A keen from Inniskeen – An Irishman’s Diary about a ceremony in Offaly for Patrick Kavanagh’s banished grandfather

‘The wild, vigorous seeds of Connaught’

Patrick Kavanagh would write of this grandfather he never met and about whom he knew little that he had ‘come out of the west to sow the wild, vigorous seeds of Connaught among the little hills of South Ulster’

Patrick Kavanagh would write of this grandfather he never met and about whom he knew little that he had ‘come out of the west to sow the wild, vigorous seeds of Connaught among the little hills of South Ulster’

 

A small but important act of closure took place last weekend in the village of Durrow, Co Offaly, which is not to be mixed up with the village of Durrow, Co Laois.

The Offaly Durrow is near Tullamore, where a man named Patrick Kevany spent his later life, serving as master of the workhouse. And crucially, the weekend ceremony also involved visitors from Monaghan, a county the same man had left – in unhappy circumstances – 160 years before.

By now, you may have worked out that this Patrick Kevany was the grandfather of poet Patrick Kavanagh. He had gone to Inniskeen from his native Sligo as a schoolteacher. And he might well have settled there, especially after falling for a local woman named Nancy Callan. Alas, the pregnancy that would produce the future poet’s father had not been preceded, as convention demanded, by a wedding. Why she and Kevany didn’t marry after the fact remains a mystery. But the upshot was that he had to leave Inniskeen, in disgrace, deprived not just of his teaching job there, but disqualified by clerical disapproval from a similar post elsewhere.

Nearly 80 years later, in The Green Fool, Patrick Kavanagh would write vaguely of this grandfather he never met and about whom he knew little. What he did know – courtesy of their generational intermediary, James Kavanagh – was that he had “come out of the west to sow the wild, vigorous seeds of Connaught among the little hills of South Ulster”.

And that was no mere metaphor, since as Una Agnew wrote in this space a while back, Kevany went on to become a prize-winning horticulturalist. The stony great soil of you-know-where could have done with such skills. Instead, all he planted in it was the father of a poet.

As for horticulture, Monaghan’s loss became Offaly’s gain. Four decades of productive life later, he died there in 1896. But for nearly 120 years afterwards his grave in St Colmcille’s Churchyard remained unmarked.

Then earlier this year, that was finally rectified, with a handsome slab of blue Kilkenny limestone donated by an admirer. The stone was officially unveiled last Sunday. And among those assembled for the occasion was a group representing Inniskeen, including the aforementioned Una, who did most of the detective work in uncovering Kevany’s lost story.

Also present was her brother Art, who recited Stony Grey Soil. But it wasn’t just the famous poem they brought as a peace offering. In a gesture that only a horticulturalist could appreciate fully, they also brought some actual south Monaghan clay to sprinkle on Kevany’s grave. So if he wasn’t resting peacefully before now, that should do it.

The saga reminds me about something the other Patrick Kavanagh – the English poet, better known as PJ, whose passing I lamented here last week – once wrote, which had unconscious echoes of those long-ago events in Inniskeen.

It was in his column in the Spectator, and it concerned a visit to Ireland during the 1980s, where he was struck by the number of shoe repair shops still in business here – a reminder, he said, of how much poorer Ireland was then compared with England.

As is the way with poets, however, his column turned on a phrase he had seen in one such shop’s window viz: “Shoes covered for occasions”. That’s a common enough sign still, I think – usually in connection with weddings. But in PJ Kavanagh’s piece the sign was deftly weaved into another story, about a funeral he had just attended.

The deceased was a friend who was known, or assumed, to have been an atheist. Yet she was given a religious funeral. Kavanagh felt uncomfortable about the way her life was being posthumously reinterpreted. It was as if, he said, she too was having her shoes covered for the occasion.

What specifically reminded me of this was the unanswered question as to how “Kevany” became “Kavanagh” in Inniskeen. It was probably, as Una Agnew thinks, just a phonetic misunderstanding or careless spelling on the baptismal certificate. The alternative theory is that it was a deliberate masking device. But if that were the case, the more conventional mother’s maiden name would have worked better.

Either way, it remains an irony that the English Patrick Kavanagh had to change his first name to avoid confusion with the Irish one, who shouldn’t have been a Kavanagh at all. And were he still around and writing for the Spectator, PJ Kavanagh might have had another column out of the fact that the man who underwent the nominal transition (the poet’s father) was a shoemaker.