Newly revamped centre celebrates Kavanagh’s genius

This Monday sees the Patrick Kavanagh Centre reopen its doors, and hopefully establish itself as a major tourism focal point for the region.

“It will be the gateway into experiencing Monaghan for both domestic and international tourists,” promises Darren McCreesh, who was appointed manager earlier this year. “You’ve got this really powerful story about Patrick Kavanagh who is obviously one of our most beloved poets.

The revamped centre is located in the poet’s native Inniskeen, a village and landscape that was embedded in Kavanagh’s sublime collection of work.

“Everybody felt that there really was a requirement to have a visitor experience in Inniskeen that would do justice to Kavanagh, his life story and his work.”

The display brings visitors through six stages of Kavanagh’s life, using interactive techniques to engage and hopefully inspire. There are also audio-visual displays which feature performed readings of Kavanagh’s poetry - including some by Kavanagh himself - which according to the website “provides an emotive core to the exhibition that is hoped will resonate with visitors long after they’ve left Inniskeen”.

It definitely resonates with Darren at least.

“When you walk through the centre you feel like you were immersed in Kavanagh’s land and his poetry, but then you end up with a short film – a reading of ten poems, but it’s set against evocative footage of County Monaghan and an actor depicting Kavanagh going through different scenes – it takes your breath away. It gives an otherworldly feel to it.”

The driving forces behind the project have been Inniskeen Development Group and Monaghan County Council, and they have been backed with funding through both the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Faílte Ireland.

The Kavanagh Centre is housed in what would have been St Mary’s Church, dating from the 1820s. It’s the same church at which Kavanagh would have prayed as a gasún, and likely to have been in his thoughts when penning some of the episodes at the mission in the his loosely autobiographical Tarry Flynn. St Mary’s cemetery is also where Kavanagh’s remains rest.

When a modern church was built for the village in the 1970s, showing commendable foresight the Inniskeen Enterprise Development Group secured and preserved the beautiful historic church building for the community’s benefit and thus the first iteration of the Patrick Kavanagh Centre was born. President, Mary Robinson snipped the ribbon in 1994.

The late great Patrick Kavanagh

This latest incarnation - thanks in no small part to considerable funding - promises to elevate the experience and provide an enthralling insight into the life of a true literary great.

“What we have now is just a beautiful experience which stands shoulder to shoulder with any visitor experience in the major cities,” enthuses Darren.

“At the heel of the hunt just over a million has been spent on refurbishing the centre, putting in a brand new user experience and a state of the arts performance space as well,” said Darren.

The performance space can accommodate 110 on a permanent basis - if and when the pandemic subsides - but can essentially be doubled if required with temporary seating. Darren - previously managed the Íontas Centre in Castleblayney - is excited at the prospect of hosting a range of exciting arts events at the gleaming venue. First up, all going well, is an event on Culture Night, Friday, September 18 which will be broadcast live online.

The Celt notes that it must be hard to bring the work and life of a poet to life for a visual exhibition.

“You would think so but this is one of the great things about Kavanagh, and one of the reasons why Kavanagh, 50 years after his death is still one of the most quoted poets in Ireland: his poems were easy to understand, they’re really accessible. It’s quite easy to convert that into a visitor experience that’s relateable.

“Kavanagh’s own life story is so rich and varied - you have his upbringing as a poet, farming in Monaghan right up to when he moved to Dublin and was involved in the literary scene which included [Brendan] Behan and Flann O’Brien, and his travels to London and New York where he got to engage with his international peers – the likes of Alan Ginsberg and the Beats, John Betjeman in England. He was a man who actually lived an awful lot and touched a lot of people.”

Much of Kavanagh’s significance is for his confidence in giving pursuing a subject and setting which had hitherto been perceived as mundane in the rarefied Irish artsworld. Why couldn’t the stony grey soil of Monaghan be on par with the cobbled Dublin streets Joyce’s characters traipse through?

“Kavanagh reaches far beyond just being a poet. He expressed a type of rural Irish experience that hadn’t really been expressed up to that point and he did it in an unsentimental, but also transformative, way. His writing really does stand the test of time.

“It could be that in a hundred years time people will go back to Kavanagh, go back to his poems.”

Of course the poet who most obviously followed in Kavanagh’s clogged footprints was Heaney. As Darren observes, “Seamus Heaney would say that Kavanagh allowed him to be a poet.”

Darren acknowledges the Heaney visitor centre in Bellaghy called the ‘HomePlace’ as a “game changer” in celebrating he legacy of a literary giant.

“It demonstrated what was possible,” says Darren who obviously gets a kick out of one centre inspiring the other in an echo of how Kavanagh inspired Heaney.

“It’s almost poetic the fact that the Heaney Centre opened up and was such a success that that Eureka moment happened with the council – there was a sense that maybe we have something here that we should be celebrating a little bit more.”

That Kavanagh has retained his prominence for so long stands testament to the enduring power of his writing, and its relevance to a contemporary audience. Darren bumps into Kavanagh references seemingly wherever he turns.

“The Abbey have just announced their programme for the year and they are doing a new production of The Great Hunger, that’s going to be staged in Kilmainham outdoors in October,” says Darren.

He recalls listening to a radio show in which a guest discussed how social distancing runs contrary to our normal experience of conversation.

“He (the guest) quoted Kavanagh saying ‘the wink-and-elbow language of delight’. There was no explanation needed.

“Everyone knows who Kavanagh is, what he wrote – it really is part of the overall vernacular of who we are and our cultural identity. That’s really powerful and this is what makes the refurbishment and updating of the Kavanagh Centre such an important moment, because it can remind people just how valuable Kavanagh’s work was and maybe lead to deeper levels of interrogation and inquiry into Kavanagh and his legacy.”