Patrick Kavanagh, 'Nationalism and Literature’, in Collected Pruse (1967) - extract

Source: rep. in Mark Storey, ed., Poetry and Ireland since 1800: A Source Book, London: Routledge 1988, pp.200-204; orig. in Nonplus, Oct. 1959, pp.74-79; rep. in Collected Pruse (1967); also in Antoinette Quinn, ed., A Poet’s Country: Selected Prose (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2003), pp.246-51 [complete].

Let us start with naming. Naming things is part of a poet’s function. I did some naming once. It was an exhibition, or rather collection of copper jewellery [...]. Several people looking at the pieces of jewellery commented on the aptness with which the artist had faithfully interpreted in the work something called - I have forgotten - perhaps 'The Temple of Romance’. The remarkable thing is how the article that precedes a name comes to look like its name, for an unnamed thing has little life in the mind.
 Regarding myth making and myths in general, I note that a well-known French scholar priest is coming here to demolish the Anglo-Saxon myth. According to this man’s theory the whole legend of an Anglo-Saxon culture is nothing but legerdemain. The legend is there just the same. It cannot be demolished, any more than that singular Gaelic figure St Patrick, as portrayed on [200] banners and cards, can be demolished. A myth is necessary, for a myth is a sort of self-contained world in which one can live. As literary critics live in theirs, discussing family intimacies.
 Ireland as a myth which could protect and nourish a body of creative artists is rather unique. One of the reasons why it has failed again and again is that nationalism is seldom based on those sincerities which give any truly spiritual force its power. Good work cannot survive in an angry atmosphere, and without being too boringly insistent on the value of truth, I can only say that it is the most entertaining type of communication.
 The reasons why work produced by a Celt receive praise or blame have on the whole had little or nothing to do with aesthetics or truth. As I have said myths are indestructible, but what I should like to point out is that myths do not work and the Irish myth is one of them. Of course the Russians had a myth. Dostoevsky in exile at the casinos of Europe is never done lamenting his absence from Russia. But of all patriotic myths the only one in my opinion that came alive and worked for the author was Joyce’s myth of Dublin. Why it sustained him is that he never stopped to think, Once we stop to think the illusion is gone. In the case of a poet’s mythology the all-embracing fog must remain impenetrable. We must not be able to escape from it. In certain circumstances the only way to succeed in this is to accept failure and by so doing realize that failure is something in the mind.
 I know a few writers who live in Ireland who have not cottoned on to the fact that Ireland as a myth is no use. When Dr Johnson said that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel, he was once again right on the mark. In all formal patriotic activity there lies the seed of something that is not the seed of virtue. There have been many fine patriots but there must be some inherent defect in the whole business, seeing that men of little or no principle can readily weigh in with it and be accounted fine men.
 Regarding the mighty corpus of English literature, this seems to me largely divorced from England the nation, the often scoundrelly nation. Some poets have praised Cromwell and a great one was his secretary and another one his cousin, but for all that the protective atmosphere which fed the English poetic world had little to do with politics or patriotism. Love of the land and landscape is of course a different kettle of potatoes altogether. Constable, Wordsworth, Clare, most of them were great patriots in that sense. It seems at first blush that English poetry grew to its splenditude in a myth void, that it was entirely individual. [201] But there was a myth and a true one.
 This curious myth has to do with faith in one’s own judgement and the courage to pronounce it. Wherever there are a number of men with that faith and courage you have a myth-making society. Even today in London a man may be talking to another in a pub. As they speak they are accompanied in their consciousness by many others who are not present at all. It is this sort of family thing that alone can make a society happy. For some reason or other this source of strength has never been lost in England. It goes on quietly unconcerned, undeceived by the latest reports on anything. As one goes on in the country, knowing exactly who is down in the valley sowing turnips or levelling the potato drills and who is not, and what they are all thinking about.
 It is this kind of parish myth regarding literature that has been totally lacking in Ireland. Instead we have this national thing which is no use to anyone. Is Synge the voice of Ireland? Has Ireland a voice? I believe it has a faint, odd voice, difficult to establish. Indeed Carleton is our native voice. And I am always so glad that notwithstanding anything one may say nobody will ever read Carleton. You can praise or blame this great writer without involving anyone.
 The thing is that here in Ireland we have a Celtic hinterland of Festival towns deeply committed to the national myth. At these festivals you have ... well you ought to know what you have. But a man is the worst in the world if he ventures any criticism. And what can one do? It is all the great days of the Abbey, Cradle of Genius was what a film on those great days was called. If one says that Synge wasn’t a genius and so on you are instantly up against patriotism. I believe that the 'Theatre’ is largely a journalistic property. You have only to glance at the space devoted to amateur theatricals in the papers to understand this. Not that I mind myself My ambition was at one time to get on to the amateur stage in some play by perhaps J. B. McCarthy. I was full of Ireland then. And when all is said and done one might be full of worse things. Particularly down in the country you just cannot postulate high and mighty ideas. There was a time when my great ambition was to get published in the Weekly Independent or Ireland’s Own. On one occasion there was a prize of half a guinea, and here I was routed by an effort sent in from a Care of address. This was:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree [202]

I mention this to fix the Irish position. It was indeed a great day for me when I had a piece accepted and printed without any address and needless to say unpaid for by the Dundalk Democrat . I was quite convinced that everyone in Ireland would see it. I feel this may possibly have something to do with that voice of Ireland mentioned before. I don’t suppose we have produced many poets of the best talent, but there was something and that something was not unconnected with the ballads and poems that used to get printed in these local newspapers. Those old Gaelic poets, by the way, of whom we hear quite a lot were as genuine as one could expect them to be. There was no doubt the usual percentage of true poets amongst them. But I fear there was no proper society in which they could flourish. There was no faith. However to return to the Irish myth, the unworkable one, this only got going properly about fifty years ago. Keegan Casey for instance with his Rising of the Moon:

O then tell me Shawn O’Farrell
Where the gathering is to be
In the old spot by the river
Right well known to you and me ...
I bear orders from the captain
Get you ready quick and soon
For the pikes must be together
At the rising of the Moon.

Or such anonymous songs as

It was early early in the Spring
The birds did whistle and sweetly sing
Changing their notes from tree to tree
And the song they sang was old Ireland free.

It is odd that we got a myth like that going here, much as America got one in which literature could flourish a century ago. You had Longfellow, Melville, Bret Harte and so forth all derived, I regret to admit, from the English tradition as spread from New England. Today you have a sort of International writing crowd, not involved in myths indigenous or otherwise. And yet ...
 I suppose that judged in the cruel light of top-class literary criticism, a poet like Mangan comes out pretty badly. But to those [203] involved with the local sentiment Mangan made a profound appeal. At one time Mangan immensely moved me with I walked entranced

Through a land of morn
The sun with wondrous excess of light
Shone down and glanced
O’er fields of corn
And lustrous gardens aleft and right
Even in the clime of resplendent Spain
Beams no such sun upon such a land
But it was the time “Twas in the reign
Of Cahal Mor of the Wine-Red hand.

I almost begin to believe in the myth of Ireland as a spiritual reality.


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