Patrick Kavanagh is one of Ireland’s most revered poets – a genius from a rural backwater who made parochial universal. Yet his fame never really reached other shores.
While William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney have won Nobel Prizes and been cited by US presidents, Kavanagh’s acclaim has remained largely confined to his homeland.
Since his death in 1967, Irish schoolchildren have studied his texts and there is a cottage industry of articles, books, documentaries and commemorations. There are plaques, statues and a stamp. But, beyond Ireland, Kavanagh is a footnote in 20th century literature.
There will be an attempt to rectify that this week when Bono, Hozier, Liam Neeson and more celebrities breathe new life into his legacy. A new double album, Almost allcombines a remastered recording of Kavanagh reading his own poems and original recordings of Irish rock stars, actors, writers and other personalities reading their own selections.
“Irish people know Kavanagh but he’s not that well known overseas,” said James Morrissey, chairman of Claddagh Records, a Dublin-based label that produced the album. “To reinvent Kavanagh, we invited famous people to read their own favorite poem.”
The hope is that listeners will experience Kavanagh’s skill in putting, as his admirer Heaney described it, “feelings into words.” Kavanagh began life as a poor farmer in County Monaghan and drew inspiration from nature and the seemingly mundane world around him to express what it means to be human.
The album’s lineup includes singers and musicians, such as Imelda May, Sharon Corr, Christy Moore, Lisa Hannigan, actors such as Aidan Gillen, Jessie Buckley and Aisling Bea, writer Lisa McGee, jockey Rachael Blackmore and Irish President Michael D. Higgins.
Neeson chose Kavanagh’s elegy, Memory of My Father, saying it reminded him of his own. “Every time I hear [it] I think of my deceased [father].”
Blackmore, the first female jockey to win the Grand National, read Pegasus, about a man trying to sell a horse – in effect, his soul. “Poetry wasn’t my strong suit in school, but I definitely have a new appreciation for it after this project,” she said.
Higgins, himself a poet, read Stony Gray Soil, a howl of protest against poverty and the grind that eviscerates the romanticism of rural Ireland.
Bono chose On Raglan Road, Kavanagh’s ode to a love affair with a young woman who broke his heart. Luke Kelly of folk group The Dubliners has made it one of Ireland’s most popular ballads. The U2 frontman, however, read the poem.
Morrissey, who curated the celebrity contributions, hopes listeners will be even more enchanted by Kavanagh himself. Garech Browne, the late founder of Claddagh Records, paid Kavanagh £100 (Irish pounds) in 1963 to sing and recite some of his prose and 19 poems, including an excerpt from his epic The Great Hunger. It is the only recording of the poet reading his own work.
Some British editors and publishers celebrated Kavanagh in London in the 1960s, but the poet noted that he had “never been much regarded by English critics”. The observation still held true decades later, Seamus Heaney wrote in 2004, despite Kavanagh’s “transformative effect” on culture and poetry.
Kavanagh was an ordinary people’s poet, said Eve Patten, professor of English at Trinity College Dublin. “Yeats and Heaney, and Joyce too, are all international writers. Kavanagh always seems to have remained on the local horizon. But in Ireland itself, he is known, quoted and loved.
Kavanagh was disappointed with the new Irish state and rejected the mythology and romanticism of the Yeats era, Patten said. “He is closer to Joyce, whom he admired; both were ready to face an Ireland that had not kept its promises of independence.
Kavanagh valued the provincial over the metropolitan and moved from the lyrical to the caustic, she said. “If he was sometimes bitter, he could also be sweet and funny too.”