Five years after his brilliant dark comedy “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, Martin McDonagh has written and directed another brilliant tale about friendship, ambition, and loneliness. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is the best a McDonagh movie has ever looked, every scene has a visual landscape setting and the colour tone has a uniquely pleasing filter throughout. It pays homage to other ‘Irish’ classics such as “Ryan’s Daughter” and “The Quiet Man” and in its costumes and setting there are very obvious echoes of J. M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World”.
The movie is set on an island off the coast of Ireland about 100 years ago. On the mainland a Civil War is raging, where after long years of colonisation, brother is fighting brother; friends and families are being ruptured and irreparably damaged. However, the island, the last bastion of innocence, has its own demons and banshees to contend with. Inisherin is an enclosed place, a microcosm, where everything is concentrated and the surrounding sea keeps everything compressed and isolated. This island has deeply affected its inhabitants and they have each been moulded by it and damaged by its limited horizons.
McDonagh was born in London in 1970 the son of Irish parents from the West of Ireland. The backdrop to his childhood and early adulthood was dominated by ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and Britain’s most recent involvement in that sad and tragic episode in Irish history. The setting for this film, Inisherin, has only recently freed itself from the grip of British colonial domination, and the gossipy postmistress is seen painting the red postbox in the village a garish green, the colour of the new ‘Free State’. There is evidence of other colonial powers at play also: the island is home to a prominently located Catholic church and the mysterious and magical Latin Mass reminds us of the power of Rome. There is also a grotto to the Virgin Mary which stands where the road diverges.
So, this is Ireland: there’s a pub, a church, a Post Office, a thatched cottage where Pádraic Ó Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) lives with his unmarried sister Siobhán; and another hovel where Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) lives alone. Colm, who plays the violin and composes (mediocre) music, has recently become obsessed with the passing of time, with the pressing need to indulge his art in order not to be forgotten. His art now demands total exclusive focus from him, leaving no room for the banality of feelings and former friendships. Pádraic Ó Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) can’t figure out why his friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) has become hostile and refuses to speak to him. Colm’s behaviour turns darkly troubled and before long even Pádraic is acting a bit unhinged himself, especially after the departure of his sister, Siobhán, (played superbly by Kerry Condon), to the mainland. Pádraic’s repeated efforts at reconciliation only strengthen his former friend’s resolve and when Colm delivers a desperate ultimatum, events swiftly escalate, with shocking consequences.
It becomes clear there’s something beneath the surface of their friendship that is struggling to break through to see the light of day. Colm no doubt knows what it is, but Pádraic may not have quite figured it out yet. Only a few fleeting moments hint at their deep feelings for each other, but it is a subject neither of them can even articulate – much less try to fulfil.
The movie is a study of friendship on the edge of becoming something deeper, but instead, it works its way out in violent, destructive deeds. The shockingly needless maiming is a metaphor for the Civil War atrocities taking place within earshot of the islanders. What we have here is what Patrick Kavanagh would call ‘a local row’ and there is another bigger ‘local row’ in progress on the nearby mainland, again as Kavanagh would say, ‘God’s make their own importance’.
The movie tries to resolve its three main subplots and in the end, all three have their perfect conclusions and intersect cleverly. The writing is impeccable and as in “Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri” and the earlier “In Bruges”, there is a perfect blend of humour and tragedy. The three stories revolve around Pádraic trying to come to terms with the fact that his best friend Colm has rejected him; his sister Siobhán trying to find a meaningful purpose in her life and Dominic (played by Barry Keoghan), who is fighting his own demons and seeking friendship and intimacy. Indeed, Barry Keoghan’s performance as the haunted abused, and fragile Dominic is a masterclass and equals John Mill’s performance in the classic “Ryan’s Daughter”.
The wild beauty and desolate qualities of the island are captured in the cinematography and the music is perfectly sewn into the fabric of the film without drowning it. What’s so satisfying about the story, is that you’re left to interpret it for yourself. This, of course, has caused consternation on Twitter and Live Line and on other platforms because McDonagh leaves people to make up their own minds.
It is a well-told dark (even black) comedy that keeps you wanting more. McDonagh explores a myriad of largely unexplored themes at a time when Ireland was full of despair, not long after the War of Independence and a long-suffering period that brought about a post-colonial inferiority complex (which still hasn’t been fully addressed to this day). Other motifs touched on include: the struggle to achieve an Irish identity, a repressive church, superstitions, isolation, mass emigration, poverty and to top it all off a brutal civil war. This film does a great job to capture the zeitgeist of the time and to top that off the cinematography, costumes, music, and atmosphere are wonderful.
Both leads, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, as they did in “In Bruges”, knock it out of the park, and they are ably supported by the two new shining stars of Irish cinema in Barry Keoghan and the beautiful Kerry Condon. Pat Shortt who plays Jonjo Devine the publican and Jon Kenny who plays his sidekick Gerry add to the ensemble cast and they make valuable contributions to the banter and gossip in the pub scenes. (And there are also goats, a dog and a donkey, a horse, and some nondescript cattle).
And then there is the war, distant but present, with ominous explosions heard in the distance. And finally, there is the old banshee (a fairy woman), a legendary harbinger of Death in Irish folklore and legend. At times it’s hard to tell if this is a wonderful dark comedy or a Shakespearean tragedy. Served by a magisterial group of actors and actresses, this film takes you to stunning Irish landscapes and gives you a false sense of security with its comfortable scenery, cute farm animals, and lovely violin tunes in the old local shebeen … until men resort to a classic story of pride and stubbornness, mirroring the sad, pathetic and damaging Civil War being played out on the mainland.
Like a dark children’s tale, the movie seems to be a metaphor for the stupidity of war and humanity’s many contradictions. Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and a scene-stealing Barry Keoghan as Dominic are just wonderful at creating those flawed and unique men spiralling toward their destiny.
Martin McDonagh has created a fantastic piece of filmmaking here with a very timely message. The ending, like all black comedies, is pessimistic – Pádraic suggests that scores have not been settled fully – like the war of brothers on the mainland this local skirmish will be played out until the banshee’s prophecy is finally fulfilled. Dare I say it but Colm’s dog may well be Pádraic’s next target!
“The Banshees of Inisherin” is not perfect and no modern director has the ability to satisfy every critic – and there are many. Maybe I ascribe far too much credit to McDonagh in this review but I have to say I really enjoyed exploring the intricate layers of meaning suggested in the dialogue and the cinematography. For me, it is the best movie of the year so far, better even, dare I say it than “An Cailín Ciúin”. It has left me brooding long after the final credits and that’s no bad thing!
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost – How wonderful that was, how wonderful! And when we put our ears to the paling-post The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree With its December-glinting fruit we saw – O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay And death the germ within it! Now and then I can remember something of the gay Garden that was childhood’s. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place, A green stone lying sideways in a ditch, Or any common sight, the transfigured face Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodeon Outside at our gate; There were stars in the morning east And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodeon called To Lennons and Callans. As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside in the cow-house my mother Made the music of milking; The light of her stable-lamp was a star And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog, Mass-going feet Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes, Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters On the grey stone, In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland, The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over Cassidy’s hanging hill, I looked and three whin bushes rode across The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.
And old man passing said: ‘Can’t he make it talk’ – The melodeon. I hid in the doorway And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post With my penknife’s big blade – There was a little one for cutting tobacco. And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodeon, My mother milked the cows, And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
From Collected Poems (2004). Edited by Antoinette Quinn, Allen Lane. An imprint of Penguin Books, by kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of the late Katherine B. Kavanagh, through the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.
In this, one of Ireland’s most beloved and recognised poems, ‘A Christmas Childhood’, Kavanagh (21 October 1904 – 30 November 1967) explores themes of memory, coming of age, and imagination. The poem is set in 1910 and it is a memory poem. We are told that Kavanagh was ‘six Christmases of age’ but the poem also remembers and celebrates the original Christmas event almost two thousand years earlier. The poet is looking back on the magical and mysterious world of childhood and he is mourning its passing with some regret.
The poet recognises that his childhood was a time when the ordinary seemed extraordinary. Through figurative language and colourful imagery, he paints a picture of his early childhood and what it meant to be a child in those difficult times. In line one, we are presented with a factual and accurate description: ‘One side of the potato-pits was white with frost’ and line two is powered with emotion. The tone, the use of repetition and the exclamation mark in ‘How wonderful that was, how wonderful!’ convey wonder and excitement.
Similar to his poem ‘Advent’, this poem uses religion both as a theme and as its main source of imagery. Kavanagh’s spirituality is to the fore and this was very much informed and influenced by traditional pre-Vatican II Catholic theology. He desires to return to the state of childish innocence when he was six years old and Christmas surely brings out the child in all of us! Kavanagh’s well-worn theory was that if he could rediscover a world of childhood innocence he would ipso facto become a better poet. Indeed, the poem’s title gives the game away: he describes his childhood as ‘a Christmas childhood’ rather than the more limiting ‘a childhood Christmas’.
Both ‘Advent’ and ‘A Christmas Childhood’, therefore, are very religious poems – religious at a very personal level. Kavanagh’s feeling is that experience has corrupted him – in ‘Advent’ he tells us that he has ‘tested and tasted too much’ and this has echoes in this poem when he says:
O you Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it!
He wants to bring back the newness that was in the world before things grew stale through over-familiarity. In ‘Advent’ he lists the mundane things that will inspire him in the New Year: a ‘black slanting Ulster hill’ will be new again; the boring chat of a tedious old man will become wonderful; the whole ordinary, ‘banal’, common world of reality will be renewed; wonderful then will be ‘whins’, ‘bog holes’, ‘cart-tracks’, ‘old stables’. To this list, he now adds ‘potato pits’, ‘paling posts’ and,
The tracks of cattle to a drinking place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch …
The poem is in two parts: Part II first appeared in The Bell magazine (December 1940) and Part I was published in TheIrish Press (24 December 1943). Part I describes the townland of Mucker in the parish of Inniskeen, County Monaghan, and explores, from an adult’s perspective, how childhood is a time of innocence, an innocence that we inevitably lose. As a child he saw ‘An apple tree/ With its December-glinting fruit’ but just as Eve ate the apple which led to man’s Fall and sinful state, Kavanagh knows that as we leave childhood behind us we lose our innocence. The Garden of Eden is no more; but Christmas is a time when an Eden-like world becomes possible. Adulthood, says Kavanagh, blinds us to the beauty, freshness and innocence of childhood but it can be recaptured occasionally, especially at Christmas time.
Part II of the poem introduces a cast of characters – Kavanagh’s father, his beloved mother, and the neighbours. In Antoinette Quinn’s words ‘Through a series of crisp, lucid images it conjures up the child’s sense of being part of a family and a closely-knit Catholic community’. Everything is in harmony and the poem is very musical. We hear his father’s melodeon, the music that came from putting his ear to the paling-post, the music of milking, the screech of the water-hen in the nearby bog, the crunch of feet on the icy potholes along the road and also the sound of the bellows wheel in the country kitchen. And of course, the beautiful onomatopoeic line ‘I nicked six nicks on the doorpost’ which creates its own marvellous music also. The melodeon calls to the Lennons and Callans and the stars dance to his father’s music. The music unites one place to another and neighbour to neighbour. The imagery of Co. Monaghan blends with imagery from the Biblical account of Christ’s birth: ‘The light of her stable-lamp was a star’ and the ‘three whin bushes’ become ‘the Three Wise Kings’.
The poem sums up his Christmases and the things that made them memorable and precious to him – his father playing the melodeon, his mother milking the cows, the special gift of ‘a white rose’ that he gave to the Virgin and pinned it on her blouse. He was a real boy – can I say that now? – he notched his age on the doorpost – not six years but ‘six Christmases of age’!
When all is said and done ‘A Christmas Childhood’ is a chatty little poem that deals with simple things in simple, everyday language. Yet this seemingly rustic simplicity can be deceptive and underneath it all, there is the constant realisation of the presence of Christ and Christ’s mother – and perhaps all mothers. After all, the final image is that of a father and mother and child, an ordinary family and the Holy Family.
Little wonder then that at Kavanagh’s funeral in Inniskeen on the 30th of November 1967, Seamus Heaney read ‘A Christmas Childhood’ at his graveside.
Kavanagh, Patrick. Collected Poems. Edited by Antoinette Quinn. Allen Lane. An imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2004.
Quinn, Antoinette. Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography. (Second Edition). Gill Books, 2003.
Colin McPherson’s play, The Weir, first opened in London on July 4th, 1997. It was supposed to run for four weeks but, due to demand, they decided to extend it to five weeks, then eight weeks, then nine weeks, and then finally because of its continuing popularity they moved the show into a larger theatre, the Duke of York’s, in St Martin’s Lane. And it continued to play there for the next two years. It is currently running at The Abbey Theatre from 26th November until January 14th.
The play began its lengthy gestation in the 1980s when in his mid-teens, Colin McPherson found himself going to visit his grandfather, Jack McPherson, regularly. The Sligo train from Connolly swept him from his adolescent angst in Dublin to an entirely different world where his grandfather lived alone, near Jamestown in Co. Leitrim. His grandfather’s little cottage was tucked away, down a dark winding boreen that ran alongside the River Shannon with its weir which gives the play its name. Beside the house was a fairy fort no one dared disturb.
In the evenings, grandfather and grandson would sit by the fire and Colin would be regaled by his grandfather with stories from his living memory: how a stooped man named McFadden had been cured of his ailment by the fairies; but when he returned again, asking for more favours, the fairies sent him away, twice as stooped over as he had been before.
He also told him how the house he grew up in had been built on a fairy road. And how knocking could sometimes be heard at the door in the dead of night. And how, as a boy, when the Civil War raged, he remembered a desperate man came to the door seeking refuge, but he was chased round the back of the house by other men who shot him out there.
The play itself opens as locals gather at the pub on a windy winter’s night. Local estate agent and hotelier Finbar (Peter Coonan) arrives with blow-in Valerie (an openly vulnerable Jolly Abraham) who has just recently arrived from Dublin. They settle into a storytelling session that turns darker and more personal as they take it in turn to share their experiences of their various brushes with the supernatural. At times ghostly and mesmerising, their tales draw Valerie into their world – but it is her story, when we finally get to it, which is the most gut-wrenching of all, stemming from the worst kind of tragedy.
The atmosphere is built through an utterly engrossing succession of monologues, in which each character is satisfyingly delineated. Brendan Coyle’s Jack sheds his cranky, contrary mask, while the brilliant Marty Rea conjures a wonderfully distinctive, quirky, but very believable Jim. Peter Cloonan peels away the bravura of Finbar to reveal his vulnerability. He apologises self-consciously as he feels he has revealed too much, giving the lie to the old stereotype of the brash non-talkative Irishman.
Fact, fiction, history, ghosts, religion, and hearsay are all woven together and for us who were lucky enough to be present at Caitríona McLoughlin’s production of the play in The Abbey Theatre, we were glad that Colin McPherson soaked it all up on those youthful excursions West. The play is a timely, glowing affirmation of the rural pub and its role as a sanctuary for wounded men – and women – at a time when that very institution is facing extinction. As the only woman present, Jolly Abraham’s Valerie is distinctive in more ways than one: as a blow-in, an American, and, for those present in the bar, their intended audience.
Caitríona McLaughlin directs with a finely balanced awareness of the comedy of McPherson’s script as well as the darker emotional moments, the necessary silences as well as the endless eyrie stories of fairies and ghosts and family loss, and the resulting deep trauma that ensues.
The production runs straight through for 100 minutes, but our attention is mostly focused on the actors throughout apart from the erratic and distracting musical score. Sarah Bacon’s authentically worn set sits at an angle on the right-hand side of the stage against a stormy sky lit by Jane Cox, whose subtle design also helps focus the formal storytelling set pieces. One small quibble: the Irish have given the world many iconic cultural nuggets including the traditional music session in the ‘local’ and so here the use of live music outside the pub provided by musicians Éamonn Cagney and Courtney Cullen is somewhat disconcerting and jars a little.
There are obvious parallels that can be detected between McPherson’s play and the earlier J. M. Synge classic The Playboy of the Western World. That play caused riots when first premiered in the Abbey Theatre on January 26th, 1907, nearly 115 years ago. The Weir has since created its own ripples and there are particular details within the play that firmly locates it in the 1990s, a time of great social and economic change in Ireland like its illustrious forerunner. However, the fact that we can accurately place it in a definitive timeline makes the universality of its themes even more penetrating. Ask anyone who has ever had a pint in Scanlan’s Bar in Knockaderry or in any rural pub in Ireland and they will agree with you, just as this production suggests: there is no better balm for loneliness than company.
Sadly, Jack McPherson never saw any of his grandson’s plays. He passed away before his grandson managed to get going as a writer, but something of those times he had spent with him in his lonely cottage in Leitrim had lodged somewhere in his subconscious. In this way, it may be that a play like The Weir comes through a writer rather than being intentionally composed. There is the sense that Colin McPherson heard it and wrote it down – and it works!
The Abbey stage has long been the place where such stories were told and present-day Abbey audiences should be very happy that we get to hear these stories commingling here with those riotous echoes from long ago.
In the fouled water, with fork and four-pronged grape
Pitching out sheaves like half-gone carcasses.
They spread it dripping, then, flat on the grass
To crisp and dry hard in the summer sun
Until it could be stooked up, stiff as broom
And whistling in the wind. Toughened to sticks,
The stems were milled, spun, woven into fabrics.
The dam was cleared, poured down into the river
Its poisonous bellyful. “Lint water”
It was called. Across the stream it swirled brown froth
That scummed clean stone and sickened fish to death;
And if the drains were blocked, it still seeped down,
Filtering unseen contamination.
Putrid currents floated trout to the loch,
Their bellies white as linen tablecloths.
This poem was first published in The Times Literary Supplement on August 5th, 1965. Despite being a strong contender for inclusion in his first collection, Heaney seems to have opted instead for a very similar poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ after which his first collection is named. The language of the poem, while on the surface appearing to be very matter-of-fact and factual, is loaded with allegorical undertones. Words used to describe the flax dam, ‘rotten eggs’, ‘stink’, ‘decaying’, ‘poisonous’, ‘unseen contamination’, and ‘putrid currents’, are really intended to describe the dysfunctional nature of politics in the North of Ireland. Heaney goes into much more detail here in this poem and the rotting flax is weighed down with ‘stones and sods’ which stands for the violence and coercion he has experienced as a young boy and man.
This poem, therefore, is not as innocent as it seems at first reading. However, it does show early signs of an author who has found a way to illustrate the myriad tensions of his native province before the inevitable meltdown in the late 60s occurred. Unlike other ‘innocent’ poems from his early collections, there is a harsher more jarring approach here in this poem and yet, like much of his earlier poetry, the poem truly reflects his upbringing in Mossbawn and Annahorish. His use of allusion and his reference to the dying rural crafts such as that of the flax farmer, the farrier, the diviner, the ploughman, and his respect for those who worked in the bog is to the fore here also. So, we can see here the germ of an approach that would allow Heaney, in collections such as North and Wintering Out, to explain his unique predicament to an often oblivious and naive world audience.
All the perversions of the soul I learnt on a small farm. How to do the neighbours harm by magic, how to hate. I was abandoned to their tragedies, minor but unhealing: bitterness over boggy land, casual stealing of crops, venomous cardgames across swearing tables, a little music on the road, a little peace in decrepit stables. Here were rosarybeads, a bleeding face, the glinting doors that did encase their cutler needs, their plates, their knives, the cracked calendars of their lives.
I was abandoned to their tragedies and began to count the birds, to deduct secrets in the kitchen cold and to avoid among my nameless weeds the civil war of that household.
Taken from Collected Poems 2001, Gallery Press – (Collection reprinted 2009)
The ‘small farm’ referred to in this poem is that of his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, formerly Bridget Roche. According to parish records in Abbeyfeale, she married Michael Halpin from Camas, near Newcastle West, in Abbeyfeale Church on February 28th 1911 in what was, by all accounts, ‘a made match’ between both families and she then came to live in Camas where the Halpins owned a small farm of ten acres three roods and 13 perches.
This woman, Bridget Halpin, would later wield great influence over her young grandson Michael Hartnett. Indeed, if we are to believe the poet, she was the one who first affirmed his poetic gift when one day he ran into her kitchen in Camas and told her that a nest of young wrens had alighted on his head. Her reply to him was, ‘Aha, You’re going to be a poet!’. Hartnett claimed that he spent much of his early childhood in Bridget Halpin’s cottage in the rural townland of Camas four miles from his home in nearby Newcastle West. He went on to immortalise this woman in many of his poems but especially in his beautiful poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’. This quiet townland of Camas is seen as central to his development as a poet and maybe in time, this early association with Camas will be given its rightful importance and the little rural townland will vie with Maiden Street or Inchicore as one of Hartnett’s important formative places.
In subsequent years, Michael Halpin and his wife Bridget had six children, Josie, Mary, Peg, Denis, Bridget (later to be Michael Hartnett’s mother) and Ita. Unfortunately, Michael Halpin died in September 1920 at the age of 44 approx. having succumbed to pneumonia. In a heartbreaking twist of fate, his daughter Ita was born seven months later on 23rd March 1921. Bridget Halpin was now left with the care of her six young children and their ailing grandmother, Johanna. Johanna Halpin (née Browne) died in Camus on 18th June 1921 aged 80 years of age.
Bridget Halpin’s plight was now stark and the harshness of her existence is often alluded to in her grandson’s poems which feature her. The cottage which was little more than a three-roomed thatched mud cabin built of stone and yellow mud collapsed around 1926. The whole family were taken in, in an extraordinary gesture of neighbourliness, by their neighbour Con Kiely until a new cottage was built a short distance away. The family moved into their new home in 1931 and this is the structure that still stands today. According to Michael Hartnett this cottage, and especially the mud cabin which preceded it, was renowned as a ‘Rambling House’, a cottage steeped in history, music, song, dance, cardplaying and storytelling. Hartnett would have us believe that it was from the loft in this cottage that he began to pick up his first words of Irish from his grandmother and her cronies as they gathered to play cards or tell tall tales. (A more detailed genealogy of the Halpin family and the early formative influences on Michael Hartnett can be read here).
The poem ‘A Small Farm’, the first poem of the Collected Poems (2001), creates a delicate balance between description and abstraction. Students of Hartnett’s poetry should consider studying this poem as one of a series of poems that he wrote celebrating his grandmother, Bridget Halpin and the townland of Camas where she lived. The most obvious of these poems is ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ which he wrote on the passing of his grandmother in 1965. Others include, ‘For My Grandmother Bridget Halpin’, and ‘Mrs Halpin and the Lightning’. Abstractions, clichés, their representation through language, metaphors and the moment where these are drawn into focus, made specific and immediate, are central to these poems. ‘A Small Farm’ is a natural development and shows a more mature, confident and surer treatment of this place than the earlier ‘Camas Road’.
‘Camas Road’, Michael Hartnett’s first published work, appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955. He was thirteen. The poem describes in particular detail the rural vista of the West Limerick townland of Camas at evening: ‘A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge, / A cottage thatched with golden straw’ (A Book of Strays 67). Its two eight-line stanzas of alternating rhyme and regular metre contain a litany of natural images, at times idiosyncratically rendered; the ‘timid hare sits in the ditch’, ‘the soft lush hay that grows in fields’. It is a peculiar mix of a poem, apparent images from both the poet’s lived and literary experience placed side by side. It is contentedly denotative, creating a sense of ease and oneness with the natural world. The movement of sunrise to sunset is perpetually peaceful, its colours oils for the young poet’s palette. The ruminative introspective which elevates Kavanagh’s, ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, a poem which can be read in useful parallel to ‘Camas Road’, is not present. At the poem’s turn, as ‘Dark shadows fall o’er land so still’, Hartnett’s only thought and action are of flattened description, the creation of ‘this ode’.
‘Camas Road’ then, though essentially a curio which stands outside of Hartnett’s body of work, can be read as a seldom afforded snapshot of Michael Hartnett the poet before he became one. In contrast, his poem ‘A Small Farm’ shows a marked development in his poetic craft. It is well recorded and documented, especially by Hartnett himself, that he spent much of his childhood in his grandmother’s smallholding of ‘ten acres three roods and 13 perches’ in rural Camas about four miles outside Newcastle West and about one mile from the now vibrant village of Raheenagh. Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, lived there with her son, Denis (Dinny Halpin), in what Hartnett describes as a prolonged state of ‘civil war’,
I was abandoned to their tragedies,
Minor but unhealing.
The word ‘abandoned’ here has many undertones and is important for the poet because he repeats the line twice in the poem. He has told us elsewhere that he was, in effect, ‘fostered out’ by his parents in Maiden Street, Newcastle West to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, from a young age and spent much of his childhood in her cottage in Camas. However, there is also the suggestion that while there he was ‘abandoned’ and somewhat neglected as he became an outsider, an unwilling observer in the ‘civil war’ of the household, as Bridget and her son Dinny constantly argued and fought over the minutiae of running a small farm in difficult times in the Ireland of the late 40s and early 50s.
Hartnett saw in his grandmother a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseógs of the countryside. For Hartnett, there is also the added heartache that sees his grandmother struggling to come to terms with a lost language that has been cruelly taken from her. This, therefore, is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn. However, there is underlying paganism here that is absent from Kavanagh’s work.
For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, and limited knowledge of the laws of physics, and therefore, as he points out in ‘Mrs Halpin and the Thunder’,
Her fear was not the simple fear of one
who does not know the source of thunder:
these were the ancient Irish gods
she had deserted for the sake of Christ.
However, Hartnett’s powers of observation and intuition were honed in Camas on Bridget Halpin’s small farm during his frequent visits. He tells us that he learnt much on that small farm during those lean years in the forties and early fifties,
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm,
how to do the neighbours harm
by magic, how to hate.
The struggle to make a success and eke out a living was a constant struggle and burden. The begrudgery of neighbours, the ‘bitterness over boggy land’, and the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’. The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but Hartnett does not name this place, it is an Everyplace. The poem is simply titled, “A Small Farm” so there is no Inniskeen, Drummeril, or Black Shanco here but the harshness and brutality of existence, ‘the cracked calendars / of their lives’ in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh. Yet, it is here in Camas that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and, like Kavanagh, it was here that ‘The first gay flight of my lyric / Got caught in a peasant’s prayer’. And so, to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ them, turns his back on them, and begins to notice the birds and the weeds and the grasses,
I was abandoned to their tragedies
and began to count the birds,
to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold,
and to avoid among my nameless weeds
the civil war of that household.
In this final stanza, Hartnett makes an explicit link between his awakening as a perceiver of social interactions and moments of poetic beauty, with a growing knowledge and identification with the natural world about him. The attentive intellect that ‘counts the birds’, has as yet no language to describe or express his experience of the natural world, his ‘nameless weeds’. Still, he is possessive of it, seeing it as distinct from human society which he can describe, yet does not identify with.
Later in, “For My Grandmother, Bridget Halpin”, he again alludes to the wildness, the paganism, the piseógs that surrounded him during his childhood in Camas. His grandmother’s worldview is almost feral. She looks to the landscape and the birds for information about the weather or impending events,
A bird’s hover,
seabird, blackbird, or bird of prey,
was rain, or death, or lost cattle.
This poorly educated woman reads the landscape and the skies as one would read a book,
The day’s warning, like red plovers
so etched and small the clouded sky,
was book to you, and true bible.
The picture of the farm is rather etched out in generalisation and aphorism, and through the accordant clichés of petty hatred and ignorance, ‘how to do the neighbours harm / by magic, how to hate’, before Hartnett brings the glass into focus, employing idiosyncratic detail which establishes the world of the poem itself. As already mentioned, the cottage on this small farm was a Rambling House, a house where neighbours gathered to tell stories, play music and card games,
venomous card games
across swearing tables
His early poetry, then, creates a delicate balance between description and abstraction, the actual and the figurative. In this way, Hartnett’s particular subjectivity, his way of seeing, is established. In time it would become his poetic currency. We are invited into the quintessentially old traditional Irish kitchen with its pictures of the Pope, the Sacred Heart, the statue of Our Lady, the Crucifix,
Here were rosary beads,
a bleeding face,
the glinting doors that did encase their cutler needs,
their plates, their knives, the cracked calendars of their lives
In this poem, therefore, Hartnett is following on from Kavanagh in shining a light into the domestic and interior life of rural dwellers not previously considered worthy of attention. Bridget Halpin’s ‘small farm’ in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris but it helped produce one of Ireland’s leading poets of any century. The influences absorbed in this rural setting, his powers of observation, his knowledge of wildlife and flowers, his ecocentric bias, are impressive and are all-pervasive in his poetry. Without prejudice, it also has to be said that he demonstrates a deeper knowledge of all local flora and fauna than could be reasonably expected of a ‘townie’ from Maiden Street or Assumpta Park!
Indeed, Hartnett, the quintessential nature poet, would be delighted to see the magnificent new recently developed Kileedy Eco Park which has been set up less than a mile from his ‘foster’ home in Camas by the combined efforts of the local community in Kileedy. It is also significant that the visionary developers of this project have included a Poet’s Corner where Hartnett is remembered just a stone’s throw from the small farm of his formative years. Here today’s generation can now come to ‘count the birds’ and the ‘nameless weeds’.
Hanley, Don. ‘The Ecocentric Element in Michael Hartnett’s Poetry: Referentiality, Authenticity, Place’, MA in Irish Writing and Film, UCC, 2016.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, editor Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, 2001. Reprinted 2009 and 2012.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, editor Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, 2002. Reprinted 2015.
The author would also like to acknowledge the voluminous background information received from Joe Dore, Michael Hartnett’s first cousin and inheritor of Bridget Halpin’s ‘small farm’ of ten acres three roods and thirteen perches.
Claire Keegan’s much anticipated new novella is framed by two historical events: an excerpt from The Proclamation of the Irish Republic which declared the resolve of the signatories, ‘to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.’ The second historical event is the fulsome apology made in the Dáil in 2013 by the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny admitting to the State’s abject failure to follow through on its earlier solemn promise.
In January 2021 further apologies were issued following the publication of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into some of the Mother and Baby Homes. It concluded that ‘for decades, Irish society was defined by its silence, and, in that, its complicity in what was done to some of our most vulnerable citizens.’ In television and radio interviews Taoiseach Michéal Martin repeated the idea that as a nation we all shared in the blame. It seems to me that Keegan has taken that idea to heart and in Small Things Like These her hero, Bill Furlong, shoulders this heavy responsibility on our behalf in an exercise of ‘what might have been’.
The treatment of women and young girls in the Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes was horrendous and no amount of redress or restitution or official report can assuage it. One of the most notorious of those institutions was Sean Ross Abbey outside Roscrea in County Tipperary. It opened its doors in 1931 closed in 1969 and was run by the nuns of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. One of the 6,414 admitted there to have her baby was Philomena Lee from Newcastle West in County Limerick. Her baby son was forcibly taken from her and adopted by US parents in the 1950s. Her experience in Sean Ross was later turned into the award-winning film, Philomena.
Ironically, or maybe not so knowing Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These is set in New Ross (as opposed to Sean Ross – the word ‘sean’ in Irish means ‘old’). We get the weather, the season, the name of the town, the River Barrow ‘dark as stout’. It is ‘raw cold’ and relentlessly bleak in the lead up to Christmas 1985 and “chimneys threw out smoke which fell away and drifted off in hairy, drawn-out strings”. The country is in the grip of recession and everyone is struggling to make ends meet. Many businesses are closing and being boarded up; redundancies are common even in large firms such as Albatross. Those still in business are walking a tight rope and carrying out delicate balancing acts each working day.
The setting is Dickensian in many ways and despite being set in 1985 it does have a much earlier feel to it – for me, it is closer to the Ireland of the 50s and 60s. Bill Furlong, the main protagonist, has been raised on Dickens – he received a copy of A Christmas Carol from Mrs. Wilson one Christmas and learns to read using the book as a guide. When asked by his wife Eileen what he wants for Christmas he asks for a Walter Mackin novel or maybe David Copperfield. This novella has many of the Dickensian traits of a morality tale and if you look closely, and if you are wise you will, you will also hear echoes of McGahern’s love of small details in That They May Face the Rising Sun.
It is a story we think we know well. Claire Keegan sets it in 1985 to give us a jolt into realizing that the Magdalen Laundries, and the wrongful incarceration of women, is not something shameful from another century but is still a reality in Haughey’s Ireland. Small Things Like These is yet another attempt to shine a light on an awful period in our collective history. Despite its extreme brevity, it is insightful and written with a striking economy of language; it is, in fact, a tightly edited narrative of fear, uncertainty, hope, heroism and love.
Keegan captures a particular time and place, while also setting out the pitfalls that lie ahead. Furlong and his wife Eileen have just enough money to keep their family going. Many of their customers can’t afford to settle accounts. The wealthier ones, such as the priest and the local convent, are a lifeline. The Christmas envelope from the Good Shepherd nuns, one of Furlong’s biggest accounts, is anticipated and appreciated. Eileen is a great character, not quite shrewish, but canny and practical, a mé-féin mentality that represents the community as a whole. Her motto is, “Stay on the right side of people and soldier on”. She tells her husband that it is “only people with no children that can afford to be careless,” a line that has stunning resonance in a book about the laundries.
Bill Furlong sells ‘coal, turf, anthracite, slack and logs’ and is the kind of man who lies awake at night reflecting on the small things. He is plagued by doubts about his own humble origins and almost feels like an imposter because of his good fortune and his success in business.
Furlong has a wife and five daughters to support. Like the rest of the town, he has plenty of worries, but over the course of this short novel, it is his concern for the welfare of strangers that sets him apart. His wife, Eileen, chides him because he gives away the change out of his pockets to the young boy of the Sinnots. He feels that he has been consigned to knock on doors, particularly back doors, to see into warm, homely kitchens and well-to-do sitting rooms while also witnessing at first hand the poverty and misery brought about by the economic recession.
Furlong is 39, and is a hero in the classical sense, flawed, uneasy, and afraid, but ultimately noble. He goes quietly about his business, in much the same way as John Kinsella does in Keegan’s earlier novel, Foster. The trouble that Furlong faces is introduced incrementally after we’ve gotten to know his world. His first meeting with the Mother Superior of the convent is all smoke and mirrors, beautifully choreographed by the author. The dialogue is full of tension and ice. The nun remarks on his daughter Joan’s participation in the local choir: “She doesn’t look out of place.” The words that go unsaid linger.
Essentially, however, he is a good man who will no longer stand by and see evil triumph – he gradually steels himself, despite being aware of the possible consequences, and eventually, he heroically takes a stand. Mrs. Kehoe and her distinctly Irish aphorisms are an example of the insidious pressure being applied by the people of the town when they sense that Furlong may be about to break ranks. She and the other townspeople have long been complicit in allowing the situation in the local convent to continue. Her attitude is like Heaney’s ‘whatever you say, say nothing’:
Tis no affair of mine, you understand but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there? Keep the enemy close, the bad dog with you and the good dog will not bite. You know yourself.
The cumulative effect of these pieces of advice is to show the silent complicity of all in the town, and the fear which has them all browbeaten into subservience.
It is possible to see that there are many similarities between Claire Keegan’s earlier novel, Foster, and Small Things Like These. Both are set in the South East of Ireland and while the sun shines continually in Foster, here the weather is anything but benign,
‘And then the nights came on and the frosts took hold again, and blades of cold slid under the doors and cut the knees off those who still knelt to say the rosary’.
For me, personally, the idea of people kneeling as a family to say the rosary in Ireland in 1985 is jarring and not credible. Both novellas have very strong male protagonists and indeed there are many comparisons that can be made between John Kinsella in Foster and Bill Furlong in Small Things Like These. Interestingly, the young girl who is fostered out to the Kinsellas in Foster lives in Clonegal while the young girl in this novel, Sarah Redmond, also hails from ‘Clonegal out past Kildavin’.
There are many unusual images throughout the novel – one of the early chapters begins, “It was a December of crows.” Later, Furlong again encounters these crows and he describes them as ‘dapper’,
‘striding along, inspecting the ground and their surroundings with their wings tucked in, putting Furlong in mind of the young curate who liked to walk about town with his hands behind his back’.
There is another troubling image used earlier when Furlong describes the level of poverty in the town:
And early one morning, Furlong had seen a young schoolboy drinking the milk out of the cat’s bowl behind the priest’s house.
Indeed, and I am saddened to say this, it seems to me that priests and nuns are caricatured here as malign and evil characters like ogres of old. I fear that this will be their lot in Irish literature for some time to come not least as a result of their role in the Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Home debacle. Meanwhile, it seems the State has escaped the same level of opprobrium and has come away relatively unscathed.
Local politicians are on hand to lighten the gloom and arrive to ceremoniously turn on the Christmas lights in early December. In my mind’s eye, I visualized Michael Darcy or Brendan Howlin, or even Brendan Corish “wearing his brasses over a Crombie coat”.
Keegan uses another unusual image near the end as Furlong approaches the convent with its foreboding high walls topped with broken glass to repel intruders or maybe to deter those wishing to escape:
Turning a corner, he came across a black cat eating from the carcass of a crow, licking her lips.
The enigmatic Ned tells Furlong of a strange incident where he was giving a neighbour hay from Mrs. Wilson’s barn until one night, ‘something that wasn’t human, an ugly thing with no hands came out of the ditch, and blocked me – and that put an end to me stealing Mrs. Wilson’s hay.’
I hope I haven’t given away too many details, particularly of the cloistered world of the convent as this would spoil your enjoyment of the novel. And, believe you me, it is an essential stocking filler this Christmas.
The ending to this novel is not a fairytale happy-ever-after one. Indeed, as we approach the end we sense that Furlong’s troubles are just about to begin. We are encouraged to brood on the consequences of Furlong’s action. Keegan presumes that we too know how things work in our little Republic so we come away from the novel fearful for his family, his business:
The worst was yet to come, he knew. Already he could feel a world of trouble waiting for him behind the next door, but the worst that could have happened was also already behind him; the thing not done, which could have been – which he would have had to live with for the rest of his life.
To say that this new novel by Claire Keegan is long-awaited is an understatement. However, I would caution against believing all you read in the pre-publication reviews which are universally positive and exaggerated in their praise of her new novella. Small Things Like These will, however, follow the earlier Foster onto school syllabi and will be studied by generations of our young people in the coming years. It will hopefully help them answer this deceptively simple question relating to Ireland’s past: “Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?”
Poet Michael Hartnett would have been 80 years old on September 18th this year.
He was a native of Newcastle West and was raised among the hustle ands bustle of Lower Maiden Street. In fact, he was a young 58 when he died in 1999. Each year the people of Newcastle West celebrate his memory at Éigse Michael Hartnett, now in its 21st year. This year’s event takes place in the town from Thursday 30th September to Saturday October 2nd.
Remembering Michael Hartnett (1941 – 1999) on the 80th Anniversary of his Birth
By Peter Browne
Many people who knew him and admired his work felt the loss deeply and his creativity lives on richly after him. An old cassette tape which I came across by chance in a cardboard box at home during lockdown brought back particular memories of just one brief period in which I could say I knew him.
This tape contained about 40 minutes of disjointed, poor-quality bits and pieces recordings from a 1985 musical and literary trip to Scotland which we both were on, and it brought back strong and fond thoughts of him even for such a short acquaintance when we were fellow performers touring the Highlands and Western Isles.
The occasion was the annual Turas na bhFilí which was a week-long tour of nightly performances in Gaelic-speaking Scotland organised by Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge. It was a two-way annual process and each year there were return visits to Ireland by a similar group of Scottish writers and artists.
This particular year the Irish travelling group comprised two poets, Áine Ní Ghlinn and Michael Hartnett, a fine singer Cliona Ní Fhlannagáin and myself as uilleann piper. Also travelling as leader, organiser and fear a’tí was Colonel Eoghan Ó Néill, a distinguished Army officer who was by this time Director of An Chomhdháil.
There was a minibus driver whose name is long gone from me and we were a happy group on the road for that week. Sadly, as well as Michael Hartnett, Colonel Ó Néill and Cliona have also left us. For the fairly obvious reason – if there weren’t separate B & B bedrooms on offer – Michael and myself were usually put sharing a room together and we had good conversations – usually on everyday life or the incidental happenings of the tour.
I do recall that he was enthusiastic about folklore and traditions in his own area of West Limerick like dancing and the wrenboys and he also mentioned his respect for Seán Ó Riada.
A printed programme had been prepared in advance of the tour and distributed to the audience at each night’s performance. It contained explanations, translations etc… meaning that the material, including the poetry, would be the same each night. I used to look forward at each performance to hearing the same poems, the same songs – they grew on me.
Cliona sang Úna Bhán, Dónal Óg, Bean Pháidín. Áine had a beautiful poem about a young boy who was lost to cystic fibrosis and of Michael’s poems, I remember two – one for his daughter “Dán do Lara” with the line “…even the bees in the field think you are a flower” and another especially sad, moving one in which he addressed his father, trying to persuade him not to die but to remain on this earth.
I can clearly remember the soft richness of his words and speaking vioce. I used to play ‘Amhrán na Leabhar’ on the pipes nightly out of deference to the literary nature of the occasion.
Michael’s skills and agility in his use of words meant that his humour and wit were a bright feature during the trip – prompted by random events along the way. When we flew out from Dublin, we had an excellent welcoming night in Glasgow and the following morning went to the airport to fly to Stornaway. And there, as we waited for the flight, Michael bought a bottle of Scotch whisky with the bracing brand name of ‘Sheep Dip.’
This unusual drink became something of a recurring conversational theme for the remainder of the tour. He seemed to use the same mug all week for drinking it. I partook a couple of times as well and it tasted ok – I notice that it’s still for sale on the market.
Later that same first day of the tour when we were travelling in the minibus on the dual island of Lewis and Harris, there was some incident with the minibus and a loose goat which I just can’t recall, and then we were brought to an interpretive centre and souvenir shop with a large selection of teddy bears on sale – they occupied all the shelves of one entire wall.
At that evening’s performance Michael began by telling the audience: ”…I’ve had a very trying day, first of all I started off by discovering a drink called Sheep Dip, then I met a goat on a bus and then I narrowly escaped being introduced to 25,000 teddy bears all wearing Harris tweed!”
In another town called Roybridge we were led by a kilted piper into the room and up to the top table in a ceremonial procession. Michael had already said to Áine Ní Ghlinn that his own father had once described the sound of the pipes as like being in a submarine with a flock of sheep, so…this wasn’t a good portent. As we sat down, the piper stepped onto the small stage, which was a concave, parabolic inset into one of the walls of the room.
The sound of the píob mhór was therefore propelled with some force outwards towards us. I watched Michael and I could clearly see his discomfort. He took a beermat, wrote on it and passed it around. Each person smiled as they read it and when it came to me, I saw that he had written: “I’m glad my new false teeth are made of plastic, not china.”
But there was seriousness in all this as well; there could be lengthy silences in the minibus as we travelled along narrow roads, and later that evening in Roybridge as he was reading the poem about his father, there was guffawing from a group of people on barstools at the counter who clearly weren’t there to hear the performance.
The local MC on the night asked them to stop talking or move to another establishment in the town where there would be, as he put it, “…a welcome for all sorts of inane conversation”. They were momentarily silenced but when Michael started again, so did the noise. He simply closed his book, said “is cuma liom…” and left the stage.
His poem about his father was special – for the subject matter, the beauty of the language and the sound of his reading voice. There was a sensitivity, decency and dignity about him and, I think also, a vulnerability.
Although I only ever met him again on one other occasion by chance, it may be the case that a lasting impression and respect for someone can be created over a short time such as this as well as by a lengthy acquaintance.
“…and please, my father, wait a while, there is no singing after death, there is no human sighing – just worlds falling into suns. The universe will be a bride, a necklace of stars on her gown – dancing at every crossroads, tin-whistles spitting music. Father, take your time, hang on. But he didn’t.”
Peter Browne is a piper and a former RTÉ presenter and producer.
Tarry Flynn is a novel by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, set in 1930s rural Ireland. The book is based on Kavanagh’s experience as a young farmer-poet in Monaghan. The novel itself, however, is set in Cavan and is based on the life of a young farmer and his quest for big fields, young women and the meaning of life.
Kavanagh began writing Tarry Flynn in 1940 under the title Stony Grey Soil. It was, however, rejected. After his collection of poetry, A Soul for Sale, containing the poem The Great Hunger, was published to great acclaim in February 1947, he set about revising the novel and spent the summer of 1947 working on it.
At the time the relationship between Church and State was very close and one of the victims of this were the many works of literature, including Tarry Flynn, which were banned. The politicians and church authorities were fearful that outside influences might adversely affect Catholic morality and so they combined to enforce a very vigorous opposition to liberal ideas and all works of art and literature that were considered at odds with Catholic values. Central to this policy was the passing of The Public Dance Halls Act 1935 which regulated people’s entertainment and which also included a prohibition on jazz music which was seen to be a bad influence on the Irish people.
The 1937 Constitution had granted a special place to the Catholic Church in the life of the nation and recognised the role of women as mothers and home-makers. In his speeches and broadcasts De Valera eulogised the role of women and painted an idealised picture of life in the Irish countryside. As one of the rural, Catholic poor, Patrick Kavanagh knew that the social realities of life for poor, farm families was radically different to this Utopian idyll of self-sufficiency and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. In his poetry and in his fiction Kavanagh introduced his readers to male characters who were trapped by religion, by the land and by their mothers. When works such as The Great Hunger (1942) and Tarry Flynn (1948), were published Kavanagh showed his increasing alienation from the Catholic Church and the artist in him was affronted by the official version of rural Ireland which was being sponsored by the government. As a consequence, Tarry Flynn was duly banned by the Irish Censorship Board for being, in their words, ‘indecent and obscene’ and it remained out of print until the 1960s.
Tarry Flynn is rural Ireland’s answer to Joyce’s APortrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Similar to Joyce’s work the novel is loosely autobiographical, an account of the life and thoughts of an imaginative young man fettered by his family circumstances and his cultural and intellectual milieu. Eventually he leaves his native Drumnay to find the full freedom of self-expression for which he longs. In A Portrait Joyce’s hero Stephen Dedalus decides that love of one’s country can best be achieved by being absent from it (‘the shortest way to Tara was via Holyhead’). This anticipates the advice given to Tarry by his wandering uncle that the best way to love a country like this is from a range of not less than three hundred miles!
However, Tarry, unlike Stephen Dedalus, does not go into exile. He is content to practice his craft in Ireland, though at a distance from his native place. His reasons for going have to do not only with his desire to write his poems in an atmosphere of freedom but also with his dislike of the attitudes he finds among his Catholic neighbours. He loves the fields of Drumnay, poor and unproductive as they are. He loves his mother too and would like to stay with her but his problem is that he cannot enjoy his rural paradise in peace because it has become associated in his mind with unpleasant individuals who constantly irritate him, and whose values he can never share. This is how he presents this dilemma to us:
He was sorry for his mother. He could see that she was in her way a wise mother. Yet, he had to go. Why? He didn’t want to go. If, on the other hand, he stayed, he would be up against the Finnegans and the Carlins and the Bradys and the Cassidys and the magic of the fields would be disturbed in his imagination.
What is most striking about the novel is the conflict it depicts between Tarry’s hostile, even savage, view of his uncongenial neighbours, and his deep love and reverence for the fields of his youth. An evening’s walk through these fields is a ‘mystical adventure’. His uncle wonders how he endures the place, and can scarcely believe that any human being could live his life in so backward a spot. Tarry, on the other hand, expresses an almost religious devotion for the commonplaces and banalities of farm life. Standing in the doorway of a stable, his mind sinks in the warm, joyous thought of the earth: ‘The hens standing on one leg in the doorways of the stables and under the trees made him love his native place more and more.’ This deep attachment to the physical realities of the farm is a constantly repeated motif as the time comes for him to make his decision to go with his uncle. His uncle, ‘did not realise how beautiful Tarry thought the dunghill and muddy haggard and gaps and all that seemed common and mean.’ This very same attitude is found throughout Kavanagh’s poetry. In the poem, ‘Advent’, for example, the poet’s delight in the simple, everyday things is constantly breaking through, ‘the heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges’ and even the banality of barrowing dung ‘in gardens under trees’ is glorified.
However, in stark contrast to his love of rural sights, sounds and smells, we have his distaste for rural humanity. Those who populate Drumnay are as diverse and perverse a group of grotesques as were ever assembled in a work of fiction! Collectively, as when gathered in the local church for Mass, they are repulsive. Tarry sees them as squalid and grey-faced, with parchment faces and wrinkled necks, their skin the colour of clay, with clay in their hair and clothes. Looking at them he has the impression that the tillage fields themselves are at Mass. Individually, they are even worse. Molly Brady is a ‘fat slob of a girl’ whose characteristic utterance is a wild animal cry. Tarry staring half-vacantly at his sisters, finds little to choose between them. All three are about five foot two inches, ‘low-set, with dull clayey faces, each of them like a bag of chaff tied in the middle with a rope – breasts and buttocks that flapped in the wind’. A neighbouring farmer, Petey Meegan, is a suitor to one of Tarry’s sisters, Mary. He presents no more flattering an image than Mary. As he approaches, he has to straighten his humped shoulders and quicken his ‘plough-crookened step’. He looks to be any age between fifty and the ‘age of an old oak’.
The attitudes of Kavanagh’s neighbours are no more attractive than their appearance. Their outstanding quality seems to be a profound dislike of each other, an ingrained resistance to helping each other succeed, and a determination to prevent gain or advantage accruing to anybody else. When Tarry has legal problems arising from the purchase of a few acres of land, he knows instinctively that his friend Eusebius is pleased. In this he is reflecting the delighted, begrudging response of a rural community to a neighbour’s misfortune:
Eusebius danced along the road kicking the pebbles before him. Tarry had to admit to himself that had their positions been reversed he would have been happy too. Hating one’s next-door neighbour was an essential part of a small farmer’s religion. Hate and jealousy made love – even the love of land – an exciting adventure.
A major concern and theme in the novel is Tarry’s inability to establish any lasting relationships or friendships because of his contempt for those around him. Even his relationships with members of his own family, apart from his mother, are not close, to say the least. He can look at his sisters in a detached, cynical way, finding in them more to criticise than to praise. He poses in the novel as a man apart, not only from his family but from society as a whole. He seems to rejoice in the idea of being an outsider. In Tarry Flynn, there is a sense in which Kavanagh explores at length the theme of the isolated individual at odds with his society as well as with its members. Tarry enjoys posing as a minor rural intellectual, daring to be at odds with the dominant parties, in this case, the ceremonies and rituals of the Catholic Church. It must be acknowledged that his liberal stance takes somewhat childish forms: being deliberately late for Mass, falling asleep during the Rosary, and saying shocking things about priests. He also enjoys being the local bard, secretly reveling in the isolation of his room in his creative power, safe from hostility, ‘from the net of earthly intrigue’. In his role as poet, he is pre-eminently the alienated young man, practicing a mysterious craft in which nobody else in the district can participate, not even Mary Reilly. He imagines her standing before him ‘listening with all the enthusiasm of the convent-bred girl who never fathomed the design behind it’.
Another factor in Tarry’s isolation is his failure to establish a decent natural relationship with any girl. He entertains lustful thoughts about Molly Brady, but his base desires remain unfulfilled. His friendship with Mary Reilly is marred by his bumbling awkwardness, his lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. In his relationship with her, the only girl in the locality he can fully respect and admire, he is inhibited by his disabling sense of being out of the ordinary, and by his defensive pride in his own worth. He cannot believe that she could possibly value him for what he is, even though her attitude and tone of voice suggest that she can see through his working-class appearance to the worthwhile reality beneath. He has been labouring for her family when she meets him dressed in the ragged clothes of a farm labourer. It is clear that she is interested in getting to know him better, and she goes more than half-way to bring this about. From his reading he knows that ladies had often fallen in love with their workmen, and also knows that he would be happy if he could apply this hopeful scenario to his own case. In the end, this proves impossible:
What the girl said to him he hardly knew.
He was listening to his own divided self raising a bedlam in his imagination.He knew that he had insulted her.
‘Will you be at the dance on Sunday night?’ she asked.
‘Dancing is an eejit’s game’, he said. And he went on to expatiate on the folly of dancing.
‘What would you say to a bunch of horses that after a hard day’s work spent the night galloping and careering round the field? I wouldn’t dream of wasting me time at a dance.’
‘I’d love you to come,’ she said sweetly.
‘I wouldn’t bother me bleddy head,’ he said with a loud laugh.
‘Still – ‘ She gave him a gentle smile but he was determined
‘It’s only an eejit’s game,’
‘Sunday night will be a big event, Tarry. I could see you there.’
‘Indeed you couldn’t and don’t be pretending you could,’ he shouted. He kept in a twist to conceal as much of his patched clothes as possible.
‘You’ll probably be there all the same,’ she said.
‘I wouldn’t be seen dead at that hall.’
… My God! My God! My God! He cried in his heart when they had parted. He knew that he had meant nothing of what he had said. It was all the bravado of a man in ragged clothes.
At moments such as this, Tarry realises that, as he puts it, ‘there was something in him different from other men and women.’ This difference lies not merely in his superior artistic awareness or his advanced intellectual views. It also has to do with the fact that on vital occasions he always does some peculiar thing that spoils his chances of happiness.
His social failures encourage Tarry to strike various self-pitying poses. At times he tries, with somewhat ludicrous effect, to present himself as a tragic or sub-tragic hero. In one of his bouts of self-pity, he sees himself as a star-crossed romantic sufferer, a belated Shelley bleeding upon the thorns of life:
‘I have to carry a cross. He did not want to carry a cross. He wanted to be ordinary. But the more he wanted to shake the burden free, the more weighty did it become and the more it stuck to his shoulders.’
Elsewhere, he sees himself in the image of Joyce’s Dedalus:
‘Some day, he, too, might grow wings and be able to fly away from this clay-stricken place.’
His lapses into self-dramatisation weaken the novel. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the account of his departure from his mother which is embarrassingly sentimental:
‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost! Where are you going in the good suit?’ cried the mother the next morning when Tarry came down for breakfast.
‘As far as the village.’
‘And with the good suit?’ She eyed her son with a look of annoyance, and then suddenly her eyes flashed in scalded grief. Her lips moved in prayer. She spoke in a low whisper. ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ Her lips went on moving but there were no words. Her eyes were wide, soft – and as he stared they darkened in brown earthly sadness.It was her wordlessness smote him.
An impulse to cry out touched his throat. Words came to her again. They came in a spurt, on their own, like he had once seen blood spurt. ‘God help me and every mother.’ And then a storm of sobs swept her and words came in a deluge. ‘Your nice wee place; your strong farm; your wee room for your writing, your room for your writing.’
‘How will she carry on?’ he kept mumbling. ‘How will she carry on?’
Kavanagh thought highly of Tarry Flynn as a work of documentary fiction. Indeed, he claimed that it was ‘not only the best but the only authentic account of life as it was lived in Ireland this century.’ The self-praise may be somewhat heightened, but there is no denying the documentary realism of the book, its fidelity to even the most minute detail. In his autobiography, The Green Fool, he recalls the same rural world of his young manhood, so faithfully rendered in Tarry Flynn:
‘The Parish Priest was the centre of gravity, he was the only man who was sure to go to Heaven. Our staple diet was potatoes and oatmeal porridge. Porridge had only recently taken the place of potatoes and buttermilk as the national supper. Though little fields and scraping poverty do not lead to grand flaring passions, there was plenty of fire and an amount of vicious neighbourly hatred to keep us awake.’
There is much of this ‘vicious neighbourly hatred’ in Tarry Flynn. Tarry’s family is bitterly at odds with the Finnegans. Their land dispute involves a bloody brawl between Tarry and Joe Finnegan. The power of the Church in a rural parish is also well rendered in the novel. Even the reading material available to Tarry is prescribed by the Church authorities: the standard work, The Messenger of the Sacred Heart, features the edifying story of a young girl with a religious vocation being sabotaged by a bad man. A missioner warns him about reading the works of George Bernard Shaw. Tarry’s mother warns him to attend the mission every evening, reminding him that when the Carlins failed to attend, their luck ‘wasn’t much the better of it.’ The priests set the moral tone of the parish and keep miscreants in check with uncompromising ferocity. They even preside over the parish entertainment and decide who is to be admitted and excluded. Like his neighbours, Tarry lives a life of unremitting drudgery.
Even though Tarry is frequently tempted to escape from the claustrophobic environment of Drumnay, and although he finds much to irritate and frustrate him in the way of life he is obliged to lead, the narrative of his early life is not entirely a bitter one. The harder he works, for example, the more he seems to enjoy it. He does many backbreaking jobs, but the achievement involved fills him with ‘a profounder passion’ than his love for Mary Reilly. The ownership of land also fills him with delight, as do his wanderings through the summer landscape:
‘He loved the fields and the birds and the trees, stones and weeds, and through these, he could learn a great deal.’
There is much of this kind of celebration of the joys of nature in Tarry Flynn. However repulsive Tarry may find many of the humans living in his rural landscape, nothing they say or do can ever quite dim his enthusiasm.
As you may have guessed, there is a considerable variety of tones in Tarry Flynn: satirical, sentimental, celebratory, reverential, self-pitying, but I have to say that the overall impulse is comic. Much of this comedy derives from Tarry’s reflections on his own enigmatic personality. His naïve understanding of how other people, especially women, see him is endearingly comic. He could not understand, he declares, ‘why he was ignored by young women, for he knew he was attractive’. He comes to the conclusion that women fearfully sense ‘primitive savagery and lust’ beneath his poetic appearance. To counteract this unfortunate impression, he makes his virtuous nature more obvious, but realises too late that women prefer primitive savages to virtuous men! His ideas of stimulating conversation with women are equally comic: ‘With women in general he was truthful and sincere and would talk philosophy or Canon Law to them on the slightest provocation.’ Little wonder that he ruefully concludes that ‘women cannot understand honesty in a man.’
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Recent high-powered reports and investigations into institutional abuse culminating in the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes which was published by the Irish Government on 12 January 2021 reinforce the grim reality that what have long been termed, particularly by our parents and grand parents, as ‘The Good Old Days’ weren’t that good after all. Tarry Flynn tried in its own way to enlighten people at home and abroad and as a result Kavanagh suffered the ultimate artistic sanction by having his novel banned. The novel sets out how life was lived in rural Ireland in the 30s and 40s and Kavanagh endeavors to capture this reality in a warts-and-all exposé which contains some very acerbic social commentary. There has always been a perceived difficulty when non-Irish readers encounter this text because many fail to appreciate Tarry Flynn’s dilemma or they believe that he is merely exaggerating, but it has to be realised that even modern day Irish readers also have this difficulty. The passage of time has not been kind to Kavanagh here and indeed, in his poetry in general.
The stark opening sentence of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between (1953) has great relevance here. It tells us bluntly that, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. As a reviewer writing this introduction to the novel, I was very aware that not many modern Irish teenagers coming to this novel for the first time would know, for instance, what a ‘missioner’ was or, for that matter, what a parish mission in the 1940s entailed.
By the 1940s Kavanagh didn’t have to go into exile like Joyce and others before him in order to gain creative perspective because by then Mucker in Monaghan and Pembroke Road in Dublin’s leafy suburbs were already oceans apart. When the novel was published in 1948 it presented readers with a vivid insider glimpse of the real austerity and deprivations which were widespread in rural Ireland in the 30s and 40s. Life was hard, uncompromising and suffocating and if we are to believe the narrator he was both inspired and imprisoned by the small fields of his native place.
The novel’s difficulties in interpretation have also been exacerbated by the mesmeric pace of change in Ireland over the past seventy-five years: we have gone from the pony and trap to Hiace vans and lavish SUVs; from rustic bye-roads to urban ring roads, from railways to Greenways. Our new reality of social media and smartphones and blogs and podcasts, not to mention Covid Lockdowns, have made even the recent past more remote than Neolithic times. And yet even a casual glance at our newsstands on any given day reinforces the notion that rural tranquility is still a myth, another modern urban legend.
So, perhaps it is again pertinent to revisit the past, the years before yesterday, to experience again the flickering sepia villages and townlands where mud and drudgery mingle with the body’s stirrings and the olive-green humming of Tarry Flynn’s world. I would highly recommend it, especially to those of a similar vintage to myself!
Murray, Patrick. Modern Fiction, The Educational Company, 1991.
This semi-autobiographical play by Brian Friel was first performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1990. In 1998 the play was adapted and turned into a very successful, award-winning film, directed by Pat O’Connor. The film competed in the Venice Film Festival of 1998. It won an Irish Film and Television Award for Best Actor in a Female Role for Brid Brennan. It was also nominated for 6 other awards, including the Irish Film and Television Award for Best Feature Film and the Best Actress Award for the American actress, Meryl Streep, who played the part of Kate.
Like many other of Friel’s works it is set in the fictional town of Ballybeg and tells the story of a family unit being torn apart by the many strong forces in society. It is a memory play told from the point of view of the adult Michael Evans, the narrator. He recounts the summer in his aunts’ cottage when he was seven years old.
This play is loosely based on the lives of Friel’s mother and aunts who lived in Ardara, a small town in the Glenties area of County Donegal. Set in the summer of 1936, the play depicts the late summer days when love briefly seems possible for five of the Mundy sisters (Maggie, Chris, Agnes, Rose, and Kate) and the family welcomes home the frail elder brother, Jack, who has returned from a life as a missionary in Africa. However, as the summer ends, the family foresees the sadness and economic privations under which they will suffer and all hope seems to fade.
The play takes place in early August, around the Festival of Lughnasa, the pagan Celtic harvest festival. The play describes a bitter harvest for the Mundy sisters, a time of reaping what has been sown.
In the play, the adult narrator, Michael Evans, recalls the summer of 1936 when as a small boy of seven, he lived with his mother Chris, and his four aunts – Kate, Maggie, Agnes and Rose – in the fictional village of Ballybeg, the setting for many of Friel’s finest plays. His uncle Jack, a missionary priest, had recently returned from Africa to live with them. He is suffering from the after effects of malaria and some other more mysterious mental ailment that has made him forgetful and frail.
The Mundy family are not well off. Kate, a teacher, is the only wage-earner. Agnes and Rose make a little money knitting gloves at home, a cottage industry at the time. Maggie and Rose look after the hens and household duties, as does Christina, Michael’s mother.
Michael’s abiding memories of that summer are of his Uncle Jack’s return to the family home, linked forever in his mind with hearing dance music on their first ever radio, and the two visits of his father, Gerry Evans. The play depicts the complexity of the relationships of the adults around him and the changes that came over their lives in that crucial summer, against a deeply traditional and rural backdrop.
The action of the play takes place in August, (the Irish word for August is Lughnasa – the ‘Lughnasa’ of the title), traditionally a time when the pagan Celtic god of the harvest, Lugh, was commemorated and celebrated. The play is divided into two acts, reflecting the two particular days that stand out in Michael’s memory. He narrates the action from an adult vantage point, and is, therefore, both part of and distanced from it. As the illegitimate son of Christina (Chris) Mundy and Gerry Evans he is both a source of joy and shame – all of the sisters have a great affection for him, but in the Ireland of the 1930s a child born to a couple who were not married was seen as a source of shame in the community.
Summary of Act 1
Act 1 depicts four of the sisters as they wait for their sister Kate to return home. They carry out their everyday tasks – knitting, ironing, making mash for the hens – and they talk in a light-hearted way about ordinary things, a broken mirror, lipstick, the erratic behaviour of the radio that they have nicknamed Marconi, after the famous inventor. Their relationships are affectionate, occasionally exasperated as in any family.
When Kate returns she brings news of the forthcoming Harvest Festival of Lughnasa that everyone in the town is preparing for. The excitement of that seems to unsettle the women. Against Kate’s better judgement they even consider going to the harvest dance, like most of their neighbours. Another unsettling moment is when they discuss Father Jack’s strange behaviour since he came home from Uganda. He has returned home to Ballybeg as he is suffering the after effects of malaria, but he also appears confused as to his own whereabouts. He cannot remember ordinary English words and makes constant references to pagan rituals he seems to have practiced while in Uganda.
Michael’s father, Gerry Evans makes one of his infrequent visits to see him and his mother Christina. Chris is still in love with him but it is clear that he, an irresponsible charmer, full of empty promises, has no intention of staying in Ballybeg with her and her son. By the end of Act 1 we learn that Gerry intends to go to Spain to fight with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. By the end of the Act we have also learned a great deal about the lives and personalities of the five sisters and also about their brother, Father Jack.
Summary of Act 2
Act 2 takes place in early September, three weeks later. Michael still waits for the bike his father, Gerry, has promised to buy him. Jack continues to speak of strange pagan rites. He seems to have no interest in Catholic rituals such as the Mass. This is now becoming a problem for the sisters in the village, especially for Kate as the schoolteacher.
Slowly but surely events begin to unfold and we hear that she will lose her job. Agnes and rose will also lose their jobs as home knitters, due to the opening of a knitting factory in the area. Gerry abandons Chris again, this time forever. Money is scarce in the household.
Michael then narrates what transpired in the following weeks. Rose and Agnes have to leave Ballybeg and go to London to find work. He tells us that they lose contact with the family and it is twenty-five years later when he tracks them down – Agnes is dead by then and Rose is dying in a hospital. Father Jack, who doesn’t resume his ministry as a Catholic priest as was expected, dies of a heart attack a year after the action of the play. Gerry Evans is wounded in Spain, but survives to form a new family in Wales. Chris spends the rest of her life working in the knitting factory, and hates it. Kate finally gets a job as a private tutor.
The play ends as it began, with Michael remembering what happened that summer, particularly the sights and sounds of his mother and his aunts dancing in the kitchen.
THE HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL SETTING OF THE PLAY
Dancing at Lughnasa captures a time and place where great changes are about to take place – both in the Mundy household and in the wider world where all is about to change forever with the ominous rumblings of war to be heard in many parts of Europe. The unspoken backdrop is Ireland and its emerging Republic which at the time was dominated by very strict social morality and the repressive influence of the Catholic Church. The play seems to suggest that this traditional rural society, dominated for so long by communal values, will be changed forever by the power of the radio.
From a twenty-first century vantage point giving the radio a name – Marconi – seems absurd, but it highlights the point that the radio will be like another presence in the play, giving people a window to what is going on in the outside world probably for the first time. It is interesting that the predominant political movement in Ireland in the previous quarter of a century before 1936 was that of Sinn Féin which translates as Ourselves Alone – Ireland could survive on its own, isolationism was a good thing. Ironically, a century later and our near neighbours have stolen our ideas with their obsession with Brexit.
It is significant that the tune to which the sisters dance so wildly to at the beginning of the play is the old Irish reel, The Mason’s Apron. Towards the end of the play, however, the tune that plays when Gerry dances with Chris and her sisters is Anything Goes, with its faintly shocking lyrics:
In olden times a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
Now heaven knows
This may indicate that the old traditional moralities are also changing fast.
Michael, the narrator, tells us at the beginning of the play that he is remembering ‘that summer of 1936’ and the events that took place in Ballybeg. As a boy of seven at that time, he clearly had very little understanding of the historical and political context in which he lived. Throughout the play, however, Friel alludes to several specific events that took place in 1936 in both Ireland and Europe.
In Act 1, rose, one of the five Mundy sisters, sings,
‘Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?
Bring your own cup and saucer and a bun.
Mussolini will be there with his aeroplanes in the air
Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?
Shortly afterwards Maggie joins in with, ‘Will you vote for De Valera will you vote?’, to the same tune. They are both referring to highly topical issues at the time: the invasion of Abyssinia by the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and the success of Eamon de Valera, leader of the Fianna Fáil Party in the Irish General Election of 1933. There was another General Election in the offing and this took place on 1 July 1937. A plebiscite on whether to approve the new Constitution of Ireland was held on the same day. This was a very significant event and it is interesting that here in Dancing at Lughnasa as in Philadelphia Here I Come the important date to remember is 1/1/1937. This was the day the new Irish Constitution came into effect and some critics suggest that Friel is here passing a harsh judgement on the Ireland that had emerged under that Constitution.
Many critics and scholars also suggest that Friel is here giving a barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day radio broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’.
Later in the play, Gerry Evans, Michael’s father, decides to join the International Brigade, a group of socialists who opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. All these events point to the fact that in the world outside Ballybeg great change and upheaval is happening – the Mundy family can’t but be caught up in and affected by these great changes also.
However, the most important change, according to Friel, is the rise to power in Ireland of Eamon de Valera. De Valera’s celebrated view of Ireland as a predominantly rural society, peopled by frugal, contented people, clearly applies to the lifestyle of the five Mundy sisters – in fact, they are the very epitome of de Valera’s vision for the new Republic: comely maidens dancing at the crossroads or in their frugal kitchens.
The limited opportunities available to the five Mundy sisters was typical of Irish society in the 1930s. Conversation revolves around local gossip – who’s marrying who, the forthcoming harvest festival for the Festival of Lughnasa – and family issues; Father Jack’s strange behaviour since his return from Africa; the visit of Chris’s ex-lover Gerry Evans, the father of her child. Their activities are equally confined to looking after the hens, baking, knitting and ironing. They are barely making ends meet. Crucially, it is Kate who does the shopping. Their only source of entertainment is the radio, which fails to work more often than not.
From their conversations it is clear that the society of Ballybeg is small, not only literally but also metaphorically. Michael tells us that Ballybeg was proud of his uncle and his work in the Ugandan leprosy hospital. The local newspaper called him ‘our own leper priest’. As he says:
‘it gave us that little bit of status in the eyes of the parish. And it must have helped my aunts to bear the shame my mother brought on the household by having me – as it was called then – out of wedlock.’
The Influence of the Catholic Church
Religion had an enormous influence in 1930s Ireland. In 1932 the great Eucharistic Congress took place in Dublin and it is obvious that religion directly affects the lives of the characters in the play. To have a priest in the family, especially a missionary priest, was considered a great honour. It is Kate who expresses the most orthodox religious views for most of the play. Indeed, Friel deliberately juxtaposes those views with the paganism associated with the Lughnasa festival bubbling away beneath the surface. Early on Kate thinks it would be ‘sinful’ to give the name of the old pagan god, Lugh, to the new radio. Any talk of the ‘pagan practices’ that take place back in the hills during the Festival of Lughnasa are not to be heard in ‘a Christian home, a Catholic home’, which for her is the ultimate ideal. She reminds the others that ‘this is Father Jack’s home – we must never forget that – ever’.
Going to the harvest dance, as her sisters suggest, is for young people with ‘nothing in their heads but pleasure’. In Catholic morality of the day, the idea of ‘pleasure’ was associated in a negative way with sex. In the 1930s, attempts were made to prevent people going to what were called ‘pagan dances’. These rigid attitudes extended to anything that might encourage personal vanity or loose behaviour and we can see from the play that the Mundy sisters have only an ‘oul cracked thing’ of a mirror to see themselves in.
Although he does not appear directly in the play (and only fleetingly in the film version), the power of the parish priest to fire Kate from her job in the village school because her priest brother does not conform to religious expectations, is another measure of the desire of the Catholic Church authorities to exert control in society.
Friel returns to this theme many times in his plays. In Philadelphia Here I Come! for example, religion is represented through the figure of the Canon. It is clear that he is an inept and ineffective one-dimensional character. Gar satirises his ineptitude when he comes in one evening to play his usual game of cards with S. B.,
“Sure Canon what interest have you in money? Sure as long as you get to Tenerife for five weeks every winter, what interest have you in money?”.
In Philadelphia Here I Come!, the Canon is seen as a very shallow man who is constantly being ridiculed by Gar Private. He is not a pastor, he waits until, ‘the rosary’s over and the kettle’s on.’ And, in the end, he proves to be as predictable and one-dimensional as S.B. Indeed, both men are cruelly caricatured by Friel and the priest, in particular, is seen as a sad figure without influence or a constructive role to play in modern society.
We can also sense what a blow it must have been to the Mundy household when Chris became an unmarried mother. De Valera and the Catholic Church at the time emphasised the role of marriage and the nuclear family – mother, father and ‘sturdy’ children – as a force for moral and political stability. This ideal was best expressed in De Valera’s radio broadcast to the nation on St. Patrick’s Day 1943 when he said:
The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, St. Patrick came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here no less than happiness hereafter. It was the pursuit of such an Ireland that later made our country worthy to be called the island of saints and scholars.
It is clear from the concern of the five Mundy sisters that they too value marriage and family. Circumstances have caused them all to be single. Only Chris has had sexual experience. Given their ages – from twenty-six to forty – it appears that they have lost their chances of finding suitable men to marry. But that does not mean that all desire for romance or sexual relationships has been crushed. In different ways, each of the women in the play reveals a longing for love that goes beyond their actual circumstances. Chris is still very much in love with Gerry Evans, the father of her child. His visits cause emotional havoc to all in the household but especially to Chris and her young son. He represents for all of them a different sort of life – there are hints that Agnes too is in love with him – even if Kate sees him as a sort of threat. In her jokes and songs such as ‘The Isle of Capri’, Maggie reveals a sentimental side to her tough exterior. Even Rose, described as ‘simple’, has a romantic interest in Danny Bradley, a married man. Later in the play she joins him in ‘the back hills’, although we do not find out what, if anything, happens between them. Even Kate, who is described as ‘a very proper woman’ and more negatively as a ‘self-righteous old bitch’, has had some hopes of attracting the attentions of Austin Morgan. However, we later learn that he goes and marries a ‘wee young thing from Carrickfad’.
Dolores Keane sings ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’ backed by the Irish Film Orchestra … and then the climactic dance of wild and free women.
The Dancing Metaphor
Throughout the play the metaphor of dancing is used to suggest romance, escape and sexual freedom. For a short while the sisters entertain ideas of going to the harvest dance as they used to in their youth. Kate, the authority figure in the family, makes it clear that this is out of the question, ‘do you want the whole countryside to be laughing at us? – women of our age? – mature women, dancing?’
Maggie has fond memories of going to dances with her friend Bernie O’Donnell, when she was sixteen and in love with Brian McGuinness, who later went to Australia. The relationship between Gerry Evans and Chris is also depicted very much in terms of dancing. And of course, the wild dance that the sisters engage in in their kitchen is a crucial moment in the play. It allows them to get in touch with their inner selves, the sensuous side of their nature that is held in check by the dominant social attitudes of the Ireland in which they live.
Conflict in the Play
As already mentioned Friel juxtaposes in Dancing at Lughnasa the conflict between the repressive social and religious attitudes of Ireland in the 30s with an older, freer pre-Christian way of life. This pagan way of life was one of celebration, wild dances and rituals held in the ‘back hills’ far away from the influence of the Catholic Church. The Festival of Lughnasa traditions that Rose describes take place ‘up there in the back hills’, among people that Kate refers to as ‘savages’. There are numerous references to Lugh, the pagan god, to voodoo, to omens of good and bad luck, to the devilish faces that Michael has painted on his kites. Sweeney (the boy who was burnt in the festival bonfire) bears the same name as the legendary Sweeney who defied Christian authorities and was punished by being condemned to fly around like a bird for the rest of his life.
Father Jack embodies this conflict too. His experience as a missionary in Africa has caused him to lose his sense of what is appropriate in the context of Ballybeg. From an Irish cultural point of view, sending priests as missionaries to Africa was seen as benefitting the native Africans by teaching them and enabling them to participate in the rituals of the Catholic Church. But Father Jack no longer appears to believe that Christian ritual is superior to the rituals he observed in ‘pagan’ Africa. In fact, after his time spent as a missionary, he now sees Catholic rituals such as the Mass as synonymous with the sacrifice offered to ‘Obi, our Great Goddess of the Earth’. Rather amusingly, he fails to live up to his expected role as moral judge of Gerry Evans (‘Father Jack may have something to say to Mr. Evans’ says Kate at one point). Instead, he sees Michael as Chris’s ‘love-child’ and he asks her if she has any more ‘love-children’, and he pronounces that in Uganda ‘women are eager to have love-children’. He even suggests that if they were in Uganda he would be able to provide at least one husband for all of his sisters, ‘That’s our system and it works very well’.
Father Jack’s view of religion now corresponds more to the goings-on at the pagan festival of Lughnasa than it does to the norms of the Catholic Ireland, ‘the island of saints and scholars’. There is one telling statement he makes about the African people that seems to recognise the underlying truth of this. He declares, ‘In some respects they’re not unlike us’. It is clear, however, that his views would not be acceptable in the Ireland of the 30s to which he has returned. This is sadly borne out by his own forced return to Ireland and the treatment meted out to his sister Kate by the local parish priest.
Change in Society
The over-riding impression we get from the play, however, is that changes are taking place, the world is sliding towards war and the old certainties are losing ground. This is made even more evident with the return of Father Jack from Africa. This event suggests that the domestic world of the Mundy’s faces disruption from the outside. Father Jack brings with him from Uganda hints that Catholic ritual may not have universal appeal. His obvious respect for native Ugandan rituals gives us a reverse view of the traditional role of the missionary priest!
Gerry Evans also brings a sense of the changing world of Ireland when he talks of giving ballroom dancing lessons, or of gramophone sales in Dublin. When he decides to join the International Brigade in Spain, it is seen as part of a desire to experience the big bad world outside of Ireland. There is a suggestion that Ireland’s cultural landscape is beginning to change ever so slowly.
One of the clearest indications of change takes place when Agnes and Rose can no longer make their living from home knitting, due to the opening of the new knitting factory in Donegal Town. As the narrator says: ‘The Industrial Revolution had finally caught up with Ballybeg’. Their subsequent emigration was typical of the large-scale emigration from Ireland that took place in the first half of the twentieth century. As in Philadelphia Here I Come!, Ballybeg is depicted here as a backwater, a stagnant place of despair and routine. Escape through emigration is the only safety valve. Like many an Irish town in the late thirties, forties and fifties Ballybeg has maintained its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings! It is an example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would most certainly be ruined if those same young people stayed at home en masse.
Faraway hills are said to be greener but when Agnes and Rose leave they possessed little education, few skills, and in reality their opportunities in London were limited to menial cleaning jobs. Sad though this is, the narrator nevertheless suggests that they wanted ‘to get away’, to experience change and novelty, with all their challenges and disadvantages. Someone said once that the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies but there may be a positive side to change as countless numbers of Irish emigrants discovered as they made new prosperous lives for themselves in foreign lands.
Family is important to the Mundy sisters. Within the family there may be disappointment, resentment or anger, but they will always present a united and brave face to the outside world. Kate, in particular, insists that problems with Father Jack must be kept within the family, ‘not a word of this must go outside these walls’.
It is this family solidarity that causes them to unite in the face of the shame that Chris must have brought on them as an unmarried mother in a small town, baile beag, in 1930s Ireland. Throughout the play we see the genuine affection each of the aunts feels for Michael: Kate brings him presents, Maggie jokes with him, Rose even says, ‘I wish he was mine’. Clearly, he has never been made to feel unloved or unwanted. It almost seems as if any or all of them could have been his mother.
Similarly, their love and care for Father Jack outweighs any disappointment they may have felt at his ‘disgrace’. Kate’s surprising acceptance of his religious beliefs and her grief when he dies reveal that family feeling overcomes conventional morality. Each of the family members watches out for ‘simple’ and vulnerable Rose, as we see when she goes missing for an afternoon with Danny Bradley. When Kate is sacked from her teaching job, it is ‘Rosie’ she worries about most.
However, despite the obvious closeness and the obvious loneliness and lack of fulfilment that they all feel, they rarely speak about their intimate feelings. When Kate confides to Maggie that she feels ‘it’s all going to collapse’, for instance, Maggie declines to engage with her fears and simply says, ‘Nothing is about to collapse, Kate’.
Despite this, however, the family is capable of expressing negative feelings. Hurtful things can be said. Kate points out rather meanly to Agnes that neither she nor Rose made much money to contribute to the upkeep of the household. Agnes retorts that she and rose are like ‘two unpaid servants’ in the house. At another stage Agnes calls Kate ‘a damned self-righteous bitch’.
Ironically, the Mundy family of five sisters, one brother and their young nephew would not have corresponded to De Valera’s ideal nuclear family unit consisting of father, mother and their children of the time. Tragically, too, the family grouping will disintegrate, as Michael the narrator tells us:
Poverty and economic change force Agnes and Rose to emigrate to London to find work;
Father Jack will die within a year;
Chris settles for a job she hated, working in the knitting factory;
Gerry Evans will visit less and less, until his visits stop altogether;
Michael himself will leave. As he says, ‘In the selfish way of young men I was happy to escape’.
In many ways, then, it can be said that circumstances in the end have conspired to defeat the Mundy family.
CHARACTER ANALYSIS IN DANCING AT LUGHNASA
Kate is the mother-figure and matriarch in the Mundy household. She is the main bread-winner, respected in the community and the leader of the Mundy sisters. She is a very religious and puritanical woman. She has no time for ‘pagan’ ideas and is very prim and proper. She doesn’t agree that the radio should be given a name, and definitely not the name Lugh because of its pagan origins. She teaches in the local Primary School and would have been seen as a pillar of the community – especially in 1930s Ireland. She had been involved in the War of Independence and she is very firm in her Christian attitudes.
She is very concerned with the way the people in the community view her and her family. She would prefer the Mundys to be viewed as a decent family with a strong sense of dignity and strong religious faith. She is, therefore, embarrassed by Father Jack’s return from Africa and feels that he has brought some shame on the family following his exploits in Uganda. She has also been disappointed and hurt when Chris became pregnant outside of marriage and she does not want people to look down on the family. When it is suggested that the sisters go to the harvest dance she is horrified at first. She is very concerned about keeping up appearances and showing restraint both emotionally and socially.
Despite being part of a large family, Kate feels isolated and lonely in some way. Perhaps she feels that she has to shoulder the burden of looking after the family on her own. When the sisters dance together she dances alone. This highlights her loneliness and isolation as she deals with her feelings by herself.
At first Maggie seems to be the joker of the family. She is always ready with a song, dance or joke. However, on closer inspection we discover why she seems to be so bubbly. Whenever there are moments of tension, or the possibility of any conflict, Maggie intercedes with some humour to help diffuse the situation. In this way she keeps the peace and helps keep the family together because the family bond is very important to her. She is a very likeable character and of all the sisters she is least prone to sarcasm and attempts to hurt others. She is also generous spirited and kind and she adores young Michael.
Behind this apparent happy façade, however, Maggie is hiding deep unhappiness. At one point Kate describes her meeting in Ballybeg with an old friend of Maggie’s by the name of Bernie O’Donnell. It was Bernie O’Donnell who could attract the men that Maggie couldn’t when they were young. Bernie later left Ballybeg and made a new life for herself somewhere else. When Maggie hears this story from Kate she is quiet for once, which is very unlike her.
It is Maggie who is the first to start dancing in the climactic scene in Act 1. She initiates the dance because she feels angry and frustrated with her small, lonely life in Ballybeg. As described in the text her dance is ‘defiant’ as if she is trying to show life that it can throw anything at her and she will bounce back.
She is also a tower of strength for others when they need help. She is there for Kate when she breaks down over her fears of not being able to keep the family together. Maggie is possibly the most emotionally strong of the Mundy sisters, and she hides her secret pain much more effectively than the others.
Chris is a strong-willed character whose one great weakness is Gerry Evans. She cannot help but love him despite all his false and empty promises. Like all the Mundy sisters she fights off despair with humour and a defiant attitude. She tries very hard not to let anything get to her.
When Gerry arrived back for the first time in over a year she tries to resist his advances by refusing to engage him in conversation. He responds by dancing with her and she cannot resist the romance of this. She returns to the house a changed woman, full of life and happiness, having conveniently forgotten what an unreliable rogue Gerry is. She obviously craves romance in her life, otherwise she would not give in to Gerry in this way. There are moments when she thinks back silently on her dance with Gerry, and it is obvious from her happy reaction that it has had a profound effect on her.
Throughout the play, however, she seems to be very jealous and suspicious of Agnes. It becomes obvious to her that Gerry is also attracted to Agnes and visa versa, particularly after they both dance together. This enrages Chris who probably feels deep down that Gerry loves Agnes more than he loves her.
However, her main claim to fame – or infamy – in the play is the fact that she is Michael’s mother. He is obviously the apple of her eye and she is fiercely protective and proud of her son. We have to remember also of course that this story is being narrated to us by her son Michael as he remembers with nostalgia the events of that momentous summer of 1936.
Agnes is the most reserved and quiet of the five sisters, but she is also perhaps the strongest willed and the one with the greatest hidden reserves of strength. She tends to listen when the others banter and poke fun at each other. She is not the kind of person to start a conversation, yet despite her quiet and shy nature she is never afraid to stand up for herself or others. She becomes quite angry when Kate refuses to use Gerry Evans’s name when referring to him.
She is the first to suggest that they could all go to the harvest dance and she is the one who makes the most emotional plea when she says she wants to dance and feel alive while dancing. Despite being very quiet Agnes is not afraid at certain points in the play of revealing what her true emotions are. However, normally she tends to bottle up her emotions and say very little, but when she does let go what she says is usually of great importance. When she dances with her sisters in the famous kitchen scene she is very graceful and proud but also defiant at the same time.
Agnes is obviously very taken by Gerry Evans. When she dances with him she is as graceful as ever and she dances like a woman who has been dancing with this man all her life.
Ultimately, Agnes is fearless despite her quiet nature. She knows that when a crisis hits that hard decisions have to be made. This is most obviously shown in her decision to go to London with Rose. Of all the sisters, Agnes is the closest to Rose and she sees it as her life-long job to look after her sister.
Rose is very childish and innocent. At that time, she would have been referred to as being ‘a bit simple’. She is full of fun and life, but she is by no means a weak character who can be walked all over. She has intelligence when required and like a child who wants something she knows cunning ways and means of getting it!
The other sisters are very protective of her, especially her sister Agnes. They see her as the child of the family and it is their task to make sure she comes to no harm. She takes a fancy to Danny Bradley, a local rascal with a bad reputation. Despite her sisters’ insistence that she shouldn’t meet with him, rose concocts a plan to spend a day with him. The fact that she does this shows her cunning and determination and also shows how underestimated she is, even by her own sisters. Rose’s key character moment arrives when she defiantly stands up to Kate and is honest about her meeting with Danny Bradley. In this moment she appears most adult-like and willing to be independent.
She has no shame, unlike Kate who is obsessed with the family’s good name and status in the community. She is honest and pure and sees no harm in enjoying life. She is a warm and endearing character with many childlike traits, but ultimately she is depicted as a strong, independent woman.
Brian Friel uses both Rose and Agnes to represent a generation of young Irish women (and men) who were forced by limited opportunities, poverty and economic depression top leave their small towns and villages in rural Ireland to seek work in London and elsewhere during the 1930s.
Gerry Evans is feckless, weak and irresponsible. He is a scoundrel and a liar, but he manages to get away with it and gets by on his easy charm and a way with words. This allows him to worm his way back into Chris’s life. Gerry seems to be a drifter: unwilling or incapable of settling down, but later in the play we learn that he has been living a lie, and that he has another family in Wales.
Despite his flaws there is something likeable at times about Gerry. He can get away with almost anything. He is a child unwilling to take on real responsibility and merely puts on a show of enquiring about his son Michael’s well-being.
We also get the sense that Gerry is searching for something. He goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War but is not sure why he made that decision. Gerry is also quite possibly in love with Agnes and he seems to have a problem asking after her when he is speaking to Chris.
He is a rogue who cannot be depended upon for anything. He is a restless character with a great ability to charm all those around him with his easy words and his dancing skills.
Father Jack has obviously suffered deeply, both physically and mentally, as a result of his time spent as a Catholic missionary priest among the leper colonies in Uganda. Despite his evident weaknesses and illnesses, we get a sense that he was once a great and determined man who deserved his reputation as a great missionary priest.
Father Jack is also quite unconventional. This part of his nature is slowly revealed in the play until we get the ultimate revelation that he almost discarded his own Catholic beliefs to become one with the natives at his mission. Unlike Kate he is tolerant of others beliefs, so much so that he took part in many tribal celebrations and rituals when he was in Uganda. He is a very non-judgemental man who accepts everyone for what they are.
He is a good man with everyone’s best interests at heart. He is a man of great humanity and strength and he quickly regains his physical strength after returning to his home in Ballybeg. He is not a man who feels shame and is quite happy about how his African experiences have changed him.
The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde was first published in 1975 by the Goldsmith Press, shortly after Michael Hartnett’s pronouncement from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that he would henceforth write only in Irish. Appropriately, the publication contains an Irish version and an English version of the poem, as perhaps befitted the poet’s conflicted state. In effect, this poem serves as a Rubicon: the last English poem he would publish, for the time being at least, and the first of his Irish poems. The poet is in transition and is now back in West Limerick and in this poem, he explores deep and ancient resentments and wrongs. Allan Gregory says that the poem, in its bilingual format, ‘expresses to the reader themes of social and historical oppression, sex, pregnancy and birth, protection, exposure and secrecy, and is the finest poem in this period of Hartnett’s writing’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).
Hartnett has documented the ‘schizophrenia’ associated with this new poetic direction and he has said that this poem, in particular, caused him great distress:
‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney, for example, almost broke my heart and indeed my mind to write, because both languages became so intermeshed. I would sit down and write a few lines of the poem unthinkingly. I’d come back to it and see that it was half in English and half in Irish or a mixture. … One is not a translation of the other. They are two versions of the same poem; but what the original language is I don’t know’ (O’Driscoll 146).
Whatever the mental turmoil generated by the artistic struggles of the poet, the resulting poem is one of Hartnett’s most powerful from this period of his career. In his review of the poem following publication, fellow Munster poet, Brendan Kennelly, says it was,
‘a probing, dramatic exploration of a woman’s loneliness and isolation in a callous and hostile society. This, to my mind, is Hartnett’s finest achievement to date: he pays a relentless imaginative attention to this woman’s fate, and he presents with admirable dramatic balance her loneliness, independence and state of severed happiness. In this condition, Ita Cagney becomes a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’ (Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 15, p. 26).
The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a pained celebration of a woman’s enforced isolation due to her refusal to conform to the demands of her society. We can surmise that in delving into Ita Cagney’s situation the poet finds common cause with another rural outcast in light of his own recent ‘retreat’ to Glendarragh to dwell ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ (A Book of Strays 41). This lonely cottage in Glendarragh was for the next ten years to serve as basecamp for what Declan Kiberd describes as ‘retracing his way to the common source’ (McDonagh/ Newman 37). However, far from being a ‘retreat’ to obscurity, as some of his critics predicted, his return to West Limerick precipitated what was arguably the most productive period of his career. Adharca Broic was published in 1978, followed by An Phurgóid in 1983, Do Nuala: Foighne Crainn in 1984 and his fourth collection in Irish, An Lia Nocht, appeared in 1985. During this period, he also undertook the translation of Daibhi Ó Brudair’s poems which were published in 1985.
The publication of this dual language version of The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde in 1975 was a bold step by Hartnett. For added effect, the Irish version was printed in the Old Gaelic script (An Cló Gaelach) which was by then obsolete and no longer being used in schools as it had been up to the 1960s. This probably also had the effect of further isolating the poet and limiting his audience. However, as he told Elgy Gillespie in an interview in March 1975: ‘Listen, it’s impossible to limit my audience, it’s so small already’ (Gillespie 10). However, academic John Jordon wrote a positive review of Cúlú Íde suggesting that it was ‘a small-town mini-epic, so redolent of Hardy’ (Jordon 7). Cúlú Íde was again published as part of Hartnett’s first collection in Irish, Adharca Broic, in 1978. This time he chose Peter Fallon’s Gallery Books and this new publishing relationship was to last until A Book of Strays was published posthumously by the same publisher in 2002. Adharca Broic received generally positive reviews and Allan Gregory declared that the twenty-one lyrical poems in the collection ‘oozed with the confidence of a speaker who felt that at last he was being heard’ (McDonagh/Newman 146).
In this analysis, I will focus mainly on the English version of the poem with occasional sorties into the Irish version, especially where they diverge. There are some similarities between The Retreat of Ita Cagney and Farewell to English. Both poems have a sequence-structure and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is divided into nine dramatic scenes. Both poems were published in 1975. However, there is one major difference: whereas Farewell to English is a public poem with political overtones, The Retreat of Ita Cagney is an intensely private poem. Though it begins with a quintessential public event, the traditional Irish funeral, it quickly transitions to the act of retreat alluded to in its title. On the face of it, it is a ‘retreat’ from a public event to a more private life, and Hartnett teases out the societal and psychological implications which this act brings about. However, the poem itself may also be read as an act of ‘retreat’ for the poet, away from public pronouncement, towards a more private poetry, which would focus on his own domestic life. If critics presumed that the blunt polemic of Farewell to English would be a constant in his writing in Irish The Retreat of Ita Cagney would seem to set them straight. As with Ita, Hartnett’s ‘retreat’ was a once-off symbolic gesture and as such there was no need to repeat the tonic, rather the wisdom or otherwise of that choice would be borne out by the life retreated to, and of course, for Hartnett, the poems which would come from living that life to its fullest.
The English version is composed in free-verse while the Irish version is more formal and adheres to the classical conventions of the Dánta Grá (McDonagh/Newman 144). This divergence in styles between the two languages is perhaps a direct reason for the mental turmoil he encountered during the composition of this poem – there is a constant battle raging between the more disordered English version and the more tamed and formalised Irish version.
As well as being a poet of international standing, Hartnett was also a master translator having translated the Tao, the Gypsy Ballads of Lorca, and later the poems of Ó Haicéad and Ó Bruadair which will forever stand the test of time. Here we find him ‘translating’ his own work and the effort induced in him a kind of artistic schizophrenia. Declan Kiberd argues that in this way, Hartnett suffered from a kind of ‘double vision’:
Every poet senses that all official languages are already dead languages. That was why Hartnett said farewell to English while knowing that Irish was itself dead already too. As he wrote himself in ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, ‘I loved her from the day she died’. Likewise, with English – no sooner did Hartnett write it off than he felt all over again its awesome power, for it had become again truly strange to him, as all poetic languages must (McDonagh/Newman 38).
This poem, then, is an initial effort to find his voice – in two languages.
In this, his last poem in English pro tem and his first poem in Irish, the poet very dramatically tells us the story of a recent widow (the Irish version says that she has been married only a year) who leaves her home in the dead of night and goes to live in secret with another man in his West Limerick cottage and bears him a child out of wedlock much to the disapproval of the locals and the Church.
The poem is not set in any recognisable historic timeframe but maybe there were echoes of some such local ‘scandalous’ incident in the ether when the poet made his return to West Limerick in and around 1975. However, the poem stands on its own and there doesn’t need to have been any particular incident which inspired the poet to take on this subject matter. Hartnett’s prose writing and poetry show him to be a very insightful social commentator and it is not hard to find echoes of Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger in this poem. Here, however, the main subject is a formidable woman which further helps to give the lie to the accepted stereotypes of the day. Readers familiar with Irish poetry will also be aware that in the old Aisling poems Ireland was often depicted as a woman: sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard. In effect, Ita Cagney can be read as a modern Bean Dubh an Ghleanna, Gráinne Mhaol, Roisín Dubh or Caithleen Ní Houlihan – a symbolic representation of Ireland. Hartnett concisely captures a portrait of the society to which he had returned in the 1970s but crucially chooses to depict Ita’s inner life and not merely as a cypher without agency, whilst also refusing to idealise rural Ireland by showing the repressive and oppressive views which pertained at that time, especially towards women.
The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more focused portrayal of small-farm Ireland than the broader panorama offered by Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger. That said, they are very similar and both Ita Cagney and Maguire have to cope with the two conflicting forces of spirituality and sexual mores in the world of their time. Maguire’s idea of sex is deformed, largely due to Church teaching and a repressive society in the Ireland of the 1930s and 40s. In contrast, Ita Cagney’s sexuality liberates her and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more recent reminder to all and a typical Hartnett barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’ (Moynihan 466-9). Whereas Maguire is beaten down and is forced to live within the strictures imposed by the Catholic Church and the 1937 Constitution, in a sense, Ita Cagney benefits from the work of such women as Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, and others in bringing about significant change in how young couples lived their married lives as a result of the McGee v. Attorney General Case. This landmark case was heard in the Supreme Court in 1973 (two years before the publication of this poem) and established the right to privacy in marital affairs, giving women the right to avail of contraception, thereby giving them control over their own bodies.
Another factor which may be relevant here also was that while Kavanagh was a bachelor (and almost certainly a virgin) when he wrote The Great Hunger, Michael Hartnett was happily married (at the time) and living with his wife Rosemary and their two young children, Niall and Lara, ‘in exile out foreign in Glantine’. Patrick Kavanagh wrote about the destitution and despair of Irish country life of the 40s and 50s and though Michael Hartnett knew that world also from his childhood (for example in A Small Farm) he depicts a changing Ireland in The Retreat of Ita Cagney, an Ireland where women play a more central role.
The poem opens in a very dramatic style. We are present at an old-style Irish wake – a scene very common in Hartnett’s poetry (Collected Poems 103). The narrator informs us that ‘their barbarism did not assuage the grief’. These ‘barbarians’ paradoxically are dressed in ‘polished boots’ and ‘Sunday clothes’ and accompanied by the ‘drone of hoarse melodeons’ – all typical features of a traditional Irish wake. It is night-time and it is raining. The poet uses rich similes to describe the atmosphere; ‘snuff lashed the nose like nettles’ and the local keeners fulfilled their ‘toothless praising of the dead / spun on like unoiled bellows’. Now we are introduced to Ita Cagney, the dead man’s widow. Her name is a Saint’s name; Ita or Íde is synonymous with West Limerick, particularly West Limerick’s ancient past. Her grief on the death of her husband has taken her by surprise and she gives a hint as to their relationship when she says ‘the women who had washed his corpse / were now more intimate with him / than she had ever been.’ This may suggest a great disparity in ages between them although the Irish version gives a slightly different perspective on her grief when it reveals that they had only been married a year: ‘a bhean chéile, le bliain anois’ (his wife, now for only a year). Now, on a whim, she leaves the raucous wake and beats her hasty retreat. This is emphasised by the metaphor, ‘the road became a dim knife’. She has not planned this move but ‘instinct neighed around her / like a pulling horse’.
The second movement follows the strict requirements of the Dánta Grá and there are striking stylistic differences between the English and Irish versions. The Irish version consists of eight quatrains each describing Ita Cagney’s classical appearance. The English version is in free-verse and describes in minute detail Ita Cagney’s head from ‘her black hair’ to her throat which ‘showed no signs of age’. Her hair is black save for a single rib of grey which stands out ‘like a steel filing on a forge floor’. The poet here obviously calling on his Maiden Street childhood and scenes from John Kelly’s forge which he had already immortalised in verse (Collected Poems 104).
He then describes her brow, her eyebrows, her eyes, ‘her long nose’, ‘her rose-edged nostrils’, her upper lip, her chin and jawline and finally her throat. The reason for this detail is to give us a sense of the formidable woman at the centre of this poem. She is described as having an almost aristocratic beauty. Having described her head in exact detail the final singular line comes as an anti-climax: ‘The rest was shapeless, in black woollen dress’. The over-riding sense, however, is of a woman in black as befits a woman in mourning but a woman nonetheless with a kind of Patrician beauty, a sense of being noble in her bearing beyond her class: ‘Her long nose was almost bone / making her face too severe’. Ironically, from my own limited meetings with Michael Hartnett, he too had this aura of nobility and even some extant photographs of the poet show that he wore his hair like a Senator of Rome – in my eyes, at least, it is imaginable that he too saw himself as a Patrician character!
I would point out also that there is a difference between the way Hartnett describes Ita Cagney and the way he introduces us to the raven-haired barmaid in the first section of Farewell to English. The barmaid, Mary Donavan, worked behind the bar in Windle’s pub in Glensharrold, a few miles outside Newcastle West. She is described with exaggerated classical phrases such as ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’. Gabriel Fitzmaurice tells us that ‘here we have the poet Michael Hartnett, possessing his locality, his muse, and his lost language’ (Limerick Leader, 1999). Here in this poem, however, Hartnett does not indulge in this kind of hyperbole in his description of Ita Cagney. She is not idealised or clichéd and Michael Hartnett is at pains to describe her as a real person and this realism makes the symbolism more rich and complex. Deep unhappiness and sadness have furrowed her brow: ‘One deep line, cut by silent days of hate’. Her first marriage was obviously not a happy one and there is even a hint that it was an arranged marriage as was the custom in the past: her ‘eyes / that had looked on bespoke love / seeing only to despise’.
In this section of the poem, Ita has reached her destination – by accident or design we do not know. She has turned her back on a society that doesn’t value her and in a sense, the poem is about breaking with convention – as the poet himself has also recently done. Ita Cagney has rejected the old world of snuff and melodeons and observance of religious rituals and she is about to embrace a more sensual world. The half-door of this isolated cottage is opened by a man ‘halving darkness bronze’. The ‘bronze’ light of the gaslight gives way to ‘gold the hairs along his nose’. He is wearing classic labourer’s garb, a blue-striped shirt without a collar with a stud at the neck which ‘briefly pierced a thorn of light’. This chink of light in the dark night echoes Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Advent’ where he says ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’. Whereas Kavanagh, in his poetry, comes across as the quintessential 1950s Catholic, Michael Hartnett, in contrast, sees the ‘chink’ or open doorway as a new beginning in Ita Cagney’s life and not something to abstain from.
The poet uses juxtaposition here also to sharply contrast the male-dominated kitchen with its ‘odours of lost gristle / and grease along the wall’ and the arrival of a female whose ‘headscarf laughed a challenge’. The man closes the door on the world and both begin a relationship which will last ‘for many years’. Again, here we are reminded of the parallels that exist between Ita and the poet who had only recently turned his back on the Dublin literary scene and a burgeoning poetic reputation and had moved with his young family to rural West Limerick to follow his own ‘exquisite dream’ (Walsh 100).
In this section, the couple have both decided ‘to live in sin’ ignoring the religious and social mores of the time. Their experience has taught them that having a big wedding for the sake of the neighbours ‘later causes pain’. Ita has already learnt to her cost that a very public wedding can, within a year, end ‘in hatred and in grief’. The expenses incurred in buying ‘the vain white dress’, in having to pay ‘the bulging priest’ and endure ‘the frantic dance’ is not for them. For them, it would be akin to undergoing physical torture, as the insincere well-wishes of their neighbours would ‘land / like careful hammers on a broken hand’. Anyway, in this house organised religion was not important; here ‘no sacred text was read’. Instead, life was rudimentary and simple: ‘He offered her food: they went to bed’. Here, there was no ‘furtive country coupling’, hiding affections from friends and priest. Their only sin was that they had chosen ‘so late a moment to begin’.
This is the sensual ideal: their ‘Love’ doesn’t have to be transmuted and elevated to a higher level by the clergy; they don’t seek anyone’s blessing or approval for their actions. However, they are aware that there are consequences to their decision and that their actions will offend the locals and particularly the local clergy: ‘shamefaced chalice, pyx, ciborium / clanged their giltwrapped anger in the room’. The couple have made their bed and now they must lie in it. They have decided to defy society and do their own thing.
Section five sees the woman in labour and being taken by donkey and cart (or pony and trap) to the local town to be delivered. It is night-time and it is raining. She is shielded by her shawl and oilskins to protect her but all these layers cannot deflect the ‘direct rebuke and pummel of the town’. The couples secret intimacy now becomes a public matter as they have to call on outside help with the delivery. Even now at this delicate moment as Ita prepares to give birth, disapproval is vehement:
and sullen shadows mutter hate
and snarl and debate
and shout vague threats of hell.
However, the ‘new skull’ will not wait, and ‘the new skull pushes towards its morning’ and Ita’s hopes and dreams are for the future as a new beginning and a new dispensation beckons.
Section six is both a love song and a lament. Ita Cagney addresses her new-born with love and trepidation. She knows what will be said and she will try and protect her son from the venom and vitriol which she knows will come because of her actions. Her newborn is described lovingly with his ‘gold hair’ and ‘skin / that smells of milk and apples’. She wishes to cocoon her baby son and protect him from all the wickedness of the outside world as if he were in Noah’s Ark. However, she knows in her heart that just as in the Bible story ‘a dove is bound to come’ with messages from the outside world ‘bringing from the people words / and messages of hate’. She knows that the ‘stain’ of what she has done will be passed like a baton of toxic shame, the preferred Irish weapon to ensure conformity, to the next generation:
They will make you wear my life
Like a hump upon your back.
She is also tormented by the fear that her son may come to blame her for the hatred he will be forced to endure and that he may internalise that hatred and that the cycle of hatred will continue.
Section seven has echoes of the Garden of Eden. The child is growing up in splendid isolation in the West Limerick countryside. The language is sensual and earthy, ‘each hazel ooze of cowdung through the toes, / being warm, and slipping like a floor of silk…’. There are echoes here also of earlier Hartnett poems depicting his own idyllic childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’ (Collected Poems 102). The young boy grows up and learns the lore of the countryside, gathering mushrooms ‘like white moons of lime’ and working the land with his father. His mother watches him grow ‘in a patient discontent’. The seasons come and go, spring, autumn, harvest, Christmas and their little cottage becomes ‘resplendent with these signs’. There are echoes of an Edenic existence, unspoilt and idyllic, as ‘apples with medallions of rust / englobed a thickening cider on the shelf’.
In section eight Ita speaks in a confessional manner. She is preparing for Christmas and decorating her little cottage with the traditional homemade crepe decorations. She is in a reflective mood and Hartnett uses a beautiful image to convey her reverie as she watches ‘the candles cry / O salutaris hostia’. There is a potent mix of residual religious imagery in these lines; the Christmas candles remind Ita of the traditional Catholic hymn sung at Benediction. The hymn invites us to ask for God’s help to persevere in our often difficult spiritual journey. The next image is also very traditional and every small farmhouse in Ireland contained at one time a red Sacred Heart lamp with its flickering flame:
I will light the oil –lamp till it burns
like a scarlet apple
This is clearer in the Irish version and stands as a good example of how both versions complement each other:
Anocht lasfad lampa an Chroí Ró-Naofa
agus chífead é ag deargadh
mar úll beag aibí
We notice here that while Ita Cagney may reject the public rites associated with the Catholic Church she still maintains elements of the traditional Christian practices. In some sense, I think we are also being given a glimpse of Michael Hartnett’s own views on religion here. Traditional religious symbols and half-forgotten phrases from old Latin hymns are residual echoes of his own early religious experience: and for Michael Hartnett, and for many others of his generation, Catholicism was very much a child’s thing (see ‘Crossing the Iron Bridge’ ).
There then follows Ita’s ‘confession’ where she declares that she has not insulted God but that she has offended the ‘crombie coats and lace mantillas, / Sunday best and church collections’ – she has offended public morality and her chief offence has been that her happiness has not been blessed by the church and condoned by society at large. This is the climax of the drama and encapsulates the enduring tension that exists between the rights of the individual in society and the pressures on that individual to conform to acceptable social mores, especially as it applies to sexual love. As Allan Gregory sees it, ‘The poem shows, with imaginative sympathy and ethical discernment, how Ita Cagney, a widow, lives in a new free union, unblessed by the church and how, because of this, she is feared and loathed by society’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).
The final movement in the poem sees the neighbours advance in a concerted ‘rhythmic dance’ to lay siege to Ita’s cottage. The language is violent and carries connotations of evictions carried out in the neighbourhood by the landlord class in the not too distant past. We are told that ‘venom breaks in strident fragments / on the glass’ and ‘broken insults clatter on the slates’. The neighbours are described as a ‘pack’, a mob, who ‘skulk’ and disappear into the foothills in order to regroup and to muster their forces for a final onslaught – waiting ‘for the keep to fall’. Ita, a virtual prisoner in her own home, protects ‘her sleeping citizen’ and imagines the final attack ‘on the speaking avenue of stones / she hears the infantry of eyes advance’. The Irish version gives us further food for thought and is even more redolent with echoes of recent Irish history. In the Irish version the phrase ‘she guards her sleeping citizen’ is rendered as ‘í féin istigh go scanrach / ag cosaint a saighdiúrín’ (herself inside terrified / protecting her little soldier boy’). Furthermore, the final line ‘she hears the infantry of eyes advance’ is translated as ‘ó shúile dearga na yeos’. This word ‘yeos’ refers to the yeomanry, the infamous English Redcoats, and carries very loaded associations in the Gaelic folk memory – they were as hated as the Black and Tans or the Auxiliaries were in more recent history. The use of these words, especially in the Irish version of the poem emphasise and reinforce again the themes of social and historical oppression which are central to Hartnett’s thesis in this major statement of intent.
This poem was the first to be written by Hartnett during the transitional phase in the mid-seventies after he had set up home in Glendarragh. He realises that little has changed since he wrote ‘A Small Farm’ – all the ‘perversions of the soul’ are still to be found in Camas and Rooska and Sugar Hill and Carrickerry. However, he does seem to hint in this poem that a better way is possible if we are brave enough to take it, like Ita Cagney, like Michael Hartnett himself, and like Mary McGee.
If we accept that Ita Cagney ‘retreat’ is a parallel for his own ‘retreat’ from English, then it seems that he is prophesying tough times ahead for himself and his new artistic direction. His ‘retreat’ will not be received well by either side. In earlier poems, he has depicted the old Gaelic world, represented by Brigid Halpin and Camas, as a perverse, pagan and ignorant place. He will have to be as strong-willed and stubborn as Ita Cagney has been in order to survive, but for Hartnett as for Ita embracing the life retreated to is worth this sacrifice.
The poem depicts Ita Cagney as the modern-day Saint Ita / Naomh Íde, and an able successor to his grandmother Bridgid Halpin, who, according to Hartnett, never adjusted to the ‘new’ Ireland which emerged in the twentieth century. Hartnett looks towards the hills and the wooded slopes of the Mullach a Radharc Mountains for answers to an age-old torment which has been a blemish on the Irish psyche. And he sees that there is hope – Ita Cagney, a young widow, ‘retreats’ to a new life and though her union is unblessed by the church she is prepared to defend her decision despite the disapproval of society. She becomes, as Kennelly suggests, ‘a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’. In effect, she was, like Hartnett himself, a half-century at least before her time and she deserves to be feted as the patroness of a more modern and liberated Ireland which she longed for instinctually. Those instincts beckoned her to forsake her old life of convention and conformity and create a new beginning and a new world for herself where love reigned over hate, victorious.
Fitzmaurice, Gabriel. ‘Let’s drink to the soul of Michael Hartnett’, in The Limerick Leader, October 23rd., 1999.
Hartnett, Michael. The Retreat of Ita Cagney (Cúlú Íde). Dublin: Goldsmith Press, 1975.
Hartnett, Michael. Adharca Broic, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 1978.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, ed Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2001.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2002.
Hartnett, Michael., ‘Why write in Irish?’, Irish Times, (26th August 1975).
Gillespie, Elgy., ‘Michael Hartnett’, The Irish Times, (5th March 1975), p.10
Jordan, J., Review, Irish Independent (3rd. February 1979), p.7.
Kennelly, Brendan. reviewing Michael Hartnett, Collected Poems, Volume I, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 15.
O’Driscoll, Dennis., Interview, Metre Magazine, II (2001).
McDonogh, John and / Newman, Stephen. (eds), Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006.
Moynihan, Maurice., Speeches and Statements of Eamon de Valera, Dublin, 1980.
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Mercier Press, Cork, 2012.
Other Works Referenced
Patrick Kavanagh, The Great Hunger: A Poem, Cuala, 1942, Irish University Press, 1971.
I would like to acknowledge the considerable assistance given to me by my son, Don Hanley, a Hartnett scholar in his own right, in the preparation and editing of this blog post – one of the many welcome positives emerging from the COVID-19 Lockdown!