Patrick Kavanagh was born on 21 October 1904, in Mucker townland, Inniskeen parish, Co. Monaghan, the son of James Kavanagh, a small farmer with sixteen acres who was also a cobbler, and Bridget Quinn. He attended Kednaminsha National School from 1909 to 1916 and worked on the family farm after leaving school.
His earliest poems were printed by the Dundalk Democrat and Weekly Independent, in1928; three more were printed by George Russell (Æ) in The Irish Statesman during 1929-30. In 1931 he walked to Dublin to meet Russell, who introduced him to Frank O’Connor. Ploughman and Other Poems was published by Macmillan in 1936; soon after he moved to London in search of literary work but returned to Ireland when this failed to offer a living. An autobiography, The Green Fool appeared in 1938 but was withdrawn after a libel threat from Oliver Gogarty.
A long poem, perhaps his best, The Great Hunger, appeared in the London-based Horizon in 1942; its tragic statement of the mental and sexual frustrations of rural life was recognised as masterly by Frank O’Connor and George Yeats, who issued it in Dublin as a Cuala Press pamphlet; it seems also to have attracted the attention of the police and censors. Another fine long poem, Lough Derg, was written the same year though not published until 1971.
A Soul for Sale (1947) was followed by Tarry Flynn (1948), more realistic than the former autobiography, and called by the author ‘not only the best but the only authentic account of life as it was lived in Ireland this century; it was briefly banned.
With his brother Peter and financed by him, Patrick edited a paper, Kavanagh’s Weekly, subtitled ‘a journal of literature and politics’ (13 issues; 12 April-5 July 1952); he contributed most of the articles and poems, usually under pseudonyms.
In 1952 a Dublin paper, The Leader, published a profile which depicted him as an alcoholic sponger, and he sued for libel. He was harshly cross-examined by John A. Costello, defending The Leader, when the case came to trial in 1954, and he lost. The following year he was diagnosed with cancer and had a lung removed.
At this low point he experienced a sort of personal and poetic renewal; Recent Poems (1958), (Peter Kavanagh Hand Press, New York), was followed by Come Dance with Kitty Stobling (London, Longmans, 1960); these contain some of his best known shorter poems. His Collected Poems were published in 1964 by MacGibbon and Kee who also brought out Collected Pruse (1967). Tarry Flynn was dramatised by P.J. O’Connor and produced by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and in Dundalk in 1967. A second stage adaptation was made by Peter Fallon and published by The Gallery Press.
He married Katherine Barry Moloney in April 1967 and lived with her in Waterloo Road, Dublin. He died on 30 November the same year in Dublin. In 2000 the Irish Times surveyed ‘the nation’s favourite poems’ and ten of Kavanagh’s poems were in the first fifty. His poem ‘Raglan Road’, written to be sung, was performed by the folk group, The Dubliners, and remains very popular. The Great Hunger was adapted for the theatre by Tom MacIntyre, and produced in Dublin (Abbey Theatre, 1983).
A third dramatic adaptation of Tarry Flynn was made by Conall Morrison (Abbey Theatre, 1997).
A new adaptation of The Great Hunger was produced in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, in October, 2020.