Monday 10 December 2018

In memory of poet Patrick Kavanagh's witty wife

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Although I favour Repeal of the Eighth, I have always avoided writing about abortion for two reasons.

First, I believe that only women can decide that fraught moral calculus. Second, I find men who obsess about women's wombs frankly creepy.

Accordingly, I will confine myself to an issue thrown up by both the abortion debate and Northern Ireland - the importance of historical memory - and finish with my own historical memory of Patrick Kavanagh's wife, Katherine Moloney.

Micheal Martin's moving watershed speech could only have been made by a mature man with a rich historical hinterland.

For him abortion was not an abstract issue but a living memory of taboo and things that could not be said.

Martin was an adult acting with good authority, not a cagey politician minding his media ass.

Here was a father, a family man, a practising Roman Catholic, showing us what it means to be a moral agent.

As he wrestled his way to his courageous conclusion, I was reminded of John Montague's salute to Patrick Kavanagh: "The lines that speak the passionate heart."

Marian Finucane can also draw deeply on her mature historical memory.

Listening to her last Sunday, it struck me that without her total recall the Provos would have got away with murder.

Finucane remembers RTE's pictures of bloody dentures lying beside the lunchboxes at Kingsmill. She won't let Sinn Fein forget and fog the past.

It is lunacy for RTE to lose such treasure houses of memory by retiring broadcasters like David Davin-Power in their prime.

Broadcasters are like Special Branch officers: they get better with age - which is why the early retirement of so many senior gardai was a lethal loss.

But listening to Finucane brought back happier memories, too. Because I was the producer who brought that bright young woman into television shows - although it transpired her smoky voice was made for radio.

Back then, when RTE was a golden glow, Paddy Kavanagh's widow, Katherine, told me a story that still makes me smile.

Although Katherine was Kavanagh's long-term girlfriend, they did not marry until April 1967 - just six months before his death.

Katherine was 20 years younger, but she took on the care of what was a dying man. Yet his family, led by his petulant brother Peter, set their faces like flint against the marriage.

Things took a nasty turn when she died in 1989 and was buried beside him. Her estate arranged for the elegant headstone she had chosen to be erected over where they lay together.

One night, when Peter Kavanagh was home from Australia, the headstone was smashed in a violent act of vandalism.

Peter Kavanagh, did not deny he was the culprit, and put a wooden cross in its place with no mention of Katherine, denouncing the smashed headstone as "a pagan monument".

But in a dignified letter to The Irish Times, Katherine's nephew, Eunan O'Halpin, asked this question:

"What could be more un-Christian than to despoil a grave in such a way as to deny a blameless woman public acknowledgement that she lies in death, as she did in life, with her husband?"

But all that was in the future when I first met Katherine in 1975.

We both took a drink in McCloskey's pub, Donnybrook. Katherine was a dignified drinker, whereas I was a driven drinker, only dimly aware that I was in the antechamber of alcoholism.

My habit was to first poke my head into Madigan's of Donnybrook where the RTE regulars and rivals gathered in a highly competitive circle to swap anecdotes.

Having sussed out the competition, I would proceed to McCloskey's pub a few hundred yards away to lay down some Dutch courage before returning to do raconteuring battle

Poking my head into Madigan's that night, I found masters of the anecdote like Sean Mac Reamoinn, Pat Kenny and Brian Mac Lochlainn were lionising Joe Linnane.

Retired by then, Joe had been the Gay Byrne of the 1950s, and was a rare visitor to Madigan's, and a peerless raconteur.

Feeling I needed more fortification than usual before jousting with Joe, I decided to first make a call to McCloskey's.

Katherine Kavanagh was sipping her whiskey in the snug and I stopped to tell her I needed a drink to deal with Joe Linnane.

She grinned. "Go get me a drink, sit down there and I'll tell you the best Joe Linnane story ever."

What follows is her story, warts and all, and might even contain a tiny settling of family scores.

As Katherine told it, Kavanagh was still struggling for recognition and staying with his sisters.

Every grey morning he would be greeted by his sibling's backside as she raked out the hearth.

But one dawn, as he stood at the open door gazing into the rain, the postman handed him a letter with a Paris postmark.

It was an invitation with air tickets from three literary legends, who had singled him up for a tribute, to spend the weekend in Rome with them.

It was signed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Alberto Moravia and Iris Murdoch.

Saying nothing to his sister, Kavanagh packed a small bag, hitched a lift from a lorry, caught the plane and spend a wondrous weekend with the greats.

Then he flew home, hitched another lift and arrived in the drizzly dawn to find his sister still bent, raking the ashes.

"Where were you for the last few days?" she demanded. Kavanagh drew himself up to his full height. "I was in Rome with Jean Paul Sartre, Alberto Moravia and Iris Murdoch."

His sister stared in disbelief then turned away with a derisive laugh. "The next thing you'll tell me you were with Joe Linnane."

When I finished laughing, Katherine said: "Back up to Madigan's, tell Joe Linnane the story and let him buy you a drink."

Flying back to Madigan's, I crashed into the circle around Joe, crying out in triumph:

"Joe, I met Katherine Kavanagh and she had a story about you to end all stories!"

I'm a reasonable raconteur but this time I rose to the story and had the audience all agog.

At the punchline they gratifyingly burst into guffaws and even Brian Mac Lochlainn gave me a nod.

But I suddenly realised that Joe wasn't laughing. He stared around with indignant face - and huffed.

"Well what's so funny about that? Haven't I over 300,000 listeners?"

As in Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, "died the sound of royal cheer" as the circle composed its collective face.

Brian, his lips still twitching, leaned in to whisper: "Back to Katherine with that."

So I made my excuse to a coldly polite Joe Linnane and retreated. Arriving breathless back in McCloskey's, I told Katherine the revised anecdote.

She laughed long and loud like a young girl, and watching her twinkling eyes I realised why Patrick Kavanagh loved her.

Katherine Kavanagh still lies without a line. She deserves a decent headstone.

Sunday Independent

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