Michael Hartnett

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This article is about the Irish poet. For the Australian wheelchair basketballer, see Michael Hartnett (basketball).

Michael Hartnett (Irish: Mícheál Ó hAirtnéide) (18 September 1941 – 13 October 1999) was an Irish poet who wrote in both English and Irish. He was one of the most significant voices in late 20th-century Irish writing and has been called "Munster's de facto poet laureate".[1]

Early life and background[edit]

Hartnett was born in Croom Hospital, County Limerick.[2] Although his parents' name was Harnett, he was registered in error as Hartnett on his birth certificate. In later life he declined to change this as his legal name was closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide. He grew up in the town of Newcastle West, also in County Limerick, spending much of his time with his grandmother in the countryside nearby. Hartnett claimed that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, was one of the last native speakers to live in Co. Limerick, though she was originally from North Kerry. He claims that, although she spoke to him mainly in English, he would listen to her conversing with her friends in Irish, and as such, he was quite unaware of the imbalances between English and Irish, since he experienced the free interchange of both languages. When he began school, he claims that he was made aware of the tensions between both languages, and was surprised to discover that Irish as a language that was endangered, but was also, to him, taught as a contrived, rule-leaden entity, with little or none of the attraction that it held for him at home. He was educated in the local national and secondary schools in Newcastle West. Hartnett emigrated to England the day after he finished his secondary education and went to work as a tea boy on a building site in London.

Early writings[edit]

Hartnett had started writing by this time and his work came to the attention of the poet John Jordan, who was professor of English at University College Dublin. Jordan invited Hartnett to attend the university for a year. While back in Dublin, he co-edited the literary magazine Arena with James Liddy. He also worked as curator of Joyce's tower at Sandycove for a time. He returned briefly to London, where he met Rosemary Grantley on 16 May 1965, and they were married on 4 April 1966. His first book, Anatomy of a Cliché, was published by Poetry Ireland in 1968 to critical acclaim and he returned permanently to Ireland that same year.

Back in Dublin, he worked as a night telephonist at the telephone exchange on Exchequer Street. He now entered a productive relationship with New Writers Press, run by Michael Smith and Trevor Joyce. They published his next three books. The first of these was a translation from the Irish, The Old Hag of Beare (1969), followed by Selected Poems (1970) and Tao (1972). This last book was a version of the Chinese Tao Te Ching. His Gypsy Ballads, a version of the Romancero Gitano of Federico Garcia Lorca (1973) was published by the Goldsmith Press.

A Farewell to English[edit]

In 1974 decided to leave Dublin to return to his rural roots and his relationship with the Irish language. He went to live in Templeglantine, just five miles from Newcastle West and worked for a time as a lecturer in creative writing at Thomond College of Education, Limerick.

In his 1975 book A Farewell to English he declared his intention to write only in Irish in the future, describing English as 'the perfect language to sell pigs in'. A number of volumes in Irish followed: Adharca Broic (1978), An Phurgóid (1983) and Do Nuala: Foighne Chrainn (1984).

Dublin Life – Middle Period[edit]

He only drank in a few Dublin pubs: Toner's, Doheny & Nesbitt's, McDaid's and O'Donoghue's. The "Holy Hour" was in place at that time in Irish pubs and the establishments were closed from 2pm to 3pm. As a result, the practice in Toners at that time was to have a "lock-in" and shouts of "Ciúnas!" ("Silence!" in Irish) would ring out to allow Harnett to recite a poem. A contemporaneous witness (P Breatnach) recalls playing his harmonica as soon as the poet stopped reciting and being told to be quiet by all and sundry.

The witness recalls Hartnett as a kind and gentle person, even when under the influence of alcohol, and despite the witness hurling awful abuse at him.

After the breakdown of his marriage in the mid-1980s, Michael entered into a loving relationship with a new partner, Angela Liston, who strove to provide stability in his life and was deeply supportive of him in his difficult battle against alcoholism and other illness during the final decade of his life. "He drank but he never ate"

Later life and works[edit]

Hartnett had started drinking heavily and his alcoholism contributed to the end of his marriage. In 1984 he returned to Dublin to live in the suburb of Inchicore. The following year marked his return to English with the publication of Inchicore Haiku, a book that deals with the turbulent events in his personal life over the previous few years. This was followed by a number of books in English including A Necklace of Wrens (1987), Poems to Younger Women (1989) and The Killing of Dreams (1992).

He also continued working in Irish, and produced a sequence of important volumes of translation of classic works into English. These included Ó Bruadair, Selected Poems of Dáibhí Ó Bruadair (1985) and Ó Rathaille The Poems of Aodhaghán Ó Rathaille (1999). His Collected Poems appeared in two volumes in 1984 and 1987 and New and Selected Poems in 1995. Hartnett died from Alcoholic Liver Syndrome. A new Collected Poems appeared in 2001.

Eigse Michael Hartnett[edit]

Every April a literary and arts festival is held in Newcastle West in honour of Michael Hartnett. Events are organised throughout the town and a memorial lecture is given by a distinguished guest. Former speakers include Nuala O'Faolain, Paul Durcan, David Whyte and Fintan O'Toole.[3] The annual Michael Hartnett Poetry Award of 6500 euro also forms part of the festival. Funded by the Limerick County Arts Office and the Arts Council of Ireland, it is intended to support and encourage poets in the furtherance of their writing endeavours. Previous winners include Sinéad Morrissey and Peter Sirr.[4]

During the 2011 Eigse, Paul Durcan unveiled a bronze life-sized statue of Michael Hartnett sculpted by Rory Breslin, in the Square, Newcastle West. Hartnett's son Niall spoke at the unveiling ceremony.[5]


  1. ^ Nolan, Val (July 2009). "The Shoulders for a Raggy Coat". Poetry Ireland Newsletter. 
  2. ^ Hartnett liked to cite his birth in Croom hospital, as Croom was an area connected with the ancient Gaelic poets
  3. ^ "Irish Poetry, Literary & Arts Festival in Newcastle West, County Limerick - Eigse Michael Hartnett". eigsemichaelhartnett.ie. 
  4. ^ "Irish Poetry, Literary & Arts Festival in Newcastle West, County Limerick - Eigse Michael Hartnett". eigsemichaelhartnett.ie. 
  5. ^ "Irish Poetry, Literary & Arts Festival in Newcastle West, County Limerick - Eigse Michael Hartnett". eigsemichaelhartnett.ie. 

Further reading[edit]