Manly Poems – ‘Epic’ by Patrick Kavanagh

Mr Carr was one of my many English teachers. He taught me all through the Junior Certificate syllabus, including some of the most famous and iconic pieces of Irish poetry. This is the poem I am most grateful to have been taught.

Kavanagh was born in Iniskeen, Co Monaghan in the early 20th century. He was best known for works such as Raglan Road and the critically acclaimed The Great Hunger. During his youth and middle-age, Kavanagh was an avid pessimist as well as something of a heavy drinker. In 1954, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had the lung removed. Whilst recovering in hospital, his general outlook on life changed dramatically and he became far more philosophical and generally, it would seem, happier. He spent much of his time relaxing on the nearby Grand Canal, which is where he his now commemorated with a statue.

‘O commemorate me where there is water, Canal water preferably, so stilly Greeny at the heart of summer…’

Epic was published with Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems in 1960. The poem’s title is used half-ironically, and half self-justifyingly. Set in Kavanagh’s native Monaghan, it describes a rather nasty altercation between two families in a dispute over land which has turned violent. On the general scale of historical events, fray would seem very minor, but Kavanagh later realises that such things are ‘all relative’. The ‘Munich bother’ which he refers to is the sequence of events that led to the Munich Agreement, which Prime Minister Chamberlain famously proclaimed guaranteed ‘peace for our time’, only for World War Two to start within a year. The final five words are, I believe, some of the most powerful in all of Irish literature.

Epic

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided: who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul’
And old McCabe, stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
‘Here is the march along these iron stones’.
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance

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Filed under Manly Poems, Poetry

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