Hartnett, Michael (1941–99), poet, was born 18 September 1941 in Croom, Co. Limerick, eldest among eight children of Denis Harnett, house painter, and Bridie Harnett (née Halpin). An error on his birth certificate gave the name as ‘Hartnett’, a form he later adopted as it is closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide. He grew up in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, but was fostered out for some years to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, in the countryside outside the town. There he learned Irish, although he later said it was just another school subject to him until at the age of 13 he came across the poems of the seventeenth-century Dáibhí Ó Bruaidair (qv). After education at St Ita's secondary school in Newcastle West, he left Ireland the day after finishing his leaving certificate to work as a tea boy on a building site in London. By this time he had already had a number of poems published, and an article appeared about him entitled ‘The teaboy of the western world’. The young poet Paul Durcan showed his work to John Jordan (qv), poet and lecturer in English at UCD, who arranged for Hartnett to attend the college. He spent only one year there (1962–3), studying philosophy and logic, and then divided his time between London, Dublin, and Madrid. In Dublin he coedited (1963–5) with James Liddy a literary magazine, Arena. While curator of Joyce's tower in Sandycove, he worked on a version of the ‘Tao te ching’.
In 1967 he married an Englishwoman, Rosemary Grantley, and the following year launched his career with the critically acclaimed Anatomy of a cliché (1968), a collection of love poems dedicated to his wife. That year he settled in Marino, Dublin, and worked as a night telephonist at the telephone exchange on Exchequer St., spending his days in the NLI and TCD. Apart from Selected poems (1970), his books over the next few years were translations: The hag of Beare (1969) from the ancient Irish; Tao (1971), a translation of the ‘Tao te ching’; and Gipsy ballads (1973) from the Spanish of Lorca. In 1974, having won the Irish-American literature award and the Arts Council award, he decided to return to his rural roots and went to live in Templeglantine, outside Newcastle West. His wife supported him, though he was for a short period (1976–8) lecturer in creative writing at Thomond College, Limerick. In 1975 came his most dramatic and famous move: he made a ‘farewell to English’ in his book of that name, announcing that henceforth he intended ‘with meagre voice to court the language of my people’. Four books of Irish verse followed: Cúlú Íde / The retreat of Ita Cagney (1975), Adharca Broic (1978), and An Phurgóid (1982) all celebrated the freedom and metrical resources of writing in Irish, but Do Nuala: Foidhne Chrainn (1984), dedicated to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, was a darker collection about his geographical and emotional isolation, his financial insecurity, and the cynical indifference towards his move to Irish. These troubles and his excessive drinking cost him his marriage. In 1984 he returned to Dublin to live in Inchicore. The publication of Inchicore haikus (1985) marked his return to English, with eighty-seven poignant meditations on his estrangement from family, friends, and nature in Limerick. His move back to English dismayed certain fans and critics, but he felt less constrained when using both languages.
In 1985 also came his free translations from Ó Bruadair, whose bitterness and savagery over the shoddy, increasingly anglicised seventeenth-century Ireland resonated with Hartnett. Necklace of wrens (1987) published his Irish poems from previous collections with English translations. Its sparseness and lucidity were welcomed, while his next two books, Poems to younger women (1989) and The killing of dreams (1992), were zesty and joyful. His growing reputation led to his being voted a member of Aosdána and winning other rewards. Translations continued with An Danmh-Mhac (1987), from the Hungarian of Ference Juhász, and English translations from the Irish poets Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Gabriel Rosenstock, and Aodhagán Ó Rathaille (qv). Gallery Press published Selected and new poems in 1994; a few years later his poems were included in the leaving certificate curriculum, and in 1999 RTÉ televised an acclaimed documentary, ‘Michael Hartnett: necklace of wrens’. However, the years of drinking took their toll on his frail physique; on 13 October 1999 he died in St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, from alcoholic liver syndrome. He was survived by his partner, Angela Liston, and his two children from his marriage.
A lyric poet, who could move from rapturous love poetry to biting political satire, Hartnett excited controversy in Ireland. His debut collection was innovative and demanded attention and his subsequent abandonment of English was dramatic, so that he was early recognised as a key figure in Irish poetry and was frequently reviewed, but not always favourably. Rory Brennan in Contemporary Irish poetry (1995) lists his ‘very manifest faults: sloppiness, jaded images, poeticisms, the gatecrashing figure of the Poet himself’ (Kennedy, 15) but concludes that his poetry works despite its defects. Robert Hogan (1930–99) in his Dictionary of Irish literature is less sure, allowing him a fine command of metre, but accusing him of silliness, lushness, and obscurity. Fellow poets, however, had no such reservations: his standing among them was always exceptionally high. Seamus Heaney called him an utterly lyric poet and Limerick's Lorca; Brendan Kennelly thought he had a divine spark; Theo Dorgan wrote of him as an acknowledged authority whose word of approval was enough to get a young poet accepted. He also had a strong and growing readership. After his death Gallery Press published Collected poems (2001) and a Book of strays (2002), and further publications are planned. However, like his literary forebear Patrick Kavanagh (qv), his reputation is more domestic than international. A portrait by Edward McGuire (qv) is held privately. His papers are held in the NLI.