Hartnett by the Bridge in Newcastle West
Michael Hartnett in pensive mood by the River Arra in Newcastle West in the 1970s. Photo credit to Limerick Leader Photo Archives

Michael Hartnett began Secondary School in September 1956.  He arrived in St. Ita’s Secondary School with a burgeoning reputation.  By that time he had had his first poem published in the Limerick Weekly Echo as far back as the 18th of June 1955. He was then thirteen and still a student in the Courtenay Boys National School. The poem was entitled ‘Camas Road’, and it described in particular detail the rural vista of the West Limerick townland of Camas at evening: ‘A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge, / A cottage thatched with golden straw’ (Book of Strays 67).  He sat his Intermediate Certificate in June 1959 and later in mid-September the results were published in the Limerick Leader and Hartnett from 28 Assumpta Park was first on the list having received a full set of seven honours.

Patrick J. O’Connor, later to be Dr. Patrick J. O’Connor, who for most of his academic life lectured and published extensively on human geography at the University of Limerick, entered the school as a first year in September 1959 and has vivid memories of the young Hartnett and saw him, in particular, as a shining role model to be emulated.  He describes Hartnett at that time as ‘a small, slight figure, bookish, often solitary, never a participant in play in the field opposite his house’.

In his evocative memoir, The New Houses, O’Connor also suggests that Hartnett, despite his excellent academic record, did not find favour with the school’s Principal and Manager, Jim Breen.  O’Connor held Jim Breen in high esteem and he says that he, ‘made a distinctively personal contribution during the lean years that saw a blossoming of second level education in this country.’  He goes on to say that he, ‘asserted a strong presence and, being a big man physically, he rarely had to repeat anything.  He was a strict disciplinarian, meticulous in attention to detail, but never petty or vindictive.  He led by example in the sense that his own work bore the stamp of discipline and commitment.’  The sight of his green Volkswagen Beetle, registration number AIU 524, was enough to elicit an instant quickening in the step of many a tardy pupil.

According to O’Connor, Mike Hartnett ‘was the target of persistent monitoring on the part of the headmaster, Jim Breen’.  Mike was a voracious reader and it seems that not all of his reading material was on the Prescribed English Syllabus and some of the literary works did not always find favour with the erstwhile headmaster.  According to O’Connor, it was the ‘skewed subject content that bothered Jim Breen’.  He made repeated raids on Hartnett’s gabháil of books.  Following these repeated attacks O’Connor says that in his eyes, ‘From the status of heroic scholar Michael Hartnett sank into disrepute’ as a result of this regular attention paid to him by the headmaster!

It seems he didn’t fare any better with his English teacher, Willie O’Donnell. According to Pat O’Connor, O’Donnell taught English at senior cycle level and employed strategies supremely well suited to cope with the rigours of the examination system.  A man well acquainted with the technicalities of language, he had a particular fondness for the double entendre, and one of his most favoured concerned the numbers of students from the school who would, ‘go down in history’!  Seemingly, he persistently charged his young student, Hartnett, with the indictable offence ‘of meditating the Muse’.  It was only a matter of time before the Empire struck back and Hartnett it seems planned and executed a number of retributions on Willie O’Donnell.  Even long after he had left the influence of St Ita’s, indeed long after he had left UCD, and while carrying out periodic commissions for The Irish Times in the Sixties and Seventies, he made a number of pointed references to his former school which were not seen as complimentary by management.  For example, in an article in The Irish Times on November 11th, 1968 he writes:

I left the national school in 1956 and lost an ally (Frank Finucane).  Secondary school came then, and I wrote many poems (all, fortunately, lost) and made a new enemy, my English teacher.  For five years I was beaten more often for ‘meditating the Muse’, as he called it than for lack of learning.  But my poetry changed for the better, not because of the school, but because I partook of an old Irish custom: the girl I loved at the time entered a convent.  This and the claustrophobia of Newcastle West, its rich and its poor, its bullying priest, turned me to write about myself …….. I was a poor man’s son in a secondary school, a place I had no right to be, as I was often reminded.

Harnett was never forgiven for all these indiscretions, by Jim Breen.  Even when he returned as a recognised poet to Newcastle West in the 1970s and lived for a decade ‘out foreign in Glantine’ he was not welcomed back with open arms to his old alma mater while Jim held sway – even when Michael’s son, Niall, was a student in the school in the early Eighties.

There was, however, one teacher in the school who recognised Hartnett’s latent talent and who was most attuned to this rebel without a cause and that was Dave Hayes. As a teacher, Dave Hayes brought style and panache to bear on the teaching of Latin.  According to Pat O’Connor, he was, ‘unquestionably a classical scholar of stature.’  This assessment was reinforced later during Dr O’Connor’s first year in UCD, when a well-known lecturer and future Minister for Education, John Wilson no less, could, in his view, ‘do no better than stand in the long shadow of Dave Hayes’.  Dave Hayes was probably responsible for ensuring that Hartnett continued his Secondary education in St.  Ita’s until he was nearly twenty years of age.  His earlier scholastic promise failed to develop, however, and he eventually left St. Ita’s with honours only in Irish and English – much to the chagrin of his father, Denis.

Jim Breen retired as Principal in 1977 but continued as Manager and owner of the school until his death in 1984.   Following his death, Des Healy, who had become Principal of the school on the untimely death of Noel Ruddle in 1981, took over the reins as Manager up until the school closed its doors on 29th May 1992.  Des Healy was a past pupil of the school and, indeed, had been a classmate of Hartnett’s during their time in school.  Des remained a lifelong friend of the poet, Michael Hartnett.

I will end this post with a true story.  Honestly!  I was there!  As I mentioned earlier,  Des was Principal of St. Ita’s Secondary School in the 1980s and Michael’s son Niall was a student in the school up until about 1985.  To add to the intrigue Michael’s brother Dinny was the local postman at the time.  One morning Des received a postcard from the poet delivered by hand to the school by Dinny the Postman.  The postcard, which no doubt had also been read by Dinny prior to delivery, read as follows:

Dear Des,

If I ever have any more children I won’t be sending them to your school.  This has nothing to do with the quality of education provided in your school – it’s just the principal of the thing.

I remain,

Yours truly,

Michael Hartnett

Des
Des Healy (former Principal of St. Ita’s Secondary School) poses by the statue of his friend Michael Hartnett in The Square, Newcastle West.

Works Cited

Hartnett, Michael, A Book of Strays, ed. Peter Fallon, Gallery Press, 2002.

O’Connor, Patrick J., The New Houses – A Memoir, Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 2009.

O’Connor, Patrick J., Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.  Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 1998.

Further Reading

Read also blog post ‘Happy Memories of St. Ita’s Secondary School’  here..

4 thoughts on “Michael Hartnett’s Travails in St. Ita’s Secondary School

    1. Thanks Liam, glad you enjoyed the piece on Michael Hartnett – twenty years gone this month! You must come and help us keep his memory and genius alive as we remember him each year in Éigse Michael Hartnett in Newcastle West.

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