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’, 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, Sean Kelly, John Kelly’s son tells us that there were three forges in Maiden Street – Big Sean Kelly’s forge was located in The Coole on the site of the present St. Vincent de Paul Charity Shop and his son, John Kelly, the subject of this epitaph, had a forge which was located in what Sean Kelly calls, ‘middle Maiden Street’. The third forge was O’Dwyer’s Forge and this was owned and worked by Bill O’Dwyer, father of the late Ned O’Dwyer. These forges were a focal point for the street and for the town, they were places where town and country met, where stories and news and gossip were exchanged, and where tall stories grew legs. During a fascinating walkabout during Éigse Michael Hartnett this year (2017), Sean Kelly and John Cussen gave a very interesting history of Maiden Street. Sean told his listeners that another source of industry in the street during the 19th century and early 20th century were the four natural sandpits which were located along the street – the street being fortuitously located at the end of an ice-age moraine. Forges were, however, 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’s father 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”.
This epitaph, however, is composed to honour Big Shaun Kelly’s son, John, and 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:
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 and his father before him 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 remembering Big Shaun Kelly and his contribution to life in Maiden Street and The Coole :
“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!”
 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!
McDonagh, John and Newman, Stephen eds. Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2006
Newcastle West Historical Society publishers of ‘Newcastle West in Close Up – Snapshots of an Irish Provincial Town’ (2017).