The Raggy Boy is Gone – Death of Patrick Galvin

Tuesday 10 May 2011 18:47

I first encountered Patrick Galvin’s work in Sean Lucy’s introductory Five Irish Poets. I must have bought it in the year of its publication (1970) or shortly afterwards because I certainly had it while I was still at school. It sat on my shelf alongside The Collected Poems of WB Yeats and Leonard Cohen’s Spice Box Of the Earth, the trio forming my small collection of poetry. I was a country boy and I couldn’t afford many books.

Studying ‘poetry’ at school, I had no way to understand Paddy’s work except through my heart and my gut, but I recognised the particular form of Hiberno-English that I spoke myself, I recognised the remnants of songs and the surreal imagery of my own fears and the poetry of lost causes and the lost cause of poetry. I also sensed that this was something that came from more cultures than one and that borrowed and took inspiration from sources that were not available to a boy from East Cork. I feel I have spent the intervening forty years trying to work out how he did it, knowing all the time that it came naturally to him. It sent shivers down my spine. It made a teenage boy who wanted, more than anything else, to be a poet tremble with the magic of words that almost but not quite came out of the shadows of his own house:

In Patrick Street
In Grattan Street
In Ireland Rising Liberty Street
The Kings are out.

Along the Mall
The Union Quay
In every street along the Lee
The Kings are out.

With knives of ice
And dressed to kill
The wine flows down from Summer Hill
Christ! Be on your guard tonight
The Kings are out.

from ‘Roxy’s – The Kings Are Out’

Of the five poets in that little anthology, all of whom were from Cork, Paddy Galvin’s was the electric work. Several years later, in University College Cork, I heard him read. I didn’t know it then but he had a brief career as a folksinger, and he had written plays and worked on the stage, and his delivery had all the hallmarks of someone who knew that the voice is another instrument. The combination of voice and work was astonishing, alive, heretical and inspiring.

It would be many years before I actually met him. By then he had settled in Cork where he and Mary Johnston, his wife, helped found The Munster Literature Centre. They created an atmosphere that brought writers together and the Centre and festivals they founded are noticeably ‘writer-centred’, going out of their way to create a special experience for visiting writers in a friendly atmosphere. In hard times, as hard as those we are now experiencing, they insisted on paying writers what they could. In this regard, their socialist principles shone through. The Munster Literature Centre thrives still and there are now more events and festivals than ever. Thanks in no small part to Paddy and Mary, there is a vibrant writing ‘scene’ and we’re all still talking to each other!

Sean Lucy said of him, in that Five Irish Poets anthology, that he made his native landscape ‘merge into the terrors and intensities of an apocalyptic vision’ and that his work was ‘the mask of a dream’. He forgot to mention, or maybe in Ireland of 1970 it wasn’t politic to mention, that Paddy’s work was always political and in this he inspired younger Munster poets to be political too:

The windows opened and the rifles cracked
Fire and gold rode through the streets

For Liberty, Equality and Death.

And we maintain
The right of the Irish people
To the unfettered control...

Of Liberty, Equality and Death.

from ‘Day of Rebellion’

Paddy was also a songwriter. I remember quite clearly the surprise I felt when I discovered that what I had always assumed was an old left-wing song was actually written by him. The song was ‘James Connolly’. I knew it in at least three recordings, my favourite at the time being that of Liam Weldon (an interesting and tragic figure) who had it on his album Dark Horse On the Wind. It sounded as if it came directly out of the execution of the great labour leader in 1916, but it was Paddy’s song. Here he sings it himself in a recording that has only recently been made available on Youtube.

I now have many of Paddy’s books on my shelf. I’ve heard him read so many times. But that first encounter with him has stayed with me and haunts my own work. I find it hard to believe his voice has fallen silent.


Born in Cork in 1927, Patrick Galvin was the author of numerous plays and seven volumes of poetry. A selection of his work may be read here at Poetry International Web. Fiery, iconoclastic, socialist and anti-establishment and informed by the experience of a politicised working-class childhood in Cork City, as well as by surrealism and his interest in Lorca, his work has always resisted categorisation and certainly seems closer to European or South American writing than anything else produced in Ireland. It has been translated into many languages and was particularly influential on a younger generation of writers from Munster. He was a member of Aosdána.

Patrick Galvin led a remarkably varied life. Born into a political home he spent time incarcerated in an industrial school before joining the RAF at the age of sixteen in 1943. His postings included Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He saw the effects of carpet bombing in European cities at first hand. He spent several years in Spain where he became interested in Spanish writing.

Gifted with a fine and distinctive voice, at one time he made a living as a singer-songwriter, and folksong collector and was encouraged by Seamus Ennis. He recorded several volumes of folksongs and his song James Connolly has been covered by most of the major singers of Irish traditional music, perhaps most notably by Frank Harte, Christy Moore and Liam Weldon. Here he is heard singing the song himself at a house party in New York in 1981 He was a popular and impressive reader of his own work.

He was a co-founder of The Munster Literature Centre and one of the founders of the Dún Laoghaire Poetry Now festival.

He published a three-part fictionalized autobiography: Song for a Poor Boy (Dublin, Raven Arts Press, 1991); and Song for a Raggy Boy (Raven Arts Press, 1992) and Song for a Fly Boy, which was published with the first two as The Raggy Boy Trilogy (Dublin, New Island Books, 2002) and adapted Song For A Raggy Boy, which, among other things chronicles his time in industrial school, for filming by director Aisling Walsh. The film starred Aidan Quinn. His plays were produced all over the world, including in Canada, New York, Australia and London and recorded by RTÉ and the BBC.

I can’t write now
Because the coffin is too narrow
And there’s no light.
I’m trying to send this
Through a medium
But you know what they’re like –
Table-tapping bastards
Reeking of ectoplasm.
If you manage to receive this
I’d be glad if you’d print it.
There’s no point in asking you
To send me a copy –
I don’t even know my address.

from ‘Message To The Editor’

I am indebted to the following sources:

Patrick Galvin at Poetry International Web

Patrick Galvin at The Munster Literature Centre

Patrick Galvin at Irish Writers Online

Song for A Raggy Boy at the International Movie Database