If Brendan Behan had imagined a personal purgatory designed just for him, it might have included a long weekend in Inniskeen, being lectured on the waste of his talent by Patrick Kavanagh.
Once friends, the two men became public enemies in later years, when the “Monaghan bogman”, as Behan was wont to call him, went so far as to describe the former Borstal Boy as “evil”.
But a centre-piece of the latest annual Kavanagh Weekend, just gone, was the screening (twice) of The Holy Hour: A Requiem for Brendan Behan by another Monaghan Patrick, McCabe.
And sure enough, this funny yet moving film cast Kavanagh as a kind of avenging angel, berating the Dubliner for his lack of constancy towards the sacred vocation they had for a time shared.
McCabe conceived the piece as part of a centenary commemoration of Behan for the Museum of Literature Ireland, where it is still showing.
But in Inniskeen, aptly, the location was a church: a former Protestant one set among the picturesque ruins of the ancient monastery of St Daig, with its sawn-off round tower.
If not a lapsed atheist, Behan was someone who had serious doubts about the non-existence of God. Once, alcoholic and depressed, he was asked by a careless friend why he didn’t just blow his brains out, as Ernest Hemingway had recently done.
Because, explained Behan, Hemingway believed there was no afterlife. Whereas, he added: “I’m not so sure”.
As with all tales of Purgatory – plot spoiler alert for non-Catholics– the film ends happily, with the former friends reunited in the sort of bar where there is no closing time and hangovers are unknown.
But then McCabe had looked beyond the defensive bluster of both men’s public personalities and in Behan, especially, found a lot more than the clownish caricature of legend.
As he told me in a stage interview afterwards, the film’s inspiration was a comment on the young Behan by one of his first publishers, a profoundly impressed Scotsman, Ian Hamilton. “God-branded”, Hamilton called him.
McCabe was interviewed within an inch of his life in Inniskeen on Saturday night, because no sooner had I finished with him than he had to take the stage in another old church – now the Kavanagh Centre – for a two-hour-long Blindboy Boatclub podcast, in which he was sole guest.
The launchpad for that, as the host explained, was a prolonged case of writer’s block during which Blindboy spent months trying and failing to write his latest book.
Then he re-read The Butcher Boy, with its unforgettable scene-and-character-setting first line (the grammar of which the publishers mercifully didn’t correct, although they tried): “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent.”
And after reading the novel – lo! – Blindboy was unblocked. Francie Brady has that effect on people.
There was a Cork invasion of the drumlins in the weekend’s pivotal event, the 51st annual Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, where adjudicator Victoria Kennefick from that parish chose another member of the tribe as this year’s laureate.
Nobody could question the worthiness of the winner, however. Reading from her brilliant and at times searing debut collection, the autobiographical Taxidermy Heart, Lauren O’Donovan had more than one audience member in tears.
As a curtain-raiser to that, I also had to interview an adopted Corkman (but from Waterford) Thomas McCarthy, a former winner of the award - from 1977 – who spoke in religious terms about what it had meant to his career.
“A bolt from Heaven” was his description, as the prize itself led to many other things, including travel and study in the US, more awards, and a series of knock-on benefits that lasted “eight years”.
Part of the secret, he said, was a thing every poet needed: “a good PR company”. In that case, it was the one representing Lough Egish Co-op, a small Monaghan dairy operation that nevertheless sponsored the poetry contest and managed to get his name on the front page of all the national newspapers.
This unleashed a wave of nostalgia for those of us who grew up on local dairy farms. Circa 1977, we used to send our milk to Lough Egish. Little did I realise then that our cows were subsidising trips to Mount Parnassus.
Alas, Lough Egish has long since ceased to exist as a separate entity. Under pressure from Larry Goodman, who was hoovering up small co-ops in hopes of creating a dairy giant, my father and other Monaghan farmers were eventually forced to make the ultimate sacrifice: merging with a crowd from Cavan (Killeshandra), to become what is now Lakeland Dairies.
All Cavan jokes aside, however, the neighbours were given the honour of bringing the curtain down on the Kavanagh Weekend 2023.
The closing concert, another sell-out, was by Ballyhaise’s finest, the incomparable Lisa O’Neill.