Turning libel into crucifixion


Offended by a magazine profile of him, poet Patrick Kavanagh took a melodramatic action that had unexpected consequences, writes JOHN MONTAGUE

Patrick Kavanagh and The Leader, by Pat Walsh, Mercier Press 288p €12.99

NEARLY 60 years ago, I was walking home to my flat on Dublin’s north side, with, in my pocket, a copy of a little-known Irish journal, The Leader, though what or who it led was never clear to me. But it was a reputable, very national-minded magazine, which had recently been given a new lease of life, with contributors such as Desmond Williams, the freshly appointed modern history professor at UCD, and Brian Inglis, late of this paper.

It had just begun a series of lively profiles, including of the controversial president of UCC, Alfred O’Rahilly; RM Smyllie, editor of The Irish Times; CS (Todd) Andrews, boss of Bord na Móna: all distinguished people, deeply involved with the country and capable of arousing emotion, but not to screaming point. And more profiles were promised, including Jack B Yeats.

When I did turn expectantly to the profile in that week’s issue, I had a shock, because it described a scene I knew, a scene I might just have come from, with Patrick Kavanagh holding forth in McDaid’s of Harry Street. “The great voice, reminiscent of a load of gravel sliding down the side of a quarry, booms out . . .”. And his audience included “sylph-like redheads . . . three rangy university poets and several semi-bearded painters . . .”. The redhead was Claire MacAllister, daughter of an eminent Irish-American judge. One of those three university poets was Anthony Cronin, another either John Jordan or Pearse Hutchinson (probably Jordan, since he was prone to indulge in flytings with Kavanagh) and the third myself. And one of the painters was Patrick Swift, boyfriend of the lovely Claire, whom Jordan had enviously derided as “a Yankee flapper”.

The author’s knowledge of the steamy atmosphere clearly indicated an inside job, with even Peter Kavanagh, “the brother” (to use the Mylesian term), appearing as an interfering American “Mick”, perhaps because he had subsidised Kavanagh’s Weekly, with its attacks on Irish institutions such as the diplomatic service and Radio Éireann. But it went on to praise Patrick, extolling The Great Hunger as the finest longer Irish poem since Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village.

I performed what seemed to me a good literary litmus test; I began to read it aloud. Terse, intelligent, caustic, it sounded like the voice of poet and diplomat Valentin Iremonger, whom I knew resented Kavanagh’s virtual taking over of Envoy, the literary magazine of which Iremonger had been titular Poetry Editor.

With his characteristic melodramatic vehemence, Kavanagh plunged into a libel action, something you should never do unless you are sure of winning, and have determined beforehand that the opposition can afford to lose. This book is essentially a transcript of that impetuous action, with an often sympathetic and helpful commentary by Pat Walsh.

On the opening day in court, Kavanagh was in fine fettle, scoring off John A Costello, once and future Taoiseach and, at that time, barrister representing The Leader. But with patience and cunning, the professional inquisitor wore his quarry down, like Carson with Wilde. One of the mistakes Kavanagh made was to deny his friendship with Brendan Behan, fuelling the impression that all writers are quarrelsome.

But why did his team not caution him against being led into such irrelevancies, which turned his own libel case on its head, transforming it into something like a criminal trial with himself as defendant? Like everything to do with Kavanagh, it is both a laughing and a crying matter: we learn, for example, that Archbishop John Charles McQuaid was prepared to appear as a character witness for the poet, which might be a liability nowadays. This is nearly as good as the canard about John Betjeman, press attaché at the British Embassy in Dublin during the second World War, proposing Kavanagh as a spy for the British in Portugal: “It is difficult to picture the outspoken Kavanagh . . . as a double agent . . .” observes Walsh wryly.

How historical (and hysterical) it all seems now! We are hardened to libel cases, though not literary ones; pop stars, not poets. I was recently traduced in a popular magazine, but felt there was no forum in which I could defend myself. Money, murder and sex are the main scandals nowadays, and I cannot imagine either myself or any of my literary contemporaries being cross-examined by a famous lawyer-politician because we believed we had been insulted in the press.

But this was a crisis point for Kavanagh, though he himself unconsciously provoked it: who else would turn a law case into a crucifixion? The grilling he received from Costello probably aggravated his illness. But then he was reborn, after his operation, on the banks of the Grand Canal, with the lovely sonnets of Come Dance with Kitty Stobling. He was also helped by a repentant Costello, aided by Michael Tierney (Kavanagh had always been a Fine Gael supporter), who arranged a series of lectures at UCD for him. I attended most of these, with the one-lunged Kavanagh breaking into croaking but valorous song.

And setting the scene for the main event, Pat Walsh offers a brief summary of Kavanagh’s career, including the two years when he wrote a column for the Irish Pressunder the persona of Langland’s great poem, Piers Plowman. The tone was often genial, as in his description of Peig Sayers in Dunquin: “Actually she resembles nothing as much as a woman writer . . . holding her salon in Bloomsbury and not in a little cottage at the foot of the Kerry mountains . . .”.

We are also reminded that while his early autobiography, The Green Fool, was withdrawn by the publisher because of a (successful) libel action against him by Gogarty, Patrick himself had taken his first – also successful – action against the British and Irish Steampacket Company, after being knocked off his bicycle. Walsh quotes Honor Tracy: “The libel laws of Ireland . . . are an open invitation to truffle hunters at any time . . .”. Country people especially relish law cases, as in the work of John B Keane; so perhaps it was inevitable that Patrick Kavanagh, of Mucker, Co Monaghan, would jump at the chance to drag The Leader into court.

When Patrick denounced the author of the profile, declaring, “Only the pen of some man who had been down in hell could have written it,” Iremonger was astonished at this vehement reaction to what he would have regarded as a bit of a lark. On the other hand, while he esteemed Kavanagh as a poet, he did think of him as being prone to paranoid delusion, referring to him as “Kafka”. So perhaps he should not have been so surprised by Patrick’s indignation. In any case, Iremonger produced very little in his later years, writing bitterly, “Ten bloody years with this quill lying / Almost idle on my table . . .”. But I miss Iremonger’s lonely, lovely voice, as I do Kavanagh’s “angry foghorn”.

All of this reminds me of how, in Bewley’s, I discussed a possible contribution to Kavanagh’s Weekly with Patrick and “the brother”. I suggested a satirical piece, to which Kavanagh replied, “Satire is a double-edged sword; it cuts the hand that uses it”.

John Montague is a poet. He edited Patrick Kavanagh’s first Collected Poems(1964), an adventure described in his memoir, The Pear is Ripe, published in 2007 by Liberties Press