The Perfect Language to Sell Pigs In.

Michael Hartnett, like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, abandoned English to write in a language that far fewer people read; I learned about him from an e-mail that linked to this five-minute interview in Irish:

The bilingual poet Michael Hartnett died in Dublin on 13 October 1999. Renowned for his poetry in both English and Irish, he staked his claim to the Irish language in 1975, when he announced to the world through his book ‘A Farewell to English’ that he would no longer write in English.

‘Féach’ followed him to his new home in Co. Limerick to find out why he had fled Dublin and abandoned the English language. In this interview with Éamon Ó Muirí, Hartnett says he is a poet, but linguistically, “is bastard mise, leath-Ghall agus leath-Ghael”.

There was also a link to this excerpt from A Farewell to English:

I am nothing new
I am not a lonely mouth
trying to chew
a niche for culture
in the clergy-cluttered south.

But I will not see
great men go down
who walked in rags
from town to town
finding English a necessary sin
the perfect language to sell pigs in.

I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Ken Miner says

    abandoned English to write in a language that far fewer people read

    I can sympathize. For five years I blogged ( in a language, Esperanto, which only about 50,000 people read (, fewer than Irish. Anybody want to interview me? Har har. Also loads of linguistic analysis ( I wasn’t seriously into creative writing but some E-speaking writers have been, such as the Icelandic poet Baldur Ragnarsson. I think we all have this feeling of howling into the wind in a forgotten language we learned in our childhood.

  2. SFReader says

    On Those Who Stole our Cat, a Curse

    On those who stole our cat, a curse:
    may they always have an empty purse
    and need a doctor and a nurse
    may their next car be a big black hearse –
    oh may it, surely!

    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 may the husband lose his job
    and have great trouble with his knob
    and the son turn out a yob
    and smash the place up;
    may he give his da a belt in the gob
    and mess his face up!

    And may the granny end up in jail
    for opening her neighbours’ mail,
    may all that clan moan, weep and wail,
    turn grey and wizened
    on the day she doesn’t get bail
    but Mountjoy Prison!

    Oh may their daughter get up the pole,
    and their drunken uncle lose his dole,
    for our poor cat one day they stole –
    may they rue it!
    and if there is a black hell-hole
    may they go through it!

    Unfriendly loan-sharks to their door
    as they beg for one week more;
    may the seven curses of Inchicore
    rot and blight ’em!
    May all their enemies settle the score
    and kick the shite of ’em!

    I wish rabies on all their pets,
    I wish them a flock of bastard gets,
    I wish ’em a load of unpayable debts,
    TV Inspectors –
    to show’em a poet never forgets
    his malefactors.

    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!

    May God forgive the heartless thief
    who caused our household so much grief;
    if you think I’m harsh, sigh with relief –
    I haven’t even started.
    I can do worse. I am, in brief,
    yours truly, Michael Hartnett.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Surely there are much better languages to sell pigs in. English vocabulary is pig-poor.

  4. That reminded me of the finale of Dylan’s “Seven Curses”, after the judge has promised not to sentence the heroine’s father to death if she sleeps with him, and then passes the death sentence anyway:

    These be seven curses on a judge so cruel:
    That one doctor will not save him
    That two healers will not heal him
    That three eyes will not see him

    That four ears will not hear him
    That five walls will not hide him
    That six diggers will not bury him
    And that seven deaths shall never kill him

  5. Thank, Ken. I’d seen your articles on Lingva Kritiko and thought they were interesting, but I wasn’t aware of your retejo, or that you’d written anything about Esperanto linguistics in English. Now I’ll be poking around for a while reading them.

    (Totally unrelated to the original topic of languagehat’s blog post, of course.)

  6. Hey, my posts are just a stimulus to conversation. Whatever people want to talk about is fine!

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Indeed, it seems improbable that Irish Gaelic would be any less suited than English for pig-selling (even if some third option might potentially be superior to both).

  8. Trond Engen says

    I don”t think it’s fair to judge it as a statement of linguistic fact of language… It’s a nice laconic way to point out exactly when Irish became moribound: that not-too-distant moment when its still huge number of speakers deemed it unfit as a language of social interaction within a traditional rural domain.

  9. per incuriam says

    I don”t think it’s fair to judge it as a statement of linguistic fact of language

    Quite. It is poetry after all (and even if it weren’t…)

    Michael Hartnett knew better than most (being both bilingual and – as the clip shows – a pigman) that (Irish) English in fact borrowed various pig-related terms from the Irish: bonham and crubeen come to mind (both of which can be found in Ulysses, for example).

    It’s a nice laconic way to point out exactly when Irish became moribound

    No doubt this isn’t intended as a statement of linguistic fact either but for the record Irish is even now by no means moribund.

  10. Can you really say that it’s healthy, though? I mean I’m no expert on the topic, but it seems like it’s in a pretty perilous state in its native speech communities and may, in the future, survive only as a sort of national hobby project. From Wiki:

    The 2011 census showed that inhabitants of the officially designated Gaeltacht regions of Ireland numbered 96,628 people up from 91,862 in the 2006 census. Of these, 68.5% three and over spoke Irish down from 70.8% in 2006 and only 24% of these or 23,175 people said they spoke Irish daily outside the education system. It was estimated in 2007 that, outside the cities, about 17,000 people lived in strongly Irish-speaking communities, about 10,000 people lived in areas where there was substantial use of the language, and 17,000 people lived in “weak” Gaeltacht communities. In no part of the Gaeltacht was Irish the only language.

    A comprehensive study published in 2007 on behalf of Údarás na Gaeltachta found that young people in the Gaeltacht, despite their largely favourable view of Irish, use the language less than their elders. Even in areas where the language is strongest, only 60% of young people use Irish as the main language of communication with family and neighbours, and English is preferred in other contexts. The study concluded that, on current trends, the survival of Irish as a community language in Gaeltacht areas is unlikely. A follow-up report by the same author published in 2015 concluded that Irish would die as a community language in the Gaeltacht within a decade.

  11. David Marjanović says

    for our poor cat one day they stole –

    Is it possible to steal a cat? Don’t they rather go wherever they want?

  12. I take the implication to be that they stole it to eat it.

  13. per incuriam says


    The outlook is indeed bleak. But compared to a great many (most?) of the world’s languages, Irish is in reasonable shape. Its Ned Maddrell or Dolly Pentreath has yet to see the light of day.

  14. Its Ned Maddrell or Dolly Pentreath has yet to see the light of day.
    I heard that Manx revival is actually coming along nicely.

  15. An Irish friend of mine had two cats and one of them disappeared. The neighbours made ominous remarks about how they’d seen tinkers going down their road. As though tinkers would take people’s cats! The cat that vanished used to bully the other cat. Years later the cat showed up again, but in the meanwhile the other one had decided she was in charge of the house, so the wanderer was allowed to remain very much on sufferance.

    I don’t know what the point would be of stealing a cat. If you want a cat there are places all over begging you to adopt one. But cats do wander away sometimes. Cat-stealing seems more like a myth than something that happens much.

    I’ve heard stories that in the old days Irish farmers used to speak to their pigs in English because “it’s good enough for them”. Although the tale of the German linguist in An Béal Bocht contradicts this.

  16. Those kind of poetic curses go back to ancient Irish and Welsh literature.

  17. Rodger C says

    I heard that Manx revival is actually coming along nicely.

    Well, Ned’s speech was preserved by something more efficient than a parrot:

  18. per incuriam says

    I heard that Manx revival is actually coming along nicely

    And the Irish equivalent even more so, but both would presumably fall under “national hobby project”.

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