Exploring Michael Hartnett’s early development as a poet….

Bridget Halpin’s Small Farm in Camas

Formative Influences on the young Michael Hartnett

brigid-halpins-cottage-today

Brigid Halpin’s cottage in Camas as it is today. The photograph is by Dermot Lynch.

 

Bridget Halpin, formerly Bridget Roche, was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale in 1885 to parents John Roche and Marie Moloney.  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.  Later on that year on April 2nd, 1911, the Census returns for Camas in the parish of Monagea, record Michael Halpin, aged 36, living with his new wife Bridget Halpin, then aged 26.  Michael’s mother Johanna, aged 74, and her daughter, Michael’s sister, Johanna, aged 23, also lived in the house.

Michael Halpin, Bridget’s husband, was born on 2nd June 1876 in Camas.  He was one of thirteen children born to Denis Halpin and Johanna Browne between 1866 and 1890.  Denis Halpin, Michael’s father, was born c. 1834 in Cleanglass, in the parish of Killeedy, and he married Johanna Browne on the 18th February 1865 in the Catholic Church in Tournafulla.  He was 31 years of age and Johanna Browne was 25.  Living conditions were very harsh and infant mortality was very high and as many as seven of their thirteen children died in their infancy or childhood due, no doubt, to the severity and austerity of the times.  Six of their thirteen children survived: Margaret, Kate, Michael, Denis, Cornelius, Johanna.

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 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 central to some of the decisions and seismic changes which he made in his poetic direction in the 1970’s.  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.  This essay, therefore, is an effort to throw some light on this woman and gently probe her background and genealogy and it also seeks to untangle some of the myths, many self-generated, which have grown up around Michael Hartnett himself.

In April 1911 when the Census was compiled, there were four inhabitants of the thatched cottage in Camas: Michael Halpin, his new wife Bridget (née Roche), his mother Johanna and his sister Johanna who was soon to emigrate to the United States in late May 1911.  By June of that year, Michael and Bridget Halpin were setting out on their married life together and they also had the care of Michael’s mother, Johanna.  Over the coming years, they had six children together, 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.  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 Con Kiely until a new cottage was built a short distance away by a Roger Creedon for the princely sum of £70.  The family moved into their new home in 1931 and this is the structure that still stands today.  According to Michael Hartnett himself 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.

Bridget Halpin’s youngest daughter, Ita Halpin, later married John Joe Dore, who lived on a neighbouring farm.  He was a well-known sportsman, hurling historian and founder member of Killeedy GAA Club.  They had one son, Joe Dore, who today is a well known Traffic Warden in Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale.  Today, he is the owner of what was formerly Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas, having inherited it from his uncle, Denis Halpin.   John Joe Dore died in 2000 aged 85.   Bridget Halpin, immortalised by her grandson, Michael Hartnett, in his poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ is buried with her daughter Ita Halpin (Dore) in the grounds of the old abbey in Castlemahon Cemetery.  Her grave is as yet unmarked.

Ita Halpin’s sister, Bridget Mary, who was born on 1st May 1918 later married Denis Harnett (born 20th July 1914) from North Quay, Newcastle West on the 28th of June 1941 in Newcastle West and they had six children.  Michael Hartnett[1] was the eldest and he had one sister, Mary, and four brothers, William, Denis, Gerard, and John. (Two siblings, Patricia and Edmond, also died as infants). Times were difficult for the Harnett family; they did, however, receive some good fortune when they moved into a house, in the newly built local authority development, Assumpta Park, in the 1950s.   Joe Dore, Michael’s first cousin, recalls that during the war years (1941-1945 in Michael’s case) Michael was often brought to Camas in a donkey and cart to be looked after by his grandmother and his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin), who was now working ‘the small farm’.   Joe Dore recalls that ‘his other brothers came to stay as well, especially Bill, but Michael, being the eldest, was the favourite of his grandmother’ – no doubt because he was her daughter Bridget’s first-born and also that he had been called Michael after her late husband.   Joe Dore remembers that ‘Michael was a big boy when I knew him as he was twelve years older than me, as I was the last of the grandchildren to be reared by my grandmother and Uncle Denis also’.

This essay seeks to clarify some of Michael Hartnett’s claims concerning his grandmother, Bridget Halpin.  Interestingly, most of these erroneous claims stem quite remarkably from the poet himself!  His Wikipedia page tells us that,

…  his grandmother, was one of the last native speakers to live in Co. Limerick, though she was originally from North Kerry. He claims that, although she spoke to him mainly in English, he would listen to her conversing with her friends in Irish, and as such, he was quite unaware of the imbalances between English and Irish, since he experienced the free interchange of both languages.

Writing in the Irish Times in August 1975  Hartnett wrote:

My first contact with Gaelic – as a living language – was in 1945 when I went to stay with my grandmother.  She was a “native” speaker and had been born in North Kerry in the early 1880s.  She rarely used Gaelic for conversation purposes but a good fifty percent of her vocabulary was Gaelic – more especially those words for plants, birds, farm implements, etc. …….. I learnt some two thousand words and phrases from her.  It was not until her death in 1967 that I realised I had known a woman who embodied a thousand years of Gaelic history (Hartnett, ‘Why Write in Irish?’, p.133).

We have already noted that Bridget Roche (neé Halpin) was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale, County Limerick.  While this area is steeped in Irish culture and music it was not particularly noted for its native Irish speakers in the late 1800’s.  In the 1901 Census returns for Camas Upper and Camas Lower respondents were asked a question concerning their knowledge of the Irish language.  In Camas Upper and Lower 36 people out of a total of  175 counted in the census stated that they were proficient in ‘Irish and English’, including Johanna Halpin, Bridget Halpin’s future mother-in-law.  This works out at 20% of respondents.  In the 1911 Census returns, the year Bridget Roche married Michael Halpin, respondents were asked the same question and 29 adults responded.  In the 1911 Census, there is no division of the townland and the total number enumerated in the Census is lower at 141.  The percentage of respondents who said they had proficiency in Irish and English remains at 20%, however.  Interestingly, and this may, of course, suggest a certain carelessness in compiling the statistics of the census on behalf of the local enumerator, there is nothing in the returns for the Halpin family to suggest that they are proficient in Irish, although both Johanna and Bridget are marked present.

His often repeated claims about Bridget Halpin’s prowess in the Irish language are, therefore, exaggerated.  She obviously had many phrases and sayings in Irish but it is very doubtful if she had the capacity to carry out a conversation in Irish. Therefore, the myth that Michael Hartnett picked up a new language by osmosis or by listening to Bridget, ‘the native Irish speaker’ or her cronies while he lay in the loft during acrimonious card games is largely that, a myth.  The reality is that his love of the language was also developed by his study of and admiration for the poets of the Maigue and the Bardic past.  It was also helped by his study of Irish in school, in Irish College in Ballingeary and by his association with many poets and dramatists writing in Irish and also by his relationships in the early nineteen-sixties, particularly his relationship and collaboration with Caithlín Maude and his later collaboration in the 1980’s with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, translating her first volume, Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, into English.

Hartnett’s public comments and writings also cause some confusion concerning Bridget Halpin’s age.  In the acclaimed documentary directed by Pat Collins in 1999, shortly before Hartnett’s untimely demise, entitled ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, Hartnett states that Bridget Halpin was born in 1870, when in fact we know from Census returns that she was born in 1885.  He also states that she was 93 when she died in 1967 when in fact she was a mere 80 years of age when she died in 1965!

It is clear, therefore, that many of these claims regarding his grandmother are greatly exaggerated.  For example, he has stated on numerous occasions that he was effectively reared by his grandmother from a young age on her small farm in Camas.  However, from school attendance records we learn that Michael Hartnett attended the Courteney Boys National School in Newcastle West on a regular basis from September 1949 when he entered First Class (having attended the Convent School, now Scoil Iosaef, for Junior and Senior Infants) until June 1955 when he completed Sixth Class.  His attendance during those years was exemplary, rarely missing a day, this, despite his claims in the documentary, ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, that he was ‘a sickly child, and still am’.  He then transferred to St. Ita’s Boys Secondary School, then housed in the Carnegie Library in the town to pursue Secondary Education.  His sojourns to Camas would, therefore, only have been at weekends and during school holidays as it was at least a four-mile walk.  However, it is not contested that the small farm in Camas and Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, played a very important role in providing sustenance and much-needed nourishment for the young Harnett family in Maiden Street during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Michael Hartnett’s first cousin, Joe Dore, has clear recollection that ‘the poet’ was a frequent visitor to Camas, ‘except when there was hay to be saved’.  John Cussen, local historian and friend of the poet says that,

‘Michael Hartnett and I were in the same class in the Courteney School for several years until 1954 when I went to Boarding School (in Glenstal).  We were good friends.  He was certainly always living in town at that time.  I do not recall him ever talking about his grandmother or his sojourns in Camas with her.  We were too busy swopping comics which was all the rage at the time!’

Patrick Kavanagh says in his poem, ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stobling’,    ‘Once upon a time / I had a myth that was a lie but it served’.   Hartnett, too, had his myths and why not?  In the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ he states:

I have told ye no big lies and most of the truth –

not hidden the hardships of the days of our youth

when we wore lumber jackets and had voucher boots

  and were raggy and snot-nosed and needy.

We can ascribe various motivations for these claims by the poet but the most credible is that he wanted to portray his grandmother as the quintessential  ‘nineteenth-century woman’ who never came to terms with the political, social and cultural changes which were brewing in Ireland in the late nineteenth century.  He saw her as a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland.  In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so his poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”, which he described as ‘an apology’ to his grandmother, can also be read as a post-colonial lament.  Therefore, it would have been more convenient if she had been born in 1870 rather than 1885.   Hartnett always considered Bridget Halpin to be a woman ‘out of her time’.  She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13).  To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,

she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.

He has placed Bridget Halpin on a pedestal for his own good reasons.  He saw in her 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.  This is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn.  There is an underlying paganism here which is absent from Kavanagh’s work, whose poetry, in general, is suffused with orthodox 1950’s Catholic belief, dogma and theology.  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.   His poem, “A Small Farm”, has great significance for the poet and it is the first poem in his Collected Poems, edited by Peter Fallon and published by The Gallery Press in 2001.  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’ (“A Small Farm”).  The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but interestingly 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’ (ibid) in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh.  Yet, it is here that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and often to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ 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.

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.

We know that Michael was in Morocco when Bridget Halpin died in 1965 in St. Ita’s Hospital in Newcastle West where she was being cared for.  In this poem there is also a reference to his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin) who helped rear him and who was eventually to inherit the small farm from his mother, Bridget when she died,

You died in utter loneliness,

your acres left to the childless.

Hartnett is taking a great risk here, that of alienating those closest to him with his disparaging comments on his relations.    We know that this trait of outspokenness was to become a feature of his art; his poetry was often scathing and rebellious.  However, in this regard, surely the biggest risk he takes is in the first lines of “Death of an Irishwoman”, when he describes his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, as ‘ignorant’ and ‘pagan’.  This is nearly as risky and risqué as Heaney’s bold and brave comparing of his wife to a skunk in the poem of that name!  Only a favourite, a truly loved one could get away with such braggadocio!  The poem’s ending, however, with its exquisite cascade of metaphors surely makes amends for his earlier gaffe.

Therefore, the townland of Camas and Bridget Halpin’s small farm holds a very special place and influence on Michael Hartnett’s psyche.  His first published work appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955 while he was still in Sixth Class in the Courteney Boys School.  He was thirteen.  Entitled “Camas Road”, it describes in particular detail an evening rural vista of the townland of Camas, a place which would feature on numerous other occasions in his poetry, becoming central to his development as a poet.  It is similar to Heaney’s “Sunlight” poems representing an idyllic childhood upbringing.  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, seemingly authentic words and images from the poet’s experience placed together with those gleaned from the literary prop-box crafted by Manley Hopkins or Wordsworth, testament, no doubt,  to the young poet’s  voracious appetite for reading and possibly due to the influence of his teacher, Frank Finucane.   It is doubly imitative, drawing upon the romantic tradition of nature poetry, as well as the more local genre, poems written by local poets, people, ‘like Ahern and Barry before me’poems written exclusively for local consumption.  Thirteen-year-old Hartnett depicts an idyllic setting,

A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge,

A cottage thatched with golden straw,

The harshness of later poems is not evident and the poem serves as a record of his childhood in Camas surrounded by nature and its abundant riches.  However, at poem’s end there is a growing awareness that this idyllic phase of his life is coming to an end and he declares rather poignantly,

The sun goes down on Camas Road.

The townland of Camas is also central to an episode which the poet recounts for us in his seminal poem, “A Farewell to English”.  This encounter hovers somewhere between reality and dream, aisling (the Irish word for a vision) or epiphany.  The incident takes place at Doody’s Cross as the poet walks out one summer’s Sunday evening from Newcastle West to the cottage in Camas.  He is on his way to meet up with his uncle, Dinny Halpin.  He sits down ‘on a gentle bench of grass’ to rest his weary feet after his exertions when he sees approaching him three spectral figures from the Bardic Gaelic past – Andrias Mac Craith, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, and Daíbhí Ó Bruadair.  These ‘old men’ walked on ‘the summer road’ with

Sugán belts and long black coats

with big ashplants and half-sacks

of rags and bacon on their backs.

They pose as a rather pathetic group, ‘hungry, snot-nosed, half-drunk’ and they give him a withering glance before they take their separate ways to Croom, Meentogues and Cahirmoyle, the locations of their patronage, ‘a thousand years of history / in their pockets’.  Here Hartnett is situating himself as their direct descendent and the inheritor of their craft and the enormity of this epiphany occurs at Doody’s Cross in Camas: the enormity of the task that lies ahead also terrifies and haunts Hartnett.

As another part of the myth that he had created, Hartnett always laid great emphasis on the fact that he had been born in Croom.  He was immensely proud of this fact.  In an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll for Poetry Ireland he stated:

I am the only ‘recognised’ living poet who was born in Croom, County Limerick, which was the seat of one of the last courts of poetry in Munster: Sean Ó Tuama and Andrias MacCraith.  When I was quite young, I became very conscious of these poets and, so, read them very closely indeed (Dennis O’Driscoll Interview for Poetry Ireland, p, 143).

Andrias Mac Craith (c. 1709 – c. 1794), in particular, was an important influence on Hartnett.   MacCraith had, for a time, very close associations with the town of Croom in County Limerick (although, it is believed, he had been born in Fanstown near Kilmallock).  As already mentioned, Hartnett had long dined out on the fortuitous coincidence that he too had strong associations with Croom having been born there.   However, he neglects to inform us that most of the babies born in Limerick in 1941 were also born in St. Nessan’s Maternity Hospital in Croom!  He would have been in Croom for less than a week before he returned to Lower Maiden Street to the accommodation which his family rented from the eponymous Legsa Murphy who also owned a bakery near Forde’s Corner in Upper Maiden Street.  However, in the mid to late 1700’s Andrias MacCraith, who was also known as An Mangaire Sugach or The Merry Pedlar (he was not a pedlar, but a roving schoolmaster), and his fellow poet and innkeeper, Sean Ó Tuama an Ghrinn (Sean O’Tuama The Merrymaker), had transformed Croom into a centre for poetry and the seat of one of the last ‘courts’ of Gaelic poetry.  The town became somewhat notorious and became known widely as Cromadh an tSughachais, roughly translated as Croom of the Jubilations – (today it would obviously be known as Croom of the Craic)!  Hartnett would have loved this vibrant, anarchic milieu and this is why Mac Craith had such an influence over him.  Hartnett saw himself as a natural descendent of these poets and the motivation behind his ‘rebel act’ in 1974 was largely an effort to  revive the interest in Irish, and poetry in Irish, which had  earlier been generated by these poets who were known collectively as the Maigue Poets, in honour of the River Maigue which runs through Croom.  His lovely poem, “A Visit to Croom, 1745” is his effort to recreate the tragic changes that were imminent, he tells us he had walked fourteen miles ‘in straw-roped overcoat’,

…… to hear a  Gaelic court

Talk broken English of an English king.

As with almost everything that surrounds Hartnett, therefore, our task is to try to discern fact from fiction, myth from reality.  We know that Hartnett was a frequent visitor to Camas until he was twelve or thirteen and that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, considered him to be her favourite grandson.  We also know that there were fragile remnants of a dying language and culture and customs still evident in the area.   His later momentous disavowal of his earlier work in English and his abandonment of his standing as an emerging poet in 1974 is not hugely surprising when we consider the influences brought to bear on him during those extremely important formative years in Camas.  Surely those beautiful, descriptive, soothing Irish adjectives repeated as a mantra in “A Farewell to English”, ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’, which are used to describe the raven haired buxom barmaid in Moore’s Bar or Windle’s Bar in Carrickerry, could also be used to describe his grandmother, Bridget Halpin herself?  The encounter depicted in the second section of the poem, “A Farewell to English”, and referred to earlier, can also be read as an example of Hartnett realising what he suggests artists do in his beautiful poem, “Struts”.  He is,

……. climbing upwards into time

And climbing backwards into tradition.

 So, Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris’s 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 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’!  In his own words, he has told us ‘no big lies’ and, though questionable, there was, we believe, ‘method in his madness’.  When we examine closely his impressive body of work we notice that apart from Camas very few other rural places are mentioned or named in his poetry.  He later left and went to Dublin, London, Madrid, Morocco but when he had work to finish he came back to rural West Limerick and to another beautiful neighbouring townland, Glendarragh,  to embark on the work for which he will, if there is any justice, be best remembered.

Works Cited

‘A  Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999

Hartnett’s Wikipage

Hartnett, Michael. Why Write in Irish? in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.133

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

Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta. Translated by Michael Hartnett, Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1986.

O’Driscoll, Dennis. Michael Hartnett Interview in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.143

Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012.

Sources:  My gratitude is extended to Joe Dore and John Cussen for their invaluable assistance in compiling this piece of research.

[1] Michael Hartnett’s family name was Harnett, but for some reason, he was registered in error as Hartnett on his birth certificate. In later life, he declined to change this as it was closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide.  

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Bridget Halpin’s derelict cottage as it was in early 2017. The cottage is presently undergoing a major extension. (Photo Credit: Dermot Lynch)

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‘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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