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New lives added to the Dictionary of Irish Biography – Josephine Hart

02 February 2017

Thirty-eight new lives were added to the Dictionary of Irish Biography in December 2016. 

Read the entry about the writer, theatrical producer and poetry promoter Josephine Hart, by Dr Linde Lunney, below.

Hart, Josephine (1942–2011), writer, theatrical producer and poetry promoter, was born on 1 March 1942 in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, the eldest of five children of Dermot Hart and his wife Sheila (née Donoghue). Her father had been a commercial traveller and a lorry driver, until diesel was hard to get during the emergency occasioned by the second world war; he later worked in a garage in Mullingar. Josephine was sent to the Presentation Convent in the town, and then boarded at St Louis Convent in Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan. A good student, she won a prize from the French embassy for an essay in French, and on several occasions won cups and medals for verse-speaking in feiseanna. Her father and the St Louis nuns instilled in her a love of poetry, much of it learned by heart. Josephine planned to go to university, but had to return home after her leaving certificate to be with her parents, who were devastated by the loss of three of their children in succession. A baby brother died at eight months in 1947; a baby sister was paralysed by meningitis and died at the age of nine; and some months later, and most traumatic of all, in July 1959 Josephine's brother Owen, a year younger than she, was badly injured in an explosion while experimenting with chemicals in their garden, and died in hospital. It was the 17-year-old Josephine who found her brother after the explosion.

For the next four years, she lived at home with her parents and only surviving brother, working in the ESB offices in Mullingar. She sought comfort in voracious reading, and also took part in amateur drama, then very popular everywhere in Ireland. She remained friendly with Leo Daly (qv), also a stalwart of the Mullingar Players.

In 1963 Josephine left Ireland, possibly because a romantic relationship failed, and went to London, where she planned to become an actress. She signed up for classes in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but came to realise that the necessary deep involvement with dramatic tragedies might well destabilise her fragile emotional recovery. Instead, she took a telesales job with the Thomson newspaper publishing company, and found herself enjoying the business world. She quickly took on responsibilities in publishing trade journals, and worked on an innovative media journal called Campaign. Hart then joined Michael Heseltine's Haymarket Publishing, was involved with a technology magazine, and worked her way up to become in 1974 the group's first female director. At the same time she jointly founded a graduate employment consultancy.

On 3 June 1972, Hart married Paul Buckley, also a director of Haymarket. They had one son in 1976, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1983. The following year she married Maurice Saatchi. They had met in 1967 when he joined Haymarket; she had even been briefly his boss, and had kept in touch after he left in 1970 to set up with his brother the successful Saatchi and Saatchi advertising agency. It was a close and happy marriage, and they had one son in 1985. The couple were prominent and wealthy members of London society and, with her husband's support, Josephine was able to combine her love of the theatre and her business skills to launch a second career as a theatrical impresario. She seldom used either her husband's name, or the title of Lady Saatchi (after Maurice Saatchi became a life peer in 1996).

The poems she had learned in her youth stayed with her throughout her life, and she believed that 'poetry, this trinity of sound, sense and sensibility, gives voice to experience in a way that no other literary art form can' (Guardian, 3 June 2011). Intent on bringing poetry to a broader public audience, she scored a major success in 1987 with a London theatrical production, 'Let us go then you and I', based on the work of T. S. Eliot, emphatically refuting the conventional wisdom that poetry would not fill theatres. She was even more successful with a 1987 production of Federico García Lorca's 'The house of Bernarda Alba', which moved from a Hammersmith theatre to a twenty-week West End run, and with productions of 'The vortex' (1991) (staged in Los Angeles) by Noel Coward, and 'The black prince' (1989) by her great friend Iris Murdoch (qv).

From 1987 until the very end of her life in 2011, Hart created a significant reputation in the London cultural scene with her monthly events promoting poetry and raising money for the Actors Centre. She selected prestigious venues (art galleries, the Royal Society, the British Library), deployed her considerable charm to persuade celebrity actors to read poems (without payment), and encouraged her friends to attend by inviting them to elegant receptions or dinners afterwards. The 'Josephine Hart poetry hour' with actors and readers such as Ralph Fiennes, Sir Roger Moore, Harold Pinter, Bono and Bob Geldof, also took place in the New York Public Library, Harvard University and elsewhere. Hart selected the poems, directed the performances, and introduced the readings with insightful biographical and critical notes.

She published two anthologies of poetry that had featured in the readings, Catching life by the throat (2006) and Words that burn (2008) (both were subtitled How to read poetry and why), with accompanying CD recordings. At Hart's own expense, all British secondary schools received copies of the 2006 publication; she felt very strongly that young people in particular needed poetry, and that spoken verse was especially transformative. Her status in the literary life of London was consolidated by a Thames Television series, Books by my bedside (1989), in which she interviewed celebrities about their reading habits. She was a judge for many literary prizes, including the Booker, Costa, Irish Times, Whitbread and Forward Poetry competitions. In June 1988, along with Sir Tony O'Reilly, she signed the founding document of the Ireland Fund of Great Britain. She chaired the organisation for seven years until 1995, wielding considerable influence on its development and fund-raising activities.

Hart's metropolitan celebrity was less visible and impressive to Irish observers, and there was even some begrudgery, notably voiced by Terry Keane (qv). However, Hart's first novel, Damage (1991), received considerable attention in Ireland and elsewhere. It was apparently written in six weeks, after Maurice Saatchi told his wife that she had to start writing to deal with her frustrated creativity. Damage is a condensed psychological study of the obsession developed by a prominent politician for his son's girlfriend; the resulting affair wrecks his life. Hart's incandescent exploration of erotic compulsion was an instant sensation; it sold a million copies and was translated into twenty-six languages. In 1992 the director Louis Malle made it into a largely well-received film, starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche.

Subsequent novels, likewise eloquent but bleak, focusing on sex as a generally destructive impulse, and on death, were Sin (1992), Oblivion (1995), The stillest day (1998), and The reconstructionist (2001). The truth about love (2009), set in Ireland, drew on her own family's tragedy, and was an ambitious work that was well reviewed; the other novels after Damage had been much less critically and commercially successful.

Like a character in one of her own novels, at the peak of her success Hart was diagnosed in December 2009 with primary peritoneal cancer, an aggressive and inoperable form of ovarian cancer. She died on 2 June 2011 in London. She had not told friends of her illness, but four hours after her death an announcement was made to a stunned audience at a 'Poetry hour' event. One friend said afterwards: 'Her end was like a Josephine Hart novel. It was very dramatic and very shocking. It was the dark secret she carried with her' (Ir. Independent, 12 June 2011).

Maurice Saatchi was devastated by his wife's death and started a campaign to try to improve cancer survival rates, sponsoring a bill (2014) in the house of lords to try to encourage more radical experimental treatments. He also continued her work through the Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation, which launched a very successful poetry app in 2012. A book about the importance of poetry, Life saving (2012), credited to Hart, was brought to publication by Saatchi. 'Josephine Hart poetry hour' events have continued up to the time of writing.

A poetry reading was held in Westminster Abbey in her memory, and the Irish embassy in London has held a poetry evening annually since her death. In 2011 she received posthumously the London Library Life in Literature award (jointly with Patrick Leigh-Fermor). Her life and work featured prominently in the first annual Heart of Ireland Festival held in Mullingar Arts Centre in July 2015, with support from the Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation. In February 2016, an event in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin recognised Hart's lifetime contribution to the theatre and literature, especially to the appreciation of poetry, which for her had been, almost literally, a lifesaver.

England and Wales Marriage Registration Index, 1837–2005, FamilySearch,; Ir. Independent, passim, esp.: 23 July 1959; 12 June 2011; Sunday Independent, passim, esp.: 22 May 1988; 9 Aug. 1992; 14 Mar. 1993; 10 May 1998; 5 June 2011; Guardian, 3 June 2011; Daily Telegraph, 4 June 2011; Times, 4 June 2011; Independent (London), 6 June 2011; Ir. Times, passim, esp. 11 June 2011; 'Heywood Hill announces support…', 1 Dec. 2011,; Westmeath events, 29 Apr. 2015,; 'Abbey Theatre tribute…', Ir. World, 26 Feb. 2016, (internet material accessed Nov.–Dec. 2016)

A new entry, added to the DIB online, December 2016

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