Reprise for a raggy boy

 

The recent Ryan report on child abuse reawakened Patrick Galvin’s anger; but this time illness prevented the Cork poet from discussing the issues, writes ARMINTA WALLACE

WHEN I AM introduced to Patrick Galvin he takes my hand as if to shake it. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, he raises it to his lips. The gesture is courteous and also, somehow, faintly rogue-ish. It breaks the ice and makes us both smile – which was doubtless his intention.

The Cork poet and playwright has been in a wheelchair since he suffered a major stroke in 2003. He can’t move about much and when he speaks, his struggle to get the words into single file is painfully visible, writ large in every muscle of his face.

But Patrick Galvin isn’t an easy man to silence. Since his first volume of verse was published he has been a communicator of uncommon skill and directness. In his poetry, his plays and the three volumes of his autobiography, The Raggy Boy Trilogy, he has consistently spoken out on behalf of the dispossessed, the distressed and the downtrodden. And now, as his partner Mary Johnson explains, he feels the need to speak out more than ever.

“When the Ryan report came out, Paddy got very upset,” she says. “Which surprised me, I must say. Remember that day, Paddy?” Paddy is nodding. “Yeah. I was,” he says. The report of the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse was published on the afternoon of May 20th this year. “I was bad-tempered for a while,” Paddy says. Johnson snorts. For about two weeks he was, she corrects, “churning up”.

The uproar which greeted the report’s publication was doubly galling to Patrick Galvin. It wasn’t just that it brought back the misery and horror of the time he spent in Daingean Reformatory School in Co Offaly as a teenager. It did – and that was bad enough. The real problem, though, was that he found himself unable to speak or write freely when – for the first time – the issue which has been at the heart of his work was being freely discussed. “He was very upset,” says Johnson. “He has been writing about this since 1957.”

That was the year in which Galvin’s first volume of poetry, Heart of Grace, appeared. Throughout his 20s – encouraged by the piper Seamus Ennis – he had established himself as a ballad singer, with nine albums of Irish songs to his credit. He had also written a book called Irish Songs of Resistance. The influence of this music, with its lilting rhythms and sly, sidelong commentaries, can be seen in Galvin’s early poetry. The equally palpable note of pain, however, is all his own. The title poem is narrated in the odd, off-beam sing-song of the seriously disturbed child – remember Miles’s rhymes in Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw?– and it is full of images of silence:

The house standing in the white heather

Where no child would be heard singing;

“I beat the four walls with my heart

And with a pin I scratched them

But it made no mark at all . . .”

The final poem in the collection, The Exiles,is a verse account of Galvin’s life up to that point. It, too, refers to the helpless silence of a generation. It also contains a stark expression of an idea which was much discussed in the weeks following the publication of the Ryan report – namely, that the abuse perpetrated on children in Ireland by the twin pillars of Church and State has been a kind of Irish Holocaust.

“And every day they stand about and watch

and stare,

The shaven heads, the broken ribs, the iron

rod

And every night they weep an empty eye

And curse the land that killed Almighty

God.”

Such imagery must have puzzled many people in the buttoned-up Ireland of the 1950s. Nowadays it might be read in context – except that neither Heart of Gracenor The Exilesappears in Galvin’s currently available New and Selected Poems, published in 1996. “ Heart of Graceis an amazing poem,” says Johnson, who is currently putting together a more comprehensive edition of his work. “I think the editors left it out of that particular book because the rhythms didn’t fit the rest of the poetry. It’s Hiberno-English – almost like a translation from the Irish. Other than that, perhaps they didn’t understand it. Perhaps they didn’t even know where it came from.

“The language is stilted. It’s the broken person. Song for a Poor Boy, with its line ‘he grinned and grinned’, says ‘I’m on top of this’. Whereas the other poem is laying it bare for the first time. That’s what I think, anyway. Am I right, Paddy?”

“That’s right,” says Paddy.

THE IRONY IS that everyone knows Patrick Galvin as the author of The Raggy Boy Trilogy, a memoir in three volumes: Song for a Poor Boy, which chronicles his childhood in the slums of Cork in the 1930s; Song for a Raggy Boy, which is about his experiences at Daingean; and Song for a Fly Boy, an account of his time in the RAF. In 2003, a film adaptation of Song for a Raggy Boy, starring Aidan Quinn, was released to widespread acclaim. It tells a powerful and explicit story of sexual abuse – which strikes the reader of Galvin’s Song for a Raggy Boy as very strange. There is, to be sure, plenty of physical abuse in the book; but sexual abuse is merely implied, lurking in the shadows rather than placed centre stage.

“Paddy’s book isn’t about sexual abuse,” Johnson says. “It’s about fascism. His focus was on redemption through education – that was what he saw as the drama of it. And you can see it in his original script.”

The story of the film is a complex one of script changes, amalgamations, wrangling and ongoing disagreements. In any case the trilogy, with its complex changes of mood and its colourful cast of characters, has a bigger canvas by far. There’s Paddy Tom Kilroy, who changes into a seagull. “My father invited him in and asked him if he’d seen a doctor. Paddy shook his head. There was no point. Doctors knew nothing about seagulls . . .” There’s Sergeant Humphries of Bathurst on the Gambia river in Senegal, who spends the war lying on a marble slab in his “office”, emerging now and again clad only in a bush hat and a tie around his neck, to dispense the odd nugget of courteous advice to his sweating subordinates.

Though they have moments of shocking bleakness, the tone of the books is as much affectionate as it is angry or bitter. “He keeps saying to me, ‘I wish that I could write again because I’d write it like it really was’,” says Johnson. Perhaps poetry, with its ability to shape-shift from one dimension of reality to another, is ultimately a more scientific medium for the dissection of truth. Or maybe we’ve never been ready, or able, for truth.

When he was working as a playwright in Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s, Galvin’s controversial stage works – marked by their anger and flashes of violence as much as by their outlandish humour – earned him as much opprobrium as praise. We Do It For Love, a satire on the Troubles, packed out the Lyric Theatre night after night, but also inspired street protests by paramilitaries. My Silver Bird, a costume drama about the pirate queen Grace O’Malley, played at the Lyric Theatre but was prevented by the Northern Ireland Office from touring to the Opera House in Cork. Nightfall to Belfastincorporated an explosion into the action.

“He used all these techniques about a bomb going off in the middle of it,” says Johnson. “But the UVF actually did leave a bomb and blow up the theatre when people were in it.”

It wasn’t just the UVF. In his long and hugely productive career Patrick Galvin has managed to annoy a long and distinguished list of people and institutions. He was arrested in 1979 for “deserting from the RAF”, a bizarre tale of mistaken identity and false imprisonment which ended in him winning damages from the Ministry of Defence in London.

MORE RECENTLY, he rendered the Turkish Government apoplectic with rage when a book of poems by Yilmaz Odabasi, Everything But You, selected by Galvin and Robert O’Donoghue and translated under the auspices of Cork’s European Capital of Culture year in 2005, was withdrawn from sale when someone in Ankara spotted a reference to the poet’s birthplace, Diyarbakir, as “the spiritual capital of Kurdistan”.

The former Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, must have been equally enraged by Galvin’s play Cry The Believers, staged at the Eblana Theatre in Dublin in the spring of 1962. He sent a spy along to the performance. “His report is actually quite a good summary,” says Johnson, waving several photocopied pages in the air. Nevertheless, its conclusion comes as no surprise. “With its unending carping about the Church and the clergy”, this is not a work “to which young, impressionable minds could be exposed without risk to faith”.

Johnson adds the pages to a cardboard box already overflowing with volumes of poetry, CDs of Galvin reading his work, a CD of songs and a swatch of photocopies and newspaper clippings – some light reading for me to take home, she says with another wry grin. “And this here is a nice little bit for a change. It’s called ‘Sackcloth and Ashes’. It’s about how much you loved your mammy, Paddy. I’ll throw that in for something positive.”

“My father did not believe in women,” the essay begins. “My mother, on the other hand, believed strongly in men. She knew that they were all mad, totally destructive, and an albatross around the neck of any woman who had the misfortune to marry one . . .”

Not always. Galvin and Mary Johnson met in Belfast in 1973, and they have been together since – a kind of triumph in itself. Galvin had been married three times before that. He walked away from the first of those wives when he was barely 20, but they’re all communicating now.

“There’s no malice,” says Johnson. “They’ve all been very good to him. Including me.” She laughs. “I used to say, ‘I’ll go away with you if you stop being a writer’. And he’d say, ‘No. I can’t do that’.”

“That’s right,” says Paddy.

It is, Johnson reckons, part of the legacy of Daingean. “If you look back at Paddy’s life, there’s an indication there of huge damage. The lack of trust in people – that’s one symptom. Then there’s the nomadic lifestyle. That’s another.” She and Paddy have moved 28 times. It’s a kind of litany or leitmotif of their life together. “George’s Street, Belfast,” she recites. “Enniskillen. Wicklow. Donnybrook. Mansfield. West Cork, with Spain thrown in. Then we had no money, so we went back home to mother. Lisburn. Ballycotton. Lisburn again.”

They are now settled in a little house on the Douglas Road in Cork with a tiny deck at the back where, on sunny days, Galvin can sit and contemplate the successes of his life in letters. The founding of the Poetry Now festival in Dún Laoghaire. The Munster Literature Centre. The magazine Southword. Membership of Aosdána.

Yet another report on child abuse – this time in the Archdiocese of Dublin – is due to hit the public domain any day now. There has been little, so far, to suggest that we are ready to confront the horrors of our recent past, let alone put them right. In his home country, Patrick Galvin has repeatedly been described as anti-clerical; he is, in fact, the very model of an Old Testament prophet. He is the bearer of an unpalatable message, which is that for real change to occur in human society, there must first be change within the human heart.

His writing is still, in the words of his 1989 poem Nothing is Safe, “the sound of paper screaming in the hand”.