On July 10th I spent a bit of time in Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan – the birth place and resting place of Patrick Kavanagh. It’s something I had wanted to do for a long time, not least since meeting a nephew of Patrick’s at a Priests’ Retreat recently.
The journey was shared and shortened in the company of Anne to whom I’d mentioned my plans to go there someday. She certainly encouraged that “some day” be moved from a vague out in the future place to a more realistic “now” and I’m glad that happened. Sometimes my good intentions get lost in their intentional state:) She too had an interest in Kavanagh’s place, his words and works and the time was right ….
The Patrick Kavanagh Centre in Inniskeen is the old Parish Church where Patrick attended Mass and, I have no doubt, observed life, and came to an awareness of God, found as he tells us, in the “bits and pieces” of life. Elmar, the guide, told us he used sit on the gallery where he had a better view of … the women! I’d like to think he noticed the Stained Glass Windows too. Still there and still spectacular they must have taken his thoughts beyond his lofty perch.
One of the first things I saw was a poem (his first published I think) in which he speaks words to an old and falling down “Wooden Gate”. I thought that was class. How many people passed that gate and never gave it a second look? How many times did its owner curse and blind it as he struggled to close it for another time – maybe the last time. Kavanagh saw it as a companion, sharing his experience of life and a sort of kindred spirit:
Battered by time and weather; scarcely fit
For firewood; there’s not a single bit
Of paint to hide those wrinkles, and such scringes
Break hoarsely on the silence–rusty hinges:
A barbed wire clasp around one withered arm
Replaces the old latch, with evil charm.
That poplar tree you hang upon is rotten,
And all its early lovliness forgotten.
This gap ere long must find another sentry
If the cows are not to roam the open country.
They’ll laugh at you, Old Woden Gate, they’ll push
Your limbs asunder, soon, into the slush.
Then i will lean upon your top no more
To muse, and dream of pebbles on a shore,
Or watch the fairy-columned turf-smoke rise
From white-washed cottage chimneys heaven-wise.
Here have i kept fair tryst, and kept it true,
When we were lovers all, and i was new;
And many time I’ve seen the laughing-eyed
Schoolchildren, on your trusty back astride.
But Time’s long silver hand has touched our brows,
And i’m the scorned of women–you of cows.
How can i love the iron gates which guard
The fields of wealthy farmers? They are hard,
Unlovely things, a-swingingg on concrete piers–
Their finger tips are pointed like old spears.
But you and i are kindred, Ruined Gate,
for both of us have met the self-same fate.
I knew then how little I knew!! The space is small but packed with memories of a great man who was, it seems, very much misunderstood among his own with whom he longed to be among. There’s a lovely piece saying that he was born as poet in Dublin in the fifties but that, in truth, this had happened thirty years earlier in his own place but he was too “thick” (his own word) to recognise the birth. It’s a lovely way of saying that what he had become was the result of from where he had come.
His life was not simple and, chances are he didn’t make it very simple for himself either. Yet, through it – maybe because of it – he touched into very deep parts of himself, life, faith and love. There’s an interesting mention of his relationship with the faith. He felt much of Catholicism had been lost through “devotions” and “voteens” and that was, in his view, regrettable. He had faith in God and felt that before the onset of unbridled devotion that Catholicism tapped more into the roots of Ireland and respecting the traditions of those roots, brought our people to a better place. I had a real sense of him loving God and wanting to make God known afresh in the lives of his own generation. A God who remained with him and for him, perhaps, when much else was in confusion.
There’s a lovely scaled model of his poem about Christmas Childhood. The model touches on the core elements of the poem – his father playing the accordion (malodeon) at the side of the house, the bare apple tree and, my favourite mention – the three trees on the hill that overshadowed their home. He saw these as the Three Wise Men coming to his Bethlehem. As the guide said, people felt he could bring Bethlehem to Inniskeen. People were right!
and, of course, Luke Kelly’s version
There were words about Raglan Road, Hilda, his marriage to Katherine Barry Maloney – his footballing days as a not too successful goalie, his printing press along with his brother. There was a very interesting link with Sligo and his grandfather “Kevany” from Easkey. We heard too of his friendship with Brendan Behan and sadly of his fight with cancer and times of recovery spent by the Canal Bank Walk. Finally his death which came within days of the opening of his play “Tarry Flynn” in Cavan – a homecoming and recognition for him, a highlight leading to I believe “Eternal Light” – may he rest in Peace. Amen.
Lastly time was spent at his graveside – a very simple but meaning-filled piece of God’s earth. No marble surround or high cross but a low wooden cross and a soil covered grave with stepping stones – flagstones – from the Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan.
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod-conceived.
You clogged the feet of my boyhood
And I believed that my stumble
Had the poise and stride of Apollo
And his voice my thick tongued mumble.
You told me the plough was immortal!
O green-life conquering plough!
The mandril stained, your coulter blunted
In the smooth lea-field of my brow.
You sang on steaming dunghills
A song of cowards’ brood,
You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch,
You fed me on swinish food
You flung a ditch on my vision
Of beauty, love and truth.
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
You burgled my bank of youth!
Lost the long hours of pleasure
All the women that love young men.
O can I stilll stroke the monster’s back
Or write with unpoisoned pen.
His name in these lonely verses
Or mention the dark fields where
The first gay flight of my lyric
Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.
Mullahinsa, Drummeril, Black Shanco-
Wherever I turn I see
In the stony grey soil of Monaghan
Dead loves that were born for me.
The inscriptions on the cross and centre flagstone are apt:
The Cross’ inscription reads: “And pray for him who walked about on the hill loving life’s miracles”.
The flagstone, draws attention to the stepping stones as it tells us: “These are stepping stones across a stream. Part of my life was there. The happiest part”.
It was a good day – hours well spent and glad it happened! Do I know much more about Kavangh? Chances are I realise how little I know but the experience made real the place, the man and his memory. I have often referred to him during the years – sometimes at a Wedding Mass, sometimes at Priests’ Retreats because I believe he speaks to a place that is very real for most of us. I can’t say I like or enjoy every word of his I’ve ever heard. Neither can I say, I’ve heard every word but somewhere, in the mix of what I’ve heard, know or think I know, there’s a good man who used words well. One of my favourite poems of his is one, I’m told, he wrote for a neighbour who was to be ordained a priest. I remember mentioning this one time to a group of priests and some of them seemed to know the man for whom the words were written. It’s called “To the man after the harrow” and I’ll end with it ….
Now leave the check-reins slack,
The seed is flying far today –
The seed like stars against the black
Eternity of April clay.
This seed is potent as the seed
Of knowledge in the Hebrew Book,
So drive your horses in the creed
Of God the Father as a stook.
Forget the men on Brady’s Hill.
Forget what Brady’s boy may say.
For destiny will not fulfil
Unless you let the harrow play.
Forget the worm’s opinion too
Of hooves and pointed harrow-pins,
For you are driving your horses through
The mist where Genesis begins.