Michael Hartnett began Secondary School in September 1956. He arrived in St. Ita’s Secondary School with a burgeoning reputation. By that time he had had his first poem published in the Limerick Weekly Echo as far back as the 18th of June 1955. He was then thirteen and still a student in the Courtenay Boys National School. The poem was entitled ‘Camas Road’, and it described in particular detail the rural vista of the West Limerick townland of Camas at evening: ‘A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge, / A cottage thatched with golden straw’ (Book of Strays 67). He sat his Intermediate Certificate in June 1959 and later in mid-September the results were published in the Limerick Leader and Hartnett from 28 Assumpta Park was first on the list having received a full set of seven honours.
Patrick J. O’Connor, later to be Dr. Patrick J. O’Connor, who for most of his academic life lectured and published extensively on human geography at the University of Limerick, entered the school as a first year in September 1959 and has vivid memories of the young Hartnett and saw him, in particular, as a shining role model to be emulated. He describes Hartnett at that time as ‘a small, slight figure, bookish, often solitary, never a participant in play in the field opposite his house’.
In his evocative memoir, The New Houses, O’Connor also suggests that Hartnett, despite his excellent academic record, did not find favour with the school’s Principal and Manager, Jim Breen. O’Connor held Jim Breen in high esteem and he says that he, ‘made a distinctively personal contribution during the lean years that saw a blossoming of second level education in this country.’ He goes on to say that he, ‘asserted a strong presence and, being a big man physically, he rarely had to repeat anything. He was a strict disciplinarian, meticulous in attention to detail, but never petty or vindictive. He led by example in the sense that his own work bore the stamp of discipline and commitment.’ The sight of his green Volkswagen Beetle, registration number AIU 524, was enough to elicit an instant quickening in the step of many a tardy pupil.
According to O’Connor, Mike Hartnett ‘was the target of persistent monitoring on the part of the headmaster, Jim Breen’. Mike was a voracious reader and it seems that not all of his reading material was on the Prescribed English Syllabus and some of the literary works did not always find favour with the erstwhile headmaster. According to O’Connor, it was the ‘skewed subject content that bothered Jim Breen’. He made repeated raids on Hartnett’s gabháil of books. Following these repeated attacks O’Connor says that in his eyes, ‘From the status of heroic scholar Michael Hartnett sank into disrepute’ as a result of this regular attention paid to him by the headmaster!
It seems he didn’t fare any better with his English teacher, Willie O’Donnell. According to Pat O’Connor, O’Donnell taught English at senior cycle level and employed strategies supremely well suited to cope with the rigours of the examination system. A man well acquainted with the technicalities of language, he had a particular fondness for the double entendre, and one of his most favoured concerned the numbers of students from the school who would, ‘go down in history’! Seemingly, he persistently charged his young student, Hartnett, with the indictable offence ‘of meditating the Muse’. It was only a matter of time before the Empire struck back and Hartnett it seems planned and executed a number of retributions on Willie O’Donnell. Even long after he had left the influence of St Ita’s, indeed long after he had left UCD, and while carrying out periodic commissions for The Irish Times in the Sixties and Seventies, he made a number of pointed references to his former school which were not seen as complimentary by management. For example, in an article in The Irish Times on November 11th, 1968 he writes:
I left the national school in 1956 and lost an ally (Frank Finucane). Secondary school came then, and I wrote many poems (all, fortunately, lost) and made a new enemy, my English teacher. For five years I was beaten more often for ‘meditating the Muse’, as he called it than for lack of learning. But my poetry changed for the better, not because of the school, but because I partook of an old Irish custom: the girl I loved at the time entered a convent. This and the claustrophobia of Newcastle West, its rich and its poor, its bullying priest, turned me to write about myself …….. I was a poor man’s son in a secondary school, a place I had no right to be, as I was often reminded.
Harnett was never forgiven for all these indiscretions, by Jim Breen. Even when he returned as a recognised poet to Newcastle West in the 1970s and lived for a decade ‘out foreign in Glantine’ he was not welcomed back with open arms to his old alma mater while Jim held sway – even when Michael’s son, Niall, was a student in the school in the early Eighties.
There was, however, one teacher in the school who recognised Hartnett’s latent talent and who was most attuned to this rebel without a cause and that was Dave Hayes. As a teacher, Dave Hayes brought style and panache to bear on the teaching of Latin. According to Pat O’Connor, he was, ‘unquestionably a classical scholar of stature.’ This assessment was reinforced later during Dr O’Connor’s first year in UCD, when a well-known lecturer and future Minister for Education, John Wilson no less, could, in his view, ‘do no better than stand in the long shadow of Dave Hayes’. Dave Hayes was probably responsible for ensuring that Hartnett continued his Secondary education in St. Ita’s until he was nearly twenty years of age. His earlier scholastic promise failed to develop, however, and he eventually left St. Ita’s with honours only in Irish and English – much to the chagrin of his father, Denis.
Jim Breen retired as Principal in 1977 but continued as Manager and owner of the school until his death in 1984. Following his death, Des Healy, who had become Principal of the school on the untimely death of Noel Ruddle in 1981, took over the reins as Manager up until the school closed its doors on 29th May 1992. Des Healy was a past pupil of the school and, indeed, had been a classmate of Hartnett’s during their time in school. Des remained a lifelong friend of the poet, Michael Hartnett.
I will end this post with a true story. Honestly! I was there! As I mentioned earlier, Des was Principal of St. Ita’s Secondary School in the 1980s and Michael’s son Niall was a student in the school up until about 1985. To add to the intrigue Michael’s brother Dinny was the local postman at the time. One morning Des received a postcard from the poet delivered by hand to the school by Dinny the Postman. The postcard, which no doubt had also been read by Dinny prior to delivery, read as follows:
If I ever have any more children I won’t be sending them to your school. This has nothing to do with the quality of education provided in your school – it’s just the principal of the thing.
Hartnett, Michael, A Book of Strays, ed. Peter Fallon, Gallery Press, 2002.
O’Connor, Patrick J., The New Houses – A Memoir, Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 2009.
O’Connor, Patrick J., Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 1998.
Read also blog post ‘Happy Memories of St. Ita’s Secondary School’ here..
Formative Influences on the young Michael Hartnett
Bridget Halpin, formerly Bridget Roche, was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale in 1885 to parents John Roche and Marie Moloney. According to parish records in Abbeyfeale, she married Michael Halpin from Camas, near Newcastle West, in Abbeyfeale Church on February 28th,1911 in what was, by all accounts, ‘a made match’ between both families and she then came to live in Camas where the Halpins owned a small farm of ten acres three roods and 13 perches. Later on that year on April 2nd, 1911, the Census returns for Camas in the parish of Monagea, record Michael Halpin, aged 36, living with his new wife Bridget Halpin, then aged 26. Michael’s mother Johanna, aged 74, and her daughter, Michael’s sister, Johanna, aged 23, also lived in the house.
Michael Halpin, Bridget’s husband, was born on 2nd June 1876 in Camas. He was one of thirteen children born to Denis Halpin and Johanna Browne between 1866 and 1890. Denis Halpin, Michael’s father, was born c. 1834 in Cleanglass, in the parish of Killeedy, and he married Johanna Browne on the 18th February 1865 in the Catholic Church in Tournafulla. He was 31 years of age and Johanna Browne was 25. Living conditions were very harsh and infant mortality was very high and as many as seven of their thirteen children died in their infancy or childhood due, no doubt, to the severity and austerity of the times. Six of their thirteen children survived: Margaret, Kate, Michael, Denis, Cornelius, Johanna.
This woman, Bridget Halpin, would later wield great influence over her young grandson Michael Hartnett. Indeed, if we are to believe the poet, she was the one who first affirmed his poetic gift when one day he told her that a nest of young wrens had alighted on his head – her reply to him was, ‘Aha, You’re going to be a poet!’. Hartnett claimed that he spent much of his early childhood in Bridget Halpin’s cottage in the rural townland of Camas four miles from his home in nearby Newcastle West. He went on to immortalise this woman in many of his poems but especially in his beautiful poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”. This quiet townland of Camas is seen as central to his development as a poet and central to some of the decisions and seismic changes which he made in his poetic direction in the 1970’s. Maybe in time, this early association with Camas will be given its rightful importance and the little rural townland will vie with Maiden Street or Inchicore as one of Hartnett’s important formative places. This essay, therefore, is an effort to throw some light on this woman and gently probe her background and genealogy and it also seeks to untangle some of the myths, many self-generated, which have grown up around Michael Hartnett himself.
In April 1911 when the Census was compiled, there were four inhabitants of the thatched cottage in Camas: Michael Halpin, his new wife Bridget (née Roche), his mother Johanna and his sister Johanna who was soon to emigrate to the United States in late May 1911. By June of that year, Michael and Bridget Halpin were setting out on their married life together and they also had the care of Michael’s mother, Johanna. Over the coming years, they had six children together, Josie, Mary, Peg, Denis, Bridget (later to be Michael Hartnett’s mother) and Ita. Unfortunately, Michael Halpin died in September 1920 at the age of 44 approx. having succumbed to pneumonia. His daughter Ita was born seven months later on 23rd March 1921. Bridget Halpin was now left with the care of her six young children and their ailing grandmother, Johanna. Johanna Halpin (née Browne) died in Camus on 18th June 1921 aged 80 years of age.
Bridget Halpin’s plight was now stark and the harshness of her existence is often alluded to in her grandson’s poems which feature her. The cottage which was little more than a three roomed thatched mud cabin built of stone and yellow mud collapsed around 1926. The whole family were taken in, in an extraordinary gesture of neighbourliness, by Con Kiely until a new cottage was built a short distance away by a Roger Creedon for the princely sum of £70. The family moved into their new home in 1931 and this is the structure that still stands today. According to Michael Hartnett himself this cottage, and especially the mud cabin which preceded it, was renowned as a ‘Rambling House’, a cottage steeped in history, music, song, dance, cardplaying and storytelling. Hartnett would have us believe that it was from the loft in this cottage that he began to pick up his first words of Irish from his grandmother and her cronies as they gathered to play cards or tell tall tales.
Bridget Halpin’s youngest daughter, Ita Halpin, later married John Joe Dore, who lived on a neighbouring farm. He was a well-known sportsman, hurling historian and founder member of Killeedy GAA Club. They had one son, Joe Dore, who today is a well known Traffic Warden in Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale. Today, he is the owner of what was formerly Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas, having inherited it from his uncle, Denis Halpin. John Joe Dore died in 2000 aged 85. Bridget Halpin, immortalised by her grandson, Michael Hartnett, in his poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ is buried with her daughter Ita Halpin (Dore) in the grounds of the old abbey in Castlemahon Cemetery. Her grave is as yet unmarked.
Ita Halpin’s sister, Bridget Mary, who was born on 1st May 1918 later married Denis Harnett (born 20th July 1914) from North Quay, Newcastle West on the 28th of June 1941 in Newcastle West and they had six children. Michael Hartnett was the eldest and he had one sister, Mary, and four brothers, William, Denis, Gerard, and John. (Two siblings, Patricia and Edmond, also died as infants). Times were difficult for the Harnett family; they did, however, receive some good fortune when they moved into a house, in the newly built local authority development, Assumpta Park, in the 1950s. Joe Dore, Michael’s first cousin, recalls that during the war years (1941-1945 in Michael’s case) Michael was often brought to Camas in a donkey and cart to be looked after by his grandmother and his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin), who was now working ‘the small farm’. Joe Dore recalls that ‘his other brothers came to stay as well, especially Bill, but Michael, being the eldest, was the favourite of his grandmother’ – no doubt because he was her daughter Bridget’s first-born and also that he had been called Michael after her late husband. Joe Dore remembers that ‘Michael was a big boy when I knew him as he was twelve years older than me, as I was the last of the grandchildren to be reared by my grandmother and Uncle Denis also’.
This essay seeks to clarify some of Michael Hartnett’s claims concerning his grandmother, Bridget Halpin. Interestingly, most of these erroneous claims stem quite remarkably from the poet himself! His Wikipedia page tells us that,
… his grandmother, was one of the last native speakers to live in Co. Limerick, though she was originally from North Kerry. He claims that, although she spoke to him mainly in English, he would listen to her conversing with her friends in Irish, and as such, he was quite unaware of the imbalances between English and Irish, since he experienced the free interchange of both languages.
Writing in the Irish Times in August 1975 Hartnett wrote:
My first contact with Gaelic – as a living language – was in 1945 when I went to stay with my grandmother. She was a “native” speaker and had been born in North Kerry in the early 1880s. She rarely used Gaelic for conversation purposes but a good fifty percent of her vocabulary was Gaelic – more especially those words for plants, birds, farm implements, etc. …….. I learnt some two thousand words and phrases from her. It was not until her death in 1967 that I realised I had known a woman who embodied a thousand years of Gaelic history (Hartnett, ‘Why Write in Irish?’, p.133).
We have already noted that Bridget Roche (neé Halpin) was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale, County Limerick. While this area is steeped in Irish culture and music it was not particularly noted for its native Irish speakers in the late 1800’s. In the 1901 Census returns for Camas Upper and Camas Lower respondents were asked a question concerning their knowledge of the Irish language. In Camas Upper and Lower 36 people out of a total of 175 counted in the census stated that they were proficient in ‘Irish and English’, including Johanna Halpin, Bridget Halpin’s future mother-in-law. This works out at 20% of respondents. In the 1911 Census returns, the year Bridget Roche married Michael Halpin, respondents were asked the same question and 29 adults responded. In the 1911 Census, there is no division of the townland and the total number enumerated in the Census is lower at 141. The percentage of respondents who said they had proficiency in Irish and English remains at 20%, however. Interestingly, and this may, of course, suggest a certain carelessness in compiling the statistics of the census on behalf of the local enumerator, there is nothing in the returns for the Halpin family to suggest that they are proficient in Irish, although both Johanna and Bridget are marked present.
His often repeated claims about Bridget Halpin’s prowess in the Irish language are, therefore, exaggerated. She obviously had many phrases and sayings in Irish but it is very doubtful if she had the capacity to carry out a conversation in Irish. Therefore, the myth that Michael Hartnett picked up a new language by osmosis or by listening to Bridget, ‘the native Irish speaker’ or her cronies while he lay in the loft during acrimonious card games is largely that, a myth. The reality is that his love of the language was also developed by his study of and admiration for the poets of the Maigue and the Bardic past. It was also helped by his study of Irish in school, in Irish College in Ballingeary and by his association with many poets and dramatists writing in Irish and also by his relationships in the early nineteen-sixties, particularly his relationship and collaboration with Caithlín Maude and his later collaboration in the 1980’s with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, translating her first volume, Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, into English.
Hartnett’s public comments and writings also cause some confusion concerning Bridget Halpin’s age. In the acclaimed documentary directed by Pat Collins in 1999, shortly before Hartnett’s untimely demise, entitled ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, Hartnett states that Bridget Halpin was born in 1870, when in fact we know from Census returns that she was born in 1885. He also states that she was 93 when she died in 1967 when in fact she was a mere 80 years of age when she died in 1965!
It is clear, therefore, that many of these claims regarding his grandmother are greatly exaggerated. For example, he has stated on numerous occasions that he was effectively reared by his grandmother from a young age on her small farm in Camas. However, from school attendance records we learn that Michael Hartnett attended the Courteney Boys National School in Newcastle West on a regular basis from September 1949 when he entered First Class (having attended the Convent School, now Scoil Iosaef, for Junior and Senior Infants) until June 1955 when he completed Sixth Class. His attendance during those years was exemplary, rarely missing a day, this, despite his claims in the documentary, ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, that he was ‘a sickly child, and still am’. He then transferred to St. Ita’s Boys Secondary School, then housed in the Carnegie Library in the town to pursue Secondary Education. His sojourns to Camas would, therefore, only have been at weekends and during school holidays as it was at least a four-mile walk. However, it is not contested that the small farm in Camas and Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, played a very important role in providing sustenance and much-needed nourishment for the young Harnett family in Maiden Street during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Michael Hartnett’s first cousin, Joe Dore, has clear recollection that ‘the poet’ was a frequent visitor to Camas, ‘except when there was hay to be saved’. John Cussen, local historian and friend of the poet says that,
‘Michael Hartnett and I were in the same class in the Courteney School for several years until 1954 when I went to Boarding School (in Glenstal). We were good friends. He was certainly always living in town at that time. I do not recall him ever talking about his grandmother or his sojourns in Camas with her. We were too busy swopping comics which was all the rage at the time!’
Patrick Kavanagh says in his poem, ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stobling’, ‘Once upon a time / I had a myth that was a lie but it served’. Hartnett, too, had his myths and why not? In the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ he states:
I have told ye no big lies and most of the truth –
not hidden the hardships of the days of our youth
when we wore lumber jackets and had voucher boots
and were raggy and snot-nosed and needy.
Indeed, prior an interview with the poet Dennis O’Driscoll which took place in the offices of Poetry Ireland on 12th December, 1986, Hartnett in a typically mischievous tone told his interviewer:
I always lie at interviews. I don’t lie as such, but I change my mind so often … I refuse to have what is known in the trade as a ‘coherent metaphysic’ (O’Driscoll, p.140).
So, therefore, we must approach with some caution the various and numerous claims made by the poet concerning his grandmother, Bridget Halpin. One credible explanation for many of these claims is that he wanted to portray his grandmother as the quintessential ‘nineteenth-century woman’ who never came to terms with the political, social and cultural changes which were brewing in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. He saw her as a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland. In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so his poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”, which he described as ‘an apology’ to his grandmother, can also be read as a post-colonial lament. Therefore, it would have been more convenient if she had been born in 1870 rather than 1885. Hartnett always considered Bridget Halpin to be a woman ‘out of her time’. She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13). To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
He has placed Bridget Halpin on a pedestal for his own good reasons. He saw in her a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseogs of the countryside. This is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn. There is an underlying paganism here which is absent from Kavanagh’s work, whose poetry, in general, is suffused with orthodox 1950’s Catholic belief, dogma and theology. For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, limited knowledge of the laws of physics, and therefore, as he points out in ‘Mrs Halpin and the Thunder’,
Her fear was not the simple fear of one
who does not know the source of thunder:
these were the ancient Irish gods
she had deserted for the sake of Christ.
However, Hartnett’s powers of observation and intuition were honed in Camas on Bridget Halpin’s small farm during his frequent visits. His poem, “A Small Farm”, has great significance for the poet and it is the first poem in his Collected Poems, edited by Peter Fallon and published by The Gallery Press in 2001. He tells us that he learnt much on that small farm during those lean years in the forties and early fifties,
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm,
how to do the neighbours harm
by magic, how to hate.
The struggle to make a success and eke out a living was a constant struggle and burden. The begrudgery of neighbours, the ‘bitterness over boggy land’, the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’ (“A Small Farm”). The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but interestingly Hartnett does not name this place, it is an Everyplace. The poem is simply titled, “A Small Farm” so there is no Inniskeen, Drummeril, or Black Shanco here but the harshness and brutality of existence, ‘the cracked calendars / of their lives’ (ibid) in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh. Yet, it is here that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and often to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ them and begins to notice the birds and the weeds and the grasses,
I was abandoned to their tragedies
and began to count the birds,
to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold,
and to avoid among my nameless weeds
the civil war of that household.
Later in, “For My Grandmother, Bridget Halpin”, he again alludes to the wildness, the paganism, the piseógs that surrounded him during his childhood in Camas. His grandmother’s worldview is almost feral. She looks to the landscape and the birds for information about the weather or impending events,
A bird’s hover,
seabird, blackbird, or bird of prey,
was rain, or death, or lost cattle.
This poorly educated woman reads the landscape and the skies as one would read a book,
The day’s warning, like red plovers
so etched and small the clouded sky,
was book to you, and true bible.
We know that Michael was in Morocco when Bridget Halpin died in 1965 in St. Ita’s Hospital in Newcastle West where she was being cared for. In this poem there is also a reference to his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin) who helped rear him and who was eventually to inherit the small farm from his mother, Bridget when she died,
You died in utter loneliness,
your acres left to the childless.
Hartnett is taking a great risk here, that of alienating those closest to him with his disparaging comments on his relations. We know that this trait of outspokenness was to become a feature of his art; his poetry was often scathing and rebellious. However, in this regard, surely the biggest risk he takes is in the first lines of “Death of an Irishwoman”, when he describes his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, as ‘ignorant’ and ‘pagan’. This is nearly as risky and risqué as Heaney’s bold and brave comparing of his wife to a skunk in the poem of that name! Only a favourite, a truly loved one could get away with such braggadocio! The poem’s ending, however, with its exquisite cascade of metaphors surely makes amends for his earlier gaffe.
Therefore, the townland of Camas and Bridget Halpin’s small farm holds a very special place and influence on Michael Hartnett’s psyche. His first published work appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955 while he was still in Sixth Class in the Courteney Boys School. He was thirteen. Entitled “Camas Road”, it describes in particular detail an evening rural vista of the townland of Camas, a place which would feature on numerous other occasions in his poetry, becoming central to his development as a poet. It is similar to Heaney’s “Sunlight” poems representing an idyllic childhood upbringing. Its two eight-line stanzas of alternating rhyme and regular metre contain a litany of natural images, at times idiosyncratically rendered; the ‘timid hare sits in the ditch’, ‘the soft lush hay that grows in fields’. It is a peculiar mix of a poem, seemingly authentic words and images from the poet’s experience placed together with those gleaned from the literary prop-box crafted by Manley Hopkins or Wordsworth, testament, no doubt, to the young poet’s voracious appetite for reading and possibly due to the influence of his teacher, Frank Finucane. It is doubly imitative, drawing upon the romantic tradition of nature poetry, as well as the more local genre, poems written by local poets, people, ‘like Ahern and Barry before me’ – poems written exclusively for local consumption. Thirteen-year-old Hartnett depicts an idyllic setting,
A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge,
A cottage thatched with golden straw,
The harshness of later poems is not evident and the poem serves as a record of his childhood in Camas surrounded by nature and its abundant riches. However, at poem’s end there is a growing awareness that this idyllic phase of his life is coming to an end and he declares rather poignantly,
The sun goes down on Camas Road.
The townland of Camas is also central to an episode which the poet recounts for us in his seminal poem, “A Farewell to English”. This encounter hovers somewhere between reality and dream, aisling (the Irish word for a vision) or epiphany. The incident takes place at Doody’s Cross as the poet walks out one summer’s Sunday evening from Newcastle West to the cottage in Camas. He is on his way to meet up with his uncle, Dinny Halpin. He sits down ‘on a gentle bench of grass’ to rest his weary feet after his exertions when he sees approaching him three spectral figures from the Bardic Gaelic past – Andrias Mac Craith, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, and Daíbhí Ó Bruadair. These ‘old men’ walked on ‘the summer road’ with
Sugán belts and long black coats
with big ashplants and half-sacks
of rags and bacon on their backs.
They pose as a rather pathetic group, ‘hungry, snot-nosed, half-drunk’ and they give him a withering glance before they take their separate ways to Croom, Meentogues and Cahirmoyle, the locations of their patronage, ‘a thousand years of history / in their pockets’. Here Hartnett is situating himself as their direct descendent and the inheritor of their craft and the enormity of this epiphany occurs at Doody’s Cross in Camas: the enormity of the task that lies ahead also terrifies and haunts Hartnett.
As another part of the myth that he had created, Hartnett always laid great emphasis on the fact that he had been born in Croom. He was immensely proud of this fact. In an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll for Poetry Ireland he stated:
I am the only ‘recognised’ living poet who was born in Croom, County Limerick, which was the seat of one of the last courts of poetry in Munster: Sean Ó Tuama and Andrias MacCraith. When I was quite young, I became very conscious of these poets and, so, read them very closely indeed (Dennis O’Driscoll Interview for Poetry Ireland, p, 143).
Andrias Mac Craith (c. 1709 – c. 1794), in particular, was an important influence on Hartnett. MacCraith had, for a time, very close associations with the town of Croom in County Limerick (although, it is believed, he had been born in Fanstown near Kilmallock). As already mentioned, Hartnett had long dined out on the fortuitous coincidence that he too had strong associations with Croom having been born there. However, he neglects to inform us that most of the babies born in Limerick in 1941 were also born in St. Nessan’s Maternity Hospital in Croom! He would have been in Croom for less than a week before he returned to Lower Maiden Street to the accommodation which his family rented from the eponymous Legsa Murphy who also owned a bakery near Forde’s Corner in Upper Maiden Street. However, in the mid to late 1700’s Andrias MacCraith, who was also known as An Mangaire Sugach or The Merry Pedlar (he was not a pedlar, but a roving schoolmaster), and his fellow poet and innkeeper, Sean Ó Tuama an Ghrinn (Sean O’Tuama The Merrymaker), had transformed Croom into a centre for poetry and the seat of one of the last ‘courts’ of Gaelic poetry. The town became somewhat notorious and became known widely as Cromadh an tSughachais, roughly translated as Croom of the Jubilations – (today it would obviously be known as Croom of the Craic)! Hartnett would have loved this vibrant, anarchic milieu and this is why Mac Craith had such an influence over him. Hartnett saw himself as a natural descendent of these poets and the motivation behind his ‘rebel act’ in 1974 was largely an effort to revive the interest in Irish, and poetry in Irish, which had earlier been generated by these poets who were known collectively as the Maigue Poets, in honour of the River Maigue which runs through Croom. His lovely poem, “A Visit to Croom, 1745” is his effort to recreate the tragic changes that were imminent, he tells us he had walked fourteen miles ‘in straw-roped overcoat’,
…… to hear a Gaelic court
Talk broken English of an English king.
As with almost everything that surrounds Hartnett, therefore, our task is to try to discern fact from fiction, myth from reality. We know that Hartnett was a frequent visitor to Camas until he was twelve or thirteen and that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, considered him to be her favourite grandson. We also know that there were fragile remnants of a dying language and culture and customs still evident in the area. His later momentous disavowal of his earlier work in English and his abandonment of his standing as an emerging poet in 1974 is not hugely surprising when we consider the influences brought to bear on him during those extremely important formative years in Camas. Surely those beautiful, descriptive, soothing Irish adjectives repeated as a mantra in “A Farewell to English”, ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’, which are used to describe the raven haired buxom barmaid in Moore’s Bar or Windle’s Bar in Carrickerry, could also be used to describe his grandmother, Bridget Halpin herself? The encounter depicted in the second section of the poem, “A Farewell to English”, and referred to earlier, can also be read as an example of Hartnett realising what he suggests artists do in his beautiful poem, “Struts”. He is,
……. climbing upwards into time
And climbing backwards into tradition.
So, Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris’s but it helped produce one of Ireland’s leading poets of any century. The influences absorbed in this rural setting, his powers of observation, his knowledge of wildlife and flowers, his ecocentric bias, are impressive and all-pervasive in his poetry. Without prejudice, it also has to be said that he demonstrates a deeper knowledge of all local flora and fauna than could be reasonably expected of a ‘townie’! In his own words, he has told us ‘no big lies’ and, though questionable, there was, we believe, ‘method in his madness’. When we examine closely his impressive body of work we notice that apart from Camas very few other rural places are mentioned or named in his poetry. He later left and went to Dublin, London, Madrid, Morocco but when he had work to finish he came back to rural West Limerick and to another beautiful neighbouring townland, Glendarragh, to embark on the work for which he will, if there is any justice, be best remembered.
He was an ice-cream chimes ringing in an Inchicore estate.
He was the commotion stirred up at a country wake.
He was a game of hopscotch played in Maiden Street.
He was a plaintive flamenco note picked out by a gypsy.
He was the palpitation of hooves at a small-town horse fair.
He was a book-barrow dictionary, teeming with disused words.
He was a neglected cottage where a songbird nests.
He was the full-moon shedding light on Newcastle West.
– Dennis O’Driscoll
‘A Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999
Hartnett, Michael. Why Write in Irish? in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.133
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2001.
Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta. Translated by Michael Hartnett, Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1986.
O’Driscoll, Dennis. Michael Hartnett Interview in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002.
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012.
Sources: My gratitude is extended to Joe Dore and John Cussen for their invaluable assistance in compiling this piece of research.
 Michael Hartnett’s family name was Harnett, but for some reason, he was registered in error as Hartnett on his birth certificate. In later life, he declined to change this as it was closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide.
There is a very telling little poem by Michael Hartnett tucked away in A Book of Strays called ‘Aere Perrenius’. In it the poet recounts early encounters with Patrick Kavanagh after Hartnett had made his way to Dublin, ‘fresh from Newcastle West / at twenty, with a sheaf of verse / tucked into my belt’. It is really a very gentle admonition by the very prescient Hartnett who was already garnering academic interest. He is saying to those who are required, as part of their academic studies, to rummage through the entrails of a poet’s work to be gentle in their excavations.
The Latin phrase aere perrenius comes to us from Horace. In the final poem in his third book of Odes, Horace boasts that his poetry will outlive any man-made monument: “Exegi monumentum aere perennius.” (“I have made a monument more lasting than bronze.”). Hartnett would probably have been first introduced to the beauty and wisdom of Horace by Dave Hayes, erudite classics scholar and teacher of Latin at St. Ita’s Secondary School, Newcastle West where Hartnett studied for his Leaving Cert in 1950’s.
Hartnett’s poem ‘Aere Perrenius’, is therefore, really a poetic warning to young aspiring academics not to ‘tamper with the facts’ of his verse – or indeed Kavanagh’s verse either! He mentions these, ‘dull strangers with degrees / who prune, to fit conceptions’. These aspiring scholars build their theories on fragile ground, ‘give you ancestors and heirs’ and try to ‘bring you into line / with academic aims, / number all your bones / and make false claims.’
Would-be academics who undertake such necessary work should be aware, however, of the poet’s sensitivities. Hartnett is adamant that he can live with being forgotten but not with being misunderstood or misinterpreted:
It is easy to forgive
a world that forgets
but not a world that changes
with subtle sentences
a life that was and is.
Both Hartnett and Kavanagh have had their fair share of being misunderstood – and for those who are familiar with the ‘history’ of their friendship, many will find Hartnett’s appeal on behalf of his ‘mentor’ very commendable! He claims to understand Kavanagh, for all his rough edges, ‘the smokescreen of your talk / about fillies, about stallions’. His intimate knowledge of the man from Inniskeen is encapsulated in that uniquely Irish form of the ultimate trusting relationship: ‘I sometimes placed your bets.’
He declares that the bronze statue by the Grand Canal in Dublin’s Baggott Street is best described by Kavanagh’s own word ‘banal’! He, unsuccessfully as it happens, hopes that he will never suffer a similar fate. He issues an appeal to all young, and not so young, aspiring academics to thread softly when they come to investigating and exploring the work of any poet:
There is a stark universal truth that I have discovered and it is true today more than ever before: a school is only as good as its teachers. For fifteen years of my teaching career I taught in a school that would have been condemned as unfit for purpose or human habitation in Dickens’ time. Indeed, there are those who think that Dickens modelled Mr. Gradgrind’s school in Hard Times on St. Ita’s in Newcastle West! However, all who ever entered its hallowed halls would probably admit that it was a great school and is proof positive that modern facilities are not the only requirement for a good education.
I was also reminded of ‘the good old days’ recently on reading an article by Dr. Pat O’Connor, an illustrious past pupil of the school, which appeared in a commemorative booklet produced to celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the school’s opening in 1986. He attended St. Ita’s from 1959 until he sat his Leaving Cert in 1964. He says that, “these were happy, constructive, creative times, and the school provided the milieu for a learning odyssey which continued throughout the palmy decade of the 60’s”.
The official name for the school was St. Ita’s Secondary School, in deference, I think, to the fact that Jim Breen and Dave Hayes both hailed from Killeedy, the one remaining St. Ita’s stronghold. However, the school was variously called ‘The Library’ (the building had originally been a Carnegie Library) and later ‘Jim Breen’s School’ as a local compliment and mark of respect to the man who became Manager and Principal of the school for nearly fifty years – the school becoming synonymous with his name.
Pat O’Connor is lavish in his praise for Jim Breen and he says that he, ‘made a distinctively personal contribution during the lean years that saw a blossoming of second level education in this country.’ He goes on to say that he, ‘asserted a strong presence and, being a big man physically, he rarely had to repeat anything. He was a strict disciplinarian, meticulous in attention to detail, but never petty or vindictive. He led by example in the sense that his own work bore the stamp of discipline and commitment.’ The sight of his green Volkswagen Beetle, registration number AIU 524, was enough to elicit an instant quickening in the step of many a tardy pupil.
In those early years he gathered around him a small band of doughty men who came armed with a rich diversity of teaching skills. Tim Murphy was one of those early arrivals. Pat O’Connor remembers him as, ‘a quiet spoken, amiable mentor, thoughtful, and on occasion, thought provoking.’ He remembers with affection the prayer which Tim introduced to the Leaving Cert class of 1964. Given a sufficiency of faith, it had, he said, never been known to fail!
Another of that small band of teachers, Dave Hayes, brought style and panache to bear on the teaching of Latin. According to Pat O’Connor he was, ‘unquestionably a classical scholar of stature.’ This assessment was reinforced later during Dr. O’Connor’s first year in UCD, when a well-known lecturer and future Minister for Education, John Wilson no less, could, in his view, ‘do no better than stand in the long shadow of Dave Hayes’.
Willie O’Donnell taught English at senior cycle level and employed strategies supremely well suited to cope with the rigours of the examination system. A man well acquainted with the technicalities of language, he had a particular fondness for the double entendre, and one of his most favoured concerned the numbers of students from the school who would, ‘go down in history’!
Donncha Ó Murchú arrived on the scene as a very young man in September 1959. No sooner had he arrived than he was subjected to the kind of initiation rites that pupils like to try out on young inexperienced teachers. However, Pat O’Connor remembers that Donncha proved to be a doughty survivor who had a marvellous feel for history.
Pat remembers the arrival of Noel Ruddle to the school in 1963 and considered him to be the consummate teacher who introduced the new age of science to the school. He was enthusiastic, bright, analytical and able. Noel went on to become Principal of the school in 1977, although his time at the helm was cut tragically short through illness.
In the 80’s numbers burgeoned, thanks in no small part to Donagh O’Malley and his introduction of ‘Free Education’ in 1967. After Noel Ruddle’s untimely passing in 1981 the baton was passed to Des Healy who became Principal and later Manager after the death of Jim Breen in the summer of 1984. He was supported in its final years before amalgamation by Paddy Geary, Dave McEnery, Paul Edmonds, Donncha Ó Murchú, Pat Hayes, Mike Kennedy, James Egan, Andrew Ryan, Barry O’Brien, Tommy Devine, Sean Flanagan, Mary O’Shaughnessy along with the author of this tribute. However, by then the need for proper, modern educational facilities became a clamour which could no longer be ignored and plans for an amalgamation of schools in the town was proposed and acted upon by a vibrant committee during the 80’s, culminating in the opening of the new Scoil Mhuire agus Íde in September 1992. For many the traumatic move to Boherbuí was lessened in its severity by the knowledge that Paddy Geary, St. Ita’s to his core, was to become the Principal of the new educational adventure in Newcastle West.
A word of caution to all as we remember those days: in invoking and trying to preserve the past we can’t allow ourselves to be too maudlin and sentimental. As Michael Hartnett, Newcastle’s Poet Laureate, (himself a past pupil of the school) points out: ‘too many of our songs gloss over the hardships of the “good old days” and omit the facts of hunger, bad sanitation and child neglect’.
Most of us who experienced and survived the building, the poor sanitation, the lack of proper toilets, know that all this only added to its mystique; the telephone was not installed until 1986! All who entered under its portals were rendered immune forever from all contagious diseases following their exposure to the culture of the place!
In conclusion there is another stark universal truth that I discovered while teaching in St. Ita’s: a school is only as good as the students who pass through its doors. In this respect, as with its teaching staff down the years, St. Ita’s was truly blessed.