Paddy the Englishman – An Irishman’s Diary about the other Patrick Kavanagh

A tale of two Patricks

Poet, memoirist and occasional actor PJ Kavanagh

Poet, memoirist and occasional actor PJ Kavanagh

 

In a sad coincidence recently, an email announcing this year’s Patrick Kavanagh weekend arrived at around the same time I learned about the death of the other Patrick Kavanagh, the English one better known as “P.J.”

I can’t claim to be familiar with much of the latter’s poetry. But as with many people who read it, his 1966 memoir, The Perfect Stranger, has since taken up permanent residence in my memory, even though it must be nearly 25 years since I last put the book down (and then lost it).

Those of you unfamiliar with him may be wondering why a man who died last week was writing his memoir half a century ago. Well, although it was ostensibly an account of his deeds up to the age of 27, The Perfect Stranger was more of a true-life love story. And despite the youth of its author, it came with what many of the best love stories do, a tragic ending.

Kavanagh had already survived being shot – in the Korean War, while fighting with the Royal Ulster Rifles – when he met his future wife Sally Philipps.

Mystical experience

They married soon afterwards, in 1956. Then, two years later, she was dead. His job with the British Council had brought them to Indonesia, where she contracted polio. So almost as quickly as she had entered his life as the stranger of the book title, she was gone, having in the meantime made sense of everythirng that had happened to him before and much of what would come later.

‘Infinite significance’

The other thing I most remember PJ Kavanagh for is a long-running column in the Spectator magazine, back in the 1980s and 90s, which revealed him to be a frequent visitor to Ireland – a country where, as he noted, people with his surname didn’t have to spell it when checking into hotels.

In fact, his ancestry on both sides was Irish, “as far back as anybody can be bothered to trace”. But the paternal side came by a very roundabout route from 1840s Carlow – and yet another Patrick Kavanagh – via Tasmania, and later New Zealand, where his father was born.

His father was called Ted, wherein lies a pleasant joke. For as well as being a writer, PJ Kavanagh was an occasional actor. And many people who have never read a line of his work may recall him from a classic episode or Father Ted, where he played Father Seamus Fitzpatrick, a collector of Nazi memorabilia.

Visits to Ireland

On the second, the Englishman needed to apologise for something (maybe not having changed his name yet). So at a friend’s prompting, he bought the Irish Kavanagh a drink, which he had to offer to the poet’s back. The Inniskeen man managed to accept the gift without turning around.

The renaming suggestion was in any case taken up, eventually, and for literary purposes, the English Patrick Kavanagh became PJ.

Surname mutation

This may be one of the subjects touched upon at the annual Kavanagh weekend later this month, where talks will include one by Una Agnew entitled “A genealogical rosary for Patrick Kavanagh”.

But the keynote address will concern forebears of a different kind. “Patrick Kavanagh’s literary hinterland” by Alan Titley, assesses the man in light of the great writers of Gaelic Oriel that preceded him. The weekend runs from September 25th to 27th. Full details are at patrickkavanaghcountry.com.

@FrankmcnallyIT