Kavanagh, Peter Paul (1916–2006), writer and critic, was born 19 March 1916 in Mucker, Iniskeen, Co. Monaghan, youngest of ten children of James Kavanagh, shoemaker and small farmer, and his wife Bridget (née Quinn). His godfather was his elder brother, the poet Patrick Kavanagh (qv); they had seven sisters, their only brother having died in infancy. As Patrick's interest in poetry grew, from the late 1920s he trained Peter as his critic who would read newly written texts and advise him whether they were any good. Patrick discouraged Peter from writing poetry, declaring there could not be more than one poet in a family. Peter received his primary education at Kednaminsha national school, near Mucker. In 1929 he turned down an offer from the local parish priest, Fr Bernard Maguire, to train for the priesthood, and instead attended the Patrician Brothers' high school, Carrickmacross (1929–34). He won a scholarship to St Patrick's College, Drumcondra (1934), where he graduated as a certified national teacher in June 1936. After Fr Maguire refused to appoint him to a vacant teaching position in his home parish, Peter secured a temporary job in the De La Salle school, Dundalk; a favourable report on his teaching led to his recruitment by the Christian Brothers' schools, Westland Row, Dublin, in October 1937, where he taught large and disorderly classes under stifling 'sweat-shop' conditions in a basement, for £11 a month.
Peter was determined to seek wider horizons for himself and Patrick. From his first employment in Dundalk he helped Patrick financially, and encouraged him to leave Monaghan (assisting him in a 1937 visit to London to seek publishers). In August 1939 Patrick moved to Dublin; until 1946 the brothers shared cramped bedsits in south inner-city Dublin and became well known in Dublin's literary subculture, with Peter paying for rent, food and utilities. Peter was considerably more strong willed, intellectually sophisticated and better organised than Patrick, and saw himself as protector of Patrick's genius, not least from the poet's own irresponsibility. (A recurring problem was Patrick's bringing women back to their digs, leading to quarrels with landlords and occasional forced moves.) Peter's later recollections display a strong streak of resentment at Patrick's selfish behaviour, combined with unhesitating belief in the poet's genius and his own importance as intellectual stimulant and moral support. Their relationship has been compared to that of James (qv) and Stanislaus Joyce (qv). Both brothers had inherited from their father the belief that systematic rudeness was necessary to assert one's independence; literary Dublin's patronising view of the 'peasant poet' and failure to recognise and support Patrick adequately provoked their bitterness and drew them into numerous disputes. Peter regarded himself as his brother's only true friend and literary supporter, as virtual co-creator of his work.
While teaching, Peter studied for a BA at UCD (graduating 1940), followed by an MA and H.Dip. in education (June 1941). He then enrolled as a part-time Ph.D. student in English in TCD, graduating in December 1944 with a dissertation on the history of the Irish theatre. He was also an active member of the TCD boxing club and auditor of the college's Gaelic society. His disregard for the catholic bishops' ban on catholic attendance at Trinity led to difficulties with his employers. After an unfavourable inspector's report (which he fiercely contested) in March 1944, Peter was sent to a lower-grade and otherwise inconvenient school in Drimnagh, a working-class area in south-west Dublin. During this period he was also an occasional contributor to Notes and Queries, the Bell (on Irish theatre history) and the Irish Times.
In 1946, Peter's Ph.D. dissertation was published in Tralee as The Irish theatre: being a history of drama in Ireland from the earliest period up to the present day. It combines overviews of Irish theatre history with biographical accounts, brief critical discussions and lists of works by Irish playwrights. Although somewhat moralistic, and later dismissed by its author as 'pedantic', this ambitious and pioneering survey is well written and forcefully expressed, and displays wide reading. That year Peter departed for the USA with the twin aims of exploring the country and securing academic employment.
Soon after arrival in New York, he joined the staff of St Francis College, Brooklyn, and secured permanent residency. He taught modern poetry at Loyola University, Chicago (1947–9) and at Gannon College (later University), Erie, Pennsylvania (1949–50). In 1950 he published A history of the Abbey theatre in New York. This draws on Peter's contacts and personal knowledge, as well as on extensive research in the contemporary Dublin press and archival materials (notably the diaries of Joseph Holloway (qv)), to provide a detailed and impassioned narrative of the working out of the project of a literary theatre conceived by William Butler Yeats (qv). Peter implicitly identifies Yeats both with Patrick Kavanagh and with Peter himself as a genius conspired against by resentful mediocrities and provoking a succession of disputes to assert his independence. It concludes by presenting Frank O'Connor (qv) as Yeats's legitimate literary heir, excluded from the 'degraded' theatre after Yeats's death by philistine intriguers led by Ernest Blythe (qv).
In 1952 Peter returned to Dublin and was persuaded by Patrick to invest his savings of $2,000 in the short-lived Kavanagh's Weekly, with Peter as publisher and Patrick as editor. The weekly's thirteen issues (12 April–5 July 1952) were devoted to denouncing Ireland's self-image as religious, cultured and patriotic, the failure of the national bourgeoisie to support artists, and other favourite Kavanagh themes. (Dublin wits described the venture as 'robbing Peter to pay Patrick' (Ir. Times, 23 November 2007)). Peter designed the layout, organised printing and distribution, and contributed a number of articles, mostly on America (some written under the pseudonym John L. Flanagan), which emphasised the incompetence and self-seeking behaviour of diplomats and other promoters of Ireland's image overseas, the indifference of most Americans towards Ireland, the constrained lives of urban Americans, and the seedier aspects of America generally. After the weekly's failure, Peter moved to London where he spent three years as public relations writer for an engineering company.
The response of Patrick and Peter to a satirical profile of Patrick in the Leader of 11 October 1952, which contained several jabs at Peter 'the Yank', was influenced by their depression over the fate of Kavanagh's Weekly. They saw the profile as the latest onslaught by the conspiracy of mediocrity; Peter encouraged Patrick to bring a libel action against the paper (with humiliating and inconclusive results). He complained that Patrick had been persuaded by advisers to keep Peter – seen as 'extreme' – in the background during the trial, and to pose as 'respectable' rather than mounting an all-out denunciation of their enemies.
After suffering stress-related health problems, Peter returned to the US in November 1955, and looked for employment as a publicist in the engineering industry. In 1957 he moved into a rent-controlled two-room apartment on East 29th Street, New York, where he constructed a hand printing press from scrap materials and used it to launch his own small publishing imprint, producing limited editions for sale to collectors. (Peter had inherited his father's technical skills: he made his own shoes, and was an amateur cooper and mechanic who fixed machinery for friends and neighbours.) His aim was to give Patrick a publishing outlet free from the constraints of commercial publishers. Peter's first publications included Recent poems (1958) by Patrick, in fifty copies (containing fifteen unpublished poems from his recent 'canal bank' spurt of creativity, and five earlier uncollected poems), and A dictionary of Irish mythology (1958–9) containing a preface and some insertions by Patrick.
In 1960 Peter experienced the first of many conflicts with copyright law. Having gained access to typescripts of the letters of John Quinn (qv) held in the New York Public Library, he signed a standard access form stipulating that the letters were not to be published until 1988, but wrote down summaries from memory in a series of notebooks and in January 1960 published 129 copies of the summaries as The John Quinn letters: a pandect. He claimed the library had already 'published' the letters by making them available to readers, and that the library authorities had maliciously frustrated the terms of Quinn's bequest (which envisaged much earlier publication) and thereby deprived Quinn of due recognition as a patron of the arts. Peter's direct involvement in the dispute ended when, after negotiations which led to his keeping two copies for his own use (another had been sent to the British Library), he produced in court 117 copies which he had cut in half with a cobbler's knife, and handed over one set of halves to the library (although an associate, Padric Farrell (d. 1992), to whom Peter had given the remaining nine copies, continued the litigation (1959–61)).
Peter subsequently wrote ('to clear my mind') and self-published a number of plays dealing with saints, which he described as a 'catena' ('chain'), a term that usually describes an anthology of selected religious texts. This usage, like Peter's description of his Quinn volume as a 'pandect' – a mediaeval term for a one-volume copy of the Bible – reflects his view that true poetry and authentic religious faith were inseparable. He became professor of modern poetry at the University of Wisconsin (Menomonie) (1964–8), and in 1964 married Anne Keely, a producer with NBC television; they had two daughters.
Despite their geographical separation, the brothers kept in touch (Patrick visited New York in 1956 and 1965) and corresponded, their letters being a valuable source for Patrick's aesthetic development. Their self-disclosures were selective, however; most notably, Patrick failed to inform Peter of his relationship with Kathleen Barry Molony, with whom he cohabited in London for several years before their marriage on 19 April 1967.
After Patrick's death on 30 November 1967, Peter flew to Ireland to attend the funeral. He returned to America, taking with him the poet's personal archive which had been left in the family home; he spent a year disentangling it, smoothing out the pages with a steam iron, and resigned his academic position to devote himself to the 'moral obligation' of elucidating and promoting Patrick's work. Although the archive was legally Kathleen's property, she did not take legal action to recover it (possibly sharing Peter's view that his sacrifices for Patrick over the years gave him a moral claim to share its ownership). Peter, for his part, never seems to have considered cooperating with Kathleen, or even acknowledging her role in Patrick's life, regarding her as a drunken avaricious communist philistine who had tricked Patrick into marriage to seize the estate.
Peter also developed a fierce resentment towards the bohemian literary friends of Patrick's last years. When one of these, the sculptor Desmond MacNamara, in March 1973 erected a plaque to the poet on the outside wall of his favourite London pub, the Plough in Museum Street, decorated with the (accurate) statement in Irish 'It is often he pissed here' (Patrick had been unable to climb the stairs to the pub toilet because of health problems), Peter saw this as an insult to his brother's memory. In December 1973 he forcibly removed the plaque with hammer and chisel. Peter's reaction to this as to other celebrations of the Kavanagh 'legend' was that outlandish and patronising images of the 'character', the peasant, the wild man, obscured and trivialised Patrick's genuine achievement – a regular concern of Patrick himself.
Peter devoted himself full-time to publishing and commenting on Patrick's writings, published an edition of the correspondence between them (Lapped furrows, 1969), a collection of unpublished and uncollected writings, November haggard (1971), which included the long poem 'Lough Derg', and a Complete poems (1972) which included over eighty unpublished 1930s poems of limited merit. Peter's bibliography of Patrick's writings, The garden of the golden apples (1972), based on diligent research, was particularly useful as Patrick was notoriously casual about keeping track of his publications.
In 1986 Peter sold his collection of Kavanagh papers (including much of his own archive) to UCD for $100,000 (raised through donations organised by Augustine Martin (qv) and Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv)) to provide for his daughters' college fees. The sale included Peter's original hand press (later loaned by UCD to the Patrick Kavanagh heritage centre at Inniskeen).
Peter, perennially wearing a beret, was a regular presence at academic conventions and commemorations as Ireland increasingly recognised Patrick as one of its greatest twentieth-century poets; Peter forcefully opined that Patrick had been the only true poet Ireland produced, and he himself had been Patrick's principal influence. In 1977 Peter published an autobiography, Beyond affection. From the late 1970s he began to work with Desmond Egan's Goldsmith Press (Newbridge, Co. Kildare) which published Sacred keeper, his documentary biography of Patrick (1979); a collection of essays by and on Patrick, edited by Peter (Patrick Kavanagh: man and artist (1987), with updated annotated bibliography); Peter's history of Inniskeen parish (as Kavanagh country, 1978); and several reissues of Patrick's work (including a 1981 reissue of Kavanagh's Weekly and By night unstarred (1977), Peter's unsubtle combination of two unfinished novels by Patrick). Goldsmith's 1984 republication of Peter's version of the Collected poems, however, brought a final showdown between Kathleen (and subsequently her estate, represented by five trustees) and Goldsmith Press (whose board Peter joined) over ownership of Patrick's copyright. Ten years of legal exchanges, beginning with an injunction on 31 July 1987, ended with a May 1996 court order forbidding Peter from reproducing Patrick's writings (though not from publishing his own comments and reminiscences).
When Kathleen died in 1989 the Kavanagh sisters gave permission for her burial in Patrick's grave. Some time after the funeral, Peter removed Patrick's grave-marker to the family home (he had secured legal ownership after a dispute with a sister), where he re-erected it with a notice stating he had rescued it after the grave was 'desecrated'. In August 1998, after Kathleen's family and friends erected a monument to her on the grave, Peter and some associates smashed it and threw the pieces into a bog; Peter was questioned by gardaí but denied responsibility, facetiously suggesting it had been taken 'by spirits in the night the memorial was a pagan monument and an insult to his memory' (Ir. Times, 12 August 1998). He later admitted responsibility.
In 2000 Peter published Patrick Kavanagh: a life chronicle, which he claimed was the authoritative account of Patrick's life. He also published a limited edition of Ten lectures on poetry by Patrick Kavanagh (2004) to mark the centenary of his brother's birth. Until almost the end of his life, Peter rose daily at 5 a.m. to write compulsively.
Peter Kavanagh died on 27 January 2006 in Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. His body was cremated and returned to Mucker for burial within a few feet of Patrick. Any reassessment of Patrick must acknowledge Peter's role as enabler and as a witness to his career of unsurpassed intimacy, but Peter also deserves recognition as a historian of the Irish theatre and a chronicler of mid-twentieth-century Dublin. Peter's papers are held with those of Patrick in UCD.