‘Water Baby’ by Michael Hartnett

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Water Baby

By Michael Hartnett

Already the chestnuts, each a small green mace,

fall in the rusted chainmail leaves.  The swifts,

like black harpoons, fail against the whaleskin sky.

Wasps in this skyless summer have no place,

small quarrels swell to great and flooded rifts;

lime trees, prematurely old, decide to die.

The heavy steel-wool curtain never lifts.

Many cling to rafts of music but I,

I am not happy with the human race

aching for its sun-god – he kills as well –

I skip dripping in the shining rain

and feel the minute fingers tap my face

and breathing in St. Bartholomew’s bell

I look up to the sky and kiss the rain.

Commentary:

Some day I hope to write a fitting analysis of this beautiful sonnet – a commentary that will do it justice.  In the meantime, I have to agree with my son Don who has suggested that this is Michael Hartnett’s best sonnet and a poem for which Hartnett deserves acclaim and greater recognition.  Leaving Cert English Poetry course developers please note!

 

Words of Encouragement to Those who Work Alone on Ledges

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John McAuliffe, joint winner with Doireann Ní Ghriofa of the 2016 Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize says in The Clare Herald, “In  his poem ‘Struts’, Michael Hartnett describes creatures who abide alone, each on their own ‘ledge, / seldom seeing each other — / hearing an occasional shout / above or below / and sometimes and most welcome / seeing fires like silver spirals / jump along the crevices‘. The poem could be describing poets (or academics?), who work alone (on their own ledges) and, every so often, hear good news and celebrate it at events like Éigse in Newcastle West every April.”

“This award is like one of those spiral-like fires. It’s both a confirmation and a great encouragement to receive the award, especially since I’ve been reading and thinking and talking about Michael Hartnett’s poems — the lyrics, the narratives, the ballads — for as long as I’ve been writing,” John said.

This year’s Éigse takes place in Newcastle West with the Official Opening and prize presentation on Thursday 14th April with the keynote address by poet, Rita Ann Higgins, one of this year’s judges along with Gerard Smyth.

Éigse continues throughout the town, in the schools, Library, Red Door Gallery, hospital and pubs until Saturday April 16th – culminating with Colum McCann (in the company of  Colm Mac Con Iomaire who will provide musical accompaniment) reading from his work on Saturday evening at 8pm.

The breadth and diversity of the programme creates an ambience of warmth and conviviality that lends itself to lively gatherings, easy conversation and spirited debate.  In other words……..

Michael Hartnett’s ‘Christmas in Maiden Street’

This piece of incisive and insightful social commentary, written by the poet himself, describing life in Newcastle West in the 1950’s, first appeared in Magill magazine in December 1977 and later in the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, The Annual Observer, in July 1979. Hartnett, the poet, was back in town and the dam burst of memory and nostalgia was beginning, culminating with the bitter sweet Maiden Street Ballad, written as a Christmas present for his father, Denis Hartnett, in December 1980.

Christmas in Maiden Street
By Michael Hartnett

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A shouting farmer with a shotgun, a few patch-trousered urchins, soaked, snotty and unrepentant, running across wet fields, arms full of holly. The long walk on the railway tracks, the sleepers treacherous and slimy, the dark station, the lamp posts with their glittering circular rainbows. We stopped at the shops’ red windows to admire toys we could never have. A few drunks waltzed by, happy and moronic. An open lorry went by to jeers and obscenities; the pluckers, shawled and snuff-nosed, on their way to a flea-filled poultry store to pluck turkeys at nine pence a head.

Candles and paraffin-lamps did not brighten the darkness in kitchens in Maiden Street – they only made the gloom amber. The purloined holly hung on holy pictures. There were no balloons, no paper chains, no Christmas trees. Coal was bought by the half-stone, butter by the quarter-pound, and tea by the half-ounce. The country people trotted by on donkey and cart or pony and trap with ‘The Christmas’ stones of sugar, pounds of tea. Women in shawls and second-hand coats from America stood at half-doors, their credit exhausted, while the spectre of Santa Claus loomed malevolently over the slates and thatch.

Members of Charitable Institutions distributed turf and boots, God Blessing the meagre kitchens, as hated as the rent-man. They stood well-dressed on the stone floors, were sirred and doffed at. They paid their workers slave wages. They looked without pity at the nailed together chairs, the worn oilcloth-topped tables, the dead fires.

Outside, the rain fell and blew along the street. The tinkers fought. Bonfires died out in the drizzle. We were washed and put to bed, happy and under-nourished. The oldest went to Midnight Mass. The Latin was magic, the organ, the big choir. It always seemed like a romantic time to die.

It was a Christmas of tin soldiers, tin aeroplanes and cardboard gimcracks. We were Cisco, Batman, Johnny McBrown all that day. Our presents – ‘purties’ we called them – seldom lasted longer than that day. It never snowed. There was no turkey, no plum-pudding, no mince-pies. The Victorian Christmas was not yet compulsory. The very poor managed roast meat, usually mutton. We often rose to two cocks. The goose was common. There was a fruit-cake, jelly and custard; the dinner of the year. I never remember drink being in the house. There were never visitors, nor were we encouraged to visit anyone. If the day had been anyway fine, we were to be found on the footpath or in the puddles, knuckles blue.

The Wren’s Day always brought frost. Small warm heads came from under rough blankets to the sound of flutes and banjos and bodhrans far up the street. We donned boot polish and lipstick and old dresses and went out to follow the Wren, tuneless chancers. We sang and giggled our way to a few bob and a glass of lemonade. The back kitchens of the pubs filled up with musicians, the musicians filled up with porter and their wives filled up with apprehension. In a few hours, winter took over again.

There will never be Christmasses like those again, I hope to God.

 

MichaelHartnett

An Enthralling Companion….

"I felt a sense of being in the presence of a man who, while an integral part of the small community he loved, was also marked apart as special."

“I felt a sense of being in the presence of a man who, while an integral part of the small community he loved, was also marked apart as special.”

 

Dermot Bolger movingly remembers his friend the poet Michael Hartnett who died 16 years ago this month.  This is an edited version of a commemorative piece which appeared in The Irish Times on Wednesday, October 12th 2005.

In Ireland there is nothing better for making new friends than an early death and, because in death Michael Hartnett has acquired so many friends, I should firstly say that I didn’t know him well enough to claim any special friendship.  I was far younger than him and even though I edited and published three of his books I never lost my awestruck sense of being privileged to be in his company.  I was a sensation I felt as a young man on the first night we met and a sensation I still experienced on the last morning he phoned me some weeks before his death on October 13th 1999.

The first book of poems I bought, while still a schoolboy, was the small New Writers Press 1970 edition of Michael’s Selected Poems.  On the cover he looks little more than a schoolboy himself.  That book had a huge effect on me and remains among my most precious possessions.  I first met Michael around 1980 when I ran literature events  in the ramshackle building housing  Dublin’s Grapevine Art Centre.  John F Deane had bravely established a new organisation called Poetry Ireland, and Michael travelled from Limerick to give a benefit reading for it. his opening words to me were to inquire if I knew of a bed for the night, and my opening words to somebody whom I viewed as a hero was to offer him one in Finglas.

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

In local chippers

Queueing for carbohydrates

A dwarfed people.

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

In 1984 I wound up sitting in a pub between Michael and Michael Smith, who had published that earlier Selected Poems.  Both Michaels became emphatic that not only should I re-issue  the long out-of-print Selected Poems, but that the new volume should include every English language poem he had written up to and including his Farewell to English.  Michael Hartnett assured me not to worry about copyright issues, he would take care of that.  I was young and naïve, but even in my innocence I should have been slightly worried when he explained how he cleared copyright permission for his wonderful translations of Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads.  He phoned Lorca’s brother in New York, explained that he was once deported from Franco’s Spain and after he had read aloud one translation the voice at the other end said, “Spread the word”!

Within a few months I was sitting down in his small cottage in Glendarragh, Templeglantine, near Newcastle West in Limerick going through old suitcases of poems with Michael and discovering material either never published or published once in magazines and then forgotten.  I spent two of the most memorable days of my life there working on Volume 1 of his Collected Poems and still like to recall Michael as he was then.

After the executions of the Easter Rising leaders in 1916, a British Army officer declared that while they all died like men, Thomas McDonagh died like a prince.  Wandering with Michael through Newcastle West or sitting down to eat  with his family, I felt a similar sense of being in the presence of a man who, while an integral part of the small community which he loved and understood, was also marked apart as special.

But soon the world that I had glimpsed in Newcastle West was to implode.  Alone in Ireland while his family visited Australia, Michael seemed to drift irredeemably into the engulfing tide of alcohol that had always been a problem.  Aware that he had the proofs for me of some translations, I tracked his progress across Ireland and finally located him and the proofs in Dublin.  He handed me the proofs carried for weeks in his inside pocket and, ever the optimist, asked if by any chance I could loan him €5,000.

At that time the entire assets of Raven Arts Press consisted of a leaking gas heater and a cat, so I brought him for lunch instead and then to a double-bill of afternoon films.  The first – Ruben Ruben – was a comedy about a poet with a drink problem on a reading tour in America.  Michael chuckled through it.  The second – Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumblefish – was shot entirely in moody black and white.  The only object filmed in colour was a solitary fighting fish in a glass tank.  Leaving the cinema and knowing that I could keep him from the pub no longer, I commented to Michael on this cinematic trick.  Michael gripped my arm  and, with the relief of a man who had known the delusional tricks of delirium tremens, whispered, “Oh thank God, you saw the fish too.”

Soon he was living in a bedsit in Inchicore with his marriage over.  His face, which had never aged, was suddenly old.  His chief defence against fate remained his sense of humour.  I brought him over some small sum of money for something.  There were virtually no possessions in that room where he had started writing the Haiku sequence that broke his silence in English.  But his sense of hospitality would not let me leave empty-handed.  He asked if I possessed a copy of the tiny 1969 edition of his poem The Hag of Beare and insisted on giving me the only copy he still possessed – Number 1 of that precious numbered edition.

He brought the manuscript of Inchicore Haiku to my small office in Phibsborough, driven over by two new Inchicore friends with impenetrable Dublin accents.  We launched it in the Richmond House in Inchicore, a whirlwind night.  But if that was a celebratory night in a crowded pub, which cloaked his personal pain displayed in the book, I saw far less happy occasions for him in Dublin pubs in the following years.  I know of nothing romantic about drink and the damage it does.  I do know that his new partner, Angela Liston, prolonged his life and brought some stability to a man now gripped by addiction.

His publishing affairs became complicated and so I drew up a contract between us, giving him back all rights to his work on condition that I acquired non-exclusive rights to his cheese-grater joke: “A man gives his blind friend a cheese-grater for Christmas, meets him in January and asks if he liked his present.  ‘No’, the friend replied, “I tried to read it but it was just too violent.’”

Occasionally after that, he would phone for a chat.  On the last morning he phoned, he told me how he had recently visited one of the men who drove him to my office years before.  The man was dying of cancer, his mouth covered by an oxygen mask, and he grew upset because the words he kept trying to say were indistinguishable.

Michael leaned over and said: “I know you’re upset because you’re dying and I can’t understand what you are saying, but I must tell you that with your accent, even when you were well I could never understand a word you said anyway.”

The man gave up trying to speak and laughed instead.  It takes courage to make a dying man laugh, but Michael Hartnett had courage in spades.  Courage, stubbornness and demons.  I had no idea he was soon to die, but something made me tell him that one of the proudest moments of my life – something I could unreservedly look back on as truly worthwhile – was editing his Collected Poems.

He accepted the compliment, told me his latest joke and then recited an extraordinary raw and heart-felt poem he had written for Angela Liston.  It was the last time I heard his voice and I can hear it still, with his laugh at the end which contained all that pain, humanity and unbroken dignity:

                                    I have been kicked around the place

                                    Been mocked and been pissed on

                                    But I find my way home to you, Angela Liston

                                    And my wrinkled, anxious forehead

                                    Amazingly has been kissed on

                                    And I am blessed by you Angela Liston.

He died on October 13th, 1999.  His Complete Poems and Translations  have since been superbly edited and published by Peter Fallon and The Gallery Press.  When I last passed through Newcastle West I stopped at dawn in Maiden Street where he was reared.  It was deserted but every shop window had a poster for Éigse Michael Hartnett, with his haunting quizzical eyes staring out.  Those eyes and that voice haunt me still.

".. those haunting quizzical eyes staring out."

“.. those haunting quizzical eyes staring out.”

Aere Perrenius … more lasting than bronze …

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

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

There is a very telling little poem by Michael Hartnett tucked away  in A Book of Strays called ‘Aere Perrenius’.   In it the poet recounts early encounters with Patrick Kavanagh after Hartnett had made his way to Dublin, ‘fresh from Newcastle West  / at twenty, with a sheaf of verse / tucked into my belt’.  It is really a very gentle admonition by the very prescient Hartnett who was already garnering academic interest.  He is saying to those who are required, as part of their academic studies, to rummage through the entrails of a poet’s work to be gentle in their excavations.

The Latin phrase aere perrenius comes to us from Horace.  In the final poem in his third book of Odes, Horace boasts that his poetry will outlive any man-made monument: “Exegi monumentum aere perennius.” (“I have made a monument more lasting than bronze.”). Hartnett would probably have been first  introduced to the  beauty and wisdom of Horace by Dave Hayes, erudite classics scholar and teacher of Latin at St. Ita’s Secondary School, Newcastle West where Hartnett studied for his Leaving Cert in 1950’s.

Hartnett’s poem ‘Aere Perrenius’, is therefore, really a poetic warning to young aspiring academics not to ‘tamper with the facts’ of his verse – or indeed Kavanagh’s verse either!  He mentions these, ‘dull strangers with degrees / who prune, to fit conceptions’.  These aspiring scholars build their theories on fragile ground, ‘give you ancestors and heirs’ and try to ‘bring you into line / with academic aims, / number all your bones / and make false claims.’

Would-be academics who undertake such necessary work should be aware, however, of the poet’s sensitivities.  Hartnett is adamant that he can live with being forgotten but not with being misunderstood or misinterpreted:

It is easy to forgive

a world that forgets

but not a world that changes

with subtle sentences

a life that was and is.

Both Hartnett and Kavanagh have had their fair share of being misunderstood – and for those who are familiar with the ‘history’ of their friendship, many will find Hartnett’s appeal on behalf of his ‘mentor’ very commendable!  He claims to understand Kavanagh, for all his rough edges, ‘the smokescreen of your talk / about fillies, about stallions’. His intimate knowledge of the man from Inniskeen is encapsulated in that uniquely Irish form of the ultimate trusting relationship: ‘I sometimes placed your bets.’

He declares that the bronze statue by the Grand Canal in Dublin’s  Baggott Street is best described by Kavanagh’s own word ‘banal’!  He, unsuccessfully as it happens, hopes that he will never suffer a similar fate.  He issues an appeal to all young, and not so young, aspiring academics to thread softly when they come to investigating and exploring the work  of any poet:

                                                            I’d rather be forgotten out of hand

than wronged in bronze:

let the sad facts stand.

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

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

THE TOWN THE YOUNG LEAVE

The following article was written by Michael Hartnett for The Irish Times in the early 1970’s.  It shows Harnett to be an astute social historian and keen observer of local mores and foibles – talents he later used to good effect in his ‘local’ poems such as Maiden Street Ballad, The Balad of Salad Sunday, The Duck-Lovers Dance, etc.

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THE TOWN THE YOUNG LEAVE

By Michael Hartnett

Newcastle West, County Limerick, is an Irish town that is not dying.  It has kept its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings.  It is the example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would certainly be ruined if those people born in the 30’s and 40’s had stayed at home en masse.  The transportation still continues and it is against this background of population loss that the town has survived and is now slowly regaining the status it had in the 19th century.  It was then the largest market town in the county, outside of Limerick city.  It had woollen, linen and brewing industries, two coal mines were operated in the nearby hills and there was a proposal to cut a canal to the Shannon, fourteen miles away.  The population then, 1837, was 2,908.

The population (that part of it which lives in the town proper) has been more or less the same since, but the industries have gone.  The harshness of the 1840’s led to their death.  The people began to leave, at first from despair but in the past twenty years through pure instinct.  Today the major employers are the local County Council, two bottling plants, the local hospital for the old and the unwanted and a few shopkeepers.  A factory, which has been hoped for for many years, is at last being built, and this should reduce the outflow of the young.  A new school was built in the late 1950’s to replace the old, built in 1826: this old school was the one I attended.  It was unbelievable.  In the summer the swallows built in the large beams inside the rooms, flying in and out all day to feed their young.  One of my favourite pastimes was drowning woodlice in the inkwells, as they fell in ridiculous numbers from the rafters.

Some of the boys who did not live in the town brought their lunches – bread and butter and milk wrapped in newspaper, and these were raided almost every day by the rats who lived under the floor and scampered about, completely ignoring us.  Rat poison was put down, and the entire school was pervaded by the delightful aroma of decaying rats.

Home and Abroad

The Headmaster has given me some information indicative of the trend which has kept the town stable.  The following is a list of the pupils from Newcastle West who were in the Sixth Class in 1955.  On the right are their ultimate destinations.

J. O’Sullivan… Co. Limerick        J. Ambrose…………Dublin

P. Ambrose……. Teacher              M. Ambrose………..Sligo

T. Ambrose……….England           P. Condon….Co. Limerick

S. Corbett………….Dublin              P. Devine…………..U.S.A.

T. Dineen…………England            D. Donoghue……Dublin

T. Driscoll…………Dublin              E. Field……………..Dublin

J. Finucane……….England          D. Flynn……………..At home

T. Gray……………..England           T. Hackett…………England

J. Hartnett……………U.S.A.           D. Healy……………….Kenya

S. Hunt……………..At home           D. Lenihan…………At home

J. Maguire …………Dublin            D. Maguire……………Cork

P. McAuliffe………….Garda          T. Massey…………At home

J. Moore……………At home          T. Moriarty………England

R. Mulcahy……….England           L. Murphy…………At home

J. O’Connor……..Limerick           M. O’Connor………….U.S.A.

M. O’Shea………..England             M. Quaid…………..England

T. Roche…………At home             J. Sexton…………..England

P. Shine………….England             J. O’Sullivan ….Co. Limerick

B. Whelan………Dublin                J. Whelan……………Limerick

P. White…………England

This list spotlights the enemy.  England claims 30%, Dublin 20%, and Ireland, excluding Newcastle West, a total of 40%.  Only 18% have found work in the town – seven out of thirty-nine.       These figures do not apply, of course, to the girls of the town; they also drift away.  The enemy is not England, not Dublin, it is the town itself.  It fails to attract and it fails to employ.  I have met most of those who are in England.  They all say: “If I had a job tomorrow I’d go home.”  But they know there is a problem of integration; they have encountered it when they come home on holidays.  It is mainly of their own making.  They usually mock the ways, the wages, the deadness of the place, and, what is worse they manage to acquire an obnoxious London slang which they imagine to be a better English than that spoken in Newcastle West.  The people at home resent this, rightly.  If the emigrants do come back to stay, the many snide remarks that hint at failure make life unpleasant.  Those to whom I have spoken to in Dublin have no desire at all to go back, but they have not been alienated from their own.  Anyway, to the people of the town ‘to go to England’ suggested poverty; but ‘to go to Dublin’ suggests cleverness at school.   Yet none of the 30% I have mentioned who did go to England were poverty stricken.

Why they go

The reasons for leaving are many, but the main one is shortage of work.  I have spoken to many of my friends in London about these reasons.  I have sat in Kilburn pubs all night and heard nothing else discussed but Newcastle West, and with a deep nostalgia.  One of the immediate reasons, one that arises before the young person’s mind turns to employment is that he has a brother or friend in England.  He has heard of the huge wages (usually untrue) and the freedom from priest and parent; he has seen the cheap but tidy suits his returning friends sport, so as soon as possible he is gone.

He returns usually within a year, to sport himself, and his lies about his wages are in proportion to his misery in London.  He is repulsed.  He comes again a few years later, and this is usually his final attempt.  Many of the fights that happen in pubs involve a local and a visiting emigrant.

I have been told in Kilburn of the social injustices.  Some I have witnessed.  Many are so unapparent to the people at home that they are barely injustices at all.  One young man told me he had left for one reason only: it was a practice in Newcastle West, up to the 1960’s, for the priest to read from the pulpit the names of those people who had paid their dues, markedly omitting those who did not or could not – markedly, because the names were read in street order, so everyone knew who had reneged.  The decency of the good, he said, was turned to pride, and the poor were stigmatised.

Why did the better dressed and richer people sit to the front and middle of the church on Sunday and the poor sit right and left, or stand in the porch?  Why were the poor branded and why could the poor not face their God on Sunday?  Were they less religious than the rich?  He said he lost his religion because he could not walk to the altar rails with a hole in his trousers or kneel to God because of a tattered shoe: “God may have been at my face, but the sneering population were behind me.”  I suggested that he was proud, and that a Christian should be humble.  “Humility should not be enforced,” he said.  He also reminded me of the cult of the “ould stock”: that is, if you or even your grandfather was not born in the town, you were a stranger; on the other hand if you happened to reside there since the founding of the castle by the Knight’s Templar in 1184, your history was known, and you wouldn’t be forgiven if you tried to “marry above your station”.

Images from the past

Newcastle West and its countryside provided me with images.  Its neighbourhood is not spectacular: the mountains are miniature, the woods are copses at best.  But it is soft, beautiful, inland country very green and over-lush in the summer.  It is easy to sit in a city house with chrome and enamel, with all ‘mod cons’ and (perhaps) with that essential anonymity found there, away from parent and priest.  It is easy to laugh, and criticise quaint ways and hypocrisy, but beneath these there is a great part of a ‘hidden Ireland’ preserved and no amount of modernity, no television set, no pointed shoes will make up the loss of the last vestiges of an older Ireland.

“Church Street without a church, Bishop Street without a bishop and Maiden Street without a maiden” goes a Newcastle West saying; and Maiden Street alone was – and is – a microcosm of an Ireland that is dying.  It was the Claddagh of the town.  When I was about ten, I took a friend of mine home.  “Please don’t tell my father I’m down here,” he said, meaning “in Maiden Street”.  He was ten years old.  The town was small – and he had never been “down there” before, nor was he allowed to go there by his parents.  The street was mainly a double row of mud houses, some thatched, a few slated, most covered in sheets of corrugated iron.  This was “Lower” Maiden street.  “Upper” Maiden Street was given over to small shops and public houses.

Before the Corpus Christi procession each year all walls were limewashed in bright yellow, red and white colours, windows were aglow with candles and garish statues and any unsightly object, such as a telegraph pole, was garlanded in ivy or ash branches.  Banners and buntings spread across the houses and on the day, with the ragged band blowing brass hymns, followed by all the townspeople who carried confraternity staffs, the Host under a gold canopy was carried through the town.  It matched any Semana Santa procession in Spain.

The Old Customs

Old customs survived for a long time.  I played ‘Skeilg’ once a year, chasing unmarried girls with ropes through the street, threatening to take them to Skeilg Mhicíl; I lit bonfires along the street on Bonfire Night; I put pebbles in a toisín (a twisted cone of paper in which shopkeepers sold sweets) and threw it on the road.  If anyone picked it up and opened it, I lost my warts, a pebble for each one in the paper, and the person who picked up the paper took the warts from me of his own free will.

Then Maiden Street received a severe but necessary blow.  The houses were small with no sanitation: one fountain served the whole street, most of the floors were mud, with large open hearths with cranes and pothooks to take the cast-iron pots and bastibles.  And, of course, families were large.  In 1951 a new housing estate was opened on a hill overlooking Maiden Street and many of the families, including mine, moved there.  Now we had toilets and taps (six I counted, overjoyed) electricity and upstairs bedrooms.  But Skeilg was never played again.

Better standards of living may improve the health of people, but this price of abandoning poor peoples’ customs must always be paid and the customless bourgeoisie come into existence.  Yet the general spirit has still survived; when the oppression of religion and work are forgotten they find again their old joy and innocence.  This innocence is not to be confused with stupidity: I mean wonderment such as expressed by the old man in a story a friend of mine told me.  My friend went home to Newcastle West from U.C.D. and met, a few miles away on Turn Hill, an old man on the road, a distant relation.  The talk came round to Dublin.  “Where do you stay there?” asked the old man.  The other explained about ‘digs’.  “And you pay four pounds a week for a room only?”  He was surprised.  No, my friend replied, that included food as well.  The old man was amazed.  “Surely they wouldn’t charge you for the bite that goes into your mouth?”

Our entertainment was innocent too but not without a touch of cruelty at times; watching crawfish clawing their way towards the river across the roadway, gambling with passing cars.  And on hot dusty summer evenings (all the summer evenings before adulthood seem hot and dusty) suddenly at the pub not far from our door, there would be the joyous sound of curses and breaking glass – joyous to us because we knew the tinkers were settling some family problem in their own way.  We would sit on the window-sills, eating our rawked apples, while they fought.  We never cheered, nor would any of those who appeared over the half-doors up along the street.  Someone would send for the Gardaí, and then light carts and swift horses would rattle off down towards the Cork road, all the fighters friends before the common enemy.  We sat on, waiting for the last act, when, half an hour later, the fat amiable Garda would come strolling down, to an outburst of non-malicious jeers.  But we were poor too, and there was the misery of drink in many houses.

I often tried to read by the faint light of an old oil-lamp with a huge glass globe which was suspended from the rafters.  The house seemed big at the time, but was really incredibly small, and one had to stoop to enter.  I sat there in the small kitchen-cum-livingroom, 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!”

 The Mission

Once a year the otherwise idyllic life of the town was ruined by the coming of the ‘Mission’.  It was as if the Grand Inquisitor himself walked through the town pointing out heretics.  I sat in the church on the long seats, sweating with fear at the Hell conjured up by the preaching father, as he roared all sorts of vile accusations at the people.  They sat, silent and red-eared, until he told an ancient joke, probably first told by Paul in Asia Minor, a joke that they had heard year in, year out, for a long time.  But they tittered hysterically, delighted at being able to make a human sound in church.  Outside the ‘Stall’, with its cheap trinkets from Japan, was dutifully looked over by the congregation: phials of Lourdes water, prayer books and all the tokens of religion bought and sold like fish and chips.  But they were not ‘holy’ then, not until the end of the Mission did the preacher bless the huckster’s dross and only then did they become sacred.

Part of the old castle grounds were made public by an Earl of Devon in the nineteenth century.  The overgrown acres were a retreat from the Mission for anyone daring enough to go there during a service.  Getting to the Demesne from the town without being seen was an art in itself (which I cannot divulge lest some young person read this and be led astray), but once gained, it was a haven of quiet trees and overgrown paths and two rivers.  I read much poetry on such nights, watching the shadowy figures of fellow-transgressors hiding in the bushes, a small cloud of blue cigarette smoke over their heads.  I even met a girl there once; easy enough, as the Mission had Men’s Weeks and Women’s Weeks; their sins, I assumed then, were different.

There are as many things to love in a town as there are to hate.  Indeed, the only things I disliked were class and priest-power, but if injustice is not seen to be done, such opinions are merely private prejudices.  I remember, with pity for the man, a priest beating a child about a schoolroom for no good reason.  I remember with joy for myself, my grandmother coming into town on her asscart, her black fringed shawl about her small fresh face, with her stories of pishogues and enchanted fairy forts.  I remember her dancing on the road to a comb-and-paper hornpipe: I remember her illness and her dying and my absence from this, being in London working or drunk in a Dublin pub.  If you cannot mock a place you love, how can you love it fully?  And can you not hate it because it is becoming televisionised, educated and more middle-class every year?  Is Dickie Rock to replace the Wren-boy?

The Wren Boys

Christmas Day was not unique in Newcastle West.  I remember no customs that were not common to today’s commercial carnival, but St. Stephen’s Day – the Wren’s Day – was always exciting and memorable.  One fine frosty morning the sound sleep of our house, after the excess and boredom of Christmas Day, was magically finished by the excitement of bodhrán and the wild tin whistles of a group of ‘Wran Boys’ from Castlemahon.  I saw the masks and the weird costumes through the window and was out of bed, searching my pockets for the pence of Christmas Day.

“The Wran, the wran, the king

of all birds,

St. Stephen’s Day he was caught

in the furze.

Up with the kettle and down

with the pan,

And give us a penny to bury the Wran!”

 

That was the first and last time I saw a dead wren, complete with nest, held up in a furze bush, hung with red streamers: it was 1949.  The pubs were open that day, and melodeon, pipes, bodhrán, fiddle, drums and tenor voices raced up and down the streets until night.  It was like that for a few years, but again progress stepped in; in 1951 the ‘New Houses’ were opened and for some reason seemed prohibitive to the Wran-boys.  They still kept to the town, but all we got was a few guitars and little boys with lip-stick singing “I’m all shook up,” or some such transient ditty.  A brilliant move, however, was made by some of the townspeople and Wran-boy Competitions were organised every New Year, in which authenticity figured greatly, and which has helped preserve the custom or at least to lengthen its days.

But that small town, the small farmer, is slowly becoming obsolete: even the labourer himself is going.  A small town like Newcastle West is perhaps the pattern of all small towns in Ireland: the pseudo-comforts of so called civilisations like that of the U.S.A. and Britain are being sought after.  Few would deny progress, but then few reckon the cost.

(Reprinted from articles published in The Irish Times.)

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