“Not an Ulsterman”

The Northern Voices of Kavanagh’s Weekly

James Gallacher

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Writing in an article of Kavanagh's Weekly for June 14th 1952, Patrick Kavanagh remarked upon the editors of Belfast literary periodical Rann that 'noted by my humble self in passing is the fact that these northerners always accept the Six Counties as Ulster.’ And that subsequently ‘according to these lads I am not an Ulsterman.'[1]  Kavanagh's appraisal of Rann's position is one made with reference to his own origins in County Monaghan. In making such a remark, Kavanagh touched upon an enduringly problematic question of national and cultural identity in and around Northern Ireland and the wider border region.

Established in 1948, the Belfast magazine was concerned with one of the central preoccupations of cultural luminaries within the nascent Northern Irish state – namely that of establishing an order of literary tradition that could stand as distinct within the wider British tide while simultaneously offering a point of departure from the mores of the South that was more substantial than mere reactionary division. Such an imperative was not one felt by Rann alone; within the BBC, it was noted that ‘its [Northern Ireland’s] character, from the cultural point of view, is still in the process of formation, and broadcasting has been called upon to play its part.’[2] This intention was hamstrung to a significant extent by the entrenched and often bitterly expressed religious and cultural divisions within Northern Irish society, as the BBC's Director of Regional Relations Charles Siepmann highlighted in the Northern Irish supplement to a wider report on BBC regions, it findings effect a gloomily pessimistic portrayal of the nation's cultural situation:

The bitterness of religious antagonism between Protestants and Catholics invades the life of the community at every point and for our purposes conditions almost everything we do. Of the total population roughly a third is Roman Catholic and the remaining two thirds Protestant. Party alignments in politics, appointments to the public service and the commercial and cultural life of the community are all affected […] Roman Catholicism for the purpose of party politics means fusion with the Free State and the political existence of Ulster is of course based on the determination to oppose such fusion at any price.[3]

The backdrop of a seemingly intractable polarisation of political attitudes as a manifest handmaiden to centuries of sectarian animosity, in which a significant proportion of the new state’s population were essentially opposed to its existence offered scant opportunity for the development of a coherent cultural identity that could provide a narrative conducive to inclusive identity or participation. As Belfast radio producer and editor of the Lagan journal John Boyd was to remark ‘the BBC in Northern Ireland tried hard to find an identity that would be acceptable to Protestant unionists and nationalist Catholics but I think it failed: programmes were too often a mishmash that satisfied neither.’[4] The environment described by Boyd at the BBC in the years immediately post-war is one of tokenistic overtures to inclusivity that are endemically undermined by an implicit but consistent bias on the grounds of religious and political persuasion, one which ‘was never admitted by the hierarchy on the few occasions the subject was raised in conversation.’[5] The underlying marginalisation of Nationalist positions was exacerbated by a Protestant Loyalist audience that demonstrated a hair-trigger disapproval to anything resembling rapprochement of the culture of Nationalist, Catholic, or Gaelic Ireland. This intolerance was displayed acutely in the reaction provoked by the BBC’s decision to include Gaelic Football results in their Sunday radio bulletin, with one correspondent to a Protestant newspaper declaring:

I am, I think, representative of the majority of the citizens of our loyal province – a respecter of the Sabbath observance as a day of rest. We do not want to hear of the exploits in the realms of a sport which holds no interest for most of us – loyal citizens of a mighty empire to whom the Gaelic mind, speech and pastimes mean nothing.

This response reveals a Unionist polity both intolerant of and ill-at-ease with the possibility of a pluralist national consciousness and the BBC soon drifted into a reductively conservative brand of programming that reflected an underlying ethos described by Boyd as ‘definitely non-Irish’ with an emphasis that was ‘almost entirely on the ‘Ulster’ way of life, and ‘Ulster’ was defined as the Six Counties only, and the Six Counties were predominantly Protestant.’ [6]

This reduction of Ulster as a term of provincial reference from nine counties to six within the BBC echoes Kavanagh’s complaint at his exclusion from the consciousness of the Rann editorial committee. Indeed, the BBC’s failure to establish a platform for an inclusive expression of Northern Irish identity mirrors a similarly one-eyed bent within the literary philosophy most commonly associated with Rann’s output, namely that of Ulster Regionalism. Regionalism as an artistic form is now most commonly associated with the Belfast born poet John Hewitt. Hewitt’s conceptualisation of Regionalism reflects the recurring problem of squaring reduced geography with religious and cultural division, as Frank Shovlin points out, the poet’s writing on matters Regional in Lagan – a forerunner to Rann - had often been inconsistent, highlighting how ‘the historic notion of a nine-county province does not sit easily with the magazine, so much so that its most strident apostle of regionalism, John Hewitt, is forced into confused questioning: ‘where then does Ulster stand? After all, we have a frontier. What then of Donegal?’ [7]

Hewitt’s answer as to what to do with Donegal appears, on one level at least, to be to ignore it: the poem ‘Ulster Names’, for example, declares the poet’s intention to ‘take my stand by the Ulster names, each clean hard name like a weathered stone’ and proceeds to introduce, county by county, a rollcall of Ulster towns and offer a series of bucolic descriptions of a land seemingly inalienably linked to Hewitt’s own provenance:

You say Armagh, and I see the hill
with the two tall spires or the square low tower


You whisper Derry. Beyond the walls
and the crashing boom and the coiling smoke.
I follow that freedom which beckons and calls
to Colmcille, tall in his grove of oak,
raising his voice for the rhyming folk.

County by county you number them over;
Tyrone, Fermanagh ...I stand by a lake,
and the bubbling curlew


Let Down be famous for care-tilled earth,
for the little green hills and the harsh grey peaks,


You give it the name [Antrim] and my quick thoughts run
through the narrow towns with their wheels of trade,
to Glenballyemon, Glenaan, Glendun [8]

Absent is any mention of the three traditional counties of Ulster (Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan) that were not included in Northern Ireland after partition. The wider implications of their omission attain a heightened poignancy when viewed in relation to the opening lines of the third stanza, wherein Hewitt declares ‘the names of a land show the heart of the race; they move on the tongue like the lilt of a song.’ The anchoring of race to land in this manner, when viewed in the context of the poet’s exclusion of non-Northern Irish Ulster exposes an expression of cultural identity that, when appraised in relation to the acrimonious nature of Northern Ireland’s contemporary existence, suggests an insidious manifestation of sectarianism as a form of practiced myopia.

Hewitt’s tendency to focus narrowly on the Protestant, ‘Six Counties’ culture of Ulster surfaces again in his long essay “ The Course of Writing in Ulster”, published in the final issue of Rann in 1953, the article scopes out the parameters of its ideological concern via means of a brief historical account of the formative process of Protestant Ulster, explicitly emphasising how ‘In these various Plantations, unofficial and official, lie the foundations of what is now called Northern Ireland, a state set up in 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act of the previous year. This consists of the six north-eastern counties of the Province; Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal being excluded.’ [9] This qualification sets the tone for an article that focuses concertedly on a cultivated exploration of an exclusively Planter reading of Ulster history. Although some mention is made of poets who entertained Irish Nationalism they are almost all of a United Irishman persuasion and little to no remark is made of the Gaelic or Catholic literary tradition of the region beyond a summary account of their interaction with those of Planter stock: ‘only in a few of the lyrical measures does a richer interplay of internal rime or assonance give evidence of any contact with Gaelic usages. There are no references to Irish mythology or history.’ [10]

Interestingly, Hewitt himself does on occasion venture into the realm of Ulster myth and antiquity in his own creative writing as ‘Ulster Names’ makes reference to ‘Columcille, tall in his grove of oak, raising his voice for the rhyming folk.’ In addition to this poetic reference, a verse play entitled The Angry Dove finds Hewitt offering his own telling of the life of Columcille (St Columba.) Unpublished until 1999, the play is estimated to have been written around 1952 and is described as ‘an attempt by Hewitt to engage with the pre-Roman Catholicism of his native Irish, finding in Columcille a salutary character who travels well […] bringing there a more Nature-based Celtic Catholicism which is eventually overcome by the Catholicism of Rome.’[11] This assessment, taken at face value would suggest something of a rejoinder to the narrowed insularity of Hewitt’s Regionalism. However, a particular scene concerning the conversion of pagan King Brude throws up a potentially alternative avenue for analysis and as such is worth recording in detail:

Columcille: You must kneel humble, bowing your brought head, and say ‘I will wait, Lord; come into my heart, inhabit all my members, make me Thine.’

High King: This is too simple. Let there be a spell, a muttering of spells, and coiling smokes, and a harsh trial – and a sacrifice.

Columcille: The trial’s still to come. The sacrifice is made already, for the Son of God offered Himself for you, and was accepted. We have no spells to stuff the ears with noise. We whisper reason to the open mind, and sing salvation to the open heart. [12]

Columcille’s instructions echo in sentiment the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, while the High King’s demand for ‘a muttering of spells, and coiling smokes’ can easily be interpreted as a representation of the ritualised Catholic mass replete with liturgy and incense and indeed, the plea for a sacrifice – rebutted by Columcille – can come to be seen as an imitation of the core doctrinal distinction between consubstantiation and transubstantiation. This invocation of spells as a representation of Gaelic Ireland is a motif employed by Hewitt before in his famous poem ‘Once Alien Here’ as he describes the aftermath of Protestant conquest:

The sullen Irish limping to the hills
bore with them the enchantment and the spells
that in the clans’ free days hung gay and rich
on every twig of every thorny hedge,
and gave the rain-pocked stone a meaning past
the blurred engraving of the fibrous frost. [13]

Additionally, as the High King’s Druid entreats him to turn away from conversion, he implores him to ‘remember Dagon’. Dagon was a figure from Canaanite mythology named in the Old Testament as being the God of the Philistines [14] and referenced in Milton’s Paradise Lost as one of the fallen deities of Hell. The fact that Dagon does not belong to the Irish mythical canon would suggest that his inclusion is deliberate, particularly given Milton’s professional and theological connections to the English Interregnum along with his depictions of Cromwell as a latter-day Moses. [15] Significantly Columcille’s entrance to the High King’s hall is couched in Mosaic terms: ‘Columcille advanced […] The men were arm’d men, clutching their spears, or holding ready blades: and as we moved upon them they drew back, dividing as the waters of the sea when Moses led the Israelites across.’[16] Viewed in this respect, Hewitt’s portrayal of the Ulster Saint Columcille assumes a more disturbing agenda than previously entertained, and can be seen as a concerted attempt to circumvent the culture of Catholic Ulster via the artificial wedding of Plantation-era political and religious motifs to Ireland’s earliest forms of Christian belief.

That Kavanagh then did not match the narrow contrivances of Hewitt’s definition of an Ulster writer comes as no surprise and the poet hides whatever resentment he may have felt by declaring ‘nor indeed that it matters. As I am never tired of saying, it is a poor thing when a man has to lean on his nationality for distinction and it is doubly poor when he has to narrow his field down to six small counties.’ [17] Whatever his contempt for the exclusory reduction of his native province, Kavanagh was commissioned by the BBC to record two radio programmes in a series titled ‘Undiscovered Ulster’, his contributions were to be for Counties Armagh and Down, and ‘put considerable effort into making a success of this project, cycling the two counties to gain a first-hand impression and reading up on them. ’[18]

If Kavanagh was seemingly prepared to work within an Ulster framework that excluded his native Monaghan from the series, then his autobiographical novel The Green Fool, published in the same year goes some significant way in exploring the national and religious turbulence that permeated the decades surrounding the events that ultimately led to that exclusion. The early chapters of the text represent a narrative of seemingly straightforward pastoral bildungsroman in tandem with an insightful account of rural Irish life and only faint intimations as to the underlying social and religious tensions that would eventually result in partition, such as the childish and – in light of what was to come – positively gentle examples of sectarian encounters, exemplified by an altercation the young Kavanagh had with a Protestant churchman’s son:

I met a little boy. I knew him, but just to let him know, I asked him who he was. He was a Protestant, the son of a church sexton who every Sunday rang the Protestant church bell which had a sound like a cracked pot, we used to say. The lad didn’t give me a suitable reply, so I began to use the third-degree. He ran in to his father crying: Daddy, Daddy, I’m being choked.’ […] I was frightened and ran for it […] Behind me my pursuer was gaining ground. He was within fifty yards now. I met a man going with his horses to plough, and Mr Sexton shouted:
‘Stop him, stop him, he choked my son.’

The ploughman looked upon this act of mine as a recommendation. ‘I’ll not stop him,’ he roared, ‘but I’ll stop you. You Orange dog.’ [19]

While this incident may have not been particularly edifying, its localised and juvenile scope was very soon to be bullied to the periphery by the scale of national and international catastrophe. The seventh chapter ‘The War’ opens with an exchange that grounds Kavanagh’s experience of an impending global disaster in a specifically Ulster context:

I looked out of the window and saw a neighbour-man marching with a military air down the road. On his shoulder he carried a long gun. He had been bidding good-bye to his mother […] when mother entered the house she said to father:
‘Carson’s army is comin’ to Carrick and oul’ Owney is off to fight him.’ […] It was August nineteen hundred and fourteen.
As I stood by our road gate some time later a man passing shouted to me: ‘Home Rule is shelved.’ [20]

Set against the backdrop of the First World War, the particularities of Ulster’s political strife become more acutely evident, and specifically the religious and cultural side of the divide Kavanagh was to find himself on; the subsequent chapters are pockmarked by recurring pro-German statements made by a variety of background characters alongside a burgeoning Irish Republican sentiment: ‘The German’s a good soldier. Up the German […] Up Sinn Fein, good ‘oul Germany; England’s gettin’ her oats now and time to eat it.’ [21] As the book’s context slides towards The War of Independence and subsequently Civil War, Kavanagh’s position would crystalize as he describes the 1919 General Election as ‘more than a mere election. It was the battle of youth and the New Ireland versus the old men and the old servitude.’ Parallel to the violent shift in Ireland’s political tectonics are snippets of the older, bucolic Ulster that dominated the early sections of the novel, as Kavanagh describes during ‘The War’ chapter a trip through Rocksavage as being ‘where the fairy folk hide. The whins on the Forth Hill grew ten feet high, and in between them were magical countries where cowslips and banshees’ thimbles grew. The banshee’s thimble was a wild foxglove. I once pulled the thimbles and was told that the Banshee would call for me before a year.’ [22] The remnant echoes of this ancient folklore throw a wan light on what the partition of Ireland was to rent asunder. The Lilliputian nature of Kavanagh’s childish sectarian assault on the Protestant boy was to become enshrined in a bloody cultural and political schism that would banish the Gaelic culture of Ulster to the margins of the new Northern Irish state and, in the wake of this severance, provide the impetus for the likes of Hewitt to reach back artificially into the past in order to contrive a narrow and exclusive sense of cultural and artistic hegemony that had little time for the Ulster of Kavanagh’s experience.

Kavanagh’s active role in the Civil War carried with it the evidence of a burgeoning ambivalent pluralism when it came to mixing principle and profit that would stay with the writer all his life. In his own words he ‘managed to get in a bit of work for Ireland on the side. Some members of the I.R.A. operated in that area. I joined their evenings and got a kick out of it. We cut the telegraph wires every evening […] My patriotic activities sharpened my zest for work, though not of course very sharp. [23] Quinn makes note of his participation in a raid on a post office in which he stole a lamp, a theft for which his father ‘thrashed him and sent him back to the village to return the stolen goods’ and also that ‘physically, Patrick was a rather cowardly youth and his participation in guerrilla activities appears to have been at a fairly low level.’ [24]

If Kavanagh’s sympathies had been with the Anti-Treaty side during the Civil War, then by the time Kavanagh’s Weekly came to see print his attitude towards Northern Ireland had softened significantly, indeed the magazine’s very first article finds Kavanagh railing against a ‘victory of mediocrity’ within the now Republic of Ireland that draws him into a favourable comparison with how ‘oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly in the Six Counties they managed to combine the efficiency of modern marketing with a respect for traditions. As a result the Six Counties today is the only part of romantic Ireland left for tourists or ourselves.’ [25] The lamenting look North is indicative of a wider disappointment Kavanagh felt regarding the nature of 1950s Irish society as he declares ‘thirty years ago the southern section of this country won what was called freedom […] It is possible that political liberty is a superficial thing and that it always produces the apotheosis of the mediocrity.’ These bald statements must be qualified by the context into which Kavanagh was himself immersed in by the early 50s; having become a central figure within a burgeoning Dublin bohemia that centred around McDaids pub and the Envoy literary periodical. Kavanagh was experiencing a profound thematic shift within his own writing – a transitional period he would later refer to as a poetic rebirth. [26] This change manifested itself in a shedding of the rural vein of pastoral verse that had typified his early work, and with that went much of the referential descriptions of Gaelic Ulster. This process inclined him to address the state of Irish artistic culture as he saw it and the development of a determinedly caustic strain of critical invective that began and was honed in Envoy and spilled over unchecked into Weekly. In looking North, Kavanagh is harnessing his particularly contrary brand of criticism to reveal his profound dissatisfaction with the present state of Irish art.

This is not to suggest that Northern Irish writing was spared Kavanagh’s wrath, indeed an article from May 3rd 1952 finds him opening up a salvo on the affected dropping of the final ‘g’ in order to contrive a more authentic vernacular image that he derides as ‘loanins’. Unsurprisingly many of the contributors of Rann find themselves squarely in line for a Kavanagh broadside:

The Northern bards have their own sort of tinkers. The Northern bards are always going down a loanin’ […] As we progress in the black north we soon come up several other loanins upon which dander the several figures of Lynn Doyle, Richard Hayward, Richard Rowley, “John o’ the North” and many other sharp-eyed businessmen in disguise. [27]

Another erstwhile Northern target of Kavanagh’s was W.R ‘Bertie’ Rodgers. Rodgers, a lapsed Presbyterian minister who worked as a BBC radio producer and script writer enjoyed a mixed relationship with the irascible Kavanagh, as a letter from 1943 shows, Kavanagh was initially warm towards the Belfast poet and appeared keen to establish a professional and literary relationship:

Dear Mr Rodgers,

I am “guest editor” of The Bell in(?) next January and if you would send me anything I should be as excited as I’d be surprised. Maybe you will. You have stimulated my aesthetic emotions(?) very much. I’d need to know before Nov 1st.

All good wishes,

Patrick Kavanagh. [28]

However, by 1947 the relationship appeared strained, and the correspondence found Kavanagh on terse form:

Dear Rodgers,

If you are still interested in the dramatic possibilities of "Tarry Flynn" I'd like to hear from you. On the other hand you need not assume that I am coming with my tail between me legs hoping to get taken on by the "so-called" BBC I am just thinking that the money would be nice.

With best wishes to a stern Calvinist,

I remain most sincerely yours,

Patrick Kavanagh. [29]

By the time Kavanagh came to raise his complaint against his exclusion from Rann he was at the point of open hostility towards the writer, declaring:

W.R Rodgers has a poem here too, so influenced by Hopkins that one wonders Rodgers can be so lacking in pride. Rodgers’ contrived verse not only exposes himself but also to some degree his master, Hopkins. For all that is must be admitted that there is feeling in this verse of Rodgers’ if one can stomach the awfulness of such things as
Over the balconies of these curvey breasts –

Hurry with the basin. [30]

The article goes on to launch a sneering evisceration of Rodgers’ poetic method, deriding him as a ‘manufacturer’ who represents ‘the very antithesis of the poetic mind. Here we have a man thinking out new ways of saying nothing. All invention.’ Kavanagh’s impugning of Rodgers’ authenticity as a writer surfaces again in a piece presumably intended for Kavanagh’s Weekly but noticeably missing from the publication, it concerns an introduction Rodgers wrote for a collection of J.M Synge plays, and here Kavanagh’s disdain for the Northern poet takes a lamentably sectarian turn:

I bought the Penguin edition of the plays of Synge solely for the introduction for WR Rodgers, for at a glance anyone could see that Mr Rodgers is a remarkable bucklepper. Sorry for using that word again but it is the word that best fits this thing. Mr Rodgers is a word-weaver, a phrase-maker the equal of any Radio Eireann writers. There is something to be said for Rodgers’ buckleppin Irishness: he is out of touch with anything that may be called Irish and he is not good enough to live without a country.

Sometimes I am tempted to forget the Protestant friends of this paper and to cry “What dreadful humbug Protestantism! […]

But because of all this Mr Rodgers is well qualified to introduce Synge: he is a protestant clergyman and Synge was connected with that profession. What is the dominant note in Synge? I would say bitterly Non-Irish. It all came from the basic insincerity upon which he built. A man should be true to himself first of all, for unless a man is true to himself the mould is false.

Synge provided Irish protestants who are worried about being “Irish” with an artificial country. One hates being sectarian in this matter, but it all springs from insincerity, and literature has to do with sincerity. It doesn’t matter what so-called nationality you belong to. [31]

The introduction in question acknowledges the hybridity of Synge’s Anglo-Irish heritage ‘Synge wanted the best of both worlds. For he was born between two worlds, of Anglo-Irish stock […] Like others of that divided Anglo-Irish race – from Sheridan to Shaw – he sought expression for, and found resolution of, that conflict in the writing of drama. His unity is in his plays.’ [32] While Rodger’s introduction may merit the accusation of being a little light on substance, there is scant justification for the blisteringly myopic invective unleashed by Kavanagh here. The main objection appears to be that Synge – and by extension Rodgers – have no grounds or right to encroach on the subject matter of rural Ireland, with the dominant justification for this demanded preclusion being their religion. In a curious reciprocity Kavnagh displays a similarly myopic and insular approach to cultural authenticity as do Rann’s editors in their exclusion of Kavanagh from Ulster affairs.

If Kavanagh and Rann (and Hewitt) inadvertently shared one of Ulster’s ugliest cultural traits, then on one matter where they enjoyed a much more straightforward accord was the matter of the Irish language.  While Hewitt simply failed to attach any significance beyond a tangential happenstance to the language’s relevance to his vision of Ulster, Kavanagh – ensconced within a State that deemed Irish to be its first official language – regarded it with derision, viewing it as an unnecessary and retrogressive cultural step, declaring ‘whenever I hear of a man, be he bishop or politician, talking about restoring the Gaelic language I must come to the conclusion that he is an enemy of thought.’ [33]

In this stance Kavanagh found himself diametrically opposed to another figure within the McDaids coterie who also had his origins within the historic province of Ulster. Brian O’ Nolan (Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen), born in Strabane, County Tyrone to a family of impeccable gaeilgeoirí credentials, was moved to respond to Kavanagh’s dismissal of Irish in a letter published in the periodical’s following issue:

Sir – your weekly – being a “A Journal of Literature and Politics” – does itself no service in publishing repeated attacks on the policy of teaching the Irish language in the schools. Most people take the term “literature” to mean all the literatures of the earth, ancient and modern; Irish is a precise, elegant and cultivated language, with a most unusual and curious literature. Your attitude appears to arise from plain ignorance of it […] there [is not] anything “literary” or even civilised in denouncing the study of any branch of human knowledge and experience. A perusal of the preface to Silva Gadelica by Standish Hates O’ Grady would well repay you.

Any notion of reviving Irish as the universal language of the country is manifestly impossible and ridiculous but the continued awareness here of the Gaelic norm of word and thought is vital to the preservation of our peculiar and admired methods of hiring English. [34]

This riposte highlights both the contrast between the two authors in the extent to which Irish represented a manifest expression of cultural and political identity both in terms of Ulster and Ireland. O’ Nolan, whose father Michael was Queens University graduate, civil servant who taught Irish in Brian’s home town and whose brother Gearóid was Professor of Irish at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. [35] As was O’ Nolan’s background more overtly grounded in an interaction with the Irish language than Kavanagh’s, so too was his immersion within Republicanism; as Kavanagh’s father displayed an ambivalent reluctance to take sides during either the War of Independence or Civil War, O’ Nolan’s brother Ciarán recounts in his biography of Brian their own father’s position: ‘I remember our father revealing his attitude […] when an English airship came across the sky and flew over our house. ‘Where is it going? I asked him. ‘To Hell, I hope,’ he answered’. [36]

Despite Kavanagh’s initially expressed disdain for both Rann and Irish, the poet did subsequently concede that ‘there are some better things in Rann’ and also goes on to entertain the possibility that:

we did lose something with the Gaelic language though not all. There are still the place names and if only the idiotic revisers of the language would realise that these places names are almost the only living part of the Gaelic language and concentrate on them and stem out from them there would be some hope. For the value of the ancient language is in the sense of continuity we have when we look down on the corridor of history that it provides. No use saving the dry bones of a language if the artificial spirit you put into it is something foreign to the country. [37]

This reflective statement finds Kavanagh in a rare conciliatory mood that would indicate something approaching a retreat from his earlier stridency on matters pertaining to Irish. It is significant to note that this statement comes in the same issue of Weekly as appears Myles’ letter of complaint regarding Kavanagh’s earlier attacks on the language, and as such is an indication that the poet had taken his friend’s criticism on board. This in itself is illuminating of the esteem in which Kavanagh held his fellow Ulsterman, for as Envoy editor John Ryan recorded, he was someone ‘who threw compliments about like a man with no arms’ but referred to O’ Nolan as ‘incomparable’ and, after the younger man’s death had ‘remarked […] there was really nobody left to talk to in Dublin […] he was one of the few writers in whose company he [Kavanagh] was completely at ease; his respect for him was complete; he was his peer; like himself he had chosen the tougher going, the thinner air of Upper Parnassus.’ [38] This in turn indicates the existence of a reciprocal relationship and a cross-pollination of ideas towards cultural and literary matters among members of a group broadly intolerant of most contemporaries who were dependent on one another for their own critical and philosophical development and in whose respective outputs the influence of one another can be readily seen to exist.

In addition to the foursquare attack upon Rann, another central strand of Ulster influence within Kavanagh’s Weekly comes in the form of one of the few regular columns contributed to Weekly that was written by someone other than Patrick or his brother Peter, namely the Belfast writer Gerrard Keenan. Keenan was to become more widely known in the 1960s for his contributions to the The Honest Ulsterman under the pseudonym Jude the Obscure but the regularity with which he appeared in Weekly does indicated that Kavanagh was keen to maintain links with the North. Keenan’s first appearance in the magazine in April 1952 certainly shares a commonality of expression regarding the nature of artistic and cultural life within Belfast: ‘rioting is dead in Belfast and it may never return, but I think dullness will always be its destiny. There is no food here for the intellect and there never will be, because the city is too small to maintain such a luxury. What is the score? An inadequate Art Gallery […] two theatres and an unsophisticated and poorly read intelligentsia.’ [39] Keenan’s ensuing description of the artistic life of the city bears significant similarities to Kavanagh’s assessment of 1950s Dublin as does his appraisal of Bertie Rodgers: ‘I remember a programme by W.R Rodgers called “Return to Armagh”, meretricious as is most of his work.’

The interest taken in matters concerning Northern Ireland by Kavanagh’s Weekly indicates more than a passing or residual identity with the partitioned section of the editors’ native province. Indeed, having come from a Republican area, and with Patrick having participated at least to some extent in the Civil War, it would seem only logical that the brothers would continue to take notice of the issues facing the North. To this effect, and in one of the most unusual pieces contained within the magazine, Peter Kavanagh undertakes an interview with Independent Unionist MP Tommy Henderson. Opening the article with a seeming reluctance, Kavanagh explains that ‘I went up to Belfast the other day to look around and see how the administration and the people were handling themselves. I stayed only one day because I had learned from previous experience that Belfast always gives me a headache if I stay for a longer period.’ [40]

The scene Kavanagh describes is one of an embittered civilian populace, fixated with the myopic idiosyncrasies of its own condition and determinedly ignorant of the world outside its borders. Of the latent sectarianism associated with both the city and the wider province, Kavanagh remarks ‘there are only two sides to any question, the Catholic and the Protestants’ and that the two communities ‘act as if they belonged to two different races; the Protestant section content themselves by a totally irrational attachment to King Billy (1690) while the Catholics crowd into their churches for seven days a week and, when they are not praying, are thinking of Patrick Sarsfield or some other vague historical figure.’ [41] Kavanagh’s interview with Henderson turns out to be rather a short one in which he asks the MP about the possibility of unemployed workers turning to communism: ‘The Northern man will never become a communist’ and for any insight into a perception of Northern Ireland’s role in world affairs: ‘we stand with England. Whatever England does we will accept.’ On the issue of partition and any possibility of a thaw in relations between North and South, Henderson is similarly unequivocal: ‘They won’t change over there in the South, but even if they did and joined the British Government we would still demand a parliament of our own up in the North. We could not trust the sincerity of such a move.’ [42] The peremptory intransigence of Henderson’s responses do reinforce Kavanagh’s initial assertions of a populace broadly unconcerned with affairs beyond their own sphere as he concludes ‘elections in Belfast are a foregone conclusion. The Unionists have themselves so entrenched, their organisation so efficiently streamlined, and the voters so completely doped that there is no need for them to bother [campaigning].’

The tone of the piece is one of bluff resignation, there appears to be little dismay at the seeming impossibility of a re-united Ireland (or Ulster), but for the periodical to have taken such an enduring and wide reaching interest in affairs north of the border would suggest a motivation beyond mere intellectual curiosity, moreover one that has its roots in a commonality of experience (both unifying and divisive) with the people and culture of Northern Ireland, and by extension, that of the province of Ulster.


[1] Patrick Kavanagh, “A Wheen of Weans”, Kavanagh’s Weekly (1952) 7

[2] BBC Yearbook 1945, 235

[3] Rex Cathcart, The Most Contrary Region: The BBC in Northern Ireland 1924-1984 (Belfast: Blackstaff Press Ltd, 1984) 3 – quoting Charles Siepmann

[4] John Boyd, The Middle Of My Journey (Belfast: Blackstaff Press Ltd 1990) 185

[5] Boyd, Journey 74

[6] Boyd, Middle of My Journey - 74

[7] Frank Shovlin, The Irish Literary Periodical 1923-1958 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003) 162

[8] John Hewitt “Ulster Names” in Selected Poems (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 2007) 135

[9] John Hewitt “The Course of Writing in Ulster”, Rann 20 (1953) 43

[10] Hewitt, “Ulster Writing” 45

[11] Damien Smyth – introduction to Two Plays (Belfast: Lagan Press 1999) 17

[12] John Hewitt - Two Plays (Belfast: Lagan Press 1999) 100

[13] John Hewitt, “Once Alien Here”, Lagan (1945), 51

[14] Holy Bible: King James Version (Glasgow: William Collins Sons and Company Limited 1957) 272

[15] Walter S. H. Lim, John Milton, Radical Politics, and Biblical Republicanism (Newark: Delaware University Press 2006), 141

[16] Hewitt, Angry Dove, 99

[17] Kavanagh, ‘Weans’ 7

[18] Antoinette Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd 2003) 111-12

[19] Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool (London: Penguin Classics 2001) 34

[20] Kavanagh, The Green Fool, 57

[21] Kavanagh, The Green Fool, 58, 102

[22] Kavanagh, The Green Fool, 65

[23] Kavanagh, The Green Fool, 130

[24] Quinn, Kavanagh, 36

[25] Patrick Kavanagh, “A Victory of Mediocrity”, Kavanagh’s Weekly 1

[26] Quin, Kavanagh, 301

[27] Patrick Kavanagh, “The Tinker’s Loanin’”, Kavanagh’s Weekly (1952) 7

[28] Handwritten letter from Kavanagh to Rodgers, held in Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) archives – box number D2833/0/1/9/1

[29] Letter from Kavanagh to Rodgers, held at the PRONI archive, box D2833/C/1/9/2

[30] Kavanagh, “Weans” 7

[31] From the Peter and Patrick Kavanagh Archive, University College Dublin, presumably written for Kavanagh’s Weekly, archive box Kav B I Vii

[32] W.R Rodgers, introduction to John M. Synge Collected Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1952) 12-13

[33] Patrick Kavanagh, “A Painful Subject”, Kavanagh’s Weekly (1952) 3

[34] Myles na gCopaleen, writing a ‘Letter to the Editor’, Kavanagh’s Weekly ( 1952) 5

[35] Ciarán Ó Nualláin, The Early Years of Brian O’ Nolan Flann O’Brien Myles na gCopaleen (Dublin: Lilliput Press 1998) 9-11

[36] Ó Nualláin, Myles, 18

[37] Kavanagh, Weans, 7

[38] John Ryan, Remembering How We Stood: Bohemian Dublin at the Mid-Century (Dublin: Lilliput Press 1975) 127

[39] Gerard Keenan, “Refugee From Mars”, Kavanagh’s Weekly (1952) 4

[40] Peter Kavanagh, “The Doleful City”, Kavanagh’s Weekly (1952) 4

[41] Kavanagh, ‘Doleful’, 4

[42] Kavanagh, “Doleful”, 4