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AT THE CROSSROADS WITH CARLETON AND JOYCE: PATRICK KAVANAGH’S TARRY FLYNN THOMAS B. O’GRADY typically unequivocal, Patrick Kavanagh’s declaration that his novel Tarry Flynn, first published in 1948, is “not only the best but the only authentic account of life as it was lived in Ireland this century”1 is also typically provocative. Certainly, such a claim represents at least an oblique challenge to the received preeminence of the obvious urban precursor to Kavanagh’s rural Künstlerroman: James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was proclaimed “by far the most living and convincing picture that exists of an Irish Catholic upbringing” upon its publication in 1916.2 Validated by repetition and reputation, such judgment has helped to maintain for seventy-five years Joyce’s novel as an inevitable touchstone for any subsequent literary depiction of a sensitive individual in conflict with the values of repressive Irish society. In fact, as early as 1941, Sean O’Faolain, whose novel Bird Alone (1936) owes a painfully apparent debt to A Portrait, observed: What the symbols of the new Irish writers are we cannot tell. Perhaps they are not so much symbols as typical characters, significant situations. Frenchmen began to say ‘He is a Cyrano’ after Rostand. Irishmen say ‘He is a Joxer. He is a Stephen Daedalus [sic]’—after O’Casey and Joyce.3 In many respects, Kavanagh’s representation of farmer-poet Tarry Flynn corroborates O’Faolain’s observation, as significant aspects of both Tarry’s character and his circumstances may indeed be illuminated pertinently by the afterglow of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. PATRICK KAVANAGH’S TARRY FLYNN 22 1 Patrick Kavanagh, Self-Portrait (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1964), pp. 7–8. 2 H. G. Wells, “James Joyce,” The New Republic, X, 123 (March 10, 1917), p. 159. 3 Sean O’Faolain, “1916–1941: Tradition and Creation,”The Bell, II, 1 (1941), 10. The central thematic interests of Kavanagh’s novel—Tarry’s entanglement in a tightly knit mesh of domestic, social and cultural forces— resemble conspicuously those of A Portrait. Instinctively resisting the demands placed on him by the equivalent of Stephen Dedalus’s “home, fatherland and church,” Kavanagh’s protagonist, like Stephen before him, eventually resents then finally rejects those demands, and finally determines “to fly by those nets”4 which constrain his nonconformist’s spirit and his poet’s sensibilities. No less than Flann O’Brien’s At SwimTwo -Birds (1939), however, which reflects self-consciously through its mosaic of many “artists” an especially complex dimension of Joyce’s legacy, or no less than Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (1960), which in part replicates and in part complicates the Joycean model through its particular focus on a young woman’s struggle to discover her self and perhaps her poetic voice in villatic Ireland, the relationship of Tarry Flynn to Joyce’s novel is defined as much by crucial differences as by either intentional or incidental similarities. Ultimately, those differences—especially as they might be clarified by yet another literary antecedent—may help to elucidate not only Kavanagh’s categorical assertion concerning the superlative merits and the exclusive “authenticity” of Tarry Flynn but also its own subtle integrity as a novel. For, if Tarry Flynn must from one perspective be read alongside Joyce’s decidedly urban and urbane Portrait, it must also be read in intimate relation to the distinctively “rustic”—in several senses of the word—fiction of Kavanagh’s acknowledged rural precursor, fellow Ulsterman-in-exile William Carleton. Indeed, in his preface to the 1968 edition of Carleton’s Autobiography, Kavanagh explicitly contrasts his nineteenth-century predecessor with Joyce who, “with his legends and daring language, had a strong strain of pretension in him”: “Carleton instead wrote the lives of the obscure and humble, and he recorded the lives of his people with a fidelity that preserves for us the culture of pre-Famine Ireland.”5 Such fidelity, Kavanagh had hinted in an essay written six years after the publication of Tarry Flynn, constituted not only Carleton’s aesthetic, but his own as well; visiting his native County Monaghan in...


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