On St. Patrick’s Day, nineteenth-century illustrations of the Irish countryside.
These remarkable illustrations are from Ireland: Picturesque and Romantic, an 1838 travelogue by Leitch Ritchie, Esq. But don’t be fooled: despite his book’s encouraging title and the meticulousness of these drawings, Ritchie was pretty hard on Ireland. His account, stuffy and imperial, presents a portrait of the Irish psyche scarcely more enlightened than a box of Lucky Charms, shot through with a kind of paternalistic shame:
The Irish are not lazy because they are Irish, but because, in the first place, they are only half civilized … their spirit is broken by ages of tyranny. They have crouched so long under the lash that they can hardly stand upright. They are brave from instinct, but cowards from habit; and the peasantry every day of their lives are guilty of as despicable acts of poltroonery, in their intercourse with the quality, as the serfs of the middle ages exhibited in their encounters with the knights.
Not, as you can see, ideal reading for St. Paddy’s Day—better to take the pictures and put someone else’s words with them. Here, then, is a more fittingly romantic tribute to Ireland: Patrick Kavanagh’s “Canal Bank Walk,” a sonnet written in 1958.
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.
That’s more like it. Having been diagnosed with lung cancer, Kavanagh would take constitutionals along Dublin’s Grand Canal; he had disavowed hateful, negative verse and recast himself as a celebrant of “casual, insignificant little things.” In this later mode, he had a way of elevating the prosaic to the poetic, though I guess you could say that about most any poet. Paul Muldoon—who can, unlike me, speak with some authority about Ireland—puts it more compellingly in his Art of Poetry interview:
Kavanagh presented a version of Ireland that was still very much being lived, with the horses and the cartloads of dung. The winkers, and the belly band, and all the bits and pieces. The turnip barrow I mentioned earlier. The impedimenta of farm life, what happened at the crossroads. The world of these people seen from within and expressed from within in a way that really hadn’t quite happened for a while in Irish literature. The perspective of the peasant looking up to the man on the horse, rather than the Yeatsian perspective of the man sitting on the horse looking down.