Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith

John Kelly in his forge in Maiden Street

John Kelly in his forge in Maiden Street

Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith

By Michael Hartnett

Black clothes do not make mourners:

                                      the cries come out of the heart.

And local men at street corners,

                                      who have stood

                                      and watched grained wood

in horse-hearse and motor-hearse,

                                      white plumes of feathers, blue plumes

of smoke, to the dead man’s part

                                      of  town, to the rain-dumbed tombs,

go, talk his life, chapter and verse,

and of the dead say nothing but good.

 

In Maiden Street

what man will

forget his iron anvil,

in early Monday morning, sweet

as money falling on the footpath flags?

 

Commentary:  This poem was written as a tribute to John Kelly, one of the ‘old stock’[1], one of the characters of Maiden Street and the Coole.  The Coole was an area in Newcastle West, which Michael Hartnett referred to as ‘The Claddagh of the town’.  It encompassed an area running parallel to Lower Maiden Street, a lane behind what we now know as The Silver Dollar Bar.

In bygone days, John Kelly’s forge was a focal point for the street and for the town, it was a place where town and country met, where stories and news and gossip were exchanged, and where tall stories grew legs.  The forge was an essential part of Irish rural life and farmers, in particular, used the services of the blacksmith to shoe their horses and make and repair their ploughs and iron gates and other farm utensils.  Indeed in harsher, more troubled times the forge also doubled as an ‘armaments factory’ where ancient pikes, and rudimentary spears and swords were forged and tempered in a clandestine way and often ‘hidden in the thatch’.  In a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of a man here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of an ancient craft which, with the progress of time, has become redundant.

In the Annual Observer, the journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, published in July 1979, Lizzie Sullivan, a long time resident of the Coole, referred to John Kelly and his importance to the area:

“I can’t forget our blacksmith, Big Shaun Kelly.  He had his forge in a part of the Coole.  He was a fine type of a man, big and brave and he had a voice to go with it.  Many a day the youths of the Coole spent in his forge.  They used to love when they were asked to blow the bellows and Shaun would be singing or telling them stories as they made the sparks fly from the anvil.  He used to have them shivering telling them all about Sprid na Bearna and the dead people he met going home on a Winter’s night.  They believed every word he used to tell them”.

Like all epitaphs this poem is short and sweet.  In the opening stanza death and funerals are generalised.  Hartnett doesn’t seem to be talking about any particular death but remembers numerous funerals down the years and he refers to the funeral customs observed in the town.  Quiet men standing at ‘street corners’ looked on the ‘grained wood’ of the coffin as it passed, either in ‘horse-hearse’ or ‘motor-hearse’, on its way to the old graveyard in Churchtown.  There amid ‘the rain-dumbed tombs’ it was customary to speak well of the dead:

          go, talk his life, chapter and verse,

and of the dead say nothing but good.

The second stanza presents us with the real epitaph.  It is short, personalised and very well crafted.  Everyone in Maiden Street will remember the ring of the anvil on a ‘Monday morning’ and Hartnett uses a lovely simile to remember his friend: Heaney uses the image of an ‘unpredictable fantail of sparks’ coming from the anvil in his poem, ‘The Forge’, and here those sparks from John Kelly’s anvil are compared to money falling on the ‘footpath flags’.  His exquisite use of assonance and alliteration in these short lines emphasises his poetic craft.  The poem is also noted for its use of compound words such as ‘horse-hearse’, ‘motor-hearse’,  and ‘rain-dumbed tombs’, which hopefully, in time, will be used as an excellent example of alliterative assonantal onomatopoeia!

In ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, Hartnett similarly remembers with fondness the work of John Kelly:

XXXVIII

I awoke one fine morning down in Maiden Street

to John Kelly’s forge-music ringing so sweet,

saw the sparks flying out like thick golden sleet

from the force of his hammer and anvil:

and the red horse-shoes spat in their bucket of steam

and the big horses bucked and their white eyes did gleam

nineteen forty-nine I remember the year –

the first time I got my new sandals.

 

There is a strong ‘local’ element to Hartnett’s writing – he tells us in Maiden Street Ballad that,

A poet’s not a poet until the day he

                             can write a few songs for his people.

This loyalty to his native place and space and the people who live there is admirable and is acknowledged with gratitude by those same locals to this day.  Seamus Heaney, in his introduction to John McDonagh and Stephen Newman’s collection of essays on Hartnett, entitled Remembering Michael Hartnett, says that,

Solidarity with the local community and a shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye relationship with local people distinguish Hartnett and make him the authentic heir to the poets of the Maigue.

These local people, John Kelly included, had a great influence on the young Hartnett as Heaney also points out in that same introduction:

The young Hartnett rang the bell, and images from the world of the smithy would turn up in some of his most haunting work, as when a rib of grey in a woman’s hair is compared to a fine steel, ‘filing on a forge floor’ (‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney’).

But I’ll leave the last word to Lizzie Sullivan:

“When the circus was coming to town, Shaun the Smith would be talking for days before it came… It was lovely to see all the fine horses and ponies.  There would be thirty or forty going up to Kelly’s Forge.  Then, when the circus was gone away he would be still talking about it for days.  He would let Sprid na Bearna rest, and all the other ghosts he used to see.  He made many a one happy, especially the young lads listening to him….. God be with the Coole and all the fine people that are gone!

 

[1] Hartnett assures us in a footnote to ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ that to qualify as ‘old stock’ a family had to be established in the town for at least three generations.  He goes on to say that the phrase can also be very useful if you meet someone in the street and you can’t remember their name!

Works Cited

McDonagh, John and Newman, Stephen eds. Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2006

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