Bidding for literary fame
An Irishman’s Diary about poetic properties
“Billy Brennan’s Barn is up for sale. Yes, in what may be another sign of renewed confidence in the Irish property market, the famous outhouse, backdrop to Kavanagh’s 1936 sonnet Inniskeen Road: July Evening, has been placed on the market.” Photograph: myhome.ie
Further to yesterday’s column, I can report today the exciting news from Patrick Kavanagh Country that Billy Brennan’s Barn is up for sale. Yes, in what may be another sign of renewed confidence in the Irish property market, the famous outhouse, backdrop to Kavanagh’s 1936 sonnet Inniskeen Road: July Evening, has been placed on the market.
According to the estate agents, the property comprises “a former residence, out-offices, and the world-renowned [...] barn”. The bad news is that they all need “complete renovation”. Also, whatever energy accrued there on the night of the dance to which “the bicycles [went] by in twos and threes” has clearly dissipated. Thus the barn does not appear to qualify for a BER rating.
Still, the restoration job might just appeal to someone of romantic bent, always bearing in mind that the poet himself, in bestowing immortality on the improvised dancehall, was reduced to describing it from the outside.
Excluding himself on principle, apparently, Kavanagh used the barn as a metaphor for the loneliness of the artist, in self-imposed exile from the entertainments of common mortals.
He even likened himself to Alexander Selkirk, the real-life Robinson Crusoe, who was also in voluntary exile (having marooned himself from a leaky ship). Not everyone is convinced about Kavanagh’s principles on this point, however. His biographer Antoinette Quinn, for one, suspected an economic basis for his plight, guessing that he would have been inside if only “he could have afforded the fourpence admission price”.
In any case, his words may yet help sell what remains of the barn. And if they do, it won’t be the first time Kavanagh has resonated in the modern property market.
This column has previously noted the uncanny similarities between the 2008 “Gorse Hill” land dispute, involving Pat Kenny and his neighbours, and the events of another Kavanagh sonnet, Epic.
The latter involved a row over “half a rood of rock” in Inniskeen, whereas the former concerned three-quarters of a rood of rock in Dalkey.
And of course rock values differed dramatically between the two places. Yet in many respects, the comparison suggested little had changed between 1938 and post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.
The central incident of Epic, by the way, was also based on a real-life dispute between neighbours. I have heard two competing versions of the cause. One is entirely apocryphal – at least as a context for the poem. But it’s more entertaining than the truth, so I’ll tell it first.
In this, the row was over a “corpse road”. There was a time, in both Britain and Ireland, when pedestrian funeral corteges often had to cross private property en route to church. It usually happened with the consent of the owner. But where it did happen, by tradition, the passage of the departed one could confer a permanent right of way for the living.
The potential for conflict is obvious. And there is a folk memory in south Monaghan of some such dispute involving Duffys and McCabes, the names Kavanagh used in the poem. One of the problems with this theory, however, is that Kavanagh, who was not always so tactful, had taken the precaution of changing the real-life protagonists’ identities. Also, no other detail of the poem fits the funeral scenario.
The more prosaic truth is that poet himself was one of the disguised combatants, and that the actual dispute was about plain old property boundaries.
Back then, local school-masters usually doubled as land surveyors. But on the boundary described, there were competing opinions and a shouting match, which the exiled poet later sublimated into a 14-line poem.
The row aside, Epic touched on a favourite theme of Kavanagh’s – the universality of the parochial. Nobody ever had to leave his own village, he argued, to know everything that mattered. It was all there for him already, if he had the eyes to see it.
Hence the poem’s conclusion, comparing the row with the Siege of Troy: “Gods make their own importance”.
And yet, in a way, I am no less impressed by the alternative, fictional explanation for the row behind the poem, which contains its own truth about Irish rural life.
It’s an impressive thing, after all, suggestive of the number and variety of feuds in any Irish community, that a poet can invent pseudonymous identities for warring neighbours, and that locals will still have no difficulty remembering a row to fit the names.