A man of note – An Irishman’s Diary on Patrick Kavanagh
Patrick Kavanagh: a unique combination of shyness, rambunctiousness, a sense of mischief, and carelessness about the finer points of protocol
The fact that the 50th anniversary of Patrick Kavanagh’s death has rolled around so quickly may have caught some by surprise, but to those of us who knew him, even slightly, the memory of his unique combination of shyness, rambunctiousness, a sense of mischief, and carelessness about the finer points of protocol, is evergreen.
John Bowman’s two recent programmes about him on RTÉ resurrected, among many other aspects of his colourful life, his unsuccessful libel action against the Leader, a publication that was almost as impoverished as its poetical assailant, and whose counsel was the former taoiseach, John A Costello. Costello’s forensic skills demolished Kavanagh’s case, but the former taoiseach had an unmistakable personal regard for Kavanagh himself, and his regret at the inevitable outcome of the case was palpable.
I was first introduced to Kavanagh by the late Donal Foley of this parish, at a lunch-time gathering in the Bailey during which I noticed Donal and Paddy engaged in a whispered conversation that was obviously of some significance.
Later, as we walked down Duke Street, Donal explained to me that Kavanagh had asked him for the loan of a pound, but – journalists’ wages being what they were in those days – that he had been able to supply only a ten shilling note.
Almost immediately, there was a shuffling sound behind us, and we turned to see Kavanagh bearing down on us like a galleon in full sail.
“Donal”, he asked hoarsely, “will you do me another favour?”
“I suppose so, Paddy”, said Donal, warily.
“You won’t tell anyone that I’m in the ten bob class?”
I had previously come across his work only once when, as a student in UCD in the late 1950s, I had been encouraged by a friend to attend one of his evening lectures on poetry, delivered as part of an extra-mural course. This employment had been in all probability privately facilitated by the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, a fellow-Ulsterman, who for many years was the hidden ruler of large swathes of UCD’s academic life, as well as the unseen patron of people like Kavanagh.
Kavanagh arrived at the tiered lecture hall carrying what looked suspiciously like a used cement bag, which he tipped out over the lecturer’s desk.
Countless scraps of paper fluttered out, many of them making their way unimpeded to the floor.
“That’s the Guinness Poetry Award for next year”, Kavanagh informed us solemnly. The rest of the lecture was a fascinating excursion through many of the entries, chosen at random, all of them assessed with humour and great sensibility.
Katherine catered for the random stream of visitors, including small children who were in no way intimidated by this gruff, but kindly figure
I later found out about his poem “The Great Hunger” and tracked down a copy of it in the National Library. I read it from start to finish in one sitting, and left the library in a daze, almost unconscious of my surroundings.
His later years, as has been noted, were warmed by his marriage to Katherine.
They lived in a flat in Waterloo Road, where Paddy would spend some afternoons watching the horse-racing on television, while Katherine catered for the random stream of visitors, including small children who were in no way intimidated by this gruff, but kindly figure.
I was unaware, at that time, of his perhaps unexpected role as film critic of a Catholic weekly newspaper owned and edited by lay people but in no doubt as to where its allegiance lay.
On one occasion, or so the story goes, he was in the offices when the unexpected news arrived that Cardinal d’Alton, the Archbishop of Armagh, had just died unexpectedly.
As it was close to deadline, the journalists and sub-editors went into a flurry of activity to remake the layout and create room for the prelate’s obituary. In the middle of this, someone noticed Paddy sitting impassively in a corner.
“What do you think, Paddy?” the journalist asked.
Kavanagh reflected for a moment but then – letting his generally concealed sense of humour out for a walk – he proclaimed solemnly: “Well, he knows now what I’ve known for years.”
“And what might that be, Paddy? he was asked.
“That there’s no God.”