By Thomas O’Grady
Special to the BIR
Recently, but not for the first time, I paid a visit to a roadside shrine (as it were) that remembers one of the iconic figures of so-called Bohemian Dublin of the 1940s and ’50s. Actually, the “shrine”—commemorating poet Patrick Kavanagh—has two separate but related parts. The earlier part is a bench dedicated by his friends on St. Patrick’s Day of 1968, the year after his death, fulfilling a wish Kavanagh had made a decade earlier in a poem titled “Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin.”
Sitting on a bench erected to the memory of Mrs. Dermot O’Brien (the wife of a well-known Dublin painter of landscapes and portraits), Kavanagh wrote a sonnet requesting the same for himself: “O commemorate me where there is water, / Canal water preferably, so stilly / Greeny at the heart of summer.” He got his wish, and forty-five years after its dedication, that “canal-bank seat for the passer-by” remains “Where by a lock niagarously roars / The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence / Of mid-July.” Located on the south bank of the Grand Canal along Mespil Road, that bench, which has the poem inscribed on one of its granite trestles, is about a ten-minute walk from St. Stephen’s Green in the heart of Dublin.
And so is another bench, the second part of the Kavanagh shrine—but this one, on the north bank along Wilton Road, has incorporated onto it a life-size bronze sculpture, created by John Coll and unveiled in June of 1991, of the poet seated in a reflective pose as if he were composing the poem that prompted the first bench. Or perhaps Coll imagined Kavanagh drafting “Canal Bank Walk,” another sonnet inspired by that slow-moving man-made waterway—a remarkable feat of engineering that took most of the last half of the eighteenth century to complete—that ultimately linked the River Liffey in Dublin with the River Shannon in Co. Offaly. Written in 1958 in the aftermath of his recovery from lung cancer, and also from legal difficulties, “Canal Bank Walk” represented a sort of manifesto of renewal for Kavanagh, who by 1939 had transplanted himself more or less permanently from rural County Monaghan to Ireland’s mostly unwelcoming literary hub: “Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal / Pouring redemption for me, that I do / The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal, / Grow with nature again as before I grew.”
If those two benches comprise a shrine to Kavanagh, an essential place of pilgrimage for his devoted readers, then surely some of the pubs that he frequented during his quarter-century or so in Dublin might be thought of as chapels. I have paid visits to some of those too—again, recently and not for the first time. Aptly enough, one of them, McDaid’s on Harry Street (just off Grafton Street, the city’s central shopping thoroughfare), was in a previous life a literal chapel of the Moravian Church, a Protestant denomination from eastern Europe that made inroads in Ireland in the eighteenth century. Still a going concern today, in the 1940s and ’50s McDaid’s was what James Joyce might have called the omphalos—the very center of Ireland’s literary world dominated by Kavanagh, his urban archrival and nemesis Brendan Behan, and the multi-monikered Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/Myles na Gopaleen.
Before McDaid’s, the omphalos would have been another public house sacred to the memory of Kavanagh and company, The Palace Bar on Fleet Street. The watering hole of choice for most of the leading literary and artistic figures in Dublin during Kavanagh’s early years in the city, The Palace was presided over by R. M. “Bertie” Smyllie, the larger-than-life (both physically and in personality) editor of The Irish Times and in that capacity a frequent benefactor providing journalistic piecework to hungry (or thirsty) poets and other literary types. In 1940, New Zealand cartoonist Alan Reeve published in The Irish Times a now-famous sketch of the back room of The Palace. Titled “Dublin Culture,” the drawing caricatures upwards of forty regular denizens of the bar, including Francis McManus, Maurice Walsh, Austin Clarke, Padraic Fallon, F. R. Higgins, Flann O’Brien, Brinsley MacNamara, Harry Kernoff, and Seán O’Sullivan. Kavanagh too is in the picture, but as a newcomer to the Dublin literary scene he looks a bit uncomfortable and appears ready to leave the others to their heavy imbibing and their barbed-wit gossiping.
Located just off Westmoreland Street at the edge of the once decrepit but now hip Temple Bar area of Dublin, The Palace seems to have changed hardly an iota in more than seventy years: like McDaid’s, it remains an inviting and hospitable oasis in “the heart of the Hibernian metropolis” (Joyce’s phrase) and an essential port of call for devotees of Kavanagh.
But the enduringness of pubs like McDaid’s and The Palace only accentuates the loss of another “house of worship”—perhaps the cathedral to those mere chapels—associated with Kavanagh: that is, Parsons Bookshop, which used to be located in a building known as the Bridge House, on Baggot Street Bridge that spans the Grand Canal just a minute’s stroll from the two Kavanagh benches. During my student days in Dublin in the late 1970s, I visited Parsons a number of times, usually in search of books missing from the shelves of the bigger bookshops in the city center. I recall specifically picking up the Millington editions of Benedict Kiely’s The Cards of the Gambler and Mervyn Wall’s Leaves for the Burning and the Helicon edition of Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey.
As it turns out, Kiely and Wall were both regular visitors to Parsons Bookshop—but apparently no one was as regular as Patrick Kavanagh. In his engaging and illuminating book Parsons Bookshop: At the Heart of Bohemian Dublin, 1949-1989 (The Liffey Press, 2006), Brendan Lynch tells the story of the shop in entertaining and illuminating detail, much of it gleaned from interviews with the shop’s founder and owner, Miss May O’Flaherty, and her longtime assistant, Mary King. Early in the book, Miss O’Flaherty recalls that author Mary Lavin once exclaimed: “Parsons, where one met as many interesting writers on the floor of the shop as on the shelves!” In Lynch’s narrative, no one was more “interesting” than Patrick Kavanagh.
Recounting the shop’s evolution from a local hardware store to the magnetic center of a literary community, Miss O’Flaherty remembers that “it was Patrick Kavanagh who provided the greatest encouragement when I was starting off.” When the shop opened in 1949, Kavanagh lived nearby on Pembroke Road and, as Miss O’Flaherty explains, quickly became a fixture: “Soon he was part of the furniture and if he ever missed a morning, customers would ask ‘Where’s Patrick today?’” Legendary for his cantankerousness, Kavanagh had a particularly toxic relationship with playwright and memoirist Brendan Behan, another regular visitor to the shop. Yet, according to Miss O’Flaherty, their personal animosity never intruded on the sacred space of the shop: “Though Patrick sometimes got in people’s way while sitting in the door, particularly in the good weather, I think we kept him on the straight and narrow. Even though Brendan Behan called a few times while he was here, Patrick never said anything untoward. I think the only time I saw him cross was when he observed a book he didn’t like in the window. ‘I’ll never darken this door again,’ he growled. But he was back looking for his stool the following morning as usual.”
Asked by Brendan Lynch about Kavanagh’s death in 1967, Mary King remembered his funeral entourage winding its way through Ballsbridge en route toward Monaghan: “they brought Patrick on a final lap of his favourite stomping ground, past Parsons to Pembroke, Raglan, and Waterloo Roads. The morning was miserable and dark, grief seemed to overhang the canal, but it was heartwarming that so many people turned out along the street to see him off to Inniskeen.”
In 2004, the centenary of Kavanagh’s birth, the Monaghan Association of Dublin mounted a plaque on the wall of the Bridge House recognizing the poet’s lengthy and deep connection with Parsons Bookshop. The shop outlasted Kavanagh by twenty-two years. But recently, pausing beneath that plaque, I realized that, as in most matters, Kavanagh himself had the last word in the form of a ballad he wrote in 1953: “If ever you go to Dublin town / In a hundred years or so / Inquire for me in Baggot Street / And what I was like to know.”
Thomas O’Grady is Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.