In poetry the nearest figure to Patrick Kavanagh is Charles Baudelaire. Both were often destitute. Both found a verse that was above all music, not aspiring to music, like Walter Pater said of every art-form, but music itself made of words and because of it more profound.
For both men the heart of the effort was to make everything a spoken song, and a suspicion that it is one already; both made as much room for beauty as its privation. But if Baudelaire’s main concern was to capture the putrid falseness of life in the modern city as an image of life everywhere Kavanagh’s was to dream of the true life gushing forth, the repose of memory and desire in happiness, too often misinterpreted as rural pantheism.
But both Kavanagh and Baudelaire succeed more often, if less thoroughly and famously, in their prose.
Baudelaire’s exalted dismissals of forgotten French painters are matched by Kavanagh’s invectives against Irish writers like WR Rodgers and FR Higgins (“Writing about FR Higgins is a problem – the problem of a labyrinth that leads nowhere”). With Baudelaire’s breath-taking asides on the French Revolution there are Kavanagh’s on the Irish question: “All of us who are sincere know that if we are unhappy, trying to forget our futility in pubs, it is due to no exterior cause, but to what is now popularly called the human condition. Society everywhere today and its beliefs are pastiche: there is no overall purpose, no large umbrella of serenity”. And: “The questions we never ask ourselves in Ireland are: Do we believe in anything? Do we care for anything?”.
Kavanagh’s two prose-books are ‘The Green Fool’, an autobiography, a masterpiece; and ‘Tarry Flynn’, a novel nearly as good as his long poem, The Great Hunger, because it is the same thing but set in Cavan instead of Monaghan. The theme of all three is a tension
Kavanagh’s two prose-books are ‘The Green Fool’, an autobiography, a masterpiece; and ‘Tarry Flynn’, a novel nearly as good as his long poem, The Great Hunger, because it is the same thing but set in Cavan instead of Monaghan. The theme of all three is a tension: Kavanagh or Flynn or Maguire is caught between the beautiful world of his heart where there are no words, and society, where there is work to be done and questions in need of answers.
Writers often aim to fill gaps in themselves: every school student has heard the maxim, ‘Write what you know’, but a more honest one may be ‘Write what you need’.
Kavanagh needed this argument with himself: he was vicious and took no shortcuts, which was what gave his words energy, how he could say O the thrilling daisies in the sun-baked hoof-tracks. O the wonder of dry clay. O the mystery of Eternity stretching back is the same as its mystery stretching forward.
He hated theatre. Its root problem for him was the audience: like a congregation in the abstract it seems like a good thing, but without the individual’s sense of real life it falls for simplicities, pietisms, cheapness, and what he called “newspaper morality”. There is a certain foolishness as well as bravery in choosing to adapt for stage a novel whose almost entire appeal is its narrative sentences – with a result its author would certainly have despised.
But this is the twenty-first century: Kavanagh is dead, and the production of ‘Tarry Flynn’ by Livin’ Dred Theatre Company, touring the country, briefly in the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire, is lively, with huge range, impressively lurching from each thing – every five minutes make you forget the previous five – to the next, so that what comes out mostly is a theatrical sense of joy: a sense of play.
this adaptation gets two important things right: it lets the words from the book do the talking (though with the ground artlessly salted here and there with lines from the poems), and it adds a lot of jumping and somersaulting to give the theatre-element.
Originally by Conall Morrison and performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1997, this adaptation gets two important things right: it lets the words from the book do the talking (though with the ground artlessly salted here and there with lines from the poems), and it adds a lot of jumping and somersaulting to give the theatre-element. The worst bits are when it leans on tropes of Late Late Show Irishness: a Mammy, a spineless and severe priest, ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe’ – mercifully not as heavily or often as the kitschy Irish music at the performance’s start would mislead you to believe.
Mostly the show is entertaining singing, dancing and shouting interspersed with a few scenes and monologues by Tarry. In this production nine actors play fifty roles, which gives it a frenetic feeling and a sense of fun.
The weirdest part is when actors playing a bull and heifer act out having human-style sex to music in a cow-costume and bull-inflected gimp suit; the most touching are any of those when Tarry stands alone onstage simply talking about what is in his head.
The shame about this script and production is that it treats all its best parts the same way: raise the audience to a level of exalted feeling, bring them there with Tarry, and then pull the rug out immediately with his Mammy calling him to go to mass or pop a blister on her foot.
This makes the relation between the romance and the real, the inner and outer, tense but stable, easy to delineate and follow. On the other hand ‘Tarry Flynn’ the novel is about destabilising this, causing the real and romantic to spill into each other and contaminate both.
Which is why, at the end, when Tarry’s uncle sweeps him off to big life in the towns, his mother and he heartbroken, ‘Philadelphia Here I Come’–style, as no one is sure why he is going but everyone knows he must because of that obscure law people in other times have called fate, the show cannot get to the bottom of its feeling.
But still, this is a worthy night at the theatre: entertaining and physical, dramatic. The set is bare and obviously ‘Brechtian’ with costumes visible on either side of the stage and actors watching from benches underneath them like the audience when they are not performing. There is a pleasing screen at the back of the set that changes, like a mood ring or the sky, in sympathy with the performance.
Tarry Flynn, produced by Nomad Theatre Network in association with Livin’ Dred Theatre Company, directed by Aaron Monaghan, was performed the Pavilion Theatre from 1st-3rd of April as part of a nationwide tour ending in the Droichead Arts Centre in Drogheda on the 9th and 10th of April. Image by Brian Farrell.