8. With Kavanagh, by the Canal
A couple of blocks down Baggot Street from the first Mercy Sisters’ convent that Catherine McAuley founded in Dublin in 1831, is a pleasant tree-lined section of the Grand Canal. Nearby is a distinctive and evocative statue of the poet Patrick Kavanagh (1905-67).
It depicts him life-size, seated on a bench, legs crossed, arms folded, bronze hat at his side on the seat. He gazes ruminatively at the green water. He liked water:
O commemorate me
where there is water,
Canal water preferably,
so stilly greeny
at the heart of summer.
I spent a bit of time with the silent, greeny-bronzed Patrick until my reverie was interrupted by two tourists (was I a tourist?) They were a young English couple. They were drawn in by the quiet drama of the sculpture to which we each added, watchers and watched, the four of us. They took photos, the young man mimicking Patrick’s pose, beside him on the seat.
Only after some minutes did he bend to read the brief inscription. “Who was he?” asked the young woman. “Some poet,” was the response. I bit my tongue, some poet myself, at once amused and annoyed at their obliviousness. Kavanagh does, after all, rank somewhere up there with Yeats and Heaney.
It was the intonation that stayed with me: somewhere between indifference and contempt: the other end of the scale from the pride and admiration of the “some pig” declamation fashioned into a spider web in the delightful children’s tale. Charlotte’s Web. “Some poet” seemed doubly dismissive: the obscurest of the obscure, the most useless of the most useless, a trade without clout. And yet Kavanagh himself would no doubt have relished the irony of it:
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.
I have a friend whose postcards from Ireland frequently featured observations about statues. She made me aware of the silent influence of sculpture on the landscape. The figure of Patrick Kavanagh was one that I would not forget. As I drove southwards to Rosslare I caught myself with a wry smile, thinking about the poet’s lot, about the vulnerability and endurance of statues, and the cool green, leaf-mirroring water of the Grand Canal.
First published in the magazine Tain, April 2000.