Close Analysis of John McGahern’s ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’

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(For those of you who would like to revisit the novel in your own time all page references are from the Faber and Faber paperback edition.)

 

That They May Face the Rising Sun was published in 2001 (published in the United States as By the Lake) and is a portrait of a year in the life of a rural lakeside community.  It mirrors McGahern’s own return to his rural roots and is his paean to place.  I recently tucked this gem away in the hand luggage to reacquaint myself with the master’s work.  Don, my son, mentioned when he saw me reading it again that he would challenge me to date it – in other words, when exactly is it set?

The structure of the novel is unique and yet deceptive.  There are no Chapters or other recognised breaks in the novel – the story slowly evolves and is told in a circular, repetitive manner, a kind of stream of consciousness novel, beautifully crafted and told by a master storyteller.  McGahern throws some light on this layering and repetition in an interview given to James Whyte, ‘I see the whole function of writing as circling on the image […] To try to pick the image that’s sharp, that can dramatise or bring to light what is happening, be it a wedding ring, a Coca-cola bottle, or someone rolling an orange across the floor.’ [1]

The setting is one McGahern knows completely. It’s his own place, a remote and sparsely populated corner of Fenagh, County Leitrim, between Carrick-on-Shannon and the border near Enniskillen. There are a few houses by a lake, a bog stretching away to the distant Iron Mountains, a small town with two bars and a roofless abbey with the remains of a monks’ graveyard called Shruhaun.  This setting is described meticulously and repeatedly, just as it appears in stories like ‘High Ground’ or ‘The Country Funeral’.  The novel is dedicated to Madeline Green, his wife and support in those final productive years by the lake.

In response to Don’s challenge, the novel is hard to tie down time-wise – there are hints dropped here and there and we get outside references to ‘Fords of Dagenham’, ‘the death of de Valera’ (1975), ‘the escape from Long Kesh’ (1975),  ‘the hunger strikes’ (1980’s),  ‘the ring road round Roscommon’ (1980’s),  ‘Blind Date’ and All Ireland Finals on the television and ‘the massacre at Enniskillen’ (1987), etc.    However, McGahern is continually moving from the present to the past and much of the farming practices described are throw-backs to the Seventies, and Eighties – haymaking, single bar mowers, square bales, and the use of the buck rake are all redolent of this era. However, they are characteristic of ‘small’ farming practices on small holdings in poorer regions to this day.  This muddies the waters when trying to accurately date the text.  As a fictional work accounting for the final years of the author’s life and his return to his native place, my guess is that it took a number of years to write.  Therefore, my best guess is that it was written over time but no later than 1990.

However, it is not of vital importance that we accurately pinpoint the time of writing – it is a beautifully layered piece – it is akin to O’Faolain’s ‘A Nest of Gentle Folk’ – describing the locals, their relationships, their hardships, their foibles and peculiarities.  The lake itself is even reminiscent of Chekov’s ‘magic lake’ in The Seagull. This is mixed in with often poetic seasonal observations from the surrounding nature – the hills, the fields, the swans, the herons, the dogs and cats, the sheep and cattle of the small townland – and of course the lake which takes on the mantle of an ever-present vital character in the novel:

‘The banks were in the full glory of the summer, covered with foxgloves and small wild strawberries and green vetches.  The air was scented with wild woodbine’ (p.15).

‘Around him was the sharp scent of the burnished mint.  Close by, two swans fished in the shallows, three dark cygnets by their side.  Further out, a whole stretch of water was alive and rippling with a moving shoal of perch.  Elsewhere, except where it was ruffled by sudden summer gusts, the water was like glass’ (p.15).

In this place all news is local.  The daily visits to each other’s houses bring the usual banter:

‘Have you any news?’

‘No news.  Came looking for news.’

‘You came to the wrong place.  We are waiting for news’ (p. 126-127).

The outside world does not intrude to any great extent – McGahern is reinforcing the notion that all politics is local, that community is everything.  He is painting a picture of a disappearing world, of a close-knit rural community, cut off from the great earth-shattering events we see described on Sky and CNN – here all that matters is news of John Quinn’s latest conquest or other trivial local happenings which have been reported in the local Observer. The one significant ‘international’ story is the continuing ‘Troubles’ North of the border.  What, I wonder, would the locals in this small backwater Border area make of Brexit when it comes to the shores of the lake?

A year’s cycle frames the lives on the lake: haymaking, market day, lambing. We move at one level from Bill Evens’ daily visits to the Ruttledges and his trips to town on Thursdays to the Shah’s arrival round the lake on Sunday’s.  We then move to celebrations of Christmas, Monaghan Day in February, Easter and the arrival of Johnny Murphy on his annual visit home from England.   Food, drink, seasons, weather, the grey heron, the black cat, are re-created continually, different each time, with intense, eloquent simplicity, as if a painter (or a poet) were returning over and over to the same scene:

The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with shoals of small fish.  There were many swans on the lake.  A grey rowboat was fishing along the far shore.  A pair of herons moved sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and Gloria Bog.  A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale sedge like a hand.  The blue of the mountain was deeper and darker than the blue of the lake or the sky.  Along the high banks at the edge of the water there were many little private lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otters fed and trained their young (p.44).

As we read, we encounter the ones who stayed, the ones who left and return once a year and the blow-ins who come to live in this magical backwater of a place.  The story is told in cycles of time, the seasons melding into each other, Christmas and Easter given their rightful place.  Even the title echoes the Resurrection at Easter-time and helps explain why every Christian graveyard faces the rising sun!  The novel may not have Chapters in the accepted sense but as we read we are lulled by the benign, repetitive rhythms and cadences of rural life: On Sundays the Shah’s black Mercedes rolls round the lake, on Thursdays Billy Evans goes to the local town in the yellow minibus, each summer Johnny comes from London on his holidays and each evening the heron rises out of the reeds and flaps ahead leading Jamesie round the shore.

Joe Ruttledge and his wife Kate ‘came from London in the spring’ having abandoned the mayhem of London’s high life and glamour and purchased a small cottage by the lake.  The auctioneer, Jimmy Joe McKiernan is brutally honest about their prospective purchase telling them that it is little more than a site, ‘a site above a lake, on twenty acres’:

The small fields around the house were enclosed with thick whitethorn hedges, with ash and rowan and green oak and sycamore, the fields overgrown with rushes.  Then the screens of whitethorn suddenly gave way and they stood high over another lake.  The wooded island where the herons bred was far out, and on the other shore, the pale sedge and stunted birch trees of Gloria Bog ran towards the shrouded mountains….. Swans and dark clusters of wildfowl were fishing calmly in the shelter (p.19).

They learn quickly the native ways and discover a place where they belong – all temptations to return to the centre are gently refused.  Through them, we are introduced to the motley crew of neighbours, the mad, the bad and the sad.  Their foibles, their character and flaws are keenly observed – mainly through Joe’s eyes.  Their neighbour, Patrick Ryan remarks:

‘Strange to think of all the people that went out to England and America and the ends of the earth from this place and yon pair coming back against the tide’ (p.80)

They are blessed with their neighbours – particularly Mary and Jamesie Murphy.  From the very beginning, Jamesie and Mary befriend the new arrivals, Joe and Kate, and made them welcome.  Mary is a very deep reflective character, the real strength in the Murphy household.  She had grown up at the edge of the lake and when she married Jamesie she left her father and brother and moved to her new home at the far side of the lake.  Her home place is described as being idyllic:

Cherry and apple and pear trees grew wild about the house, and here and there the fresh green of the gooseberry shone out of a wilderness of crawling blackthorn.  Hundreds of daffodils and white narcissi still greeted each spring by the lake with beauty, though there was no one near at hand to notice’ (p.92).

When she marries she is torn between her new home and having to leave her father and brother to fend for themselves.  She begins to understand that ‘to be without anxiety was to be without love’ (p.94).  Kate Ruttledge recognizes her worth as a friend and compliments her by saying that the spirit of her old home came with her across the lake. Mary and Jamesie live out their life by the lake: her father passes away, her brother emigrates to Boston, she becomes pregnant and Jim is born. He does well in school, winning a scholarship to continue schooling in the local town.  He marries and has children of his own.  He visits infrequently and holidays in Italy.  Mary’s silent reaction is characteristic of her deep and reflective nature:

Completely alone though a part of the crowd, Mary stood mutely gazing on her son and his wife as if in wonderment how so much time had disappeared and emerged again in such strange and substantial forms that were and were not her own.  Across her face there seemed to pass many feelings and reflections: it was as if she ached to touch and gather in and make whole those scattered years of change.  But how can time be gathered in and kissed?  There is only flesh (p.131-132).

Thinking of her brother-in-law, Johnny, who has returned to his bedsit in London she falls into reverie and shares a philosophy which is probably also shared by McGahern himself:

‘People we know come and go in our minds whether they are here or in England or alive or dead,’ Mary said with a darkness that was as much a part of her as the sweet inward-looking smile, ‘We’re no more than a puff of wind out on the lake’ (p. 121).

Jamesie, an inveterate gossip is, however, a great neighbour and, especially in those early days, the difference between Joe and Kate surviving in their new location.  Early on he tells Joe, ‘I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world’.  As the novel ends, a very emotional Joe acknowledges the debt he owes to Jamesie when he says:

‘You do know the whole world,’ Ruttledge said.  ‘And you have been my sweet guide.’ (p. 312).

However, Jamesie and Mary, and Joe and Kate are the exceptions in this novel as the novel is peopled mainly by single men, men who see being single as a state to be coveted and prized: The Shah, Johnny Murphy, Patrick Ryan, Bill Evans, are all single.  The only exception to this general rule is John Quinn whose biblical mantra is ‘that it is not good that man should be alone’.  Quinn’s numerous efforts at fulfilling this ‘commandment’ are described, sometimes with humour, but his abuse of women is seen as abhorrent and crude.  The others are perfectly happy in their bachelorhood and this is one of the social ills that McGahern holds up to inspection in the novel.  Joe wonders why Patrick Ryan had never considered marriage:

This good-looking, vigorous man had lived all his life around the lake where nothing could be concealed, and he had never shown any sexual interest in another.  ‘I don’t have to even countenance that job,’ he joked once to Ruttledge.  ‘John Quinn has agreed to do my share’ (p. 213).

Father Conroy, the Catholic Parish priest is their role model – he lives a comfortable bachelor life, is respected and is seen as a pillar of the community but his power and influence, and the influence of the Church he represents is waning.  He is depicted as a peripheral, marginalized figure. No-one has a bad word to say about him. In his defence, he does use his influence in getting Bill Evans reinstated on the Thursday bus to town and he eventually finds a place for Bill in the new independent living accommodation in town – called ironically, Tráthnóna.  However, the locals have made their assessment of priests in general and what they represent:

‘Anyhow all the priests in England are sociable.  They are not directly connected to God like the crowd here.’

‘Father Conroy isn’t like that,’ Ruttledge intervened.

‘Father Conroy is plain.  The priests had this country abulling with religion once.  It’s a good job it’s easing off,’ Patrick Ryan said (p.86).

Joe Ruttledge sees Father Conroy as a decent man who tries his best not to offend and to blend in as best he can. Joe realizes that the priest is fighting a losing battle with diminishing levels of religious practice in the community.  That They May Face the Rising Sun is one of the last great expositions of a Catholic community moving on into a ‘Post-Catholic’ world and is another non-bitter example of Ireland’s troubled and complex relationship with the Catholic religion.

The novel is suffused with words of easy wisdom – distilled, incisive one-liners that come from a life keenly observed in the solitude and mindfulness of rural existence (and often delivered as banter):

  • ‘He that is down can fear no fall’ (p. 2)
  • ‘The way we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived are often very different’ (p.3)
  • ‘Thought pissed in the bed and thought he was sweating. His wife thought otherwise’ (p.3)
  • ‘You nearly have to be born into a place to know what’s going on and what to do’ (p.3)
  • ‘Those that care least will win’ (p.6)
  • Jamesie’s wisdom: ‘Enter lightly … and leave on tiptoe. Put the hand across but never press.  Ask why not but never why.  Always lie so that you speak the truth and God save all poor sinners’ (p.8)
  • ‘They say we think the birds are singing when they are only crying this is mine out of their separate territories’ (p.21)
  • ‘The borrowed horse has hard hooves’ (p.26)
  • ‘Let nobody try to best the guards or the doctors or teachers. They have their own ways of getting back at you. (p.34)
  • ‘There’s too much fucken drink passed around in this country’ (p.46)
  • ‘There’s nothing right or wrong in this world. Only what happens’ (p.58)
  • ‘There are times when the truth is the wrong thing’ (p.98)
  • ‘Lies can walk while the truth stays grounded’ (p.98)
  • ‘There’s a big difference between visiting and belonging’ (p.99)
  • ‘There’s nothing worse than widows. Even priests will tell you that’ (p.105)
  • ‘With people living longer there’s a whole new class who are neither in the world or in the graveyard’ (p.155)
  • ‘The greatest country in Ireland was always the world to come’ (p.210)
  • Finally, my favourite! It is Christmas Day and Joe Ruttledge is visiting his neighbour Patrick Ryan.  Patrick has a few cattle but they are not well taken care of.  He passes a very pessimistic comment to Joe that ‘I suppose no more than ourselves, lad, it doesn’t make all that much differ whether they live or die’.  Joe disagrees but doesn’t express his thoughts out loud – we, the readers, are the lucky ones with this beautiful, unspoken Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life?  What does love become but care?  Ruttledge thought in opposition but did not speak’ (p.216).

One of the major episodes in the novel is the annual summer ritual of haymaking.  This was often a very hectic, stressful and frenetic time for farmers who, in Ireland at any rate, are open to the vagaries of the Irish weather.  This is beautifully rendered by McGahern in the novel and the various mundane tasks of saving the hay crop are punctuated with many poetic descriptions of high summer by the lake:

Then the settled weather came, the morning breeze from the lake lifting and tossing the curtains on the open windows to scatter early light around the bedroom walls (p.108).

…..

Outside there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  The ripe heavy grass in the meadow was stirring like water beneath the light breeze (p.110).

…..

The morning wind from the lake that lifted the curtains had died.  The water was like glass, reflecting the clear sky on either side of a sparkling river of light from a climbing sun.  Not a breath of wind moved on the meadows.  The only movement was the tossing of the butterflies above the restful grass (p.110).

…..

When all the meadows were cut they looked wonderfully empty and clean, the big oak and ash trees in the hedges towering over the rows of cut grass, with the crows and the gulls descending in a shrieking rabble to hunt frogs and snails and worms.  In the corners of the meadows, pairs of plump pigeons were pecking busily at grass seed’ (p.111).

…..

Along the shore a boy was fishing out on the stones, casting a glittering spoon out over the water and then reeling it slowly in.  The heron rose out of the reeds and flapped ahead before swinging away towards the farther shore.  A glaring red sun was sinking below the rim of the sky (p.117).

…..

The next morning a white mist obscured even the big trees along the shore.  Gossamer hung over the pear and plum and apple trees in the orchard and a pale spiderwebbing lay across the grass in the field (p.117).

…..

The very quiet and coolness of the morning was delicious with every hour promising later heat.  When the sun had burned away the mist and dried the dew on the swards, the tedding[2] began (p.118).

…..

As the stacks (of hay) disappeared from the meadows and the shed filled, the sun coming and going behind the dark, racing clouds, they were able to stack the last loads at their ease, chatting and idling.  The birds had gone quiet.  The hum of the insects was still.  Swallows were sweeping low above the empty meadows.  The wind beats of swans crossing between the lakes came on the still air and they counted seven in formation before they disappeared below the screen of trees (p. 134-135).

Weather by the lake is also described in detail and is used as a device to show the passage of time.  Without exception, these link passages are again powerfully poetic and show McGahern’s exceptional powers of observation:

Autumn: ‘There were many days of wind and rain.  Uneasy gusts ruffled the surface of the lake, sending it running this way and that.  Occasionally, a rainbow arched all the way across the lake.  More often the rainbows were as broken as the weather, appearing here and there in streaks or brilliant patches of colour in the unsettled sky.  When rain wasn’t dripping from leaves or eaves, the air was so heavy it was like breathing rain.  The hives were quiet.  Only the midges swarmed’ (p. 154).

…..

‘The lake was an enormous mirror turned to the depth of the sky, holding its lights and its colours.  Close to the reeds there were many flies, and small shoals of perch were rippling the surface with hints of the teeming energy and life of the depths.  The reeds had lost their bright greenness and were leaning towards the water.  Everything that had flowered had now come to fruit’ (p. 186).

…..

‘The little vetch pods on the banks turned black.  Along the shore a blue bloom came on the sloes.  The blackberries moulded and went unpicked, the briar leaves changed into browns and reds and yellows in the low hedges, against which the pheasant could walk unnoticed.  Plums and apples and pears were picked and stored or given around to neighbours or made into preserves in the big brass pot.  Honey was taken from the hives, the bees fed melted sugar.  For a few brilliant days the rowan berries were a shining red-orange in the light from the water, and then each tree became a noisy infestation of small birds as it trembled with greedy clamouring life until it was stripped clean’ (p.191).

Winter: ‘The leaves started to fall heavily in frosts, in ghostly whispering streams that never paused though the trees were still.  They formed into drifts along the shore….. Traceries of branches stripped of their leaves stood out against the water like veins.  Under each delicate rowan tree lay the pale rowan stones, like droppings.  In the cold dry weather the hedges were thinned for firewood, the evenings rent with the whining rise and fall of other chainsaws similarly working.  In this new weather, sounds travelled with a new cold sharpness’ (p. 192).

…..

‘A river of beaten copper ran sparkling from shore to shore in the centre of the lake.  On either side of this bright river peppered with pale stars the dark water seethed.  Far away the light of the town glowed in the sky’ (p. 201).

Spring: ‘The fields long sodden with rain hardened in the drying winds.  Small flowers started to appear on banks and ditches and in the shelter of the hedges….. Birds bearing twigs in their beaks looped through the air.  The brooding swan resumed her seat on the high throne in the middle of the reeds.  The otter paths between the lakes grew more beaten.  In shallows along the shore the water rippled with the life of spawning pike and bream: in the turmoil their dark fins showed above the water and the white of their bellies flashed when they rolled.  The lambs were now out with their mothers on the grass, hopping as if they had mechanical springs in their tiny hooves, sometimes leapfrogging one another’ (p.250).

…..

‘There were primroses and violets on the banks of the lane and the dark leaf of the wild strawberry, dandelion in flower and little vetches.  It was too early to scent the wild mint but they could see its rough leaves crawling along the edges of the gravel’ (p. 258).

Summer: ‘The plum trees blossomed, then the apple came and the white brilliance of the pear tree.  May came in wet and windy.  The rich green of the grass in the shelter of the hedges travelled out over the whole fields.  Weeds had to be pulled from the ridges, the vegetable garden turned and weeded.  Foxgloves appeared on the banks of the lane and the scent of the wild mint was stronger along the shore’ (p. 263).

…..

‘The water was silent, except for the chattering of the wildfowl, the night air sweet with the scents of the ripening meadows, thyme and clover and meadowsweet, wild woodbine high in the whitethorns mixed with the scent of the wild mint crawling along the gravel on the edge of the water’ (p. 312-313).

As the novel moves to its climax McGahern revisits the annual commemoration of the massacre at Glasdrum.  This is embedded in the local folk memory and commemorates an ambush carried out by the Black and Tans during the turbulent War of Independence.  The local volunteers had no chance and were mown down in the ambush and their bodies are buried in the graveyard in Shruhaun.  Following the massacre, the locals carried out a reprisal killing and the local Protestant, Sinclair, is taken away from his family and shot.  Each year the deaths of the IRA volunteers are commemorated by a march and speeches are made at their gravesides.  This is orchestrated by the Jimmy Joe McKiernan and is used as a reminder of the brutality and oppression suffered in the past.

The whole area on either side of the Border again suffered greatly during the ‘Troubles’ which divided the people in Northern Ireland during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.  Communities on both sides of the Border were convulsed with acts of brutality and violence.  This conflict is close and ever-present; it colours the whole history of the region.  Jimmy Joe McKiernan who is also the local auctioneer, publican and undertaker has his finger in many pies.

In the middle of the crowd, Jimmy Joe McKiernan walked quietly, the head of the Provisionals, North and South, with power over all who marched (p.258).

McKiernan’s every move is monitored by a very Irish form of surveillance: two ‘undercover’ detectives sit in their ‘unmarked’ police car in a laneway across from his bar in the village and record his every move. McGahern’s cipher and benign alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out fiercely against the violence towards the end of the book – ‘They honoured themselves at Enniskillen.  How many people did they kill and maim?’ (p.238).  We are left in no doubt where the author stands on this important issue – an issue that is raised on the opening page when Joe Ruttledge tells us:

‘We never speak badly about people.  It’s too dangerous.  It can get you into trouble’ (p. 1).

Throughout the novel, in endless, repetitive descriptions of people and places, McGahern is reminding us all of how people lived in the past and how we should live our lives today before it is too late. There is an old Irish sean fhocail or proverb which states ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine’ – we rely on our neighbours for our survival.  The pastoral and Edenlike world created by McGahern here in this, his swansong novel, gives us a notion of how this can be achieved; neighbourliness, hospitality, ritual, friendly banter.  In capturing this passing way of life he celebrates its rites and rituals with such dignity that the novel has many of the hallmarks of religious worship. But more important than the living world he celebrates is the natural world which surrounds it – the sun, the sky and the lake – which provides order and an everlasting backdrop to the lives of its inhabitants. The time frame of the novel may be blurred and timeless but the constantly evolving and changing descriptions of the lake are a constant reminder of our strictly human scope within the wider canvas of the natural world.  As Mary Murphy reminds us we are merely passing through – “We’re but a puff of wind on the lake.”  Joe Ruttledge puts it beautifully in his already mentioned Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life? What does love become but care?’

[1] Interview, quoted in James Whyte, History, Myth and Ritual in the Fiction of John McGahern, NY: Edwin Mellon Press 2002, p.229.

[2] Tedding – turning the hay with a hay turner

McGahern (3)

Read also: Amongst Women by John McGahern

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A Brief Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’

    lint-hole-sm              

Death of a Naturalist

  By Seamus Heaney

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart

Of the townland; green and heavy headed

Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.

Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.

There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring

I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied

Specks to range on window sills at home,

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dots burst, into nimble

Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank

With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs

Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges

To a coarse croaking that I had not heard

Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.

Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked

On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:

The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat

Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.

I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Commentary:

In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole.  This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August.  When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties.  The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!

 In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole.  It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days.  Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory.  It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens.  The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection.  Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.

The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest.  Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field.  The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.

The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer.  We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.

Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.

The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring.  He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:

There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks.

The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’.  We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.

Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!

Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn.

Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn.  Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:

You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’.  These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.

The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery which could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs!  As the poem’s title suggests,therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!

 

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… and I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Analysis of Patrick Kavanagh’s Use of the Sonnet

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Patrick Kavanagh’s bronze commemorative seat near Baggott Street Bridge in Dublin

Kavanagh is very comfortable and skilled in his use of the sonnet in his poetry.  He manages to express an authentic and simple vision of life and communicate it successfully using the sonnet form.  Indeed, this simple vision has often led to Kavanagh being underestimated and undervalued among his peers.  He never aspired to the greatness of Yeats and neither has he the subtlety of Kinsella.  But within the poetic limits, he set for himself Kavanagh presents a new, inimitable, and sometimes disturbing way of viewing life.  His sonnets are informed by a unique personal vision.

A criticism often levelled at Kavanagh is that often his statements fall into predictable patterns.  His sonnets, for example, do not develop – what we get from him is a series of sincere repetitions of a few basic perceptions.  In the last of his Dublin sonnets, he is saying, in more or less the same way, what he was saying in the first, and his greatness is that he moves us by repetition.  It is this sincerity that prevents his repetition from becoming commonplace.  However, this integrity does not hide the fact that there is little or no growth in his poetic ability.  There is, instead, a kind of lyrical repetition that constantly commands attention.  Kavanagh is stuck in a personal rut of poetic honesty.  He seems almost to be writing the same poem always!

On reading his sonnets one notices how, for him, perception has become an obsession, and how he clings to the importance of delineating visual scenes:

A swan goes by head low with many apologies

Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges

And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy

And other far-flung towns mythologies.

Visual perception has assumed an almost religious fascination which will not permit him to remain at rest with one statement of it.  He must tell it to the world all the time and invite others to share in his views:

O commemorate me with no hero-courageous

Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

Within these limits, however, Kavanagh maintains a moving, coherent and intimate vision of life.  Indeed, the success of his method is particularly noticeable when he tries to break away from it.  As a poet without learning, Kavanagh sometimes tries to overcome or transcend his limitations by placing learned words, ideas or references in his poems.  The intended effect is either to heighten the tone and increase the sense of personal tension, or else to bring a visual image more vividly to mind.  Sometimes he only partly achieves the desired effect; more often he fails completely.  A good example of this occurs in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ where two exaggerated comparisons mar an otherwise perfect poem.  The word Niagariously in line 5 is meant to convey an audible image of sound as water rushes through the locks, and is in contrast to the ‘tremendous silence’ of the next line.  The image of the Niagara Falls is, however, surely too exaggerated a comparison to make with the quiet splash of water over a lock on the Grand Canal.  On a technical level, the word is almost impossible to pronounce and it destroys the gentle rhythm of the opening lines.  Similarly, the allusion to ‘these Parnassian islands’ is inserted too boldly into a poem which depends on simplicity for its effect, rather than on weighty, learned references.  In each case, there is a certain lack of integration of the image.  By way of contrast, however, the reference to Alexander Selkirk in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’  is seamlessly integrated with the overall theme of the poem.  It expresses an idea repeated by Kavanagh in many of his poems: namely, his separateness, his detachment, the sense that he can participate but never belong.

I have what every poet hates in spite

Of all the solemn talk of contemplation

Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight

Of being king and government and nation.

Kavanagh’s poetic preferences are stated clearly in his prose works.  In From Monaghan to the Grand Canal, he defines the limits of his themes and subject matter.  He states, ‘The things that really matter, are casual insignificant little things.’  Co-existing with this sense of the importance of insignificance is the contrasting idea of the world’s grandeur.  Kavanagh is indeed a nature poet, but not in the manner in which we usually apply the term.  There are no sweeping descriptions of majestic landscapes; only the unseen beauty encountered on an evening’s stroll.  ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is the best presentation of his method.  The still, canal waters ‘pour redemption’ on him.  He thinks of its beauty in terms of religious images.  He feels ‘redeemed’, born again, after his long life of hardship in Monaghan.  God ordained that men should work and suffer.  But even in his inaction, Kavanagh feels that he can clarify the beauty of the ordinary world (‘the habitual’) and that this, too, is the ‘will of God.’  His duty as a poet is seen by himself as a religious vocation.  This spiritual frame of reference continues into line 4 when he says that he will now:

Grow with nature again as before I grew.

He then lists a group of visual images which stress, again, the beauty of unimportant objects.  Indeed, the central portion of this sonnet is characterized by its visionary impact.  Its simplicity stems from a totally coherent and lucid vision:

The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third

Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,

And a bird gathering materials for the nest…..

God and the idea of God dominate this sonnet.  In his essay entitled Pietism and Poetry Kavanagh says ‘the odd thing about the best modern poets is their utter simplicity.’  Of  Kavanagh himself, it may be said that he is the only great modern poet who never wrote an obscure poem.  He recognized that, in many cases, obscurity is merely a failure of the poet’s imagination and of his ability to communicate.  Kavanagh saw his simplicity as a gift from God.  He obviously thought a great deal about the nature of simplicity.  In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he asks for a poetic style that is passive, reposed and serene:

                                 …………………………, give me ad lib

To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech.

He also asks for a consuming intimacy with the natural world – a twentieth-century version of Wordsworth’s Pantheism:

For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven

From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

For Kavanagh, in this sonnet, the rewards of liberty are twofold.  First of all, his sense of wonder deepens, and his expression of it becomes more assured.  The second reward for the liberated, independent imagination is a kind of poetic faith that is inextricably linked with this deepened sense of wonder.  This sense of well-being is described in religious terms and phrases – Kavanagh, after all, is a deeply religious poet: ‘redemption’, ‘God’, ‘the Word’, ‘pray’, ‘soul’.  This poem is deceptively simple.  Its simplicity is achieved with consummate art, through the poet’s personal involvement in the scene.  It is not so much that he observes real things as that he feels the physical presence of these things with a total and alert consciousness:

O unworn world enrapture me….

He does not simply describe the scene, he recreates it, and it is unforgettable.  This is very similar to Wordsworth’s notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and this exploitation of the power of suggestion in ordinary subjects is the most striking of Kavanagh’s special gifts.

Kavanagh’s poems fall naturally into three divisions: those about the countryside (the Monaghan poems); those about the city (the Dublin poems); and those which, broadly speaking, attempt to express a kind of personal philosophy, or which try to define the nature of personal vision (the sonnets).  There have been many previous attempts to define poetry and I suppose each of us must really define it for ourselves.  Kavanagh found it impossible to define but fascinating to describe.  In ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ he sees it basically as a celebration of human inadequacy and failure.  All poets are at times taken up, directly or indirectly, with being different from the rest of society, and Irish poets are especially preoccupied with this problem.  A poet is, almost by definition, an individualist: he stands for the private, as distinct from the public values, and for the protection of private feeling ‘against the tyranny of society’.  ‘Inniskeen Road’ could be seen as Kavanagh’s defense of poetry, as a compressed statement of poetic belief.  The octave stresses public concerns, the second line imitates the plain language of village people and is in some sense satiric.  But Kavanagh is never completely at home in satire and in the sestet the tone changes.  The mood becomes meditative with the poet’s feeling of regret and detachment.  What is stressed here is his separateness, his isolation.  The paradox is of course that only by thus withdrawing can he discover himself and his mission as a poet.  He has withdrawn from the world in order to be able to understand it and value it truly.  His observation, therefore, becomes acute, and his power of selecting significant details remarkable.  Though feeling, at first, the weight of his loneliness, the mood changes again in the last line as he suddenly understands himself, and his situation:

                                                            ………..       I am king

Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

 The sonnet entitled ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ is basically different from the other two.  It has neither the sense of frustration communicated by ‘Inniskeen Road’ nor the delicate imagery of ‘Canal Bank Walk’.  It is a public sonnet, a direct address from the poet to the reader and as such its tone is serious.  Its style is very elegant but really more closely akin to prose rather than poetry:

O commemorate me where there is water,

Canal water preferably….

In ‘Inniskeen Road’ Kavanagh tries to define his own relationship with Irish society.  In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he has rejected society for the intimacies of private experience.  Now, in this last sonnet, there is a new sense of communication: there is a wish to renew his links with others and to share with them his experience and this is why he addresses his listener/reader using terms of affection:

Brother

Commemorate me thus beautifully…

As usual with Kavanagh, the sonnet creates a visual scene.  He has not time to entice his listener with lengthy descriptions but he provokes his interest through simple images; a swan, the light under bridges, a barge.  Compared to ‘Canal Bank Walk’ we notice the economy and compression gained from the absence of adjectives.  Also, this sonnet shows less dependence on imagery and relies more on factual statements.

Indeed, the formal demands of sonnet writing brought out the best of Kavanagh’s poetic ability and many of his poems are superb personal statements.  His imagery often seems plain and unremarkable when compared to that of Yeats or Kinsella, but the images are sharp, descriptive, and precisely used.  In the best of his sonnets, he speaks of a certain time and place; he expresses experiences in the context of his own world.  It is unlikely that he will ever be the source of the industry that has grown up around Yeats: there is so little to unravel, his greatness seems not in himself but in the world he expresses.  And yet it is true to say that, though Yeats is a more universal poet, Kavanagh is, at times, much more Irish, in that he expresses a theme that is less remote from ordinary people’s experience.  It is this simple immediacy of Kavanagh’s poetry that is part of his special appeal.

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The Grand Canal in Dublin. Image by Kaihsu Tai via Wikimedia Commons.

This essay is an edited version of one written by Joseph Ducke for the Inscapes Series (Inscape17: Poetry 2) entitled Patrick Kavanagh, (p.73) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.

Some Recurring Themes in the Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh

 

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Those hungry hills….

Patrick Kavanagh, like Yeats, is constantly ‘stitching and unstitching’ old themes in his poems.  These themes can be listed as follows, without giving them any particular order or ranking:

  • Loneliness and isolation;
  • Regret at the thought of lost innocence since the passing of childhood;
  • Meditations on the vocation of the poet and how this vocation has been frustrated;
  • The relationship between the poet and nature;
  • Religion;
  • Meditations on the poet’s poor, deprived background, and on the impoverishment of the spirit induced by the life of the Irish countryside of his youth.

It helps if we distinguish between two distinct phases of Kavanagh’s poetic career.  Put simply his career can be divided between what we will call ‘the Monaghan poems’ and ‘the Dublin poems’.  The poems dealing with life in the grim, forbidding farmlands of Monaghan (‘Stony Grey Soil’   and ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’) are remarkable for their attitude of disillusionment and discontent.  Life in the Irish countryside and its effects on sensitive souls are portrayed with savage realism:

You sang on steaming dunghills

A song of coward’s brood

You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch

You fed me on swinish food.

The tone of this poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’, is predominantly one of disgust and rebellion.  The poet’s mind has been embittered and stunted by the drudgery of life on a small farm.  His high ambitions and ideals have been frustrated.  He might have pictured himself as a graceful young man, talented and destined to succeed, but the reality has been much different:

You clogged the feet of my boyhood

And I believed that my stumble

Had the poise and stride of Apollo

And his voice my thick-tongued mumble.

There is a kind of savage comedy in the self-mocking contrast between Apollo, the god of light, beauty, poetry and music, and the rustic, awkward, ugly and ill-spoken young poet scraping a miserable living from a poor farm.  It is, however, important to notice that this poem is not uniformly disillusioned in tone.  Life may have been poor, nasty and brutish, but it has to be remembered that in those dark fields of Monaghan, Kavanagh had his first poetic inspiration:

The first gay flight of my lyric

Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.

Another poem which deals with the less attractive aspects of the poet’s early life is ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’.  Again we have the theme of the lonely, suffering, misunderstood poet living in a place where the inhabitants cannot be expected to understand or sympathise with him.  He is an isolated figure on the Inniskeen road as the carefree groups of young people pass him on their way to a dance.  They share the ‘half-talk code of mysteries’, and the ‘wind and elbow language of delight’.  He is pointedly excluded.  He must pay this price for being a poet; he must be prepared to be an outcast from the company of those who cannot share his interests and who are overawed by the power of the poet in their midst.  This poem features one of Kavanagh’s characteristic mannerisms: his tendency to use literary allusion (Selkirk on his island the ‘monarch of all I survey’) to illustrate a point.  The pun on ‘blooming’ in the line ‘Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’ is in doubtful taste: Kavanagh is (too) often liable to lapses of this kind.

There is a world of difference between the two poems just discussed and two later poems dealing with the Grand Canal and its surroundings.  Kavanagh’s attitude to the environment changed dramatically following his operation for lung cancer.  He said: ‘As a poet, I was born in or about 1955, the place of my birth being the banks of the Grand Canal’.  The Canal Bank poems show us that he has left behind him the inhibitions and restrictions featured in the earlier poems, and achieved a new freedom of imagination and a new, more positive outlook on life and nature.  The rural nature of Monaghan reminded him of his loneliness; the urban nature of the canal bank offers redemption and hope.  He sits on the canal bank enjoying the sunshine ‘pouring redemption’ for him.  There is a powerful sense of enjoyment, of gratitude and of wonder at the new beauty he is able to feel all around him.  Remember, he has only recently been discharged from hospital after successful treatment for lung cancer.  He now feels as if he has been reborn.  He is almost delirious with joy at the sight of the simple, yet beautiful, natural objects which pass before his eyes.  Even the most commonplace things take on a new meaning for him; he is now content to ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’.  Nature is now capable of healing his wounds, of giving him the kind of happiness he has always longed for:

O unworn world enrapture me, enrapture me in a web

Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech

This poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is full of a deeply religious awareness of nature, associated with ‘the will of God’, ‘redemption’, ‘eternal voices’, ‘the Word’.

The same joyful mood is present in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin’.  Here again, the tone is optimistic.  Nature and its sights and sounds fill the poet with the deep contentment he finds in ‘the tremendous silence of mid-July’.  It is this close communion with nature that leads him to ask for commemoration near water.  Whereas in his Monaghan poems, the ordinary things of nature, the fields, the soil, the ditches, the hedges, the hills, tended to provoke unpleasant reactions, in his later work he finds novelty, excitement and new inspiration in the most ordinary and banal sights and sounds: the noise of the canal lock gate, the greenness of the trees, the barge, the swan.  This child-like wonder at the sight of common objects is a distinctive feature of his later work.  The discontent, the disillusionment, the loneliness, of his early poems have given way to a new poetry of acceptance, of happy enjoyment of life and nature.

‘Advent’ is a good example of Kavanagh’s treatment of a religious theme.  It is obvious that the poet is very much influenced by traditional Catholic teaching and practice and this may pose problems for some modern readers who may be unfamiliar with these beliefs. It is really a sequence of two sonnets, which do not, however, follow the usual rules observed by writers of sonnets. (It is interesting to note that the poem has twenty-eight lines and that there are twenty-eight days in Advent). This poem, in fact, has much in common with the Grand Canal poems.  Here Kavanagh longs to return to the wonder of childhood, to be able to experience again ‘the newness that was in every stale thing / when we looked at it as children’.  In those far off days of infancy, he could experience wonder at the sight of a hill, a bog-hole or a cart-track.  However, as he has aged and matured, this childhood sense of wonder has been eroded and destroyed.  The poet, like other adults, has allowed contact with the world and with the pleasure of the senses (‘We tested and tasted too much, lover’) to dissipate what he calls ‘the luxury of a child’s soul’.  The problem posed in the poem is how can he recapture this childhood happiness again.  There is, I sense, another more selfish reason for this quest during Advent: this new-found wonder will also help him as a poet.  Now, everything he sees will be suitable subject matter for his poems.  Kavanagh finds the answer in penance, for which Advent (and Lent) were traditional seasons.  ‘The dry black bread and the sugarless tea’ of penance will help to charm back the childhood attitudes to experience.  Now, he will find happiness in looking at the simple, even banal, things of life.  By undergoing penance during the Advent season, the poet sees himself returning sin where it came from and now he will no longer need to go searching ‘for the difference that sets an old phrase burning’.  He will now see everything in a new light, even the talking of an old fool, previously tedious, will now seem delightful.  The sight of men barrowing dung in gardens will be a joyful sign of God’s plenty.  Advent penance and the renewal of religious feeling and fervour will lead to a new found peace of mind.  Metaphorically he is born again!  Now, he will no longer seek reasons or explanations for mysteries, or for griefs experienced.  He will not try to over-analyse the reasons for his new mood now that he has cast off sin.

This newly-acquired delight and celebration of simple, banal things are what connects ‘Advent’ with the Canal Bank poems.

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Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

This essay is an edited version of one written by Patrick Murray for the Inscapes Series (Inscape16: Poetry 1) entitled ‘Patrick Kavanagh Some Themes’, (p.78) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.

Austin Clarke – Three Poems Revisited

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My beloved copy of Soundings

Recently I was browsing through my precious, dog-eared and scribbled-on copy of Soundings and came across the three Austin Clarke poems featured in that anthology.  ‘The Lost Heifer’, ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’, and ‘The Planter’s Daughter’ brought back fond memories of English classes long ago!  The Clarke poems selected in Augustine Martin’s infamous Interim (!) Anthology don’t give a comprehensive view of his range as a poet but they do display his enthusiasm for Gaelic poetry. The three poems selected by Martin are, however, good examples of the way many Irish poets transposed some of the stylistic devices associated with this type of poetry into English verse.  It is also interesting to note that ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ has as its main theme the conflict between pagan and Christian values, here represented by an imagined conversation between St. Patrick and the ‘pagan’ blackbird.  This theme occupied Clarke for much of his poetic career.

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‘The Lost Heifer’

In my experience as a frazzled English teacher ‘The Lost Heifer’ always provoked puzzled reactions from my students.  The title of the poem, taken in conjunction with Clarke’s well-known fondness for Gaelic poetry, gives a clue as to what it may be about.  The cow or heifer in Gaelic poetry, especially in the Jacobite era, was often used as a secret code name for Ireland, as, for example, in such poems as ‘An Droimeann Donn Dílis’.  However, even when we are aware of this background knowledge, useful as it is, it does not get us very far into the heart of the poem.  Clarke himself has told us that the poem had its origins in the Irish Civil War of the 1920’s.  It was written at a time when, as Clarke saw it, the noble ideals and aspirations of the patriots of the War of Independence were lost or obscured in the intense bitterness and disillusionment of the war of brothers.  The heifer of the poem stood for a vision of Ireland, obscured for the moment by mist and rain, which stood for those grim forces already referred to: forces which made it difficult for those who shared the patriotic vision to find it in those grim times.

In defence of my often bemused Leaving Cert students in the 80’s and 90’s, it would be very difficult to arrive at this interpretation without the help of the poet himself!  There are certainly no obvious clues, however cryptic or obscure, to anything like a civil war background, or, indeed, to any other political backdrop whatever.  Without the poet’s explanation no student of mine, lacking the information given above, could conceivably sub-title the poem, ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’.

Part of the reason the poem defies logical explanation is that it is a symbolic representation and therefore impossible to render in logical terms.  Most attempts to convey the ‘meaning’ of such a poem are doomed to failure.  Indeed, no prose analysis could do justice to the impressionistic landscape evoked by Clarke in the poem, or to his tremendous rhythms or delicately suggested sound effects.  The notion that the heifer stands for some obscured ideal of Ireland is certainly borne out in the imagery through which the heifer is suggested, rather than presented or realised.  There is no direct glimpse of the heifer.  He builds up a picture using colour, light and shade and this contributes to the mood.  She is brought to mind; she evokes an image of loss and beauty; her presence is inferred by her tracks in the dark grasses, and by her soft voice coming across the meadow.  These delightfully delicate symbolic evocations of Ireland and of misty Irish landscapes certainly owe something to the poetry of Yeats:

I went out to the hazel wood

Because a fire was in my head

And cut and pulled a hazel wand…

It had become a glimmering girl

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air….

As in all symbolist or quasi-symbolist poems, the imagery is mysteriously echoic, capable of more than one interpretation.  A good example of this is, the implied metaphor in lines 5 and 6, ‘I thought of the last honey by the water / That no hive can find’.  At the symbolic level, one assumes that here we have an image of the heifer (and thus the idealised Ireland) as something remote and inaccessible.  But what is the precise meaning of the words?  The last honey by the water may be wild honey near a stream or river that will never be found by man, or it may be nectar that no hive of bees can reach.

The poem is a fine illustration of Clarke’s ability to manipulate vowels and consonants to provide wholly pleasing sound-effects.  Here he is indebted to features of the Gaelic poetic tradition.  He strives here to copy the Gaelic poets’ use of internal rhyme, consonance and assonance with great dexterity:

When the black herds of the rain were grazing….

And the watery hazes of the hazel….

That no hive can find…..

Brightness was drenching through the branches….

Indeed, the poem has a very elaborate and ingenious sound pattern.  The poet uses rhyme, line-length and sound correspondence in the shaping of this lyric. (You can explore this further by following the ‘ay’ sound through the poem).  And by comparing the first and last lines of the poem I feel that there is a progression, a sense of completeness, and a sense of hope for the future, as the ‘black herds’ in line one, lost and obscured by the mountain mist,  become clearer as the mist becomes rain.

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‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’

‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ is somewhat easier to comprehend than ‘The Lost Heifer’.  Clarke based this poem on another famous poem in the Irish language called ‘Lonn Doire an Chairn’, a standard anthology piece taken from the Irish in a sequence known as the ‘Colloquy of the Old Men’.  Anyone familiar with Clarke’s source will realize that his poem is not a direct translation, but a very free adaptation.  In the Irish poem, Oisin is the speaker, and his main theme is the joyful, carefree life of the Fianna, symbolised by the glorious singing of the blackbird, this life being contrasted with the devout austerities of St. Patrick, who is encouraged to forgo his asceticism for the beauties of the natural life.  Clarke’s poem sets the Christian and pagan ways of life in sharp contrast.  His speaker is the blackbird, who tries to persuade Patrick to abandon the rigours of his religious practice and participate in the joys of nature.  The argument or dialogue, however, is very one-sided and Patrick’s values are given short shrift.  Religion is represented by ‘God’s shadow in the cup’, the ‘mournful matins’, and the handbell ‘without a glad sound’.  Against this, we have the lively evocation of happy nature: the bright sun, the singing of the birds, Fionn’s keen response to the sights and sounds of the natural world.

The most interesting thing about the poem is the twist Clarke provides us with at the end which is not in the original.  The Irish source has no hint of the blackbird’s threat to Patrick and all he represents.  The ‘knowledge’ that is found among the branches is presumably, the kind available to those who give themselves up to the spontaneous enjoyment of, and involvement in, nature.  At the end, the blackbird is suggesting that this knowledge will ultimately overcome the Christianity which now threatens to overthrow it, and will send Christians and their faith packing for good.  The line ‘will thong the leather of your satchels’ seems to mean ‘will cause you to pack your bags and go’.

Here in this poem Clarke again makes use of the main stylistic devices of Gaelic poetry: alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance and consonance: note for instance in the opening stanza the poet uses,

(a) cross-rhyme – ‘bough-top’ / ‘cup now’;

(b) assonance – ‘brighter’ / ‘nightfall’, and the more unexpected internal echoes like, ‘whistling’ / ‘listen’;

(c) alliteration – ‘Mournful matins’ and so on.

You have my permission to explore the other stanzas yourself!

The last two stanzas juxtapose the free and easy life of Fionn and the Fianna and the restrictive and unattractive austerity of the Christian monks in their prayer cells.  The final two lines see a return to the beginning.  The blackbird has the last word and this suggests that the blackbird’s view holds sway and very soon the monks and their asceticism and prayers will be sent packing.  In the light of recent returns from our Central Statistics Office maybe we can say that the poet is being prophetic here!

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‘For the house of the Planter / Is known by the trees’

 ‘The Planter’s Daughter’

The most interesting feature of ‘The Planter’s Daughter’, a very slight poem, is the indirectness of Clarke’s method of presentation of his subject.  She is not named and her family is referred to in a somewhat derogatory manner – they are Planters.  The planter’s daughter, like the lost heifer, is suggested rather than described.  Again, Clarke shows his command of delicate sound effects, particularly internal rhyme and half-rhyme:

They say that her beauty

Was music in mouth

And few in the candlelight

Thought her too proud….

It is a simple lyric and her beauty is registered indirectly, culminating in the three powerful metaphors in the final lines:

As a bell that is rung

Or a wonder told shyly

And O she was the Sunday

 In every week,

The society depicted in the poem is one reminiscent of images of Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The Big House belongs to the planter, a landowner brought in by the British and settled on the good land which had already been confiscated.  We have all read in our history books about these Plantations – the most famous or infamous being the Plantation of Ulster.  The planter has so much land he can afford to plant trees around his house for decoration, unlike the peasants who farm the barren hillsides.  Clarke himself commented: ‘In barren Donegal, trees around a farmstead still denote an owner of planter stock’.

The planter’s daughter evokes differing responses in those who see her passing on her horse on in her carriage.  The men admire her elegance and her beauty and the women are jealous and gossip among themselves.  This clever, subtle juxtaposition is very well observed by the poet: the men ‘drank deep and were silent’, suggesting a toxic mix of resentment, envy and awe, while ‘The women were speaking / Wherever she went’.

His indirect treatment of the planter’s daughter creates a mystique around her.  The locals don’t really know her so they fantasise and use their imaginations to fill in the blanks of her life.  She is placed on a pedestal by them and they admire and envy her in equal proportions.  The poet manages to balance this admiration for the planter’s daughter with a sense of a latent resentment among the local population.

So, rummage around in the old familiar places, your bookshelves or even the attic for your own copy of Soundings and take a trip down memory lane…….

About the Poet….

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Austin Clarke (1896 – 1974)
Austin Clarke was born in 1896 in Dublin and educated at Belvedere College and University College Dublin.  He succeeded Thomas McDonagh, who had been executed for his part in the 1916 Rising, as a lecturer in the English Department there in 1917 and continued to work in this position until 1921.  He spent the next 12 years in England working as a critic and book reviewer, until his final return to Ireland in the nineteen thirties.  Clarke was one of the leading Irish poets of the generation after W. B. Yeats.  he also wrote novels, plays and memoirs.  His main contribution to Irish poetry was the rigour with which he used technical means borrowed from classical Irish language poetry when writing in English.
Effectively, this meant writing English verse based not so much on metre as on complex patterns of assonance, consonance, and half rhyme. Describing his technique to Robert Frost, Clarke said: “I load myself down with chains and try to wriggle free.”  His later verse is inclined to be increasingly satirical.  He is regarded by many as one of Ireland’s greatest poet since Yeats.

An Analysis of ‘Follower’ by Seamus Heaney

                             

Follower

 

My father worked with a horse plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

– from Death of a Naturalist, 1966

 

Commentary:  This poem appears in Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966. In this collection, Heaney is keen to introduce himself and tell us where he comes from. The collection includes poems such as ‘Digging’, ‘Churning Day’, ‘Early Purges’, ‘The Diviner’ and ‘Follower’.  All of these poems reflect his farming background and they depict a world view and country crafts and skills that are now redundant and no longer to be readily seen in the Irish countryside.  We are introduced to men who dig in gardens, men who cut turf, who sell their cattle at the local fair, and who rid the farmyard of unwanted kittens.  Heaney tells us that he intends to follow in their footsteps – to dig ‘down and down for the good turf’, to plough his lonely furrow as a poet.

The theme of this poem is the relationship between father and son.  In poetry, fathers are constant ghostly shadows offering nostalgic, intimate images of a safe and tender childhood.  Heaney explores this theme here in ‘Follower’ and in many other poems like ‘Digging’ and ‘The Harvest Bow’.  In ‘The Harvest Bow’, Seamus Heaney’s father, Patrick, emerges as a strong ‘tongue tied’ man, a man of action and of few words.  He has fashioned the harvest bow for his son as a ‘throwaway love-knot of straw’.  The poem is a tender exploration of the Father/Son relationship and it is clear that an unspoken understanding has grown between them, lovingly expressed by the harvest bow which Heaney fingers and reads ‘like braille ….. gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’.  Heaney then translates what he has read and puts it into words which he fashions and plaits and weaves into a tender ‘love-knot’ of a poem.  In ‘Digging’ he explores other aspects of this same theme.  He looks down from his window and paints a rather unflattering picture of his father, ‘his straining rump among the flowerbeds’ reminds him of a scene twenty years earlier as his father was digging out potatoes on the home farm.  Here, in ‘Follower’ he juxtaposes his father’s patience with him as a child with his own grown up impatience and annoyance,

                                                But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.

The poem is titled ‘Follower’ and Heaney invites us to explore the various meanings of the word as it is used today – he follows in his father’s footsteps, we follow Man United, she is a follower of Christ, a disciple.  The poem ends with a denouement when the roles are suddenly reversed and now the father is seen ‘stumbling behind me’.  The great irony here, of course, is that Heaney was not a follower – he was a trailblazer, a man outstanding in his own field, so to speak!  Mark Patrick Hederman OSB,  former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, uses a lovely analogy to describe poets and other artists in his book, The Haunted Inkwell– he says that artists are like the dove that Noah released from the Ark after 40 days to check if the waters were receding. Eventually, the third dove brought back an olive branch – we need trailblazers and scouts like that to go before us, to take the risks, and help us explore our unchartered waters.  Heaney is a poet, like Kavanagh and Hartnett, who has remained attached to his home place and the values and the traditions of his parents, ‘All I know is a door into the dark’.  We can be grateful that our poets are pioneers, working at the frontier of language.  They are translators, translating for us events that we cannot grasp.

These early poems in Death of a Naturalist are all metaphors, endeavouring to crystallise the meaning of art and the role of the artist in our world – the poet is described as gardener, turf-cutter, as diviner, as smithy, as ploughman.  He celebrates this local craftsmanship – the diviner, the digger, the blacksmith and the breadmaker and he hankers back to his childhood and the community of that childhood for several reasons.  Indeed, part of the excitement of reading his poetry is the way in which he leads you from the parish of Anahorish in County Derry outwards in space and time, making connections with kindred spirits, both living and dead, so that he verifies for us Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the local is universal.  For example in  ‘The Forge’, he appears at first glance to be looking back with fond nostalgia at the work of the local village blacksmith, Barney Devlin.  However, the real subject of the poem is the mystery of the creative process – writing poetry is like ‘a door into the dark’.  The work of the forge serves, therefore, as an extended metaphor for the creative work and craftsmanship of poetry.

In ‘Follower’, like ‘Digging’, he continues to use this extended metaphor as he focuses on his father as farmer and ploughman.  His father is ‘an expert’.  He recalls precious scenes and memories from his childhood with great accuracy.  He mentions the plough and all its individual parts, ‘the shafts’, ‘the wing’, ‘the bright steel-pointed sock’, the horse’s ‘headrig’.  The opening lines cleverly introduce the simile of his father’s shoulders ‘globed like a full sail’ and he then follows this with the exquisite metaphor of his father as ancient mariner using angles and eyesight ‘mapping the furrow exactly’ while the young Heaney struggles and stumbles ‘in his hob-nailed wake’.  His childhood is spent in his father’s shadow and he decides that ‘I wanted to grow up and plough’.  Similar to ‘Digging’, the very first poem in Death of a Naturalist, he wants to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and dig except he realises that ‘I’ve no spade to follow men like them’.  Instead, he decides that he will follow in their footsteps but instead of a spade he will dig with his pen:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

‘Follower’ ends with a jolt.  The poet is suddenly back in the present, the childhood reverie over.  He juxtaposes the past with the present: his youthful self,

.. was a nuisance, tripping, falling,

Yapping always.

This memory is sharply contrasted with the awkward reality that time has passed and now it is his ageing father who is the ‘nuisance’,

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me and will not go away.

During the last three verses, the poet returns to the present time and he says that nowadays his father is the one who is stumbling behind him because of his age. The word ‘Behind’ used by Seamus Heaney in the last verse, forces us to accept the total reversal of roles which have taken place.  The poet is no longer the follower and now his once stoical and patient father struggles to keep up as his impatient twenty-seven-year-old son sets sail on his own adventure.  He has finally moved out of his father’s shadow and now must plough his own unique and lonely furrow.

The poem is one of many which pays homage to the poet’s humble beginnings in Bellaghy, Mossbawn, and Anahorish.  It is interesting to note that many of the later poems in this collection, Death of a Naturalist, describe his developing relationship with Marie Devlin, his future wife (the collection is dedicated to her).  Surefooted, he begins his odyssey away from Mossbawn and on to Belfast, Glanmore, Oxford and Harvard, and into our hearts forever.

At+the+headrig,+with+a+single+pluck

 

Exploring Michael Hartnett’s early development as a poet….

Bridget Halpin’s Small Farm in Camas

Formative Influences on the young Michael Hartnett

brigid-halpins-cottage-today

Brigid Halpin’s cottage in Camas as it is today. The photograph is by Dermot Lynch.

 

Bridget Halpin, formerly Bridget Roche, was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale in 1885 to parents John Roche and Marie Moloney.  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.  Later on that year on April 2nd, 1911, the Census returns for Camas in the parish of Monagea, record Michael Halpin, aged 36, living with his new wife Bridget Halpin, then aged 26.  Michael’s mother Johanna, aged 74, and her daughter, Michael’s sister, Johanna, aged 23, also lived in the house.

Michael Halpin, Bridget’s husband, was born on 2nd June 1876 in Camas.  He was one of thirteen children born to Denis Halpin and Johanna Browne between 1866 and 1890.  Denis Halpin, Michael’s father, was born c. 1834 in Cleanglass, in the parish of Killeedy, and he married Johanna Browne on the 18th February 1865 in the Catholic Church in Tournafulla.  He was 31 years of age and Johanna Browne was 25.  Living conditions were very harsh and infant mortality was very high and as many as seven of their thirteen children died in their infancy or childhood due, no doubt, to the severity and austerity of the times.  Six of their thirteen children survived: Margaret, Kate, Michael, Denis, Cornelius, Johanna.

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 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 central to some of the decisions and seismic changes which he made in his poetic direction in the 1970’s.  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.  This essay, therefore, is an effort to throw some light on this woman and gently probe her background and genealogy and it also seeks to untangle some of the myths, many self-generated, which have grown up around Michael Hartnett himself.

In April 1911 when the Census was compiled, there were four inhabitants of the thatched cottage in Camas: Michael Halpin, his new wife Bridget (née Roche), his mother Johanna and his sister Johanna who was soon to emigrate to the United States in late May 1911.  By June of that year, Michael and Bridget Halpin were setting out on their married life together and they also had the care of Michael’s mother, Johanna.  Over the coming years, they had six children together, 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.  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 Con Kiely until a new cottage was built a short distance away by a Roger Creedon for the princely sum of £70.  The family moved into their new home in 1931 and this is the structure that still stands today.  According to Michael Hartnett himself 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.

Bridget Halpin’s youngest daughter, Ita Halpin, later married John Joe Dore, who lived on a neighbouring farm.  He was a well-known sportsman, hurling historian and founder member of Killeedy GAA Club.  They had one son, Joe Dore, who today is a well known Traffic Warden in Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale.  Today, he is the owner of what was formerly Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas, having inherited it from his uncle, Denis Halpin.   John Joe Dore died in 2000 aged 85.   Bridget Halpin, immortalised by her grandson, Michael Hartnett, in his poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ is buried with her daughter Ita Halpin (Dore) in the grounds of the old abbey in Castlemahon Cemetery.  Her grave is as yet unmarked.

Ita Halpin’s sister, Bridget Mary, who was born on 1st May 1918 later married Denis Harnett (born 20th July 1914) from North Quay, Newcastle West on the 28th of June 1941 in Newcastle West and they had six children.  Michael Hartnett[1] was the eldest and he had one sister, Mary, and four brothers, William, Denis, Gerard, and John. (Two siblings, Patricia and Edmond, also died as infants). Times were difficult for the Harnett family; they did, however, receive some good fortune when they moved into a house, in the newly built local authority development, Assumpta Park, in the 1950s.   Joe Dore, Michael’s first cousin, recalls that during the war years (1941-1945 in Michael’s case) Michael was often brought to Camas in a donkey and cart to be looked after by his grandmother and his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin), who was now working ‘the small farm’.   Joe Dore recalls that ‘his other brothers came to stay as well, especially Bill, but Michael, being the eldest, was the favourite of his grandmother’ – no doubt because he was her daughter Bridget’s first-born and also that he had been called Michael after her late husband.   Joe Dore remembers that ‘Michael was a big boy when I knew him as he was twelve years older than me, as I was the last of the grandchildren to be reared by my grandmother and Uncle Denis also’.

This essay seeks to clarify some of Michael Hartnett’s claims concerning his grandmother, Bridget Halpin.  Interestingly, most of these erroneous claims stem quite remarkably from the poet himself!  His Wikipedia page tells us that,

…  his grandmother, was one of the last native speakers to live in Co. Limerick, though she was originally from North Kerry. He claims that, although she spoke to him mainly in English, he would listen to her conversing with her friends in Irish, and as such, he was quite unaware of the imbalances between English and Irish, since he experienced the free interchange of both languages.

Writing in the Irish Times in August 1975  Hartnett wrote:

My first contact with Gaelic – as a living language – was in 1945 when I went to stay with my grandmother.  She was a “native” speaker and had been born in North Kerry in the early 1880s.  She rarely used Gaelic for conversation purposes but a good fifty percent of her vocabulary was Gaelic – more especially those words for plants, birds, farm implements, etc. …….. I learnt some two thousand words and phrases from her.  It was not until her death in 1967 that I realised I had known a woman who embodied a thousand years of Gaelic history (Hartnett, ‘Why Write in Irish?’, p.133).

We have already noted that Bridget Roche (neé Halpin) was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale, County Limerick.  While this area is steeped in Irish culture and music it was not particularly noted for its native Irish speakers in the late 1800’s.  In the 1901 Census returns for Camas Upper and Camas Lower respondents were asked a question concerning their knowledge of the Irish language.  In Camas Upper and Lower 36 people out of a total of  175 counted in the census stated that they were proficient in ‘Irish and English’, including Johanna Halpin, Bridget Halpin’s future mother-in-law.  This works out at 20% of respondents.  In the 1911 Census returns, the year Bridget Roche married Michael Halpin, respondents were asked the same question and 29 adults responded.  In the 1911 Census, there is no division of the townland and the total number enumerated in the Census is lower at 141.  The percentage of respondents who said they had proficiency in Irish and English remains at 20%, however.  Interestingly, and this may, of course, suggest a certain carelessness in compiling the statistics of the census on behalf of the local enumerator, there is nothing in the returns for the Halpin family to suggest that they are proficient in Irish, although both Johanna and Bridget are marked present.

His often repeated claims about Bridget Halpin’s prowess in the Irish language are, therefore, exaggerated.  She obviously had many phrases and sayings in Irish but it is very doubtful if she had the capacity to carry out a conversation in Irish. Therefore, the myth that Michael Hartnett picked up a new language by osmosis or by listening to Bridget, ‘the native Irish speaker’ or her cronies while he lay in the loft during acrimonious card games is largely that, a myth.  The reality is that his love of the language was also developed by his study of and admiration for the poets of the Maigue and the Bardic past.  It was also helped by his study of Irish in school, in Irish College in Ballingeary and by his association with many poets and dramatists writing in Irish and also by his relationships in the early nineteen-sixties, particularly his relationship and collaboration with Caithlín Maude and his later collaboration in the 1980’s with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, translating her first volume, Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, into English.

Hartnett’s public comments and writings also cause some confusion concerning Bridget Halpin’s age.  In the acclaimed documentary directed by Pat Collins in 1999, shortly before Hartnett’s untimely demise, entitled ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, Hartnett states that Bridget Halpin was born in 1870, when in fact we know from Census returns that she was born in 1885.  He also states that she was 93 when she died in 1967 when in fact she was a mere 80 years of age when she died in 1965!

It is clear, therefore, that many of these claims regarding his grandmother are greatly exaggerated.  For example, he has stated on numerous occasions that he was effectively reared by his grandmother from a young age on her small farm in Camas.  However, from school attendance records we learn that Michael Hartnett attended the Courteney Boys National School in Newcastle West on a regular basis from September 1949 when he entered First Class (having attended the Convent School, now Scoil Iosaef, for Junior and Senior Infants) until June 1955 when he completed Sixth Class.  His attendance during those years was exemplary, rarely missing a day, this, despite his claims in the documentary, ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, that he was ‘a sickly child, and still am’.  He then transferred to St. Ita’s Boys Secondary School, then housed in the Carnegie Library in the town to pursue Secondary Education.  His sojourns to Camas would, therefore, only have been at weekends and during school holidays as it was at least a four-mile walk.  However, it is not contested that the small farm in Camas and Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, played a very important role in providing sustenance and much-needed nourishment for the young Harnett family in Maiden Street during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Michael Hartnett’s first cousin, Joe Dore, has clear recollection that ‘the poet’ was a frequent visitor to Camas, ‘except when there was hay to be saved’.  John Cussen, local historian and friend of the poet says that,

‘Michael Hartnett and I were in the same class in the Courteney School for several years until 1954 when I went to Boarding School (in Glenstal).  We were good friends.  He was certainly always living in town at that time.  I do not recall him ever talking about his grandmother or his sojourns in Camas with her.  We were too busy swopping comics which was all the rage at the time!’

Patrick Kavanagh says in his poem, ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stobling’,    ‘Once upon a time / I had a myth that was a lie but it served’.   Hartnett, too, had his myths and why not?  In the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ he states:

I have told ye no big lies and most of the truth –

not hidden the hardships of the days of our youth

when we wore lumber jackets and had voucher boots

  and were raggy and snot-nosed and needy.

We can ascribe various motivations for these claims by the poet but the most credible is that he wanted to portray his grandmother as the quintessential  ‘nineteenth-century woman’ who never came to terms with the political, social and cultural changes which were brewing in Ireland in the late nineteenth century.  He saw her as a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland.  In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so his poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”, which he described as ‘an apology’ to his grandmother, can also be read as a post-colonial lament.  Therefore, it would have been more convenient if she had been born in 1870 rather than 1885.   Hartnett always considered Bridget Halpin to be a woman ‘out of her time’.  She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13).  To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,

she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.

He has placed Bridget Halpin on a pedestal for his own good reasons.  He saw in her a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseogs of the countryside.  This is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn.  There is an underlying paganism here which is absent from Kavanagh’s work, whose poetry, in general, is suffused with orthodox 1950’s Catholic belief, dogma and theology.  For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, 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.   His poem, “A Small Farm”, has great significance for the poet and it is the first poem in his Collected Poems, edited by Peter Fallon and published by The Gallery Press in 2001.  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’, the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’ (“A Small Farm”).  The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but interestingly 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’ (ibid) in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh.  Yet, it is here that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and often to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ 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.

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.

We know that Michael was in Morocco when Bridget Halpin died in 1965 in St. Ita’s Hospital in Newcastle West where she was being cared for.  In this poem there is also a reference to his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin) who helped rear him and who was eventually to inherit the small farm from his mother, Bridget when she died,

You died in utter loneliness,

your acres left to the childless.

Hartnett is taking a great risk here, that of alienating those closest to him with his disparaging comments on his relations.    We know that this trait of outspokenness was to become a feature of his art; his poetry was often scathing and rebellious.  However, in this regard, surely the biggest risk he takes is in the first lines of “Death of an Irishwoman”, when he describes his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, as ‘ignorant’ and ‘pagan’.  This is nearly as risky and risqué as Heaney’s bold and brave comparing of his wife to a skunk in the poem of that name!  Only a favourite, a truly loved one could get away with such braggadocio!  The poem’s ending, however, with its exquisite cascade of metaphors surely makes amends for his earlier gaffe.

Therefore, the townland of Camas and Bridget Halpin’s small farm holds a very special place and influence on Michael Hartnett’s psyche.  His first published work appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955 while he was still in Sixth Class in the Courteney Boys School.  He was thirteen.  Entitled “Camas Road”, it describes in particular detail an evening rural vista of the townland of Camas, a place which would feature on numerous other occasions in his poetry, becoming central to his development as a poet.  It is similar to Heaney’s “Sunlight” poems representing an idyllic childhood upbringing.  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, seemingly authentic words and images from the poet’s experience placed together with those gleaned from the literary prop-box crafted by Manley Hopkins or Wordsworth, testament, no doubt,  to the young poet’s  voracious appetite for reading and possibly due to the influence of his teacher, Frank Finucane.   It is doubly imitative, drawing upon the romantic tradition of nature poetry, as well as the more local genre, poems written by local poets, people, ‘like Ahern and Barry before me’poems written exclusively for local consumption.  Thirteen-year-old Hartnett depicts an idyllic setting,

A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge,

A cottage thatched with golden straw,

The harshness of later poems is not evident and the poem serves as a record of his childhood in Camas surrounded by nature and its abundant riches.  However, at poem’s end there is a growing awareness that this idyllic phase of his life is coming to an end and he declares rather poignantly,

The sun goes down on Camas Road.

The townland of Camas is also central to an episode which the poet recounts for us in his seminal poem, “A Farewell to English”.  This encounter hovers somewhere between reality and dream, aisling (the Irish word for a vision) or epiphany.  The incident takes place at Doody’s Cross as the poet walks out one summer’s Sunday evening from Newcastle West to the cottage in Camas.  He is on his way to meet up with his uncle, Dinny Halpin.  He sits down ‘on a gentle bench of grass’ to rest his weary feet after his exertions when he sees approaching him three spectral figures from the Bardic Gaelic past – Andrias Mac Craith, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, and Daíbhí Ó Bruadair.  These ‘old men’ walked on ‘the summer road’ with

Sugán belts and long black coats

with big ashplants and half-sacks

of rags and bacon on their backs.

They pose as a rather pathetic group, ‘hungry, snot-nosed, half-drunk’ and they give him a withering glance before they take their separate ways to Croom, Meentogues and Cahirmoyle, the locations of their patronage, ‘a thousand years of history / in their pockets’.  Here Hartnett is situating himself as their direct descendent and the inheritor of their craft and the enormity of this epiphany occurs at Doody’s Cross in Camas: the enormity of the task that lies ahead also terrifies and haunts Hartnett.

As another part of the myth that he had created, Hartnett always laid great emphasis on the fact that he had been born in Croom.  He was immensely proud of this fact.  In an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll for Poetry Ireland he stated:

I am the only ‘recognised’ living poet who was born in Croom, County Limerick, which was the seat of one of the last courts of poetry in Munster: Sean Ó Tuama and Andrias MacCraith.  When I was quite young, I became very conscious of these poets and, so, read them very closely indeed (Dennis O’Driscoll Interview for Poetry Ireland, p, 143).

Andrias Mac Craith (c. 1709 – c. 1794), in particular, was an important influence on Hartnett.   MacCraith had, for a time, very close associations with the town of Croom in County Limerick (although, it is believed, he had been born in Fanstown near Kilmallock).  As already mentioned, Hartnett had long dined out on the fortuitous coincidence that he too had strong associations with Croom having been born there.   However, he neglects to inform us that most of the babies born in Limerick in 1941 were also born in St. Nessan’s Maternity Hospital in Croom!  He would have been in Croom for less than a week before he returned to Lower Maiden Street to the accommodation which his family rented from the eponymous Legsa Murphy who also owned a bakery near Forde’s Corner in Upper Maiden Street.  However, in the mid to late 1700’s Andrias MacCraith, who was also known as An Mangaire Sugach or The Merry Pedlar (he was not a pedlar, but a roving schoolmaster), and his fellow poet and innkeeper, Sean Ó Tuama an Ghrinn (Sean O’Tuama The Merrymaker), had transformed Croom into a centre for poetry and the seat of one of the last ‘courts’ of Gaelic poetry.  The town became somewhat notorious and became known widely as Cromadh an tSughachais, roughly translated as Croom of the Jubilations – (today it would obviously be known as Croom of the Craic)!  Hartnett would have loved this vibrant, anarchic milieu and this is why Mac Craith had such an influence over him.  Hartnett saw himself as a natural descendent of these poets and the motivation behind his ‘rebel act’ in 1974 was largely an effort to  revive the interest in Irish, and poetry in Irish, which had  earlier been generated by these poets who were known collectively as the Maigue Poets, in honour of the River Maigue which runs through Croom.  His lovely poem, “A Visit to Croom, 1745” is his effort to recreate the tragic changes that were imminent, he tells us he had walked fourteen miles ‘in straw-roped overcoat’,

…… to hear a  Gaelic court

Talk broken English of an English king.

As with almost everything that surrounds Hartnett, therefore, our task is to try to discern fact from fiction, myth from reality.  We know that Hartnett was a frequent visitor to Camas until he was twelve or thirteen and that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, considered him to be her favourite grandson.  We also know that there were fragile remnants of a dying language and culture and customs still evident in the area.   His later momentous disavowal of his earlier work in English and his abandonment of his standing as an emerging poet in 1974 is not hugely surprising when we consider the influences brought to bear on him during those extremely important formative years in Camas.  Surely those beautiful, descriptive, soothing Irish adjectives repeated as a mantra in “A Farewell to English”, ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’, which are used to describe the raven haired buxom barmaid in Moore’s Bar or Windle’s Bar in Carrickerry, could also be used to describe his grandmother, Bridget Halpin herself?  The encounter depicted in the second section of the poem, “A Farewell to English”, and referred to earlier, can also be read as an example of Hartnett realising what he suggests artists do in his beautiful poem, “Struts”.  He is,

……. climbing upwards into time

And climbing backwards into tradition.

 So, Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris’s 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 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’!  In his own words, he has told us ‘no big lies’ and, though questionable, there was, we believe, ‘method in his madness’.  When we examine closely his impressive body of work we notice that apart from Camas very few other rural places are mentioned or named in his poetry.  He later left and went to Dublin, London, Madrid, Morocco but when he had work to finish he came back to rural West Limerick and to another beautiful neighbouring townland, Glendarragh,  to embark on the work for which he will, if there is any justice, be best remembered.

Works Cited

‘A  Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999

Hartnett’s Wikipage

Hartnett, Michael. Why Write in Irish? in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.133

Hartnett, Michael.  Collected Poems, Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2001.

Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta. Translated by Michael Hartnett, Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1986.

O’Driscoll, Dennis. Michael Hartnett Interview in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.143

Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012.

Sources:  My gratitude is extended to Joe Dore and John Cussen for their invaluable assistance in compiling this piece of research.

[1] Michael Hartnett’s family name was Harnett, but for some reason, he was registered in error as Hartnett on his birth certificate. In later life, he declined to change this as it was closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide.  

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Bridget Halpin’s derelict cottage as it was in early 2017. The cottage is presently undergoing a major extension. (Photo Credit: Dermot Lynch)

In Memoriam Sheila Hackett

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Michael Hartnett on Confirmation Day circa 1953

In Memoriam Sheila Hackett

By Michael Hartnett

No great dreams were found

in our nineteen-forties streets:

Newcastle West

slowly turned its face

from a bitter past.

We were a complicated sum perhaps

but made of simple needs

and demanded no world-changing vision.

We moved along the scale

living our own lives,

made separate, but never split,

by time’s long division.

We remained a stable number

that certainly would last:

whatever we had become

we began with simple hearts.

But suddenly one friend is cancelled out

and the long subtraction starts.

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

Michael Hartnett wrote a number of beautiful poems about significant friends and relations who had died.  These poems were the equivalent of the more traditional Mass Cards given to the family of the bereaved in Ireland.  These poems were often handed to members of the bereaved family in the days and weeks following the funeral by the poet himself, often handwritten on loose pages from Hartnett’s own notebooks.

This poem ranks highly with those already written for his little three-year-old sister, Patricia, who died on May 10th in 1952 when Michael was ten (‘How goes the night, boy?…’)  and his lament ‘For Edward Hartnett’,  written for his infant brother Edmond P. Harnett, who was born on 12th October, 1942 and died on 29th November, 1942.  We also remember his beautiful poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, composed for his grandmother Bridget Halpin and also the poignant ‘Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith’.

Sheila Hackett was a life-long friend of Hartnett’s.  She later married Ned O’Dwyer who was a painter and decorator by trade like Michael’s father, Denis Harnett.  This is why in his letter accompanying the poem Hartnett suggests to Mike O’Donoghue that maybe the title of the poem should be changed to ‘In Memoriam Sheila O’Dwyer’.   Thankfully and very wisely Mike O’Donoghue didn’t change a comma in the original. (See copy of letter below).  Ned O’Dwyer served for many years in Newcastle West as a Labour Party County Councillor.  Indeed, Michael Hartnett, who had inherited the Labour gene from his father Denis Harnett, acted as Ned’s Election Agent for a number of Local Government election campaigns held in the late seventies and early eighties.

However, he has fond memories of the young Sheila Hackett and prefers to remember her as she was then, the local girl, some years his senior, with whom he used to swop comics with in the ‘fifties, and as he also says in his letter to Mike O’Donoghue ‘she helped me once or twice with my sums’.  The poem opens with recollections of ‘our nineteen-forties streets’.  These were austere times with a war raging in Europe and much poverty and deprivation experienced by the people of Newcastle West.  Social change was very slow and living conditions were very difficult for many in the town.  Elsewhere he has recalled these times through rose-tinted glasses but not here.  Indeed, the ‘camaraderie of the poor’ is reinforced by the constant repetition of ‘we’ in the poem.

The poem uses extended mathematical imagery and phrases learnt in school: phrases like ‘complicated sum’, ‘simple’ numbers, the word ‘scale’ which may refer to music or measurement, ‘long division, ‘stable number’ and the number ‘one’.  The poem ends with the death of Sheila Hackett; she is ‘cancelled out’ as from a ledger, and the poet is forced to confront her death and his own mortality: one of his fast friends from childhood has died and now the ‘long subtraction starts’.

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

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Work in Progress! Comments, Corrections, Clarifications Welcome.

Characters and Relationships in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

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Since Gar is the central character in this play it is important to consider his character in relation to the other characters.  What first strikes us about the play is, perhaps, the dominance of the male characters. There are only three female characters in the play – Madge, Kate Doogan, and Lizzie Sweeney – and they take up only a small part of the plot.  We could see this absence of women as an important aspect of the play – and of course, it is a failing which Friel rectified in later plays such as Dancing at Lughnasa.  Here, however, it points, we could suggest, to the absence of even greater things – warmth, love, affection, tenderness, sincerity – and this is partly correct. Gar, we notice, is motherless.  His only love affair has ended in failure.  He looks to his father for affection only to be disappointed.  Madge can only partly fulfil this need for affection which Gar so strongly expresses.  Significantly one of the few uses of the word ‘love’ in the play is in a casual and incidental context, namely, in the letter Gar has written to his Aunt Lizzy accepting her invitation (p. 56).  It would seem, therefore, that Friel is attempting to describe a world in which the ordinary affections that bring people closer together are absent.

So, we have established that female characters are missing from this play and so too are the human qualities they represent.  But a close reading of the text reveals that women seem often to be hovering in the background.  They appear as topics of conversation on more than one occasion.  Some of these occasions are slight, although others are more important.  At different instances in the play,  Gar thinks of ‘the gorgeous American women’ he will meet in Philadelphia.  In more serious moods, however, he questions Madge about his mother, and he recalls in detail his ‘love-affair’ with Katie Doogan.  Each of these occasions is accompanied by a sense of loss.  The Canon also – the epitome of the single male – is a totally emotionless character.  When ‘the boys’ come in to visit Gar, the conversation soon turns round to women.  Ned relates a story of a rather crude sexual adventure, and the boys all join in and laugh.  However, Private gives the true version of Ned’s story.  After that, Ned’s comments about ‘picking up a couple of women’ at the dance sound hollow and even pathetic.

With these points in mind, we can now consider Gar’s character in more detail.  Gar is the protagonist of the play and the entire action revolves around him.  At the start, we get a sense of his enthusiasm and his youth.  He looks forward to his departure with a keen sense of delight.  His old life is over, and he looks on his release from his father’s shop as an escape.  Typically, he thinks of America in extravagant terms: the cities, the women, the affluence, the tremendous opportunities.  These are the things he wants to experience.  But they are also the things he has no real affection for.  When Private makes his first entrance (p. 17), little episodes from the past begin to crop up in the play, past events which begin to dim Gar’s bright future.  As he thinks of his life in Ballybeg, Gar says with relief, ‘It’s all over’ (p. 17).  To this Private adds, ‘And it’s all about to begin’.  This simple sentence, Private’s first statement in the play, is truer than it first appears.  For Gar, everything does begin again, and before the play is over he relives many important episodes in his life.  From this point, the play goes on to describe his mother’s death, then the episode with Katie Doogan.  Later he will remember his childish affection for his father, the day they spent in the blue boat, as well as the nights and days he spent with ‘the boys’.

As all these memories come back to Gar his enthusiasm for America begins to wane.  When he feels hurt or threatened his principal defence is to pass it off with a laugh.  During the tea-time episode, while he sits with his father in silence, Private moves about the stage with comments directed at S.B.: ‘O God!  Priceless!  Beautiful!  Delightful!  Isn’t he a scream!’  We see the same sort of behaviour during the game of draughts, and when ‘the boys’ come to visit.  On other occasions, however, Gar’s enthusiasm deserts him.  He feels humiliated, alone, threatened, unable to laugh at his situation or to deflate it with humorous comments.  There are numerous instances of this in the play.

For example, towards the end of Episode Two, after the scene with Katie Doogan, Gar is feeling upset and confused.  Her cosy description of family life – ‘Mammy and Daddy.  They’re all at home tonight’. – is strangely disturbing to Gar who has no experience of these things.  As is usual for Gar he tries to hide his feelings, to laugh and to whistle.  His mind races over the day’s happenings and we get a confused speech from Private describing a mixture of past, present and future events.  He tries to console Gar that his situation ‘isn’t as bad as that …. Isn’t as bad as that’.  Then suddenly Gar’s mind turns back to S.B. and we get a poignant climax to the speech just before the curtain drops, ‘….say something!  Say something, father!’

For the rest of the play, Gar struggles to regain his composure.  In the rosary scene he diverts his attention by thinking of ‘those Yankee women’ and of girls with exotic names, ‘Karin and Tamara’ (p. 88).  But memories from the past keep crowding into his mind.  He remembers, ‘that wintry morning in Bailtefree and the three days in Bundoran….’  He also recalls his most precious memory, the day he spent fishing with his father on the lake, ‘and you were happy too, you began to sing….’

Music and song are important aspects of Gar’s world, indeed of the play in general.  The play’s title comes from the words of a song, and music and singing are introduced on several occasions in the play.  These musical interludes have several functions.  In the first place, they add realism to the action and are an important bridge between the characters and the audience.  Secondly, they suggest the contrast that exists within Private and Public.  While Public’s affection is for Mendelssohn and for softer Irish ballads, Private prefers ceili music and coarser Irish songs.  Thirdly, musical interludes serve to recall past events to Gar’s mind, events that he had hidden away in his memory but which music and song evoke again.  One particular touching example of this is the evocative ballad, ‘All round my hat I’ll wear a green coloured ribbon O…’.  Gar recalls this song with tremendous affection.  His father sang it at the end of their fishing trip on the lake.  For Gar, it symbolises the happiness of that day so long ago.  At the end of the play, he shyly approaches his father about this song, feeling sure that it would rekindle his memories also.  As usual, however, Gar’s efforts end in disappointment, ‘All round my hat?  No, I don’t think I ever knew that one….’.

One important aspect of Gar’s personality is seen in his relationship with the other characters in the play, particularly his father.  He criticises and parodies his father’s behaviour, and makes him the subject of humorous comments.  But he still feels a strong bond of affection for him.  It is necessary that Friel should depict Gar in this way.  If Gar rejected his father outright, his friends, and his past life in Ballybeg, then much of the drama would be lost.  The success of the play comes from the tension in Gar’s feelings towards his father, his friends and his past life.  Thus, he can laugh at his father, make fun of him verbally, but he can never reject him.  Gar calls him ‘Screwballs’, and that, if anything, is certainly a term of abuse.  But he also refers to him affectionately as ‘father’ on numerous occasions in the play.  All the efforts at reconciliation are made by Gar.  When he is rejected, we find him using words like, ‘It doesn’t matter… It doesn’t matter.  Forget it’ (p105).  W might reasonably expect that this rejection might lead to a complete loss of affection on Gar’s part.  But in fact, it never does.  Right up to the end of the play we never lose our esteem for him.  Even in the last lines, we find him expressing his concern to Madge about his father’s welfare:’….you’d led me know  if – if he got sick or anything?’

This very human side to Gar’s character is seen also in his relationship with other people in the play.  When Master Boyle enters, for example, Gar thinks: ‘God, but he’s a sorry wreck too, arrogant and pathetic’ (p.44).  In spite of this, however, he proceeds to treat Master Boyle with tremendous courtesy and respect.  The Master is in trouble with the Canon, but Gar affectionately takes his side (‘Sure everyone knows the kind of the Canon, Master’ (p.44).  He also accepts the present of his poems and helps him out with the loan of some money.  Finally, he agrees to send the Master the names of newspapers and magazines where his poems might get published.

We get an extended look at this aspect of Gar’s character in his dealings with Madge throughout the play.  We notice, for example, that he never once criticises her in any way.  Neither does he treat her as a figure of fun as he does his father and Canon 0’Byrne.  His behaviour towards her is always good-natured and affectionate.  When she tells him the news about her niece’s new baby, Gar is delighted for her sake. In Episode One we get a long speech in which Gar’s affection for Madge is clearly expressed.  Private addresses Gar with the following words: ‘And now what are you sad about?  Just because she lives for those Mulhern children, and gives them whatever few half-pence she has.  Madge, Madge, I think I love you more than any of them.  Give me a piece of your courage, Madge’ (p.38). The final scene of Episode Three provides a touching conclusion to Gar’s affection for Madge in the play.  As usual Gar’s feelings are hidden under his casual, indifferent comments, just as Madge’s true feelings are camouflaged by her gruffness.  But Gar watches her attentively in a way that he will remember for the rest of his life: ‘Watch her carefully, every moment, every gesture, every little peculiarity: keep the camera whirring; for this is a film you’ll run over and over again..’(p.110).

In the scene with ‘the boys’ Gar’s polite, submissive character is again shown quite clearly.  At the beginning of this scene, Gar is flattered that ‘the boys’ have come to see him: ‘They were on their way when I ran into them’ (p.69), he says, happily.  Soon Ned, the loudest and most boorish member of the group, dominates the conversation.  He belches, slaps his knees, talks in a loud aggressive manner.  His behaviour to Gar is somewhat uncivil, and at one point he turns on him gruffly: ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ (p.70.).  Yet Gar tries to raise our esteem for his friends by saying: ‘The boys….They  weren’t always like this, were they?  There was a hell of a lot of laughing, wasn’t there?’ (p.71).  In particular, Gar is polite and civil in his comments on Ned.  When Private tells the true version of Ned’s story (p. 73), he does so without verbal censure or abuse.  Indeed whatever element of criticism there is in this speech, it is directed at Gar himself as well as at ‘the boys’.  In the end, he accepts and is impressed with Ned’s present (‘the broad leather belt with the huge brass buckle’).  In the speech that concludes this scene, Gar thinks of his friend in amiable terms (‘Joe and Tom and big, thick, generous Ned..’). His memory of them is ‘distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious, gold..’ (p.79).

There are two scenes in the play, which describe Gar’s relationship with Katie Doogan.  Each of these scenes is completely different to the other.  In the first (pp. 27-32), Gar thinks of Katie with tenderness and blames himself for the failure of their relationship.  As he looks at her picture, all the details of their courtship come back to his memory.  Some of the few manifest displays of affection in the play are shown in this scene.  Gar thinks of Katie as ‘gentle and frail and silly’.  Here they make plans for their future, the money they will have to live on, the number of children they will have.  There is a lot of tender kissing and cuddling as they discuss and exchange ideas.  But the scene suddenly changes its tone when Gar goes to visit Katie’s father.  This is apparently Gar’s first experience of upper-class society and he feels self-conscious and ill-at-ease.  Surveying the affluence of Katie’s house, Gar’s plans for her future suddenly seem pathetic.  Even before he hears about Francis King, the rich medical student, Gar’s confidence is deflated and he is suddenly stuck for words.  Friel is obviously making an important social comment at this point.  Senator Doogan welcomes Gar quite courteously, but he doesn’t want Gar to marry Katie.  Though Gar and Katie have tremendous affection for one another, a strong class barrier separates them.  It is the prerogative of the rich to manipulate their sons’ and daughters’ lives, and that is what happens here.  Marriages are arranged with a view to money and status; emotional issues are irrelevant.  In such circumstances, Gar’s relationship with Katie was a failure from the beginning.

Katie’s second entrance in the play in Episode Two and here Gar’s behaviour is in complete contrast to their first appearance together.  Kate has since married Francis King, ‘the king of the fairies’, just as her father had planned.  Gar’s conversation at this point revolves around references to money.  He tells Katie how he hopes to study medicine, to make a lot of money, to come home when he has made his first million.  All of this is a cover-up, a pretence, as the comments of Private make clear.  Gar suddenly gets loud and aggressive.  His words and his behaviour are in complete contrast to his tender exchanges with Katie in Episode One.  The division between them is now complete.  Yet the tragedy of the situation is that he still has some feelings for her, despite his outward behaviour.  When he leaves, he is in a state of confusion.  He repeats her name and thinks about what might have been (‘seven boys and seven girls – and our daughters will be all gentle and frail and silly like you…Kate… Sweet Katie Doogan…my darling Kathy Doogan’) (p. 82).

Throughout the play, Gar’s feelings are a mixture of jubilation and misery.  By subjecting him to these conflicting emotions, Friel ensures that Gar retains the audience’s attention and sympathy.  In the play, Gar’s character is drawn in a very human and believable manner.  He is a typical, exuberant youth, prepared to take risks, unwilling to let life’s opportunities pass him by.  But there is also a deeply emotional side to his character.  He feels the need for affection, recognition and sympathy.  His character is far from perfect, as his aggressive treatment of Katie makes clear, but his relationship with others is always courteous and affable.  Katie reminds him of his past, of what might have been, and he is bitter for this reason.  She is also wealthy and established in life, while he is forced by circumstances to emigrate.

The emigration theme was a popular one in Irish literature before Friel returned to it again in Philadelphia, Here I Come!  He gives this theme tremendous emotional interest.  Gar’s reasons for emigrating have only partly to do with financial matters.  When he speaks of money or affluence his words are hollow.  So too are his numerous references to ‘the American women’.  Somehow, the image of Gar as a wealthy paramour – ‘as American as the Americans themselves’ – does not seem to fit his character as it is presented to us in the play.  His outward statements and behaviour are often belied by his inward feelings.  In his aggressive conversation with Katie, for example, he utters the following words: ‘All this bloody yap about father and son and all this sentimental rubbish about “homeland” and “birthplace” – yap! Bloody yap!  Impermanence – anonymity – that’s what I’m looking for; a vast restless place that doesn’t give a damn about the past’ (p. 81).

Gar’s words here are in complete contrast to his own personal outlook in the play.  On this statement, he is actually describing the things he cares about most, while apparently rejecting them.  If we look at individual items in Gar’s statement we see how this is true.  This ‘bloody yap about father and son’: yet he spends the greater part of the play trying to communicate with S.B., and his childhood memories of his father are all precious ones.  Gar says he wants a place ‘that doesn’t give a damn about the past’: yet in the play, we see that the past is still very much alive for him and he carefully reconsiders it at different moments.  He rejects ‘homeland’ and ‘birthplace’ as meaningless sentimental words: yet he listens attentively to Madge’s account of his own birth, and on one occasion he gives a poignant description of Ballybeg, ‘watching the lights go out over the village…’ (p. 78).  Similarly, Gar’s quest for ‘impermanence’ and ‘anonymity’ (Master Boyle’s words) is totally belied by his character in the play.  What he wants, in fact, is the exact opposite to these words: a permanent home, an individual identity, to be wanted and cared for.  In particular,  he needs to feel that he is his father’s son.

We get an interesting glimpse of Gar’s need for affection in the ‘returned emigrants’ scene in Episode Two.  Outwardly Gar rejects these people.  They are wealthy, vulgar and loud.  But what he responds to is their offer of affection, in particular, Lizzie’s gushing exuberant words: ‘My son, Gar, Gar, Gar….’ (p. 64).  Private points to this occasion as the real beginning of Gar’s wish to emigrate: ‘and this was your mother’s sister, remember.  And that’s how you were got!’  But we also feel that Lizzie Sweeney will be a poor substitute for the affection that Gar needs.  While S.B. shows too little emotion, Lizzie shows too much, and both are disconcerting to Gar.  He is put off by her mawkish kisses and her constant groping and touching.  Her physical appearance is also slightly repulsive to him.  She is small, overweight, and heavily made-up.  She is also slightly tipsy and incoherent.  Yet her display of affection for Gar is better than no affection at all and he accepts (though with certain reservations) her invitation to go to America.

His decision, however, is not irreversible.  One feels that if S.B. responded to Gar’s tentative efforts at communicating, the latter would reverse his decision, and the play would end differently.  As it is, however, the play avoids this happy resolution.  There is no easy reconciliation between father and son.  Gar, the play’s hero and victim, remains in a state of confusion to the end. Public, Private and S.B. take up the greatest part of the play.  All the important focus is centred on them, and other characters, by contrast, are less significant.  Madge occupies a position between the major characters on the one hand (Public, Private, S.B.) and the minor ones on the other hand (Canon, Master, ‘the boys’).  In Madge, Friel presents a portrait of a typical good-natured housekeeper.  She is hard-working, sometimes surly and often taken for granted.  She is also given her own distinctive voice.  Her characteristic manner of expression is through short, curt, orders.  We notice this on her first entrance in the play (‘Gar!  Your tea!…..Ah! will you leave me alone….Let me get on with my work!’).  She is constantly organising the male characters, fussing over them, yet often reprimanding them with sharp remarks.  Canon O’Byrne is obviously impressed with Madge’s witty comments (‘She’s a sharp one, Madge’).  Her function in the play is to be much more than a simple housekeeper, preparing meals, and the like.  She is also an independent voice; she stands back and assesses the principal statements and actions.  Often when the male characters are getting carried away in their conversations (as, for example, the rather loud conversation between Gar and ‘the boys’), Madge’s presence serves to dampen their enthusiasm slightly with her short, sarcastic interjections.  On other occasions, her statements point to even larger issues in the play.  In Episode One, for example, as Gar and his father sit together in total silence, Madge enters and says with cutting irony: ‘A body wouldn’t get a word in edgeways with you two’.

Madge is gruff and somewhat domineering but there is also a delicately human side to her.  She has an obvious affection for Gar, while he, is kind and gentle with her.  He confides in her, asks her questions about the past, particularly about his mother.  She is obviously saddened by Gar’s decision to leave for Philadelphia, but she puts a brave face on it and keeps her feelings hidden.  Close attention to the play shows how Friel balances Madge’s roughness with her more gentle characteristics.  Apart from her conversations with Gar, there are two other occasions in the play where we get a glimpse of the human side of Madge.  In Episode Two, after the second entrance of S.B. in the play, Madge watches his predictable movements with indifference.  Then suddenly, ‘on the point of tears’, she accuses him: ‘You sit there night after night, year after year reading that oul paper and not a tooth in your head!  If you had any decency in you at all you would keep them plates in while there’s a lady in your presence’ (p. 67).  This outburst comes as a surprise to S.B. and to the audience also.  S.B. looks on Madge in simple, functional terms.  She is his housekeeper and nothing more.  But Madge articulates the need for recognition and human contact, which the play presents so forcefully, here.  Even she has a human side to her that needs to be recognised.

The second occasion in the play when we see Madge in a similar light is in Episode One when she announces to Gar ‘with shy delight’ that her niece Nelly ‘had a baby this morning…and they’re going to call this one Madge’ (p. 37).  She is obviously elated at this simple gesture of recognition.  But later in the play, her happiness turns to disappointment.  In Episode Three she returns from her visit to Nelly’s.  She is very weary and upset.  Even S.B., who is generally not sensitive to other people’s feelings, senses that something is the matter.  ‘There’s nothing wrong is there?’ he asks.  Hesitantly Madge tells him, ‘They’re going to call it Brigid’.  There are many occasions in the play where Friel is a master of understatement, and this is certainly one of them.  He does not exaggerate Madge’s disappointment here.  But by giving it a quick fleeting mention he nevertheless draws attention to it in quite an important way.  Even gruff ageing housekeepers like Madge, he suggests, are subject to human emotions also.

Postscript: Reflecting on my first sentence in this essay a thought struck me.  The sentence reads, ‘Since Gar is the central character in this play it is important to consider his character in relation to the other characters’,  Brian Friel is very innovative in his presentation of Gar’s story and he uses the Public and Private voices of the central character in much the same way as Shakespeare used the soliloquy in his great plays.  So, the audience is given the added advantage of being able to hear the inner voice of Gar – his alter ego –  giving us an added insight into this repressed individual.  However, the thought that struck me was: what if SB was given the same facility?

 

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!here

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come! here

 

 

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Portrait of Irish playwright and dramatist Brian Friel by Donegal artist Stephen Bennett

 

 

 

 

 

The Theme of Communication in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

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Joe Dowling, who directed productions of ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ at the Abbey and Gaeity Theatres has said that the play deals primarily, ‘with the failure of people to communicate with each other on an intimate level.  It also makes us examine the nature of Irish society dominated by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster’.  Gar is being forced to leave Ballybeg because Ballybeg (and Ireland) has failed him and his generation. However, Friel is too subtle to allow us to imagine that the world Gar is about to enter in Philadelphia will be any better.

One of Brian Friel’s most important and most visited themes is that of communication. We are all familiar with the phrase ‘non-verbal communication’ and whether we are watching the referee demonstrate that he wants the TMO to view an incident at a rugby match or whether we empathise with Patrick Kavanagh as he visualises the ‘wink and elbow language of delight’ in Billy Brennan’s Barn, we can see its value.  Friel, however, introduces us to a wholly different type of communication in his plays, and especially here in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’.  This type of communication, almost exclusively Irish in origin, is what I would call ‘verbal non-communication’!

There are many striking examples of this throughout the play, probably best encapsulated by S.B. in such phrases as ‘Sure, you know I never take a second cup’ during his unchanging evening routine and  also ‘Did you set the rat traps?’ or ‘How many coils of barbed-wire came in on the mail-van this evening?’.  There are also many examples, as Gar Private reaches sensory overload, when he regresses and recites a rather quaint and obscure mantra which he obviously learnt in school during English class!:  “It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles”.  This oft-repeated phrase has no context or meaning within the play as a whole and its only function is as a perfect example of verbal non-communication!

The principal theme in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ is, therefore, the breakdown of communication between Gar and his father, S.B.O’Donnell.  This theme is the centre around which the entire play revolves.  At times it is presented very directly and forcefully.  On other occasions, it is hinted at indirectly and very subtly.  In all cases, however, it is the principal focus of attention in the play.

The communication theme is presented very dramatically in the description of Gar’s relationship with his father.  In Episode One, we saw the following exchange of dialogue between Gar and Madge:

MADGE:      He said nothing since I suppose?

PUBLIC:      Not a word.

PRIVATE:    The bugger.

MADGE:      But he hasn’t paid you your week’s wages?

PUBLIC:      £3.15S – that’ll carry me far.

MADGE:      He’ll have something to say then, you’ll see and maybe he’ll slip you a couple of extra pounds.

PUBLIC:      Whether he says goodbye to me or not, or whether he slips me a few miserable quid or not, it’s a matter of total indifference to me, Madge.

In this short dialogue, certain essential items of information are communicated to the audience.  S.B. has not yet appeared in the play, so it is necessary that we get some preliminary description of his character.  The picture that emerges here is of a person that is cold, uncommunicative, and slightly (!) miserly.  Also, we get the first indication of the conflict between Gar’s outward behaviour and inward thoughts.  While outwardly Gar pretends that his father’s lack of communication is a ‘matter of total indifference’ to him, his inward comments express anger and bitterness.  Madge arouses Gar’s expectations, and those of the audience as well, when she says, ‘He’ll have something to say….you’ll see’.  This is precisely the climax to which the whole play is directed.  The audience’s attention is engaged from the outset.

This theme becomes more obvious as the play progresses.  Its first emphatic expression is during the tea-time routine – a perfect example of what we have referred to earlier as verbal non-communication.  S.B. enters from the shop and goes through his nightly routine.  He hangs up the shop keys, he looks at his pocket watch and checks its time with the clock on the wall, he takes off his apron, folds it carefully and leaves it on the back of his chair.  Then he sits down to eat.  During all these ponderous jobs Private keeps up an endless chatter.  As the meal commences Private says, ‘ Now for a little free conversation’ (p 39.).  The tone of this is ironic, but with a touch of bitterness and sarcasm.  What we get is not, ‘a little free conversation’ at all, but precisely the opposite.  S.B. converses sporadically on boring impersonal topics.   He directs no personal remarks at Gar, nothing whatever that is even slightly intimate – this on the night before he leaves for Philadelphia, possibly forever.  As the scene continues all trace of humour fades from Private’s voice, and he makes a direct plea for communication (‘So tonight d’you know what I want you to do?  I want you to make one unpredictable remark…Go on Say it! Say it! Say it!).  This scene gives the first prolonged description of Gar and S.B. together.  What should be an occasion for communication and contact becomes, in fact, a series of embarrassing moments.   In this scene and elsewhere in the play Friel uses stage silence very skilfully.  This use of silence, of intermittent conversation only, is somewhat missed in reading the play, but it would be an important ingredient in the play’s performance. During a performance, we would notice how the tea-time scene is punctuated by long silences –  silences that are filled by Private’s comments or by the tick of the clock in the background.  This would serve to underscore the communication theme in a dramatic way by drawing attention to the large gaps in the tea-time conversation.  It also explains Madge’s ironic comments to S.B. and Gar,  ‘The chatting in this place would deafen a body.  Won’t the house be quiet soon enough – long enough?’  (P. 41).

The first of Gar’s attempts to bridge the gap between himself and his father is made in this scene, though in a slight and hesitant way.  It also meets with the usual rejection from S.B.  After a slight contention about money Gar tries to extend a hand of friendship to his father by offering him more tea. This meets with the following, predictable, remark: ‘Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p. 41).  Gar accepts this rejection and thinks,  ‘You can’t teach new tricks to an old dog’.  Following this, Private launches into a long speech that is full of obvious humour, but which has an important serious core: ’Let me communicate with someone… communicate.. pour out your pent-up feelings into a sympathetic ear.  So all I ask for the moment is that you listen  – just listen to me…’ (p. 43)By means of such comments as these, Friel keeps the theme of communication to the forefront of our attention.

We next see S.B. and Gar together at the start of Episode Three, during the rosary sequence, and the game of draughts that follow it. There is an interesting juxtaposition of past and future events in this scene.  As the rosary is being said Gar’s mind wanders.  He thinks of the future in America, and characteristically, his ideas are all exaggerated and somewhat unreal: ‘Swaggering down 56th Street… with this big blonde nuzzling up to you.  You’d need to be careful out there boy; some of those Yankee women are dynamite…’ (p.87-8).  The reverie continues with statements comparable to this.  Things of this sort are, however, remote from Gar’s experience and for this reason they fail to engage his feelings.  The real interest of Private’s speech here, is his surmising on a life in America without intimacy or friendship: ‘But you’ll never marry; never; bachelor’s written all over you.  Fated to be alone, a man without intimates; something of an enigma’ (p.88).

From here, Gar’s mind wanders back to previous incidents in the past, and his feelings are engaged more fully.  In this part of the speech, Gar’s boyhood affection for this father is the centre of interest:  ‘Do you ever dream of the past, Screwballs, of that wintry morning in Bailtefree, and the three days in Bundoran? ‘ (p. 89). Gar goes on to give the first of many descriptions in the play of the fishing trip with S.B.  He doesn’t, he admits, remembers every detail, ‘but some things are as vivid as can be’.  This occasion recalls to Gar’s mind the former sympathy between himself and his father, which is described in highly emotive terms: ‘between us at that moment there was this great happiness, this great joy – you must have felt it too – it was so much richer than a content – it was a great, great happiness, and active, bubbling joy…’  (p. 80-90).

Following this magnificent speech, one of the most poetic in the play, Gar decides to force the issued by asking S.B. if he remembers this fishing trip also.  He adopts his usual nonchalant tone as if the matter was one of indifference to him, when in fact, it’s his most precious memory: ‘‘Whatever happened to that aul boat on Lough na Cloc Cor… an old blue thing – do you remember it? (p.9).  This hesitant attempt at communication is interrupted by the Canon’s entrance. During the draughts game, Gar slips into the background.  Only one passing comment is directed at him (‘It’s getting near your time, Gareth’).  Here again, Friel makes use of silence to underline the communication theme.  Apart from the chatter of Private, the Canon and S.B. sit in almost total silence making only sporadic, predictable remarks about insignificant topics.  Private, meanwhile, hovers in the background commenting on the scene from his usual witty perspective.  But always in his speeches, there is an explicit earnestness that points to wider issues: ‘there’s an affinity between me and Screwballs that no one, literally, no one could understand…….’ (p.96).  As the Canon and S.B. sit motionless and in silence, oblivious to Gar’s presence, Private relates again the story of the fishing trip.  As often in the play, music excites Gar’s memory, reminding him of previous occasions, so also in the touching speech that ends this scene: ‘Listen! Listen! Listen! D’you hear it? D’you know what the music says? It says that once upon a time, a boy and his father sat in a blue boat on a lake on an afternoon in May, and on that afternoon a great beauty happened, a beauty that has haunted the boy ever since..’ (p.98).  For Gar, time is slowly running out.  He has patiently, waited for S.B. to make some sort of gesture towards him, some small demonstration of affection.  But as the play moves into its final scenes, the lack of communication is still firmly established.

In the last episode of the play Gar makes one final effort to reach out to his father.  Throughout the play, their spoken comments to each other have been impersonal and superficial. Now, in ‘the small hours of the morning’, Gar takes up the issue of the fishing trip in a final attempt to provoke a reaction.  Gar and S.B. are surprised and slightly embarrassed to be in each other’s company.  At the start, their conversation falls back onto the usual impersonal topics.  They talk about fencing posts, plug tobacco, tinker’s cans, ‘cookers and ranges and things’.  All personal issues are carefully avoided.  Also, we notice the same irritable behaviour on S.B.’s part.  When Gar asked him will he have more tea, S.B. gives his typical response: ’Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p.101). Yet there is some slight hint of affection in S.B. at this point.  Here, as so often in the play, Friel is a master of understatement, and in this scene, his description of S.B. is delicately and skilfully drawn.  S.B. is unable to sleep, and though we are never told why, the implication is that he is disturbed by Gar’s departure.  He awkwardly tells Gar the day’s weather forecast and he has at least enough interest in his welfare to advise him to ‘sit at the back’ of the plane, in case there was ‘an accident or anything’.  Gar notices the slight affection suggested by these remarks and he tries once again to introduce the subject of the fishing trip and the blue boat.  For a short space, their conversation takes on a new dimension.  Gar describes his memories with growing enthusiasm and S.B. listens attentively.  Then comes the final important question, and the inevitable let-down: ‘D’you remember?… No.. No.., then, I don’t.. ‘(p.105).  Here Friel raises our hopes slightly so that he can demolish them again.  This is the final appearance together of Gar and his father in the play. The same communication problems, the same misunderstandings are apparent up to the end.

Throughout the play, S.B. is depicted as a cold, uncommunicative character.  This is the picture that emerges from his initial entrance, and this picture of him lasts throughout the play.  Lizzy Sweeney’s comments in Episode Two contain brief but appropriate reference to S.B.: ‘That was the kind of us Gallagher girls wasn’t it…either laughing or crying….you know, sorta silly and impetuous, shooting our big mouths off, talking too much, not like the O’Donnell’s – you know – kinda cold…’ (p. 64).  But before the end of the play, Friel gives one last look at S.B. which shows him up in a different perspective, and which arouses the audience’s sympathy for him in a way that was not done in the rest of the play.  Indeed, S.B.’s comments in his conversation with Madge are all the more pathetic because they are unexpected.

In this final scene (pp. 106 – 108) S.B. is shown to be very human.  Because of Gar’s departure, he will have a lot more work to do himself, but he insists that he’ll ‘manage rightly’.  Suddenly we see the extra chores which Gar had to do (p. 16) in a different perspective.  In Gar’s absence, a lot more responsibility falls on S.B.’s shoulders, but he still doesn’t go against Gar’s wishes by asking him to stay.  There is also a slight hint that S.B.’s business is going into decline, ‘It’s not like in the old days when the whole countryside did with me; I needed the help then, but it’s different now…’ (p. 107).  In this matter also S.B. looks to Madge for reassurance, ‘I’ll manage by myself now. Eh?  I’ll manage fine, eh?’

The most striking reversal of sympathy for S.B. comes about through the description he gives of Gar’s first day at school.  S.B.’s memories of this event are as sharp in focus as Gar’s remembrance of the fishing –trip.  S.B. describes how he and Gar went ‘hand in hand’ to school, ‘as happy as larks, and him dancing and chatting beside me…’ (p. 107).  Their easy spontaneous communication in this scene from the past is in sharp contrast to their predicament in the play as a whole: ‘You wouldn’t get a word in edgeways with all the chatting he used to go through…’.  S.B. is aware of the sad decline in their relationship, but he places all the blame on his own side: ’Maybe, Madge, maybe it’s because I could have been his grandfather, eh?….I was too old….’.  S.B.’s last words in the play again refer to Gar, in another image of happier days: ‘In the wee sailor suit – all the chatting he used to go through…’  Both Gar and S.B., so unlike in many ways, have one common characteristic: they both hold memories of the past and of each other, but unfortunately they are different ones.  The contrast in the play is not between depth of feeling on the one hand and absence of feeling on the other.  Communication is the real problem in this play, namely the channels through which personal feelings are expressed.  Gar wrongly assumes that S.B.’s failure to remember the fishing trip suggests a lack of feeling or affection.  In fact, S.B. has his own private memories that Gar knows nothing of.  The tragedy of the play is that they are unable to communicate these memories to one another.

The communication theme of the play is principally expressed through the relationship of Gar and his father.  But it is also seen in the presentation of other episodes and characters.  A close look at the language of the play reveals an interesting feature of Friel’s use of dialogue.  Conversation is difficult for the play’s characters.  Communication of personal feelings is almost totally impossible.  The most prolonged dialogue in the play is that between Gar and his private self.  Dialogue with other people is much more difficult to achieve.  In fact, what Friel presents us with in the play is not really dialogue at all, but a series of monologues.  Characters who start talking to each other usually end up talking to, or about, themselves, and what they say is usually untrue.  We can see examples of this interesting technique on two important occasions in the play.

The first of these is in the scene with Master Boyle.  Ostensibly, the Master has called to pay his farewell to Gar.  But after a brief mention of Gar’s departure, ‘Tomorrow morning, isn’t it?’ (p. 44), Boyle’s conversation is completely given over to matters concerning himself.  He talks about his controversy with the Canon, about his poems and his own possible emigration to America.  He is also slightly formal and ill-at-ease, though we detect that unspoken feelings lurk just below the surface.  The problem of self-expression, so dominant throughout the play, is evident here also.  After a very awkward handshake and quick embrace, Boyle makes a hasty exit from the stage.

We notice a comparable use of dialogue and self-expression in ‘The Boys’ scene.  Here again what we get is not so much a dialogue but a series of short monologues punctuated by silence.  Gar’s friends speak loudly and enthusiastically about insignificant matters.  They relate stories and episodes (mostly untrue) in which the principal characters are themselves.  When they are not engaged in these personal monologues, embarrassing silences develop, which they desperately try to fill by even louder and more exaggerated accounts of their adventures.  These silences occur ‘like regular cadences’, and to defeat them, someone always introduces a fresh theme.  However, when the time comes to say good-bye to Gar, they are all pathetically stuck for words.  Tom leaves without any word of good-bye at all, whereas Ned’s farewell is embarrassed and awkward.  He stands casually at the door and says, ‘So long, Gar’ (p. 75).  He then throws his parting gift – the belt with the big brass buckle – across the room to Gar.  Despite all the loud talk about his exploits, Ned is incompetent when it comes to real displays of affection.  Here again, the problem is not that he feels no affection for Gar, but that he is unable to communicate it properly.  Joe, the youngest member of the group, makes the only sort of proper farewell to Gar.  When the others have left, Joe stays behind as a gesture of his friendship.  But even his final words to Gar are casual and superficial: ‘Send us a card, Gar, Sometime, Eh?…..Lucky bloody man….so long….’ (pp. 77-78).

The communication theme can also be seen in the episode describing Gar’s visit to Senator Doogan.  Here the theme is placed in a slightly wider context.  The scene in Doogan’s house describes not only the breakdown in communication between individuals but also between different social classes.  (Is this similar to Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘thick-tongued mumble’ in his poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’?).  The conversation with Senator Doogan is presented as a monologue.  Doogan wanders on about his personal successes and his important family connections.  He also wants the same successes and connections for Katie.  Consequently, Gar is excluded from this upper-class world.

The most extended ‘monologue’ in the play, however, is Lizzy Sweeney’s prolonged description of the events that brought about Gar’s decision to emigrate.  Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation.  She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought.  She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance.  While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly.  Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence.

What makes Gar O’Donnell’s situation so tragic then is not so much that he is so publicly inarticulate towards his father but that he fails to allow for a similar complexity in his father!  All the lines uttered by Private on Gar’s behalf might just as easily have been said on behalf of his father.  As Declan Kiberd has said, ‘Language is what comes between Gar and his freedom of expression – his education has left him fluent but not articulate and so his skill with words is greatly in excess of his emotional development’.

Friel’s concern with communication is, therefore, central to this play.  Gar has this crazy notion that language and talking and dreaming about something is the equivalent to living life.  On the one hand, Friel presents us with characters who speak too much, and on the other hand with those who speak too little. Gar’s mistake is that he foolishly equates emotion with its expression: if a feeling isn’t stated by his father, he won’t believe it’s there at all.  This has impeded their relationship and so genuine communication is virtually impossible and the end result is tragic.  The final words of both Gar and S. B. – “I don’t know” – captures their shared bewilderment and the sad fact that it is precisely this bewilderment that both connects and separates them.

You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!'” here

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!here

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