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What Big Hands You've Got

Maurice Earls writes: At home my parents always spoke fondly of Patrick Kavanagh, even though, as a young woman, my mother found him a little frightening as he careered down Baggot Street with long country strides and massive hands swinging. The suggestion of dirt beneath his nails and of the small farmer come to town convinced many that, whatever about anything else, Kavanagh was the genuine article. Maybe they were right about that, or maybe he hammed it up a bit. It doesn’t really matter.

For some, the large hands had an erotic dimension. Once when I was in a pub not too far from the Three Patrons church in Rathgar, where Kavanagh was married, I was told by a poet and near contemporary of both men that Micheál Mac Liammóir was a great fan of Kavanagh’s hands and had once declared: “Wouldn’t you love to be held by those great hands?”


No one I ever met had a bad word to say about Kavanagh. Mind you very few of those who spoke favourably to me on the subject had ever met the man. Oliver St John Gogarty, who had problems with the poet, was long gone before my time. He was rarely mentioned when I was young; the impression I got was that there was something “off” about him. When I read more, this view was confirmed for me and rightly or wrongly, I have long thought of him as an antisemite who always managed to land with his arse in the butter. Once, by accident, I found myself at his grave in Connemara. It is hard to dislike a man when you are looking down on his slab. The grave, ironically, is in Ballinakill, close by Joyce country, a region whose boundaries are indefinite.

I too have long had a soft spot for Kavanagh, which has nothing to do with untutored rural ways. I love his poetry but encountered his work first in the late 1960s, not long after his death, when I read Tarry Flynn. It was a period of my life when myself and my friends were engaged in a running battle with our soutaned teachers over the right to grow our hair long ‑ or at least over our collars. It was a contest which we saw as a struggle to remove, if not the last, then certainly the greatest obstacle to human liberty.

There was a lot of wonderful stuff in Tarry Flynn. For the most part it portrayed a very different world from mine and the problems confronting Tarry were different from those I experienced. Nevertheless, there was natural empathy with a young man growing up and I very much liked the book. One small event in the narrative deeply affected me. I was chilled to the marrow by the local priest’s browbeating and bullying of the young Tarry, who had the temerity to think for himself instead of accepting without question what priests, who had studied for years in colleges, determined was right. It was the extent of the social power of the priest and Tarry’s isolation that struck me – certainly that useless twat his friend Eusebius Cassidy wouldn’t be much use. Tarry was on his own. He had to leave and face the world alone with what little resources he had. I seethed with anger at the humiliation and bullying young Tarry received at the hands of the local curate.

Kavanagh first walked the seventy miles to Dublin and eventually settled in the city. Clerical power was present there too but not quite in the same way and in the capital Kavanagh had a few cards to play unavailable to young Tarry in rural Monaghan.

Among its round-up of interesting revelations found in state papers released at the end of last year, The Irish Times carried an account https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/patrick-kavanagh-vowed-to-break-every-bloody-bookshop-in-dublin-over-literary-snub-1.3734360 of one of Kavanagh’s outbursts, which was based on a report written by a Garda sergeant, Noel Reynolds, concerning threats made by the poet against well-known Dublin bookshops.

It appears that Kavanagh believed Oliver St John Gogarty, who was libelled in The Green Fool and who in a case brought before the courts was awarded £100 in damages, was “dictating” to the book trade. In Hanna’s on Nassau Street, Kavanagh threatened to “wreck the joint” if The Green Fool was not displayed in the window. He made similar threats in other bookshops.

The manager of Browne and Nolan’s explained to Kavanagh that he was not stocking the book because he suspected it was libellous and anti-Catholic. Kavanagh left, declaring that he was living in a fascist state. There was a broadly similar scene in the Grafton Bookshop, where the manager refused to stock the book because it was “anti-Catholic and would therefore be offensive to priests and nuns who comprise the majority of his customers”.

Garda Sgt Reynolds was of the opinion that there was no point in bringing a case because it would only generate publicity, which was exactly what Kavanagh was looking for. The £100 awarded to Gogarty for The Green Fool libel was paid by Kavanagh’s publisher, Michael Joseph. It is said the payment almost brought down the house. Kavanagh himself was quite litigious and in those pre-Arts Council days was not above trying his luck in the courts with a dodgy compo claim, a trait which, understandably, does not affect the general good will towards the man who wrote:

The sleety winds fondle the rushy beards of Shancoduff
While the cattle-drovers sheltering in the Featherna Bush
Look up and say: “Who owns them hungry hills
That the water-hen and snipe must have forsaken?
A poet? Then by heavens he must be poor.”
I hear and is my heart not badly shaken?

21/1/2019

Image: Kavanagh contemplating the stony grey soil of his native Inniskeen, Co Monaghan.