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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

9 - Patrick Kavanagh: religious poet


Patrick Kavanagh possessed an unusually powerful intellect. This made him a caustic, even occasionally brutal, critic of his contemporaries and an acute commentator on Irish life, its social forms and its psycho­logical deformations. The power and force of his poems The Great Hunger, Lough Derg, the knowledgeable intimacy with his own place in Tarry Flynn, are now recognised as among the most authentic reports from an indigenous Irish world which, since William Carleton opened its realities to inspection in the nineteenth century, had endured ­various forms of literary misrepresentation, exploitation and creative re-invention. In granting Kavanagh this intimacy with what is reckoned by many of his admirers as the literary authentic, a kind of critical consensus has developed which fails to take account of the subtlety and sophistication, the power indeed, of Kavanagh's mind as it operates on an area of experience other than the social and psychological: the religious.

To make such a claim, however, is to fly in the face of several attributes of his oeuvre which would tend to make such a claim seem difficult to defend. There is the somewhat pallid pietism of the early verses, with their shy, chaste Mariolatry and too ready acquiescence in religiose emotion:

Here I wait

On the world's rim

Stretching out hands

To seraphim.

There is also the tiresome invective in his many obiter dicta against Protestantism which verge on the ignorance of mere sectarianism, as there is his simplistic identification of Catholicism with a true Ireland, which makes him seem at times as critically limited as any Irish Irelander or narrow nationalist possessed of stereotypes and myths of an essential Irishry.

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Kavanagh, P., Collected Poems (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1964), p. 8
Kavanagh, P., November Haggard: Uncollected Prose and Verse of Patrick Kavanagh, ed. Kavanagh, Peter (New York: Kavanagh, 1971), p.75
Kavanagh, P., By Night Unstarred: An Autobiographical Novel, ed. Kavanagh, Peter (The Curragh, Ireland: Goldsmith Press), pp. 131–2
Kavanagh, P., Collected Prose (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1976), p. 21
Quinn, Antoinette, Patrick Kavanagh: Born-Again Romantic (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1991), p. 124