I travelled to Charleville, North Cork, last Tuesday (February 9th) to speak with Des Healy, lifelong friend of Michael Hartnett. Des worked with my father for many years, being Principal in St. Ita’s Secondary School Newcastle West, where my father taught English. I’ve no doubt that that was the main reason he agreed to speak with me. No matter. I was eager to meet with him and get a first hand impression of Hartnett. It was a bright Spring day. The road was wet. I recall a constant rainbow and a glare.
A chance to listen to Pat Kenny on the radio, a chance I seldom get nowadays. A SIPTU official. How to interview someone. Apologies for cutting across you but my researcher just passed me a canny fact which simply must be heard…
It’s Spenser and Bowen country passed Mallow, before Buttevant. You don’t get that impression from the road. Spenser and Bowen wrote about fields and rivers far off from the M20 roadside. The road itself is completely arbitrary and meaningless. I was nervous. I realised I had known of Des my entire life. An incredibly smart man. Great in his own way, in that small town. He taught himself Russian. He lived in Africa for a number of years. He drank with Kavanagh and Jordan and Liddy. All that lot. And of course he was fast friends with Hartnett. What I knew and what I conjectured into fact tumbled in my head as I waited at the temporary traffic lights in Buttevant. Builders putting down paving. I smoked constantly.
So what do you want to know about Mike?
Gough’s in Charleville is a fine bar. You’ll find old ladies sitting at tables having tea and scones. Tradesmen in high-viz jackets on their lunch break. Neat habitual drinkers fastidious in their movements. An odd business meeting. Sky Sports News on mute on the TV. A good fire. I leafed through Monday’s Echo whilst I waited for Des to arrive. 8 Across, four letters. “Science fiction novel by Frank Herbert”. D.O.O.N. The Co. Limerick town standing in for the alien planet. The odds for a horse Charlie Chawke had running in Thurles that evening had come in from 5’s to odds on. The happy pride in the telling as the barman had him backed that morning. Only a youngster. There was nothing in the Echo. I was a curio with my coffee and coat. I went out the back for another smoke.
And that’s where Des found me.
We found a quite corner inside the door. Not before he got a pint for himself and me a coffee. He knew everyone. Everyone knew him. Over 6′. White hair. Vitality still. Whilst at the bar he explained me to the locals. He’s here to talk to me about a friend of mine who was a poet. This was accepted without remark. I liked him immediately.
After a few icebreakers about my parents’ health, sensing that the well meaning (not that) young man before him clearly had no intention of carrying out anything which could be described as a professional interview, Des took the lead. In fact I think I asked him how he first met Hartnett, to which Des replied something along the lines of, the very first day of Junior infants at National School! We sat together!. Ah I see, I didn’t realize you were childhood friends. Which I didn’t. Preparation is the key to good journalism.
The rivalry between Joe O’Shea and Frank Finucane (uncle of Marian), the boys’ first teachers. O’Shea was something of a poet himself often publishing ballads in the local papers. When asked if anyone could do better, Hartnett said, ‘I could!’, and thus became a pet to one and a child rival to the other. They knew him as a poet in the schoolyard as children. What age? Oh, eleven or twelve. Mike was always a poet. Hartnett writes, in one of his relatively few pieces of journalism, that when he went to the Secondary School, ‘he lost an ally’. No further explanation is offered. Well, his name was Frank Finucane.
Des’s father was the local postman in Newcastle West at that time. Putting his family a rung above Hartnett’s, whose father was a painter decorator. Whether this was notional or real whose to tell. Hartnett himself details in his poems the mud floored poverty of his upbringing. Des was sent away to boarding school in Kilkenny, and subsequently gained a scholarship to study English in UCD. It would take Hartnett longer to depart. Poetry, and John Jordan, the instruments of his escape. In the meantime. Des’s father was a member of the local Gramophone Society. Mike listened to classical music at our house. His love of classical music started then. He had a great ear. My reading of “Sibelius in Silence” gains a further layer of meaning. Sibelius was quite the tragic figure when it came to the drink too of course.
Stories of a summer in London. Reunited again. Sprees when there was money for pints and fags. A lot of the time there was none. Hartnett worked. Dishwasher. Busboy. Teaboy. Though he never actually did too much work when he worked! Swinging Sixties? No, it wasn’t like that for us. Though there was craic and good fun as always with Mike. One of their mates Jimmy Musgrave was a nephew of Donal Foley. That’s how the ‘Teaboy of the Western World’ thing happened (Scan9). He got noticed. Paul Durcan wrote a letter to him, by this time back living in Newcastle West. Liddy. Jordan. They helped him a lot. Jordan offered to pay his way in UCD.
They were in Dublin at the same time too. Des sitting in the lecture hall. “Mr Jordan is ill today”. Then walking into McDaid’s to find him deep in conversation with Hartnett. Am I romanticising? Des didn’t tell it that way. A time he met Kavanagh, was abused and ordered to buy liquor. Des didn’t like him. Who would. I piece together what Des is telling me with what has been written of that time. Cronin. Montague. McGahern. His recollections chime with theirs. Des graduated in 1964. To London again. We shared a flat in World’s End, the Fulham End of King’s Road. He had a way with people. I get carried along in the recollection. There are people who inspire deep feeling, who we feel to need to be around, to protect.
Des moved to Africa in ’67. Hartnett married. Found work in the Fairview telephone exchange. Working and family life. He recalls meeting Heaney at a literary event in the ’70’s, the concern Heaney expressed about Hartnett and his drinking. The happy reminiscence changes. Or perhaps that’s my imagining. There’s no escaping the hard facts of Hartnett’s life. Concern. Regret maybe. But for what? That was him. No structure. No rules. He compares him to Sebastian in Brideshead. Sadness in the voice now. He used call me in the middle of the night. At all hours. “I’ve an idea about this.” “I’ve a joke I must tell you.” About poetry? Yes, at times. I’d suggest something here or there. A catch in the voice perhaps of my own creation. I miss it.
Did you once see Shelley plain? Hard to fathom the reverence for the poet. It doesn’t come natural to us. Respect. Don’t revere. We’re more than an hour into it now. The pint of beer nearly gone, my coffee long cold. Hearing Des recall driving his friend to dry out, the only person he’d go for, I feel I’ve strayed too far, gained access to the tragedy which all life long friendships must be. That was the last time I saw him, he died soon after.
I asked him whether he’d be attending the upcoming Hartnett festival. He would be, yes. The conversation decompressed. Back to trivial things, anticipating our parting. We shook hands and I thanked him. He walked back to the bar and the men there. I hope you do him justice now!
More than before, I felt the need to.