Not a Damn Thing

Nick Laird

In April 1959 Frank O’Connor wrote to his editor at the New Yorker to say that he had taken ‘the family up to Sligo to see how Yeats was getting on’. Since Yeats had been dead twenty years, he should have been getting on just fine. But:

Even he seemed to be disgruntled. Kavanagh the ex-poet ran into me soon after I came home, and the following conversation took place exactly as recorded.

k: I see you do be writing for a paper called the New Yorker.

me: I do.

k: I dare say for a piece in a paper like that you might get big money.

me: Begod, you might.

k: I dare say you might get $500.

me: You might, indeed.

k: You might even get $1000?

me: Still, I’d say $500 wouldn’t be too bad, wouldn’t you?

This is a typical anecdote about Patrick Kavanagh, touching as it does on his unproductiveness (‘the ex-poet’), his peculiar connection to Yeats, his prickliness. Kavanagh was born in 1904 in the townland of Mucker in the parish of Inniskeen, County Monaghan. At 13 he left school to work for his father, a cobbler and smallholder. He published Ploughman and Other Poems in 1936 and in May 1937 moved to London, where he was commissioned to write an autobiography, The Green Fool. The book was well received, though a disparaging remark in it caused Oliver St John Gogarty to sue for libel. (Kavanagh had written: ‘I mistook Gogarty’s white-robed maid for his wife – or his mistress. I expected every poet to have a spare wife.’) In 1939, having decided to leave Inniskeen for good, he moved to Dublin, and for the rest of his life earned a shaky living as a journalist. He published the celebrated long poem The Great Hunger in 1942; the collection A Soul for Sale in 1947; Tarry Flynn, a novel, in 1948; a periodical, Kavanagh’s Weekly, that ran for a few months in 1952; and in 1960, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems. He died on 30 November 1967 in a Dublin nursing home.

Kavanagh’s importance to Irish literature needs to be understood in the context of Irish history. By the 19th century, English was usurping Gaelic as the Irish vernacular, a process quickened by the famine and emigration of the 1840s. At the same time, writers such as Thomas Moore and Samuel Ferguson were attempting to recover and absorb Gaelic literary tradition. Then, towards the end of the century, figures like Douglas Hyde and Yeats made the Celtic Revival, as it was called, a powerful cultural and political force. Their subject-matter was heroic, mythic, folkloric, and cast in narrative and ballad forms. The Revival, Romanticism’s death-rattle, was an effort to establish a cultural history and heritage for Ireland in contradistinction to England’s, and a reaction to Victorian industrialisation. Ireland, still an agrarian nation, was the perfect place to found a myth of the rural.

Yeats both imagined and questioned the stereotypes. In ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’ (1937), he wrote that J.M. Synge, Augusta Gregory and he had brought ‘everything down to that sole test again,/Dream of the noble and the beggar-man’. Though he occasionally wrote socially engaged lines (‘the beggars have changed places but the lash goes on’; ‘Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone’), they owe more to his idiosyncratic view of history than to any interest in the lives of the Catholic poor. Yeats left social realism to Synge, whom Kavanagh thought ‘an outsider’ and ‘insincere’. The Playboy of the Western World, a fiercely antipastoral play that describes conditions on the islands off the Connaught coast, caused rioting in the streets in Dublin when it was first performed in 1907. In portraying the sharp edge of class systems, Shaw had done something similar, if more limited, three years earlier in John Bull’s Other Island. Kavanagh, predictably, thought Shaw a ‘bogus Irishman’.

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