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The Kavanagh Centenary

(a speech at the Kavanagh seat on the Grand Canal, 17th March 2005).

I'm thinking of John Jordan's poem for Gerald Brenan, The Short Unhappy Exile Of Don Geraldo, 14th May - 21st June 1984. As you will remember, Gerald Brenan at the age of 90, was taken from his home in Alhaurin el Grande, Malaga, to a home for the old in Pinner, in Middlesex. He was brought back on the 21st of June. John's last stanza is:

Only let me connect,
dreaming, dreaming, dreaming,
till they raise the coverlet
beyond my nostrils.

And he was probably speaking as much about his own exile as about Don Geraldo's.

Only let me connect. Everything does connect. Kavanagh and Dinny Dwyer and Ben Dwyer had a significant and long-term connection - some of it right here according to legend. A week ago another member of the Dwyer family, the composer Ben Dwyer - who also lived for a while in Malaga -and I brought out a CD, of his music and my poetry, In The Ranelagh Gardens, and the last poem on the CD is called Kavanagh In Umbria, written for an exhibition last November in Carrickmacross. I'm thinking too about Kavanagh's friend, and mine, the Yorkshire poet Brian Higgins, and how he knew he was dying, in Hammersmith Hospital, because all his friends were coming to visit him. There is a fabric around human affairs that wants to embrace, and would do if it was let. It is inclusive by nature, and should be allowed to be so. And if there is no such thing as coincidence, the rider to that is something Marianne Moore said in one of her letters, I forget to whom: No exclusion, she wrote, is ever accidental. And how right she is. 'I'm an expert on Saloons', said Dean Martin as the alcoholic sheriff in Rio Grande - and so am I, an expert on saloons, as it happens, but even more so on exclusion, and sometimes on the two together.

As was Kavanagh. No writer ever considers themselves properly appreciated, and this is simply the human condition; but there are degrees of non-appreciation, and it's also a fact that Kavanagh's publishing history was more chaotic, more ad hoc, more dogged by misfortune and by lack of good-will than that of most of his Irish contemporaries. If he hadn't had such a talent for advertising his own existence, and such a persevering belief in the continued validity of so doing, and being gifted by God with the Monaghan-physical voice, presence and inclination to do it, the simple fact is that I don't believe he'd ever have been heard of at all, long term. They'd have excluded him out of existence… and did their best to anyhow.

That a poet has to have a public was a central tenet of Kavanagh's - and there was certainly audience aplenty at the Kavanagh weekend in Inniskeen last November: several hundred times more than the half-dozen he said he felt he could count on when he was alive. And the genuine tremor of life was there to be felt. There was a fine address by Seamus Heaney, in which he spoke of the creative dilemma for the poet. In that first you have to arrive at the place within yourself and your life, where you can make the poetry, then you have to make it, and not give up, and you have to continue, keep at it. And then when you've done it, you have to start all over, do it all again, but differently. And I was thinking how true this was, as a proposition and for Kavanagh, and it struck me too how Kavanagh has also somehow embarked on a whole set of new beginnings since his death. Throughout his life he always wanted to be regarded as respectable. He disapproved - seriously - of what he regarded as Bohemianism, and yet there he was, to be found as often as not entrenched in Bohemian circumstances and Bohemian circles. Which is where I knew him.

Inniskeen last year made amends for the years of lack of faith, in that he finally, patently and publicly, had Hometown Credibility not only conferred, but indeed thrust, upon him. Closely followed by respectability, sanctity and mystic elevation. The President even assured us that if he turned up now in his old green woolly jumper at Áras an Uachtaráin she liked to think he would not be turned away as he had been before. To which I can only echo the man himself, I wonder. And I realise now, thinking back, that I was indeed present at the emergence of yet another Kavanagh from the closet of the chrysalis, a construct more to do, perhaps, with style and presentation than with content. The first intimation was on the evening of the Heaney lecture. There was a performance of a piece of music written by Michael Holohan, entitled Raglan Road, but which - since there were no words from that poem involved - was in effect a rendition of an arrangement of the traditional air Fáinne Geal an Lae, or The Dawning of the Day. The air used by Kavanagh to carry the words of Raglan Road, which, anyhow, as you all know, was originally entitled Dark-Haired Miriam Ran Away.

All of this was mildly odd: not bizarre for an Irish cultural event. But what was bizarre was what was going on in the background. While the musicians were getting themselves and their instruments ready to play, the members of the Board of the Kavanagh Centre were busily putting up paintings on the back wall, depicting a young Kavanagh, and a female person, obviously based on photographs of his early love Hilda Moriarty. Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura, Diarmuid and Gráinne. And the paintings stayed up after Fáinne Geal an Lae, were still up for the events of the following day, and for all I know they may be up on the walls of the Centre yet. The Kavanagh Centre (and my point is emphatically not to take a cheap shot at the excellent work it does) is situated in the old RC church, which in turn is situated in the graveyard, in which is situated the grave in which Patrick Kavanagh and his wife, Katherine, are both buried. The same grave that has been desecrated, the headstone with Katherine's name on it broken up and thrown in a field. Any and all record of Katherine excised from the area. The rearranging of the grave and surround to make it appear that Kavanagh alone is buried there. At least some of the people on the Board of the Chamber of Commerce, and the Parish priest, and the board of the Kavanagh Centre, and the Board of the local GAA, and the local police, and the local school-teachers, and the local people know the truth of the matter, that Katherine Molony/Katherine Kavanagh, is buried there, beside her husband, despite bully-boy efforts to prevent it. And they know that the fact of her existence - as well as her marriage - is in effect being denied by all, including those who filled the graveyard as onlookers, and all those who marched as dignitaries escorting the President on the Saturday at 2 o'clock to the desecrated, edited, graveside; where she paid her respects, spoke about Love and God, and thanked God for giving us such a beautiful day, as indeed it was, and declared the weekend officially open.

It's perhaps a concomitant of the new respectability, the new fairy-tale, that Kavanagh is in real danger of becoming the certified justificatory of fundamentalist babble; the original Establishment invocation of 'peasant quality' is giving way to an invocation of a rough wilful simplistic anti-intellectual, an anti-intelligence. 'Wouldn't you say now that Kavanagh was ignored by the academics of his time because they couldn't understand his spirituality, his truth and simplicity', and to my surprise the academic who had just given the lecture, in effect said yes. Went along with it.

Whereas in fact Kavanagh, as an independent creative force, was fortunate enough to have had support at different stages of his life from heavyweight intellectuals and academics - George Russell who first recognised his talent, Seán O'Faoláin, Peadar O' Donnell, Anthony Cronin, David Wright - a few, at random. And when most needed there was the punctilious and rigorous literary critic John Jordan, an academic who not only championed and promoted Kavanagh's work in intellectual and academic journals, but who also - in his personal, affectionate, admiring, and reciprocated friendship with Kavanagh - acted as the much-valued and consulted one-man reference library, confirmer of facts, editor, explicator, commentator and critical audience. But divil a mention of that.

The truth is, as John Montague once said to me, speaking of Michael Hartnett: It is not necessary to be a learned person to be a poet, but all poets are of necessity learned people. Kavanagh respected learning and disdained the mindless. And that's the truth of it, truth still always the first casualty. That's the trouble with legends.

Macdara Woods

This is an edited version of a speech given at the Grand Canal, Baggot Street Bridge, on St Patrick's Day, 17th March 2005.

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