A Christmas Childhood
by Patrick Kavanagh
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.
And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
From Collected Poems (2004). Edited by Antoinette Quinn, Allen Lane. An imprint of Penguin Books, by kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of the late Katherine B. Kavanagh, through the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.
About the poem
In this memory poem Patrick Kavanagh describes a magical and mysterious time from childhood: a Christmas when he was six years old. It is when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. In line one, we are presented with a factual and accurate description: ‘One side of the potato-pits was white with frost’ and line two is powered with emotion. The tone, the use of repetition and the exclamation mark in ‘How wonderful that was, how wonderful!’ convey wonder and excitement.
The poem is in two parts. Kavanagh wrote part II in 1940 and part I in 1943. Part I describes a place and explores, from an adult’s perspective, how childhood is a time of innocence, an innocence that we inevitably lose. As a child he saw ‘An apple tree/ With its December-glinting fruit’ but just as Eve ate the apple which led to man’s Fall and sinful state, Kavanagh knows that as we leave childhood behind us we lose our innocence. The Garden of Eden is no more; but Christmas is a time when an Eden-like world becomes possible. Adulthood, says Kavanagh, blinds us to the beauty, freshness and innocence of childhood but it can be recaptured occasionally, especially at Christmas time.
Part II of the poem introduces a cast of characters – Kavanagh’s father, mother, the neighbours. In Antoinette Quinn’s words ‘Through a series of crisp, lucid images it conjures up the child’s sense of being part of a family and a closely-knit Catholic community’.
Everything is in harmony. The melodion calls to the Lennons and Callans and the stars dance to his father’s music. Music unites one place and another and neighbour and neighbour. The imagery of Co. Monaghan blends with imagery from the Biblical account of Christ’s birth: ‘The light of her stable-lamp was a star’ and the ‘three whin bushes’ become ‘the Three Wise Kings’.
Kavanagh was six in 1910 but the poem remembers a momentous event almost two-thousand years earlier. The different sounds of a screeching water-hen or the frosty crunch of Mass-going feet, the melodion, of course, and that quick, onomatopoeic line ‘I nicked six nicks on the doorpost’ create a marvellous music. The final image is that of a father and mother and child, an ordinary family and the Holy Family. At Kavanagh’s funeral in 1967, Seamus Heaney read ‘A Christmas Childhood’ at the graveside.
Patrick Kavanagh, one of ten children and eldest son of a cobbler and small farmer, was born on 21 October 1904 in the Inniskeen townland of Mucker, County Mongahan. All the children had nicknames, Kavanagh’s being “Gam” or “Long Nose”. Bored at school, he was made repeat fifth class and never reached sixth. In a school essay he wrote: ‘the lover of nature . . . can see beauty in everything. He can see the finger of God even in a nettle’.
He left school at thirteen, became a clumsy shoemaker and an unsuccessful part-time farmer. He loved sport and the very first book he bought, when he was twelve, was a boxing manual. He also loved poetry, especially Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and learnt poems by heart. He would say these poems aloud while walking the roads or working in the fields.
His father died in 1929. Kavanagh, now man of the house, farmed, played football and spent his evenings reading. He had begun “poeming” as he called it when he was twelve and, by his twenties, was publishing poems in newspapers. If an idea for a poem came to him, while working, he’d scribble it on the inside of a cigarette packet. His poem ‘Ploughman’ was included in the London published Best Poems of 1930.
Kavanagh visited Dublin for the first time in December 1931 having walked the sixty-mile road. It took him three days. There he met the Editor George Russell [AE] who described him in a letter to Yeats as ‘a young shoemaker in Monaghan who has genius but no education’.
In 1934, aged thirty, he fell in love. She was eighteen. He wrote her poems but the romance was shortlived. He published his first collection Ploughman and Other Poems in 1936, In 1937, he left home and moved to London. There he met George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey and Helen Waddell and wrote The Green Fool. He returned to Inniskeen soon after, only to be met with a defamation case from Oliver St John Gogarty, who is portrayed in the book. The experience caused Kavanagh such stress that his hair turned grey. The book was withdrawn. In 1939 Kavanagh returned to London briefly and then moved to Dublin: ‘It was the worst mistake of my life’.
In Dublin, he lived with his brother, a teacher. Kavanagh wrote in the mornings; afternoons were spent walking the streets or reading in the National Library. He was working on ‘The Great Hunger’ and Tarry Flynn. He also wrote ‘A Christmas Childhood’ in the early 1940s. He also wrote articles for The Irish Press.
John Charles McQuaid, a Cavan man, former teacher of English and President of Blackrock College, met Kavanagh in November 1940 when he gave a reading in the school. McQuaid was inaugurated as Archbishop of Dublin the following year and became an important patron for Kavanagh.
Kavanagh had fallen in love many times. He even bought an engagement ring but that relationship was broken off. Then, in 1944, he met Hilda Moriarty a twenty-two year old UCD medical student from Dingle and wrote ‘Raglan Road’ in celebration of his meeting and losing her.
Moving between Dublin and London, Kavanagh eked out a living. Lung cancer meant the removal of his left lung but he recovered, wrote fine poems and visited France, Barcelona, Rome and America. He also fell in love with thirty-one year old Katherine Molone; they were together for seven years and married in April 1967.
Poor health and alcohol dogged his later years and he died that November. At his graveside mourners included Paul Durcan, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Brendan Kennelly, Seamus Heaney and John Montague. On his grave a plain wooden cross bears the name, dates, ‘Patrick Kavanagh 21 Oct. 1904 – 30 Nov. 1967 and the lines:
And pray for him
Who walked apart
On the hills
Loving Life’s miracles.