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How Does Patrick Kavanagh’s Concept of the Parish Inform His Sense of the Significance of the Local in Irish Poetry?

3416 words (14 pages) Essay

18th May 2020 Literature Reference this

Patrick Kavanagh, whose poetic work is arguably the most influential to modern day Irish poets, was for a lengthy period during his writing career considered a rogue element by the literature colleagues of his era. Today, his work stands shoulder to shoulder with other Irish greats such as Yeats for his inimitable insight and understanding of rural Irish life. Through his seminal work The Great Hunger, this essay will examine that parish experience, which the young Kavanagh carried with him through his literary career and which shaped his portrayals of local Irish life, consequently breathing new life into a ‘pre-packaged’ or sanitised image espoused by many of his contemporaries.

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A semi-educated young man, Kavanagh left his northern parish and moved to the city to venture into poetry composition, but he felt at odds with the views expressed by the urban poets of the day. When the young Kavanagh arrived in the city of Dublin, he grew disappointed in what he termed as a “fictional” portrayal of the Irish peasant’s character by the city poets and writers. He believed that most were generating a falsified image of the Irish people for purposes of exporting their literature to America.[1]

His open rebellion to the popular depiction of the Irish peasant farmer by other writers created a conflict between Kavanagh and the urban literature composers. However, this conflict did not deter him from expressing what Kavanagh thought was the true depiction of rural Irish life in his poems. Kavanagh was proud and considered himself as the only writer during his era to have expressed the realistic image of rural Ireland folk.[2] He held a concept of the parish as a place where the local people, who although lived in poverty, led an honest and righteous life – contrary to the inaccurate image of the urban written literature, and that concept of the parish had a significant impact in his and other local Irish poetry.

Kavanagh was born in the early twentieth century in a religious family that lived in Mucker, in the Parish of Inniskeen, Co Monaghan.[3] He was the fourth child to a family of ten children. Raised Catholic, during his early years he went to a church-based school where most of the reading materials were religious. Therefore, Kavanagh held the idea that rural people were religious just like him. However, he was fond of questioning the moral teachings that the teachers instructed.[4] This character of questioning religious morals inspired some of his writings, such as the Great Hunger. Although Kavanagh was a religious individual, he preferred to explore what he referred to as God’s presence in nature. He believed that God was part of nature but not necessarily nature itself.[5]

The second idea that Kavanagh held about his Parish was that it was a place where hardworking poor people like himself, lived an honest and happy life – despite poverty and hardship. He came from a family of farmers and in the wake of World War I, Kavanagh had to abscond his education at the age of thirteen because of poverty. He dropped out of school partly to work as an apprentice in his father’s shoemaking business and to help in his family farming activities. However, Kavanagh had a deep passion for pursuing his poetic dream regardless of his sudden educational departure or the family’s lack of money.

Kavanagh felt that being in the fields allowed the local people to be closer to God. He held the idea that God was in nature, and parish workers had the opportunity to interact with the vast fields of God’s creation. He also loved to play football in his local football club. All these were the images of his parish that engraved themselves in his mind throughout his writing career. Therefore, in his literature, he portrayed an image of an Irish people who, although struggling with poor economic conditions, lived a life filled with happiness in simplicity and hard work – something shared by their Presbyterian neighbours further north.

At the time when Kavanagh was writing poetry, there were also other political activities taking place in the country, which had an impact on how he perceived the locals. By 1940, Ireland was struggling for national independence. Therefore, other Irish poets such as Yeats and Hades, at the time, strived to create an image of the Irish peasants as people who were always in conflict with each other and whose main aim was to overturn the English colonial stereotype.[6] The depiction of Irish people always in conflict and struggle, stemmed from assumptions and fictional imaginations of urban writers concerning rural life.[7] In addition, most urban writers were Protestant, while most rural people were Catholic. Therefore, the misrepresentation of his folk resulted in the development of Kavanagh’s urge to correct the image portrayed by urban writers.

Finally, another local practice that informed Kavanagh’s imagery of parish life was the fact that late marriages were a common practice. Rural Ireland was a conservative patriarchal society practicing agriculture as the primary source of income. Conversely, the rise of revivalists around the country, whose main goal was to hold land rather than use it for farming, created the need for rural people to be conservative. For this reason, many farming parents did not allow their children to marry only to avoid subdividing the already limited land further.[8] As a result, it was common practice for the eldest sons to remain unmarried even at a late age with the hope of inheriting the family land from their parent. Therefore, most young men at the time indulged in sexual adventures only to satisfy their sexual imagination. Kavanagh depicted this in The Great Hunger, where he talks about the struggles of rural people against sexual deprivation.

In this, his most famous poem, Kavanagh refutes the common mythical misrepresentation of rural Irish folk and instead depicts the life of the parish local according to the concept he had acquired during his early childhood. The poem entails the struggles of an old Irish farmer with himself and his environment. However, in this case, he is not struggling for liberty from colonial rule but rather from hunger, infertility, self-acceptance, and spiritual fulfilment; concepts that Kavanagh felt were a candid expression of local people’s lives. He set the poem at a time when there was “great hunger” in Ireland but not the oft-talked of famine, but the reality of everyday deprivation and struggle for survival in rural Ireland.

Kavanagh had experienced the world of viciousness, misery, and poverty first hand. Therefore, he did not try to exaggerate its effect emotionally. In The Great Hunger, the main character is a potato farmer named Maguire. In the opening act of the poem, he describes how Maguire and his men grew intimate with the land in which they would spend hours ploughing. He writes that “potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move” through the field and that these farmers would continue ploughing these filed until “the last soul… rolled down the hill”.[9] These stanzas illustrate that local farming people worked hard in the field, not just for a season, but for their entire lives, from birth to death. Kavanagh drew this depiction from his early childhood days when he, together with his other family members, would plough the land tirelessly during the farming seasons.

In the first sentence of the poem, Kavanagh describes clay as being the word and the flesh.[10] Kavanagh chose to begin this poem by showing the intimacy that the local people had with the land. According to his concept, the Irish people valued nothing more than the land – they held family land sacred. According to the poem, the locals were so intimate with the land that nature had given room for them to operate.[11] They manoeuvred “over worms and frogs” in the fields and gulls would fly off as they approached the hedges.[12] Kavanagh explains how vital the practice of farming was to these people.

Kavanagh also states in the first act that these men ploughing the land had not married. Maguire and his men have committed their lives to the fields. Kavanagh writes that Maguire was “lost in a passion that never needs a wife”.[13] For Maguire, his wives are his field and his dog. He seems not to have any control over his life. However, according to the poem, this man was not saddened by his current state. He instead thought of himself to be “wiser than any man in the townland.”[14] Kavanagh describes this local Irish farmer based on the controversy that, according to him, had plagued the young men living blindly in rural Ireland without any consideration of their current states.

Additionally, Kavanagh describes Maguire’s mother, with whom he lives, as dominating him. Society has forced him to commit to a life serving the Parish – church, land and family. He must remain calm and mindless until a time when it will be appropriate to get married. Meanwhile, he is growing old and infertile each day. He is addicted to furtive masturbation because it is immoral, according to his Christian values, to indulge in any sexual endeavours with a woman before marriage. At the beginning of act VII, his mother commands him to attend mass, pray and confess his sin; maybe then, he would “have all the luck.”[15] Maguire obeys his mother even though he does not fully agree with her. His tragedy, as Kavanagh describes, began at his boyhood and may only end with his death. This idea Irish young men, who seem dominated by the parents, sprouted from what he had observed in his parish, which was men remaining single for as old as forty years because they were waiting for permission from their parents to get married.

Kavanagh uses the tragedy about Maguire’s life to express the significant conflicts involved in the life of young rural men. The conflicts between Christianity and fertility and paganism and then between work, obedience, and love. The rivalry between Christianity and paganism shows in act III, where Kavanagh states that the men knew that God the Father was in the trees.[16] Pagans prayed to their God in the trees. However, these men were not pagans because they also believed in Christ and the Holy Spirit, as stated in the following lines in the poem. Kavanagh talks about this rivalry between different beliefs throughout the poem. This depiction of the rural Irish as a people who were torn between paganism and Christianity came from Kavanagh’s conflict with God’s nature. He grew up as a Christian but, like most other local villagers, had a concept that God was in nature.

In addition, there was a rivalry between Christianity and marriage within Kavanagh’s poem, which was conceptualised from the late marriages he observed in his parish. Maguire lived with his mother until she was ninety-one, and he was sixty-five years old. He was not allowed to marry nor defy his mother. The fact that his mother raised him as a Christian made sure that he could not defy the Christian values. Therefore, Maguire is in a dilemma of whether to follow his natural desire for marriage or adhere to his Christian values. This tragedy was also befalling his young employee, Joe. In act XI, Kavanagh also describes Joe as a “young man of imagined wives.”[17]

There is also a rivalry between Maguire’s impending impotence and the need to work the fields. Throughout the poem, Kavanagh expresses the frustration and loneliness that Maguire felt. However, he kept on ploughing as summers and winters came and went. In act XI, Maguire is forty-seven years old and he instructs other younger men on what to do. A young man, Joe, is following in his footsteps of life without marriage. Young girls no longer show interest in Maguire because they do not see any political viability in creating a friendship with him. Therefore, he seems to have accepted his fate as he continues to follow the commands of his mother, diligently. Kavanagh uses this narration to express the rivalry that most young men faced in rural Ireland.

Kavanagh also felt that rural Irish people later regretted their life’s choices. According to the poem, the tragedy that Maguire faces is not pertinent to him alone but also to his sister, Mary Anne. In act XII, Maguire’s sick mother expresses to the priest that she fears for her daughter’s future who is facing the imminent danger of her looming infertility. Mary Anne has an undying devotion to working in the homestead. When their mother dies, Mary Anne begins to question her actions at her late mother’s bedside. She realises that life has passed her by without her consent. She is no longer young. She remorsefully remembers a summer, forty years ago, when she together with three of her young friends went for an adventure.[18] Kavanagh uses the character of Mary Anne to express that the issue of failure to marry applied equally to both men and women as did the subsequent regret.

The final act of the poem highlights the sometime hopelessness and emptiness of rural life as Kavanagh had seen it. Maguire is now an elderly man. His voice has grown hoarse, and his body feeble. Joe and his sister are now first cousins to the dead in the townland.[19] He is an infertile man who is destined to see his death without having experienced life. Despite this, Maguire is not afraid of dying. He is optimistic that the church will light a candle for him to help him manoeuvre through the dark world of death. Kavanagh concludes that the circumstances faced by Maguire are not unique to him, but rather, a common occurrence everywhere in rural Ireland.[20]

The poem, The Great Hunger, is a great example to illustrate how Kavanagh’s concept of the parish – his understanding of local lives in rural Ireland – impacted his writing. He had experienced rural life as one where people lived in poverty. According to Kavanagh’s childhood experience, the local Irish were religious, hardworking peasants. They valued their land and farming activities more than anything else. However, these people were plagued with the conflicts between remaining true to their cultural values and submitting to the natural aspirations of love and marriage. Although, his notion of the rural Irish brewed conflict between him and his colleagues during his career, contemporary Irish poetry has begun appreciating his poetry. Today, Irish people celebrate the Bloomsday, which Kavanagh and his poetry friends pioneered, and other Irish-based poetic celebration days. Kavanagh has become an essential figure in contemporary Irish poetry, because of how candidly he expressed the significance of ‘the local’ in Irish parish life.


  • Agnew, Una, “The Spirituality Of Patrick Kavanagh – Catholicireland.Net,” Catholicireland.Net, 1999 <https://www.catholicireland.net/the-spiritituality-of-patrick-kavanagh/> [Accessed 31 May 2019]
  • Allison, Jonathan, ‘Patrick Kavanagh and Antipastoral’ in The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, ed. Matthew Campbell (Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 42-59
  • AllPoetry, “The Great Hunger,” Allpoetry.Com <https://allpoetry.com/The-Great-Hunger> [Accessed 13 June 2019]
  • Andrews, Elmer, Contemporary Irish Poetry: A Collection Of Critical Essays (London: Springer, 2016), pp. 11-16
  • Hirsch, Edward, “The Imaginary Irish Peasant,” Publications Of The Modern Language Association Of America, 106 (1991), 1117 <https://doi.org/10.2307/462684>
  • Kennelly, Brendan, “Patrick Kavanagh,” ARIEL: A Review Of International English Literature, 1 (1970) <https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/ariel/article/viewFile/31606/25682> [Accessed 31 May 2019]
  • Kiberd, Declan, Inventing Ireland (London: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 476-477
  • O’Grady, T. B., “The Parish And The Universe,” An Irish Quarterly Review, 85 (1996), 17-26 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/30092026> [Accessed 31 May 2019]

[1] Elmer Andrews, Contemporary Irish Poetry: A Collection of Critical Essays (London: Springer, 2016), pp. 11-16, (p. 11).

[2] Allison, Jonathan, ‘Patrick Kavanagh and Antipastoral’ in The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, ed. Matthew Campbell (Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 42-59, (p. 42).

[3] Una Agnew, “The Spirituality of Patrick Kavanagh – Catholicireland.Net”, Catholicireland.Net, 1999 <https://www.catholicireland.net/the-spiritituality-of-patrick-kavanagh/> [Accessed 31 May 2019].

[4] Agnew, “The Spirituality Of Patrick Kavanagh – Catholicireland.Net”.

[5] Agnew, “The Spirituality Of Patrick Kavanagh – Catholicireland.Net”.

[6] Edward Hirsch, “The Imaginary Irish Peasant”, Publications Of The Modern Language Association Of America, 106.5 (1991), 1117 <https://doi.org/10.2307/462684>.

[7] Hirsch, (P.1117).

[8] Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (London: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 476-477, (p.447).

[9] AllPoetry, “The Great Hunger”, Allpoetry.Com <https://allpoetry.com/The-Great-Hunger> [Accessed 13 June 2019].

[10] AllPoetry, “The Great Hunger”.

[11] Brendan Kennelly, “Patrick Kavanagh”, ARIEL: A Review Of International English Literature, 1.3 (1970), (p.13).

[12] AllPoetry, “The Great Hunger”.

[13] AllPoetry, “The Great Hunger”.

[14] AllPoetry, “The Great Hunger”.

[15] AllPoetry, “The Great Hunger”.

[16] Kennelly, (p.14).

[17] AllPoetry, “The Great Hunger”.

[18] AllPoetry, “The Great Hunger”.

[19] AllPoetry, “The Great Hunger”.

[20] Kennelly, (p.15).


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