The late Peter Kavanagh – irascible brother of the poet Patrick – and the sixth-century holy man St Colmcille may not have much else in common. But there was at least one thing.
They both furtively, and then famously, copied works of literature belonging to others.
And so doing, they provoked landmark legal copyright cases.
For St Colmcille, the work in question was a rare volume of the Vulgate Bible, brought back from Jerusalem circa 560AD by his former mentor Finnian of Moville.
As an early forerunner of the Google book digitisation project, Colmcille was anxious to make the text more widely available. But Finnian wouldn't let him, so he transcribed the book surreptitiously, until the older man caught him and demanded the copy.
For Peter Kavanagh, 14 centuries later, the original was a less exalted work, but one of great interest to literary scholars.
It comprised the collected letters of one John Quinn, the arts-loving New York lawyer who had tried and failed to get the US ban on Joyce's Ulysses lifted in 1921.
After his death a few years later, Quinn's correspondence – not just with Joyce, but with Yeats, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, and many others – was donated to the New York Library, with a stipulation that it could be read but, until 1988, not copied or published.
Like Colmcille before him, Kavanagh found this an oppressive restriction on scholarship. So in the late 1950s he too went about secretly copying the text, but in a novel manner that made front-page headlines in New York and elsewhere.
During 39 hour-long visits to the library, under the book-keepers’ wary eyes, he read and committed to memory substantial extracts of the letters before going out and writing them down. He thus captured enough material eventually for a 50-page scholars’ edition, of which he printed precisely 129 copies – a figure that hints at his very personal engagement with the process.
In the case of Colmcille v Finnian, the supreme court of the time (aka King Diarmait) found in favour of the latter with a celebrated judgment: “To every cow its calf, to every book its copy.” This ruling must have been all the more elegant considering that, back then, there was a substantial overlap between calves and books – vellum.
Kavanagh’s book was not on calfskin, nor was it hand-written like the work of 6th-century monks. But it was printed on a press he had himself designed and built, using scrap materials including a sewing machine, a ship’s wheel, a car-jack, and a broom handle.
Painstakingly produced and then hand-bound – the Kavanaghs were shoemakers by trade – his books were to be sold for $35 each, a hefty price that might have justified the work. Not surprisingly, however, New York Library intervened to sue.
The resultant case failed to produce a ruling as quotable as the one on Finnian’s book, which in any case was appealed, after a 6th-century fashion. Disagreeing with the verdict, Colmcille is said to have instigated a rebellion of the Uí Néill clan against the king. The resultant extension of the copyright battle was just that – the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne (561 AD), in which thousands died.
The case between Kavanagh and the library was restrained by comparison. But despite making some novel arguments, including the suggestion that having been read and talked about for decades, the letters were effectively published already, he was forced in the end to concede defeat – albeit with a flourish that had something of a 6th-century flavour. After cutting most of the books in two with his cobbling knife, he surrendered only one set of halves to the court, lest anybody other than him reunite the texts for publishing.
He then claimed a moral victory in his elaborate protest against censorship, proclaiming: “To me, the act is everything.”
But a small number of the books had survived the knife, escaping by a colourful route that included temporary asylum in the home of a daughter-in-law of Teddy Roosevelt. And in 1961, The Irish Times noted the end of the dispute with a front-page report that the New York Library was no longer seeking return of these strays.
The other survivor of the affair was the improvised printing press. It had to be reinforced after several breakages of the wooden parts during its maiden print run.
But it is now permanently resident in the Patrick Kavanagh Centre in Inniskeen, where the annual Kavanagh Weekend takes place at the end of this month, marking 50 years since the poet's death.