Josephine Hart, writer and ‘heroine’ who inspired Herstory

Hart harnessed early tragedy to become a publisher, writer, poetry promoter and television producer

“Poetry has never let me down. Without poetry, I would have found life less comprehensible, less bearable and infinitely less enjoyable.”

“Poetry has never let me down. Without poetry, I would have found life less comprehensible, less bearable and infinitely less enjoyable.”

 

Mullingar-born Josephine Hart harnessed early tragedy to become a publisher, writer, poetry promoter and television producer. She moved in London’s glittering literary and theatre scenes, counting famous actors and royalty among her friends, and made astute use of these networks to help promote the art form she adored - poetry. She was also, in the words of Virago publishing’s Lennie Goodings, a person who “teased, loved banter, had a great warmth and laughed easily”.

Hart was born in 1942. The family was struck by extraordinary misfortune, with Josephine losing three of her four younger siblings to illness or accident by the time she was 17.

She sought refuge from those terrible losses in literature. Her teachers at St Louis convent school in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan encouraged her love of poetry, and she travelled around Ireland giving recitals at regional festivals.

In 1964, she left Mullingar for London. Her early years there were far from glamorous, working in telesales to fund evening classes at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Realising that acting may re-open grief’s old wounds, she moved into publishing, becoming the only woman on the board of Haymarket Publishing.

Haymarket was as important personally as it was professionally. Her first husband was Paul Buckley, a director at Haymarket; they had a son, and divorced after seven years. In 1984, she married Maurice Saatchi, who she had also first met at Haymarket, and with whom she had another son.

Josephine Hart with her husband Maurice Saatchi.
Josephine Hart with her husband Maurice Saatchi.

In the late 1980s, Saatchi encouraged Hart to form the Gallery Poets group. This formed the basis of Poetry Hour at the British Library, the National Theatre in London, and New York Public Library, where famous actors read aloud the poetry greats.

These enormously popular events inspired Hart to publish poetry anthologies, sealing her reputation as the most effective poetry promoter of her time. In Catching Life by the Throat (2006), she wrote: “Poetry has never let me down. Without poetry, I would have found life less comprehensible, less bearable and infinitely less enjoyable.”

In 1987, she celebrated the work of her favourite poet, T.S. Eliot in the production Let Us Go Then, You and I. Intended as a one-off event, it turned into a six-week West End run. Her other West End productions included plays by Noël Coward and Iris Murdoch. In 1989, she presented the series Books By My Bedside for Thames TV.

In 1991, she published her first and most successful novel, Damage. It was an instant bestseller, was translated into 30 languages, and was made into a film. She went on to publish five more novels, but none achieved the stellar success of Damage.

She was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer in December 2009, but kept it secret, working right until the end. She died on June 2nd, 2011 and is buried on the grounds of the Sussex home she and Saatchi shared.

In Damage, she penned the famous line: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” In a 1998 interview on NPR, she said that the early tragedies she experienced were “ferocious, but can be put to good use … I can do something profoundly useful with this.” Her legacy lives on in the shape of the Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation’s interactive workshops that travel across the UK using poetry as a therapeutic tool.

She inspired fellow Westmeath woman Melanie Lynch to establish Herstory in 2016, with the aim of telling the stories of contemporary, mythological and historical women through public events and an education programme for schools. Lynch says, “Herstory wouldn’t exist without the inspiration of my local heroine, Josephine Hart. For me, she represents the extraordinary potential of the human spirit. Josephine possessed a rare authenticity and a wonderful heart. What a role model for young girls today!”

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum (epicchq.com) in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world. Learn about more pioneering Irishwomen at the free exhibition, ‘Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women’ at EPIC, 12th-25th November - a collaboration between EPIC, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Herstory.

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