Patrick Kavanagh never spoke about poetry or literature to his friends. The Monaghan born poet and novelist, who grew up on a small farm, was more inclined to talk about everyday news, politics, Marilyn Monroe, horse racing, and goodlooking, rich women or medical students who caught his eye. And there were quite a few of these!
He loved the headline in the New York Times - when Monroe married playwright Arthur Millar in 1956 - which screamed “Hourglass weds egghead”.
Dr Tony Carroll, a retired child psychiatrist, who, as a student in Dublin, got to know the famous Irish writer, was with him when the Hollywood star died in 1962 aged 36. A film critic for The Catholic Standard, Kavanagh was deeply saddened by her passing.
Tony, who lives in Galway city, describes the Iniskeen poet, who died 50 years ago this year, as “fascinating”.
“I knew him for the last seven years of his life,” he says. “I was in the second year of a degree in medicine when I first met him, he gave some evening lectures in UCD. Like most geniuses, he was a complicated personality. He was a deeply sensitive person who constructed a public persona, a gruff and prickly exterior which made people wary of approaching him.”
Tony believes this “suit of armour” was a self protection mechanism. “He had suffered much misunderstanding and indeed contempt as he struggled to evolve from being a small farmer into a great writer. While he got some recognition, he was never able to make a living from it. So he protected himself.”
But if the poet was perceived by some as surly, those who knew him best tell a different story. Tony says he relaxed among the ordinary people in “his” Dublin around the Grand Canal and the city centre which was then like a village.
Women loved him
“He was very friendly, women loved him, even other people’s wives! The shop assistants, the cafe waitresses, the barmen, the school girls were all very fond of him. Students, of whom I was one in the early sixties, and who themselves have little time for frauds or cranky old men, thronged around him. We enjoyed his lively mind, his witticisms, his relaxed good humour, and his powerful sense of presence. He had a great personal magnetism and had views on every subject which he delivered with good humoured authority, usually in a very witty turn of phase and always with great clarity.”
Talent was a burden
He says Kavanagh loved writing but at times felt his talent was a burden and that he had made tremendous sacrifices for it.
“He was prepared to undertake such suffering as he believed his writing was inspired and that delivering his message was his duty and his destiny. He believe that art was rooted in reality and in the banal and he was highly intolerant of hypocrisy and phonies.”
Dr Carroll has fond memories of the poet; a tall man with big hands (he played in goal for Iniskeen, his local Gaelic football team in Monaghan, but it is said that he was easily bored and prone to deserting his post to run up the field and take frees! ), who had a weakness for beautiful and wealthy women (he was always “hitting high” ) but was inclined to two-time them.
He smoked (until he was 56 years old when he had to have a lung removed due to cancer ) and was a latecomer to alcohol - he initially drank pints and finally, whiskey (that “was the end of him”, says Tony ). He had a very good singing voice (he used to sing his famous love song On Raglan Road which he passed on to the folk singer Luke Kelly ) and was very close to his mother who died in 1945 and for whom he penned the poem “In memory of my mother”.
Tony’s other recollections are of a man whose laces were always undone, who loved being in hospital (he got lots of attention from the nurses ), who liked women “giving out to him and telling him to tidy himself up” and enjoyed going to the races. He would spent ages studying the form.
Tony first met Paddy Kavanagh, as he refers to him, in 1960 in Mooney’s bar on Baggot Street Bridge. The young student was with James Liddy, a good friend of his, a lawyer, poet and editor who greatly admired the Monaghan poet and had arranged to meet him.
Kavanagh, one of the foremost Irish poets of the 20th century whose work include, The Great Hunger, Memory of my Father, Stony Grey Soil and A Christmas Childhood, took one look at Tony and addressing his friend asked: “Who is the tiny man?” Tony straightened himself up to his full 5’4” and James introduced them. The conversation ambled innocuously around to horse racing and in a few brief minutes common ground was established between the poet and the medical student from Tipperary.
Tony’s family, who lived in the south of the county, were involved in horseracing in a small way. His father, a dentist, had race horses and was good friends with trainers Vincent O’Brien and the late Clem Magnier. “So, with Paddy Kavanagh I was in business! Over the next few months I met him on and off, usually in the company of mutual friends.”
Sense of presence
He had a “great” personality and “a powerful” sense of presence, recalls Tony, and loved laughter and gaiety. But there was a dark side to the poet as well, he says. “I was very aware of his negative features: his treachery to friends, almost compulsively biting the hand that fed him. His duplicity - double dealing publishers and concealing significant information from relatives and friends. His poetry was his redemptive factor as was the wisdom in many of his feature articles.”
He had views on every subject which he would deliver with finality, often in a pithy and witty phrase. “The subjects would range across everything, politics, science, art, gossip, literature, journalism and films. Paddy would devour newspapers and discard them with a decisive flourish. He was a great fan of Mohammed Ali. As a film critic, he was thoroughly versed in the lives of film stars. I remember one afternoon in McDaid’s pub (August 5 1962 ) when we got the Evening Herald and he was distraught to read that Marilyn Monroe had died.”
The acclaimed poet, who became an apprentice shoemaker to his father at 13 but gave it up a year later saying he did not make one pair of wearable shoes, was an avid rugby fan and a soccer supporter - he regularly cycled to Dundalk to watch matches. He also had a talent for cross country running.
The poet had no shortage of admirers. One of his long term relationships was with the then Deirdre Courtney, later to become Deirdre Manifold, the Catholic writer who lived in Salthill. She worked in the civil service and was said to have been half his age when they met in Dublin in the late 1940s. They went out together for five years but the relationship ended in 1954. She passed away in 2013.
By the 1960s the poet’s drinking was gaining the upper hand and his health was deteriorating. “He was neglecting himself,” Dr Carroll recalls. “He was hospitalised with a kidney infection at one stage and got the nurse to take him to the pub in the afternoon. He would say: ‘There is nothing wrong that a couple of fivers wouldn’t cure.’”
He married his long term girfriend Katherine Barry Moloney (the niece of Kevin Barry, the first Irish republican to be executed by the British since the leaders of the Easter Rising ) in April 1967. At 63, the groom was 20 years older than his bride. But their happiness was to be shortlived - he died six months after their wedding.
Shrouded in secrecy
The location for the nuptials was shrouded in secrecy but Tony managed to find out where the marriage was taking place.
“A few of us went to the wedding, it was 19 April 1979, in the Church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar. The priest was under strict instructions from Paddy’s friend, John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin, to keep going no matter what! When the priest asked Paddy: “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?” he replied “I suppose I have to!” Paddy had a naggin of whiskey with him. He did not tell his family about the wedding until two days afterwards but they “knew his ways”. “He was very good at compartmentalising his life”.
Tony was invited to the newly weds’ home two days later for lunch. They ate spaghetti bolognaise. His wife did not know anyone in Dublin and was delighted to have company.
“At the time Paddy was drinking and not eating. He would go to bed with a snipe of scotch. Kathleen looked after him very well. If they had married five years earlier he might have survived.”
Years later when Tony settled in Galway he was delighted to learn that there was a thriving Patrick Kavanagh Western Association in the city and also to meet the late Deirdre Manifold.
The association was set up in 2010 by Clare born actor, educationalist and film maker Ger Considine, who now lives in Galway. He became interested in the poet while working in Bremen, West Germany.
“I came across an old copy of Kavanagh’s Collected Poems in an English bookshop. They captured the social history and rural culture of the time. He was the writer who most appealed to my rural background, much of his poetry depicted the conflicts, loneliness and frustrations of rural life.
“When I returned to the west of Ireland my interest in the poet was reignited after hearing a homily at Mass in Cree in West Clare by the late Fr Linnane. He spoke about how Kavanagh’s pilgrimage brought him from one July evening to another, how it was an interesting span of life and a triumph of the soul.”
Ger set up the Kavanagh Western Association, which hosts annual summer events in Galway city, to heighten awareness about the poet.
“Our annual ‘boutique’ Kavanagh celebration acknowledges the special place he has in the hearts of Irish people. His appeal is universal. He took our poetry from its focus on history, politics, and ethnicity and returned us to our roots and values.”
Ger made a short documentary film in 2009 based on the late Deirdre Manifold entitled “Deirdre’s Passions” (www.vimeo.com/6851566 ).
There is another Galway/Kavanagh link in that sculptor John Coll, one of Ireland’s most prominent figurative sculptors who is originally from Taylor’s Hill, created a monument to Patrick Kavanagh on Dublin’s Grand Canal. One of his most prominent works of art, it was inspired by the poem “Lines written on a seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin. The poet found solace beside the canal and often sat there to contemplate his life. Before he began working on the piece, John Coll visited Patrick’s tailor to make sure he got his measurements correct.