All the perversions of the soul I learnt on a small farm. How to do the neighbours harm by magic, how to hate. I was abandoned to their tragedies, minor but unhealing: bitterness over boggy land, casual stealing of crops, venomous cardgames across swearing tables, a little music on the road, a little peace in decrepit stables. Here were rosarybeads, a bleeding face, the glinting doors that did encase their cutler needs, their plates, their knives, the cracked calendars of their lives.
I was abandoned to their tragedies and began to count the birds, to deduct secrets in the kitchen cold and to avoid among my nameless weeds the civil war of that household.
Taken from Collected Poems 2001, Gallery Press – (Collection reprinted 2009)
The ‘small farm’ referred to in this poem is that of his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, formerly Bridget Roche. According to parish records in Abbeyfeale, she married Michael Halpin from Camas, near Newcastle West, in Abbeyfeale Church on February 28th 1911 in what was, by all accounts, ‘a made match’ between both families and she then came to live in Camas where the Halpins owned a small farm of ten acres three roods and 13 perches.
This woman, Bridget Halpin, would later wield great influence over her young grandson Michael Hartnett. Indeed, if we are to believe the poet, she was the one who first affirmed his poetic gift when one day he ran into her kitchen in Camas and told her that a nest of young wrens had alighted on his head. Her reply to him was, ‘Aha, You’re going to be a poet!’. Hartnett claimed that he spent much of his early childhood in Bridget Halpin’s cottage in the rural townland of Camas four miles from his home in nearby Newcastle West. He went on to immortalise this woman in many of his poems but especially in his beautiful poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’. This quiet townland of Camas is seen as central to his development as a poet and maybe in time, this early association with Camas will be given its rightful importance and the little rural townland will vie with Maiden Street or Inchicore as one of Hartnett’s important formative places.
In subsequent years, Michael Halpin and his wife Bridget had six children, Josie, Mary, Peg, Denis, Bridget (later to be Michael Hartnett’s mother) and Ita. Unfortunately, Michael Halpin died in September 1920 at the age of 44 approx. having succumbed to pneumonia. In a heartbreaking twist of fate, his daughter Ita was born seven months later on 23rd March 1921. Bridget Halpin was now left with the care of her six young children and their ailing grandmother, Johanna. Johanna Halpin (née Browne) died in Camus on 18th June 1921 aged 80 years of age.
Bridget Halpin’s plight was now stark and the harshness of her existence is often alluded to in her grandson’s poems which feature her. The cottage which was little more than a three-roomed thatched mud cabin built of stone and yellow mud collapsed around 1926. The whole family were taken in, in an extraordinary gesture of neighbourliness, by their neighbour Con Kiely until a new cottage was built a short distance away. The family moved into their new home in 1931 and this is the structure that still stands today. According to Michael Hartnett this cottage, and especially the mud cabin which preceded it, was renowned as a ‘Rambling House’, a cottage steeped in history, music, song, dance, cardplaying and storytelling. Hartnett would have us believe that it was from the loft in this cottage that he began to pick up his first words of Irish from his grandmother and her cronies as they gathered to play cards or tell tall tales. (A more detailed genealogy of the Halpin family and the early formative influences on Michael Hartnett can be read here).
The poem ‘A Small Farm’, the first poem of the Collected Poems (2001), creates a delicate balance between description and abstraction. Students of Hartnett’s poetry should consider studying this poem as one of a series of poems that he wrote celebrating his grandmother, Bridget Halpin and the townland of Camas where she lived. The most obvious of these poems is ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ which he wrote on the passing of his grandmother in 1965. Others include, ‘For My Grandmother Bridget Halpin’, and ‘Mrs Halpin and the Lightning’. Abstractions, clichés, their representation through language, metaphors and the moment where these are drawn into focus, made specific and immediate, are central to these poems. ‘A Small Farm’ is a natural development and shows a more mature, confident and surer treatment of this place than the earlier ‘Camas Road’.
‘Camas Road’, Michael Hartnett’s first published work, appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955. He was thirteen. The poem describes in particular detail the rural vista of the West Limerick townland of Camas at evening: ‘A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge, / A cottage thatched with golden straw’ (A Book of Strays 67). Its two eight-line stanzas of alternating rhyme and regular metre contain a litany of natural images, at times idiosyncratically rendered; the ‘timid hare sits in the ditch’, ‘the soft lush hay that grows in fields’. It is a peculiar mix of a poem, apparent images from both the poet’s lived and literary experience placed side by side. It is contentedly denotative, creating a sense of ease and oneness with the natural world. The movement of sunrise to sunset is perpetually peaceful, its colours oils for the young poet’s palette. The ruminative introspective which elevates Kavanagh’s, ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, a poem which can be read in useful parallel to ‘Camas Road’, is not present. At the poem’s turn, as ‘Dark shadows fall o’er land so still’, Hartnett’s only thought and action are of flattened description, the creation of ‘this ode’.
‘Camas Road’ then, though essentially a curio which stands outside of Hartnett’s body of work, can be read as a seldom afforded snapshot of Michael Hartnett the poet before he became one. In contrast, his poem ‘A Small Farm’ shows a marked development in his poetic craft. It is well recorded and documented, especially by Hartnett himself, that he spent much of his childhood in his grandmother’s smallholding of ‘ten acres three roods and 13 perches’ in rural Camas about four miles outside Newcastle West and about one mile from the now vibrant village of Raheenagh. Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, lived there with her son, Denis (Dinny Halpin), in what Hartnett describes as a prolonged state of ‘civil war’,
I was abandoned to their tragedies,
Minor but unhealing.
The word ‘abandoned’ here has many undertones and is important for the poet because he repeats the line twice in the poem. He has told us elsewhere that he was, in effect, ‘fostered out’ by his parents in Maiden Street, Newcastle West to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, from a young age and spent much of his childhood in her cottage in Camas. However, there is also the suggestion that while there he was ‘abandoned’ and somewhat neglected as he became an outsider, an unwilling observer in the ‘civil war’ of the household, as Bridget and her son Dinny constantly argued and fought over the minutiae of running a small farm in difficult times in the Ireland of the late 40s and early 50s.
Hartnett saw in his grandmother a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseogs of the countryside. For Hartnett, there is also the added heartache that sees his grandmother struggling to come to terms with a lost language that has been cruelly taken from her. This, therefore, is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn. However, there is underlying paganism here that is absent from Kavanagh’s work.
For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, limited knowledge of the laws of physics, and therefore, as he points out in ‘Mrs Halpin and the Thunder’,
Her fear was not the simple fear of one
who does not know the source of thunder:
these were the ancient Irish gods
she had deserted for the sake of Christ.
However, Hartnett’s powers of observation and intuition were honed in Camas on Bridget Halpin’s small farm during his frequent visits. He tells us that he learnt much on that small farm during those lean years in the forties and early fifties,
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm,
how to do the neighbours harm
by magic, how to hate.
The struggle to make a success and eke out a living was a constant struggle and burden. The begrudgery of neighbours, the ‘bitterness over boggy land’, the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’. The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but Hartnett does not name this place, it is an Everyplace. The poem is simply titled, “A Small Farm” so there is no Inniskeen, Drummeril, or Black Shanco here but the harshness and brutality of existence, ‘the cracked calendars / of their lives’ in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh. Yet, it is here in Camas that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and, like Kavanagh, it was here that ‘The first gay flight of my lyric / Got caught in a peasant’s prayer’. And so, to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ them, turns his back on them, and begins to notice the birds and the weeds and the grasses,
I was abandoned to their tragedies
and began to count the birds,
to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold,
and to avoid among my nameless weeds
the civil war of that household.
In this final stanza, Hartnett makes an explicit link between his awakening as a perceiver of social interactions and moments of poetic beauty, with a growing knowledge and identification with the natural world about him. The attentive intellect which ‘counts the birds’, has as yet no language to describe or express his experience of the natural world, his ‘nameless weeds’. Still, he is possessive of it, seeing it as distinct from the human society which he can describe, yet does not identify with.
Later in, “For My Grandmother, Bridget Halpin”, he again alludes to the wildness, the paganism, the piseógs that surrounded him during his childhood in Camas. His grandmother’s worldview is almost feral. She looks to the landscape and the birds for information about the weather or impending events,
A bird’s hover,
seabird, blackbird, or bird of prey,
was rain, or death, or lost cattle.
This poorly educated woman reads the landscape and the skies as one would read a book,
The day’s warning, like red plovers
so etched and small the clouded sky,
was book to you, and true bible.
The picture of the farm is rather etched out in generalisation and aphorism, and through the accordant clichés of petty hatred and ignorance, ‘how to do the neighbours harm / by magic, how to hate’, before Hartnett brings the glass into focus, employing idiosyncratic detail which establishes the world of the poem itself. As already mentioned, the cottage on this small farm was a Rambling House, a house where neighbours gathered to tell stories, play music and card games,
venomous card games
across swearing tables
His early poetry, then, creates a delicate balance between description and abstraction, the actual and the figurative. In this way, Hartnett’s particular subjectivity, his way of seeing, is established. In time it would become his poetic currency. We are invited into the quintessentially old traditional Irish kitchen with its pictures of the Pope, the Sacred Heart, the statue of Our Lady, the Crucifix,
Here were rosary beads,
a bleeding face,
the glinting doors that did encase their cutler needs,
their plates, their knives, the cracked calendars of their lives
In this poem, therefore, Hartnett is following on from Kavanagh in shining a light into the domestic and interior life of rural dwellers not previously considered worthy of attention. Bridget Halpin’s ‘small farm’ in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris but it helped produce one of Ireland’s leading poets of any century. The influences absorbed in this rural setting, his powers of observation, his knowledge of wildlife and flowers, his ecocentric bias, are impressive and are all-pervasive in his poetry. Without prejudice, it also has to be said that he demonstrates a deeper knowledge of all local flora and fauna than could be reasonably expected of a ‘townie’ from Maiden Street or Assumpta Park!
Indeed, Hartnett, the quintessential nature poet, would be delighted to see the magnificent new recently developed Kileedy Eco Park which has been set up less than a mile from his ‘foster’ home in Camas by the combined efforts of the local community in Kileedy. It is also significant that the visionary developers of this project have included a Poet’s Corner where Hartnett is remembered just a stone’s throw from the small farm of his formative years. Here today’s generation can now come to ‘count the birds’ and the ‘nameless weeds’.
Hanley, Don. ‘The Ecocentric Element in Michael Hartnett’s Poetry: Referentiality, Authenticity, Place’, MA in Irish Writing and Film, UCC, 2016.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, editor Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, 2001. Reprinted 2009 and 2012.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, editor Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, 2002. Reprinted 2015.
The author would also like to acknowledge the voluminous background information received from Joe Dore, Michael Hartnett’s first cousin and inheritor of Bridget Halpin’s ‘small farm’ of ten acres three roods and thirteen perches.
Poet Michael Hartnett would have been 80 years old on September 18th this year.
He was a native of Newcastle West and was raised among the hustle ands bustle of Lower Maiden Street. In fact, he was a young 58 when he died in 1999. Each year the people of Newcastle West celebrate his memory at Éigse Michael Hartnett, now in its 21st year. This year’s event takes place in the town from Thursday 30th September to Saturday October 2nd.
Remembering Michael Hartnett (1941 – 1999) on the 80th Anniversary of his Birth
By Peter Browne
Many people who knew him and admired his work felt the loss deeply and his creativity lives on richly after him. An old cassette tape which I came across by chance in a cardboard box at home during lockdown brought back particular memories of just one brief period in which I could say I knew him.
This tape contained about 40 minutes of disjointed, poor-quality bits and pieces recordings from a 1985 musical and literary trip to Scotland which we both were on, and it brought back strong and fond thoughts of him even for such a short acquaintance when we were fellow performers touring the Highlands and Western Isles.
The occasion was the annual Turas na bhFilí which was a week-long tour of nightly performances in Gaelic-speaking Scotland organised by Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge. It was a two-way annual process and each year there were return visits to Ireland by a similar group of Scottish writers and artists.
This particular year the Irish travelling group comprised two poets, Áine Ní Ghlinn and Michael Hartnett, a fine singer Cliona Ní Fhlannagáin and myself as uilleann piper. Also travelling as leader, organiser and fear a’tí was Colonel Eoghan Ó Néill, a distinguished Army officer who was by this time Director of An Chomhdháil.
There was a minibus driver whose name is long gone from me and we were a happy group on the road for that week. Sadly, as well as Michael Hartnett, Colonel Ó Néill and Cliona have also left us. For the fairly obvious reason – if there weren’t separate B & B bedrooms on offer – Michael and myself were usually put sharing a room together and we had good conversations – usually on everyday life or the incidental happenings of the tour.
I do recall that he was enthusiastic about folklore and traditions in his own area of West Limerick like dancing and the wrenboys and he also mentioned his respect for Seán Ó Riada.
A printed programme had been prepared in advance of the tour and distributed to the audience at each night’s performance. It contained explanations, translations etc… meaning that the material, including the poetry, would be the same each night. I used to look forward at each performance to hearing the same poems, the same songs – they grew on me.
Cliona sang Úna Bhán, Dónal Óg, Bean Pháidín. Áine had a beautiful poem about a young boy who was lost to cystic fibrosis and of Michael’s poems, I remember two – one for his daughter “Dán do Lara” with the line “…even the bees in the field think you are a flower” and another especially sad, moving one in which he addressed his father, trying to persuade him not to die but to remain on this earth.
I can clearly remember the soft richness of his words and speaking vioce. I used to play ‘Amhrán na Leabhar’ on the pipes nightly out of deference to the literary nature of the occasion.
Michael’s skills and agility in his use of words meant that his humour and wit were a bright feature during the trip – prompted by random events along the way. When we flew out from Dublin, we had an excellent welcoming night in Glasgow and the following morning went to the airport to fly to Stornaway. And there, as we waited for the flight, Michael bought a bottle of Scotch whisky with the bracing brand name of ‘Sheep Dip.’
This unusual drink became something of a recurring conversational theme for the remainder of the tour. He seemed to use the same mug all week for drinking it. I partook a couple of times as well and it tasted ok – I notice that it’s still for sale on the market.
Later that same first day of the tour when we were travelling in the minibus on the dual island of Lewis and Harris, there was some incident with the minibus and a loose goat which I just can’t recall, and then we were brought to an interpretive centre and souvenir shop with a large selection of teddy bears on sale – they occupied all the shelves of one entire wall.
At that evening’s performance Michael began by telling the audience: ”…I’ve had a very trying day, first of all I started off by discovering a drink called Sheep Dip, then I met a goat on a bus and then I narrowly escaped being introduced to 25,000 teddy bears all wearing Harris tweed!”
In another town called Roybridge we were led by a kilted piper into the room and up to the top table in a ceremonial procession. Michael had already said to Áine Ní Ghlinn that his own father had once described the sound of the pipes as like being in a submarine with a flock of sheep, so…this wasn’t a good portent. As we sat down, the piper stepped onto the small stage, which was a concave, parabolic inset into one of the walls of the room.
The sound of the píob mhór was therefore propelled with some force outwards towards us. I watched Michael and I could clearly see his discomfort. He took a beermat, wrote on it and passed it around. Each person smiled as they read it and when it came to me, I saw that he had written: “I’m glad my new false teeth are made of plastic, not china.”
But there was seriousness in all this as well; there could be lengthy silences in the minibus as we travelled along narrow roads, and later that evening in Roybridge as he was reading the poem about his father, there was guffawing from a group of people on barstools at the counter who clearly weren’t there to hear the performance.
The local MC on the night asked them to stop talking or move to another establishment in the town where there would be, as he put it, “…a welcome for all sorts of inane conversation”. They were momentarily silenced but when Michael started again, so did the noise. He simply closed his book, said “is cuma liom…” and left the stage.
His poem about his father was special – for the subject matter, the beauty of the language and the sound of his reading voice. There was a sensitivity, decency and dignity about him and, I think also, a vulnerability.
Although I only ever met him again on one other occasion by chance, it may be the case that a lasting impression and respect for someone can be created over a short time such as this as well as by a lengthy acquaintance.
“…and please, my father, wait a while, there is no singing after death, there is no human sighing – just worlds falling into suns. The universe will be a bride, a necklace of stars on her gown – dancing at every crossroads, tin-whistles spitting music. Father, take your time, hang on. But he didn’t.”
Peter Browne is a piper and a former RTÉ presenter and producer.
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring — When weeds in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy, Before it cloud, Christ, lord and sour with sinning, Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy, Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
As we know Hopkins wrote The Terrible Sonnets but here we have one of the best of his ‘bright sonnets’ in which he celebrates the beauty of nature and the glory of God. Hopkins loved to use the sonnet because he felt it suited his style. He wrote ‘Spring’ in May 1877 while studying theology in North Wales. ‘Spring’ is a Petrarchan sonnet, consisting of an octet which is primarily descriptive, and a sestet which is typically more reflective. The sonnet can only be described as being quintessential Hopkins.
The octet describes nature and Hopkins’ appreciation of it shines through in his descriptive language. He gives many examples of how beautiful and fresh the world is, such as weeds, birds’ eggs, lambs, blue skies and lush greenery. Many of Hopkins’ poems read like sermons and homilies and this is not unusual seeing as he was a Jesuit priest. So we are not surprised, therefore, when he compares the beauty which surrounds him to the Garden of Eden. The sestet reflects upon the meaning of this wonderful nature. As I said earlier there is always a spiritual dimension to Hopkins’ poetry and in the sestet he reflects on the sorry end of the Garden of Eden and he uses the last lines of the poem to ask God to protect the innocence of spring and also that of young children.
Many of the trademark conventions which define Hopkins’ poetry are to be found in this poem, such as alliteration, assonance, inscape, instress and sprung rhythm. We are presented with an innovative and technically accomplished poem which is written in a unique and distinctive way.
It might be important to define some of these concepts because some of them are unique to Hopkins’ poetry:
Inscape: For Hopkins, every single thing in the universe was unique. Everything contained qualities that helped to define that uniqueness, and to distinguish it from all other things. He called thisinscape. Hopkins believed that God was responsible for each unique thing. For him, inscape was the essential essence of each thing, that unique quality that set it apart from everything else.
Instress: Hopkins also believed that each living thing had its own unique energy which was also derived from God. In the octet of this sonnet, therefore, he tries through language and imagery to capture the instress, the unique energy that defines Spring.
Sprung Rhythm: Hopkins invented this unique kind of rhythm and used it extensively in his poetry. Basically, Hopkins stresses the important word in a line of poetry and this can be surrounded by any number of unstressed syllables e.g. the line ‘When weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush’.
Octet Hopkins begins the poem with a very bold statement of his philosophy. He won’t listen to any debate or argument as he declares with absolute conviction that Spring is the most beautiful season of the year. He then proceeds to give evidence in support of this contention, by presenting the reader with a series of images, which try to capture both the beauty and vibrancy of Spring.
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
He immediately surprises us by celebrating the beauty of weeds, a type of plant we traditionally frown upon. He uses alliteration and sprung rhythm to capture both the essence (inscape) and energy (instress) of these particular plants. The word ‘wheel’ causes us to pause as we try to understand what he means. It may be the way briars and other weeds send out tendrils to curl around other shrubs and plants as they climb or indeed it may be a reference to the cyclical nature of the seasons, each one giving way to the next.
He then describes the thrush in the next few lines. Again he tries to capture for us in words the inscape and instress of the birds as they build their nests and lay their eggs. The bird’s eggs are compared to the heavens, as Hopkins subtly introduces a spiritual dimension to the poem. There are examples of sensuous imagery in evidence also, while the onomatopoeic “wring” further captures that elusive inscape. Notice his constant use of alliteration, ‘rinse and wring’. There is a very clever metaphor in the third line when he compares the speckled thrush’s eggs to the heavens at night. It nearly would have been easier for him to use the simile, Thrush’s eggs look (like) little low heavens, but he resists the temptation!
He does use a simile in lines four and five when he tries to describe the effect of birdsong on the human ear,
… it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing
Further intense images follow, as Hopkins champions this particular season. We are told “that blue is all in a rush,” as he tries to capture the instress, the energy, that defines that season. The final line, with its rather quaint, colloquial language, is also designed to produce a similar effect.
By the end of the octet, the reader has been swept along by Hopkins in his description of nature. His use of sprung rhythm , coupled with the absence of any full-stops in the entire octet, ensure that the reader is made fully aware of the breathtaking beauty and vitality associated with Spring.
Sestet The poem becomes much more reflective in the sestet. Hopkins begins by posing a question: What does all of this beauty of nature actually signify? This rhetorical question signifies the poet’s own confusion and uncertainty. The reader is invited to slow down and contemplate the answer to this question. Hopkins suggests to us that springtime is an image of what the world would have been like in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, before the fall of Adam and Eve and the entrance of sin into our world.
In a series of complex and very theological images, Hopkins manages to suggest what is wrong with the world, provides a vision of the type of world he would like to see, and advocates a return to that time of innocence in Eden Garden. He suggests our loss of innocence by using the image of fruit becoming overripe and decaying.
Traditionally also it must be remembered that May was always linked to Mary the Mother of God – the month of May was Mary’s month. He proceeds to use different images of innocence to present his image of the world he would like to see, and finally, he advocates a return to that world of innocence. In my mind’s eye I can see children innocently dancing around the traditional Maypole on an English village green when I read these final lines. For his English audience there would have been no better representation of childhood innocence!
This darksome burn, horseback brown, His rollrock highroad roaring down, In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth Turns and twindles over the broth Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning, It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew, Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through, Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern, And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
The initial response of a class hearing Hopkins for the first time – in my long experience – can only be described as a kind of muted sniffling, an uneasy shuffling! Indeed, I am reminded of a scene from Roddy Doyle’s novel, TheVan. In the novel, Darren is studying Hopkins’s poetry for his Leaving Cert. He reads one of the poems – probably Inversnaid – and wonders when Tippex had been invented and he concludes, ‘Gerrah Manley Hopkins had definitely been sniffing something.’ Not all students are as negative as Darren but given a chance most conclude that this poetry is old but yet new and surprising. This difference is what opens the paths to further exploration. Here we have someone experimenting and stretching the outer limits of language just like a modern rapper would do.
Inversnaid, while not one of his best poems, shows how he continually explores the possibilities of words. A good class will enjoy puzzling out the images, rather like trying to solve a cryptic crossword. There may even be arguments about which sense of ‘comb’ is intended. However, the average class will need a lot of help with this poem.
Finally, by way of introduction, this poem does not end with a homily like many of Hopkins’ poems but instead takes on a very modern plea and could have been written in 2021 by any one of a range of eco-warriors from David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg. However, while the spiritual dimension, so explicitly treated in ‘Spring’ and other poems, may be hidden from the reader, here one senses that it is never far from the poet-priest’s mind.
The poem was written in 1881 while Fr Hopkins, the Jesuit priest, was ministering to his flock in inner city Glasgow. On one of his rest days he paid a hurried visit to the little village of Inversnaid near the shores of Loch Lomond in the Scottish Highlands and was inspired to write this poem.
The poem was written at the height of the Industrial Revolution in England and Scotland and the poet makes a very prescient and prophetic appeal that such places should not be destroyed forever by man’s search for wealth at any price. The poet praises the special and irreplaceable beauty of the ‘wetness and wildness’ of the world.
Hopkins wrote the poem at a time when the Industrial Revolution in England was beginning to destroy the countryside. There was also a counter move by Victorians to set aside areas of great beauty so that people who could afford it could escape to enjoy the beauty of nature. Victoria herself had her Scottish royal retreat at Balmoral and this is still in use to this day. Elsewhere places of particular scenic beauty such as the Lake District in England and Killarney in Ireland were making a name for themselves as soothing spa resorts where the rich and famous came to relax and enjoy the restorative power of nature in all its glory and wildness. Here Hopkins pleads that such places should be spared and were, in fact, essential. He attempts in the first three stanzas to convince people of the wonder of such areas; this he does by using all his word-power to describe what he sees in an exciting way. In the final stanza he presents his plea in repetitive and almost desperate terms.
The structure of the poem, unlike its language, is very simple. The first three stanzas convey a lively and exciting picture in our minds. The final stanza then is a plea that such beauty be preserved. Each stanza contains four lines, and each line has four stresses. Hopkins stresses the important word and this can be surrounded by any number of unstressed syllables. This unique form of rhyming scheme he called sprung rhythm.
Hopkins is describing a river rushing and roaring down the Scottish hillside to reach Loch Lomond. The river begins high in the hills and flows powerfully down over the rocks, then eases into lower land and flows gently into the lake. There are many pools and eddies filled with froth so dark that they suggest despair. Dew sparkles on the banks beside the river where wild plants grow such as heath and fern and ash trees. The last stanza is a passionate plea to his fellow man to leave such wildness and beauty alone, and let them survive.
Hopkins language can be difficult because he is constantly experimenting. In this poem, for instance, he is obviously infatuated by the Scottish accents all around him and we can see this in the continual use of ‘r’ alliterative sounds throughout the poem. Hopkins tries to capture the inscape and instress of a fast flowing stream in the rural landscape of Inversnaid. He makes use of a number of important techniques to capture the true essence and energy of the stream such as compound words, sprung rhythm and alliteration to great effect. He also invents new words, and makes use of local colloquial and dialect words freely.
To fully appreciate the beauty of the poem you really need to read it aloud in your best Scottish accent! From the very beginning he sets the scene,
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
These lines suggest the river’s steep rush through the highlands. The hard vowel sounds convey the rush and roar of the water over the rocks. The essence and energy of the river (its inscape and instress) is compared in a lovely metaphor to a wild horse careering downhill at great speed.
The final two lines in the first stanza are calmer
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
The poet uses alliteration to suggest a peaceful pool with foam like ‘fleece’ gently circling as in a whirlpool. ‘Coop’ and ‘comb’, ‘fleece’ and ‘foam’ convey multiple images if we allow them in. The energy of the river is now ‘cooped up’ in a rockpool and the water gently ‘combs’ over the rocks and falls with lovely sibilant ‘s’ sounds to the lake.
In the second stanza the focus switches to these stiller shallow pools. The ‘fleece’ of stanza one is now a ‘windpuff-bonnet’ of ‘fawn-froth’. These are lovely examples of compound words made up by the poet to describe the scene before him. The poet is after all trying to describe or inscape a whirlpool and he invents a new verb to describe the motion of the pool – it ‘twindles’. This swirling motion produces very ominous, dark emotions in the poet: the pool is now a ‘broth’, a ‘pitchblack’ soup of seething river in flood. The darkness or shadows of the area also help induce a mood of despair – Hopkins gives it even added importance by giving it a capital ‘D’. ‘Fell-frowning’ has many layers of meaning. Again it is a compound word invented for the occasion: Hopkins often uses ‘fell’ in his poetry and usually it means foul or evil. The stanza is a perfect example of sprung rhythm, a unique Hopkins invention. (Read the stanza again – out loud – to get a feel for this rhythm).
The focus now switches to the banks of the stream and the abundance of plants and shrubs and trees that exist there. He uses a very precise set of words to capture the essence, the inscape of the gorge through which this stream is flowing. It is a glorious description of nature in all its wildness:
Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook threads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
We get the sense of the river picking up speed again in the first two lines before it slows again before the stanza ends.
In the last stanza, Hopkins uses many words beginning with the letter ‘w’. This, combined with all the repetition, conveys a mood of anxiety and pleading. The use of the rhetorical question also gives a sense of his uncertainty. He ends by issuing an appeal, asking us to preserve the natural landscape. Yet again, one can detect the intensity of the emotion in his pleading and in his poetry. Hopkins finishes with a rallying cry, almost a call to arms, similar to what Greta Thunberg has done in recent times, in which he champions the natural world and pleads with us to respect it. That call is now nearly 150 years old and, unfortunately, is more pertinent today that ever before.
You might like to have a read of the following blog which explains the various terms such as ‘inscape’, ‘instress’ and ‘sprung rhythm’ used in the above notes. Just click on the link.
John Donne’s poetry experienced a great resurgence in the Twentieth Century, thanks mainly to T. S. Eliot’s influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ originally published in 1921. This new found recognition went far in correcting the fact that for the previous two centuries his poetry had been largely overlooked. Added to this, of course, we must take into account Donne’s own apparent disinterest in his own poems, particularly with regard to their publication. This disinterest has always been put forward by academics as a reason for this early neglect. It is well documented that he only published three or four poems in his own lifetime, preferring instead to pass round manuscripts of his work among his friends at the universities and at the Inns of Court.
Ben Jonson (c. 11 June 1572 – c. 16 August 1637), the most learned poet of his time, was the closest of such friends. Like T.S. Eliot many generations later, Jonson left all in no doubt about the admiration he felt for Donne’s poetry; he regarded him as an innovator, ‘the first poet in the world in some things’, and the leader of a new school of poetry in Elizabethan London – this school of poetry has since been called metaphysical poetry.
Donne was certainly not a poet of popular taste. As far as he was concerned poetry was not for the masses but was an intellectual pursuit where the poet attempted to impress others with his knowledge and education. He deliberately restricted his audience to those whose education and background equipped them to appreciate a new, more obscure type of poetry. It is clear that Donne’s poetry shocked his contemporaries just as it still does to this day. When his poems were first published in 1633, two years after his death, the printer introduced them with a dedication, not to ‘the Readers’ but to ‘the Understanders’. One can see from this how from the beginning, Donne’s poetry was regarded as being among the most difficult in English literature.
The writers who followed Donne and who were most influenced by his work have since been called the metaphysical poets. This term was of course first used by Dr Samuel Johnston in his famous discussion of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Marvell. In his Life of Cowley (1779) Johnston observed that ‘about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that might be termed the metaphysical poets’. Since then the term metaphysical poetry has come to imply a type of poetry that has certain unique characteristics. Indeed, so widespread has the term become that there is no longer much doubt as to whom we mean when we speak of the metaphysical poets, namely, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Andrew Marvell in particular.
Dr Samuel Johnston’s Life of Cowley did more than establish the term ‘metaphysical poets’; it also contained the first detailed discussion of their works. Donne’s poetry can be considered in three main groups: the love poetry (The Good Morrow, The Anniversary), the miscellaneous poems and verse letters, and the religious poetry (A Hymn to God the Father, Holy Sonnets), all of which correspond roughly to the early, middle, and later periods of his career. The first group contains the work for which he is probably best known. The poetry is remarkable for its realism and its variety, and has all the characteristics by which metaphysical poetry is generally recognised.
What therefore are the main characteristics of the metaphysical poets in general and of Donne in particular?
What first strikes most readers of metaphysical poetry is its concentration. Poems in this category tend to be brief and closely woven. This allows various ideas, words and references to be condensed into groups of short lines, sometimes even into single lines and phrases. For example, in the opening stanza of The Anniversary, Donne introduces groups of associated images drawn from the royal courts and palaces to suggest the transience of earthly glory:
All kings and all their favourites,
All glory of honours, beauties, wits,
The sun itself, which makes time, as they pass,
Is elder by a year now than it was
When thou and I first one another saw.
Everything, he suggests, is subordinate to love, and he describes in detail the intensity of his feelings. What need has he of kings and princes when they are inconstant and subject to decay? Even the sun which appears to measure time, is itself subject to destruction, while love has the power to outlive these mortal things. Behind this opening stanza, therefore, there is intense personal feeling. This anniversary represents a permanent moment: it is not an anniversary in the ordinary sense, a looking back on something passed. It is rather an ‘everlasting day’ which is not affected by the passage of time. So while man’s world and the world of nature are slowly growing old, the persons in the poem enjoy forever the vitality and permanence of love. To further his argument Donne makes good use of paradox which acts as a sort of clinching device which upholds and strengthens his argument. The first stanza of The Anniversary ends with an important paradox which expresses the permanence of love in a world of change:
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.
The idea that love unites people in a spiritual bond which even transcends death is expressed throughout The Anniversary.
His use of concentration is also very evident in The Good Morrow where we see not only Donne’s love of learning, but also his inclination for using it out of context, applying many references to serve his own purposes in the poem. The greatest concentration of language is confined to the second stanza. Man, Donne suggests, is concerned with broadening his physical horizons, but is neglecting to expand his knowledge in a spiritual direction. Love, in the end, binds all things together and allows man to attain his true destiny. Suggested in this poem is the idea of the fundamental, and not accidental, limitations of our knowledge. Science can explain the physical, but not the spiritual universe. Astronomers may spend their lives studying the heavens but they are always fearful of what they might find. Similarly, geographical discoveries have brought to man’s attention objects of experience that are not always pleasant (“sharp north”, “declining west”), and the progress of science cannot experiment enough to conquer death (“whatever dies, was not mix’d equally”). Connected to each of these images is the idea of isolation and lack of real purpose: the lonely astronomer forever watchful, the explorer who spends his life going round the world only to arrive back where he started, the scientist alone in his laboratory making many discoveries, none of which effect the real destiny of mankind. Donne, therefore, sees the world outside as a symbol of man’s weakness and isolation. In contrast to this he presents his own rational theory which is itself the result of considerable previous study. As with The Anniversary, he proposes that the only true art is the art of love which requires knowledge, patience and effort, which overcomes death and prepares man for eternity.
A second characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its vividly dramatic quality, particularly in the opening lines. Donne’s poetry, in particular, is always, in a special sense, dramatic. Indeed, all metaphysical poetry springs from the great era of Elizabethan drama dominated, in particular, by Shakespeare. Donne, we are told, was ‘a great frequenter of plays’ in his youth. The rhythms of his verse, so misunderstood by many readers, are closer to the ordinary speech found in Shakespeare’s plays than to that of most lyrical poems. For this reason, Donne’s poems – and those of George Herbert also – are often best considered as dramatic monologues, almost like the soliloquys of an actor on the stage. Donne specialises in forceful, dramatic openings, e.g. ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’ (Holy Sonnets XIV); ‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we lov’d’ (The Good Morrow); ‘Wilt thou forgive the sin where I begun …’ (A Hymn to God the Father), etc., etc., etc.
(Probably one of the most daring and dramatic of his opening lines occurs in the sonnet, At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners where he conjures up a marvellous vivid picture of the Last Judgement. We have to remind ourselves that when this sonnet, often referred to as Holy Sonnet 7, was published in 1633, it was less than 150 years after Columbus had discovered The New World. Yet here, Donne shows off his new found knowledge that the world is round and yet plays with the old notion that the world was flat and had four corners!)
This dependence on drama leads to a third characteristic of metaphysical poetry which is their constant use of dialogue. The Good Morrow and The Anniversary depend for their success upon our recognising the presence of an individual speaker involved in each poem. Indeed, the speakers can even be distinguished by the manner of their speech and by the nature of their arguments. In the opening lines of The Good Morrow the speaker adopts a very colloquial, unpoetic manner. He is capable, however, of sudden shifts in attention, and in the second stanza begins to change his tone and emphasis. The poem suddenly becomes more serious, then very learned in its use of obscure references and peculiar logic, until finally the speaker presents his audience with a definite conclusion:
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.
In contrast to The Good Morrow, Donne’s The Anniversary is much more contemplative. What is common to both poems is not only their theme but also their resolution: true love is constant because it is essentially a relationship of minds. What is uncommon, however, is Donne’s presentation. In The Anniversary the speaker is not so much intent on displaying the great depth of his knowledge as in arguing his ideas with simple wisdom. Despite the fact that he sometimes appears to be frivolous and insincere, Donne always wished to express universal truths in his poetry. Like Shakespeare, when he expresses something profound, Donne often does it quite simply. The subject of universal destruction is one of the central themes in The Anniversary, and the death of princes is used to symbolise it. Indeed, the references to princes, kings and courtly life bring this poem very close to the underlying theme expressed in nearly all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, all of which ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ (Richard II, Act III, Sc ii, 155). The dramatic impact of the opening lines of The Anniversary depends upon the emphasis suggested by the word all:
All kings and all their favourites,
All glory of honours, beauties, wits …
All other things to their destruction draw.
The grandeur of princes must inevitably pass away; kings must live in fear of misfortune, treason and death. The Anniversary has none of the learned references and peculiar logic of The Good Morrow. He uses a uniform set of royal images throughout the three stanzas, and details of diction reveal ordinary common nouns. While The Good Morrow displays a superb use of unpoetic words and references the impact of The Anniversary is less rhetorical and more sincere.
A fourth characteristic of metaphysical poets is their use of Wit. The word ‘wit’ has undergone a remarkable transformation in modern day English. Our modern idea of a witty comment or image, even though there may be some original thought, does not do the Elizabethan meaning of the word full justice. The metaphysical poets like Donne, Herbert, Marvel and Vaughan always tried to present brilliant or arresting lines of poetry which surprise the reader by means of unexpected ideas, expressions or associations. This tendency led in turn to the development of conceits. A conceit is a comparison made between things which at first sight seem to have little in common: it is a comparison which is more striking than correct. There are numerous examples of such far-fetched comparisons to be found in the work of the metaphysical poets. Indeed, it very easy to agree with Dr Samuel Johnson’s remark that in the work of these poets ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’. Many of Donne’s best poems depend for their effect on the extensive use of conceits. The Good Morrow, for example, contains a number of paradoxes which are grouped together in the second stanza: ‘And makes one little room an everywhere’; ‘Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.’ This poem also contains what is perhaps the most well-known and most famous of Donne’s conceits:
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Together the lovers make one world, each being as hemisphere. But unlike the real hemispheres, they suffer no shortcomings; their love undergoes neither misery (‘sharp north’), nor cooling of affection (‘declining west’).
A fifth characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its striking use of imagery and tone. The principal advantage of the conceits Donne uses in his poems is the degree of inclusiveness they make possible. They are a means of bringing into his poetry all his interests, activities and new found knowledge. No part of his experience is regarded as unworthy of poetic investigation, and he prefers to engage our attention not through expected images and associations, but through unusual ideas and comparisons. Whatever poetic licence is taken, the general effect is to reinforce, modify and generally heighten the reader’s response to each poem.
The Good Morrow is an excellent example of this method. The poem begins with a realistic description of a morning bedroom. The poet is waking up beside his mistress and he therefore uses words and images which suggest sleep (‘snorted’, ‘sleepers’, ‘dream’). In his initial meditation on love there is a strong emphasis on physical activities (‘wean’d’, ‘sucked’, ‘country pleasures’). Indeed, the number of words relating to physical activities in Donne’s poetry is always very high. Here, he freely admits to having mistresses in the past (‘If ever any beauty I did see / Which I desired and got,’) but indicates that the pleasures he experienced with them were inadequate (‘pleasures fancies’). We can see immediately how this stanza with its strong emphasis on sexual fulfilment must have come as something as a shock to Donne’s friends and contemporaries who were used to a completely different, more refined type of love poetry.
This first stanza alone, with its sense of openness and honesty Donne dissociates himself from the dominant sixteenth-century tradition of Platonic love. This poem, in contrast, is aggressively personal and ‘muscular’. We notice the frequent use of personal pronouns which emphasise the presence of an individual speaker. The overall tone is personal and enthusiastic. The three stanzas correspond to three stages of his experience: there is a very definite progression from past to present to future. In the first stanza he defines reality exclusively in physical terms; the questions are abrupt and present striking images of physical activity.
The second stanza presents a sudden shift from past to present, and contains examples of Donne’s characteristic choice of imagery. Whereas the Elizabethans relied on images from Greek and Roman mythology for their love imagery, Donne relies heavily on more ‘modern’ sources such as geography, science, history and philosophy. In this regard, the imagery of The Good Morrow has always impressed readers with its range and variety. Indeed, this poem illustrates beautifully the range and variety of metaphysical imagery. From the ordinary activities of breast-feeding and heavy sleeping, Donne progresses to the more exotic activities of explorers, geographers and philosophers. However, the sea-discoverers with all their topical glamour and novelty are introduced only to be dismissed as lacking in true exploration compared with the relationship he is describing. Nevertheless, they continue to be present in the poem and eventually lead to the image of ‘sharpe north’ and ‘declining west’.
The image at the beginning of the third stanza is a simple presentation of the fact that people gazing into each other’s eyes can see themselves reflected there. It is made more complicated and more meaningful by the line that leads up to it (‘And true plain hearts do in the faces rest’).
Usually the titles of Donne’s poems generally suggest the central image around which the poem revolves. Therefore, The Good Morrow deals with awakening and with discovery and we can follow how this basic image of discovery is sustained throughout the poem. Likewise, the major image suggested by The Anniversary is royal and heraldic. Groups of words appear in each stanza which relate to kings, princes and courtly life. Donne’s imagery, especially in his religious sonnets is always striking, and always extends the range and understanding of each poem.
Eliot in his influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ refers to the metaphysical poets’ ability to combine disparate kinds of experience and he goes on to say that these poets possess ‘a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’. Donne’s great achievement, according to Eliot, was to have substituted a natural conversational idiom for a conventional one, carrying out a revolution of the kind ‘which has to occur from time to time … if the English language is to retain its vigour’ (Winny, 52).
With Herbert, Marvel, Vaughan, and the Catholic poet Crashaw, Donne explored the complex relationships between God and man, lover and beloved, time and eternity. The Metaphysicals used language in a manner as complex as their themes, drawing their comparisons from astronomy, philosophy, theology and natural science, working out their images with a rigorous logic which still to this day demands great alertness from the reader. At its worst the metaphysical method of writing resulted in what Dr Johnson called ‘heterogeneous ideas …. yoked by violence together’. At its best, it resulted in the exciting and muscular poetry well represented by the poems mentioned here.
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The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde was first published in 1975 by the Goldsmith Press, shortly after Michael Hartnett’s pronouncement from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that he would henceforth write only in Irish. Appropriately, the publication contains an Irish version and an English version of the poem, as perhaps befitted the poet’s conflicted state. In effect, this poem serves as a Rubicon: the last English poem he would publish, for the time being at least, and the first of his Irish poems. The poet is in transition and is now back in West Limerick and in this poem, he explores deep and ancient resentments and wrongs. Allan Gregory says that the poem, in its bilingual format, ‘expresses to the reader themes of social and historical oppression, sex, pregnancy and birth, protection, exposure and secrecy, and is the finest poem in this period of Hartnett’s writing’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).
Hartnett has documented the ‘schizophrenia’ associated with this new poetic direction and he has said that this poem, in particular, caused him great distress:
‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney, for example, almost broke my heart and indeed my mind to write, because both languages became so intermeshed. I would sit down and write a few lines of the poem unthinkingly. I’d come back to it and see that it was half in English and half in Irish or a mixture. … One is not a translation of the other. They are two versions of the same poem; but what the original language is I don’t know’ (O’Driscoll 146).
Whatever the mental turmoil generated by the artistic struggles of the poet, the resulting poem is one of Hartnett’s most powerful from this period of his career. In his review of the poem following publication, fellow Munster poet, Brendan Kennelly, says it was,
‘a probing, dramatic exploration of a woman’s loneliness and isolation in a callous and hostile society. This, to my mind, is Hartnett’s finest achievement to date: he pays a relentless imaginative attention to this woman’s fate, and he presents with admirable dramatic balance her loneliness, independence and state of severed happiness. In this condition, Ita Cagney becomes a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’ (Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 15, p. 26).
The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a pained celebration of a woman’s enforced isolation due to her refusal to conform to the demands of her society. We can surmise that in delving into Ita Cagney’s situation the poet finds common cause with another rural outcast in light of his own recent ‘retreat’ to Glendarragh to dwell ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ (A Book of Strays 41). This lonely cottage in Glendarragh was for the next ten years to serve as basecamp for what Declan Kiberd describes as ‘retracing his way to the common source’ (McDonagh/ Newman 37). However, far from being a ‘retreat’ to obscurity, as some of his critics predicted, his return to West Limerick precipitated what was arguably the most productive period of his career. Adharca Broic was published in 1978, followed by An Phurgóid in 1983, Do Nuala: Foighne Crainn in 1984 and his fourth collection in Irish, An Lia Nocht, appeared in 1985. During this period, he also undertook the translation of Daibhi Ó Brudair’s poems which were published in 1985.
The publication of this dual language version of The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde in 1975 was a bold step by Hartnett. For added effect, the Irish version was printed in the Old Gaelic script (An Cló Gaelach) which was by then obsolete and no longer being used in schools as it had been up to the 1960s. This probably also had the effect of further isolating the poet and limiting his audience. However, as he told Elgy Gillespie in an interview in March 1975: ‘Listen, it’s impossible to limit my audience, it’s so small already’ (Gillespie 10). However, academic John Jordon wrote a positive review of Cúlú Íde suggesting that it was ‘a small-town mini-epic, so redolent of Hardy’ (Jordon 7). Cúlú Íde was again published as part of Hartnett’s first collection in Irish, Adharca Broic, in 1978. This time he chose Peter Fallon’s Gallery Books and this new publishing relationship was to last until A Book of Strays was published posthumously by the same publisher in 2002. Adharca Broic received generally positive reviews and Allan Gregory declared that the twenty-one lyrical poems in the collection ‘oozed with the confidence of a speaker who felt that at last he was being heard’ (McDonagh/Newman 146).
In this analysis, I will focus mainly on the English version of the poem with occasional sorties into the Irish version, especially where they diverge. There are some similarities between The Retreat of Ita Cagney and Farewell to English. Both poems have a sequence-structure and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is divided into nine dramatic scenes. Both poems were published in 1975. However, there is one major difference: whereas Farewell to English is a public poem with political overtones, The Retreat of Ita Cagney is an intensely private poem. Though it begins with a quintessential public event, the traditional Irish funeral, it quickly transitions to the act of retreat alluded to in its title. On the face of it, it is a ‘retreat’ from a public event to a more private life, and Hartnett teases out the societal and psychological implications which this act brings about. However, the poem itself may also be read as an act of ‘retreat’ for the poet, away from public pronouncement, towards a more private poetry, which would focus on his own domestic life. If critics presumed that the blunt polemic of Farewell to English would be a constant in his writing in Irish The Retreat of Ita Cagney would seem to set them straight. As with Ita, Hartnett’s ‘retreat’ was a once-off symbolic gesture and as such there was no need to repeat the tonic, rather the wisdom or otherwise of that choice would be borne out by the life retreated to, and of course, for Hartnett, the poems which would come from living that life to its fullest.
The English version is composed in free-verse while the Irish version is more formal and adheres to the classical conventions of the Dánta Grá (McDonagh/Newman 144). This divergence in styles between the two languages is perhaps a direct reason for the mental turmoil he encountered during the composition of this poem – there is a constant battle raging between the more disordered English version and the more tamed and formalised Irish version.
As well as being a poet of international standing, Hartnett was also a master translator having translated the Tao, the Gypsy Ballads of Lorca, and later the poems of Ó Haicéad and Ó Bruadair which will forever stand the test of time. Here we find him ‘translating’ his own work and the effort induced in him a kind of artistic schizophrenia. Declan Kiberd argues that in this way, Hartnett suffered from a kind of ‘double vision’:
Every poet senses that all official languages are already dead languages. That was why Hartnett said farewell to English while knowing that Irish was itself dead already too. As he wrote himself in ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, ‘I loved her from the day she died’. Likewise, with English – no sooner did Hartnett write it off than he felt all over again its awesome power, for it had become again truly strange to him, as all poetic languages must (McDonagh/Newman 38).
This poem, then, is an initial effort to find his voice – in two languages.
In this, his last poem in English pro tem and his first poem in Irish, the poet very dramatically tells us the story of a recent widow (the Irish version says that she has been married only a year) who leaves her home in the dead of night and goes to live in secret with another man in his West Limerick cottage and bears him a child out of wedlock much to the disapproval of the locals and the Church.
The poem is not set in any recognisable historic timeframe but maybe there were echoes of some such local ‘scandalous’ incident in the ether when the poet made his return to West Limerick in and around 1975. However, the poem stands on its own and there doesn’t need to have been any particular incident which inspired the poet to take on this subject matter. Hartnett’s prose writing and poetry show him to be a very insightful social commentator and it is not hard to find echoes of Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger in this poem. Here, however, the main subject is a formidable woman which further helps to give the lie to the accepted stereotypes of the day. Readers familiar with Irish poetry will also be aware that in the old Aisling poems Ireland was often depicted as a woman: sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard. In effect, Ita Cagney can be read as a modern Bean Dubh an Ghleanna, Gráinne Mhaol, Roisín Dubh or Caithleen Ní Houlihan – a symbolic representation of Ireland. Hartnett concisely captures a portrait of the society to which he had returned in the 1970s but crucially chooses to depict Ita’s inner life and not merely as a cypher without agency, whilst also refusing to idealise rural Ireland by showing the repressive and oppressive views which pertained at that time, especially towards women.
The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more focused portrayal of small-farm Ireland than the broader panorama offered by Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger. That said, they are very similar and both Ita Cagney and Maguire have to cope with the two conflicting forces of spirituality and sexual mores in the world of their time. Maguire’s idea of sex is deformed, largely due to Church teaching and a repressive society in the Ireland of the 1930s and 40s. In contrast, Ita Cagney’s sexuality liberates her and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more recent reminder to all and a typical Hartnett barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’ (Moynihan 466-9). Whereas Maguire is beaten down and is forced to live within the strictures imposed by the Catholic Church and the 1937 Constitution, in a sense, Ita Cagney benefits from the work of such women as Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, and others in bringing about significant change in how young couples lived their married lives as a result of the McGee v. Attorney General Case. This landmark case was heard in the Supreme Court in 1973 (two years before the publication of this poem) and established the right to privacy in marital affairs, giving women the right to avail of contraception, thereby giving them control over their own bodies.
Another factor which may be relevant here also was that while Kavanagh was a bachelor (and almost certainly a virgin) when he wrote The Great Hunger, Michael Hartnett was happily married (at the time) and living with his wife Rosemary and their two young children, Niall and Lara, ‘in exile out foreign in Glantine’. Patrick Kavanagh wrote about the destitution and despair of Irish country life of the 40s and 50s and though Michael Hartnett knew that world also from his childhood (for example in A Small Farm) he depicts a changing Ireland in The Retreat of Ita Cagney, an Ireland where women play a more central role.
The poem opens in a very dramatic style. We are present at an old-style Irish wake – a scene very common in Hartnett’s poetry (Collected Poems 103). The narrator informs us that ‘their barbarism did not assuage the grief’. These ‘barbarians’ paradoxically are dressed in ‘polished boots’ and ‘Sunday clothes’ and accompanied by the ‘drone of hoarse melodeons’ – all typical features of a traditional Irish wake. It is night-time and it is raining. The poet uses rich similes to describe the atmosphere; ‘snuff lashed the nose like nettles’ and the local keeners fulfilled their ‘toothless praising of the dead / spun on like unoiled bellows’. Now we are introduced to Ita Cagney, the dead man’s widow. Her name is a Saint’s name; Ita or Íde is synonymous with West Limerick, particularly West Limerick’s ancient past. Her grief on the death of her husband has taken her by surprise and she gives a hint as to their relationship when she says ‘the women who had washed his corpse / were now more intimate with him / than she had ever been.’ This may suggest a great disparity in ages between them although the Irish version gives a slightly different perspective on her grief when it reveals that they had only been married a year: ‘a bhean chéile, le bliain anois’ (his wife, now for only a year). Now, on a whim, she leaves the raucous wake and beats her hasty retreat. This is emphasised by the metaphor, ‘the road became a dim knife’. She has not planned this move but ‘instinct neighed around her / like a pulling horse’.
The second movement follows the strict requirements of the Dánta Grá and there are striking stylistic differences between the English and Irish versions. The Irish version consists of eight quatrains each describing Ita Cagney’s classical appearance. The English version is in free-verse and describes in minute detail Ita Cagney’s head from ‘her black hair’ to her throat which ‘showed no signs of age’. Her hair is black save for a single rib of grey which stands out ‘like a steel filing on a forge floor’. The poet here obviously calling on his Maiden Street childhood and scenes from John Kelly’s forge which he had already immortalised in verse (Collected Poems 104).
He then describes her brow, her eyebrows, her eyes, ‘her long nose’, ‘her rose-edged nostrils’, her upper lip, her chin and jawline and finally her throat. The reason for this detail is to give us a sense of the formidable woman at the centre of this poem. She is described as having an almost aristocratic beauty. Having described her head in exact detail the final singular line comes as an anti-climax: ‘The rest was shapeless, in black woollen dress’. The over-riding sense, however, is of a woman in black as befits a woman in mourning but a woman nonetheless with a kind of Patrician beauty, a sense of being noble in her bearing beyond her class: ‘Her long nose was almost bone / making her face too severe’. Ironically, from my own limited meetings with Michael Hartnett, he too had this aura of nobility and even some extant photographs of the poet show that he wore his hair like a Senator of Rome – in my eyes, at least, it is imaginable that he too saw himself as a Patrician character!
I would point out also that there is a difference between the way Hartnett describes Ita Cagney and the way he introduces us to the raven-haired barmaid in the first section of Farewell to English. The barmaid is described with exaggerated classical phrases such as ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’. Here in this poem, however, Hartnett does not indulge in this kind of hyperbole in his description of Ita Cagney. She is not idealised or clichéd and Michael Hartnett is at pains to describe her as a real person and this realism makes the symbolism more rich and complex. Deep unhappiness and sadness have furrowed her brow: ‘One deep line, cut by silent days of hate’. Her first marriage was obviously not a happy one and there is even a hint that it was an arranged marriage as was the custom in the past: her ‘eyes / that had looked on bespoke love / seeing only to despise’.
In this section of the poem, Ita has reached her destination – by accident or design we do not know. She has turned her back on a society that doesn’t value her and in a sense, the poem is about breaking with convention – as the poet himself has also recently done. Ita Cagney has rejected the old world of snuff and melodeons and observance of religious rituals and she is about to embrace a more sensual world. The half-door of this isolated cottage is opened by a man ‘halving darkness bronze’. The ‘bronze’ light of the gaslight gives way to ‘gold the hairs along his nose’. He is wearing classic labourer’s garb, a blue-striped shirt without a collar with a stud at the neck which ‘briefly pierced a thorn of light’. This chink of light in the dark night echoes Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Advent’ where he says ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’. Whereas Kavanagh, in his poetry, comes across as the quintessential 1950s Catholic, Michael Hartnett, in contrast, sees the ‘chink’ or open doorway as a new beginning in Ita Cagney’s life and not something to abstain from.
The poet uses juxtaposition here also to sharply contrast the male-dominated kitchen with its ‘odours of lost gristle / and grease along the wall’ and the arrival of a female whose ‘headscarf laughed a challenge’. The man closes the door on the world and both begin a relationship which will last ‘for many years’. Again, here we are reminded of the parallels that exist between Ita and the poet who had only recently turned his back on the Dublin literary scene and a burgeoning poetic reputation and had moved with his young family to rural West Limerick to follow his own ‘exquisite dream’ (Walsh 100).
In this section, the couple have both decided ‘to live in sin’ ignoring the religious and social mores of the time. Their experience has taught them that having a big wedding for the sake of the neighbours ‘later causes pain’. Ita has already learnt to her cost that a very public wedding can, within a year, end ‘in hatred and in grief’. The expenses incurred in buying ‘the vain white dress’, in having to pay ‘the bulging priest’ and endure ‘the frantic dance’ is not for them. For them, it would be akin to undergoing physical torture, as the insincere well-wishes of their neighbours would ‘land / like careful hammers on a broken hand’. Anyway, in this house organised religion was not important; here ‘no sacred text was read’. Instead, life was rudimentary and simple: ‘He offered her food: they went to bed’. Here, there was no ‘furtive country coupling’, hiding affections from friends and priest. Their only sin was that they had chosen ‘so late a moment to begin’.
This is the sensual ideal: their ‘Love’ doesn’t have to be transmuted and elevated to a higher level by the clergy; they don’t seek anyone’s blessing or approval for their actions. However, they are aware that there are consequences to their decision and that their actions will offend the locals and particularly the local clergy: ‘shamefaced chalice, pyx, ciborium / clanged their giltwrapped anger in the room’. The couple have made their bed and now they must lie in it. They have decided to defy society and do their own thing.
Section five sees the woman in labour and being taken by donkey and cart (or pony and trap) to the local town to be delivered. It is night-time and it is raining. She is shielded by her shawl and oilskins to protect her but all these layers cannot deflect the ‘direct rebuke and pummel of the town’. The couples secret intimacy now becomes a public matter as they have to call on outside help with the delivery. Even now at this delicate moment as Ita prepares to give birth, disapproval is vehement:
and sullen shadows mutter hate
and snarl and debate
and shout vague threats of hell.
However, the ‘new skull’ will not wait, and ‘the new skull pushes towards its morning’ and Ita’s hopes and dreams are for the future as a new beginning and a new dispensation beckons.
Section six is both a love song and a lament. Ita Cagney addresses her new-born with love and trepidation. She knows what will be said and she will try and protect her son from the venom and vitriol which she knows will come because of her actions. Her newborn is described lovingly with his ‘gold hair’ and ‘skin / that smells of milk and apples’. She wishes to cocoon her baby son and protect him from all the wickedness of the outside world as if he were in Noah’s Ark. However, she knows in her heart that just as in the Bible story ‘a dove is bound to come’ with messages from the outside world ‘bringing from the people words / and messages of hate’. She knows that the ‘stain’ of what she has done will be passed like a baton of toxic shame, the preferred Irish weapon to ensure conformity, to the next generation:
They will make you wear my life
Like a hump upon your back.
She is also tormented by the fear that her son may come to blame her for the hatred he will be forced to endure and that he may internalise that hatred and that the cycle of hatred will continue.
Section seven has echoes of the Garden of Eden. The child is growing up in splendid isolation in the West Limerick countryside. The language is sensual and earthy, ‘each hazel ooze of cowdung through the toes, / being warm, and slipping like a floor of silk…’. There are echoes here also of earlier Hartnett poems depicting his own idyllic childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’ (Collected Poems 102). The young boy grows up and learns the lore of the countryside, gathering mushrooms ‘like white moons of lime’ and working the land with his father. His mother watches him grow ‘in a patient discontent’. The seasons come and go, spring, autumn, harvest, Christmas and their little cottage becomes ‘resplendent with these signs’. There are echoes of an Edenic existence, unspoilt and idyllic, as ‘apples with medallions of rust / englobed a thickening cider on the shelf’.
In section eight Ita speaks in a confessional manner. She is preparing for Christmas and decorating her little cottage with the traditional homemade crepe decorations. She is in a reflective mood and Hartnett uses a beautiful image to convey her reverie as she watches ‘the candles cry / O salutaris hostia’. There is a potent mix of residual religious imagery in these lines; the Christmas candles remind Ita of the traditional Catholic hymn sung at Benediction. The hymn invites us to ask for God’s help to persevere in our often difficult spiritual journey. The next image is also very traditional and every small farmhouse in Ireland contained at one time a red Sacred Heart lamp with its flickering flame:
I will light the oil –lamp till it burns
like a scarlet apple
This is clearer in the Irish version and stands as a good example of how both versions complement each other:
Anocht lasfad lampa an Chroí Ró-Naofa
agus chífead é ag deargadh
mar úll beag aibí
We notice here that while Ita Cagney may reject the public rites associated with the Catholic Church she still maintains elements of the traditional Christian practices. In some sense, I think we are also being given a glimpse of Michael Hartnett’s own views on religion here. Traditional religious symbols and half-forgotten phrases from old Latin hymns are residual echoes of his own early religious experience: and for Michael Hartnett, and for many others of his generation, Catholicism was very much a child’s thing (see ‘Crossing the Iron Bridge’ ).
There then follows Ita’s ‘confession’ where she declares that she has not insulted God but that she has offended the ‘crombie coats and lace mantillas, / Sunday best and church collections’ – she has offended public morality and her chief offence has been that her happiness has not been blessed by the church and condoned by society at large. This is the climax of the drama and encapsulates the enduring tension that exists between the rights of the individual in society and the pressures on that individual to conform to acceptable social mores, especially as it applies to sexual love. As Allan Gregory sees it, ‘The poem shows, with imaginative sympathy and ethical discernment, how Ita Cagney, a widow, lives in a new free union, unblessed by the church and how, because of this, she is feared and loathed by society’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).
The final movement in the poem sees the neighbours advance in a concerted ‘rhythmic dance’ to lay siege to Ita’s cottage. The language is violent and carries connotations of evictions carried out in the neighbourhood by the landlord class in the not too distant past. We are told that ‘venom breaks in strident fragments / on the glass’ and ‘broken insults clatter on the slates’. The neighbours are described as a ‘pack’, a mob, who ‘skulk’ and disappear into the foothills in order to regroup and to muster their forces for a final onslaught – waiting ‘for the keep to fall’. Ita, a virtual prisoner in her own home, protects ‘her sleeping citizen’ and imagines the final attack ‘on the speaking avenue of stones / she hears the infantry of eyes advance’. The Irish version gives us further food for thought and is even more redolent with echoes of recent Irish history. In the Irish version the phrase ‘she guards her sleeping citizen’ is rendered as ‘í féin istigh go scanrach / ag cosaint a saighdiúrín’ (herself inside terrified / protecting her little soldier boy’). Furthermore, the final line ‘she hears the infantry of eyes advance’ is translated as ‘ó shúile dearga na yeos’. This word ‘yeos’ refers to the yeomanry, the infamous English Redcoats, and carries very loaded associations in the Gaelic folk memory – they were as hated as the Black and Tans or the Auxiliaries were in more recent history. The use of these words, especially in the Irish version of the poem emphasise and reinforce again the themes of social and historical oppression which are central to Hartnett’s thesis in this major statement of intent.
This poem was the first to be written by Hartnett during the transitional phase in the mid-seventies after he had set up home in Glendarragh. He realises that little has changed since he wrote ‘A Small Farm’ – all the ‘perversions of the soul’ are still to be found in Camas and Rooska and Sugar Hill and Carrickerry. However, he does seem to hint in this poem that a better way is possible if we are brave enough to take it, like Ita Cagney, like Michael Hartnett himself, and like Mary McGee.
If we accept that Ita Cagney ‘retreat’ is a parallel for his own ‘retreat’ from English, then it seems that he is prophesying tough times ahead for himself and his new artistic direction. His ‘retreat’ will not be received well by either side. In earlier poems, he has depicted the old Gaelic world, represented by Brigid Halpin and Camas, as a perverse, pagan and ignorant place. He will have to be as strong-willed and stubborn as Ita Cagney has been in order to survive, but for Hartnett as for Ita embracing the life retreated to is worth this sacrifice.
The poem depicts Ita Cagney as the modern-day Saint Ita / Naomh Íde, and an able successor to his grandmother Bridgid Halpin, who, according to Hartnett, never adjusted to the ‘new’ Ireland which emerged in the twentieth century. Hartnett looks towards the hills and the wooded slopes of the Mullach a Radharc Mountains for answers to an age-old torment which has been a blemish on the Irish psyche. And he sees that there is hope – Ita Cagney, a young widow, ‘retreats’ to a new life and though her union is unblessed by the church she is prepared to defend her decision despite the disapproval of society. She becomes, as Kennelly suggests, ‘a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’. In effect, she was, like Hartnett himself, a half-century at least before her time and she deserves to be feted as the patroness of a more modern and liberated Ireland which she longed for instinctually. Those instincts beckoned her to forsake her old life of convention and conformity and create a new beginning and a new world for herself where love reigned over hate, victorious.
Hartnett, Michael. The Retreat of Ita Cagney (Cúlú Íde). Dublin: Goldsmith Press, 1975.
Hartnett, Michael. Adharca Broic, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 1978.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, ed Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2001.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2002.
Hartnett, Michael., ‘Why write in Irish?’, Irish Times, (26th August 1975).
Gillespie, Elgy., ‘Michael Hartnett’, The Irish Times, (5th March 1975), p.10
Jordan, J., Review, Irish Independent (3rd. February 1979), p.7.
Kennelly, Brendan. reviewing Michael Hartnett, Collected Poems, Volume I, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 15.
O’Driscoll, Dennis., Interview, Metre Magazine, II (2001).
McDonogh, John and / Newman, Stephen. (eds), Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006.
Moynihan, Maurice., Speeches and Statements of Eamon de Valera, Dublin, 1980.
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Mercier Press, Cork, 2012.
Other Works Referenced
Patrick Kavanagh, The Great Hunger: A Poem, Cuala, 1942, Irish University Press, 1971.
I would like to acknowledge the considerable assistance given to me by my son, Don Hanley, a Hartnett scholar in his own right, in the preparation and editing of this blog post – one of the many welcome positives emerging from the COVID-19 Lockdown!
Sometimes, when she didn’t have the time
to write long letters, my mother would roll up
a copy of the Limerick Leader, wrap a brown
envelope around the middle and address it:
PO Box 10, Mapoteng, Kingdom of Lesotho.
Printed material was cheaper than letter post, much
cheaper than parcel post and my mother loved a bargain.
Afternoons after school I walked
to the tin-roofed post office, its sky-blue walls dulled
with red dust from gravel roads, and in the lazy sunshine
‘Me Vero passed my mail to me. Recognising
my mother’s hand on a newspaper, I’d be full
of excitement for what I’d find between the pages:
a white cotton shirt, mauve and pink sweet peas
from her garden, pressed between photos
of a supper social and the Ballylanders notes,
and once, a matching set of soft, silk underwear.
She told me afterwards she got the nice lady in Todds
to help her choose, but insisted on no underwire.
She didn’t want to give away our little secret.
Leaving for Lesotho
My father gave his nod to the morning: he’d shaved,
wore the trousers of his second-best suit,
(was it already flapping a little loose?)
his braces over a portly shape,
a deep wine of summer shirt.
He wasn’t travelling to the airport, said he’d let
my mother go with me. Before we left I went
out to him. He was fixing netting over fruit bushes
to stop jackdaws from taking his harvest. It wasn’t
his way to say much but he offered me a fistful
of freshly picked juicy goose gobs. Our mouths
full of their redolent taste, we walked together
to the front steps to take photos. Later,
much later, I went over and over what
I could/should have said. Instead, I reached up
and flicked a piece of newspaper from his face,
must have nicked himself while shaving.
We posed on the top step, his hands
casually nesting my shoulders, there where
we recorded all our comings and goings.
He came as far as the gate, said he knew
I was well able to look after myself but still . . .
I turned to wave from the car. That was the last time
I saw him, standing under the bough of roses
wiping his face with the back of his hand.
Since January stole my tongue and tied it
into knots, the house has become a blank verse.
My hands repeat a cleaning rhyme in every stanza,
I pack metaphors into drawers, layer them
on shelves in the hot press among folded towels.
Sparkling saucepans, spilling stolen poetry, hang
from the freshly-painted bracket over the sink.
The old carpet is hoovered pink in borrowed time
and on the windowsill, the amaryllis blooms
its second bloom, overwatered with words.
In the kitchen, I serve page after page of tasty bites,
baked potatoes filled with buttery half-baked similes.
A lattice of deftly crafted pastry lines criss-cross
an apple pie and even the dog hasn’t escaped. Long
walks have compressed her into a revised version of herself.
They all said he wouldn’t last a hurry
what with Iris gone
But he knocked their wind ’n all
Two days after funeral
He was down allotment by ten
Took thermos with him
That became his way, bought paper
Meals-on-wheels every other day
Picked up some eggs at corner shop
Pension day he chanced two bob each way
I went with Mum and timed those visits
in cups of Lipton’s, dunked ginger nuts
He said George popped in too
Not regular, mind you
He still went down pub
early evening ’fore crowd came in
Half a bitter, back home
Watched telly an hour or so
The only time I heard him smile
was the day he told Mum and me
about the colour of purple-blue
flowers that came up between the cabbages
from bulbs he’d dug in
two days after Iris passed.
Bringing Home the Cows
in the middle of the road
in the middle of the afternoon
His buttocks tight in blue denim
jiggle like g’s in the middle
of a giggle
He saunters his strut
all over the road
No one can pass
I shift from fifth to first
feast on his arrogant rear end
an occasional switch
off a cow’s backside
Their full udders oscillate
like giant pendulums
and lull me
In my car
in the middle of the afternoon
on my way to Active Ageing Yoga
I’m thrumming full
of humming birds
Impure Thoughts and Beethoven
with an examination of conscience:
telling lies, five times,
fighting with her sisters,
popping a clove rock under the tongue
when Moll Foley’s back was turned.
These were straightforward sins,
venial things that could be wiped clean
with a swipe of the clerical cloth.
It was the entertainment of impure thoughts
that swamped her. Her fingers played them
in the pocket of her winter coat,
as she dawdled to school
in November rain and January cold.
She tucked them up the puffed sleeves
of her summer dress,
and pushed them high on the swing
until they hovered in the air like dandelion wisps.
They entertained her.
But she must have entertained them too
because when she mastered Für Elise
on the piano they trembled to her tune.
Semi-quavers quivered her belly,
notes staccatoed down below,
and even more so when she glided forward
on the stool to reach the pedals.
Impure thoughts became interwoven
forever after with Beethoven.
I don’t have one kind thought in my head
This is not the poem I intended to write
The gnawing teeth of a bushman saw
are cutting into my frontal lobe
I swallow down screams
The steady drip of commentary
to her companion pockmark my eardrum
I want to remove my silk sock
and stuff it in her mouth
I believed in freedom of speech
I scan the bus for another seat
Calculate travel time to Dublin
Plug my ears with a scratchy serviette
The words of her mosquito buzz penetrate
I clutch the rolled-up Irish Times in my hand
Brief moments of reprieve
Sweetness like Greek honey
trickling onto a parched palette
Eyes at rest in a dark room
after the dazzle of fireworks
And then it starts again
I look up misophonia on my iPhone
Strong, negative feelings to trigger sounds
Not to be confused with Hyperacusis
An increased negativity to certain frequencies
For me she strikes the wrong note
again and again. Two hours into the journey
the motion of the bus lulls her to a sporadic silence
I am newly disappointed when she pauses
so thoroughly am I wallowing in her lack of modulation.
Bernie Crawford, originally from Ballylanders, County Limerick now lives in Galway and in 2019 was awarded a bursary by Galway County Council to work on her first collection. Her poetry has been published widely in journals including Poetry Ireland Review, the North magazine, and Mslexia. A selection of her poetry is featured in The Blue Nib Chapbook 3. She is on the editorial board of the poetry magazine Skylight 47.
Michael Hartnett arrived back in Newcastle West after nearly fifteen years of ‘exile’, around 1975. He then imposed a further exile on himself by deciding to settle with his wife Rosemary and his two young children, Niall and Lara, ‘out foreign in Glantine’. Thus began one of his most productive periods as a poet – a fact which has been largely overlooked by critics and academics to this very day.
The decade from 1975 to 1985 in Glendarragh, Templeglantine was arguably the most productive of his career. Adharca Broic was published in 1978, followed by An Phurgóid in 1983, Do Nuala: Foighne Crainn in 1984 and his fourth collection in Irish, An Lia Nocht, appeared in 1985. During this period, he also undertook the translation of Daibhi Ó Brudair’s poems which were published in 1985. In parallel to this ‘serious’ output, he was writing and entertaining the locals with ballads, some serious or semi-serious like ‘A Ballad on the State of the Nation’, which was distributed as a one-page pamphlet like the ballads of old and even included original lino cuttings by local artist Cliodhna Cussen. Other ballads were more contentious and even semi-libellous (or fully slanderous!) such as ‘The Balad (sic) of Salad Sunday’ and ‘The Duck Lovers Dance’. These latter creations were written under the very appropriate nom de plume, ‘The Wasp’!
It has to be remembered that at this time Newcastle West and its West Limerick hinterland was booming. The Alcan plant in Aughinish Island near Askeaton was under construction and every man, woman and child were working there. Added to this, every spare room was occupied as up to 4,000 workers from all over Ireland were involved in the construction phase of the project.
In late 1980 Hartnett began work on his best ballad and the one which is most loved and recited to this day, the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’. The ballad stretches out for 47 verses and is a compendium of much of what he had written in prose about Newcastle West in articles for The Irish Times, for Magill magazine and for the local Annual Observer, the annual publication of the Newcastle West Historical Society during the 60s and early 70s. There are also echoes of other local poems such as ‘Maiden Street’ and ‘Requiem for John Kelly, Blacksmith’ included among the verses of the ballad.
In his own mind, Hartnett had lofty ambitions for the project – the ballad was to be Newcastle West’s own Cannery Row. Indeed, in the Preface to the ballad Hartnett wrote of his affection for his home place:
Everyone has a Maiden Street. It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics; also a street of hot summers, of hop-scotch and marbles: in short the street of youth. But Maiden Street was no Tir na nÓg … Human warmth and poverty often go hand in hand … The object of this ballad is to invoke and preserve ‘times past’ and to do so without being too sentimental … But this ballad is not all grimness. I hope it is humorous in spots. It was not written in mockery but with affection – part funny song, part social history.
‘Maiden Street Ballad’ was published by local entrepreneur Davy Cahill and his The Observer Press ‘with the help of members of Newcastle West Historical Society’. Copies of the original are much sought after on eBay and elsewhere to this day. It carried a very eloquent dedication, ‘This ballad was composed by Michael Hartnett in Glendarragh, Templeglantine, County Limerick in the month of December 1980 as a Christmas present for his father Denis Harnett (sic)’. His long-time friend and fellow poet, Gabriel Fitzmaurice is fulsome in his praise for the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’:
… it is unquestionably the best ballad he wrote during this period. It is a celebration of his native place in which he describes mainly the period 1948 – 51, the time of his childhood; it also describes the Newcastle West of the late 1970s during which time he lived in Templeglantine (McDonagh/Newman, p.107).
‘Maiden Street Ballad’ was set to the air of ‘The Limerick Rake’ which Hartnett himself described as ‘the best Hiberno-English ballad ever written in this country’. Hartnett was drawing on a rich tradition of local balladeers ‘like Aherne and Barry before me’, but there are also echoes here of Patrick Kavanagh and such ballads as ‘If Ever You Go to Dublin Town’. It is a matter of record that after early skirmishes in various hostelries in Dublin in the early 60s both Hartnett and Kavanagh came to an understanding and Hartnett tells us, ‘I used to drink with him and indeed back horses for him (he owes me £3-10s for the record)’ (O’Driscoll interview, p.144).
Writing in The Irish Times, June 10, 1969, Hartnett relates a story about his father which may have sown the seeds for the famous virtual pub-crawl which is such a central feature of ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ and which is the focus of this essay. Speaking about his relationship with his father he recalls:
I sat there in the small kitchen-cum-living room, innocently working out the problems my father set me: ‘If it took a beetle a week to walk a fortnight, how long would it take two drunken soldiers to swim out of a barrel of treacle?’ I never worked it out. Or, “How would you get from the top of Church Street to the end of Bridge Street without passing a pub”? He did supply the answer to that, which indeed is the logical answer for any Irishman: “You don’t pass any – you go into them all.”
‘Maiden Street Ballad’ contains a number of autobiographical segments; from his early days in Lower Maiden Street where they rented from Legsa Murphy; then later he eloquently documents the move to the new housing scheme in Assumpta Park. However, the most notorious segment is the ten ribald verses from 27 to 37 which describe a virtual pub crawl of all of Newcastle West’s 26 public houses which were doing business in 1980. These verses portray Hartnett at his best, they are witty, they are caustic, they are slanderous; they poke fun at his friends, and especially at his brothers and cousins. BUT there is also great sadness.
The ‘pub crawl’ begins in Stanza 27 and the poet bemoans the fact that he visits too many pubs. The first pub mentioned is Dinny Pa’s, owned and run by Dinny Pa Aherne. The pub was situated where The Weekly Observer now has its offices. In more recent times this pub was owned by another doggie man, Ted Danaher from Knockaderry. By the way, the present pub known as The Forge which was next door to Dinny Pa’s is not mentioned in the Ballad because it was closed at the time and has only reopened in recent years. This pub was originally the property of J.J. Hough and his wife Nora (nee Dore). The pub was subsequently bought by John Sullivan from Killarney and he eventually sold it on and it has had a number of incarnations in recent years. Next, he mentions The Silver Dollar in Lower Maiden Street, which was originally owned by Bill Flynn. By the 1970s The Silver Dollar had been passed down to his daughter Margaret and her husband John Kelly who was originally from Broadford and who was at that time a Fine Gael County Councillor. He then takes a big jump to the other side of town and mentions Mike Flynn’s in Churchtown, now The Ballintemple.
In Stanza 28 he mentions four more pubs beginning with McCarthy’s in Maiden Street which was owned by John McCarthy and his wife, Clare Finucane, and was known then as The Tall Ships (today trading as Ned Kelly’s). He then mentions a cluster of three pubs just off The Square, heading up Churchtown. Pat Whelan was by 1980 probably one of the most successful publicans in the town and he ran a very successful pub next door to what was then Crowley’s Drapery. Directly across the road was The Greyhound, owned and run by Lena Barrett. Finally, by all accounts, the poet nearly landed himself in choppy legal waters with the line, ‘and I have been known to peep in to Peep Outs’. Seemingly the owner was known to occasionally peep out to see if there were any prospective customers on their way and, like many other unfortunates in the town quickly gained a none too complimentary nickname for his troubles. In an effort to give his ballad added gravitas Hartnett added some ‘scholarly’ footnotes (to the first 20 verses only) and in one he tells us that, ‘It used to be said that if a stranger walked from Forde’s Corner (now Burke’s Corner at the junction of The Square and Upper Maiden Street) he’d have a nickname before he got to Leslie’s Ating House (where, in recent years, Dickie Liston had his shop in ‘Middle’ Maiden Street)’.
In Stanza 29 he mentions two other pubs who were making waves in the town in the late 70s. Tom Meaney was doing a roaring trade in The Turnpike – also the venue for Zanadu’s Nite Club – and to encourage punters he held quizzes on Sundays in which Des Healy and Joe White excelled. He also mentions Mike Kelly who at that time was running the Ten Knights of Desmond pub in the Square. He was leasing the pub from Jimmy and Mary Lee and the pub is now being run by their son, Joe. Mike Kelly was endeavouring to raise standards and expectations and so had peanuts and cheese available for his ‘better-class clients’ who ‘dine free there on Sundays, the chancers’.
Stanza 30 mentions The Tally-Ho and this was situated across the road from the Carnegie Library which at that time housed St. Ita’s Secondary School, owned and managed by Jim Breen and which, of course, had been Hartnett’s alma mater. Some ruffians in the town claimed that The Tally-Ho was the unofficial staff room for St. Ita’s – but that’s for another day! He tells us he’d ‘go there more often but Mike Cremin sings’. Nearby on the corner was John Whelan’s pub. John was Pat Whelan’s father and was a legend in GAA circles having given a lifetime to Newcastle West, West Board and County Board administration. This was the local of Hartnett’s ‘cousin’ Billy O’Connor, or Billy the Barber as he was better known and who was, in fact, married to Hartnett’s aunt, Kit Harnett.
In Stanza 31 he doesn’t name a pub but I presume he is still in The Corner House with his relations and various ‘cousins’! Hartnett’s brother, Dinny was a postman in town at this time and Michael makes sure to mention Dinny a number of times, and not always in glowing terms. Here he joins his brother, and some of Dinny’s colleagues, Tony Roche and Davy Horan for a session. The Christmas flavour of the ballad is maintained when he says, ‘You can hear Dinny laugh miles up the Cork Road / as he adds up his Christmas donations!’.
Stanza 32 is dedicated to Barry’s Pub in Bridge Street. He describes the pub as being a little above the ordinary. Of course, we must remember, many of these recommendations were given with a view to future free pints, post-publication! However, the opposite could also be the case and after the publication of the infamous, ‘The Balad of Salad Sunday’, Hartnett rather ruefully declared that as a result ‘I was barred from thirteen pubs’. According to the poet, John and Peg Barry ran a classy establishment and ‘if you want to read papers you don’t buy at home’ or if ‘you want a hot whiskey with more than one clove’ then you should give them a call!
Stanza 33 is dedicated to another favourite of Hartnett’s, The Shamrock Bar in South Quay. In the late 70’s Damien Patterson and Tony McCarthy undertook an extensive renovation of Fuller’s Folly, part of the Desmond Castle complex and fronting on to the Arra River near the bridge at the bottom of Bridge Street. Indeed, to add to their conservation work Tony McCarthy and others decided that they would introduce different species of duck to the river to enhance its attractiveness. This project, years ahead of its time, entailed setting up a breeding programme and sourcing young ducklings and, as a consequence, this gave rise to numerous fundraising ventures. The Duck Lovers Committee set up their headquarters in The Shamrock Bar, managed at the time by Tony Sheehan and his wife, Peg (nee Devine), who were both immortalised by Hartnett in his ballad, ‘The Duck Lovers Dance’. The Shamrock was later acquired by George Daly and his wife Breda and Hartnett was a regular there and benefitted from their generosity and patronage. In return, he penned a beautiful song in their honour, ‘Daly’s Shamrock Bar’.
Hartnett had come back home to find and nurture his Gaelic roots and to immerse himself in the language and traditions of the past. Here at home, he was universally known as ‘The Poet’ and this title was bestowed on him as a nickname of honour. However, like the old Gaelic poets such as Ó Brudair, Ó Rathaille, Sean Ó Tuama and Aindreas MacCraith before him, being mentioned by the poet could make you famous for all the wrong reasons. Suffice it to say that sometimes it was an honour to have a poet in your midst during a drinking session but you needed to be on your best behaviour or you could be shamed for life. For example, Hartnett tells us that in The Shamrock, ‘You’ll see Jimmy Deere and he making soft farts, / you’ll see Terry Hunt, he’s a martyr for darts – / he spends every weeknight nearly bursting his arse / to bring home a ham or a turkey.’!
Stanza 34 mentions seven iconic public houses. Many of these were very small premises and they also sold groceries and other items to their loyal patrons. For example, the poet says he usually, but not exclusively, visits Donal Scanlon’s in Upper Maiden Street ‘when the new spuds come in’. It is interesting that in South Quay you had four pubs probably within a hundred metres of each other – Seamus Connolly’s, The Shamrock, Gerry Flynn’s and The Crock of Gold, owned by Moss Dooley. All but one remains today – Gerry Flynn’s is now Clery’s having been owned by Paddy Sammon for a while and then been won in a raffle sometime before the Celtic Tiger began to roar in earnest! He also mentions Walsh’s which was situated on the corner of Lower Bridge Street and North Quay. This imposing pub has recently undergone major renovations but regrettably is not open for business at present. Cremin’s was in Upper Maiden Street where The Dresser now carries on business. This pub had somewhat of a coloured reputation and was run by the Cremin sisters, Nora, Mary, Gretta and their mother. Gretta Cremin was also for many years the church organist in the nearby parish church He also mentions The Heather in Bridge Street which was owned and run by the Duggan family. However, today Hartnett’s statue in The Square points longingly across to Ned Lynch’s, still run by the man himself, the last survivor of the old stagers.
Stanza 35 mentions two other very well-known pubs – Dan Cronin’s pub in the Square and Cullen’s in Upper Maiden Street. Cullen’s was formerly known as Dolly Musgraves (Gearoid Whelan, son of Pat and grandson of John, carries on the tradition today on this site in a newly refurbished Sports Pub). Dolly Musgraves pub had a special place in Hartnett’s affections because he tells us that it was here (in the company of his great friend and partner in crime, Des Healy) that he had his first pint – no names, no pack drill, but suffice it to say they were barely out of short pants! He also fondly remembers The Sunset Lounge in The Square (later to become the TSB Bank premises and now Ladbrokes Betting Office) which was owned by Bill Hinchy and his wife Kit. Hartnett tells us that he had many fond memories of playing chess there with Bill Buckley. Finally, as if by way of a postscript he mentions the bar in The Motel which was a bit out of the way being situated on the main Limerick – Killarney Road. He tells us that he didn’t frequent this bar too often because of its political links to Fianna Fáil – Mike himself being a tried and trusted paid-up member of The Labour Party!
Stanza 36 mentions the final two bars close to his heart – The Central Hotel which at that time was owned and run by Arthur and Vera Ward. It had been known as Egan’s Hotel at one time and even though the title Hotel still remained it was really only a bar – today it trades simply as The Central Bar. Last but not least he mentions Seamus Connolly’s little pub in South Quay. Hartnett’s fondness for Seamus Ó Conghaile was obvious because he could speak Irish and after his proclamation on the stage of the Peacock Theatre in 1974, Hartnett had returned home with the express intention of henceforth writing only in Irish. He was, therefore, doubly glad of every opportunity to frequent Seamus Connolly’s to imbibe at ease in convivial company and also improve on his Irish language skills.
Stanza 37 ends this section of the Ballad and Hartnett hopes that we won’t consider that he is ‘mad for the drink’! During the virtual tour of all the 26 pubs in town, he has been wistful and rueful, and only his true friends and relations have felt the full brunt of his devilment and ball-hopping. Others elsewhere in the ballad, such as employers and charitable institutions do not escape the cold breeze of his displeasure but here he is among friends and in his element. However, it also has to be said that these verses also tend to paper over the cracks that were beginning to appear in Hartnett’s serious project – to return to his roots in West Limerick and to write only in Irish. He was drinking heavily by this time and his marriage to Rosemary was beginning to show signs of strain. The Ballad is dedicated to his father, Denis Hartnett, with love and gratitude. It has to be seen as a poet’s gift, a poet who was penniless with little else to give except his considerable talent as a poet and who was now finally writing ‘a few songs for his people’. His father Denis passed away in 1984 and shortly afterwards his marriage came to its inevitable conclusion and Hartnett left his hometown for good to return to Dublin. So, for me, reading the Ballad today, and despite the jokes and the jibes and the critical social commentary, the overriding emotion is one of sadness.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that there were 56 pubs in Newcastle West in the 40s and 50s. However, the years have passed, the Celtic Tiger has come and gone in Newcastle West and today, instead of the 26 pubs that were doing business in 1980 there are only 11 open for business – and as I mentioned earlier this figure includes The Forge which didn’t feature in Hartnett’s original 26 because it was not trading in 1980! If you wanted to do the ‘Twelve Pubs at Christmas’ in Newcastle West today you’d have to end up in Hanley’s in Knockaderry for your twelfth! Or maybe the Golf Club in Ardagh?
I mentioned earlier his father setting the young Hartnett a riddle: “How would you get from the top of Church Street to the end of Bridge Street without passing a pub”? In 1975 if you were to visit all the pubs from the top of Churchtown to the end of Bridge Street you would have had to visit nine pubs in all, today in 2019 the number has been reduced to three (if you pass by both banks on your way through The Square) – The Ballintemple, recently under new management, The Central in Bridge Street, and last but not least, Ned Lynch’s in The Square! If you take the long way round The Square you can add in Dan Cronin’s and Lee’s!
Alas, Shane Ross, our Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, has been instrumental in ensuring that the pub trade in rural Ireland has seen better days and the old dispensation is no more. In a radio interview on WLR 102 on 26th September 2019 to promote the upcoming Éigse, Gabriel Fitzmaurice recalled a journey home to Glendarragh with Michael Hartnett in the late 70s after having visited a number of the hostelries mentioned earlier in this article. Gabriel was acting as a willing chauffeur on this occasion and on their way up Old Bearna, Michael turned to him and said: ‘Gabriel, for God’s sake, take it easy – the future of Irish poetry is in this car’.
‘Maiden Street Ballad’ today stands as a unique piece of social history as well as being a very beautiful, and funny poem, which I would strongly urge you to read or re-read. (The full Ballad, including ‘scholarly’ footnotes, is included in The Book of Strays, published by Gallery Books in 2002 and reprinted in 2015). Many of Hartnett’s prose pieces for The Irish Times and elsewhere in the 70s show him to be an astute and acerbic social commentator and we can also see clear evidence of this in the 47 verses of ‘Maiden Street Ballad’:
And in times to come if you want to dip
back into the past, through these pages flip
and, if you enjoy it, raise a glass to your lips
and drink to the soul of Mike Hartnett!
I would like to acknowledge the encyclopaedic help received from Sean Kelly and his wife Mary in compiling this piece of nostalgia!
Author’s Note: Sadly, since this post was published in December 2019 two of the eleven pubs still surviving then have ceased trading – The Forge fell foul of the taxman and Ned Lynch’s didn’t reopen following the first Covid -19 Lockdown of 2020. Ned, in his wisdom, knew when he was beaten and decided to call it a day!
 In an interview with James Stack in 1987 as part of James’s thesis for his degree in English from UCG. Audio available in Memories from the Past: Episode 305
McDonagh, J. and Newman, S., Remembering Michael Hartnett. Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2006.
O’Driscoll, Dennis., Interview with Michael Hartnett, in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001-2002
It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.
A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,
And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,
Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.
How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me
As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?
Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner emigre, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;
Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.
– Seamus Heaney
‘Exposure’ was written in 1975 and significantly is the last poem in the poet’s volume, North. Not only that, but ‘Exposure’ is the final poem in a six poem sequence grouped under the title The Singing School, a phrase borrowed from W. B. Yeats’ famous poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, which concludes that great collection. The poem itself is, to an extent, a reflective self-analysis, as Heaney takes stock of his life and poses a series of questions about his role and function as a poet. The poem depicts Heaney’s anxiety and discomfort with his position in society and with his role as a poet. The poem explores Heaney’s dilemma as ‘The Troubles’ detonate and resonate and invade his artistic space. He has removed himself from the North and like his friend Michael Longley, who had already moved to Carrigskeewaun in Mayo, he has thus acquired a new perspective from his cottage in Glanmore in County Wicklow. He is, however, troubled by self-doubt and uncertainty and hurt by the whispers, the innuendo, the charge that he hasn’t taken sides, that he has abandoned his people and taken the English ‘shilling’.
It is a ten stanza poem that is separated into quatrains. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. They are composed in free verse, meaning there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The poem opens, ‘It is December in Wicklow.’ December is deep winter in Ireland, characterised by its cold bracing wet weather, it is also the end of a year. This sets up a peaceful and tranquil scene providing time for self-reflection and a chance to reappraise his situation. This time affords him an opportunity to analyse his obvious anxiety and discomfort and the horrible tension that has arisen between his private persona and his very public career as a poet. It is a rainy, wintry month, the ‘alders [are] dripping,’ the ‘birches’ are fighting for the ‘last light,’ and ‘the ash tree’ is bare, too cold ‘to look at.’
It is obvious that his main source of frustration is that he feels that he is being dragged unwillingly into the current fraught political situation in his own native place. His former neighbours in Bellaghy have all been forced by circumstances to take sides and here, Bellaghy’s most famous son is seen to be ambivalent and non-committal. Earlier on in North, in the poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’, he has made the famous statement:
Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, say nothing.
In ‘Exposure’, then, we see the poet is under pressure from all sides to say something and he feels that he is being used by all sides for their own political ends. How then can he solve this dilemma? He tries to wrestle with this dilemma in his solitary walk in the Wicklow hills. He considers the inherent differences between a comet and a meteorite. A comet is predictable and appears after sunset on a set date once every four years or four hundred years. A ‘falling star’ or meteorite is totally unpredictable and appears randomly in the evening sky. The comet ‘visible at sunset’ is expected, it ‘should’ appear. Yet, the ‘falling star’ only ‘sometimes’ appears. Heaney himself admires the meteorite, the ‘falling star’. This is shown through the use of the exclamation mark. Unlike the comet which typically follows a cycle, a meteorite is free, it does not need to keep to a designated orbit. Rather, it is able to float and fall whenever and wherever it wishes. Here, Heaney is making the metaphorical comparison between the comet and the meteorite and his own role as a poet. He wishes to be able to express himself freely yet the political circumstances in Northern Ireland do not allow for such, it forces him to choose sides, and tries to drag him into the conflict. Here, Heaney poses an important question – is he to be simply another insignificant individual pushed around by politics or is he to be an independent figure able to freely voice his own thoughts?
In the next two stanzas, Heaney further ponders his role as a poet. He plaintively asks ‘How did I end up like this?’ There is a certain degree of torment shown through this as he sits, ‘weighing and weighing’ his worth. This repetition places emphasis on his vulnerable psychological state. He identifies two opposing groups: the rational ones with their ‘beautiful prismatic counselling’ and his enemies with their impenetrable ‘anvil brains’. He feels isolated from all groups and becomes an ‘inner émigré’ as he is unable to satisfy the demands of one, without conflicting with the others. Heaney is frustrated that he is unable to change the perceptions of those people, close-minded and devoted to their own beliefs. Once again, he questions his role as a poet; he questions himself as to who he is to please, who should he be serving – the minority, the various political groups or society as a whole?
This poem helps him resolve his dilemma and therefore it is a seminal poem in which he takes his lonely stand as an artist and refuses to be drawn in and forced to take sides – he will be his own man – the epiphany comes like Austin Clarke’s ‘The Lost Heifer’ appearing out of the mist. He clarifies the reference to ‘the alders’ in stanza one and this time the image is clearer and more definite:
Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes.
This is more hopeful as Heaney gradually comes to terms with himself. He realises, despite the rain causing ‘let-downs and erosions,’ it is able to ‘(recall) the diamond absolutes.’ Through his self-imposed ‘exile’ in Wicklow, he has ‘grown long-haired and thoughtful.’ He repudiates both extremes – the fanaticism of ‘the internee’ languishing ‘on some muddy compound’ in Long Kesk and the despicable betrayal of ‘the informer’. He emphatically states that ‘I am neither’. Instead, he has gained wisdom and realised that like the ‘wood-kerne,’ the Irish soldiers of old who having lost the battle retreat to the woods to regroup, he is able to use his writing as a way of controlling and fighting for his voice in society. His solitary trek through the winter woods has given him a deeper insight into his role as a poet in a society devastated by violence and divisions.
In ‘Exposure’, Heaney reflects on his changed circumstances and on his present situation living and writing in the quiet backwater of Glanmore in County Wicklow. He reflects on the great expectations being placed on him as a poet of standing. This marks a drastically different approach to that seen in earlier collections such as Death of a Naturalist. In this final poem of The Singing School sequence and the final poem in the collection, North, Heaney wonders whether his move South will have any effect. Will it give him the perspective he craves or will he be exposed to ridicule like the emperor without clothes in the children’s fable. He knows he is taking a risk and giving his critics and the ‘anvil brains’ ammunition to mortally wound him. What if after all the brouhaha he only produces the odd spark to illuminate the daily atrocities taking place further North when what the situation really needs is the arrival of a ‘comet’s pulsing rose’?
Michael Hartnett began Secondary School in September 1956. He arrived in St. Ita’s Secondary School with a burgeoning reputation. By that time he had had his first poem published in the Limerick Weekly Echo as far back as the 18th of June 1955. He was then thirteen and still a student in the Courtenay Boys National School. The poem was entitled ‘Camas Road’, and it described in particular detail the rural vista of the West Limerick townland of Camas at evening: ‘A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge, / A cottage thatched with golden straw’ (Book of Strays 67). He sat his Intermediate Certificate in June 1959 and later in mid-September the results were published in the Limerick Leader and Hartnett from 28 Assumpta Park was first on the list having received a full set of seven honours.
Patrick J. O’Connor, later to be Dr. Patrick J. O’Connor, who for most of his academic life lectured and published extensively on human geography at the University of Limerick, entered the school as a first year in September 1959 and has vivid memories of the young Hartnett and saw him, in particular, as a shining role model to be emulated. He describes Hartnett at that time as ‘a small, slight figure, bookish, often solitary, never a participant in play in the field opposite his house’.
In his evocative memoir, The New Houses, O’Connor also suggests that Hartnett, despite his excellent academic record, did not find favour with the school’s Principal and Manager, Jim Breen. O’Connor held Jim Breen in high esteem and he says that he, ‘made a distinctively personal contribution during the lean years that saw a blossoming of second level education in this country.’ He goes on to say that he, ‘asserted a strong presence and, being a big man physically, he rarely had to repeat anything. He was a strict disciplinarian, meticulous in attention to detail, but never petty or vindictive. He led by example in the sense that his own work bore the stamp of discipline and commitment.’ The sight of his green Volkswagen Beetle, registration number AIU 524, was enough to elicit an instant quickening in the step of many a tardy pupil.
According to O’Connor, Mike Hartnett ‘was the target of persistent monitoring on the part of the headmaster, Jim Breen’. Mike was a voracious reader and it seems that not all of his reading material was on the Prescribed English Syllabus and some of the literary works did not always find favour with the erstwhile headmaster. According to O’Connor, it was the ‘skewed subject content that bothered Jim Breen’. He made repeated raids on Hartnett’s gabháil of books. Following these repeated attacks O’Connor says that in his eyes, ‘From the status of heroic scholar Michael Hartnett sank into disrepute’ as a result of this regular attention paid to him by the headmaster!
It seems he didn’t fare any better with his English teacher, Willie O’Donnell. According to Pat O’Connor, O’Donnell taught English at senior cycle level and employed strategies supremely well suited to cope with the rigours of the examination system. A man well acquainted with the technicalities of language, he had a particular fondness for the double entendre, and one of his most favoured concerned the numbers of students from the school who would, ‘go down in history’! Seemingly, he persistently charged his young student, Hartnett, with the indictable offence ‘of meditating the Muse’. It was only a matter of time before the Empire struck back and Hartnett it seems planned and executed a number of retributions on Willie O’Donnell. Even long after he had left the influence of St Ita’s, indeed long after he had left UCD, and while carrying out periodic commissions for The Irish Times in the Sixties and Seventies, he made a number of pointed references to his former school which were not seen as complimentary by management. For example, in an article in The Irish Times on November 11th, 1968 he writes:
I left the national school in 1956 and lost an ally (Frank Finucane). Secondary school came then, and I wrote many poems (all, fortunately, lost) and made a new enemy, my English teacher. For five years I was beaten more often for ‘meditating the Muse’, as he called it than for lack of learning. But my poetry changed for the better, not because of the school, but because I partook of an old Irish custom: the girl I loved at the time entered a convent. This and the claustrophobia of Newcastle West, its rich and its poor, its bullying priest, turned me to write about myself …….. I was a poor man’s son in a secondary school, a place I had no right to be, as I was often reminded.
Harnett was never forgiven for all these indiscretions, by Jim Breen. Even when he returned as a recognised poet to Newcastle West in the 1970s and lived for a decade ‘out foreign in Glantine’ he was not welcomed back with open arms to his old alma mater while Jim held sway – even when Michael’s son, Niall, was a student in the school in the early Eighties.
There was, however, one teacher in the school who recognised Hartnett’s latent talent and who was most attuned to this rebel without a cause and that was Dave Hayes. As a teacher, Dave Hayes brought style and panache to bear on the teaching of Latin. According to Pat O’Connor, he was, ‘unquestionably a classical scholar of stature.’ This assessment was reinforced later during Dr O’Connor’s first year in UCD, when a well-known lecturer and future Minister for Education, John Wilson no less, could, in his view, ‘do no better than stand in the long shadow of Dave Hayes’. Dave Hayes was probably responsible for ensuring that Hartnett continued his Secondary education in St. Ita’s until he was nearly twenty years of age. His earlier scholastic promise failed to develop, however, and he eventually left St. Ita’s with honours only in Irish and English – much to the chagrin of his father, Denis.
Jim Breen retired as Principal in 1977 but continued as Manager and owner of the school until his death in 1984. Following his death, Des Healy, who had become Principal of the school on the untimely death of Noel Ruddle in 1981, took over the reins as Manager up until the school closed its doors on 29th May 1992. Des Healy was a past pupil of the school and, indeed, had been a classmate of Hartnett’s during their time in school. Des remained a lifelong friend of the poet, Michael Hartnett.
I will end this post with a true story. Honestly! I was there! As I mentioned earlier, Des was Principal of St. Ita’s Secondary School in the 1980s and Michael’s son Niall was a student in the school up until about 1985. To add to the intrigue Michael’s brother Dinny was the local postman at the time. One morning Des received a postcard from the poet delivered by hand to the school by Dinny the Postman. The postcard, which no doubt had also been read by Dinny prior to delivery, read as follows:
If I ever have any more children I won’t be sending them to your school. This has nothing to do with the quality of education provided in your school – it’s just the principal of the thing.
Hartnett, Michael, A Book of Strays, ed. Peter Fallon, Gallery Press, 2002.
O’Connor, Patrick J., The New Houses – A Memoir, Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 2009.
O’Connor, Patrick J., Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 1998.
Read also blog post ‘Happy Memories of St. Ita’s Secondary School’ here..