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!
Finally got round to doing an analysis of ‘Water Baby’! You can read it here.
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, probably the finest poet of his generation in the Republic, 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, Michael Hartnett informed the audience of his resolution to cease writing and publishing 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”. Hartnett, similar to what Sean Ó Riada had done in the 1960s, left Dublin and found refuge in rural West Limerick. (Ó Riada had forsaken Dublin for Baile Bhúirne in West Cork). According to Fintan O’Toole theses flights,
“were driven by a deep pessimism: there was no authentic way of being Irish in the cities, in the English language, in a European modernist tradition. The only future lay in the past, in a reconnection with the real people, the more rural the better “(O’Toole, 189).
Rediscovering and reinventing himself and the long forgotten echoes of his Gaelic past was, therefore, a central project during those years in the 1970’s.
Bridget Halpin and her small farm in Camas were central symbols in Hartnett’s search for authenticity. In Harnett’s mind, she symbolised all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland. In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so the poem can be read as a post-colonial lament. According to Census returns for Camas in 1911, Bridget Halpin was 26, living with her husband Michael, ten years her elder. This would mean she was born in 1885, a time of cultural revival, coinciding with the founding of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association. Hartnett always considered her to be a woman ‘out of her time’. She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13). To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,
she clenched her brittle hands around a world she could not understand.
There is a strong sense of regret for a lost generation in this poem and this is particularly in evidence in the poignancy of the line:
I loved her from the day she died.
What follows is a masterclass of poetic skill, the poet cherishes the memory of his lost muse with an epitaph made up exclusively of metaphors:
She was a summer dance at the crossroads. She was a card game where a nose was broken. She was a song that nobody sings. She was a house ransacked by soldiers. She was a language seldom spoken. She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
These metaphors conjure up an almost forgotten rural idyll: dances at the crossroads on summer evenings, the hustle and bustle of the rambling house with its card games and music sessions, slow airs and sean nós singing, sets and half-sets. Hartnett also veers into the political sphere with reference to The Black and Tans and the fraught Irish language question, which he sees as having been abandoned and neglected by successive governments since the foundation of the State, ‘Our government’s attitude is hostile and apathetic by turns’ (Walsh 126). His final metaphor:
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
captures the futility and frustration felt both by his grandmother and the poet himself at the relentless pace of change. Safia Moore, in her excellent blog, Top of the Tent, says of this metaphor that it encapsulates the notion of his grandmother as ‘being out of step with the utilitarian, modern world’.
In effect, Hartnett is not only writing the epitaph for his grandmother but for a unique and precious culture which he sees drifting towards oblivion through neglect. During these years in Newcastle West and in his cottage in nearby Glendarragh, Templeglantine, Hartnett wrote many such epitaphs for local people and their dying country crafts. This is a facet of Hartnett’s work which began with his grandmother, Mrs Halpin. (See Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith as one example of this). Therefore, in a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of Mrs Halpin here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of ancient crafts and customs which, with the progress of time, have become redundant. He has returned home to find things falling apart and that Time has thinned the ranks of the stalwarts of the town. His local poetry, in particular, takes on a nostalgic retrospection and features poems about those who have died, such as ‘Maiden Street Wake’, where he describes one such wake:
We shuffled round and waited. Our respects were paid. And then we ate soft biscuits and drank lemonade.
This period in his life is, therefore, best depicted as a period of intense creativity and a series of well-documented farewells, best characterised by this poignant line from the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ where he ruefully declares:
old Maiden Street went to the graveyard.
Author’s Note: Students of Hartnett and aspiring academics will readily verify that Harnett, whether deliberately or mischievously, was a master of misinformation. The Youtube clip above is a perfect example of this. As he begins to introduce the poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ he states that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin was born in 1870 when, in fact, we know through Census returns for 1911 that she was born in 1885. He also says that she was 93 when she died when, in fact, if the Census returns are to believed, she was a mere 80!
You might like to have a read of a more detailed exploration of Bridget Halpin’s obvious influence on her grandson, Michael Hartnett, here.
Collins, Pat. ‘A Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999.
O’Toole, Fintan. We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland since 1958, London: Head of Zeus, 2021.
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……..
Commentary: This poem was written as a tribute to John Kelly, one of the ‘old stock’, one of the characters of Maiden Street and the Coole. The Coole was an area in Newcastle West, which Michael Hartnett referred to as ‘The Claddagh of the town’. It encompassed an area running parallel to Lower Maiden Street, a lane behind what we now know as The Silver Dollar Bar.
In bygone days, Sean Kelly, John Kelly’s son tells us that there were three forges in Maiden Street – Big Sean Kelly’s forge was located in The Coole on the site of the present St. Vincent de Paul Charity Shop and his son, John Kelly, the subject of this epitaph, had a forge which was located in what Sean Kelly calls, ‘middle Maiden Street’. The third forge was O’Dwyer’s Forge and this was owned and worked by Bill O’Dwyer, father of the late Ned O’Dwyer. These forges were a focal point for the street and for the town, they were places where town and country met, where stories and news and gossip were exchanged, and where tall stories grew legs. During a fascinating walkabout during Éigse Michael Hartnett this year (2017), Sean Kelly and John Cussen gave a very interesting history of Maiden Street. Sean told his listeners that another source of industry in the street during the 19th century and early 20th century were the four natural sandpits which were located along the street – the street being fortuitously located at the end of an ice-age moraine. Forges were, however, an essential part of Irish rural life and farmers, in particular, used the services of the blacksmith to shoe their horses and make and repair their ploughs and iron gates and other farm utensils. Indeed in harsher, more troubled times the forge also doubled as an ‘armaments factory’ where ancient pikes, and rudimentary spears and swords were forged and tempered in a clandestine way and often ‘hidden in the thatch’. In a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of a man here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of an ancient craft which, with the progress of time, has become redundant.
In the Annual Observer, the journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, published in July 1979, Lizzie Sullivan, a long time resident of the Coole, referred to John Kelly’s father and his importance to the area:
“I can’t forget our blacksmith, Big Shaun Kelly. He had his forge in a part of the Coole. He was a fine type of a man, big and brave and he had a voice to go with it. Many a day the youths of the Coole spent in his forge. They used to love when they were asked to blow the bellows and Shaun would be singing or telling them stories as they made the sparks fly from the anvil. He used to have them shivering telling them all about Sprid na Bearna and the dead people he met going home on a Winter’s night. They believed every word he used to tell them”.
This epitaph, however, is composed to honour Big Shaun Kelly’s son, John, and like all epitaphs, this poem is short and sweet. In the opening stanza, death and funerals are generalised. Hartnett doesn’t seem to be talking about any particular death but remembers numerous funerals down the years and he refers to the funeral customs observed in the town. Quiet men standing at ‘street corners’ looked on the ‘grained wood’ of the coffin as it passed, either in ‘horse-hearse’ or ‘motor-hearse’, on its way to the old graveyard in Churchtown. There amid ‘the rain-dumbed tombs’ it was customary to speak well of the dead:
go, talk his life, chapter and verse,
and of the dead say nothing but good.
The second stanza presents us with the real epitaph. It is short, personalised and very well crafted. Everyone in Maiden Street will remember the ring of the anvil on a ‘Monday morning’ and Hartnett uses a lovely simile to remember his friend: Heaney uses the image of an ‘unpredictable fantail of sparks’ coming from the anvil in his poem, ‘The Forge’, and here those sparks from John Kelly’s anvil are compared to money falling on the ‘footpath flags’. His exquisite use of assonance and alliteration in these short lines emphasises his poetic craft. The poem is also noted for its use of compound words such as ‘horse-hearse’, ‘motor-hearse’, and ‘rain-dumbed tombs’, which hopefully, in time, will be used as an excellent example of alliterative assonantal onomatopoeia!
In ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, Hartnett similarly remembers with fondness the work of John Kelly:
I awoke one fine morning down in Maiden Street
to John Kelly’s forge-music ringing so sweet,
saw the sparks flying out like thick golden sleet
from the force of his hammer and anvil:
and the red horse-shoes spat in their bucket of steam
and the big horses bucked and their white eyes did gleam
nineteen forty-nine I remember the year –
the first time I got my new sandals.
There is a strong ‘local’ element to Hartnett’s writing – he tells us in Maiden Street Ballad that,
A poet’s not a poet until the day he
can write a few songs for his people.
This loyalty to his native place and space and the people who live there is admirable and is acknowledged with gratitude by those same locals to this day. Seamus Heaney, in his introduction to John McDonagh and Stephen Newman’s collection of essays on Hartnett, entitled Remembering Michael Hartnett, says that,
Solidarity with the local community and a shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye relationship with local people distinguish Hartnett and make him the authentic heir to the poets of the Maigue.
These local people, John Kelly and his father before him included, had a great influence on the young Hartnett as Heaney also points out in that same introduction:
The young Hartnett rang the bell, and images from the world of the smithy would turn up in some of his most haunting work, as when a rib of grey in a woman’s hair is compared to a fine steel, ‘filing on a forge floor’ (‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney’).
But I’ll leave the last word to Lizzie Sullivan remembering Big Shaun Kelly and his contribution to life in Maiden Street and The Coole :
“When the circus was coming to town, Shaun the Smith would be talking for days before it came… It was lovely to see all the fine horses and ponies. There would be thirty or forty going up to Kelly’s Forge. Then, when the circus was gone away he would be still talking about it for days. He would let Sprid na Bearna rest, and all the other ghosts he used to see. He made many a one happy, especially the young lads listening to him….. God be with the Coole and all the fine people that are gone!”
 Hartnett assures us in a footnote to ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ that to qualify as ‘old stock’ a family had to be established in the town for at least three generations. He goes on to say that the phrase can also be very useful if you meet someone in the street and you can’t remember their name!
McDonagh, John and Newman, Stephen eds. Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2006
Newcastle West Historical Society publishers of ‘Newcastle West in Close Up – Snapshots of an Irish Provincial Town’ (2017).
killing tribes of ragworth that were yellow-browed:
we were such golden children, never to be dust
singing in the street alive and loud:
‘There’s a lady from the mountains
Who she is I cannot tell,
All she wants is gold and silver
And a fine young gentleman’.
Commentary: In the preface to the beautiful, bitter sweet ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, which Hartnett wrote as a Christmas present for his father, Denis Hartnett, in December 1980, he writes:
Everyone has a Maiden Street. It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics; in short the street of youth.
This earlier poem published in 1967 is one of Michael Hartnett’s most romantic, sentimental and nostalgic poems about the street where he was reared as a child in the 1940’s. It is a poem brimming with childhood games and activities – all outdoors by the way! The games ‘came in their seasons’, throwing horseshoes, bowling, cracking chestnuts, playing sceilg and then there was street entertainment as they watched ‘the tinkers fight it out’.
Hartnett himself in an article in The Irish Times in the 1970’s explains the games that were played in Maiden Street in his early years:
Old customs survived for a long time. I played ‘Skeilg’ once a year, chasing unmarried girls with ropes through the street, threatening to take them to Skeilg Mhicíl; I lit bonfires along the street on Bonfire Night; I put pebbles in a toisín (a twisted cone of paper in which shopkeepers sold sweets) and threw it on the road. If anyone picked it up and opened it, you lost your warts, a pebble for each one in the paper, and the person who picked up the paper took the warts from me of his own free will.
Each stanza comes to an end with a lyrical, lilting skipping-rope incantation. The poet looks back with nostalgia to a time of childhood innocence and the grinding poverty experienced by all in Lower Maiden Street during the ‘40’s is set aside for a time at least.
While the games and activities mentioned in the first stanza are mainly autumnal, those of the second stanza take place in high summer – similar to Kavanagh’s Canal Bank poems. Here the children play in the road drawing with coloured chalks on the footpath or fishing for minnows or crayfish in the Arra as it flows down North Quay and continues on parallel to Maiden Street. They fished using jam-jars or tin cans and they imagined them to be Spanish ‘galleons’ bobbing in the stream. The imagination of the young children is again highlighted as the young urchins from the ‘golden road’ carry out military-like incursions into the surrounding countryside, with sticks for swords, as they kill ‘tribes of ragworth’, the yellow perennial weeds which were the bane of every farmer’s life in the country. The stanza then ends with the beautiful, poignant phrase:
‘We were such golden children, never to be dust’
Many poets, such as Seamus Heaney and Dylan Thomas, have also romanticised their childhood and maybe its just that human nature has decreed that we look back on our childhood through rose-tinted glasses. However, our memory is never a good witness: Hartnett’s mood here resembles Dylan Thomas in Fern Hill; childhood is forever remembered as high summer and ‘it was all shining, it was Adam and maiden’. There is a fairytale, Garden of Eden, ‘Mossbawn kitchen’ element to this poem also with its lilting chorus and his references to the ‘golden road’ in stanza one and the ‘golden children’ in stanza two.
The object of this poem, and also the much longer ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, is to evoke and preserve ‘times past’ and to do so without being too sentimental and maudlin. Hartnett has said elsewhere that, ‘Maiden Street was no Tír na nÓg’, and he admonishes us that:
Too many of our songs (and poems) gloss over the hardships of the ‘good old days’ and omit the facts of hunger, bad sanitation and child-neglect.
It is quite obvious that he hasn’t taken his own advice when writing this poem! He has written eloquently about the hardship and poverty experienced during those early years, particularly in his prose writing where he shows a great aptitude as an incisive and insightful social commentator. However here in this poem, the poet, now in his twenties, recalls a happy childhood, living in his own imaginative world playing on ‘the golden road’ or along the banks of the Arra River.
‘Such golden children never to be dust….’
Check out my take on the etymology of the street namehere
This piece of incisive and insightful social commentary, written by the poet himself, describing life in Newcastle West in the 1950’s, first appeared in Magill magazine in December 1977 and later in the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, The Annual Observer, in July 1979. Hartnett, the poet, was back in town and the dam burst of memory and nostalgia was beginning, culminating with the bitter sweet Maiden Street Ballad, written as a Christmas present for his father, Denis Hartnett, in December 1980.
Christmas in Maiden Street By Michael Hartnett
A shouting farmer with a shotgun, a few patch-trousered urchins, soaked, snotty and unrepentant, running across wet fields, arms full of holly. The long walk on the railway tracks, the sleepers treacherous and slimy, the dark station, the lamp posts with their glittering circular rainbows. We stopped at the shops’ red windows to admire toys we could never have. A few drunks waltzed by, happy and moronic. An open lorry went by to jeers and obscenities; the pluckers, shawled and snuff-nosed, on their way to a flea-filled poultry store to pluck turkeys at nine pence a head.
Candles and paraffin-lamps did not brighten the darkness in kitchens in Maiden Street – they only made the gloom amber. The purloined holly hung on holy pictures. There were no balloons, no paper chains, no Christmas trees. Coal was bought by the half-stone, butter by the quarter-pound, and tea by the half-ounce. The country people trotted by on donkey and cart or pony and trap with ‘The Christmas’ stones of sugar, pounds of tea. Women in shawls and second-hand coats from America stood at half-doors, their credit exhausted, while the spectre of Santa Claus loomed malevolently over the slates and thatch.
Members of Charitable Institutions distributed turf and boots, God Blessing the meagre kitchens, as hated as the rent-man. They stood well-dressed on the stone floors, were sirred and doffed at. They paid their workers slave wages. They looked without pity at the nailed together chairs, the worn oilcloth-topped tables, the dead fires.
Outside, the rain fell and blew along the street. The tinkers fought. Bonfires died out in the drizzle. We were washed and put to bed, happy and under-nourished. The oldest went to Midnight Mass. The Latin was magic, the organ, the big choir. It always seemed like a romantic time to die.
It was a Christmas of tin soldiers, tin aeroplanes and cardboard gimcracks. We were Cisco, Batman, Johnny McBrown all that day. Our presents – ‘purties’ we called them – seldom lasted longer than that day. It never snowed. There was no turkey, no plum-pudding, no mince-pies. The Victorian Christmas was not yet compulsory. The very poor managed roast meat, usually mutton. We often rose to two cocks. The goose was common. There was a fruit-cake, jelly and custard; the dinner of the year. I never remember drink being in the house. There were never visitors, nor were we encouraged to visit anyone. If the day had been anyway fine, we were to be found on the footpath or in the puddles, knuckles blue.
The Wren’s Day always brought frost. Small warm heads came from under rough blankets to the sound of flutes and banjos and bodhrans far up the street. We donned boot polish and lipstick and old dresses and went out to follow the Wren, tuneless chancers. We sang and giggled our way to a few bob and a glass of lemonade. The back kitchens of the pubs filled up with musicians, the musicians filled up with porter and their wives filled up with apprehension. In a few hours, winter took over again.
There will never be Christmasses like those again, I hope to God.
Michael Hartnett was an esteemed poet from a young age, but his assurance about his creative destiny had its dangers. In the following edited essay, first published in The Irish Times on February 16th, 2009, MICHAEL SMITH recalls a significant artist whose early death at 58 on the 13th of October, 1999 can be viewed as an accident of time and place.
The author, Michael Smith himself, poet and Aosdána member, passed away in November 2014. His contribution to the arts as a teacher, poet, editor, translator and publisher cannot be overstated. He had a profound impact on the Irish literary scene.He has been described as a classical modernist, a poet of modern life. Born in Dublin in 1942, Michael Smith was the founder of New Writers’ Press in 1967 and had been responsible for the publication of over 100 books and magazines. He was keen to promote the modernist tradition in Irish poetry, publishing the work of Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin, Anthony Cronin, and Michael Hartnett, among others.
As with many relationships, even the most intimate, it is often extremely difficult to pinpoint the original meeting. I can only say that it was in the early stage of our enrolment in UCD that I first met Michael Hartnett. I cannot recall the circumstances of that first meeting. I can’t even remember what academic subjects Michael had chosen. What I do remember is that James Liddy (and perhaps John Jordan) had agreed to pay his first year’s fees. So the lad from Newcastle West in Co Limerick was indeed going to receive some patronage. This patronage was bestowed purely on the strength of his poetry. Michael was recognised as a gifted poet from a relatively early age, and quite rightly so.
Michael almost never attended a lecture, so far as I recall. I was little better myself. The whole novelty of being university students was more than enough for both of us. Study was for others. Unlike Michael, I was deeply rooted in my Dublin working-class background, whereas, for Michael, Dublin was a kind of playground, despite his Limerick working-class background. But that working-class background was something we shared.
I think Michael had no other ambition than to be a poet. I think he gave little thought to how he would survive financially in the future. Was he feckless in this regard? Probably. Did he come to Dublin with the naivety of Kavanagh, expecting wonderful things? I doubt it. He didn’t have that innocence. On the other hand, he wasn’t cynical. John Jordan and James Liddy had accepted him as a gifted poet. The future was in the lap of the Muse.
What memories I have of him are selective, like all memories, I suppose. Often we would walk home together after a drinking session in McDaid’s, where we were usually treated to drinks by James Liddy and his friend, Patrick Clancy. Patrick Kavanagh was still holding vociferous court there at the time. Michael had already had his first confrontation with Kavanagh in the Bailey at the launch of the first issue of Poetry Ireland, edited by John Jordan and published by the Dolmen Press. That confrontation is too notorious to need detailed repetition. Michael made an adverse comment on Kavanagh’s poem (to Kavanagh himself, although Michael didn’t know who he was) that begins: “I am here in a garage in Monaghan.” Kavanagh’s reaction was violent, upturning a table full of drinks.
Michael was living in digs in a cul-de-sac off the North Strand, so our walk home often overlapped. I recall him voicing his strong disapproval of Kavanagh’s raucous behaviour in McDaid’s, saying that if anyone in Newcastle West behaved like that, he would be barred from the pub, and why should a poet be made an exception of.
He had great admiration for Yeats, though, oddly, not so much as a poet but as a businessman. He admired Yeats’s business acumen.
In his digs, under the bed, Michael had a small brown cardboard suitcase which he opened for me once to show me a huge quantity of beautifully scripted poems. I sometimes wonder what happened to all of this material.
There were, of course, other young poets in UCD at the time: Paul Durcan, Macdara Woods, Brian Lynch, Eamon Grennan, Malachy Higgins, to mention just a few names that come to mind.
In the case of the first three, and including myself, James Liddy was undoubtedly the extraordinarily generous mentor, with John Jordan a reserved encourager.
Of all of us, it was Michael who was held in the highest esteem by both John and James. And that esteem was well-deserved, for Michael arrived in Dublin as an already accomplished poet who was not looking for, nor needing any, teachers in the art of poetry. Much has been made of Lorca’s influence on Michael, largely because of his later version of Lorca’s Romancero Gitano, but really it has more to do with the precocity of the early work of both poets.
I have never met any poet who was more assured of himself as a poet than Michael was. It was his destiny. All else seemed of secondary importance. But however impressed by that I was, I sensed a danger in it, recalling Wordsworth’s lines in his poem “Resolution and Independence”:
We poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end, despondency and madness.
I knew, and indeed Michael knew, that there was no money in poetry (Kavanagh had learnt that years before) and that he would have to earn his living at some stage in the future – but he seemed unconcerned by this. Writing poetry was a lifetime’s work, regardless. I sometimes think that a lot of Michael’s problems of later years came from that dedication. Yes, he did later earn his living in the international telephone exchange on Andrews Street, but he found it boring and was only too glad to escape from it (even during working hours) and head for O’Neill’s of Suffolk Street to drink pints with some other of his escapee colleagues from the exchange.
And Michael was good company, a wonderful raconteur, witty, and possessing a fund of knowledge of all sorts of arcane subjects. He had an extraordinary memory. Yet always it was as the poet that he was treated, in whatever company he found himself. That was the identity he had chosen or had been chosen for him. I think he never abandoned that. And therein lay a danger, the same sort of danger that beset Dylan Thomas, for one cannot always be a poet. There has to be a life apart from being a poet, at least for poets without personal financial resources or the resources of a generous benefactor. Ezra Pound had his wife’s money behind him, and also financial support from his doting father. Neither Michael nor Dylan Thomas had anything of the sort.
For Thomas there was the horrible scrounging and, later, the equally horrible American readings. For Michael, after his stint in the exchange, there was very little, and he seemed to live a hand-to-mouth existence, even when later he returned to Newcastle West with his wife, Rosemary, and their two children. Later, a cnuas from Aosdána came in useful, and some prizes he won and some royalties he managed to squeeze out of publishers.
To attempt to be a professional poet in Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a recipe for trouble. The days of the literary salons, such as Æ’s, were well and truly over. That left the pub, which unfortunately became Michael’s court, where he met his admirers who provided him with the kind companionship he needed, treating him to drinks and accepting him as a poet.
Was there anything else he might have done, any alternative? There was not at the time any such thing in Ireland as a poet in residence. So Michael made do with what was available.
A poet is not like a novelist who must toil daily and for long hours if he or she is to be productive. For the poet, the Muse is fickle and her visits are not on demand. So the poet must wait, never sure what the future holds for his work. When his own lyrical gift began to fail (though not until he had written some of the best poems written by an Irish poet in his time), Michael turned to translations from the Irish, translation always being a good means of keeping one’s skills honed.
Why did Michael turn to writing his own poetry in Irish? I think that this, too, was part of his attempt to be accepted socially as a professional poet. After all, in the old Gaelic order there had been such an acceptance. That order, however, was long gone and could never be recovered. After his early-evening court sessions in Doheny and Nesbitt’s, his admirers (often cultivated and literary civil servants) would head off to their respectable homes in the suburbs, leaving Michael as an abandoned court jester (which, in due course, he was becoming). Let it be said that there was no malice in this among those who patronised Michael with drink and small loans of money. But they had families at home and a job to do the next day.
Michael’s early death, whatever the medical causes, can be viewed as an accident of time and place. In a sense, he was a martyr to poetry. Gifted, even a genius, but nonetheless a martyr. If only . . . It’s useless now to ponder such possibilities.