The Chaucer of Monaghan: Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1975; first published 1938)

This is I suppose an autobiography, but it reads like a novel or loosely linked sequence of short stories or vignettes about the growth of a young poet in rural Ireland.

The frontispiece gives this account of the ‘facts’ about him (in this post-truth world that translates as ‘opinions’):

PK was born in Enniskeen, Co. Monaghan in 1904, the son of a cobbler-cum-small farmer. He left school at the age of thirteen, apparently destined to plough the ‘stony-grey soil’ rather than write about it, but ‘I dabbled in verse’, he said, ‘and it became my life.’ He was ‘discovered’ by the Literary Revival veteran AE (George Russell) in 1929 and his poems began to appear in Irish and English journals. In 1936 his first book of verse, Ploughman and Other Poems, was published.

The Green Fool followed in 1938. He published several more volumes of poetry and prose before his death in 1967.Kavanagh, The Green Fool

So what does his autobiography add to these bald facts? A great deal. We are given an intimate view of what it was like to be raised in relative poverty, from his infancy in a cradle made from an onion box through childhood learning (badly) his father’s trade as cobbler-farmer, to young adulthood as an aspiring poet.

Each of the 32 short chapters relates a different anecdote, building up a sort of collage portrait of the artist as a young man. Unlike Joyce, Kavanagh is intent on doing so with more wry humour and quirky character sketches than socio-cultural perspectives.

This means the account often veers too close to whimsy. But the warmth and charm of the narrative voice just about prevented me from giving up on it. I liked ch. 6, ‘Pilgrimage’, about Paddy’s first trip to the Lady Well, a sacred pilgrim site for ‘the people of Monaghan and Cavan and Louth. It was one of the many holy wells of Ireland.’ Every year all his neighbours made the journey and returned with bottles of its holy water:

These waters were used in times of sickness whether of human or beast. Some folk went barefoot and many went wearing in their boots the traditional pea or pebble of self-torture.

Kavanagh’s account of the piety of his people is neither patronising nor reverential. This is just the way things were, he suggests – though he maintains a healthy scepticism about the many miracles attested to by the locals – ‘on whatever feeble evidence founded.’

The scene that follows reads like a prose version of Chaucer’s pilgrim tales: some were ‘going on their bare knees’ as in medieval times –

some others were doing a bit of courting under the pilgrim cloak. There was a rowdy element, too, pegging clods at the prayers and shouting. A few knots of men were arguing politics. I overheard two fellows making a deal over a horse.

The priests didn’t like this well or these demonstrations of popular piety:

They said it was a pagan well from which the old Fianians drank in the savage heroic days. The peasant folk didn’t mind the priests. They believed that Saint Bridget washed her feet in it, and not Finn MacCoole.

It’s characteristic of Kavanagh’s generous spirit that the chapter ends with the family so ‘fagged out’ when they return home at 4 a.m. that they forget all about the holy water – but the narrator concludes that Our Lady ‘was not displeased’ despite the ‘doubters’ and ‘cynics’ and ‘vulgar sightseers’ among the pilgrims:

She is kind and no doubt she enjoyed the comic twists in the pageant round Lady Well.

There’s the note of whimsy I mentioned. A shame, because this is an entertaining, heart-warming account of the growth of a poet’s mind (without Wordsworth’s transcendental portents) despite the hardships and human foibles to which young Paddy was exposed. His long walk to the hiring fair, looking for a farmer to take him on helps persuade him he’s maybe not cut out for the agricultural life. But his much longer walk to Dublin to seek out his literary heroes is far more disappointing for him.

He learns to plough his own furrow.

Clothes in Anne Enright’s ‘The Green Road’

I recently discovered the fascinating blog Clothes in Books by Moira: it does as the name suggests: explores the significance of clothes in works of fiction. As a consequence I’ve decided to postpone my intended review of Anne Enright’s excellent novel The Green Road (first published last year) until another time. Instead, hoping to whet your appetite for more, I’ll borrow her approach and look at one aspect of clothing in this family saga set in rural western Ireland, near the cliffs of Moher overlooking the Aran Islands.

My Vintage paperback copy of 'The Green Road'

My Vintage paperback copy of ‘The Green Road’

The matriarch  of the Madigan family, Rosaleen, has four children; Dan, the oldest, states his intention in the opening chapter, to his mother’s horror, of giving up college in Galway after his first year and becoming a priest. He would finish his degree at the seminary, he says.

Apart from the challenge of reconciling his family to the news, there’s the ‘small matter’ of Dan’s girlfriend, who also has to be told. He takes his 12-year-old sister Hanna with him back to Galway and introduces her to the interesting Isabelle:

“Hello,” said the woman, holding out her hand, which was covered in a dark green leather glove. The woman looked very nice. The glove went up her wrist, with a line of covered buttons along the side.

The description is given from Hanna’s viewpoint, hence the childish tone. She’s smitten by what, to her, seems a glamorous chic look. Later we’re told she had ‘a clasp in her hair made of polished wood’, which again seems the epitome of good taste to Hanna. Shortly afterwards Hanna fantasises about her romantically:

Dan’s girlfriend was a tragedy waiting to happen. And yet, those green gloves spoke of a life that would be lovely. She would study in Paris. She would have three children, teach them beautiful Irish and perfect French. She would always mourn for Dan.

When she asks her name and Isabelle tells her Hanna thinks ‘Of course. She had a name that came out of a book.’ Hanna, who grows up to be an actress, sees (or thinks she does) an enviable drama in this beautiful young woman’s appearance and manner.

On her return home she describes Isabelle as ‘beautiful’.

The reader is probably intended to feel less overwhelmed; Isabelle is simply channeling the standard student bohemian look of the period: 1980. Naive country girl Hanna has never seen such urbanity and sophistication before.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the next stage of Dan’s life. It’s New York 1991, and he has not become a priest. Instead he’s part of the gay scene, breaking hearts with his dashing good looks and Irish brogue. Isabelle is there too, and she and Dan are engaged, but the narrative voice is that of an anonymous member of this gay community who views her with cryptic suspicion:

We met the brave little wife-to-be later…She was nice. Skinny, as they often are. Slightly maverick and intense and above all ethical. She had long hair, a lovely accent, and she was writing a book, of course…As beards went, she was a classic beard. A woman of rare quality– because it takes a quality woman to keep a guy like Dan straight.

Interesting that the childish ‘nice’ is used again, but here in a passage of much more perceptive maturity. And of course the narrator is predisposed to be critical, unimpressed, the very opposite response from Hanna’s. The LGBT period slang ‘beard’ is a largely derogatory term for the sham romantic partner used to camouflage a person’s sexual orientation, and its use is sardonic here, with the grudging but comically cynical and ambiguous admission at the end that she was  attractive enough to tempt Dan away from his true destiny.

Billy, who has fallen in love with Dan, meets her for the first time a few pages later, and this description, like Hanna’s, presents his impressions through free indirect style:

…the unreliable little ribcage, with a pair of those flat little triangular breasts like flesh origami: also lumpy bits from waist to hip where her underwear was a bit too pragmatic – she would look better without, he thought, though Isabelle was not the sort of girl who would ever go without. The most surprising thing about her were the shoes, which were black to match the rest of the outfit, but with fabulous, bloody red soles. She walked in them like a child playing dress-up.

This glorious sketch is typical of Enright’s brilliant mastery of the multi-vocal narrative mosaic she constructs. It’s camp and funny, with that bitchy detail about the underwear and how Billy interprets it, and his unstated but implicit criticism of her boho-beatnik-cool black outfit. The grudging admiration of those shoes (presumably Christian Louboutin, though my research shows he didn’t introduce this trademark look until the following year, 1992) is comically, brutally undermined by the final sentence. All of those adjectives are spot on: ‘unreliable’ (ribcage); ‘lumpy bits’, ‘a bit too pragmatic’ (underwear) – I love that – and the gushing ‘fabulous’ – then the crushing, infantilising demolition job. And it’s all to do with how Isabelle looks – here, and in Hanna’s breathless, adoring account. It conveys with ice-green hostility the jealousy Billy feels but doesn’t admit to.

I’m not as good at this analysis of clothing as Moira, but it’s fun to approach a work of fiction in this way. It drew my attention to some details that I’d half noticed on first reading, but which on closer scrutiny brought out what I hoped you’ve found an interesting aspect of Enright’s technical skill, and demonstrated her pitch-perfect ear for subtly nuanced and sharply perceptive humour that works on several different narrative levels.