Fifty years since his death, the poet’s life, in all its many facets, makes for celebration, reflection and an eagerness to explore, highlight and re-evaluate his contribution to both Irish and international literature, writes Eileen Casey.
It’s now fifty years since the passing of one of Ireland’s most iconic writers. This significant date will not go unmarked. Indeed, many events have taken place throughout the past year and many more are planned for the anniversary weekend itself (30th November) not least at Kavanagh’s graveside in Inniskeen, where acclaimed Monaghan writers will read a selection of Kavanagh poems.
Clearly, the poet’s appeal endures. When in 2000, The Irish Times listed the nation’s favourite Irish poems, ten of Kavanagh’s poems were in the top 50. Screen actor Russell Crowe is known to be a big fan of Kavanagh, commenting that he admires “how he combines the kind of mystic into really clear, evocative work that can make you glad you are alive.”
Anyone who’s ever walked down Dublin’s Grand Canal will have seen (if not sat upon) the bench with a dedication to Kavanagh, complete with a sculpture of the poet sitting in silent meditation (perhaps contemplating his roots, the Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan).
Thanks to The Patrick Kavanagh Rural & Literary Resource Centre, there’s an ongoing ‘living’ memorial to the achievements of the great poet. Where better to house such a valuable resource than in a beautiful, atmospheric building (dating back to 1820) nestled among rolling hills in the poet’s Drumlin Parish homeland.
The Resource Centre at Inniskeen, formerly St Mary’s Catholic Church, is always a hive of activity, especially as Kavanagh’s grave (where he is buried with his wife Katherine) is just a stone’s throw away in the nearby cemetery.
Thanks to arts funding (from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht) the Centre is now about to undergo refurbishment, which will upgrade facilities and update the technological elements of the exhibitions, making them more accessible to a contemporary audience.
A warm welcome awaits all those who enter the building where original flagstones are still in place, together with stained glass windows which glow in sunlight. The Centre houses an archive of Kavanagh’s best known works, including footage from an interview with Kavanagh for RTÉ in 1962.
The Centre contains permanent exhibitions such as a set of specially commissioned paintings depicting one of Kavanagh’s epic works, The Great Hunger, and also panels showing a firm favourite down through the decades, A Christmas Childhood.
When The Great Hunger (a poem written from the perspective of a single individual, a bachelor farmer, set against the historical backdrop of famine) was published in 1942 (appearing in the London-based ‘Horizon’), it brought Kavanagh due respect. This epic poem set out to counter the sugary romanticising of the Irish literary establishment’s view of peasant life. Richard Murphy in The New York Times Book Review described it as “a great work.”
The Great Hunger, through the lone voice of Paddy Maguire, explores the danger of being enslaved by the land (‘Clay is the word and clay is the flesh’) but also, it reveals the devastation and loneliness of a man who, because of circumstance, is forced to live with his elderly mother, eking out a living on a small holding.