A quick post to mark a review by Theo Dorgan in the Irish Times of a new biography of the Irish poet Mícheál Ó hAirtnéide (Michael Hartnett), who also happens to be one of my favourite wordsmiths, not least for his legendary description of the English language from his collection “A Farewell to English”:
“The road is not new.
I am not a maker of new things.
I cannot hew
out of the vacuumcleaner minds
the sense of serving dead kings.
I am nothing new
I am not a lonely mouth
trying to chew
a niche for culture
in the clergy-cluttered south.
But I will not see
great men go down
who walked in rags
from town to town
finding English a necessary sin
the perfect language to sell pigs in.
I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
To court the language of my people.”
Ironically enough it echoes my mother’s own dire linguistic condemnation from which there is surely no escape:
“Irish is the language of the gods; English is the language of the dogs…”
So to the IT review:
“BY 1974, AGED 33, Michael Hartnett had already built a considerable reputation as a poet in English and was widely accepted as a genuine talent. Then, unexpectedly and abruptly, on June 4th, from the stage of the Peacock Theatre, in Dublin, he announced that he proposed to abandon English and from then on write and publish only in Irish.
It was, in the eyes of many, a quixotic gesture. Hartnett was not a native speaker, although his grandmother, to whom he had been more or less fostered out as a child, was reared with Irish and would speak it at night to her neighbours when they gathered in. Hartnett often spoke later of listening from his bed to these voices that murmured, it seemed to him, from a vanishing world.
Pat Walsh’s book revolves around that pronouncement from the Peacock stage, ranging backwards and forwards through Hartnett’s life to examine his context and formation, attempting to arrive at a summary judgment of the poet’s life and writings, returning always to what he sees as the pivotal event in both life and work.
If Hartnett expected a big reaction to his grand gesture, he must have been disappointed. Some were bemused and puzzled, others inexplicably irritated, even hostile. Most, perhaps unsurprisingly, were indifferent. Walsh is good on these reactions: he records them in all their variety, so opening fertile ground for future scholars not just of Hartnett but of our troubled relationship with our native Gaelic tongue.
Hartnett’s election for Irish was essentially private, but, inadvertently or otherwise, by making his choice, and by making a public occasion of declaring his choice, he backed into a still unresolved politics, drawing attention to a psychic wound that has never healed, may indeed never heal. By opting to write in Irish, Hartnett found himself more or less forced into polemic.
A Farewell to English, announced as his last book in that language, is riddled with attitude-striking, with the ventriloquised anger of the 18th-century dispossessed. Even his poems excoriating our modern lack of vision could be read as projected forward from the values of that spurned Gaelic matrix. Reviews ranged from the gentle but sceptical (Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin) to the downright merciless and dismissive (Ciaran Carson), and Walsh does us a further service by gathering in so many of these first reactions. But, taken all in all, under and inside the protective rhetorical arguments of A Farewell to English, there is a genuine poetic impulse. What most commentators seem to miss, Walsh among them, is that Hartnett did not choose Irish: Irish chose him.
Michael Hartnett believed, very simply, that a poet is born, not made. Around his person there seemed to be always a certain psychic disturbance, giving rise to a feeling reported by many that there was something otherworldly about him. His grandmother saw it early. Equally, for all their meticulous craftiness and word-wizardry, there has always been in the best of his poems a sense of an otherwhere, as if he travelled between the world we say we know and some other contiguous but veiled reality. This, I believe, is the key not just to his character but to his poems.
There is something otherworldly, in several senses, about the first section of A Farewell to English, the title poem of the collection. Hartnett is sitting quietly in a bar when, unbidden, “like grey slabs of slate breaking from / an ancient quarry”, the words come tumbling into his mind: “mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin . . .”
A Rebel Act is an act of love, a book that surveys the life and achievements of Michael Hartnett with a workmanlike attention to detail. Pat Walsh has opened the ground, and done a good job of it. Neither full biography nor comprehensive exegesis, his book is a loving and valuable homage to a great poet. Nevertheless, to understand Hartnett there is no alternative to studying the poems, and studying the poems to remember: we do not write the poems; the poems write us.”
Unfortunately those poems are now difficult to acquire but for anyone interested in the Irish language, and what the language can achieve beyond mere utilitarian use, I urge you to seek them out.
Which reminds me of an ex-girlfriend and my copy of Ó hAirtnéide’s translations of the poems of the great Munster poet Aogán Ó Rathaille. She dumped me but kept the book. So she had some good taste then 😉
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