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A REBEL ACT: MICHAEL HARTNETT'S

FAREWELL TO ENGLISH

Thomas McCarthy reviews Pat Walsh's new biography

 

 

 

Thomas McCarthy reviews Citizen Dwyer

Originally from Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, Thomas McCarthy now lives in Cork. He studied at UCC under the influence of Sean Lucy and John Montague; Sean Dunne and Theo Dorgan were fellow students. He received the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1997 for his first book and the American-Irish Foundation's Literary Award in 1984. His work includes Mr Dineen's Careful Parade (Anvil, 1999) and Merchant Prince (Anvil, 2005). In 2009, Anvil Press published McCarthy's The Last Geraldine Officer. His historical work on the burning of Cork's Carnegie Library and the rebuilding of its collections, Rising from the Ashes, appeared in 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Rebel Act reviewed in Southword Journal

A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett's Farewell to English

Pat Walsh

(Mercier Press, 2012)

ISBN: 9781856359672

€14.99 paperback

Buy from Mercier

 

 

 

 

So much water and so many words have gone under the bridge since the early to mid 1970s that it is almost impossible to recreate the atmosphere within which the much loved Limerick poet, Michael Hartnett, made his decision to write only in Irish. In this new book Pat Walsh has created a Boswell-like chronicle of those days, mapping Hartnett’s thought processes and cultural anxieties through the interviews, essays and broadcasts of that time. Hartnett’s A Farewell to English caused a sensation, not so much for the strength of its texts alone but for the associated cultural and political questions amplified by his very public act. At the time, his decision to abandon the English tongue seemed a particularly local, and a distinctly Irish, decision. Yet by late 1978 I’d met two other established poets at Iowa University who’d had made a similar decisionR. Parthasarathy, an Oxford UP-Delhi poet, who had decided to write in his native Tamil and abandon an Oxford Poet’s career in India, and Alfred Yuson, a poet of the Philippines, who was determined to write poetry only in Tagalog, the everyday language of his native Manila. Around the same time, also, the great Kenyan writer, James Ngugi abandoned his published colonial Christian name and reverted to the correct ‘Ngugi Wa Thiong’O’. It was Ngugi in his seminal Decolonising the Mind (Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1987) who distinguished between language as communication and language as a carrier of culture. Hartnett also understood this distinction and decided to do something about it. Pat Walsh has done a terrific job of work in A Rebel Act in uncovering the mental weather of that era, as well as offering a narrative of the politics of literary reactionsthe latter achievement of his book is something new in Irish literary chronicles, or a mode of retelling that he has rediscovered for our generation. One would have to go back to W.P. Ryan and his early twentieth century chronicles of the mainly London-based Irish Literary Revival to find a similarly easy-going and yet thorough chronicle of Irish literary life.

            At the heart of these other writers’ decisions was not the Plantation of Munster, but the dropping of napalm in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia. That was a series of events from which another Irish poet, Caitlín Maude, was already receiving signals. Maude knew that what was a sideshow for the West was the death of entire tribes and communities for these African and Asian writers. Hartnett, though he may not have known it, was in tune with Caitlín Maude’s internationalism: acting in solidarity with a post-Colonial or anti-Colonial feeling. The dispute over territory and natural resources had entered the verbal domain. In a real sense Hartnett’s A Farewell to English completed a project of political reflection begun in the singing and theatrical work of Maude. Caitlín Maude’s early death may have ignited two other quite distinct poetic careers, the Irish Hartnett and the exiled Ní Dhomhnaill. Although we, as readers, may not have known it at the time, Michael Hartnett in Templeglantine was all over the zeitgeist. As Ngugi stated in a 1967 interview ‘I have reached a point of crisis. I don’t know whether it is worth any longer writing in English.’

            In Pat Walsh’s wonderful chronicle you will find much despair as well as the stuff of cultural dreams. He has been shrewd and illuminating about Hartnett’s class origins; the working-class Hartnett household in the poorest housing of Newcastle West, the tea in jam-jars and the dry toilets. There has been a crying need for proper class analysis in Irish poetry and Walsh may have started something he didn’t wish to unleash into the literary discourse of the pub and festival. As the son of a working class father, I’ve often marvelled at the audacity of well-heeled poets masquerading as social victims or outcasts. The license granted to poets has been flagrantly abused by many poetic myth-makers in our own time and Pat Walsh’s insightful social writing about Hartnett may open a new line of enquiry in Irish criticism. In the closing chapters of this study Walsh creates an emotional map of the poet’s decisions: Rosemary Hartnett’s reactions to her husband’s Irish adventure are tellingly quoted ‘Michael’s decision to write only in Irish shut me out from his work. I had been accustomed to being the first to see his new work. I had tried to learn Irish but found it impossible .... a series of Irish-speaking visitors called to the house and spent the whole evening with Michael conversing in Gaelic. Any attempt to enter the conversation in English was rebuffed. I retired defeated and angry from my struggles with the language.’

            It is a telling witness statement, with Hemingway-esque consequences. Hartnett had gone big-game hunting and had left his wife in an English tent without a gun. As a metaphor of marital decline it is heart-rending. When Adharca Broic was published the poet had achieved his aim, an integrated Irish being, a life without adjectives. Yet, the world he’d entered was not a happier place. Within months he would be writing ‘And when I read today’s poetry/ I laugh forests of pens/ And cry tears of ink’. Hartnett grew increasingly bitter with critics, despite his own reviewing for The Irish Press, The Irish Times and Hibernia. He was quickly replaced by Seamus Deane as presenter of Poems Plain on RTE radio. Around this time I met him in John Montague’s house in Cork that night he told me that he was hoping to get a job as a night watchman with CMP Dairies. Then Aosdána happened, with its Cnuas payments like a modest civil list pension. It brought some relief to the hunted creature, the wood-kerne escaped from the massacre of the English language. But the demon, the great demon of Irish writing, alcohol, pursued him to an early grave. Into death he followed the only poet who ever brought out the competitive edge in his character, Caitlín Maude. Pat Walsh follows through to the decline, death, aftermath and legacy. A Rebel Act is a marvellous biographical study of a poet both familiar and strange. Every Munster poet, and any poet thinking of giving up drink or giving up English, should read it.

 

 

©2012 Thomas McCarthy

 

 

Author Links

 

McCarthy's Rising From the Ashes

'The Poetry of Thomas McCarthy' by August Kleinzahler

Bio and poems at Poetry International Web

 

 

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