Study Notes on ‘Shadows on Our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston

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It is encouraging to see Shadows on Our Skin back on bookstore shelves again, thanks mainly to its inclusion on the new Junior Cycle Text List for Second and Third Years.  The novel tells the story of a young dreamer called Joe Logan who lives with his ailing, cranky, sick father and harsh, resentful mother in a Northern Ireland beset by ‘The Troubles’. He has a gentle soul, the environment does him no favours, he escapes through thinking up and writing poetry but each day he faces the reality of the world he lives in.   It was first published in 1977, eight years after British troops were deployed onto the streets of Derry and Belfast.  The purpose of this move by the British Government in Westminster was to prevent further civil strife between the increasingly polarised Protestant and Catholic communities.  While the initial reaction of the beleaguered Catholic community was a guarded welcome for the British soldiers, this over time turned to suspicion and hostility and finally hatred, especially in such ghettoised areas as The Bogside in Derry and The Falls Road and Ardoyne areas in Belfast.  Many Catholics came to regard the British as an army of occupation, much as Joe Logan’s father does in Shadows on Our Skin. For example, on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry, British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march against internment. Fourteen people died: thirteen were killed outright, while the death of another man four months later was attributed to his injuries.  Many of the victims were shot while fleeing from the soldiers and some were shot while trying to help the wounded.  Other protesters were injured by rubber bullets or batons, and two were run down by army vehicles.   The march had been organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).  The soldiers involved in this infamous incident were members of the  Parachute Regiment.  The inevitable result of incidents such as this was that increasing numbers of young men joined the newly formed Provisional IRA.

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Battle of the Bogside

‘Over and over again, the same stories’

The background to Shadows on Our Skin, therefore, is the plight of these poor Catholics living in deprivation in mean streets, their lives constantly disrupted by street fighting, ambushes and British army raids on their homes, leading to the destruction of their property and the arrest and internment of many fathers and sons.  This struggle between the authorities and a large section of the Catholic population is mirrored in the tensions within the Logan home.  Two distinct points of view on the IRA campaign are represented by Joe’s father and mother.  The father’s background, reflected in his political outlook, helps to explain why the struggle against the British occupation of part of Ireland persists from generation to generation.  He has, for years, filled his son Brendan’s head with tales of his own achievements as an Irish freedom-fighter during the War of Independence in the early 1920’s.  We are never quite sure whether these heroic stories are to be believed; his wife, for one, has her doubts.  Whatever the truth about the days in which, as Mrs. Logan sarcastically remarks, he ‘ran the Movement’, he creates a persona for himself by means of which he impresses and indoctrinates Brendan.  Since childhood, Brendan has been close to his father, feeding off his romanticised accounts of the part he has played in the downfall of the British power in Ireland, ‘listening to the stories, over and over again the same stories, of the glamorous days, the fairy tales’.

What matters is not whether these stories are true, but the effect they have on Brendan’s imagination, outlook and actions.  He can repeat the names of the heroes of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the new IRA as one might repeat a litany of saints: Liam Lynch, Ernie O’Malley, Liam Mellows, Sean Russell.  He has been taught that these men were uniquely men of principle as well as heroic men of action.  Even Joe, young as he is, has been affected by the mythology of republican nationalism.  The world his father imaginatively inhabits is peopled with heroes, ‘with patrols and flying columns and sad songs that used to drift down to Joe below, songs about death and traitors and freedom and more heroes’.  Much of his father’s patriotism is a matter of bar-room rhetoric, of purely negative emotions such as hatred for the British and contempt for ‘the Free state’ authorities for shirking their ‘legitimate responsibilities’.  He is in total sympathy with the military campaign of the new IRA.  He believes that the organisation could do with the expertise of people like himself.  He longs for a part in the guerrilla campaign as an armchair general (‘If they’d ask me … I have it all at my fingertips … Not only have I the experience but I’ve read the books … They need the old fellows so they do’).

A selfish father

The value of these ideas and of Mr. Logan’s present career as ‘a retired hero’ is consistently challenged in the novel by his wife.  From her point of view, he has been living far too long on the legacy of a wound acquired in the Civil War.  For her, this has meant living with his self-pity and sentimental reminiscences.  It has also meant that she must support the family while he wallows in the misery of his decaying health, tears trembling in his voice as he remembers the days when he was in his prime.  Now his life is divided between his sick-bed, the dinner-table and the pub, and dominated by wasteful, futile regrets (‘I should have died then, instead of being mutilated, body and soul.  Aye, soul too.  I have wasted away my life since’).  Apart from having to endure this ever-present sickness of body and soul, the yearlong tears which have left their grey tracks on his cheeks, Mrs. Logan must live with a man whose outlook on issues of life and death differs fundamentally from hers.  He is the great life-denying force in the novel, not only in regard to himself but in regard to others as well.  He is sustained by memories, drink, and hatred of Britain, none of which find a sympathetic echo in his wife’s heart.

Mr. Logan’s visual appearance suggests a sinister significance: ‘He was like some evil old demon propped up there in his grey pyjamas with an old jersey pulled over the top of them.  His eyes were a dirty grey like his pyjamas.’  His response to the killing of two British soldiers provokes a bitter argument with his wife, in which the play of contrasting ideas on violence which dominates the novel is given free rein.  When Joe tells him that the two soldiers are dead he smiles happily (‘That’s as good as a tonic … Cause for celebration … A nation once again … Two of the enemy are dead’).

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A worn out mother

Mrs. Logan finds this gloating over the deaths of two young soldiers offensive and absurd.  What she has to say exposes the poverty of her husband’s outlook on the political situation.  Their arguments show how defiantly he lives in a world of abstractions, most of them quite meaningless and alien to her practical mind.  His hackneyed celebration of freedom gives her an opening to express the point of view of all those, particularly women and children, who suffer on behalf of political causes.  She turns his own terminology of freedom back on him.  She wonders, for example, if ‘liberated’ southern Ireland enjoys any more freedom than the occupied North.  To her practical mind, freedom has no real purpose unless it results in a better way of life for people.  Her comments on the Southern Republic bring some of the major issues raised in the novel into sharp focus:

Is there a job for every man?  And a home for everyone?  Have all the children got shoes on their feet?  Are there women down there scrubbing floors to keep the home together because stupid, useless olds men are sitting round gassing about freedom?  Singing their songs about heroes?

A dominated brother

This suggests that Mr. Logan’s notions about Irish freedom reflect an absolute lack of concern for practical urgent realities.  There is, of course, more to them than this, because of their profound influence on Brendan.  The son precisely echoes and mirrors his father’s reactions to the deaths of the British soldiers. ‘Not too bad … a couple of soldiers killed’ is how Brendan responds when Kathleen Doherty asks him if anybody has been hurt.  The depth of his father’s influence is further suggested in conversation with his mother.  She believes that the young men of the area who have been arrested for IRA involvement deserve their fate.  He sees them as leaders in the struggle for a better life for people like his mother, and argues, as his father does, that nobody will have a decent life until after the British have been dislodged.  He regards those who oppose the aims and methods of the IRA as traitors to their class and to their religion, and therefore finds the killing of British soldiers can be easily justified.  Her condemnation of this idea and of her husband’s patriotic outbursts is absolute. ‘Does it not enter your head,’ she asks Brendan, ‘that there’s a rare difference between sitting around and listening to a bunch of old men telling their hero stories and what is happening now?’  Words, she knows, can be as deadly in their effect as bullets.  She can even defend the actions of the British soldiers in pillaging the Logan home by fixing the blame on her husband and son: ‘They’re no worse than the next man.  They only do what they do because of people like you and your father.’

Joe, a victim of his environment

Shadows on Our Skin is a novel of blighted childhood.  The adult world casts an ugly shadow on Joe’s youth.  He is the innocent victim of a hopelessly inept, irresponsible father and a selfish brother.  His school life is as unhappy as his home life.  His one pleasant human relationship is ruined by his brother’s interference.  The most remarkable thing about Joe is his ability to endure all the cruelties that life can heap on his head and still remain buoyant for so much of the time.  Jennifer Johnston renders the sordid atmosphere of the Logan home and its effect on Joe with disturbing realism.  Images of decay, filth, and tedium pervade the novel.  Down-to-earth details of the domestic scene can suggest the silent, frightening desperation of so many lives like Joe Logan’s: ‘they were eating their Sunday dinner, Mass behind them, an endless Sunday afternoon in front of them …’  the atmosphere of sickness is also ever-present in the Logan household.  His father’s sick spells are liable to last for weeks: ‘Ill, shaking all the time and giving off a terrifying smell of illness that made Joe want to keep away from him.’  The father’s predicament has made him so repulsive that Joe is afraid to touch him: ‘He was always afraid that his fingers would sink through the soft, mouldering skin.’

All of this leaves Joe with a diminished capacity for optimism.  Everywhere around him there is evidence of human despair and unhappiness.  Apart from his father, who has been bemoaning his own fate for years, those closest to him often seem close to tears, particularly his mother.  ‘He was’, we are told, ‘frightened by tears, not by children’s tears of rage or pain, nor his father’s blubberings of self-pity, but adult tears like hers and Kathleen’s which made him feel that the world might crack open suddenly.’  Towards the end of the novel, we are given a pitiful glimpse of the effect of his morbid experience on his vision of the world.  In his natural resentment of his brother’s interference in his personal life, Joe instinctively destroys Brendan’s relationship with Kathleen by revealing the identity and occupation of her fiancé Fred Burgess.  Having performed his act of what he calls ‘deliberate destruction’, Joe runs away for a while, speculating on the kind of world that might lie beyond the sea.  The real world beyond the confines of Derry may not, he decides, be any different from the world he knows.  His account of the world of his own experience shows that nothing he has so far learned about human relationships gives him cause for hope.  As far as he can judge, people are helpless victims of their mutual cruelties, doomed to have their hopes dashed:

Perhaps everywhere you went people were lost, searching with desperation for something they would never find, mutilating themselves and each other in their desperation.  There was no safety.

Joe is puzzled by some of the unhappiness he finds in the lives of others, such as Kathleen Doherty, for example.  She is telling him about Fred Burgess, the British soldier she intends to marry when he notices how unhappy she is.  She eventually confesses that her life is without purpose and she is extremely unhappy with her lot.  Even the prospect of marriage to Fred fails to give purpose or meaning to her daily activities.  She is unable to find happiness in what she calls ‘the birth, marriage, death routine’.  Joe can understand why he himself might have cause for unhappiness but what he finds hard to understand is that ‘safe’ people like Kathleen could or should be unhappy with their life.  This he finds unfair.  He thinks it unacceptable that life should ‘gnaw at her in this way’.  Kathleen’s unhappiness induces a ‘clotted sadness’ in his head.

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A world of grief

Joe views the world as a place where people mutilate themselves and each other and where nobody is really secure from grief.  The endless domestic conflicts between his parents have helped to condition his responses to the unhappiness of most human relationships.  His mother’s predicament is a further lesson in the horrors of home life for so many people of her social class.  The burdens of family life have almost crushed her spirit.  We learn that her voice is ‘tired to death’, and that she cries quietly.  Her face is ‘full of pain at having to move into yet another week’.  She is not, however, the burnt-out wreck of humanity that her husband is.  She responds with animation to every domestic challenge, repairs the ruins of the house after the British soldiers have wrecked it, devotes herself untiringly to the basic needs of her family, does all she can to further Joe’s moral education, and keeps a home going heroically against the odds.  Her husband does little to deserve it, but her love for him shines through in subtle ways.  After they have quarrelled bitterly over politics, he leaves her in tears with Joe for company:

‘There’s no sign of your Daddy.’

‘No.’

‘He must have someone to have a drink with.’

‘Yes.’

‘He’d have been home otherwise.’

‘Yes’

Despite his total inadequacy as a husband, she can still look forward to his return and worry about his late homecoming.

Three themes in the novel

Three interwoven themes in Shadows on Our Skin are the past, the family and betrayal.  (These same themes are also dealt with powerfully in Seamus Deane’s brilliant novel Reading in the Dark also about a young boy’s experience of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland).  The legacy of the past haunts the Logan family and has a profound effect on the present outlook and activity of its members.  Betrayal by family members and close friends of each other’s interests is a disturbing feature of the novel. Indeed, Jennifer Johnston herself has written:

The way I see the world, we are constantly at risk from the people we love most.  They are, after all, the only people who can do us serious damage, a damage that lasts forever.  I’m a very optimistic person, but I can see this happening.

Mr. Logan is the vehicle through which the past constantly intrudes into the lives of his wife and two sons.  He himself lives much more in the past than in the present and keeps an idealised version of his own past before the minds of all who will listen to him.   The continuity between past and present which he enforces is based on an ongoing hatred of the ancient crimes of the British enemy against the long-suffering Irish people.  He sees to it that his eldest son remains conscious of the grievances of the past and all its bitter memories.  His emphasis on past wrongs means that his eldest son sometimes approaches the British-dominated world around him in a spirit of revolt.  Love or forgiveness of enemies can have no place in this scheme of things: ‘Look around.  Hate is a better word.  I can understand that.’  Mr. Logan’s insistence on living in a mythical past in which he was a wounded hero disables him from living in the present in any useful sense and from making any positive contribution to the welfare of his family.  Indeed, he invokes the past to poison the atmosphere of the present, to hand on his peculiar version of old events to the next generation.

The novel offers some small (prophetic?)  glimmer of hope that the terrible dominance of the past may eventually be broken.  Brendan has been indoctrinated by his father’s view of the past, but his commitment to its influence is far from absolute.  Kathleen Doherty recognises this.  Far from being totally committed to the legacy his father seeks to pass on to him, Brendan is, as Kathleen observes, ‘in a state of great confusion’, with ‘a lot of wrong ideas pushing the right ideas rather hard’.  Towards the end, the ‘right’ ideas, the rejection of the violent heritage represented by Mr. Logan, achieve the upper hand, at least temporarily.  Brendan tells Joe that he always sees himself carrying on the struggle against the British where his father left off.  When the IRA people gave him a gun, this ended his dream of violent activity: ‘It was the gun finished me off.  I wouldn’t be any use to them.’

A sense of betrayal haunts the novel.  Mr. Logan betrays the interests of his wife and children by refusing to take a constructive interest in anything relating to their welfare.  His life is a betrayal of decent standards, an outpouring of totally negative and destructive emotions.  Joe practises his own understandable but very deadly form of betrayal.  When Brendan infringes on his pleasant relationship with Kathleen, Joe’s jealousy and hatred begin to dominate his life.  Kathleen has indicated to Joe her intention of marrying a British soldier, Fred Burgess, but he has kept the identity of this man a secret from Brendan.  Joe has promised Kathleen that he will tell his brother nothing about Fred.  When Brendan confides in him that he may marry Kathleen, he betrays Kathleen’s secret, taunts Brendan to fury with revelations which shock him, telling him that his rival is ‘a British soldier.  She wears his ring, you know.  And she tells him everything.’  It is this final betrayal which leads to frightening consequences for Kathleen and darkens the close of the novel.

This series of events split Joe’s world apart, and he is left to process the consequences of the things he has done and the choices he has made.  Shadows on Our Skin is a book that is quick and enjoyable to read, but also evokes sadness and seriousness as you absorb the life of the characters within it.  It’s a fairly low-key story, and not much seems to happen plot-wise, but there is something about Shadows on our Skin which is strangely compelling and incredibly moving. There’s an aching quality to the story, the type of pain which feels like a knot in the throat which cannot be swallowed away.

And of course, there’s also a bigger picture at work here, which is the political and sectarian war being waged on the streets of Derry.  Jennifer Johnson ensures that this is the ever-present backdrop to the novel but it is never the main focus for the reader.  However, its presence is felt on almost every page, whether it is reports of bombs going off, soldiers raiding Catholic homes in search of IRA weapons or boys having their sports bags searched en-route to school.

In essence, this is a coming of age story as Joe deals with some very serious situations that he faces, choices he makes and who he is becoming.  It’s a poignant and powerful book that really does reflect the awful times that children had to live in during the 1970’s in Northern Ireland.  Joe is depicted as an innocent victim of the ‘troubles’ and strife that is going on all around him.

This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1977 and I am not surprised. It is very well written and has stood the test of time with many readers.  I think the author did a marvellous job of portraying the characters of Joe’s father and mother.   We really are transported right to their tiny little kitchen as his mother pours the tea and his father complains about how he was once a hero but no more.

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The author, Jennifer Johnston in a garden in Goatstown, Dublin. Photographer: Dara MacDónaill

The full list of Junior Cycle English Texts for Second and Third Year can be viewed here

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The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Some Recurring Themes

 

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The main purpose of these notes is to assist you in forming an overview of Heaney’s work.  For this reason, the material is structured as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings.  These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive.  Neither are they ‘carved in stone’, to be memorised: ideally, they should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own set of notes.  This priceless pearl of wisdom is relevant for Heaney BUT it equally applies to all the other poets on your course as well!

The following ‘grace notes’ presuppose a basic knowledge of the following poems by Heaney on your Leaving Cert Poetry Syllabus:

  • Sunlight
  • The Forge
  • Bogland
  • The Tollund Man
  • A Constable Calls
  • The Harvest Bow
  • Lightenings VIII
  • Postscript

IRISHNESS – HISTORY, MYTHS, POLITICS

  • In his early poems, Heaney was preoccupied with local history, with communicating the experience of his own place with its numerous customs, rituals and ancient rural crafts (See ‘Sunlight’ and ‘The Forge’).
  • Then he began to think of history as landscape, exploring downwards, finding evidence of history in the bogs and the very contours of the land, exploring what myth and prehistoric evidence revealed about Irishness (See ‘Bogland’)
  • Exploring back in time, he makes historical connections between the Iron Age and the present. He draws parallels between ancient human sacrifices and the contemporary violence which was engulfing his native Ulster at the time.  He seems to be saying that violence is indeed endemic in all societies throughout history, that human sacrifice is necessary for the integrity of territory, that myths, however savage, are an integral part of the creation of the identity of a people (See ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • Overall, Heaney’s position has been seen as ambivalent and has been misunderstood by many. His poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing present-day Ulster apart.  His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of recent Ulster history.  Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides.  He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing.

For many critics, like Elmer Andrews, Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’.  Do you agree?  Is Heaney completely uncritical of his own side? (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).

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A traditionally crafted Harvest Bow

PLACE AND LANDSCAPE

  • Like Patrick Kavanagh, who is synonymous with his native Inniskeen, Heaney too has immortalised his native place and Mossbawn and Anahorish are mentioned often, especially in those poems which deal with childhood. ‘Sunlight’ presents us with a picture of an idealised childhood, his aunt Mary Heaney’s kitchen is depicted as enveloping him in a womb-like security.  His earlier poems, especially those from his collections Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), North (1975), and Field Work (1979), focus very much on home and family, his relationship with his father and mother and the need for continuity between the generations (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’)
  • Anybody who has read ‘Blackberry Picking’ or ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and other such poems by Heaney will need no convincing that he is a fine descriptive nature poet. Terence Brown says that he has an ‘extraordinary gift in realising the physical world freshly and with vigorous exact economy.  Heaney can bring everyday natural events before the readers’ eyes with such telling precision that his images are both recognition and revelation’ (See any of his poems!).
  • Landscape for Heaney is more than just a subject to be painted: it is a living presence, an ever-present force, a sort of third party to human activity in the poems. This is the same immediate personal presence that we also find in Kavanagh and Wordsworth (See ‘Postscript’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • He shows us differing aspects, different faces, of the landscape: from the life force (‘spirit of the corn’) to the threatening, menacing aspect (‘the bottomless bog’). When writing about the farming traditions of his community he also presents us with the juxtaposing ideas of growth and decay.
  • Heaney believes that people have a human and a religious relationship with the landscape (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
  • The landscape is seen as essentially female, often with erotic associations in its relationship with man (Examine ‘The Tollund Man’ closely).
  • Heaney’s landscape is dominated by the earth rather than the sky, with the bog providing a metaphor for Irish consciousness (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • ‘The landscape for me is an image and it’s almost an element to work with as much as it is an object of admiration or description’. Heaney often uses nature metaphors to express his feelings of frustration and loneliness.  For example, in ‘The Harvest Bow’ he describes his frustrating attempts at communicating with his father like this: ‘your stick / Whacking the tops off weeds and bushes / Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes / Nothing’ (See also ‘Postscript’).
  • Driving out west along the now famous Wild Atlantic Way, along by Flaggy Shore near Ballyvaughan on the West Coast of Clare, the poet explores the beauty of the Irish landscape as a tourist would.  Heaney describes the beauty of the landscape and the changing light and the feelings it will inspire.  It is a journey poem where the poet finds himself caught between wild things and settled things, between things earthed and things in flight.  The sonnet-like structure of the poem gives it a postcard quality  ending with simple and powerful words: ‘And catch the heart off guard and blow it open’ (‘Postscript’)
  • Above all, the landscape for Heaney is a source of creativity and insight: ‘poems … come up … like bodies out of the bog of my own imagination’ (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
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Listen to Heaney read ‘The Tollund Man’ below:

TRADITION AND IDENTITY

  • For Heaney, an awareness of one’s tradition is fundamental to a sense of identity. He explains and explores his own roots, celebrating the ancient skills and crafts that sustained the farming community that nurtured him and his family for generations: the digging, the ploughing, the water-divining, the bread-making, the skills of the farmer, the blacksmith, etc.  These skills are described in a reverential way as if they were sacred rituals. (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Forge’).
  • Sometimes he still hankers back to the womb-like security of that life of early childhood. Some interpret these poems describing his Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn as a form of regression or escapism from the daily horrors of life in Northern Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties (See ‘Sunlight’).  Sometimes he needs to re-forge, reinterpret and understand his links with family in order to rediscover his identity (See ‘The Harvest Bow’ where he says, ‘I tell and finger it like braille’).
  • ‘Our sense of the past, our sense of the land and perhaps even our sense of identity are inextricably interwoven,’ according to Heaney (The Irish Press, June 1st 1974). Therefore, finding and maintaining a sense of continuity is vital to Heaney: family, traditions, customs and values come to him as memories in his poetry and reassure and comfort him amidst the mayhem and uncertainty of daily atrocities in his home place (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
  • He explores his Catholic roots too, as set against the other traditions. According to Robert Welch: ‘Heaney is engaged upon a cultural and tribal exploration; he is testing out his cultural inheritance to see where the significant deposits are located; but he is not engaged upon a mindless submission to the old tradition of the goddess or whatever.’ (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • There are times in his writing when his personal identity has overtones of victimhood about it. He certainly seems to identify with victims: ‘something of this sad freedom … should come to me.’  (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).
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The Forge, situated on the Hillhead Road, near Castledawson and dates from the 19th Century. (www.georgemcintyre.tripod.com)

IDENTITY AND POETRY

  • Heaney’s identity as a poet is inextricably linked in with his historical and cultural identity. The autographical voice we encounter in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, becomes the spokesperson of his people in the later collection, Door into the Dark  (See ‘Bogland’).
  • He identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry.  The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island too (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
  • Elmer Andrews describes Heaney’s method in this way: ‘He is proposing an idea of poetry which combines psychic investigation with historical enquiry’. In an essay  entitled ‘Feeling into Words’, Heaney himself spoke of ‘poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura of authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants’ (Preoccupations, 1980) (See also ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
  • Heaney sees the craft of poetry not just as something mechanical but rather a ‘combination of imagination and skill. He uses a brilliant analogy to describe a poem as ‘a completely successful love act between the craft and the gift’ (See ‘The Forge’).
  • Heaney’s voice in his poems is often indecisive, timid and ambiguous, his position is that of a hesitant observer on the fringes of the scene. For example, in The Forge he is outside looking in, afraid of the darkness within.
  • Heaney and other Northern poets such as Montague, Mahon, and Longley have come to prominence because of their efforts to make poetry relevant in a difficult political backdrop. He feels at times that poetry may be powerless to influence politics but nevertheless, it is vital to a sense of identity.
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“In the Attic”, a portrait of Seamus Heaney by the artist Jeffrey Morgan now hanging in the HomePlace Centre in Bellaghy, Co. Derry.

SAMPLE ANSWER: What are the recurring themes in the poetry of Seamus Heaney?

Heaney’s poetry brings us to our senses!  There is a tactile, sensuous quality to his poetry and his poetry is often multi-layered.  When he says that he will ‘dig’ with his pen he is referring to how layer after layer of meaning can be revealed in the act of writing.  In ‘The Forge’ he records a changing way of life as the horse and car make way for the motorcar, but the poem also reveals a growing awareness of the mystery of the creative process.  It becomes, therefore, a poem about poetry.

His poetry often draws on childhood memories of growing up on a farm in Co. Derry.  In ‘Sunlight’ and ‘A Constable Calls’ he presents us with two contrasting memories, one beautifully tranquil, the other troubled and uneasy.  Place is of vital importance, as in Kavanagh’s poetry, but so too are the people associated with that place: the exhumed Tollund man, his Aunt Mary in the family kitchen, his father ‘making tillage returns /In acres, roods and perches’, and his father making the harvest bow.

There is, therefore, a preoccupation with the past and a fascination with it.  In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years.  ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog.  ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it relates a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998.  Though Heaney writes about contemporary events, he does so sometimes at a tangent.  Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’.  And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.

Heaney’s lyric voice is often straightforward.  Lines can be plain, unadorned, and deceptively simple: ‘His bicycle stood at the windowsill’, but these opening lines open up and at the same time deepen our understanding of a particular experience.  In Heaney’s own words a poem preserves an experience, but ‘it should also open experience up and move it along … so that, first of all, the poet and then the reader, hopefully, gets carried away a little.’

‘So’ is a key word in Heaney’s poetry.  It signals a clear-sighted focus on the scene before.  For example, in ‘Sunlight’ he says, ‘So her hands scuffled / over the bakeboard’.  By his use of this simple word, he achieves an immediate, direct, warm tone in his poetry.  Also in ‘Sunlight’, we can see how his use of a shift in tense from past to present indicates how memory or a remembered event can be given a living quality within the poem.  The poem begins in the past – ‘There was a sunlit absence’ – but ends in the present – ‘Now she dusts the board … now sits broad-lapped …

And here is love

like a tinsmith’s scoop

sunk past its gleam

in the meal-bin.

Throughout his career, Heaney was very interested in poetic form and structure.  ‘The Forge’ is a sonnet and other poems on our course reveal a mastery of many forms – a variety of line lengths and differently shaped stanzas.  In ‘The Harvest Bow’ the intricacies of the making of the bow is mirrored in the intricacies of the poem itself: in a line such as ‘brightens and tightens twist by twist’, with its perfect example of internal rhyme and repetition.

Heaney’s poetry is both sensitive and sympathetic.  He identifies and understands others.  Relationships are at the heart of his poetry, his relationships with loved ones, family, and also his relationship with significant places such as Mossbawn and later Glanmore.  He recognises what is good and he cherishes and celebrates it.  In his poems he is capable of delight and astonishment; the ordinary becomes marvellous, and such moments are conveyed with wonder, humility and gratitude.

Further Reading

You might also like to read some of the following:

  • a comprehensive analysis of ‘The Forge’ here
  • an analysis of ‘The Harvest Bow’ here
  • an analysis of ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ here
  • an analysis of ‘Follower’ here
  • a brief analysis of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ here
  • a discussion on the treatment of women in Heaney’s poetry here
  • another sample essay on Heaney’s poetry here

 Digging

 Works Cited

Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.

Brown, Terence. The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue, Faber and Faber, 1989.

Heaney here scrutinizes the work of several poets, British and Irish, American and European, whose work he considers might call into question the rights of poetic utterance. The author asks whether the voice of the poet should be governed, or whether it should be the governor.

Heaney, Seamus. Preoccupation: Selected Prose 1968 – 1978,  Faber and Faber 1980.

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s first collection of prose, Preoccupations, begins with a vivid account of his early years on his father’s farm in Northern Ireland and his coming of age as a student and teacher in Belfast. Subsequent essays include critical work on Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Robert Lowell, William Butler Yeats, John Montague, Patrick Kavanagh, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Philip Larkin.

Welch, Robert (ed).  Irish Writers and Religion, Rowman and Littlefield, 1992

Treasured Father-Son Memories Recounted at Opening of Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018

FullSizeRender (12) Niall Hartnett

Michael Hartnett’s son Niall gives the keynote speech on the first night of this year’s festival. “Poetry is my life and my life is poetry,” the words poet Michael Hartnett wrote in a letter to his son, Niall in 1998, the year before Michael died.

 

Niall read excerpts from that treasured letter on the opening night (Thursday 12 April 2018) of Éigse Michael Hartnett, the literary and arts festival which takes place each year in his father’s hometown of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.

In a keynote speech which took its title from a line of Michael’s, The Possibility we have overlooked is the futureNiall Hartnett spoke movingly about his father and his work:

“He could weave a tapestry of a small town or an epic struggle at the highest level so seamlessly, you could not always tell which was which. Neither could he, I suspect, and did not see the point in separating the two: there is as much drama in Salad Sunday as there is in Sibelius! As much intrigue in Maiden Street as there was in Inchicore.”

“We need to honour this son of Newcastle West and the road less travelled he took to bridge many worlds early on. I feel we can best do this by encouraging ourselves and especially the young to choose unpredictable paths and unexpected destinies. Break the mould and proudly show others that you did. Invite the young, your family and friends to this festival and encourage them to nurture this legacy which will someday will be theirs. The future belongs to the young and they will carry all of this on we hope, but only if we engage them now! As the poet himself said: the Possibility we have Overlooked is the Future!” Niall added.

Officially opening the festival Mayor of the City and County of Limerick Cllr Stephen Keary said: “It is heart-warming to see that Michael is being celebrated in his hometown. Michael was loved by everyone in Newcastle West, who knew him through his words, as the poet, and I’m delighted that his son Niall is here this evening giving us an account of Michael as a father. There are many sides to people, such as Michael and it’s invaluable that we get an insight into these so that we can understand and appreciate the works of Michael Hartnett even more.”

Creative Writing Workshop
Creative Writing Workshop with Dr Robyn Rowland (Picture by Dermot Lynch)

The opening night of Eigse also saw the joint winners of this year’s Michael Hartnett Poetry Award honoured: Macdara Woods for Music from the Big Tent (Dedalus Press 2016) and Mary O’Malley for Playing the Octopus (Carcanet 2016).

“Music from the Tent is a superb orchestra of verbal melodies, a Big Top in which free verse, ballads and haiku sing and cavort,” the judges Jo Slade and James Harpur said in their citation.

In accepting his award Macdara Woods said: “It is delightful to share with Mary O’Malley an award given in memory of my old and dear friend, Michael Hartnett. We had many wild times, and some quiet times, and adventures together, from Dublin to London to Kilkee, but what remains most clearly, and has become even more apparent with the passing of time, is his genius for poetry and the translation of poetry. I intend to take this award as a personal nudge from Michael.”

His fellow award winner Mary O’Malley added: “I am delighted to receive the Michael Hartnett Award, I too knew Michael and he had kind things to say about my young poems, he has remained a touchstone for me.”

Mary O’Malley’s Playing the Octopus was described by the judges as “a beautiful collection of rare gems that sparkle and seduce.” This is a collection that balances beauty and harmony, the poems are restrained but deeply felt, the voice assured, meaning is revealed slowly like an uncovering of essence, something essential and elemental.”

Éigse Michael Hartnett also highlighted readings by authors John Boyne and Mike McCormack, who has just been shortlisted for the 2018 International Dublin Literary Award and young Limerick poet Edward O’Dwyer.

Professor Declan Kiberd delivered the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture on Saturday 14th, entitled, Honey I shrunk the kids, in which he raised the question of whether there is a children’s literature, or whether the classic works from Alice in Wonderland to Harry Potter are written by adults, published by adults, often to promote adult agendas.

“It will then raise an even deeper question–whether childhood, as we know it through literature, is an invention of recent centuries, perhaps even an image constructed in the age of print and now fast disappearing with the spread of electronic and digital media. These are troubling questions,” Professor Kiberd said.

Declan Kiberd
Dr Declan Kiberd delivering the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture entitled ‘Honey I shrunk the Kids!’ – Is there a children’s literature? (Picture by Dermot Lynch)

Éigse takes place each year in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, Hartnett’s home-town and is supported by the Arts Council and Limerick City and County Council.  The continuing support received from Sheila Deegan and her team of Aoife Potter Cogan, Dr Pippa Little and ‘the real boss’ Lizanne Jackman was acknowledged at the opening ceremony.  The local organising committee is Vicki Nash, Norma Prendeville, John Cussen Rachel Lenihan, Rossa McMahon and Vincent Hanley.

The Michael Hartnett Poetry Award is awarded in alternate years to books of poetry in the Irish and English language.

For full details of the 2018 programme please check out www.eigsemichaelhartnett.ie

Norma Prendeville
Norma Prendeville at the launch of Gabriel Fitzmaurice’s Milking the Sun – Ag Crú na Gréine (with illustrations by Gabriel’s wife Brenda). The book is a translation of Gabriel’s favourite poems by Sean Ó Riordáin from the Irish.(Picture by Dermot Lynch)

 

Shared with the permission of Limerick City and County Council  Newsroom

The Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize 2018 – The Citations

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Mary O’Malley joint winner of the Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize 2018

Mary O’Malley

Playing the Octopus

Mary O’Malley’s new collection, Playing the Octopus is a wonderful book of finely wrought, delicately woven poems that seduce and excite. The poet has created a world that sustains us, that we recognise and can inhabit. This is a collection that balances beauty and harmony, the poems are restrained but deeply felt, the voice assured, meaning is revealed slowing like an uncovering of essence, something essential and elemental. There is a playfulness and joy in language that at times produces a magical quality – light bounces and refracts – musical intonations interweave with the lyric voice – what is achieved is a virtuoso performance.

This poet is an assured guide through the geography of earth, of body, of soul and she takes us on a journey from her beloved west coast of Ireland to America’s east coast but always beneath an ever-changing sky and always awaiting the hoped-for revelation of light.

There are poems in memory of friends who have died: Firs, for Michael Hartnett where the poet references “Sibelius in Silence”, “From Michael’s book the green gold came: / The name I call them is not their name.” Both poets cherish their native language and music and it is the love of these unique sounds that informs their work.

There are deeply felt, reflective poems: January Aubade, a wonderful meditation on light and life.

“Uilleann”, that takes stories heard and transforms them into a metaphor for life: ‘He has heard the story / Of the octopus who was locked into a room / For a week to practice. / When they let him out the pipes had learned / To play the octopus.”

Women are strong, able, intelligent heroines and Mary celebrates them. There is no hesitation in this poet’s voice, her authority is enhanced by their presence. She has a wry eye that cuts through to the bone, the language is clear and unambiguous, as in: “The Bad Mother Or Bellini’s Pieta”, where the poet states: “She knew the joy he brought / Was mortgaged from the start.”

This is a beautiful collection of rare gems that sparkle and seduce.

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Macdara Woods joint winner of the Michael Hartnett Poetry prize 2018

Macdara Woods

Music from the Big Tent

 

Macdara Woods has honoured poetry throughout his life, consistently rendering the weals and woes of the human condition into poems that sometimes ring from the rooftops, and sometimes whisper with deft subtlety; poems that mix wise and rare insights with a generous heart and an open mind – qualities dear to Michael Hartnett.

Music from the Big Tent is a superb orchestra of verbal melodies, a Big Top in which free verse, ballads and haiku sing and cavort. There are poems that x-ray the body of homo sapiens and reveal the poor, bare, forked animal within; poems that laud the depth and variety of European culture and topography; poems that encapsulate the mysterious beauty of nature – ‘Long dark winter but / See the plum tree in the rain / A sudden whiteness’; poems that never forget the ten thousand things of the city, specifically Dublin, with its smell of ‘Georgian drains’ and where ‘Self serious pigeons / Posture and strut’. And poems that mourn the dead, lament the ailing body, but celebrate the beauty of the human form and the endurance of love.

As, in medieval legend, the minstrel Blondel went from castle to castle singing a song he hoped would be heard and responded to by the imprisoned Richard the Lionheart, so Macdara Woods continues to beat paths along the old green tracks of Europe, a hardy troubadour singing out his enchanting lyrics to the imprisoned imagination.

Note: The judges for the Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize in 2018 were Jo Slade and James Harpur (both former winners of this prestigious prize).

Hartnett bronze by Rory Breslin
Hartnett bronze by artist Rory Breslin in The Square, Newcastle West.

Pulled Pork and Poetry at Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018

Éigse 2018

‘Like many Irish children, I was reared on a diet of folktale, Republicanism and mediocre ballads’.[1]

Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018 has a rich and varied schedule of events which will take place this year from the 12th to the 14th of April. Éigse is proud to welcome John Boyne, Mike McCormack, Declan Kiberd, Emma Langford, Robyn Rowland, and others to Newcastle West for the first time.  This year is also special because Michael’s family, his wife Rosemary, son Niall and daughter Lara will be present for the celebrations.

As part of this year’s Éigse, the organisers have included an interesting food element in recognition of the burgeoning food industry in the town and also as a celebration of the town’s rich agricultural hinterland. The event, which will take place in Desmond Complex on Saturday the 14th of April at 12.30pm,  and is titled ‘Pulled Pork and Poetry’.  It features a cookery demonstration by Tom Flavin, Executive Chef, the Strand Hotel and Pigtown Festival committee member, accompanied by readings from Hartnett’s Collected Poems by Limerick poet and short fiction writer, Edward O’Dwyer. (See Éigse programme for full details).  The organisers are indebted to Tom Flavin and Edward O’Dwyer for their enthusiastic support for this venture. 

The following blog post seeks to explore the link between Michael Hartnett, food, cooking and the kitchens he survived and graced in Lower Maiden Street, Camas and further afield.

 ******

Michael Hartnett returned to his native Newcastle West in the mid-1970’s and bought a cottage in the townland of Glendarragh in the parish of Templeglantine.  The ‘townie’ lamented that now he was forced to live ‘in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’.  In June 1974 he had made his famous proclamation from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that henceforth he would write only in Irish.  In the Autumn of 1977, he was commissioned to write a piece for the upcoming Christmas edition of Magill Magazine which was owned and edited at the time by Hartnett’s friend, Vincent Browne, a fellow West Limerick man making a name for himself in publishing circles in Dublin.

The piece was written and published and showed Hartnett to be a very incisive, insightful and acerbic social commentator.  It was entitled ‘Christmas in Maiden Street’ and evoked memories of life in Lower Maiden Street in the years immediately after the ending of World War Two and is a chilling reminder of the austerity endured during those years.  Poverty and hardship were rife and families struggled to make ends meet.  In the article, he recalls that ‘candles and paraffin-lamps did not brighten the darkness in kitchens in Maiden Street’.  There were no luxuries and the necessities of life were very scarce: ‘coal was bought by the half-stone, butter by the quarter pound, and tea by the half-ounce’.  As Christmas drew near ‘the spectre of Santa Claus loomed malevolently over the slates and thatch’.

For the poor of Maiden Street, the great feast of Christmas was an extra strain.  Members of local charitable institutions visited ‘the meagre kitchens’, ‘the nailed-together chairs, the worn oilcloth topped tables, the dead fires’ and were ‘as hated as the rent-man’.  He tells us that the Victorian Christmas had not yet arrived in Newcastle West:

‘there was no turkey, no plum pudding, no mince-pies … the very poor managed roast meat, usually mutton.  We often rose to two cocks.  The goose was common.  There was a fruit cake, jelly and custard; the dinner of the year.’

The article ends with the bitter hope that ‘There will never be Christmasses like those again, I hope to God’.

This vein of bittersweet nostalgia culminated in December 1980 with the publication of the Maiden Street Ballad, written as a Christmas present for his father Denis Harnett.  This 47 verse poem also contains details of the hardships and austerity suffered by the people who lived in Lower Maiden Street and The Coole.

Nineteen forty-one was a terrible year,

the bread it was black and the butter was dear;

you couldn’t get fags and you couldn’t tea –

we smoked turf-dust and had to drink porter.

He goes on to tell his audience that ‘we were hungry and poor down in Lower Maiden Street / a fact I will swear on the Bible’.  Elsewhere he states that his peers ‘were raggy and snot-nosed and needy’.  The only relief for the Harnett family came in the form of their grandmother, Bridget Halpin, who lived on a small farm five miles away in Camas.

The day of the pension my Nan came to town

In a flurry of hairpins with her shawl wrapped around,

With a dozen of eggs and maybe a half-crown

And a bag of new spuds in her ass-car.

He goes on to recount his childhood diet and it is clear that most of the produce was grown on that small farm in Camas by his Uncle Dinny Halpin and transported to town in his grandmother’s ass and cart!

We had turnips for dinner, we had turnips for tea,

and half-stones of pandy piled up on our plates;

we feasted on cabbage, we fattened on kale

and a feed of boiled meat if we smelt it!

Later he was to immortalise Bridget Halpin in his beautiful poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ using, at times, very unflattering language.  He tells us that ‘she ate monotonous food’ such as the rural staples of the time bacon and cabbage.  In her final days, he tells us she was reduced to eating ‘thin diminishing porridge / in a stone-cold kitchen’.  For the poet, Bridget Halpin represents an Irishness which is out of step with modernity and ambivalent to any aesthetic conceptions of the world, ‘Ignorant, in the sense / she ate monotonous food / and thought the world was flat’, and defined by an intuitive spirituality, ‘pagan, in the sense / she knew the things that moved / at night were neither cats nor dogs’.   In an interview with Victoria White published in The Irish Times, Hartnett embellished this idea, that his close antecedents existed in a pre-modern Ireland where the Irish language still predominated, ‘My grandfather couldn’t speak English, and if you couldn’t, you couldn’t get a good price for a pig.  If the pig was worth two and six and you came back with one and six, you got lashed’ (White 14). That Hartnett links the pre-modern sensibility which Irish represents for him with economic loss and subsequent physical pain encapsulates the colonial dynamic which saw the abandonment of Irish as a spoken language more broadly within the country.  In this context Hartnett’s assertion at the very point of his departure from writing in English takes on a further resonance:

… I will not see

great men go down

who walked in rags

from town to town

finding English a necessary sin

the perfect language to sell pigs in. 

Bridget Halpin’s cold kitchen, which is described so well in his poem ‘A Small Farm’, describes the quintessential Irish rural kitchen of the 1950’s:

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.

 It stands in direct contrast to the warmth of Heaney’s Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn and at the same time, Bridget Halpin’s kitchen bears great similarities to Moran’s kitchen in Great Meadow as depicted in John McGahern’s Amongst Women.  In the 1940’s and 1950’s country farming society is built on manners, manners which are best seen at the dinner table.  Hartnett’s later poetry and his attitude to food and cooking are heavily influenced by his formative years spent in Bridget Halpin’s kitchen in Camas.  In his, as yet, limited experience kitchens are seen as scant, depressing places.  Food is frugal and evokes a sense of lacking, not plenty.

Rural Camas in the early 1950’s still moved in a slow, seasonal rhythm.  The annual ritual of killing the pig is described beautifully in the poem ‘Pigkilling’.  Characteristically, Hartnett executes (pun intended!) the poetic tactic emphatically, the human actors in the ritual themselves becoming animalistic, drenched in the animal’s blood:

his smiling head

sees a delicate girl

up to her elbows

in a tub of blood (Collected Poems 125)

Hartnett, the central character in the poem, uses the pig’s bladder as a plaything: ‘I kicked his golden bladder / in the air’.  Killing the pig was one of those joyful rituals in the rural community.  During the killing of the pig, the blood was collected in a bucket for the making of puddings. The carcass would then be hung from a hook in the shed with a basin under its head to catch the drip, and a potato was often placed in the pig’s mouth to aid the dripping process. After a few days, the carcass would be dissected.  The body was washed and then each piece that was to be preserved was carefully salted and placed neatly in a barrel and hermetically sealed.    It was customary in parts of the midlands to add brown sugar to the barrel at this stage, while in other areas juniper berries were placed in the fire when hanging the hams and flitches (sides of bacon), wrapped in brown paper, in the chimney for smoking (Sharkey 166). While the killing was predominantly men’s work, it was the women who took most responsibility for the curing and smoking. Black Puddings have always been popular in Irish cuisine. The pig’s intestines were washed well and soaked in a stream, and a mixture of onions, lard, spices, oatmeal and flour were mixed with the blood and the mixture was stuffed into the casing and boiled for about an hour and then allowed to cool.  It was customary that neighbours were then given some of this black pudding, fresh pork and sausages in the aftermath of every pigkilling putting into practice the old Irish proverb: Faoi scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine’ – (we all live in each other’s shadow).

Years later, his friend and fellow poet Tony Curtis noted presciently about Hartnett that, ‘While I couldn’t say he loved eating, he did love cooking’ (Curtis 170).  From various interviews and recorded anecdotes regarding his attitude to food (as opposed to drink!) I would guess that food and cooking for Hartnett was a sort of therapy.  While cooking for family or friends the metronomic carrying out of simple physical tasks allowed him to turn off the cerebral for a while at least.  Dennis O’Driscoll in an interview conducted with Michael Hartnett in the Poetry Ireland offices on 12th December 1986 comments on his eclectic culinary tastes and we get a further glimpse of Hartnett the culinary enthusiast.

Most of my personal encounters with Michael were as random as dreams: chance meetings on the streets around his shopping and drinking haunts in central Dublin… Michael might be carrying a rattlebag of fresh oysters or a newly-minted circle of Lombardian focaccia.  His tastes in poetry, as in food, could range far beyond Munster.[2]

Later in the interview, O’Driscoll asks Hartnett if he is content as a writer and if there was something else he would have liked to have been.  Hartnett replies:

I am a chef manqué all right; I trained as a chef for a while.  Again that involves creation and the poaching of other men’s recipes and ideas.  But as I started to write poetry, or verse at least, when I was thirteen years old, any ambitions I had in any other direction were pre-empted by that immediately.[3]

On a totally different level Dermot Bolger who delivered the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture during Éigse Michael Hartnett in April 2017 recounted an incident which took place at his local chipshop in Finglas:

It was after midnight when we reached Finglas but Macari’s chipshop remained open on Clune Road.  Years later in Inchicore Haiku Michael wrote:

In local chippers

Queueing for carbohydrates

A dwarfed people.

We queued for our late-night carbohydrates.  Critics can elaborate on Michael’s gift as a poet and contextualise his work.  My interest here is putting down memories for his son and daughter and what struck me was how Michael enthralled the late-night queue and staff in that Finglas chipshop.  He wasn’t attention seeking; they were simply drawn into his quiet magnetism.  The staff had no idea who he was but afterwards always asked for news of my friend in the countryman’s cap.[4]

In the sonnet ‘The Poet Dreams and Resolves’ he paints the very clichéd image of the artist at work, alone but not lonely.  He requires few luxuries only ‘an adequate supply / of stout and spirits (or of stout only) / and some cigarettes, and writing paper, / and a little cheap food, ….’.  This (self-perpetuated) image of Hartnett as a frugal monk, requiring only the very basics to live and create mirrors this ascetic existence dwelling ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ during the late ‘70’s and early 80’s.

It is clear that Michael Hartnett had a very varied relationship with Irish cuisine from the relatively vulgar turnips and pandy of earlier days in Newcastle West and Camas to the later more urbane ‘rattlebag of oysters’ in central Dublin.  Section 3 of ‘A Farewell to English’ centres on Hartnett’s dissatisfaction with the cultural, political, and literary misappropriation and misuse of the Irish language.  In it, he rather cheekily attacks W.B Yeats, the most pre-eminent Irish poet and Nobel Laureate of a previous generation, ‘Chef Yeats that master of the use of herbs’.  Yeats’s use of Gaelic literary traditions and myth is criticized.  However, the main reason I mention it here is because the language and imagery used by Hartnett is that of a master chef – ‘pinch of saga’, ‘soupcon of philosophy’, ‘carefully stirred’, ‘Anglo- Saxon stock’, ‘Cuchulainn’s marrow bones to marinate’, ‘simmered slow’ and Hey Presto, like the witches in Macbeth who dance about their cauldron, we concoct ‘the celebrated Anglo-Irish stew’.

As Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018 draws near we hope to likewise celebrate Hartnett’s genius with good poetry, good food (and some drink!) in the company of his family, friends and myriad followers.

Works Cited

Curtis, Tony. A Life in Poetry, p. 170.

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

Hartnett, Michael. ‘Wrestling with Ó Bruadair’, in Mac Reamoinn, S., The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry (London: Allen Lane, 1982).

Sharkey, Olive. Old Days Old Ways: An Illustrated Folk History of Ireland. Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1985.

White, Victoria. “Heartbreak in Two Languages” The Irish Times, (15th December 1994).

https://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/archive/1994/1215/Pg014.html#Ar01400

Footnotes

[1] Hartnett, M., ‘Wrestling with Ó Bruadair’, in Mac Reamoinn, S., The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry (London: Allen Lane, 1982), p.65.

2.  This interview first appeared in Poetry Ireland Review (Autimn 1987).

3.   Ibid.

[4] ‘An Enthralling Companion’ – a commemorative article by Dermot Bolger which appeared in The Irish Times on Wednesday, October 12th, 2005. Read the article here

image

‘Crossing the Iron Bridge’ by Michael Hartnett

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

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

Crossing the Iron Bridge

By Michael Hartnett

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

Into the cobweb-coloured light,

my arms in white rosettes,

I walked up Maiden Street

across the Iron Bridge

to seek my Christ.

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

Into the incense-coloured light,

my arms in white rosettes,

I walked the marbled floor

apast parental eyes

to seek my Christ.

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

 Under the gilded candlelight,

my arms in white rosettes,

my mouth enclosed my God,

I waited at the rail

to find my Christ.

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

Back to the human-hampered light,

my arms in white rosettes,

I walked: my faith was dead.

Instead of glory on my tongue

there was the taste of bread.

Commentary

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

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

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

Poets with progress

make no peace or pact.

The act of poetry

is a rebel act.

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

Instead of glory on my tongue

there was the taste of bread.

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

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

I have made my choice

and leave with little weeping:

I have come with meagre voice

to court the language of my people.

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

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

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

In St. Michael’s Church

a plush bishop in his frock

confirms poverty.

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Dedalus and Sex

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James Joyce traces Stephen’s sexual development with great care in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  As an infant Stephen is aware that his mother smells nicer than his father does. As a small schoolboy,  he dreams of being kissed by her when sickness makes him long for home.  As a young boy, he imagines that he will marry his playmate Eileen when they grow up.  It is Eileen’s soft white hands and golden hair that first stirs his romantic boyish notions of idealised womanhood, but the way she puts her hand in his pocket and runs away is the first instance of what his relations with attractive girls are to be.  He lacks the maturity to take the initiative in practice or to respond when a girl takes the initiative.  Instead, he glamorises the experience in words.  For Stephen this mental romanticisation of love is one thing; the experience of living girls is another thing altogether!  The two experiences are never brought into harmony.  Thus Stephen indulges in these romantic dreams about Dumas’ Mercedes, but it is significant that he pictures himself grandly rejecting her approaches because she had earlier slighted his love.  This pose of grand, offended isolation is all too attractive to him.

The first fully recognisable sexual encounter occurs when Stephen goes to the party at Harrold’s Cross.  He withdraws from the other children, relishing his isolation, while Emma glances repeatedly and invitingly in his direction.  She rouses him to feverish excitement, and after the party, she goes with him to the tram-stop.  They stand on the tram steps, he a step above hers, and as they talk she keeps coming up to join him on his step.  He knows that she is making an offer; he also knows that the experience is like the occasion when Eileen ran laughing away from him.  But for all his sense of her beauty and his knowledge that she is ready to be held and kissed, he does nothing.  The failure depresses him.  Then, next day, he begins to turn the whole experience  – which should have had a living climax – into a literary matter.  He tries to write a poem to Emma and consciously brushes the realities of the scene out of his mind.  He turns the memory into an exercise in vague, conventionalised poetic verbalism.  And after that, he goes and stares at himself in the mirror.  His own pose as a romantic poet is more fascinating to him than the living girl who has inspired it.

Two years later, on the occasion of the school play, Stephen works himself up into an excited romantic mood in the belief that he will meet Emma after she has seen the play.  Once more the devotion is an uncommunicated obsession based symbolically on a dramatic performance.  After the play, in which he excels in the world of imaginary self-projection, Emma is nowhere to be found and he is plunged into despair.  Stephen’s awakening sexuality, then, is blocked off from real human relationships and diverted into romantic dreams fed by his reading.  The Count of Monte Cristo and Bulwer Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons supply him with imaginary situations of romantic love.  As a result, his suppressed physical urges produce a perverted urge to sin and to force someone else into sin.  The consequence is that when he meets a prostitute in the street one night, he is readily lured to her room and as she takes the initiative and embraces him he finds not only relief from the urges of lust but a new self-assurance.

For a time sexual experience with prostitutes runs alongside his romantic adoration of the Virgin Mary until the retreat sermons convince him of his wickedness and he repents.  We are not told whether, after his loss of faith, he returned to the habit of visiting prostitutes.  But clearly, he fails to make a connection between the romantic sexuality in his mind, which is stirred so deeply by the sight of the wading girl, and the life of real contact with women.  The wading girl becomes the ideal to move the artist to creative dedication.  Real human relationship is not involved.

The fitful references to Emma in the last chapter of the book suggest a very slight interest in living beauty compared to the passionate intellectual interest in the theory of beauty.  Though Stephen chooses to imagine that Emma flirts with Father Moran, the sight of her by the library door stirs the thought that she may be innocent and there is another uprush of emotion – but it all goes into dreams and words, not into real contact with her.  He writes an extravagantly rhetorical poem to her and pictures himself, the priest of the imagination, listening to her confession.  Stephen’s mental life and his concept of himself as the heroic lonely artist are plainly incompatible with a sympathetic understanding of others.  He indulges the notion that Emma is consciously rebuffing him and that Cranly is pursuing her when she ignores him outside the library.  In consequence, he mentally washes his hands of her: ‘Let her go and be damned.’  But the reader lacks evidence to know how far Stephen is deceiving himself.  Indeed the last references to Emma in his diary giver the impression of a girl who is trying hard to make contact with him.  She wants to know why she sees so little of him and whether he is writing poems, and his reply is a churlish rebuff calculated to embarrass her.  Stephen’s final observation, ‘I liked her and it seems a new feeling to me’, is one of the most revealing sentences in the book.  Stephen has expressed a liking for another human being and has conceded that the feeling is a new one to him.

Therefore, it can be said that Stephen’s relationships with girls suffer because of his egotism.  He cultivates an image of himself as an isolated artist.  His sexual instincts are satisfied with prostitutes.  His romantic yearnings are channelled into poems and day-dreams.

 

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James Joyce’s use of Humour and Irony in ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’

 

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Irish writers are often noted both for their irony and for their humour, and Joyce uses a great deal of comic irony in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Irony is not always comic.  It is ironic when a hero kills his own son not knowing who he is, but this irony is wholly tragic.  It is ironic that a Christmas party meant to be the occasion of peace and goodwill should turn into a violent family row and a virulent exchange of abuse.  It is sad too, and Stephen feels its sadness, but it also has its comic side.  We smile when Dante, a rather self-important person conscious of her own dignity, is turned into a screaming virago quivering with rage, and when Mr Dedalus lets off steam in comic abuse of Church dignitaries.

Humorous irony in literature often revolves around the way self-important people are brought down to earth with a bang.  In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen is the main concern of the author and he happens to be a rather self-important and pretentious person.  Joyce often punctures his pretentiousness – not in his own eyes and not in the eyes of other characters, but in the reader’s eyes.  For instance, when Stephen makes his righteous protest against being unjustly punished by Father Dolan, he pictures himself like some great public figure of history standing up against tyranny.  The little boy appealing to his headmaster sees himself in this grand light and when his protest has been accepted, he resolves not to take advantage personally of his vanquished foe, and we smile at his childish self-importance.

Stephen’s romantic dreams often evoke this indulgent smile in the reader.  He pictures himself, at the end of a long series of heroic adventures, proudly declining Mercede’s offer of grapes.  When he helps to lead a gang of boys, he sets himself apart from the others by not adopting their symbols and uniform, because he has read that Napoleon also remained unadorned.  These comic comparisons made by the little boy are rich in ironic humour.

These are of course the kind of imaginative exaggerations which are common to childhood.  But they lead to less usual extravagances in the growing artist.  When a boy sits down, as Stephen does, to write a poem to a girl, and begins it by imitating Lord Byron’s habit of entitling such poems, but finishes up staring at himself admiringly in the mirror, the gap between supposed intention and reality is wide.  Later Stephen imagines a stage triumph before Emma’s eyes and rushes off to claim his due of feminine admiration only to finish up in a squalid corner of the city amid the smell of horse urine.  These contrasts are the stuff of irony.  So is the contrast between the boy’s glamorous dreams of himself as a romantic lover and the actual experience to which they lead in a city brothel.

The retreat sermons are a sustained ironic piece, and the irony this time is not primarily at the expense of the hero but of the Catholic Church and its clergy.  The sermons seem to start reasonably enough but gradually become a burlesque (the Tommy Tiernan treatment!) of the kind of teaching given in retreats.  That is to say, they follow the course of traditional moral exhortation but push the examples to such an extreme that the effect is laughable.  A further irony is that the ingenuity with which torments are seemingly devised by God and the relish with which they are described by the priest are not congruous with notions of a loving God and a religion of love.  Equally ironic is the meticulous and literal way in which Stephen tries to mortify his senses and discipline his mind.  The sermons plainly have had the effect on him which the priests had hoped for.  Now that Stephen is repentant we naturally warm to him in sympathy, but we still smile at the degree of vanity and self-centeredness he shows in trying to model himself anew.

In some respects, the irony at Stephen’s expense is sharpest in the last chapter of the book.  For when he becomes a student his aspirations are aimed higher and higher.  The contrast between these aspirations and the reality around him is often laughably sharp.  At the end of Chapter 4, for instance, Stephen has enjoyed raptures expressed in language of lyrical beauty.  At the beginning of Chapter 5, he is drinking watery tea and chewing crusts of fried bread at a dirty kitchen table.  Joyce puts these two episodes together with comic intent.  Again Stephen propounds his high doctrine of beauty to his fellow students who, for the most part, have only crude and vulgar witticisms to contribute to the conversation.

Stephen dismisses real living beauty from his mind in order to theorise about beauty with his intellect.  Inspired suddenly by Emma’s beauty, he writes a poem in a language utterly removed from the idiom of living human relationships.  It is poetry so precious and “high-falutin” that real feeling is left out.  The irony of praising Emma so richly in secret and virtually snubbing her when she makes natural friendly approaches is both amusing and rather sad.  Not for the first time, we want to shake Stephen to try to knock some sense into him; above all to make him a little more human.

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Why Does Stephen Dedalus Choose Exile from his Native Land?

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James Joyce

Stephen chooses exile from his native land mainly because of his growing disenchantment with Irish society on many levels.  Indeed, his final decision to fly the nets which are impeding his development as an artist is achieved following a series of struggles with authority from which he ultimately decides to flee.  His sense of injustice is first stirred when he is a young schoolboy.  When Wells asks him if he kisses his mother at bedtime, he discovers that whether he should say Yes or No he will be laughed at.  Wells has already shouldered him into the ditch, and this first experience of school bullying makes him ill.  Christmas at home, which is expected to be all warmth and friendship and happiness after the chilly misery at school, turns out to be a time of angry political quarrels among adults who are all supposed to be devoted to Ireland.  When Stephen returns to school after suffering the misfortune of having his glasses broken he suffers the injustice of being punished for it.  Priests are supposed to be good, he thinks, but they get angry and behave cruelly.  To make things worse, he later discovers that his bold protest against injustice becomes a subject for laughter among those responsible for the injustice.

Stephen’s confidence in the moral authority of the powers-that-be in Clongowes is thus undermined and this is also accompanied by the undermining in his respect for his father.  The visit to Cork reveals Mr Dedalus as a boastful, flattery-loving, gas-bag and feckless drunkard, drinking and boasting while all the time his financial affairs are deteriorating and the home is getting more squalid.  Stephen’s boyish attempt, when he gets his prize money, to stem the tide of sordid poverty that seems to be sweeping over his family proves absurdly inadequate.  His attempt, after confession, to remodel himself on the pattern of perfection taught by the church, leads to extravagant feats of self-discipline that deny his most powerful aspirations towards life and beauty.  When the suggestion is made that he should consider a vocation to the priesthood, an instinctive inner conviction assures him that his future cannot be in subjection to an ordered system like that of the Church.  The vision of the wading girl stirs the religious outburst, ‘Heavenly God!’ and we recognise in the way the landscape calls up in him poetic phrases that satisfy his thirst for harmony between the outer world and his inner emotional life, that he is to be a future artist and not a future priest.

It is from a sordid scene at home and past the mad cries from a nunnery that Stephen makes his symbolic progress across Dublin to the university, where study opens up a world of exciting philosophical thought.  But even here there is no prospect of ultimate life-long satisfaction.  He quickly comes to realise that the university teachers are also limited and unimaginative, and the students’ enthusiasm is stirred by causes with which Stephen cannot sympathise.  The idealistic support for the Czar’s peace initiative strikes him as sentimental.  He feels unable to commit himself to corporate demands or protests.  The enthusiasm of students such as Davin for the cause of national independence, the revival of native culture, the enmity against England seems to require a commitment that mortgages life in advance of living it.  Stephen senses his own Irish inheritance, not as a great blessing, but as a series of fetters imposed by history willy-nilly on his generation.  Moreover, he knows from the past that Irish nationalist movements tend to lead, not to victorious achievements by the leaders, but to their betrayal and martyrdom.

Stephen himself demands of life, above all, freedom in which he can work creatively as an artist.  Closely associated with the demand for freedom is his sensitive responsiveness to beauty in the spoken and written word.  He has found in his home an increasing sordidness and crudity that are the antithesis of beauty.  He has found in the Church a cruelty hostile to justice and freedom, for the caning with the pandybat at Clongowes is of a piece with the horrendous torments pictured in Father Arnell’s sermons as the future eternal lot of millions of fellow human beings.  He has found in the political life of Ireland a collection of inherited attitudes and passions that embitter family relationships, which turn young students into obsessed fanatics, and that claim people’s thoughts and energies before they have had time to develop their own individualities.

The upshot is that Stephen turns the rebellious slogan of Lucifer, in turning against God, ‘I will not serve’, into his own motto in rejecting the demands of home, fatherland, and Church, and dedicating himself to the task of expressing himself freely as an artist.

The decision takes shape in his mind in association with thoughts of the career of his mythical ‘ancestor, Daedalus, who found escape in flight from imprisonment in a labyrinth.  Stephen has often trod the maze of Dublin streets seeking escape of one kind or another, whether in the confessional or the brothel.  Only when he crosses the bridge to Bull Island and stares out to sea does he glimpse the vision of true fulfilment.  He cannot find this fulfilment without flight.  His mother prays, he says, that, ‘I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels.’  So he sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’  His final prayer is not directed to God but to his role model, Daedalus.  He prays: ‘Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.’

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: An Introduction

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James Joyce

 

Background

In 1904 the magazine DANA made an important contribution to world literature by rejecting a short story by a then-unknown Irishman called James Joyce.  Joyce sought the advice of George Russell (AE), who suggested that he should rewrite it as a novel.  Joyce took his advice so seriously that he eventually produced a huge work of fiction which he titled Stephen Hero.  This book was never published during his lifetime; most of it was destroyed by its dissatisfied author who decided to try again, reworking and reducing the material into five chapters.  Twenty publishers rejected this new version before it finally appeared in 1916.  Joyce gave his first novel the same title as that of the rejected short story: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  In 1944 three years after his death, the surviving fragment of the original novel was published as Stephen Hero.

Brief Bio of James Joyce

Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is largely autobiographical, it is worth knowing something of the life and works of its author. James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, the eldest of eleven children.  His father, John Joyce, came from a wealthy Cork family and had inherited a small private income.  He was an ardent admirer of Charles Stewart Parnell, for whom he had worked as an election agent.  He was rewarded with the post of Tax Collector in Dublin, a lucrative position which allowed him and his growing family to live in considerable comfort and send his eldest son to Clongowes College.  However, his fecklessness, his extravagance and his fondness for drink cost him his job and reduced his family to poverty.  James was withdrawn from Clongowes and sent to Belvedere College, also run by the Jesuits.  He proved a hard-working student, winning a number of scholarships, which in a manner typical of his father he squandered on expensive family outings.

From 1898 to 1902 Joyce was a student at University College Dublin, then run by the Jesuit order.  When he graduated with a degree in languages he decided to continue studying as a medical student.  However, unhappy at UCD, he went to Paris but returned to Ireland when he received news of his mother’s imminent death.  To provide himself with a livelihood he took up a teaching post.

Then he met Nora Barnacle and his life was transformed.  He persuaded her to elope with him to Trieste where he worked as a teacher of languages.  There his children, Giorgio and Lucia, were born.  His brother, Stanislaus, joined them in 1905, giving Joyce invaluable financial and moral support.

Joyce returned to Dublin on two occasions.  On his first visit, he tried to set up the first cinema in Ireland, but the project failed.  In 1914 he came home again to publish Dubliners, but once again his trip was in vain.  Bitterly disappointed at his treatment, Joyce vowed never to set foot in his native land again.  He was true to his word.

In 1914 Joyce took his family to Zurich, remaining there for the duration of the Great War.  He then returned to Trieste but soon left for Paris, where he was to live until the Second World War forced him to move back to safety in neutral Zurich.

Meanwhile, in 1916 Dubliners was finally published, followed soon afterwards by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Then on his fortieth birthday, his masterpiece, Ulysses, appeared, and almost immediately established his reputation as the foremost writer of his time.

Joyce’s great success as an author was marred by personal tragedy.  His daughter Lucia’s mental health deteriorated to the point where Joyce could not care for her himself and had to have her committed to an institution.  In 1931 his father died.  All this time his eyesight was weakening, and though he underwent many painful operations, his sight continued to fail until he was almost blind. Having returned to Zurich on the outbreak of the Second World War he continued to write, working on his great experimental novel Finnegan’s Wake.  His health continued to decline and he eventually died on 13th January 1941 of a perforated ulcer.

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A Note on the Structure of the Novel

The novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a carefully constructed novel divided into five chapters or episodes.  Each of these sections deals with an important stage in the development of the hero, Stephen Dedalus, from early childhood to adulthood.

In Chapter One we meet Stephen as a baby-talking infant.  We learn of his first years in Clongowes College, where he is unjustly caned by Father Dolan.  An important event is the Christmas dinner, during which a bitter argument between Dante and Mr Casey reflects the troubled state of Ireland after the Parnell Split.

In Chapter Two, Stephen’s family suffers a decline in living standards due to Mr Dedalus’ feckless ways and is forced to move from Bray to Blackrock.  Young Stephen is taken out of Clongowes and sent to Belvedere College.  Important incidents are the encounter with Emma Cleary, the school play, and Stephen’s visit to Cork with his father, Simon.  This chapter ends with Stephen’s sexual awakening as seen in the episode with the prostitute.

Chapter Three is largely concerned with religion.  Filled with sexual guilt, Stephen listens to the famous sermon on Hell.  He resolves to end his sinful life and seeks grace through confession and self-mortification.  As a result, he achieves peace of mind and inner calm.

Chapter Four sees Stephen invited to become a Jesuit when his piety is noticed by his teachers.  He rejects the call, opting instead for Art.   This turning away from religion and back to the world is symbolised by the girl on the beach at the end of this section.

In Chapter Five, Stephen is now a student at University College Dublin.  Through his discussions with fellow students, we discover his rejection of nationalism and the nationalistic art that was then in vogue.  He expounds for us his theory of aesthetics.  The novel ends with his defiant refusal to serve God or country.  Instead, he will seek through exile to find the freedom he needs to create his own art.

Major Themes in the Novel

Joyce’s first novel is concerned to show the stages in the development of the artist.  We are presented with the hero Stephen Dedalus first as a child, then as a schoolboy, later as a devout Catholic, and finally as a university student.  Family, teachers, sex, religion, and country, forge fetters for the would-be artist; to create he must break free and become his own person.  This he achieves in the end with his famous declaration: “Non serviam” (I shall not serve), thereby turning his back on his family, his country, and his religion to devote himself totally to his new religion of Art.

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Johnston 21 – Double Portrait of James Joyce

Style and Technique in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a naturalistic novel narrated by an invisible author who remains aloof and apparently removed from his tale.  However, the viewpoint through which we see things is clearly Stephen’s.  This not only makes him the focus of our attention but it also invites us to sympathise with him throughout.  The language is also used to reflect Stephen’s central role and importance.  Thus in the opening chapter, we read the prattle of childhood as the infant Stephen tries to come to terms with his surroundings.  Later the schoolboy slang reveals his perceptions of life in a boarding school.  At all times the language is suited to whatever stage Stephen is then at.

Religious symbols and liturgical terms abound in Chapter Three.  They also help in the final chapter to elevate the tone and solemnise the young artist’s preoccupation with aesthetics at that stage.  Even though Joyce is at great pains to reject his Catholic faith he displays here a deep appreciation of Catholic rituals.  His friend Cranley points out this apparent inconsistency:

It is a curious thing, do you know, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.

This accusation, which could also be levelled at many other Irish novelists, is very relevant.  They, including James Joyce, seem determined to reject Catholicism because it seems at variance with their artistic imagination.  Yet, as Eamon Maher states ‘they cannot avoid being ‘supersaturated’ with its vestiges’.[1]

Symbols, including religious ones, are important to Joyce as a method of heightening his themes and maintaining links throughout the narrative.  For example, Stephen’s name reminds us of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the significance of this is seen in the young man’s willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of his art.  His surname, Dedalus, evokes the labyrinth-maker, the inventor, the flier who dared to aspire too high.  Other symbols used by Joyce in this novel are water, representing death, cleansing and renewal; the Church as mother; Ireland as the ‘sow that eats her farrow’.

To create a real and convincing background for Stephen, there is a painstaking attention to detail.  Names of actual places are numerous in the text, e.g. Clongowes, Belvedere, Lower Mount Street.  Real people are also introduced, such as Parnell, and Michael Davitt, W.S. Gilbert.  The squalor of Stephen’s home life is vividly captured in Joyce’s description of the meal table.  He is not content just to appeal to our sense of sight.  We hear the sound of cricket balls hitting bats in Clongowes; we smell horse’s urine, and while we listen to the sermon on Hell in Chapter Three we feel the horrific torments of the Damned.

Walter Pater, the author of Renaissance, who had such an enormous influence on Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement, also affected Joyce in his attitude to Art.  Pater and the followers of the Aesthetic Movement believed that art should be of paramount importance.  That Joyce was especially sympathetic to this view is most apparent in the final section of the novel.  Another writer much admired by Joyce was Cardinal Newman, the founder of University College Dublin whose style he sought to emulate.

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A Detailed Analysis of a Sample Passage from the Novel

“He looked northward to Howth.  The sea had fallen below the line of seawrack on the shallow side of the breakwater and already the tide was running out fast along the foreshore.  Already one long oval bank of sand lay warm and dry amid the wavelets.  Here and there warm isles of sand gleamed above the shallow tides and about the isles and around the long bank and amid the shallow currents of the bridge were lightclad figures, waving and delving.

In a few moments he was barefoot, his stockings folded in his pockets, and his canvas shoes dangling by their knotted laces over his shoulders and picking a pointed salteaten stick out of the jetsam among the rocks, he clambered down the slope of the breakwater.

There was a long rivulet in the strand and as he waded slowly up its course, he wondered at the endless drift of seaweed.  Emerald and black and russet and olive, it moved beneath the current, swaying and turning.  The water of the rivulet was dark with endless drift and mirrored the highdrifting clouds.

The clouds were drifting above him silently and silently the seatangle was drifting below him; and the grey warm air was still: and a new wild life was singing in his veins.”

 Commentary:

This fine piece of writing, which occurs at a crucial point towards the end of Chapter Four, illustrates many of the features of Joyce’s writing style.

  • Firstly, we notice his attention to detail; e.g.: ‘the pointed salteaten stick’. The word ‘salteaten’, like ‘jetsam’, ‘lightclad’, ‘seatangle’ shows the author’s fondness for coining new words.
  • Secondly, we view the scene through Stephen’s eyes, and so his feelings as he observes the seascape are subtly revealed, while the narrator himself remains invisible and aloof.
  • Repetition is another device to concentrate our minds and create connections in the writing. Notice how often we meet the words ‘warm’, ‘silently’, ‘clouds’ and ‘drifting’.
  • Symbolism is everywhere. The clouds are the difficulties of the past, now seen drifting away; the rivulet is a new life beginning; the sky is the greatness the young artist seeks and aspires to, as well as being associated in our minds with Dedalus.
  • There is also a sense throughout the piece that we are building towards a climax. The feelings of Stephen are conveyed by words like ‘warm and dry’, ‘new wild life’ and ‘singing’.  The final mood is one of joyous freedom.
  • Sound is also important, as we would quickly realise were we to read the passage aloud. Its lyricism is enhanced by alliteration (‘salteaten stick’) and assonance (‘wild life’).  Stephen has arrived at a crucial moment in his life.  His decision not to become a Jesuit has just been made, and now he sees his future as an artist calling him like a vocation.  It is the turning of the tide for him.  He is exhilarated by the prospects ahead: he has now freed himself from the restraints of family, country, and religion.  That is why he feels ‘a new wild life was singing in his veins’.

Picture-2

CONCLUSION

Having completed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce too had arrived at a new stage in his development.  He was now forever finished with conventional fiction.  Already his mind was preoccupied with the book that was to become his great masterpiece.  Ulysses was about to be born, and with its birth, the young exile from Dublin would be hailed as the greatest novelist of the century and one of the greatest innovators of all time.

However, Stephen Dedalus had survived and it is the same Stephen we meet on the first page of Ulysses.  However, he is not the hero this time; that role is reserved for Leopold Bloom, but Stephen is second only in importance to him.  Thus Joyce links together two of the finest works of fiction ever written.  The hero of the rejected short story lived on in the imagination of his creator for more than twenty years to become one of the best known and most written about characters of all time.

[1] Eamon Maher writing in The Ticket in The Irish Times, ‘The half-life and death of the Irish Catholic novel’, Saturday, December 23rd, 2017.

You might also like to read a more detailed character sketch of Stephen here