JULY 2006

Dr. Peter Kavanagh.

March 19,1916 – January 27, 2006


I was acquainted with Dr. Peter Kavanagh only briefly in the last year, 2005, of his life; longer with his writings on the theatre and longer still in curiousity as to who this brother of the poet, Patrick Kavanagh, could be – whom a posse of writers and artists used abuse in conversation.

Peter Kavanagh wrote extensively on the theatre in Ireland in two volumes, and he wrote with persuasive authority and lively opinion. As Patrick, ( whose family always used his name, Patrick, and never "Paddy" in the hated Dublin vernacular) wrote to his brother in reference to his manuscript of The History of The Abbey Theatre

"...the Higgins-O'Connor time is vivid and alive and shows that it excited you. Your personality comes through and the author's personality is an important part of the truth."

In addition in this volume he revealed immense persistence investigating abstruse or difficult texts of reference. Singularly, he examined the scarcely penetrable handwritten diaries of Joseph Holloway and mined treasures of the past.

Peter and Patrick developed a brotherly unity of purpose that is quite remarkable. For all the times Peter's criticism of Patrick's texts written and re-written, Paddy too gave as good as he got. Regarding the reference above Paddy gave the ms. strong abuse though alleviating the blow in a postscript - "When I look through it again I change my mind." However this led to a scrutiny of the text by Peter and an editor of Garrity's which discarded 15,000 words ! This History of the Abbey Theatre as it reads now is a powerful appraisal of Yeats dedication to a poetic ideal. The New York Times Book Review, such an important source for thousands of American tourist audiences in that theatre,described the book as an impartial history and the best book written on the subject.

Peter Kavanagh shared with his brother in his youth a strong interest in mythology of the area in which they were born - on the threshold of the history of Cuchulain, in sight of the Gap of the North through which armies both from and into Ulster marched, in the vicinity of the sacred mountain, Slieve Gullion. Peter wrote a small book at the death of his brother about their townlands. He also wrote a Dictionary of Irish Mythology and there Patrick wrote :

"I never felt the same, or anything like it, about any Christian shrine. The shrines were literal. No miracles...all the miracles were pagan miracles and touched with pantheism..........The satisfying quality in these ideas is the absence of limits. They project beyond mortality. The soul must expand or die...."

You may be thinking that I touch lightly on the history of this man whose relationship with his brother presents us unequivocally with Patrick Kavanagh's poems, letters and texts. But this is the writing, with much of his emotion, in both specific texts and the quality of expression throughout, that Peter Kavanagh was involved in. He was responsible for urging his brother, crucially, to work on his two great poems The Great Hunger and Lough Derg.

In schools here in Ireland of the much loved poems in the school syllabus, the children perhaps only hear of Dr. Kavanagh creating with his brother Kavanagh's Weekly, the thirteen issues of which invaded the stultifying atmosphere of literary academic rigor mortis that then pervaded Dublin. Writing completed under several pseudonyms and covering with outspoken opinion the events of the time, 1952.

But Peter Kavanagh's own academic career brought him much satisfaction - he moved to America where he taught in Universities in Chicago, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as Professor of Modern Poetry. In 1958, maintaining a residence in New York, he built his own Printing Press with one purpose in mind - to print poems of Patrick's that were being ignored by commercial publishers, and to print the first ever volume of Patrick Kavanagh's Collected Poems. He never let his close association with Patrick drop as can be confirmed in hundreds of letters collected in Lapped Furrows, another of his publications in later years. Building this press he says:

I made it out of wood with two aliminium plates half an inch thick, attached to an old (1893) Singer sewing machine which I bought for five will take a little experimentation to get the bugs out of my press but I will eventually manage that...........It will take me some time to set a book, for I will have type for only one page at a time."
Later that year he wrote to Patrick: I have now mastered my Press - never have I tackled a more difficult job ..........I am not stopping now that I have got started.... though learning a trade in weeks that normally takes years.

Such was his eagerness to print a volume of his brother's work. He finally threw this press on to the street in August 1962 and planned to install a commercial press in an appartment."Hand setting (of the print) is beautiful, but the work involved is beyond the beyonds - I had to stop using my fingers." (However, his widow, Mrs Anne Keeley Kavanagh, tells me that this press was never thrown out except for pieces of it that were discarded for improved replacements; and this Press can now be seen in the Kavanagh Museum.)

Peter Kavanagh had graduated from the National University of Ireland in 1941 and obtained a Ph.D from Trinity College in 1944. He began his teaching career with the Christian Brothers at Westland Row, Dublin, "a barbarous environment,"where after a dispute with a school inspector he was pushed into a dark discarded classroom with 50 pupils. Of that time George Coughlan, a pupil, wrote in later years:
"I can still sing those rebel songs you taught us on your clarinet and you gave me an interest in Theatre, literature and Music that persisted. It was the most delightful year - the only time I received any genuine education."

After his brother's death Peter began publishing a series of books on his brother's life. He also published his Dictionary of Irish Mythology and his autobiography Beyond Affection.

We can say that Peter Kavanagh's life work, devoted as it seems almost entirely to his brother's life nevertheless also shows an author of importance and authority. His volumes on the History of the Irish Theatre and The History of the Abbey Theatre are acclaimed texts both academically and of personal vision. He stressed that Yeats brought about an original theatre of the highest integrity dedicated to a poetic ideal.

The Abbey Theatre was a dream in the mind of Yeats. He made it a reality during his life, but when he died the reality returned to the dream and passed away with its creator. And elsewhere:He was guided always by intuition, rarely by reason or expedience.

In addition he wrote of Sean O'Casey: "He was Ireland himself - who wrote sincerely only out of his own life and emotions. He was expressing the inner spirit of Ireland. Dublin tenement dwellers are the most essentially Irish group in the nation. He (O'Casey) does not have to fight off that savage love of the soil which would engulf the spirit. " and elsewhere: "Dublin, while it produces writers has no sympathy for them - and it is difficult to survive there and produce good work"

In reference to one of Joseph Holloway's Diary entries he amusingly quotes: "Yeats gave instructions for the minimum of action - be statuesque - the actors spoke to the audience instead of each other with their heads on the side as if they had boils on their necks." Holloway was surely a man after Peter's heart, he wrote of the police attendances during performances of The Playboy of the Western World - "This was freedom of the theatre, according to Yeats, and his studies in blue ranged along the walls like Tussaud's Waxworks." Or, again, Holloway on St.John Ervine - "When a Northener has talent combined with cheek there is no holding him..."

Despite the difficulties of working under Edward Martyn the theatre continued also after Yeats death to give its best shots and Peter was able to confirm this from his own experience in 1930 when he attended all its productions, both new plays and revivals. Peter's high excitement with theatre informs his exceptional ability to re-create that excitement, and understand the importance of theatrical experience for civilisation, that sends one off to read or re-read Irish authors from history to the present time. Writing of George Russel he says : He (AE) realised that the greatest spiritual evil one nation could inflict on another was to cut off from it the story of the national soil.

At this point it is worth remembering those great men George Petrie, John O'Donovan and Eugene O'Curry who miraculously, perhaps urged by a spiritual apprehension of the future, rescued so much of that history and myth as it really existed among the Irish people in years prior to the Famine. Any later, investigators would have missed so much, and it entirely beyond recall. Even then those fine men experienced that evil of national repression when the British Authorities prevented them continuing their geographic surveys of Place Names and their histories. All the work subsequently was done almost voluntarily and privately, but by those dedicated men whose energy never seemed to tire.

I understand that Peter Kavanagh wrote regularly all his life and it will certainly be of great interest to hear of future posthumous publications by this sincere strong man. And as to the scabrous abuse he suffered here in Ireland, as did his brother Patrick in his time - one wonders how many of the Irish writers and artists of note wrote to him in his last years to apologise for their brutal "brotherhood" of arrogance.

Jocelyn Braddell.