Black North – An Irishman’s Diary on Patrick Kavanagh and the darker side of farming
Patrick Kavanagh. The Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland
Art Agnew writes from Kavanagh Country to point out an egregious poetic omission from my “50 Irish Words for Wind” (October 18th). It’s not from the local man, surprisingly.
It’s from Yeats, via Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland, which begins: “The old brown thorn-trees break in two high over Cummen Strand,/Under a bitter black wind that blows from the left hand.”
Yes, right enough, that “bitter black wind” should definitely have made the list.
But Art’s message reminds me indirectly of an even more glaring omission, from Kavanagh himself. I refer of course to “the sleety winds [that] fondle the rushy beards of Shancoduff” in the poem of that place-name.
I had no excuse for forgetting those winds because, having grown up only a few miles away, I knew them personally once. I’m lucky I didn’t have a rushy beard at the time or they might have fondled me too.
But my amnesia is even more inexplicable because, at an event in Clones Library only last weekend, I heard the same Art Agnew reading the poem.
He was channelling Kavanagh, as he does, so by way of an introduction, he first warned women never to marry a farmer from a place with “Duff” in its name.
The reason, he explained, is that “Duff is from the Irish dubh, meaning black, meaning it faces north and never gets the sun, so that nothing will ever grow in it”.
The point is made more lyrically in the poem, which he then read: “My black hills have never seen the sun rising,/Eternally they look north towards Armagh./Lot’s wife would not be salt if she had been/Incurious as my black hills that are happy/When dawn whitens Glassdrummond chapel.”
I have also been reminded of the famous wind that blew on the three days March borrowed from April
The problem with places like Shancoduff wasn’t salt: it was lime, or lack of it. And Kavanagh was an expert on the matter, because his farm had seven hilly fields – like a watery, lime-deficient Rome.
One was called the “Yellow Field”, because as he said “in wet weather its soil had the consistency and colour of putty”. But he was surely exaggerating, at least a little, when he claimed it grew “rushes ten feet high”.
Leaving Black Shanco aside for the moment, I have also been reminded of the famous wind that blew on the three days March borrowed from April. This is a Europe-wide tradition, with many versions including the polite English: “March borrows time from April,/Three days – and they are ill:/The first is frost, the second snow,/And the third is cold as it can blow.”
The first day’s violent weather knocks the cow over, the second kills her, and the third bleaches her bones
The Irish one, naturally, is more melodramatic. It involves an anthropomorphic cow, the Bó Riabhach or “Brindle” cow, who from the safety of April 1st boasts of having survived the worst March could throw at her. So an offended March then borrows three April days and, in a manner of speaking, goes into injury time. The first day’s violent weather knocks the cow over, the second kills her, and the third bleaches her bones.
Oh well. Fifty words might be enough for the Eskimos to describe snow. But as I previously found with Irish rain, it’s not sufficient to encompass the multiplicity of wind types we experience in these parts.
Speaking of fifties, and getting back to Shancoduff, next month marks a half century since the poet’s death. The Kavanagh Centre will of course be commemorating the occasion.
But as long-time stalwarts of the annual weekends there, the aforementioned Art Agnew and his sister Úna have compiled their own, rather magnificent, tribute.
It’s called Love’s Doorway to Life: An Alternative Biography of Patrick Kavanagh. And it comprises three CDs featuring all the poet’s greatest hits, with musical interludes and a linking narrative describing his life in three parts.
The collection’s title comes from the poem Innocence, which is also set in one of those hilly fields. So whatever about crops (and he did coax some out of Shancoduff, despite everything), the farm produced a harvest of fine poetry.
Including that and much else, the Agnews’ collection is a beautiful piece of work. It’s available from all good book stores, from the Kavanagh Centre, or online from éist.ie
But there are a plethora of commemorative events scheduled for coming weeks and, to paraphrase Yeats, the centre cannot hold them all.
So next Tuesday at 8pm, The Monaghan Association in Dublin will hold their annual tribute in Buswell’s Hotel.
This year’s speaker is UCD Prof Desmond Swan, whose theme, inspired by The Great Hunger, is “Some Queer and Terrible Things”.