GN4_DAT_9088199.jpg--the_restored_151_year_old_bridge_which_has_been_reopened_to_pedestrians_in_the_county_town__below__the_footbridge_as_seen_in_a_national_library_of_ireland_photograph
The restored 151-year-old bridge which has been reopened to pedestrians in Newcastle West. Picture: Marie Keating, Limerick Leader

The Iron Bridge referred to here is a commemorative footbridge spanning the Arra River.  it has been used for generations to facilitate Mass goers making their way on foot to the parish church in Newcastle West from Maiden Street and in more recent times from Assumpta Park, via The Mass Steps.  The bridge was erected by the Devon Estate in 1866 to commemorate Edward Curling JP who had been the local agent for the Estate in Newcastle West in the nineteenth century.  It is often referred to locally as the Curling Bridge and following recent restoration, the iconic bridge has once again been restored to its former glory.

Crossing the Iron Bridge

By Michael Hartnett

‘My dear brethren, boys and girls, today is a glorious day!  Here we have a hundred lambs of our flock, the cream of the town, about to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, about to become Children of God, and to enter into a miraculous Union with Jesus ….’

Into the cobweb-coloured light,

my arms in white rosettes,

I walked up Maiden Street

across the Iron Bridge

to seek my Christ.

 ‘It will be a wonderful moment when the very Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ is placed upon your tongues – what joy there will be in Heaven!  So many valuable little souls safely into the Fold!  Look behind the Altar!  There will be angels there, ascending and descending, singing songs of joy…’

Into the incense-coloured light,

my arms in white rosettes,

I walked the marbled floor

apast parental eyes

to seek my Christ.

‘Christ will be standing there in all His Glory, His Virgin Mother will smile and there will be a great singing in Heaven…’

 Under the gilded candlelight,

my arms in white rosettes,

my mouth enclosed my God,

I waited at the rail

to find my Christ.

‘There will be the glow of God in your veins, your souls will be at one with Heaven: if you were to die today, angels would open the Gates of Paradise, and with great rejoicing bear you in …’

Back to the human-hampered light,

my arms in white rosettes,

I walked: my faith was dead.

Instead of glory on my tongue

there was the taste of bread.

Commentary

This is a memory poem and the poet – now an adult – remembers his First Holy Communion Day which probably took place in 1948 or so.  From an early age, we can see that the young Hartnett is not overly impressed by the flowery hyperbole, the sense of ceremony and ritual in his local parish church in Newcastle West.  He tells us that instead of feeling ‘the glow of God in (his) veins’, he says very simply, without any adornment that ‘my faith was dead’.

There are two contrasting voices in this poem – the eloquent words of the priest who speaks in grandiose, biblical phrases and the very sparse, repetitive voice of a young boy of seven.  The poem traces the young poet’s journey from his home in Maiden Street, across the Iron Bridge, up the aisle of the church to the altar rails.  The poet, like a painter or photographer, notices the differing lights as he progresses: ‘cobweb-coloured light’, ‘incense-coloured light’, ‘gilded candlelight’, and finally ‘human-hampered light’.

The priest’s homily is worthy of our attention.  Firstly, we have to remember that for the young listeners and their parents, family and friends these are the only words that they would have understood on this special day because Latin would have been used by the priest for the remainder of the ceremony.  Secondly, while the majority of the homily uses classical biblical symbolism the poet impishly has him mix his metaphors here: ‘Here we have a hundred lambs of our flock, the cream of the town’.   It is highly unlikely that the priest would have used the phrase ‘the cream of the town’ in this context.   However, the allusion to ‘a hundred lambs’ is taken directly from the New Testament parable of the Lost Sheep or The Good Shepherd.  Ironically, in the context of the poem the priest is already down to ninety-nine.  The poet at seven casts himself as The Lost Sheep of the parish.  Little wonder then that later in his seminal poem, ‘A Farewell to English’ he would boldly declare:

Poets with progress

make no peace or pact.

The act of poetry

is a rebel act.

As the poem develops, the exaggerated, formulaic words of the priest are interspersed with the young poet’s reactions – in a word, he is not impressed.  The exaggerated language, the sense of ceremony, the ‘white rosettes’ on the sleeves of his good clothes all fail to impress.  For months now he had been led to believe that as this day unfolded he would not only ‘seek’ but ‘find’ his Christ.  As the ceremony ends his sense of disappointment and anti-climax is palpable.

Instead of glory on my tongue

there was the taste of bread.

As he makes his way on foot with his family across the iron bridge in the early morning he is conscious of the ‘cobweb-coloured light’.   This is soon replaced for the young, observant First Communicant by scenes of grandeur in the church with ceremonial incense wafting through sunlight beams and ‘gilded candlelight’.  As he makes his return journey, deflated and unmoved by the experience in the church, he is aware of the troubling juxtaposition.  Once more he leaves the church, crosses the road and the iron bridge again on his homeward journey to Lower Maiden Street, ‘Back to human-hampered light’.

The poem could be interpreted as Hartnett’s equivalent of Stephen Dedalus’s ‘Non Serviam’ in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; his retrospective rejection of organised religion.  Stephen had often trod the maze of Dublin streets seeking escape of one kind or another, and it is only when he crossed the bridge to Bull Island and stared out to sea that he finally glimpses the vision of true fulfilment.  He cannot find this fulfilment without flight.  So Stephen sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’  Hartnett also seeks to escape and in ‘A Farewell to English’ we read his own declaration of intent:

I have made my choice

and leave with little weeping:

I have come with meagre voice

to court the language of my people.

So Hartnett, too, rejects the nets which confine and constrict him and in an article written for The Irish Times[1] in 1975 where he endeavoured to explain his reasons for changing to Gaelic, he declared that ‘I have no interest in Conradhs, Cumanns or churches’ – rejecting at one fell swoop well-meaning Irish language organisations, all political parties and the Catholic Church. Years later, in December 1986 in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll[2] he makes the rather bold, even outrageous, tongue-in-cheek assertion:

I was never a Catholic …… I was fortunate to be born in a house where my father was not a Catholic.  He was a socialist with Taoist leanings – though to say this is to talk with hindsight; like all poets, I can foretell the past.

Indeed, his poetry and other writing often contain unflattering references to the Catholic clergy, long before this became de rigueur.  In Section 7 of his great poem ‘A Farewell to English,’ he confides in us that his voice is ‘nothing new’.  He is not alone in trying to hew out a place for culture ‘in the clergy-cluttered south’.  However, for those familiar with his poetry it has to be said that he reserves an even greater opprobrium for bishops!

In St. Michael’s Church

a plush bishop in his frock

confirms poverty.

On his homeward journey after the First Communion ceremony the young Lost Sheep again crosses the Iron Bridge and for him, it is akin to crossing his first Rubicon. Even then at that tender age of seven, like Stephen Dedalus, he has already decided to fly the nets of organised religion and in crossing the iron bridge he symbolically turns his back on all that this entails.

[1] Michael Hartnett. Why Write in Irish?  The Irish Times (26th August 1975).

[2] The interview first appeared in Poetry Ireland Review (Autumn 1987).

The iconic Iron Bridge
The Iron Bridge (Curling’s Bridge) as seen in a National Library of Ireland photograph from 1903.

Memories of the Past – Episode 80 filmed by the late John Joe Harrold – First Communion Day in Newcastle West.
Advertisements