Saying Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett

Here I am Saying Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett.

This week here I am saying Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett.

This poem was written by Hartnett in memory of his grandmother, Bridget Halpin who died in 1965, aged 80. She raised Hartnett, who was a sickly child, when he was a young boy.

Missed funerals.

When she passed away Hartnett was in Morocco and missed the funeral. This poem is about the loss of this woman, whom he realises how much he loves her once she dies. It is also about the disappearance of the past, of all the knowledge, the songs, the language…

We never realise how much we miss things until they are gone. Also look how futile things are. These things that remain from the past, so fleeting. The memories that we have. Not all of the memories are good, with memories of the Black and Tans raiding the house. And yet, all of these memories seem to be universal- soldiers still raid houses, songs are not sung and more and more languages disappear.

Michael Hartnett an Irish poet was born in 1941 and died in 1991. He was a bilingual poet writing in both Irish and English.

Nettle soup

On the day I made the recording I made some nettle soup. It takes a little time to collect the nettles. I live in the city of Paris so I go out to the woods to collect the nettles. I got one of my sons to help me with his football gloves on. I was thinking of the poem as he collected the nettles. I remember eating nettle soup in Ireland. My aunt makes a great nettle soup. And her daughters too.

This auntie never forgets a birthday and for my birthday she actually sent me this pamphlet of Ten Poems from Ireland (selected and introduced by Paula Meehan) and this poem is the first in it. I had read it before. But I decided to learn this poem from the collection.

Funny to see how difficult it is to find nettles. This is also like those things that are so fleeting. You never realise how difficult it is to find them. I suppose my sons will remember the mornings where we collected nettles to make soup later on.

As we collected the nettles, I brought them to see an old bunker from the second world war. It is off the beaten track, overgrown with plants. Some nice nettles nearby…

To quote from the introduction by Paula Meehan, the poem “opens doors in the imagination, it starts conversations. It is a poem many of us carry as a talisman, as medicine bundle, as a reminder that important culture bearers often appear in humble guise.”

The effect of poetry

This is what I am learning more and more through making poems a part of me. Earlier on in the week I was invited to a dinner in the Centre Culturel Irlandais and it was great to see and meet all the other artists, one in particular Breanndán O Beaglaoich (he is much younger in the link here) was in particular fine form that night. I regretted that I didn’t know the poem Death of an Irishwoman by that time because I am sure he would have loved it. I am sure he knows it. It was an evening of song and poetry and chat as well. No one got their nose broken though… Not while I was there anyway.

Breanndán O Beaglaoich told us how his first language was Irish and he had learnt English later on in life. He sang beautiful songs and played beautiful music on the accordeon. He sang Roisin Dubh so beautifully. He told us a little about the history of the song. I think this so fascinating to imagine these songs being sung for so long. And we all remember songs that we were sung when we were young. This moment of the song in the present and in the past at the same time. I thought sometimes of recording some of it on my phone but it was not one of those moments. The moment had to be lived. The moment was eternal.

What is culture? Is it outside of us? Is it something that lives through us? Is it only those things that are organised by the festivals and official organisations? Or is it “a child’s purse, full of useless things?”

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.

© 1975, The Estate of Michael Hartnett
From: Collected Poems
Publisher: The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2001
ISBN: 978 1 85235 295 0

Editor’s Note: púcas: pookas, hobgoblins. In the Irish language a man of African descent is described as a “blue man”, fear ghoirm. In Irish, “an fear dubh” (“the black man”) exclusively denotes the devil. The “darkfaced men” of this poem does not have a racial connotation.


Saying Muse by Jo Shapcott

This week, here is a poem called Muse by Jo Shapcott. Muse can mean more than one thing…

I enjoyed learning this poem with the lines running into each other and the sound of it. And especially the “punchline” at the end of the piece.

The music of this poem, the images are very specific and clear.

The muse, who is it in this poem? That is the question. The poem uses very specific images. It wants to break out of the typical muse relationship. The poem that follows the title is very different to the traditional idea of the Muse.

Poetry and Football

I tried recording this in the park, sitting on a bench, while my children were playing football. It was a beautiful day today. It was great to watch them kick the ball about. I tried to record the poem, sitting on the park bench, I just imagined it (as I often do with poetry) as if someone was just talking to you.

However, it was impossible. I was sitting too near a goal. I was also asked to be a ref, and an admiring public. I had brought books thinking I might be able to read some of them. Then we had to leave. I regret not having recorded it in the park. The sun through the leaves, the shouts of the children playing. So beautiful to hear all this life.

We finally got home late and with lots of things to do (one child had conveniently forgotten lots of homework so he could play more in the sun) I finally recorded the poem. I imagined of course how you might say this to someone. So I lay myself down. Plus I was “dog” tired…

Poems and Everyday Life

This is something that I like in this poem: it is down to earth. You have a feeling of clear eyed reality, with an eye for the specific detail. There is no Muse here. What is the Muse for a woman? A man as a Muse? Difficult.

The more I learn poems and say them the more I imagine how strange it is to say them. To ask someone for their attention. To hope that they can get the same reward from them. To discover the poem in real time.

I listened to  an interview with Jo Shapcott where she mentions Elizabeth Bishop leaving her unfinished poems stuck to the wall for ten years. Poems take time to write, to be born. They take time to learn and as you learn them they pass into you. I imagine not as much time to learn as they take to write. And they take time to understand as well. Imagine taking ten years to understand a poem. It is a short time actually.

I would say this poem on the metro, walking in the streets, in lifts, in stairwells. It is a little like the drawings I do on the metro. Sometimes I would look up and see all the people on their smartphones. I am sitting there with a scrap of paper. Sometimes I put the poems I am learning onto smartphones. That way I do not feel left out.

Poems working

The poem works its way into you. Any poem that you’re learning. Then it is there.


When I kiss you in all the folding places
of your body, you make that noise like a dog
dreaming, dreaming of the long run he makes
in answer to some jolt to his hormones,
running across landfills, running, running
by tips and shorelines from the scent of too much,
but still going with head up and snout
in the air because he loves it all
and has to get away. I have to kiss deeper
and more slowly – your neck, your inner arm,
the neat creases of your toes, the shadow
behind your knee, the white angles of your groin –
until you fall quiet because only then
can I get the damned words to come into my mouth.

Jo Shapcott


Saying “My Story”

Saying “My Story”, this is an Irish poem from the 7th-13th century. The author is unknown. This is translated by Brendan Kennelly. From the Penguin Book of Irish Verse.

A simple poem, but you can feel the winter “snarling” in these simple lines. It’s not very cold in Paris yet, but winter is coming. What’s more, our heating is broken down. Tomorrow we’ll get it repaired.

The thought of saying words, even a translation, that date from more than a thousand years ago; strange to think these fragments of a civilisation from so long ago. Fragments that come to us over the ages, here is it the story of the land? Whose story is it?

I am learning all of these poems and thinking of the desires and wishes that the poems contain. The time that these poems cross to come down to us. How something so fragile can cross time is a marvel… Can we leave things for others to find? Can we cross to others through time? Messages that cross through time and space…

The photo on this page is of the Gallarus Oratory, one of the earliest Christian buildings in Ireland, dating from 6th – 7th century. It is in Kerry on the Dingle Peninsula.

My Story

Here’s my story; the stag cries

Winter snarls as summer dies.


The wind bullies the low sun

in poor light; the seas moan.


Shapeless bracken is turning red,

The wildgoose raises its desperate head.


Birds’ wings freeze where fields are hoary.

The world is ice. That’s my story.


Anonymous from the 7th-13th century. Translated by Brendan Kennelly. From the Penguin Book of Irish Verse.