A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, by Pat Walsh, Mercier Press, 256 pp, €14.99, ISBN: 978-1856359672
To the extent that a sequence of ordinary words is a poem, it is not only a response to the sacred and an address to the day in which we live but also an address to a time that is always to come. ‑ Kevin Hart, The Dark Gaze, Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred
The “Rebel Act” from which Pat Walsh’s book takes its title was announced from the stage of the Peacock Theatre at an event organised by Goldsmith Press on June 4th, 1974. Michael Hartnett informed the audience of his resolution to cease writing and publishing in English, stating that his “road towards Gaelic” had “been long and haphazard” and until then “a road travelled without purpose”. He reassured them that he had realised and come to terms with his identity while acknowledging that his “going into Gaelic simplified things” for him and provided answers which may be naive but at least give him “somewhere to stand”. Walsh’s book sets out to give us the story of his life up to and after that decision.
Hartnett was born in Newcastlewest in 1941 and fostered out some four years later to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, outside the town in Camas, Templeglantine. To this formative period, as his longtime friend Paul Durcan observed, he would return again and again “as if to a well”. Hartnett’s grandmother seemed to him a very “Gaelic nineteenth century woman, a woman out of time”. She moved naturally between Gaelic and English, impressing upon Hartnett the sense that two different times co-existed in her. In her he found a convergence of the ancient and the modern, an apparent harmony between the chthonic pagan past and the time they lived in. This was a fact of both literal and metaphorical significance in the development of Hartnett’s voice. Like Lorca, whose work he translated, he was closer to the suppressed, hence to him truer, pagan rituals because they had more grounding in the natural world of myths and stories.
He has immortalised this period in his lines
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm
how to do the neighbours harm
by magic how to hate.
I was abandoned to their tragedies,
minor but unyielding.
Hartnett’s passion for continuity can be seen in his warm remembrance of childhood rituals. They involved the stir of emotion which comes from the temporal confusion of occasions such as The Wren, Corpus Christi, or midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Such events gave people a sense of continuity with the community through collective witnessing. Like Heidegger, whom he studied in the seventies, he appreciated how the poetic travels below if not beyond ordinary speech. These rituals, with their enactments of the symbolic, gave his poetic imagination free rein. He “appreciated the theatrical aspects of the religious celebrations”; for the boy “the Latin was magic, the organ, the big choir”. Later in life, recounting how the Hartnett children “were washed and put to bed, happy and undernourished”, he remarked that “It always seemed a romantic time to die.”
There is much of Hartnett’s style in this remark: the measured portrait of the way things were, realistic, unsentimental yet unable to resist a romantic spiritual impulse. His powerful combination of the creative imagination and the critical intellect distilled a poetry that notices how we are in history. Disregarding the ineffectual monotony of sentimentality, he saw the brutal romance of the world around him. Heidegger’s notion of modernity as an epoch “too late for the gods and too early for being” would certainly have resonated with Hartnett’s existential concerns with his own era as a time between times.
Hartnett’s poetry is representative of a generation writing in a liminal period of Irish history. He emerged into a literary context which had been stymied by the twin dead hands of wartime isolationism and the Censorship Board, the Church-State bulwark against dangerous new thought, which dated from 1927. Small publishers and magazines like Dolmen Press, The Bell and Envoy faced serious pressure to uphold artistic integrity in a cultural atmosphere unsympathetic to the concerns of the individual voice. He, like many of his generation, found himself in internal if not external exile, a condition summed up by Kinsella: “the word ‘colleagues’ fades on the lips before the reality: a scattering of incoherent lives … I can learn nothing from them except that I am isolated.”
Walsh’s book details the obstacles writers faced in the Ireland of the fifties and sixties. He conveys the dilemma of poets working not only to survive but to be taken seriously. Patrick Kavanagh’s stance as the crucified poet struck at the core of the issue:
Nineteen Fifty-Four hold on till I try
To formulate some theory about you. A personal matter:
My lamp of contemplation you sought to shatter,
To leave me groping in madness under a low sky.
A generation’s frustrations echo in Kavanagh’s “Self-Portrait”, when he refers to the Irish literary movement as “the Irish thing”. This portrait, drawn when Hartnett was exploring Dublin’s literary coteries, indicates a change of heart regarding the invention of a tradition. Understandably writers and artists like Kinsella, Ó Riada and Hartnett felt that some sort of self-imposed exile was a way of leading a more authentic life and creating a more authentic art.
“Make it new” morphed into “make it authentic”. Kinsella, whose work absorbed the modernist legacy, was aware of the dangers of living in a place where the educational system endorsed the status quo through a “firmly defined sense of its cultural tradition”, even though that culture may be a “dead one and populated, moreover, not so much by ossified figures of the past as by ossified illusions”. This scepticism in relation to the official culture was intimately linked to the influence of writers like Samuel Beckett, whose example of “the monastic discipline of high modernism” inspired many of the less compromising artists of the next generation.
Walsh’s book might have benefited from a closer analysis of Hartnett’s literary influences. Apart from some well-placed quotes which point in the direction of his poetic affiliations, we are left wondering how these influences became manifest in his work, not least in the title poem, “Farewell to English”, which leads to the larger issue of positioning Hartnett in a tradition. Poets who can’t be easily categorised tend to fall through the cracks of academe, and it would seem that Hartnett has suffered accordingly. He has for example, about ten references in The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry (2003), while Seamus Heaney has up to one hundred. What is more, Hartnett’ s few pages are almost entirely about his switch to Irish. As important as that protest was for him, it has led readers and critics to pigeonhole his poetry. Many of the tropes of modernism characterise his work, disillusion with the city, use of myth and allegory; yet he’s not really a modernist. He was more conservative, open to new literature and experience but not driven to experiment except in his return to Gaelic, a decision which unfortunately qualified his reception as a major Irish poet in the English language.
Walsh goes to great lengths to show the various precedents for this decision. He details his affiliation with the bardic tradition, which Hartnett openly declared in statements such as “I feel I’m passing something on. I feel it is my duty … I belong to the Gaelic poets and they to me.”
He had a dream that Ireland could trade and do commerce in English, while dealing with the subjects of love, poetry and philosophy in Irish. Sean Ó Riada’s influence was another major factor; like Hartnett, Ó Riada moved from Dublin to rural Ireland ‑ in Ó Riada’s case to Cúil Aodha in Cork. He admired Ó Riada’s success in generating enthusiasm with young audiences, impressed that “The revolution he started was not simply musical, it was a cultural one. People, especially the young, wanted to know where such great music came from and what kind of society it came from.”
There were parallels between Ó Riada’s struggle and his own, Hartnett had spent the previous seven years working in the telephone exchange and had grown weary of the Dublin scene. He had been awarded a large grant from an Irish-American organisation to work solely on his poetry. He was about to move back to Camas, Templeglantine, an area with a proud bardic history. He was constructing a private mythology to bolster his sense of self but could he or any other modern writer rest comfortably with the notion of a stable, fixed identity? Walsh suggests that Hartnett’s commitment to Irish was personal as well as political, enriching but also self-limiting.
An area that seems underdeveloped in the book is Hartnett’s relationship with Caitlín Maude and its significance for his relationship to the Irish language.
Immediately after school, Hartnett went to London, where he worked as a tea boy in a factory that produced ovens and furnaces. The only redeeming event of his time there was his encounter in a tea shop with this beautiful young Irish woman from the Connemara Gaeltacht, a native speaker, from Rosmuc. Subsequently, they returned to Ireland; he went back to Limerick and she went to Galway. Some of his best poems of this period are addressed to her. He wrote later “I fell in love with her. We discussed poetry and the language over the next two-and-a-half years. I would have given a hundred English lyrics then if I had been able to write one Gaelic poem for her. My inability to praise her in the language she wrote so beautifully in gave me a feeling of inadequacy … I did not attempt to improve my pathetic knowledge at that time.’
Long after they had gone their separate ways, one still can find traces of her influence. From the early love poem:
if I came to you, out of the wind
with only my blown dream clothing me, would you give me shelter?
For I have nothing ‑
or nothing the world wants.
I love you: that is all my fortune.
to the later:
Now when we meet (and we meet often,
perhaps we do fear each other)
we clash intellect with memory, and she never wins.
But once she won, and left me mortal
by a simple act; in company I met her
after months: she was the honoured, her poetry had enthralled.
She saw me and she
(she and I who had lain naked body
to naked body, times before,
she and I who made a point
of being familiar with nipple, groin
and marking so we might never fully part)
she saw me and she
shook my hand.
The Bardic tradition looms large in Hartnett’s work, and even a cursory reading of his translations shows how at home he was in the poetry of dispossession. Aware that the Gaelic bards he looked up to would have looked down on his own family in Limerick, he continued to identify with their sense of entitlement, pining for the favours and honours that were once bestowed upon them. Hartnett was living in a society that increasingly emphasised materialism and progress, disassociating itself from the concerns of the language and literature as a means of achieving this. For him this wasn’t just political, it was personal. He felt compelled as a representative of that tradition to speak up for it. His nemesis was Conor Cruise O’Brien. Walsh gives a strong account of the animosity Hartnett felt towards O’Brien and Charles McCarthy. The latter had addressed the Irish Association on the topic of “education for a power-sharing society”. Asserting that “with the prospect now of a political society spanning the whole island the dominance of the Gaelic sub-culture in the South and the tribalism in the North would become unsustainable”.
McCarthy saw the Irish language and the state support given to it as an obstacle to closer ties with Northern Ireland. Hartnett interpreted these speeches as a threat to the privileged place accorded to the Irish language by the state. His pronouncements on these issues lack the power of his poetry, and even there he’s at his strongest when working out his “identity” through another medium or figure. His “Farewell to English” demonstrates this point; the weakest passages are where he gives in to the didactic impulse. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s reception of Hartnett’s farewell would suggest a similar view: “When Hartnett faces the problems of the whole of Irish culture he’s in a bit of trouble … the persona is satiric but the satire is on a narrow front … Much of it is satiric but not original; some especially the first two sections, is personal and very good.”
A vein of rancour runs through his poetry that draws its energies from ancestral affiliations. This is evident in several of his poems but it reaches a different level in his translations of Ó Bruadair and Ó Rathaille. Reading Daniel Corkery’s Hidden Ireland, one is struck by his description of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin: “There was that intellectuality that so effectually staved off the sentimental; there was that intuitional sense of form which accounts for the perfect articulations of his winged lyrics; there was the freshness of vision which accounts for his daring epithets; there was above all his thirst of music, his lyric throat.” This could just as well describe Hartnett’s poetic style and sensibility. As his biographer wrote of WH Auden, despite “the historical nostalgia he inherited from modernism, he would constantly deny that there had ever been a past worthy of regret or that our present divisions could ever be repaired”. Yet “in using Old English and Icelandic literature to describe these divisions he established a literary continuity”.
This helps to situate Hartnett’s commitment to the bardic poets, although his attachment had more to do with expressing a continuity of sorrow. By writing in Irish he demonstrated that contemporary sorrow could be expressed in an old language. Gerald Dawe, in his review of the Collected Poems in 1984, noted that Hartnett’s “persistent sense of indignation” was “aggravated by what he sees as the inauthentic, the slick and the despoiling”. Hartnett’s detour back to Irish was his way of dealing with a time that signified for him a disinheritance. He saw the state as lacking authenticity, stoked by Conor Cruise O’Brien and others he saw as selling out on the language.
It is important not to overlook the timing of Hartnett’s farewell in 1976. He had distilled his earlier disturbing yet contextually understandable “nationalistic” emotions sparked by Bloody Sunday into a manifesto of sorts. Walsh quotes from an interview he gave to Les Lettres Nouvelles, where we find statements like “I believe in the gun” and “I’m ready to hurl a grenade.” Such emotive, inciteful language isn’t what one expects to come across in a literary review. John Jordan clearly felt this shock when he wrote “Surely Mr Hartnett does not mean that the bulk of the million loyalists in the North who do accept British uniforms on Irish soil are not Irish.”
One is reminded of Seumas Shields’s statement in Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman: “Their creed is, I believe in the gun almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Yet as the historian Tom Garvin reflected, “the most level-headed of people went a bit strange after Bloody Sunday”. For Hartnett in this context the language issue was raised from the cultural to the political.
Hartnett set out at that period to reclaim a space for authenticity, yet this move was not just a narrowly nationalist one. Hartnett’s return to Irish reflected a sense of creative and personal artistic freedom. In fact, as Declan Kiberd suggests, Hartnett was keen to derail “the Irish language from a narrow-gauge nationalism and especially from a nationalism that used Irish for its own purposes”. Here was a poet publicly introducing Lorca, Mandelstam and Brecht to an Irish audience and privately cooking evening meals from his French cookbook. By the time he moved back to English his transitions between the languages signified the real freedom that exists beyond and between languages; it also demonstrates the richness that can be achieved in travelling across languages in acts of translation.
Walsh’s account of the reception Hartnett’ s Farewell to English received shows the foresight of certain critics, Brendan Kennelly and Eavan Boland in particular. Kennelly’s response is full of questions, which subtly align the readers with a sympathetic answer: “Was he foolish to abandon a language in which he had frequently shown a confident lightness of touch, achieved a lyrical density that was often startlingly rich in its statements and implications?” Speaking of the obsessive quality of Hartnett’ s imagination, he wondered aloud “Will he stay till death do them part ?” His guess was that “he will write in both Irish and English. And why not? There are many partitions in Ireland and the political one is by no means the deepest.” Eavan Boland was as prophetic in her evaluation, feeling that “with his knowledge of the Irish traditions, his imaginative access through true talent into the English tradition, [he] may face two roads. The distinction of his poetry suggests that he could even construct a highway through them, thus ending their division.”
Hartnett did in the end try to connect the worlds he was torn between. His farewell had begun to feel like a “conspiracy of one”.
A man forgotten by literature
A bastard, a loner
The Gaels are suspicious of me
And the Galls think I’m out of my mind.
From then on he divided his time between two languages, not an easy or popular role.
As Giorgio Agamben has said, “those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands. They are thus in this sense irrelevant. But precisely through this disconnection and this anachronism, they are more capable than others of perceiving and grasping their own time.” Hartnett is a contemporary in this respect; it was in his untimeliness that he became timely.
The archetypal invitation of his poetry takes us with him deep into the recesses of the poetic imagination. His images have a communicability which gives them an “ontological significance”, to use Bachelard’s term. Hartnett mastered aural resonance in his poetry, bridging the divide between language and the senses. Over and above the obvious divide between Irish and English, there are the divisions within language itself. Had Hartnett read Walter Benjamin’s famous essay on translation, one can imagine his excitement at Benjamin’s sense of translation as raising the original into a “higher and purer linguistic air”, and pointing “the way to this region: the predestined, hitherto, inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfilment of languages”. It is here in this mystical reaching after a more primal scene that Hartnett was most comfortable, the linguistic struggles of translation providing a temporary refuge from a divided home.
I can see the poem plain:
it’s the words I cannot hear,
as my tongue-tied muses and myself
dumbly regard a poem that waits
for a language to bring it home
to some understanding ear.
Adam Zagajewski writes “Every poet lives between two worlds. One of these is the real, tangible world of history, private for some and public for others. The other world is a dense layer of dreams, imagination, fantasms.” The poem is the result of the complex negotiations between these two territories. Hartnett’s poetry comes from such a liminal place, where he challenged himself to make his time “sayable”. The weight of history in his time still resisting any attempt at sublimation into the weightlessness of postmodernism.
Walsh’s book provides us with ample evidence for drawing conclusions he doesn’t draw himself. Each chapter is titled with a line which sheds light on a period or incident, from “you insolent pup”, a line attributable to Patrick Kavanagh on their first encounter, to “My English Dam Bursts”. Walsh takes us from Hartnett’s childhood to his premature death in 1999, detailed in the chapter titled “Alcohol’s a cunning beast”. He brings the literary scene of the period to life, giving us a real sense of the camaraderie and comedy, yet never losing sight of the bitterness and feuds. There are many amusing anecdotes. For example, John Jordan snapping at a nun staring at him during a recitation of “The Faerie Queen” –“I’m not the devil, you know.”
We read across the decades how in 1968 Hayden Murphy’s Broadsheet, produced always “in the shadow of penury”, lay financially “crippled, diseased with debt but ever willing to re-appear if necessary or able”.
When it did rise again in May 1974, we find the editor thanking the Arts Council for what they had done and condemning them for what they were failing to do “for literature in Ireland”. Hartnett comments on this drama from his pulpit in The Irish Times, taking a “swing” at the magazine, and concluding that “if the Arts Council are responsible for the size of the current issue, and therefore for the cutting of its gangrenous limbs, they are to be congratulated”. The sagas continued but so did the friendships. It is timely to reflect on what these writers suffered to garner recognition for their craft. The question of state funding for the arts appears again and again, reminding us of the struggles of a generation whose successive governments failed to recognise the value of their contributions. Walsh’ s book celebrates many of the central characters involved in these debates; we are introduced to or reacquainted with a cacophony of voices from this transitional period of Irish intellectual life, and are all the richer for it. And then of course there is Hartnett himself, his voice rising from the page.
Among my living friends
there is no poet I do not love,
although some write with bitterness in their hearts;
they are one art, our many arts.
Poets with progress
make no peace or pact.
The act of poetry
is a rebel act.
Marion Kelly is an independent radio art producer and writer, who has spent the last few years interviewing artists about the many connections between Irish and European literature and art.