And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? … And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them. A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.
Matthew 13: 53-57
Enda O’Doherty writes: It is not just a prophet who often fails to impress the neighbours. It can happen to a poet too, as Patrick Kavanagh for one could vouch from experience. In the early 1930s Kavanagh had one foot in rural Co Monaghan and another in Dublin, among the literary set, where he was championed by AE (George Russell), FR Higgins, Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain. “A weekday evening,” his biographer Antoinette Quinn writes, “might find him slowly sipping a glass of porter in the Palace Bar and listening to a discussion of assonantal techniques in Gaelic poetry; the following Monday he might be at the Dundalk fowl market with two turkeys, hanging about for hours trying to match the sixpence per pound he had been lucky enough to get for the first of them, and then settling for fivepence.”
It is probably a characteristic of any relatively humble small place – and not just of rural ones – that the inhabitants take a poor view of anyone who might be thought to be getting above themselves. And in a micro-society that values rough speech, shallow bravado and cynicism about all human motives there can scarcely be a more perfect way of getting above oneself than coming out as that ethereal thing “a poet”. And yet it seems there was more to it than that. As Quinn puts it, “his male neighbours’ taunting of Kavanagh … was provoked by his own blunt speaking and sneers, not just by his intellectual pretensions and the publication of his verse”. Blows were received; blows were also given. As he was later to admit,
He had the knack of making men feel
As small as they really were
O he was a proud one,
Fol do the di do,
He was a proud one
And I tell you.
The differences between country parish and city, particularly a city like Dublin, are not always as great as might be imagined, Peter Sirr has remarked. Once settled in Dublin, at the end of the 1930s, Kavanagh set about making a section of it (Baggot Street, Pembroke Road, the Grand Canal) his urban Inniskeen. Sirr quotes Anthony Cronin:
This was his village. It contained what he would have regarded as the necessities of life ‑ three or four pubs, a couple of bookmakers and a bookshop [Parson’s on Baggot Street bridge]. And he patrolled this area, he knew everything about its life, he knew all the people in its pubs, all the gin-drinking landladies in The Waterloo lounge, all the Baggot Street irregulars, all the soaks, all the girls who were in digs round there ‑ he’d stop them in the streets and ask them questions about their progress in exams or their boyfriends or their jobs. There can hardly ever have been an area of a city so intensively patrolled.
One of the “girls” he was in the habit of stopping was my Auntie Eileen, who worked in the Department of Agriculture in Merrion Street and had a top-floor flat, to which she returned each lunchtime, on Herbert Street just a few doors up from the Pepper Canister church. Eileen came from a place called Rocktate, six or seven miles south of Inniskeen, where her father (my maternal grandfather), James Devlin, was the schoolmaster. Kavanagh probably knew who she was, or if he didn’t at first he found out. There was a further connection than the merely (or approximately) local. Half-way between Rocktate and Inniskeen, perched on the Monaghan-Louth border, is the hamlet of Essexford. Here Kavanagh came as a young man to drink in Kelly’s pub or dance (more often watch the dancers) in Kelly’s loft (admission 4d). Kelly’s makes an appearance in The Green Fool as King’s. Its proprietor, Eddie Kelly, was Eileen’s uncle (and my granduncle). He was a Fianna Fáil TD for three years in the mid-1950s and I remember him as a hearty and always twinkling occasional presence a decade later.
Eileen was probably my favourite aunt. A no-nonsense sort with a ready (and loud, not to say horsey) laugh, she was, I would have thought, broadminded – even progressive ‑ by the standards of her time: she took The Irish Times rather than the Independent and voted for Noël Browne. Her frequent jibes at “John Charles” and mildly anticlerical views tried my rather devout father’s patience. But liberal and all as she was she drew the line at Paddy Kavanagh, whose bohemianism seemed to include – as so often ‑ an aversion to clean linen. The Devlins were nothing if not clanely rared and Eileen, it seems, took great pains to avoid a man who whiffed, even if he was a neighbour from home and maybe even a genius. This can’t always have been an easy matter since both of them depended on the same vital Baggot Street channel to keep body and soul together.
Peter Sirr adds:
Kavanagh … always had a complicated relationship with Dublin. It had, in many respects, failed him. It had failed to take him seriously when he moved there as a young man in 1939 with his first book of poems and a volume of autobiography, The Green Fool, under his belt. Unfortunately Oliver St John Gogarty took exception to a remark in the book – “I mistook Gogarty’s white-robed maid for his wife or his mistress; I expected every poet to have a spare wife.”– and slapped the poet with a libel suit. The book was withdrawn and the incident marked an inauspicious beginning to the poet’s relationship with the city, the nadir of which was reached some years later in another libel suit, this time taken by Kavanagh himself against a journal which had featured an irreverent portrait of him written anonymously by another poet, Valentin Iremonger. Kavanagh lost that suit, and the city had its entertainment at his expense. The poems he wrote about Dublin are often harshly satirical – the satire of a proud man who felt himself unjustly neglected, but who also held himself aloof from the city’s literary cliques and writers, who he felt were still mired in the conventions of the literary revival. To the urban intellectuals who gathered in the Palace Bar – the Malice, as Kavanagh called it – he was too rough around the edges, too much the country bumpkin. Something of the flavour of Palace wit can be inferred from the fact that Brian O’Nolan’s great career as Myles na Gopaleen actually began as a series of mock letters to The Irish Times by himself and two friends from UCD days, lampooning Kavanagh’s poem “Spraying the Potatoes”, which had appeared in the paper. The correspondence so amused the editor, RM Smyllie, that he offered O’Nolan a regular column, which became the famous “Cruiskeen Lawn”.
The above reflections on Kavanagh and the Baggot Street neighbourhood come from a blog post first published in the Dublin Review of Books in early 2019. I say blog post for that is the heading under which we published it, but this scarcely does justice to the series of extensive meditations on Dublin which Peter Sirr supplied us with over several months, many prompted by walks the author took from his Portobello home, pieces distinguished by their historical learning, style, quiet wisdom and humanity. It was obvious at the time that here was a book in the making. That book has now appeared. Intimate City: Dublin Essays is described by its publisher as “a book enlivened by the sense of the city as a layered place where people have lived and died for more than a thousand years”. It is an impressive achievement and will make a wonderful present for oneself, to be read and reread, or indeed for any lonely Dub in exile you feel like being kind to. It is published by Gallery Press at €14.50 paperback and €22.50 hardback. Do the smart thing while stocks last.