Una Agnew: Patrick Kavanagh’s family secrets

An Irishwoman’s Diary on the hidden history of the poet

The poet Patrick Kavanagh inherited “a genealogical wilderness”.

The poet Patrick Kavanagh inherited “a genealogical wilderness”.

 

In the wake of a rigorous spring-cleaning of the Kavanagh home in 1929, Patrick discovered that a foolscap page entrusted to him by his deceased father outlining his background had disappeared; cleaned away by the “handmaid of Prudery or Cleanliness”. The poet was heartbroken at a loss that was key to understanding his past.

His grandfather Patrick Kevany had been banished, charged with “immoral living”, from a teaching position at Kednaminsha School in Inniskeen, Co Monaghan, in 1855 and told he would never again be employed by the Board of Education. It was a cruel blow for the 29-year-old from Easkey, Co Sligo who had fallen in love with a young local widow, Nancy Callan, now pregnant with his child.

Kevany hailed from Easkey, Co Sligo and sponsored by a landlord Thomas Howley from Ballina he trained in the prestigious Glasnevin Agricultural Institute in 1849. College records show he was an exemplary student with a sound knowledge of agricultural science. Tristram Kennedy, agent of the Bath estate Carrickmacross (1845-1852), secured Kevany’s appointment for Kednaminsha, one of the schools on his estate. For five years he earned high praise from school inspectors but in April 1855, when Nancy’s pregnancy came to light, he was banished.

Jobless and disgraced, he arrived more by accident than design in Tullamore, Co Offaly where he procured employment as a teacher in Tullamore Workhouse. Meanwhile Nancy’s plight in Inniskeen was far from happy. She was disowned by her family and blamed for the banishment of a gifted teacher and subsequent closure of the school – stories that would live long in Inniskeen memory.

Kevany wanted his name to be given to his son James, born August 25th, but by some clerical error or pronunciation confusion, Kevany became Kavanagh.

Workhouse

The Board of Education seemed oblivious to his presence, although his farm produce won first prize at the Dublin Root Show in 1857. There were subsequent prizes in 1859 and 1860. By the time his past came to light, it was clear that his service to the board was indispensable. A pardon was awarded in November 1859 and Kevany’s life-long service to Tullamore continued. By 1862 he was made master of the workhouse and in 1870 he owned a drapery shop in Harbour Street.

In 1873, he married Mary Molloy, a workhouse employee from Mountmellick. They had four children: two girls who later became Mercy sisters, Srs Louis and Francis in Galway, a son who died in infancy and the youngest son, Patrick, who, continued to run the family drapery and died in Dublin in 1950.

In 1895, aged 69, Kevany was still fulfilling his onerous duties as master, although by now he was ill and fighting for superannuation. He died on May 20th, 1896 having just secured his pension. Nancy died in Inniskeen a few months later. Kevany’s grave in Durrow cemetery outside Tullamore, has until now remained unmarked. Nancy’s is also unmarked in Inniskeen.

Patrick Kavanagh had a vague notion of his Tullamore relatives but there is no indication they knew of their half-brother’s existence in Inniskeen. Legends of half-brothers and mythologies coming from “Athy and other far flung places”, have touched the strings of Kavanagh’s poetic imagination, healing, it is hoped, the loss embedded in his psyche.

Half-brothers

Offaly Heritage 8

Despite the heartbreak endured on all sides, poetry was written in prize-winning exhibits farmed on Offaly soil while immortal verse rooted itself forever in the drumlins of Monaghan.