Patrick Kavanagh, Poetry and Place

Christmas Lights

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the Co. Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh. His poetry is both universal and local; the imagery evoked follows the child through to adulthood. Kavanagh's early life in Inishkeen was lonely, full of mysterious ‘winks and elbow language’, a realm outside his understanding. He held the fear of all young people living in isolation in rural Ireland. He had an understanding of his local place but often felt trapped by it.

No study of Kavanagh’s poetry is complete without reference to ‘A Childhood Christmas’, a poem that reflects his rural childhood. We learn not only about the physical place but the emotional one as well. He describes the physical markers on the landscape, showing them like photographs to an audience, though in an intimate way, almost like a secret. We hear about his father, who played the melodeon at the gate while the stars danced to his music, the lights played on the ricks of hay while across the bog the music called to the Callans and Lennons.

The child’s sense of wonder is heavy throughout and is something with which we can all associate, particularly at this time of year. In Kavanagh’s words the ‘newness that was in every stale thing’ transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. Through him we experience his home from the ground to the sky and are surrounded by it as he once was surrounded continuously by it as a child. Like us, he marked his life, (at that time as a child of six) according to place. His parish, his house, the bogs and fields were all places he returned to because they held meaning for him, as well as holding stories and songs.

Christmas Landscape

So, place matters, especially for children and families learning who they are and how they connect to the landscape. As Kavanagh said:

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

While there is an appeal in finding something that only happens here, an appreciation of all of the small things that happen in every small place makes them personal, important and magical to our heritage.

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