Tarry Flynn is a novel by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, set in 1930s rural Ireland. The book is based on Kavanagh’s experience as a young farmer-poet in Monaghan. The novel itself, however, is set in Cavan and is based on the life of a young farmer and his quest for big fields, young women and the meaning of life.
Kavanagh began writing Tarry Flynn in 1940 under the title Stony Grey Soil. It was, however, rejected. After his collection of poetry, A Soul for Sale, containing the poem The Great Hunger, was published to great acclaim in February 1947, he set about revising the novel and spent the summer of 1947 working on it.
At the time the relationship between Church and State was very close and one of the victims of this were the many works of literature, including Tarry Flynn, which were banned. The politicians and church authorities were fearful that outside influences might adversely affect Catholic morality and so they combined to enforce a very vigorous opposition to liberal ideas and all works of art and literature that were considered at odds with Catholic values. Central to this policy was the passing of The Public Dance Halls Act 1935 which regulated people’s entertainment and which also included a prohibition on jazz music which was seen to be a bad influence on the Irish people.
The 1937 Constitution had granted a special place to the Catholic Church in the life of the nation and recognised the role of women as mothers and home-makers. In his speeches and broadcasts De Valera eulogised the role of women and painted an idealised picture of life in the Irish countryside. As one of the rural, Catholic poor, Patrick Kavanagh knew that the social realities of life for poor, farm families was radically different to this Utopian idyll of self-sufficiency and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. In his poetry and in his fiction Kavanagh introduced his readers to male characters who were trapped by religion, by the land and by their mothers. When works such as The Great Hunger (1942) and Tarry Flynn (1948), were published Kavanagh showed his increasing alienation from the Catholic Church and the artist in him was affronted by the official version of rural Ireland which was being sponsored by the government. As a consequence, Tarry Flynn was duly banned by the Irish Censorship Board for being, in their words, ‘indecent and obscene’ and it remained out of print until the 1960s.
Tarry Flynn is rural Ireland’s answer to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Similar to Joyce’s work the novel is loosely autobiographical, an account of the life and thoughts of an imaginative young man fettered by his family circumstances and his cultural and intellectual milieu. Eventually he leaves his native Drumnay to find the full freedom of self-expression for which he longs. In A Portrait Joyce’s hero Stephen Dedalus decides that love of one’s country can best be achieved by being absent from it (‘the shortest way to Tara was via Holyhead’). This anticipates the advice given to Tarry by his wandering uncle that the best way to love a country like this is from a range of not less than three hundred miles!
However, Tarry, unlike Stephen Dedalus, does not go into exile. He is content to practice his craft in Ireland, though at a distance from his native place. His reasons for going have to do not only with his desire to write his poems in an atmosphere of freedom but also with his dislike of the attitudes he finds among his Catholic neighbours. He loves the fields of Drumnay, poor and unproductive as they are. He loves his mother too and would like to stay with her but his problem is that he cannot enjoy his rural paradise in peace because it has become associated in his mind with unpleasant individuals who constantly irritate him, and whose values he can never share. This is how he presents this dilemma to us:
He was sorry for his mother. He could see that she was in her way a wise mother. Yet, he had to go. Why? He didn’t want to go. If, on the other hand, he stayed, he would be up against the Finnegans and the Carlins and the Bradys and the Cassidys and the magic of the fields would be disturbed in his imagination.
What is most striking about the novel is the conflict it depicts between Tarry’s hostile, even savage, view of his uncongenial neighbours, and his deep love and reverence for the fields of his youth. An evening’s walk through these fields is a ‘mystical adventure’. His uncle wonders how he endures the place, and can scarcely believe that any human being could live his life in so backward a spot. Tarry, on the other hand, expresses an almost religious devotion for the commonplaces and banalities of farm life. Standing in the doorway of a stable, his mind sinks in the warm, joyous thought of the earth: ‘The hens standing on one leg in the doorways of the stables and under the trees made him love his native place more and more.’ This deep attachment to the physical realities of the farm is a constantly repeated motif as the time comes for him to make his decision to go with his uncle. His uncle, ‘did not realise how beautiful Tarry thought the dunghill and muddy haggard and gaps and all that seemed common and mean.’ This very same attitude is found throughout Kavanagh’s poetry. In the poem, ‘Advent’, for example, the poet’s delight in the simple, everyday things is constantly breaking through, ‘the heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges’ and even the banality of barrowing dung ‘in gardens under trees’ is glorified.
However, in stark contrast to his love of rural sights, sounds and smells, we have his distaste for rural humanity. Those who populate Drumnay are as diverse and perverse a group of grotesques as were ever assembled in a work of fiction! Collectively, as when gathered in the local church for Mass, they are repulsive. Tarry sees them as squalid and grey-faced, with parchment faces and wrinkled necks, their skin the colour of clay, with clay in their hair and clothes. Looking at them he has the impression that the tillage fields themselves are at Mass. Individually, they are even worse. Molly Brady is a ‘fat slob of a girl’ whose characteristic utterance is a wild animal cry. Tarry staring half-vacantly at his sisters, finds little to choose between them. All three are about five foot two inches, ‘low-set, with dull clayey faces, each of them like a bag of chaff tied in the middle with a rope – breasts and buttocks that flapped in the wind’. A neighbouring farmer, Petey Meegan, is a suitor to one of Tarry’s sisters, Mary. He presents no more flattering an image than Mary. As he approaches, he has to straighten his humped shoulders and quicken his ‘plough-crookened step’. He looks to be any age between fifty and the ‘age of an old oak’.
The attitudes of Kavanagh’s neighbours are no more attractive than their appearance. Their outstanding quality seems to be a profound dislike of each other, an ingrained resistance to helping each other succeed, and a determination to prevent gain or advantage accruing to anybody else. When Tarry has legal problems arising from the purchase of a few acres of land, he knows instinctively that his friend Eusebius is pleased. In this he is reflecting the delighted, begrudging response of a rural community to a neighbour’s misfortune:
Eusebius danced along the road kicking the pebbles before him. Tarry had to admit to himself that had their positions been reversed he would have been happy too. Hating one’s next-door neighbour was an essential part of a small farmer’s religion. Hate and jealousy made love – even the love of land – an exciting adventure.
A major concern and theme in the novel is Tarry’s inability to establish any lasting relationships or friendships because of his contempt for those around him. Even his relationships with members of his own family, apart from his mother, are not close, to say the least. He can look at his sisters in a detached, cynical way, finding in them more to criticise than to praise. He poses in the novel as a man apart, not only from his family but from society as a whole. He seems to rejoice in the idea of being an outsider. In Tarry Flynn, there is a sense in which Kavanagh explores at length the theme of the isolated individual at odds with his society as well as with its members. Tarry enjoys posing as a minor rural intellectual, daring to be at odds with the dominant parties, in this case, the ceremonies and rituals of the Catholic Church. It must be acknowledged that his liberal stance takes somewhat childish forms: being deliberately late for Mass, falling asleep during the Rosary, and saying shocking things about priests. He also enjoys being the local bard, secretly reveling in the isolation of his room in his creative power, safe from hostility, ‘from the net of earthly intrigue’. In his role as poet, he is pre-eminently the alienated young man, practicing a mysterious craft in which nobody else in the district can participate, not even Mary Reilly. He imagines her standing before him ‘listening with all the enthusiasm of the convent-bred girl who never fathomed the design behind it’.
Another factor in Tarry’s isolation is his failure to establish a decent natural relationship with any girl. He entertains lustful thoughts about Molly Brady, but his base desires remain unfulfilled. His friendship with Mary Reilly is marred by his bumbling awkwardness, his lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. In his relationship with her, the only girl in the locality he can fully respect and admire, he is inhibited by his disabling sense of being out of the ordinary, and by his defensive pride in his own worth. He cannot believe that she could possibly value him for what he is, even though her attitude and tone of voice suggest that she can see through his working-class appearance to the worthwhile reality beneath. He has been labouring for her family when she meets him dressed in the ragged clothes of a farm labourer. It is clear that she is interested in getting to know him better, and she goes more than half-way to bring this about. From his reading he knows that ladies had often fallen in love with their workmen, and also knows that he would be happy if he could apply this hopeful scenario to his own case. In the end, this proves impossible:
What the girl said to him he hardly knew.
He was listening to his own divided self raising a bedlam in his imagination. He knew that he had insulted her.
‘Will you be at the dance on Sunday night?’ she asked.
‘Dancing is an eejit’s game’, he said. And he went on to expatiate on the folly of dancing.
‘What would you say to a bunch of horses that after a hard day’s work spent the night galloping and careering round the field? I wouldn’t dream of wasting me time at a dance.’
‘I’d love you to come,’ she said sweetly.
‘I wouldn’t bother me bleddy head,’ he said with a loud laugh.
‘Still – ‘ She gave him a gentle smile but he was determined
‘It’s only an eejit’s game,’
‘Sunday night will be a big event, Tarry. I could see you there.’
‘Indeed you couldn’t and don’t be pretending you could,’ he shouted. He kept in a twist to conceal as much of his patched clothes as possible.
‘You’ll probably be there all the same,’ she said.
‘I wouldn’t be seen dead at that hall.’
… My God! My God! My God! He cried in his heart when they had parted. He knew that he had meant nothing of what he had said. It was all the bravado of a man in ragged clothes.
At moments such as this, Tarry realises that, as he puts it, ‘there was something in him different from other men and women.’ This difference lies not merely in his superior artistic awareness or his advanced intellectual views. It also has to do with the fact that on vital occasions he always does some peculiar thing that spoils his chances of happiness.
His social failures encourage Tarry to strike various self-pitying poses. At times he tries, with somewhat ludicrous effect, to present himself as a tragic or sub-tragic hero. In one of his bouts of self-pity, he sees himself as a star-crossed romantic sufferer, a belated Shelley bleeding upon the thorns of life:
‘I have to carry a cross. He did not want to carry a cross. He wanted to be ordinary. But the more he wanted to shake the burden free, the more weighty did it become and the more it stuck to his shoulders.’
Elsewhere, he sees himself in the image of Joyce’s Dedalus:
‘Some day, he, too, might grow wings and be able to fly away from this clay-stricken place.’
His lapses into self-dramatisation weaken the novel. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the account of his departure from his mother which is embarrassingly sentimental:
‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost! Where are you going in the good suit?’ cried the mother the next morning when Tarry came down for breakfast.
‘As far as the village.’
‘And with the good suit?’ She eyed her son with a look of annoyance, and then suddenly her eyes flashed in scalded grief. Her lips moved in prayer. She spoke in a low whisper. ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ Her lips went on moving but there were no words. Her eyes were wide, soft – and as he stared they darkened in brown earthly sadness. It was her wordlessness smote him.
An impulse to cry out touched his throat. Words came to her again. They came in a spurt, on their own, like he had once seen blood spurt. ‘God help me and every mother.’ And then a storm of sobs swept her and words came in a deluge. ‘Your nice wee place; your strong farm; your wee room for your writing, your room for your writing.’
‘How will she carry on?’ he kept mumbling. ‘How will she carry on?’
Kavanagh thought highly of Tarry Flynn as a work of documentary fiction. Indeed, he claimed that it was ‘not only the best but the only authentic account of life as it was lived in Ireland this century.’ The self-praise may be somewhat heightened, but there is no denying the documentary realism of the book, its fidelity to even the most minute detail. In his autobiography, The Green Fool, he recalls the same rural world of his young manhood, so faithfully rendered in Tarry Flynn:
‘The Parish Priest was the centre of gravity, he was the only man who was sure to go to Heaven. Our staple diet was potatoes and oatmeal porridge. Porridge had only recently taken the place of potatoes and buttermilk as the national supper. Though little fields and scraping poverty do not lead to grand flaring passions, there was plenty of fire and an amount of vicious neighbourly hatred to keep us awake.’
There is much of this ‘vicious neighbourly hatred’ in Tarry Flynn. Tarry’s family is bitterly at odds with the Finnegans. Their land dispute involves a bloody brawl between Tarry and Joe Finnegan. The power of the Church in a rural parish is also well rendered in the novel. Even the reading material available to Tarry is prescribed by the Church authorities: the standard work, The Messenger of the Sacred Heart, features the edifying story of a young girl with a religious vocation being sabotaged by a bad man. A missioner warns him about reading the works of George Bernard Shaw. Tarry’s mother warns him to attend the mission every evening, reminding him that when the Carlins failed to attend, their luck ‘wasn’t much the better of it.’ The priests set the moral tone of the parish and keep miscreants in check with uncompromising ferocity. They even preside over the parish entertainment and decide who is to be admitted and excluded. Like his neighbours, Tarry lives a life of unremitting drudgery.
Even though Tarry is frequently tempted to escape from the claustrophobic environment of Drumnay, and although he finds much to irritate and frustrate him in the way of life he is obliged to lead, the narrative of his early life is not entirely a bitter one. The harder he works, for example, the more he seems to enjoy it. He does many backbreaking jobs, but the achievement involved fills him with ‘a profounder passion’ than his love for Mary Reilly. The ownership of land also fills him with delight, as do his wanderings through the summer landscape:
‘He loved the fields and the birds and the trees, stones and weeds, and through these, he could learn a great deal.’
There is much of this kind of celebration of the joys of nature in Tarry Flynn. However repulsive Tarry may find many of the humans living in his rural landscape, nothing they say or do can ever quite dim his enthusiasm.
As you may have guessed, there is a considerable variety of tones in Tarry Flynn: satirical, sentimental, celebratory, reverential, self-pitying, but I have to say that the overall impulse is comic. Much of this comedy derives from Tarry’s reflections on his own enigmatic personality. His naïve understanding of how other people, especially women, see him is endearingly comic. He could not understand, he declares, ‘why he was ignored by young women, for he knew he was attractive’. He comes to the conclusion that women fearfully sense ‘primitive savagery and lust’ beneath his poetic appearance. To counteract this unfortunate impression, he makes his virtuous nature more obvious, but realises too late that women prefer primitive savages to virtuous men! His ideas of stimulating conversation with women are equally comic: ‘With women in general he was truthful and sincere and would talk philosophy or Canon Law to them on the slightest provocation.’ Little wonder that he ruefully concludes that ‘women cannot understand honesty in a man.’
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Recent high-powered reports and investigations into institutional abuse culminating in the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes which was published by the Irish Government on 12 January 2021 reinforce the grim reality that what have long been termed, particularly by our parents and grand parents, as ‘The Good Old Days’ weren’t that good after all. Tarry Flynn tried in its own way to enlighten people at home and abroad and as a result Kavanagh suffered the ultimate artistic sanction by having his novel banned. The novel sets out how life was lived in rural Ireland in the 30s and 40s and Kavanagh endeavors to capture this reality in a warts-and-all exposé which contains some very acerbic social commentary. There has always been a perceived difficulty when non-Irish readers encounter this text because many fail to appreciate Tarry Flynn’s dilemma or they believe that he is merely exaggerating, but it has to be realised that even modern day Irish readers also have this difficulty. The passage of time has not been kind to Kavanagh here and indeed, in his poetry in general.
The stark opening sentence of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between (1953) has great relevance here. It tells us bluntly that, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. As a reviewer writing this introduction to the novel, I was very aware that not many modern Irish teenagers coming to this novel for the first time would know, for instance, what a ‘missioner’ was or, for that matter, what a parish mission in the 1940s entailed.
By the 1940s Kavanagh didn’t have to go into exile like Joyce and others before him in order to gain creative perspective because by then Mucker in Monaghan and Pembroke Road in Dublin’s leafy suburbs were already oceans apart. When the novel was published in 1948 it presented readers with a vivid insider glimpse of the real austerity and deprivations which were widespread in rural Ireland in the 30s and 40s. Life was hard, uncompromising and suffocating and if we are to believe the narrator he was both inspired and imprisoned by the small fields of his native place.
The novel’s difficulties in interpretation have also been exacerbated by the mesmeric pace of change in Ireland over the past seventy-five years: we have gone from the pony and trap to Hiace vans and lavish SUVs; from rustic bye-roads to urban ring roads, from railways to Greenways. Our new reality of social media and smartphones and blogs and podcasts, not to mention Covid Lockdowns, have made even the recent past more remote than Neolithic times. And yet even a casual glance at our newsstands on any given day reinforces the notion that rural tranquility is still a myth, another modern urban legend.
So, perhaps it is again pertinent to revisit the past, the years before yesterday, to experience again the flickering sepia villages and townlands where mud and drudgery mingle with the body’s stirrings and the olive-green humming of Tarry Flynn’s world. I would highly recommend it, especially to those of a similar vintage to myself!
Murray, Patrick. Modern Fiction, The Educational Company, 1991.
Wikipedia – Tarry Flynn