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:
The Tollund Man
A Constable Calls
The Harvest Bow
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’).
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’).
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’).
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.
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.
You might also like to read some of the following:
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.
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
Michael Hartnett’s son Niall givesthe keynote speech onthe 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 Possibilitywe have overlooked is the future, Niall 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
‘Like many Irish children, I was reared on a diet of folktale, Republicanism and mediocre ballads’.
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 TheIrish 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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 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
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.
 Michael Hartnett. Why Write in Irish? The Irish Times (26th August 1975).
 The interview first appeared in Poetry Ireland Review (Autumn 1987).
Memories of the Past – Episode 80 filmed by the late John Joe Harrold – First Communion Day in Newcastle West.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.”
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’.
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.
 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 Stephenhere
In one of her many interviews after the publication of ‘Foster’ in 2010, Claire Keegan challenged her would-be readers:
“It’s essentially about trusting in the reader’s intelligence rather than labouring a point. To work on the level of suggestion is what I aim for in all my writing.”
More than likely you will be studying this text as part of your Comparative Studies module for Leaving Cert English Higher Level. Your first task is to read the short story/novella (all 88 pages!) and begin to form your own opinion as to what is happening in the story. Trust your own judgement and use or discard the following notes as you judge them to be useful (or not) to you in your comparing and contrasting this text with at least two others from the suggested list given to you by your teacher.
All page references are from the beautifully produced Faber and Faber paperback edition
About Claire Keegan
Born in County Wicklow in 1968, she is the youngest of a large family. Keegan travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana when she was seventeen and studied English and Political Science at Loyola University. She returned to Ireland in 1992 and later lived for a year in Cardiff, Wales, where she undertook an MA in creative writing and taught undergraduates at the University of Wales.
Keegan’s first collection of short stories was Antarctica (1999). Her second collection of stories, Walk the Blue Fields, was published in 2007. September 2010 brought the publication of the ‘long, short story’ Foster. American writer Richard Ford, who selected Foster as winner of the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009, wrote in the winning citation of Keegan’s ‘thrilling’ instinct for the right words and her ‘patient attention to life’s vast consequence and finality’.
Keegan has won the inaugural William Trevor Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Olive Cook Award and the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009. Other awards include The Hugh Leonard Bursary, The Macaulay Fellowship, The Martin Healy Prize, The Kilkenny Prize and The Tom Gallon Award. Keegan has twice been the recipient of the Francis MacManus Award. She was also a Wingate Scholar. She was a visiting professor at Villanova University in 2008. Keegan was the Ireland Fund Artist-in-Residence in the Celtic Studies Department of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in March 2009.
The story is set in rural Wexford and is a perfect example of a Bildungsroman novel. Foster is narrated by a young girl who is fostered out to another family, the Kinsellas, ‘her mother’s people’, for the summer months. There is constant juxtaposition between her own family and her new foster family. Her expectations are influenced by what has already occurred in her own family. The Kinsellas are kind and caring, the epitome of all that is good in foster parents, giving the girl the space to develop and feel valued. It is a coming-of-age story and one that illuminates the contrasting lives of the families, one struggling and overcrowded, the other contented but childless, the rural community that they live in and, by extension, Ireland itself.
Blessedly, Keegan’s Ireland is not the familiar land of misery, abuse and constant drizzle, but a place of community, common decency and, most surprising of all, sunshine – we are treated to an idyllic summer in the Sunny South East. The narrator leaves her homeplace after Sunday Mass in Clonegal and is driven by her father towards the coast somewhere between Gorey and Courtown. Claire Keegan explains:
“For me, the fact that the story unfolds in summer was primarily a practical matter. For her to go away, it would have to be a summer. I made it hot because, given that it is so long since we’ve had [a hot summer] it was pleasurable to write about, but because it also deepened the happiness of the summer.”
Though it seems, in its depiction of the slow rhythms of rural life, to take place in a much older Ireland, Foster is set in 1981. The reader only finds this out when Kinsella tells his wife, in passing, of a news report about the death of an IRA hunger striker. It is an arresting moment, one that makes the story seem suddenly both more contemporary and more ominous.
“It’s an examination of home and an examination of neglect. I don’t trust that home is necessarily where one finds one’s happiness. Families can be awful places, just as they can be glorious and loving. Also, I’m very interested in what we can do without, what we can go without. To a child, for instance, the difference between being able to be well-fed when you are growing, and not, is enormous.”
The little girl, no more than seven or eight arrives at the Kinsellas farm and discovers that for once she is the centre of attention because the couple are childless. Also in sharp contrast to her own home in Clonegal here, ‘there is plenty of food and money to spare’. The girl is uneasy at first but soon grows to feel comfortable in a household where she finds love and affection, something she’s never encountered before.
The reason she is being temporarily fostered is that her mother is near the delivery of another in a long line of children. She is not told how long she will stay here. Over the course of what, in effect, was her summer holidays from school, this charming, precocious, needy child is exposed to a life far different from what she has had at home. Brilliantly, though, Keegan does not always clearly tell what is different; her subtle suggestions are, perhaps, even more potent. The Kinsella home is supposed to be one where “Petal” is assured that there are no secrets, but she does, in a most realistic manner, eventually learn that there is one. This secret is revealed by a neighbourhood gossip and it threatens to destroy her childhood idyll. By summer’s end, her mother’s letter arrives, and she is driven home.
Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism. It also explores the age-old dilemma of what constitutes a secret and what should be told and what should remain forever untold.
THEMES AND ISSUES
There are a number of themes and issues raised in the novel and these can be compared and contrasted with the other texts on your Comparative Course. The main themes dealt with here are:
The Theme of Family
The Theme of Growing up/Childhood
This short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel. In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so. It is a coming of age novel where the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.
It is a fast-moving cinematic type story and is narrated by a young seven or eight-year-old girl (her actual age is never mentioned). When we meet her first she is nameless, one of many children in her family. She is referred to at different stages throughout the novella as ‘Child’, ‘a Leanbh’, ‘Girleen’, ‘Long Legs’ and finally John Kinsella calls her ‘Petal’ three times towards the end of the story. We are not told whether this is her real name or his own pet name for her. Nobody else refers to her by the name Petal except John Kinsella. We are never given her family surname during the course of the story.
The novella is a journey of discovery for the girl who appears to the reader as very observant, charming, precocious, and needy. As she journeys from her parents’ home and comes to be comfortable in her temporary foster home she is exposed to a life far different from what she has been accustomed to.
As she journeys towards her new foster home for the summer she imagines opposing and contrasting scenarios in her head:
The man will be her size. He will take me to town in the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps. Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields (P. 4).
She is keenly observant and when she arrives at her new home she notices the way her Da, Dan, and John Kinsella interact. They indulge in a classic Irish form of verbal non-communication, talking about the weather and ‘the price of cattle, the EEC, (and) butter mountains’. She notes that ‘it is something I am used to, this way men have of not talking’ (p.6). She also notices early on that here in her new temporary home ‘there is no sign, anywhere, of a child’ (p.8).
She is also very aware of the lies her Da tells Aunt Edna about the hay saving. She tells us that ‘he is given to lying about things that would be nice if they were true’ (p.10). She notices the difference between her father and John Kinsella who helps his wife to lay the table in preparation for lunch. She tells us that her mother is always busy:
With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm (p.13).
She quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house. Here there is room and time to think and grow. There may even be money to spare’ (p.13). All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home. For example, she is glad to notice that John Kinsella and Aunt Edna ‘sleep together’ (p.17). Declan Kiberd comments on this keen vigilance of the child and says, ‘it suggests something not quite right, a fear that past traumas may be repeated in the present with the Kinsellas … the feeling of past and possible hurt hangs in the air’. This vigilance in her new home also suggests to us a child forever on guard.
One of the central themes and motifs running through the story is that of family secrets; what needs to be told and what should be left unsaid. Aunt Edna tells her that ‘there are no secrets in this house’ because ‘where’s there’s a secret … there’s shame, and shame is something we can do without’ (p.21). The young girl finds herself wishing ‘that this place without shame or secrets could be my home’ (p.24).
She wakes on her first morning ‘in this new place to the old feeling of being hot and cold, all at once’ (p.28). It turns out she has, not for the first time, wet her bed during the night and this introduces the notion of a troubled child. This is one of the strong, undeveloped undercurrents in the story. Aunt Edna notices straight away and handles the situation with admirable tact. Indeed these new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear. They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella. The narrator realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).
Aunt Edna cleverly devises a scheme to cure the bed wetting. She tells the young girl that she has a secret recipe to help improve her complexion. The secret remedy consists of eating Weetabix which the young girl says ‘tastes a bit like the dry bark of a tree’. She eats five while watching the Nine O’Clock News on RTE. She wakes the following morning and ‘the old feeling is not there’ anymore. Aunt Edna tells her that her ‘complexion is better already’ and ‘all you need is minding’ (p.36).
The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:
She showed me the big, white machine that plugs in, a freezer where what she calls ‘perishables’ can be stored for months without rotting. We make ice cubes, go over every inch of the floors with a hovering machine, dig new potatoes, make coleslaw and two loaves, and then she takes the clothes in off the line while they are still damp and sets up a board and starts ironing … (p.32).
It is obvious to us that her own home has few of these modern labour saving devices and she notices how both John Kinsella and his wife work hard all day as a united team. Her view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’. He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).
The young girl settles into a routine at her new home and sunny day follows sunny day. She visits Gorey where she ‘is togged out’ in new clothes and she is given some pocket money for the first time ever. One evening she is taken to Michael Redmond’s wake in the local area and she observes the local customs, the close community and the support for the family by their near neighbours. She experiences many epiphany moments throughout the novella – it’s as if she has an expectation that she will soon awake from a dream or that these good times can’t continue. As she walks to the wake with John and Edna she has a premonition that there is, ‘something darker in the air, of something that might come and fall and change things’ (p.49).
Later, one of the neighbours, Mildred, volunteers to look after the young girl and take her to play with her children rather than having her stay on at the wake. She senses straight away that Mildred is ‘eaten alive with curiosity’ and has to suffer a barrage of questions about the Kinsellas. It is only then that she discovers the big unspoken secret at the heart of the story: the Kinsellas had a young son who drowned tragically in the slurry pit and she has been wearing his clothes since she arrived at their house. Mildred adds a melodramatic flourish to the end of her story: their hair turned white overnight which is a Gothic touch worthy of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’! The narrator is left aghast:
I wonder at the clothes and how I’d worn them and the boy in the wallpaper and how I never put it all together (p.57).
When the Kinsellas come to collect her they soon realise that she has discovered their secret. Innocently she informs them what Mildred has revealed to her:
‘She told me you had a little boy who followed the dog into the slurry tank and died, and that I wore his clothes to Mass last Sunday’ (p.60)
Eventually, the summer draws to an end and the shops begin to display Back to School items. The weather turns and the letter arrives from her mother to say that there has been a new arrival at home and that she is to return home to prepare for school. She makes a final trip to the well down the fields and as she bends down to fill her bucket, in another Gothic moment, ‘another hand just like mine seems to come out of the water and pull me in’ (p.76). Luckily, she makes her way back to the farmhouse but develops a chill after her near-disastrous escapade. Her return home is postponed for a day or two while she recovers:
I doze and have strange dreams: of the lost heifer panicking on the night strand, of bony, brown cows having no milk in their teats, of my mother climbing up and getting stuck in an apple tree. Then I wake and take the broth and whatever else I’m given (p.78).
She arrived at the Kinsellas on a Sunday and fittingly she returns home on a Sunday also. They retrace their journey from the coast to Gorey, through Carnew and Shillelagh to home. Immediately she notices the differences: she has grown, matured and changed – as in nature anything which has been neglected thrives with attention and loving care. Again we notice the sharp contrasts: the house ‘feels damp and cold’, her mother notices that she speaks differently. Her sisters look at her ‘as though I’m an English cousin’ while she notices that they ‘seem different, thinner and have nothing to say’ (p.81).
She sneezes then and her mother realises she has a cold. She has decided that she will not recount her misadventure at the well, that her parents don’t need to know, and she tells her mother ‘Nothing happened’ – she didn’t catch a cold. She knows, however, that her mother will not be satisfied with this explanation and as a mark of how much she has matured and grown she tells us:
This is my mother I am speaking to but I have learnt enough, grown enough, to know that what happened is not something I need ever mention (p.86).
Then, echoing the earlier conversation with John Kinsella on the beach she tells us:
It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing (p.86).
The uneasy moment passes and the Kinsellas prepare to leave for home. She races after them, thoughts flooding through her mind and she lists the things that will remain locked within her forever:
Several thoughts flash through my mind: the boy in the wallpaper, the gooseberries, that moment when the bucket pulled me under, the lost heifer, the mattress weeping, the third light…. (p.86).
The ending is dramatic, cinematic, and climactic. She races into Kinsellas embrace and feelings of sadness, of loss, of gratitude flood over her. She sees her father, Da, walking down the lane towards them and yet she holds on to Kinsella ‘as though I’ll drown if I let go’. She looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’. Looking over Kinsella’s shoulder she calls out to her father, calling him by his new name:
‘Daddy,’ I keep calling him, keep warning him. ‘Daddy’ (p.88).
This is, in effect, the climax of the story. Our young narrator has benefitted from her experiences over the summer and she has been given the space to blossom – hence her name, Petal. However, she now finds herself in a dilemma: she would love to have Kinsella as her father because she knows her own father doesn’t really care for her or his family. She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife. So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment. She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it. She has never before called her father ‘Daddy’ during the course of the novella, so this is also putting him on alert that all is now changed, changed utterly. She has now experienced what it feels like to be truly valued and there can be no going back to the way things were before.
The Theme of Family
Foster introduces us to two very contrasting families. The young narrator of the story has been raised in a poor, rural family. She has numerous brothers and sisters and is effectively anonymous, without a name, when we first meet her. The reason she is being fostered is that her mother is expecting again and she will be looked after by her Aunt Edna and her husband John Kinsella until the new baby arrives.
The young girl’s father is a feckless alcoholic. He is shady, lazy and rude. Declan Kiberd in reviewing the novel describes him as ‘poor, improvident, coarse to the point of being abusive’. He is untrustworthy and he regularly lies as the story unfolds. We learn that his name is Dan but like his daughter, we never learn the family surname. We presume that his wife Mary is Aunt Edna’s sister. Early on we learn that he is a gambler and that he ‘lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five’ (p.3). He also appears to be very sexist and old-fashioned as he waits for Aunt Edna to pick up the stalks of rhubarb he has let fall from his arms as he prepares to drive home after delivering his daughter to the Kinsellas for the summer months (p.14). The child continually refers to him as Da until the very final moments when she calls him Daddy.
Her mother, Mary, is harried and at her wits end. Her husband, Dan, is no help and she has to find money to pay people to plough the land and mow the hay and do the other jobs that her husband should be doing. The young narrator’s view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’. He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).
In sharp juxtaposition, the Kinsella household is completely different. The young girl quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house. Here there is room and time to think and grow. There may even be money to spare’ (p.13). All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home. The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:
We pull rhubarb, make tarts, paint the skirting boards, take all the bedclothes out of the hot press and hoover out the spider webs, and put all the clean clothes back in again, make scones, polish the furniture, boil onions for onion sauce and put in containers in the freezer, pull the weeds out of the flower beds and then, when the sun goes down, water things (p.37-38).
Her new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear. They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella. She notices that he and his wife, Edna, work hard all day as a united team and she realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).
At first Aunt Edna doesn’t give the child a name. We sense that she doesn’t want to become too attached to the new arrival. After all, she has suffered a great, tragic loss with the drowning of her young son. She is also keenly aware that this is a very temporary arrangement and that she will have to return this young girl to her parents at summer’s end. It is clear that both Kinsellas have dealt with the loss of their son and have coped with the loss in their own separate ways. She sets out to teach the young girl as much as she can about running a home and introduces her to a range of chores. She also eventually buys the young girl new clothes rather than have her wear her dead son’s clothes which haven’t been touched since his tragic death. Mrs Kinsella is quite realistic about the girl: she knew that she would go back to her family at summer’s end and this explains why Mrs Kinsella didn’t let herself get as fond of this child as her husband did.
John Kinsella emerges as the unsung hero of this novella – he is according to Declan Kiberd, ‘the sort of loving father the girl never had’. He grows in stature as the story develops. Despite the awful tragedy which has befallen the household both himself and his wife are coping as well as can be expected. There is a sharp juxtaposition between John Kinsella and Dan, the young girl’s father. He is hard working and his fields are well laid out. We can see again the young girl comparing her home place to this new well run farm:
Kinsella’s fields are broad and level, divided in strips with electric fences she says I must not touch unless I want a shock. When the winds blows, sections of the longer grass bend over turning silver. On one strip of land, tall Friesian cows stand all around us, grazing…. (p.21).
He is a good neighbour and people come for his help to dig a grave for a neighbour or help if a cow is having difficulty calving. He, in turn, is protected by the neighbours and they are sensitive to the couple’s loss of their only son and they admire their stoicism in dealing with their terrible tragedy.
He treats the young girl as if she was his own daughter and on a visit to Gorey he buys her books and then later helps her with her reading. When he delivers Petal back home he tells her he wants to see gold stars in her copybooks when he next comes to visit. During their night walk on the strand he gives her valuable fatherly advice:
‘You don’t ever have to say anything,’ he says. ‘Always remember that as a thing you need never do. Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing’ (p.64).
This is probably the most important sentence in the whole novel. Declan Kiberd says ‘it reverberates, forwards and backwards, through the tale’. It contradicts his wife’s earlier assertion that there can be no room for secrets since secrets imply shame. The events of the novel help us to realise the distinction: a secret is something one hides while the unspoken is something that doesn’t need to be told.
Another emotional moment for me was a scene at the beach where the girl was taken by her foster father. On the way back he is trying to retrace his steps but he can’t find his own footprints, only the girl’s. It is obvious that he finds support in the young girl’s company so he says:
“You must have carried me there” (p.66).
As the story develops we become more and more aware of John Kinsella’s good qualities: he is caring, loving, generous, affectionate and kind. He is, in effect, the epitome of what it means to foster a young damaged and neglected young girl.
The final emotional scene between Kinsella and the young girl is a very powerful and dramatic finale to the novel. She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife. So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment. She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it.
Meanwhile, Aunt Edna is sobbing uncontrollably in the car. The young girl looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’. Aunt Edna is crying with sadness and with relief. After all, this young girl nearly drowned at the well and it is only now after she has left the young girl back with her parents that she fully realises the near tragedy that could have occurred. We often cry out of relief. For me, that is what she was suffering from or experiencing at that moment. Remember, she could have been driving up that lane to tell those people that their daughter had drowned. I think that she was living with that and also, of course, the incident had brought back the loss of her only son to drowning also.
The young narrator, Petal, has blossomed over the summer months with her temporary family, the Kinsellas. She actually came of age while under their care because she was minded. Nothing flourishes so much as that which is neglected, and is then minded. The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home with no child.
It is a fitting ending to the novel and hopefully the beginning of a relationship which will develop in the coming years. She has learnt much in the Kinsellas home, including the gift of reading:
It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy (p.74).
We hope she’ll find her way back to the Kinsellas again for many more idyllic sunny summers in the sunny South East!
The story is based on events which take place in Ireland during the Summer of 1981. The setting is rural County Wexford. There are very few cultural markers provided in the short novella and one could be excused for thinking that the events took place at an earlier time. The slow rhythms of life are based on rural and agricultural activity of what seems an earlier generation. The young girl, the narrator of the story, is fostered out to a home which has a freezer, ‘a hovering machine’, and other mod cons yet, incongruously, they have to go to the well down the fields to fetch water for the tea. There are also shopping visits to the local town and the child is taken to a local wake during the course of the novel.
The notion of fostering has a long history in Ireland. The old Gaelic chiefs used fostering to create alliances and maintain peace accords with local rival chieftains – they were less likely to attack a neighbouring chieftain if they realised that their young son or daughter was being raised there. In essence, the child was seen as a kind of hostage but as Declan Kiberd points out in his book After Ireland, ‘the more positive motive was the hope that the second family might educate the child more fully than might the first, in the ways of the world’. In more recent times parents of large families often fostered one or more of their children to relatives or grandparents to help rear them. Michael Hartnett, the poet, tells the story that he was fostered out to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, in the mid nineteen forties because ‘times were hard in Lower Maiden Street’ in Newcastle West and food and sustenance were more plentiful in nearby rural Camas.
The story is set in the Summer of 1981, the summer when week after week the news broke of yet another death from hunger strike in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. In all, ten IRA hunger strikers including Bobby Sands lost their lives during those turbulent times.
The novel was published in 2010 shortly after the publication of The Murphy Report and the Ryan Report. The Murphy Report was the brief name of the report of a Commission of investigation conducted by the Irish Government into the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The Report was released in 2009 by Judge Yvonne Murphy, only a few months after the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report) chaired by Seán Ryan, a similar inquiry which dealt with abuses in industrial schools controlled by Roman Catholic religious institutes.
Ironically, one of the earliest reports into clerical sex abuse claims was one conducted in the Diocese of Ferns which includes most of County Wexford. The Ferns Report was presented to the Irish government on 25 October 2005 and released the following day. It identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse made between 1962 and 2002 against twenty-one priests operating under the aegis of the Diocese of Ferns.
The novel was published in 2010 and by that time also Ireland was experiencing one of the biggest recessions in modern times brought about by the collapse of its banking system after a decade of affluence and Celtic Tiger excess. The novel Foster tells the story of a character’s brief sojourn in a wealthy household and that character’s predicted return (wiser and more mature) to a more austere life. Maybe, as Declan Kiberd states, ‘Claire Keegan (in Foster) was writing the secret history of her country’.
Be that as it may, these historical incidents are barely mentioned in the novella. We are introduced to a quiet, secluded part of County Wexford during the summer of 1981. We witness the daily lives and dramas of an ordinary farming community as they go about their seasonal occupations. It is a rural backwater, a favourite setting for novelists, it is 1981 but it could be any year. The major changes affecting the outside world are barely noticed here in this idyllic setting.
This is a novel of social realism, which is written in the continuous present tense by a first-person omniscient narrative voice. It can, therefore, be classed as a social document that is set in Ireland in the turbulent period of the Northern Ireland troubles. These troubles even visited rural County Wexford on the 13th October 1980 when Garda Seamus Quaid (a native of Feoghanagh, County Limerick) was killed in the line of duty by the IRA.
It has also been described as a ‘long short story’ and Claire Keegan is one of the great modern writers who use the short story to great effect. She is very much influenced by the writing of Frank O’Connor. In effect, this is a short story with chapters added. The fast-moving story leads to a dramatic climax at the very end.
As well as Frank O’Connor she is also influenced greatly by another O’Connor, Mary Flannery O’Connor whose gothic short stories were read by her during her stay in New Orleans and her studies at Loyola University. During the course of the novel the young narrator is taught by Kinsella to read books: Heidi, What Katy did Next, The Snow Queen. She tells us that reading is like riding a bike; it allows her to go to new places and to make up endings different from those in the books. This notion is also very similar to Seamus Deane’s young narrator in Reading in the Dark. She also makes the analogy that learning to read is like learning to read her new family.
All past events are narrated by the girl in a continuous present tense. This suggests that whatever unrevealed trauma was experienced in the past is still being dealt with in the present. Early on in the novel, we are aware that the young narrator feels ‘caught’ between two different families. She wants her father to leave because ‘this is a new place and new words are needed’ (p.18).
The short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel. This genre of novel is best described as a novel of maturation. In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so. Here the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.
The title of the novella, Foster, causes some problems for me. Normally the title may give some clue as to the content, what the potential reader can expect to find, but not here. For me, the title and the photograph used on the front jacket bore little relation to what had been revealed inside. Fostered or The Fostered Girl or Foster Child might have been better options – to me, Foster suggests a person’s name and the title is, therefore, somewhat misleading.
The story contains many gothic elements and there is also an ominous undercurrent created because of what is unsaid and also because of what is not fully understood by the child narrator. This is akin to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. We are left with the feeling that there may be other secrets that the young girl has decided not to reveal along with the incident at the well.
GENERAL VISION AND VIEWPOINT
This is a realistic novel, which explores the dynamics of two Irish rural families over the course of the school summer holidays in 1981. The narrator is a young girl and we are privy to her observations and account of her childhood – or two months from that eventful childhood. Like Heaney in his poem, ‘The Harvest Bow’, we are often left ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’ i.e. often what’s unsaid is as important as the spoken word.
We are introduced to a world where people are trying their best to cope with the difficulties that life has thrown at them. One family is trying to cope with poverty and neglect, largely as a result of a feckless, alcoholic father while the other family is trying to come to terms with the loss of their only son to drowning in a tragic farm accident. This is filtered to us through the lens of a very young, neglected girl who tries to make sense of it all. Despite this bleak subject matter the backdrop to the story is rural County Wexford which, unusually for Ireland, is bathed in continuous summer sunshine.
Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism. The locals have noticed the way the Kinsellas have dealt with their family tragedy and admire the way they have accepted disaster and tried their best to cope with it. The night of the card playing when two men came selling lines the proceeds of which, they said, would go towards putting a new roof on the school is a good example of the neighbours being sensitive. However, Kinsella will have none of it:
‘Of course,’ Kinsella said.
‘We didn’t really think – ‘
‘Come on in,’ Kinsella said. ‘Just ‘cos I’ve none of my own doesn’t mean I’d see the rain falling in on anyone else’s’ (p.39).
The ending is dramatic and allows for many interpretations as to what happens next. It is not the traditional happy ending – this ending is neither happy nor sad. Overall, the novel provokes a myriad of mixed emotions and truly upsetting feelings in the reader. There is sympathy felt throughout for the young narrator. As readers, we are not satisfied with how the novel ends but perhaps this realistic ending was the author’s way of showing us that life does not always have a happy ending. However, we also sense that something has happened in those final dramatic moments. There is slight hope that things will change for the young girl. This is dependent, of course, on others changing also, especially her father’s behaviour.
The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return to her own home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home empty-handed. Declan Kiberd sums it up succinctly when he says:
.. the tale is told about people who are shy of exposing themselves to the passing moment and shyer still to narrate themselves. Their stories are mysterious enough to resist a further telling or an absolute silence.
Keegan, Claire. Foster. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.
Kiberd, Declan. Chapter 27 Claire Keegan: Foster in After Ireland: Writing the nation from Beckett to the present. London: Head of Zeus Ltd, 2017.