AMONG THE estimable authors to ‘make the cut’ in Des Kenny’s recent lively compendium of 101 Irish Books You Must Read, is Sligo-born Jack Harte.
Kenny described Harte’s 2006 novel In The Wake Of The Bagger as “one of those beautiful books that you pick up and simply cannot put down until you have finished the very last word”. Kenny was not alone in lavishing praise on Harte’s novel and the author’s latest publication, Reflections In A Tar Barrel (Scotus Press ) has recently been released to an equally enthusiastic reception.
It represents something of an Indian summer for Harte as a writer, as his erstwhile career as a school principal and arts activist previously restricted his writing to occasional short stories, with three selections published over the past 20 years.
It was only after retiring from teaching in 2000 that Harte was able to devote more of his time to writing. If he is still somewhat unknown to many Irish readers, his works have met with great success as far afield as Bulgaria, Russia, and India. Reflections In A Tar Barrel was in fact published in Bulgaria before it was published here and, intgriguingly, Harte was paid for the Bulgarian rights for the book with five cases of vintage wine!
The hero of the novel is Lofty, who has a learning disability but a richly endowed capacity for mystical speculation. He thinks the Creator has dealt him a poor hand, physically and intellectually, and embarks on a campaign to thwart the designs of this same Creator.
His campaign sees him combine the roles of hawker in religious goods and keeper of a mobile brothel. Set in the mid-seventies, the novel explores the world through Lofty’s eyes, from the west of Ireland to Paris and Lourdes.
The relationship he strikes up with a prostitute on the streets of Paris leads back to the woman-starved west of Ireland and into a sequence of events which hurtle towards disaster.
Harte visited Galway recently for the launch of Des Kenny’s book and he took time out to talk about his writing. I began by asking if he had grown up in a bookish household.
“Quite the opposite,” he says. “My father was a blacksmith. In the 1950s his trade went bust because horses were being replaced by tractors. He got a job with Bord Na Mona and we moved from Sligo to Co Longford and I grew up there from the ages of nine to 18. It was an ordinary working class background.
“At first it was poetry I began writing, then for many years whatever writing I did was short stories. Just in the last few years I started having a go at novels. The next bit of writing I’m doing is about a cousin of mine, Fred Conlon, who was born next door to me in Co Sligo. He became a terrific sculptor, he died about three years ago. We grew up together, he discovered art and I discovered writing almost by instinct.”
The Sligo landscape of Harte’s boyhood forms the backdrop for much of his writing and he readily acknowledges its importance.
“It has always tended to be an inspiration, a lot of the short stories are set there. In The Wake Of The Bagger is partly set in Sligo and the Midlands. The landscape is almost a factor in the novels; it plays a part. Every little aspect of the landscape is described realistically.
“Reflections In A Tar Barrel opens and closes and is contained within a moment and a moment is just before Lofty crashes into the wall underneath a railway bridge; the events of the day circle around that and then the events of his life circle around that and they reflect the reflections in the tar-barrel – he had this obsession with dropping pebbles in the tar-barrel using it as a kind of mandala to meditate and contemplate about God. He was able to focus his ideas around the tar barrel. That old railway bridge is still there, I checked it just the other day!”
Harte reflects on the pressures of his years spent trying to write as well as work as a teacher.
“I thought teaching would be a conducive job to writing, but where it left you with plenty of time you were left with very little energy. Then I became a school principal and I was doing that for 17 years. I’ve no complaints but what I was doing wasn’t really leaving room for the writing. And I had five kids as well! Anyway, I was able to take early retirement in 2000 which has freed up more time for the writing.”
And for that fact we can all be thankful!