Review By George Fleeton of The Great Hunger

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The Great Hunger Review By George Fleeton ‘Who bent the coin of my destiny That it stuck in the slot?’ A night at the theatre recently brought back memories dormant for more than forty years. Patrick Kavanagh, self-styled Monaghan Man, died during my time at University College Dublin, on the old Earlsfort Terrace site. He had begun lecturing there years before that, but we gave up attending his occasional tutorials because he did absolutely nothing that related to our course. Although he did read extracts from his epic narrative poem The Great Hunger, which he had had published controversially during the war, it wasn’t alas one of our prescribed texts. [caption id="attachment_30416" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Patrick Kavanagh."][/caption] Some of the work we did with Kavanagh all those years ago has now returned to the front stalls of memory: he boasted for example about leaving school far too early and reading lots of books out of the library in Dundalk when he was supposed to be helping out on the family farm. He began writing poetry very early too, and had read T S Eliot’s The Waste Land (one of our texts at that time) which we hoped might have been his inspiration for The Great Hunger, but he said he didn’t like it as it reminded him of that awful Joyce’s Ulysses. When asked about the genesis of the character Patrick Maguire, hired hand on poor land in his own epic poem, he told us that that would have been him if he hadn’t got out. He mentioned too that he had worked in a bar for a few years after the war on the Falls Road, and wrote film reviews there for the Irish Press newspaper, but has that ever been independently confirmed? One time when we couldn’t get in to see his Tarry Flynn at the Abbey Theatre, because the tickets were too expensive for us poor students, he was very cross about that, and went off to McDaid’s  to think it over and ‘to lubricate his good lung.’ We never saw him in class again. As he once said of himself ‘A man innocently dabbles in words and rhymes And finds that it is his life.’ Re-reading The Great Hunger again recently (the original April 1942 edition of 33 pages, and of which only 250 copies were printed) it was not surprising how well it still stands up after almost 70 years, and this was borne out by Peter Duffy’s inspired reading of the text as dramatic monologue in the Saint Patrick Centre 0n October 6, as part of All Ireland Poetry Day. Duffy’s performance well matched another one man show seen recently elsewhere, Aidan Dooley’s award winning performance as Tom Crean, Antarctic Explorer. Perhaps Down Arts Centre will book that brilliant show for the first new season in its reimagined home on Scotch Street? The Duffy evening was a late addition to the published list of performance events and was gratifyingly well attended, the audience attentively, collectively holding its breath, exactly as Aristotle intended. As one man shows go, this was a treat for the ear, the eye and the imagination. The sound design was simple, naturalistic and very effective. Duffy’s use of the slightest of props, of silence and pause to indicate change of pace and mood, was first class, because what else is Kavanagh’s Great Hunger if not a pastoral symphony in fourteen movements, or a chronicle of the circuit of the fall of the four seasons perhaps? The authentic Monaghan accent helps too of course – ‘unless the clay is in the mouth, the singer’s singing is useless.’ The peasant ploughman is all virtues – in this performance  we were left in doubt of that sub-text – as actor Duffy reached across the footlights and touched us with Maguire’s  faith and how it was tested and how it passed the test,  hardly knowing that life had happened to him. After the performance, the audience engaged for a while with the actor and his prompter in a low-key, self-reflective way, entirely in keeping with the nature and style of the event, but there was no time to investigate the echoes of The Great Hunger that are to be found in the writings of Sam Hanna Bell up Crossgar way and of John B Keane down Listowel way. One  of our other lecturers, all those years ago  at UCD, was the   brother of Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen, and he  was, by comparison with Patrick Kavanagh, a brilliant teacher who made Latin live. Brian O’Nolan, whose centenary has just been widely marked on October 5,  had died the year before Kavanagh so of course, being diligent students of English Lit, we devoured At-Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, his Cruiskeen Lawn columns in the Irish Times,  and even An Béal Bocht. Heady student days. The O’Nolan brothers were from Strabane and at that time we northerners stuck together whenever we found ourselves alone in ‘the free state’. www.patrickkavanaghcountry.com]]>

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