How about this for the opening paragraph of a new book. It’s by the Clare-born poet Elizabeth O’Toole, now 96 and living in the US where she has spent much of her a life. But it’s set in her then home at Stillorgan, Co Dublin, where the events described unfolded in early 1961:
"It was a winter night after Christmas. There had been a relentless downpour of sleet and rain all day. It was bitterly cold, chilling to the bone. Hearing our car, I ran out to welcome my husband, Jimmy. In the half-dark, I nearly fell over a sack on the doorstep. I bent down to pick it up. It was soaking wet, and it wasn't a sack at all. It was Patrick Kavanagh. "
The Monaghan poet was not just at the O’Tooles’ door that night, he was also at death’s. Unable to walk the short distance from St Stephen’s Green to his flat, he had spotted the parked car of his friend, Jim O’Toole, and lay down on the bonnet for O’Toole to find him. When they arrived in Stillorgan, Kavanagh was in a fever and coughing blood.
There were small children in the house and Elizabeth was understandably reluctant to have the poet as a guest in his condition; besides which, he clearly needed medical help. But Kavanagh pleaded: “Please. I don’t want to die in hospital.”
So the O’Tooles put him to bed – their own bed – then called the doctor. And in the event, he did not die. He made a complete recovery and stayed for six months.
A Poet in the House - Patrick Kavanagh at Priory Grove is a remarkable memoir of an extraordinary visit; a visit that, although she shared both Kavanagh’s poetic vocation and his deep faith, sometimes tested O’Toole’s Christianity.
As is well known from previous accounts of his life, Kavanagh was not the most polite of men. In manners, he could be as rough as a bear’s undercarriage, while his everyday language was often considerably less than poetic.
His mood swings were not helped by him being a severe alcoholic who was also recovering from lung cancer.
For a while before she (partly) house-trained him, he had a habit of addressing O’Toole as “Woman” and ordering her around her own home. But he had a sensitive side too, as she noted one day while he helped her peg clothes out to dry and, with tears running down his face, said: “I used to do this for my mother.”
As a man who had been sick from loneliness as much as from lung conditions, he also revelled in the company of her children. In ways, he was a child himself. The O’Toole kids in turn loved “Paddy” as an indulgent uncle, a relationship that reached a high point when, by now well recovered, he was deemed fit to join a family outing to the Punchestown Races.
Kavanagh had always enjoyed a bet on the horses, although on this occasion Jim O’Toole had to provide him (discreetly) with a cash float. That paid off when, after a big win, Kavanagh returned from the bookmakers with his arm aloft and a fistful of banknotes at the end of it.
Rather than save the money for a rainy day, typically, he instead accompanied the O’Tooles’ youngest to one of the nearby toy stalls, where the vendor was about to pack up for the day.
The poet at first haggled over prices and, as the impatient man threatened to leave, had to reassure him: “We’re buying. We’re buying.”
Then he made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: the entire fistful of cash for his entire collection, stall included. It was a half-blind bargain but, after a closer look at the fist, which held “at least two ten pound notes, a twenty, a fiver and more”, the toy-dealer accepted.
Christmas came early to Priory Grove that year and with it another chapter of Kavanagh-inspired chaos. When the alarm of a toy clock erupted somewhere in the hallway the following morning at 5.30am, Elizabeth scrambled from bed to choke it before it woke the baby. Another daughter followed her downstairs and, dreamily surveying the assembled elves’ workshop, said: “Sorry about the hall, Mammy.”
A Poet in the House, written by Elizabth O’Toole and edited by Brian Lynch, is published by Lilliput. It is a late arrival to 2021’s crowded Christmas book market. It’s not published until next week and was only going to the printers as I write, so I’ve been reading from an advance copy. But from what I’ve seen, O’Toole’s memoir will be a must-buy present for Kavanagh fans, offering new and heart-warming insights into the otherwise troubled life of one of Ireland’s greatest 20th-century writers.