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 had they 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 per cent 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 2o%, 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:

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 world view 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 this 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, Hatnett 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 (d. 1795), in particular, was an important influence on Hartnett. As already mentioned, Hartnett had long dined out on the fortuitous coincidence that both Mac Craith and himself had been born in Croom.   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)

In Memoriam Sheila Hackett

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Michael Hartnett on Confirmation Day circa 1953

In Memoriam Sheila Hackett

By Michael Hartnett

No great dreams were found

in our nineteen-forties streets:

Newcastle West

slowly turned its face

from a bitter past.

We were a complicated sum perhaps

but made of simple needs

and demanded no world-changing vision.

We moved along the scale

living our own lives,

made separate, but never split,

by time’s long division.

We remained a stable number

that certainly would last:

whatever we had become

we began with simple hearts.

But suddenly one friend is cancelled out

and the long subtraction starts.

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 used to swop 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.

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Work in Progress! Comments, Corrections, Clarifications Welcome.

The Theme of Escape in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

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One of the most frequently recurring themes in Anglo-Irish literature is the flight or escape from a harsh environment.  The linked themes of escape, exile and emigration are frequently found in drama, prose and poetry.  One of its well-known representations is Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who chooses exile from his native land because he cannot come to terms with the authorities that hold its people in their grip.  So, Stephen sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’  In Philadelphia Here I Come!, Friel also explores the nature of Irish society fifty years after Joyce’s novel was written.  This society is still governed by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster.  The society that Gar is leaving has failed him and his generation.  The question is will things be any better for Gar when he moves to Philadelphia?

Similarly, in an article in The Irish Times in the 1970’s local poet Michael Hartnett turns his hand to social commentary when he stated that Newcastle West in 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.

In Philadelphia Here I Come!, Brian Friel gives another particular instance of the ‘flight from the land’ theme in the story of Gar O’Donnell’s proposed emigration to America.  Here, Friel shows his awareness of an older, oral tradition.  Emigration is the subject of a vast number of Irish songs and ballads.  It is particularly close to the Irish spirit, having been forced on us by the circumstances of our history.  In this oral tradition, emigration is always viewed ambiguously. On the one hand, it offers escape from a hopeless environment, promising new opportunities that were unavailable at home.  But on the other hand, it is also viewed with nostalgia and sadness, as the emigrant says his last farewell to his home, his family and his friends.  It is this double aspect that makes emigration a suitable subject for drama and which Friel exploits with such effect in Philadelphia Here I Come!

However, Friel is also making a political point here.  Many see the play as a covert criticism of De Valera’s vision of a self-sufficient Ireland of cosy homesteads and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads.  S.B and Máire marry on New Year’s Day 1937, the very day that De Valera’s new Irish Constitution comes into effect.  Twenty-five years or so later and the product of that marriage, Gar O’Donnell, is packing his suitcase to head for Philadelphia in the morning.

The escape theme is emphatically present in the play right from the start.  The first Episode begins in an optimistic mood as Gar considers his departure on the next morning.  Life in Ballybeg is monotonous and offers little scope for his ambitions.  America is considered to be the land of opportunity, where ambitions are fulfilled and fortunes are made.  The thrust of this opening Episode is entirely towards release, freedom, escape: ‘Think ….up in that big bugger of a jet, with its snout belching smoke over Ireland…’ (p. 17).  S. B. makes a brief entrance at this point in the play, and through him Friel expresses the type of life Gar wishes to escape from.  S. B. is elderly and somewhat out of place in the modern world.  So too is the business he owns.  Gar emphatically rejects S.B.’s old-fashioned world.  He speaks on numerous occasions of the weariness and boredom of weighing up sacks of flour and sugar, cleaning and salting fish, unloading barbed wire and sacks of spuds.  To all of these unpleasant chores, he contrasts the broader horizons offered by American life.  Initially, at least, he is in no doubt about the wisdom of his decision to emigrate.

Other events in the play serve to strengthen this decision even further.  The characters of the play are seen by Gar as a somewhat pathetic group.  As he sees it, they are all the victims of the restrictions imposed on them by their lives in Ballybeg.  Gar wishes to escape to America before he too becomes like them.  This emerges quite clearly in his conversation with Katie Doogan in Episode Two.  Indeed in this conversation, the escape theme is most pronounced.  Earlier in the play, Gar rejects Ireland in his reference to it as, ‘the land of the curlews and the snipe, the Aran sweater and the Irish Sweepstakes’ (p. 18-19).  In his conversation with Katie his rejection is more emphatic, ‘I hate the place, and every stone, and every rock, and every piece of heather around it…’ (p. 81).  (This is reminiscent of Kavanagh’s outburst in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, ‘I am king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’).  On this occasion, it is principally the people of Ballybeg who lead him to this outburst.  For example, Gar is impressed with Master Boyle’s visit; he is also impressed by the visit of ‘the boys’ later in the play.  But on both these occasions, there is a common element to Gar’s reaction.  He is not blinded to the failings of ‘the boys’ or of Master Boyle.  The latter in particular has sacrificed his ideals for a life of quiet boredom in Ballybeg.  Like Gar, he once had the opportunity to emigrate, but unlike Gar, he was unwilling to take it.  There is a marked feeling of regret in Boyle’s conversation with Gar, a sense of having let life’s possibilities slip by.  Boyle’s character is pathetically drawn.  He is an isolated figure, unhappy with his situation, a lonesome bachelor, and a secret drinker.  He is determined to escape from the environment that produces such characters as Master Boyle.

Indeed, it must be said that the escape theme is inextricably linked to the theme of escapist fantasy used by Friel in this and other plays in his oeuvre.  At the root of this escapist fantasy lies a deep-seated dissatisfaction within every character with themselves and their environment.  Gar has not attained a sufficient identity for himself in Ballybeg. Pulled towards the future and yet drawn backwards towards a sentimental vision of the past, he seeks to escape by running away to Philadelphia, which represents the solution to all his problems.

Ironically, as the play unfolds and we begin to glean insights into his character, we realise that escape will only intensify rather than solve any of his problems. He condemns Ballybeg for the very things which will solve his problems, love, affection, identity and warmth. Gar is no better at the conclusion of the play. Escape to Philadelphia, as Madge tells us, will solve nothing.

Master Boyle also compensates for his failure as a schoolteacher by dreaming up challenging professional situations in Boston. He tells Gar he has been offered a ‘big post’ in a ‘reputable university’ in Boston. Unable to face the reality of his own alcoholism he hides behind imaginative dreams of another world and unrealistic achievements.

The boys also indulge in this escapist fantasy. They come to say farewell to Gar on the night before he departs yet they spend their time indulging in monologues about themselves and their imagined exploits. Life in Ballybeg is more bearable when it is relieved by fantasy and escapism. Rather than admit their own inadequacies they hide behind bravado and loud talk.  The visit of ‘the boys’ also confirms Gar in his decision to escape from Ballybeg.  Superficially at least, ‘the boys’ and Master Boyle have little in common.  They make a noisy entrance, speak loudly and with arrogance, whereas Master Boyle is quiet and soft-spoken.  But Gar is aware of the characteristics shared by each of them.  They are all ‘lost souls’.  The future, which faces ‘the boys’, is as dim as that which has faced Master Boyle.  They speak enthusiastically about themselves and their situation, but to Gar these words sound hollow.  In the end he is forced to admit that they are ‘ignorant bloody louts’ who cover the meaninglessness of their situation with pretence and lies.  Significantly, in his speech with Katie, Gar groups ‘the boys’ with Master Boyle, S.B., and Canon O’Byrne: they are all pathetic figures.  They all confirm his decision to emigrate.

The escape theme in Philadelphia Here I Come! is not a simple one, however.  To create a sense of drama Friel explores the theme from a contrary point of view.  Friel uses the same technique as Kavanagh in ‘Stony Grey Soil’, a poem in which the escape theme is also evident.  Kavanagh enumerates the aspects of his life in Monaghan, which led to his decision to leave.  But he also provides a contrary statement at the end of the poem.  In spite of all the hardships, which have been inflicted on him, he still feels some affection for Monaghan.  The same feeling of affection is evident in Philadelphia Here I Come!, in spite even of Gar’s emphatic statements of rejection.  As the play opens Gar is confirmed in his decision.  But as the action progresses he is subjected to numerous situations, which remind him of the more pleasant aspects of Ballybeg and its people.  As these situations continue to arise in the play, the desire to escape is made more complicated, and even meaningless.  In the play, a definite bond of affection unites the characters, which is all the more touching because it is left unspoken.  Gar’s relationship with Master Boyle, ‘the boys’, and S.B. is characterised by rejection.  They have all, in part, contributed to his desire to escape.  But his relationship with them also contains traces of affection.  He is moved by the visits of Master Boyle and ‘the boys’ and is in a distressed state when they leave.  His affection for S.B. is secretly expressed by Private throughout the play and is openly articulated to Madge at the end (p. 109).  But in particular, his relationship with Katie Doogan represents a part of his life he is sorry to leave behind.  As is usual with Gar, he speaks casually and with forced nonchalance.  But his decision to emigrate, to become ‘100 per cent American’ (p. 82), is complicated by the affection he still feels for the ordinary mundane life of Ballybeg.  In this way the escape theme is fully dramatised by Friel.  Gar’s need to escape, coupled with the affection he feels for the people he is leaving, constitutes one of the effective conflicts of the play. Indeed, the ending is very inconclusive and we are left to wonder as we leave the theatre: well, did he ever leave or did he continue to live a life of futility fuelled by fantasy?

Private: God, Boy, why do you have to leave? Why? Why?

Public: I don’t know. I – I – I don’t know.

There is also a double-dimension to all Friel’s work. He tends to illustrate the same theme from different points of view – Gar leaving for Philadelphia and Lizzie who has come home.  Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation.  She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought.  She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance.  While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly.  Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence giving us a perfect cameo of the reality behind many a ‘returned Yank’. and a rather stark reality check for Gar as he prepares to leave.  Friel returned to this theme later in The Loves of Cass McGuire which explores the psychology of Cass as she returns from her emigration and exile.   Gripping, often humorous, but steeped in compassion, Friel scripts a rich and complex portrait of a marginalised emigrant returning home.   We can all easily empathise with Cass’s dilemma.  She has returned to a world she cannot recognise and the play explores the difficulties she has in coming to terms with a life not as she imagined and the exclusions society now imposes upon her.  Whereas, Philadelphia Here I Come! dealt with Gar’s physical act of emigration, The Loves of Cass McGuire deals with the psychology of returning and this  marks it out as a very relevant work – indeed, it can be said of Cass, like many a returning exile, she comes back to a home that does not exist except in her fantasy.

So, we can see that the linked themes of escape, exile and emigration (and eventual return) are as relevant today as ever.  Friel’s plays are at times caustic commentary on successive governments for their failures to provide for the people in their care.  As Michael Hartnett also suggested in the 70’s we have been able to maintain our economic stability at a terrible price: ‘the constant exportation of human beings’.

Philadelphia Here I Come!, therefore, contains considerable political and psychological insights. Gar is a kind of ‘split-personality’ and we sense that he will have great difficulty coping with this schizophrenia wherever he ends up. He can escape from Ballybeg, from the small-town people who annoy him, but he can never be free from his own inner voice, constantly exploring, questioning,  and rebuking.

Author’s Note: My favourite production of this play was by the Ardagh Drama Group in County Limerick, which was staged some time in the 1990’s.  It featured a superb tour de force of a performance by Jim Liston as Gar Private.  He was ably supported by sterling performances from Garry McMahon as SB, Margaret Enright as Madge, Senator Doogan was played by Sonny Crowley (RIP), Rory O’Donnell (RIP) was Lizzie’s browbeaten husband, Master Boyle was played by Tom Madigan and ‘the boys’ were superbly marshalled by Mike O’Flynn.

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come!’   here

You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in Philadelphia Here I Come!” here

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A great love poem for the day that’s in it!

from Anatomy of a Cliché

by Michael Hartnett

9 ‘I want you to stand with me…..’

I want you to stand with me

as a birch tree beside a thorn tree,

I want you as a gold-green moss

close to the bark

when the winds toss

my limbs to tragedy and dark.

You are to be the loveliness

in my cold days,

the live colour in my barrenness,

the fingers that demonstrate my ways.

I can anticipate no days

unless your graceful sway of hands

arrange my awkward life.

…………………………………

‘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!

 

‘Death of an Irishwoman’ by Michael Hartnett

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Bridget Halpin’s cottage in Camas as it is today. Photograph is by Dermot Lynch.

Death of an Irishwoman

By Michael Hartnett

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.

© 1975, The Estate of Michael Hartnett
From: Collected Poems.Publisher: The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2001.

Author’s Notes:  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!

Bibliography

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

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

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……..

Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith

John Kelly in his forge in Maiden Street

John Kelly in his forge in Maiden Street

Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith

By Michael Hartnett

Black clothes do not make mourners:

                                      the cries come out of the heart.

And local men at street corners,

                                      who have stood

                                      and watched grained wood

in horse-hearse and motor-hearse,

                                      white plumes of feathers, blue plumes

of smoke, to the dead man’s part

                                      of  town, to the rain-dumbed tombs,

go, talk his life, chapter and verse,

and of the dead say nothing but good.

 

In Maiden Street

what man will

forget his iron anvil,

in early Monday morning, sweet

as money falling on the footpath flags?

 

Commentary:  This poem was written as a tribute to John Kelly, one of the ‘old stock’[1], one of the characters of Maiden Street and the Coole.  The Coole was an area in Newcastle West, which Michael Hartnett referred to as ‘The Claddagh of the town’.  It encompassed an area running parallel to Lower Maiden Street, a lane behind what we now know as The Silver Dollar Bar.

In bygone days, Sean Kelly, John Kelly’s son tells us that there were three forges in Maiden Street – Big Sean Kelly’s forge was located in The Coole on the site of the present St. Vincent de Paul Charity Shop and his son, John Kelly, the subject of this epitaph, had a forge which was located in what Sean Kelly calls, ‘middle Maiden Street’. The third forge was O’Dwyer’s Forge and this was owned and worked by Bill O’Dwyer, father of the late Ned O’Dwyer. These forges were a focal point for the street and for the town, they were places where town and country met, where stories and news and gossip were exchanged, and where tall stories grew legs.  During a fascinating walkabout during Éigse Michael Hartnett this year (2017),  Sean Kelly and John Cussen gave a very interesting history of Maiden Street.  Sean told his listeners that another source of industry in the street during the 19th century and early 20th century were the four natural sandpits which were located along the street – the street being fortuitously located at the end of an ice-age moraine.  Forges were, however, an essential part of Irish rural life and farmers, in particular, used the services of the blacksmith to shoe their horses and make and repair their ploughs and iron gates and other farm utensils.  Indeed in harsher, more troubled times the forge also doubled as an ‘armaments factory’ where ancient pikes, and rudimentary spears and swords were forged and tempered in a clandestine way and often ‘hidden in the thatch’.  In a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of a man here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of an ancient craft which, with the progress of time, has become redundant.

In the Annual Observer, the journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, published in July 1979, Lizzie Sullivan, a long time resident of the Coole, referred to John Kelly’s father and his importance to the area:

“I can’t forget our blacksmith, Big Shaun Kelly.  He had his forge in a part of the Coole.  He was a fine type of a man, big and brave and he had a voice to go with it.  Many a day the youths of the Coole spent in his forge.  They used to love when they were asked to blow the bellows and Shaun would be singing or telling them stories as they made the sparks fly from the anvil.  He used to have them shivering telling them all about Sprid na Bearna and the dead people he met going home on a Winter’s night.  They believed every word he used to tell them”.

This epitaph, however, is composed to honour Big Shaun Kelly’s son, John, and like all epitaphs, this poem is short and sweet.  In the opening stanza, death and funerals are generalised.  Hartnett doesn’t seem to be talking about any particular death but remembers numerous funerals down the years and he refers to the funeral customs observed in the town.  Quiet men standing at ‘street corners’ looked on the ‘grained wood’ of the coffin as it passed, either in ‘horse-hearse’ or ‘motor-hearse’, on its way to the old graveyard in Churchtown.  There amid ‘the rain-dumbed tombs’ it was customary to speak well of the dead:

          go, talk his life, chapter and verse,

and of the dead say nothing but good.

The second stanza presents us with the real epitaph.  It is short, personalised and very well crafted.  Everyone in Maiden Street will remember the ring of the anvil on a ‘Monday morning’ and Hartnett uses a lovely simile to remember his friend: Heaney uses the image of an ‘unpredictable fantail of sparks’ coming from the anvil in his poem, ‘The Forge’, and here those sparks from John Kelly’s anvil are compared to money falling on the ‘footpath flags’.  His exquisite use of assonance and alliteration in these short lines emphasises his poetic craft.  The poem is also noted for its use of compound words such as ‘horse-hearse’, ‘motor-hearse’,  and ‘rain-dumbed tombs’, which hopefully, in time, will be used as an excellent example of alliterative assonantal onomatopoeia!

In ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, Hartnett similarly remembers with fondness the work of John Kelly:

XXXVIII

I awoke one fine morning down in Maiden Street

to John Kelly’s forge-music ringing so sweet,

saw the sparks flying out like thick golden sleet

from the force of his hammer and anvil:

and the red horse-shoes spat in their bucket of steam

and the big horses bucked and their white eyes did gleam

nineteen forty-nine I remember the year –

the first time I got my new sandals.

 

There is a strong ‘local’ element to Hartnett’s writing – he tells us in Maiden Street Ballad that,

A poet’s not a poet until the day he

                             can write a few songs for his people.

This loyalty to his native place and space and the people who live there is admirable and is acknowledged with gratitude by those same locals to this day.  Seamus Heaney, in his introduction to John McDonagh and Stephen Newman’s collection of essays on Hartnett, entitled Remembering Michael Hartnett, says that,

Solidarity with the local community and a shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye relationship with local people distinguish Hartnett and make him the authentic heir to the poets of the Maigue.

These local people, John Kelly and his father before him included, had a great influence on the young Hartnett as Heaney also points out in that same introduction:

The young Hartnett rang the bell, and images from the world of the smithy would turn up in some of his most haunting work, as when a rib of grey in a woman’s hair is compared to a fine steel, ‘filing on a forge floor’ (‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney’).

But I’ll leave the last word to Lizzie Sullivan remembering Big Shaun Kelly and his contribution to life in Maiden Street and The Coole :

“When the circus was coming to town, Shaun the Smith would be talking for days before it came… It was lovely to see all the fine horses and ponies.  There would be thirty or forty going up to Kelly’s Forge.  Then, when the circus was gone away he would be still talking about it for days.  He would let Sprid na Bearna rest, and all the other ghosts he used to see.  He made many a one happy, especially the young lads listening to him….. God be with the Coole and all the fine people that are gone!

 

[1] Hartnett assures us in a footnote to ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ that to qualify as ‘old stock’ a family had to be established in the town for at least three generations.  He goes on to say that the phrase can also be very useful if you meet someone in the street and you can’t remember their name!

Works Cited

McDonagh, John and Newman, Stephen eds. Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2006

Maiden Street

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Photograph courtesy of Niall Hartnett

Maiden Street

By Michael Hartnett

Full of stolen autumn apples

we watched the tinkers fight it out,

the cause, a woman or a horse.

Games came in their seasons,

horseshoes, bowling, cracking nuts,

Sceilg, marbles – frozen knuckled,

Bonfire Night, the skipping-rope

And small voices on the golden road

At this infant incantation:

        ‘There’s a lady from the mountains

Who she is i cannot tell,

All she wants is gold and silver

And a fine young gentleman’.

 

We could make epics with our coloured chalks

traced in simple rainbows on the road,

or hunt the dreaded crawfish in the weeds

sunk in galleons of glass and rust,

or make unknown incursions on a walk

killing tribes of ragworth that were yellow-browed:

we were such golden children, never to be dust

singing in the street alive and loud:

        ‘There’s a lady from the mountains

Who she is I cannot tell,

All she wants is gold and silver

And a fine young gentleman’.      

 

Commentary:  In the preface to the beautiful, bitter sweet ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, which Hartnett wrote as a Christmas present for his father, Denis Hartnett, in December 1980, he writes:

Everyone has a Maiden Street.  It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics; in short the street of youth.

This earlier poem published in 1967 is one of Michael Hartnett’s most romantic, sentimental and nostalgic poems about the street where he was reared as a child in the 1940’s.  It is a poem brimming with childhood games and activities – all outdoors by the way!  The games ‘came in their seasons’, throwing horseshoes, bowling, cracking chestnuts, playing sceilg and then there was street entertainment as they watched ‘the tinkers fight it out’.

Hartnett himself in an article in The Irish Times in the 1970’s explains the games that were played in Maiden Street in his early years:

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, you lost your 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.

Each stanza comes to an end with a lyrical, lilting skipping-rope incantation.  The poet looks back with nostalgia to a time of childhood innocence and the grinding poverty experienced by all in Lower Maiden Street during the ‘40’s is set aside for a time at least.

While the games and activities mentioned in the first stanza are mainly autumnal, those of the second stanza take place in high summer – similar to Kavanagh’s Canal Bank poems.  Here the children play in the road drawing with coloured chalks on the footpath or fishing for minnows or crayfish in the Arra as it flows down North Quay and continues on parallel to Maiden Street.  They fished using jam-jars or tin cans and they imagined them to be Spanish ‘galleons’ bobbing in the stream.  The imagination of the young children is again highlighted as the young urchins from the ‘golden road’ carry out military-like incursions into the surrounding countryside, with sticks for swords, as they kill ‘tribes of ragworth’, the yellow  perennial weeds which were the bane of every farmer’s life in the country.  The stanza then ends with the beautiful, poignant phrase:

            ‘We were such golden children, never to be dust’

Many poets, such as Seamus Heaney and Dylan Thomas, have also romanticised their childhood and maybe its just that human nature has decreed that we look back on our childhood through rose-tinted glasses.  However, our memory is never a good witness: Hartnett’s mood here resembles Dylan Thomas in Fern Hill; childhood is forever remembered as high summer and ‘it was all shining, it was Adam and maiden’.   There is a fairytale, Garden of Eden, ‘Mossbawn kitchen’ element to this poem also with its lilting chorus and his references to the ‘golden road’ in stanza one and the ‘golden children’ in stanza two.

The object of this poem, and also the much longer ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, is to evoke and preserve ‘times past’ and to do so without being too sentimental and maudlin.  Hartnett has said elsewhere that, ‘Maiden Street was no Tír na nÓg’, and he admonishes us that:

Too many of our songs (and poems) gloss over the hardships of the ‘good old  days’ and omit the facts of hunger, bad sanitation and child-neglect.

It is quite obvious that he hasn’t taken his own advice when writing this poem!  He has written eloquently about the hardship and poverty experienced during those early years, particularly in his prose writing where he shows a great aptitude as an incisive and insightful social commentator.  However here in this poem, the poet, now in his twenties, recalls a happy childhood, living in his own imaginative world playing on ‘the golden road’ or along the banks of the Arra River.

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  ‘Such golden children never to be dust….’

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