It’s the birthday of Irish poet Mícheál Ó hAirtnéide (Michael Hartnett)

“I’ll never forget reading his first short poems in the early sixties; they had a kind of hypnotic power, as if a new Orpheus had emerged from Newcastle West. He was Limerick’s Lorca.” — Seamus Heaney on Mícheál Ó hAirtnéide

Michael Hartnett grew up in Limerick. He had a tough childhood. Two of his siblings died when they were babies. He spent much time with his Irish-speaking grandmother. He grew up in a section of Ireland rich with the language and folk traditions. He always knew he had to escape, but there was a part of him always turning back to this place where he came from.

He moved to London as a young man, and took odd jobs here and there. He started getting published regularly. His poems are haunting and beautiful (I love Heaney’s quote above), but in the 1970s, he decided to devote himself to writing only in the Irish language. He wrote an entire book called Farewell to English. At the time, it was a very unpopular move. It was seen as a decision to isolate himself, to limit himself to one small circle. It was seen as turning his back on the wider world. I don’t think he would have disagreed with these characterizations. Obviously, it was a conscious choice on his part, and a rebellious choice. He would devote himself to the Irish language. And he did.

Since he grew up as a child hearing Irish all the time, conversational casual Irish, not used as a political or cultural weapon, he saw the language as … you know, a valid way to express oneself, regardless of the fact that the language was quickly-disappearing. In other words: There was nothing nostalgic about why he did what he did. He wasn’t trying to prop up something “dead”. In its way, of course, as is so often the case with all things Irish, there was a political element to his decision to only write in Irish (especially since this happened in the mid-1970s when things were terrible, to completely understate the situation on the ground in Ireland at that time).

Eventually, he did write in English again. He was always experimenting. For example, he experimented for quite some time with haiku, a form he found fascinating. Many critics found this strange, and pushed back. Critics: please stop doing this. Be more open. You are not the boss of culture. Let the man write some haikus, please. It’s not up to you what he does, it’s not up to you to say “Hey. Go back to what you were doing before.” God bless the critics who are curious about what an artist is doing, even when it’s risky (see Brooks Atkinsons and Tennessee Williams), who don’t bluster around showing their “disapproval” of an artist making choices they don’t understand.

Hartnett’s response to the world was intense. Memories of his grandmother and his Newcastle childhood informed everything he wrote. He was a heavy drinker (he died of it in 1999), but his work continues to grow in stature.

I admire him. I’ll post one of his Irish-language poems today, with a translation in English below it. I am not fluent in Irish (although I have magic moments of near-comprehension). But I know the sounds, and his work “sounds” better in Irish, that’s for sure. The rhymes are mellifluous, effortless. Also, Sullivan is my mother’s maiden name. So that’s why I’m choosing this one.

Something is always lost in translation. I suppose that was Michael Hartnett’s point.

Fís Dheireanach Eoghain Rua Uí Shúilleabháin

Do thál bó na maidine
ceo bainne ar gach gleann
is tháinig glór cos anall
ó shleasa bána na mbeann.

Chonaic mé, mar scáileanna,
mo spailpíní fánacha,
is in ionad sleán nó rámhainn acu
bhí rós ar ghualainn chách.

The Last Vision of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin

The cow of morning spurted
milk-mist on each glen
and the noise of feet came
from the hill’ white sides.
I saw like phantoms
my fellow-workers
and instead of spades and shovels
they had roses on their shoulders.

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