Saturday, 29 August 2020

Cappoquin was at
the heart of the literary
world for me as a child

The statue commemorating Michael Cavanagh (1822-1900) in the Square in Cappoquin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

This week’s part of the summer ‘Road Trip’ took two of us from Valentia Island through Cahersiveen, Glenbeagh and Killorglin on the northern loop of the Ring of Kerry, around Killarney, and on through Mallow and Fermoy, ending up in Lismore and Cappoquin on the banks of the River Blackwater in West Waterford.

The emotional part of the ‘Road Trip’ came when I visited my grandparents’ former home and farm near Mount Mellary, outside Cappoquin, where I spent some of the happiest days in my childhood.

I grew up thinking of Cappoquin as a town of writers, poets and journalists, and believing it was the literary centre of West Waterford, if not of the Province of Munster. This was the home of Molly Keane, the poet Michael Cavanagh, and the birthplace of the travel writer Dervla Murphy, and the Victorian clergy in the parish included the father of the poet Louis MacNeice.

We grew up hearing about the exploits of Sir Richard Keane (1909-2010), was the Diplomatic Correspondent of The Irish Times, but who also fought at El Alamein, captured one of Rommel’s senior generals, and helped organised allied support for the resistance and partisans in war-time Yugoslavia.

Sir John Keane challenged Irish censorship laws in the Senate … a portrait in Cappoquin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

His father, Sir John Keane (1873-1956), defended literary freedom and opposed censorship during his lengthy time as a member of the Senate, and was at the heart of the debate that created the first occasion on which the Senate censored itself.

On 18 November 1942, Sir John moved: ‘That, in the opinion of Seanad Éireann, the Censorship of Publications Board appointed by the Minister for Justice under the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929, has ceased to retain public confidence, and that steps should be taken by the Minister to reconstitute the board.’

His motion sparked four days of fierce debate in December 1942. During the debate, he quoted extensively from The Tailor and Ansty by Eric Cross, banned in Ireland soon after its publication earlier that year.

The Editor of Debates prudishly excluded the quotation from the Official Report. The entry states only: ‘The Senator quoted from the book.’ During the debate, Keane also taunted William Magennis for thinking that two men embracing in another book amounted to sodomy. At the end of the debate, Sir John’s motion was defeated 34-2 in the Senate.

The marker on Main Street celebrating the work of Padraig Denn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

One of the early writers associated with Cappoquin was the Irish scholar and poet Padraig Denn (1756-1828), who is commemorated in a plaque near the Toby Jug on the Main Street as a ‘schoolmaster, Gaelic scholar, church clerk, religious writer.’

Almost all of his published works were religious in theme, including Eachtra an Bháis and his edition of Pious Miscellany. His writings continue to shed light on the Déise Irish dialect of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The writer Michael Cavanagh (1822-1900), whose statue stands in the Square opposite the Market House, was born in a nearby house in Cooke Street. He went to America after the failed rebellion of 1849 and became, among other things, the official biographer of Thomas Francis Meagher, the Young Ireland leader and Civil War hero. Cavanagh is said to be the first writer to publish the story of the ‘Cappoquin Cornerstone’ in 1864.

In lines penned about his native Cappoquin, Cavanagh wrote:

While the limped flood to the south is sweeping,
For a backward glance at loved Knockmealdown,
Lies, crowned with oak-wreaths, like wood nymph sleeping,
In mirrored beauty – my native town;

God guard the hearts that those grey roofs cover,
Whose fervent pulses respond to mine,
When in raptured visions I fondly hover
Leath Sli idir Eochaill is Ceapach Choinn.


No 6 Mill Street, Cappoquin … ancestral home of the Browne family of poets, writers and clerics (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

In the 19th century, the Rectory in Cappoquin was the home in 1895-1899 of the future bishop John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942), father of poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963).

But there were other clerical literary connections with Cappoquin too. No 6 Mill Street is the ancestral home of the Browne family, who included the brothers Cardinal Michael Browne (1887-1971); Monsignor Pádraig de Brún (1899-1960), a poet classical scholar and president of University College Galway; and Monsignor Maurice Browne (1892-1979), for whom the family story provided the basis of The Big Sycamore, a novel published in 1958 under the pen name Joseph Brady and depicting life in 19th century Cappoquin.

The Browne brothers were uncles of the poet Máire Mac an tSaoi, who married Conor Cruise O’Brien.

Dr William White was Cappoquin’s Medical Officer in 1914-1953, and he shared his humanitarian legacy with his daughter, Dr Winnie White. The family lived for a long time at Derriheen House, which served as the local maternity hospital, and the travel writer Dervla Murphy was born there in 1931.

Belleville House was the early home of poet John Walsh, whose father was a steward here, and the early childhood home of the director from the era of silent movies, William Desmond Taylor, who was murdered in Hollywood in 1922.

Belleville Park was the home in the 20th century Molly Keane (1904-1996), author of Good Behaviour. She was married to Bobby Keane from Cappoquin House, and it is said she took her pseudonym, MJ Farrell, from the name above a shop near the Square in Cappoquin. She was the great chronicler of Anglo-Irish life and in her later years she lived in Ardmore, Co Waterford.

Annraoi Ó Liatlháin (1917-1981), a novelist in the Irish language, grew up and went to school in Glendine, and his father worked on the Holroyd-Smyth estate at Ballynatray. In the 1960s, he walked the length of the River Blackwater from its source in East Kerry to the sea at Youghal, and wrote about his experiences in his book Cois Móire (1964).

The poet Thomas McCarthy was born in Cappoquin in 1954. The Cappoquin he recalls in his poetry is the small town I remember from the 1950s and 1960s: the Glenshelane woodland walk; the boathouse – used for dances and plays as well as rowing; summer cricket; the railway station that closed in 1967; and the Desmond Cinema, which closed in 2005.

His novel Asya and Christine (Dublin, 1992), set in the Cappoquin of 1943, includes an account of a boat race on a bracing March day, involving the local rowing club and Irish Army officers who were stationed in the town.

Dennis O’Driscoll regards Thomas McCarthy and Paul Muldoon as the most important Irish poets of this generation. Eavan Boland says he is the first poet born in the Republic of Ireland to write about it critically. Politics, family, love, history and memory are the main themes of his poetry.

The Cappoquin Thomas McCarthy recalls in his poetry is the town I remember from the 1950s and 1960s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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