In his great tribute to WB Yeats, WH Auden recognized that poetry achieves nothing. But it can change our feelings.
Post poetry all over the house — by the mirror or on the fridge door — and a glimpse of a line saves me from the relentless internal chatter.
Ireland can claim the best poets in the world. But how unlucky those who tried to cleave between Yeats and Seamus Heaney had in Ireland.
I recently read Taoisigh and the Artsby Kevin Rafter, which provides a compelling history of the state’s treatment of artists and writers.
As Chairman of the Arts Council, Rafter’s trawling through correspondence between former Taoisigh and officials shows how various appeals to fund Irish culture have failed miserably for decades.
With the exception of John A. Costello, from WT Cosgrave to Jack Lynch, Taoisigh had almost no interest in culture. Artists not only suffered from neglect but were also crushed by censorship – unless they satisfied Éamon de Valera’s obsessive demand for works in Irish.
Today, with government policies using culture as a tool of global influence, the turnaround is quite spectacular.
By contrast, Costello’s efforts to set up an arts council in the 1950s met fierce opposition from a tight-fisted Treasury Department, which viewed culture as a luxury we simply couldn’t afford.
Her secretary, JJ McElligott, shared de Valera’s narrow-mindedness and specifically warned against offering government subsidies for English-language plays and literature in exchange for Irish-language work.
Fortunately, Costello won this argument and the Arts Council was formed, albeit on a small budget.
The story of Patrick Kavanagh, whose humble origins in rural Monaghan has surely made him the nation’s most authentic voice, is almost heartbreaking. He was constantly short of cash and in declining health.
His situation did not improve when he sued in 1954 the leader Newspaper for an article describing him as an alcoholic and a freeloader. Since Kavanagh clearly had a drinking problem, it wasn’t a great move.
the leader hired Costello himself to defend the case. He interrogated Kavanagh for seven days. It was relentless and inevitably Kavanagh lost.
But he and Costello became friends after that. When Costello returned to power, Kavanagh wrote to him desperate for work and even suggested that he work in the advertising department of Aer Lingus.
Trying to get him something, Costello approached UCD for a speaking position. He ended up pressuring the Arts Council, which he founded, to receive a one-off grant of £200 “as part of an effort to help one of our greatest living poets survive”. The Council reluctantly agreed, then promptly changed its rules to prevent further individual requests for assistance.
Coincidentally, the same week I read the book, I received a package from James Morrissey, PR consultant and now chairman of Claddagh Records.
It included the newly launched double CD of Kavanagh Poems. A CD includes recordings of Kavanagh’s poetry by famous names such as Bono, President Michael D. Higgins, Christy Moore, Liam Neeson and Aidan Gillen. The other is by Kavanagh himself, in a remastered version of a recording made by Claddagh’s Garech De Brún in 1963.
His voice is a joyful if sad jolt – the sound of an Ireland now being supplanted by the ubiquitous North Atlantic twang.
Morrissey tells the story of de Brún’s efforts to secure the recording, delayed by Kavanagh’s determination to get paid for it. Luckily for us, de Brún, a true patriot, paid the £100 demanded of him. Thank goodness, because the album is the only existing recording of Kavanagh reading his own work.
The end of the story, just three years later, is awful.
It is described by Eamon Delaney in his memoirs about his father, the sculptor Edward Delaney.
In 1966 then-President de Valera unveiled a statue of Edward Delaney by Wolfe Tone – the one in St Stephen’s Green.
Various dignitaries attended the ceremony, including the Taoiseach Seán Lemass.
Delaney personally invited Kavanagh to attend. But by this point he was so disheveled that a steward tried to remove him from his seat, mistaking him for a vagrant.
He left humiliated and died of lung cancer two weeks later.
One man tried to step in that day to protect Kavanagh – the future Taoiseach, Charles J. Haughey.
Haughey is famous for its respect for culture.
His biographer, Gary Murphy, argues that he was the driving force behind ensuring that the state provided adequate funding for the arts.
Through his long friendship with Anthony Cronin, Haughey introduced two famous initiatives: exempting artists’ income from taxes and founding Aosdána, the state’s ‘club’ of artists, membership of which secures an annual stipend.
Rafter is a little more skeptical, suggesting that Haughey was more interested in personal intervention than in creating better arts funding structures.
But there’s no doubt that Haughey shifted the conversation by citing art as vital to the nation, and we haven’t looked back.
Today, Rafter acknowledges that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens in the current government have committed €130 million in funding in 2022 to finally give the arts proper support.
I often feel guilty about the price paid by dead poets while I enjoy their work for free.
Artists have always depended on patrons, mostly private ones, to survive. It’s a relief that my taxes are being used for public patronage in the hope that another Patrick Kavanagh doesn’t have to die in poverty.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/sad-life-of-patrick-kavanagh-an-enduring-lesson-in-why-government-must-always-support-the-arts-42049603.html The sad life of Patrick Kavanagh is an abiding lesson in why government must always support the arts