Metaphorical Manouevres – Frank McNally on Patrick Kavanagh’s all-conquering army of poets

A prize worth fighting for

When Patrick Kavanagh once joked that the “standing army” of Irish poets never fell below 10,000 recruits, the number have been considered a humorous exaggeration.

But not today, according to Noel Monahan, himself a member of the officer corps. Monahan spent several weeks recently judging entries for the 51st annual Kavanagh poetry prize. And after announcing the winner in Inniskeen on Friday night, he told me the modern army had a strength more like “80,000 to 100,000″.

Luckily for him, they didn’t all enter the competition, which is for collections of poems by authors who have not yet published a book-length work. He had to choose from only 195 entrants, with a total of 3,900 poems, although that itself was a record.

Ireland’s southern coastal regions seems to be especially well defended by the poetry army, accounting for four of Monahan’s “highly commended” list, via Mary McCarthy from Skibbereen, Paul McMahon, Clonakilty, Eoin Hegarty, Midleton, and Peggy McCarthy, Waterford.


But the 2022 winner was Ben Keatinge from Dublin, a man whose father Richard – I mention this only because it inspired one of the poems – was business editor of The Irish Times back in the late 1970s.

Lest anyone suggest we influence the result, Monahan had no way of knowing who was who among the entries. They come to him anonymised as numbers.

What swung it for Keatinge, he said, was not just the strength of his collection but the way it was shaped. And what sealed the win was the last poem, a work not about journalists but about another endangered species, the Okapi.

That’s a short work, comprising three verses and 24 words:


you turn

alert, alone

and listen

then graze on

in gaps

where forest


wrings each leaf

with mildness

and wrests

with peace

As a poetry civilian myself, I am tempted to call it a tanka. But the Japanese tanka is a maximum of 31 syllables whereas this has 32. So I don’t know. As befits membership of the army of Irish poets, Keatinge probably marches to his own beat.

When he was a teenager during the War of Independence, Patrick Kavanagh was briefly an actual militant.

According to biographer Antoinette Quinn, his career as a republican peaked when he took part in a raid on the local post office, liberating “a new flashlamp” until his father “thrashed him and sent him back to the village to return the stolen goods”.

Thereafter, he was peaceable sort: a life-long Fine Gael supporter and anglophile who hated violence and Fianna Fáil.

As a general in the poets’ army, however, his warfare was of the guerrilla kind, prosecuted through newspaper columns and the infamous Kavanagh’s Weekly (1952), which hit Dublin, in the words of one commentator, “like a blast from a sawn-off shotgun”.

Many of his fellow Irish poets were legitimate targets, especially WB Yeats. Kavanagh even took his campaign against the latter overseas. At the Yeats Symposium in Chicago in 1965, he is reported to have sat through the admiring lectures, “gloomy and saturnine, pendant on the horizon like a Connacht bishop”.

Then he took to the podium to dismiss Yeats and all his works in favour of the new generation of Beat poets. And when, during the Q & A, Padraic Colum asked why he was so hostile to the great man, Kavanagh gave what may be the shortest and most honest summary ever heard at a literary conference: “Spite”.

His irascibility notwithstanding, Kavanagh remains a favourite among the generations who learned his work at school. And there may be more of those yet, because after a lapse, he’s back on the Leaving Cert syllabus this year.

Indeed, thanks to the rotation policy, he’ll be on again for the 2025 exam, when Yeats will be absent. Add to this the dramatically refashioned Patrick Kavanagh Centre in Inniskeen and a spectacular new mural in neighbouring Carrickmacross, the poet has never had it so good, posthumously.

Some who knew him might wonder at his unusually sunny demeanour in the mural, by Dundalk artist Ominous Omin. It gives him a smile as broad as the wall itself, as if someone has just told him he won the Lotto (or that he would be on the 2025 Leaving Cert syllabus without Yeats).

But the mural reproduces an actual photograph taken on Carrick’s Main Street in the 1960s by Irish Press photographer Colman Doyle.

Recalling the occasion a few years ago, Doyle said they were in a local pub together where, after a struggle, he persuaded Kavanagh to go outside for a quick picture. So they did, and the mural faithfully replicates the result, even down to the flying tie of a poet who seems to have the wind in his sails.