WITH a soft stare and a camera in his hands, Michael Hartnett sits thoughtfully on the bank of the River Arra. In his head he is sliding through images, piecing together a photography book about the people and places of Newcastle West, his home town.
The picture was published in the Limerick Leader in May 1975, and in the accompanying article the 33-year-old Hartnett speaks with vision and enthusiasm about the prospect of a book which will preserve the dying history of Newcastle West. Unfortunately, the book never materialised.
Michael Hartnett’s lost photo collection is one of a handful of artistic ideas that the troubled but brilliant poet never saw through before his death in 1999.
Over a career that spanned three decades, Hartnett’s poems, translations and literature created a lasting legacy, centred on famous works such as A Farewell to English, A Necklace of Wrens and Inchicore Haiku. However there could have been so much more.
Michael’s son Niall, a photographer who is living and working in Illinois, told the Limerick Leader this week that the lost photographic book was not alone amongst ideas that never came to pass.
“My Dad started many non-poetry projects he did not finish including, I believe, an opera, a symphony and a novel.
“I only randomly recently learned of [the photography book], I think he mentioned it in an interview I heard. But it never went further than the photograph and the original article, that I know of.
“In his belongings at the time of his death there were some old postcards of Newcastle West, but no other old pictures that might have related to this project, other than the typical family photos.”
The Limerick Leader article in May 1975 paints an image of a young, thoughtful writer full of ambition. He had recently won a £2,000 award from the Irish-American Cultural Institute, with which he had just bought a cottage near Barnagh “where he intends to settle with his wife and two children”.
Regarding the photography book, Hartnett explains that he has spent hours capturing images of the people, places and trades that gave the town its character.
“I am particularly interested in things that will not be here in ten years’ time”, he said, before citing his time spent photographing a local harness marker.
“This man is the last of his trade in the town. He had no apprentice to take over when he retires.”
He isn’t sure what form the book will take, but the article mentions that a publishing company in England have already shown interest in a book which it claims “will be of social significance”.
Hartnett also uses the article to seek help with the book from locals who may have pictures of interest. “I would be very glad if people with old photos of Newcastle West could give me a loan of them to use. These would provide a great contrast with pictures which I have taken myself.”
While this book never appeared, Hartnett did later pen a moving love letter to Newcastle West, the Maiden Street Ballad, in which he speaks of the beauty of the town, the vibrancy of its trades the warmth of its people.