Rebel Acts: Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague & Michael Hartnett (Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture)
Speech14 October 2021
I wish to thank the organisers of Éigse Michael Hartnett for inviting me to take part in this year’s tribute to Hartnett in what would have been the year of his 80th birthday. I want to pay tribute to all involved for cherishing the memory of a significant 20th century Irish poet here in Newcastle West, the locality of his birth and upbringing. A special word of thanks goes to Vincent Hanley, a contemporary of mine at UCC, who has looked after me brilliantly this past couple of days.
I have always been interested in the fact that Ireland’s era of supreme literary achievement - the time of Yeats and Joyce – coincided with its era of political transformation in the opening decades of the 20th century. This has given me an interest in what I call Ireland’s ‘history poems’, poetry that addresses issues of a political or societal nature.
Was this really a coincidence, or was the flowering of Irish literature in the first third of the 20th century somehow bound up with Ireland’s torrid escape from external rule in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Were Irish literature and early 20th century Irish history two sides of the same coin?
During my student days in Cork, I was friendly with a number of up-and-coming poets who emerged there under the guidance of John Montague, who taught English at UCC. I refer to Tom McCarthy, Sean Dunne, Theo Dorgan and Pat Crotty. Although I could never write a line of verse myself as I do not have the gift or the courage for self-revelation of the kind that good poetry requires, I had an interest in poetry. It was through that interest that I met Michael Hartnett briefly when he came to UCC to do a reading there in the mid-1970s.
That was about the time when ‘A Farewell to English’ was published and I was intrigued by his caustic evocation of the ‘paradise of files and paper clips’. That seemed especially pertinent to me as I was about to join the Irish civil service. At the time, I was writing an MA thesis which explored the borderlands between literature and history. I made use of ‘A Farewell to English’ in that study in order to point out that our writers continued to have an awkward interface with Irish society and politics in the 1970s. Some of the lines from Hartnett’s poem have stayed in my mind throughout the intervening decades.
Hartnett’s poem reflected the disenchantment I had encountered elsewhere in Ireland’s literary canon. It seemed as if our writers acted as a kind of informal opposition to the conventions, pieties if you will, of independent Ireland.
I have long detected similarities between ‘A Farewell to English’ and Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’ and John Montague’s ‘The Rough Field’, three public poems that address key themes from experience as an independent country. In this talk, I want to reflect on those three poems, all of which exhibit a crusading tone. Between them, they offer a kind of potted history of 20th century Ireland, retold by three acute, articulate observers.
In ‘The Great Hunger’, Patrick Kavanagh excoriates the failings of rural Ireland. John Montague’s ‘The Rough Field’ explores the sectarian conflicts and tensions that abounded in his home place, Garvaghey in County Tyrone. In Hartnett’s case, disappointment with the Ireland he knew runs through his poem. Between them, the three poets raise dissenting voices, disaffected from aspects of the Ireland they knew. They tell us something about 20th century Ireland. If journalism is the first draft of history as has been claimed, then literature is perhaps its second draft. Literary evidence also tends to live longer in the public imagination, and in a manner that other parts of our documentary archive does not.
The three poems do not, of course, tell us everything about 20th century Ireland, just as ‘Easter 1916’ does not give a full picture of the 1916 Rising, but that poem does capture something of the essences of the Rising. For their part, Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett give us snatches of commentary on 20th century Irish life. What do they tell us?
The Great Hunger:
Reading it again in recent weeks, it is hard not to be deeply impressed with ‘The Great Hunger ’(1942). It’s one hell of an achievement, even if the world it depicts has an antiquarian feel in the Ireland of Google, Starbuck’s and Amazon etc.
In a 1949 interview with The Bell, Kavanagh bragged that he was “the only man who has written in our time about rural Ireland from the inside” and that was fair comment. What I think he meant was that Yeats and other writers of the literary revival had spied rural Ireland from the outside, idealizing it in the process. Kavanagh had written about it at close quarters from his ungainly perch at Inishkeen in County Monaghan. Kavanagh certainly didn’t follow Yeats’s exhortation to ’sing the peasantry’ or to embrace the dream of ‘the noble and the beggarman’.
What we get in ‘The Great Hunger’ is a furiously gritty immersion in what the poet called
the apocalypse of clay
In every corner of this land.
This is what one critic has called an ‘anti-pastoral’ poem. The poet Brendan Kennelly has described ‘The Great Hunger’ as ‘a necessary realistic outburst from an essentially transcendental imagination.’ The tone of this poem is very different from Kavanagh’s better-known short poems, where his attitude to rural Ireland is more wistful. Here it is fierce. He pulls no punches in his evocation of the sexual frustrations of ‘poor Paddy Maguire’ and his fellow potato gatherers who are like ‘mechanised scarecrows’ ‘broken-backed over the Book of Death’.
Maguire is a man whose spirit:
Is a wet sack flapping about the knees of time.
He is not the ‘wise and simple man’ with the ‘sun freckled face’ as in Yeats’s dream of the ideal Irish countryman in his poem, ‘The Fisherman’. This is the reality as Kavanagh saw it, a man bound to his fields,
Lost in a passion that never needs a wife.
Now that he is in his sixties and senses that life has passed him by, Maguire is:
not so sure if his mother was right
When she praised a man who made a field his bride.
Kavanagh’s insider’s account of rural Ireland is a stern antidote to notions of a rural idyll. There are those who see Kavanagh’s poem as a counterpoint to de Valera’s famous 1943 speech dreaming of rural Ireland ‘joyous with the sounds of laughter, 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.’ There is nothing serene about the anti-hero of ‘The Great Hunger’ who seems achingly aware of his dismal fate,
In Kavanagh’s version of rural Ireland, ‘life is more lousy than savage’ and those who live there are in ‘the grip of irregular fields’ from which ‘No man escapes.’ For the poet acting as sociologist, at the root of Paddy Maguire’s (and rural Ireland’s) frustrated unhappiness is a socially-enforced suppression of sexuality. In Kavanagh’s view, this is something that Maguire and the people around him bring on themselves.
Later in his life, Patrick Kavanagh sought to disown ‘The Great Hunger’ and its hectoring tone. He insisted that ‘A poet merely states the position and does not care whether his words change anything or not.’ I am not saying that ‘The Great Hunger’ was a harbinger of change, but it was part of a critique of the ‘dreary Eden’ carried out in the 1940s and 1950s through the pages of The Bell edited by Seán O’Faoláin, to which Kavanagh was a contributor.
As a public servant, I tend to trace the roots of modern Ireland to the publication of Economic Development in 1958, which, driven by a desire to stem the flight from rural Ireland that had reached epidemic proportions in mid-1950s, resolved to open up our economy in what turned out to be a game-change for Ireland. ‘The Great Hunger’ helps us to understand the social roots of rural Ireland’s depopulation.
The Rough Field:
The Rough Field was published in 1972, the year I began studying literature at UCC with John Montague as one of my lecturers, but the poems it incorporates were written during the preceding ten years. It has something in common with Kavanagh’s long poem (Montague was an admirer of Kavanagh’s poetry and an advocate for it) in that it explores Ireland’s rural world, in Montague’s case Garvaghey in County Tyrone. It is interesting that Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett all hail from rural or small-town Ireland, quite different from the urban, and ultimately cosmopolitan backgrounds of Yeats and Joyce, modulated in Yeats’s case by his engagement with Sligo and the area around Coole Park and Thoor Ballylee in Galway.
‘The Rough Field’ is a poem of exile and return. Montague, the boy from Garvaghy, having spent years in Dublin, Berkeley and Paris, reengages with his home place and ‘the unhappiness of its historical destiny’. Like Kavanagh, he doesn’t go all pastoral on us. As he puts it,
No Wordsworthian dream enchants me here ..
But merging low hills and gravel streams,
Oozy blackness of bog-banks, pale upland grass; ..
Harsh landscape that hunts me,
Well and stone, in the bleak moors of dream.
Like ‘The Great Hunger’, ‘The Rough Field’ can be lyrical as remembrance of boyhood wells up:
Those were my first mornings
Fresh as Eden, with dew on the face,
Like first kiss, the damp air:
On dismantled flagstones,
From ash-smoored embers
Hands now strive to rekindle
That once leaping fire.
But the prevailing tone is stark, grim and, as in Kavanagh and indeed Hartnett, there is a side swipe at Yeats, this time his insistence that ‘Ancient Ireland knew it all.’:
Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside,
Then rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head,
Formorian fierceness of family and local feud.
Perhaps the key line in this collection is when the poet, having brought to light the elemental unpleasantness of sectarian animosities in rural Tyrone, frees himself from the ‘dolmens round my childhood’ that had trespassed on his dreams:
Until once, in a standing circle of stones,
I felt their shadows pass
Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.
Here we have the poet seeking to put his past, and that of his home place, behind him, but can any society ever do that? Creating a kind of ‘permanence’ of historical memory in the public mind, hopefully not a dark one, may be one of the impacts from our Decade of Centenaries, putting our history in a settled place where it can be analysed and debated, but not fought over.
Like Michael Hartnett in ‘A Farewell to English’, Montague muses on the ‘shards of a lost tradition’ and reflects on his father’s experience as an exile, one that was all too common to Irish people in the 20th century. He was:
the least happy
man I have known. His face
retained the pallor
of those who work underground:
the lost years in Brooklyn
listening to a subway
shudder the earth.
In the part of ‘The Rough Field’ known as ‘Patriotic Suite’, the poet turns his attention to independent Ireland and its discontents – ‘the gloomy images of a provincial Catholicism’. Once at UCC in the mid-1970s, I heard Montague deliver an excoriating putdown of the deficiencies of the Ireland of that time and, drawing on Swift to fillet the ‘yahoos’ he believed were in the ascendant. In this poem he writes that:
All revolutions are interior
The displacement of spirit
By the arrival of fact,
Ceaseless as cloud across sky,
Sudden as sun.
Cheekily, he asks:
Does fate at last relent
With a trade expansion of 5 per cent?
His question is does prosperity help us deal with our demons, a puzzle that is still with us. I celebrate our material advancement as a people since the 1970s, but I accept that things of value can get lost in the process and that economic advancement does not guarantee wellbeing, which is more difficult to measure.
Then Montague brings us into the 1960s, where at ‘the Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar:
There were two sounds, the breaking
Of glass, and the background pulse
Of music. Young girls roamed
The streets with eager faces,
Pushing for men. Bottles in
Hand, they rowed out for a song
Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone,
A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain.
Montague’s final take on rural Ireland is ambivalent. He acknowledges that:
Only a sentimentalist would wish
to see such degradation again.
Yet something mourns.
It is the loss
of a world where action had been wrung
through painstaking years to ritual.
What, in Montague’s view has gone is:
Our finally lost dream of man at home
in a rural setting!
I recognise the issue of rural Ireland’s viability and equilibrium as a continuing priority for us in this century. What, I wonder, will our experience of the pandemic do to the urban/rural balance of our country?
A Farewell to English
This is by far the shortest of three works I discuss in this talk. It starts with a flourish.
Her eyes were coins of porter and her West
Limerick voice talked velvet in the house:
her hair black as the glossy fireplace
wearing with grace her Sunday-night-dance best.
She cut the froth from glasses with a knife
and hammered golden whiskies on the bar
and her mountainy body tripped the gentle
mechanism of verse.
Now I know this is not a literary term, but that’s what I call ‘great stuff’. It’s a strong opening pitch. It reminds me of Kavanagh’s ‘Raglan Road’. But the poet’s unease emerges early on as he sinks his hands into tradition, ‘sifting centuries for words’, but the words he reaches for with ‘excitement’ and ‘emotion’ are Irish words.
It is clear to me that the poet’s turning away from the English language, ‘the gravel of Anglo-Saxon’ is a reflection of a more generalized disenchantment with the realities of what he calls ‘the clergy cluttered south’. He conjures up an image of Ireland’s leaders queueing up at Dublin Castle in 1922
to make our Gaelic
or our Irish dream come true.
But this ends up with us choosing
to learn the noble art
of writing forms in triplicate.
As it happens, when I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978, it was common to make 4 or 5 carbon copies of a letter, while ‘cut and paste’ meant using scissors and gum to cut up old documents and rearrange them!
In Hartnett’s vision, modern Ireland is the offspring of a ‘brimming Irish sow’ and ‘an English boar’. He concludes that
We knew we had been robbed
but we were not sure that we lost
the right to have a language
or the right to be the boss.
The image here is of unrealised national ambition and of materialism eclipsing identity.
In another echo of Yeats (‘Irish poets learn your trade’), he insists that
Poets with progress
make no peace or pact.
The act of poetry
is a rebel act.
Justifying his decision to abandon English, he takes the view that
Gaelic is our final sign that
we are human, therefore not a herd.
For Hartnett, therefore, the Irish language was an indispensable antidote to the stifling conditions he saw around him.
He concludes with a resounding broadside:
I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.
Hartnett’s poem confronts one of the unredeemed aspirations of 20th century Ireland, the effort to revive the Irish language. The Gaelic League helped radicalize a generation of Irish people at the turn of the century and became a driver of revolutionary activity. Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Eamon de Valera entered the world of advanced nationalism through the door of the Gaelic League. But the language revival stalled with independence. It flourished in the pronouncements of the State but not in the practice of the people. For Hartnett, I think it was the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality that spurred him to make the radical stop of abandoning English, the language of the head – ‘the perfect language to sell pigs in’ - in favour of Irish, the language of the heart. The language question continues to be an important issue in discussions about Irish identity, in answering the ‘who are we’ question.
When Michael Hartnett described poetry as ‘a rebel act’, he was not referring to the kind of rebellion that was the subject of Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’. What his words suggest is that a poet’s default posture is dissatisfaction and disenchantment. 20th century Ireland has had a fraught relationship with its writers, Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Sean O’Faolain, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien and many others who strained against the nets of conformity.
What can we derive about 20th century Ireland from these three long poems? Three things strike me.
The first is the aura of disappointment surrounding the actual fruits of independence. For Kavanagh, this revolved around the stunted condition of rural Ireland. For Montague, it was the failure to resolve sectarian tensions in Ulster and the dullness of life in Ireland compared with the expansiveness he had encountered elsewhere. And for Hartnett, it was the bureaucratization of Irish life and what he saw as the abandonment of a vital part of our cultural patrimony.
The second is that rural Ireland is the laboratory in which these three poets test what they saw as our national failings. The problems of rural Ireland and attempts to remedy them were central to the nationalist project throughout the 19th century. If independence was the solution to Ireland’s ills, then that ought to have been in evidence in rural society. In the three poems explored in this talk, all with rural settings, Monaghan, Tyrone and West Limerick, disappointment and disenchantment are the prevailing moods.
My third take away is that each poem contains consolations that point ways forward out of the mire of disappointment. Each displays shards of light visible that spare them from outright despair. In Kavanagh, this comes from the poem’s celebration of the natural world, which the poet venerates despite all its harshness. Take for example his image of ‘October playing a symphony on a slack wire’. In one passage, Kavanagh reflects on the fact that
..sometimes when sun comes through a gap
These men know God the Father in a tree:’
In Montague’s poem, it’s the social loosening of the 1960s epitomised by the Fleadh in Mullingar that gives him hope that ‘puritan Ireland’ is on its last legs. For Hartnett, it is the protective glow of Ireland’s language and traditions. Hartnett once referred to Irish as both ‘the soul’s music’ and ‘the bad talk you hear in the pub’. It is ‘a ribald language/anti-Irish’, by which I am sure he meant that its reality confounds traditional images of Irishness.
Given that the default position for these writers is critical, how will Irish literature fare in the more self-satisfied Ireland we now live in? What will the target be of the history poems of our 21st century? Will the present pandemic inspire meditations in verse on the subject of our national condition?
Not all Irish poetry revolves around the ‘bugbear Mr Yeats’, as Michael Hartnett described his eminent predecessor. Far from being an island of bad verse, today’s Ireland continues to produce a good fistful of poetic talent that can shine the light of imagination on our affairs.
Finally, to come back to literature and history, I want to mention a book I will publish in January entitled, Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey. I wrote it to mark the centenary of the publication of Joyce’s great novel and to record my own journey with, and through, Ulysses this past forty years. As a historian, I also see Ulysses as an invaluable portrait of an Ireland on the cusp of dramatic political change, an enduring monument in words to our country as it was a century and more ago. We are lucky to have so many wordsmiths, past and present, delving into our national life for there is an enduring sense in which, as Yeats once wrote, ‘words alone are certain good’.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador to the United States.