In A Poet in the House: Patrick Kavanagh at Priory Grove, a memoir by Elizabeth O’Toole, we encounter a new Patrick Kavanagh.
Patrick Kavanagh (1904–67) was one of Ireland’s foremost poets, best known for ‘The Great Hunger’ and novel Tarry Flynn. He is also remembered for his cantankerous, sometimes volatile nature, fuelled by alcohol.
In 1961, the poet lived with the O’Toole family in Stillorgan for six months at a crucial point in his life, when he was sober, industrious and, as the accompanying photographs will show, much loved by her children. Until now, no one has been aware of how close Kavanagh was to O’Toole and to her husband, James Davitt Bermingham O’Toole. Born and raised in China, Jim O’Toole was the author of Man Alive, a play about the inner workings of the ESB that created a storm of controversy in 1961. On the first night, Kavanagh told the audience that the press was ‘lily-livered’.
This was not just ‘a local row’. One of the ESB’s top executives, Jim O’Donovan, was the IRA leader who negotiated a deal with the Nazis that threatened the existence of the State in 1940. Kavanagh’s relationship with O’Donovan and Jim O’Toole’s escape from Germany at the outbreak of the war are here revealed for the first time.
Amongst many other revelations in the book is a hitherto unknown connection between the poet and Patricia Avis, novelist wife of the poet Richard Murphy and lover of Philip Larkin and Desmond Williams.
Although Elizabeth O’Toole is now ninety-six, her decidedly down-to-earth voice is that of a much younger woman. Her vivid recollections deepen and challenge the way we view Patrick Kavanagh. The influence of her book will tilt our perception of this passionate man.
A contextual essay by the editor of the volume, playwright and novelist Brian Lynch, accompanies the memoir along with photographs from the early sixties.