Remembering how we stood
Lines written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin
O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water preferably
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother…
O commemorate me with no hero courageous
Tomb – just a canal bank seat for the passer-by.
Paddy had written these lines (which were themselves inspired by a seat near Baggot Street Bridge, which was put up to the memory of Mrs. Dermot O’Brian, and from them it was clear that it was his wish to be similarly remembered. Denis Dwyer and I [John Ryan] decided, therefore to do something about it. To this end we formed a committee of which he was chairman and I was honorary treasurer. The committee which was formed to set about the task consisted of Ronnie Walsh, T.P, McKenna, Pat Layde, Don Harris, Liam Brady, Siobhan McKenna, Garech de Brun, Senator and Mrs. Eoin Ryan, Jim Fitzgerald, Michael Farrell and Sheila O’Grady (who was the secretary). The first thing to do (before a split), we decided, was to set ourselves a time limit for the building and erection of the seat. The Irish can only work to deadlines. In the vapidness of unlimited time, their hopes and aspirations dissolve like the mists of the morning.
It was already December 1967, and we gave ourselves until 17 March 1968, Patrick’s Day, to complete our task. Our committee meetings used to be held on Sunday Mornings in the Ormond, that hotel of shimmering and fugal Joycean memories, and were businesslike as the conviviality of having drinks with friends on the Sabbath would allow.
Michael Farrell designed the seat, basing his scheme on a rough sketch I had done on a drip-mat on the bar of the Bailey. Denis Dwyer who as chairman, would bring sudden order to a boisterous meeting by sternly bringing down, with a resounding thud, his four-pound lump hammer which he used as a gavel, was instrumental in finding the oak from which the seat was made. It had been felled in Meath a century before Paddy himself was born. The stone that formed the two uprights is of granite from the Dublin mountains. John Cullen, whose monumental works were in the heart of the Kavanagh Baggotinia, caused the words of the poem mentioned to be inscribed on the stone. The surrounding paving is of Liscarra slabs from the Burren in county Clare.
A fund to raise money was organized and most generously subscribed to. Humble unknown people sent money, and celebrities contributed. From Dan MacNello, who owned the pub in Inniskeen, came £5, and from Dr. George Otto Simms, the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, a similar sum. Lord Moyne sent £10, and the poet, John Heath-Stubbs sent a smaller nonetheless welcome contribution. Looking back at the list I kept, I see the names of the former Chief Justice of Ireland, Cearbhal O Dalaigh, and the poet David Wright, Lord Kilbracken, the ‘Pope’ O’ Mahony, Micheal MacLiammoir, also Lord Killanin, Benedict Kiely, Seamus Murphy, RHA, and a hundred more. Their names are not forgotten; in another and more suitable place they will be inscribed for posterity.
We thought it would be a nice thing to have his old friend, John Betjeman, over for the opening and wrote to him inviting him to do so. He declined regretfully. He had other, more pressing, engagements. It was eventually, on a gusty St. Patrick’s day unveiled as promised. To mark the event, Siobhan McKenna and members of the Abby Theatre company read a selection of his poems. The readers included Patrick Laffan, Patrick Layde, T.P. McKenna, Michael Hennessy and Niall Toibin. Then Aideen O’Kelly spoke the canal poem, but in such dreamy, limpid tones, I don’t believe there can be many dry eyes. I know there were tears in mine.
Finally, three priests, Fr. Cyril Barrett, SJ, Fr.Tom Stack, and Fr. Austin Flannery, OP, blessed the seat. It was gratifying that men of their calibre, fighters for good causes and friends of the arts, agreed to perform this simple ceremony, for the man we were remembering was a great artist and a great humanitarian.
Today we may linger on that seat and look down the lovely vista of the canal which he knew so well and which, when threatened with obliteration by the Corporation, so many of us fought to protect. It was in its own city way, as lovely as the Fane was to him. You can idle where so often he did, remembering that it is here that he had his renewal – his rebirth. You may see the descendants of the swans that glided past him nodding their heads ‘with many apologies.’ But no longer, alas, a canal barge with argosies of peat from furthest Athy. But you may see the occasional family ‘cruiser’ bobbing gently in the lock while the ‘crew’ attend to the exacting business of opening and closing the cumbersome gates.
In the fullness of summer, when the poplars and beeches crowd the heavens with turbulent foliage, the skies, the trees, and water all seem to merge in one quivering unity. From his seat , you will see the waters of the canal falling ‘Niagarously” into the lock, and your vision, as you raise your head , will be led half a mile up the canal until it meets the winking eye of Eustace Bridge. Then, the immense beauty of it all touches the heart. At such a moment one may concede that some parnassian deity (a friend now of the poet) is presiding over the scene.
As for the seat? Lovers use it; typists take their lunch aboard it – when the weather permits; old men with dogs sit there and dream of old days; homeward bound revellers rest their boozy limbs on its uncomplaining boards – men who have never heard of the poet. Others just sit on it, as I sometimes do, and simply remember Paddy Kavanagh.
If ever you go to Dublin Town
In a hundred years of so
Sniff for my personality,
Is it Vanities vapour now?
It’s hard to believe that it is nearing half a century already since those lines were written, and his “Vanity’s vapour” is certainly not evaporating!