Michael Hartnett, Irish poet who writes in both English and Irish, is born in Croom Hospital in Croom, County Limerick, on September 18, 1941. He is one of the most significant voices in late 20th-century Irish writing and has been called “Munster‘s de facto poet laureate.”
Although Hartnett’s parents’ name is Harnett, he is registered in error as Hartnett on his birth certificate. In later life he declines to change this as his legal name is closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide. He grows up in the Maiden Street area of Newcastle West, County Limerick, spending much of his time with his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, who resides in the townland of Camas, in the countryside nearby. He claims that his grandmother is one of the last native speakers to live in County Limerick, though she is originally from northern County Kerry. Although she speaks to him mainly in English, he listens to her conversing with her friends in Irish, and as such, he is quite unaware of the imbalances between English and Irish. When he begins school, he is made aware of the tensions between both languages, and is surprised to discover that Irish is considered an endangered language, taught as a contrived, rule-laden code, with little of the literary attraction which it holds for him. He is educated in the local national and secondary schools in Newcastle West. He emigrates to England the day after he finishes his secondary education and goes to work as a tea boy on a building site in London.
Hartnett has started writing by this time and his work comes to be known of the poet John Jordan, who is professor of English at University College Dublin. Jordan invites him to attend the university for a year. While back in Dublin, he co-edits the literary magazine Arena with James Liddy. He also works as curator of James Joyce‘s tower at Sandycove for a time. He returns briefly to London, where he meets Rosemary Grantley on May 16, 1965, and they are married on April 4, 1966. His first book, Anatomy of a Cliché, is published by Poetry Ireland in 1968 to critical acclaim and he returns to live permanently in Dublin that same year.
Hartnett works as a night telephonist at the telephone exchange on Exchequer Street. He now enters a productive relationship with New Writers Press, run by Michael Smith and Trevor Joyce. They publish his next three books. The first of these is a translation from the Irish, The Old Hag of Beare (1969), followed by Selected Poems (1970) and Tao (1972). This last book is a version of the Chinese Tao Te Ching. His Gypsy Ballads (1973), a translation of the Romancero Gitano of Federico García Lorca, is published by the Goldsmith Press.
In 1974 Hartnett decides to leave Dublin and return to his rural roots, as well as deepen his relationship with the Irish language. He goes to live in Templeglantine, five miles from Newcastle West, and works for a time as a lecturer in creative writing at Thomond College of Education, Limerick.
In his 1975 book, A Farewell to English, Hartnett declares his intention to write only in Irish in the future, describing English as “the perfect language to sell pigs in.” A number of volumes in Irish follow including Adharca Broic (1978), An Phurgóid (1983) and Do Nuala: Foighne Chrainn (1984). A biography on this period of his life entitled A Rebel Act Michael Hartnett’s Farewell To English by Pat Walsh is published in 2012 by Mercier Press.
In 1984 Hartnett returns to Dublin to live in the suburb of Inchicore. The following year marks his return to English with the publication of Inchicore Haiku, a book that deals with the turbulent events in his personal life over the previous few years. This is followed by a number of books in English including A Necklace of Wrens (1987), Poems to Younger Women (1989) and The Killing of Dreams (1992).
Hartnett also continues working in Irish, and produces a sequence of important volumes of translation of classic works into English. These include Ó Bruadair, Selected Poems of Dáibhí Ó Bruadair (1985) and Ó Rathaille The Poems of Aodhaghán Ó Rathaille (1999). His Collected Poems appear in two volumes in 1984 and 1987 and New and Selected Poems in 1995.
Hartnett dies from Alcoholic Liver Syndrome on October 13, 1999. A new Collected Poems appears in 2001.
Every April a literary and arts festival is held in Newcastle West in honour of Hartnett. Events are organised throughout the town and a memorial lecture is given by a distinguished guest. Former speakers include Nuala O’Faolain, Paul Durcan, David Whyte and Fintan O’Toole. The annual Michael Hartnett Poetry Award of € 4,000 also forms part of the festival. Funded by the Limerick City and County Council Arts Office and the Arts Council of Ireland, it is intended to support and encourage poets in the furtherance of their writing endeavours. Previous winners include Sinéad Morrissey and Peter Sirr.
During the 2011 Éigse, Paul Durcan unveils a bronze life-sized statue of Hartnett sculpted by Rory Breslin, in the Square, Newcastle West. Hartnett’s son Niall speaks at the unveiling ceremony.