Once More, With Ealing – An Irishman’s Diary about a Patrick’s weekend in London

Booking a hotel in London for the rugby weekend, and bewildered by the multiplicity of choices, I opted for a place in Ealing. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but not without logic. Ealing was on the right side of the city for Twickenham. The hotel was on special offer. And then there was the Kavanagh connection.

Its famous film studios apart, the only thing I knew about Ealing is that Patrick Kavanagh wrote one of his finest poems, Kerr's Ass, there. It's an interesting work because, among other things, it required him to find a rhyme for his home townland "Mucker", which, if it had ever previously featured in verse, was probably confined to the limerick variety.

Using licence, however, Kavanagh rhymed the name with "butter", the remembered object of a trip to Dundalk years before, facilitated by the eponymous borrowed donkey.

Thanks to that delicate trick, the poet was able to have a Proustian moment. Recalling the event, while "in Ealing Broadway, London Town", he recites the names of harness parts in his head: "Until a world comes to life -/Morning, the silent bog,/And the God of imagination waking/In a Mucker fog."


The only reason Kavanagh ever visited Ealing, so far as I'm aware, was what's known in journalism as a 'junket'

So my plan was to retrace Kavanagh’s footsteps. Alas, that didn’t quite happen. The hotel turned out to be on the distant fringes of Ealing, more motorway than Broadway. That explained the special offer: my triple-glazed windows were no match for the roar of traffic, as I discovered at 4am when trying to sleep.

The trip to downtown Ealing would have involved a spur-of-the-underground decision – it was at the end of two lines, neither on the way to anywhere else I needed to go. Alternatively, Kerr’s Ass being unavailable on this occasion, it was a lengthy trek on Shanks’s Mare, in snow and Baltic temperatures. My commitment to poetry was insufficient to justify either.

Anyway, the only reason Kavanagh ever visited Ealing, so far as I’m aware, was what’s known in journalism as a “junket”. Thanks to his role as part-time film critic, he was a guest of the aforementioned studios once. And by all accounts he enjoyed seeing how films were made, which is more than could be said for the actual product.

Unusually for a cinema critic, Kavanagh hated cinema and, insofar as his write-ups even mentioned the movies he was supposed to be reviewing – not something he felt bound to do – he delighted in rubbishing them. Even more unusually, given the nature of film, he also enjoyed heckling.

His biographer Antoinette Quinn records the mortification of a friend who accompanied Kavanagh to a picture-house in Dublin's O'Connell St once, where the poet proceeded to comment loudly about events on screen. When, to the friend's relief, Kavanagh insisted they leave early, it was only to cross the street to the cinema opposite, "where he repeated the performance".

But back to London at the weekend, and another thing I didn’t see, the St Patrick’s Day parade. It was held a day late, on Sunday, making it a potential victory parade after the rugby. And I did mean to attend, even taking the Picadilly line towards Trafalgar Square, the marchers’ focal point.

At the centre of the main gathering, a speaker I couldn't even see was talking about 'faith' and 'conscience', while a large crowd cheered and heckled

Then the tube stopped at Hyde Park and, on another whim, I got off there instead, to go in search of a different spectacle that had hitherto escaped me in London, Speaker's Corner.

I knew this was much reduced – politically at least – from its heyday, when Marx and Lenin and George Bernard Shaw frequented it, the last-mentioned using it to conquer his stammer and shyness, en route to becoming an enormously self-confident speaker.

In more recent times, I gathered, it has been largely the preserve of religious preachers, Muslim and Christian.

And sure enough, on Sunday, that was the case. At the centre of the main gathering, a speaker I couldn’t even see was talking about “faith” and “conscience”, while a large crowd cheered and heckled.

Among the fringe events, meanwhile, was an orator with a Karl Marx beard, a resoundingly Irish accent, and a baseball cap bearing the letters "FBI". Intriguingly too, he had only one heckler, a polite, but dedicated one, who debated every point.

On closer inspection, the bearded Irishman also turned out to be a preacher. The name “Jesus” appeared below the “FBI” which, small print revealed, stood for “firm believer in”. And on the weekend in question, he must have been a man on a mission. Inquiring his interlocutor’s name at one point, affably, he shook his hand, and introduced himself: “My name’s Paddy”.