Commentary: This poem appears in Hartnett’s collection, Selected and New Poems, published by The Gallery Press in 1994. However, it first appeared in a commemorative booklet published by the Courteney Boys School in 1992. Mike O’Donoghue, then Principal of the Courteney Boys School, Hartnett’s old alma mater, had asked the poet for a poetic contribution and he was rewarded with this beautiful poem which arrived by post on 7th April 1992.
Michael Hartnett wrote a number of beautiful poems about significant friends and relations who had died. These poems were the equivalent of the more traditional Mass Cards given to the family of the bereaved in Ireland. These poems were often handed to members of the bereaved family in the days and weeks following the funeral by the poet himself, often handwritten on loose pages from Hartnett’s own notebooks.
This poem ranks highly with those already written for his little three-year-old sister, Patricia, who died on May 10th in 1952 when Michael was ten (‘How goes the night, boy?…’) and his lament ‘For Edward Hartnett’, written for his infant brother Edmond P. Harnett, who was born on 12th October, 1942 and died on 29th November, 1942.We also remember his beautiful poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, composed for his grandmother Bridget Halpin and also the poignant ‘Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith’.
Sheila Hackett was a life-long friend of Hartnett’s. She later married Ned O’Dwyer who was a painter and decorator by trade like Michael’s father, Denis Harnett. This is why in his letter accompanying the poem Hartnett suggests to Mike O’Donoghue that maybe the title of the poem should be changed to ‘In Memoriam Sheila O’Dwyer’. Thankfully and very wisely Mike O’Donoghue didn’t change a comma in the original. (See copy of letter below). Ned O’Dwyer served for many years in Newcastle West as a Labour Party County Councillor. Indeed, Michael Hartnett, who had inherited the Labour gene from his father Denis Harnett, acted as Ned’s Election Agent for a number of Local Government election campaigns held in the late seventies and early eighties.
However, he has fond memories of the young Sheila Hackett and prefers to remember her as she was then, the local girl, some years his senior, with whom he swopped comics with in the ‘fifties, and as he also says in his letter to Mike O’Donoghue ‘she helped me once or twice with my sums’. The poem opens with recollections of ‘our nineteen-forties streets’. These were austere times with a war raging in Europe and much poverty and deprivation experienced by the people of Newcastle West. Social change was very slow and living conditions were very difficult for many in the town. Elsewhere he has recalled these times through rose-tinted glasses but not here. Indeed, the ‘camaraderie of the poor’ is reinforced by the constant repetition of ‘we’ in the poem.
The poem uses extended mathematical imagery and phrases learnt in school: phrases like ‘complicated sum’, ‘simple’ numbers, the word ‘scale’ which may refer to music or measurement, ‘long division, ‘stable number’ and the number ‘one’. The poem ends with the death of Sheila Hackett; she is ‘cancelled out’ as from a ledger, and the poet is forced to confront her death and his own mortality: one of his fast friends from childhood has died and now the ‘long subtraction starts’.
Sources: I would like to acknowledge the great help received from Peig and Mike O’Donoghue in compiling this blog post.
Work in Progress! Comments, Corrections, Clarifications Welcome.
Ignorant, in the sense she ate monotonous food and thought the world was flat, and pagan, in the sense she knew the things that moved at night were neither dogs nor cats but púcas and darkfaced men, she nevertheless had fierce pride. But sentenced in the end to eat thin diminishing porridge in a stone-cold kitchen she clenched her brittle hands around a world she could not understand. I loved her from the day she died. She was a summer dance at the crossroads. She was a card game where a nose was broken. She was a song that nobody sings. She was a house ransacked by soldiers. She was a language seldom spoken. She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
Púcas: This was the Irish (Gaelic) term for pookas, hobgoblins, fairies. In the Irish language a man of African descent is described as a fear ghoirm, a “blue man”. In Irish, “an fear dubh” (“the black man”) exclusively denotes the devil, therefore, the reference to “darkfaced men” in this poem does not have any racial connotations!
A wake was a social gathering associated with death, usually held before a funeral. Traditionally, a wake took place in the house of the deceased with the body present.
In 1965 Michael Hartnett was in Morocco when his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, died at the age of 80. Hartnett had spent his formative years in Halpin’s simple, meagre cottage in Camas soaking up the stories and folklore of the area as she entertained her cronies in the mid to late 1940’s. She had a great array of Irish words in her vocabulary, many related to the animals of the countryside and life on the farm, although she and the family didn’t use Irish in everyday conversation. Nevertheless, her knowledge of Irish had an immense influence on the young Hartnett, who would go on to became as fluent in Irish as he was in English.
Camas is a hugely important place for Hartnett. It was there that his poetic gift was first recognised and cultivated, particularly by his grandmother. His first ever published poem was called ‘Camas Road’ and was published in The Limerick Weekly Echo on 18th June 1955. Hartnett was thirteen. This present poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, is his effort at an apology for not being there at her funeral – ‘I loved her from the day she died’.
Hartnett returned to his West Limerick roots in the mid-1970’s having made his famous declaration from the stage of the Peacock Theatre at an event organised by Goldsmith Press on June 4th, 1974. At that event, Hartnett informed the audience of his resolution to cease writing in English, stating that his “road towards Gaelic” had “been long and haphazard” and until then “a road travelled without purpose”. He reassured his audience that he had realised and come to terms with his identity while acknowledging that his “going into Gaelic simplified things” for him and provided answers which some considered to be naive but at least gave him “somewhere to stand”. Rediscovering and reinventing himself and the long forgotten echoes of his Gaelic past was a central project for Hartnett during those years in the 1970’s. Bridget Halpin played a significant role in this process.
Bridget Halpin is 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 the poem can be read as a post-colonial lament. According to Census returns for Camas in 1911, Bridget Halpin was 26, living with her husband Michael, ten years her elder. This would mean she was born in 1885, a time of cultural revival, coinciding with the founding of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association. Hartnett always considered her 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.
There is a strong sense of regret for a lost generation in this poem and this is particularly in evidence in the poignancy of the line:
I loved her from the day she died.
What follows is a masterclass of poetic skill, the poet cherishes the memory of his lost muse with an epitaph made up exclusively of metaphors:
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
These metaphors conjure up an almost forgotten rural idyll: dances at the crossroads on summer evenings, the hustle and bustle of the rambling house with its card games and music sessions, slow airs and sean nós singing, sets and half-sets. Hartnett also veers into the political sphere with reference to The Black and Tans and the fraught Irish language question, which he sees as having been abandoned and neglected by successive governments since the foundation of the State, ‘Our government’s attitude is hostile and apathetic by turns’ (Walsh 126). His final metaphor:
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
captures the futility and frustration felt both by his grandmother and the poet himself at the relentless pace of change. Safia Moore, in her excellent blog, Top of the Tent, says of this metaphor that it encapsulates the notion of his grandmother as ‘being out of step with the utilitarian, modern world’.
In effect, Hartnett is not only writing the epitaph for his grandmother but for a unique and precious culture which he sees drifting towards oblivion through neglect. During these years in Newcastle West and in his cottage in nearby Glendarragh, Templeglantine, Hartnett wrote many such epitaphs for local people and their dying country crafts. This is a facet of Hartnett’s work which began with his grandmother, Mrs Halpin. (See Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith as one example of this). Therefore, in a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of Mrs Halpin here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of ancient crafts and customs which, with the progress of time, have become redundant. He has returned home to find things falling apart and that Time has thinned the ranks of the stalwarts of the town. His local poetry, in particular, takes on a nostalgic retrospection and features poems about those who have died, such as ‘Maiden Street Wake’, where he describes one such wake:
We shuffled round and waited.
Our respects were paid.
And then we ate soft biscuits
and drank lemonade.
This period in his life is, therefore, best depicted as a period of intense creativity and a series of well-documented farewells, best characterised by this poignant line from the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ where he ruefully declares:
old Maiden Street went to the graveyard.
Author’s Note: Students of Hartnett and aspiring academics will readily verify that Harnett, whether deliberately or mischievously, was a master of misinformation. The Youtube clip above is a perfect example of this. As he begins to introduce the poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ he states that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin was born in 1870 when, in fact, we know through Census returns for 1911 that she was born in 1885. He also says that she was 93 when she died when, in fact, if the Census returns are to believed, she was a mere 80!
You might like to have a read of a more detailed exploration of Bridget Halpin’s obvious influence on her grandson, Michael Hartnett, here.
‘A Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012