When the poet Patrick Kavanagh first came to Dublin in 1939 it was with great expectations. What better city could there be for a poet than one so rich in famous writers. AE (George Russell ), always kind and encouraging towards new poetic talent, took him under his wing, and, as Kavanagh appeared to him to be the peasant-poet of Irish tradition, he was initially accepted by the establishment. That idyll did not last, and, for one reason or another, he spent most of his life as a loner.
Kavanagh might have looked like a badly-dressed, raw-boned, clumsy bogman (things mysteriously ‘broke’ in his proximity ), but that exterior merely hid a highly developed and sophisticated intellect.
I love his Christmas poems and (the poor man was often hungry ) his descriptions of food and homely country scenes.
His best Christmas poems often have himself as a boy watching people at Christmas time. In Christmas Eve Remembered, he stands in his native Monaghan, listening to the talk, which he captures perfectly:
‘Did you hear from Tom this Christmas?’
‘These are the dark days.’
‘Maguire’s shop did a great trade,
Turnover double - so Maguire says.’
‘I can’t delay now, Jem,
Lest I be late in Bethlehem.’
And his memorable ‘A Christmas Childhood’, where as a boy of six years, the poet runs downstairs just as dawn was breaking on Christmas morning. The dawn is full of sounds and Christmas magic. Neighbours are walking along the frosty road to Mass:
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes....
His father stands at their gate playing the melodeon. His mother is milking the cows. The boy is consumed by the magic of it all. In his imagination the lantern in the cow-house becomes the star of Bethlehem, three bushes become the Three Wise Kings.
The boy got a penknife (one big blade and a smaller one for cutting tobacco ), and he concludes with great innocence:
My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin mary’s blouse.
Kavanagh loved the thrashing. Farmers would share labour to get the job done in the shortest time. There were always lots of girls in the kitchens, and plenty of food for hungry men.
‘Around to all the thrashings came the marriageable girls of the district - to cook. At one thrashing I counted seven cooks in the kitchen. They appeared very busy when I called at the door. Seeing that it was only myself was there they slowed down a bit. Twelve mugs of buttermilk stood on the table. The large pot of potatoes was boiling over the fire, and beside it simmered another pot of cabbage already boiled.
“Have yez much help?” one of the girls asked.
“Fair,” I said.
“Will yez be done before tay-time?” The woman of the house asked.
“We may,” I replied.
“That would be great,” her daughter said, “we won’t have the trouble of making tay if we keep back the dinner.”’
In Kavanagh’s The Green Fool, he mentions a favourite of mine when I was a boy, namely CHAMP.
Here’s the quote:
‘George told me. Me grand-uncle was in Monaghan gaol for a debt of eleven shillings. Me granny brought him his dinner of champ every day. Twenty one and a half Irish miles to Monaghan, she’d have the champ warm enough to melt the butter’
Champ is delicious with steak or chops or with that ubiquitous Irish main course, the boiled bacon.
8 medium potatoes
6 scallions (spring onions ) or 3 leeks
4oz (120g ) butter
salt and pepper , parsley.
Peel and halve the potatoes. Chop the onions or leeks. Boil together until soft (about 30 minutes ). Drain the vegetables and mash with 2 oz (60g ) of the butter, adding salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, make a hole in the top of the mound of mashed potato, and add the remaining butter. Sprinkle with chopped parsley*. Delicious.
Incidentally you get perfect champ from KC Blake’s Pantry at Knocknacarra. It’s freshly made everyday and tastes like I remember it long ago. Well done Bernie!
*From An Irish Literary Cookbook, by Veronica O’Mara & Fionnuala O’ Reilly, published by Town House and Country House in 1991