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Sketch of Michael Hartnett (1941-99) by Wendy O'Shea

Sketch of Michael Hartnett (1941-99) by Wendy Shea

In 1975 the Irish poet Michael Hartnett announced his decision to give up writing in English by publishing the volume, A Farewell to English in the Irish language. The following poem recalls his maternal grandmother, Bridget Halpin who fostered him from the age of 4. Mrs Halpin was Hartnett’s door into the Gaelic/Irish past. His attachment to her as a substitute parent also enmeshed him with the shrinking Irish-speaking community (at least in the 1970s) to which she belonged. Hartnett’s lyrical representation of his grandmother in free verse is somewhat pared down, but in my opinion this makes the poem all the more powerful and hard-hitting. Further commentary follows the poem.

Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett

Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but púcas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

In ‘Death of an Irishwoman‘, Hartnett juxtaposes his grandmother’s allegiance to the Gaelic, traditional past with her actual position in the modern world. Her death represents the demise of a distinctly Irish way of life which the poet acknowledges was, at least from one point of view, ‘ignorant’ and ‘pagan’. But there’s more to the poem than that. It can be read as an indictment of modernity – being ‘Ignorant, in the sense …’ does not automatically mean the lack of other valuable skills such as reading omens. Likewise, ‘pagan’ has its root in ‘pagus’ meaning a village, and this link to community belonging reduces the negative effect of the word. As the last of a dying breed, as it were, his grandmother was lonely, but she was also ‘proud’.

Bridget Halpin’s passing is described in the grimmest of terms and this no doubt, was part of Hartnett’s intention. The powerful line, ‘I loved her from the day she died’, not only reflects the poet’s personal guilt at missing her funeral, but also the dangers of the common habit of waiting until it is too late to appreciate what has been lost. There are echoes of Norman McCaig’s attitude to Scottish Gaelic in his 1968 poem,‘Aunt Julia‘: ‘By the time I had learned/a little, she lay/silenced in the absolute black/of a sandy grave.’

The 6 metaphors Hartnett uses at the end of ‘Death of an Irishwoman‘ imitate the repetitive form of a traditional Gaelic keen/caoine, often described as a funeral lamentation. In these last 6 lines, Hartnett conjures up the quintessential Irish community his grandmother inhabited. But her world is not idealised, eg, a summer dance gives way to a cardgame ‘where a nose was broken.’ There may be a sense of thrill associated with such wild and free behaviour, not unlike J. M. Synge’s tendency to extol the savagery and wildness in his West of Ireland plays. But I would argue that Hartnett does not romanticise the reality of life in the ‘wild west’ whereas Synge did.

I find the last line of ‘Death of an Irishwoman‘ very affecting – ‘She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.’ Hartnett shares the sentiment expressed by Louis MacNeice in ‘Poem’ (1933): ‘For we are obsolete who like the lesser things/Who play in corners with looking-glass and beads.’ Ambivalence and irony are present in Hartnett’s use of words like ‘ignorant’, ‘pagan’, and ‘useless’, just as they are in MacNeice’s ‘obsolete’. In both cases the poetic imagery beautifully encapsulates being out of step with the utilitarian, modern world.

In ‘Death of an Irishwoman‘, I feel Hartnett expresses his own semi-rejection of modern urban life and chooses instead to re-identify with the Gaelic world of his grandmother. He put his money where his mouth was by leaving Dublin’s literary scene in 1975 and moving back to his roots in rural West Limerick, vowing to concentrate on becoming a ‘Gaelic poet’. He also openly voiced his discontentment with the Irish government’s lack of commitment to the Irish language at this time. The move to a new life in his grandmother’s rural Limerick lasted only 10 years but during that time, Hartnett stuck to his guns and published only in Irish. In 1985, he returned to the English language with the publication of ‘Inchicore Haiku‘. In typical guilt-ridden style, Hartnett prefaced the volume with this haiku:

My English dam bursts
and out stroll all my bastards.
Irish shakes its head