Michael Hartnett
(Ireland, 1941–1999)   
Michael Hartnett

Michael Hartnett was born in Croom, County Limerick, in 1941. He was one of the most beloved of poets among his peers. In Ireland he is considered to be one of leading national poets of the last century, in spite of his near invisibility abroad. Through his rich and varied oeuvre, which he began to publish in the mid 1960’s, Hartnett helped to extend the boundaries of the contemporary Irish poem, particularly in English. He did this mainly by his extensive translations from other poetic traditions, Asian, Southern European and renaissance Irish language poetry. These other traditions influenced how his own work in English bore a flavour and concept of form distinct from the more Britain-regarding Northern Ireland poets.

Hartnett grew up in a family home devoid of electricity or indoor plumbing. Like many of the economically dispossessed of his generation Hartnett could not afford to obtain a university degree. He spent just one year as a university undergraduate, funded by other poets. All his life his means of making a living afforded him a frugal lifestyle. He spent the latter part of his life writing poetry full-time, working not only on his own poems but on groundbreaking translations of the classical poets of the Irish language.

Hartnett developed a love of the Irish language under the influence of his grandmother and she features in some of his most popular poems. He admired the ancient tradition of aristocratic patronage of poets in Gaelic society and regretted that he lived in a time when poets were not so valued. In 1975 he renounced writing in English and declared that henceforth he would write only in Irish “to court the language of my people”. But his gift as a poet in English could not be suppressed forever and eventually in 1985 he released a book-length sequence called Inchicore Haiku in which he wrote:

My English dam bursts
and out stroll all my bastards.
Irish shakes its head.

Hartnett struggled with alcoholism most of his life and its toll led to his sudden premature death in 1999. He leaves behind a legacy of poetry in Irish and English and a significant body of translation which continue to influence a contemporary Irish poetry running counter to the dominant poetic strictures of the late 20th century.

© Patrick Cotter

Select Bibliography

A Necklace of Wrens (bilingual) The Gallery Press, Dublin, 1987
Collected Poems, The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2001
A Book of Strays, The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2002
Translations, The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2003

O Brudair, The Gallery Press, Dublin, 1985
Haicéad, the Gallery Press, Dublin, 1993
O Rathaille, The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1998

Hartnett’s publishers, The Gallery Press
Michael Hartnett biographical note by the poet Michael Coady
Report on a lecture by Paul Durcan on Michael Hartnett, on Irish Poetry blog


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