Delivering The Post on Christmas Day – in Newcastle West long ago!

Michael Healy served as postman in Newcastle West  for 45 years from the early Thirties until the Seventies.  In this article, which he wrote for the Newcastle West Historical Society Journal, The Annual Observer, published in July 1979,  he recounts the vicissitudes of the job and why he wasn’t sorry to see the Christmas Day deliveries come to an end.

 

THE POST ON CHRISTMAS DAY

By M.J. Healy

Micky Healy with his handcart in Maiden Street in 1936

Micky Healy with his handcart in Maiden Street in 1936

One of the Post Office services no longer available is the delivery of mail on Christmas Day.  We haven’t had it for many years.  To the older generation this is something to be regretted; a nostalgic yearning for the passing of a custom that lent a Dickensian flavour to the Festival, akin to the star on the Festive Tree, Christmas carols and robins pecking crumbs in the snow.  But, to the unfortunate postman, Christmas Day was the most arduous of the whole year; consequently the abolition of the Christmas Day deliveries was greeted by all and sundry in the postal service with considerable relief.

Our working day in the early 1930’s began around 7a.m.  It was part of my duty to meet the 7.15 morning train from Limerick and transport the Newcastle mails in a handcart to the Post Office in Bishop Street.  This meant being at the railway station at 7.15 on the dot, summer and winter, as the train halted in Newcastle for a mere ten or twelve minutes and a Post Office Official (the grandiose title for a thirty shilling a week postman) had to be on hand at this ungodly hour for reception of the mails from the carriers, the Great Southern and Western Railway, else he might find himself forced, at his own expense, to follow the train to Listowel to collect the mailbags.  The mail, in the 1930’s, was comparably small; a mere eight or ten sacks.  In those halcyon days it never entered your head that you might be molested and robbed by a bandit in the dark of a winter’s morning, so the duty was easy for an early riser.

The Christmas Mail was something different.  Before the intrusion of high-pressure brain-washing, there were no appeals for early posting at Christmas, so why post a week earlier?  This meant mail descending in shoals on every Post Office in quantities that would seem impossible for delivery in one day.  Often the increase in numbers could be as high as ten or fifteen times an ordinary Mail.

There being no 7.15 Limerick Train on Christmas  morning the Mail was sent to Newcastle in a huge lorry.  Instead of 7.15 the lorry was usually an hour later.  The chaos began trying to take the Mail out of the vehicle.  The volume (comparably) was enormous, sixty or seventy huge bags.  These had to be disentangled from the Abbeyfeale and Listowel Mail, as the lorry driver, on a once-a-year job, hadn’t a notion of making it easier.  The primary aim was to divide the mail for the adjoining sub-offices, which had to be ready around 9.30 or 10 a.m., when the late Dinny McAuliffe R.I.P., or one of the other local hackney drivers, took the mail to Tournafulla, Kilmeedy or Knockaderry etc.

The completion of this task depended on the American Mail.  By some devilish twist of fate the White Star and Cunard Lines seemed to arrive in Cobh just before Christmas to scatter thousands of tons of Christmas Cards all over Munster.  Most people looked forward to hearing from relations in America and in the hungry Thirties the United States’ dollars were doubly welcome.  The American Mail on Christmas Morning was often equal to what you’d normally deliver in a week.

When the Mail was divided, each man had to put his letters and parcels in order for house to house delivery.  As an instance of what this could mean I had one house in my delivery with fourteen children, some grown up some toddlers, they all seemed to get cards and the total for this house on Christmas Day was never less than 70 or 80 items.  And I had almost 200 houses on my delivery.  With this amount of preparation the day was usually half over before you were ready for the road, and the three or four hours overtime allowed was already squandered leaving only the normal six hours.  If you got going at noon this meant only four or five hours daylight for delivery.

Christmas Day, for Christians was obviously one of the holiest days of the year, everybody went to Church.  But if you were a Postman – you didn’t – you couldn’t, you had to work.  Knowing the brief period of daylight one started off with little delay.  Even though you probably had nothing to eat since an early 7 o’clock breakfast the temptations of offers of roasted goose or ham or even cups of tea had to be ignored.  Eventually hunger compelled you to accept some householders hospitality, meanwhile keeping an eye on your watch to waste as little time as possible.  To rural dwellers the Postman was (and probably still is) treated like a distant cousin or a lifetime friend.  Then it was the custom to show this friendship with hearty Christmas hospitality.  There was a limit to the amount of turkey, ham, goose or fruitcake you could take.  But the bane of this form of conviviality was the man who took your arm in an iron grip and insisted you must have a little drop of something.

The arrival of the Postman with Christmas Mail always aroused intense excitement, especially in households with young people.  Letters were handed around, the children’s toys had to be admired, and somebody always remembered the Postman’s Christmas Box.  Being almost one of the family, nobody minded asking the Postman to do a favour during the year; bring a message from town, call with a message to the Vet or to a neighbour.  These favours were not forgotten at Yuletide and the Christmas Box seemed to give even more pleasure to the donor than the recipient.  But then there was always the few who felt your Christmas Box should be a drop of the hard stuff or a few bottles of stout.  These worthies always seemed to have the kitchen and parlour littered with cases of liquor and if you were unfortunate enough to have had one drink earlier and they smelt it, then it was a personal insult if you didn’t share their generosity.  I have often been told, ‘so-and-so when he was delivering before the war (the 1914 one) would always have a bit of the goose at Christmas and three or four bottles of stout’.  One of these robust Postmen was reputed to partake of a hearty meal whenever offered and of course three or four or more bottles of Guinness.  Thus fortified, if there was a gramophone or a melodeon player available would often organise a half-set, or waltz the housewife around for a spell before setting off on his rounds again.  With 200 or more houses to deliver one might expect he’d hardly return before the New Year.  Yet he was always home stone sober with all his Mail delivered as early as seven or eight o’clock.  They were giants in those days!

The weather on Christmas Day was always most important, especially on the Post, endeavouring to race with the few hours of daylight one needed a dry road, and dry hands; nothing more messy than handling letters in the rain.  Nature seemed always kind; in 45 years I can hardly recollect 5 wet Christmas Days.

Wet or dry you suddenly realised with horror that darkness was coming.  Usually by then, around five o’clock, one might still have another 40 houses scattered over 7 or 8 miles to deliver.  Then was no time for accepting hospitality, nor indeed for being very genial, when in the dim light of an acetylene lamp you negotiated rough passages, struggled with immovable gates and quarrelled with snarling sheepdogs, who insisted you couldn’t be the Postman at this hour of evening.  Sometimes you might have to knock three or four times before somebody came to a doorway; people were beginning to lose hope of any Christmas Mail after darkness.  One occasion, after waiting impatiently for an answer to repeated knocking, I pushed open the kitchen door to find the whole family on their knees reciting the evening Rosary.  What could I do? At Christmas?  I dropped to my knees and joined in, hoping in my heart they had reached the fourth or fifth decade (actually it was the second)!

Coming home, your path might cross a Postman from a neighbouring route.  Then you thought your day was terrible, listen to his, etc. etc.  Most of the men were back between seven and 8 o’clock and without expecting much sympathy, stories of their various misfortunes were bandied about before finishing work.  One had been bitten by a dog.  Another fell off his bike.  Then there was the man who crossed a footbridge over a stream and coming back walked into the river up to his knees.  He showed you the ends of his pants still wet.  And the punctures – every year somebody got a Christmas Day puncture.  Then there was the man who got home always early on Christmas Night.  He never accepted hospitality and hence didn’t delay on the road.  One particular year we found out why.  He could never eat with his dentures in and of course had no trouble taking them out at home.  He had the misfortune one Christmas Day of getting so hungry at five o’clock that he accepted an offer of a sandwich and a cup of tea.  Taking out his teeth and putting them aside he hurried the meal  and hastened away to finish his route.  What was his horror to discover when he returned to the Post Office that he had forgotten his dentures and horror of horrors he couldn’t remember where he had the meal and where they were left.  He told me it was well into the New Year before he found them.  As he said, ‘You’d be ashamed to enquire from anyone if you left your teeth at their house on Christmas Day’.

I sigh when I hear old people say, ‘Ah sure, it isn’t like Christmas any more without the Christmas Day post’.  And round eyed youngsters enquire, ‘Did you really have a delivery on Christmas Day?’

We did indeed child!  We did indeed!

Post Office staff 1950

Post Office staff 1950

 

Christmas in Maiden Street – ‘in the good old days’!

Reviews Rants and Rambles

 This piece of incisive and insightful social commentary, describing life in Newcastle West in the 1950’s, first appeared in Magill magazine in December 1977 and later in the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, The Annual Observer, in July 1979. Hartnett,the poet, was back in town and the dam burst of memory and nostalgia was beginning, culminating with the bitter sweet Maiden Street Ballad, written as a Christmas present for his father, Denis Hartnett, in December 1980.

Christmas in Maiden Street
By Michael Hartnett

image

A shouting farmer with a shotgun, a few patch-trousered urchins, soaked, snotty and unrepentant, running across wet fields, arms full of holly. The long walk on the railway tracks, the sleepers treacherous and slimy, the dark station, the lamp posts with their glittering circular rainbows. We stopped at the shops’ red windows to admire toys we could never have. A few drunks waltzed by, happy…

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Bishop Brendan Leahy launches Diocesan #Synod2016

Homily  of Bishop Brendan Leahy

St. John’s Cathedral

December 7th, 2014

 

Bishop Leahy

Today we are launching the Limerick Diocesan Synod and commissioning Delegates to it.  It is a significant day in the life of the Diocese.  Our liturgy seems just tailor-made for the occasion.

The Gospel presents the figure of John the Baptist.  At the time of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, there was a sense of spiritual wilderness creeping into the people of Israel.  It was something they had experienced before and were now witnessing again.  Precisely at that time, John the Baptist was chosen to be the instrument in the hands of God to prepare the way of Jesus.  We can see that God made himself ‘need’ John the Baptist to prepare for his coming.  God is indeed the shepherd who feeds his flock and leads them but he makes himself dependent on us; he makes himself need our help.  Indeed, we can say that God is the expert of doing things not on his own but ‘together’ with others.

Just as in the case of John the Baptist, God counts on the contribution of each one of us too to prepare the way for his Son Jesus Christ to be seen, heard and encountered again in our world, in our country, and in our diocese.  We too are living in a spiritual wilderness of sorts – we’ve been through difficult and confusing times in the Church; there have been many cultural and social changes in recent years; the shape of our Church’s structures are in transition; we’ve seen internal divisions among us and we know that young people often don’t find what they are looking for in the Church as we present it today.

Our Diocesan Synod is to be a time when we clearly commit ourselves again to do our part to prepare the way for Jesus to come again in a new way among us at all levels of Church and indeed in society.  With the Synod, all of us together, clergy and lay, are being offered this opportunity to regenerate and build up the Church of the future in our diocese.  Let’s not miss this appointment with history.*

It’s undeniable that our Church has been rocked.  It has stumbled badly but it has not fallen.  While the Church reeled, faith remained precious.  Yet the Church is in need of repair.  It’s what the Lord told St. Francis in his time and tells us again now in our time.   We need to look at it again, reimagine and re-arrange, not to the way it was before but to something new.  Something that fits the present day.  We need to rebuild and repair, listening to what the Spirit is saying to the Church today.*

But that rebuild and repair, with Pope Francis as a guiding architect and his hand directed by the Holy Spirit, is not something fort the clergy alone to carry out.  Far from it.  The Church of tomorrow must be inclusive, regenerated by us all together, clergy and laity; those of great faith and those of challenged faith, working hand in hand to create a refreshed space where the windows are open and new air breathes in.  I ask everyone in the Diocese to get involved in this.*

The 2016 Synod will effectively be the moment to draw up new plans for our diocese so that it is ready for what I believe can be a new dawn breaking for the Church, a dawn we will all greet together.

Sisters and brothers gathered here in St. John’s Cathedral today, especially those of you who are being commissioned as Delegates to the Synod, let’s learn from the figure of John the Baptist.  He didn’t focus on himself; he was humble; he was full of hope in Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit and looked forward to the new dawn.

He didn’t focus on himself.  He wanted to help others turn around, turn away from sin and put god in the first place in their lives.  You too will now go out to help one another and others to prepare the way of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  There will be many paths to be made straight – paths of wounded hearts; paths of confused minds; paths of disappointed spirits; paths of rejected outreach.  Through listening with your hearts full of mercy and patience, you can transform crooked pathways into opportunities to show something new is happening; Jesus is coming in a new way to heal wounds, bring light and clarity, sow seeds of hope and mercy.

John the Baptist was humble.  In his day, undoing the straps of someone’s sandals was considered the most menial of jobs fit only for slaves.  John the Baptist didn’t even see himself fit to undo the strap of Jesus’ sandals.  This reveals something of the humility of his soul.  To be humble is to consider others as greater than ourselves, as St. Paul tells us.  John the Baptist lived this out in his relationship with Jesus.  But each of us can consider others greater than ourselves in the sense that in each neighbour we meet we are encountering Jesus in that neighbour.  It will be important for us to be humble and approach our Synod in a spirit of serving |Jesus in our neighbour.

John the Baptist was a man of hope,  believing in a better future and in the work of the Holy Spirit.  He pointed out that Jesus would baptise us with the Holy Spirit.  For us too, we can say that the Jesus who wants to come in a new way among us brings the Holy Spirit in abundance.  So there’s no need to be afraid or downhearted about the future.  As Pope Francis puts it, let’s not say our times are harder than previous times; they are just different.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, the ‘undoer of knots’ was always full of hope.  As the Second Reading reminds us, with the Lord ‘a day’ can mean a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day.  he can act much faster than we might think if we let him.

In a moment, we will be commissioning the Delegates to the Synod.  As we set off on our Synodal journey, the Delegates will declare publically before us all, their intention to live their Baptismal vocation with renewed faith, hope and love.  Above all, they will promise to love one another as Our Lord has taught us in giving us the New Commandment: “A new commandment I give you: love one another”.  Let’s all join with them as they make this commitment, promising to share each other’s joys and sufferings, giving our lives out of love for one another.  We can take it as a form of pact that binds us together in a new way preparing the way of the Lord who is coming to dwell among us anew.

* my emphasis

Christmas in Maiden Street – ‘in the good old days’!

 

 This piece of incisive and insightful social commentary, describing life in Newcastle West in the 1950’s, first appeared in Magill magazine in December 1977 and later in the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, The Annual Observer, in July 1979. Hartnett,the poet, was back in town and the dam burst of memory and nostalgia was beginning, culminating with the bitter sweet Maiden Street Ballad, written as a Christmas present for his father, Denis Hartnett, in December 1980.

Christmas in Maiden Street
By Michael Hartnett

image

 

A shouting farmer with a shotgun, a few patch-trousered urchins, soaked, snotty and unrepentant, running across wet fields, arms full of holly. The long walk on the railway tracks, the sleepers treacherous and slimy, the dark station, the lamp posts with their glittering circular rainbows. We stopped at the shops’ red windows to admire toys we could never have. A few drunks waltzed by, happy and moronic. An open lorry went by to jeers and obscenities; the pluckers, shawled and snuff-nosed, on their way to a flea-filled poultry store to pluck turkeys at nine pence a head.

Candles and paraffin-lamps did not brighten the darkness in kitchens in Maiden Street – they only made the gloom amber. The purloined holly hung on holy pictures. There were no balloons, no paper chains, no Christmas trees. Coal was bought by the half-stone, butter by the quarter-pound, and tea by the half-ounce. The country people trotted by on donkey and cart or pony and trap with ‘The Christmas’ stones of sugar, pounds of tea. Women in shawls and second-hand coats from America stood at half-doors, their credit exhausted, while the spectre of Santa Claus loomed malevolently over the slates and thatch.

Members of Charitable Institutions distributed turf and boots, God Blessing the meagre kitchens, as hated as the rent-man. They stood well-dressed on the stone floors, were sirred and doffed at. They paid their workers slave wages. They looked without pity at the nailed together chairs, the worn oilcloth-topped tables, the dead fires.

Outside, the rain fell and blew along the street. The tinkers fought. Bonfires died out in the drizzle. We were washed and put to bed, happy and under-nourished. The oldest went to Midnight Mass. The Latin was magic, the organ, the big choir. It always seemed like a romantic time to die.

It was a Christmas of tin soldiers, tin aeroplanes and cardboard gimcracks. We were Cisco, Batman, Johnny McBrown all that day. Our presents – ‘purties’ we called them – seldom lasted longer than that day. It never snowed. There was no turkey, no plum-pudding, no mince-pies. The Victorian Christmas was not yet compulsory. The very poor managed roast meat, usually mutton. We often rose to two cocks. The goose was common. There was a fruit-cake, jelly and custard; the dinner of the year. I never remember drink being in the house. There were never visitors, nor were we encouraged to visit anyone. If the day had been anyway fine, we were to be found on the footpath or in the puddles, knuckles blue.

The Wren’s Day always brought frost. Small warm heads came from under rough blankets to the sound of flutes and banjos and bodhrans far up the street. We donned boot polish and lipstick and old dresses and went out to follow the Wren, tuneless chancers. We sang and giggled our way to a few bob and a glass of lemonade. The back kitchens of the pubs filled up with musicians, the musicians filled up with porter and their wives filled up with apprehension. In a few hours, winter took over again.

There will never be Christmasses like those again, I hope to God.

 

MichaelHartnett

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES…..

…….. comes wisdom – of a sort!  For thirty years I spent my summers correcting Leaving Cert English scripts and it never failed to amaze me the chances chancers will take when rote learning hits the cold reality of the North face of The Eiger!  I began my work with the Department in June 1978 and I corrected Junior Cert Geography that year.  I learnt that  the name of the shipyard in Belfast was called Harland and Wolf Tone and that along with cheese and butter and yoghurt (which had just arrived on the shop shelves) milk of magnesia was also a dairy product!

Shakespeare usually threw up gems of lucidity and erudition.  I learnt that  Othello, ‘although his exterior may be black he is pure and good on the inside’.  Desdemona is very forgiving also because,  ‘she shows great love for Othello even after he has suffocated her’.  King Lear suffered because, ‘he wanted to keep his revenue and all his followers’.   Also, ‘in those days you didn’t divide your kingdom – you left a will’.  In a moment of weakness Lear is overheard talking to The Fool on the Heath: ‘Go in man you’ll catch your death out here’.  Whereas Hamlet, ‘is the victim of exaggerated procrastination complex’ and as well as that he suffered from ‘an anti disposition’ and then later ‘an antique disposition’.  I can visualise vividly  in my mind’s eye harried teachers on cold winter’s mornings explaining what an arras was only for that information to be completely corrupted by June: ‘He killed Polonius through the arse’ and in another script sponsored by Toyota, ‘Hamlet stabbed Polonius behind the Yaris’.  Also Hamlet was only mad North North West so therefore according to the mathematicians, he ‘was only one sixteenth mad’.

Yeats always yielded up a great variety of hoary old chestnuts.  Indeed I was reliably informed that in that great poem Among School Children, ‘the chestnut tree may not be called the bole, blossom or the branch – it is all three.’  Everybody also seemed to know that, ‘he stalked Maud Gonne, proposing to her many times’.  Elsewhere in a rather revealing Freudian (or Faustian) slip Maud Gonne is referred to as, ‘Mad Gun McBride’.   The poem Sailing to Byzantium can apparently, ‘be summed up in four words: ‘perne in a gyre’.  The poem The Fisherman is about, ‘a man in Connemara clothes living in a shed on the top of a hill’.  In this great poem Yeats apparently is struggling to reconcile the opposing images, trying to describe, ‘the ideal man versus the reel man’.  One candidate suggested that Yeats was a sad case because, ‘he was plagued with immortality and involved in politics.’

O’Casey’s plays also provided rich seams of unintended humour, double entendres and other heaven sent certainties. One candidate mentioned the fact that, ‘Johnny is no longer able to work because of an accident where he lost an arm and now he walks with a limp’ and continued to dig a deep hole by saying, ‘a job on a building site wouldn’t strain his arms because it’s not his legs he’s mixing it with.’  Captain Boyle was not understood at all, ‘there is nothing attractive or endearing about Captain Boyle, he is literally a boyle on the butt of humanity’.  It is also suggested that, ‘he attends drinking seminars in a local pub’.   Summing up Juno and the Paycock one candidate suggests that, ‘Joxer is the parasite and Boyle is the dope (sic)’.  Bessy Burgess in The Plough and the Stars is described as, ‘a pearl containing oyster of a woman’!   She has a sharp tongue in her head and she says, ‘that Mrs. Gogan’s wedding vowels are not valid’.  Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World is beautifully described as having. ‘small feet which is a sign of great breathing’.  These candidates may not have gone down in English – most of them anyway! – but they will definitely go down in history!

Lord of the Flies by William Golding always gave rise to unexpected surprises.  The boys, ‘find they are on an island inhabited by pigs and bugs’  and, ‘they have to defend for themselves’ and then we discover that, ‘any pigment of control is lost when Piggy dies’.

Personal essays also provided an amazing array of views on the vagaries of teenage life: the following are some of the many gems which brought a smile to my face.

  • Summer holidays from school are great – your only worry is have you put enough sun screen on your nose.
  • Life is like meeting the man of your dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife!
  • It was a buzzing party so there were no straight people there…..
  • In Second Year there were thirty-one of us in our class – I was the one!!
  • Waiting for the school bus is a mating ritual…..
  • The mood is electrical…..
  • There was a climatic moment as the aria was played……..
  • Dreaming is actually one of the things I’m good at…..
  • The internet is a gateway to child pornography and a perverse culture used by losers and sad cases….

I could go on and on but suffice it to say that all these slips of the pen brightened up my hazy July days and needless to say they were all – well nearly all! – rewarded accordingly!  I will give the final word to one young statistician who summed up our national predicament quite succinctly: ‘We are a 100 per cent white, 95 per cent Catholic and 110 per cent naïve country’.  Out of the mouths of babes…….

image

Just a thought…….

 There is a motif running through modern Irish literature where somebody starts out unable to speak, and finishes in a condition of great eloquence.  In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on the first page, Baby Stephen is lisping, he’s mispronouncing words, he cannot speak, but that novel, a sort of central classical Irish novel, ends with Stephen about whom the story was being told, taking over the story and telling it himself in his own eloquent way.

Similarly, in J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, the hero when we first meet him, is a stuttering lout in a ditch, he can’t speak and he comes out of the ditch into the pub, and he starts telling a story which is partly a lie and partly of course the truth.  And he becomes more and more eloquent.  The more eloquent he becomes the more he discovers he has an identity, that he is a person.

More recently Brian Friel also uses this more nuanced device in Translations where, as the play opens, Manus is teaching Sarah to speak in the local hedge school in Ballybeg.  Her speech defect is so bad that all her life she has been considered to be dumb and she herself has accepted this.  She is described in the Stage Directions as being ‘waiflike’ and she, ‘could be any age from seventeen to thirty-five’.  She is used in the play to symbolise the vexed issue, a preoccupation of Friel’s, of communication, language and Irish identity.  In the play Sarah is perpetually spoken for, she then gradually finds her voice only to lose it again. She never achieves the eloquence of Stephen Dedalus or Christy Mahon.  Towards the end of the play she  refuses to speak to Captain Lancey and maybe this act can be interpreted as regressing back to her previous state or maybe as an act of resistance to his colonising influence……..

This enforced silence is also a feature of more recent Irish writing.   A well-known saying in the North during ‘The Troubles’ was, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.   Seamus Heaney used the phrase as the title and the theme of one of his most impressive poems on the North of Ireland:

‘The famous Northern reticence, the tight gag of place

And times: yes, yes.  Of the ‘wee six’ I sing

Where to be saved you only must save face

And whatever you say, say nothing.’

There is a natural reserve built in to any discussion about politics or about happenings where there may be conflict.  Nowhere is this depicted better than in Seamus Deane’s brilliant novel about the Northern Ireland conflict, Reading in the Dark.

Canal Bank Walk by Patrick Kavanagh

Leafy with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

 

 In a lecture entitled ‘Man and Poet’, Kavanagh said:

‘We are in too great a hurry.  We want a person or thing to yield their pleasures and their secrets to us quickly for we have other commitments.  But it is the days when we are idle, when nothing appears to be happening, which provide us, when no one is looking, with all that is memorable’.

The Canal Bank sonnets are unhurried poems in which Kavanagh’s idleness yields precious, unforgettable experiences.  ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is, in effect, the natural poetic sequel to ‘Advent’.

Anthony Cronin has described Patrick Kavanagh as an intensely private man who lived his life in public places, a man who thought mediocrity the enemy of genius, the enemy of life.  He did live a public life as journalist and man about town but Kavanagh also claimed that, ‘the only subject that is of any great importance is – Man-in-this-world-and-why’.  He also believed that, ‘Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals’ and that great beauty and profound truths can be discovered in apparently ordinary places.

‘Canal Bank Walk’ is written in the traditional 14-line sonnet form.  In this poem, Kavanagh combines both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, using the same methods as in ‘Inniskeen Road’.

Religion is a dominant feature in Kavanagh’s poetry, both as a theme and as a source of imagery.  Religion features thematically in ‘Advent’, ‘Canal Bank Walk’,  and ‘A Christmas Childhood’.

His  attitude to the environment changed dramatically following his operation for lung cancer.  He said: ‘As a poet I was born in or about 1955, the place of my birth being the banks of the Grand Canal’.  ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is the first poem Kavanagh wrote after coming out of hospital in 1955.  He claims to have undergone a mystical experience through hospitalisation and recovery.  His whole view of life and of poetry has now changed.  From now on his poetry will be about celebration, about joy, about appreciating the wonderful world God has made.  He has been reborn; his new-born soul is being baptised in, ‘the green waters of the canal’.  Canal water is no longer canal water.  He sees it now, not through material eyes but through spiritual eyes.  He is baptised and from now on will do, ‘the will of God’; and the will of God is that he steep himself in the ordinary world – ‘Wallow in the habitual’.  He will go back to his original innocence, to a state of ‘oneness’ with nature, with God’s creation.  He will  ‘grow again with nature’ as he did before experience corrupted him and wonder died (see ‘Advent’).  There won’t be any more intellectualising.  He will just settle for the world of the senses, the world of sight and sound.  Now that he is renewed and at one with nature, he has eyes for the very ordinary things – ‘the bright stick trapped’, ‘the couple kissing ‘, ‘the bird building’.

The couple are not alone on the seat, the ‘breeze’ adds a third party and is symbolic of his new found gift of observation of ordinary things.  He sees the bird, ‘gathering materials for the nest’ and looks on this ordinary sight with spiritual eyes and the ordinary is transformed – it takes on a religious significance: the bird is preparing the stable at Bethlehem where the Word will be made Flesh, where God will reveal Himself in the form of new life.  Everything will now be brand new; he has just been born as it were; a world that has grown stale through experience and familiarity is new again – ‘eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat’.  It’s an ‘unworn world’ – brand new.

He wants to be ensnared in this world of the senses, in this world of sight and sound, in the world of, ‘fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech’ – the voices of nature no doubt.  He uses the image of the web to suggest his wish to be captivated by nature, he doesn’t want to escape back to a world of analysis and ‘testing’.  ‘Feed the gaping need of my senses’ – he will gladly settle for the world of the senses – no need for the sophistication of intellectualising – ‘to look on is enough in the business of love’.  He wants to pray (as children do) ‘unselfconsciously’, without restraint.  He sees his soul being dressed in a new dress ‘of green and blue things’ – the green of the earth and the blue of the sky – the totality of creation – the world of the senses.

 Kavanagh’s poetry is a record of a journey that brought him from Monaghan to the banks of the Grand Canal, a journey of discovery and exploration in which he reveals himself as one who found the ordinary, extraordinary, and that, ‘the things that really matter (are) casual, insignificant little things’.  Even in the city the images are rural and we are treated to a virtual cornucopia of happy, summery images of grass, trees, breezes and birds.  The poet, Harry Clifton, has said that, ‘In Kavanagh’s finest work, it is almost always high summer’.

In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ it is obvious that Kavanagh is capable of great lyrical intensity.  There is great lyrical, gentle but impassioned quality in lines such as, ‘O unworn world enrapture me’ or, ‘Feed the gaping need of my senses’ and a sense of being totally at ease.  Kavanagh’s language can be what Patrick Crotty calls ‘grittily realistic’ (especially in ‘The Great Hunger’) but there is also a colloquial rhythm in such lines as, ‘There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight’ or, ‘That was the year of the Munich bother’ and there is also a great lyrical quality here in ‘Canal Bank Walk’ where ‘pouring’ and ‘overflowing’ seem to describe the poem’s rhythm and mood:

 ‘For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven

From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.’

This is a beautiful  unhurried poem in which the poet’s idleness yields precious, unforgettable experiences.

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