Cleveland Comhrá: Patrick Kavanagh
by Bob Carney
“I nicked six nicks on the door post
With my penknifes big blade
There was a big one for cutting tobacco
And I was six Christmases of age”
“My father played the melodeon
My mother milked the cows
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the virgin Mary’s blouse”
– from “A Christmas Childhood”
The most quoted of all the Christmas poetry to come from Ireland, Patrick Kavanagh wrote, “A Christmas Childhood” when he was lonely and feeling nostalgic, spending Christmas alone in his flat in Dublin. Like much of his work, it reflects his rural upbringing in the early part of the last century.
Kavanagh was born in 1904 in Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan, the fourth of ten children to James Kavanagh and Bridget Quinn. James was a farmer and a cobbler.
Education was important in the household, Patrick’s brother Peter became a university professor and a writer, two of their sisters became teachers, three became nurses and another a nun. Patrick left school at the age of thirteen as was the custom in rural Ireland, to apprentice with his father as a shoe maker and to work on the family farm. In his spare time he was a goalkeeper for the Inniskeen Gaelic Football Team, but writing was his true passion.
His first published work appeared in 1928 in The Irish Independent but was initially rejected by the editor of The Irish Statesman, George William Russell. Russell encouraged the young poet and told him to keep submitting his work, finally publishing him in 1929 and again the following year.
Being published gave Kavanagh the push to leave the farm and walk to Dublin to meet George Russell. His brother Peter was teaching in Dublin and he was able to stay with him. Russell was enthusiatic about his arrival and gave him many books containing the works of Victor Hugo, Emerson, Whitman and Browning among other literary giants. Soon he became a mentor and literary advisor to the young writer.
Kavanagh’s first collection, “Ploughman and Other Poems” was published in 1936. The work was a realistic portrayal of life in rural Ireland, differing from the romanticized poetry usually found depicting Irish country life at the time. Popular with readers, it did not have a great impact on the literary crowd.
The Green Fool
However, his novel, “The Green Fool,” published two years later, received good reviews and international praise. It was loosely based on his own upbringing and writing ambition.
After spending time in London, he settled in Dublin. As the war was heating up, Ireland remained neutral.
It was not what the young writer had hoped for as far as the literary world was concerned. He felt many of the writers there put on a facade of sophistication and played at writing. It didn’t help that he felt as he was treated as a lesser because of his rural roots instead of the poet he believed he was becoming.
The Great Hunger
Kavanagh’s long poem, “The Great Hunger,” was published in 1942. It is considered by many to be his best work. He was also working as a part-time journalist and film critic for the Irish Post.
At the end of the war, he moved to Belfast, finding employment as a barman in a number of Falls Road area public houses. He continued writing for the Irish Post until 1949, returning to Dublin in November of that year.
Kavanagh’s personality and focus was becoming unpredictable as his drinking increased. He became unkempt in his appearance as he wandered the pubs of Dublin in a whiskey fueled haze, often turning on his friends and benefactors. He was writing a monthly column for a publlication called “The Envoy”, their offices were on Grafton Street, but most business was conducted at McDaid’s Pub; Kavanagh could often be found there.
An anonymous author penned a profile of Kavanagh in the magazine, “The Leader,” describing him as an “alcoholic sponger”. It could have been any one of a number of people that Kavanagh had crossed over the years, but he saw an opportunity and filed libel charges against the magazine, hoping for a quick settlement to make him go away. It ended up going to trial and he lost, very soon after he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had to have a lung removed.
As he recovered from his surgery, he spent time on the banks of the Grand Canal and regained his appreciation of nature and beauty and found inspiration for his poetry. He submitted some of his new work to McMillan and became depressed when it was rejected.
Patrick Swift was in Dublin and Kavanagh asked him to take a look at his work. Swift arranged for nineteen of the poems to be published in the English literary journal “Nimbus.” Soon Kavanagh began receiving the acclaim he was due.
He began to spend more time in London and contributed to Swift’s “X Magazine.” He lectured at University College Dublin and in the United States. Kavanaugh even became a judge at the Guinness Poetry Awards.
In April of 1967, he married his long time companion, Katherine. Life was good. Unfortunately, his earlier lifestyle had taken a toll on his health and he fell ill and passed away on November 30th of that same year.
Patrick Kavanagh is buried in Inniskeen next to the Patrick Kavanagh Centre. Katherine died in 1989, and is buried at his side. A reading of “A Christmas Childhood” can become a nice addition to anyone’s family Christmas traditions. Merry Christmas everyone.
On Raglan Road
“On Raglan Road” has been called the greatest love song out of Ireland. Kavanagh wrote the poem at forty years of age, when he began an affair with the twenty-two year old Hilda Moriarty. In his head he knew it was a mistake, but his heart convinced him otherwise.
In an interview in 1987, Hilda said it was a relationship doomed from the start mostly because of the age gap. The lines of the poem or lyrics in the song became clearer as I learned more about the man behind them.
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak irish Cleveland class every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Morrighán and Rían and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be contacted at email@example.com