Thinker’s Curse – An Irishman’s Diary about Michael Hartnett and his missing cat

Michael Hartnett: lament for a lost cat

Michael Hartnett: lament for a lost cat

 

Inquiring after my (still-missing) cat Pete Briquette recently, an anonymous but thoughtful reader sent me a poem by the late Michael Hartnett. This was doubly thoughtful, because not only is the poem a lament for a lost cat, it was written by a man whose life followed a similar geographical trajectory to Pete’s.  

They both came from MunsterLimerick and Tipperary, respectively – and ended up in Dublin 8: Inchicore and Kilmainham. That coincidence was not lost on the reader.

In Hartnett’s case, he believed his pet to have been kidnapped, hence the poem, On Those Who Stole Our Cat, a Curse. Which begins as follows: “On those who stole our cat, a curse:/may they always have an empty purse/and need a doctor and a nurse/prematurely;/may their next car be a big, black hearse –/oh may it, surely!”

The curse poem is a well-known Irish literary genre, especially in the Gaelic tradition Hartnett inherited through his Kerry-born grandmother, one of the last native Irish speakers in west Limerick.

But he gives the ancient form a thorough updating, as witnessed by his second verse:

“May all their kids come down with mange,/their eldest daughter start acting strange,/and the wife start riding the range/(and I don’t mean the Aga)/when she begins to go through the change/may she go gaga.”

And so it continues through a novena of nine stanzas, growing gradually more unhinged as tradition demands.

Here’s the penultimate verse: “May rats and mice them ever hound,/may half of them be of mind unsound,/may their house burn down to the ground/and no insurance;/may drugs and thugs their lives surround/beyond endurance!”

Hartnett doesn’t tell us why he’s so sure the cat was stolen, nor does he share any other details of the crime. But we can assume it dates from the last years of his life, the late 1980s and 1990s, after he returned both to Dublin and to the second official language.

He had earlier bade a premature Farewell to English, dismissing it as “the perfect language to sell pigs in”, and going back to his Munster Gaelgeoir roots. But he returned to the Pale and its pallid tongue with the 1985 work, Inchicore Haiku. And although the cat poem is very different from that, it does also invoke the “Seven Curses of Inchicore”.

As for our Pete, it had not occurred to me until now that he might have been purloined too. I presumed he had just wandered off. And given the lapse of 20 years since the Hartnett case, we can probably rule out a serial cat-kidnapper in Dublin 8. But even so, I may now have to invoke the Seven Curses of Kilmainham, to be on the safe side.

Despite the Dublin setting, Hartnett’s cat epic is included in a collection entitled Favourite Poems from the South of Ireland, edited by Gabriel Fitzmaurice. Which clue aside, I suspect that the unidentified correspondent who posted it is of Munster origin too, specifically from somewhere on the borders of West Tipp and Limerick, in that hilly country around Kilcommon.

This guess is not the result of detective work. It’s just that, on foot of another recent column about pronunciation of the word “ate”, the same reader also sent a photocopy of the cover from a recent history of Kilcommon GAA, which rejoices in the title, Cuttin’ or Atein’ the Bushes.

The quotation arises from a hurling match once involving the Sean Treacy club: noted (I’m told) for their vigorous stick work. Disturbed by some especially horticultural flailing, an opposition manager wondered aloud if the Treacys had trained for the game by “cutting bushes”. To which came the riposte: “No they were atein’ them and [now] they’re sore inside”.

But speaking of hurling, and getting back to Hartnett, how about this for a piece of Finnegans Wake-style circularity? It starts with the Irish for hurley, camán, which as you probably known comes from its shape, cam meaning “crooked”.  

Similarly derived is Camas (literary “winding feature”), the Limerick townland where Hartnett learned his grandmother’s Irish. And which river flowed through the place of his final exile, as mentioned in Inchicore Haiku? Yes it was the Camac, from the same root.

That Liffey tributary also flows (metaphorically) through a recent history of Hartnett’s adopted suburb by a veteran native, Gerry Hogan.  

Published last year, to coincide with the big centenary, it’s subtitled An Inchicore Childhood in the Shadows of 1916. But the main title was prompted by the Camac, Where the Crooked River Runs.