John McGahern

The Bird Swift
John McGahern (writer)

...Through the youngest of the Swift's, Tony, I had come to know most of his family. In a small house in Carrick Terrace, which was suffused with his mother's extraordinary charm, I saw his drawings and paintings for the first time — I remember with particular vividness a small watercolour of a Rialto sweetshop — and it was there I was given Come Dance with Kitty Stobling to read in a typescript Jimmy Swift had made for Kavanagh at that time.
I met Patrick Swift in London in 1960, and saw him over a few weeks of that hot summer. He was living with Oonagh and their daughters Katty and Julie in a basement flat in Westbourne Terrace. As well as painting and drawing he was editing the magazine X with David Wright, and they had accepted the first piece of prose I published. Sometimes I stayed with him over night and we spent whole days together... I think he worked in borrowed studios and was looking for a permanent studio. I remember going with him to look at rooms for rent, but they were all either too expensive or depressing...
We often walked across Kensington Gardens to the Victoria and Albert, where I remember him enquiring about obtaining a ticket to the Reading Room with a view to working on some essays he was planning to write for X. We always looked at the Constable. It was he who first told me how well Constable wrote in letters about trees, especially the plane trees, with their peeled strips of bark — ‘They soak up the polluted air’ — and he quoted a favourite line, ‘Bring in the particular trees/ That caught you in their mysteries’, mentioning that he preferred trees to flowers...
He was tall, with thick black hair that sometimes fell across his face as he argued, and he had inherited his mother’s bird-like features. He wore casual, inexpensive clothes, black or blue shirts, and he was one of those people who always look elegant no matter what they wear. He moved at ease among all kinds of people...
Most of our evenings ended in Soho. They would start quietly enough near Lancaster Gate in a genteel bar... Sometimes there would be an argument between Paddy and David Wright as to whether to travel into Soho by the underground or by taxi. Paddy usually won. He loved travelling by taxi. We would go to the Swiss pub and then to the French... Later we would climb the narrow stairs to Muriel’s, then end the evening dancing into the hopeful hours at the Mandrake. ‘All Men are False said my Mother’ was a hit that year. Elizabeth Smart played it over and over on the jukebox. After such a night Paddy would be up at seven the next morning, bathe Katty and Julie, bring Oonagh tea or coffee in bed, toss the girls high into the air, playing and laughing with them as he dressed them and gave them breakfast. Then he would go to whatever borrowed studio he had.
Sometimes he would need to go into town to buy paints or canvas or on business connected with X, to see printers or to look for advertising, and I would go with him. I think he enjoyed this. Crafts and trades fascinated him… We always walked. We enjoyed walking, always looking around, talking about what we saw or something he was reminded of. None of this was in the least bit self-conscious but part of a vital energy... 'Well Kavanagh is at least a man of some genius. Why don't you try and see more of him?'
I told him that I had no inclination to go through the barrage of insult and abuse that seemed the necessary initiation to the doubtful joy of Kavanagh's company and that I preferred to read the work. I suggested that it might have been easier for him because he was from the city and a painter.
— 'Not at all,' he laughed. 'The first time we met I was told that I was nothing but a gurrier and a fucking intellectual fraud.'
— 'What happened then?'
— 'Naturally after that I ignored him. Then one day Patrick MacDonogh took me to lunch — he was a Guinness rep, as well as a good minor poet and a charming man. After lunch we went into a bar and had a brandy at the counter. Kavanagh was at the back of the bar, with newspapers, probably the racing pages, and he was coughing and muttering and shifting around all the time we were there. MacDonogh had a business appointment and couldn't stay. As soon as he left, Kavanagh came up to the counter and demanded "What are you doing with that fraud MacDonogh?" As soon as I explained, he said, "You shouldn't be wastin' your time with fucking phoneys like that. I've been thinking about you and I think you may well be the real thing!"'
To my surprise, he hadn't told the story to Jimmy Swift, and when I told it to Jimmy, who knew Kavanagh, he went into hoots of laughter: 'I think we can safely say that it was no sudden critical insight that led to that conversation.'
I asked Paddy once how he rhymed Kavanagh's often boorish self with the sensitive and delicate verses. 'My dear boy, separation of Art and Life', he laughed outright. 'All those delicate love poems are addressed to himself, even if it is sometimes by way of God. Such sensitivity would be wasted on a mere Other. He once told me that he often used to dip into American poetry anthologies to put him into an inspirational mood in the mornings, but nowadays I think the very thought of his own importance is sufficient to get him into orbit.'
I think he understood perfectly the mixture of child and monster, fool and knave that went into the wayward intelligence of Kavanagh's genius. Out of the understanding has grown a deep, comic sympathy... 'He could be a dreadful coward as well as a bully. Once I got a frantic phonecall from him sulking in Pembroke Road. There was a bunch of Americans at O'Faolain's who wanted to meet him. He wouldn't go unless I came with him: "We will be moving into enemy territory." We went to O'Faolain's and he was like a mouse all evening. Of course there were roars afterwards; yet he can be funny and marvelous sometimes'...
He loved David Wright and David Gascoyne. He admired George Barker in much the same way as he admired Kavanagh, and Barker's life provided him with almost as much comic detail as Kavanagh's did... As with painting, he hardly ever spoke of his mother, probably because she was too close...
— 'Why doesn't Tony exhibit?' he asked another time.' He has drawing talent'.
— 'He doesn't seem to want to'.
— 'He has far more talent than most of the people having shows in Dublin'...
...I remember letting it rest, though I thought the line of argument exceeding strange in his case. He had had one exhibition, which was notable for the acclaim it received, and never exhibited again. I felt like asking him why he was urging Tony to exhibit while patently unwilling to exhibit himself, but I knew instinctively that the question would not be welcomed.
He was having his portrait painted by Tim Behrens, and some mornings Katty and I went with him. He complained that he disliked sitting for his portrait, and I asked the obvious, 'Well, why do you do it?'
— 'I suppose if you have to ask other people to sit for you, from time to time you have to do the same yourself.'
...Often Paddy and I went to galleries together... 'You can't write about painting', he asserted. 'The whole thing is tactile. The canvas is either alive or it isn't. You can only look'... Sometimes we would wander through the commercial galleries around Bond Street. He was particularly excited by a small show of Giacometti's sculptures, and he admired LS Lowry. He said then that anybody with enough money to buy a Lowry would make a fortune. It was always a pleasure to look at paintings with him, but I knew that I could never be more than a very lame follower. We talked about this: that I hadn't the vocabulary, how what I liked or disliked was completely haphazard, that I could never feel or see through paint the way I could with words. He argued that it was better to approach painting or sculpture with clear unprejudiced eyes rather than with a mass of opinions or preconceptions... That weakness was depressingly apparent when we went together to the Picasso retrospective... Picasso meant nothing to me. I found the variety of styles and colours dispiriting. I said I'd bow out... I remember saying to him as he rejoined me and we were leaving the gallery, 'I'm afraid I'd give the whole show for one small Juan Gris'. Paddy countered, 'I think it's true that no single painting works by itself in the exhibition, but when you see them together it's breathtaking; it's the variety, the colour, the vitality, the sheer exuberance. There is a certain type of good painter who disappears or is diminished in a big show, and there are others — none more so than Picasso — who need a big show to bring the work to life'...
Often we went to the National Gallery. Usually we split up. I was always sure to find him in the Rembrandt Room. A couple of times when he was pressed for time we went there directly. 'It's all so simple, such magic, so much life and death in one canvas', he said once. When I look at some of the portraits of his mother I am reminded of the portrait of Maria Trapp which he so admired.
Paddy wanted to make a drawing of me to send back as a present to his mother, and started it after lunch the day before I was to return to Dublin. He was having difficulty, and after several starts abandoned it, and we went to see a Disney film which was showing at the Paddington Cinema around the corner. He delighted in the pictures of the deer crossing the Artic wastes along with the train of predators. The next morning he finished the drawing. I packed it with my bags, and we had the whole of the idle day together until the 8:40 left Euston.
We sat for a while by the fountain before crossing to a bar on the Bayswater Road... 'It would be obscene to be anything but a romantic in this conformist age', Paddy asserted, and I disagreed, thinking it was more a matter or temperament and background...
By way of the many beautiful girls that passed along Bayswater Road, the talk turned to Balbec and the sea, to the great passages on memory in St Augustine's Confessions, and finally to the Image, how all artistic activity centres on bringing the clean image that moves us out into the light. On that we could agree. We could even order a large gin on the strength of it. Paddy quoted Aquinas: 'The image is a principal of our Knowledge. It is that from which our intellectual activity begins, not as a passing stimulus but as an enduring foundation.' And the 8:40 out of Euston was still hours away.
— John McGahern (novelist and short story writer), 'The Bird Swift', Love Of The World, Edited by Stanley van der Ziel,2009; Patrick Swift (1927-83), Gandon Editions, 1993


Dublin Oil - Dublin Watercolour/ Ink - Italy - Oakridge/ Ashwell Watercolour - Oakridge/ Ashwell Oil - London Oil - London Watercolour/ Ink - France - Algarve Oil - Algarve Watercolour/ Ink - Self-Portraits - Trees - Portraits I - Portraits II - Porches Pottery - Books - Misc - Algarve Studio
Note: many of the reproductions displayed here are of poor quality

By Swift
Nano Reid - Some notes on Caravaggio - Italian Report - The Artist Speaks - X magazine - RHA Exhibition 1951 - Eça de Queiroz & Fernando Pessoa - The Portuguese Enigma - Notebooks - All

About Swift
Patrick Swift: An Irish Painter in Portugal - IMMA 1993 Retrospective Catalogue - Dublin 1950-2 - By His Friends - X magazine - Poems - Further Quotes About - All

By His Friends
Anthony Cronin - John Ryan - John Jordan - C.H.Sisson - Martin Green - John McGahern - David Wright - Lima de Freitas - Katherine Swift - Tim Motion - Lionel Miskin - Jacques D'Arribehaude - Brian Higgins - George Barker - Patrick Kavanagh

Further Quotes
Brian Fallon - Aidan Dunne - Derek Hill - Brendan Behan - Lucian Freud - Patrick Kavanagh - Elizabeth Smart - Further Quotes About