Patrick Kavanagh

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Patrick Kavanagh
Patrick Kavanagh, by Patrick Swift, 1960
Born (1904-10-21)21 October 1904
Inniskeen, County Monaghan, Ireland
Died 30 November 1967(1967-11-30) (aged 63)
Dublin, Ireland
Occupation Poet
Nationality Irish
Period 1928–67
Genre Irish poet, novelist
Subject Irish life, nature

Patrick Kavanagh (21 October 1904 – 30 November 1967) was an Irish poet and novelist. Regarded as one of the foremost poets of the 20th century, his best known works include the novel Tarry Flynn and the poems "On Raglan Road" and "The Great Hunger".[1] He is known for accounts of Irish life through reference to the everyday and commonplace.[2]

Life and work[edit]

Early life[edit]

Patrick Kavanagh was born in rural Inniskeen, County Monaghan in 1904, the fourth of ten children born to Bridget Quinn.[3] His grandfather was a schoolteacher called "Keaveney",[4][5] which a local priest changed to "Kavanagh". The grandfather had to leave the local area following a scandal and never taught in a national school again. Patrick Kavanagh's father, James, was a shoemaker and farmer. Kavanagh's brother Peter became a university professor and writer; two of his sisters were teachers; three became nurses; and one became a nun.

Kavanagh was a pupil at Kednaminsha National School from 1909 to 1916, leaving in the sixth year, at the age of 13.[6] He became apprenticed to his father as a shoemaker and worked on his farm. For the first 27 years of his life, he lived and worked as a farmer of a small holding. He was also goalkeeper for the Inniskeen Gaelic football team.[7] He later reflected, "Although the literal idea of the peasant is of a farm labouring person, in fact a peasant is all that mass of mankind which lives below a certain level of consciousness. They live in the dark cave of the unconscious and they scream when they see the light." He commented that though he grew up in a poor district "the real poverty was lack of enlightenment [and] I am afraid this fog of unknowing affected me dreadfully."[8]

Writing career[edit]

George William Russell, Kavanagh's literary advisor and mentor

Kavanagh's first published work appeared in 1928[7] in the Dundalk Democrat and the Irish Independent. Kavanagh encountered a copy of Irish Statesman, edited by George William Russell who published under the name A E Russell (AE), a leader of the Irish Literary Revival. Russell at first rejected Kavanagh's work but encouraged him to keep submitting, and he went on to publish Kavanagh in 1929 and 1930.[8] This inspired the farmer to leave home and attempt to further his aspirations. In 1931, he walked the eighty kilometres to meet Russell in Dublin, where Kavanagh's brother was a teacher.[7][8] In Dublin, Russell gave Kavanagh books, among them works by Feodor Dostoyevsky, Victor Hugo, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Robert Browning and became Kavanagh's literary advisor.[8] Kavanagh joined Dundalk library and the first book he borrowed was The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot.

Kavanagh's first collection, Ploughman and Other Poems was published in 1936, notable for its realistic portrayal of Irish country life, free of romantic sentiment often seen at the time in rural poetry, a trait he abhorred.[7] Published by Macmillan in its series on new poets,[8] his work made a commitment to colloquial speech and the unvarnished lives of real people, a trajectory which made him unpopular with the literary establishment.[7] Two years after his first collection was published he had yet to make a significant impression. The Times Literary Supplement described him as "a young Irish poet of promise rather than of achievement," and The Spectator commented that "like other poets admired by A.E., he writes much better prose than poetry. Mr. Kavanagh's lyrics are for the most part slight and conventional, easily enjoyed but almost as easily forgotten."[8] In 1938, he went to London and remained there for about five months. The Green Fool, a loosely autobiographical novel, was published in 1938 and was accused of libel.[6] Oliver St. John Gogarty sued Kavanagh for his description of his first visit to Gogarty's home: "I mistook Gogarty's white-robed maid for his wife or his mistress; I expected every poet to have a spare wife." Gogarty, who had taken offence at the close coupling of the words "wife" and "mistress", was awarded £100 in damages.[9] The book, which recounted Kavanagh's rural childhood and attempts to become a writer, garnered international recognition and good critical reviews.[8]

On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion's pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.

From "On Raglan Road", 1946[10]

In 1939, Kavanagh finally settled in Dublin. In his biography John Nemo describes Kavanagh's encounter with the urban, literary world: "he realized that the stimulating environment he had imagined was little different from the petty and ignorant world he had left. He soon saw through the literary masks many Dublin writers wore to affect an air of artistic sophistication. To him such men were dandies, journalists, and civil servants playing at art. His disgust was deepened by the fact that he was treated as the literate peasant he had been rather than as the highly talented poet he believed he was in the process of becoming".[8][11] In 1942 he published his long poem The Great Hunger which described the privations and hardship of the rural life he knew well. Although it was rumoured at the time that all copies of Horizon literary magazine in which it was published were seized by the Garda Síochána, Kavanagh denied that this had occurred, saying later that he was visited by two Gardaí at his home (probably in connection with an investigation of Horizon under the Special Powers Act).[12] Written from the viewpoint of a single peasant against the historical background of famine and emotional despair, the poem is often held by critics to be his finest work. It set out to counter the saccharine romanticising of the Irish literary establishment in its view of peasant life. Richard Murphy in the The New York Times Book Review described it as "a great work" and Robin Skelton in Poetry praised it as "a vision of mythic intensity."[8]

Kavanagh worked as a part-time journalist, writing a gossip column in the Irish Press under the pseudonym Piers Plowman from 1942 to 1944 and acted as film critic for that same publication from 1945 to 1949. In 1946 the Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid found Kavanagh a job on the Catholic magazine The Standard and continued to support him throughout his life.[13] Tarry Flynn, a semi-autobiographical novel, was published in 1948 and was banned for a time.[7] It was a fictional account of rural life and would later be made into a play and performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1966. In late 1946, Kavanagh moved to Belfast and worked as a journalist and as a barman in a number of Public Houses in the Falls Road area. During this period he lodged in the Beechmount area in a house where he was related to the tenant through the tenant's brother-in-law in Ballymackney, County Monaghan. Before returning to Dublin in November 1949 he presented numerous scripts to the family all of which are now believed to be in Spain. His personality became progressively quixotic as his drinking increased over the years and his health deteriorated. Eventually, a dishevelled figure, he would move about the Dublin bars drinking whiskey with a predilection for turning on benefactors and friends.[14]

Later career[edit]

Patrick Kavanagh by Patrick Swift, lithograph, 1956, NPG, London

In 1949, Kavanagh began to write a monthly Diary for Envoy, a literary publication founded by John Ryan, who became a lifelong friend and benefactor. The Envoy offices were at 39 Grafton Street and most of the journal's business was conducted in the nearby pub, McDaid's, which Kavanagh subsequently adopted as his city-centre local. Through Envoy, he came into contact with a circle of young artists and intellectuals including Anthony Cronin, Patrick Swift, John Jordan and sculptor Desmond MacNamara whose bust of Kavanagh is in the Irish National Writers Museum. Kavanagh would often refer to these times as his "poetic rebirth."[15] In 1952, Kavanagh published his own journal, Kavanagh’s Weekly: A Journal of Literature and Politics in conjunction with, and financed by, his brother Peter. It which ran to some 13 editions (12 April-5 July 1952).[6]

Kavanagh's Grave, Inniskeen

The Leader lawsuit and lung cancer[edit]

In 1954, two major events changed Kavanagh's life. He sued The Leader for publishing a portrait of him as an alcoholic sponger. The highly skilled lawyer John A. Costello, acting in defence of The Leader, won the case when it came to trial.[6] (Costello had been Attorney General of Ireland (1926–1932) and would go on to become Taoiseach (1948–1951 and 1954–1957). The two would later become good friends.)[8] Shortly after Kavanagh lost the action he was diagnosed with lung cancer and was admitted to hospital where he had a lung removed.[7] It was while recovering from this operation by relaxing on the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin that Kavanagh rediscovered his poetic vision. He began to appreciate nature and his surroundings and took his inspiration from this for much of his later poetry, and a new phase of poetry followed.[7]

Turning point: Kavanagh begins to receive acclaim[edit]

In 1955, Macmillan's rejected a typescript of poems by Kavanagh, which had left the poet very downcast.[16] Patrick Swift, on a visit to Dublin in 1956, was invited by Kavanagh to peruse the contents and decided that the poems should be published. Swift arranged for the poems to be published in the English literary journal, Nimbus[17](19 poems were published). This proved a turning point and Kavanagh began receiving the acclaim which he had always felt he deserved. His next collection, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling, was to be directly linked to the mini-collection in Nimbus.[18]

Between 1959–62, Kavanagh spent more time in London, where he contributed to Swift's X magazine.[19] During this period Kavanagh sheltered on and off with the Swifts in Westbourne Terrace.[20] He gave lectures at University College Dublin and in the United States.[7] He represented Ireland at literary symposia and became a judge of the Guinness Poetry Awards.

In London, he often stayed with his publisher, Martin Green, and his wife Fiona, in their house in Tottenham Street, Fitzrovia. It was at this time that Martin Green produced Kavanagh's Collected Poems (1964) with prompting from painter Patrick Swift and the poet Anthony Cronin".[21] In the introduction, Kavanagh wrote: "A man innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds that it is his life".

Marriage and death[edit]

The poet "pondering the Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan at his native Inniskeen" in 1963.

Kavanagh married his long-term companion Katherine Barry Moloney (niece of Kevin Barry) in April 1967 and they lived together on the Waterloo Road in Dublin.[6][7] Kavanagh fell ill at the first performance of Tarry Flynn at the Abbey Theatre in the Dundalk Town Hall and he died later that week in a Dublin nursing home on 30 November 1967.[7] His grave is in Inniskeen adjoining the Patrick Kavanagh Centre. His wife Katherine died in 1989; she is also buried there.


Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney is acknowledged to have been influenced by Kavanagh.[22] He was introduced to Kavanagh's poetry by the writer Michael MacLaverty when they taught together at St Thomas's Belfast. Their poetry shares a belief in the capacity of the local, or parochial, to reveal the universal. He said that Kavanagh's poetry "had a transformative effect on the general culture and liberated the gifts of the poetic generations who came after him." Heaney noted: "Kavanagh is a truly representative modern figure in that his subversiveness was turned upon himself: dissatisfaction, both spiritual and artistic, is what inspired his growth.... His instruction and example helped us to see an essential difference between what he called the parochial and provincial mentalities". As Kavanagh put it: "All great civilizations are based on the parish". He concludes that Kavanagh's poetry vindicates his "indomitable faith in himself and in the art that made him so much more than himself".[23]

Patrick Kavanagh statue along the Grand Canal in Dublin

The actor Russell Crowe has stated that he is a fan of Kavanagh. He commented: "I like the clarity and the emotiveness of Kavanagh. I like how he combines the kind of mystic into really clear, evocative work that can make you glad you are alive". On 24 February 2002, after winning the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in A Beautiful Mind, Crowe quoted Kavanagh during his acceptance speech at the 55th British Academy Film Awards. When he became aware that the Kavanagh quote had been cut from the final broadcast, Crowe became aggressive with the BBC producer responsible, Malcolm Gerrie.[24] He said: "it was about a one minute fifty speech but they've cut a minute out of it".[25] The poem that was cut was a four-line poem:

To be a poet and not know the trade,
To be a lover and repel all women;
Twin ironies by which great saints are made,
The agonising pincer-jaws of heaven.

When the Irish Times compiled a list of favourite Irish poems in 2000, ten of Kavanagh's poems were in the top 50, and he was rated the second favourite poet behind W. B. Yeats. Kavanagh's poem "On Raglan Road", set to the traditional air "Fáinne Geal an Lae", composed by Thomas Connellan in the 17th century, has been performed by numerous artists as diverse as Van Morrison, Luke Kelly, Dire Straits, Billy Bragg, Sinéad O'Connor, Joan Osborne and many others.

There is a statue of Kavanagh beside Dublin's Grand Canal, inspired by his poem "Lines written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin":

O commemorate me where there is water
canal water preferably, so stilly
greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
commemorate me thus beautifully.

Every 17 March, after the St Patrick's day parade, a group of Kavanagh's friends gather at the Kavanagh seat on the banks of the Grand Canal at Mespil road in his honour. The seat was erected by his friends, led by John Ryan and Denis Dwyer, in 1968.[26] A bronze sculpture of the writer stands outside the Palace Bar on Dublin's Fleet Street.[27] There is also a statue of Patrick Kavanagh located outside the Irish pub and restaurant, Raglan Road, at Walt Disney World's Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida. His poetic tribute to his friend the Irish American sculptor Jerome Connor was used in the plaque overlooking Dublin's Phoenix Park dedicated to Connor.

The Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award is presented each year for an unpublished collection of poems. The annual Patrick Kavanagh Weekend takes place on the last weekend in September in Inniskeen, County Monaghan, Ireland. The Patrick Kavanagh Centre, an interpretative centre set up to commemorate the poet, is located in Inniskeen.

Kavanagh Archive[edit]

Me I will throw away.
Me sufficient for the day
The sticky self that clings
Adhesions on the wings.
To love and adventure
To go on the grand tour
A man must be free
From self-necessity.
See over there
A created splendour
Made by one individual
From things residual
With all the various
Qualities hilarious
Of what
Hitherto was not

From "The Self-Slaved"

In 1986, Peter Kavanagh negotiated the sale of Patrick Kavanagh's papers as well as a large collection of his own work devoted to the late poet to University College Dublin. The purchase was enabled by a public appeal for funds by the late Professor Gus Martin. He included in the sale his original hand press which he had built.[28] The archive is housed in a special collections room in UCD's library, and the hand press is on loan to the Patrick Kavanagh Centre, Inniskeen.

The contents include:[28]

  • Early literary material containing verses, novels, prose writing and other publications; family correspondence containing letters to Cecilia Kavanagh and Peter Kavanagh; letters to Patrick Kavanagh from various sources (1926–40).
  • Later literary material containing verses, novels, articles, lectures, published works, galley page proofs, Kavanagh’s Weekly, and adaptations of Kavanagh’s work (1940–67).
  • Documents concerning libel case of Kavanagh v The Leader (1952–54).
  • Personal correspondence, including with his sisters, Peter Kavanagh, Katherine Barry Moloney (1947–67).
  • Printed material, press cuttings, publications, personal memorabilia, and tape recordings (1940–67).

Peter Kavanagh's papers include thesis, plays, autobiographical writing, and printed material, personal and general correspondence memorabilia, tape recordings, galley proofs (1941–82) and family memorabilia (1872–1967).


Ownership of the copyright is vested in Trustees of The Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Trust by virtue of the terms of the will of the late Kathleen Kavanagh, widow of the poet, who in turn became entitled to the copyright on the death of her husband. The proceeds of the trust are used to support deserving writers. The Trustees are Leland Bardwell, Patrick MacEntee, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Eunan O'Halpin, and Macdara Woods.[29] This was disputed by the late Peter Kavanagh who continued publishing his work after Patrick's death. This dispute led some books to go out of print. Most of his work is now available in the UK and Ireland but the status in the United States is more uncertain.



  • 1936 – Ploughman and Other Poems
  • 1942 – The Great Hunger
  • 1947 – A Soul For Sale
  • 1958 – Recent Poems
  • 1960 – Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems
  • 1964 – Collected Poems (ISBN 0 85616 100 4)
  • 1972 – The Complete Poems of Patrick Kavanagh, edited by Peter Kavanagh
  • 1978 – Lough Derg
  • 1996 – Selected Poems, edited by Antoinette Quinn (ISBN 0140184856)
  • 2004 – Collected Poems, edited by Antoinette Quinn (ISBN 0-713-99599-8)


  • 1938 – The Green Fool
  • 1948 – Tarry Flynn (ISBN 0141183616)
  • 1964 – Self Portrait – recording
  • 1967 – Collected Prose
  • 1971 – November Haggard a collection of prose and poetry edited by Peter Kavanagh
  • 1978 – By Night Unstarred. A conflated novel, completed by Peter Kavanagh
  • 2002 – A Poet's Country: Selected Prose, edited by Antoinette Quinn (ISBN 1843510103)


  • 1966 – Tarry Flynn, adapted by P. J. O'Connor
  • 1986 – The Great Hunger, adapted by Tom Mac Intyre
  • 1992 – Out of That Childhood Country John McArdle’s (1992), co-written with his brother Tommy and Eugene MacCabe, is about Kavanagh’s youth loosely based on his writings.
  • 1997 – Tarry Flynn, adapted by Conall Morrison (modern dance and play)
  • 2004 – The Green Fool, adapted by Upstate Theatre Project


  1. ^ "The Patrick Kavanagh, 1904–1967". Retrieved 12 November 2009. 
  2. ^ "RTÉ Libraries and Archives: preserving a unique record of Irish life". Retrieved 12 November 2009. 
  3. ^ "National Archives". 27 August 2009. Retrieved 12 November 2009. 
  4. ^ Finlan, Michael (27 March 1995). "Monoghan nun finds Kavanagh's lost past". The Irish Times. 
  5. ^ "The mystical imagination of Patrick Kavanagh". Spirituality. 1999. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Profile from the Patrick Kavanagh Trust
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Poetry Archive profile
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Poetry Foundation profile
  9. ^ O'Brien, Darcy (1975). Patrick Kavanagh. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press. p. 29. 
  10. ^ "On Raglan Road". RTÉ Archives (RTÉ). 3 September 2012. 
  11. ^ Nemo, John, Patrick Kavanagh, Twayne, 1979.
  12. ^ Quinn, Antoinette (2003). Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan. pp. Chapter 10 – The Great Hunger. ISBN 9780717163748. 
  13. ^ Garvin, Tom (2004). Preventing the Future. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan. p. 72. 
  14. ^ "Patrick Kavanagh – A Biography by Antoinette Quinn:". 18 November 2001. Retrieved 12 November 2009. 
  15. ^ Antoinette Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography, Gill & Macmillan, 2001, pp. 291-296.
  16. ^ Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography (2001): "Macmillan's rejection had left him very downcast.... Patrick Swift was invited to peruse the contents and decided that the poems should be published."
  17. ^ Nimbus, Vol. III, No. IV (Winter 1956). 19 poems were published. Included an introduction to Kavanagh by Anthony Cronin.
  18. ^ Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography, 2001, p. 359: "Publication there [in Nimbus] was to prove a turning point… The publication of his next volume of verse, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling, was to be directly linked to the mini-collection in Nimbus, and his Collected Poems (1964)".
  19. ^ Two Poems ("Living in the Country", "Lecture Hall"), X, Vol. I, No. I (November 1959); "Poets on Poetry: I, Patrick Kavanagh", X, Vol. I, No. II (March 1960); "The Flying Moment", X, Vol. I, No. III (June 1960); "Art and Morality: On a Liberal Education", X, Vol. II, No. II (August 1961); "The Cattle Fair; Mermaid Tavern", X, Vol. II, No. III (July 1962). Also in An Anthology from X (OUP, 1988)
  20. ^ Martin Green (Patrick Swift 1927–83, Gandon Editions, 1993): "...but it was in that basement flat that Patrick Kavanagh sheltered on and off for a while. And it is the mention of Kavanagh that brings back to me that infectious gaiety and generosity that is at the heart of my memory of Paddy Swift.... It was he, together with Tony Cronin, who initially put up the idea of bringing together Kavanagh's poems for the Collected Poems."
  21. ^ Martin Green, letter to The Guardian, 8 January 2005.
  22. ^ Philip Cummins, "Obituary: Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)", The Irish Post, 30 August 2013.
  23. ^ Heaney, Seamus (1 January 2005). "Review: Collected Poems by Patrick Kavanagh". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 12 November 2009. 
  24. ^ "The poet behind Russell Crowe's rage". BBC News. 5 March 2002. Retrieved 12 November 2009. 
  25. ^ "Crowe 'clarifies' BAFTA outburst". London: The Guardian. 28 February 2002. Retrieved 12 November 2009. 
  26. ^ Remembering how we stood, John Ryan, (Lilliput Press 1987 pp123 – 126)
  27. ^ Nihill, Cian. "Palace of inspiration: Sculptures of writers unveiled", The Irish Times, 6 October 2011.
  28. ^ a b Audio Visual Centre, UCD, "The Kavanagh Archive". Retrieved 12 November 2009. 
  29. ^ "The Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Trust". Retrieved 12 November 2009. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Peter Kavanagh (ed.), Lapped Furrows, correspondence with his brother as well as a memoir by Sister Celia, his sister (a nun) (1969)
  • Peter Kavanagh, Garden of the Golden Apples, A Bibliography (1971)
  • Alan Warner, Clay is the Word: Patrick Kavanagh 1904–1967 (Dolmen, 1973)
  • O'Brien, Darcy, Patrick Kavanagh (Bucknell University Press, 1975)
  • Peter Kavanagh, Sacred Keeper, a biography (1978)
  • John Nemo, Patrick Kavanagh (1979)
  • Peter Kavanagh (ed.), Patrick Kavanagh: Man and Poet (1986)
  • Antoinette Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh: Born Again Romantic (1991)
  • Antoinette Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography (Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 2001; ISBN 071712651X / 0-7171-2651-X)
  • Allison, Jonathan, Patrick Kavanagh: A Reference Guide (New York City: G. K. Hall, 1996)
  • Sr. Una Agnew, The Mystical Imagination of Patrick Kavanagh: A Buttonhole in Heaven? (Columba Press, 1999; ISBN 978-1-85607-276-2)
  • Peter Kavanagh, Patrick Kavanagh: A Life Chronicle, a biography (2000)
  • Tom Stack, No Earthly Estate: The Religious Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh (2002)
  • John Jordan "Mr Kavanagh's Progress", "Obituary for Patrick Kavanagh", "From a small townland in Monaghan", "To Kill a Mockingbird", "By Night Unstarred", "Sacred Keeper", in Crystal Clear: The Selected Prose of John Jordan, (ed) Hugh McFadden (Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2006)
  • Andrea Galgano, "Il cielo di Patrick Kavanagh", "Mosaico" (Aracne, Roma, 2013, pp. 289–292)

External links[edit]