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Michael Hartnett on Confirmation Day circa 1953

In Memoriam Sheila Hackett

By Michael Hartnett

No great dreams were found

in our nineteen-forties streets:

Newcastle West

slowly turned its face

from a bitter past.

We were a complicated sum perhaps

but made of simple needs

and demanded no world-changing vision.

We moved along the scale

living our own lives,

made separate, but never split,

by time’s long division.

We remained a stable number

that certainly would last:

whatever we had become

we began with simple hearts.

But suddenly one friend is cancelled out

and the long subtraction starts.


Commentary:   This poem appears in Hartnett’s collection, Selected and New Poems, published by The Gallery Press in 1994.  However, it first appeared in a commemorative booklet published by the Courteney Boys School in 1992.  Mike O’Donoghue, then Principal of the Courteney Boys School, Hartnett’s old alma mater, had asked the poet for a poetic contribution and he was rewarded with this beautiful poem which arrived by post on 7th April 1992.

Michael Hartnett wrote a number of beautiful poems about significant friends and relations who had died.  These poems were the equivalent of the more traditional Mass Cards given to the family of the bereaved in Ireland.  These poems were often handed to members of the bereaved family in the days and weeks following the funeral by the poet himself, often handwritten on loose pages from Hartnett’s own notebooks.  He saw this as part of a sacred duty, part of a poetic pact he had made with ‘his people’ in Maiden Street and Assumpta Park in the town.  In Maiden Street Ballad he tells us:

a poet’s not a poet until the day he

can write a few poems for his people

Many of these poems written on loose pages are still treasured by the lucky recipients, as treasured as the more conventional memorial cards which were traditionally printed after the loss of a loved one.

This poem ranks highly with those already written for his little three-year-old sister, Patricia, who died on May 10th in 1952 when Michael was ten (‘How goes the night, boy?…’)  and his lament ‘For Edward Hartnett’,  written for his infant brother Edmond P. Harnett, who was born on 12th October 1942 and died on 29th November 1942 – infant mortality was very high during those harsh war years.  We also remember his beautiful poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, composed for his grandmother Bridget Halpin and also the poignant ‘Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith’ – a handwritten copy of which hangs proudly in Sean Kelly’s home to this day.

Sheila Hackett was a lifelong friend of Hartnett’s from early childhood.  In later life, she married Ned O’Dwyer who was a painter and decorator by trade like Michael’s father, Denis Harnett.  This is why in his letter accompanying the poem Hartnett suggests to Mike O’Donoghue that maybe the title of the poem should be changed to ‘In Memoriam Sheila O’Dwyer’.   Thankfully and very wisely Mike O’Donoghue didn’t change a comma in the original. (See copy of the letter below).  

Ned O’Dwyer served for many years in Newcastle West as a Labour Party County Councillor.  Indeed, Michael Hartnett, who had inherited the Labour gene from his father, acted as Ned’s Election Agent for a number of Local Government election campaigns held in the late seventies and early eighties. This traditional Labour seat then passed to Mary Kelly who has to be credited with the rejuvenation of Lower Maiden Street through her work as a Local Councillor.  Because of her efforts both life and business returned to Lower Maiden Street and The Coole area of the town.  Michael Hartnett Terrace must surely be one of the last local housing schemes built by a local authority in Ireland and the project will stand testament to her sterling work on the County Council.

Hartnett has fond memories of the young Sheila Hackett and prefers to remember her as she was then, the local girl, some years his senior.  He had swopped comics with her in the ‘fifties, and as he also says in his letter to Mike O’Donoghue ‘she helped me once or twice with my sums’.  This was a colloquial phrase used generally in Ireland where the word ‘sums’ is used instead of Maths or Mathematics.  Hartnett had no great interest in ‘sums’ so he sought help wherever he could find it.  In her honour, and to show his deep gratitude, the poem is suffused with mathematical references.

The poem opens with recollections of ‘our nineteen-forties streets’.  These were austere times with a war raging in Europe and much poverty and deprivation experienced by the people of Newcastle West.  Social change was very slow and living conditions were very difficult for many in the town.  Elsewhere he has recalled these times through rose-tinted glasses but not here.  Indeed, the ‘camaraderie of the poor’ is reinforced by the constant repetition of ‘we’ in the poem.  Newcastle West ‘slowly turned its face from a bitter past’ and was gradually beginning to look to the future with hope.  Elsewhere, of course, in an article in The Irish Times in the early 70s he had made the terrible, and damning admission that the town had only survived because it facilitated the yearly haemorrhage of its young people to England and even further afield.

As mentioned earlier, the poem uses extended mathematical imagery and phrases learnt in school: phrases like ‘complicated sum’, ‘simple’ numbers, the word ‘scale’ which may refer to music or measurement, ‘long division’, ‘stable number’ and the number ‘one’ are al, used to great effect.  He paints a picture of a stoic and simple existence where the local people had very low expectations and had ‘simple needs’ as they tried to cope with the fallout from the cataclysmic events which were redrawing the map of Europe.  ‘No great dreams were found’ in their childhood streets, although we know that at least one dreamer had been born there in 1941.  By and large, in Maiden Street, people acted with the best of intentions.

The poem ends with the death of Sheila Hackett; she is ‘cancelled out’ as from a ledger, and the poet is forced to confront her death and his own mortality: one of his fast friends from childhood has died and now the ‘long subtraction starts’. 

Earlier in his iconic Maiden Street Ballad, he admonishes his audience that ‘the Past is signposted “No Entry’’  – yet here he doesn’t take his own advice and he delves back into his childhood memories to remember with affection one of his old friends from the 1940s.

It is also interesting to note that even though he is supposedly writing for grieving friends and neighbours here we see the full panoply of his poetic craft on display.  The extended mathematical imagery is handled with great finesse and this is why the poem stands as a lasting memorial to one of his childhood friends.  Truly, by poem’s end, we are indeed jealous of Sheila Hackett!

Sources: I would like to acknowledge the great help received from Peig and Mike O’Donoghue in compiling this blog post.



Work in Progress! Comments, Corrections, Clarifications Welcome.