Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Patrick Kavanagh Remembered

At Brendan Behan's funeral in Glasnevin cemetery, his friend Mattie O'Neill concluded his oration by saying, 'We shall never see his like again'. As he finished, Patrick Kavanagh was heard to mutter, 'Thank God for small mercies'.
This was the nature of the relationship between the two giants of Irish literature of that time; they hated each other. Not even the death of one of the protagonists was going to change that fact. It probably would have been the same if Patrick had died first, although, of the two, he was the one more likely to hold a grudge.

Patrick bore grudges; that was his nature. And if he didn't like you, he told you so in no uncertain terms. Maybe it was because of his upbringing in the back-biting, small-farmer environment of Inniskeen where, if we are to believe his writings, neighbors skulked about behind the hedges and ditches, spying on each other and running each other down, jealous of any financial or social progress the other was perceived to have made. And where, if they saw a neighbor on his way to pay a visit, they were more likely to take the kettle off the fire than put it on. Or maybe it was the way the Dublin literati turned its back on him.

Whatever the reason, when you fell out with Paddy, you stayed fell out - as actor TP McKenna's wife. Mai, found out to her cost. They had put him up for several weeks, and were worried when he showed no signs of leaving, so she approached him, only to be told that she 'was an ignorant woman'. Paddy never spoke to her again.

Patrick hated Behan for a number of reasons.

One - he was the kind of 'buck-leppin'' Irishman that he detested. He regarded him as a phony, and once told him that the only journey he had ever made was from 'a national phony to an international one'.

Two - his involvement in Patrick's libel case against the Leader newspaper, which made him look like a liar and a fool.

Three - the fearful abuse that Behan hurled at him. It was a regular sight around the literary watering holes of Dublin, a splenetic Behan following a drunken Kavanagh, taunting and humiliating him.

Patrick Kavanagh was born at Mucker, Inniskeen, County Monaghan, on the 21st October 1904, where his father was a small farmer and cobbler. He received only Primary school education, and left school at thirteen. It was expected he would carry on the family tradition of shoe-making and farming - but Paddy had other ideas. Ever since the day he had heard a girl in school reciting Clarence Mangan's words 'I walked entranced/through a land of Morn' he knew he wanted to be a poet.

Yet, he resisted the lure of Dublin for more than twenty years, content to 'plough his stony grey soil of Monaghan', publishing the occasional poem in a newspaper or magazine. In 1930 he undertook his 'long walk' to Dublin, to test the water as it were. It was 'in the slack period – after the crops were sown', and it took him three days. He begged food and money along the way, and after he met AE (George Russell) and some of the other great writers of the period, his conversion was complete. Oddly enough, the one Irish writer he didn't think much of was WB Yeats. 'I never cared much for Mr Yeets', he sneeringly remarked years later.

However, if he thought Dublin was going to embrace him with open arms he was sadly mistaken, as he discovered when he moved there permanently in 1939. To the literati of Dublin he was the quintessential bogman, the culchie who had no right being able to read never mind write poetry, and he had to endure the daily spite of that unmannerly band. He didn't know it then, but he had no hope of becoming accepted. This rejection made him bitter, so he did the only thing he knew; he attacked everyone in sight, friend and foe alike, ensuring his certain banishment to the literary deserts.

PK was an intellectual in tramp's clothing, not the country bumpkin and bogman that he was usually portrayed as. The writer, Anthony Cronin, a disciple who became a life-long friend, said of him; 'If you stood in a doorway with Patrick, sheltering out of the rain for a few minutes, you came away knowing you had been in the presence of genius'. Anthony couldn't stand the way Brendan Behan treated Paddy, following him around, taunting him with shouts of 'you Monaghan wanker' or 'the fucker from Mucker'.

Behan was twenty years, younger, physically in his prime, and Paddy was afraid of him, so much so, that according to Cronin, 'you would see his big frame shake and he would become agitated whenever Brendan appeared on the horizon…' Cronin refused to talk to Behan because of this behavior, and this led to their famous fist-fight outside McDaid's pub one night. Cronin more than held his own, which caused Paddy to remark 'I always knew the bacon would be no match for the slicer'.

What kind of man was Paddy? He always pleaded the 'poor mouth', but given his background, that was understandable. Although it is debatable if he was as poverty-stricken as he usually made out. There was always a few pounds coming in from his journalism and the sale of poems to various magazines; from John McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin, who bankrolled him for most of his life; from his younger brother, Peter, who supported him during the years he worked as a teacher in Dublin; from John Ryan, the founder of Envoy magazine; and from many more friends and acquaintances. And throughout his life he harbored the belief that he would one day wed a wealthy (young) woman, who would keep him in the manner he aspired to.

The great love of his life was Hilda Moriarty, a beautiful medical student. He pursued her relentlessly, and his poem 'On Raglan Road' is dedicated to her.

"On Raglan Road of an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I would one day rue
I saw the danger and I passed along the enchanted way
And I said let grief be a falling leaf at the dawning of the day."

Hilda was middle-class, the daughter of a wealthy Kerry doctor, and twenty years younger than Patrick; he was a penniless poet, uncouth and unwashed, a small farmer, who had forsaken the plough for the pen. She never reciprocated his love, and apart from going to the occasional film or having a cup of coffee with him, never gave him any hope.

Nevertheless, he pursued a one-sided courtship, following her around the city, and even once to her home in Dingle. It ended when she met Donagh O'Malley, a flamboyant engineer from Limerick. They subsequently married and Donagh went on to become Minister for Education in the Fianna Fail Government.

To get a true picture of Patrick, the reader could do worse than read his novel Tarry Flynn. Tarry is the nearest to Patrick we shall ever get. The poet, the dreamer, the fool of the book, ridiculed by his neighbors and both encouraged and belittled by his strong-willed mother, could be Patrick himself, and the raw material for his long poem The Great Hunger runs like a river through it.

Some people have described The Great Hunger as the poor man's The Wasteland. But in my opinion it is a much better poem than T S Elliot's offering, not least being that it is comprehensible. John Betjeman saw it for the masterpiece that it is, and was instrumental in getting it published. Pity then that it should see the light of day in the narrow-minded, priest-ridden Ireland of De Valera, where it was unjustly derided as 'a filthy poem'. It was never officially banned, but the effect was just the same.

Patrick's love of the land shines like a beacon through Tarry Flynn, yet his despair at the ball-breaking futility of it all is apparent long before he takes his departure (again, shades of Patrick himself) in the final pages. Tarry was echoing what Patrick himself was to say in real life 'the countryside is a great place to write about but it's terrible place to live in'.

But Patrick could be funny as well as depressing, and there is a hilarious incident in the book where, after a fist-fight with his neighbors, Tarry fears court action, and, spying on them one night, discovers they are 'rehearsing ' the court case in the farmhouse kitchen.
Solicitor: You're a bit of a poet, Flynn, I believe? (laughter)
Petey: (attempting to mimic Tarry) There's a great beauty in stones and weeds
(more laughter)
Solicitor: Your mother bought a farm for you to keep you from the lunatic asylum,
is that the case?
Petey: I admit she bought a farm
Solicitor: What's known as grabbing a farm, isn't that so?
(Petey scratches his head in imitation of Tarry)
'Isn't he the lousy bastard?' Commented the real Tarry.

John Kilfeather said of him; 'Mr Patrick Kavanagh was a highly cultured mind with a lot of innocence in it. Not since Burns has a great figure emerged from the people who has left such a faithful record of what it is to be of the people and yet apart from them. His life was not the least of his works of art'.

Patrick died on the 30th November 1967. His monument is a seat beside the Grand Canal, not far from the Australian Embassy in Dublin. The inscription reads;

O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb – a canal-bank seat for the passers-by.

Tom O'Brien

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