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.
We can ascribe various motivations for these claims by the poet but the most credible is that he wanted to portray his grandmother as the quintessential ‘nineteenth-century woman’ who never came to terms with the political, social and cultural changes which were brewing in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. He saw her as a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland. In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so his poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”, which he described as ‘an apology’ to his grandmother, can also be read as a post-colonial lament. Therefore, it would have been more convenient if she had been born in 1870 rather than 1885. Hartnett always considered Bridget Halpin to be a woman ‘out of her time’. She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13). To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
He has placed Bridget Halpin on a pedestal for his own good reasons. He saw in her a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseogs of the countryside. This is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn. There is an underlying paganism here which is absent from Kavanagh’s work, whose poetry, in general, is suffused with orthodox 1950’s Catholic belief, dogma and theology. For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, limited knowledge of the laws of physics, and therefore, as he points out in ‘Mrs Halpin and the Thunder’,
Her fear was not the simple fear of one
who does not know the source of thunder:
these were the ancient Irish gods
she had deserted for the sake of Christ.
However, Hartnett’s powers of observation and intuition were honed in Camas on Bridget Halpin’s small farm during his frequent visits. His poem, “A Small Farm”, has great significance for the poet and it is the first poem in his Collected Poems, edited by Peter Fallon and published by The Gallery Press in 2001. He tells us that he learnt much on that small farm during those lean years in the forties and early fifties,
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm,
how to do the neighbours harm
by magic, how to hate.
The struggle to make a success and eke out a living was a constant struggle and burden. The begrudgery of neighbours, the ‘bitterness over boggy land’, the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’ (“A Small Farm”). The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but interestingly Hartnett does not name this place, it is an Everyplace. The poem is simply titled, “A Small Farm” so there is no Inniskeen, Drummeril, or Black Shanco here but the harshness and brutality of existence, ‘the cracked calendars / of their lives’ (ibid) in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh. Yet, it is here that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and often to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ them and begins to notice the birds and the weeds and the grasses,
I was abandoned to their tragedies
and began to count the birds,
to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold,
and to avoid among my nameless weeds
the civil war of that household.
Later in, “For My Grandmother, Bridget Halpin”, he again alludes to the wildness, the paganism, the piseógs that surrounded him during his childhood in Camas. His grandmother’s worldview is almost feral. She looks to the landscape and the birds for information about the weather or impending events,
A bird’s hover,
seabird, blackbird, or bird of prey,
was rain, or death, or lost cattle.
This poorly educated woman reads the landscape and the skies as one would read a book,
The day’s warning, like red plovers
so etched and small the clouded sky,
was book to you, and true bible.
We know that Michael was in Morocco when Bridget Halpin died in 1965 in St. Ita’s Hospital in Newcastle West where she was being cared for. In this poem there is also a reference to his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin) who helped rear him and who was eventually to inherit the small farm from his mother, Bridget when she died,
You died in utter loneliness,
your acres left to the childless.
Hartnett is taking a great risk here, that of alienating those closest to him with his disparaging comments on his relations. We know that this trait of outspokenness was to become a feature of his art; his poetry was often scathing and rebellious. However, in this regard, surely the biggest risk he takes is in the first lines of “Death of an Irishwoman”, when he describes his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, as ‘ignorant’ and ‘pagan’. This is nearly as risky and risqué as Heaney’s bold and brave comparing of his wife to a skunk in the poem of that name! Only a favourite, a truly loved one could get away with such braggadocio! The poem’s ending, however, with its exquisite cascade of metaphors surely makes amends for his earlier gaffe.
Therefore, the townland of Camas and Bridget Halpin’s small farm holds a very special place and influence on Michael Hartnett’s psyche. His first published work appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955 while he was still in Sixth Class in the Courteney Boys School. He was thirteen. Entitled “Camas Road”, it describes in particular detail an evening rural vista of the townland of Camas, a place which would feature on numerous other occasions in his poetry, becoming central to his development as a poet. It is similar to Heaney’s “Sunlight” poems representing an idyllic childhood upbringing. Its two eight-line stanzas of alternating rhyme and regular metre contain a litany of natural images, at times idiosyncratically rendered; the ‘timid hare sits in the ditch’, ‘the soft lush hay that grows in fields’. It is a peculiar mix of a poem, seemingly authentic words and images from the poet’s experience placed together with those gleaned from the literary prop-box crafted by Manley Hopkins or Wordsworth, testament, no doubt, to the young poet’s voracious appetite for reading and possibly due to the influence of his teacher, Frank Finucane. It is doubly imitative, drawing upon the romantic tradition of nature poetry, as well as the more local genre, poems written by local poets, people, ‘like Ahern and Barry before me’ – poems written exclusively for local consumption. Thirteen-year-old Hartnett depicts an idyllic setting,
A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge,
A cottage thatched with golden straw,
The harshness of later poems is not evident and the poem serves as a record of his childhood in Camas surrounded by nature and its abundant riches. However, at poem’s end there is a growing awareness that this idyllic phase of his life is coming to an end and he declares rather poignantly,
The sun goes down on Camas Road.
The townland of Camas is also central to an episode which the poet recounts for us in his seminal poem, “A Farewell to English”. This encounter hovers somewhere between reality and dream, aisling (the Irish word for a vision) or epiphany. The incident takes place at Doody’s Cross as the poet walks out one summer’s Sunday evening from Newcastle West to the cottage in Camas. He is on his way to meet up with his uncle, Dinny Halpin. He sits down ‘on a gentle bench of grass’ to rest his weary feet after his exertions when he sees approaching him three spectral figures from the Bardic Gaelic past – Andrias Mac Craith, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, and Daíbhí Ó Bruadair. These ‘old men’ walked on ‘the summer road’ with
Sugán belts and long black coats
with big ashplants and half-sacks
of rags and bacon on their backs.
They pose as a rather pathetic group, ‘hungry, snot-nosed, half-drunk’ and they give him a withering glance before they take their separate ways to Croom, Meentogues and Cahirmoyle, the locations of their patronage, ‘a thousand years of history / in their pockets’. Here Hartnett is situating himself as their direct descendent and the inheritor of their craft and the enormity of this epiphany occurs at Doody’s Cross in Camas: the enormity of the task that lies ahead also terrifies and haunts Hartnett.
As another part of the myth that he had created, Hartnett always laid great emphasis on the fact that he had been born in Croom. He was immensely proud of this fact. In an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll for Poetry Ireland he stated:
I am the only ‘recognised’ living poet who was born in Croom, County Limerick, which was the seat of one of the last courts of poetry in Munster: Sean Ó Tuama and Andrias MacCraith. When I was quite young, I became very conscious of these poets and, so, read them very closely indeed (Dennis O’Driscoll Interview for Poetry Ireland, p, 143).
Andrias Mac Craith (c. 1709 – c. 1794), in particular, was an important influence on Hartnett. MacCraith had, for a time, very close associations with the town of Croom in County Limerick (although, it is believed, he had been born in Fanstown near Kilmallock). As already mentioned, Hartnett had long dined out on the fortuitous coincidence that he too had strong associations with Croom having been born there. However, he neglects to inform us that most of the babies born in Limerick in 1941 were also born in St. Nessan’s Maternity Hospital in Croom! He would have been in Croom for less than a week before he returned to Lower Maiden Street to the accommodation which his family rented from the eponymous Legsa Murphy who also owned a bakery near Forde’s Corner in Upper Maiden Street. However, in the mid to late 1700’s Andrias MacCraith, who was also known as An Mangaire Sugach or The Merry Pedlar (he was not a pedlar, but a roving schoolmaster), and his fellow poet and innkeeper, Sean Ó Tuama an Ghrinn (Sean O’Tuama The Merrymaker), had transformed Croom into a centre for poetry and the seat of one of the last ‘courts’ of Gaelic poetry. The town became somewhat notorious and became known widely as Cromadh an tSughachais, roughly translated as Croom of the Jubilations – (today it would obviously be known as Croom of the Craic)! Hartnett would have loved this vibrant, anarchic milieu and this is why Mac Craith had such an influence over him. Hartnett saw himself as a natural descendent of these poets and the motivation behind his ‘rebel act’ in 1974 was largely an effort to revive the interest in Irish, and poetry in Irish, which had earlier been generated by these poets who were known collectively as the Maigue Poets, in honour of the River Maigue which runs through Croom. His lovely poem, “A Visit to Croom, 1745” is his effort to recreate the tragic changes that were imminent, he tells us he had walked fourteen miles ‘in straw-roped overcoat’,
…… to hear a Gaelic court
Talk broken English of an English king.
As with almost everything that surrounds Hartnett, therefore, our task is to try to discern fact from fiction, myth from reality. We know that Hartnett was a frequent visitor to Camas until he was twelve or thirteen and that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, considered him to be her favourite grandson. We also know that there were fragile remnants of a dying language and culture and customs still evident in the area. His later momentous disavowal of his earlier work in English and his abandonment of his standing as an emerging poet in 1974 is not hugely surprising when we consider the influences brought to bear on him during those extremely important formative years in Camas. Surely those beautiful, descriptive, soothing Irish adjectives repeated as a mantra in “A Farewell to English”, ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’, which are used to describe the raven haired buxom barmaid in Moore’s Bar or Windle’s Bar in Carrickerry, could also be used to describe his grandmother, Bridget Halpin herself? The encounter depicted in the second section of the poem, “A Farewell to English”, and referred to earlier, can also be read as an example of Hartnett realising what he suggests artists do in his beautiful poem, “Struts”. He is,
……. climbing upwards into time
And climbing backwards into tradition.
So, Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris’s but it helped produce one of Ireland’s leading poets of any century. The influences absorbed in this rural setting, his powers of observation, his knowledge of wildlife and flowers, his ecocentric bias, are impressive and all-pervasive in his poetry. Without prejudice, it also has to be said that he demonstrates a deeper knowledge of all local flora and fauna than could be reasonably expected of a ‘townie’! In his own words, he has told us ‘no big lies’ and, though questionable, there was, we believe, ‘method in his madness’. When we examine closely his impressive body of work we notice that apart from Camas very few other rural places are mentioned or named in his poetry. He later left and went to Dublin, London, Madrid, Morocco but when he had work to finish he came back to rural West Limerick and to another beautiful neighbouring townland, Glendarragh, to embark on the work for which he will, if there is any justice, be best remembered.
‘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, p.143
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012.
Sources: My gratitude is extended to Joe Dore and John Cussen for their invaluable assistance in compiling this piece of research.
 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.
One of the most frequently recurring themes in Anglo-Irish literature is the flight or escape from a harsh environment. The linked themes of escape, exile and emigration are frequently found in drama, prose and poetry. One of its well-known representations is Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who chooses exile from his native land because he cannot come to terms with the authorities that hold its people in their grip. So, Stephen sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ In Philadelphia Here I Come!,Friel also explores the nature of Irish society fifty years after Joyce’s novel was written. This society is still governed by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster. The society that Gar is leaving has failed him and his generation. The question is will things be any better for Gar when he moves to Philadelphia?
Similarly, in an article in The Irish Times in the 1970’s local poet Michael Hartnett turns his hand to social commentary when he stated that Newcastle West in County Limerick,
‘is an Irish town that is not dying. It has kept its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings. It is the example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would certainly be ruined if those people born in the 30’s and 40’s had stayed at home en masse.
In Philadelphia Here I Come!, Brian Friel gives another particular instance of the ‘flight from the land’ theme in the story of Gar O’Donnell’s proposed emigration to America. Here, Friel shows his awareness of an older, oral tradition. Emigration is the subject of a vast number of Irish songs and ballads. It is particularly close to the Irish spirit, having been forced on us by the circumstances of our history. In this oral tradition, emigration is always viewed ambiguously. On the one hand, it offers escape from a hopeless environment, promising new opportunities that were unavailable at home. But on the other hand, it is also viewed with nostalgia and sadness, as the emigrant says his last farewell to his home, his family and his friends. It is this double aspect that makes emigration a suitable subject for drama and which Friel exploits with such effect in Philadelphia Here I Come!
However, Friel is also making a political point here. Many see the play as a covert criticism of De Valera’s vision of a self-sufficient Ireland of cosy homesteads and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. S.B and Máire marry on New Year’s Day 1937, the very day that De Valera’s new Irish Constitution comes into effect. Twenty-five years or so later and the product of that marriage, Gar O’Donnell, is packing his suitcase to head for Philadelphia in the morning.
The escape theme is emphatically present in the play right from the start. The first Episode begins in an optimistic mood as Gar considers his departure on the next morning. Life in Ballybeg is monotonous and offers little scope for his ambitions. America is considered to be the land of opportunity, where ambitions are fulfilled and fortunes are made. The thrust of this opening Episode is entirely towards release, freedom, escape: ‘Think ….up in that big bugger of a jet, with its snout belching smoke over Ireland…’ (p. 17). S. B. makes a brief entrance at this point in the play, and through him Friel expresses the type of life Gar wishes to escape from. S. B. is elderly and somewhat out of place in the modern world. So too is the business he owns. Gar emphatically rejects S.B.’s old-fashioned world. He speaks on numerous occasions of the weariness and boredom of weighing up sacks of flour and sugar, cleaning and salting fish, unloading barbed wire and sacks of spuds. To all of these unpleasant chores, he contrasts the broader horizons offered by American life. Initially, at least, he is in no doubt about the wisdom of his decision to emigrate.
Other events in the play serve to strengthen this decision even further. The characters of the play are seen by Gar as a somewhat pathetic group. As he sees it, they are all the victims of the restrictions imposed on them by their lives in Ballybeg. Gar wishes to escape to America before he too becomes like them. This emerges quite clearly in his conversation with Katie Doogan in Episode Two. Indeed in this conversation, the escape theme is most pronounced. Earlier in the play, Gar rejects Ireland in his reference to it as, ‘the land of the curlews and the snipe, the Aran sweater and the Irish Sweepstakes’ (p. 18-19). In his conversation with Katie his rejection is more emphatic, ‘I hate the place, and every stone, and every rock, and every piece of heather around it…’ (p. 81). (This is reminiscent of Kavanagh’s outburst in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, ‘I am king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’). On this occasion, it is principally the people of Ballybeg who lead him to this outburst. For example, Gar is impressed with Master Boyle’s visit; he is also impressed by the visit of ‘the boys’ later in the play. But on both these occasions, there is a common element to Gar’s reaction. He is not blinded to the failings of ‘the boys’ or of Master Boyle. The latter in particular has sacrificed his ideals for a life of quiet boredom in Ballybeg. Like Gar, he once had the opportunity to emigrate, but unlike Gar, he was unwilling to take it. There is a marked feeling of regret in Boyle’s conversation with Gar, a sense of having let life’s possibilities slip by. Boyle’s character is pathetically drawn. He is an isolated figure, unhappy with his situation, a lonesome bachelor, and a secret drinker. He is determined to escape from the environment that produces such characters as Master Boyle.
Indeed, it must be said that the escape theme is inextricably linked to the theme of escapist fantasy used by Friel in this and other plays in his oeuvre. At the root of this escapist fantasy lies a deep-seated dissatisfaction within every character with themselves and their environment. Gar has not attained a sufficient identity for himself in Ballybeg. Pulled towards the future and yet drawn backwards towards a sentimental vision of the past, he seeks to escape by running away to Philadelphia, which represents the solution to all his problems.
Ironically, as the play unfolds and we begin to glean insights into his character, we realise that escape will only intensify rather than solve any of his problems. He condemns Ballybeg for the very things which will solve his problems, love, affection, identity and warmth. Gar is no better at the conclusion of the play. Escape to Philadelphia, as Madge tells us, will solve nothing.
Master Boyle also compensates for his failure as a schoolteacher by dreaming up challenging professional situations in Boston. He tells Gar he has been offered a ‘big post’ in a ‘reputable university’ in Boston. Unable to face the reality of his own alcoholism he hides behind imaginative dreams of another world and unrealistic achievements.
The boys also indulge in this escapist fantasy. They come to say farewell to Gar on the night before he departs yet they spend their time indulging in monologues about themselves and their imagined exploits. Life in Ballybeg is more bearable when it is relieved by fantasy and escapism. Rather than admit their own inadequacies they hide behind bravado and loud talk. The visit of ‘the boys’ also confirms Gar in his decision to escape from Ballybeg. Superficially at least, ‘the boys’ and Master Boyle have little in common. They make a noisy entrance, speak loudly and with arrogance, whereas Master Boyle is quiet and soft-spoken. But Gar is aware of the characteristics shared by each of them. They are all ‘lost souls’. The future, which faces ‘the boys’, is as dim as that which has faced Master Boyle. They speak enthusiastically about themselves and their situation, but to Gar these words sound hollow. In the end he is forced to admit that they are ‘ignorant bloody louts’ who cover the meaninglessness of their situation with pretence and lies. Significantly, in his speech with Katie, Gar groups ‘the boys’ with Master Boyle, S.B., and Canon O’Byrne: they are all pathetic figures. They all confirm his decision to emigrate.
The escape theme in PhiladelphiaHere I Come! is not a simple one, however. To create a sense of drama Friel explores the theme from a contrary point of view. Friel uses the same technique as Kavanagh in ‘Stony Grey Soil’, a poem in which the escape theme is also evident. Kavanagh enumerates the aspects of his life in Monaghan, which led to his decision to leave. But he also provides a contrary statement at the end of the poem. In spite of all the hardships, which have been inflicted on him, he still feels some affection for Monaghan. The same feeling of affection is evident in Philadelphia Here I Come!, in spite even of Gar’s emphatic statements of rejection. As the play opens Gar is confirmed in his decision. But as the action progresses he is subjected to numerous situations, which remind him of the more pleasant aspects of Ballybeg and its people. As these situations continue to arise in the play, the desire to escape is made more complicated, and even meaningless. In the play, a definite bond of affection unites the characters, which is all the more touching because it is left unspoken. Gar’s relationship with Master Boyle, ‘the boys’, and S.B. is characterised by rejection. They have all, in part, contributed to his desire to escape. But his relationship with them also contains traces of affection. He is moved by the visits of Master Boyle and ‘the boys’ and is in a distressed state when they leave. His affection for S.B. is secretly expressed by Private throughout the play and is openly articulated to Madge at the end (p. 109). But in particular, his relationship with Katie Doogan represents a part of his life he is sorry to leave behind. As is usual with Gar, he speaks casually and with forced nonchalance. But his decision to emigrate, to become ‘100 per cent American’ (p. 82), is complicated by the affection he still feels for the ordinary mundane life of Ballybeg. In this way the escape theme is fully dramatised by Friel. Gar’s need to escape, coupled with the affection he feels for the people he is leaving, constitutes one of the effective conflicts of the play. Indeed, the ending is very inconclusive and we are left to wonder as we leave the theatre: well, did he ever leave or did he continue to live a life of futility fuelled by fantasy?
Private: God, Boy, why do you have to leave? Why? Why?
Public: I don’t know. I – I – I don’t know.
There is also a double-dimension to all Friel’s work. He tends to illustrate the same theme from different points of view – Gar leaving for Philadelphia and Lizzie who has come home. Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation. She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought. She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance. While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly. Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence giving us a perfect cameo of the reality behind many a ‘returned Yank’. and a rather stark reality check for Gar as he prepares to leave. Friel returned to this theme later in The Loves of Cass McGuire whichexplores the psychology of Cass as she returns from her emigration and exile. Gripping, often humorous, but steeped in compassion, Friel scripts a rich and complex portrait of a marginalised emigrant returning home. We can all easily empathise with Cass’s dilemma. She has returned to a world she cannot recognise and the play explores the difficulties she has in coming to terms with a life not as she imagined and the exclusions society now imposes upon her. Whereas, Philadelphia Here I Come! dealt with Gar’s physical act of emigration, The Loves of Cass McGuire deals with the psychology of returning and this marks it out as a very relevant work – indeed, it can be said of Cass, like many a returning exile, she comes back to a home that does not exist except in her fantasy.
So, we can see that the linked themes of escape, exile and emigration (and eventual return) are as relevant today as ever. Friel’s plays are at times caustic commentary on successive governments for their failures to provide for the people in their care. As Michael Hartnett also suggested in the 70’s we have been able to maintain our economic stability at a terrible price: ‘the constant exportation of human beings’.
Philadelphia Here I Come!, therefore, contains considerable political and psychological insights. Gar is a kind of ‘split-personality’ and we sense that he will have great difficulty coping with this schizophrenia wherever he ends up. He can escape from Ballybeg, from the small-town people who annoy him, but he can never be free from his own inner voice, constantly exploring, questioning, and rebuking.
Author’s Note: My favourite production of this play was by the Ardagh Drama Group in County Limerick, which was staged some time in the 1990’s. It featured a superb tour de force of a performance by Jim Liston as Gar Private. He was ably supported by sterling performances from Garry McMahon as SB, Margaret Enright as Madge, Senator Doogan was played by Sonny Crowley (RIP), Rory O’Donnell (RIP) was Lizzie’s browbeaten husband, Master Boyle was played by Tom Madigan and ‘the boys’ were superbly marshalled by Mike O’Flynn.
You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come!’ here
You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in Philadelphia Here I Come!” here
like black harpoons, fail against the whaleskin sky.
Wasps in this skyless summer have no place,
small quarrels swell to great and flooded rifts;
lime trees, prematurely old, decide to die.
The heavy steel-wool curtain never lifts.
Many cling to rafts of music but I,
I am not happy with the human race
aching for its sun-god – he kills as well –
I skip dripping in the shining rain
and feel the minute fingers tap my face
and breathing in St. Bartholomew’s bell
I look up to the sky and kiss the rain.
Some day I hope to write a fitting analysis of this beautiful sonnet – a commentary that will do it justice. In the meantime, I have to agree with my son Don who has suggested that this is Michael Hartnett’s best sonnet and a poem for which Hartnett deserves acclaim and greater recognition. Leaving Cert English Poetry course developers please note!
Ignorant, in the sense she ate monotonous food and thought the world was flat, and pagan, in the sense she knew the things that moved at night were neither dogs nor cats but púcas and darkfaced men, she nevertheless had fierce pride. But sentenced in the end to eat thin diminishing porridge in a stone-cold kitchen she clenched her brittle hands around a world she could not understand. I loved her from the day she died. She was a summer dance at the crossroads. She was a card game where a nose was broken. She was a song that nobody sings. She was a house ransacked by soldiers. She was a language seldom spoken. She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
Púcas: This was the Irish (Gaelic) term for pookas, hobgoblins, fairies. In the Irish language a man of African descent is described as a fear ghoirm, a “blue man”. In Irish, “an fear dubh” (“the black man”) exclusively denotes the devil, therefore, the reference to “darkfaced men” in this poem does not have any racial connotations!
A wake was a social gathering associated with death, usually held before a funeral. Traditionally, a wake took place in the house of the deceased with the body present.
In 1965 Michael Hartnett was in Morocco when his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, died at the age of 80. Hartnett had spent his formative years in Halpin’s simple, meagre cottage in Camas soaking up the stories and folklore of the area as she entertained her cronies in the mid to late 1940’s. She had a great array of Irish words in her vocabulary, many related to the animals of the countryside and life on the farm, although she and the family didn’t use Irish in everyday conversation. Nevertheless, her knowledge of Irish had an immense influence on the young Hartnett, who would go on to became as fluent in Irish as he was in English.
Camas is a hugely important place for Hartnett. It was there that his poetic gift was first recognised and cultivated, particularly by his grandmother. His first ever published poem was called ‘Camas Road’ and was published in The Limerick Weekly Echo on 18th June 1955. Hartnett was thirteen. This present poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, is his effort at an apology for not being there at her funeral – ‘I loved her from the day she died’.
Hartnett returned to his West Limerick roots in the mid-1970’s having made his famous declaration from the stage of the Peacock Theatre at an event organised by Goldsmith Press on June 4th, 1974. At that event, Hartnett informed the audience of his resolution to cease writing in English, stating that his “road towards Gaelic” had “been long and haphazard” and until then “a road travelled without purpose”. He reassured his audience that he had realised and come to terms with his identity while acknowledging that his “going into Gaelic simplified things” for him and provided answers which some considered to be naive but at least gave him “somewhere to stand”. Rediscovering and reinventing himself and the long forgotten echoes of his Gaelic past was a central project for Hartnett during those years in the 1970’s. Bridget Halpin played a significant role in this process.
Bridget Halpin is a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland. In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so the poem can be read as a post-colonial lament. According to Census returns for Camas in 1911, Bridget Halpin was 26, living with her husband Michael, ten years her elder. This would mean she was born in 1885, a time of cultural revival, coinciding with the founding of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association. Hartnett always considered her to be a woman ‘out of her time’. She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13). To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
There is a strong sense of regret for a lost generation in this poem and this is particularly in evidence in the poignancy of the line:
I loved her from the day she died.
What follows is a masterclass of poetic skill, the poet cherishes the memory of his lost muse with an epitaph made up exclusively of metaphors:
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
These metaphors conjure up an almost forgotten rural idyll: dances at the crossroads on summer evenings, the hustle and bustle of the rambling house with its card games and music sessions, slow airs and sean nós singing, sets and half-sets. Hartnett also veers into the political sphere with reference to The Black and Tans and the fraught Irish language question, which he sees as having been abandoned and neglected by successive governments since the foundation of the State, ‘Our government’s attitude is hostile and apathetic by turns’ (Walsh 126). His final metaphor:
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
captures the futility and frustration felt both by his grandmother and the poet himself at the relentless pace of change. Safia Moore, in her excellent blog, Top of the Tent, says of this metaphor that it encapsulates the notion of his grandmother as ‘being out of step with the utilitarian, modern world’.
In effect, Hartnett is not only writing the epitaph for his grandmother but for a unique and precious culture which he sees drifting towards oblivion through neglect. During these years in Newcastle West and in his cottage in nearby Glendarragh, Templeglantine, Hartnett wrote many such epitaphs for local people and their dying country crafts. This is a facet of Hartnett’s work which began with his grandmother, Mrs Halpin. (See Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith as one example of this). Therefore, in a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of Mrs Halpin here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of ancient crafts and customs which, with the progress of time, have become redundant. He has returned home to find things falling apart and that Time has thinned the ranks of the stalwarts of the town. His local poetry, in particular, takes on a nostalgic retrospection and features poems about those who have died, such as ‘Maiden Street Wake’, where he describes one such wake:
We shuffled round and waited.
Our respects were paid.
And then we ate soft biscuits
and drank lemonade.
This period in his life is, therefore, best depicted as a period of intense creativity and a series of well-documented farewells, best characterised by this poignant line from the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ where he ruefully declares:
old Maiden Street went to the graveyard.
Author’s Note: Students of Hartnett and aspiring academics will readily verify that Harnett, whether deliberately or mischievously, was a master of misinformation. The Youtube clip above is a perfect example of this. As he begins to introduce the poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ he states that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin was born in 1870 when, in fact, we know through Census returns for 1911 that she was born in 1885. He also says that she was 93 when she died when, in fact, if the Census returns are to believed, she was a mere 80!
‘A Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012
John McAuliffe, joint winner with Doireann Ní Ghriofa of the 2016 Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize says in The Clare Herald, “In his poem ‘Struts’, Michael Hartnett describes creatures who abide alone, each on their own ‘ledge, / seldom seeing each other — / hearing an occasional shout / above or below / and sometimes and most welcome / seeing fires like silver spirals / jump along the crevices‘. The poem could be describing poets (or academics?), who work alone (on their own ledges) and, every so often, hear good news and celebrate it at events like Éigse in Newcastle West every April.”
“This award is like one of those spiral-like fires. It’s both a confirmation and a great encouragement to receive the award, especially since I’ve been reading and thinking and talking about Michael Hartnett’s poems — the lyrics, the narratives, the ballads — for as long as I’ve been writing,” John said.
This year’s Éigse takes place in Newcastle West with the Official Opening and prize presentation on Thursday 14th April with the keynote address by poet, Rita Ann Higgins, one of this year’s judges along with Gerard Smyth.
Éigse continues throughout the town, in the schools, Library, Red Door Gallery, hospital and pubs until Saturday April 16th – culminating with Colum McCann (in the company of Colm Mac Con Iomaire who will provide musical accompaniment) reading from his work on Saturday evening at 8pm.
The breadth and diversity of the programme creates an ambience of warmth and conviviality that lends itself to lively gatherings, easy conversation and spirited debate. In other words……..