By Kathleen Donovan
Irish poet, playwright, and ballad singer Patrick Galvin, died in Cork, Ireland, in May of 2011. A unique and iconoclastic poet Galvin holds an important position among the members of his country’s prestigious Aosdána. [Membership of Aosdána is limited to 250 living artists who have produced a distinguished body of work]. In the market, streets and alleys of his old community, however, he is well loved not because of such an accolade, but because his poetry beats with the collective heart of Cork’s population. As a tribute to his popularity, his body was held in state at Connolly Hall, Cork’s trade union headquarters. A steady stream of community members including musicians, artists, writers and poets, visited the memorial before Galvin was waked in the traditional way, at his home.
Galvin’s distinctiveness is worth a closer examination because it reflects issues of the modern era while his poetic tone harkens back to centuries’ old Irish literary tradition and the colonization which marked it.
I first met Paddy Galvin in 2001 when I traveled to County Cork on a mission to explore my great grandparents’ roots, an endeavor so common among Irish North Americans that it has become the butt of many jokes throughout the country! My short trip that autumn cumulated in my introduction to Irish literature, and to my surprise, my attendance at an MA program in Irish poetry in County Donegal, followed by a three year post as lecturer at University College Cork.
I was surprised to discover that the birthplace of Ireland’s most significant 17th century poet and an important influence on Patrick Galvin, Dáibhí Ó Bruadair (1625 -1698), was in Carrighwohil, County Cork. This is very close to where my great grandfather, Michael Donovan, and my great grandmother, Ellen O’Connell, lived in the1800s. Like many lost children of the diaspora, I was excited by such connections.
I felt that Irish literary tradition spanning thousands of years was directly linked to the home area of my ancestors. That connection with an ancient poetic tradition in the very locale of my people had great meaning for me as a poet. It changed my attitude, lifted me out of a sort of morose, ahistorical individualism.
I met Paddy, his wife, Mary Johnson, and many of their friends in the writing community in Cork while I lived there. I loved the sessions at the Munster Literature Centre, co-founded by Galvin and Mary, and housed in the upstairs of an old Catholic school a few streets away from Margaret Street and Evergreen Street -the streets he tore around in during his childhood. I participated in some of the many readings, conferences and workshops emanating from the Centre at that time, and was published in Southward, the Centre’s journal. An open writer’s workshop facilitated by Galvin and another Cork poet, Gregory O’Donaghue was held on Thursday afternoons and was open for free to local writers. Sometimes, local story tellers attended Centre events.
On Sunday nights historical tradition also held sway down the street at the singing club upstairs at An Spailpi΄n Fa΄nach (translated, this means the wandering farm laborer).The pub is located in a very old part of Cork city, where a meandering network of narrow streets, alleyways, laneways, and bridges run up and down the hills in the area where Paddy was raised. The sing-song has been going on there for many years. Each participant in turn sings unaccompanied in Irish or English, usually a traditional ballad, while everyone present listens quietly, drink in hand. Paddy was a constant singer here until a stroke in 2003 affected his voice. This was a formal arrangement of the same type of performance I often witnessed at late night parties, when individuals would spontaneously begin to sing, sometimes accompanied by all present, but more frequently, with each person singing alone.
Galvin started his career as a folk musician and song writer. The last time I saw him he was singing along to a CD of his own ballads at his home. Although his speech was severely affected by a stroke in 2003, he could still sing.
In Irish history, the genre of the caoineadh – or keen – was a sung lament for the dead once commonly performed at wakes and funerals as a tribute to the deceased. The lament was also frequently used to make a political statement.
Galvin’s use of this style is especially evident in his poem The White Monument where the loss of Michael Collins, the great Irish republican and hero to the Cork people who was ambushed and killed not far from the city, is lamented.
Galvin’s poetry shows a unique strength and energy the like of which can only be found within his voice, and as such, is work of true originality.
Patrick Galvin was born in 1927 into a community steeped in poverty. Galvin’s father, a frequently unemployed dock worker, could not read nor write, but played the tin whistle and composed poetry in his head. On Sundays, storytellers and singers from the neighborhood gathered in the family’s small tenement flat to recite stories and play music. The inner city of Cork in the thirties was rich in folk culture.
Galvin witnessed the appreciation of poetry, music and as well as liberty in his childhood home. As a child of ten, Galvin sold sheets of songs and ballads in the streets and in the pubs after school, reciting them when requested, sometimes even standing on the top of bars in the pubs to recite ballads in the style of the troubadour. He left school at age eleven by having his birth certificate forged to show his age as fourteen. He began his working life as a delivery boy, messenger boy and a projectionist in a local cinema. He faked his age again when in 1943 he enlisted in the RAF. He served in the UK, Africa and the Middle East and saw the aftermath of the bombings in Europe of World War II.
Galvin wrote many stories about what in current day would be seen as the peculiar behavior of various individuals often drawn from his neighborhood. Today such people would be medicalized, labeled as sick, and seen fit only for drugs, therapy or institutions. Galvin’s portrayal of the man who thought he was a seagull or his cousin the fishmonger who began to believe she was a fish, and the woman who told her visions of violent catastrophes and dead people, in his most famous poem The Mad Woman of Cork, were nothing of that ilk at all. They were working class people with congruent behavior given their situations. Told straightforwardly and with much wit, behind these portrayals there was a certain respect of the sort that can only stem from an instinct for the collective good. This kind of portrayal goes far beyond sympathy or even empathy. He was of them and always on their side in tone and script. Galvin’s eccentric characters seem to be engaged in a kind of personal rebellion or an instinctual coping, the natural outcome of their dilemmas, and the only one each of their impoverished and persecuted situations allowed.
Galvin began writing poetry in 1950. He lived in London, Norfolk, Belfast, and Spain. In London he was reportedly part of a group around Brendan Behan. He also knew and corresponded with writers such as Ethel Mannin, Robert Graves, Kathleen Raine, Pete Seeger, Muriel Spark and Cecil Day-Lewis.
Galvin wrote his first play, And Him Stretched, in 1962. This was followed by twelve other plays and adaptations of others’ work, for stage, radio and television. In 1973, Nightfall to Belfast produced by Lyric Theatre caused great upheaval including the partial explosion of a 200-pound bomb outside the theatre on opening night. Before the opening, several of the actors had death threats leveled against them. In the midst of the worst of the Troubles he also produced his best known play We Do It For Love, which boldly addressed the issue of violence, pointing out the oppression of both the Protestant and Catholic workers who were caught in sectarian combat. Some of Paisley’s followers [Ian Paisley was a Protestant fundamentalist who preached against the Catholics] demonstrated outside the theatre on opening night.
The Madwoman of Cork
In more than one of his poems as well as in his plays, Galvin shows a particular sympathy and insight into both the plight of those in mental distress (in modern terminology) and for women.
In speaking with Galvin it became clear that during his youth in Cork there existed a greater acceptance of society’s characters such as the woman in his famous poem The Madwoman of Cork. I found this attitude was still prevalent in Cork, where accepting attitudes really contrast with the negativity and hatred toward the so called welfare bums, addicts and mentally ill found in North America. The madwoman in the poem was an actual person, according to Galvin, and the poem is a description of her.
I am the Madwoman of Cork / Go away from me / And if I die now / Don’t touch me / I want to sail in a long boat / From here to Roche’s Point / And there I will anoint / The sea with the oil of alabaster / I am the Madwoman of Cork / And today / Is the feast day of Saint Anne / Feed me.
This powerful poem again reflects an Irish tradition, that of the legend of the “cailleach” or crone. This figure has become an archetype in Irish literature.
The Madwoman of Cork is the poem most associated with Patrick Galvin’s name and has had a lasting impact. It was published in the Irish Examiner along with a length tribute to him when he died in 2011.
Galvin was one of the first to write an urban poetry, a poetic approach that was new to Ireland of the day. Heart of Grace was criticized for its frank presentation of sexuality, especially for the poem My Little Red Knife that is reputed to have caused a minor upheaval at a reading at Eblana theatre in the late fifties. During the stultifying censorship in Ireland of the 50’s. Galvin broke new ground in writing much of his material.
If Galvin is seen as blunt or direct in his work at times, this is possibly the natural language style of someone who has been there within the oppression and feels an urgency others from a different background may not feel. He spoke from within a reality that never left him. He stuck to the belief in his personal voice despite its placing him outside of categorization, and resulting in less recognition than was his due. I feel certain, however, that Galvin’s work will be looked upon with increased interest in the future. The elements of Irish tradition and social consciousness he combined may be more appreciated in the coming years. I agree with Theo Dorgan who upon hearing of his death said that, along with short story writer, Frank O’Connor, Galvin was the truest voice out of Cork and that the “music of the place” was powerful in his voice.
Galvin was one of the first to write an urban poetry, a poetic approach that was new to Ireland of the day. “Heart of Grace” was criticized for its frank presentation of sexuality, especially for the poem “My Little Red Knife” that is reputed to have caused a minor upheaval at a reading at Eblana theatre in the late fifties. During the stultifying censorship in Ireland of the 50’s. Galvin broke new ground in writing much of his material.