In a Word ... Awkward

Patrick Kavanagh took a disastrous libel action over a Leader magazine piece in 1954

I thanked Ms Lot and set off for 2022, without a glance back. Photograph: Tooga Productions Inc

I thanked Ms Lot and set off for 2022, without a glance back. Photograph: Tooga Productions Inc

 

The man on the RTÉ news last month was clear. Poet Patrick Kavanagh could be “scathing and colourful” in speech and was “an awkward character”. So said 92-year-old Peter Murphy, a one-time neighbour of Kavanagh’s in Co Monaghan. How very unlike our own, house-trained Monaghan man, Frank McNally.

Murphy was speaking at the reopening of a refurbished Patrick Kavanagh Centre in Inishkeen on that July evening. As so often with prickly personalities who dish it out, Kavanagh had a thin skin.

It led to his disastrous 1954 libel action.

That followed an unsigned, deeply unflattering profile of Kavanagh in an October 1952 edition of the Leader magazine. It described him in McDaid’s pub on Harry Street, Dublin, as “ ... hunkering on a bar stool, defining alcohol as the worst enemy of the imagination. The great voice, reminiscent of a load of gravel sliding down the side of a quarry, booms out, the starry-eyed young poets and painters surrounding him, all of them 20 or more years his junior, convinced (rightly, too) that the Left Bank was never like this, fervently cross themselves, there is a slackening, noticeable enough, in the setting up of the balls of malt.

“With a malevolent insult which, naturally, is well received, the Master orders a further measure, and cocking an eye at the pub clock, downs the malt in a gulp which produces a fit of coughing that all but stops the traffic outside.

“His acolytes, sylph-like redheads, dewy-eyed brunettes, two hard-faced intellectual blondes, three rangy university poets and several semi-bearded painters, flap. ‘Yous have no merit, no merit at all’, he insults them individually and collectively, they love it, he suddenly leaves to get lunch in the Bailey and have something to win on the second favourite. He’ll be back.”

Kavanagh claimed this painted him as a person of vicious, dissolute and intemperate habits; that he was a sponger and abusive, with an inadequate knowledge of grammar and the English language.

He lost, a decision overturned by the Supreme Court. An out-of-court settlement was agreed. The author of this portrait of the artist as an impossible man was never disclosed but is believed to have been fellow poet and diplomat Valentin Iremonger.

Awkward, from Old Norse afugr (awk) for “back-handed” + suffix -ward from Old English -weard “turned toward”.

inaword@irishtimes.com

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