Among the revelations in Elizabeth O’Toole’s new memoir A Poet in the House, which we featured here yesterday, is what might be called fresh evidence in a cold-case attempted-murder mystery.
The intended victim was O’Toole’s subject, Patrick Kavanagh. And if his own accounts of the incident are believed, it would have made him a martyr to investigative journalism, killed for exposing uncomfortable truths.
It would also have been a deeply ironic way for him to die, because the supposed plot involved drowning him in the same stretch of Dublin’s Grand Canal that he had immortalised in poetry, and where he had asked to be commemorated by a bench (he now has two, one on either bank).
When he argued for scraping the rust off first and doing the job properly, his employers were indignant. That would take too long, they said
In the version Antoinette Quinn included in her 2001 Kavanagh biography, recalled by a friend of the poet who at the time worked in the State Solicitor’s Office, the alleged “assassination attempt” happened one frosty night in October 1959 when he was walking home from Searson’s pub, “not intoxicated, but in good form”.
He met an old acquaintance who invited him in for a drink. But the drink must have been spiked because Kavanagh passed out. Next thing he knew, he was being thrown off Baggot Street bridge to the accompaniment of a familiar voice saying: “Over you go, you f***er you.”
In O’Toole’s account, given to her by Kavanagh when he was her house guest in Stillorgan 18 months later, he had first been “rolled up in a quilt”, which was still lying on the canal bank days later when he revisited the scene. It was a very distinctive “multi-coloured eiderdown” and he remembered exactly where he had seen it before.
In all versions, the prelude to the murder attempt was a job he had done five years earlier, in 1954. Then as always, he was short of money, and after a proposed US lecture tour fell through, he found himself on a different talk circuit, as front man for an outfit that travelled around Ireland spray-painting hay sheds.
His task was to canvass farmers door-to-door and, when they expressed interest, pretend to perform complex calculations about shed size before reaching an estimated price (in fact, the sheds were mostly standard and so was the cost).
In O’Toole’s version, he was treated generously by his employers, who paid him every Sunday morning “in a bedroom on the second floor above a shop on Stephen’s Green”.
Then he would be invited to help himself to a bonus from the week’s takings, which were “spread out on a multi-coloured eiderdown quilt”. After that, they always adjourned to McDaid’s pub, or another nearby hostelry. But at some point, the poet had suffered an attack of conscience about the work, which usually involved painting over rust, so that the new paint quickly flaked away.
When he argued for scraping the rust off first and doing the job properly, his employers were indignant. That would take too long, they said, and farmers wouldn’t pay for the time. So he fell out with them and lost the job.
It took four years after that, however, before he became a whistleblower and public service journalist. In “Memories of a Spray-Paint Canvasser”, written for the Farmer’s Journal in 1958, he laid the racket bare, to the great anger of his former employer (a man who, in her Kavanagh biography, Quinn presents in a much more charitable light).
Both versions agree that Kavanagh met his would-be murderers afterwards in McDaid’s, and that they stared at him as Macbeth did Banquo’s ghost
Quinn and O’Toole give slightly different versions of the murder attempt’s dénouement, although in both, having dragged himself out of the freezing canal, he was badly shaken and struggled across the road to seek help at a house on Wilton Place. Accidentally or otherwise, it was a well-chosen address
In O’Toole’s account, the door was opened by a glamorous young woman Kavanagh thought sounded “Australian”. Aware of his fame as a poet, she brought him in, gave him a hot bath, had his clothes dry-cleaned and left him in the house for several days, with a typewriter and other provisions, while she travelled down the country.
In Quinn’s biography, she was an existing friend, Patricia Murphy (nee Avis), a writer and the wealthy daughter of a South African shipping magnate, who didn’t just dry-clean his clothes but bought him an expensive new outfit. In any case, they met again while Kavanagh was staying in Stillorgan with the O’Toole family and they went driving in her sports car, raising briefly the prospect of a romance.
Both versions agree that Kavanagh met his would-be murderers afterwards in McDaid’s, and that they stared at him as Macbeth did Banquo’s ghost.
He later even drank in their company. And having fully recovered from the trauma, he took to dramatising himself (in Quinn’s account) as “the man they couldn’t kill”.