Five years after his brilliant dark comedy “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, Martin McDonagh has written and directed another brilliant tale about friendship, ambition, and loneliness. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is the best a McDonagh movie has ever looked, every scene has a visual landscape setting and the colour tone has a uniquely pleasing filter throughout. It pays homage to other ‘Irish’ classics such as “Ryan’s Daughter” and “The Quiet Man” and in its costumes and setting there are very obvious echoes of J. M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World”.
The movie is set on an island off the coast of Ireland about 100 years ago. On the mainland a Civil War is raging, where after long years of colonisation, brother is fighting brother; friends and families are being ruptured and irreparably damaged. However, the island, the last bastion of innocence, has its own demons and banshees to contend with. Inisherin is an enclosed place, a microcosm, where everything is concentrated and the surrounding sea keeps everything compressed and isolated. This island has deeply affected its inhabitants and they have each been moulded by it and damaged by its limited horizons.
McDonagh was born in London in 1970 the son of Irish parents from the West of Ireland. The backdrop to his childhood and early adulthood was dominated by ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and Britain’s most recent involvement in that sad and tragic episode in Irish history. The setting for this film, Inisherin, has only recently freed itself from the grip of British colonial domination, and the gossipy postmistress is seen painting the red postbox in the village a garish green, the colour of the new ‘Free State’. There is evidence of other colonial powers at play also: the island is home to a prominently located Catholic church and the mysterious and magical Latin Mass reminds us of the power of Rome. There is also a grotto to the Virgin Mary which stands where the road diverges.
So, this is Ireland: there’s a pub, a church, a Post Office, a thatched cottage where Pádraic Ó Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) lives with his unmarried sister Siobhán; and another hovel where Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) lives alone. Colm, who plays the violin and composes (mediocre) music, has recently become obsessed with the passing of time, with the pressing need to indulge his art in order not to be forgotten. His art now demands total exclusive focus from him, leaving no room for the banality of feelings and former friendships. Pádraic Ó Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) can’t figure out why his friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) has become hostile and refuses to speak to him. Colm’s behaviour turns darkly troubled and before long even Pádraic is acting a bit unhinged himself, especially after the departure of his sister, Siobhán, (played superbly by Kerry Condon), to the mainland. Pádraic’s repeated efforts at reconciliation only strengthen his former friend’s resolve and when Colm delivers a desperate ultimatum, events swiftly escalate, with shocking consequences.
It becomes clear there’s something beneath the surface of their friendship that is struggling to break through to see the light of day. Colm no doubt knows what it is, but Pádraic may not have quite figured it out yet. Only a few fleeting moments hint at their deep feelings for each other, but it is a subject neither of them can even articulate – much less try to fulfil.
The movie is a study of friendship on the edge of becoming something deeper, but instead, it works its way out in violent, destructive deeds. The shockingly needless maiming is a metaphor for the Civil War atrocities taking place within earshot of the islanders. What we have here is what Patrick Kavanagh would call ‘a local row’ and there is another bigger ‘local row’ in progress on the nearby mainland, again as Kavanagh would say, ‘God’s make their own importance’.
The movie tries to resolve its three main subplots and in the end, all three have their perfect conclusions and intersect cleverly. The writing is impeccable and as in “Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri” and the earlier “In Bruges”, there is a perfect blend of humour and tragedy. The three stories revolve around Pádraic trying to come to terms with the fact that his best friend Colm has rejected him; his sister Siobhán trying to find a meaningful purpose in her life and Dominic (played by Barry Keoghan), who is fighting his own demons and seeking friendship and intimacy. Indeed, Barry Keoghan’s performance as the haunted abused, and fragile Dominic is a masterclass and equals John Mill’s performance in the classic “Ryan’s Daughter”.
The wild beauty and desolate qualities of the island are captured in the cinematography and the music is perfectly sewn into the fabric of the film without drowning it. What’s so satisfying about the story, is that you’re left to interpret it for yourself. This, of course, has caused consternation on Twitter and Live Line and on other platforms because McDonagh leaves people to make up their own minds.
It is a well-told dark (even black) comedy that keeps you wanting more. McDonagh explores a myriad of largely unexplored themes at a time when Ireland was full of despair, not long after the War of Independence and a long-suffering period that brought about a post-colonial inferiority complex (which still hasn’t been fully addressed to this day). Other motifs touched on include: the struggle to achieve an Irish identity, a repressive church, superstitions, isolation, mass emigration, poverty and to top it all off a brutal civil war. This film does a great job to capture the zeitgeist of the time and to top that off the cinematography, costumes, music, and atmosphere are wonderful.
Both leads, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, as they did in “In Bruges”, knock it out of the park, and they are ably supported by the two new shining stars of Irish cinema in Barry Keoghan and the beautiful Kerry Condon. Pat Shortt who plays Jonjo Devine the publican and Jon Kenny who plays his sidekick Gerry add to the ensemble cast and they make valuable contributions to the banter and gossip in the pub scenes. (And there are also goats, a dog and a donkey, a horse, and some nondescript cattle).
And then there is the war, distant but present, with ominous explosions heard in the distance. And finally, there is the old banshee (a fairy woman), a legendary harbinger of Death in Irish folklore and legend. At times it’s hard to tell if this is a wonderful dark comedy or a Shakespearean tragedy. Served by a magisterial group of actors and actresses, this film takes you to stunning Irish landscapes and gives you a false sense of security with its comfortable scenery, cute farm animals, and lovely violin tunes in the old local shebeen … until men resort to a classic story of pride and stubbornness, mirroring the sad, pathetic and damaging Civil War being played out on the mainland.
Like a dark children’s tale, the movie seems to be a metaphor for the stupidity of war and humanity’s many contradictions. Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and a scene-stealing Barry Keoghan as Dominic are just wonderful at creating those flawed and unique men spiralling toward their destiny.
Martin McDonagh has created a fantastic piece of filmmaking here with a very timely message. The ending, like all black comedies, is pessimistic – Pádraic suggests that scores have not been settled fully – like the war of brothers on the mainland this local skirmish will be played out until the banshee’s prophecy is finally fulfilled. Dare I say it but Colm’s dog may well be Pádraic’s next target!
“The Banshees of Inisherin” is not perfect and no modern director has the ability to satisfy every critic – and there are many. Maybe I ascribe far too much credit to McDonagh in this review but I have to say I really enjoyed exploring the intricate layers of meaning suggested in the dialogue and the cinematography. For me, it is the best movie of the year so far, better even, dare I say it than “An Cailín Ciúin”. It has left me brooding long after the final credits and that’s no bad thing!
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost – How wonderful that was, how wonderful! And when we put our ears to the paling-post The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree With its December-glinting fruit we saw – O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay And death the germ within it! Now and then I can remember something of the gay Garden that was childhood’s. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place, A green stone lying sideways in a ditch, Or any common sight, the transfigured face Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodeon Outside at our gate; There were stars in the morning east And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodeon called To Lennons and Callans. As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside in the cow-house my mother Made the music of milking; The light of her stable-lamp was a star And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog, Mass-going feet Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes, Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters On the grey stone, In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland, The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over Cassidy’s hanging hill, I looked and three whin bushes rode across The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.
And old man passing said: ‘Can’t he make it talk’ – The melodeon. I hid in the doorway And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post With my penknife’s big blade – There was a little one for cutting tobacco. And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodeon, My mother milked the cows, And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
From Collected Poems (2004). Edited by Antoinette Quinn, Allen Lane. An imprint of Penguin Books, by kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of the late Katherine B. Kavanagh, through the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.
In this, one of Ireland’s most beloved and recognised poems, ‘A Christmas Childhood’, Kavanagh (21 October 1904 – 30 November 1967) explores themes of memory, coming of age, and imagination. The poem is set in 1910 and it is a memory poem. We are told that Kavanagh was ‘six Christmases of age’ but the poem also remembers and celebrates the original Christmas event almost two thousand years earlier. The poet is looking back on the magical and mysterious world of childhood and he is mourning its passing with some regret.
The poet recognises that his childhood was a time when the ordinary seemed extraordinary. Through figurative language and colourful imagery, he paints a picture of his early childhood and what it meant to be a child in those difficult times. In line one, we are presented with a factual and accurate description: ‘One side of the potato-pits was white with frost’ and line two is powered with emotion. The tone, the use of repetition and the exclamation mark in ‘How wonderful that was, how wonderful!’ convey wonder and excitement.
Similar to his poem ‘Advent’, this poem uses religion both as a theme and as its main source of imagery. Kavanagh’s spirituality is to the fore and this was very much informed and influenced by traditional pre-Vatican II Catholic theology. He desires to return to the state of childish innocence when he was six years old and Christmas surely brings out the child in all of us! Kavanagh’s well-worn theory was that if he could rediscover a world of childhood innocence he would ipso facto become a better poet. Indeed, the poem’s title gives the game away: he describes his childhood as ‘a Christmas childhood’ rather than the more limiting ‘a childhood Christmas’.
Both ‘Advent’ and ‘A Christmas Childhood’, therefore, are very religious poems – religious at a very personal level. Kavanagh’s feeling is that experience has corrupted him – in ‘Advent’ he tells us that he has ‘tested and tasted too much’ and this has echoes in this poem when he says:
O you Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it!
He wants to bring back the newness that was in the world before things grew stale through over-familiarity. In ‘Advent’ he lists the mundane things that will inspire him in the New Year: a ‘black slanting Ulster hill’ will be new again; the boring chat of a tedious old man will become wonderful; the whole ordinary, ‘banal’, common world of reality will be renewed; wonderful then will be ‘whins’, ‘bog holes’, ‘cart-tracks’, ‘old stables’. To this list, he now adds ‘potato pits’, ‘paling posts’ and,
The tracks of cattle to a drinking place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch …
The poem is in two parts: Part II first appeared in The Bell magazine (December 1940) and Part I was published in TheIrish Press (24 December 1943). Part I describes the townland of Mucker in the parish of Inniskeen, County Monaghan, and explores, from an adult’s perspective, how childhood is a time of innocence, an innocence that we inevitably lose. As a child he saw ‘An apple tree/ With its December-glinting fruit’ but just as Eve ate the apple which led to man’s Fall and sinful state, Kavanagh knows that as we leave childhood behind us we lose our innocence. The Garden of Eden is no more; but Christmas is a time when an Eden-like world becomes possible. Adulthood, says Kavanagh, blinds us to the beauty, freshness and innocence of childhood but it can be recaptured occasionally, especially at Christmas time.
Part II of the poem introduces a cast of characters – Kavanagh’s father, his beloved mother, and the neighbours. In Antoinette Quinn’s words ‘Through a series of crisp, lucid images it conjures up the child’s sense of being part of a family and a closely-knit Catholic community’. Everything is in harmony and the poem is very musical. We hear his father’s melodeon, the music that came from putting his ear to the paling-post, the music of milking, the screech of the water-hen in the nearby bog, the crunch of feet on the icy potholes along the road and also the sound of the bellows wheel in the country kitchen. And of course, the beautiful onomatopoeic line ‘I nicked six nicks on the doorpost’ which creates its own marvellous music also. The melodeon calls to the Lennons and Callans and the stars dance to his father’s music. The music unites one place to another and neighbour to neighbour. The imagery of Co. Monaghan blends with imagery from the Biblical account of Christ’s birth: ‘The light of her stable-lamp was a star’ and the ‘three whin bushes’ become ‘the Three Wise Kings’.
The poem sums up his Christmases and the things that made them memorable and precious to him – his father playing the melodeon, his mother milking the cows, the special gift of ‘a white rose’ that he gave to the Virgin and pinned it on her blouse. He was a real boy – can I say that now? – he notched his age on the doorpost – not six years but ‘six Christmases of age’!
When all is said and done ‘A Christmas Childhood’ is a chatty little poem that deals with simple things in simple, everyday language. Yet this seemingly rustic simplicity can be deceptive and underneath it all, there is the constant realisation of the presence of Christ and Christ’s mother – and perhaps all mothers. After all, the final image is that of a father and mother and child, an ordinary family and the Holy Family.
Little wonder then that at Kavanagh’s funeral in Inniskeen on the 30th of November 1967, Seamus Heaney read ‘A Christmas Childhood’ at his graveside.
Kavanagh, Patrick. Collected Poems. Edited by Antoinette Quinn. Allen Lane. An imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2004.
Quinn, Antoinette. Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography. (Second Edition). Gill Books, 2003.
Colin McPherson’s play, The Weir, first opened in London on July 4th, 1997. It was supposed to run for four weeks but, due to demand, they decided to extend it to five weeks, then eight weeks, then nine weeks, and then finally because of its continuing popularity they moved the show into a larger theatre, the Duke of York’s, in St Martin’s Lane. And it continued to play there for the next two years. It is currently running at The Abbey Theatre from 26th November until January 14th.
The play began its lengthy gestation in the 1980s when in his mid-teens, Colin McPherson found himself going to visit his grandfather, Jack McPherson, regularly. The Sligo train from Connolly swept him from his adolescent angst in Dublin to an entirely different world where his grandfather lived alone, near Jamestown in Co. Leitrim. His grandfather’s little cottage was tucked away, down a dark winding boreen that ran alongside the River Shannon with its weir which gives the play its name. Beside the house was a fairy fort no one dared disturb.
In the evenings, grandfather and grandson would sit by the fire and Colin would be regaled by his grandfather with stories from his living memory: how a stooped man named McFadden had been cured of his ailment by the fairies; but when he returned again, asking for more favours, the fairies sent him away, twice as stooped over as he had been before.
He also told him how the house he grew up in had been built on a fairy road. And how knocking could sometimes be heard at the door in the dead of night. And how, as a boy, when the Civil War raged, he remembered a desperate man came to the door seeking refuge, but he was chased round the back of the house by other men who shot him out there.
The play itself opens as locals gather at the pub on a windy winter’s night. Local estate agent and hotelier Finbar (Peter Coonan) arrives with blow-in Valerie (an openly vulnerable Jolly Abraham) who has just recently arrived from Dublin. They settle into a storytelling session that turns darker and more personal as they take it in turn to share their experiences of their various brushes with the supernatural. At times ghostly and mesmerising, their tales draw Valerie into their world – but it is her story, when we finally get to it, which is the most gut-wrenching of all, stemming from the worst kind of tragedy.
The atmosphere is built through an utterly engrossing succession of monologues, in which each character is satisfyingly delineated. Brendan Coyle’s Jack sheds his cranky, contrary mask, while the brilliant Marty Rea conjures a wonderfully distinctive, quirky, but very believable Jim. Peter Cloonan peels away the bravura of Finbar to reveal his vulnerability. He apologises self-consciously as he feels he has revealed too much, giving the lie to the old stereotype of the brash non-talkative Irishman.
Fact, fiction, history, ghosts, religion, and hearsay are all woven together and for us who were lucky enough to be present at Caitríona McLoughlin’s production of the play in The Abbey Theatre, we were glad that Colin McPherson soaked it all up on those youthful excursions West. The play is a timely, glowing affirmation of the rural pub and its role as a sanctuary for wounded men – and women – at a time when that very institution is facing extinction. As the only woman present, Jolly Abraham’s Valerie is distinctive in more ways than one: as a blow-in, an American, and, for those present in the bar, their intended audience.
Caitríona McLaughlin directs with a finely balanced awareness of the comedy of McPherson’s script as well as the darker emotional moments, the necessary silences as well as the endless eyrie stories of fairies and ghosts and family loss, and the resulting deep trauma that ensues.
The production runs straight through for 100 minutes, but our attention is mostly focused on the actors throughout apart from the erratic and distracting musical score. Sarah Bacon’s authentically worn set sits at an angle on the right-hand side of the stage against a stormy sky lit by Jane Cox, whose subtle design also helps focus the formal storytelling set pieces. One small quibble: the Irish have given the world many iconic cultural nuggets including the traditional music session in the ‘local’ and so here the use of live music outside the pub provided by musicians Éamonn Cagney and Courtney Cullen is somewhat disconcerting and jars a little.
There are obvious parallels that can be detected between McPherson’s play and the earlier J. M. Synge classic The Playboy of the Western World. That play caused riots when first premiered in the Abbey Theatre on January 26th, 1907, nearly 115 years ago. The Weir has since created its own ripples and there are particular details within the play that firmly locates it in the 1990s, a time of great social and economic change in Ireland like its illustrious forerunner. However, the fact that we can accurately place it in a definitive timeline makes the universality of its themes even more penetrating. Ask anyone who has ever had a pint in Scanlan’s Bar in Knockaderry or in any rural pub in Ireland and they will agree with you, just as this production suggests: there is no better balm for loneliness than company.
Sadly, Jack McPherson never saw any of his grandson’s plays. He passed away before his grandson managed to get going as a writer, but something of those times he had spent with him in his lonely cottage in Leitrim had lodged somewhere in his subconscious. In this way, it may be that a play like The Weir comes through a writer rather than being intentionally composed. There is the sense that Colin McPherson heard it and wrote it down – and it works!
The Abbey stage has long been the place where such stories were told and present-day Abbey audiences should be very happy that we get to hear these stories commingling here with those riotous echoes from long ago.
The present-day parish of Knockaderry Clouncagh which in turn corresponds to the medieval parishes of Clouncagh, Clonelty and Grange, was once known as the Tuath of Maghreny (Máigh Ghréine which translates as the ‘Valley of the Sun’). This area was ruled by local chiefs of the Uí Fhidheingte. Sources tell us that Uí Fhidheingte flourished in County Limerick from 377 AD and was recognised as one of the most prominent of the ancient kingdoms of Munster.
By circa 950 AD, the territory of the Ui Fidhheingte was divided primarily between the two most powerful septs, the Uí Cairbre and the Uí Coileán. The Uí Cairbre Aobhdha (of which O’Donovan was chief), lay along the Maigue basin in the baronies of Coshmagh and Kenry and covered the deanery of Adare, and at one point extended past Kilmallock to Ardpartrick and Doneraile. The tribes of Uí Chonail Gabhra extended to a western district, along the Deel, and into Slieve Luachra, corresponding to the baronies of Upper and Lower Connello.
Other septs within the Uí Fhidheingte were long associated with other Limerick locations; a branch of the Fir Tamnaige gave its name to Mahoonagh, while today Feenagh is the only geographical trace extant of ancient Uí Fhidheingte. Though the changes in the name of Uí Fhidheingte down to the modern Feenagh seem strange, they are quite natural when one takes into account the gradual change from the Irish to the English language with a totally different method of spelling and pronunciation and the omission of the “Uí” which was unintelligible to those acquainted only with the latter language.
Therefore, the lands around Knockaderry were settled since pre-historic times with the stone called Leacht Phadraig in Gurteen West likely dating from the Neolithic period. Local folklore has it that as part of his travels in Ireland in the 5th Century, St. Patrick visited Clouncagh where he rested a night in the townland of Gurteen West, in a place which was later part of the ‘priest’s farm’ and presbytery overlooking the present church in Clouncagh. This place is just behind where Seanie Hartnett lives with its magnificent crafted front wall. The land is owned today by a local farmer, Mike Wall. You can see the location on the old maps and it is marked as Leacht Phadraig. This was a stone on which it is said St. Patrick knelt in prayer. Unfortunately, although appearing prominently in early Ordnance Survey maps of the area it has disappeared without a trace in recent times.
Local legend has it that St. Patrick rested here on his way from Knockpatrick, through Ardagh on his way to Ardpatrick near Kilfinnane. It is said that he killed a huge serpent that occupied the fort in Clouncagh and three wells sprung up at the spot where the serpent lay dead. Indeed, it is believed locally that the three wells to the south of the fort were named by St. Patrick as Tobar Rí an Domhnaigh (Sunday’s Well), Tobar Mhuire (Our Lady’s Well), and Tobar Phadraigh (St. Patrick’s Well).
Unfortunately, local historian and academic, Dr. Liam Irwin, casts doubt and cold water on this local legend when he states that ‘the popular belief and tradition that St Patrick rested for the night in the area is sadly, groundless’ (Irwin, 149).
Cloncagh was an early ecclesiastical centre with a church, and a very large circular enclosure, and was said to be associated with St. Maidoc of Ferns. He is credited locally with the foundation of a monastery within the fort at Clouncagh. Again, however, no less an authority than Canon Begley in his acclaimed history of the diocese of Limerick, (Vol. 1) states that the association of Maidoc with Clouncagh is unsound. Again Liam Irwin agrees saying that ‘The popular belief that Christianity was introduced to the area by St. Maidoc is based on a misreading of medieval documents’ (Irwin, 149). However, the circular fort in Clouncagh which enclosed the monastic ruin and graveyard has been described by the noted Irish antiquarian, folklorist and archaeologist, T.J. Westropp, as being the largest ring fort in County Limerick.
There was also a vibrant church in Clonelty in the townland of Ballinoe and a monastic settlement in Grange and this site is still used as a cemetery to this day. From a cursory examination of placename evidence, there were probably other churches at Kilcolman, Kiltanna and Kilgulban.
Some parts of the parish were densely settled during the Early Christian era especially in and around the area of Grange civil parish, and on the low hills north of a line from Knockaderry village to Cloncagh with evidence of a considerable number of ringforts in these two areas. However, there are no ringforts in the southeast of the parish through the townlands of Gortnacreha Upper, Gortnacreha Lower, Ballyhahil, and Teernahilla. The reason for this is unclear, but as Geraldine and Matthew Stout have pointed out, these lowland areas, because of forest cover and poor drainage were not favoured for settlement, while free-draining hill slopes were, such as is found in the north of the parish around Knockaderry village (Stout, 47).
All of the townland placenames in the parish were recorded between 1200 and 1655. This is the only instance of this in West Limerick and is evidence of a land well-endowed with the trappings of human habitation since the early Norman period. Also, baile finds its way into the making of nine townland names, confirmation of land intensely settled throughout the medieval period. There is also evidence from the years of the Anglo-Norman Conquest of at least eight defensive structures being built within the parish to keep control of the newly acquired lands. This is a high density of such structures and likely indicates a land difficult to hold or perhaps a land highly prized. Rectangular enclosures were built at Ballybeggane, Ballynaroogabeg West, and Rathfreedy and moated sites were constructed at Ballybrown and Kiltanna, with two other possible sites at Rathfreedy and Ballynaroogabeg West.
The Civil Survey of 1654-6 gives details of the land ownership following the Plantation of Munster. Much of the land in Knockaderry was transferred to Colonel Francis Courtenay, a planter. In Clonelty civil parish Francis Courtenay held the following lands; Lissaniskie, Rathweillie, Ballynoe, Cuilbane and Ballyscanlane with an old ruined castle, two orchards and a mill. He also owned lands at Killgulbane, Athlinny, Ballynwroony, and Kilteana with ‘a stone house and an orchard upon it’. Cnockederry, Caharraghane, and Lisligasta were owned by Ellen Butler. In Grange civil parish, Irish Papists named James Bourke held Ballyrobin, and John Shihy owned Ballyearralla. The remainder of the parish was held by Francis Courtenay. These lands included Cloineiskrighane, Tyrenemarte, Ballyleanaine, Downegihye and Ballyngowne, Grangieoughteragh, Granghy, Ightaragh and Lissgirraie, Galloughowe and Ballymorrishine, Caruegaere, Dromuine, Gortroe, Movidy and Ardrin. In Cloncagh, Francis Courtenay owned Tiremoeny while Lt. Colonel William Piggott held Killnamony. The rest of the civil parish was owned by Irish Papists; Edmund Shehy held Ballynerougy, Gorteene, Charaghane, Ballykennedy, Ballybeggaine, Ballycolman, and Castlecrome, while William Fitzgerald owned Tyrenehelly (Simmington, 255-8).
In the late medieval period, there is evidence that tower houses were built at Ballynoe and Ballynarooga More (South) with other possible sites at Grange Lower, Knockaderry, and Ballymorrisheen. The church and tower house in close proximity at Ballynoe were likely indicators of the presence of a medieval village and the Civil Survey also notes that there was a mill nearby. However, this small urban centre was not to survive and by the early nineteenth century a new village had taken hold two kilometres to the north at Knockaderry, no doubt helped by the granting of a patent to John Jephson in 1710 to hold regular fairs in the village. Sean Liston points out that the combination of an important road junction between Dromcolliher, Newcastle West, and Rathkeale and the centre for a quarterly fair were the likely catalysts for the growth of a village at Knockaderry, and by 1841 there were seventy-one houses in the village (Liston, 10).
Regarding the records of the Catholic Church, in 1704, Hugh Conway, who lived at Gortnacreha was registered as a Catholic priest for Clouncagh, Clonelty, and Grange. During the early nineteenth century, the parish was divided with James Quillinan in charge of the Cloncagh side, and Denis O’Brien, parish priest of the Knockaderry side. When Quillinan died in 1853, O’Brien became parish priest of both sections of the parish (Begley, 630).
Clouncagh and Cloncagh seem to be interchangeable to this day on official documents and on signposts. According to Donal Begley, a native of Clouncagh who was Chief Herald of Ireland for 13 years until he retired in June 1995,
The civil parish or state parish is written as ‘Cloncagh’, and under this form are classified such records as census and valuation returns. In short ‘Clouncagh’ designated the Catholic parish and ‘Cloncagh’ the civil or state or Protestant parish (Donal Begley, 20).
In 1789 much of Knockaderry village was burned down when a candle set fire to some straw and the flames spread to neighbouring buildings. No lives were lost (Begley, 94).
In 1806 Knockaderry Parish had 450 houses and 84 Baptisms were recorded during the year.
The Census of 1821 records a population for Knockaderry Parish of 3,328, including 253 pupils at pay Hedge Schools. Pattern Day in Clouncagh was on St. Patrick’s Day.
During the Rockite Insurrection in 1822, the Knockaderry district was very much disturbed. On the night of Saturday 23 February 1822, a house was set on fire by the Whiteboys in Lissaniska and burned to the ground. Such was the lawless state of this part of the county that a letter in the Limerick Chronicle on 27th February from a correspondent near Rathkeale which was timed and dated at 9pm on Tuesday 26 February 1822 reported; ‘We are now at this moment looking out of the windows and are illuminated with houses on fire all about the country’.
The era of the hedge school phenomenon in Ireland was between 1750 and 1875. Hedge schools were the only means available to the Catholic population for the education of their children during this period. Generally speaking, these schools were sited in discreet locations. There is evidence to suggest that in the year 1824 here were three pay Hedge Schools recorded in the parish by an official report. Two in Knockaderry run by John Mulcahy and John O’Callaghan and one in Clouncagh run by Edward Conway which was located, according to Donal Begley, in the corner of ‘Hartnett’s Field’ on the Begley farm. The three schools had a total enrolment of 228. The first ‘official’ school in the parish assisted by the Board of Commissioners of National Education was established in the year 1832. This school was located in the village of Knockaderry and John O’Callaghan was appointed headmaster of the Boys’ School and Amelia O’Callaghan, his daughter, was appointed as mistress of the Girls’ school. John Croke, a relation of Archbishop Thomas Croke, the first patron of the GAA and after whom Croke Park is named, set up a hedge school in Clouncagh around 1850. William McCann and his family offered him a thatched house and local children such as the Aireys, the Baggots, the Begleys, the Hartnetts, the Hickeys, the Quaids, and the Walls made their daily trek to sit at the feet of Master Croke. The school flourished until the arrival of the first purpose-built national school which opened its doors in Ahalin in May 1867. After this, the school suffered a gradual decline although it continued to operate until the death of John Croke circa 1885.
During the nineteenth century, Knockaderry was a major centre for fairs in the district. Fairs were held on Ascension Day, 9th September, 29th October, and 19th December. Samuel Lewis in 1837 described the village as being on the road to Ballingarry ‘containing fifty-eight small and indifferently built houses’ (Lewis, 101).
Knockaderry village was the scene of many faction fights in the 1830s. These fights generally occurred on fair day when long-tailed families in the community met in combat on the main street of the village. These altercations were fuelled by alcohol. The major faction in the area was the Curtins who were joined on occasion by the Haughs and Mulcahys who fought the Connors’, Longs, and Lenihans. Some of the factions could muster large numbers to appear for them. On the 12th of September 1835, a report in the Limerick Chronicle stated that the Connors factions numbering three to four hundred strong paraded the main street of the village. The Curtins who were few in number withdrew.
In 1836 there was another Outrage Report of a riot that occurred between rival factions at the Knockaderry Fair held on Ascension Thursday. The opposing factions were named as The Three-Year-Olds and The Four-Year-Olds!!
During the 1830s the payment of tithes for the support of the Protestant Church was an issue that caused much tension among the Catholic community and this occasionally led to violence. On the 16th of May 1838, an Outrage Report for County Limerick stated that at Carrowmore, Cloncagh, two men serving tithe processes were surrounded and attacked by a large number of ‘country people’ and were badly beaten. This unrest followed largely as a consequence of the passing into law of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 by the British Parliament. Writing in an article for the Knockaderry Clouncagh Parish Annual in 1990, Canon T. J. Lyons P.P. remarked:
The results of the passing of the Act were quickly acted upon in County Limerick. In Knockaderry and Clouncagh priests and people quickly organised themselves to build two churches, one in Knockaderry and one in Clouncagh. Fr Denis O’Brien opened and dedicated Knockaderry new church to St Munchin in 1838 and Fr Quillinan opened and dedicated Clouncagh church to the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1840.
On the night of January 6th, 1839, The Night of The Big Wind, the roof was blown off the old timber Mass House in Clouncagh. Within a year this Mass House had been replaced with a new church, St. Mary’s, which was officially opened in Clouncagh in 1840. John Cregan, who was reputed to be the last native Irish speaker in Gortnacrehy, was born on this night during the storm.
In the spring of 1839, a shortage of fuel manifested itself in the district following poor weather the previous autumn. According to the Outrage Reports County Limerick near Knockaderry village on the 21st of March 1839, 150 men and boys organised themselves and took matters into their own hands when they cut down and took away two acres of furze the property of Robert Quaid.
In 1840, the important minor gentry in the parish were D’Arcy Evans of Knockaderry House, James Sullivan of Chesterfield House, the Meade family of Dromin House, Dromin Deel, and the Fitzgerald family of Moviddy. D’Arcy Evans was the largest resident landlord holding 918 acres. Almost seventy percent of the land was held by absentee landlords, such as Lord Clare and the Earl of Devon who were the largest landowners in the parish with 1,629 and 1,208 acres respectively. An analysis of the Tithe Applotment Books in the 1830s shows that the holdings of tenants ranged from less than an acre to several hundred acres with the average size being thirty-two acres. Many people lived in poverty at the lower end of the social scale with ninety labourers recorded as having less than five acres (Liston, 19, 29, 30).
In the Summer of 1840 the parish was surveyed by a team led by the renowned scholar, Dr. John O’Donovan as part of the Ordnance Survey National 6” Map series. They recorded the antiquities, and the topographical features and settled on a definitive version of the various townland names which were to appear on the eventual maps produced by the survey teams. O’Donovan spent July and August 1840 in Limerick and he signed off on his work on the parish of Clonelty and Clouncagh on 25 July 1840. He was assisted in his work in Limerick by Padraig Ó Caoimh and Antaine Ó Comhraí.
O’Donovan records numerous landlords and ‘sundry Gentlemen’ owning the various townlands in the former parish of Clonelty: Aughalin with its 565 statute acres was the property of Robert Featherston who also owned extensive lands and property in Bruree, County Limerick; Ballybrown was the property of Thomas Locke, Esq.; Ballynoe was the property of the Court of Exchequer; the Glebe of Knockaderry was the property of James Darcy Evans and Knockaderry itself in 1840 was the property of Major Sullivan under James Darcy Evans; Kiltanna with its 370 acres was the property of Wellington Rose, Esq.; Rathfredagh was the property of Thomas Cullinan; Lissaniska East was the property of Lord Chief Baron O’Grady while Lissaniska West was the property of Thomas Locke, Esq.
The Census of 1841 records the population of the three civil parishes as Grange: 708; Clonelty: 1437; and Clouncagh: 1389. 52% of parishioners were living in one-room mud cabins.
The Great Famine struck the parish between the years of 1845 and 1847and many were forced to enter workhouses. Many died of famine fever and many others are forced to emigrate. The Census of 1851 records the population of the three civil parishes of Grange, Clonelty, and Cloncagh as Grange: 490; Clonelty: 942; Cloncagh: 872. Overall, in the civil parishes of Clonelty, Grange, and Cloncagh during the decade of the Great Famine from 1841 to 1851, the population fell from 3,524 to 2,686. The 1851 returns also included 382 females in an Auxiliary or Temporary Workhouse which was located in Knockaderry House. Ignoring the workhouse returns the population loss was thirty-five percent.
The Census of 1851 records that the population of Knockaderry village stayed fairly steady falling slightly from 366 to 346. This figure stands in stark contrast to the neglected state of the village today with a population no higher than fifty people. The Census also records that 50% of the surviving population were Irish speakers or at least had some knowledge of the Irish language. This figure, rather than being a positive figure illustrated the success of efforts to eradicate the Irish language from common discourse in the locality, mainly through the efforts of the national school system.
Begley, Donal. John O’Byrne Croke: Life and Times of a Clouncagh Scholar. Private publication, Modern Printers, Kilkenny, 2018.
Begley, Rev. John. The Diocese of Limerick from 1691 to the Present Time. (Vol III), Browne and Nolan, Dublin, 1938.
Curtin, Gerard. EveryField Had a Name: The Place-names of West Limerick, Sliabh Luachra Historical Society, 2012.
Irwin, Liam. The Diocese of Limerick: An Illustrated History, ed. David Bracken, 2013.
Lewis, Samuel. A History and Topography of Limerick City and County. Mercier Press: Dublin and Cork, 1980.
Liston, Sean. ‘The Community of Grange, Clonelty and Cloncagh, 1805-1845’ unpublished M.A. in History and Local Studies Thesis, University of Limerick, 2001, pp 19,29,30.
Simmington, Robert C., The Civil Survey, County of Limerick, Volume IV, Published by the Stationery Office, Dublin, 1938.
Stout, Geraldine, and Matthew. ‘Early Landscapes from Prehistory to Plantation’, in F.H.A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout (eds), Atlas of Irish Rural Landscape, (Cork, 1997).
We are on the final countdown to the Éigse Michael Hartnett Festivalfor 2022! There is a wide-ranging programme of events between workshops, poetry readings, music, exhibitions, film, book launches, street entertainment, and even a bus tour!
We’ve had some events already with the young people in the town in the schools and the youth organisations. Colm Keegan has conducted workshops in creative writing in SMI and in Desmond College and the results of their labours will be on view during the Festival weekend.
Aileen Nix, a local artist, has been working with the local Foróige group in town to produce lanterns for the opening parade.
Edward O’Dwyer also worked with the Foróige group and their poems will be on display around town.
The idea of the Éigse is to recognise Michael Hartnett’s genius and to celebrate his life and his poetry. As you know he died in 1999 at the age of 58 and there has been an annual Éigse every year since – even during Covid we went online and kept it going.
This year we are proud to announce that thanks to the generosity of Limerick City and County Council we have been able to increase the value of the annual Michael Hartnett Poetry Award to €8,000 and we are delighted that Eleanor Hooker from Dromineer on the shores of Lough Derg is this year’s deserving winner of the prestigious award.
We received great news yesterday with the confirmation that the recently acquired portrait of Hartnett by Edward McGuire which is now in the City Gallery will be on display in Newcastle West for the opening of this year’s Éigse.
We kick things off on Thursday the 6th of October at 7.00pm in the Square with a rousing street performance by The Hit Machine Drummers, a kilted brotherhood of rhythmic warriors who enthrall and entertain with dynamic, captivating drumming. They will lead us in a lantern parade with members of the Foroige Youth Club in Newcastle West. The parade will leave the Square and travel down Hartnett’s beloved Maiden Street to the Council Offices down near the Longcourt House Hotel. There this year’s Éigse will be officially opened by the Lord Mayor, Francis Foley who will present this year’s poetry prize to Eleanor Hooker. Other special guests on the night will be Gerard Stembridge and music from Brian Hartnett.
On Friday the 7th we begin bright and early with a poetry reading by Eleanor Hooker which takes place upstairs in Marguerites at 11am.
This is followed by lunch with Mark Patrick Hederman former Abbott and Headmaster in Glenstal at 1.00pm at the Desmond Complex, where a light lunch will be served to accompany a reading from Dr. Hederman’s recently published works including Crimson and Gold: Life as a Limerick.
The evening events at the Longcourt House Hotel start at 6.00pm with a belated book launch that fell victim to Covid in 2020. Keith McCoy will be reading from his debut novel Hello Larry Barry and from his recently published second novel TheJude Crew. Both novels are set in Newcastle West although The Jude Crew spreads its wings a bit wider.
At 8pm in The Longcourt House Hotel, we have a fantastic poetry reading by two former Michael Hartnett award winners Kerry Hardie and Peter Sirr who were also our judges this year for the Michael Hartnett Poetry Award. The reading will be followed by live music from cellist Núria Vizcaino Estrada from Barcelona and currently studying for her MA in Classical String Performance in UL.
Also on Friday at 8.00pm you can enjoy two film screenings over at the Desmond Complex in partnership with Newcastle West Film Club and Askeaton Contemporary Arts. Based on the novel Foster by Claire Keegan, An Cailín Ciúin, is the acclaimed award -winning Irish-language film that has broken all Irish box office records this year. This will be followed by Seanie Barron: Only in Askeaton, a short film that dips into the life and work of wood artist Seanie Barron and examples of his work will also be on exhibition at the Red Door Gallery throughout the weekend.
Saturday the 8th begins at the Desmond Complex with the annual Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture at 11am. This year the lecture is being given by Historian and former Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland, Caitriona Crowe. Caitriona will deliver the lecture on: How did Ireland do in its decade of centenaries? So, the lecture should be very thought-provoking and I’m looking forward to that.
This will be followed at 1.30pm by music and memories of Hartnett from uilleann piper and former RTE producer Peter Browne. He has some great stories to tell about being on tour with Michael Hartnett back in the 80s.
We are particularly happy this year to be taking the Festival outside NCW in partnership with the Kileedy Development Association and to acknowledge the wonderful work and community building going on in Raheenagh. So, at 3 p.m. the Hartnett Bus Tour will depart from the Desmond Complex taking in Camas, home of Michael Hartnett’s grandmother Bridget Halpin, whom he immortalised in his beautiful poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’. Then it’s on to the Poet’s Corner at Killeedy Eco-Park and finishing with tea and tunes at the Tigh Cheoil in Ashford.
Saturday evening’s events will begin with a reading from author Mary Costello at 8.00pm at the Longcourt House. She will be reading from her short story collection, The China Factory (2012), and her two novels Academy Street (2014), and The River Capture (2019) which was shortlisted for many awards.
The reading will be followed by live music from Mick Hanly who needs no introduction to Limerick audiences. He is one of our foremost singer/songwriters, and of course, Mick was born and reared in Limerick. We expect a big crowd in The Longcourt House Hotel next Saturday night.
Salad Sunday is a new addition to the Éigse Michael Hartnett programme for 2022 and celebrates one of Michael Hartnett’s most amusing poems, The Balad of Salad Sunday, which pokes fun at an incident in Newcastle West back in the early 80s.
Salad Sunday is intended as a fun, entertaining event for the community and will take place in the Square, the Red Door Gallery, and the Desmond Complex. Seamus Hennessy will be the MC for the events in the Square and there should be plenty of buskers and food stalls – so come along and enjoy the craic – hopefully, the weather holds up!!
Our final two events of the weekend are the launch of two new books: Gabriel Fitzmaurice is launching the new edition of Farewell to Poetry and Tom Moloney is launching his first collection of short stories called Overcoming the Joy and Other Yearnings. Both take place at 1.00pm and 1.30pm respectively at the Desmond Complex.
As you can see it’s a full programme with something for everyone young and old, so we hope you can join us over the weekend.
Many of the events are free but some need to be booked on Eventbrite although money will also be taken at the door. Check out our website http://www.eigsemichaelhartnett.ie for up-to-date details of all the events.
Éigse committee 2022: Vicki Nash, Norma Prendeville, Rachel Lenihan, John Cussen, Rose Liston, Rossa McMahon, Mary Carroll, and Vincent Hanley
In the fouled water, with fork and four-pronged grape
Pitching out sheaves like half-gone carcasses.
They spread it dripping, then, flat on the grass
To crisp and dry hard in the summer sun
Until it could be stooked up, stiff as broom
And whistling in the wind. Toughened to sticks,
The stems were milled, spun, woven into fabrics.
The dam was cleared, poured down into the river
Its poisonous bellyful. “Lint water”
It was called. Across the stream it swirled brown froth
That scummed clean stone and sickened fish to death;
And if the drains were blocked, it still seeped down,
Filtering unseen contamination.
Putrid currents floated trout to the loch,
Their bellies white as linen tablecloths.
This poem was first published in The Times Literary Supplement on August 5th, 1965. Despite being a strong contender for inclusion in his first collection, Heaney seems to have opted instead for a very similar poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ after which his first collection is named. The language of the poem, while on the surface appearing to be very matter-of-fact and factual, is loaded with allegorical undertones. Words used to describe the flax dam, ‘rotten eggs’, ‘stink’, ‘decaying’, ‘poisonous’, ‘unseen contamination’, and ‘putrid currents’, are really intended to describe the dysfunctional nature of politics in the North of Ireland. Heaney goes into much more detail here in this poem and the rotting flax is weighed down with ‘stones and sods’ which stands for the violence and coercion he has experienced as a young boy and man.
This poem, therefore, is not as innocent as it seems at first reading. However, it does show early signs of an author who has found a way to illustrate the myriad tensions of his native province before the inevitable meltdown in the late 60s occurred. Unlike other ‘innocent’ poems from his early collections, there is a harsher more jarring approach here in this poem and yet, like much of his earlier poetry, the poem truly reflects his upbringing in Mossbawn and Annahorish. His use of allusion and his reference to the dying rural crafts such as that of the flax farmer, the farrier, the diviner, the ploughman, and his respect for those who worked in the bog is to the fore here also. So, we can see here the germ of an approach that would allow Heaney, in collections such as North and Wintering Out, to explain his unique predicament to an often oblivious and naive world audience.
I have been posting notes here for some years now since I retired as a teacher of English and as an Advising Examiner for English Higher Level for many years. What I have done here is bring all those links together in one post or blog to save you the trouble of constantly searching the internet each time you want to do some background work on a text or a poet or author. It’s my version of a ‘One-Stop Shop’ and you know the drill: just click on the link! My choice of texts is personal and obviously will not suit every teacher, every student, or every class. You can easily see where my own preferences lie by simply viewing the number of links provided for each text or poet!
YEATS SAID OF HIS OWN POETRY THAT IT WAS ‘BUT THE CONSTANT STITCHING AND RESTITCHING OF OLD THEMES’. CHECK THIS OUT FOR YOURSELF!
YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL.
However, Caveat Emptor! Leaving Cert Student Beware !! These are resources that you should use wisely. They are personal responses to the various texts and you should read and consider them if you find them useful. IN OTHER WORDS, MAKE YOUR OWN OF THEM, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT. ALSO, YOU MIGHT SPREAD THE WORD, DON’T KEEP THEM ALL TO YOURSELF!
All the perversions of the soul I learnt on a small farm. How to do the neighbours harm by magic, how to hate. I was abandoned to their tragedies, minor but unhealing: bitterness over boggy land, casual stealing of crops, venomous cardgames across swearing tables, a little music on the road, a little peace in decrepit stables. Here were rosarybeads, a bleeding face, the glinting doors that did encase their cutler needs, their plates, their knives, the cracked calendars of their lives.
I was abandoned to their tragedies and began to count the birds, to deduct secrets in the kitchen cold and to avoid among my nameless weeds the civil war of that household.
Taken from Collected Poems 2001, Gallery Press – (Collection reprinted 2009)
The ‘small farm’ referred to in this poem is that of his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, formerly Bridget Roche. According to parish records in Abbeyfeale, she married Michael Halpin from Camas, near Newcastle West, in Abbeyfeale Church on February 28th 1911 in what was, by all accounts, ‘a made match’ between both families and she then came to live in Camas where the Halpins owned a small farm of ten acres three roods and 13 perches.
This woman, Bridget Halpin, would later wield great influence over her young grandson Michael Hartnett. Indeed, if we are to believe the poet, she was the one who first affirmed his poetic gift when one day he ran into her kitchen in Camas and told her that a nest of young wrens had alighted on his head. Her reply to him was, ‘Aha, You’re going to be a poet!’. Hartnett claimed that he spent much of his early childhood in Bridget Halpin’s cottage in the rural townland of Camas four miles from his home in nearby Newcastle West. He went on to immortalise this woman in many of his poems but especially in his beautiful poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’. This quiet townland of Camas is seen as central to his development as a poet and maybe in time, this early association with Camas will be given its rightful importance and the little rural townland will vie with Maiden Street or Inchicore as one of Hartnett’s important formative places.
In subsequent years, Michael Halpin and his wife Bridget had six children, Josie, Mary, Peg, Denis, Bridget (later to be Michael Hartnett’s mother) and Ita. Unfortunately, Michael Halpin died in September 1920 at the age of 44 approx. having succumbed to pneumonia. In a heartbreaking twist of fate, his daughter Ita was born seven months later on 23rd March 1921. Bridget Halpin was now left with the care of her six young children and their ailing grandmother, Johanna. Johanna Halpin (née Browne) died in Camus on 18th June 1921 aged 80 years of age.
Bridget Halpin’s plight was now stark and the harshness of her existence is often alluded to in her grandson’s poems which feature her. The cottage which was little more than a three-roomed thatched mud cabin built of stone and yellow mud collapsed around 1926. The whole family were taken in, in an extraordinary gesture of neighbourliness, by their neighbour Con Kiely until a new cottage was built a short distance away. The family moved into their new home in 1931 and this is the structure that still stands today. According to Michael Hartnett this cottage, and especially the mud cabin which preceded it, was renowned as a ‘Rambling House’, a cottage steeped in history, music, song, dance, cardplaying and storytelling. Hartnett would have us believe that it was from the loft in this cottage that he began to pick up his first words of Irish from his grandmother and her cronies as they gathered to play cards or tell tall tales. (A more detailed genealogy of the Halpin family and the early formative influences on Michael Hartnett can be read here).
The poem ‘A Small Farm’, the first poem of the Collected Poems (2001), creates a delicate balance between description and abstraction. Students of Hartnett’s poetry should consider studying this poem as one of a series of poems that he wrote celebrating his grandmother, Bridget Halpin and the townland of Camas where she lived. The most obvious of these poems is ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ which he wrote on the passing of his grandmother in 1965. Others include, ‘For My Grandmother Bridget Halpin’, and ‘Mrs Halpin and the Lightning’. Abstractions, clichés, their representation through language, metaphors and the moment where these are drawn into focus, made specific and immediate, are central to these poems. ‘A Small Farm’ is a natural development and shows a more mature, confident and surer treatment of this place than the earlier ‘Camas Road’.
‘Camas Road’, Michael Hartnett’s first published work, appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955. He was thirteen. The poem describes 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’ (A Book of Strays 67). Its two eight-line stanzas of alternating rhyme and regular metre contain a litany of natural images, at times idiosyncratically rendered; the ‘timid hare sits in the ditch’, ‘the soft lush hay that grows in fields’. It is a peculiar mix of a poem, apparent images from both the poet’s lived and literary experience placed side by side. It is contentedly denotative, creating a sense of ease and oneness with the natural world. The movement of sunrise to sunset is perpetually peaceful, its colours oils for the young poet’s palette. The ruminative introspective which elevates Kavanagh’s, ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, a poem which can be read in useful parallel to ‘Camas Road’, is not present. At the poem’s turn, as ‘Dark shadows fall o’er land so still’, Hartnett’s only thought and action are of flattened description, the creation of ‘this ode’.
‘Camas Road’ then, though essentially a curio which stands outside of Hartnett’s body of work, can be read as a seldom afforded snapshot of Michael Hartnett the poet before he became one. In contrast, his poem ‘A Small Farm’ shows a marked development in his poetic craft. It is well recorded and documented, especially by Hartnett himself, that he spent much of his childhood in his grandmother’s smallholding of ‘ten acres three roods and 13 perches’ in rural Camas about four miles outside Newcastle West and about one mile from the now vibrant village of Raheenagh. Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, lived there with her son, Denis (Dinny Halpin), in what Hartnett describes as a prolonged state of ‘civil war’,
I was abandoned to their tragedies,
Minor but unhealing.
The word ‘abandoned’ here has many undertones and is important for the poet because he repeats the line twice in the poem. He has told us elsewhere that he was, in effect, ‘fostered out’ by his parents in Maiden Street, Newcastle West to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, from a young age and spent much of his childhood in her cottage in Camas. However, there is also the suggestion that while there he was ‘abandoned’ and somewhat neglected as he became an outsider, an unwilling observer in the ‘civil war’ of the household, as Bridget and her son Dinny constantly argued and fought over the minutiae of running a small farm in difficult times in the Ireland of the late 40s and early 50s.
Hartnett saw in his grandmother a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseógs of the countryside. For Hartnett, there is also the added heartache that sees his grandmother struggling to come to terms with a lost language that has been cruelly taken from her. This, therefore, is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn. However, there is underlying paganism here that is absent from Kavanagh’s work.
For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, and limited knowledge of the laws of physics, and therefore, as he points out in ‘Mrs Halpin and the Thunder’,
Her fear was not the simple fear of one
who does not know the source of thunder:
these were the ancient Irish gods
she had deserted for the sake of Christ.
However, Hartnett’s powers of observation and intuition were honed in Camas on Bridget Halpin’s small farm during his frequent visits. He tells us that he learnt much on that small farm during those lean years in the forties and early fifties,
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm,
how to do the neighbours harm
by magic, how to hate.
The struggle to make a success and eke out a living was a constant struggle and burden. The begrudgery of neighbours, the ‘bitterness over boggy land’, and the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’. The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but Hartnett does not name this place, it is an Everyplace. The poem is simply titled, “A Small Farm” so there is no Inniskeen, Drummeril, or Black Shanco here but the harshness and brutality of existence, ‘the cracked calendars / of their lives’ in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh. Yet, it is here in Camas that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and, like Kavanagh, it was here that ‘The first gay flight of my lyric / Got caught in a peasant’s prayer’. And so, to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ them, turns his back on them, and begins to notice the birds and the weeds and the grasses,
I was abandoned to their tragedies
and began to count the birds,
to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold,
and to avoid among my nameless weeds
the civil war of that household.
In this final stanza, Hartnett makes an explicit link between his awakening as a perceiver of social interactions and moments of poetic beauty, with a growing knowledge and identification with the natural world about him. The attentive intellect that ‘counts the birds’, has as yet no language to describe or express his experience of the natural world, his ‘nameless weeds’. Still, he is possessive of it, seeing it as distinct from human society which he can describe, yet does not identify with.
Later in, “For My Grandmother, Bridget Halpin”, he again alludes to the wildness, the paganism, the piseógs that surrounded him during his childhood in Camas. His grandmother’s worldview is almost feral. She looks to the landscape and the birds for information about the weather or impending events,
A bird’s hover,
seabird, blackbird, or bird of prey,
was rain, or death, or lost cattle.
This poorly educated woman reads the landscape and the skies as one would read a book,
The day’s warning, like red plovers
so etched and small the clouded sky,
was book to you, and true bible.
The picture of the farm is rather etched out in generalisation and aphorism, and through the accordant clichés of petty hatred and ignorance, ‘how to do the neighbours harm / by magic, how to hate’, before Hartnett brings the glass into focus, employing idiosyncratic detail which establishes the world of the poem itself. As already mentioned, the cottage on this small farm was a Rambling House, a house where neighbours gathered to tell stories, play music and card games,
venomous card games
across swearing tables
His early poetry, then, creates a delicate balance between description and abstraction, the actual and the figurative. In this way, Hartnett’s particular subjectivity, his way of seeing, is established. In time it would become his poetic currency. We are invited into the quintessentially old traditional Irish kitchen with its pictures of the Pope, the Sacred Heart, the statue of Our Lady, the Crucifix,
Here were rosary beads,
a bleeding face,
the glinting doors that did encase their cutler needs,
their plates, their knives, the cracked calendars of their lives
In this poem, therefore, Hartnett is following on from Kavanagh in shining a light into the domestic and interior life of rural dwellers not previously considered worthy of attention. Bridget Halpin’s ‘small farm’ in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris but it helped produce one of Ireland’s leading poets of any century. The influences absorbed in this rural setting, his powers of observation, his knowledge of wildlife and flowers, his ecocentric bias, are impressive and are all-pervasive in his poetry. Without prejudice, it also has to be said that he demonstrates a deeper knowledge of all local flora and fauna than could be reasonably expected of a ‘townie’ from Maiden Street or Assumpta Park!
Indeed, Hartnett, the quintessential nature poet, would be delighted to see the magnificent new recently developed Kileedy Eco Park which has been set up less than a mile from his ‘foster’ home in Camas by the combined efforts of the local community in Kileedy. It is also significant that the visionary developers of this project have included a Poet’s Corner where Hartnett is remembered just a stone’s throw from the small farm of his formative years. Here today’s generation can now come to ‘count the birds’ and the ‘nameless weeds’.
Hanley, Don. ‘The Ecocentric Element in Michael Hartnett’s Poetry: Referentiality, Authenticity, Place’, MA in Irish Writing and Film, UCC, 2016.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, editor Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, 2001. Reprinted 2009 and 2012.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, editor Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, 2002. Reprinted 2015.
The author would also like to acknowledge the voluminous background information received from Joe Dore, Michael Hartnett’s first cousin and inheritor of Bridget Halpin’s ‘small farm’ of ten acres three roods and thirteen perches.
Claire Keegan’s much anticipated new novella is framed by two historical events: an excerpt from The Proclamation of the Irish Republic which declared the resolve of the signatories, ‘to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.’ The second historical event is the fulsome apology made in the Dáil in 2013 by the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny admitting to the State’s abject failure to follow through on its earlier solemn promise.
In January 2021 further apologies were issued following the publication of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into some of the Mother and Baby Homes. It concluded that ‘for decades, Irish society was defined by its silence, and, in that, its complicity in what was done to some of our most vulnerable citizens.’ In television and radio interviews Taoiseach Michéal Martin repeated the idea that as a nation we all shared in the blame. It seems to me that Keegan has taken that idea to heart and in Small Things Like These her hero, Bill Furlong, shoulders this heavy responsibility on our behalf in an exercise of ‘what might have been’.
The treatment of women and young girls in the Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes was horrendous and no amount of redress or restitution or official report can assuage it. One of the most notorious of those institutions was Sean Ross Abbey outside Roscrea in County Tipperary. It opened its doors in 1931 closed in 1969 and was run by the nuns of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. One of the 6,414 admitted there to have her baby was Philomena Lee from Newcastle West in County Limerick. Her baby son was forcibly taken from her and adopted by US parents in the 1950s. Her experience in Sean Ross was later turned into the award-winning film, Philomena.
Ironically, or maybe not so knowing Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These is set in New Ross (as opposed to Sean Ross – the word ‘sean’ in Irish means ‘old’). We get the weather, the season, the name of the town, the River Barrow ‘dark as stout’. It is ‘raw cold’ and relentlessly bleak in the lead up to Christmas 1985 and “chimneys threw out smoke which fell away and drifted off in hairy, drawn-out strings”. The country is in the grip of recession and everyone is struggling to make ends meet. Many businesses are closing and being boarded up; redundancies are common even in large firms such as Albatross. Those still in business are walking a tight rope and carrying out delicate balancing acts each working day.
The setting is Dickensian in many ways and despite being set in 1985 it does have a much earlier feel to it – for me, it is closer to the Ireland of the 50s and 60s. Bill Furlong, the main protagonist, has been raised on Dickens – he received a copy of A Christmas Carol from Mrs. Wilson one Christmas and learns to read using the book as a guide. When asked by his wife Eileen what he wants for Christmas he asks for a Walter Mackin novel or maybe David Copperfield. This novella has many of the Dickensian traits of a morality tale and if you look closely, and if you are wise you will, you will also hear echoes of McGahern’s love of small details in That They May Face the Rising Sun.
It is a story we think we know well. Claire Keegan sets it in 1985 to give us a jolt into realizing that the Magdalen Laundries, and the wrongful incarceration of women, is not something shameful from another century but is still a reality in Haughey’s Ireland. Small Things Like These is yet another attempt to shine a light on an awful period in our collective history. Despite its extreme brevity, it is insightful and written with a striking economy of language; it is, in fact, a tightly edited narrative of fear, uncertainty, hope, heroism and love.
Keegan captures a particular time and place, while also setting out the pitfalls that lie ahead. Furlong and his wife Eileen have just enough money to keep their family going. Many of their customers can’t afford to settle accounts. The wealthier ones, such as the priest and the local convent, are a lifeline. The Christmas envelope from the Good Shepherd nuns, one of Furlong’s biggest accounts, is anticipated and appreciated. Eileen is a great character, not quite shrewish, but canny and practical, a mé-féin mentality that represents the community as a whole. Her motto is, “Stay on the right side of people and soldier on”. She tells her husband that it is “only people with no children that can afford to be careless,” a line that has stunning resonance in a book about the laundries.
Bill Furlong sells ‘coal, turf, anthracite, slack and logs’ and is the kind of man who lies awake at night reflecting on the small things. He is plagued by doubts about his own humble origins and almost feels like an imposter because of his good fortune and his success in business.
Furlong has a wife and five daughters to support. Like the rest of the town, he has plenty of worries, but over the course of this short novel, it is his concern for the welfare of strangers that sets him apart. His wife, Eileen, chides him because he gives away the change out of his pockets to the young boy of the Sinnots. He feels that he has been consigned to knock on doors, particularly back doors, to see into warm, homely kitchens and well-to-do sitting rooms while also witnessing at first hand the poverty and misery brought about by the economic recession.
Furlong is 39, and is a hero in the classical sense, flawed, uneasy, and afraid, but ultimately noble. He goes quietly about his business, in much the same way as John Kinsella does in Keegan’s earlier novel, Foster. The trouble that Furlong faces is introduced incrementally after we’ve gotten to know his world. His first meeting with the Mother Superior of the convent is all smoke and mirrors, beautifully choreographed by the author. The dialogue is full of tension and ice. The nun remarks on his daughter Joan’s participation in the local choir: “She doesn’t look out of place.” The words that go unsaid linger.
Essentially, however, he is a good man who will no longer stand by and see evil triumph – he gradually steels himself, despite being aware of the possible consequences, and eventually, he heroically takes a stand. Mrs. Kehoe and her distinctly Irish aphorisms are an example of the insidious pressure being applied by the people of the town when they sense that Furlong may be about to break ranks. She and the other townspeople have long been complicit in allowing the situation in the local convent to continue. Her attitude is like Heaney’s ‘whatever you say, say nothing’:
Tis no affair of mine, you understand but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there? Keep the enemy close, the bad dog with you and the good dog will not bite. You know yourself.
The cumulative effect of these pieces of advice is to show the silent complicity of all in the town, and the fear which has them all browbeaten into subservience.
It is possible to see that there are many similarities between Claire Keegan’s earlier novel, Foster, and Small Things Like These. Both are set in the South East of Ireland and while the sun shines continually in Foster, here the weather is anything but benign,
‘And then the nights came on and the frosts took hold again, and blades of cold slid under the doors and cut the knees off those who still knelt to say the rosary’.
For me, personally, the idea of people kneeling as a family to say the rosary in Ireland in 1985 is jarring and not credible. Both novellas have very strong male protagonists and indeed there are many comparisons that can be made between John Kinsella in Foster and Bill Furlong in Small Things Like These. Interestingly, the young girl who is fostered out to the Kinsellas in Foster lives in Clonegal while the young girl in this novel, Sarah Redmond, also hails from ‘Clonegal out past Kildavin’.
There are many unusual images throughout the novel – one of the early chapters begins, “It was a December of crows.” Later, Furlong again encounters these crows and he describes them as ‘dapper’,
‘striding along, inspecting the ground and their surroundings with their wings tucked in, putting Furlong in mind of the young curate who liked to walk about town with his hands behind his back’.
There is another troubling image used earlier when Furlong describes the level of poverty in the town:
And early one morning, Furlong had seen a young schoolboy drinking the milk out of the cat’s bowl behind the priest’s house.
Indeed, and I am saddened to say this, it seems to me that priests and nuns are caricatured here as malign and evil characters like ogres of old. I fear that this will be their lot in Irish literature for some time to come not least as a result of their role in the Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Home debacle. Meanwhile, it seems the State has escaped the same level of opprobrium and has come away relatively unscathed.
Local politicians are on hand to lighten the gloom and arrive to ceremoniously turn on the Christmas lights in early December. In my mind’s eye, I visualized Michael Darcy or Brendan Howlin, or even Brendan Corish “wearing his brasses over a Crombie coat”.
Keegan uses another unusual image near the end as Furlong approaches the convent with its foreboding high walls topped with broken glass to repel intruders or maybe to deter those wishing to escape:
Turning a corner, he came across a black cat eating from the carcass of a crow, licking her lips.
The enigmatic Ned tells Furlong of a strange incident where he was giving a neighbour hay from Mrs. Wilson’s barn until one night, ‘something that wasn’t human, an ugly thing with no hands came out of the ditch, and blocked me – and that put an end to me stealing Mrs. Wilson’s hay.’
I hope I haven’t given away too many details, particularly of the cloistered world of the convent as this would spoil your enjoyment of the novel. And, believe you me, it is an essential stocking filler this Christmas.
The ending to this novel is not a fairytale happy-ever-after one. Indeed, as we approach the end we sense that Furlong’s troubles are just about to begin. We are encouraged to brood on the consequences of Furlong’s action. Keegan presumes that we too know how things work in our little Republic so we come away from the novel fearful for his family, his business:
The worst was yet to come, he knew. Already he could feel a world of trouble waiting for him behind the next door, but the worst that could have happened was also already behind him; the thing not done, which could have been – which he would have had to live with for the rest of his life.
To say that this new novel by Claire Keegan is long-awaited is an understatement. However, I would caution against believing all you read in the pre-publication reviews which are universally positive and exaggerated in their praise of her new novella. Small Things Like These will, however, follow the earlier Foster onto school syllabi and will be studied by generations of our young people in the coming years. It will hopefully help them answer this deceptively simple question relating to Ireland’s past: “Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?”
Rebel Acts: Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague and Michael Hartnett
The Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture, 2 October 2021
I have always been interested in the fact that Ireland’s era of supreme literary achievement – the time of Yeats and Joyce – coincided with its age of political transformation in the opening decades of the 20th century. This has given me an interest in what I call ‘history poems’, poetry that addresses issues of a political or societal nature.
Was this really a coincidence, or was the flowering of Irish literature in the first third of the 20th century somehow bound up with Ireland’s torrid escape from external rule in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Were Irish literature and early 20th century Irish history two sides of the same coin?
During my student days in Cork, I was friendly with a number of up-and-coming poets who emerged there under the guidance of John Montague, who taught English at UCC. I refer to Tom McCarthy, Sean Dunne, Theo Dorgan and Pat Crotty. Although I could never write a line of verse myself as I do not have the gift or the courage for self-revelation of the kind that good poetry requires, I had an interest in poetry. It was through that interest that I met Michael Hartnett briefly when he came to UCC to do a reading there in the mid-1970s.
That was about the time when ‘A Farewell to English’ was published and I was intrigued by his caustic evocation of the ‘paradise of files and paper clips’. That seemed especially pertinent to me as I was about to join the Irish civil service. At the time, I was writing an MA thesis which explored the borderlands between literature and history. I made use of ‘A Farewell to English’ in that study in order to point out that our writers continued to have an awkward interface with Irish society and politics in the 1970s. Some of the lines from Hartnett’s poem have stayed in my mind throughout the intervening decades.
Hartnett’s poem reflected the disenchantment I had encountered elsewhere in Ireland’s literary canon. It seemed as if our writers acted as a kind of informal opposition to the conventions, pieties if you will, of independent Ireland.
I have long detected similarities between ‘A Farewell to English’ and Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’ and John Montague’s ‘The Rough Field’, three public poems that address key themes from experience as an independent country. In this talk, I want to reflect on those three poems all of which exhibit a crusading tone. Between them they offer a kind of potted history of 20th century Ireland, retold by three acute, articulate observers.
In ‘The Great Hunger’, Patrick Kavanagh excoriates the failings of rural Ireland. John Montague’s ‘Rough Field’ explores the sectarian conflicts and tensions that abounded in his home place, Garvaghey in County Tyrone. In Hartnett’s case, disappointment with the Ireland he knew runs through his poem. Between them, the three poets raise dissenting voices, disaffected from aspects of the Ireland they knew. They tell us something about 20th century Ireland. If journalism is the first draft of history as has been claimed, then literature is perhaps its second draft. Literary evidence also lives on in the public imagination in ways that other parts of our documentary archive does not.
The three poems do not, of course, tell us everything about 20th century Ireland, just as ‘Easter 1916’ does not give a full picture of the 1916 Rising, but that poem does capture something of the essences of the Rising. For their part, Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett give us snatches of commentary on 20th century Irish life. What do they tell us?
The Great Hunger:
Reading it again in recent weeks, it is hard not to be deeply impressed with ‘The Great Hunger’(1942). It’s one hell of an achievement, even if the world it depicts has an antiquarian feel in the Ireland of Google, Starbuck’s and Amazon etc.
In a 1949 interview with The Bell, Kavanagh bragged that he was “the only man who has written in our time about rural Ireland from the inside” and that was fair comment. What I think he meant was that Yeats and other writers of the literary revival had spied rural Ireland from the outside, idealizing it in the process. Kavanagh had written about it at close quarters from his ungainly perch at Inniskeen in County Monaghan. Kavanagh certainly didn’t follow Yeats’s exhortation to ’sing the peasantry’ or to embrace the dream of ‘the noble and the beggarman’.
What we get in ‘The Great Hunger’ is a furiously gritty immersion in what the poet called
the apocalypse of clay
In every corner of this land.
This is what one critic has called an ‘anti-pastoral’ poem. The poet Brendan Kennelly has described ‘The Great Hunger’ as ‘a necessary realistic outburst from an essentially transcendental imagination.’ The tone is this poem is very different from Kavanagh’s better-known short poems, where his attitude to rural Ireland is more wistful. Here it is fierce. He pulls no punches in his evocation of the sexual frustrations of ‘poor Paddy Maguire’ and his fellow potato gatherers who are like ‘mechanised scarecrows’ ‘broken-backed over the Book of Death’.
Maguire is a man whose spirit:
Is a wet sack flapping about the knees of time.
He is not the ‘wise and simple man’ with the ‘sun freckled face’ as in Yeats’s dream of the ideal Irish countryman in his poem, ‘The Fisherman’. This is reality as Kavanagh saw it, a man bound to his fields,
Lost in a passion that never needs a wife.
Now that he is in his sixties and senses that life has passed him by, Maguire is:
not so sure if his mother was right
When she praised a man who made a field his bride.
Kavanagh’s insider’s account of rural Ireland is a stern antidote to notions of a rural idyll. There are those who see Kavanagh’s poem as a counterpoint to de Valera’s famous 1943 speech dreaming of rural Ireland ‘joyous with the sounds of laughter, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age.’ There is nothing serene about the anti-hero of ‘The Great Hunger’ who seems achingly aware of his dismal fate,
In Kavanagh’s version of rural Ireland, ‘life is more lousy than savage’ and those who live there are in ‘the grip of irregular fields’ from which ‘No man escapes.’ For the poet acting as sociologist, at the root of Paddy Maguire’s (and rural Ireland’s) frustrated unhappiness is a socially-enforced suppression of sexuality. In Kavanagh’s view, this is something that Maguire and the people around him bring on themselves.
Later in his life, Patrick Kavanagh sought to disown ‘The Great Hunger’ and its hectoring tone. He insisted that ‘A poet merely states the position and does not care whether his words change anything or not.’ I am not saying that ‘The Great Hunger’ was a harbinger of change, but it was part of a critique of the ‘dreary Eden’ carried out in the 1940s and 1950s through the pages of The Bell edited by Seán O’Faoláin, to which Kavanagh was a contributor.
As a public servant, I tend to trace the roots of modern Ireland to the publication of Economic Development in 1958, which, driven by a desire to stem the flight from rural Ireland that had reached epidemic proportions in mid-1950s, resolved to open up our economy in what turned out to be a game-change for Ireland. ‘The Great Hunger’ helps us to understand the social roots of rural Ireland’s depopulation.
The Rough Field:
The Rough Field was published in 1972, the year I began studying literature at UCC with John Montague as one of my lecturers, but the poems it incorporates were written during the preceding ten years. It has something in common with Kavanagh’s long poem (Montague was an admirer of Kavanagh’s poetry and an advocate for it) in that it explores Ireland’s rural world, in Montague’s case Garvaghey in County Tyrone. It is interesting that Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett all hail from rural or small-town Ireland, quite different from the urban, and ultimately cosmopolitan backgrounds of Yeats and Joyce, modulated in Yeats’s case by his engagement with Sligo and Coole Park in Galway.
‘The Rough Field’ is a poem of exile and return. Montague, the boy from Garvaghey, having spent years in Dublin, Berkeley and Paris, re-engages with his home place and ‘the unhappiness of its historical destiny’. Like Kavanagh, he doesn’t go all pastoral on us. As he puts it,
No Wordsworthian dream enchants me here ..
But merging low hills and gravel streams,
Oozy blackness of bog-banks, pale upland grass; ..
Harsh landscape that hunts me,
Well and stone, in the bleak moors of dream.
Like ‘The Great Hunger’, ‘The Rough Field’ can be lyrical as remembrance of boyhood wells up:
Those were my first mornings
Fresh as Eden, with dew on the face,
Like first kiss, the damp air:
On dismantled flagstones,
From ash-smoored embers
Hands now strive to rekindle
That once leaping fire.
But the prevailing tone is stark, grim and, as in Kavanagh and indeed Hartnett, there is a side swipe at Yeats, this time his insistence that ‘Ancient Ireland knew it all.’:
Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside,
Then rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head,
Formorian fierceness of family and local feud.
Perhaps the key line in this collection is when the poet, having brought to light the elemental unpleasantness of sectarian animosities in rural Tyrone, frees himself from the ‘dolmens round my childhood’ that had trespassed on his dreams:
Until once, in a standing circle of stones,
I felt their shadows pass
Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.
Here we have the poet seeking to put his past, and that of his home place, behind him, but can any society ever do that? Creating a kind of ‘permanence’ of historical memory in the public mind, hopefully not a dark one, may be one of the outputs from our Decade of Centenaries, putting our history in a settled place where it can be analysed and debated, but not fought over
Like Michael Hartnett in ‘A Farewell to English’, Montague muses on the ‘shards of a lost tradition’ and reflects on his father’s experience as an exile, one that was all too common to Irish people in the 20th century. He was:
the least happy
man I have known. His face
retained the pallor
of those who work underground:
the lost years in Brooklyn
listening to a subway
shudder the earth.
In the part of ‘The Rough Field’ known as ‘Patriotic Suite’, the poet turns his attention to independent Ireland and its discontents – ‘the gloomy images of a provincial catholicism’. Once at UCC in the mid-1970s, I heard Montague deliver an excoriating putdown of the deficiencies of the Ireland of that time and, drawing on Swift to fillet the ‘yahoos’ he believed were in the ascendant. In this poem he writes that:
All revolutions are interior
The displacement of spirit
By the arrival of fact,
Ceaseless as cloud across sky,
Sudden as sun.
Cheekily, he asks:
Does fate at last relent
With a trade expansion of 5 per cent?
His question is does prosperity help us deal with our demons, a puzzle that is still with us. I celebrate our material advancement as a people since the 1970s, but I accept that things of value can get lost in the process and that economic advancement does not guarantee wellbeing, which is more difficult to measure.
Then Montague brings us into the 1960s, where at ‘the Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar:
There were two sounds, the breaking
Of glass, and the background pulse
Of music. Young girls roamed
The streets with eager faces,
Pushing for men. Bottles in
Hand, they rowed out for a song.
Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone ,
A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain.
Montague’s final take on rural Ireland is ambivalent. He acknowledges that:
Only a sentimentalist would wish
to see such degradation again.
Yet something mourns.
It is the loss
of a world where action had been wrung
through painstaking years to ritual.
What, in Montague’s view has gone is:
Our finally lost dream of man at home
in a rural setting!
I recognise the issue of rural Ireland’s viability and equilibrium as a continuing priority for us in this century. What, I wonder, will our experience of the pandemic do to the urban/rural balance of our country?
A Farewell to English
This is by far the shortest of three works I discuss in this talk. It starts with a flourish.
Her eyes were coins of porter and her West
Limerick voice talked velvet in the house:
her hair black as the glossy fireplace
wearing with grace her Sunday-night-dance best.
She cut the froth from glasses with a knife
and hammered golden whiskies on the bar.
Now I know this is not a literary term, but that’s what I call ‘great stuff’. It’s a strong opening pitch. It reminds me of Kavanagh’s ‘Raglan Road’. But the poet’s unease emerges early on as he sinks his hands into tradition, ‘sifting centuries for words’, but the words he reaches for with ‘excitement’ and ‘emotion’ are Irish words.
It is clear to me that the poet’s turning away from the English language, ‘the gravel of Anglo-Saxon’ is a reflection of a more generalized disenchantment with the realities of what he calls ‘the clergy cluttered south’. He conjures up an image of Ireland’s leaders queueing up at Dublin Castle in 1922
to make our Gaelic
or our Irish dream come true.
But this ends up with us choosing
to learn the noble art
of writing forms in triplicate.
As it happens, when I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978, it was common to make 4 or 5 carbon copies of a letter, while ‘cut and paste’ meant using scissors and gum to cut up old documents and rearrange them!
In Hartnett’s vision, modern Ireland is the offspring of a ‘brimming Irish sow’ and ‘an English boar’. He concludes that
We knew we had been robbed
but we were not sure that we lost
the right to have a language
or the right to be the boss.
The image here is of unrealised national ambition and of materialism eclipsing identity.
In another echo of Yeats (‘Irish poets learn your trade’), he insists that
Poets with progress
make no peace or pact.
The act of poetry
is a rebel act.
Justifying his decision to abandon English, he takes the view that
Gaelic is our final sign that
we are human, therefore not a herd.
For Hartnett, therefore, the Irish language was a precious antidote to the stifling conditions he saw around him.
He concludes with a resounding broadside:
I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.
Hartnett’s poem confronts one of the unredeemed aspirations of 20th century Ireland, the effort to revive the Irish language. The Gaelic League helped radicalize a generation of Irish people at the turn of the century and became a driver of revolutionary activity. Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Eamon de Valera entered the world of Irish nationalism through the door of the Gaelic League. But the language revival stalled with independence. It flourished in the pronouncements of the State but not in the practice of the people. For Hartnett, I think it was the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality that spurred him to make the radical step of abandoning English, the language of the head – ‘the perfect language to sell pigs in’ – in favour of Irish, the language of the heart. The language question continues to be an important issue in discussions about Irish identity, in answering the ‘who are we’ question.
When Michael Hartnett described poetry as ‘a rebel act’, he was not referring to the kind of rebellion that was the subject of Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’. What his words suggest is that a poet’s default posture is dissatisfaction and disenchantment. 20th century Ireland has had a fraught relationship with its writers, Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Sean O’Faolain, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien and many others who strained against the nets of conformity.
What can we derive about 20th-century Ireland from these three long poems? Three things strike me:
The first is the aura of disappointment surrounding the actual fruits of independence. For Kavanagh, this revolved around the stunted condition of rural Ireland. For Montague, it was the failure to resolve sectarian tensions in Ulster and the dullness of life in Ireland compared with the expansiveness he had encountered elsewhere. And for Hartnett, it was the bureaucratization of Irish life and the abandonment of a vital part of our cultural patrimony.
The second is that rural Ireland is the laboratory in which the poets test what they saw as our national failings. The problems of rural Ireland and attempts to remedy them was the mainstay of the nationalist project throughout the 19th century. If independence was the solution to Ireland’s ills, then that ought to have been in evidence in rural society. In the three poems explored in this talk, all with rural settings, Monaghan, Tyrone and West Limerick, disappointment and disenchantment is the prevailing mood.
My third takeaway is that there are are shards of light visible in each poem. In Kavanagh whatever sense of hope the poem contains comes from its celebration of the natural world despite all its harshness. Take for example his image of ‘October playing a symphony on a slack wire’. In one passage, Kavanagh reflects on the fact that
..sometimes when sun comes through a gap
These men know God the Father in a tree:’
In Montague’s poem, it’s the social loosening of the 1960s epitomised by the Fleadh in Mullingar that gives him hope that ‘puritan Ireland’ is on its last legs. For Hartnett, it is the protective glow of Ireland’s language and traditions. Hartnett once referred to Irish as both ‘the soul’s music’ and ‘the bad talk you hear in the pub’. It is ‘a ribald language/anti-Irish’, by which I am sure he meant that its reality confounds traditional images of Irishness.
Given that the default position for these writers is critical, how will Irish literature fare in the more self-satisfied Ireland we now live in? What will the target be of the history poems of our 21st century? Will the present pandemic inspire meditations in verse on the subject of our national condition?
Not all Irish poetry revolves around the ‘bugbear Mr Yeats’, as Michael Hartnett described his eminent predecessor. Far from being an island of bad verse, today’s Ireland continues to produce a good fistful of poetic talent that can shine the light of imagination on our affairs.
Finally, to come back to literature and history, I want to mention a book I will publish in January entitled, Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey. I wrote it to mark the centenary of the publication of Joyce’s great novel and to record my own journey with, and through, Ulysses this past forty years. As a historian, I also see Ulysses as an invaluable portrait of an Ireland on the cusp of dramatic political change, an enduring monument in words to our country as it was a century and more ago. We are lucky to have so many wordsmiths, past and present, delving into our national life for, as Yeats once wrote, ‘words alone are certain good’.
About the Author…..
Ambassador Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s current Ambassador to the United States delivered this year’s Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture during the Éigse Michael Hartnett Literary and Arts Festival which took place from September 30th to October 2nd in Newcastle West, County Limerick.
The Ambassador was following in a long line of illustrious speakers who had previously delivered this prestigious lecture, including Donal Ryan, Theo Dorgan, Nuala O’Faolain, Paul Durban, Fintan O’Toole, Declan Kiberd and President Michael D. Higgins.
Daniel Mulhall was born and brought up in Waterford. He pursued his graduate and post-graduate studies at University College Cork where he specialised in modern Irish history and literature. He took up duty as Ireland’s 18th Ambassador to the United States in August 2017.
He joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978 and had his early diplomatic assignments in New Delhi, Vienna (OSCE), Brussels (European Union) and Edinburgh where he was Ireland’s first Consul General, 1998-2001. He served as Ireland’s Ambassador to Malaysia (2001-05), where he was also accredited to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. From 2009 to 2013, he was Ireland’s Ambassador to Germany. Before arriving in Washington, he served as Ireland’s Ambassador in London (2013-17).
In 2017, he was made a Freeman of the City of London in recognition of his work as Ambassador. In December 2017, he was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Liverpool. In 2019, he was honoured with the Freedom of the City and County of Waterford. In November 2019, Ambassador Mulhall was named Honorary President of the Yeats Society in Ireland.
During his diplomatic career, Ambassador Mulhall has also held a number of positions at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including as Director-General for European Affairs, 2005- 2009. He also served as a member of the Secretariat of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation (1994- 95). From 1995-98, he was the Department’s Press Counsellor and in that capacity was part of the Irish Government’s delegation at the time of the Good Friday Agreement 1998.
Ambassador Mulhall brings his deep interest in Irish history and literature to the work of diplomatic service in the U.S., describing the strong, historic ties and kinship between the countries as the basis for a vibrant economic and cultural relationship. He has lectured widely on the works of W.B. Yeats and James Joyce. His new book, Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey, is due for publication in January 2022. He is also the author of A New Day Dawning: A Portrait of Ireland in 1900 (Cork, 1999) and co-editor of The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment (Dublin, 2016).
A keen advocate of public diplomacy, Ambassador Mulhall makes regular use of social media in order to provide insights into the work of the Embassy, to promote all things Irish and to engage with Irish people and those of Irish descent around the world. He provides daily updates on his Twitter account @DanMulhall and posts regular blogs on the Embassy’s website.