Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English





Pat Walsh
Mercier Press
€14.99 (PB)
ISBN: 9781856359672
In 1974 Michael Hartnett made the decision to take his leave of English and from then to write in Irish only. Or did he? Well, he wouldn’t necessarily stop writing in English – if a poem presented itself in that language it would have to be accommodated. But he wouldn’t publish any more English poems. Ciaran Carson’s reaction, reviewing the volume which announced the decision, A Farewell to English, was to suggest, in a review quoted in Pat Walsh’s book, that the volume might have been more usefully titled A Farewell to Published Poems Written in the English Language. A number of things are at play here: on the one hand a decision – complicated, emotional, theatrical – to effectively abandon not just a language, but his achievement and potential development as a poet in that language, and to attempt to recreate himself as a poet in Irish, a language he would have to study hard to master. To have announced an intention to become a bilingual poet would have fulfilled the need to pay due homage to the Gaelic tradition and the side of his own sensibility that was enmeshed in the Irish language, but the unequal relationship between the two languages and cultures don’t easily accommodate such to-ing and fro-ing. Walsh quotes Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s analysis of the predicament:
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