Tuesday 17 September 2019

Peter J McDonnell: 'A pilgrim poet and his Roman autumn'

When poet Patrick Kavanagh travelled to Rome in 1965, two years before his death, he found friendship, acceptance and respect, writes Peter J McDonnell

Patrick Kavanagh
Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh's reputation as a cantankerous and difficult personality contains many truths. Dublin literary circles of the 1950s and 1960s abound with tales of his prickly nature and sometimes gruff temperament. There is ample evidence that he had his faults and failings but there was, of course, more to him than a listing of the ways in which he let himself and others down.

This was exemplified during his trip to Rome in October, 1965 when he grew more carefree, agreeable and good-natured when he found himself accepted and respected as an equal by his fellow writers and artists, away from the spitefulness and resentment of his adopted city.

He arrived unannounced in the autumn of 1965. The European Community of Writers, under the presidency of the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, had called a general meeting of its members in the Holy City. The General Secretary asked poet Desmond O'Grady for two other Irish names besides himself and Kate O'Brien to represent the Republic of Ireland at the meeting which would bring together representative writers of all the European countries including the Soviet Union.

It was an important meeting to discuss questions of freedom to publish, the plight and condition of imprisoned writers, the value and necessity of translation, and the need to support writers in minority languages, among other matters.

So how did Patrick Kavanagh come to attend this international gathering in Rome?

Austin Clarke was too ill to travel. Samuel Beckett shied away from literary organisations. Maire Mhac an tSaoi didn't reply. John Montague was in America. John McGahern declined. Kavanagh showed.

One Saturday morning while he was at home, one of the children came scrambling up the stairs to announce that there was an extraordinary old man down in the piazza looking for Desmond O'Grady. Des went out on the terrace and looked down. There stood Patrick Kavanagh in the middle of the square surrounded by gesticulating neighbours to whom he was gesticulating in reply. What a welcome surprise. Des shouted out to him and rushed down to greet him. "It's about time," Kavanagh said, when Des finally got to his side. Des ushered him in the door and up the four flights of stairs to their crow's nest of a home carrying his small suitcase and plastic bag of Duty Free.

Kavanagh huffed and puffed up the narrow 15th Century staircase exclaiming or proclaiming at each landing, "Jasus, but you live at a great height surely!" or, "Even Croagh Patrick is easier than this".

He was dressed very stylishly European in a loose and light off-white Irish linen suit and wore fashionable light brown leather shoes that matched a slightly darker brown tie. He wore a light fedora straw hat and horn-rimmed glasses with clip-on shades. He looked like an old-fashioned international boulevardier, vaguely fatigued after his long flight and presenting a large presence in the room.

Des explained that he was booked into the Excelsior Hotel, where all the film stars and many State dignitaries stayed. Silence. Kavanagh confided that he did not want to stay in any anonymous hotel, no matter how fashionable, for the famous, but rather with friends with whom he had a common language, and where there would be no public or private confrontations or confusions. They were delighted with his decision and immediately cancelled the Excelsior. The sofa was a double folding bed that straight away was made up for him. "A couch for a couch," Kavanagh said. This was a reference to a time previously when Kavanagh put Des up in his flat in 62, Pembroke Road, after meeting him in McDaid's on his return from Harvard.

After wining and dining out with the O'Gradys, Kavanagh slept soundly on Saturday night.

The next day was Sunday.

They went out to the sunshine of the Piazza Navona for breakfast, facing Bernini's thirsty fountains, with the international newspapers. No! He wasn't interested in going to Mass today. He'd gone often enough in his life already and besides he had a sister a nun. No! He wasn't interested in going to hear the Pope speak from his window in St Peter's Square. He had heard it all already from the Pope O'Mahony, in Fitzwilliam Square. Anyway, his vision wasn't good enough with the Pope so far away. A holy postcard would do instead. Yes! He would be delighted to spend the morning hunting bargains in the crowded flea market of Porta Portese. Kavanagh said: "I'm only interested in life. In the genuine." So that's what they did.

In the market they bought a small bookshelf for son Bryan's room with Patrick doing the dealing, old fashion Carrickmacross- fair-day-style, and taking more than half an hour to complete. The first book on the shelf was a book of Kavanagh's poems signed by Kavanagh himself.

Dining out on Sunday night they were joined by Thor Willhamson who had just arrived from his home in Iceland. Patrick enjoyed these informal Roman banquets with their good fellowship and international flavour. He always ate heartily, savoured his wine and indulged the strolling musicians who by now knew him, and called him Professore and Maestro. "This is the life, They don't know how to live in Dublin," he said. He was interested in everyone and everything - what they were writing, sculpting, painting; what news Willhamson had from Iceland; why they preferred to live in Rome rather than Paris or New York. He was beginning to feel he had always lived in Rome, felt part of an international community of writers and artists and enjoyed the unpretentiousness of it all. He was in his element. He was happy being among them and being respected as a major poet in the most natural way, without his ever having to play a role.

Next morning was Monday, and the European Writers' Conference.

They were in good time, and as they walked towards the entrance to the auditorium, they came abreast with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, sitting at a sidewalk cafe table. Des knew them from previous conferences and because they were regular visitors to Rome. They saluted each other and Sartre asked them to join them for coffee. Des introduced Patrick as they sat down, and had just enough time for a coffee with them, before going in together to the opening ceremonies of the conference. They agreed to meet in the free time during the week in Rome. Patrick was pleased with the idea, then all four went in.

During the loose time before the proceedings were called to order, Des circulated Patrick among the delegates, and introduced him to many old friends among the several hundred writers who had arrived. And so, Kavanagh's week among so many of the leading writers of Greater Europe began, and he relished every minute and every day of the week of it. He delighted in meeting, dining, drinking and talking with a large number of them, and they were all greatly impressed with him.

There were official or formal or freelance dinners every evening after the day's conference ended, and they were received and wined at every embassy and cultural organisation in the city, except for one. Curiously, the Irish Embassy did NOT invite them at all, though Des had informed it that Patrick Kavanagh and Kate O'Brien would be in town for this special occasion. The Irish Ambassador in 1965, Joseph F Shields, apparently had no interest in modern literary Ireland, its poets and writers.

This lack of respect shown at Ambassador level may have its roots in the strong opinions expressed by Kavanagh on the Dept of External Affairs, as Foreign Affairs was then known, in Kavanagh's Weekly, back in 1952. Long memories! Frank Aiken was the Minister for External Affairs [1951-1954 and 1957-1969] and had vetoed the Cultural Relations Committee's offer to send the poet to America. Sean McBride had previously blocked the proposal before the change of government in May, 1951. John Ryan resigned from the Cultural Relations Committee over this decision. Kavanagh expected more from Frank Aiken who was born in Forkhill, Co Armagh, just across the border from Co Monaghan.

There were also invitations to the homes of writers living in Rome like the exile Spanish poet Rafael Alberti and the Brazilian exile poet Murilo Mendes who both lived near the O'Gradys. Kavanagh also met the Italian poet and film maker Pier Paolo Pasolini who lived just across the Tiber near Gore Vidal.

At the conference there were writers like Max Frisch, Sartre, Alberti and Stephen Spender who got their share of press attention, but Patrick had an angularity of presence the Roman paparazzi had not encountered before, and which kept him centre stage all week. He accepted it all naturally, and never faltered once. He was being welcomed and honoured by his European and International peers, and feted with them all over the city. One such was the reception at the Russian Embassy. The Russian Ambassador gave a lavish party at his residence one evening for all the writers.

Patrick got on particularly well with the Hungarians, and one evening Des invited them home for drinks and family dinner. Istvan Vas was about Patrick's age (60) and regarded as one of the leading poets of his generation in Hungary. His wife was a successful painter. While they were sitting having drinks before dinner, Patrick swapped stories of poets and peasants with the guests.

While they were talking, Pirozca Szanto, Vas's wife, made a small pen and pencil sketch of Patrick's head in two-thirds profile, wearing the laurel crown of an ancient Roman poet, and surrounded by such icons as, a transparent chalice with a Eucharistic bread of the globe standing in it, an Italian flask of wine and a modern Roman alley-cat skulking in the ancient ruins. The Hungarian guests felt warmly at home all evening and before leaving promised they would have Patrick and Des invited to Budapest to share their hospitality and to see Hungary. Patrick never made it, Des did.

With the conference over and Patrick invited to all the countries of Greater Europe by other delegates, Des suggested that they should get out of Rome for the weekend. Their good friend Caresse Crosby was still in residence in her medieval castle 40 miles north of Rome. With autumn now in the air, Caresse would be thinking of returning to New York for the winter, as usual. When Des phoned her, she was delighted with the idea of a weekend together.

Caresse Crosby and Florence, Des's wife who by now knew nearly all of Kavanagh's ways and weaknesses, pampered and indulged his every whim and wish. These few days' rest from the social rounds of Rome were good for him. His breakfast was served to him in bed every morning by Caresse's chambermaid, Margharitta, and nobody bothered him all morning while he read in his room, or in the sun-garden.

Caresse was full of stories of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s when she and husband Harry ran the Black Sun Press. They had known Dali, DH Lawrence, James Joyce, Picasso and Henry Miller in those Latin Quarter days. Patrick relished the cocktail-hour and tale-telling sessions during the three evenings they were there. "McDaid's was never like this," he said.

When dinner was announced, they went into the great dining hall to the table under the big chandelier. There, for the next couple of hours, over a four or five course meal and plenty of wine, stories of literary and artistic Rome and Paris, London and Dublin, New York and Inniskeen, were laughingly bandied about as easily as passing the sauces, platters and decanters. Wined and dined, they retired to Caresse's cosy parlour-library for brandies and cigars. Patrick liked Italian cheroots.

Des maintained that he never heard Patrick laugh so gleefully or open up so boyishly as on those evenings. He grew younger and more carefree, easier with himself and more gallant towards others. He felt he was among friends who accepted and respected him. He felt safe.

Kavanagh agreed it would be healthy for him to divide his future between Ireland and Italy, and Caresse decreed that his room in the castle would be kept ready for him for the future. So typical of Kavanagh to grasp at even the possibility of future comfort when the merest opportunity presented itself.

As the Fates spun out the thread, he was never to see Caresse or the castle again. But for those three brief days in his life, the crocked knight lay peacefully in his bed, among friends, with his rusty old armour hung up in its proper place, far away from the fray he had to joust with daily, in the gurrier streets of Dublin.

Because they were all agreed that in future Patrick would come to Rome yearly, their parting was a sweet sorrow. Because he had been so good and loving to their boys, it was they who would miss him most. And, because he had been happily at home among them, they saw him as going to Dublin for his winter season. He would be back for the Roman spring and summer - every spring and summer for the rest of his life. He said, "I won't say goodbye but arriverderci, which means 'see you again'."

They never saw Patrick Kavanagh again. Tim O'Keeffe phoned Des from London the day Patrick Kavanagh died, two short years later, on November 30, 1967. Desmond O'Grady made the funeral.

Presented at 'Remembering Patrick Kavanagh - 2018', Dublin


by Patrick Kavanagh

I have lived in important places, times

When great events were decided: who owned

That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land

Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul"

And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen

Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -

"Here is the march along these iron stones."

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which

Was most important ? I inclined

To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin

Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.

He said: I made the Iliad from such

A local row. Gods make their own importance.

Sunday Independent

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