A Poet in the House: Patrick Kavanagh at Priory Grove, by Elizabeth O’Toole, edited by Brian Lynch, Lilliput Press, 184 pp, €15, ISBN. 978-1843518242
Poetry, Memory and the Party: Journals 1974-2014, by Thomas McCarthy, Gallery Press, 464 pp, €17.50, ISBN: 978-1911338123
Both of these important books offer a historical picture of the life of poetry within the Irish republic of letters from the late 1940s and early 50s to the present century, with a closing point of 2014. The insights from Elizabeth O’Toole’s memoir, matched by her daughter Margot’s contributing essay and the touch-perfect forensic editing of Brian Lynch, reveals a somewhat occluded way of life in mid-century Ireland. Comfortable, middle class, Dublin-based with roots in Cork and Clare and with wide experience of the world drawn by the British imperial system, the O’Toole family, settled in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, takes in the troubled lyrical genius of Patrick Kavanagh during a dangerous spell of the poet’s ill-health and instability in 1961.
For the length of Kavanagh’s physical rehabilitation – about six months – this portrait of the artist ‑ his comfort and ease with the O’Toole children on day outings and his quiet times with Elizabeth (Betty) O’Toole (in a particularly moving scene as he helps her put washing on the line) ‑ cast Kavanagh in a very different light from conventional views. His managing to survive the infra-jealousies and introverted self-regard of much of the “local scene” through the empowering friendship with Elizabeth’s charismatic husband, the energising figure of the memoir, James Davitt Bermingham O’Toole (author of the controversial play Man Alive!), and a force of goodwill, are neatly replayed by Elizabeth and contextualised by Lynch in his substantial afterword.
A Poet in the House challenges some of the received wisdom concerning post-Emergency Irish culture by taking the reader inside one family’s experience during the 1950s and 1960s. Belonging to the state’s first generation of citizens who were taking over leadership roles in the professions and industry by challenging the systems of patronage and the self-serving post-colonial rhetoric of a deeply conservative Catholic country, the O’Tooles symbolise a new Ireland in its early birth pangs. They and their friends were leaving behind what had only recently been, as Lynch unfussily identifies, the murky past, particularly regarding the remnants of the IRA republicanism and their lethally contaminated connections in a previous decade with Nazi Germany.
Highly literate, dynamic and confident Elizabeth O’Toole’s memoir does not ponder the sad loss of her beloved husband at an early age or the difficult choices (and reasons why) she had to uproot her young family, settle in North America and earn a living; something she continued to do and where happily she resides, ninety-six years old, surrounded by her extended family.
It is also interesting to notice the various other presences who come and go through the narrative of memory, seeking out Kavanagh in his Stillorgan “retreat”: Abbey actor Ria Mooney, another talented and motivated woman who challenged the aesthetic and social mores of Dublin’s theatre scene, and the poet and editor Patricia Avis, who relaunched Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry in a sense – first through her extensive networks of friends and acquaintances in London’s expatriate publishing and visual art scene, but also, crucially, by publishing in Nimbus, the short-lived magazine she edited, some of Kavanagh’s finest late poems. (For a wonderful portrait of Patricia Avis, readers should consult Conor Linnie’s essay in Irish Women Poets Rediscovered , published by Cork University Press.) Whatever the relationship actually was between Kavanagh and Avis, we may never really know how much depended upon their own vulnerabilities and the lifestyles attached to a writer’s life in the Dublin of the time, where alcohol played such a crucial part in the breakdown in mental and physical health of so many. It is a tragic subject all to itself.
Certainly, when one looks across the Kavanagh generation the signs are everywhere, as women and men writers and artists, journalists and theatre practitioners struggled with alcoholism, depression and an abiding sense of not being taken seriously. It is something O’Toole’s memoir treats with a forthright humanity which might itself be a thing of the past.
In his splendid afterword Lynch brings a poet’s sense of moment to the gentle and humorous story of the O’Toole family experiences: Kavanagh, he informs us stayed in touch with the O’Tooles after he had left Stillorgan. Elizabeth remembers that when he attended the party held for her husband before Jim went to teach at Ohio State University in 1964, Paddy spent much of the night sitting on the stairs talking to her eight-year-old daughter EllyMay. That was typical of him. In poetry, it was the child-like vision he had seen in Inniskeen in 1910 that he sought to return to, when his “father played the melodeon” and the poet was “six Christmases of age”.
Lynch goes on to make an important historical point too about the memoir’s value in any reconsideration of the nature of Kavanagh’s “alcoholism, of his boorishness, of his reticence, even secretiveness, and of his relationships with women, particularly with Patricia Avis”, before identifying the importance of Elizabeth O’Toole’s writing as “the revelation of her own character as an individual and as a representative of her class in mid-twentieth century Ireland. Not only was she kind in the sense of sympathy, she was independent, high-minded, not to be trifled with, capable, spiritual, a lover of literature and a friend to the poet”. An enriching and engaging read, subtle and memorable in itself.
Friends, poetry and fate are at the very core of Thomas McCarthy’s powerful Poetry, Memory and the Party: Journals, 1974-2014, a rare and imposing prose book which has all the look and intensity of a truly classical piece of work, though not for the faint-hearted. It tells a brave story of forty years of McCarthy’s devotion to poetry, to understanding both the locale of his upbringing and schooling (Cappoquin), his educational and professional life (as a librarian) in Cork and the wider significance of what Munster as a province means in the modern Ireland which these journals chart with such fascination and honesty.
Towards the end of this wonderful bright book of life and letters Thomas McCarthy, in pensive mood, reflects, in his sixtieth year (2014), on the course his personal story has taken him:
From the moment my first poem was published in The Irish Times when I was seventeen (and in Fifth Class in St Anne’s Secondary School, Cappoquin) my whole attitude to authority and received opinion changed for the worst. I became an intractable romantic and unteachable and I found a willing and enabling disciple in the Old Brigadier who, placing me in charge of Glenshelane House and its acres and bank account in his absence, gave me a little kingdom that was independent of family, school and Cappoquin. I colonized Glenshelane […]
The early life McCarthy recalls is marked by “poverty” (his word) and the loss at an early age of first his father and then his mother. The compensation he discovered was a surprising yet long-lasting relationship with what he calls “these Anglo-Irish people and their houses”. An impressive feature of Poetry, Memory and the Party is the genuine affection and understanding McCarthy extends to a much lampooned and at one time hated social segment of Irish life: “My attachment,” he writes in June 2021 “to Molly Keane [the novelist] or the Brigadier’s memory is among the most real emotional strings of my adult life”. He goes on to realistically assess this relationship with a kind of nuanced understanding that is becoming increasingly rare:
I have no hope of seeing this attachment reciprocated but that’s not what it’s about. It is something else, some very deep recognition of universal values that I associate with a life of writing. For me writers, and especially poets, are born aristocrats – their instincts are value-laden, elitist in a technical sense, and associated with established comfort in that writing requires huge tranches of uninterrupted time the way that the making of a great garden or a great family requires centuries rather than moments of sensation. I am a deeply conservative person. I have been conservative since I was about seven-years-old.
Yet McCarthy’s self-analysis here presents a slightly skewed sense of his individual courage, dedication, work ethic and above all else the personal commitment to those democratic “universal values” he notes above. In the decades covered by his Journals, time after time, he rejects the injustices, flaws, damage and egotism which mars the literary, cultural and political scene in which he would play (and still plays) such an enlightening and balanced part.
“Having been so happy at Glenshelane,” he writes in December 2010, “I think I’ll always share the sentiments of an old, doting retainer. This is my mental weather.” Some chance, says I. The Brigadier whom he refers to continuously throughout these richly rewarding pages of reflection and analysis, is Denis Fitzgerald, a grandson of the duke of Leinster, and the counter-cultural point of McCarthy’s emotional and intellectual compass, connecting him to the wide Anglo-Irish world which spanned the globe. It is one of the key planks of the personal story McCarthy tells here and, as he recalls the landscape around the Brigadier’s Glenshelane house which he (McCarthy) has planted, attending the parties, providing insight into that other world, I couldn’t help but imagine the filmic possibilities.
The other preeminent narrative line which struck this reader – and there are several, all with their own fascinating pulses and contradictory energies ‑ including the poet’s unfolding sense of crisis within Fianna Fáil and what this tells him about the state of the country, particularly in the run-up to the Celtic Tiger and its collapse – concerns the emerging literary coteries gathered around University College Cork in the 1970s and 1980s. Within this story the figures of John Montague and Sean Lucy stand out. So much so that Montague emerges from the Journals as a counterweight to the Brigadier with all his (Montague’s) creative influences, anxieties and intuitive support on display.
It was probably from Montague that McCarthy inherited his sense of “Ulster” as a real yet also imagined place to set beside “Munster” poetry, or poetry from “the south”. The abiding sense of the emerging and established poet and the culture of readings, prizes, visibility, reviews – the whole network of literary Ireland, England and the Irish-American links in the US ‑ are obsessions from McCarthy’s earliest days, with the publication of The First Convention (1978), and his highly distinguished record as a poet in the decades since and the ten poetry collections to his name, as well as fiction and memoir. (An ongoing tic concerns the size of audiences attending readings, one of the erstwhile anxieties poets take so personally and, as Journals shows, never forget!)
Along with the praise McCarthy attaches to fellow Cork-based poets and writers of one time or another – Paul Durcan, Patrick Galvin, Sean Dunne, Nuala Ní Domhnaill, Patrick Cotter, Gregory O’Donoghue, Pat Crotty – his openness and hospitality to a huge number of visiting fellow poets and writers is simply amazing. If Cork hasn’t done so already he deserves to be made a freeman of that city. Yet, as he reveals in several melancholic and bitter passages, his relationship with both the library, where he worked for his entire adult life, and his leading role in the highly successful Cork2005 European City of Culture, these years spent on bureaucratic duty could well have been devoted to his writerly life.
If there is an underlining principle from start to finish in the Journals it is the business of recognition ‑ as Beckett’s Krapp says with mordant irony, “getting known”. The respect which Thomas McCarthy feels for poetry as an art form and the manner in which he has put his intelligence and personal energies to the disposal of others – young men and women starting off writing, as much as those much older who may have been overlooked or withdrawn from public view – brings to mind the third and final great figure of these journals: Seamus Heaney. McCarthy’s reverence for Heaney’s achievement is not wide-eyed but fully acknowledged as that of one professional for another, particularly when it came to the “assumption” that “if the same public [in Ireland] gave Heaney too much attention it must have meant the starvation of other literary careers”.
Certainly, over the years, this was Mahon’s, Montague’s, Cronin’s and Kinsella’s view. But it is a very subjective view and I don’t think it’s a correct one. The success of one poet has hardly anything to do with the failure of another. Poets create their own core audience and they need only the attention of this core audience to carry on writing. Over time most poets create their own core audience automatically.
Of course there is much more in Journals than a short review can touch upon. If there is any justice in the world of prizegiving, Poetry, Memory and the Party should win the sweepstakes. The achievement is already in place. For its manner of merging in prose ‑ of an often high order of insight, lyrical style and aphoristic grace – the private and public lives he has lived with his family, who form such a powerful emotional bond all of their own throughout the journals, this book is simply unforgettable, a lasting universal confirmation of unquestionably one of the country’s finest writers. “Don’t expect writing to give you a living, but its inability to give you a living is not a judgement upon its importance,” McCarthy concludes. “As Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, a life of writing is the same as a life dedicated to the study of the Talmud – it is its own reward. A life in writing may be endlessly hand-to-mouth, but it is full of life. As Molly Keane used to say – holding a champagne martini or a Bloody Mary aloft in front of the blazing drawing-room fire at Glenshelane House – to write is hell, but not to write is even worse.” Amen.
Gerald Dawe’s sequence of poems Revenant, with images by John Behan, will be published later this year.