Lines of succession – An Irishman’s Diary about Patrick Kavanagh’s spiritual heirs

Patrick Kavanagh.  The Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland. Patrick Kavanagh.  Poet. The Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland.

Patrick Kavanagh. The Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland. Patrick Kavanagh. Poet. The Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland.

 

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1967, a young Danish student made the mistake of approaching Patrick Kavanagh in Dublin’s The Bailey pub, to ask about poetry. He must have been unaware of the long memories Irish people have, or of the then-still-recent murder of Brian Boru, or both. In any case, Kavanagh enlightened him. “Get out of my sight,” he snarled. “You killed our King.”

The unfortunate student might have fared even worse.  

In the same pub, the same summer, the Monaghan poet is also remembered registering a complaint about the quality of a sandwich by throwing it on the floor, smashing the plate. This was not untypical.

While he lived, however, he at least had the satisfaction of being the Brian Boru of Irish poetry, a poorly paid but prestigious role

But in scarifying the Dane, as Kavanagh’s biographer Antoinette Quinn has explained, he was probably just hamming it up: playing the role of “fearsome dictator” that people in his company expected by then. Sure enough, soon afterwards, he did grant the student a polite audience.

Kavanagh might have been excused the odd tantrum in 1967 anyway. He was in poor health, and would sometimes sit doubled up in pain, nursing himself with the mantra: “Oh god, oh god, oh gody god”. In the words of one of his poems, it was “October all over [his] life”. He would not outlast November.

While he lived, however, he at least had the satisfaction of being the Brian Boru of Irish poetry, a poorly paid but prestigious role for which he had long fought. And in keeping with his sense of authority, that summer, he also named from among his followers an heir-apparent for the crown.  

He even solemnised the choice with a throwaway poetic couplet, which extolled the promise of the 22-year-old in question while looking forward to his more mature work: “On Paul Durcan my hopes are pinned,/But wait till he gets his second wind.”

Durcan has gone on to many glories since. And half a century later, next month, he will be one of the main contributors to Kavanagh’s 50th anniversary commemorations, delivering a keynote lecture in Dublin on November 23rd.

But it might seem surprising to some latter-day readers that, when anointing a successor in 1967, the Inniskeen poet did not look to a fellow Ulsterman who, like Durcan, was also a promising 20-something back then.  

Heaney was not part of Kavanagh’s circle. In Quinn’s book, he gets only two fleeting mentions

Because as events in Bellaghy, Co Derry, this weekend will emphasise, not only was Seamus Heaney of very similar background to Kavanagh, he also picked up where the latter left off, in style and theme.  

Bequeathed it or not, he took on the mantle and embellished it to great fame.

Heaney was not part of Kavanagh’s circle. In Quinn’s book, he gets only two fleeting mentions, neither of which involved the men meeting. As Una Agnew will explain in a talk at the Heaney “HomePlace” this Saturday, their first encounter was a more telepathic one. But it had a profound effect on the Derry poet.

Their conduit was a fellow writer Michael McLaverty, who, in Kavanagh’s absence from the transaction, was the next best thing.

Born the same year as the Inniskeen man, and only a few miles away, in the local market town of Carrickmacross, McLaverty had moved to Belfast early in life.  

By 1962 he was a teacher there, as was a young Heaney, to whom he lent his copy of Kavanagh’s 1947 collection, A Soul for Sale. The effect was a “revelation”, according to Agnew. Before then, Heaney had looked for inspiration to the aristocrats of English poetry: “Hopkins, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley”.  

Now, here was someone from his own Ulster rural background showing that “the world of ploughing, churning, blackberry-picking, turf-cutting etc” could be elevated to similar heights. In later years, Heaney would say that reading Kavanagh’s epic The Great Hunger gave people like him permission “to dwell without cultural anxiety among the usual landmarks of your life”.

Dr Agnew’s talk is one a series of Kavanagh-themed events at the HomePlace this Saturday, which also include a dramatisation of The Great Hunger by Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. But that’s only the start of a very busy Autumn schedule in Bellaghy. And the aforementioned McLaverty will also feature in the programme.  

Best remembered by a generation of  schoolchildren for his short story, The Road to the Shore, but now exceeded in fame by his son Bernard, McLaverty snr was himself a fine writer. And he too has a major anniversary this year.  

He died 25 years ago, in 1992, so the HomePlace will mark the milestone with a week of events starting on October 21st.

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