Patrick Kavanagh - The Inexhaustible Adventure Of A Gravelled Yard

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SUNDAY FEATURE20180218

W.B. Yeats is revered, Seamus Heaney is beloved, but the poet that everyone in Ireland can quote is Patrick Kavanagh. 50 years after Kavanagh's death the poet Theo Dorgan wanders the streets of Dublin and lanes of County Monaghan, tracing his life and significance.

Patrick Kavanagh was one of ten children, his father a shoemaker and farmer. He wrote unflinchingly, when this was being romanticised, about the poverty - material, sensual and spiritual - of Ireland's rural population. It was Kavanagh's poems, such as 'Kerr's Ass' and 'The Great Hunger', with their insistence on the labour, the local, the idioms of speech that Heaney said gave him his 'word hoard' and even permission to write. 'The Great Hunger' is a monumental achievement, a rural equivalent of T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land'. Kavanagh also wrote lyrically of the beauty of the landscape and the spiritual consolation of nature. Kavanagh scholar Sister Úna Agnew argues he is a Christian mystic.

Dorgan meets Peter Murphy, now 90, who knew Kavanagh as a farmer in Monaghan, before he walked the 60 miles to Dublin to meet AE (George Russell) who had published his early poems. At University College, Dublin, Lucy Collins, curator of a Kavanagh exhibition, explains how he plunged into the literary life of the city - while despising it. Kavanagh became a Dublin character, once suing a newspaper for calling him an alcoholic sponger (he lost). But poets who knew him - Brian Lynch, Macdara Woods - remember his kindness and support.

Kavanagh developed cancer and had a lung removed. During his convalescence he sat by Dublin's Grand Canal and achieved some peace. This led to some great poems, such 'The Hospital', a moving expression of his appreciation of 'the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard'. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Ireland's poet laureate, thinks this appreciation of the ordinary is the hallmark of his work.

At the canal-side bench with its sculpture of Kavanagh Dorgan meets Seamus Hosey. For years he taught Kavanagh's work to school students, who, because the poems are unencumbered by myth and do not demand great historical knowledge, quickly understood and were touched by them. So Kavanagh's poems are lodged in the memories of generations of Irish people.

Kavanagh achieved simplicity, but was not simplistic. Dorgan demonstrates how keen his poetic sensibility was, aware, early on, of Ginsberg and and The Beats.

Half a century after Kavanagh's death Theo Dorgan visits his grave, his birth-place and places in between. He talks to those who knew, and know about this one-man awkward squad, capable of great tenderness, a ranter in drink, and for all that a man more beloved than he ever knew. Not least because he wrote the great song of unrequited love, 'Raglan Road', sung somewhere, in Ireland and around the world, every night.

Presenter: Theo Dorgan
Reader: Jim Norton
Producer: Julian May.

50 years after Kavanagh's death Theo Dorgan finds out why the Irish poet is so loved today