Harrow-on-the-Hill – An Irishman’s Diary about Patrick Kavanagh’s (mostly) natural highs


Now that the ploughing is over, it must be time for the harrowing. Which, I should perhaps explain for younger urban readers, who only know the word as an adjective for mentally distressing experiences, is also the use of a farm implement for, as the OED puts it, “breaking up clods on ploughed land”.

Unlike ploughing, harrowing was never considered skilful enough work to merit national championships, never mind a three-day festival. But it did inspire one of Patrick Kavanagh’s finer poems – To the Man after the Harrow – which places the job on a very high, even spiritual plane.

These days it might be considered a poem about mindfulness, given that it urges the harrower to concentrate totally on his task, ignoring such distractions as “the men on Brady’s hill”, or even the subterranean animal life he is disturbing: “Forget the worm’s opinion too/Of hooves and pointed harrow-pins/For you are driving your horses through/The mist where Genesis begins.”

Pastoral poems

He was certainly in that general neighbourhood, because the epiphany of another of his pastoral poems, Kerr’s Ass, occurs a short distance south of Harrow in “Ealing Broadway, London town”. But Harrow-the-place has little to do with harrowing. Its name derives from old Saxon word meaning “heathen temple”.

Yes, maybe the famous school there could be said to have broken a few clods in its time, “clod” being also a word for “bumpkin, or lout”. On the other hand, at £12,450 a term, they probably don’t admit many clods.

Among the epic list of notable “Old Harrovians”, my favourite name is that of “John Worthy Chaplin” (1840-1920), even if, according to the theory of nominative determinism, he should surely have gone on to become an eminent clergyman.

Instead he was an army officer, who justified the “Worthy” part of his name, at least, by winning the Victoria Cross. Mind you, to put imperial history in perspective, he won it in the Second Opium War, by which Britain and France forced the Chinese, in the interests of international trade, to legalise heroin dealing.

But getting back to the aforementioned Monaghan poet, while still on drugs (if you’ll pardon the phrase), I see that the subtitle of a keynote address to be given at his annual festival in Inniskeen next weekend is “Patrick Kavanagh on the Brink of Psychedelia”.

That’s an alarming image, especially to those of us who thought that the only LSD Kavanagh ever encountered – and there was never enough – was the currency he wrung from, first, his watery hills and later the poetry.

Happily the keynote-addresser, novelist Patrick McCabe, gives us another hint of his subject matter with the title prefix: “Howl On: A Whiter Shade of Shancoduff”. And there are at least two word plays in there, because Shancoduff is of course “Black Shanco”, whose hills were condemned forever to look “north towards Armagh”.

Meanwhile, for those of you don’t speak Monaghanese, “howl” is the local version of the English “hold”. But it’s also the name of a famous poem by Allen Ginsberg, which helped define the Beat Generation of the 1950s and 1960s, to which the Inniskeen man became something of a hero.

He and Ginsberg met more than once. On the first occasion, ironically, Kavanagh upset the American by refusing to join a drinking session. Alcohol was normally – all-too-normally – the Irishman’s drug of choice. But he happened to be off it at the time. They met again late in Kavanagh’s life, during the 1967 “Summer of Love”, when both read at a poetry event in London. That occasion was notable for, among other things, admiring hippies pelting Kavanagh with flower petals, something that probably never happened in Monaghan.

It was also in the mid-1960s, and again London, that Kavanagh was briefly suspected of abusing substances, celebrity-style. According to his biographer, Antoinette Quinn, he was spotted once by a barman producing a bag of white powder and taking pinches from it.

The barman naturally suspected cocaine. In fact, it was bread soda, which Kavanagh was consuming in large quantities then, as a cure for stomach pains.

That is probably not the whitening Patrick McCabe means. In any case, his talk will be at the Kavanagh Centre Inniskeen on Friday , September 30th. The rest of the weekend’s programme is at patrickkavanaghcountry.com.