As it is St. Patrick’s Day, it is opportune to look back on one of the greatest Irish poetic works of the 20th century, Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger“, a longish poem taking up 31 pages in the 2018 Penguin Modern mini-book The Great Hunger. To an Irish person the phrase the great hunger brings to mind the famine of the 1840s, in Irish an Gorta Mór, literally the great hunger. Yet, though Kavanagh’s title clearly evokes this meaning, that is not what the poem is about at all.
The hunger for Kavanagh is sexual. It is the frustration of the rural Irish bachelor, living and working on the land:
Which of these men
Loved the light and the queen
Too long virgin? Yesterday was summer. Who was it promised marriage to himself
Before apples were hung from the ceilings for Hallowe’en?
We will wait and watch the tragedy to the last curtain
The tragedy for Kavanagh is the life devoted to the land at the expense of any meaningful human relationships. This type of devotion to the land tends to be associated with the rural Irish male. In popular culture, the figure of Bull McCabe in Jim Sheridan’s film The Field (1990), based on a 1965 John B. Keane play, is the exemplar, played by the aging Richard Harris: a powerful, monolithic presence, obsessed by the land he has slaved his whole life over. Bull does have a wife, but he hasn’t spoken to her in sixteen years at the film’s opening.
In the context of the west of Ireland, where the film was set and filmed, the character of Bull McCabe makes sense. The land is stony and unyielding, where it is not boggy and sodden. To turn a small plot into pasture was the work of a lifetime – and still is, though now there are easier ways of making a living in a globalised Ireland.
Bull McCabe is an angry man, bereft of the softer human emotions; ultimately, when his land is threatened, he is a violent one. Yet he is a tragic hero, because of his monumental integrity, his work ethic and his love of the land he has developed from waste. He remains a hugely relatable figure, and the film remains one of Ireland’s most popular. (Though outside the country, it gained less traction than Sheridan’s other films from that era, My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father. Thus, one must conclude that it is a less universal film, a more purely Irish one.)
Kavanagh does not draw a McCabe-type figure, though. Rather, he gives us an interesting variation on the stern, rock-hewn patriarch. Kavanagh’s protagonist, Paddy Maguire, can do a decent McCabe impression:
‘Move forward the basket and balance it steady
In this hollow. Pull down the shafts of that cart, Joe,
And straddle the horse,’ Maguire calls.
‘The wind’s over Brannagan’s, now that means rain.
Graip up some withered stalks and see that no potato falls
Over the tail-board going down the ruckety pass –
And that’s a job we’ll have to do in December,
Gravel it and build a kerb on the bog-side. Is that Cassidy’s ass
Out in my clover? Curse o’ God
Where is that dog?.’
Yet he has an inner life very different from the persona he projects:
And thought himself wiser than any man in the townland
When he laughed over pints of porter
Of how he came free from every net spread
In the gaps of experience. He shook a knowing head
And pretended to his soul
That children are tedious in hurrying fields of April.
Thus Kavanagh introduces the idea of pretence into the portrayal of the Irish rural male. Not only has the life he has chosen cut Maguire off from intimacy and emotional expression, but it forces him into pretending that these things are inconsequential to him. Not only can he not attain these things, he must pretend indifference to them. No other presentation of self is acceptable in Kavanagh’s rural Ireland. Maguire’s lust has few outlets:
He saw his cattle
And stroked their flanks in lieu of wife to handle.
Maguire has no apparent father figure, but has a complex relationship with his overbearing mother with whom he lives until her death at an advanced age. It is principally through her that the ideology of his society imprints itself:
Now go to Mass and pray and confess your sins
And you’ll have all the luck,’ his mother said.
He listened to the lie that is a woman’s screen
Around a conscience when soft thighs are spread.
And all the while she was setting up the lie
She trusted in Nature that never deceives.
But her son took it as literal truth.
Maguire’s mistake, then, is taking the things he is taught too literally, believing too much in the dominant ideology. One is reminded of Žižek on the workings of contemporary ideology:
[I]n contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian […] cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling ideology is not meant to be taken seriously or literally.”’ Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 2008), p. 24
Yet even Žižek did not apply this to Catholic Ireland, a place which, while dark and joyless, seemed never less than sincere as far as its struggling rural working class went. What we learn from reading The Great Hunger is that, to some of them at least, they were conscious of living a lie, one which they had bought into early in life, and could no longer escape except in the solitude of their own minds. This precise form of rural Irish bad faith we can only find depicted in Kavanagh, who was far closer to this life than any other major Irish literary figure.