One side of the potato-pits was white with frost – How wonderful that was, how wonderful! And when we put our ears to the paling-post The music that came out was magical.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree With its December-glinting fruit we saw – O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay And death the germ within it! Now and then I can remember something of the gay Garden that was childhood’s. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place, A green stone lying sideways in a ditch, Or any common sight, the transfigured face Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodeon Outside at our gate; There were stars in the morning east And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodeon called To Lennons and Callans. As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside in the cow-house my mother Made the music of milking; The light of her stable-lamp was a star And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog, Mass-going feet Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes, Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters On the grey stone, In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland, The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over Cassidy’s hanging hill, I looked and three whin bushes rode across The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.
And old man passing said: ‘Can’t he make it talk’ – The melodeon. I hid in the doorway And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post With my penknife’s big blade – There was a little one for cutting tobacco. And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodeon, My mother milked the cows, And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
From Collected Poems (2004). Edited by Antoinette Quinn, Allen Lane. An imprint of Penguin Books, by kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of the late Katherine B. Kavanagh, through the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.
In this, one of Ireland’s most beloved and recognised poems, ‘A Christmas Childhood’, Kavanagh (21 October 1904 – 30 November 1967) explores themes of memory, coming of age, and imagination. The poem is set in 1910 and it is a memory poem. We are told that Kavanagh was ‘six Christmases of age’ but the poem also remembers and celebrates the original Christmas event almost two thousand years earlier. The poet is looking back on the magical and mysterious world of childhood and he is mourning its passing with some regret.
The poet recognises that his childhood was a time when the ordinary seemed extraordinary. Through figurative language and colourful imagery, he paints a picture of his early childhood and what it meant to be a child in those difficult times. In line one, we are presented with a factual and accurate description: ‘One side of the potato-pits was white with frost’ and line two is powered with emotion. The tone, the use of repetition and the exclamation mark in ‘How wonderful that was, how wonderful!’ convey wonder and excitement.
Similar to his poem ‘Advent’, this poem uses religion both as a theme and as its main source of imagery. Kavanagh’s spirituality is to the fore and this was very much informed and influenced by traditional pre-Vatican II Catholic theology. He desires to return to the state of childish innocence when he was six years old and Christmas surely brings out the child in all of us! Kavanagh’s well-worn theory was that if he could rediscover a world of childhood innocence he would ipso facto become a better poet. Indeed, the poem’s title gives the game away: he describes his childhood as ‘a Christmas childhood’ rather than the more limiting ‘a childhood Christmas’.
Both ‘Advent’ and ‘A Christmas Childhood’, therefore, are very religious poems – religious at a very personal level. Kavanagh’s feeling is that experience has corrupted him – in ‘Advent’ he tells us that he has ‘tested and tasted too much’ and this has echoes in this poem when he says:
O you Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it!
He wants to bring back the newness that was in the world before things grew stale through over-familiarity. In ‘Advent’ he lists the mundane things that will inspire him in the New Year: a ‘black slanting Ulster hill’ will be new again; the boring chat of a tedious old man will become wonderful; the whole ordinary, ‘banal’, common world of reality will be renewed; wonderful then will be ‘whins’, ‘bog holes’, ‘cart-tracks’, ‘old stables’. To this list, he now adds ‘potato pits’, ‘paling posts’ and,
The tracks of cattle to a drinking place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch …
The poem is in two parts: Part II first appeared in The Bell magazine (December 1940) and Part I was published in TheIrish Press (24 December 1943). Part I describes the townland of Mucker in the parish of Inniskeen, County Monaghan, and explores, from an adult’s perspective, how childhood is a time of innocence, an innocence that we inevitably lose. As a child he saw ‘An apple tree/ With its December-glinting fruit’ but just as Eve ate the apple which led to man’s Fall and sinful state, Kavanagh knows that as we leave childhood behind us we lose our innocence. The Garden of Eden is no more; but Christmas is a time when an Eden-like world becomes possible. Adulthood, says Kavanagh, blinds us to the beauty, freshness and innocence of childhood but it can be recaptured occasionally, especially at Christmas time.
Part II of the poem introduces a cast of characters – Kavanagh’s father, his beloved mother, and the neighbours. In Antoinette Quinn’s words ‘Through a series of crisp, lucid images it conjures up the child’s sense of being part of a family and a closely-knit Catholic community’. Everything is in harmony and the poem is very musical. We hear his father’s melodeon, the music that came from putting his ear to the paling-post, the music of milking, the screech of the water-hen in the nearby bog, the crunch of feet on the icy potholes along the road and also the sound of the bellows wheel in the country kitchen. And of course, the beautiful onomatopoeic line ‘I nicked six nicks on the doorpost’ which creates its own marvellous music also. The melodeon calls to the Lennons and Callans and the stars dance to his father’s music. The music unites one place to another and neighbour to neighbour. The imagery of Co. Monaghan blends with imagery from the Biblical account of Christ’s birth: ‘The light of her stable-lamp was a star’ and the ‘three whin bushes’ become ‘the Three Wise Kings’.
The poem sums up his Christmases and the things that made them memorable and precious to him – his father playing the melodeon, his mother milking the cows, the special gift of ‘a white rose’ that he gave to the Virgin and pinned it on her blouse. He was a real boy – can I say that now? – he notched his age on the doorpost – not six years but ‘six Christmases of age’!
When all is said and done ‘A Christmas Childhood’ is a chatty little poem that deals with simple things in simple, everyday language. Yet this seemingly rustic simplicity can be deceptive and underneath it all, there is the constant realisation of the presence of Christ and Christ’s mother – and perhaps all mothers. After all, the final image is that of a father and mother and child, an ordinary family and the Holy Family.
Little wonder then that at Kavanagh’s funeral in Inniskeen on the 30th of November 1967, Seamus Heaney read ‘A Christmas Childhood’ at his graveside.
Kavanagh, Patrick. Collected Poems. Edited by Antoinette Quinn. Allen Lane. An imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2004.
Quinn, Antoinette. Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography. (Second Edition). Gill Books, 2003.
Rebel Acts: Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague and Michael Hartnett
The Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture, 2 October 2021
I have always been interested in the fact that Ireland’s era of supreme literary achievement – the time of Yeats and Joyce – coincided with its age of political transformation in the opening decades of the 20th century. This has given me an interest in what I call ‘history poems’, poetry that addresses issues of a political or societal nature.
Was this really a coincidence, or was the flowering of Irish literature in the first third of the 20th century somehow bound up with Ireland’s torrid escape from external rule in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Were Irish literature and early 20th century Irish history two sides of the same coin?
During my student days in Cork, I was friendly with a number of up-and-coming poets who emerged there under the guidance of John Montague, who taught English at UCC. I refer to Tom McCarthy, Sean Dunne, Theo Dorgan and Pat Crotty. Although I could never write a line of verse myself as I do not have the gift or the courage for self-revelation of the kind that good poetry requires, I had an interest in poetry. It was through that interest that I met Michael Hartnett briefly when he came to UCC to do a reading there in the mid-1970s.
That was about the time when ‘A Farewell to English’ was published and I was intrigued by his caustic evocation of the ‘paradise of files and paper clips’. That seemed especially pertinent to me as I was about to join the Irish civil service. At the time, I was writing an MA thesis which explored the borderlands between literature and history. I made use of ‘A Farewell to English’ in that study in order to point out that our writers continued to have an awkward interface with Irish society and politics in the 1970s. Some of the lines from Hartnett’s poem have stayed in my mind throughout the intervening decades.
Hartnett’s poem reflected the disenchantment I had encountered elsewhere in Ireland’s literary canon. It seemed as if our writers acted as a kind of informal opposition to the conventions, pieties if you will, of independent Ireland.
I have long detected similarities between ‘A Farewell to English’ and Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’ and John Montague’s ‘The Rough Field’, three public poems that address key themes from experience as an independent country. In this talk, I want to reflect on those three poems all of which exhibit a crusading tone. Between them they offer a kind of potted history of 20th century Ireland, retold by three acute, articulate observers.
In ‘The Great Hunger’, Patrick Kavanagh excoriates the failings of rural Ireland. John Montague’s ‘Rough Field’ explores the sectarian conflicts and tensions that abounded in his home place, Garvaghey in County Tyrone. In Hartnett’s case, disappointment with the Ireland he knew runs through his poem. Between them, the three poets raise dissenting voices, disaffected from aspects of the Ireland they knew. They tell us something about 20th century Ireland. If journalism is the first draft of history as has been claimed, then literature is perhaps its second draft. Literary evidence also lives on in the public imagination in ways that other parts of our documentary archive does not.
The three poems do not, of course, tell us everything about 20th century Ireland, just as ‘Easter 1916’ does not give a full picture of the 1916 Rising, but that poem does capture something of the essences of the Rising. For their part, Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett give us snatches of commentary on 20th century Irish life. What do they tell us?
The Great Hunger:
Reading it again in recent weeks, it is hard not to be deeply impressed with ‘The Great Hunger’(1942). It’s one hell of an achievement, even if the world it depicts has an antiquarian feel in the Ireland of Google, Starbuck’s and Amazon etc.
In a 1949 interview with The Bell, Kavanagh bragged that he was “the only man who has written in our time about rural Ireland from the inside” and that was fair comment. What I think he meant was that Yeats and other writers of the literary revival had spied rural Ireland from the outside, idealizing it in the process. Kavanagh had written about it at close quarters from his ungainly perch at Inniskeen in County Monaghan. Kavanagh certainly didn’t follow Yeats’s exhortation to ’sing the peasantry’ or to embrace the dream of ‘the noble and the beggarman’.
What we get in ‘The Great Hunger’ is a furiously gritty immersion in what the poet called
the apocalypse of clay
In every corner of this land.
This is what one critic has called an ‘anti-pastoral’ poem. The poet Brendan Kennelly has described ‘The Great Hunger’ as ‘a necessary realistic outburst from an essentially transcendental imagination.’ The tone is this poem is very different from Kavanagh’s better-known short poems, where his attitude to rural Ireland is more wistful. Here it is fierce. He pulls no punches in his evocation of the sexual frustrations of ‘poor Paddy Maguire’ and his fellow potato gatherers who are like ‘mechanised scarecrows’ ‘broken-backed over the Book of Death’.
Maguire is a man whose spirit:
Is a wet sack flapping about the knees of time.
He is not the ‘wise and simple man’ with the ‘sun freckled face’ as in Yeats’s dream of the ideal Irish countryman in his poem, ‘The Fisherman’. This is reality as Kavanagh saw it, a man bound to his fields,
Lost in a passion that never needs a wife.
Now that he is in his sixties and senses that life has passed him by, Maguire is:
not so sure if his mother was right
When she praised a man who made a field his bride.
Kavanagh’s insider’s account of rural Ireland is a stern antidote to notions of a rural idyll. There are those who see Kavanagh’s poem as a counterpoint to de Valera’s famous 1943 speech dreaming of rural Ireland ‘joyous with the sounds of laughter, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age.’ There is nothing serene about the anti-hero of ‘The Great Hunger’ who seems achingly aware of his dismal fate,
In Kavanagh’s version of rural Ireland, ‘life is more lousy than savage’ and those who live there are in ‘the grip of irregular fields’ from which ‘No man escapes.’ For the poet acting as sociologist, at the root of Paddy Maguire’s (and rural Ireland’s) frustrated unhappiness is a socially-enforced suppression of sexuality. In Kavanagh’s view, this is something that Maguire and the people around him bring on themselves.
Later in his life, Patrick Kavanagh sought to disown ‘The Great Hunger’ and its hectoring tone. He insisted that ‘A poet merely states the position and does not care whether his words change anything or not.’ I am not saying that ‘The Great Hunger’ was a harbinger of change, but it was part of a critique of the ‘dreary Eden’ carried out in the 1940s and 1950s through the pages of The Bell edited by Seán O’Faoláin, to which Kavanagh was a contributor.
As a public servant, I tend to trace the roots of modern Ireland to the publication of Economic Development in 1958, which, driven by a desire to stem the flight from rural Ireland that had reached epidemic proportions in mid-1950s, resolved to open up our economy in what turned out to be a game-change for Ireland. ‘The Great Hunger’ helps us to understand the social roots of rural Ireland’s depopulation.
The Rough Field:
The Rough Field was published in 1972, the year I began studying literature at UCC with John Montague as one of my lecturers, but the poems it incorporates were written during the preceding ten years. It has something in common with Kavanagh’s long poem (Montague was an admirer of Kavanagh’s poetry and an advocate for it) in that it explores Ireland’s rural world, in Montague’s case Garvaghey in County Tyrone. It is interesting that Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett all hail from rural or small-town Ireland, quite different from the urban, and ultimately cosmopolitan backgrounds of Yeats and Joyce, modulated in Yeats’s case by his engagement with Sligo and Coole Park in Galway.
‘The Rough Field’ is a poem of exile and return. Montague, the boy from Garvaghey, having spent years in Dublin, Berkeley and Paris, re-engages with his home place and ‘the unhappiness of its historical destiny’. Like Kavanagh, he doesn’t go all pastoral on us. As he puts it,
No Wordsworthian dream enchants me here ..
But merging low hills and gravel streams,
Oozy blackness of bog-banks, pale upland grass; ..
Harsh landscape that hunts me,
Well and stone, in the bleak moors of dream.
Like ‘The Great Hunger’, ‘The Rough Field’ can be lyrical as remembrance of boyhood wells up:
Those were my first mornings
Fresh as Eden, with dew on the face,
Like first kiss, the damp air:
On dismantled flagstones,
From ash-smoored embers
Hands now strive to rekindle
That once leaping fire.
But the prevailing tone is stark, grim and, as in Kavanagh and indeed Hartnett, there is a side swipe at Yeats, this time his insistence that ‘Ancient Ireland knew it all.’:
Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside,
Then rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head,
Formorian fierceness of family and local feud.
Perhaps the key line in this collection is when the poet, having brought to light the elemental unpleasantness of sectarian animosities in rural Tyrone, frees himself from the ‘dolmens round my childhood’ that had trespassed on his dreams:
Until once, in a standing circle of stones,
I felt their shadows pass
Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.
Here we have the poet seeking to put his past, and that of his home place, behind him, but can any society ever do that? Creating a kind of ‘permanence’ of historical memory in the public mind, hopefully not a dark one, may be one of the outputs from our Decade of Centenaries, putting our history in a settled place where it can be analysed and debated, but not fought over
Like Michael Hartnett in ‘A Farewell to English’, Montague muses on the ‘shards of a lost tradition’ and reflects on his father’s experience as an exile, one that was all too common to Irish people in the 20th century. He was:
the least happy
man I have known. His face
retained the pallor
of those who work underground:
the lost years in Brooklyn
listening to a subway
shudder the earth.
In the part of ‘The Rough Field’ known as ‘Patriotic Suite’, the poet turns his attention to independent Ireland and its discontents – ‘the gloomy images of a provincial catholicism’. Once at UCC in the mid-1970s, I heard Montague deliver an excoriating putdown of the deficiencies of the Ireland of that time and, drawing on Swift to fillet the ‘yahoos’ he believed were in the ascendant. In this poem he writes that:
All revolutions are interior
The displacement of spirit
By the arrival of fact,
Ceaseless as cloud across sky,
Sudden as sun.
Cheekily, he asks:
Does fate at last relent
With a trade expansion of 5 per cent?
His question is does prosperity help us deal with our demons, a puzzle that is still with us. I celebrate our material advancement as a people since the 1970s, but I accept that things of value can get lost in the process and that economic advancement does not guarantee wellbeing, which is more difficult to measure.
Then Montague brings us into the 1960s, where at ‘the Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar:
There were two sounds, the breaking
Of glass, and the background pulse
Of music. Young girls roamed
The streets with eager faces,
Pushing for men. Bottles in
Hand, they rowed out for a song.
Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone ,
A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain.
Montague’s final take on rural Ireland is ambivalent. He acknowledges that:
Only a sentimentalist would wish
to see such degradation again.
Yet something mourns.
It is the loss
of a world where action had been wrung
through painstaking years to ritual.
What, in Montague’s view has gone is:
Our finally lost dream of man at home
in a rural setting!
I recognise the issue of rural Ireland’s viability and equilibrium as a continuing priority for us in this century. What, I wonder, will our experience of the pandemic do to the urban/rural balance of our country?
A Farewell to English
This is by far the shortest of three works I discuss in this talk. It starts with a flourish.
Her eyes were coins of porter and her West
Limerick voice talked velvet in the house:
her hair black as the glossy fireplace
wearing with grace her Sunday-night-dance best.
She cut the froth from glasses with a knife
and hammered golden whiskies on the bar.
Now I know this is not a literary term, but that’s what I call ‘great stuff’. It’s a strong opening pitch. It reminds me of Kavanagh’s ‘Raglan Road’. But the poet’s unease emerges early on as he sinks his hands into tradition, ‘sifting centuries for words’, but the words he reaches for with ‘excitement’ and ‘emotion’ are Irish words.
It is clear to me that the poet’s turning away from the English language, ‘the gravel of Anglo-Saxon’ is a reflection of a more generalized disenchantment with the realities of what he calls ‘the clergy cluttered south’. He conjures up an image of Ireland’s leaders queueing up at Dublin Castle in 1922
to make our Gaelic
or our Irish dream come true.
But this ends up with us choosing
to learn the noble art
of writing forms in triplicate.
As it happens, when I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978, it was common to make 4 or 5 carbon copies of a letter, while ‘cut and paste’ meant using scissors and gum to cut up old documents and rearrange them!
In Hartnett’s vision, modern Ireland is the offspring of a ‘brimming Irish sow’ and ‘an English boar’. He concludes that
We knew we had been robbed
but we were not sure that we lost
the right to have a language
or the right to be the boss.
The image here is of unrealised national ambition and of materialism eclipsing identity.
In another echo of Yeats (‘Irish poets learn your trade’), he insists that
Poets with progress
make no peace or pact.
The act of poetry
is a rebel act.
Justifying his decision to abandon English, he takes the view that
Gaelic is our final sign that
we are human, therefore not a herd.
For Hartnett, therefore, the Irish language was a precious antidote to the stifling conditions he saw around him.
He concludes with a resounding broadside:
I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.
Hartnett’s poem confronts one of the unredeemed aspirations of 20th century Ireland, the effort to revive the Irish language. The Gaelic League helped radicalize a generation of Irish people at the turn of the century and became a driver of revolutionary activity. Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Eamon de Valera entered the world of Irish nationalism through the door of the Gaelic League. But the language revival stalled with independence. It flourished in the pronouncements of the State but not in the practice of the people. For Hartnett, I think it was the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality that spurred him to make the radical step of abandoning English, the language of the head – ‘the perfect language to sell pigs in’ – in favour of Irish, the language of the heart. The language question continues to be an important issue in discussions about Irish identity, in answering the ‘who are we’ question.
When Michael Hartnett described poetry as ‘a rebel act’, he was not referring to the kind of rebellion that was the subject of Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’. What his words suggest is that a poet’s default posture is dissatisfaction and disenchantment. 20th century Ireland has had a fraught relationship with its writers, Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Sean O’Faolain, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien and many others who strained against the nets of conformity.
What can we derive about 20th-century Ireland from these three long poems? Three things strike me:
The first is the aura of disappointment surrounding the actual fruits of independence. For Kavanagh, this revolved around the stunted condition of rural Ireland. For Montague, it was the failure to resolve sectarian tensions in Ulster and the dullness of life in Ireland compared with the expansiveness he had encountered elsewhere. And for Hartnett, it was the bureaucratization of Irish life and the abandonment of a vital part of our cultural patrimony.
The second is that rural Ireland is the laboratory in which the poets test what they saw as our national failings. The problems of rural Ireland and attempts to remedy them was the mainstay of the nationalist project throughout the 19th century. If independence was the solution to Ireland’s ills, then that ought to have been in evidence in rural society. In the three poems explored in this talk, all with rural settings, Monaghan, Tyrone and West Limerick, disappointment and disenchantment is the prevailing mood.
My third takeaway is that there are are shards of light visible in each poem. In Kavanagh whatever sense of hope the poem contains comes from its celebration of the natural world despite all its harshness. Take for example his image of ‘October playing a symphony on a slack wire’. In one passage, Kavanagh reflects on the fact that
..sometimes when sun comes through a gap
These men know God the Father in a tree:’
In Montague’s poem, it’s the social loosening of the 1960s epitomised by the Fleadh in Mullingar that gives him hope that ‘puritan Ireland’ is on its last legs. For Hartnett, it is the protective glow of Ireland’s language and traditions. Hartnett once referred to Irish as both ‘the soul’s music’ and ‘the bad talk you hear in the pub’. It is ‘a ribald language/anti-Irish’, by which I am sure he meant that its reality confounds traditional images of Irishness.
Given that the default position for these writers is critical, how will Irish literature fare in the more self-satisfied Ireland we now live in? What will the target be of the history poems of our 21st century? Will the present pandemic inspire meditations in verse on the subject of our national condition?
Not all Irish poetry revolves around the ‘bugbear Mr Yeats’, as Michael Hartnett described his eminent predecessor. Far from being an island of bad verse, today’s Ireland continues to produce a good fistful of poetic talent that can shine the light of imagination on our affairs.
Finally, to come back to literature and history, I want to mention a book I will publish in January entitled, Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey. I wrote it to mark the centenary of the publication of Joyce’s great novel and to record my own journey with, and through, Ulysses this past forty years. As a historian, I also see Ulysses as an invaluable portrait of an Ireland on the cusp of dramatic political change, an enduring monument in words to our country as it was a century and more ago. We are lucky to have so many wordsmiths, past and present, delving into our national life for, as Yeats once wrote, ‘words alone are certain good’.
About the Author…..
Ambassador Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s current Ambassador to the United States delivered this year’s Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture during the Éigse Michael Hartnett Literary and Arts Festival which took place from September 30th to October 2nd in Newcastle West, County Limerick.
The Ambassador was following in a long line of illustrious speakers who had previously delivered this prestigious lecture, including Donal Ryan, Theo Dorgan, Nuala O’Faolain, Paul Durban, Fintan O’Toole, Declan Kiberd and President Michael D. Higgins.
Daniel Mulhall was born and brought up in Waterford. He pursued his graduate and post-graduate studies at University College Cork where he specialised in modern Irish history and literature. He took up duty as Ireland’s 18th Ambassador to the United States in August 2017.
He joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978 and had his early diplomatic assignments in New Delhi, Vienna (OSCE), Brussels (European Union) and Edinburgh where he was Ireland’s first Consul General, 1998-2001. He served as Ireland’s Ambassador to Malaysia (2001-05), where he was also accredited to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. From 2009 to 2013, he was Ireland’s Ambassador to Germany. Before arriving in Washington, he served as Ireland’s Ambassador in London (2013-17).
In 2017, he was made a Freeman of the City of London in recognition of his work as Ambassador. In December 2017, he was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Liverpool. In 2019, he was honoured with the Freedom of the City and County of Waterford. In November 2019, Ambassador Mulhall was named Honorary President of the Yeats Society in Ireland.
During his diplomatic career, Ambassador Mulhall has also held a number of positions at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including as Director-General for European Affairs, 2005- 2009. He also served as a member of the Secretariat of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation (1994- 95). From 1995-98, he was the Department’s Press Counsellor and in that capacity was part of the Irish Government’s delegation at the time of the Good Friday Agreement 1998.
Ambassador Mulhall brings his deep interest in Irish history and literature to the work of diplomatic service in the U.S., describing the strong, historic ties and kinship between the countries as the basis for a vibrant economic and cultural relationship. He has lectured widely on the works of W.B. Yeats and James Joyce. His new book, Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey, is due for publication in January 2022. He is also the author of A New Day Dawning: A Portrait of Ireland in 1900 (Cork, 1999) and co-editor of The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment (Dublin, 2016).
A keen advocate of public diplomacy, Ambassador Mulhall makes regular use of social media in order to provide insights into the work of the Embassy, to promote all things Irish and to engage with Irish people and those of Irish descent around the world. He provides daily updates on his Twitter account @DanMulhall and posts regular blogs on the Embassy’s website.
Tarry Flynn is a novel by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, set in 1930s rural Ireland. The book is based on Kavanagh’s experience as a young farmer-poet in Monaghan. The novel itself, however, is set in Cavan and is based on the life of a young farmer and his quest for big fields, young women and the meaning of life.
Kavanagh began writing Tarry Flynn in 1940 under the title Stony Grey Soil. It was, however, rejected. After his collection of poetry, A Soul for Sale, containing the poem The Great Hunger, was published to great acclaim in February 1947, he set about revising the novel and spent the summer of 1947 working on it.
At the time the relationship between Church and State was very close and one of the victims of this were the many works of literature, including Tarry Flynn, which were banned. The politicians and church authorities were fearful that outside influences might adversely affect Catholic morality and so they combined to enforce a very vigorous opposition to liberal ideas and all works of art and literature that were considered at odds with Catholic values. Central to this policy was the passing of The Public Dance Halls Act 1935 which regulated people’s entertainment and which also included a prohibition on jazz music which was seen to be a bad influence on the Irish people.
The 1937 Constitution had granted a special place to the Catholic Church in the life of the nation and recognised the role of women as mothers and home-makers. In his speeches and broadcasts De Valera eulogised the role of women and painted an idealised picture of life in the Irish countryside. As one of the rural, Catholic poor, Patrick Kavanagh knew that the social realities of life for poor, farm families was radically different to this Utopian idyll of self-sufficiency and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. In his poetry and in his fiction Kavanagh introduced his readers to male characters who were trapped by religion, by the land and by their mothers. When works such as The Great Hunger (1942) and Tarry Flynn (1948), were published Kavanagh showed his increasing alienation from the Catholic Church and the artist in him was affronted by the official version of rural Ireland which was being sponsored by the government. As a consequence, Tarry Flynn was duly banned by the Irish Censorship Board for being, in their words, ‘indecent and obscene’ and it remained out of print until the 1960s.
Tarry Flynn is rural Ireland’s answer to Joyce’s APortrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Similar to Joyce’s work the novel is loosely autobiographical, an account of the life and thoughts of an imaginative young man fettered by his family circumstances and his cultural and intellectual milieu. Eventually he leaves his native Drumnay to find the full freedom of self-expression for which he longs. In A Portrait Joyce’s hero Stephen Dedalus decides that love of one’s country can best be achieved by being absent from it (‘the shortest way to Tara was via Holyhead’). This anticipates the advice given to Tarry by his wandering uncle that the best way to love a country like this is from a range of not less than three hundred miles!
However, Tarry, unlike Stephen Dedalus, does not go into exile. He is content to practice his craft in Ireland, though at a distance from his native place. His reasons for going have to do not only with his desire to write his poems in an atmosphere of freedom but also with his dislike of the attitudes he finds among his Catholic neighbours. He loves the fields of Drumnay, poor and unproductive as they are. He loves his mother too and would like to stay with her but his problem is that he cannot enjoy his rural paradise in peace because it has become associated in his mind with unpleasant individuals who constantly irritate him, and whose values he can never share. This is how he presents this dilemma to us:
He was sorry for his mother. He could see that she was in her way a wise mother. Yet, he had to go. Why? He didn’t want to go. If, on the other hand, he stayed, he would be up against the Finnegans and the Carlins and the Bradys and the Cassidys and the magic of the fields would be disturbed in his imagination.
What is most striking about the novel is the conflict it depicts between Tarry’s hostile, even savage, view of his uncongenial neighbours, and his deep love and reverence for the fields of his youth. An evening’s walk through these fields is a ‘mystical adventure’. His uncle wonders how he endures the place, and can scarcely believe that any human being could live his life in so backward a spot. Tarry, on the other hand, expresses an almost religious devotion for the commonplaces and banalities of farm life. Standing in the doorway of a stable, his mind sinks in the warm, joyous thought of the earth: ‘The hens standing on one leg in the doorways of the stables and under the trees made him love his native place more and more.’ This deep attachment to the physical realities of the farm is a constantly repeated motif as the time comes for him to make his decision to go with his uncle. His uncle, ‘did not realise how beautiful Tarry thought the dunghill and muddy haggard and gaps and all that seemed common and mean.’ This very same attitude is found throughout Kavanagh’s poetry. In the poem, ‘Advent’, for example, the poet’s delight in the simple, everyday things is constantly breaking through, ‘the heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges’ and even the banality of barrowing dung ‘in gardens under trees’ is glorified.
However, in stark contrast to his love of rural sights, sounds and smells, we have his distaste for rural humanity. Those who populate Drumnay are as diverse and perverse a group of grotesques as were ever assembled in a work of fiction! Collectively, as when gathered in the local church for Mass, they are repulsive. Tarry sees them as squalid and grey-faced, with parchment faces and wrinkled necks, their skin the colour of clay, with clay in their hair and clothes. Looking at them he has the impression that the tillage fields themselves are at Mass. Individually, they are even worse. Molly Brady is a ‘fat slob of a girl’ whose characteristic utterance is a wild animal cry. Tarry staring half-vacantly at his sisters, finds little to choose between them. All three are about five foot two inches, ‘low-set, with dull clayey faces, each of them like a bag of chaff tied in the middle with a rope – breasts and buttocks that flapped in the wind’. A neighbouring farmer, Petey Meegan, is a suitor to one of Tarry’s sisters, Mary. He presents no more flattering an image than Mary. As he approaches, he has to straighten his humped shoulders and quicken his ‘plough-crookened step’. He looks to be any age between fifty and the ‘age of an old oak’.
The attitudes of Kavanagh’s neighbours are no more attractive than their appearance. Their outstanding quality seems to be a profound dislike of each other, an ingrained resistance to helping each other succeed, and a determination to prevent gain or advantage accruing to anybody else. When Tarry has legal problems arising from the purchase of a few acres of land, he knows instinctively that his friend Eusebius is pleased. In this he is reflecting the delighted, begrudging response of a rural community to a neighbour’s misfortune:
Eusebius danced along the road kicking the pebbles before him. Tarry had to admit to himself that had their positions been reversed he would have been happy too. Hating one’s next-door neighbour was an essential part of a small farmer’s religion. Hate and jealousy made love – even the love of land – an exciting adventure.
A major concern and theme in the novel is Tarry’s inability to establish any lasting relationships or friendships because of his contempt for those around him. Even his relationships with members of his own family, apart from his mother, are not close, to say the least. He can look at his sisters in a detached, cynical way, finding in them more to criticise than to praise. He poses in the novel as a man apart, not only from his family but from society as a whole. He seems to rejoice in the idea of being an outsider. In Tarry Flynn, there is a sense in which Kavanagh explores at length the theme of the isolated individual at odds with his society as well as with its members. Tarry enjoys posing as a minor rural intellectual, daring to be at odds with the dominant parties, in this case, the ceremonies and rituals of the Catholic Church. It must be acknowledged that his liberal stance takes somewhat childish forms: being deliberately late for Mass, falling asleep during the Rosary, and saying shocking things about priests. He also enjoys being the local bard, secretly reveling in the isolation of his room in his creative power, safe from hostility, ‘from the net of earthly intrigue’. In his role as poet, he is pre-eminently the alienated young man, practicing a mysterious craft in which nobody else in the district can participate, not even Mary Reilly. He imagines her standing before him ‘listening with all the enthusiasm of the convent-bred girl who never fathomed the design behind it’.
Another factor in Tarry’s isolation is his failure to establish a decent natural relationship with any girl. He entertains lustful thoughts about Molly Brady, but his base desires remain unfulfilled. His friendship with Mary Reilly is marred by his bumbling awkwardness, his lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. In his relationship with her, the only girl in the locality he can fully respect and admire, he is inhibited by his disabling sense of being out of the ordinary, and by his defensive pride in his own worth. He cannot believe that she could possibly value him for what he is, even though her attitude and tone of voice suggest that she can see through his working-class appearance to the worthwhile reality beneath. He has been labouring for her family when she meets him dressed in the ragged clothes of a farm labourer. It is clear that she is interested in getting to know him better, and she goes more than half-way to bring this about. From his reading he knows that ladies had often fallen in love with their workmen, and also knows that he would be happy if he could apply this hopeful scenario to his own case. In the end, this proves impossible:
What the girl said to him he hardly knew.
He was listening to his own divided self raising a bedlam in his imagination.He knew that he had insulted her.
‘Will you be at the dance on Sunday night?’ she asked.
‘Dancing is an eejit’s game’, he said. And he went on to expatiate on the folly of dancing.
‘What would you say to a bunch of horses that after a hard day’s work spent the night galloping and careering round the field? I wouldn’t dream of wasting me time at a dance.’
‘I’d love you to come,’ she said sweetly.
‘I wouldn’t bother me bleddy head,’ he said with a loud laugh.
‘Still – ‘ She gave him a gentle smile but he was determined
‘It’s only an eejit’s game,’
‘Sunday night will be a big event, Tarry. I could see you there.’
‘Indeed you couldn’t and don’t be pretending you could,’ he shouted. He kept in a twist to conceal as much of his patched clothes as possible.
‘You’ll probably be there all the same,’ she said.
‘I wouldn’t be seen dead at that hall.’
… My God! My God! My God! He cried in his heart when they had parted. He knew that he had meant nothing of what he had said. It was all the bravado of a man in ragged clothes.
At moments such as this, Tarry realises that, as he puts it, ‘there was something in him different from other men and women.’ This difference lies not merely in his superior artistic awareness or his advanced intellectual views. It also has to do with the fact that on vital occasions he always does some peculiar thing that spoils his chances of happiness.
His social failures encourage Tarry to strike various self-pitying poses. At times he tries, with somewhat ludicrous effect, to present himself as a tragic or sub-tragic hero. In one of his bouts of self-pity, he sees himself as a star-crossed romantic sufferer, a belated Shelley bleeding upon the thorns of life:
‘I have to carry a cross. He did not want to carry a cross. He wanted to be ordinary. But the more he wanted to shake the burden free, the more weighty did it become and the more it stuck to his shoulders.’
Elsewhere, he sees himself in the image of Joyce’s Dedalus:
‘Some day, he, too, might grow wings and be able to fly away from this clay-stricken place.’
His lapses into self-dramatisation weaken the novel. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the account of his departure from his mother which is embarrassingly sentimental:
‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost! Where are you going in the good suit?’ cried the mother the next morning when Tarry came down for breakfast.
‘As far as the village.’
‘And with the good suit?’ She eyed her son with a look of annoyance, and then suddenly her eyes flashed in scalded grief. Her lips moved in prayer. She spoke in a low whisper. ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ Her lips went on moving but there were no words. Her eyes were wide, soft – and as he stared they darkened in brown earthly sadness.It was her wordlessness smote him.
An impulse to cry out touched his throat. Words came to her again. They came in a spurt, on their own, like he had once seen blood spurt. ‘God help me and every mother.’ And then a storm of sobs swept her and words came in a deluge. ‘Your nice wee place; your strong farm; your wee room for your writing, your room for your writing.’
‘How will she carry on?’ he kept mumbling. ‘How will she carry on?’
Kavanagh thought highly of Tarry Flynn as a work of documentary fiction. Indeed, he claimed that it was ‘not only the best but the only authentic account of life as it was lived in Ireland this century.’ The self-praise may be somewhat heightened, but there is no denying the documentary realism of the book, its fidelity to even the most minute detail. In his autobiography, The Green Fool, he recalls the same rural world of his young manhood, so faithfully rendered in Tarry Flynn:
‘The Parish Priest was the centre of gravity, he was the only man who was sure to go to Heaven. Our staple diet was potatoes and oatmeal porridge. Porridge had only recently taken the place of potatoes and buttermilk as the national supper. Though little fields and scraping poverty do not lead to grand flaring passions, there was plenty of fire and an amount of vicious neighbourly hatred to keep us awake.’
There is much of this ‘vicious neighbourly hatred’ in Tarry Flynn. Tarry’s family is bitterly at odds with the Finnegans. Their land dispute involves a bloody brawl between Tarry and Joe Finnegan. The power of the Church in a rural parish is also well rendered in the novel. Even the reading material available to Tarry is prescribed by the Church authorities: the standard work, The Messenger of the Sacred Heart, features the edifying story of a young girl with a religious vocation being sabotaged by a bad man. A missioner warns him about reading the works of George Bernard Shaw. Tarry’s mother warns him to attend the mission every evening, reminding him that when the Carlins failed to attend, their luck ‘wasn’t much the better of it.’ The priests set the moral tone of the parish and keep miscreants in check with uncompromising ferocity. They even preside over the parish entertainment and decide who is to be admitted and excluded. Like his neighbours, Tarry lives a life of unremitting drudgery.
Even though Tarry is frequently tempted to escape from the claustrophobic environment of Drumnay, and although he finds much to irritate and frustrate him in the way of life he is obliged to lead, the narrative of his early life is not entirely a bitter one. The harder he works, for example, the more he seems to enjoy it. He does many backbreaking jobs, but the achievement involved fills him with ‘a profounder passion’ than his love for Mary Reilly. The ownership of land also fills him with delight, as do his wanderings through the summer landscape:
‘He loved the fields and the birds and the trees, stones and weeds, and through these, he could learn a great deal.’
There is much of this kind of celebration of the joys of nature in Tarry Flynn. However repulsive Tarry may find many of the humans living in his rural landscape, nothing they say or do can ever quite dim his enthusiasm.
As you may have guessed, there is a considerable variety of tones in Tarry Flynn: satirical, sentimental, celebratory, reverential, self-pitying, but I have to say that the overall impulse is comic. Much of this comedy derives from Tarry’s reflections on his own enigmatic personality. His naïve understanding of how other people, especially women, see him is endearingly comic. He could not understand, he declares, ‘why he was ignored by young women, for he knew he was attractive’. He comes to the conclusion that women fearfully sense ‘primitive savagery and lust’ beneath his poetic appearance. To counteract this unfortunate impression, he makes his virtuous nature more obvious, but realises too late that women prefer primitive savages to virtuous men! His ideas of stimulating conversation with women are equally comic: ‘With women in general he was truthful and sincere and would talk philosophy or Canon Law to them on the slightest provocation.’ Little wonder that he ruefully concludes that ‘women cannot understand honesty in a man.’
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Recent high-powered reports and investigations into institutional abuse culminating in the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes which was published by the Irish Government on 12 January 2021 reinforce the grim reality that what have long been termed, particularly by our parents and grand parents, as ‘The Good Old Days’ weren’t that good after all. Tarry Flynn tried in its own way to enlighten people at home and abroad and as a result Kavanagh suffered the ultimate artistic sanction by having his novel banned. The novel sets out how life was lived in rural Ireland in the 30s and 40s and Kavanagh endeavors to capture this reality in a warts-and-all exposé which contains some very acerbic social commentary. There has always been a perceived difficulty when non-Irish readers encounter this text because many fail to appreciate Tarry Flynn’s dilemma or they believe that he is merely exaggerating, but it has to be realised that even modern day Irish readers also have this difficulty. The passage of time has not been kind to Kavanagh here and indeed, in his poetry in general.
The stark opening sentence of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between (1953) has great relevance here. It tells us bluntly that, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. As a reviewer writing this introduction to the novel, I was very aware that not many modern Irish teenagers coming to this novel for the first time would know, for instance, what a ‘missioner’ was or, for that matter, what a parish mission in the 1940s entailed.
By the 1940s Kavanagh didn’t have to go into exile like Joyce and others before him in order to gain creative perspective because by then Mucker in Monaghan and Pembroke Road in Dublin’s leafy suburbs were already oceans apart. When the novel was published in 1948 it presented readers with a vivid insider glimpse of the real austerity and deprivations which were widespread in rural Ireland in the 30s and 40s. Life was hard, uncompromising and suffocating and if we are to believe the narrator he was both inspired and imprisoned by the small fields of his native place.
The novel’s difficulties in interpretation have also been exacerbated by the mesmeric pace of change in Ireland over the past seventy-five years: we have gone from the pony and trap to Hiace vans and lavish SUVs; from rustic bye-roads to urban ring roads, from railways to Greenways. Our new reality of social media and smartphones and blogs and podcasts, not to mention Covid Lockdowns, have made even the recent past more remote than Neolithic times. And yet even a casual glance at our newsstands on any given day reinforces the notion that rural tranquility is still a myth, another modern urban legend.
So, perhaps it is again pertinent to revisit the past, the years before yesterday, to experience again the flickering sepia villages and townlands where mud and drudgery mingle with the body’s stirrings and the olive-green humming of Tarry Flynn’s world. I would highly recommend it, especially to those of a similar vintage to myself!
Murray, Patrick. Modern Fiction, The Educational Company, 1991.
The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde was first published in 1975 by the Goldsmith Press, shortly after Michael Hartnett’s pronouncement from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that he would henceforth write only in Irish. Appropriately, the publication contains an Irish version and an English version of the poem, as perhaps befitted the poet’s conflicted state. In effect, this poem serves as a Rubicon: the last English poem he would publish, for the time being at least, and the first of his Irish poems. The poet is in transition and is now back in West Limerick and in this poem, he explores deep and ancient resentments and wrongs. Allan Gregory says that the poem, in its bilingual format, ‘expresses to the reader themes of social and historical oppression, sex, pregnancy and birth, protection, exposure and secrecy, and is the finest poem in this period of Hartnett’s writing’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).
Hartnett has documented the ‘schizophrenia’ associated with this new poetic direction and he has said that this poem, in particular, caused him great distress:
‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney, for example, almost broke my heart and indeed my mind to write, because both languages became so intermeshed. I would sit down and write a few lines of the poem unthinkingly. I’d come back to it and see that it was half in English and half in Irish or a mixture. … One is not a translation of the other. They are two versions of the same poem; but what the original language is I don’t know’ (O’Driscoll 146).
Whatever the mental turmoil generated by the artistic struggles of the poet, the resulting poem is one of Hartnett’s most powerful from this period of his career. In his review of the poem following publication, fellow Munster poet, Brendan Kennelly, says it was,
‘a probing, dramatic exploration of a woman’s loneliness and isolation in a callous and hostile society. This, to my mind, is Hartnett’s finest achievement to date: he pays a relentless imaginative attention to this woman’s fate, and he presents with admirable dramatic balance her loneliness, independence and state of severed happiness. In this condition, Ita Cagney becomes a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’ (Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 15, p. 26).
The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a pained celebration of a woman’s enforced isolation due to her refusal to conform to the demands of her society. We can surmise that in delving into Ita Cagney’s situation the poet finds common cause with another rural outcast in light of his own recent ‘retreat’ to Glendarragh to dwell ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ (A Book of Strays 41). This lonely cottage in Glendarragh was for the next ten years to serve as basecamp for what Declan Kiberd describes as ‘retracing his way to the common source’ (McDonagh/ Newman 37). However, far from being a ‘retreat’ to obscurity, as some of his critics predicted, his return to West Limerick precipitated what was arguably the most productive period of his career. Adharca Broic was published in 1978, followed by An Phurgóid in 1983, Do Nuala: Foighne Crainn in 1984 and his fourth collection in Irish, An Lia Nocht, appeared in 1985. During this period, he also undertook the translation of Daibhi Ó Brudair’s poems which were published in 1985.
The publication of this dual language version of The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde in 1975 was a bold step by Hartnett. For added effect, the Irish version was printed in the Old Gaelic script (An Cló Gaelach) which was by then obsolete and no longer being used in schools as it had been up to the 1960s. This probably also had the effect of further isolating the poet and limiting his audience. However, as he told Elgy Gillespie in an interview in March 1975: ‘Listen, it’s impossible to limit my audience, it’s so small already’ (Gillespie 10). However, academic John Jordon wrote a positive review of Cúlú Íde suggesting that it was ‘a small-town mini-epic, so redolent of Hardy’ (Jordon 7). Cúlú Íde was again published as part of Hartnett’s first collection in Irish, Adharca Broic, in 1978. This time he chose Peter Fallon’s Gallery Books and this new publishing relationship was to last until A Book of Strays was published posthumously by the same publisher in 2002. Adharca Broic received generally positive reviews and Allan Gregory declared that the twenty-one lyrical poems in the collection ‘oozed with the confidence of a speaker who felt that at last he was being heard’ (McDonagh/Newman 146).
In this analysis, I will focus mainly on the English version of the poem with occasional sorties into the Irish version, especially where they diverge. There are some similarities between The Retreat of Ita Cagney and Farewell to English. Both poems have a sequence-structure and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is divided into nine dramatic scenes. Both poems were published in 1975. However, there is one major difference: whereas Farewell to English is a public poem with political overtones, The Retreat of Ita Cagney is an intensely private poem. Though it begins with a quintessential public event, the traditional Irish funeral, it quickly transitions to the act of retreat alluded to in its title. On the face of it, it is a ‘retreat’ from a public event to a more private life, and Hartnett teases out the societal and psychological implications which this act brings about. However, the poem itself may also be read as an act of ‘retreat’ for the poet, away from public pronouncement, towards a more private poetry, which would focus on his own domestic life. If critics presumed that the blunt polemic of Farewell to English would be a constant in his writing in Irish The Retreat of Ita Cagney would seem to set them straight. As with Ita, Hartnett’s ‘retreat’ was a once-off symbolic gesture and as such there was no need to repeat the tonic, rather the wisdom or otherwise of that choice would be borne out by the life retreated to, and of course, for Hartnett, the poems which would come from living that life to its fullest.
The English version is composed in free-verse while the Irish version is more formal and adheres to the classical conventions of the Dánta Grá (McDonagh/Newman 144). This divergence in styles between the two languages is perhaps a direct reason for the mental turmoil he encountered during the composition of this poem – there is a constant battle raging between the more disordered English version and the more tamed and formalised Irish version.
As well as being a poet of international standing, Hartnett was also a master translator having translated the Tao, the Gypsy Ballads of Lorca, and later the poems of Ó Haicéad and Ó Bruadair which will forever stand the test of time. Here we find him ‘translating’ his own work and the effort induced in him a kind of artistic schizophrenia. Declan Kiberd argues that in this way, Hartnett suffered from a kind of ‘double vision’:
Every poet senses that all official languages are already dead languages. That was why Hartnett said farewell to English while knowing that Irish was itself dead already too. As he wrote himself in ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, ‘I loved her from the day she died’. Likewise, with English – no sooner did Hartnett write it off than he felt all over again its awesome power, for it had become again truly strange to him, as all poetic languages must (McDonagh/Newman 38).
This poem, then, is an initial effort to find his voice – in two languages.
In this, his last poem in English pro tem and his first poem in Irish, the poet very dramatically tells us the story of a recent widow (the Irish version says that she has been married only a year) who leaves her home in the dead of night and goes to live in secret with another man in his West Limerick cottage and bears him a child out of wedlock much to the disapproval of the locals and the Church.
The poem is not set in any recognisable historic timeframe but maybe there were echoes of some such local ‘scandalous’ incident in the ether when the poet made his return to West Limerick in and around 1975. However, the poem stands on its own and there doesn’t need to have been any particular incident which inspired the poet to take on this subject matter. Hartnett’s prose writing and poetry show him to be a very insightful social commentator and it is not hard to find echoes of Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger in this poem. Here, however, the main subject is a formidable woman which further helps to give the lie to the accepted stereotypes of the day. Readers familiar with Irish poetry will also be aware that in the old Aisling poems Ireland was often depicted as a woman: sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard. In effect, Ita Cagney can be read as a modern Bean Dubh an Ghleanna, Gráinne Mhaol, Roisín Dubh or Caithleen Ní Houlihan – a symbolic representation of Ireland. Hartnett concisely captures a portrait of the society to which he had returned in the 1970s but crucially chooses to depict Ita’s inner life and not merely as a cypher without agency, whilst also refusing to idealise rural Ireland by showing the repressive and oppressive views which pertained at that time, especially towards women.
The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more focused portrayal of small-farm Ireland than the broader panorama offered by Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger. That said, they are very similar and both Ita Cagney and Maguire have to cope with the two conflicting forces of spirituality and sexual mores in the world of their time. Maguire’s idea of sex is deformed, largely due to Church teaching and a repressive society in the Ireland of the 1930s and 40s. In contrast, Ita Cagney’s sexuality liberates her and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more recent reminder to all and a typical Hartnett barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’ (Moynihan 466-9). Whereas Maguire is beaten down and is forced to live within the strictures imposed by the Catholic Church and the 1937 Constitution, in a sense, Ita Cagney benefits from the work of such women as Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, and others in bringing about significant change in how young couples lived their married lives as a result of the McGee v. Attorney General Case. This landmark case was heard in the Supreme Court in 1973 (two years before the publication of this poem) and established the right to privacy in marital affairs, giving women the right to avail of contraception, thereby giving them control over their own bodies.
Another factor which may be relevant here also was that while Kavanagh was a bachelor (and almost certainly a virgin) when he wrote The Great Hunger, Michael Hartnett was happily married (at the time) and living with his wife Rosemary and their two young children, Niall and Lara, ‘in exile out foreign in Glantine’. Patrick Kavanagh wrote about the destitution and despair of Irish country life of the 40s and 50s and though Michael Hartnett knew that world also from his childhood (for example in A Small Farm) he depicts a changing Ireland in The Retreat of Ita Cagney, an Ireland where women play a more central role.
The poem opens in a very dramatic style. We are present at an old-style Irish wake – a scene very common in Hartnett’s poetry (Collected Poems 103). The narrator informs us that ‘their barbarism did not assuage the grief’. These ‘barbarians’ paradoxically are dressed in ‘polished boots’ and ‘Sunday clothes’ and accompanied by the ‘drone of hoarse melodeons’ – all typical features of a traditional Irish wake. It is night-time and it is raining. The poet uses rich similes to describe the atmosphere; ‘snuff lashed the nose like nettles’ and the local keeners fulfilled their ‘toothless praising of the dead / spun on like unoiled bellows’. Now we are introduced to Ita Cagney, the dead man’s widow. Her name is a Saint’s name; Ita or Íde is synonymous with West Limerick, particularly West Limerick’s ancient past. Her grief on the death of her husband has taken her by surprise and she gives a hint as to their relationship when she says ‘the women who had washed his corpse / were now more intimate with him / than she had ever been.’ This may suggest a great disparity in ages between them although the Irish version gives a slightly different perspective on her grief when it reveals that they had only been married a year: ‘a bhean chéile, le bliain anois’ (his wife, now for only a year). Now, on a whim, she leaves the raucous wake and beats her hasty retreat. This is emphasised by the metaphor, ‘the road became a dim knife’. She has not planned this move but ‘instinct neighed around her / like a pulling horse’.
The second movement follows the strict requirements of the Dánta Grá and there are striking stylistic differences between the English and Irish versions. The Irish version consists of eight quatrains each describing Ita Cagney’s classical appearance. The English version is in free-verse and describes in minute detail Ita Cagney’s head from ‘her black hair’ to her throat which ‘showed no signs of age’. Her hair is black save for a single rib of grey which stands out ‘like a steel filing on a forge floor’. The poet here obviously calling on his Maiden Street childhood and scenes from John Kelly’s forge which he had already immortalised in verse (Collected Poems 104).
He then describes her brow, her eyebrows, her eyes, ‘her long nose’, ‘her rose-edged nostrils’, her upper lip, her chin and jawline and finally her throat. The reason for this detail is to give us a sense of the formidable woman at the centre of this poem. She is described as having an almost aristocratic beauty. Having described her head in exact detail the final singular line comes as an anti-climax: ‘The rest was shapeless, in black woollen dress’. The over-riding sense, however, is of a woman in black as befits a woman in mourning but a woman nonetheless with a kind of Patrician beauty, a sense of being noble in her bearing beyond her class: ‘Her long nose was almost bone / making her face too severe’. Ironically, from my own limited meetings with Michael Hartnett, he too had this aura of nobility and even some extant photographs of the poet show that he wore his hair like a Senator of Rome – in my eyes, at least, it is imaginable that he too saw himself as a Patrician character!
I would point out also that there is a difference between the way Hartnett describes Ita Cagney and the way he introduces us to the raven-haired barmaid in the first section of Farewell to English. The barmaid, Mary Donavan, worked behind the bar in Windle’s pub in Glensharrold, a few miles outside Newcastle West. She is described with exaggerated classical phrases such as ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’. Gabriel Fitzmaurice tells us that ‘here we have the poet Michael Hartnett, possessing his locality, his muse, and his lost language’ (Limerick Leader, 1999). Here in this poem, however, Hartnett does not indulge in this kind of hyperbole in his description of Ita Cagney. She is not idealised or clichéd and Michael Hartnett is at pains to describe her as a real person and this realism makes the symbolism more rich and complex. Deep unhappiness and sadness have furrowed her brow: ‘One deep line, cut by silent days of hate’. Her first marriage was obviously not a happy one and there is even a hint that it was an arranged marriage as was the custom in the past: her ‘eyes / that had looked on bespoke love / seeing only to despise’.
In this section of the poem, Ita has reached her destination – by accident or design we do not know. She has turned her back on a society that doesn’t value her and in a sense, the poem is about breaking with convention – as the poet himself has also recently done. Ita Cagney has rejected the old world of snuff and melodeons and observance of religious rituals and she is about to embrace a more sensual world. The half-door of this isolated cottage is opened by a man ‘halving darkness bronze’. The ‘bronze’ light of the gaslight gives way to ‘gold the hairs along his nose’. He is wearing classic labourer’s garb, a blue-striped shirt without a collar with a stud at the neck which ‘briefly pierced a thorn of light’. This chink of light in the dark night echoes Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Advent’ where he says ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’. Whereas Kavanagh, in his poetry, comes across as the quintessential 1950s Catholic, Michael Hartnett, in contrast, sees the ‘chink’ or open doorway as a new beginning in Ita Cagney’s life and not something to abstain from.
The poet uses juxtaposition here also to sharply contrast the male-dominated kitchen with its ‘odours of lost gristle / and grease along the wall’ and the arrival of a female whose ‘headscarf laughed a challenge’. The man closes the door on the world and both begin a relationship which will last ‘for many years’. Again, here we are reminded of the parallels that exist between Ita and the poet who had only recently turned his back on the Dublin literary scene and a burgeoning poetic reputation and had moved with his young family to rural West Limerick to follow his own ‘exquisite dream’ (Walsh 100).
In this section, the couple have both decided ‘to live in sin’ ignoring the religious and social mores of the time. Their experience has taught them that having a big wedding for the sake of the neighbours ‘later causes pain’. Ita has already learnt to her cost that a very public wedding can, within a year, end ‘in hatred and in grief’. The expenses incurred in buying ‘the vain white dress’, in having to pay ‘the bulging priest’ and endure ‘the frantic dance’ is not for them. For them, it would be akin to undergoing physical torture, as the insincere well-wishes of their neighbours would ‘land / like careful hammers on a broken hand’. Anyway, in this house organised religion was not important; here ‘no sacred text was read’. Instead, life was rudimentary and simple: ‘He offered her food: they went to bed’. Here, there was no ‘furtive country coupling’, hiding affections from friends and priest. Their only sin was that they had chosen ‘so late a moment to begin’.
This is the sensual ideal: their ‘Love’ doesn’t have to be transmuted and elevated to a higher level by the clergy; they don’t seek anyone’s blessing or approval for their actions. However, they are aware that there are consequences to their decision and that their actions will offend the locals and particularly the local clergy: ‘shamefaced chalice, pyx, ciborium / clanged their giltwrapped anger in the room’. The couple have made their bed and now they must lie in it. They have decided to defy society and do their own thing.
Section five sees the woman in labour and being taken by donkey and cart (or pony and trap) to the local town to be delivered. It is night-time and it is raining. She is shielded by her shawl and oilskins to protect her but all these layers cannot deflect the ‘direct rebuke and pummel of the town’. The couples secret intimacy now becomes a public matter as they have to call on outside help with the delivery. Even now at this delicate moment as Ita prepares to give birth, disapproval is vehement:
and sullen shadows mutter hate
and snarl and debate
and shout vague threats of hell.
However, the ‘new skull’ will not wait, and ‘the new skull pushes towards its morning’ and Ita’s hopes and dreams are for the future as a new beginning and a new dispensation beckons.
Section six is both a love song and a lament. Ita Cagney addresses her new-born with love and trepidation. She knows what will be said and she will try and protect her son from the venom and vitriol which she knows will come because of her actions. Her newborn is described lovingly with his ‘gold hair’ and ‘skin / that smells of milk and apples’. She wishes to cocoon her baby son and protect him from all the wickedness of the outside world as if he were in Noah’s Ark. However, she knows in her heart that just as in the Bible story ‘a dove is bound to come’ with messages from the outside world ‘bringing from the people words / and messages of hate’. She knows that the ‘stain’ of what she has done will be passed like a baton of toxic shame, the preferred Irish weapon to ensure conformity, to the next generation:
They will make you wear my life
Like a hump upon your back.
She is also tormented by the fear that her son may come to blame her for the hatred he will be forced to endure and that he may internalise that hatred and that the cycle of hatred will continue.
Section seven has echoes of the Garden of Eden. The child is growing up in splendid isolation in the West Limerick countryside. The language is sensual and earthy, ‘each hazel ooze of cowdung through the toes, / being warm, and slipping like a floor of silk…’. There are echoes here also of earlier Hartnett poems depicting his own idyllic childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’ (Collected Poems 102). The young boy grows up and learns the lore of the countryside, gathering mushrooms ‘like white moons of lime’ and working the land with his father. His mother watches him grow ‘in a patient discontent’. The seasons come and go, spring, autumn, harvest, Christmas and their little cottage becomes ‘resplendent with these signs’. There are echoes of an Edenic existence, unspoilt and idyllic, as ‘apples with medallions of rust / englobed a thickening cider on the shelf’.
In section eight Ita speaks in a confessional manner. She is preparing for Christmas and decorating her little cottage with the traditional homemade crepe decorations. She is in a reflective mood and Hartnett uses a beautiful image to convey her reverie as she watches ‘the candles cry / O salutaris hostia’. There is a potent mix of residual religious imagery in these lines; the Christmas candles remind Ita of the traditional Catholic hymn sung at Benediction. The hymn invites us to ask for God’s help to persevere in our often difficult spiritual journey. The next image is also very traditional and every small farmhouse in Ireland contained at one time a red Sacred Heart lamp with its flickering flame:
I will light the oil –lamp till it burns
like a scarlet apple
This is clearer in the Irish version and stands as a good example of how both versions complement each other:
Anocht lasfad lampa an Chroí Ró-Naofa
agus chífead é ag deargadh
mar úll beag aibí
We notice here that while Ita Cagney may reject the public rites associated with the Catholic Church she still maintains elements of the traditional Christian practices. In some sense, I think we are also being given a glimpse of Michael Hartnett’s own views on religion here. Traditional religious symbols and half-forgotten phrases from old Latin hymns are residual echoes of his own early religious experience: and for Michael Hartnett, and for many others of his generation, Catholicism was very much a child’s thing (see ‘Crossing the Iron Bridge’ ).
There then follows Ita’s ‘confession’ where she declares that she has not insulted God but that she has offended the ‘crombie coats and lace mantillas, / Sunday best and church collections’ – she has offended public morality and her chief offence has been that her happiness has not been blessed by the church and condoned by society at large. This is the climax of the drama and encapsulates the enduring tension that exists between the rights of the individual in society and the pressures on that individual to conform to acceptable social mores, especially as it applies to sexual love. As Allan Gregory sees it, ‘The poem shows, with imaginative sympathy and ethical discernment, how Ita Cagney, a widow, lives in a new free union, unblessed by the church and how, because of this, she is feared and loathed by society’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).
The final movement in the poem sees the neighbours advance in a concerted ‘rhythmic dance’ to lay siege to Ita’s cottage. The language is violent and carries connotations of evictions carried out in the neighbourhood by the landlord class in the not too distant past. We are told that ‘venom breaks in strident fragments / on the glass’ and ‘broken insults clatter on the slates’. The neighbours are described as a ‘pack’, a mob, who ‘skulk’ and disappear into the foothills in order to regroup and to muster their forces for a final onslaught – waiting ‘for the keep to fall’. Ita, a virtual prisoner in her own home, protects ‘her sleeping citizen’ and imagines the final attack ‘on the speaking avenue of stones / she hears the infantry of eyes advance’. The Irish version gives us further food for thought and is even more redolent with echoes of recent Irish history. In the Irish version the phrase ‘she guards her sleeping citizen’ is rendered as ‘í féin istigh go scanrach / ag cosaint a saighdiúrín’ (herself inside terrified / protecting her little soldier boy’). Furthermore, the final line ‘she hears the infantry of eyes advance’ is translated as ‘ó shúile dearga na yeos’. This word ‘yeos’ refers to the yeomanry, the infamous English Redcoats, and carries very loaded associations in the Gaelic folk memory – they were as hated as the Black and Tans or the Auxiliaries were in more recent history. The use of these words, especially in the Irish version of the poem emphasise and reinforce again the themes of social and historical oppression which are central to Hartnett’s thesis in this major statement of intent.
This poem was the first to be written by Hartnett during the transitional phase in the mid-seventies after he had set up home in Glendarragh. He realises that little has changed since he wrote ‘A Small Farm’ – all the ‘perversions of the soul’ are still to be found in Camas and Rooska and Sugar Hill and Carrickerry. However, he does seem to hint in this poem that a better way is possible if we are brave enough to take it, like Ita Cagney, like Michael Hartnett himself, and like Mary McGee.
If we accept that Ita Cagney ‘retreat’ is a parallel for his own ‘retreat’ from English, then it seems that he is prophesying tough times ahead for himself and his new artistic direction. His ‘retreat’ will not be received well by either side. In earlier poems, he has depicted the old Gaelic world, represented by Brigid Halpin and Camas, as a perverse, pagan and ignorant place. He will have to be as strong-willed and stubborn as Ita Cagney has been in order to survive, but for Hartnett as for Ita embracing the life retreated to is worth this sacrifice.
The poem depicts Ita Cagney as the modern-day Saint Ita / Naomh Íde, and an able successor to his grandmother Bridgid Halpin, who, according to Hartnett, never adjusted to the ‘new’ Ireland which emerged in the twentieth century. Hartnett looks towards the hills and the wooded slopes of the Mullach a Radharc Mountains for answers to an age-old torment which has been a blemish on the Irish psyche. And he sees that there is hope – Ita Cagney, a young widow, ‘retreats’ to a new life and though her union is unblessed by the church she is prepared to defend her decision despite the disapproval of society. She becomes, as Kennelly suggests, ‘a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’. In effect, she was, like Hartnett himself, a half-century at least before her time and she deserves to be feted as the patroness of a more modern and liberated Ireland which she longed for instinctually. Those instincts beckoned her to forsake her old life of convention and conformity and create a new beginning and a new world for herself where love reigned over hate, victorious.
Fitzmaurice, Gabriel. ‘Let’s drink to the soul of Michael Hartnett’, in The Limerick Leader, October 23rd., 1999.
Hartnett, Michael. The Retreat of Ita Cagney (Cúlú Íde). Dublin: Goldsmith Press, 1975.
Hartnett, Michael. Adharca Broic, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 1978.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, ed Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2001.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2002.
Hartnett, Michael., ‘Why write in Irish?’, Irish Times, (26th August 1975).
Gillespie, Elgy., ‘Michael Hartnett’, The Irish Times, (5th March 1975), p.10
Jordan, J., Review, Irish Independent (3rd. February 1979), p.7.
Kennelly, Brendan. reviewing Michael Hartnett, Collected Poems, Volume I, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 15.
O’Driscoll, Dennis., Interview, Metre Magazine, II (2001).
McDonogh, John and / Newman, Stephen. (eds), Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006.
Moynihan, Maurice., Speeches and Statements of Eamon de Valera, Dublin, 1980.
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Mercier Press, Cork, 2012.
Other Works Referenced
Patrick Kavanagh, The Great Hunger: A Poem, Cuala, 1942, Irish University Press, 1971.
I would like to acknowledge the considerable assistance given to me by my son, Don Hanley, a Hartnett scholar in his own right, in the preparation and editing of this blog post – one of the many welcome positives emerging from the COVID-19 Lockdown!
Kavanagh is very comfortable and skilled in his use of the sonnet in his poetry. He manages to express an authentic and simple vision of life and communicate it successfully using the sonnet form. Indeed, this simple vision has often led to Kavanagh being underestimated and undervalued among his peers. He never aspired to the greatness of Yeats and neither has he the subtlety of Kinsella. But within the poetic limits, he set for himself Kavanagh presents a new, inimitable, and sometimes disturbing way of viewing life. His sonnets are informed by a unique personal vision.
A criticism often levelled at Kavanagh is that often his statements fall into predictable patterns. His sonnets, for example, do not develop – what we get from him is a series of sincere repetitions of a few basic perceptions. In the last of his Dublin sonnets, he is saying, in more or less the same way, what he was saying in the first, and his greatness is that he moves us by repetition. It is this sincerity that prevents his repetition from becoming commonplace. However, this integrity does not hide the fact that there is little or no growth in his poetic ability. There is, instead, a kind of lyrical repetition that constantly commands attention. Kavanagh is stuck in a personal rut of poetic honesty. He seems almost to be writing the same poem always!
On reading his sonnets one notices how, for him, perception has become an obsession, and how he clings to the importance of delineating visual scenes:
A swan goes by head low with many apologies
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
Visual perception has assumed an almost religious fascination which will not permit him to remain at rest with one statement of it. He must tell it to the world all the time and invite others to share in his views:
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.
Within these limits, however, Kavanagh maintains a moving, coherent and intimate vision of life. Indeed, the success of his method is particularly noticeable when he tries to break away from it. As a poet without learning, Kavanagh sometimes tries to overcome or transcend his limitations by placing learned words, ideas or references in his poems. The intended effect is either to heighten the tone and increase the sense of personal tension, or else to bring a visual image more vividly to mind. Sometimes he only partly achieves the desired effect; more often he fails completely. A good example of this occurs in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ where two exaggerated comparisons mar an otherwise perfect poem. The word Niagariously in line 5 is meant to convey an audible image of sound as water rushes through the locks, and is in contrast to the ‘tremendous silence’ of the next line. The image of the Niagara Falls is, however, surely too exaggerated a comparison to make with the quiet splash of water over a lock on the Grand Canal. On a technical level, the word is almost impossible to pronounce and it destroys the gentle rhythm of the opening lines. Similarly, the allusion to ‘these Parnassian islands’ is inserted too boldly into a poem which depends on simplicity for its effect, rather than on weighty, learned references. In each case, there is a certain lack of integration of the image. By way of contrast, however, the reference to Alexander Selkirk in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ is seamlessly integrated with the overall theme of the poem. It expresses an idea repeated by Kavanagh in many of his poems: namely, his separateness, his detachment, the sense that he can participate but never belong.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
Kavanagh’s poetic preferences are stated clearly in his prose works. In From Monaghan to the Grand Canal, he defines the limits of his themes and subject matter. He states, ‘The things that really matter, are casual insignificant little things.’ Co-existing with this sense of the importance of insignificance is the contrasting idea of the world’s grandeur. Kavanagh is indeed a nature poet, but not in the manner in which we usually apply the term. There are no sweeping descriptions of majestic landscapes; only the unseen beauty encountered on an evening’s stroll. ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is the best presentation of his method. The still, canal waters ‘pour redemption’ on him. He thinks of its beauty in terms of religious images. He feels ‘redeemed’, born again, after his long life of hardship in Monaghan. God ordained that men should work and suffer. But even in his inaction, Kavanagh feels that he can clarify the beauty of the ordinary world (‘the habitual’) and that this, too, is the ‘will of God.’ His duty as a poet is seen by himself as a religious vocation. This spiritual frame of reference continues into line 4 when he says that he will now:
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
He then lists a group of visual images which stress, again, the beauty of unimportant objects. Indeed, the central portion of this sonnet is characterized by its visionary impact. Its simplicity stems from a totally coherent and lucid vision:
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest…..
God and the idea of God dominate this sonnet. In his essay entitled Pietism and Poetry Kavanagh says ‘the odd thing about the best modern poets is their utter simplicity.’ Of Kavanagh himself, it may be said that he is the only great modern poet who never wrote an obscure poem. He recognized that, in many cases, obscurity is merely a failure of the poet’s imagination and of his ability to communicate. Kavanagh saw his simplicity as a gift from God. He obviously thought a great deal about the nature of simplicity. In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he asks for a poetic style that is passive, reposed and serene:
…………………………, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech.
He also asks for a consuming intimacy with the natural world – a twentieth-century version of Wordsworth’s Pantheism:
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.
For Kavanagh, in this sonnet, the rewards of liberty are twofold. First of all, his sense of wonder deepens, and his expression of it becomes more assured. The second reward for the liberated, independent imagination is a kind of poetic faith that is inextricably linked with this deepened sense of wonder. This sense of well-being is described in religious terms and phrases – Kavanagh, after all, is a deeply religious poet: ‘redemption’, ‘God’, ‘the Word’, ‘pray’, ‘soul’. This poem is deceptively simple. Its simplicity is achieved with consummate art, through the poet’s personal involvement in the scene. It is not so much that he observes real things as that he feels the physical presence of these things with a total and alert consciousness:
O unworn world enrapture me….
He does not simply describe the scene, he recreates it, and it is unforgettable. This is very similar to Wordsworth’s notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and this exploitation of the power of suggestion in ordinary subjects is the most striking of Kavanagh’s special gifts.
Kavanagh’s poems fall naturally into three divisions: those about the countryside (the Monaghan poems); those about the city (the Dublin poems); and those which, broadly speaking, attempt to express a kind of personal philosophy, or which try to define the nature of personal vision (the sonnets). There have been many previous attempts to define poetry and I suppose each of us must really define it for ourselves. Kavanagh found it impossible to define but fascinating to describe. In ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ he sees it basically as a celebration of human inadequacy and failure. All poets are at times taken up, directly or indirectly, with being different from the rest of society, and Irish poets are especially preoccupied with this problem. A poet is, almost by definition, an individualist: he stands for the private, as distinct from the public values, and for the protection of private feeling ‘against the tyranny of society’. ‘Inniskeen Road’ could be seen as Kavanagh’s defense of poetry, as a compressed statement of poetic belief. The octave stresses public concerns, the second line imitates the plain language of village people and is in some sense satiric. But Kavanagh is never completely at home in satire and in the sestet the tone changes. The mood becomes meditative with the poet’s feeling of regret and detachment. What is stressed here is his separateness, his isolation. The paradox is of course that only by thus withdrawing can he discover himself and his mission as a poet. He has withdrawn from the world in order to be able to understand it and value it truly. His observation, therefore, becomes acute, and his power of selecting significant details remarkable. Though feeling, at first, the weight of his loneliness, the mood changes again in the last line as he suddenly understands himself, and his situation:
……….. I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.
The sonnet entitled ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ is basically different from the other two. It has neither the sense of frustration communicated by ‘Inniskeen Road’ nor the delicate imagery of ‘Canal Bank Walk’. It is a public sonnet, a direct address from the poet to the reader and as such its tone is serious. Its style is very elegant but really more closely akin to prose rather than poetry:
O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water preferably….
In ‘Inniskeen Road’ Kavanagh tries to define his own relationship with Irish society. In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he has rejected society for the intimacies of private experience. Now, in this last sonnet, there is a new sense of communication: there is a wish to renew his links with others and to share with them his experience and this is why he addresses his listener/reader using terms of affection:
Commemorate me thus beautifully…
As usual with Kavanagh, the sonnet creates a visual scene. He has not time to entice his listener with lengthy descriptions but he provokes his interest through simple images; a swan, the light under bridges, a barge. Compared to ‘Canal Bank Walk’ we notice the economy and compression gained from the absence of adjectives. Also, this sonnet shows less dependence on imagery and relies more on factual statements.
Indeed, the formal demands of sonnet writing brought out the best of Kavanagh’s poetic ability and many of his poems are superb personal statements. His imagery often seems plain and unremarkable when compared to that of Yeats or Kinsella, but the images are sharp, descriptive, and precisely used. In the best of his sonnets, he speaks of a certain time and place; he expresses experiences in the context of his own world. It is unlikely that he will ever be the source of the industry that has grown up around Yeats: there is so little to unravel, his greatness seems not in himself but in the world he expresses. And yet it is true to say that, though Yeats is a more universal poet, Kavanagh is, at times, much more Irish, in that he expresses a theme that is less remote from ordinary people’s experience. It is this simple immediacy of Kavanagh’s poetry that is part of his special appeal.
This essay is an edited version of one written by Joseph Ducke for the Inscapes Series (Inscape17: Poetry 2) entitled Patrick Kavanagh, (p.73) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.
Patrick Kavanagh, like Yeats, is constantly ‘stitching and unstitching’ old themes in his poems. These themes can be listed as follows, without giving them any particular order or ranking:
Loneliness and isolation;
Regret at the thought of lost innocence since the passing of childhood;
Meditations on the vocation of the poet and how this vocation has been frustrated;
The relationship between the poet and nature;
Meditations on the poet’s poor, deprived background, and on the impoverishment of the spirit induced by the life of the Irish countryside of his youth.
It helps if we distinguish between two distinct phases of Kavanagh’s poetic career. Put simply his career can be divided between what we will call ‘the Monaghan poems’ and ‘the Dublin poems’. The poems dealing with life in the grim, forbidding farmlands of Monaghan (‘Stony Grey Soil’ and ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’) are remarkable for their attitude of disillusionment and discontent. Life in the Irish countryside and its effects on sensitive souls are portrayed with savage realism:
You sang on steaming dunghills
A song of coward’s brood
You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch
You fed me on swinish food.
The tone of this poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’, is predominantly one of disgust and rebellion. The poet’s mind has been embittered and stunted by the drudgery of life on a small farm. His high ambitions and ideals have been frustrated. He might have pictured himself as a graceful young man, talented and destined to succeed, but the reality has been much different:
You clogged the feet of my boyhood
And I believed that my stumble
Had the poise and stride of Apollo
And his voice my thick-tongued mumble.
There is a kind of savage comedy in the self-mocking contrast between Apollo, the god of light, beauty, poetry and music, and the rustic, awkward, ugly and ill-spoken young poet scraping a miserable living from a poor farm. It is, however, important to notice that this poem is not uniformly disillusioned in tone. Life may have been poor, nasty and brutish, but it has to be remembered that in those dark fields of Monaghan, Kavanagh had his first poetic inspiration:
The first gay flight of my lyric
Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.
Another poem which deals with the less attractive aspects of the poet’s early life is ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’. Again we have the theme of the lonely, suffering, misunderstood poet living in a place where the inhabitants cannot be expected to understand or sympathise with him. He is an isolated figure on the Inniskeen road as the carefree groups of young people pass him on their way to a dance. They share the ‘half-talk code of mysteries’, and the ‘wind and elbow language of delight’. He is pointedly excluded. He must pay this price for being a poet; he must be prepared to be an outcast from the company of those who cannot share his interests and who are overawed by the power of the poet in their midst. This poem features one of Kavanagh’s characteristic mannerisms: his tendency to use literary allusion (Selkirk on his island the ‘monarch of all I survey’) to illustrate a point. The pun on ‘blooming’ in the line ‘Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’ is in doubtful taste: Kavanagh is (too) often liable to lapses of this kind.
There is a world of difference between the two poems just discussed and two later poems dealing with the Grand Canal and its surroundings. Kavanagh’s attitude to the environment changed dramatically following his operation for lung cancer. He said: ‘As a poet, I was born in or about 1955, the place of my birth being the banks of the Grand Canal’. The Canal Bank poems show us that he has left behind him the inhibitions and restrictions featured in the earlier poems, and achieved a new freedom of imagination and a new, more positive outlook on life and nature. The rural nature of Monaghan reminded him of his loneliness; the urban nature of the canal bank offers redemption and hope. He sits on the canal bank enjoying the sunshine ‘pouring redemption’ for him. There is a powerful sense of enjoyment, of gratitude and of wonder at the new beauty he is able to feel all around him. Remember, he has only recently been discharged from hospital after successful treatment for lung cancer. He now feels as if he has been reborn. He is almost delirious with joy at the sight of the simple, yet beautiful, natural objects which pass before his eyes. Even the most commonplace things take on a new meaning for him; he is now content to ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’. Nature is now capable of healing his wounds, of giving him the kind of happiness he has always longed for:
O unworn world enrapture me, enrapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech
This poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is full of a deeply religious awareness of nature, associated with ‘the will of God’, ‘redemption’, ‘eternal voices’, ‘the Word’.
The same joyful mood is present in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin’. Here again, the tone is optimistic. Nature and its sights and sounds fill the poet with the deep contentment he finds in ‘the tremendous silence of mid-July’. It is this close communion with nature that leads him to ask for commemoration near water. Whereas in his Monaghan poems, the ordinary things of nature, the fields, the soil, the ditches, the hedges, the hills, tended to provoke unpleasant reactions, in his later work he finds novelty, excitement and new inspiration in the most ordinary and banal sights and sounds: the noise of the canal lock gate, the greenness of the trees, the barge, the swan. This child-like wonder at the sight of common objects is a distinctive feature of his later work. The discontent, the disillusionment, the loneliness, of his early poems have given way to a new poetry of acceptance, of happy enjoyment of life and nature.
‘Advent’ is a good example of Kavanagh’s treatment of a religious theme. It is obvious that the poet is very much influenced by traditional Catholic teaching and practice and this may pose problems for some modern readers who may be unfamiliar with these beliefs. It is really a sequence of two sonnets, which do not, however, follow the usual rules observed by writers of sonnets. (It is interesting to note that the poem has twenty-eight lines and that there are twenty-eight days in Advent). This poem, in fact, has much in common with the Grand Canal poems. Here Kavanagh longs to return to the wonder of childhood, to be able to experience again ‘the newness that was in every stale thing / when we looked at it as children’. In those far off days of infancy, he could experience wonder at the sight of a hill, a bog-hole or a cart-track. However, as he has aged and matured, this childhood sense of wonder has been eroded and destroyed. The poet, like other adults, has allowed contact with the world and with the pleasure of the senses (‘We tested and tasted too much, lover’) to dissipate what he calls ‘the luxury of a child’s soul’. The problem posed in the poem is how can he recapture this childhood happiness again. There is, I sense, another more selfish reason for this quest during Advent: this new-found wonder will also help him as a poet. Now, everything he sees will be suitable subject matter for his poems. Kavanagh finds the answer in penance, for which Advent (and Lent) were traditional seasons. ‘The dry black bread and the sugarless tea’ of penance will help to charm back the childhood attitudes to experience. Now, he will find happiness in looking at the simple, even banal, things of life. By undergoing penance during the Advent season, the poet sees himself returning sin where it came from and now he will no longer need to go searching ‘for the difference that sets an old phrase burning’. He will now see everything in a new light, even the talking of an old fool, previously tedious, will now seem delightful. The sight of men barrowing dung in gardens will be a joyful sign of God’s plenty. Advent penance and the renewal of religious feeling and fervour will lead to a new found peace of mind. Metaphorically he is born again! Now, he will no longer seek reasons or explanations for mysteries, or for griefs experienced. He will not try to over-analyse the reasons for his new mood now that he has cast off sin.
This newly-acquired delight and celebration of simple, banal things are what connects ‘Advent’ with the Canal Bank poems.
This essay is an edited version of one written by Patrick Murray for the Inscapes Series (Inscape16: Poetry 1) entitled ‘Patrick Kavanagh Some Themes’, (p.78) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.
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 1800s. In the 1901 Census returns for Camas Upper and Camas Lower respondents were asked a question concerning their knowledge of the Irish language. In Camas Upper and Lower 36 people out of a total of 175 counted in the census stated that they were proficient in ‘Irish and English’, including Johanna Halpin, Bridget Halpin’s future mother-in-law. This works out at 20% of respondents. In the 1911 Census returns, the year Bridget Roche married Michael Halpin, respondents were asked the same question and 29 adults responded. In the 1911 Census, there is no division of the townland and the total number enumerated in the Census is lower at 141. The percentage of respondents who said they had proficiency in Irish and English remains at 20%, however. Interestingly, and this may, of course, suggest a certain carelessness in compiling the statistics of the census on behalf of the local enumerator, there is nothing in the returns for the Halpin family to suggest that they are proficient in Irish, although both Johanna and Bridget are marked present.
His often repeated claims about Bridget Halpin’s prowess in the Irish language are, therefore, exaggerated. She obviously had many phrases and sayings in Irish but it is very doubtful if she had the capacity to carry out a conversation in Irish. Therefore, the myth that Michael Hartnett picked up a new language by osmosis or by listening to Bridget, ‘the native Irish speaker’ or her cronies while he lay in the loft during acrimonious card games is largely that, a myth. The reality is that his love of the language was also developed by his study of and admiration for the poets of the Maigue and the Bardic past. It was also helped by his study of Irish in school, in Irish College in Ballingeary and by his association with many poets and dramatists writing in Irish and also by his relationships in the early nineteen-sixties, particularly his relationship and collaboration with Caithlín Maude and his later collaboration in the 1980’s with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, translating her first volume, Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, into English.
Hartnett’s public comments and writings also cause some confusion concerning Bridget Halpin’s age. In the acclaimed documentary directed by Pat Collins in 1999, shortly before Hartnett’s untimely demise, entitled ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, Hartnett states that Bridget Halpin was born in 1870, when in fact we know from Census returns that she was born in 1885. He also states that she was 93 when she died in 1967 when in fact she was a mere 80 years of age when she died in 1965!
It is clear, therefore, that many of these claims regarding his grandmother are greatly exaggerated. For example, he has stated on numerous occasions that he was effectively reared by his grandmother from a young age on her small farm in Camas. However, from school attendance records we learn that Michael Hartnett attended the Courteney Boys National School in Newcastle West on a regular basis from September 1949 when he entered First Class (having attended the Convent School, now Scoil Iosaef, for Junior and Senior Infants) until June 1955 when he completed Sixth Class. His attendance during those years was exemplary, rarely missing a day, this, despite his claims in the documentary, ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, that he was ‘a sickly child, and still am’. He then transferred to St. Ita’s Boys Secondary School, then housed in the Carnegie Library in the town to pursue Secondary Education. His sojourns to Camas would, therefore, only have been at weekends and during school holidays as it was at least a four-mile walk. However, it is not contested that the small farm in Camas and Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, played a very important role in providing sustenance and much-needed nourishment for the young Harnett family in Maiden Street during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Michael Hartnett’s first cousin, Joe Dore, has clear recollection that ‘the poet’ was a frequent visitor to Camas, ‘except when there was hay to be saved’. John Cussen, local historian and friend of the poet says that,
‘Michael Hartnett and I were in the same class in the Courteney School for several years until 1954 when I went to Boarding School (in Glenstal). We were good friends. He was certainly always living in town at that time. I do not recall him ever talking about his grandmother or his sojourns in Camas with her. We were too busy swopping comics which was all the rage at the time!’
Patrick Kavanagh says in his poem, ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stobling’, ‘Once upon a time / I had a myth that was a lie but it served’. Hartnett, too, had his myths and why not? In the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ he states:
I have told ye no big lies and most of the truth –
not hidden the hardships of the days of our youth
when we wore lumber jackets and had voucher boots
and were raggy and snot-nosed and needy.
Indeed, prior an interview with the poet Dennis O’Driscoll which took place in the offices of Poetry Ireland on 12th December, 1986, Hartnett in a typically mischievous tone told his interviewer:
I always lie at interviews. I don’t lie as such, but I change my mind so often … I refuse to have what is known in the trade as a ‘coherent metaphysic’ (O’Driscoll, p.140).
So, therefore, we must approach with some caution the various and numerous claims made by the poet concerning his grandmother, Bridget Halpin. One credible explanation for many of these claims is that he wanted to portray his grandmother as the quintessential ‘nineteenth-century woman’ who never came to terms with the political, social and cultural changes which were brewing in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. He saw her as a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland. In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so his poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”, which he described as ‘an apology’ to his grandmother, can also be read as a post-colonial lament. Therefore, it would have been more convenient if she had been born in 1870 rather than 1885. Hartnett always considered Bridget Halpin to be a woman ‘out of her time’. She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13). To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
He has placed Bridget Halpin on a pedestal for his own good reasons. He saw in her a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseogs of the countryside. This is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn. There is an underlying paganism here which is absent from Kavanagh’s work, whose poetry, in general, is suffused with orthodox 1950’s Catholic belief, dogma and theology. For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, limited knowledge of the laws of physics, and therefore, as he points out in ‘Mrs Halpin and the Thunder’,
Her fear was not the simple fear of one
who does not know the source of thunder:
these were the ancient Irish gods
she had deserted for the sake of Christ.
However, Hartnett’s powers of observation and intuition were honed in Camas on Bridget Halpin’s small farm during his frequent visits. His poem, “A Small Farm”, has great significance for the poet and it is the first poem in his Collected Poems, edited by Peter Fallon and published by The Gallery Press in 2001. He tells us that he learnt much on that small farm during those lean years in the forties and early fifties,
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm,
how to do the neighbours harm
by magic, how to hate.
The struggle to make a success and eke out a living was a constant struggle and burden. The begrudgery of neighbours, the ‘bitterness over boggy land’, the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’ (“A Small Farm”). The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but interestingly Hartnett does not name this place, it is an Everyplace. The poem is simply titled, “A Small Farm” so there is no Inniskeen, Drummeril, or Black Shanco here but the harshness and brutality of existence, ‘the cracked calendars / of their lives’ (ibid) in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh. Yet, it is here that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and often to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ them and begins to notice the birds and the weeds and the grasses,
I was abandoned to their tragedies
and began to count the birds,
to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold,
and to avoid among my nameless weeds
the civil war of that household.
Later in, “For My Grandmother, Bridget Halpin”, he again alludes to the wildness, the paganism, the piseógs that surrounded him during his childhood in Camas. His grandmother’s worldview is almost feral. She looks to the landscape and the birds for information about the weather or impending events,
A bird’s hover,
seabird, blackbird, or bird of prey,
was rain, or death, or lost cattle.
This poorly educated woman reads the landscape and the skies as one would read a book,
The day’s warning, like red plovers
so etched and small the clouded sky,
was book to you, and true bible.
We know that Michael was in Morocco when Bridget Halpin died in 1965 in St. Ita’s Hospital in Newcastle West where she was being cared for. In this poem there is also a reference to his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin) who helped rear him and who was eventually to inherit the small farm from his mother, Bridget when she died,
You died in utter loneliness,
your acres left to the childless.
Hartnett is taking a great risk here, that of alienating those closest to him with his disparaging comments on his relations. We know that this trait of outspokenness was to become a feature of his art; his poetry was often scathing and rebellious. However, in this regard, surely the biggest risk he takes is in the first lines of “Death of an Irishwoman”, when he describes his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, as ‘ignorant’ and ‘pagan’. This is nearly as risky and risqué as Heaney’s bold and brave comparing of his wife to a skunk in the poem of that name! Only a favourite, a truly loved one could get away with such braggadocio! The poem’s ending, however, with its exquisite cascade of metaphors surely makes amends for his earlier gaffe.
Therefore, the townland of Camas and Bridget Halpin’s small farm holds a very special place and influence on Michael Hartnett’s psyche. His first published work appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955 while he was still in Sixth Class in the Courteney Boys School. He was thirteen. Entitled “Camas Road”, it describes in particular detail an evening rural vista of the townland of Camas, a place which would feature on numerous other occasions in his poetry, becoming central to his development as a poet. It is similar to Heaney’s “Sunlight” poems representing an idyllic childhood upbringing. Its two eight-line stanzas of alternating rhyme and regular metre contain a litany of natural images, at times idiosyncratically rendered; the ‘timid hare sits in the ditch’, ‘the soft lush hay that grows in fields’. It is a peculiar mix of a poem, seemingly authentic words and images from the poet’s experience placed together with those gleaned from the literary prop-box crafted by Manley Hopkins or Wordsworth, testament, no doubt, to the young poet’s voracious appetite for reading and possibly due to the influence of his teacher, Frank Finucane. It is doubly imitative, drawing upon the romantic tradition of nature poetry, as well as the more local genre, poems written by local poets, people, ‘like Ahern and Barry before me’ – poems written exclusively for local consumption. Thirteen-year-old Hartnett depicts an idyllic setting,
A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge,
A cottage thatched with golden straw,
The harshness of later poems is not evident and the poem serves as a record of his childhood in Camas surrounded by nature and its abundant riches. However, at poem’s end there is a growing awareness that this idyllic phase of his life is coming to an end and he declares rather poignantly,
The sun goes down on Camas Road.
The townland of Camas is also central to an episode which the poet recounts for us in his seminal poem, “A Farewell to English”. This encounter hovers somewhere between reality and dream, aisling (the Irish word for a vision) or epiphany. The incident takes place at Doody’s Cross as the poet walks out one summer’s Sunday evening from Newcastle West to the cottage in Camas. He is on his way to meet up with his uncle, Dinny Halpin. He sits down ‘on a gentle bench of grass’ to rest his weary feet after his exertions when he sees approaching him three spectral figures from the Bardic Gaelic past – Andrias Mac Craith, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, and Daíbhí Ó Bruadair. These ‘old men’ walked on ‘the summer road’ with
Sugán belts and long black coats
with big ashplants and half-sacks
of rags and bacon on their backs.
They pose as a rather pathetic group, ‘hungry, snot-nosed, half-drunk’ and they give him a withering glance before they take their separate ways to Croom, Meentogues and Cahirmoyle, the locations of their patronage, ‘a thousand years of history / in their pockets’. Here Hartnett is situating himself as their direct descendent and the inheritor of their craft and the enormity of this epiphany occurs at Doody’s Cross in Camas: the enormity of the task that lies ahead also terrifies and haunts Hartnett.
As another part of the myth that he had created, Hartnett always laid great emphasis on the fact that he had been born in Croom. He was immensely proud of this fact. In an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll for Poetry Ireland he stated:
I am the only ‘recognised’ living poet who was born in Croom, County Limerick, which was the seat of one of the last courts of poetry in Munster: Sean Ó Tuama and Andrias MacCraith. When I was quite young, I became very conscious of these poets and, so, read them very closely indeed (Dennis O’Driscoll Interview for Poetry Ireland, p, 143).
Andrias Mac Craith (c. 1709 – c. 1794), in particular, was an important influence on Hartnett. MacCraith had, for a time, very close associations with the town of Croom in County Limerick (although, it is believed, he had been born in Fanstown near Kilmallock). As already mentioned, Hartnett had long dined out on the fortuitous coincidence that he too had strong associations with Croom having been born there. However, he neglects to inform us that most of the babies born in Limerick in 1941 were also born in St. Nessan’s Maternity Hospital in Croom! He would have been in Croom for less than a week before he returned to Lower Maiden Street to the accommodation which his family rented from the eponymous Legsa Murphy who also owned a bakery near Forde’s Corner in Upper Maiden Street. However, in the mid to late 1700’s Andrias MacCraith, who was also known as An Mangaire Sugach or The Merry Pedlar (he was not a pedlar, but a roving schoolmaster), and his fellow poet and innkeeper, Sean Ó Tuama an Ghrinn (Sean O’Tuama The Merrymaker), had transformed Croom into a centre for poetry and the seat of one of the last ‘courts’ of Gaelic poetry. The town became somewhat notorious and became known widely as Cromadh an tSughachais, roughly translated as Croom of the Jubilations – (today it would obviously be known as Croom of the Craic)! Hartnett would have loved this vibrant, anarchic milieu and this is why Mac Craith had such an influence over him. Hartnett saw himself as a natural descendent of these poets and the motivation behind his ‘rebel act’ in 1974 was largely an effort to revive the interest in Irish, and poetry in Irish, which had earlier been generated by these poets who were known collectively as the Maigue Poets, in honour of the River Maigue which runs through Croom. His lovely poem, “A Visit to Croom, 1745” is his effort to recreate the tragic changes that were imminent, he tells us he had walked fourteen miles ‘in straw-roped overcoat’,
…… to hear a Gaelic court
Talk broken English of an English king.
As with almost everything that surrounds Hartnett, therefore, our task is to try to discern fact from fiction, myth from reality. We know that Hartnett was a frequent visitor to Camas until he was twelve or thirteen and that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, considered him to be her favourite grandson. We also know that there were fragile remnants of a dying language and culture and customs still evident in the area. His later momentous disavowal of his earlier work in English and his abandonment of his standing as an emerging poet in 1974 is not hugely surprising when we consider the influences brought to bear on him during those extremely important formative years in Camas. Surely those beautiful, descriptive, soothing Irish adjectives repeated as a mantra in “A Farewell to English”, ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’, which are used to describe the raven haired buxom barmaid in Moore’s Bar or Windle’s Bar in Carrickerry, could also be used to describe his grandmother, Bridget Halpin herself? The encounter depicted in the second section of the poem, “A Farewell to English”, and referred to earlier, can also be read as an example of Hartnett realising what he suggests artists do in his beautiful poem, “Struts”. He is,
……. climbing upwards into time
And climbing backwards into tradition.
So, Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris’s but it helped produce one of Ireland’s leading poets of any century. The influences absorbed in this rural setting, his powers of observation, his knowledge of wildlife and flowers, his ecocentric bias, are impressive and all-pervasive in his poetry. Without prejudice, it also has to be said that he demonstrates a deeper knowledge of all local flora and fauna than could be reasonably expected of a ‘townie’! In his own words, he has told us ‘no big lies’ and, though questionable, there was, we believe, ‘method in his madness’. When we examine closely his impressive body of work we notice that apart from Camas very few other rural places are mentioned or named in his poetry. He later left and went to Dublin, London, Madrid, Morocco but when he had work to finish he came back to rural West Limerick and to another beautiful neighbouring townland, Glendarragh, to embark on the work for which he will, if there is any justice, be best remembered.
He was an ice-cream chimes ringing in an Inchicore estate.
He was the commotion stirred up at a country wake.
He was a game of hopscotch played in Maiden Street.
He was a plaintive flamenco note picked out by a gypsy.
He was the palpitation of hooves at a small-town horse fair.
He was a book-barrow dictionary, teeming with disused words.
He was a neglected cottage where a songbird nests.
He was the full-moon shedding light on Newcastle West.
– Dennis O’Driscoll
‘A Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999
Hartnett, Michael. Why Write in Irish? in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.133
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2001.
Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta. Translated by Michael Hartnett, Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1986.
O’Driscoll, Dennis. Michael Hartnett Interview in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002.
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012.
Sources: My gratitude is extended to Joe Dore and John Cussen for their invaluable assistance in compiling this piece of research.
 Michael Hartnett’s family name was Harnett, but for some reason, he was registered in error as Hartnett on his birth certificate. In later life, he declined to change this as it was closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide.
Kavanagh is very adept at reflecting the common, everyday occurrences in the rural area of Monaghan in which he grew up. He writes in a direct way about his own experience with the land. He celebrates the beauty of nature’s commonplace things. And yet, a sense of loss also pervades much of his poetry.
In one of Kavanagh’s earlier poems, ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, he stands on his mile of kingdom, insisting with pride, or perhaps defiance, that he is king of ‘banks and stones and every blooming thing’. The poem explores the nature of being a poet and in this regard, Kavanagh acknowledges the reality of his ‘plight’, in spite of the grandiose notion of poetic ‘contemplation’. The poet shares with us his deep sense of loss. It is a loss of companionship as others rush past him in ‘Twos and threes’. Other young men and women make no attempt to communicate with the poet who stands alone on the roadside. At the dance, he imagines their own coded communications, from which, once again, he is excluded. The hurt is felt as the poet stands in solitude, isolated from his community, with ‘no shadow thrown / That might turn out a man or woman’. Kavanagh has been reduced to being a spectator and he sees that this is the high price he must pay for his poetic gift. The bustle of the dance is in stark contrast to the silence of the mile of road where not even a ‘footfall’ can be expected.
The exploration of the loss of companionship is further developed in ‘The Great Hunger’. In this poem, Kavanagh explores and also explodes many of the romantic images of the simple, contented rural peasant in Ireland. He exposes the inadequacies of a social system which stifles the emotional and sexual needs of Patrick Maguire, who becomes entrapped by his clay bride, the land. Similar to the poet in ‘Inniskeen Road’, Maguire is unable to communicate his needs to others; his only reason for shouting at his farm labourers is to extend his orders for the day. He is bogged down in empty promises: ‘Who was it promised marriage to himself / Before apples were hung from the ceilings for Halloween’. He attempts to console himself for his loss of fertility, without wife, without children, pretending to his soul ‘That children are tedious in hurrying fields of April’.
In this society, the lie that ‘Clay is the word’ is perpetuated and so Maguire ‘lives that his little fields may stay fertile’. In moments of frustration and despair he cries out ‘if I had been wiser!’ but he knows he can never escape ‘the grip of irregular fields’. Tragically, Maguire’s cries are unheard and unheeded.
A further exploration of loss is evident in ‘Advent’. In this poem, the concern is with the loss of innocence and wonder. Kavanagh employs religious association to suggest his yearning to return to a state of innocence in which the ordinary and the commonplace are ‘spirit-shocking’. It is a poem that declares the poet’s regret at having been corrupted by experience – ‘we have tested and tasted too much’. Although the poem details the poet’s loss, it does not plummet into despair. The loss is balanced by the uplifting mood of hope in the third stanza that after Christmas the poet will once again take possession of that ‘luxury’ he had previously lost, ‘And Christ comes with a January flower’.
Kavanagh’s verse is usually self-revealing. In ‘On Raglan Road’ yet another aspect of loss is related to us. Once more Kavanagh opens his mind and heart with honesty, cautioning in the first line of the lyric that his love’s ‘dark hair would weave a snare’. Despite his awareness of the ‘danger’, the poet begins his courtship and enthusiastically woos his friend with gifts ‘of the mind’ such as poems. A major concern of the poem, however, is lost love, and so despite the poet’s attempts to win his friend’s trust and love, the courtship fails. Loss of faith in women is replaced with loss of faith in the land in the poem ‘Shancoduff’. Hills which are looked upon with affection and some pride, are re-evaluated in light of the cattle-drovers’ denouncement that they are ‘hungry’ and ‘forsaken’.
It is abundantly clear, therefore, that in his poetry Kavanagh speaks his mind in praise and in condemnation. In his subjective verse, his feelings run very deep. Certainly, he may share with us his celebrations but he does not ignore his sense of loss and isolation. He records his resentment at being an outcast in his own community in ‘Inniskeen Road’. He denounces the privation of opportunity and fulfilment in ‘The Great Hunger’. He yearns for his lost innocence and wonder in ‘Advent’ and he agonises over his lost love and lost faith in ‘On Raglan Road’ and in ‘Shancoduff’.
There is a major religious element to Kavanagh’s poetry. Kavanagh is clearly deeply influenced by his early Catholic upbringing and all that this entails. He finds inspiration in the liturgical seasons such as Advent. His poems contain references to Genesis in the Old Testament and to the sacrament of Baptism. Examples of this orthodox Catholic theology is clearly evident in such poems as ‘Advent’ and ‘Canal Bank Walk’, ‘A Christmas Childhood’ and many more.
In the poem ‘Advent’, Kavanagh feels that he has been corrupted by the whole process of living. He has ‘tested and tasted too much’. By ‘testing’ and ‘tasting’, of course, he means that he has indulged in pleasure for the mind and pleasure for the body. Kavanagh feels too that he has lost the wonder of things, ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’.
In order to purify himself, Kavanagh is going to use traditional religious methods: ’the dry black bread and the sugarless tea of penance’. He wants to win back lost innocence, to ‘charm back the luxury of a child’s soul’. He is going to make a new spiritual beginning; he is going to leave the apple of sin back on the tree and start again in innocence: ‘We’ll return to Doom the knowledge we stole but could not use’.
In this poem, Kavanagh feels that the world has grown sour and stale. He wants to reawaken the newness that was once in the world for him before he lost wonder and innocence. This newness and spiritual renewal is to be achieved through penance and self-denial.
Once he has been purified and spiritually regenerated, the ordinary world around him will be new. It will be new because he will have been spiritually renewed. He will now find newness and wonder in the ordinary ‘banal’ things – in something as common as the sound of a churning, in the very ordinary almost clichéd sight of the village boys ‘lurching’ at the street corner or in the sight of decent men ‘barrowing dung in gardens under trees’.
Now Kavanagh will be rich – spiritually rich: ‘Won’t we be rich, my love and I’. And he vows that he will not destroy his new-found wonder and innocence by analysis, by questioning, by intellectualising. He will not ask for ‘reason’s payment’. He will not ask the ‘why’ of things. He will be content to wonder. As he says in another poem, ‘to look on is enough in the business of love’.
Kavanagh has now discarded his old self – the self that ‘tested’ and ‘tasted’, the self that was obsessed with the worthless pursuit of pleasure and knowledge: ‘We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour’. There is going to be a new beginning: ‘And Christ comes with the January flower’.
The poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is equally religious. The year is 1955 and Kavanagh has recently emerged from hospital having undergone a sort of religious experience or spiritual renewal. The natural world around him is wonderful. The canal banks are ‘leafy with love’ and the canal water has taken on a religious significance. It is now Baptismal; water, baptising the poet’s new-born soul.
From now on Kavanagh is going to do the will of God and God’s will is that he steep himself in the ordinary world, ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’. God’s will is that he go back to that state of oneness with nature which he had in the innocence of childhood. He must ‘grow with nature’ again. For Kavanagh the very breeze takes on a personal dimension: it is adding a third party to the couple kissing on an old seat; it is making up a threesome.
In this poem, Kavanagh’s view is deeply religious. A bird preparing to build a nest is no longer just a bird building a nest. It has taken on a religious dimension. The bird is, in a spiritual sense, preparing a place for the Word to be made flesh. In Kavanagh’s new-found spiritual view of the world, all new life is a manifestation of God. It is God Himself visible in physical terms. The bird is ‘gathering materials for the nest for the Word’.
Kavanagh now wants to live in total oneness with God’s creation, with nature. He will live life at the level of the senses. There will be no more intellectualising. He wants to be trapped forever in the world of sight and sound: ‘enrapture me in a web of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech’. He seems to feel that he has lived too long and too much in the world of questioning, testing and analysis. He has neglected the world of sensual contact with nature; ‘feed the gaping need of my senses’.
Finally, in this poem, Kavanagh wants to return to the innocence and simplicity of childhood where he could pray without inhibition: ‘Give me ad lib to pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech’. He wants his new-born soul to be dressed in green and blue things. This is the green of the earth and the blue of the sky, the totality of nature, of God’s creation. There will be no searching for answers. He will settle for ‘arguments that cannot be proven’.
Kavanagh then, in the poems ‘Advent’ and ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is deeply religious. He is religious in two ways; he is spiritually renewed personally and nature itself takes on a very religious significance. He wants, as it were, to begin again in innocence – to be, in effect, the very first Born-Again-Christian in 1950’s Catholic Ireland!
An important element in Kavanagh’s poetry is his obvious honesty, integrity and simplicity. According to Kavanagh, simplicity is the ability to be content and satisfied with oneself no matter how ridiculous or silly or commonplace one may appear to others. A simple man is not a poser; he has no need to look over his shoulder to see what others think; there is no desire to seek the approval of the experts or of one’s peers. To have simplicity is to have what Kavanagh called ‘the philosophy of not caring’.
Kavanagh manifests simplicity in his poetry in three ways:
First, we have the simplicity of subject matter or theme.
Secondly, he writes about things and experiences that other poets might be ashamed to write about.
Thirdly, there is simplicity of language and technique, in his rhymes and in his rhythms.
The simplicity in his subject matter and themes is easily seen. He writes unashamedly about the ordinary, commonplace world around him; he does not search for lofty, intellectual themes. He writes about ‘whins’, ‘bogholes’, ‘cart-tracks’, barn dances, farming, ‘men.. who barrow dung in gardens under trees’. He draws from the ordinary but authentic world of his own experience. He tells us of the awful loneliness of being a poet in a peasant community, about being ‘king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’. He recalls bitterly how he, as a poet, had been ‘soul destroyed’ by an uninspiring environment, how Monaghan ‘burgled his bank of youth’, how it ‘flung a ditch on my vision’. He tells too of his deep human need for love and romance, ‘lost the long hours of pleasure, all the women that loved young men’. This is all the ‘stuff’ of reality and ordinary reality at that. It may not be a great heroic world, it’s not earth-shattering, but it is the world of authentic experience and he is content with it. That’s simplicity.
In his poetry, Kavanagh writes about things and experiences that other poets might be ashamed to write about. He finds wonder in a barge coming up the canal, in a swan going by ‘head low with many apologies’, in ’the bright stick trapped’, in the light which comes ‘through the eye of bridges’. Everywhere he is satisfied with his world, he does not need to go searching for a theme, they are all around him. He finds a message in ‘the whispered argument of a churning’ or in the street ‘where the village boys are lurching’. He finds his God being revealed in incidents as ordinary as a bird building a nest or in decent men ‘who barrow dung in gardens under trees’.
This same simplicity is to be found in his language and diction. He has little time for poetic diction or flowery pompous language. He uses ordinary everyday colloquial language, ‘the bicycles go by in twos and threes, there’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight.’ There’s nothing very poetic about that! Other examples of his ordinary language are numerous: ‘Every old man I see reminds me of my father’, ‘Commemorate me where there is water, canal water preferably’. Etc. etc. etc. There is nothing pretentious about this poetic voice, rather it is honest. He is content with his own language, however ordinary, and doesn’t care how he is perceived by the literary ‘purists’.
We can also see examples of his simplicity in his rhythms and rhymes – his technique. His rhymes are often imperfect. For example he rhymes ‘water’ with ‘brother’, ‘roars’ with ‘prose’, ‘silence’ with ‘islands’, ‘bridges’ with ‘courageous’, ‘lover’ with ‘wonder’, ‘weather’ with ‘father’, ‘musician’ with ‘London’, and ‘web’ with ‘lib’. These rhymes would not, I’m sure, meet with the approval of the ‘experts’. But Kavanagh is not concerned. He is content with himself, he is not trying to be polished. After all, he is simply an honest peasant poet writing about ordinary, unsophisticated, personal things. Over-polished rhyming would surely be out of place here, it would be seen as less authentic
His rhythms are often, too, coarse and rugged. This is only to be expected since, as I have already stated, he is not using poetic diction but ordinary, colloquial language which is not always musical. Listen to a few examples: ‘O commemorate me where there is water..’, ‘I have what every poet hates, in spite of all this solemn talk of contemplation’, ‘that man I saw on Gardner Street was one’. All these lines have the ruggedness of ordinary speech. Kavanagh is, however, content with them. He has discovered in his life the ability to be satisfied with himself no matter how others may come to regard him. That’s honesty. That’s integrity. That’s simplicity.
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