I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
– by Patrick Kavanagh
How could a property dispute over a small bit of rocky soil compare to the Trojan War, or the gathering storm clouds of World War II? It is absurd to suggest such a thing, just as it is absurd to attach the grandiose title “Epic” to a 14 line sonnet. A shirtless man shouting at his neighbor on some insignificant plot in Ireland does not compare in any rational way to the clashing of god and city-states on the plains of Troy, nor the horror of World War II.
When I first read this poem, I accepted it at face value – the speaker is claiming that in some ways, the McCabe clan shouting at the Duffy clan is the literary equivalent of the Trojan War, and has greater import to local participants than wars across water. And, while the abduction of Helen is a greater event than a disagreement over land ownership, and Helen’s face is more likely to launch a thousand ships while McCabe’s stripped torso, a lengthy family feud could certainly provide the basis for great literature.
Now, I wonder whether Kavanagh was being more ironic than I thought. His “epic” is 14 lines – an unrhymed sonnet with roughed-up scansion. And the closing words – gods make their own importance. Are those Homer’s words, or are they the speaker’s? If Homer’s, are we to believe that McCabe is the equal to Apollo, who shot arrows at the Greeks from the walls of Troy? It’s difficult for a contemporary monotheist to accept that gods are active in the land dispute. Or are those words from the speaker, and Homer is a god for having taken a tribal dispute and crafting it into one of the most important works of literature.
Either way, it is a wonderful poem, and makes us ponder the important events that pass us by without heralding every day.