Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67) is one of Ireland’s best-loved poets: when the Irish Times compiled a list of favourite Irish poems in 2000, ten of Kavanagh’s were in the top fifty, with only Yeats’s name appearing more frequently. Kavanagh rose to such literary pre-eminence from the humblest of backgrounds. Born in Inniskeen parish, Co. Monaghan, his father was a cobbler and a farmer of sixteen acres. Kavanagh left school at twelve to apprentice as a cobbler himself, but having no aptitude for shoe-making, he helped instead on the family farm. So for the first 27 years of his life, Kavanagh lived the life of rural Ireland, the life of “fairs and football matches, of mass-going and dance-going.” (Seamus Heaney, The Sense of Place, a lecture given in the Ulster Museum, 1977). At the same time, despite this entirely unbookish background, Kavanagh was drawn to writing poems, his first appearing in the local papers in 1928. As he said of his early poetic development, “I dabbled in verse and it became my life.” His poems began to appear further afield and this prompted Kavanagh to leave home in 1931 and walk to Dublin, where his brother was already a teacher, to try and further his literary aspirations. To an extent he was successful, his first collection, Ploughman and Other Poems, appearing in 1936. From the first his poetry was marked by a fidelity to local detail and the real experience of Irish rural life (as opposed to the sentimentalised version which he despised), coupled with a vigorous colloquial language. However, it was precisely these qualities that led the educated Anglo-Irish elite, who dominated Dublin literary life at the time, to patronise him, referring to him as “that Monaghan boy”. Kavanagh eked out a living as a journalist but his tendency to tell the unvarnished truth, together with a self-belief in his poetic gifts, made him enemies. Recalling this period in the 1963 recording from which his Archive poems are taken, Kavanagh wryly says “every potential employer said I was a genius and therefore unemployable.” Nevertheless, he continue to publish including, in 1942, his long poem ‘The Great Hunger’ which chronicles the privations – mental, spiritual and physical – of the rural life he knew so intimately. This was followed by a loosely autobiographical novel, Tarry Flynn (1948), which was briefly banned. The poems of this middle period are judged less successful, partly because the quarrel he had with the literary establishment gave them a polemical quality. This was essentially a quarrel with himself, divided as he was between love on the one hand and contempt on the other for his roots in the “the little hills…and stony grey soil” (Bertrand Russell – see above) of his home. However, in 1954 personal crisis was to set his poetry on a new course. Firstly, Kavanagh pursued and lost a notorious libel action against a Dublin newspaper and secondly he was diagnosed with cancer and had a lung removed. It was during his convalescence while sitting beside the Grand Canal in Dublin that he underwent what he described as a “re-birth”. There followed his happiest years during which he produced some of his greatest poems, full of new found optimism and love of the world. He now, at long last, began to receive the acclaim he felt he deserved, giving lectures at University College Dublin and in the USA. In April 1967 he married Katharine Maloney. He died later the same year, a week after being taken ill at the opening performance of the adaptation of Tarry Flynn at the Abbey Theatre.

Two of his most famous poems are included in the Archive, both of which demonstrate the appeal of his “rough immediacy” (The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry). Kavanagh was proud to call himself a parochial poet, which he defined as being the opposite of provincialism. While the provincial man looks to the opinion of the metropolis, the parochial “is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish” (Patrick Kavanagh). This is the spirit which infuses ‘Kerr’s Ass’ with its proud assertion that, despite the poverty of the community in which it is set, the God of Imagination can be found waking in Mucker, the townland of Kavanagh’s birth. His poem ‘Epic’ stakes his claim to the importance of the local even more directly, arguing that myths can be made out of a “local row”. Its combination of sturdy colloquialism and the sophistication of the sonnet form captures the paradox of Kavanagh’s life and work. His gravely, unpretentious delivery is entirely in keeping with the poems’ ethos.

Books by Patrick Kavanagh

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