Poetic Parishes – Frank McNally on a new book about Baggotonia and the new Kavanagh museum in Inniskeen

An Irishman’s Diary

 Patrick Kavanagh. Photograph: Elinor Wiltshire/National Library of Ireland

Patrick Kavanagh. Photograph: Elinor Wiltshire/National Library of Ireland

 

Among the books that landed on my desk recently was “From the Grand Canal to the Dodder”, subtitled “Illustrious Lives”, by Beatrice M Doran, a sort of who’s who of the writers, artists, politicians and other eccentrics who have lived in that corner of south Dublin over the last century on two.

I call it a “corner”, although strictly speaking, the area between canal and Dodder widens progressively as both waterways head west, eventually accumulating almost a quarter of the city. At the eastern end, however, the waterways form a kind of Nike swoosh across Dublins 2, 4, 6, and 8.

Or perhaps more aptly, and staying with mythology, they form the shape of a cornucopia: the goat’s horn of plenty, traditionally portrayed as overflowing with flowers, fruits, and nuts. Certainly, the area comes to a very sharp end, which splits the buildings of the south city quays near the Eastlink Bridge.  

There may also be a few nuts included in Doran’s cornucopia, which concentrates on the thinner end of the horn, and especially on the semi-autonomous Dublin enclave sometimes known as Baggotonia, after its main street.

In the 1950s and 1960s, that and its extension Pembroke Road were famously “patrolled” (Anthony Cronin’s word) by the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Unlikely as the comparison might seem, it was a surrogate for his native South Monaghan. As Benedict Kiely put it, Baggot Street had “everything Paddy needed to make him think he was walking up and down the main street of Carrickmacross on a market day”.

Kiely is also one of the characters in this book, alongside the Yeats brothers, Anthony Trollope (formerly of Donnybrook), Mary Lavin, Maud Gonne, and many others. So is Brendan Behan and his wife, artist Beatrice Salkeld, thanks to their time in Anglesea Road.

In the matter of commemorative canal bank seats, of course, posterity has wisely separated Behan and Kavanagh. A brass version of the latter now sits on his beloved Grand Canal, “in the tremendous silence of mid-July”, whereas silence was rarely available to Kavanagh when Behan was around, in July or otherwise.  

But Behan’s likeness now sits on the city’s other canal, near Croke Park, where he may be more at home in the tremendous racket of mid-August onwards.

One minor omission from the book, although I probably only know about her because I once lived next door on Pembroke Road, is the painter Frances Bunch Moran (1928 – 2002). I recall her being small and round, like her middle name, and back in the late 1980s and 1990s, you used regularly see her heading with brushes and paint up to the canal at Baggot Street Bridge, one of her favourite subjects.

Occasionally I heard her mutter about the “amateurs” peddling pictures on Merrion Square. And I don’t know how great an artist she was. But while passing where she lived a while ago, in one of those things that makes you realise you’re getting old, I noticed she is now the subject of a plaque.

***

The thin end of Baggotonia – never a horn of plenty for him – pointed Patrick Kavanagh home eventually. And being back in Carrickmacross myself of late, I finally took the detour out to Inniskeen to visit the wonderful new Kavanagh Centre, opened this time last year after a €1 million redevelopment.

It had to be a “soft launch” then, because of Covid. But during the late summer and autumn, the museum drew deservedly growing numbers of visitors thanks to the combination of national publicity and word of mouth.

Then Christmas came and, when shutting up for the holidays, tour guide Sean Ó Byrne joked to colleagues “see you in May”. Another epic lockdown later, that turned out to be all too prophetic. By the time the centre reopened, a layer of dust had descended on everything.

The centrepiece of the museum-cum-theatre, projected on a giant screen, is a short, beautiful film in which writers and actors read Kavanagh’s best-known poems to the accompaniment of ravishingly lovely scenes from his native and adopted homelands. These naturally include Lines Written on a Canal Bank Seat, from the Dublin Inniskeen. But the distance between Baggotonia and Monaghan can be daunting for a small, easily forgotten museum in a little touristed county.

Sean told me there have been days since the reopening when nobody came. And I fear that the bit about the “tremendous silence of mid-July” may also be prophetic, pending some kind of relaunch.

If you’ve never been to Inniskeen, the village itself is well worth visiting, with its picturesque churchyard, round tower, and other ancient monuments. But the museum is superb.  

Do it and yourself a favour and get there before the crowds come back.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.