Poet Michael Hartnett would have been 80 years old on September 18th this year.
He was a native of Newcastle West and was raised among the hustle ands bustle of Lower Maiden Street. In fact, he was a young 58 when he died in 1999. Each year the people of Newcastle West celebrate his memory at Éigse Michael Hartnett, now in its 21st year. This year’s event takes place in the town from Thursday 30th September to Saturday October 2nd.
Remembering Michael Hartnett (1941 – 1999) on the 80th Anniversary of his Birth
By Peter Browne
Many people who knew him and admired his work felt the loss deeply and his creativity lives on richly after him. An old cassette tape which I came across by chance in a cardboard box at home during lockdown brought back particular memories of just one brief period in which I could say I knew him.
This tape contained about 40 minutes of disjointed, poor-quality bits and pieces recordings from a 1985 musical and literary trip to Scotland which we both were on, and it brought back strong and fond thoughts of him even for such a short acquaintance when we were fellow performers touring the Highlands and Western Isles.
The occasion was the annual Turas na bhFilí which was a week-long tour of nightly performances in Gaelic-speaking Scotland organised by Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge. It was a two-way annual process and each year there were return visits to Ireland by a similar group of Scottish writers and artists.
This particular year the Irish travelling group comprised two poets, Áine Ní Ghlinn and Michael Hartnett, a fine singer Cliona Ní Fhlannagáin and myself as uilleann piper. Also travelling as leader, organiser and fear a’tí was Colonel Eoghan Ó Néill, a distinguished Army officer who was by this time Director of An Chomhdháil.
There was a minibus driver whose name is long gone from me and we were a happy group on the road for that week. Sadly, as well as Michael Hartnett, Colonel Ó Néill and Cliona have also left us. For the fairly obvious reason – if there weren’t separate B & B bedrooms on offer – Michael and myself were usually put sharing a room together and we had good conversations – usually on everyday life or the incidental happenings of the tour.
I do recall that he was enthusiastic about folklore and traditions in his own area of West Limerick like dancing and the wrenboys and he also mentioned his respect for Seán Ó Riada.
A printed programme had been prepared in advance of the tour and distributed to the audience at each night’s performance. It contained explanations, translations etc… meaning that the material, including the poetry, would be the same each night. I used to look forward at each performance to hearing the same poems, the same songs – they grew on me.
Cliona sang Úna Bhán, Dónal Óg, Bean Pháidín. Áine had a beautiful poem about a young boy who was lost to cystic fibrosis and of Michael’s poems, I remember two – one for his daughter “Dán do Lara” with the line “…even the bees in the field think you are a flower” and another especially sad, moving one in which he addressed his father, trying to persuade him not to die but to remain on this earth.
I can clearly remember the soft richness of his words and speaking vioce. I used to play ‘Amhrán na Leabhar’ on the pipes nightly out of deference to the literary nature of the occasion.
Michael’s skills and agility in his use of words meant that his humour and wit were a bright feature during the trip – prompted by random events along the way. When we flew out from Dublin, we had an excellent welcoming night in Glasgow and the following morning went to the airport to fly to Stornaway. And there, as we waited for the flight, Michael bought a bottle of Scotch whisky with the bracing brand name of ‘Sheep Dip.’
This unusual drink became something of a recurring conversational theme for the remainder of the tour. He seemed to use the same mug all week for drinking it. I partook a couple of times as well and it tasted ok – I notice that it’s still for sale on the market.
Later that same first day of the tour when we were travelling in the minibus on the dual island of Lewis and Harris, there was some incident with the minibus and a loose goat which I just can’t recall, and then we were brought to an interpretive centre and souvenir shop with a large selection of teddy bears on sale – they occupied all the shelves of one entire wall.
At that evening’s performance Michael began by telling the audience: ”…I’ve had a very trying day, first of all I started off by discovering a drink called Sheep Dip, then I met a goat on a bus and then I narrowly escaped being introduced to 25,000 teddy bears all wearing Harris tweed!”
In another town called Roybridge we were led by a kilted piper into the room and up to the top table in a ceremonial procession. Michael had already said to Áine Ní Ghlinn that his own father had once described the sound of the pipes as like being in a submarine with a flock of sheep, so…this wasn’t a good portent. As we sat down, the piper stepped onto the small stage, which was a concave, parabolic inset into one of the walls of the room.
The sound of the píob mhór was therefore propelled with some force outwards towards us. I watched Michael and I could clearly see his discomfort. He took a beermat, wrote on it and passed it around. Each person smiled as they read it and when it came to me, I saw that he had written: “I’m glad my new false teeth are made of plastic, not china.”
But there was seriousness in all this as well; there could be lengthy silences in the minibus as we travelled along narrow roads, and later that evening in Roybridge as he was reading the poem about his father, there was guffawing from a group of people on barstools at the counter who clearly weren’t there to hear the performance.
The local MC on the night asked them to stop talking or move to another establishment in the town where there would be, as he put it, “…a welcome for all sorts of inane conversation”. They were momentarily silenced but when Michael started again, so did the noise. He simply closed his book, said “is cuma liom…” and left the stage.
His poem about his father was special – for the subject matter, the beauty of the language and the sound of his reading voice. There was a sensitivity, decency and dignity about him and, I think also, a vulnerability.
Although I only ever met him again on one other occasion by chance, it may be the case that a lasting impression and respect for someone can be created over a short time such as this as well as by a lengthy acquaintance.
“…and please, my father, wait a while, there is no singing after death, there is no human sighing – just worlds falling into suns. The universe will be a bride, a necklace of stars on her gown – dancing at every crossroads, tin-whistles spitting music. Father, take your time, hang on. But he didn’t.”
Peter Browne is a piper and a former RTÉ presenter and producer.
The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde was first published in 1975 by the Goldsmith Press, shortly after Michael Hartnett’s pronouncement from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that he would henceforth write only in Irish. Appropriately, the publication contains an Irish version and an English version of the poem, as perhaps befitted the poet’s conflicted state. In effect, this poem serves as a Rubicon: the last English poem he would publish, for the time being at least, and the first of his Irish poems. The poet is in transition and is now back in West Limerick and in this poem, he explores deep and ancient resentments and wrongs. Allan Gregory says that the poem, in its bilingual format, ‘expresses to the reader themes of social and historical oppression, sex, pregnancy and birth, protection, exposure and secrecy, and is the finest poem in this period of Hartnett’s writing’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).
Hartnett has documented the ‘schizophrenia’ associated with this new poetic direction and he has said that this poem, in particular, caused him great distress:
‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney, for example, almost broke my heart and indeed my mind to write, because both languages became so intermeshed. I would sit down and write a few lines of the poem unthinkingly. I’d come back to it and see that it was half in English and half in Irish or a mixture. … One is not a translation of the other. They are two versions of the same poem; but what the original language is I don’t know’ (O’Driscoll 146).
Whatever the mental turmoil generated by the artistic struggles of the poet, the resulting poem is one of Hartnett’s most powerful from this period of his career. In his review of the poem following publication, fellow Munster poet, Brendan Kennelly, says it was,
‘a probing, dramatic exploration of a woman’s loneliness and isolation in a callous and hostile society. This, to my mind, is Hartnett’s finest achievement to date: he pays a relentless imaginative attention to this woman’s fate, and he presents with admirable dramatic balance her loneliness, independence and state of severed happiness. In this condition, Ita Cagney becomes a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’ (Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 15, p. 26).
The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a pained celebration of a woman’s enforced isolation due to her refusal to conform to the demands of her society. We can surmise that in delving into Ita Cagney’s situation the poet finds common cause with another rural outcast in light of his own recent ‘retreat’ to Glendarragh to dwell ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ (A Book of Strays 41). This lonely cottage in Glendarragh was for the next ten years to serve as basecamp for what Declan Kiberd describes as ‘retracing his way to the common source’ (McDonagh/ Newman 37). However, far from being a ‘retreat’ to obscurity, as some of his critics predicted, his return to West Limerick precipitated what was arguably the most productive period of his career. Adharca Broic was published in 1978, followed by An Phurgóid in 1983, Do Nuala: Foighne Crainn in 1984 and his fourth collection in Irish, An Lia Nocht, appeared in 1985. During this period, he also undertook the translation of Daibhi Ó Brudair’s poems which were published in 1985.
The publication of this dual language version of The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde in 1975 was a bold step by Hartnett. For added effect, the Irish version was printed in the Old Gaelic script (An Cló Gaelach) which was by then obsolete and no longer being used in schools as it had been up to the 1960s. This probably also had the effect of further isolating the poet and limiting his audience. However, as he told Elgy Gillespie in an interview in March 1975: ‘Listen, it’s impossible to limit my audience, it’s so small already’ (Gillespie 10). However, academic John Jordon wrote a positive review of Cúlú Íde suggesting that it was ‘a small-town mini-epic, so redolent of Hardy’ (Jordon 7). Cúlú Íde was again published as part of Hartnett’s first collection in Irish, Adharca Broic, in 1978. This time he chose Peter Fallon’s Gallery Books and this new publishing relationship was to last until A Book of Strays was published posthumously by the same publisher in 2002. Adharca Broic received generally positive reviews and Allan Gregory declared that the twenty-one lyrical poems in the collection ‘oozed with the confidence of a speaker who felt that at last he was being heard’ (McDonagh/Newman 146).
In this analysis, I will focus mainly on the English version of the poem with occasional sorties into the Irish version, especially where they diverge. There are some similarities between The Retreat of Ita Cagney and Farewell to English. Both poems have a sequence-structure and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is divided into nine dramatic scenes. Both poems were published in 1975. However, there is one major difference: whereas Farewell to English is a public poem with political overtones, The Retreat of Ita Cagney is an intensely private poem. Though it begins with a quintessential public event, the traditional Irish funeral, it quickly transitions to the act of retreat alluded to in its title. On the face of it, it is a ‘retreat’ from a public event to a more private life, and Hartnett teases out the societal and psychological implications which this act brings about. However, the poem itself may also be read as an act of ‘retreat’ for the poet, away from public pronouncement, towards a more private poetry, which would focus on his own domestic life. If critics presumed that the blunt polemic of Farewell to English would be a constant in his writing in Irish The Retreat of Ita Cagney would seem to set them straight. As with Ita, Hartnett’s ‘retreat’ was a once-off symbolic gesture and as such there was no need to repeat the tonic, rather the wisdom or otherwise of that choice would be borne out by the life retreated to, and of course, for Hartnett, the poems which would come from living that life to its fullest.
The English version is composed in free-verse while the Irish version is more formal and adheres to the classical conventions of the Dánta Grá (McDonagh/Newman 144). This divergence in styles between the two languages is perhaps a direct reason for the mental turmoil he encountered during the composition of this poem – there is a constant battle raging between the more disordered English version and the more tamed and formalised Irish version.
As well as being a poet of international standing, Hartnett was also a master translator having translated the Tao, the Gypsy Ballads of Lorca, and later the poems of Ó Haicéad and Ó Bruadair which will forever stand the test of time. Here we find him ‘translating’ his own work and the effort induced in him a kind of artistic schizophrenia. Declan Kiberd argues that in this way, Hartnett suffered from a kind of ‘double vision’:
Every poet senses that all official languages are already dead languages. That was why Hartnett said farewell to English while knowing that Irish was itself dead already too. As he wrote himself in ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, ‘I loved her from the day she died’. Likewise, with English – no sooner did Hartnett write it off than he felt all over again its awesome power, for it had become again truly strange to him, as all poetic languages must (McDonagh/Newman 38).
This poem, then, is an initial effort to find his voice – in two languages.
In this, his last poem in English pro tem and his first poem in Irish, the poet very dramatically tells us the story of a recent widow (the Irish version says that she has been married only a year) who leaves her home in the dead of night and goes to live in secret with another man in his West Limerick cottage and bears him a child out of wedlock much to the disapproval of the locals and the Church.
The poem is not set in any recognisable historic timeframe but maybe there were echoes of some such local ‘scandalous’ incident in the ether when the poet made his return to West Limerick in and around 1975. However, the poem stands on its own and there doesn’t need to have been any particular incident which inspired the poet to take on this subject matter. Hartnett’s prose writing and poetry show him to be a very insightful social commentator and it is not hard to find echoes of Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger in this poem. Here, however, the main subject is a formidable woman which further helps to give the lie to the accepted stereotypes of the day. Readers familiar with Irish poetry will also be aware that in the old Aisling poems Ireland was often depicted as a woman: sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard. In effect, Ita Cagney can be read as a modern Bean Dubh an Ghleanna, Gráinne Mhaol, Roisín Dubh or Caithleen Ní Houlihan – a symbolic representation of Ireland. Hartnett concisely captures a portrait of the society to which he had returned in the 1970s but crucially chooses to depict Ita’s inner life and not merely as a cypher without agency, whilst also refusing to idealise rural Ireland by showing the repressive and oppressive views which pertained at that time, especially towards women.
The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more focused portrayal of small-farm Ireland than the broader panorama offered by Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger. That said, they are very similar and both Ita Cagney and Maguire have to cope with the two conflicting forces of spirituality and sexual mores in the world of their time. Maguire’s idea of sex is deformed, largely due to Church teaching and a repressive society in the Ireland of the 1930s and 40s. In contrast, Ita Cagney’s sexuality liberates her and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more recent reminder to all and a typical Hartnett barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’ (Moynihan 466-9). Whereas Maguire is beaten down and is forced to live within the strictures imposed by the Catholic Church and the 1937 Constitution, in a sense, Ita Cagney benefits from the work of such women as Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, and others in bringing about significant change in how young couples lived their married lives as a result of the McGee v. Attorney General Case. This landmark case was heard in the Supreme Court in 1973 (two years before the publication of this poem) and established the right to privacy in marital affairs, giving women the right to avail of contraception, thereby giving them control over their own bodies.
Another factor which may be relevant here also was that while Kavanagh was a bachelor (and almost certainly a virgin) when he wrote The Great Hunger, Michael Hartnett was happily married (at the time) and living with his wife Rosemary and their two young children, Niall and Lara, ‘in exile out foreign in Glantine’. Patrick Kavanagh wrote about the destitution and despair of Irish country life of the 40s and 50s and though Michael Hartnett knew that world also from his childhood (for example in A Small Farm) he depicts a changing Ireland in The Retreat of Ita Cagney, an Ireland where women play a more central role.
The poem opens in a very dramatic style. We are present at an old-style Irish wake – a scene very common in Hartnett’s poetry (Collected Poems 103). The narrator informs us that ‘their barbarism did not assuage the grief’. These ‘barbarians’ paradoxically are dressed in ‘polished boots’ and ‘Sunday clothes’ and accompanied by the ‘drone of hoarse melodeons’ – all typical features of a traditional Irish wake. It is night-time and it is raining. The poet uses rich similes to describe the atmosphere; ‘snuff lashed the nose like nettles’ and the local keeners fulfilled their ‘toothless praising of the dead / spun on like unoiled bellows’. Now we are introduced to Ita Cagney, the dead man’s widow. Her name is a Saint’s name; Ita or Íde is synonymous with West Limerick, particularly West Limerick’s ancient past. Her grief on the death of her husband has taken her by surprise and she gives a hint as to their relationship when she says ‘the women who had washed his corpse / were now more intimate with him / than she had ever been.’ This may suggest a great disparity in ages between them although the Irish version gives a slightly different perspective on her grief when it reveals that they had only been married a year: ‘a bhean chéile, le bliain anois’ (his wife, now for only a year). Now, on a whim, she leaves the raucous wake and beats her hasty retreat. This is emphasised by the metaphor, ‘the road became a dim knife’. She has not planned this move but ‘instinct neighed around her / like a pulling horse’.
The second movement follows the strict requirements of the Dánta Grá and there are striking stylistic differences between the English and Irish versions. The Irish version consists of eight quatrains each describing Ita Cagney’s classical appearance. The English version is in free-verse and describes in minute detail Ita Cagney’s head from ‘her black hair’ to her throat which ‘showed no signs of age’. Her hair is black save for a single rib of grey which stands out ‘like a steel filing on a forge floor’. The poet here obviously calling on his Maiden Street childhood and scenes from John Kelly’s forge which he had already immortalised in verse (Collected Poems 104).
He then describes her brow, her eyebrows, her eyes, ‘her long nose’, ‘her rose-edged nostrils’, her upper lip, her chin and jawline and finally her throat. The reason for this detail is to give us a sense of the formidable woman at the centre of this poem. She is described as having an almost aristocratic beauty. Having described her head in exact detail the final singular line comes as an anti-climax: ‘The rest was shapeless, in black woollen dress’. The over-riding sense, however, is of a woman in black as befits a woman in mourning but a woman nonetheless with a kind of Patrician beauty, a sense of being noble in her bearing beyond her class: ‘Her long nose was almost bone / making her face too severe’. Ironically, from my own limited meetings with Michael Hartnett, he too had this aura of nobility and even some extant photographs of the poet show that he wore his hair like a Senator of Rome – in my eyes, at least, it is imaginable that he too saw himself as a Patrician character!
I would point out also that there is a difference between the way Hartnett describes Ita Cagney and the way he introduces us to the raven-haired barmaid in the first section of Farewell to English. The barmaid is described with exaggerated classical phrases such as ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’. Here in this poem, however, Hartnett does not indulge in this kind of hyperbole in his description of Ita Cagney. She is not idealised or clichéd and Michael Hartnett is at pains to describe her as a real person and this realism makes the symbolism more rich and complex. Deep unhappiness and sadness have furrowed her brow: ‘One deep line, cut by silent days of hate’. Her first marriage was obviously not a happy one and there is even a hint that it was an arranged marriage as was the custom in the past: her ‘eyes / that had looked on bespoke love / seeing only to despise’.
In this section of the poem, Ita has reached her destination – by accident or design we do not know. She has turned her back on a society that doesn’t value her and in a sense, the poem is about breaking with convention – as the poet himself has also recently done. Ita Cagney has rejected the old world of snuff and melodeons and observance of religious rituals and she is about to embrace a more sensual world. The half-door of this isolated cottage is opened by a man ‘halving darkness bronze’. The ‘bronze’ light of the gaslight gives way to ‘gold the hairs along his nose’. He is wearing classic labourer’s garb, a blue-striped shirt without a collar with a stud at the neck which ‘briefly pierced a thorn of light’. This chink of light in the dark night echoes Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Advent’ where he says ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’. Whereas Kavanagh, in his poetry, comes across as the quintessential 1950s Catholic, Michael Hartnett, in contrast, sees the ‘chink’ or open doorway as a new beginning in Ita Cagney’s life and not something to abstain from.
The poet uses juxtaposition here also to sharply contrast the male-dominated kitchen with its ‘odours of lost gristle / and grease along the wall’ and the arrival of a female whose ‘headscarf laughed a challenge’. The man closes the door on the world and both begin a relationship which will last ‘for many years’. Again, here we are reminded of the parallels that exist between Ita and the poet who had only recently turned his back on the Dublin literary scene and a burgeoning poetic reputation and had moved with his young family to rural West Limerick to follow his own ‘exquisite dream’ (Walsh 100).
In this section, the couple have both decided ‘to live in sin’ ignoring the religious and social mores of the time. Their experience has taught them that having a big wedding for the sake of the neighbours ‘later causes pain’. Ita has already learnt to her cost that a very public wedding can, within a year, end ‘in hatred and in grief’. The expenses incurred in buying ‘the vain white dress’, in having to pay ‘the bulging priest’ and endure ‘the frantic dance’ is not for them. For them, it would be akin to undergoing physical torture, as the insincere well-wishes of their neighbours would ‘land / like careful hammers on a broken hand’. Anyway, in this house organised religion was not important; here ‘no sacred text was read’. Instead, life was rudimentary and simple: ‘He offered her food: they went to bed’. Here, there was no ‘furtive country coupling’, hiding affections from friends and priest. Their only sin was that they had chosen ‘so late a moment to begin’.
This is the sensual ideal: their ‘Love’ doesn’t have to be transmuted and elevated to a higher level by the clergy; they don’t seek anyone’s blessing or approval for their actions. However, they are aware that there are consequences to their decision and that their actions will offend the locals and particularly the local clergy: ‘shamefaced chalice, pyx, ciborium / clanged their giltwrapped anger in the room’. The couple have made their bed and now they must lie in it. They have decided to defy society and do their own thing.
Section five sees the woman in labour and being taken by donkey and cart (or pony and trap) to the local town to be delivered. It is night-time and it is raining. She is shielded by her shawl and oilskins to protect her but all these layers cannot deflect the ‘direct rebuke and pummel of the town’. The couples secret intimacy now becomes a public matter as they have to call on outside help with the delivery. Even now at this delicate moment as Ita prepares to give birth, disapproval is vehement:
and sullen shadows mutter hate
and snarl and debate
and shout vague threats of hell.
However, the ‘new skull’ will not wait, and ‘the new skull pushes towards its morning’ and Ita’s hopes and dreams are for the future as a new beginning and a new dispensation beckons.
Section six is both a love song and a lament. Ita Cagney addresses her new-born with love and trepidation. She knows what will be said and she will try and protect her son from the venom and vitriol which she knows will come because of her actions. Her newborn is described lovingly with his ‘gold hair’ and ‘skin / that smells of milk and apples’. She wishes to cocoon her baby son and protect him from all the wickedness of the outside world as if he were in Noah’s Ark. However, she knows in her heart that just as in the Bible story ‘a dove is bound to come’ with messages from the outside world ‘bringing from the people words / and messages of hate’. She knows that the ‘stain’ of what she has done will be passed like a baton of toxic shame, the preferred Irish weapon to ensure conformity, to the next generation:
They will make you wear my life
Like a hump upon your back.
She is also tormented by the fear that her son may come to blame her for the hatred he will be forced to endure and that he may internalise that hatred and that the cycle of hatred will continue.
Section seven has echoes of the Garden of Eden. The child is growing up in splendid isolation in the West Limerick countryside. The language is sensual and earthy, ‘each hazel ooze of cowdung through the toes, / being warm, and slipping like a floor of silk…’. There are echoes here also of earlier Hartnett poems depicting his own idyllic childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’ (Collected Poems 102). The young boy grows up and learns the lore of the countryside, gathering mushrooms ‘like white moons of lime’ and working the land with his father. His mother watches him grow ‘in a patient discontent’. The seasons come and go, spring, autumn, harvest, Christmas and their little cottage becomes ‘resplendent with these signs’. There are echoes of an Edenic existence, unspoilt and idyllic, as ‘apples with medallions of rust / englobed a thickening cider on the shelf’.
In section eight Ita speaks in a confessional manner. She is preparing for Christmas and decorating her little cottage with the traditional homemade crepe decorations. She is in a reflective mood and Hartnett uses a beautiful image to convey her reverie as she watches ‘the candles cry / O salutaris hostia’. There is a potent mix of residual religious imagery in these lines; the Christmas candles remind Ita of the traditional Catholic hymn sung at Benediction. The hymn invites us to ask for God’s help to persevere in our often difficult spiritual journey. The next image is also very traditional and every small farmhouse in Ireland contained at one time a red Sacred Heart lamp with its flickering flame:
I will light the oil –lamp till it burns
like a scarlet apple
This is clearer in the Irish version and stands as a good example of how both versions complement each other:
Anocht lasfad lampa an Chroí Ró-Naofa
agus chífead é ag deargadh
mar úll beag aibí
We notice here that while Ita Cagney may reject the public rites associated with the Catholic Church she still maintains elements of the traditional Christian practices. In some sense, I think we are also being given a glimpse of Michael Hartnett’s own views on religion here. Traditional religious symbols and half-forgotten phrases from old Latin hymns are residual echoes of his own early religious experience: and for Michael Hartnett, and for many others of his generation, Catholicism was very much a child’s thing (see ‘Crossing the Iron Bridge’ ).
There then follows Ita’s ‘confession’ where she declares that she has not insulted God but that she has offended the ‘crombie coats and lace mantillas, / Sunday best and church collections’ – she has offended public morality and her chief offence has been that her happiness has not been blessed by the church and condoned by society at large. This is the climax of the drama and encapsulates the enduring tension that exists between the rights of the individual in society and the pressures on that individual to conform to acceptable social mores, especially as it applies to sexual love. As Allan Gregory sees it, ‘The poem shows, with imaginative sympathy and ethical discernment, how Ita Cagney, a widow, lives in a new free union, unblessed by the church and how, because of this, she is feared and loathed by society’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).
The final movement in the poem sees the neighbours advance in a concerted ‘rhythmic dance’ to lay siege to Ita’s cottage. The language is violent and carries connotations of evictions carried out in the neighbourhood by the landlord class in the not too distant past. We are told that ‘venom breaks in strident fragments / on the glass’ and ‘broken insults clatter on the slates’. The neighbours are described as a ‘pack’, a mob, who ‘skulk’ and disappear into the foothills in order to regroup and to muster their forces for a final onslaught – waiting ‘for the keep to fall’. Ita, a virtual prisoner in her own home, protects ‘her sleeping citizen’ and imagines the final attack ‘on the speaking avenue of stones / she hears the infantry of eyes advance’. The Irish version gives us further food for thought and is even more redolent with echoes of recent Irish history. In the Irish version the phrase ‘she guards her sleeping citizen’ is rendered as ‘í féin istigh go scanrach / ag cosaint a saighdiúrín’ (herself inside terrified / protecting her little soldier boy’). Furthermore, the final line ‘she hears the infantry of eyes advance’ is translated as ‘ó shúile dearga na yeos’. This word ‘yeos’ refers to the yeomanry, the infamous English Redcoats, and carries very loaded associations in the Gaelic folk memory – they were as hated as the Black and Tans or the Auxiliaries were in more recent history. The use of these words, especially in the Irish version of the poem emphasise and reinforce again the themes of social and historical oppression which are central to Hartnett’s thesis in this major statement of intent.
This poem was the first to be written by Hartnett during the transitional phase in the mid-seventies after he had set up home in Glendarragh. He realises that little has changed since he wrote ‘A Small Farm’ – all the ‘perversions of the soul’ are still to be found in Camas and Rooska and Sugar Hill and Carrickerry. However, he does seem to hint in this poem that a better way is possible if we are brave enough to take it, like Ita Cagney, like Michael Hartnett himself, and like Mary McGee.
If we accept that Ita Cagney ‘retreat’ is a parallel for his own ‘retreat’ from English, then it seems that he is prophesying tough times ahead for himself and his new artistic direction. His ‘retreat’ will not be received well by either side. In earlier poems, he has depicted the old Gaelic world, represented by Brigid Halpin and Camas, as a perverse, pagan and ignorant place. He will have to be as strong-willed and stubborn as Ita Cagney has been in order to survive, but for Hartnett as for Ita embracing the life retreated to is worth this sacrifice.
The poem depicts Ita Cagney as the modern-day Saint Ita / Naomh Íde, and an able successor to his grandmother Bridgid Halpin, who, according to Hartnett, never adjusted to the ‘new’ Ireland which emerged in the twentieth century. Hartnett looks towards the hills and the wooded slopes of the Mullach a Radharc Mountains for answers to an age-old torment which has been a blemish on the Irish psyche. And he sees that there is hope – Ita Cagney, a young widow, ‘retreats’ to a new life and though her union is unblessed by the church she is prepared to defend her decision despite the disapproval of society. She becomes, as Kennelly suggests, ‘a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’. In effect, she was, like Hartnett himself, a half-century at least before her time and she deserves to be feted as the patroness of a more modern and liberated Ireland which she longed for instinctually. Those instincts beckoned her to forsake her old life of convention and conformity and create a new beginning and a new world for herself where love reigned over hate, victorious.
Hartnett, Michael. The Retreat of Ita Cagney (Cúlú Íde). Dublin: Goldsmith Press, 1975.
Hartnett, Michael. Adharca Broic, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 1978.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, ed Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2001.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2002.
Hartnett, Michael., ‘Why write in Irish?’, Irish Times, (26th August 1975).
Gillespie, Elgy., ‘Michael Hartnett’, The Irish Times, (5th March 1975), p.10
Jordan, J., Review, Irish Independent (3rd. February 1979), p.7.
Kennelly, Brendan. reviewing Michael Hartnett, Collected Poems, Volume I, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 15.
O’Driscoll, Dennis., Interview, Metre Magazine, II (2001).
McDonogh, John and / Newman, Stephen. (eds), Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006.
Moynihan, Maurice., Speeches and Statements of Eamon de Valera, Dublin, 1980.
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Mercier Press, Cork, 2012.
Other Works Referenced
Patrick Kavanagh, The Great Hunger: A Poem, Cuala, 1942, Irish University Press, 1971.
I would like to acknowledge the considerable assistance given to me by my son, Don Hanley, a Hartnett scholar in his own right, in the preparation and editing of this blog post – one of the many welcome positives emerging from the COVID-19 Lockdown!
Michael Hartnett arrived back in Newcastle West after nearly fifteen years of ‘exile’, around 1975. He then imposed a further exile on himself by deciding to settle with his wife Rosemary and his two young children, Niall and Lara, ‘out foreign in Glantine’. Thus began one of his most productive periods as a poet – a fact which has been largely overlooked by critics and academics to this very day.
The decade from 1975 to 1985 in Glendarragh, Templeglantine was arguably the most productive of his career. Adharca Broic was published in 1978, followed by An Phurgóid in 1983, Do Nuala: Foighne Crainn in 1984 and his fourth collection in Irish, An Lia Nocht, appeared in 1985. During this period, he also undertook the translation of Daibhi Ó Brudair’s poems which were published in 1985. In parallel to this ‘serious’ output, he was writing and entertaining the locals with ballads, some serious or semi-serious like ‘A Ballad on the State of the Nation’, which was distributed as a one-page pamphlet like the ballads of old and even included original lino cuttings by local artist Cliodhna Cussen. Other ballads were more contentious and even semi-libellous (or fully slanderous!) such as ‘The Balad (sic) of Salad Sunday’ and ‘The Duck Lovers Dance’. These latter creations were written under the very appropriate nom de plume, ‘The Wasp’!
It has to be remembered that at this time Newcastle West and its West Limerick hinterland was booming. The Alcan plant in Aughinish Island near Askeaton was under construction and every man, woman and child were working there. Added to this, every spare room was occupied as up to 4,000 workers from all over Ireland were involved in the construction phase of the project.
In late 1980 Hartnett began work on his best ballad and the one which is most loved and recited to this day, the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’. The ballad stretches out for 47 verses and is a compendium of much of what he had written in prose about Newcastle West in articles for The Irish Times, for Magill magazine and for the local Annual Observer, the annual publication of the Newcastle West Historical Society during the 60s and early 70s. There are also echoes of other local poems such as ‘Maiden Street’ and ‘Requiem for John Kelly, Blacksmith’ included among the verses of the ballad.
In his own mind, Hartnett had lofty ambitions for the project – the ballad was to be Newcastle West’s own Cannery Row. Indeed, in the Preface to the ballad Hartnett wrote of his affection for his home place:
Everyone has a Maiden Street. It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics; also a street of hot summers, of hop-scotch and marbles: in short the street of youth. But Maiden Street was no Tir na nÓg … Human warmth and poverty often go hand in hand … The object of this ballad is to invoke and preserve ‘times past’ and to do so without being too sentimental … But this ballad is not all grimness. I hope it is humorous in spots. It was not written in mockery but with affection – part funny song, part social history.
‘Maiden Street Ballad’ was published by local entrepreneur Davy Cahill and his The Observer Press ‘with the help of members of Newcastle West Historical Society’. Copies of the original are much sought after on eBay and elsewhere to this day. It carried a very eloquent dedication, ‘This ballad was composed by Michael Hartnett in Glendarragh, Templeglantine, County Limerick in the month of December 1980 as a Christmas present for his father Denis Harnett (sic)’. His long-time friend and fellow poet, Gabriel Fitzmaurice is fulsome in his praise for the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’:
… it is unquestionably the best ballad he wrote during this period. It is a celebration of his native place in which he describes mainly the period 1948 – 51, the time of his childhood; it also describes the Newcastle West of the late 1970s during which time he lived in Templeglantine (McDonagh/Newman, p.107).
‘Maiden Street Ballad’ was set to the air of ‘The Limerick Rake’ which Hartnett himself described as ‘the best Hiberno-English ballad ever written in this country’. Hartnett was drawing on a rich tradition of local balladeers ‘like Aherne and Barry before me’, but there are also echoes here of Patrick Kavanagh and such ballads as ‘If Ever You Go to Dublin Town’. It is a matter of record that after early skirmishes in various hostelries in Dublin in the early 60s both Hartnett and Kavanagh came to an understanding and Hartnett tells us, ‘I used to drink with him and indeed back horses for him (he owes me £3-10s for the record)’ (O’Driscoll interview, p.144).
Writing in The Irish Times, June 10, 1969, Hartnett relates a story about his father which may have sown the seeds for the famous virtual pub-crawl which is such a central feature of ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ and which is the focus of this essay. Speaking about his relationship with his father he recalls:
I sat there in the small kitchen-cum-living room, innocently working out the problems my father set me: ‘If it took a beetle a week to walk a fortnight, how long would it take two drunken soldiers to swim out of a barrel of treacle?’ I never worked it out. Or, “How would you get from the top of Church Street to the end of Bridge Street without passing a pub”? He did supply the answer to that, which indeed is the logical answer for any Irishman: “You don’t pass any – you go into them all.”
‘Maiden Street Ballad’ contains a number of autobiographical segments; from his early days in Lower Maiden Street where they rented from Legsa Murphy; then later he eloquently documents the move to the new housing scheme in Assumpta Park. However, the most notorious segment is the ten ribald verses from 27 to 37 which describe a virtual pub crawl of all of Newcastle West’s 26 public houses which were doing business in 1980. These verses portray Hartnett at his best, they are witty, they are caustic, they are slanderous; they poke fun at his friends, and especially at his brothers and cousins. BUT there is also great sadness.
The ‘pub crawl’ begins in Stanza 27 and the poet bemoans the fact that he visits too many pubs. The first pub mentioned is Dinny Pa’s, owned and run by Dinny Pa Aherne. The pub was situated where The Weekly Observer now has its offices. In more recent times this pub was owned by another doggie man, Ted Danaher from Knockaderry. By the way, the present pub known as The Forge which was next door to Dinny Pa’s is not mentioned in the Ballad because it was closed at the time and has only reopened in recent years. This pub was originally the property of J.J. Hough and his wife Nora (nee Dore). The pub was subsequently bought by John Sullivan from Killarney and he eventually sold it on and it has had a number of incarnations in recent years. Next, he mentions The Silver Dollar in Lower Maiden Street, which was originally owned by Bill Flynn. By the 1970s The Silver Dollar had been passed down to his daughter Margaret and her husband John Kelly who was originally from Broadford and who was at that time a Fine Gael County Councillor. He then takes a big jump to the other side of town and mentions Mike Flynn’s in Churchtown, now The Ballintemple.
In Stanza 28 he mentions four more pubs beginning with McCarthy’s in Maiden Street which was owned by John McCarthy and his wife, Clare Finucane, and was known then as The Tall Ships (today trading as Ned Kelly’s). He then mentions a cluster of three pubs just off The Square, heading up Churchtown. Pat Whelan was by 1980 probably one of the most successful publicans in the town and he ran a very successful pub next door to what was then Crowley’s Drapery. Directly across the road was The Greyhound, owned and run by Lena Barrett. Finally, by all accounts, the poet nearly landed himself in choppy legal waters with the line, ‘and I have been known to peep in to Peep Outs’. Seemingly the owner was known to occasionally peep out to see if there were any prospective customers on their way and, like many other unfortunates in the town quickly gained a none too complimentary nickname for his troubles. In an effort to give his ballad added gravitas Hartnett added some ‘scholarly’ footnotes (to the first 20 verses only) and in one he tells us that, ‘It used to be said that if a stranger walked from Forde’s Corner (now Burke’s Corner at the junction of The Square and Upper Maiden Street) he’d have a nickname before he got to Leslie’s Ating House (where, in recent years, Dickie Liston had his shop in ‘Middle’ Maiden Street)’.
In Stanza 29 he mentions two other pubs who were making waves in the town in the late 70s. Tom Meaney was doing a roaring trade in The Turnpike – also the venue for Zanadu’s Nite Club – and to encourage punters he held quizzes on Sundays in which Des Healy and Joe White excelled. He also mentions Mike Kelly who at that time was running the Ten Knights of Desmond pub in the Square. He was leasing the pub from Jimmy and Mary Lee and the pub is now being run by their son, Joe. Mike Kelly was endeavouring to raise standards and expectations and so had peanuts and cheese available for his ‘better-class clients’ who ‘dine free there on Sundays, the chancers’.
Stanza 30 mentions The Tally-Ho and this was situated across the road from the Carnegie Library which at that time housed St. Ita’s Secondary School, owned and managed by Jim Breen and which, of course, had been Hartnett’s alma mater. Some ruffians in the town claimed that The Tally-Ho was the unofficial staff room for St. Ita’s – but that’s for another day! He tells us he’d ‘go there more often but Mike Cremin sings’. Nearby on the corner was John Whelan’s pub. John was Pat Whelan’s father and was a legend in GAA circles having given a lifetime to Newcastle West, West Board and County Board administration. This was the local of Hartnett’s ‘cousin’ Billy O’Connor, or Billy the Barber as he was better known and who was, in fact, married to Hartnett’s aunt, Kit Harnett.
In Stanza 31 he doesn’t name a pub but I presume he is still in The Corner House with his relations and various ‘cousins’! Hartnett’s brother, Dinny was a postman in town at this time and Michael makes sure to mention Dinny a number of times, and not always in glowing terms. Here he joins his brother, and some of Dinny’s colleagues, Tony Roche and Davy Horan for a session. The Christmas flavour of the ballad is maintained when he says, ‘You can hear Dinny laugh miles up the Cork Road / as he adds up his Christmas donations!’.
Stanza 32 is dedicated to Barry’s Pub in Bridge Street. He describes the pub as being a little above the ordinary. Of course, we must remember, many of these recommendations were given with a view to future free pints, post-publication! However, the opposite could also be the case and after the publication of the infamous, ‘The Balad of Salad Sunday’, Hartnett rather ruefully declared that as a result ‘I was barred from thirteen pubs’. According to the poet, John and Peg Barry ran a classy establishment and ‘if you want to read papers you don’t buy at home’ or if ‘you want a hot whiskey with more than one clove’ then you should give them a call!
Stanza 33 is dedicated to another favourite of Hartnett’s, The Shamrock Bar in South Quay. In the late 70’s Damien Patterson and Tony McCarthy undertook an extensive renovation of Fuller’s Folly, part of the Desmond Castle complex and fronting on to the Arra River near the bridge at the bottom of Bridge Street. Indeed, to add to their conservation work Tony McCarthy and others decided that they would introduce different species of duck to the river to enhance its attractiveness. This project, years ahead of its time, entailed setting up a breeding programme and sourcing young ducklings and, as a consequence, this gave rise to numerous fundraising ventures. The Duck Lovers Committee set up their headquarters in The Shamrock Bar, managed at the time by Tony Sheehan and his wife, Peg (nee Devine), who were both immortalised by Hartnett in his ballad, ‘The Duck Lovers Dance’. The Shamrock was later acquired by George Daly and his wife Breda and Hartnett was a regular there and benefitted from their generosity and patronage. In return, he penned a beautiful song in their honour, ‘Daly’s Shamrock Bar’.
Hartnett had come back home to find and nurture his Gaelic roots and to immerse himself in the language and traditions of the past. Here at home, he was universally known as ‘The Poet’ and this title was bestowed on him as a nickname of honour. However, like the old Gaelic poets such as Ó Brudair, Ó Rathaille, Sean Ó Tuama and Aindreas MacCraith before him, being mentioned by the poet could make you famous for all the wrong reasons. Suffice it to say that sometimes it was an honour to have a poet in your midst during a drinking session but you needed to be on your best behaviour or you could be shamed for life. For example, Hartnett tells us that in The Shamrock, ‘You’ll see Jimmy Deere and he making soft farts, / you’ll see Terry Hunt, he’s a martyr for darts – / he spends every weeknight nearly bursting his arse / to bring home a ham or a turkey.’!
Stanza 34 mentions seven iconic public houses. Many of these were very small premises and they also sold groceries and other items to their loyal patrons. For example, the poet says he usually, but not exclusively, visits Donal Scanlon’s in Upper Maiden Street ‘when the new spuds come in’. It is interesting that in South Quay you had four pubs probably within a hundred metres of each other – Seamus Connolly’s, The Shamrock, Gerry Flynn’s and The Crock of Gold, owned by Moss Dooley. All but one remains today – Gerry Flynn’s is now Clery’s having been owned by Paddy Sammon for a while and then been won in a raffle sometime before the Celtic Tiger began to roar in earnest! He also mentions Walsh’s which was situated on the corner of Lower Bridge Street and North Quay. This imposing pub has recently undergone major renovations but regrettably is not open for business at present. Cremin’s was in Upper Maiden Street where The Dresser now carries on business. This pub had somewhat of a coloured reputation and was run by the Cremin sisters, Nora, Mary, Gretta and their mother. Gretta Cremin was also for many years the church organist in the nearby parish church He also mentions The Heather in Bridge Street which was owned and run by the Duggan family. However, today Hartnett’s statue in The Square points longingly across to Ned Lynch’s, still run by the man himself, the last survivor of the old stagers.
Stanza 35 mentions two other very well-known pubs – Dan Cronin’s pub in the Square and Cullen’s in Upper Maiden Street. Cullen’s was formerly known as Dolly Musgraves (Gearoid Whelan, son of Pat and grandson of John, carries on the tradition today on this site in a newly refurbished Sports Pub). Dolly Musgraves pub had a special place in Hartnett’s affections because he tells us that it was here (in the company of his great friend and partner in crime, Des Healy) that he had his first pint – no names, no pack drill, but suffice it to say they were barely out of short pants! He also fondly remembers The Sunset Lounge in The Square (later to become the TSB Bank premises and now Ladbrokes Betting Office) which was owned by Bill Hinchy and his wife Kit. Hartnett tells us that he had many fond memories of playing chess there with Bill Buckley. Finally, as if by way of a postscript he mentions the bar in The Motel which was a bit out of the way being situated on the main Limerick – Killarney Road. He tells us that he didn’t frequent this bar too often because of its political links to Fianna Fáil – Mike himself being a tried and trusted paid-up member of The Labour Party!
Stanza 36 mentions the final two bars close to his heart – The Central Hotel which at that time was owned and run by Arthur and Vera Ward. It had been known as Egan’s Hotel at one time and even though the title Hotel still remained it was really only a bar – today it trades simply as The Central Bar. Last but not least he mentions Seamus Connolly’s little pub in South Quay. Hartnett’s fondness for Seamus Ó Conghaile was obvious because he could speak Irish and after his proclamation on the stage of the Peacock Theatre in 1974, Hartnett had returned home with the express intention of henceforth writing only in Irish. He was, therefore, doubly glad of every opportunity to frequent Seamus Connolly’s to imbibe at ease in convivial company and also improve on his Irish language skills.
Stanza 37 ends this section of the Ballad and Hartnett hopes that we won’t consider that he is ‘mad for the drink’! During the virtual tour of all the 26 pubs in town, he has been wistful and rueful, and only his true friends and relations have felt the full brunt of his devilment and ball-hopping. Others elsewhere in the ballad, such as employers and charitable institutions do not escape the cold breeze of his displeasure but here he is among friends and in his element. However, it also has to be said that these verses also tend to paper over the cracks that were beginning to appear in Hartnett’s serious project – to return to his roots in West Limerick and to write only in Irish. He was drinking heavily by this time and his marriage to Rosemary was beginning to show signs of strain. The Ballad is dedicated to his father, Denis Hartnett, with love and gratitude. It has to be seen as a poet’s gift, a poet who was penniless with little else to give except his considerable talent as a poet and who was now finally writing ‘a few songs for his people’. His father Denis passed away in 1984 and shortly afterwards his marriage came to its inevitable conclusion and Hartnett left his hometown for good to return to Dublin. So, for me, reading the Ballad today, and despite the jokes and the jibes and the critical social commentary, the overriding emotion is one of sadness.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that there were 56 pubs in Newcastle West in the 40s and 50s. However, the years have passed, the Celtic Tiger has come and gone in Newcastle West and today, instead of the 26 pubs that were doing business in 1980 there are only 11 open for business – and as I mentioned earlier this figure includes The Forge which didn’t feature in Hartnett’s original 26 because it was not trading in 1980! If you wanted to do the ‘Twelve Pubs at Christmas’ in Newcastle West today you’d have to end up in Hanley’s in Knockaderry for your twelfth! Or maybe the Golf Club in Ardagh?
I mentioned earlier his father setting the young Hartnett a riddle: “How would you get from the top of Church Street to the end of Bridge Street without passing a pub”? In 1975 if you were to visit all the pubs from the top of Churchtown to the end of Bridge Street you would have had to visit nine pubs in all, today in 2019 the number has been reduced to three (if you pass by both banks on your way through The Square) – The Ballintemple, recently under new management, The Central in Bridge Street, and last but not least, Ned Lynch’s in The Square! If you take the long way round The Square you can add in Dan Cronin’s and Lee’s!
Alas, Shane Ross, our Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, has been instrumental in ensuring that the pub trade in rural Ireland has seen better days and the old dispensation is no more. In a radio interview on WLR 102 on 26th September 2019 to promote the upcoming Éigse, Gabriel Fitzmaurice recalled a journey home to Glendarragh with Michael Hartnett in the late 70s after having visited a number of the hostelries mentioned earlier in this article. Gabriel was acting as a willing chauffeur on this occasion and on their way up Old Bearna, Michael turned to him and said: ‘Gabriel, for God’s sake, take it easy – the future of Irish poetry is in this car’.
‘Maiden Street Ballad’ today stands as a unique piece of social history as well as being a very beautiful, and funny poem, which I would strongly urge you to read or re-read. (The full Ballad, including ‘scholarly’ footnotes, is included in The Book of Strays, published by Gallery Books in 2002 and reprinted in 2015). Many of Hartnett’s prose pieces for The Irish Times and elsewhere in the 70s show him to be an astute and acerbic social commentator and we can also see clear evidence of this in the 47 verses of ‘Maiden Street Ballad’:
And in times to come if you want to dip
back into the past, through these pages flip
and, if you enjoy it, raise a glass to your lips
and drink to the soul of Mike Hartnett!
I would like to acknowledge the encyclopaedic help received from Sean Kelly and his wife Mary in compiling this piece of nostalgia!
Author’s Note: Sadly, since this post was published in December 2019 two of the eleven pubs still surviving then have ceased trading – The Forge fell foul of the taxman and Ned Lynch’s didn’t reopen following the first Covid -19 Lockdown of 2020. Ned, in his wisdom, knew when he was beaten and decided to call it a day!
 In an interview with James Stack in 1987 as part of James’s thesis for his degree in English from UCG. Audio available in Memories from the Past: Episode 305
McDonagh, J. and Newman, S., Remembering Michael Hartnett. Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2006.
O’Driscoll, Dennis., Interview with Michael Hartnett, in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001-2002
Michael Hartnett began Secondary School in September 1956. He arrived in St. Ita’s Secondary School with a burgeoning reputation. By that time he had had his first poem published in the Limerick Weekly Echo as far back as the 18th of June 1955. He was then thirteen and still a student in the Courtenay Boys National School. The poem was entitled ‘Camas Road’, and it described in particular detail the rural vista of the West Limerick townland of Camas at evening: ‘A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge, / A cottage thatched with golden straw’ (Book of Strays 67). He sat his Intermediate Certificate in June 1959 and later in mid-September the results were published in the Limerick Leader and Hartnett from 28 Assumpta Park was first on the list having received a full set of seven honours.
Patrick J. O’Connor, later to be Dr. Patrick J. O’Connor, who for most of his academic life lectured and published extensively on human geography at the University of Limerick, entered the school as a first year in September 1959 and has vivid memories of the young Hartnett and saw him, in particular, as a shining role model to be emulated. He describes Hartnett at that time as ‘a small, slight figure, bookish, often solitary, never a participant in play in the field opposite his house’.
In his evocative memoir, The New Houses, O’Connor also suggests that Hartnett, despite his excellent academic record, did not find favour with the school’s Principal and Manager, Jim Breen. O’Connor held Jim Breen in high esteem and he says that he, ‘made a distinctively personal contribution during the lean years that saw a blossoming of second level education in this country.’ He goes on to say that he, ‘asserted a strong presence and, being a big man physically, he rarely had to repeat anything. He was a strict disciplinarian, meticulous in attention to detail, but never petty or vindictive. He led by example in the sense that his own work bore the stamp of discipline and commitment.’ The sight of his green Volkswagen Beetle, registration number AIU 524, was enough to elicit an instant quickening in the step of many a tardy pupil.
According to O’Connor, Mike Hartnett ‘was the target of persistent monitoring on the part of the headmaster, Jim Breen’. Mike was a voracious reader and it seems that not all of his reading material was on the Prescribed English Syllabus and some of the literary works did not always find favour with the erstwhile headmaster. According to O’Connor, it was the ‘skewed subject content that bothered Jim Breen’. He made repeated raids on Hartnett’s gabháil of books. Following these repeated attacks O’Connor says that in his eyes, ‘From the status of heroic scholar Michael Hartnett sank into disrepute’ as a result of this regular attention paid to him by the headmaster!
It seems he didn’t fare any better with his English teacher, Willie O’Donnell. According to Pat O’Connor, O’Donnell taught English at senior cycle level and employed strategies supremely well suited to cope with the rigours of the examination system. A man well acquainted with the technicalities of language, he had a particular fondness for the double entendre, and one of his most favoured concerned the numbers of students from the school who would, ‘go down in history’! Seemingly, he persistently charged his young student, Hartnett, with the indictable offence ‘of meditating the Muse’. It was only a matter of time before the Empire struck back and Hartnett it seems planned and executed a number of retributions on Willie O’Donnell. Even long after he had left the influence of St Ita’s, indeed long after he had left UCD, and while carrying out periodic commissions for The Irish Times in the Sixties and Seventies, he made a number of pointed references to his former school which were not seen as complimentary by management. For example, in an article in The Irish Times on November 11th, 1968 he writes:
I left the national school in 1956 and lost an ally (Frank Finucane). Secondary school came then, and I wrote many poems (all, fortunately, lost) and made a new enemy, my English teacher. For five years I was beaten more often for ‘meditating the Muse’, as he called it than for lack of learning. But my poetry changed for the better, not because of the school, but because I partook of an old Irish custom: the girl I loved at the time entered a convent. This and the claustrophobia of Newcastle West, its rich and its poor, its bullying priest, turned me to write about myself …….. I was a poor man’s son in a secondary school, a place I had no right to be, as I was often reminded.
Harnett was never forgiven for all these indiscretions, by Jim Breen. Even when he returned as a recognised poet to Newcastle West in the 1970s and lived for a decade ‘out foreign in Glantine’ he was not welcomed back with open arms to his old alma mater while Jim held sway – even when Michael’s son, Niall, was a student in the school in the early Eighties.
There was, however, one teacher in the school who recognised Hartnett’s latent talent and who was most attuned to this rebel without a cause and that was Dave Hayes. As a teacher, Dave Hayes brought style and panache to bear on the teaching of Latin. According to Pat O’Connor, he was, ‘unquestionably a classical scholar of stature.’ This assessment was reinforced later during Dr O’Connor’s first year in UCD, when a well-known lecturer and future Minister for Education, John Wilson no less, could, in his view, ‘do no better than stand in the long shadow of Dave Hayes’. Dave Hayes was probably responsible for ensuring that Hartnett continued his Secondary education in St. Ita’s until he was nearly twenty years of age. His earlier scholastic promise failed to develop, however, and he eventually left St. Ita’s with honours only in Irish and English – much to the chagrin of his father, Denis.
Jim Breen retired as Principal in 1977 but continued as Manager and owner of the school until his death in 1984. Following his death, Des Healy, who had become Principal of the school on the untimely death of Noel Ruddle in 1981, took over the reins as Manager up until the school closed its doors on 29th May 1992. Des Healy was a past pupil of the school and, indeed, had been a classmate of Hartnett’s during their time in school. Des remained a lifelong friend of the poet, Michael Hartnett.
I will end this post with a true story. Honestly! I was there! As I mentioned earlier, Des was Principal of St. Ita’s Secondary School in the 1980s and Michael’s son Niall was a student in the school up until about 1985. To add to the intrigue Michael’s brother Dinny was the local postman at the time. One morning Des received a postcard from the poet delivered by hand to the school by Dinny the Postman. The postcard, which no doubt had also been read by Dinny prior to delivery, read as follows:
If I ever have any more children I won’t be sending them to your school. This has nothing to do with the quality of education provided in your school – it’s just the principal of the thing.
Hartnett, Michael, A Book of Strays, ed. Peter Fallon, Gallery Press, 2002.
O’Connor, Patrick J., The New Houses – A Memoir, Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 2009.
O’Connor, Patrick J., Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 1998.
Read also blog post ‘Happy Memories of St. Ita’s Secondary School’ here..
Maiden Street is the longest and oldest street in Newcastle West. Sean Kelly, its resident historian, says that it was built piecemeal on the edge of an ancient glacial moraine. This moraine benefited the town and there were at least three working sand pits in production at one time along the street. Sean Kelly states that ‘It was a street renowned for its trades of all kinds; shoemaking and repair; tailoring and dressmaking; printing; baking; coopers; tinsmiths; blacksmiths; and harness-makers to name a few.’ Patrick J. O’Connor who has also written eloquently about the street confirms this. Speaking of the new proprietors who bought out their leases during the sale of the town in 1910 he says that ‘there was colour aplenty in Maiden Street’. These included Michael ‘Boss’ Culhane who traded in ‘hides, skins, feathers and eggs’! He also mentions George Latchford who had launched a family business circa 1874 which later developed into the well-known bakery and cinema. This family business thrived well into the twentieth century under the stewardship of his sons Jackie, Paddy and Willie.
Poverty was rife in Maiden Street – particularly Lower Maiden Street – and Michael Hartnett makes constant reference to this fact in both his prose and poetry:
We rented a mansion down in lower Maiden Street,
Legsa Murphy our landlord, three shillings a week,
the walls were mud and the roof it did leak
and our mice nearly died of starvation.
The etymology of the street name has always posed problems. Again Sean Kelly says that there is no mention of the street name among the earliest known street names going back to 1584-6, although it was in existence by then, ‘what is clear is the street’s graceful, curvilinear form adorning the earliest available town plan, the Moland Survey of 1709’. Patrick O’Connor suggests that the street name may be derived ‘from the medieval cult of Mariology (Sráid na Maighdine Mhuire)’ (O’Connor:56).
The lower part of the street was sometimes known as Dock Road, in accord with the low status attributed to it. The gardens of the houses on the south side abutted on to a track known locally as ‘the back of the Docks’. At intervals, there were ingresses with steps leading down to the River Arra, where the local women came to do their laundry.
Sean Kelly waxes lyrical about this place: ‘Lengthy, capacious and capricious, Maiden Street was – according to the punchline of a popular rhyme – a favoured place for lodgers’. And while the name of the street remains an enduring enigma, its lower appendage, the Coole (cúil, from the Irish meaning corner or nook) poses no interpretative problem whatever. Sean Kelly himself often claims to belong to Middle Maiden Street and from the records, there is evidence of these subtle divisions as far back as 1776. The street had a distinct Upper, Middle and Lower division and was, in effect, a microcosm of the nuanced social divisions also evident elsewhere in the town!
Hartnett, the street’s very own Poet Laureate pokes further fun at the perceived reputation of the street when he writes in the Maiden Street Ballad:
Tis said that in Church Street no church ever stood,
and to walk up through Bishop Street no bishop would,
and tis said about Maiden Street that maidenhood
was as rare as an asses pullover.
In his Preface to that famous ballad, Hartnett says that ‘Everyone has a Maiden Street. It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics: also a street of hot summers, of hop-scotch and marbles: in short the street of youth’. However, he also adds a disclaimer saying that ‘Maiden Street was no Tír na nÓg’ and we should not forget that the street was but a ‘memory distorted by time in the minds of all who lived there’. Generations to come will continue to show their gratitude to the poet for his wonderful evocation of the street of his childhood, the nearest Newcastle West will ever come to having its own Steinbeck or, indeed, its own Cannery Row! As he said himself: ‘Ballads about places however bad they may be, unite a community and give it a sense of identity’.
In his shorter poem, Maiden Street (1967), there is a reference to the ‘small voices on the golden road’ and later he says about the days of his childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’. This may give us some clues as to the etymology of the name originally given to the street. Maiden Street runs west to east, so the morning sun shines up the street and so a young poet’s imagination turns it into his very own ‘yellow brick road’ and one wonders if the street was ever called Sraid na Maidine or Morning Street?
Many of those family names, synonymous with the street, who bought out their leases in 1910 still have links to the town to this day: Reidy’s, Houlihans, Gormans, Morrisons, Mullanes, Byrnes, Aherns, Nashs, Murphys, Fitzgeralds, Bakers, Hartnetts, Quins, Healys, Hartes, Massys, Moones…..
Hartnett says that the street finally ‘gave up the ghost’ in September 1951 when most of the inhabitants were rehoused in one of the 60 new houses in Assumpta Park. Hartnett describes the operation epically in the Maiden Street Ballad – likening it to the hazardous journey of the Israelites escaping from Egypt to the Promised Land!
The old street it finally gave up the ghost,
and most of the homes there they got the death-blow
when most of the people were tempted to go
and move to the Hill’s brand new houses.
The moving it started quite soon after dark
and the handcars and wheelbars pushed off to the Park
and some of the asscars were like Noah’s Ark
with livestock and children and spouses.
For we all took our furniture there when we moved,
our flowerbags and teachests and threelegged stools
and stowaway mice ahide in our boots –
and jamcrocks in good working order.
And our fleas followed after, our own local strain –
they said “We’ll stand by ye whatever the pain,
“for our fathers drew life from yere fathers’ veins”
“and blood it is thicker than water”!
For many, this transition was effortless and opened up a whole new vista while for others the change of location was a step too far and they found it very difficult to settle in their new environs. Again Hartnett puts this very colourfully:
In nineteen-fifty one people weren’t too smart:
in spite of the toilets they pissed out the back,
washed feet in the lavatory, put coal in the bath
and kept the odd pig in the garden.
They burnt the bannisters for to make fires
and pumped up the Primus for the kettle to boil,
turned on all the taps, left the lights on all night –
but these antics I’m sure you will pardon.
Following their move to the Park residents soon found that there was no ready access back down to Maiden Street other than across often wet fields and down through Musgroves and Gorman’s sandpits. Eventually, after much lobbying of local Councillors, the Mass Path and Mass Steps were constructed. As Patrick O’Connor says, their arrival ‘opened up a vital line of communication to town’. It is interesting that this vital piece of infrastructure was ostensibly procured under the pretext of providing ready access to the church, hence their name, but many would argue that these steps were more often used to visit other old haunts such as Latchfords and The Siver Dollar!
However, as a final footnote, or maybe to add fuel to fire, and totally in keeping with his mischievous nature, Michael Hartnett, in his ‘scholarly’ notes to the Maiden Street Ballad, has his own theory about the etymology of the street’s name. He theorises – and only he would get away with this scurrilous suggestion – that ‘the street was originally called Midden Street’!
Hartnett, Michael. The Maiden Street Ballad, The Observer Press, 1980.
O’Connor, Patrick J., Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 1998.
Mary O’Malley’s new collection, Playing the Octopus is a wonderful book of finely wrought, delicately woven poems that seduce and excite. The poet has created a world that sustains us, that we recognise and can inhabit. This is a collection that balances beauty and harmony, the poems are restrained but deeply felt, the voice assured, meaning is revealed slowing like an uncovering of essence, something essential and elemental. There is a playfulness and joy in language that at times produces a magical quality – light bounces and refracts – musical intonations interweave with the lyric voice – what is achieved is a virtuoso performance.
This poet is an assured guide through the geography of earth, of body, of soul and she takes us on a journey from her beloved west coast of Ireland to America’s east coast but always beneath an ever-changing sky and always awaiting the hoped-for revelation of light.
There are poems in memory of friends who have died: Firs, for Michael Hartnett where the poet references “Sibelius in Silence”, “From Michael’s book the green gold came: / The name I call them is not their name.” Both poets cherish their native language and music and it is the love of these unique sounds that informs their work.
There are deeply felt, reflective poems: January Aubade, a wonderful meditation on light and life.
“Uilleann”, that takes stories heard and transforms them into a metaphor for life: ‘He has heard the story / Of the octopus who was locked into a room / For a week to practice. / When they let him out the pipes had learned / To play the octopus.”
Women are strong, able, intelligent heroines and Mary celebrates them. There is no hesitation in this poet’s voice, her authority is enhanced by their presence. She has a wry eye that cuts through to the bone, the language is clear and unambiguous, as in: “The Bad Mother Or Bellini’s Pieta”, where the poet states: “She knew the joy he brought / Was mortgaged from the start.”
This is a beautiful collection of rare gems that sparkle and seduce.
Music from the Big Tent
Macdara Woods has honoured poetry throughout his life, consistently rendering the weals and woes of the human condition into poems that sometimes ring from the rooftops, and sometimes whisper with deft subtlety; poems that mix wise and rare insights with a generous heart and an open mind – qualities dear to Michael Hartnett.
Music from the Big Tent is a superb orchestra of verbal melodies, a Big Top in which free verse, ballads and haiku sing and cavort. There are poems that x-ray the body of homo sapiens and reveal the poor, bare, forked animal within; poems that laud the depth and variety of European culture and topography; poems that encapsulate the mysterious beauty of nature – ‘Long dark winter but / See the plum tree in the rain / A sudden whiteness’; poems that never forget the ten thousand things of the city, specifically Dublin, with its smell of ‘Georgian drains’ and where ‘Self serious pigeons / Posture and strut’. And poems that mourn the dead, lament the ailing body, but celebrate the beauty of the human form and the endurance of love.
As, in medieval legend, the minstrel Blondel went from castle to castle singing a song he hoped would be heard and responded to by the imprisoned Richard the Lionheart, so Macdara Woods continues to beat paths along the old green tracks of Europe, a hardy troubadour singing out his enchanting lyrics to the imprisoned imagination.
Note: The judges for the Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize in 2018 were Jo Slade and James Harpur (both former winners of this prestigious prize).
‘Like many Irish children, I was reared on a diet of folktale, Republicanism and mediocre ballads’.
Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018 has a rich and varied schedule of events which will take place this year from the 12th to the 14th of April. Éigse is proud to welcome John Boyne, Mike McCormack, Declan Kiberd, Emma Langford, Robyn Rowland, and others to Newcastle West for the first time. This year is also special because Michael’s family, his wife Rosemary, son Niall and daughter Lara will be present for the celebrations.
As part of this year’s Éigse, the organisers have included an interesting food element in recognition of the burgeoning food industry in the town and also as a celebration of the town’s rich agricultural hinterland. The event, which will take place in Desmond Complex on Saturday the 14th of April at 12.30pm, and is titled ‘Pulled Pork and Poetry’. It features a cookery demonstration by Tom Flavin, Executive Chef, the Strand Hotel and Pigtown Festival committee member, accompanied by readings from Hartnett’s Collected Poems by Limerick poet and short fiction writer, Edward O’Dwyer. (See Éigse programme for full details). The organisers are indebted to Tom Flavin and Edward O’Dwyer for their enthusiastic support for this venture.
The following blog post seeks to explore the link between Michael Hartnett, food, cooking and the kitchens he survived and graced in Lower Maiden Street, Camas and further afield.
Michael Hartnett returned to his native Newcastle West in the mid-1970’s and bought a cottage in the townland of Glendarragh in the parish of Templeglantine. The ‘townie’ lamented that now he was forced to live ‘in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’. In June 1974 he had made his famous proclamation from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that henceforth he would write only in Irish. In the Autumn of 1977, he was commissioned to write a piece for the upcoming Christmas edition of Magill Magazine which was owned and edited at the time by Hartnett’s friend, Vincent Browne, a fellow West Limerick man making a name for himself in publishing circles in Dublin.
The piece was written and published and showed Hartnett to be a very incisive, insightful and acerbic social commentator. It was entitled ‘Christmas in Maiden Street’ and evoked memories of life in Lower Maiden Street in the years immediately after the ending of World War Two and is a chilling reminder of the austerity endured during those years. Poverty and hardship were rife and families struggled to make ends meet. In the article, he recalls that ‘candles and paraffin-lamps did not brighten the darkness in kitchens in Maiden Street’. There were no luxuries and the necessities of life were very scarce: ‘coal was bought by the half-stone, butter by the quarter pound, and tea by the half-ounce’. As Christmas drew near ‘the spectre of Santa Claus loomed malevolently over the slates and thatch’.
For the poor of Maiden Street, the great feast of Christmas was an extra strain. Members of local charitable institutions visited ‘the meagre kitchens’, ‘the nailed-together chairs, the worn oilcloth topped tables, the dead fires’ and were ‘as hated as the rent-man’. He tells us that the Victorian Christmas had not yet arrived in Newcastle West:
‘there was no turkey, no plum pudding, no mince-pies … 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.’
The article ends with the bitter hope that ‘There will never be Christmasses like those again, I hope to God’.
This vein of bittersweet nostalgia culminated in December 1980 with the publication of the Maiden Street Ballad, written as a Christmas present for his father Denis Harnett. This 47 verse poem also contains details of the hardships and austerity suffered by the people who lived in Lower Maiden Street and The Coole.
Nineteen forty-one was a terrible year,
the bread it was black and the butter was dear;
you couldn’t get fags and you couldn’t tea –
we smoked turf-dust and had to drink porter.
He goes on to tell his audience that ‘we were hungry and poor down in Lower Maiden Street / a fact I will swear on the Bible’. Elsewhere he states that his peers ‘were raggy and snot-nosed and needy’. The only relief for the Harnett family came in the form of their grandmother, Bridget Halpin, who lived on a small farm five miles away in Camas.
The day of the pension my Nan came to town
In a flurry of hairpins with her shawl wrapped around,
With a dozen of eggs and maybe a half-crown
And a bag of new spuds in her ass-car.
He goes on to recount his childhood diet and it is clear that most of the produce was grown on that small farm in Camas by his Uncle Dinny Halpin and transported to town in his grandmother’s ass and cart!
We had turnips for dinner, we had turnips for tea,
and half-stones of pandy piled up on our plates;
we feasted on cabbage, we fattened on kale
and a feed of boiled meat if we smelt it!
Later he was to immortalise Bridget Halpin in his beautiful poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ using, at times, very unflattering language. He tells us that ‘she ate monotonous food’ such as the rural staples of the time bacon and cabbage. In her final days, he tells us she was reduced to eating ‘thin diminishing porridge / in a stone-cold kitchen’. For the poet, Bridget Halpin represents an Irishness which is out of step with modernity and ambivalent to any aesthetic conceptions of the world, ‘Ignorant, in the sense / she ate monotonous food / and thought the world was flat’, and defined by an intuitive spirituality, ‘pagan, in the sense / she knew the things that moved / at night were neither cats nor dogs’. In an interview with Victoria White published in TheIrish Times, Hartnett embellished this idea, that his close antecedents existed in a pre-modern Ireland where the Irish language still predominated, ‘My grandfather couldn’t speak English, and if you couldn’t, you couldn’t get a good price for a pig. If the pig was worth two and six and you came back with one and six, you got lashed’ (White 14). That Hartnett links the pre-modern sensibility which Irish represents for him with economic loss and subsequent physical pain encapsulates the colonial dynamic which saw the abandonment of Irish as a spoken language more broadly within the country. In this context Hartnett’s assertion at the very point of his departure from writing in English takes on a further resonance:
… I will not see
great men go down
who walked in rags
from town to town
finding English a necessary sin
the perfect language to sell pigs in.
Bridget Halpin’s cold kitchen, which is described so well in his poem ‘A Small Farm’, describes the quintessential Irish rural kitchen of the 1950’s:
Here were rosary beads,
A bleeding face,
The glinting doors
That did encase
Their cutler needs,
Their plates, their knives,
The cracked calendars
Of their lives.
It stands in direct contrast to the warmth of Heaney’s Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn and at the same time, Bridget Halpin’s kitchen bears great similarities to Moran’s kitchen in Great Meadow as depicted in John McGahern’s Amongst Women. In the 1940’s and 1950’s country farming society is built on manners, manners which are best seen at the dinner table. Hartnett’s later poetry and his attitude to food and cooking are heavily influenced by his formative years spent in Bridget Halpin’s kitchen in Camas. In his, as yet, limited experience kitchens are seen as scant, depressing places. Food is frugal and evokes a sense of lacking, not plenty.
Rural Camas in the early 1950’s still moved in a slow, seasonal rhythm. The annual ritual of killing the pig is described beautifully in the poem ‘Pigkilling’. Characteristically, Hartnett executes (pun intended!) the poetic tactic emphatically, the human actors in the ritual themselves becoming animalistic, drenched in the animal’s blood:
his smiling head
sees a delicate girl
up to her elbows
in a tub of blood (Collected Poems 125)
Hartnett, the central character in the poem, uses the pig’s bladder as a plaything: ‘I kicked his golden bladder / in the air’. Killing the pig was one of those joyful rituals in the rural community. During the killing of the pig, the blood was collected in a bucket for the making of puddings. The carcass would then be hung from a hook in the shed with a basin under its head to catch the drip, and a potato was often placed in the pig’s mouth to aid the dripping process. After a few days, the carcass would be dissected. The body was washed and then each piece that was to be preserved was carefully salted and placed neatly in a barrel and hermetically sealed. It was customary in parts of the midlands to add brown sugar to the barrel at this stage, while in other areas juniper berries were placed in the fire when hanging the hams and flitches (sides of bacon), wrapped in brown paper, in the chimney for smoking (Sharkey 166). While the killing was predominantly men’s work, it was the women who took most responsibility for the curing and smoking. Black Puddings have always been popular in Irish cuisine. The pig’s intestines were washed well and soaked in a stream, and a mixture of onions, lard, spices, oatmeal and flour were mixed with the blood and the mixture was stuffed into the casing and boiled for about an hour and then allowed to cool. It was customary that neighbours were then given some of this black pudding, fresh pork and sausages in the aftermath of every pigkilling putting into practice the old Irish proverb: Faoi scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine’ – (we all live in each other’s shadow).
Years later, his friend and fellow poet Tony Curtis noted presciently about Hartnett that, ‘While I couldn’t say he loved eating, he did love cooking’ (Curtis 170). From various interviews and recorded anecdotes regarding his attitude to food (as opposed to drink!) I would guess that food and cooking for Hartnett was a sort of therapy. While cooking for family or friends the metronomic carrying out of simple physical tasks allowed him to turn off the cerebral for a while at least. Dennis O’Driscoll in an interview conducted with Michael Hartnett in the Poetry Ireland offices on 12th December 1986 comments on his eclectic culinary tastes and we get a further glimpse of Hartnett the culinary enthusiast.
Most of my personal encounters with Michael were as random as dreams: chance meetings on the streets around his shopping and drinking haunts in central Dublin… Michael might be carrying a rattlebag of fresh oysters or a newly-minted circle of Lombardian focaccia. His tastes in poetry, as in food, could range far beyond Munster.
Later in the interview, O’Driscoll asks Hartnett if he is content as a writer and if there was something else he would have liked to have been. Hartnett replies:
I am a chef manqué all right; I trained as a chef for a while. Again that involves creation and the poaching of other men’s recipes and ideas. But as I started to write poetry, or verse at least, when I was thirteen years old, any ambitions I had in any other direction were pre-empted by that immediately.
On a totally different level Dermot Bolger who delivered the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture during Éigse Michael Hartnett in April 2017 recounted an incident which took place at his local chipshop 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 the sonnet ‘The Poet Dreams and Resolves’ he paints the very clichéd image of the artist at work, alone but not lonely. He requires few luxuries only ‘an adequate supply / of stout and spirits (or of stout only) / and some cigarettes, and writing paper, / and a little cheap food, ….’. This (self-perpetuated) image of Hartnett as a frugal monk, requiring only the very basics to live and create mirrors this ascetic existence dwelling ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ during the late ‘70’s and early 80’s.
It is clear that Michael Hartnett had a very varied relationship with Irish cuisine from the relatively vulgar turnips and pandy of earlier days in Newcastle West and Camas to the later more urbane ‘rattlebag of oysters’ in central Dublin. Section 3 of ‘A Farewell to English’ centres on Hartnett’s dissatisfaction with the cultural, political, and literary misappropriation and misuse of the Irish language. In it, he rather cheekily attacks W.B Yeats, the most pre-eminent Irish poet and Nobel Laureate of a previous generation, ‘Chef Yeats that master of the use of herbs’. Yeats’s use of Gaelic literary traditions and myth is criticized. However, the main reason I mention it here is because the language and imagery used by Hartnett is that of a master chef – ‘pinch of saga’, ‘soupcon of philosophy’, ‘carefully stirred’, ‘Anglo- Saxon stock’, ‘Cuchulainn’s marrow bones to marinate’, ‘simmered slow’ and Hey Presto, like the witches in Macbeth who dance about their cauldron, we concoct ‘the celebrated Anglo-Irish stew’.
As Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018 draws near we hope to likewise celebrate Hartnett’s genius with good poetry, good food (and some drink!) in the company of his family, friends and myriad followers.
Curtis, Tony. A Life in Poetry, p. 170.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2001.
Hartnett, Michael. ‘Wrestling with Ó Bruadair’, in Mac Reamoinn, S., The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry (London: Allen Lane, 1982).
Sharkey, Olive. Old Days Old Ways: An Illustrated Folk History of Ireland. Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1985.
White, Victoria. “Heartbreak in Two Languages” The Irish Times, (15th December 1994).
The Iron Bridge referred to here is a commemorative footbridge spanning the Arra River. it has been used for generations to facilitate Mass goers making their way on foot to the parish church in Newcastle West from Maiden Street and in more recent times from Assumpta Park, via The Mass Steps. The bridge was erected by the Devon Estate in 1866 to commemorate Edward Curling JP who had been the local agent for the Estate in Newcastle West in the nineteenth century. It is often referred to locally as the Curling Bridge and following recent restoration, the iconic bridge has once again been restored to its former glory.
Crossing the Iron Bridge
By Michael Hartnett
‘My dear brethren, boys and girls, today is a glorious day! Here we have a hundred lambs of our flock, the cream of the town, about to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, about to become Children of God, and to enter into a miraculous Union with Jesus ….’
Into the cobweb-coloured light,
my arms in white rosettes,
I walked up Maiden Street
across the Iron Bridge
to seek my Christ.
‘It will be a wonderful moment when the very Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ is placed upon your tongues – what joy there will be in Heaven! So many valuable little souls safely into the Fold! Look behind the Altar! There will be angels there, ascending and descending, singing songs of joy…’
Into the incense-coloured light,
my arms in white rosettes,
I walked the marbled floor
apast parental eyes
to seek my Christ.
‘Christ will be standing there in all His Glory, His Virgin Mother will smile and there will be a great singing in Heaven…’
Under the gilded candlelight,
my arms in white rosettes,
my mouth enclosed my God,
I waited at the rail
to find my Christ.
‘There will be the glow of God in your veins, your souls will be at one with Heaven: if you were to die today, angels would open the Gates of Paradise, and with great rejoicing bear you in …’
Back to the human-hampered light,
my arms in white rosettes,
I walked: my faith was dead.
Instead of glory on my tongue
there was the taste of bread.
This is a memory poem and the poet – now an adult – remembers his First Holy Communion Day which probably took place in 1948 or so. From an early age, we can see that the young Hartnett is not overly impressed by the flowery hyperbole, the sense of ceremony and ritual in his local parish church in Newcastle West. He tells us that instead of feeling ‘the glow of God in (his) veins’, he says very simply, without any adornment that ‘my faith was dead’.
There are two contrasting voices in this poem – the eloquent words of the priest who speaks in grandiose, biblical phrases and the very sparse, repetitive voice of a young boy of seven. The poem traces the young poet’s journey from his home in Maiden Street, across the Iron Bridge, up the aisle of the church to the altar rails. The poet, like a painter or photographer, notices the differing lights as he progresses: ‘cobweb-coloured light’, ‘incense-coloured light’, ‘gilded candlelight’, and finally ‘human-hampered light’.
The priest’s homily is worthy of our attention. Firstly, we have to remember that for the young listeners and their parents, family and friends these are the only words that they would have understood on this special day because Latin would have been used by the priest for the remainder of the ceremony. Secondly, while the majority of the homily uses classical biblical symbolism the poet impishly has him mix his metaphors here: ‘Here we have a hundred lambs of our flock, the cream of the town’. It is highly unlikely that the priest would have used the phrase ‘the cream of the town’ in this context. However, the allusion to ‘a hundred lambs’ is taken directly from the New Testament parable of the Lost Sheep or The Good Shepherd. Ironically, in the context of the poem the priest is already down to ninety-nine. The poet at seven casts himself as The Lost Sheep of the parish. Little wonder then that later in his seminal poem, ‘A Farewell to English’ he would boldly declare:
Poets with progress
make no peace or pact.
The act of poetry
is a rebel act.
As the poem develops, the exaggerated, formulaic words of the priest are interspersed with the young poet’s reactions – in a word, he is not impressed. The exaggerated language, the sense of ceremony, the ‘white rosettes’ on the sleeves of his good clothes all fail to impress. For months now he had been led to believe that as this day unfolded he would not only ‘seek’ but ‘find’ his Christ. As the ceremony ends his sense of disappointment and anti-climax is palpable.
Instead of glory on my tongue
there was the taste of bread.
As he makes his way on foot with his family across the iron bridge in the early morning he is conscious of the ‘cobweb-coloured light’. This is soon replaced for the young, observant First Communicant by scenes of grandeur in the church with ceremonial incense wafting through sunlight beams and ‘gilded candlelight’. As he makes his return journey, deflated and unmoved by the experience in the church, he is aware of the troubling juxtaposition. Once more he leaves the church, crosses the road and the iron bridge again on his homeward journey to Lower Maiden Street, ‘Back to human-hampered light’.
The poem could be interpreted as Hartnett’s equivalent of Stephen Dedalus’s ‘Non Serviam’ in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; his retrospective rejection of organised religion. Stephen had often trod the maze of Dublin streets seeking escape of one kind or another, and it is only when he crossed the bridge to Bull Island and stared out to sea that he finally glimpses the vision of true fulfilment. He cannot find this fulfilment without flight. 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.’ Hartnett also seeks to escape and in ‘A Farewell to English’ we read his own declaration of intent:
I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.
So Hartnett, too, rejects the nets which confine and constrict him and in an article written for The Irish Times in 1975 where he endeavoured to explain his reasons for changing to Gaelic, he declared that ‘I have no interest in Conradhs, Cumanns or churches’ – rejecting at one fell swoop well-meaning Irish language organisations, all political parties and the Catholic Church. Years later, in December 1986 in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll he makes the rather bold, even outrageous, tongue-in-cheek assertion:
I was never a Catholic …… I was fortunate to be born in a house where my father was not a Catholic. He was a socialist with Taoist leanings – though to say this is to talk with hindsight; like all poets, I can foretell the past.
Indeed, his poetry and other writing often contain unflattering references to the Catholic clergy, long before this became de rigueur. In Section 7 of his great poem ‘A Farewell to English,’ he confides in us that his voice is ‘nothing new’. He is not alone in trying to hew out a place for culture ‘in the clergy-cluttered south’. However, for those familiar with his poetry it has to be said that he reserves an even greater opprobrium for bishops!
In St. Michael’s Church
a plush bishop in his frock
On his homeward journey after the First Communion ceremony the young Lost Sheep again crosses the Iron Bridge and for him, it is akin to crossing his first Rubicon. Even then at that tender age of seven, like Stephen Dedalus, he has already decided to fly the nets of organised religion and in crossing the iron bridge he symbolically turns his back on all that this entails.
 Michael Hartnett. Why Write in Irish? The Irish Times (26th August 1975).
 The interview first appeared in Poetry Ireland Review (Autumn 1987).
Memories of the Past – Episode 80 filmed by the late John Joe Harrold – First Communion Day in Newcastle West.
Formative Influences on the young Michael Hartnett
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 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.
Indeed, prior an interview with the poet Dennis O’Driscoll which took place in the offices of Poetry Ireland on 12th December, 1986, Hartnett in a typically mischievous tone told his interviewer:
I always lie at interviews. I don’t lie as such, but I change my mind so often … I refuse to have what is known in the trade as a ‘coherent metaphysic’ (O’Driscoll, p.140).
So, therefore, we must approach with some caution the various and numerous claims made by the poet concerning his grandmother, Bridget Halpin. One credible explanation for many of these claims 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.
He was an ice-cream chimes ringing in an Inchicore estate.
He was the commotion stirred up at a country wake.
He was a game of hopscotch played in Maiden Street.
He was a plaintive flamenco note picked out by a gypsy.
He was the palpitation of hooves at a small-town horse fair.
He was a book-barrow dictionary, teeming with disused words.
He was a neglected cottage where a songbird nests.
He was the full-moon shedding light on Newcastle West.
– Dennis O’Driscoll
‘A Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999
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.
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.
 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.
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.