Monday 20 November 2017

Obituary: P J Kavanagh

Eamon Delaney recalls a castle encounter with a spirited English poet and friend of Ireland


Imagine being trapped inside a vast castle and unable to find your way back to your bedroom after dinner, admittedly your own fault for having wandered its corridors and book-lined vaults out of curiosity.

That was my own experience in Tullynally, the magnificent house of the Pakenham family in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. Among the night's guests were the English author, Patrick J Kavanagh and his wife Kate. At one stage, I broke open the doors into a bedroom. "This is not your room," said the Kavanaghs from the darkness. I circulated the castle again and opened what I thought was another bedroom door. "It's still not your room," came the response.

I recalled the episode this week with the news that PJ Kavanagh has passed away aged 84. A wonderful poet, memoirist and friend of Ireland, his travel companion to Ireland, Voices of Ireland, gave a wry outsider's perspective on our literary heritage. PJ assured me that he had deposited a copy in all of the Castlepollard's many bedrooms. "Lest one would want to read at night and not wander," he added drolly.

Kavanagh was most famous for his rural poetry, inspired by the Severn countryside in which he lived - writing in the ruin of a whitewashed cottage - and influenced by the work of Louis MacNeice, and Edward Thomas. He published 15 volumes and four novels, but the book for which he was most famous was a haunting early work, The Perfect Stranger (1966) in which he tries to make sense of the sudden death of his first wife, Sally, who had died of polio aged only 24.

"Once you've experienced the infinite significance of another person's life you feel something of the same for all lives," he wrote. "The rest of my life, any sense I can make of it, is a memorial to that."

Kavanagh believed that by looking intently at nature, the unseen becomes more obviously real: "Not something religious, that is a slippery word - or spiritual. But there is joy or hope, and I think it's joy." Patrick Joseph Gregory Kavanagh, was born at Worthing, Sussex and wrote as P J Kavanagh.

This was just as well, as he was often confused with the famous Irish poet and when he finally met the Monaghan scribe, the other Kavanagh said to him "why don't you change your fecking name".

With National Service, Kavanagh was commissioned into the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and then volunteered for the Korean War, in which he was shot in the shoulder.

In 1956 he married Sally Philipps, daughter of the Bloomsbury set novelist Rosamond Lehmann. He also took up acting and broadcasting, especially for BBC radio comedy shows. Throughout his life, his poetry was subsidised by his journalism and from 1983 to 1996 Kavanagh wrote an always engaging weekly column for The Spectator. A selection of this, and other work, was published as A Kind of Journal in 2003.

In 1963 Kavanagh moved to Gloucestershire, and married the translator Catherine (Kate) Ward, living in an old converted barn, overlooking a stunning valley.

But Kavanagh didn't take himself too seriously and resumed his acting career when he appeared in an episode of TV's Father Ted, as the Nazi memorabilia-collecting priest, Father Seamus Fitzpatrick. He is survived by his wife Kate and their two sons.

Sunday Independent

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