‘Like many Irish children, I was reared on a diet of folktale, Republicanism and mediocre ballads’.
Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018 has a rich and varied schedule of events which will take place this year from the 12th to the 14th of April. Éigse is proud to welcome John Boyne, Mike McCormack, Declan Kiberd, Emma Langford, Robyn Rowland, and others to Newcastle West for the first time. This year is also special because Michael’s family, his wife Rosemary, son Niall and daughter Lara will be present for the celebrations.
As part of this year’s Éigse, the organisers have included an interesting food element in recognition of the burgeoning food industry in the town and also as a celebration of the town’s rich agricultural hinterland. The event, which will take place in Desmond Complex on Saturday the 14th of April at 12.30pm, and is titled ‘Pulled Pork and Poetry’. It features a cookery demonstration by Tom Flavin, Executive Chef, the Strand Hotel and Pigtown Festival committee member, accompanied by readings from Hartnett’s Collected Poems by Limerick poet and short fiction writer, Edward O’Dwyer. (See Éigse programme for full details). The organisers are indebted to Tom Flavin and Edward O’Dwyer for their enthusiastic support for this venture.
The following blog post seeks to explore the link between Michael Hartnett, food, cooking and the kitchens he survived and graced in Lower Maiden Street, Camas and further afield.
Michael Hartnett returned to his native Newcastle West in the mid-1970’s and bought a cottage in the townland of Glendarragh in the parish of Templeglantine. The ‘townie’ lamented that now he was forced to live ‘in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’. In June 1974 he had made his famous proclamation from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that henceforth he would write only in Irish. In the Autumn of 1977, he was commissioned to write a piece for the upcoming Christmas edition of Magill Magazine which was owned and edited at the time by Hartnett’s friend, Vincent Browne, a fellow West Limerick man making a name for himself in publishing circles in Dublin.
The piece was written and published and showed Hartnett to be a very incisive, insightful and acerbic social commentator. It was entitled ‘Christmas in Maiden Street’ and evoked memories of life in Lower Maiden Street in the years immediately after the ending of World War Two and is a chilling reminder of the austerity endured during those years. Poverty and hardship were rife and families struggled to make ends meet. In the article, he recalls that ‘candles and paraffin-lamps did not brighten the darkness in kitchens in Maiden Street’. There were no luxuries and the necessities of life were very scarce: ‘coal was bought by the half-stone, butter by the quarter pound, and tea by the half-ounce’. As Christmas drew near ‘the spectre of Santa Claus loomed malevolently over the slates and thatch’.
For the poor of Maiden Street, the great feast of Christmas was an extra strain. Members of local charitable institutions visited ‘the meagre kitchens’, ‘the nailed-together chairs, the worn oilcloth topped tables, the dead fires’ and were ‘as hated as the rent-man’. He tells us that the Victorian Christmas had not yet arrived in Newcastle West:
‘there was no turkey, no plum pudding, no mince-pies … the very poor managed roast meat, usually mutton. We often rose to two cocks. The goose was common. There was a fruit cake, jelly and custard; the dinner of the year.’
The article ends with the bitter hope that ‘There will never be Christmasses like those again, I hope to God’.
This vein of bittersweet nostalgia culminated in December 1980 with the publication of the Maiden Street Ballad, written as a Christmas present for his father Denis Harnett. This 47 verse poem also contains details of the hardships and austerity suffered by the people who lived in Lower Maiden Street and The Coole.
Nineteen forty-one was a terrible year,
the bread it was black and the butter was dear;
you couldn’t get fags and you couldn’t tea –
we smoked turf-dust and had to drink porter.
He goes on to tell his audience that ‘we were hungry and poor down in Lower Maiden Street / a fact I will swear on the Bible’. Elsewhere he states that his peers ‘were raggy and snot-nosed and needy’. The only relief for the Harnett family came in the form of their grandmother, Bridget Halpin, who lived on a small farm five miles away in Camas.
The day of the pension my Nan came to town
In a flurry of hairpins with her shawl wrapped around,
With a dozen of eggs and maybe a half-crown
And a bag of new spuds in her ass-car.
He goes on to recount his childhood diet and it is clear that most of the produce was grown on that small farm in Camas by his Uncle Dinny Halpin and transported to town in his grandmother’s ass and cart!
We had turnips for dinner, we had turnips for tea,
and half-stones of pandy piled up on our plates;
we feasted on cabbage, we fattened on kale
and a feed of boiled meat if we smelt it!
Later he was to immortalise Bridget Halpin in his beautiful poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ using, at times, very unflattering language. He tells us that ‘she ate monotonous food’ such as the rural staples of the time bacon and cabbage. In her final days, he tells us she was reduced to eating ‘thin diminishing porridge / in a stone-cold kitchen’. For the poet, Bridget Halpin represents an Irishness which is out of step with modernity and ambivalent to any aesthetic conceptions of the world, ‘Ignorant, in the sense / she ate monotonous food / and thought the world was flat’, and defined by an intuitive spirituality, ‘pagan, in the sense / she knew the things that moved / at night were neither cats nor dogs’. In an interview with Victoria White published in The Irish Times, Hartnett embellished this idea, that his close antecedents existed in a pre-modern Ireland where the Irish language still predominated, ‘My grandfather couldn’t speak English, and if you couldn’t, you couldn’t get a good price for a pig. If the pig was worth two and six and you came back with one and six, you got lashed’ (White 14). That Hartnett links the pre-modern sensibility which Irish represents for him with economic loss and subsequent physical pain encapsulates the colonial dynamic which saw the abandonment of Irish as a spoken language more broadly within the country. In this context Hartnett’s assertion at the very point of his departure from writing in English takes on a further resonance:
… I will not see
great men go down
who walked in rags
from town to town
finding English a necessary sin
the perfect language to sell pigs in.
Bridget Halpin’s cold kitchen, which is described so well in his poem ‘A Small Farm’, describes the quintessential Irish rural kitchen of the 1950’s:
Here were rosary beads,
A bleeding face,
The glinting doors
That did encase
Their cutler needs,
Their plates, their knives,
The cracked calendars
Of their lives.
It stands in direct contrast to the warmth of Heaney’s Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn and at the same time, Bridget Halpin’s kitchen bears great similarities to Moran’s kitchen in Great Meadow as depicted in John McGahern’s Amongst Women. In the 1940’s and 1950’s country farming society is built on manners, manners which are best seen at the dinner table. Hartnett’s later poetry and his attitude to food and cooking are heavily influenced by his formative years spent in Bridget Halpin’s kitchen in Camas. In his, as yet, limited experience kitchens are seen as scant, depressing places. Food is frugal and evokes a sense of lacking, not plenty.
Rural Camas in the early 1950’s still moved in a slow, seasonal rhythm. The annual ritual of killing the pig is described beautifully in the poem ‘Pigkilling’. Characteristically, Hartnett executes (pun intended!) the poetic tactic emphatically, the human actors in the ritual themselves becoming animalistic, drenched in the animal’s blood:
his smiling head
sees a delicate girl
up to her elbows
in a tub of blood (Collected Poems 125)
Hartnett, the central character in the poem, uses the pig’s bladder as a plaything: ‘I kicked his golden bladder / in the air’. Killing the pig was one of those joyful rituals in the rural community. During the killing of the pig, the blood was collected in a bucket for the making of puddings. The carcass would then be hung from a hook in the shed with a basin under its head to catch the drip, and a potato was often placed in the pig’s mouth to aid the dripping process. After a few days, the carcass would be dissected. The body was washed and then each piece that was to be preserved was carefully salted and placed neatly in a barrel and hermetically sealed. It was customary in parts of the midlands to add brown sugar to the barrel at this stage, while in other areas juniper berries were placed in the fire when hanging the hams and flitches (sides of bacon), wrapped in brown paper, in the chimney for smoking (Sharkey 166). While the killing was predominantly men’s work, it was the women who took most responsibility for the curing and smoking. Black Puddings have always been popular in Irish cuisine. The pig’s intestines were washed well and soaked in a stream, and a mixture of onions, lard, spices, oatmeal and flour were mixed with the blood and the mixture was stuffed into the casing and boiled for about an hour and then allowed to cool. It was customary that neighbours were then given some of this black pudding, fresh pork and sausages in the aftermath of every pigkilling putting into practice the old Irish proverb: Faoi scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine’ – (we all live in each other’s shadow).
Years later, his friend and fellow poet Tony Curtis noted presciently about Hartnett that, ‘While I couldn’t say he loved eating, he did love cooking’ (Curtis 170). From various interviews and recorded anecdotes regarding his attitude to food (as opposed to drink!) I would guess that food and cooking for Hartnett was a sort of therapy. While cooking for family or friends the metronomic carrying out of simple physical tasks allowed him to turn off the cerebral for a while at least. Dennis O’Driscoll in an interview conducted with Michael Hartnett in the Poetry Ireland offices on 12th December 1986 comments on his eclectic culinary tastes and we get a further glimpse of Hartnett the culinary enthusiast.
Most of my personal encounters with Michael were as random as dreams: chance meetings on the streets around his shopping and drinking haunts in central Dublin… Michael might be carrying a rattlebag of fresh oysters or a newly-minted circle of Lombardian focaccia. His tastes in poetry, as in food, could range far beyond Munster.
Later in the interview, O’Driscoll asks Hartnett if he is content as a writer and if there was something else he would have liked to have been. Hartnett replies:
I am a chef manqué all right; I trained as a chef for a while. Again that involves creation and the poaching of other men’s recipes and ideas. But as I started to write poetry, or verse at least, when I was thirteen years old, any ambitions I had in any other direction were pre-empted by that immediately.
On a totally different level Dermot Bolger who delivered the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture during Éigse Michael Hartnett in April 2017 recounted an incident which took place at his local chipshop in Finglas:
It was after midnight when we reached Finglas but Macari’s chipshop remained open on Clune Road. Years later in Inchicore Haiku Michael wrote:
In local chippers
Queueing for carbohydrates
A dwarfed people.
We queued for our late-night carbohydrates. Critics can elaborate on Michael’s gift as a poet and contextualise his work. My interest here is putting down memories for his son and daughter and what struck me was how Michael enthralled the late-night queue and staff in that Finglas chipshop. He wasn’t attention seeking; they were simply drawn into his quiet magnetism. The staff had no idea who he was but afterwards always asked for news of my friend in the countryman’s cap.
In the sonnet ‘The Poet Dreams and Resolves’ he paints the very clichéd image of the artist at work, alone but not lonely. He requires few luxuries only ‘an adequate supply / of stout and spirits (or of stout only) / and some cigarettes, and writing paper, / and a little cheap food, ….’. This (self-perpetuated) image of Hartnett as a frugal monk, requiring only the very basics to live and create mirrors this ascetic existence dwelling ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ during the late ‘70’s and early 80’s.
It is clear that Michael Hartnett had a very varied relationship with Irish cuisine from the relatively vulgar turnips and pandy of earlier days in Newcastle West and Camas to the later more urbane ‘rattlebag of oysters’ in central Dublin. Section 3 of ‘A Farewell to English’ centres on Hartnett’s dissatisfaction with the cultural, political, and literary misappropriation and misuse of the Irish language. In it, he rather cheekily attacks W.B Yeats, the most pre-eminent Irish poet and Nobel Laureate of a previous generation, ‘Chef Yeats that master of the use of herbs’. Yeats’s use of Gaelic literary traditions and myth is criticized. However, the main reason I mention it here is because the language and imagery used by Hartnett is that of a master chef – ‘pinch of saga’, ‘soupcon of philosophy’, ‘carefully stirred’, ‘Anglo- Saxon stock’, ‘Cuchulainn’s marrow bones to marinate’, ‘simmered slow’ and Hey Presto, like the witches in Macbeth who dance about their cauldron, we concoct ‘the celebrated Anglo-Irish stew’.
As Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018 draws near we hope to likewise celebrate Hartnett’s genius with good poetry, good food (and some drink!) in the company of his family, friends and myriad followers.
Curtis, Tony. A Life in Poetry, p. 170.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2001.
Hartnett, Michael. ‘Wrestling with Ó Bruadair’, in Mac Reamoinn, S., The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry (London: Allen Lane, 1982).
Sharkey, Olive. Old Days Old Ways: An Illustrated Folk History of Ireland. Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1985.
White, Victoria. “Heartbreak in Two Languages” The Irish Times, (15th December 1994).
 Hartnett, M., ‘Wrestling with Ó Bruadair’, in Mac Reamoinn, S., The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry (London: Allen Lane, 1982), p.65.
2. This interview first appeared in Poetry Ireland Review (Autimn 1987).
 ‘An Enthralling Companion’ – a commemorative article by Dermot Bolger which appeared in The Irish Times on Wednesday, October 12th, 2005. Read the article here