Book Review: Tarry Flynn by Patrick Kavanagh

 
Tarry Flynn - Patrick Kavanagh
Penguin Books, 2000. 192 pages
Tarry Flynn
was the book we could never keep in the house My parents bought this book over and over again and, time after time, it would be ‘borrowed’ and never returned. Now, some forty years after I first read it, it’s an odd experience to re-visit it.
Patrick Kavanagh was born in Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan in 1904 and Tarry Flynn, while not strictly autobiographical, draws on his experiences in the closed, repressed, suffocating atmosphere of a poor rural life. Tarry lives with his widowed mother and three sisters on a small farm in Co. Cavan. His mother is the brains of the family and is driven to distraction by Tarry’s vague ways and love of reading. Tarry at the age of twenty-seven is driven to distraction by his celibate state and the more prosaic frustrations of petty small-farm community life.
Tarry sees the beautiful in the ordinary things in nature and finds it odd that his neighbors do not. He craves intimacy with women but constantly subverts all occasions where this might happen. His attitude is oddly misogynistic for one whom you might think possesses a romantic heart.
His dealings with the priests, who represent power in his community, is equally self-destructive; while he seems to be somewhat hostile to religion, this hostility finds no articulate voice. And his attitude towards his neighbors is summed up in a short paragraph: “There was a worldly wisdom that looked so much like stupidity that he could not tolerate it. He had seen and observed the worldly-wise men of the place with their platitudes and their unoriginality, and he knew he could never bring himself to act as they acted.”
Tarry is plainly living in the wrong place and eventually discovers this for himself.
I had remembered the book as funny and charming -- and, indeed, parts of it are -- but I was struck, too, by the sadness at the heart of it. This is repressed Ireland in 1938. The Catholic Church is in charge. The Dance Hall Act, designed to curb lewd behaviour and and to discourage modern influences such as jazz music and modern dancing, is in force. The country is in poverty, the second world War is about to break out and the government is pursuing a policy of rural romanticism later to be described in a speech known as The Ireland We Dream Of. So this is not a nostalgic sojourn in a rural idyll, more a indictment of small-minded Ireland. In his essay about Kavanagh, From Monaghan to the Grand Canal from Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 Seamus Heaney says “ a hard buried life that subsisted beyond the feel of middle-class novelists and romantic nationalist poets, a life denuded of ‘folk’ and picturesque elements, found its expression.”
The writing, as you might expect, is strong and clear and at times really lovely. Kavanagh was a powerful poet and, after Yeats, is probably the most-loved of Irish poets. His Collected Poems contains his best work -- In Memory of My Mother, Stony Grey Soil, On Raglan Road and, of course, the hugely powerful The Great Hunger. On Raglan Road, set to the music of Fáinne Geal an Lae has been recorded may times -- my favorite is a version by Dick Gaughan which you’ll find here 

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