a theme deeply rooted in the Irish psyche
What happens in a community when a child is stolen or missing? In northwest Donegal, the question seems written among the heather and boulders of the landscape I grew up in.
It is an auspicious landscape in Irish mythology and much of it is associated with Balor of The Evil Eye, who locked his daughter Eithne in a tower on Tory Island and stole his three toddler sons. According to popular accounts of this myth, Lugh, the only son to survive at the hands of his grandfather, returns from his foster family as an adult to kill Balor by punching him in the eye and causing him to spread. poison in the surrounding valley.
In my new collection of poetry The Poison Glen (The Gallery Press, 2021), I have interwoven parts of this story with fragments of Irish history and family autobiography to explore the theme of family loss. It is a theme that is deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche and that first surfaced for me while writing my first collection, Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017), with poems that refer to the story of my paternal grandmother who gave birth to a single mother. and Baby Home in the 1950s and who was forced to abandon her child.
In The Poison Glen, I revisit that breakup, but this time looking at related and older stories of mother-child separation in Ireland. Where were children taken from their mothers sent? How did they grow up?
As I looked at these questions I focused on the landscape again and reading the 2009 Child Abuse Commission of Inquiry Report (otherwise known as the Ryan Report), I booked several sitemaps. . I began to reflect on the physical location of Church and State “care” institutions in Ireland over the past hundred years and beyond. What does the abandoned site of an institution remember? What sense of the child remains?
I have been on a pilgrimage to meet some of these sites and among those featured in my poems are the sites of St Conleth’s Reformatory School in Daingean, Offaly; St Joseph’s orphanage in Dundalk; and St Joseph’s Industrial School in Letterfrack, Galway. But when, in the spring of 2020, a nationwide Covid lockdown was announced, I found myself in Dublin where I now live. It was a strange and surreal time in the city and sitting at home one day in Mount Brown with a book called The History and Heritage of St James’s Hospital, Dublin by Davis Coakley & Mary Coakley (Four Courts Press, 2018), j discovered that I was right next to the site of the old Dublin Foundling Hospital from the 1700s (now part of the St James’s Hospital campus). A historic institution in its day, by some estimates the number of children who passed through this site was 200,000. Conditions were dire and in a particularly gloomy season only one is said to be ” foundling ”survived.
As much as I believe in finding a poem, it is true that sometimes the poem will find you where you are. Looking at the cranes overlooking the nearby New Children’s Hospital construction site, I realized how the shape of the crane in the sky seemed to describe the old distaff and spindle crest of Foundling Hospital. I took it as a sign and from there the writing took off. The resulting 10-part poem, commissioned by Solstice Arts from Meath, is titled The Foundling Crib and pays homage to the real-life story of Bridget Kearney who managed to get her child back from the hospital. It ends with two lines in his memory “Together again. / Together again”.
The poetry begins, said Eavan Boland, “where the certainty ends” and throughout the writing of The Poison Glen there have been revelations of a deeply personal kind. Perhaps the most difficult of all was the discovery that I was still mourning the death of my adopted brother “D” who tragically passed away at the age of 24. In his latest posts, “D” spoke of the “black hole in my life that cannot be filled”. Now it seems to me he was talking about being wronged as a child, unanswered questions, a legal system and a wider culture of care in Ireland that does not always bring justice or healing. Maybe these poems are a way of talking about violence and telling her “what happened to you cannot be forgotten”.
As I brought The Poison Glen together, I kept a close eye on the many stories shared with me by survivors of family separation in Ireland and looking back on the story, I was compelled by the landscape before the institutional trauma. What was Ireland like before Christianity? How was it before colonization? My attention was drawn to the old Brehon laws, in particular the restorative justice system, a system that seems to me to center the victim’s voice in a way that is not always possible within the confines of our current justice system.
Some of the questions that a restorative justice approach might ask are: Who has been wronged? What must be done to right the wrong? Who should make amends? How could that be done? It was inspiring to spend time with the work of Dr Marie Keenan at UCD, who is a restorative justice practitioner and social worker.
In structuring the poems of The Poison Glen, I decided to put the voices of my mythological family – Balor, Balor’s wife Kathleen, Lugh, Eithne and Eithne’s maid – into an imaginary circle of restorative justice and give everyone has a turn to speak. What happened when I did this was totally unexpected, a new light started to appear.
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, one of the poets I admire the most, once said of the word in Ireland that it offers “a plumb line in the subconscious”. For me, poetry is often a way of digging, digging, honoring lost perspectives, including those of women. The Poison Glen is a story held, at each end, by the losses and strengths of women and throughout the writing I had a feeling of the ‘mother line’ – that long line of Irish women with whom I share roots – looking over my shoulder, keeping myself straight.
Among the poems are a series of guard charms rooted in pre-Christian Ireland and when artist Alice Maher permitted her charcoal and chalk image Ankle Deep Woman (2001) to be used for the book cover, he It was a final piece of the puzzle slipped into place, encapsulating all the intensity of the black light of the poems.
Looking at this picture, I remembered a common, daily greeting used in Northwest Donegal “bhuel, a chailleach!”. The cailleach is, of course, “the veiled” or “witch and how soothing it is to know, after all that has happened in Ireland, that we still greet the divine feminine of pagan Ireland in each other .
The Poison Glen ends with a poem created for Fanad Lighthouse in Donegal as part of the Lighthouse Project. Working alongside sound and film artist Laura Sheerin, I overturned a coastal tradition to create a poem called A Blessing of the Boats by The Village Mothers. The last lines of the book read “In the tongue of mothers / a ton is both a wave and the whole ocean. / We keep the light for a safe return.”
Annemarie Ní Churreáin is a poet from Donegal Gaeltacht. His second comprehensive collection of poems, The Poison Glen, is published by The Gallery Press. From February 25-27, 2022, Annemarie will host the Solas Writers Retreat at The Song House, Donegal. More info studiotwentyfive.com
A blessing of the boats by the mothers of the village
at Fanad Lighthouse, County Donegal
Solas on the hand, on the wrist, on the vein.
On this day of navigation, we must honor the gods.
Get in, right foot first, in these boats
that we sewn for you
cowhide, hazel, exit rods and dirt.
With this troglodyte feather we bind you to the light
and asks you to let go of the old grudges against
the barefoot sister, the redhead sister,
the sister with the fishtail
between the rocks. Our motto is to unite.
A baby hears first through bones and water,
mother’s song before mother
becomes, the song of the mother she dreams of
to become. Take our dream like a torch.
Solas on the nose, on the lips, on the tongue.
We rid your mouth of salt, roses, hissing.
We praise your browsing. We get you started
knowing what we know: death is a mysterious bell
toll along the water; death is a cargo of gold
on a sinking ship, and a bird emerging from the wreck.
Solas on the temple, on the forehead, on the eyelids
of our loved ones who have been lost.
We close their mouths with light.
We lightly wrap their bones. We prepare them
a hand-woven willow deathbed.
See how the willow bends and gives way,
how it bends, how it offers back, how it shines,
each blade a fruit of milk, each blade a blade of peace.
Who can know how the tide will turn? Or when
the wave will bolt? In the mother’s language
a ton is both a wave and the whole ocean.
We keep the light on for a safe return.