I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided; who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul!’
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
‘Here is the march along these iron stones’
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
In recent years this is often the time I’ve explored Ireland. Covid-19 has ruled that out for 2020 so instead of spending time absorbing the ambience of its towns and cities, talking, learning, tasting, drinking, savouring, it has been a time of virtual Ireland: reading, and listening, but still drinking.
In honour of those past times, and in the week of Bloom’s Day (16 June), it’s appropriate to publish an Irish poem and it’s one celebrating the genius of Patrick Kavanagh again. I’ve written about Kavanagh before in Third Thursday (06) and the elegance of his verse is evident in practically everything he wrote.
Elegy sounds like it might be an epic account of a life, and yet it’s evident that the important places and times he alludes to are as much those of everyday life as they are to great matters of state. And yet within that he’s making the point – to me at at least – that the great forces of history are also experienced locally, not on the world’s stage. And all this is accomplished within the limitations of a sonnet – just 14 lines of verse.
‘The year of the Munich bother’ sets the poem in 1938 when the Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, agreed to let Hitler annex a large part of Czechoslovakia in a futile attempt to avoid a war. It was the time when fascists were posturing, threatening and intimidating opponents across Europe, and yet Kavanagh seems to characterise this as an obscure feud between villagers arguing over a patch of land with pitchforks.
I outlined Pat Kavanagh’s background last time if you want to check the details but, as a country boy from Monaghan, aspects of this international crisis would have had a particular resonance for him. Ballyrush and Gortin are two small villages in the part of Co. Monaghan that he grew up in, and the shirtless McCabe may have been some figure from the past, but Duffy shouting ‘Damn your soul’ suggests a reference to Eoin O’Duffy, a notorious figure from Monaghan’s, and Ireland’s, political history.
In the 1930s O’Duffy was dismissed from government and founded the Irish fascist movement. Up to 30,000 members.were enlisted and he even went so far as offering soldiers to Mussolini to fight against Ethiopia in 1935, and more troops to Hitler to fight against the Soviet Union in 1943. Although both gestures were rejected he did take 700 soldiers to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
Thus although the poem seems to concern a couple of farmers and a disputed patch of land, their willingness to take up arms about such a matter is not very different from the military brinkmanship of the major European powers. And which of the two crises was more important he asks? He says he was inclined towards the Munich settlement until he introduces Homer – a poet who certainly knew a thing or two about epic poetry – and suggests that for Homer the Trojan Wars were just a trivial local dispute too, but consider what he made of that in The Iliad. The poet, as God, decides what is important. One thing seems certain: you can’t rely on anyone else.