Stony but not grey – An Irishman’s Diary about Paul Durcan’s memories of Patrick Kavanagh
Somehow, as Paul Durcan recalled, there was always laughter when Kavanagh, a natural comedian, held court
Patrick Kavanagh was in many ways a man ahead of his time. Fifty years before the Nobel committee arrived a similar (though still controversial) opinion, for example, he declared Bob Dylan to be the “finest living poet”.
For a fuller appreciation of how Dylan worked, Kavanagh once asked his young friend and admirer Paul Durcan to write out the words of Desolation Row - an 11-minute epic from the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. Like a monk transcribing scripture, the protégé obliged.
This was one of many fascinating vignettes in Durcan’s commemorative lecture, marking the 50th anniversary of Kavanagh’s death, which enthralled a packed audience in Dublin’s Institute of Education on Thursday night.
Most of the memories were located in or around the Inniskeen man’s own version of Desolation Row: Baggot Street, where he spent his Dublin exile. It was an impoverished exile, usually. As Durcan recalled, in the years before Aosdána, the Arts Council of Ireland was “resolute” in ensuring Kavanagh stayed poor.
Instead, in the autumn of 1967, it was the British Arts Council awarded a bursary of £1,200 to keep the Monaghan poet, “a citizen of the Republic of Ireland”, solvent in his last days.
But despite the gloom that often surrounded them, somehow, as Durcan recalled, there was always laughter when Kavanagh, a natural comedian, held court. This has not always come across in others’ recollections. And you could understand why, every time Durcan channelled the gravelly drumlin growl that used to frighten the faint-hearted.
These once briefly included a taximan who got lost while driving them to an exotically named Dalkey hotel, the “Shangri-La”. After Kavanagh expressed the opinion that the driver was a “bollocks”, his orienteering skills improved.
By the time they reached their improbable destination, Kavanagh was laughing with the taximan while giving him an equally improbable tip.
Now and again for the poet’s hard-up circle, happily, Shangri-La came to them.
Durcan recalled another occasion when the group sat in a pub, wallowing in collective misery. The Inniskeen growl lifted their gloom by suggesting “there’s nothing wrong with any of us that a shower of fivers wouldn’t cure”.
Sure enough, as if by divine intervention, this promoted the arrival of an acquaintance just home from a spell in Libya, in the lucrative service of King Idris. Dollars rained on the assembly, and the desert bloomed.
Speaking of Bloom, Durcan reminded us that Kavanagh, like the Gospel, was dominated by four books. Or at least he had four firm favourites: Ulysses, Moby Dick, Wanderers (by Knut Hamsun), and Gil Blas (an 18th-century French classic).
An early Joycean, Kavanagh had been part of Dublin’s first Bloomsday commemoration in 1954, and more that a decade later was still championing the cause when Durcan took part in a staged reading, as Blazes Boylan. Thanks to nerves, he didn’t quite convey the self-assurance of that notorious lady’s man. But the familiar growl cheered him on from the audience. “Good man yourself, Paul,” shouted Kavanagh, in fatherly encouragement.
This was the keynote of what Durcan called “an accidental friendship that changed my life”. Part of the accident was that Durcan lived on Leeson St, a “bridge up” the Grand Canal from Parson’s Bookshop, the centre of Kavanagh’s “Greenwich Village”.
Another part may have been the younger man’s family lineage and an unusual relationship with WB Yeats. Although dead for most of Kavanagh’s career, Yeats became the Monaghan man’s greatest rival, resented for his material and artistic security, but also someone he felt he had to oust eventually as Ireland’s leading poet.
And while Durcan admired WBY’s work, he was also part of a generation that made common cause with Kavanagh in exposing the “Yeats industry” with its “slightly smug, golf-tournament” air. But then, being descended from a MacBride (on his mother’s side), Durcan had a heritage that humanised Yeats, for good and bad.
Durcan’s maternal grandmother was one of the supposed victims, when a teenager, of incidents that were alleged – and contested – during the Gonne-MacBride divorce case, but that later acquired force of truth from repetition by Yeats and his circle. Hence a remarkable aside in Durcan’s talk, based on family knowledge: “John McBride never abused my grandmother”.
But mostly, the night was about Kavanagh, and his gentler side.
This may or may not be the dominant theme of the rest of the commemorations, which include the second of three archival tributes on RTÉ Radio 1’s Bowman tomorrow, and which climax on Thursday, the actual anniversary, when Patrick McCabe and many others will read poems at the graveside in Inniskeen.