From the drill to the quill

Des Kavanagh photographed at his home in Galway. His collection of poem Binnion Road was recently published by Artisan House. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Des Kavanagh photographed at his home in Galway. His collection of poem Binnion Road was recently published by Artisan House. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Des Kavanagh’s poems are full of the names of people and places he knows or has known well. Names are great familiarisers and Kavanagh’s Ireland is a close and familiar place. But it also bears within it the ache of absence, not just for specific people, but for the world they inhabited, a world that made them and that they also made. Kavanagh’s ancestral Inishowen in Donegal, his family, in it’s old and new generations, often provide the pivot that turns him to the past, although it also allows for glimpses of the future, through children and grandchildren — so said the late Seamus Deane of the Galway poet.

Born in Donegal, educated in Derry, Galway, Dublin, and London, Des Kavanagh is a long-time resident of Galway. Des’s father was a schoolteacher who had befriended the seannachai? Charles McGlinchey and in a fortuitous collaboration captured his music and stories in The Last of the Name, edited and introduced by Brian Friel.

Des Kavanagh is a native of Inishowen and lives in Galway. He was educated in St Columb’s College Derry, UCG and UCD. In London he did postgraduate Dental studies and trained as an Orthodontist. Since putting down the drill he has taken up the quill.

When he came to Galway in 1972 to commence an orthodontist practice at the Crescent, not only did he have to apologise for his quiet, lilting Donegal accent, but also for his medical qualification.

There were no other orthodontists between Donegal and Kerry at the time. An orthodontist is a dental speciality, dealing mainly with teeth alignment; but he was constantly being confused with an ornithologist, an expert on birds.

Some squinted at him, when he told them his profession, and asked ‘You mean archaeology?’His wife Mary, from Ahascragh, equally enjoyed the fun; and Des settled down to a successful career here.

A new Galway

Almost 50 years later, their son Conal has taken over the practice. Now retired, Des can be seen on his regular walks, and through the gift of poetry, shows us a new Galway many of us have lost sight of.

On the Western Distributor Road, even the name is mundane, Des reminds us that ‘Before the builders came/ farmers toiled and walked this land/ gorse grew where families settle now.’ That house on Bishop O’Donnell Road, we all know it with its iron railings and Victorian style, now invaded by its hedge and untamed trees. But we didn’t know that was where once ‘a doctor practiced/ raised a family here./ Patients came to talk. He listened./ Felt pulses.Tapped backs./ Placed a stethoscope on beating hearts.’Looking up he sees ‘the Shannon to New York/ Aer Lingus jet rise/ over the haze on the Clare Hills…like a wild kite/ in the summer sky,/ its wake /a disintegrating feather.’ Even in this digital age the poet notices the ‘egg-timer on the kitchen wall…Unnoticed until turned upside down/ the two glass lobes come to life./A little rush of streaming sand/ let time fall.’Des grew up ‘along the Swilly shore/ past rocky downslopes/ and strands that reflect/ the coast of Inishowen’.

Des Kavanagh has always had a strong interest and involvement in the arts. He was co-founder and chairperson of The McGlinchey Summer School in his home place for many years.

Through his association with The Clifden Arts Festival he presents each year with his friend Pete Mullineaux an evening entitled “Reading and Singing in The Bookies’ at Paddy Powers bookies shop - with poems, songs and stories about horses, ponies and greyhounds.

Des is a familiar presence at arts events and poetry readings. As poet Louis de Paor states ‘Sometimes, when I try to imagine an ideal reader, the right combination of rigour and insight, discernment and tact, I look up and see Des Kavanagh, half frowning, half smiling, as he weighs each poem against the music of itself and all he knows of the music of what happens.’

Des now invites readers to give their attention to his poetry, beautifully presented in hardback and entitled Binnion Road. His poems are evocative of place be that his native Donegal or adopted home of Galway.

In Galway Air Ambulance: ‘I am grounded in potato drills, flower beds;/above sycamores, at the garden’s end,/a helicopter descends. Lights flash/on the underside and at the tail,/a single propeller blade whirs overhead./I imagine a lone patient, in some distress,/poor soul, the journey a revelation./Medical help on hand and resuscitation gear./Ahead, the cardiac team gloved and gowned/have studied an electrocardiogram sent/in recent minutes by a referring hospital/in Connaught, Longford, Donegal./Time is of the essence./ I am grateful to be here.’

Des says that he is very grateful to friends and tutors who provided encouragement and feedback. A particular word of thanks to Seamus Deane who provided the foreword to the book. He sent it to me only a few months before his death and his approval of my work means a lot to me’ said Des Kavanagh.

His work has been shortlisted in the Cu?irt New Writing Competition, The Fish Poetry Competition, Hennessy New Irish Writing | Irish Times, and he has broadcasted on RTE’s Radio 1 Sunday Miscellany.

Des’s collection of poems entitled Binnion Road is published by Artisan House, Connemara. It is a beautiful hardback book designed by Vincent Murphy and with original illustrations by Joe Boske. Available to order from Artisan House [email protected] or from Gill Distribution.

Binnion Road will be launched by Lorna Shaughnessy on Friday, May 6, 2022, in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop at 6.30 pm.


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