Commentary: This poem appears in Hartnett’s collection, Selected and New Poems, published by The Gallery Press in 1994. However, it first appeared in a commemorative booklet published by the Courteney Boys School in 1992. Mike O’Donoghue, then Principal of the Courteney Boys School, Hartnett’s old alma mater, had asked the poet for a poetic contribution and he was rewarded with this beautiful poem which arrived by post on 7th April 1992.
Michael Hartnett wrote a number of beautiful poems about significant friends and relations who had died. These poems were the equivalent of the more traditional Mass Cards given to the family of the bereaved in Ireland. These poems were often handed to members of the bereaved family in the days and weeks following the funeral by the poet himself, often handwritten on loose pages from Hartnett’s own notebooks.
This poem ranks highly with those already written for his little three-year-old sister, Patricia, who died on May 10th in 1952 when Michael was ten (‘How goes the night, boy?…’) and his lament ‘For Edward Hartnett’, written for his infant brother Edmond P. Harnett, who was born on 12th October, 1942 and died on 29th November, 1942.We also remember his beautiful poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, composed for his grandmother Bridget Halpin and also the poignant ‘Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith’.
Sheila Hackett was a life-long friend of Hartnett’s. She later married Ned O’Dwyer who was a painter and decorator by trade like Michael’s father, Denis Harnett. This is why in his letter accompanying the poem Hartnett suggests to Mike O’Donoghue that maybe the title of the poem should be changed to ‘In Memoriam Sheila O’Dwyer’. Thankfully and very wisely Mike O’Donoghue didn’t change a comma in the original. (See copy of letter below). Ned O’Dwyer served for many years in Newcastle West as a Labour Party County Councillor. Indeed, Michael Hartnett, who had inherited the Labour gene from his father Denis Harnett, acted as Ned’s Election Agent for a number of Local Government election campaigns held in the late seventies and early eighties.
However, he has fond memories of the young Sheila Hackett and prefers to remember her as she was then, the local girl, some years his senior, with whom he swopped comics with in the ‘fifties, and as he also says in his letter to Mike O’Donoghue ‘she helped me once or twice with my sums’. The poem opens with recollections of ‘our nineteen-forties streets’. These were austere times with a war raging in Europe and much poverty and deprivation experienced by the people of Newcastle West. Social change was very slow and living conditions were very difficult for many in the town. Elsewhere he has recalled these times through rose-tinted glasses but not here. Indeed, the ‘camaraderie of the poor’ is reinforced by the constant repetition of ‘we’ in the poem.
The poem uses extended mathematical imagery and phrases learnt in school: phrases like ‘complicated sum’, ‘simple’ numbers, the word ‘scale’ which may refer to music or measurement, ‘long division, ‘stable number’ and the number ‘one’. The poem ends with the death of Sheila Hackett; she is ‘cancelled out’ as from a ledger, and the poet is forced to confront her death and his own mortality: one of his fast friends from childhood has died and now the ‘long subtraction starts’.
Sources: I would like to acknowledge the great help received from Peig and Mike O’Donoghue in compiling this blog post.
Work in Progress! Comments, Corrections, Clarifications Welcome.
Ignorant, in the sense she ate monotonous food and thought the world was flat, and pagan, in the sense she knew the things that moved at night were neither dogs nor cats but púcas and darkfaced men, she nevertheless had fierce pride. But sentenced in the end to eat thin diminishing porridge in a stone-cold kitchen she clenched her brittle hands around a world she could not understand. I loved her from the day she died. She was a summer dance at the crossroads. She was a card game where a nose was broken. She was a song that nobody sings. She was a house ransacked by soldiers. She was a language seldom spoken. She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
Púcas: This was the Irish (Gaelic) term for pookas, hobgoblins, fairies. In the Irish language a man of African descent is described as a fear ghoirm, a “blue man”. In Irish, “an fear dubh” (“the black man”) exclusively denotes the devil, therefore, the reference to “darkfaced men” in this poem does not have any racial connotations!
A wake was a social gathering associated with death, usually held before a funeral. Traditionally, a wake took place in the house of the deceased with the body present.
In 1965 Michael Hartnett was in Morocco when his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, died at the age of 80. Hartnett had spent his formative years in Halpin’s simple, meagre cottage in Camas soaking up the stories and folklore of the area as she entertained her cronies in the mid to late 1940’s. She had a great array of Irish words in her vocabulary, many related to the animals of the countryside and life on the farm, although she and the family didn’t use Irish in everyday conversation. Nevertheless, her knowledge of Irish had an immense influence on the young Hartnett, who would go on to became as fluent in Irish as he was in English.
Camas is a hugely important place for Hartnett. It was there that his poetic gift was first recognised and cultivated, particularly by his grandmother. His first ever published poem was called ‘Camas Road’ and was published in The Limerick Weekly Echo on 18th June 1955. Hartnett was thirteen. This present poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, is his effort at an apology for not being there at her funeral – ‘I loved her from the day she died’.
Hartnett returned to his West Limerick roots in the mid-1970’s having made his famous declaration from the stage of the Peacock Theatre at an event organised by Goldsmith Press on June 4th, 1974. At that event, Hartnett informed the audience of his resolution to cease writing in English, stating that his “road towards Gaelic” had “been long and haphazard” and until then “a road travelled without purpose”. He reassured his audience that he had realised and come to terms with his identity while acknowledging that his “going into Gaelic simplified things” for him and provided answers which some considered to be naive but at least gave him “somewhere to stand”. Rediscovering and reinventing himself and the long forgotten echoes of his Gaelic past was a central project for Hartnett during those years in the 1970’s. Bridget Halpin played a significant role in this process.
Bridget Halpin is a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland. In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so the poem can be read as a post-colonial lament. According to Census returns for Camas in 1911, Bridget Halpin was 26, living with her husband Michael, ten years her elder. This would mean she was born in 1885, a time of cultural revival, coinciding with the founding of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association. Hartnett always considered her to be a woman ‘out of her time’. She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13). To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
There is a strong sense of regret for a lost generation in this poem and this is particularly in evidence in the poignancy of the line:
I loved her from the day she died.
What follows is a masterclass of poetic skill, the poet cherishes the memory of his lost muse with an epitaph made up exclusively of metaphors:
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
These metaphors conjure up an almost forgotten rural idyll: dances at the crossroads on summer evenings, the hustle and bustle of the rambling house with its card games and music sessions, slow airs and sean nós singing, sets and half-sets. Hartnett also veers into the political sphere with reference to The Black and Tans and the fraught Irish language question, which he sees as having been abandoned and neglected by successive governments since the foundation of the State, ‘Our government’s attitude is hostile and apathetic by turns’ (Walsh 126). His final metaphor:
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.
captures the futility and frustration felt both by his grandmother and the poet himself at the relentless pace of change. Safia Moore, in her excellent blog, Top of the Tent, says of this metaphor that it encapsulates the notion of his grandmother as ‘being out of step with the utilitarian, modern world’.
In effect, Hartnett is not only writing the epitaph for his grandmother but for a unique and precious culture which he sees drifting towards oblivion through neglect. During these years in Newcastle West and in his cottage in nearby Glendarragh, Templeglantine, Hartnett wrote many such epitaphs for local people and their dying country crafts. This is a facet of Hartnett’s work which began with his grandmother, Mrs Halpin. (See Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith as one example of this). Therefore, in a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of Mrs Halpin here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of ancient crafts and customs which, with the progress of time, have become redundant. He has returned home to find things falling apart and that Time has thinned the ranks of the stalwarts of the town. His local poetry, in particular, takes on a nostalgic retrospection and features poems about those who have died, such as ‘Maiden Street Wake’, where he describes one such wake:
We shuffled round and waited.
Our respects were paid.
And then we ate soft biscuits
and drank lemonade.
This period in his life is, therefore, best depicted as a period of intense creativity and a series of well-documented farewells, best characterised by this poignant line from the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ where he ruefully declares:
old Maiden Street went to the graveyard.
Author’s Note: Students of Hartnett and aspiring academics will readily verify that Harnett, whether deliberately or mischievously, was a master of misinformation. The Youtube clip above is a perfect example of this. As he begins to introduce the poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ he states that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin was born in 1870 when, in fact, we know through Census returns for 1911 that she was born in 1885. He also says that she was 93 when she died when, in fact, if the Census returns are to believed, she was a mere 80!
‘A Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012
Dermot Bolger movingly remembers his friend the poet Michael Hartnett who died 16 years ago this month. This is an edited version of a commemorative piece which appeared in The Irish Times on Wednesday, October 12th 2005.
In Ireland there is nothing better for making new friends than an early death and, because in death Michael Hartnett has acquired so many friends, I should firstly say that I didn’t know him well enough to claim any special friendship. I was far younger than him and even though I edited and published three of his books I never lost my awestruck sense of being privileged to be in his company. I was a sensation I felt as a young man on the first night we met and a sensation I still experienced on the last morning he phoned me some weeks before his death on October 13th 1999.
The first book of poems I bought, while still a schoolboy, was the small New Writers Press 1970 edition of Michael’s Selected Poems. On the cover he looks little more than a schoolboy himself. That book had a huge effect on me and remains among my most precious possessions. I first met Michael around 1980 when I ran literature events in the ramshackle building housing Dublin’s Grapevine Art Centre. John F Deane had bravely established a new organisation called Poetry Ireland, and Michael travelled from Limerick to give a benefit reading for it. his opening words to me were to inquire if I knew of a bed for the night, and my opening words to somebody whom I viewed as a hero was to offer him one in Finglas.
It was after midnight when we reached Finglas but Macari’s chipshop remained open on Clune Road. Years later in Inchicore Haiku Michael wrote:
In local chippers
Queueing for carbohydrates
A dwarfed people.
We queued for our late-night carbohydrates. Critics can elaborate on Michael’s gift as a poet and contextualise his work. My interest here is putting down memories for his son and daughter and what struck me was how Michael enthralled the late-night queue and staff in that Finglas chipshop. He wasn’t attention seeking; they were simply drawn into his quiet magnetism. The staff had no idea who he was but afterwards always asked for news of my friend in the countryman’s cap.
In 1984 I wound up sitting in a pub between Michael and Michael Smith, who had published that earlier Selected Poems. Both Michaels became emphatic that not only should I re-issue the long out-of-print Selected Poems, but that the new volume should include every English language poem he had written up to and including his Farewell to English. Michael Hartnett assured me not to worry about copyright issues, he would take care of that. I was young and naïve, but even in my innocence I should have been slightly worried when he explained how he cleared copyright permission for his wonderful translations of Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads. He phoned Lorca’s brother in New York, explained that he was once deported from Franco’s Spain and after he had read aloud one translation the voice at the other end said, “Spread the word”!
Within a few months I was sitting down in his small cottage in Glendarragh, Templeglantine, near Newcastle West in Limerick going through old suitcases of poems with Michael and discovering material either never published or published once in magazines and then forgotten. I spent two of the most memorable days of my life there working on Volume 1 of his Collected Poems and still like to recall Michael as he was then.
After the executions of the Easter Rising leaders in 1916, a British Army officer declared that while they all died like men, Thomas McDonagh died like a prince. Wandering with Michael through Newcastle West or sitting down to eat with his family, I felt a similar sense of being in the presence of a man who, while an integral part of the small community which he loved and understood, was also marked apart as special.
But soon the world that I had glimpsed in Newcastle West was to implode. Alone in Ireland while his family visited Australia, Michael seemed to drift irredeemably into the engulfing tide of alcohol that had always been a problem. Aware that he had the proofs for me of some translations, I tracked his progress across Ireland and finally located him and the proofs in Dublin. He handed me the proofs carried for weeks in his inside pocket and, ever the optimist, asked if by any chance I could loan him €5,000.
At that time the entire assets of Raven Arts Press consisted of a leaking gas heater and a cat, so I brought him for lunch instead and then to a double-bill of afternoon films. The first – Ruben Ruben – was a comedy about a poet with a drink problem on a reading tour in America. Michael chuckled through it. The second – Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumblefish – was shot entirely in moody black and white. The only object filmed in colour was a solitary fighting fish in a glass tank. Leaving the cinema and knowing that I could keep him from the pub no longer, I commented to Michael on this cinematic trick. Michael gripped my arm and, with the relief of a man who had known the delusional tricks of delirium tremens, whispered, “Oh thank God, you saw the fish too.”
Soon he was living in a bedsit in Inchicore with his marriage over. His face, which had never aged, was suddenly old. His chief defence against fate remained his sense of humour. I brought him over some small sum of money for something. There were virtually no possessions in that room where he had started writing the Haiku sequence that broke his silence in English. But his sense of hospitality would not let me leave empty-handed. He asked if I possessed a copy of the tiny 1969 edition of his poem The Hag of Beare and insisted on giving me the only copy he still possessed – Number 1 of that precious numbered edition.
He brought the manuscript of Inchicore Haiku to my small office in Phibsborough, driven over by two new Inchicore friends with impenetrable Dublin accents. We launched it in the Richmond House in Inchicore, a whirlwind night. But if that was a celebratory night in a crowded pub, which cloaked his personal pain displayed in the book, I saw far less happy occasions for him in Dublin pubs in the following years. I know of nothing romantic about drink and the damage it does. I do know that his new partner, Angela Liston, prolonged his life and brought some stability to a man now gripped by addiction.
His publishing affairs became complicated and so I drew up a contract between us, giving him back all rights to his work on condition that I acquired non-exclusive rights to his cheese-grater joke: “A man gives his blind friend a cheese-grater for Christmas, meets him in January and asks if he liked his present. ‘No’, the friend replied, “I tried to read it but it was just too violent.’”
Occasionally after that, he would phone for a chat. On the last morning he phoned, he told me how he had recently visited one of the men who drove him to my office years before. The man was dying of cancer, his mouth covered by an oxygen mask, and he grew upset because the words he kept trying to say were indistinguishable.
Michael leaned over and said: “I know you’re upset because you’re dying and I can’t understand what you are saying, but I must tell you that with your accent, even when you were well I could never understand a word you said anyway.”
The man gave up trying to speak and laughed instead. It takes courage to make a dying man laugh, but Michael Hartnett had courage in spades. Courage, stubbornness and demons. I had no idea he was soon to die, but something made me tell him that one of the proudest moments of my life – something I could unreservedly look back on as truly worthwhile – was editing his Collected Poems.
He accepted the compliment, told me his latest joke and then recited an extraordinary raw and heart-felt poem he had written for Angela Liston. It was the last time I heard his voice and I can hear it still, with his laugh at the end which contained all that pain, humanity and unbroken dignity:
I have been kicked around the place
Been mocked and been pissed on
But I find my way home to you, Angela Liston
And my wrinkled, anxious forehead
Amazingly has been kissed on
And I am blessed by you Angela Liston.
He died on October 13th, 1999. His Complete Poems and Translations have since been superbly edited and published by Peter Fallon and The Gallery Press. When I last passed through Newcastle West I stopped at dawn in Maiden Street where he was reared. It was deserted but every shop window had a poster for Éigse Michael Hartnett, with his haunting quizzical eyes staring out. Those eyes and that voice haunt me still.