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The battle of the wordsmiths

Daniel Corkery was Professor of English in Cork University in the middle third of the last century. He was a good writer and a respected critic. He had no time for WB Yeats. He said that The Lake Isle of Inisfree was a piece of confectionery. It is better to call it a piece of daydreaming. This can be good for you: daydreaming is a poor man's psychiatrist. Another of Yeats's poems, The Stolen Child, is also a piece of daydreaming but a wonderful piece.

Where the wandering water gushes

From the hills above Glencar,

In pools among the rushes

That scarce could bathe a star,

We seek for slumbering trout

And whispering in their ears

Give them unquiet dreams.

Come away, o human child

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world's more full of weeping

Than you can understand.

Yeats is by far and away our best-known poet internationally. He is greatly revered by the people of Japan and Germany and the United States. They come here to see the places that inspired his poetry and they are hungry to find out all they can about him. They are good people. Perhaps we envy them their innocence and this has led to a wicked two-liner:

When someone debates on the poetry of Yeats,

I would love to know where and not to go there.

Yeats had little intimate knowledge of rural Ireland: he hardly ever saw a cow calving; nor did he ever go into a pub and drink a pint. This shouldn't debar him from having a good knowledge of Ireland. Emily Bronte seldom roamed beyond her native village of Howarth but Wuthering Heights is a great novel.

When there were literary pubs in Dublin, you could hear lively debates about Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh. Believe it or not, there were some critics who were as dismissive of Kavanagh as Corkery had been of Yeats.

One of them, who must be nameless because he is still alive, had no time at all for the poet from Monaghan. This was all the more surprising because he and Kavanagh came from much the same background. This high priest of criticism is deemed the world's leading authority on Yeats and it seems that he wishes to have no rival near the throne.

Kavanagh had experienced many of the things Yeats hadn't: he used to say "What do you do when a cow is having difficulty in calving?" His answer was "nothing". In other words the cow knew best herself. This kind of folk knowledge didn't endear him to the more learned classes. In fact, those debates we heard long ago were a kind of battle between the country and the town.

We do not see any scholars coming from any part of the world to a summer school or even a winter school about Kavanagh because his poetry is so lucid that it needs little explanation. Some of Yeats's poetry is based on mythology. The scholars from abroad need to know a little about Irish history both real and fable.

Whenever there are debates about sporting matters in Irish pubs, there is usually a little man having a quiet drink in a corner who tries to have the final word.

One night in my own town there was a furious word battle between two men, one of whom maintained that Arnold Palmer was the greatest golfer ever. The other man wouldn't hear of anyone better than Jack Nicklaus.

The little man in the corner said: "They wouldn't polish Tadhgeen's clubs."

And someone said "Tadhgeen who?"

"Tadhgeen Woods."

In those controversies about Yeats and Kavanagh, I wish there was someone who would say: "If Kavanagh's fame depended only on the lines In Memory Of My Mother, he would be immortal." And there is another little poem that touches everyone's heart:

I dreamed that one day the bent coin

Would drop in the slot of my destiny

And I would never again be lonely

At Rush or Portmarnock watching the couples go by

And it would be good if there was another man in a quiet corner who as the Yeats/Kavanagh debate was coming to an end, would say quietly "Have you all forgotten Oliver Goldsmith?" The answer is indeed that a lot of people have.

His most famous poem, The Deserted Village, was set in England in the middle of the 18th century but it is remarkably relevant to the Republic of Ireland today. When Goldsmith wrote it, circumstances were forcing people off the land into the mines and into what Blake called "the dark satanic mills".

Rural England was being depopulated just as rural Ireland is today. And the pub was no longer the community centre. We know all about that. And there is a couplet that couldn't be more relevant:

Ill fares that land to hastening ills of prey

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Perhaps the most memorable line in The Deserted Village occurs in the piece about the inn: "No more the woodman's ballad shall prevail." People have learned Goldsmith's poetry off by heart as part of their work at school. Daniel Corkery used to say: "When you learn a poem by heart, it is your own forever."

Kavanagh is in the school books, too, as is some of Yeats's poetry -- but our parents and our grandparents became very well acquainted with Goldsmith and they loved him. He said a great deal in a few words as in a piece about the schoolmaster:

Full well the boding tremblers learn'd to trace

The day's disasters in his morning face.

Fogra: It was with a mixture of shock and disbelief and sadness that I learned Mick Lally was no longer with us. We first met after he had played the part of a blind fiddler in a play in The Project. We had much in common: we were both from the country and we both had been teachers and were finding our way in a new world. Mick had a great virtue: no matter what part he was given to play, he put his heart and soul into it -- he was a true professional. Mick spoke Gaelic so beautifully that he made you realise what a poetic language it is. I will miss him and so will many people. His presence made us all feel better. My sympathy goes to his family and his friends. Slan leat, mo chara.