Patrick Kavanagh is one of Ireland’s most revered poets – a genius from a rural backwater who made the parochial universal. Yet his fame never really reached other shores.
While William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney won Nobel prizes and were quoted by US presidents, acclaim for Kavanagh 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 of 20th-century literature.
There will be an attempt to rectify that this week when Bono, Hozier, Liam Neeson and other celebrities breathe new life into his legacy. A new double album, Almost Everything, combines a remastered recording of Kavanagh reading his own poems and original recordings of Irish rock stars, actors, writers and other prominent figures reading their own selections.
“The Irish know Kavanagh but he is not so well known overseas,” said James Morrissey, chairman of Claddagh Records, a Dublin-based label that made the album. “To reimagine Kavanagh we invited well-known people to read their own favourite poem.”
The hope is that listeners will discover Kavanagh’s craftsmanship in putting, as his admirer Heaney described it, “feelings into words”. Kavanagh started life as an impoverished farmer in County Monaghan and drew on nature and the ostensibly mundane world around him to express what it means to be human.
The album line-up includes singers and musicians, such as Imelda May, Sharon Corr, Christy Moore, Lisa Hannigan, actors such as Aidan Gillen, Jessie Buckley and Aisling Bea, the writer Lisa McGee, the jockey Rachael Blackmore, and Ireland’s 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 fact, his soul. “Poetry was not my strong point in school but I definitely have a new appreciation for it after this project,” she said.
Higgins, himself a poet, read Stony Grey Soil, a howl of protest over poverty and grind that eviscerates romanticism about rural Ireland.
Bono chose On Raglan Road, Kavanagh’s ode to a love affair with a younger woman that broke his heart. Luke Kelly of folk group The Dubliners turned it into one of Ireland’s most popular ballads. The U2 frontman, however, read the poem.
Morrissey, who organised 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 extract from his epic The Great Hunger. It is the only recording of the poet reading his own work.
Some British editors and publishers feted Kavanagh in London in the 1960s but the poet noted he had “never been much regarded by the English critics”. The observation was still true decades later, Seamus Heaney wrote in 2004, despite Kavanagh’s “transformative effect” on culture and poetry.
Kavanagh was a poet of ordinary people, said Eve Patten, a 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 disillusioned with the new Irish state and rejected the mythology and romanticism of the Yeats era, said Patten. “He is closer to Joyce, whom he admired; both were prepared to confront an Ireland that had failed to live up to the promises of independence.”
Kavanagh valued the provincial over the metropolitan, and veered from lyrical to caustic, she said. “If he was bitter at times, he could also be gentle, and funny too.”