ran out, marked it out in flour instead. Five quarters, each named after a letter from the Greek alphabet. A lighthouse made of marble with colossal statues around its base. A library of half a million books.

Two columns as elegant as needles. Palaces, temples, marketplaces, dwellings. And then the king left to fight another war, only returning to the city to be buried in a tomb.

Somewhere in the darkness time folds in on itself like a used napkin. Space expands and all your old ghosts...

… radiant beyond your widest measure

They fall among the voices and the wine.

Cathy Sweeney is the author of Modern Times, published by The Stinging Fly Press 

The Songs of Leonard Cohen with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, RTÉ One, April 25th at 10.30 pm

Compiled by Clíodhna Ní Anluain