Patrick Kavanagh is the Catholic poet we should be reading this Advent

By Paul Corcoran, 19 December 2021
Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. Image: National Library of Ireland/Elinor Wiltshire/Wikimedia Commons


In his lifetime, Patrick Kavanagh considered it a dubious honour to be reckoned the best Irish poet since William Butler Yeats; he took it to mean “the second best Irish poet after Yeats.” Since Kavanagh’s death in 1967, he and Yeats have been joined in the pantheon of Irish poets by Seamus Heaney, who throughout his life was evangelical in the cause of promoting Kavanagh’s work beyond the shores of Ireland. According to Heaney, it was Kavanagh, the farmer-turned-poet, who “kick[ed] the dead weight of the familiar into life” and inspired Heaney to make poetry out of the seemingly innocuous details of everyday life.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the undersized profile he holds outside of his native island of Ireland, Patrick Kavanagh is the self-professed “Catholic poet” we should all be reading this Advent. The centenary of Kavanagh’s birth in 2003 was “justly celebrated as a more or less national feast” in Ireland, according to Heaney. Advent presents the chance for an entire season of celebration of Kavanagh’s work. His poem “Advent,” one of his most famous, will be paraphrased in homilies across Ireland these weeks as the season of Advent ushers in a new liturgical year.

Kavanagh’s poem looks to Advent for a sort of poetic and spiritual rebirth, a chance to reacquaint ourselves with the “newness that was in every stale thing/ when we looked at it as children.” As with all of his best work, Kavanagh rests in the ephemeral to find the eternal; the newness he seeks in “Advent” is to be found “wherever life pours ordinary plenty.” In moments like this, Kavanagh’s poetry of the commonplace comes close to a theology of the commonplace. God, Kavanagh reminds us elsewhere in his poetry, is to be found in “the bits and pieces of Everyday” (“The Great Hunger”), he is “down in the swamps and marshes” (“The One”). The duty of the poet as well as the Christian is to “do/ The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal” (“Canal Bank Walk”).

Wonder is our human instinct for the mysterious, and for Kavanagh, it is the catalyst for the sort of religio-poetic vocation he envisages for himself and for his readers. The genius of Kavanagh as a Catholic poet was the lightness of touch with which he intuited wonder as a characteristically religious state of mind, and identified God as the mystery at the heart of our human lives. Kavanagh’s was by no means a straightforward religiosity, and his poetry is not straightforwardly devotional. In fact, his passionate Catholicism is often overlooked in assessments of his work. But this is the man for whom poetry was “a mystical and a dangerous thing” and who declared stoutly: “the poet is a theologian.” As we begin another liturgical year in search of our own spiritual rebirth, Kavanagh offers wonder as the gateway to such rebirth.

To continue reading this article, click here.

Paul Corcoran is currently pursuing a doctorate in religious studies at the Loyola Institute in Trinity College, Dublin. He was the editor of Lines of Enquiry (TCD Press), published in 2017.

With thanks to America Magazine and Paul Corcoran, where this article originally appeared.


Read Daily
* indicates required