Border bard

"Patrick Kavanagh wrote about an Ireland that “froze for want of Europe”. He was thinking of an Ireland that history had removed from the mainstream of European culture"

Born before it even existed, Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) knew all about Ireland’s hard border. “O stony grey soil of Monaghan,” he wrote, “you burgled the bank of my youth!”

The son of a farmer-cum-cobbler, Kavanagh shook the border clods of Monaghan from his boots to become one of his country’s greatest poets and a brooding, acerbic presence on the Dublin literary scene. One young poet complained to him that publishers and critics were secretly uniting to thwart his career. He gave Kavanagh some work of his to read and later asked for his advice on what to do about the conspiracy. “Join it!” was the answer.

Kavanagh wrote some beautiful poems about Dublin, but he also returned again and again in his writing to the rural heartlands of his youth. He was no bucolic nostalgist: “You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch / You fed me on swinish food” are not words you are ever likely to find in the tourist brochures. Kavanagh captured like no one else the agonies suffered by the Irish peasantry as a result of poverty and sexual frustration.

Monaghan, he railed, “flung a ditch on my vision / Of beauty, love and truth”. “Inniskeen Road: July Evening” finds him alone on the night of a dance, cursing the plight of having “what every poet hates in spite / Of all the solemn talk of contemplation”: he is alone, a king of “banks and stones and every blooming thing”.

Yet Kavanagh could also write with great tenderness about rural Ireland, and even about the beauty and consolation that the Catholic faith sprinkled across otherwise harsh lives. In his new book My Father Left Me Ireland (Sentinel, £20), American journalist Michael Brendan Dougherty movingly contemplates lines Kavanagh wrote about farmers who prayed for help with the necessities of life, but came away with something greater: “It was love, love, love they found: / Love that is Christ green walking from the summer headlands / To His scarecrow cross in the turnip-ground.”

And what about that border? Many years before his country joined the EU, Kavanagh wrote about an Ireland that “froze for want of Europe”. Clearly, he didn’t have in mind customs unions, but was thinking of an Ireland that history, had removed from the mainstream of European culture. But, if Kavanagh were around today, it might not be Brexit that would be preoccupying him, but the social revolution in Ireland signalled by referendums such as those on equal marriage and abortion. Before the 1950s were out, he had already written a parodic poem entitled “House Party to Celebrate the Destruction of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland”.

However, when talking about Kavanagh and borders, one must eventually come around to another wonderful sonnet, “Epic”. The poem concerns a 1930s land dispute between two Monaghan farming families. Kavanagh handles the whole affair with masterful irony and the concluding sestet—well, as people seem to like to say on Twitter, I’ll just leave this here.

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

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