Joseph Brooker, Ploughmen Without Land: Flann OBrien & Patrick Kavanagh, in Julian Murphet, Ronan McDonald, & Sascha Morrell, eds., Flann OBrien and Modernism (London, UK: Bloomsbury. 2014), pp.93-106.
No such border existed till Kavanagh reached adulthood, but he and ONolan were both to some degree outsiders to the capital city where they would spend the bulk of their lives and win a measure of fame. ONolan was moved to Dublin as a child of 11. Kavanagh came later. He was a small farmer before he was a poet. In 1931, in an episode of literary legend, he walked eighty miles from Monaghan to Dublin to visit George Russell (whose alias was AE), the editor of the Irish Statesman who had already published some of Kavanaghs earlier works. His first collection Ploughman and other Poems (1936) and the novel The Green Fool (1938) both appeared before he finally settled in Dublin in August 1939. If ONolans arrival in Dublin roughly coincided with the publication of Ulysses, Kavanaghs Dublin life dates from around the publication of At Swim-Two-Birds. Indeed, the two were yoked together that year when the AE Memorial Fund prize of £150 was given to Kavanagh - but with a special prize of £30 also given to At Swim. This was, not entirely wittingly, the first public recognition of the two writers centrality to a literary generation. Dublin circa 1940 was a small capital. Its literary scene was naturally far smaller still. The citys insularity was increased, from 1939 to 1945, by the Emergency, though war did bring some new visitors, spying (like Kavanaghs friend John Betjeman) or hungry for steak. In this context, poets, novelists and critics tended to be at least aware of each others existence, across the city or across a pub. Certain public houses were favoured by writers. The Palace Bar on Fleet Street was convenient for the nearby Irish Times, and was a focal point of literary Dublin at least until the newspapers editor R.M. Smyllie moved his informal court to the Pearl Bar around the corner. The Palace was the setting of Alan Reeves cartoon Dublin Culture.  The picture shows three dozen Irish men of letters (no women), many of them now little remembered. R.M. Smyllie dominates the centre. ONolan and Kavanagh are better known today than anyone else in the picture. They are pictured as adjacent: a standing Kavanagh waves his large hand almost across ONolans face. In Reeves picture, Kavanagh and ONolan appear intimately part of the same crowd. From this time they shared a profoundly bibulous literary culture in which paths crossed, rumours spread and insults or jokes could be hurled from one side of a bar to another. Summer 1940 was the golden hour of the letter-column controversies that ONolan and friends cooked up in the Irish Times.  One controversy followed directly from a book review by Kavanagh, who also closed the affair with a final reflection. Here, then, ONolan and Kavanagh directly addressed each other - though the directness is vitiated by ONolans entirely characteristic recourse to verbal disguise. The controversy would be significant for literary history, as it prompted Smyllie to employ ONolan as Myles na gCopaleen: an engagement that would last the next quarter-century.
By this time the first and finest two Flann OBrien novels were written. An Béal Bocht (1941; translated as The Poor Mouth in 1973) arrived a year into the Cruiskeen Lawn years; the following year Kavanagh published The Great Hunger. These two texts stand as two of literatures major critical responses to independent Ireland, specifically the sociology and ideology of its rural life. ONolans play Faustus Kelly (1943) was another response, which Kavanagh attended at the Abbey Theatre; he would later claim to view as ONolans finest work.  So too was Sean OFaolains journal The Bell, for which both men wrote. John Ryan edited its sprightly successor Envoy. He persuaded Kavanagh to write a monthly diary for the magazine from 1949 to 1951, and the poet also contributed his bitter ditty Who Killed James Joyce? to the special Joyce issue of 1951 which was at least nominally edited by ONolan. Envoy was based in Grafton Street; the literary scene partly shifted to McDaids pub nearby. Kavanagh - notionally symbolizing the muse - joined the pioneering Bloomsday cortège which ONolan and Ryan organized in 1954. The event signalled the writers to pay homage to Joyce, and to claim a certain lineage from him, whatever their ambivalent relations to him. By this time Myles columns could be more splenetic and satirical; the mood chimed with the 13-week run of Kavanaghs Weekly in early 1952, to which ONolan contributed. Both men remained angry with aspects of Ireland. Events of the 1950s swung Kavanaghs mood. Critically ill after a disastrous legal case, in spring 1955 he recuperated by the Grand Canal and commenced a self-conscious literary renaissance, founded on his gladness still to be alive. ONolan experienced his own late revival, notably with two later novels. Kavanagh attended ONolans funeral in 1966, and died the following year. Such is the historical outline. Let us now retrace our steps and consider certain of these episodes in more detail.
The poems alternating lines of three and two stresses are a distinctive pattern. The regularity enhances the sense of the ploughmans repetitive activity, in which he enters a kind of agricultural trance. He dreams with a passing gull, experiences quiet ecstasy / Like a prayer in the Tranquillity of the field. Kavanaghs ploughman is beatific, to the point where ploughing is a religious experience: O heart / That knows God!, he concludes.  Three years later, ONolan published his playlet The Bog of Allen, in UCDs student magazine Comhthrom Féinne.  The skit describes Allen Boggs hovel in the middle of the Bog of Allen: a typically Irish household, where All the bed-clothes, including the blankets, are made of Irish poplin. The text amplifies Irishness (the Wearin o the Green is a strict rule in the house) to a surreal degree: Below on the floor is a primitive rack, made of bog-oak, for torturing leprechauns who will not divulge where the Crock of Gold is hidden. The primary target of this parody is John Millington Synge and the perceived domination of the Abbey Theatre by his work and its imitators. ONolans cooing nativist dialogue - Anish, now, musha; Beggorah; Ochone! - signals that Synge is in his sights. But the earliest Kavanagh belongs, broadly speaking, to the bucolic attitude satirized here: unsurprisingly, as he was initially under the wing of the romantic and ruralist George Russell. Animals were central to Kavanaghs farming life, and recur through his early poetry, including the whole poem Plough-Horses: The tranquil rhythm of that team / Was as slow-flowing meadow stream.  A recurring joke of The Bog of Allen is the appearance of animals on stage. In the corner is a bed with a white sow in it (a forerunner of the pigs in The Poor Mouth), and the play ends with six cows sinking the house into the bog. The intimacy of human and farmyard animal is farce in ONolan where it is a living, inspiring reality to Kavanagh. The first relation to be posited between Kavanagh and ONolan, then, is a simple enough duality. The poet and the jester, the country and the city, sincerity and irony, reverie and comedy: this pattern can describe the contrast between many of the two writers works. It is also a significant duality within much modern Irish literature in general: from, say, Lady Gregory and the romantic Yeats against the urban and textualist Joyce, to Becketts division in 1934 of Irish poets into antiquarians and others , and even to the relation between loamy Heaney and ludic Muldoon. It was reconfirmed in the Irish Times controversy of 1940, which commenced with Kavanaghs review of a rural novel, but gathered momentum when the newspaper published his poem Spraying the Potatoes on 27 July.
The poem vividly recalls a scene of agricultural labour. Kavanagh specifies strains of potato stalk: The Kerrs Pinks in a frivelled blue, / The Arran Banners wearing white. The speaker works with barrels of blue potato-spray and a knapsack sprayer, a modicum of technology that is set in a languorous rural realm, a headland of July:
The poem centres on agricultural work, but also dazzlingly renders rural beauty, scattered with colours and foliage that becomes personified: roses are young girls hanging from the sky, dandelions showing / Their unloved hearts to everyone. The poems close seems to dramatize Kavanaghs new distance from the countryside - poet lost to potato fields - yet insists on the spellbinding powers of memory.  Within two days ONolan had responded, under no less a guise than F. OBrien.
The supposed misunderstanding is strained, as ONolan has overlaid Kavanaghs evident literal meaning with a fancifully slangy one, probably with an American source. (He varies the slang definition later in the letter with his observation, not for the last time, that Gone With The Wind had won Margaret Mitchell many thousands of tons of tubers.) His version is implicitly urban (banks) to Kavanaghs rural (farms), and crookedly idiomatic to Kavanaghs straightforwardness. The frankly emotional tone of the poem - characteristic enough of Kavanagh - makes ONolans wilful misreading verge on a public insult. Drawing Kavanaghs delicate work of art into the comic cacophony of the letters page violates a generic and tonal boundary, more than the original response to Kavanaghs review had done. ONolan does not become much more polite in rectifying his supposed error, upon realising that the heading had reference to some verses by Mr Patrick Kavanagh dealing with the part played by chemistry in modern farming:
ONolan now takes Kavanagh literally - but too literally. He professes to read the poem as a factual guide to farming practices, and his list of future topics places Kavanaghs poem in a series of unsavoury agricultural ills. Spraying the potatoes was the occasion of Kavanaghs reverie, but potato blight - though a historically resonant topic - was not supposed to be the poems focus. ONolan has thus wrenched Kavanaghs art out of context; affected to miss its literal meaning; reinstated the literal meaning, but read it too pragmatically and non-aesthetically; ignored the poems beauty and implied instead that its topic tends toward the grotesque; and done all this in a patently artificial tone, conveying an effect of insincerity equal to the sincerity suggested by Kavanaghs verse. Some other letters also referred to the poem. Jno. ORuddy, apparently Niall Montgomery, scornfully asked What matters it if Mr Kavanagh leaves his dandelions to grow hoary-headed in his potato-beds. Lir OConnor replayed F. OBriens reading of potatoes as good Runyon (American slang) but very poor Kavanagh, and affected to doubt Kavanaghs existence. Na2 Co3 reprised OBriens pedantically pragmatic reading: Mr Kavanagh should severely reprimand his Muse for not having consulted the Department of Agricultures leaflet on potatoes (sent free on application) before inspiring him.  It is striking that a poem that would become a staple of Irish secondary education began its public life with this transit through a hall of mirrors. A later critic of ONolan would interpret the whole correspondence as hostile to Kavanagh, pitting metropolitan irony against his country simplicities with the message You are not of our class. You have not had our education. But Cronin denies that Kavanagh took the japes personally.  Of greatest interest is the response with which Kavanagh was finally allowed to bring the correspondence to a close. Only seven years older than ONolan, he assumed the tone of a wise, reflective elder, shaking his head sadly at the empty energy of his comic assailants. He had wondered in his original review about the empty virtuosity of artists who were expert in the art of saying nothing. His almost selfparodically characteristic phrase for such artists was Ploughmen without land. ONolan and friends were such figures, and Kavanagh asserted that their condition was a tragedy.  This was one way to recast the rural / urban opposition. By this metaphor, Kavanaghs university-educated interlocutors lack the very thing that Kavanagh had possessed, and had made poetry from. By now, he too literally lacked land: he would spend most of his life in rickety Dublin digs. But his metaphor perhaps implied that his background had bequeathed him a poetic substance that his erudite juniors would never now gain.
- is an instance, with its suggestion of exasperation at the empty countryside.  But the complication was deeper than this. Kavanagh had written pastoral, but by the 1940s he was no sponsor of the national self-image. He now wrote counter-pastoral. Stony Grey Soil was published in the first issue of The Bell (October 1940), to which ONolan also contributed a report from the Dublin dog track. The poem strikes down the happy identification with the land found in some earlier poems. It may be taken as a retraction of Ploughman a decade on:
The poet blames the soil of Monaghan itself for the mystification and for damaging his life - You burgled my bank of youth!.  But in his long poem The Great Hunger (1942) it is not merely the soil that is accused, but Irish society. The poems fourteen sections circle the life of the potato farmer Patrick Maguire, whose life has been ruined by fear of sexuality and emotional involvement. Obeying his aged mother for decades, he has dedicated his energies to working farmland that has yielded him scant satisfaction. Kavanagh varies poetic forms, winding in and out metres and rhyme schemes as his poem repeatedly resets its sights and formal bearings. The overall effect remains of an extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented challenge within Irish poetry: a poem that reaches at will for unlikely rhymes or sudden shifts of gear, while starkly maintaining its scorn for the countrys shibboleths. The poem retains a place for lyrical appreciation of nature -
The peasant, Kavanagh writes in more general terms,
If Kavanaghs epic was the counter-pastoral inversion of a poetic mode in whch he had previously been able to partake, ONolans short novel was an affectionate yet devastating parody of Irish peasant memoirs. Both works debilitated the idealization of peasant life: Kavanaghs by suggesting its true pain, ONolans by making a cartoon of it. Section XIII of The Great Hunger strikingly shifts focus from the potatofarmers life to those who observe him from a distance: The world looks on / And talks of the peasant. Kavanagh pictures motoring tourists who stop their cars to gape over the green bank into his fields. Their view differs from what we have seen thus far:
For the amateur anthropologists, the peasantry remains the heart of unspoiled Ireland. This primitivist veneration sees rural life as the pool in which the poet dips: Without the peasant base civilization must die. This external view is flatly contradicted by the rest of the poem. Kavanagh wished not only to condemn the conditions of rural life in themselves, but to indicate the mystificactory role that rural life played in versions of Ireland which were, if anything, broadcast from the city. His tourists
Kavanaghs thought here is notably close to ONolans. The Poor Mouth, too, while showing us the haplessness of the Gaels, most keenly satirizes the outsiders view of them. A wealthy visitor from Dublin arrives in Corkadoragha with a recording device, eager to capture Gaelic folklore before it dies out (for its like will never be there again). The locals are glad to let him buy them spirits to remove the shyness and disablement from the old peoples tongues, and do not necessarily respond by telling folk tales. The ethnographer is thrilled to take away the grunts of a pig, which is assessed in Berlin: they never heard any fragment of Gaelic which was so good, so poetic and so obscure as it.  One joke is the provincials merciless exploitation of the naive metropolitan. (The same point applies to the Gaelic feis, staged in a later chapter to gain money from visiting Gaeligores.) Another is the idea that the pigs grunts might be taken as Gaelic, which renders the Irish peasantry close to animals.
As in The Great Hunger, The peasant [...] is only one remove from the beasts he drives.  But the deepest jest is that the pigs impenetrability is taken as a measure of cultural value: that good Gaelic is difficult but that the best Gaelic of all is well-nigh unintelligible.  The outsiders seek to understand rural life, but are most impressed by it when it is most alien. The untranslatability of the peasant is the sign of his value. This makes more likely the drastic misreading dramatized more savagely in The Great Hunger.
Both register an incredulous anger at Irelands betrayal of itself: an ineluctable postcolonial hegemony of the mediocre and unprincipled. Being stupid and illiterate, Kavanagh declared, is the mark of respectability and responsibility in modern Ireland.  Displays of Irishness only worsened the situation. Kavanagh could make this sociologically specific, arguing that Protestants like Synge had painted on their Irishness as over-compensation for feeling foreign. But the point extended to all who now sought advancement through bucklepping. In a 1947 review Kavanagh could assert that Ireland was a myth and illusion, and that the Irishman mystically, or poetically, does not exist. His editors complained that his point was a sectarian one, scored against the Protestant F.R. Higgins. Kavanagh thus appended a note:
As Antoinette Quinn observes, Kavanaghs position is anaologous to Wole Soyinkas critique of Negritude: A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude.  Myles na gCopaleen was equally impatient: I know of no civilisation to which anything so self-conscious could be indigenous. Why go to the trouble of proving that you are Irish? Who has questioned this notorious fact? If, after all, you are not Irish, who is?.  Both writers would posthumously become, to a degree, icons of Ireland, familiar sights of its literary tourist industry. It is thus striking that both were ferociously critical of any self-conscious performance of nationality. The role of the twentieth-century bard was not to sing of Irishness, but to expose its more enthusiastic manifestations as a demeaning delusion.
He now declared himself released into happy carelessness, both emotional and formal. Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin is the most celebrated demonstration of this mood. Its casually imprecise adjectives (so stilly / Greeny) and complacent repetition (water, / Canal water preferably) complement its air of letting go (the whole poem, while relishing life, accepts the prospect of death) and modest demands (a functional bench will suffice in place of a hero-courageous / Tomb).  Kavanagh issued a stream of kindred poems which acted as their own manifestos: wallow[ing] in the habitual, the banal; No System, no Plan, Let words laugh.  At a stretch, Kavanaghs late rebirth could be likened to ONolans Indian summer, from the republication of At Swim to The Saints Go Cycling In. Both were in worsening health, both returned to successful publication. ONolans first novels in twenty years were matched by Kavanaghs first new book of verse in over a decade, and by new collected editions of his prose and poetry. Yet in truth Kavanaghs late flourish was the more rewarding, and more amenable to consideration under the rubric encouraged by Edward Said, of a late style which might creatively burst the banks of an earlier aesthetic.  His late poetry alternates sensuality, theology, everyday modernity, in an open form akin to the Beat poets he had met on a trip to the United States. [T]he only men in America that are alive are men like Jack Kerouac, he declared at an Illinois symposium, as roundly opinionated about a foreign country as his own.  The poetic result was a more productive response to the dawning Lemass era than ONolan managed. Kavanagh, four or five decades after the heroic phase of Irish modernism, found forms of verse that let him embrace life in a still changing Irish society. In this respect, ONolans peerless parodies of pastoral did not necessarily have the last laugh. But both writers had long struggled quixotically against the cant and limitations that they found in Ireland. Profoundly different, their projects could yet be curiously parallel. As scholarship of ONolan becomes more historically detailed and concerned to reconstruct his cultural contexts, it can echo Kavanaghs lines: