Review: Poetic justice sought from lowly pubs to High Court
Patrick Kavanagh and The Leader
Mercier Press: €15.20
Tale of a libel case recalls feud between Kavanagh and Behan, says Ronan Farren
WHEN the poet Patrick Kavanagh arrived in Dublin from the stony grey soil of Monaghan at the age of 35, he had published one book of verse -- Ploughman and Other Poems -- and an autobiography, The Green Fool.
The latter was to cause him some trouble, introducing him to the fractious and unpredictable world of the libel action, which he was later to perceive as a source of easy money.
At first, Kavanagh seems to have taken to life in the capital, and photographs from the period show a reasonably cheerful figure; a bun man, in his own phrase -- that is, a frequenter of cafes rather than pubs. The heavy drinking came later, whiskey gradually dominating every aspect of his life and transforming him into the grumpy figure of legend.
To literary Dublin, he was an exotic, and sometimes the butt of unworthy jokes. Anthony Cronin, who wrote so revealingly of Kavanagh in his memoir Dead as Doornails, seems to have understood the poet, his elder by almost 25 years, better than most. And when he wrote: "He was enormous, uncouth and, to a large extent, unlettered," Cronin was not being disparaging. Brendan Behan, on the other hand, made his hostility clear when he took to calling Kavanagh a "bogman" and "the Monaghan w****r".
The mutual hostility was intense to the point of hysteria. Kavanagh used to become agitated when Behan appeared in McDaid's, Paddy's regular pub, and Cronin records that the words phoney and blackguard were his usual epithets for Behan. Later, Kavanagh was to use the word evil in relation to Behan, and Cronin wrote: "There was, I am afraid, a very definite sense in which each of these terms was applicable."
Behan was to play a major part -- though perhaps unwittingly -- in the 1954 court hearing that is the subject of the solid and well-researched book under review.
It all started with an unsigned profile of Kavanagh, published on October 11, 1952, in the now long-defunct weekly journal The Leader. A description of the poet in McDaid's set things rolling: he is depicted " ... hunkering on a bar-stool, defining alcohol as the worst enemy of the imagination. The great voice, reminiscent of a load of gravel sliding down the side of a quarry, booms out, the starry-eyed young poets and painters surrounding him, all of them 20 or more years his junior, convinced (rightly, too) that the Left Bank was never like this ... "
There follows a reference to the slow delivery of a "ball of malt", in which Kavanagh saw an implication that he habitually cadged drinks from the hangers-on. There is a suggestion that a number of outlets in which Kavanagh had previously made some money from journalism no longer called on his services, and a heavily sarcastic reference to Kavanagh's Weekly, a literary magazine the poet edited with his brother, Peter, which had closed after 12 issues.
As if to soften the blow and the portrayal of Kavanagh as a graceless boozer and a wastrel, the piece goes on to describe his long poem The Great Hunger as "the best poem written in Ireland since Goldsmith gave us The Deserted Village".
There were, of course, elements of comedy in all this, but Kavanagh was not laughing, choosing to take the stance that to criticise a writer's work was acceptable, but to hurl personal abuse at him was unconscionable -- and libellous.
When the case opened in the High Court in February 1954, there were some legal big guns on either side, the biggest being John A Costello SC, the Fine Gael leader who had been Taoiseach (1948-51) and was to become Taoiseach again a few months after the hearing. Costello, representing The Leader, was a tough questioner, driving repeatedly at Kavanagh on the distinction between acceptable criticism and personal abuse, and quoting examples of the latter by Kavanagh himself.
The poet stone-walled doggedly and there was much laughter in court. Huge interest was taken in the proceedings by the public, who scrambled for places in the gallery. One newspaper quoted a theatrical manager as observing: " ... There hasn't been a queue like it in Dublin since Maurice Chevalier played the Royal".
The Behan element arose after Costello suggested Brendan and Paddy were friends. This infuriated Kavanagh, who repeatedly denied that they had ever been friends. The next day, Costello produced a copy of one of Kavanagh's books, which bore the words: "For Brendan Behan, poet and painter, on the day he decorated my flat ... " Kavanagh, who admitted the writing was his, went into an almost incoherent rant about Behan, but to the jury, some doubt was cast on Kavanagh's veracity.
He lost the case, but when he appealed, The Leader made a small settlement. The mystery of who wrote the offending profile remained. Kavanagh was convinced that the poet and diplomat Valentin Iremonger -- another bete noire -- was at least partly responsible.
As an ironic footnote, Costello was later instrumental in getting Kavanagh a post as a lecturer in UCD. It is known that the poet gave one lecture, but no second appearance has been recorded.