My film’Patrick Kavanagh – No Man’s Fool’ was commissioned by the Irish Film Board and RTE to celebrate the centenary of the poets birth in 1904. The notion to make the film began when I filmed a yearly gathering of Kavanagh devotees at his favourite spot on the Grand Canal in Dublin. Every year someone would make a speech in the spirit of Kavanagh and that year it was the poet Macdara Woods.
Near the end of his speech he implored everybody to write to the parish priest in Inniskeen where Kavanagh was buried and to plead with him to reinstate the headstone of Kavanagh’s wife Katherine Moloney to the poets graveside. Macdara to my astonishment explained how a few years after Katherine was buried alongside Kavanagh her headstone had been destroyed by persons unknown. My interest was piqued and I set out to Kavanagh’s birthplace in Inniskeen County Monaghan to investigate the mystery of the missing headstone. All I spoke to remained tightlipped but Barney Cunningham a local farmer told me that there was bas bad blood between Patrick’s brother Peter and Katherine over the legacy of his writings. In 1989 Peter removed the cross over Patrick grave because he disagreed with the opening of his grave for the burial of Katherine. Sometime after Katherine’s burial a memorial sculpture erected in her memory was destroyed and in 1998 Peter reinstated the cross. Peter denied all knowledge as to how Katherine’s headstone disappeared. To this day there is no marking to signify Katherine is buried there.
I edited the little material I had from the Canal gathering and in time the film was commissioned. Ironically the story of Katherine’s headstone being destroyed was not featured in the film. This was not because of censorship but more because the poets life took over my imagination. In the end the film concentrated on his extraordinary life. Kavanagh became known as the peasant poet and after good notices for his first published poems in ‘Ploughman and other Poems‘ he quit the rural life he led and decamped to Dublin. Life was hard in the big city and he was always short of a shilling but against all odds persevered in writing the poetry that would immortalise him.
The film is littered with the highs and lows of his poetic life. The withdrawal of his first novel ‘The Green Fool’ because of alleged libel by Oliver St. John Gogarty. The police visiting him and giving him a warning about the overt sexuality in his epic poem ‘The Great Hunger‘. The collapse of his weekly newspaper ‘Kavanagh’s Weekly’ which was financed in the main by his brother Peter. He was a thorn in the established intellectuals of the day and never let a chance go to throw a witty barb their way. Worse tragedy of all happened when in his final years he sued a magazine ‘The Leader’ for libel and as a result his health deteriated. Out of this dark period he wrote his greatest poetry known fondly as The Canal Bank Poems. This little stretch of water was his tranquil space that was a short walk from his home and that he called Baggotonia.
We filmed a lot in Inniskeen and Dublin. We interviewed his friends, John Montague, Macdara Woods, TP McKenna and the wonderful Leland Bardwell. We created visual sequences to convey the poetry which was read by the actor Gerard McSorley. Stephen Walsh wrote and narrated the film. A 52 minute version aired on RTE but the longer version of 70 minutes is the film I wanted everyone to see. That version went on to win best documentary at the Boston Film Festival. The film now lies in the vaults of the Irish Film Archive and gets the occasional outing.