Future Imperfect – Frank McNally on Patrick Kavanagh’s 1950s vision of the year 2021

An Irishman’s Diary

In many works of science fiction from the last century, the year 2020 tended to be the focus for predictions of wildly varying accuracy. But the lesser-known sci-fi writer Patrick Kavanagh was as usual tuned to a slightly different wavelength. In a futuristic article for Envoy magazine 70 years ago this May, he imagined an unnamed narrator visiting Dublin in the spring of 2021.

There are no flying cars, androids, or electric sheep in Kavanagh’s vision. His technological innovations are limited to an olfactory broadcasting phenomenon, “smellivision”.

Other dramatic developments involve architecture, most notably the demolition of the Custom House. “For years there has been agitation [to remove] this unsightly pile which obscures the noble sweep of Scott’s chef d’oeuvre,” his narrator notes.  This is doubly futuristic since Scott’s masterpiece – Busáras – was not quite built yet then.

Ireland was undergoing big social transformations too, including a "collapse of faith". Kavanagh got that bit right, although he also managed to overstate the influence of the Catholic Church in its prime. His narrator crosses "McQuaid Bridge (formerly O'Connell)" at one point. Oh, and the State's minority religion – "the Protestant sect" – has been banned since the 1970s.


Typically, the main theme is literature. Also typically, Kavanagh uses the piece to continue fighting the Irish poetry wars of the 1940s. The protagonists being dead by now, he does this mainly by having his rivals misremembered, as “Oisin Clarke” for the hated Austin, and “Francis Farren”, for Robert.

In reality, as Flann O’Brien fans know, Robert Farren’s purgatorial afterlife has included a more fiendish punishment. A photograph of him sitting in the Palace Bar in the 1940s keeps turning up everywhere captioned as Flann, although the main thing the men had in common physically was possession of a hat.

Unsurprisingly, Kavanagh himself is a hero of the 2021 vision. Not only is position in the poetic pantheon secure, but in one of the article's in-jokes, a young colleague from Envoy, Anthony Cronin, has gone on to achieve fame as the Boswell to Kavanagh's Johnson. Cronin's "monumental biography" of the Monaghan poet, Kavanagh tells us modestly, is titled: "He was God."

Despite such encouragement, Cronin would not write a Kavanagh biography, except when giving him a lead role in the literary memoir, Dead as Doornails. And another prediction that has not come to pass was the creation of a Kavanagh museum in Dublin, located in the former “Old House” pub (presumably McDaid’s, where the Envoy crowd drank).

Finally, the narrator reads about much of this in a newspaper called the “Weekly Irish Herald Tribune (incorporating The Irish Times)”. Happily, that takeover hasn’t happened yet either.

Poetic feuds aside, Kavanagh’s intent in the piece was mainly humorous. No more than anyone else then, he could have no firm idea what the world of 70 years hence would look like. If told then that in 2021, McDaid’s and all other pubs would be closed, he might have presumed a Third World War as the cause.

Even short-term forecasting is beyond most people. Kavanagh was no exception. A conspicuous absentee from his vision, for example, is Brendan Behan, even though they would soon be the worst of enemies. But at that time, as Antoinette Quinn has written, Kavanagh still looked on Behan as a "house painter who dabbled in literature, not as a rival".

Indeed only months beforehand, returning a favour, Behan had painted his flat; an event that, although neither could have foreseen it then, would have far-reaching consequences. By the time Kavanagh took his disastrous libel action against The Leader in 1954, Behan had emerged as a chief suspect behind the magazine’s alleged hatchet job.

Another thing Kavanagh could not foresee in May 1951, although it happened later that month, was Fianna Fáil returning to government, ousting the first inter-party coalition and its taoiseach, John A Costello, who thereby resumed his career as a brilliant barrister.

Defending the libel action, Costello was the Edward Carson to Kavanagh's Oscar Wilde. In his cross-examination, he drew out the poet's relationship with Behan, by then poisonous, and allowed Kavanagh to portray Behan as a Dublin blackguard of the worst kind.

Then, on the fifth day of the hearing, Costello produced what Cronin called “his secret weapon, his Zinoviev letter”. It was a copy of Kavanagh’s novel, Tarry Flynn. And in Cronin’s words, “amid the sort of hush which pervades a courtroom when the audience realises that here at last is what it came to witness,” Costello handed Kavanagh the book and asked him to read the flyleaf. The inscription there said: “To my friend Brendan Behan on the day he painted my flat.”