Monday, January 12, 2009

Michael Hartnett & Celtic Refusal

In my last entry, I reviewed Emyr Humphreys' "The Taliesin Tradition"; it reminded me afterwards of lines by Michael Hartnett, who for a decade followed through on his promise to bid "Farewell to English." He wrote his own verse only in Irish, while translating Ó Bruadair, Ó Rathaille and Haicéad. Raised by his Kerry-born grandmother not far from where I once stayed at Ballingarry in rural Limerick, Hartnett resolved in 1975 to reclaim himself as Mícheál Ó hAirtnéide, in homage to her speech. She sprinkled Irish into her English such that the little boy had no idea in Camas, a townland south of the home of Ballygowan water, Newcastle West, that his nation's "first" language was anything less than alive, from her fluency.

Although he flunked out of UCD, and claimed to have fathered his three children not only by a "Jewish Englishwoman" (this to get a rise out of his listener) and another by a "black woman living in Russia" (his daughter confesses ignorance of any such half-sibling), this troubled poet, who died (1999) as so many prematurely due to drink, remains one of our most eloquent voices that continue, across the Celtic Sea, the tradition Humphries hears in his principality's poets.

This continuity with a more nature-rooted, localized, literate, and sensitively tuned culture may often be mocked in its New Age druidic dress-up costume. It's given the mask for a few who have committed violence in its cause. It's allowed hucksters to market shamrockery and Cool Cymru to deluded diasporas and incomers, not to mention tourists there and abroad. However, this turn towards a healing past within which those who might mutter about their identity that they're mutts, or only "white," or nothing much, may, as Humphreys and Hartnett insist, prove crucial to rescue us from our own complacency. We rush into cultural oblivion at the manipulation of a branded, corporate, and centrally controlled machinery. My own increasingly standardized, semi-cyberspatial, and mediated occupational status witnesses to Hartnett's reaction towards "total work" and Humphreys' specter of a row of humans as lightbulbs, plugged into a circuit, blinking or dimming on command.

Asked by a student yesterday, in our ubiquitous "blended" delivery mode-- half "on-site" in classroom, half "on-line"-- about my own views of technological progress, I cited Humphries' phrase, which I'd found only a night before. I tend towards caution, even as I rely on this medium to share what I'm thinking with you as well as them. My tasks and my research merge, on this vexed but convenient channel of communication and surveillance. My investigations into Celtic identity bring me unexpectedly face-to-face with my employment. A Welsh roots-radical (b. 1919) informs my course in "Technology, Culture & Society" that I teach once or twice per now- compressed, accelerated, efficiently commodified (meeting market demands) term.

Fewer caught up in our demanding pace probably do what Hartnett or Humphreys did last century: immerse themselves into "our" language legacy. Hartnett's plunge into Irish lasted awhile, but he surfaced back to English via haiku-- like his Limerick counterpart Gabriel Rosenstock, also skilled in Irish translations and inspirations from the East. Humphreys-- inspired by Saunders Lewis' part in the 1936 Penyberth protest (about which I will muse more soon, once I corner the elusive "A Nation on Trial" by Dafydd Jenkins)-- learned Welsh, so well that he not only wrote his own books but directed films or plays in Cymraeg. For those too far distant from any Gaeilge grandmother or a Cymric firebrand to spark us, our process of cultural recovery chugs slowly, one verbal paradigm, one vocabulary list, one phrase at a time snatched from so many obligations and distractions in this lightbulb circuit.

I lack much recall of much of what I read, especially poetry, too little of which I read. Still, Hartnett's phrases stuck. Looking for this quote, I found it still bookmarked--with a post-it also of the final words I cite below-- from twenty years ago when I found it in Seán Dunne's "Poets of Munster." The village where Hartnett was born (1941), Croom, was the center centuries ago of some of the best and last bards from what Daniel Corkery called "The Hidden Tradition" of the twilight of Irish poets, continuing a legacy very like that of Taliesin and revived by Humphreys and such as Saunders Lewis in a manner very much like what Hartnett seeks here:

"A Farewell to English" (1975; excerpt from start of part 6)

"Gaelic is the conscience of our leaders,
the memory of a mother-rape they will
not face, the heap of bloody rags they see
and scream at it in their boardrooms of mock oak.
They push us towards the world of total work,
our politicians with their seedy minds
and dubious labels, Communist or
Capitalist, none wanting freedom--
only power. All that reminds us
we are human and therefore not a herd
must be concealed or killed or slowly left
to die, or microfilmed to waste no space.
For Gaelic is our final sign that
we are human, therefore not a herd."

Photo: more info about Hartnett from his publisher: Gallery Press.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I work with Indigenous Australians and understand the value of language. My grandmother came from Co. Clare and spoke gaelic. My mother speaks a little, I know a handful of words, and hey presto, a language is lost. Wonderful that to quote Mary Gilmore, "The world will never die while the Celt is alive". Slainte.