Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture 2021

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Ambassador Dan Mulhall, addressing the audience during his Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture at Éigse Michael Hartnett. Photo credit: Dermot Lynch

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 stop 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.

 Conclusion:

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 take away is that are shards of light visible in each poem. In Kavanagh whatever sense of hope the poem contains comes from its the 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’.

Daniel Mulhall

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About the Author…..

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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.

COMMENTS AND DISCUSSION WELCOME!

An Introduction to ‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh

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Patrick Kavanagh – Mixed Media Illustration by award-winning artist Richie Delaney

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 A Portrait 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.’

_________________ O _______________

Postscript…….

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!

References:

Murray, Patrick. Modern Fiction, The Educational Company, 1991.

Wikipedia – Tarry Flynn

The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde

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This photograph was taken near Old Barna Railway Bridge by Dermot Lynch, Limerick Leader.

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.

Section 1
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’.

Section 2
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 is described with exaggerated classical phrases such as ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’.  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’.

Section 3
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).

Section 4
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 5
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 6
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 7
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’.

Section 8
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).

Section 9
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.

Conclusion
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.

Works Cited
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!

 

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Brigid Halpin’s cottage in Camas. The photograph was taken in 2017 before renovations began by the new owners. Photograph by Dermot Lynch, Limerick Leader.

“A sense of loss pervades much of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry” – Discuss

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Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

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’.

Stony Grey soil (2)
‘Oh, can I still stroke the monster’s back or write with unpoisoned pen…’

An Overview of Patrick Kavanagh’s Poetry

Those hungry hills....
Those hungry hills….

 

In Chapter 3 of his novel Tarry Flynn, Kavanagh describes a summer sunset and, though sunsets have often been written about, when Kavanagh does it, like all true artists, he makes it his own:

‘The summer sun was going down in a most wonderful yellow ball behind the hills of Drumnay.  It turned the dirty upstairs windows of Cassidy’s house into stained glass.’

Here the beauty of the evening sun is captured with all the simplicity of a child’s painting: the sun is ‘a most wonderful yellow ball’; the local place and people are named and the ordinariness of dirty windows is put before us.  But Kavanagh’s way of setting the world has transformed those windows into beautiful things of praise.

It is important to note that almost all the poems by Kavanagh on the Leaving Cert Syllabus contain references to place and the people who make those places special.  As Michael Schmidt puts it, in Kavanagh’s poetry, ‘Naming of places and things is of almost magical significance’.  He writes in praise and celebration, for the most part, but in the extract from ‘The Great Hunger’, a darker relationship with place is explored.  In Sean O’Brien’s words, ‘The Great Hunger’ depicts farming as, ‘hard labour and the bachelor male condition as sexually frustrated’.  By contrast, in ‘Epic’ and ‘Advent’ the countryside is written about with affection and the rural images in his city poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, are happy, summery images of grass, trees, breezes and birds.  Harry Clifton thinks that ‘In Kavanagh’s finest work, it is almost always high summer’ – for example ‘Inniskeen Road’ and the Canal Bank Sonnets are gloriously set in mid-July.

In many of Kavanagh’s poems, he is the outsider and the speaker in the poem is aware that this has advantages and disadvantages.  He himself felt that:

‘A poet is never one of the people.  He is detached, remote, and the life of small-time dances and talk about football would not be for him.  He might take part but could not belong.’

‘Inniskeen Road’ and ‘Epic’ are poems which highlight the position of the poet; he feels cut off, at a remove from his neighbours, and yet the poems hint at how he is also content with his lot.  In ‘Raglan Road’, the painful memories of unrequited love give way to the poet’s own belief in himself and yet, in ‘Lines Written…’, he chooses what has been described by Antoinette Quinn as, ‘an unegotistical tomb, a monument to his poetics rather than to his person’ where, ‘future visitors are asked to sit with their backs to the memorial description, reading instead the scene before them’.

Kavanagh’s own experience of life is at the heart of a Kavanagh poem.  He writes directly out of his own experience – rural life, farming, childhood memories, unrequited love, illness and convalescence, his love of nature, his gratitude to God.  When he writes ‘I’, he is almost always writing in his own voice and, even when he writes in the third person, as when he writes about Patrick Maguire and what Kavanagh called ‘the prison of a farmer’s life’ in ‘The Great Hunger’, he also includes the voice of a concerned, involved narrator which creates a closer link between the harsh, bleak world of the poem and the reader.

But the world of Kavanagh’s poetry is above all celebratory.  Poems such as ‘Advent’, ‘The Hospital’ and the Canal Bank sonnets are all love poems to place.  Here when Kavanagh looks, he sees ‘the newness that was in every stale thing’ and he delights in the ordinary, the natural, the physical world ‘of bog-holes, cart tracks, old stables’, ‘dreeping hedges’, ‘square cubicles in a row’, ‘The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry, / The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap’, the trapped stick, the grass, canal water ‘stilly / Greeny at the heart of summer’.  In a lecture entitled ‘Man and Poet’, Kavanagh said:

‘We are in too great a hurry.  We want a person or thing to yield their pleasures and their secrets to us quickly for we have other commitments.  But it is the days when we are idle, when nothing appears to be happening, which provide us when no one is looking with all that is memorable’.

The Canal Bank sonnets are unhurried poems in which Kavanagh’s idleness yields precious, unforgettable experiences.

Anthony Cronin has described Patrick Kavanagh as an intensely private man who lived his life in public places, a man who thought mediocrity the enemy of genius, the enemy of life.  He did live a public life as journalist and man about town but Kavanagh also claimed that ‘the only subject that is of any great importance – Man-in-this-world-and-why’.  He also believed that, ‘Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals’ and that great beauty and profound truths can be discovered in apparently ordinary places.

John McGahern tells of how the forty-one-year-old Patrick Kavanagh once pointed out a particular grass and said: ‘I love that grass.  I’ve known it since I was a child.  I’ve often wondered if I’d be different if I had been brought up to love better things’.  In the end, though, he did believe in Ballyrush and Gortin, in ordinary things, for it was in the ordinary that not only meaning could be found but that Kavanagh discovered the extraordinary.  He had, in the end, come to the discovery that, ‘The material itself has no special value; it is what our imagination and our love does to it’.

Kavanagh is capable of great lyrical intensity.  There is great lyrical, gentle but impassioned quality in lines such as ‘O unworn world enrapture me’ or ‘Feed the gaping need of my senses’ and a sense of being totally at ease.  Kavanagh’s language can be what Patrick Crotty calls ‘grittily realistic’ (especially in ‘The Great Hunger’) but there is also a colloquial rhythm in such lines as ‘There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight’ or ‘That was the year of the Munich bother’ and there is also a great lyrical quality in ‘Canal Bank Walk’ where ‘pouring’ and ‘overflowing’ seem to describe the poem’s rhythm and mood:

‘For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven

From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.’

Kavanagh has an extraordinary ability to create fresh, surprising images

  • ‘the wink-and-elbow language of delight’;
  • ‘a footfall tapping secrecies of stone’;
  • ‘I am king / Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’;
  • ‘The sleety winds fondle the rushy beards of Shancoduff’;
  • ‘Mass-going feet / Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes’;
  • ‘The wind leans from Brady’s, and the coltsfoot leaves are holed with rust’;
  • ‘And Christ comes with a January flower’;
  • ‘we tripped lightly along the ledge / Of the deep ravine’;
  • ‘Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind’; ‘the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard’;
  • ‘a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word’;
  • ‘A swan goes by head low with many apologies’.

Kavanagh’s poetry is a record of a journey that brought him from Monaghan to the banks of the Grand Canal, a journey of discovery and exploration in which he reveals himself as one who found the ordinary, extraordinary, and that ‘the things that really matter as casual, insignificant little things’.  He offers us a version of himself in his poem ‘If Ever You Go To Dublin Town’:  ‘If ever you go to Dublin town / In a hundred years or so’ he says, ‘Inquire for me in Baggot Street / And what I was like to know’ and he goes on to tell us that he was ‘a queer one’, ‘dangerous’, ‘a nice man’, ‘eccentric’, ‘a proud one’, ‘a vain one’, ‘slothful’ and it ends:

He knew that posterity had no use

 For anything but the soul,

 The lines that speak the passionate heart,

 The spirit that lives alone.

 O he was a lone one

Fol dol the di do,

Yet he lived happily

I tell you.

 

 

from “The Great Hunger” by Patrick Kavanagh