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