Patrick Kavanagh (1904–1967) continues to inspire conflicting feelings and opinions. John Nemo, writing in The Dictionary of Irish Literature, puts it this way: “His followers, a varied but vocal group, speak of him admiringly as an important force in Irish letters, second only to Yeats. His detractors, fewer in number but every bit as vocal, dismiss him as a loud-mouthed, ill-mannered peasant who disrupted rather than advanced the development of modern literature.” As a loud-mouthed, ill-mannered peasant myself, I will take my place among Kavanagh’s followers.
One of his most ardent admirers was my old friend James Liddy, an Irish poet who spent most of his adult life as a professor at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee until his death in 2008. Many years ago (in the ‘70s sometime), James sent me a copy of an Irish journal called The Lace Curtain, which included his “Open Letter to the Young about Patrick Kavanagh.” Describing Kavanagh’s work (and, really, his own as well), Liddy writes, “Or there is a poetry in which real ideas from living come at us. This kind can be direct statement with a reference behind to the story of what happened to the poet. It relies on the mind staying alive, on the man making the statement keeping his emotional intelligence alive.”
Kavanagh brings that emotional intelligence, I think, to “A Christmas Childhood,” a poem one encounters regularly this time of year in Irish circles on both sides of the Atlantic. As an Irish accordion player, I relish the mention of his father’s melodeon (pronounced melojin), which is a single-row button accordion.
The poem introduces us to the thrumming imagination of a six-year-old Irish farmboy, ca. 1910, who is perfectly in tune with the magical world around him.
A Christmas Childhood
by Patrick Kavanagh
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost—
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven's gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw—
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood's. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch
Or any common sight the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy's hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon. The Three Wise Kings.
An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk’—
The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade.
There was a little one for cutting tobacco,
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
At his wedding in April 1967; Kavanagh died in November of that year.
One final note: Kavanagh’s best-known poem is probably “On Raglan Road,” which was written to the tune of an old march called “The Dawning of the Day.” Many singers have recorded the song since the ‘60s, including Van Morrison and Sinead O’Connor.