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.
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.
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.