The poet and the problem-solver
An Irishman’s Diary about an engineering genius
‘On his first job, Peter Rice talked himself into being sent to Australia to help build the roof of the Sydney Opera House, arguably the 20th century’s greatest building.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Comparisons between Peter Rice, the great Irish engineer, and Kerr’s Ass – the donkey immortalised by Patrick Kavanagh – are admittedly tenuous. The pair did, however, have at least one thing in common: both were intimately familiar with the road between Dundalk and Inniskeen.
The donkey made its only appearance in world literature via the eponymous poem that opens: “We borrowed the loan of Kerr’s big ass/To go to Dundalk for butter/Brought him home the evening before the market/An exile that night in Mucker.”
Rice, meanwhile, was born in Dundalk. But his maternal ancestors were Quinns from Inniskeen (another descendent, Antoinette, wrote Kavanagh’s biography). So his summer childhoods were spent in and around that village. During one of them, he would later recall, locals drew his attention to the notorious farmer-poet.
Rice would in time travel much further than Inniskeen: first to Queen’s University Belfast, where he earned his primary degree; then London; then the world.
Had he been so inclined, eventually, he might have echoed one of Orson Welles’s better-known quips. Of an early apprenticeship with Dublin’s Gate Theatre, Welles joked that he “started at the top and worked my way down”. And Rice started at the top too, although most critics suggest he stayed there.
On his first job, with the London office of Danish firm Ove Arup, he talked himself into being sent to Australia to help build the roof of the Sydney Opera House, arguably the 20th century’s greatest building.
The design was not his, of course. That was the work of another Dane. But the challenge of turning Jørn Utzon’s drawings into reality took years, and the Dundalk man was chief protagonist. In effect, as Frank McDonald has written, Rice made the roof “stand up”.
Among the litany of other landmark buildings on which he would work, probably the most famous was the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Again, the overall design – for a museum with all its functional parts on the outside, maximising exhibition space within – was someone else’s: English architect Richard Rogers.
But again, it was Rice who made it work, partly thanks to his invention of a special steel beam – the gerberette.The admiring Rogers called him an “artist”, “sculptor”, and “poet”, among other things: descriptions rarely applied to engineers, but not rare with him. In fact, Patrick Kavanagh might have been jealous at the frequency with which admirers spoke of the poetry in Rice’s work. In the wake of his premature death in 1992, one of Rice’s English obituaries went even further and called
him the “James Joyce of structural engineering”.
Poetry apart, Rice shared other things with Kavanagh. Not only did they cross paths in Inniskeen, they both had grandparents who were teachers in that village. Kavanagh acquired his name – sort-of – from his grandfather: a Sligo-born schoolmaster, Patrick Kevany, who had an unmarried love affair with the poet’s grandmother.
That the surname morphed over time, first into
“Cavanagh” and later
“Kavanagh” may have been a bit of poetic invention – even structural engineering – by local priests: designed to obscure the poet’s extramarital origins, a generation removed. Anyway, Rice’s maternal grandfather, Thomas
Quinn, was also a school-
master in Inniskeen, but without the nominative
Another thing the poet and engineer shared, perhaps surprisingly given their Border upbringings, was that both became ardent Anglophiles. Rice spent most of his adult life in England, happily. He died and is buried there too.
Kavanagh only ever visited England for short periods. But he did tend to romanticise it and to be grateful to it for an artistic appreciation denied him closer to home. It was also in “Ealing Broadway, London town” that he had one of his poetic epiphanies, courtesy of the aforementioned donkey.
For not only did Kerr’s Ass carry butter, he also carried memories of harness parts, naming which the temporarily exiled poet is transported back in time: “Until a world comes to life/Morning, the silent bog/And the God of imagination/Waking in a Mucker fog.”
Peter Rice didn’t have entirely positive memories of Inniskeen – he found it claustrophobic. But maybe the God of imagination rubbed off on him too there. His late memoir, published posthumously, was called An Engineer Imagines.
An exhibition of Rice’s work toured London and Paris earlier this year and will shortly visit Dublin, where it opens at Farmleigh on October 10th. In the meantime, the annual Patrick Weekend gets under way tomorrow in Inniskeen. Full details are at patrickkavanaghcountry.com.