Patrick Galvin was a playwright, songwriter and author of a bestselling series of memoirs, but it is for being a poet that he is best known, most admired and loved. He published six full collections of poetry, beginning with Heart of Grace in 1957 (Linden Press, London). The long title poem of this first collection details the physically and emotionally brutal experience of being arrested as a child and incarcerated in an industrial school. These early experiences and his mother’s sympathies for the Spanish Republican movement meant that Galvin was politicised from an early age, and his songs and poetry have always indentified with the marginalised and disenfranchised. His love of music led him to write poems and songs in the ballad tradition, much influenced by the Iberian world.
Patrick Galvin was born in 1927 in Margaret Street, in the centre of Cork City. In their introduction to his New and Selected Poems, Robert Welch and Greg Delanty describe the locale in irresistible fashion:
There was a labyrinth of interconnecting thoroughfares, sometimes scarcely a yard across, climbing up the hill to Greenmount. To this day these streets, alleyways, laneways, bridges teem with life: there are cake shops, haberdasheries, wool shops, pork butchers, greengrocers; there is a slapdash, slightly improvised air about the establishments, all, that is, apart from the pubs, of which there are a great number, with their opaque frosted windows, discreet-looking varnished doors, and the invitingly sour smell of beer and stout.
From these beginnings, chronicled in Song for a Poor Boy, his surreal, funny and at times extremely moving memoir, Galvin has gone to live an incident-packed life. As a child he would sell broadsheets of songs and ballads in pubs, “reciting them from bar counters when required”. He left school at the age of twelve and worked as a messenger boy, newspaper boy and cinema projectionist.
In 1943, aged only sixteen, Galvin went to Belfast in an attempt to join the American air force, and then be stationed there as part of the ongoing war effort. However, he instead ended up enlisting in the RAF, with the aid of a forged birth certificate, and went on to serve with Bomber Command in the UK, the Middle East and Africa. In 1945 he “saw the bombed cities of Europe shortly after VE Day”.
The 50s, 60s and 70s saw Galvin spend extended periods in London, Dublin, Belfast, and rural Ireland, as well as periods in Spain. Since the 1990s, however, he has been based mainly in his native Cork City.
It is perhaps not entirely inappropriate to describe Galvin as a “Renaissance man”. Blessed with a sweet yet textured tenor voice, and encouraged by legendary piper Seamus Ennis, he recorded seven albums of mainly traditional material for a New York-based label in the 1950s. One of his own compositions, ‘James Connolly’, a ballad about the Irish Marxist theorist and revolutionary, was made famous in a version by Christy Moore and has entered the canon of Irish ballads.
The 1960s and 70s saw Galvin win fame as a playwright. His earliest dramas, And him Stretched and Cry the Believers, caused something of a sensation when first staged in Dublin. Later plays, several produced during his time as writer-in-residence with Belfast's Lyric Theatre in the 1970s, continued his career as an uncompromising social chronicler. Nightfall in Belfast, The Last Burning and We Do It for Love all toured with massive success in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe.
Galvin was also a successful prose writer. His three books of fictionalised autobiography, Song for a Poor Boy, Song for a Raggy Boy and Song for a Fly Boy, have remained consistently in print since the first volume’s publication twenty years ago, and have been translated into several languages. In 2003, Song for a Raggy Boy was made into a successful feature film starring Aidan Quinn.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Galvin also contributed to Irish literature on an organisational or institutional level. He was co-founder of the Munster Literature Centre in Cork City and was its chairman for many years. During a 1990s spell as writer in residence in Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin, he was instrumental in setting up Poetry Now, which has grown into an internationally renowned festival, attracting poets and audience members from all over Europe and beyond.
However, it is important for these accomplishments not to distract too much from the poetry, which surely remains his central achievement. In their introduction to New and Selected Poems, Welch and Delanty describe how Galvin’s work draws on traditional Irish ballads in the English language, the Gaelic poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, on Surrealism and on the poetry of Lorca.
This is fine as far as it goes, but doesn’t adequately capture how sui generis Galvin’s world seems when we first encounter it. His is a voice that seems to come out of nowhere, having no real antecedents in the Irish tradition. Furthermore, while he has undeniably influenced those who came after him, he is one of the few truly inimitable poets. Galvin arrived almost fully formed, his early volumes featuring such gems as the powerful and exhilarating ‘The Kings Are Out’ and ‘The White Monument’ a mysterious lament for the Irish patriot Michael Collins, and the baroque and demented sequence entitled ‘Roxy’s’. Later volumes conformed to this high standard, with poems such as the bitterly hilarious ‘Message to the Editor’ and ‘The Madwoman of Cork’, which has become well known among a general populous who read little contemporary poetry and know even less about formal Surrealism, because it is a poem of deep compassion for a marginalised woman whose perceptions are wholly real for herself, and arguably for many of Galvin’s readers. ‘The Prisoners of the Tower’ has no laughs, but is laced with the black sardonic humour necessary as a first step in the dismantling of any oppressive regime.
It is surely 1989’s Folk Tales for the General, however, that marks the high point of Galvin's poetic career. This collection brims with deceptively simple, unbearably moving pieces like ‘Roses for the President’, ‘My Father Spoke with Swans’ and the title poem itself, and badly needs to be made available again as a single volume. Patrick Galvin died in May 2011. His work continues to occupy an influential and essential place in contemporary Irish poetry.
Three Plays, Lyric Theatre, Belfast, 1976
New and Selected Poems, Cork University Press, Cork, 1996
The Raggy Boy Trilogy, New Island Books, Dublin, 2002
Extended bibliography of Patrick Galvin’s work
List of Galvin's stage plays
Patrick Galvin’s page on the Munster Literature Centre website
Galvin singing his own composition James Connolly
Ballata di un giovane straccione, the Italian translation of Song for a Raggy Boy