21 June 2023

‘O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by’

Patrick Kavanagh’s bench by John Coll at Wilton Terrace on the Grand Canal, between Baggot Street Bridge and Leeson Street Bridge, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water, preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by head low with many apologies,
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges –
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

While I was being interviewed in Dublin last week by Montenegrin television, Charlotte and I were staying in the Clayton Burlington Hotel on Leeson Street, close to Leeson Street, Raglan Road, Pembroke Road, Baggot Street and the Grand Canal, and all their memories of and associations with the poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967).

It was Bloomsday, and after coffee in the Canal Bank Café on the corner of Leeson Street and Suffolk, we went on our own Dublin perambulation of the area that Patrick Kavanagh made his own corner of Dublin after moving to the city from Co Monaghan in 1939.

He wrote 70 years ago in 1953:

If ever you go to Dublin town
In a hundred years or so
Inquire for me in Baggot Street
And what I was like to know.

Patrick Kavanagh’s love of the area is feted in his ballad, ‘On Raglan Road’, and these streets became his ‘enchanted way’, the quiet streets where old ghosts meet.

There are plaques to him on the houses he lived in – one of them is now the Mexican Embassy on Raglan Road – and he pops up constantly in the street art around the area along with other writers, including Samuel Becket and Brian O’Nolan or Flann O’Brien or Myles na Gopaleen.

Parson’s Bookshop was beloved by many writers in Dublin, particularly Brendan Behan, Benedict Kiely, Mervyn Wall and Mary Lavin, but none more so than Patrick Kavanagh. It used to be the Bridge House, on Baggot Street Bridge, but has long since closed.

‘And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy / And other far-flung towns mythologies’ … barges on the Grand Canal between Baggot Street Bridge and Leeson Street Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Kavanagh’s lasting memorial along these ‘enchanted ways’ is his bench close to Baggot Street Bridge on Wilton Terrace and Wilton Park, on the north bank of the Grand Canal.

Sitting on a bench erected to the memory of ‘Mrs Dermot O’Brien’, Kavanagh wrote a sonnet requesting the same for himself. That bench inspired his sonnet, ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin.’ That particular seat was on the Mespil Road or south side of the Canal, and was dedicated to ‘Mrs Dermot O’Brien.’ She was Mabel Emmeline Smyly, the wife of Dermod William O’Brien (1865-1945) from Mount Trenchard, near Foynes, Co Limerick, a landscape and portrait painter who won an Olympic medal in the painting competition at the 1928 Olympic Games.

Shortly after Kavanagh died in 1967, his friends John Ryan and Denis Dwyer formed a committee to raise money to buy the materials and pay for the labour for another, less-well-known seat. That statue, unveiled a few months after his death, is a simple wood and granite seat designed by the artist Michael Farrell (1940-2000).

But the sculpture that is best-known as a commemoration of Patrick Kavanagh is on Wilton Terrace. This is a more recent sculpture, with a much-photographed life-size bronze figure by John Coll. It was commissioned as part of the Dublin 1991 European City of Culture celebrations and was unveiled 32 years ago on 11 June 1991 by President Mary Robinson.

John Coll is originally from Taylor’s Hill Galway and now living in Dublin. After an initial career as a marine biologist, he became a figurative sculptor with many public works to his name, including the monument to Patrick Kavanagh on the Grand Canal and his celebration in bronze of Brendan Behan on the Royal Canal in Drumcondra.

John Coll’s sculpture on Wilton Terrace, between Baggot Street Bridge and Leeson Street Bridge, shows a reflective Patrick Kavanagh sitting thoughtfully, his hat beside him on the bench. He seems to offer a sympathetic, non-judgmental ear to passers-by, inviting them to sit down and have a chat.

Coll imagines the poet Kavanagh composing not ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin’ but another sonnet, ‘Canal Bank Walk,’ for a plaque beside the sculpture bears the quotation:

Leafy with love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me

Patrick Kavanagh 1904 to 1967
Sculptor John Coll.

The poem ‘Canal Bank Walk’ was also inspired by the Grand Canal, but was written in 1958 after the poet’s recovery from lung cancer and from legal difficulties:

Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

The house where Patrick Kavanagh once lived on Raglan Road is now the Mexican Embassy in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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