Those first hours!
while in your mind
a space was growing,
‘til the dark
had all but
devoured my heart.
© Julia Birch
The continuity of Irish storytelling creates narrative bridges from the past through the present to the future…The legacy of the Irish storytelling tradition is inextricably linked to the Irish language. The gradual loss of that language and the subsequent loss of its native language storytellers have changed the tradition forever. Nonetheless, the tradition of storytelling is still living, even as tellers, their tales, venues and audiences change. (Warren 2008, n.p.)
The Irish Seanchaidhe (singular, Sean-chai), “bearers of old lore” and custodians of an indigenous non-literary tradition, have had a distinctive and integral role in Irish socio-cultural history, and despite the assaults on and compromises to its linguistic and textual traditions, the Seanchaidhe still exist today.
Poet Eavan Boland reflects:
…you only have to read Daniel Corkery’s Hidden Ireland (1925) to know that long after the bards were abandoned by history, they are remembered and quoted in Ireland. The drama of all that still backlights Irish poetry – the painful memory of a poetry whose archive was its audience. (Schmidt 1997, n.p.).
Bards were professionals, highly trained in their craft, their most distinctive ability being their eloquence of delivery and the compelling nature of the stories they told. The Irish Triads speak of: ‘Three glories of speech: steadiness, wisdom, brevity’ and of ‘Three things that constitute a poet: knowledge that illuminates, knowledge of incantations [and] improvisation.’ (Warren 2008, n.p.) The quality of the oral expression nurtured was extremely important to Irish culture, and the English language spoken in Ireland today has been shaped by this inheritance.
Oral literature (poetry, song, storytelling etc) was held as sacred, learned over a long period of time, or given by the gods (or animal messengers); the storyteller was the conduit between the sacred and its audience, between the Otherworld and humankind, their literature infused with magical meaning, and while revered, in as much as being closer to the gods than the ordinary person, the storyteller was never seen as more important than the gods from whom their inspiration and compositions came.
As officials of the court of the king or chieftain, bards were expected to have a highly-developed knowledge of the history of local places (an understanding of the origins of placenames and the traditions surrounding events, characters, and the places associated with them being essential for the study of Irish mythology), which they would then teach to the elite classes they served. The Metrical Dindshenchas, or Lore of Places is believed to be the foremost surviving example of Irish bardic verse. Bards were also chroniclers and satirists; it was their job to praise their king or chieftain and to research and record their lineage, and also to revile their employer’s enemies. (Irish Poetry, 2009, n.p.). Boland remarks that ‘bards wrote poems to their patrons that ranged from christening odes to the darkest invective.’ (Schmidt 1997, n.p.)
Role distinctions were made within the profession:
…there were professional storytellers, divided into well-defined ranks – ollaimh (professors), filí (poets) baird (bards), seanchaithe (historians, storytellers) – whose duty it was to know by heart the tales, poems and history proper to their rank, which were recited for the entertainment and praise of the chiefs and princes. (McKendry 2008, n.p.)
However, it would appear that these pre-Christian roles eventually merged, the bards assuming the functions of the fili, and the seanchaidhe eventually fulfilling the role of the bards. Regardless of their title, their function would remain in one form or another for centuries to come, until their status and the reverence in which their cultural role was held was challenged by Ireland’s English invaders.
Poets and storytellers, homespun, humble carriers of an ancient culture, preserved until a century ago an oral tradition…and an oral literature unrivalled in Western Europe. Kuno Meyer, in a memorable phrase, has called the written culture of medieval Ireland “the earliest voice from the dawn of Western civilisation. (J.H.Delargy The Gaelic Story-teller, Sir John Rhys Lecture 1945 in McKendry 2008, n.p.)
The earliest known literature in the Old Irish language, some religious, others secular, included lyric poems, epic prose, even riddles. Their themes were either religious or of the divine or of the natural world. The oldest surviving examples of Irish poetry are from the sixth century, and appear to have been written by scribes within the margins of the illuminated manuscripts they were copying, allowing us a highly evocative image of the layering of Irish cultural and textual history.
The Ossianic poetry (about the son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill/Finn McCool), was a move from epic prose stories to verse tales, while the Kildare poems of the early 14th century, written in Middle English and making reference to the wider Western European Christian tradition, represent the early stages of the ‘second tradition’ of Irish poetry (Irish Poetry, 2009, n.p.).
The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, marked by The Battle of Kinsale (1601), had a profound and detrimental effect not only on the everyday life of the population, but particularly on the Irish language, and on the influence of the bards and the bardic system of education. The early 17th century saw a new kind of Gaelic poetry, written by marginalised Catholic clerics in what is now called Early Modern Irish: ‘A good deal of the poetry of this period deals with political and historic themes that reflect the poets’ sense of a world lost’ (Irish Poetry, 2009, n.p.) The Irish Rebellion of 1641 compounded the Irish language poets’ profound disaffection, as did the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649-53). However, some were pragmatic despite their nationalism, and wrote for their new English lords. The eighteenth century was effectively the end of the old Gaelic order of patronage and protection on which the bards had depended, yet, the poets and storytellers still wrote. In a recent email, beekeeper, forester and sometime poet Micheal MacGiollacoda (MacGillycuddy) refers to ‘the four great Irish poets’ of this era:
… Aodhgan O’Rathaille, Piaras Ferriteir, Eoghan aO’Sullivan and Seafrai O’Donoghue. I have learned off many of their poems, and frequently recite them when I am on my own. They spoke a lot about the sky woman who would appear to them in their dreams. She was really Ireland in the form of a fairy woman, who would beseech them for help to free her from bondage. (2009)
The 12th century Book of Leinster categorized 187 tales according to subject i.e.: battles, tragedies, cattle-raids, courtships, voyages, visions etc. Writers associated with the Irish Literary Revival of the late 1800s, like W.B.Yeats, Lady Gregory and J.M.Synge, attempted to create a new literature from this heritage, however, a common problem in the translation from Irish to English was a loss of imagery, vitality and ‘natural’ Irish speech.
Despite this, the ‘cross-fertilization’ of the two languages has produced textual narrative of many forms which are culturally and historically enlightening, and which function positively for Irish literary culture and identity. ‘Paradoxically, perhaps …the English language is improved by its contact with the Irish, or, rather refreshed by sea wind and drifting clouds… ‘(Pierstorff 1990, 9-10). While the contemporary Seanchaidhe are particularly associated with the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland – the Gaeltachtai – storytellers are also found in English speaking districts.
Poetry was not the only Irish literature. The term “folktale” has been used to describe the narrative stories passed on orally from one person and from one generation to another, the principle forms being myths and legends, and fairy tales, folk stories and fables. While some tales were written down, many others were, and remain part of the oral tradition of the Seanchaidhe, and as such, have gathered their own particular elements, influenced by the individual storyteller and their region, while retaining the essence of the original tale. Daithi O’ hOgain describes folklore as: ‘… the communal voice speaking through personal creativity’ (2008), while Eavan Boland refers to the ‘communal aspect to the identity of the Irish poet that has an effect on the contemporary lyric’ (Schmidt 1997, n.p.).
The domestic seanchas of today is the cell on which the living Irish culture is built, or the channel through which the past flows to inform the future. It may deal with deep things in the house of the scholar; in the cottage, it is satisfied with legendary tales (Aodh be Blacam, Gaelic Literature Surveyed 1929, 349, in McKendry 2008, n.p.)
The ordinary man, woman and child in contemporary Ireland are still connected to their heritage by way of the Seanchaidhe and through the learning of, or reconnection with, the Irish language. MacGiolla Coda (who is, incidentally, my great-uncle) writes:
…storytelling and poetry…is very much part of our Irish culture. We lost so much when we lost our language, as the ordinary people had a wonderful culture which involved poetry, music and song as well as the telling of the stories…handed down from father to son and mother to daughter by word of mouth. I have had the experience of listening to some of those old storytellers or Seanachai as they were called. Some of their stories could go on for hours as they were the epic tales of the Fianna and the Red Branch Knights…in later years I developed a great love for the Irish language and now speak it at every chance I get. I [also] listen to the Irish language station on the radio. (2009)
In other conversations he has talked of the central role of poetry, stories and folktales at wakes, weddings and other social occasions, giving a glimpse of the communal role that storytellers and storytelling continue to play in Irish life. Contemporary storytelling is still seen as unifying both the storyteller and their audience to their culture, allowing each to connect with past and present, and to discover the “magic” that encompasses all (Eddie Lenihan, 2002), a way of embracing those ‘communal shadows’ that fall across the writing and the telling (Schmidt 1997, n.p.). Irish storytellers carry within them the very message of life and Irish identity.
The roles of literature and the writer, of Irish stories and the Irish storyteller, remain pre-eminent ones, despite – or perhaps even because of – the influences of modern technology. Technology is part of the dissemination of culture: through public performances, YouTube and social networking sites and audio tape and DVD recording. This means that many Irish (and non-Irish) people can share in the continuum of this tradition, and in the creation of new writing and performance.
The developments occurring in contemporary Irish literature and poetry suggest that the voices of women, for instance, are being articulated and heard more clearly, enabling them to move away from the confines of the archetype of ‘Muse’ to being the writers/creators of Irish cultural heritage. (Burke 2009, 85-94). Stories can motivate, persuade and inform, and can help people to make sense of their place, their personal story, and their role in community; they are the key to true engagement, inspiring emotional connection with each other (Storytelling in Business 2007, n.p.).
These are the foundation stones on which the Irish storyteller stands. Throughout, and despite, the seismic shifts occurring in Ireland’s cultural and linguistic history, from the introduction of Christianity and the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, and through the Gaelic revival and Modernism to contemporary Irish literature, storytelling and poetry, we witness the essential part played by the text, the writer and particularly the Seanchaidhe in disseminating and progressing Irish culture.
Pierced the moon with my cry,
broke its heart,
searched among the rubble
of my life’s affairs
for a fragment of you and I.
I found a piece here and there,
until I turned it over in my hands,
and saw the rift
I paced among the dried grasses,
among infinitesimal insects
on their daily flight,
my legs weaving
in unison with their heartbeats…
Who knows whether
what is contained
within the human heart
has not always been there?
Beneath the surface, waiting,
a pattern of embrace
begun under the layers
of this start and ending
which shelters myth and
I rest here in the careen
of Gortnagan Beg,
having hung a Beltane cross
and fired the age-black hearth,
my eyes open, prayerful to the unknown
and the longed-for,
in hope to wake again
after such a journeyed sleep.
When I was young, I was sacred, beloved and infinite, I was the beginnings of a mighty dream, I was truth, and I was all. Now I map my way to destiny, unafraid and ever-longing for completion of the pattern that spins around my head. And as yet there are no answers, and paths change with every step, and I slow to choose direction and forget to raise my face. Yet beloved, I will continue, I will echo out, forever, I will trace patterns with my fingers, I am the dreamer of the dream…
In the Christian tradition, the belief is that God reveals himself in dreams, although conversely, the dream is also the place of diabolical revelations. So, in this place and in this state, is revealed to me the pattern and the fabric and the influences on my heart, which I may often miss in my more awakened state.
Jung espoused the dream as a mirror for the ego, for dreams can reveal those things which, when conscious, I keep hidden. Dreams can both teach me and guide me to confront these things; they can encourage and assist me to actively play a part in the growth and development of my personality, an ongoing and fluid creation of consciousness. Each day, I become more fully myself.
The room, wherein lies the bed, is the central, pivotal stage for the development of ego and of self. The unconscious seeks to make itself known. Inscribed over the doorway of Jung’s home and on his tomb are the words: ‘Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus adevit’ –‘Called, or uncalled, God is present.
The bed is a tangible, physical representation of the dream, a place where I, the ego, I, the body and I, the conscious mind go forward to meet the unconscious, wherein lies the mystery and the wisdom of myself. The bed, and the dream, are bridges over which I cross into the unknown. I cross my bridge; I pass, trembling, over fast-moving waters.
When I close my eyes to the light and enter sleep, immersing myself like a swimmer entering warm waters, I let go of my ego, putting my faith in the God within.
Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Bed space, my heart and my life, distilled down to this moment, this landscape and this me. Centre of my universe, my universe in microcosm, witness to my words and deeds, reflecting my intent, and energy.
When I enter my bed, I am naked in soul and self, stripped away of all pretence, all costume, all position and title. The bed space requires that I am unclothed, and devoid of pride and arrogance. Here, I am myself, I am accepted, and am humbled.
When I go to bed with my love, I embrace the comfort and closeness, or I can vibrate with the absence of it; I tangibly feel the distance and the coolness of the sheets I lie upon.
My children join me here, having once laid here within me. We breathe in unison, as if they had returned to me, under my ribs, safe and conjoined. We are one, living being, dancing to the shared music in our veins.
Now we two, we three, lay within the bed’s embrace, encouraged by its acceptance. We sleep, we nestle, we move to and from each other, we form again and break, we speak of hidden worlds and dreams. I nurse them here, in shadowy silence, the only movement our breathing and our rhythm. I fall asleep over them, lulled by the wash of breath, and life, and peace.
‘A story from your time, Mummy’ a daughter asks, nestling against my curves, creating a groove in the covers and cushions surrounding us, and I begin: ‘Once there was a girl…’, and she and I glance at each other, full of expectation, uncertain of the outcome, though certain of the journey.
I have shared this place with friends and lovers and enemies, I have talked myself inside and out, I have emerged fighting and screaming and have retreated back once more, like an insane wave, falling on a constant shore.
‘It is time for bed’. Who leads who? Who draws the curtains and lights the flame, who sings out the music? The bed receives, the bed responds, the bed becomes the stage for the performance, and the encore.
I lay awake here, hours and days and years, aching with the pain of the loss of self, and love, and direction, my grief absorbed into the depths of my mattress, and my pillow unable to cushion the defeat I feel, but valiantly trying, always trying.
‘Let us say goodbye’ I say, as I lay beside him, once my friend and lover, the father of my daughters, now the stranger he has become to me and to our union.
‘I did not mean for it to be like this’ he says as we both weep, exhausted and desperate.
‘But it is’ I reply, with far more kindness than I will later feel, taking his head and cradling it to my chest, so that we breathe in unison, one last time.
Before I move away forever, I turn to him in a final expression of consolation, and at this moment of separation, when I acknowledge the end, I have perhaps never felt as close to him. I hold him, full of grief and relief, dying another little death, which will be forever etched like acid into my psyche. The bed respects, the bed bows in defeat but still supports me. Goodbye at last to this pretence, this empty, hollowed-out gourd, oh, lay me down to sleep…
And then the bed is reborn, with a new coverlet like the coming of spring. It has a crystal talisman to hang on the bedpost and a new mattress, too, like a galleon fitted out for a new journey into the unknown, into life and sleep, into sickness and health and discovery. I recall the words of John Donne (1630), spoken from the pulpit at St Paul’s over 370 years ago, and heard clearly by my heart today: ‘Our critical day is not the very day of our death, but the whole course of our life’, and I feel myself rise to the challenge of living, once more.
From my bed in my old faraway home, over seven years of summers, autumns, winters and springs I watched the plum tree in my neighbour’s garden rise and fall, discard all semblance of its summer self and strip itself back to its main components – its skeleton of belief and existence, revealing its structure and beauty. So I, in my bed, become myself.
The place where I rest becomes a bridge between my daily life and the unknown, the conscious and the unconscious mind and soul, each evening supporting me on my journey by both giving and receiving me. This place is where I begin my journey each morning and where I return to, faithfully, each night. Where I lie, where I spend my night has become an expression of who I am, and how I am living my life.
My home is a place away from work and from the outside, public world and within it, my bedroom epitomises this private sphere, and is a place where I spend a considerable amount of my life. And I need this space; my bedroom is a significant way in which I construct my identity, in a way that is separate to how others may define me; it acts as a barrier, a demarcation line between myself and others. Here is where I truly begin, where I leave my public self behind to enter my intimate space, filled as it is with my valued and everyday objects.
At times I feel marooned here, adrift and absent from safety and security, and at other times I am wholly who and what I believe I am, and my room and my bed then becomes a haven and a place of belonging, and I am secure.
For all the times I’ve moved between and within countries, counties, states and houses, whether caused by my mother’s marriages or her death, or my migration, and my own marriage and divorce, my reuniting with extended family, and with my love, when all around is chaos, I have come to understand that my bed, and my bed space is where I have anchored my girls and myself. It is the centre of our home, and centre to the mysteries of our lives.
This place, this bed is where it all stops: the pretence, the roles I have, the face and image I may present. Here, in my bed, alone, is where I dwell.
This mysterious, island home… John Donne also wrote that ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. Yet, living on my island – my home, my room and my bed – I am part of the main, but also distant, and distinct from it.
This is the way it is. This is what it means to be sublimely human.
Leunig, M (2008), ‘Pillow talk from the dreamtime’, The Age (A2), 5 July, 16.
Scott, R (1997) ed., No Man is an Island: a selection from the prose of John Donne, The Folio Society, London, UK.
Donagh MacDonagh, editor of The Oxford Book of Irish Verse, has described Irish women writers as part of ‘the submerged body of ballad makers’ (Kelly, 1987, 11). In addition, the editors of The Penguin Book of Women Poets (1978) observed that ‘… even today there is a tendency to neglect the work of women poets, and national anthologies include little of their work’ (Kelly, 1987, 12). Thomas Kinsella’s decision, as editor of The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, not to include work from any modern women poets is an example of this mindset (Kelly 1987, 13).
While some Irish female writers such as Speranza (Lady Wilde, formerly Jane Elgee, mother of Oscar Wilde) and Rose Kavanagh, Alice Milligan, Katharine Tynan and Mary Devenport O’Neill were published before the 1900s, there were many more who remained largely invisible, not only in poetry and literature, but in a far wider cultural sense. As Kelly points out in her introduction to Pillars of the House: an anthology of verse by Irish women from 1690 to the present, for a long time ‘Women scribblers were tolerated [but]”Verse” was the only type of poetry that women, excluded from a classical education, were expected to write…’ (1987, 16).
Poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, commenting of the absence of female writers from the manuscripts for centuries, believes this socio-cultural and political history mirrors the amount of space currently available in the 21st century for women writers, referring to this as a ‘repression of the “deep feminine” in Irish minds, and Irish society – and poetry’ (Sewell, 2003). Similarly, the 1991 publication of The Field Day of Irish Writing, a collection covering more than a thousand years and described as a defining moment in late twentieth-century Irish literature, was ‘marked by the virtual absence of female writers’ (Stylus Publishing, 2008). ‘At the deepest level – you may say at the level of ontology underpinning (sic) – the Irish poetic tradition is sexist and masculinist (sic) to the core’ Ni Dhomhnaill remarked (Poetry Ireland, 1993, 109).
Poets such as Maire Mhac an tSaoi, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain and Eavan Boland have consistently explored, articulated and challenged the boundaries of this constraint, and as contemporary Irish female poets, have broken through the seemingly insurmountable barrier, from being the subjects of Irish poetry – the Muse – to becoming recognisably and authentically the authors of it.
That being said, Irish female poets are even now consistently writing within significant inherited literary constraints.
There was a widespread belief that if poetry, which was a hereditary gift …fell into the female line, then it was gone from that particular family for seven generations to come… A similar taboo existed against women telling Fenian tales; but that did not stop women being storytellers or filiúil (poetic). (Ni Dhomhnaill, The Hidden Ireland: Women’s Inheritance 1996, 114)
Mhac an tSaoi, Ni Dhomhnaill, Ni Chuilleanain and Boland’s poetry is overlaid with Ireland’s bardic history, with its intensely oral and communal tradition and a musicality of language, colour and form, all of which create a powerful emotional and visceral affect. Yet this very mantle of oral and bardic tradition has until recently excluded these same (and other) Irish women from playing an active literary role in their cultural heritage, learning and future vision.
Boland admits that ‘For a long time, I’ve had a sort of dialogue going in my mind – maybe even a quarrel – between those elements of poetic experiment and bardic inheritance’ (Schmidt, 1997). While recognising the burden and constraints of their country’s bardic, oral history, these Irish women poets have, however, breathed new life into it, with such poetry as:
They are outsiders, always. These stars –
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
…they are, they have always been
Out of myth into history I move to be
part of that ordeal,
whose darkness is only reaching me from those fields…
(Boland, ‘Outside History’, 1990).
The rhythm, melody and cadence of this poem and the one following carry within them both the voice of the past, and the understanding of the present poet:
In case you thought this was a gentle art
follow this man on a moonless night
to the wretched bed he will have to make:
The Gaelic world stretches out under a hawthorn tree
and burns in the rain.
(Boland, ‘My Country in Darkness’ Colony (1998)
As poets, Mhac an tSaoi, Ni Chuilleanain and Boland can be encompassed by Boland’s self-description that while she is a feminist, she is not a feminist poet. For Boland, feminism has great power as ethics, but not as an aesthetic, believing that, for her poetic needs and intentions, feminism is restrictive. Instead, ‘My poetry begins for me where certainty ends… the imagination is an ambiguous and untidy place… its frontiers are not accessible to the logic of feminism’ (Schmidt, 1997).
On the other hand, Ni Dhomhnaill is emphatically a politically active feminist writer. She has said: ‘The issue of the native language and its suppression has intrinsically a vast political dimension…. At surface level it offers parallels with the position of Ireland’s women.’ (‘Words for the Branwen’s theme’, The Water Horse, 1999).
Maire Mhac an tSaoi, the oldest of these women, exercises an extensive technical knowledge and a personal style reminiscent of classical Irish poetry, and is considered by many to be Ireland’s greatest living Irish language poet. An example of this style is at work in one of her most famous poems, ‘Oíche Nollag’:
Le coinnle na n-aingeal tá an spéir amuigh breactha,
Tá fiacail an tseaca sa ghaoith ón gcnoc,
Adaigh an tine is téir chun na leapan,
Luífidh Mac Dé ins an tigh seo anocht.
With the candles of the angels the sky outside is speckled,
The tooth of frost is in the wind from the hill,
Light the fire and go to bed,
The son of God will lie in this house tonight.
Born in 1922 and writing a generation before Ni Dhomhnaill and Boland, Mhac an tSaoi is considered one of a handful of major Irish poets who transformed poetry both during and after the Second World War, her work forecasting the emergence of women’s voices in both English and Irish in the 1970s and 1980s (Centre for Irish Studies, NUI, n.p., 2007).
Like future poets such as Eavan Boland, Mhac an tSaoi writes of, and from, the intimate female experience, at a time when (as Ni Dhomhnaill has put it) the ‘deep feminine’ in Irish culture was marginalised. In her most famous poem, Ceathruinti Mhaire Ni Ogain, written in the 1940s, she challenges the morality of Ireland at this time: ‘I care little for people’s suspicions,/I care little for priest’s prohibitions,/For anything save to lie stretched/Between you and the wall-‘.
And yet, while Mhac an tSaoi’s poetic voice is informed by the poetry of bardic and traditional folk writing, her measured style actually allows her to be subversive. Though her voice is forthright, this poem also shows the conflict and ambivalence apparent in her writing and in a wider sense, of the Irish woman’s experience of sexuality, femininity and social morality. ‘That tension between individual desire and conventional values is central to Mhac an tSaoi’s poetic method.’ (de Paor 2006).
The social, cultural and economic realities for women even well into the second half of the twentieth century were stark, women experiencing considerable legal, social and educational discrimination. In her analysis of the periods of silence experienced by many writers, Tillie Olsen considered the complex issues of creativity verses interruption which are so often the lot of the female writer, and of which she said ‘Where the claims of creation cannot be primary, the results are atrophy; unfinished work; minor effort and accomplishment; silences’ (1980, 95).
Women writers in particular suffer from what Olsen calls this ‘cost of discontinuity’, often to a greater degree than men, mainly due to the major role they play in child bearing and rearing. And yet, writers such as Ni Chuilleanain still
…allow those who have been silenced by history to surface in art as surreal but living presences. Her poetry is one of half-secrets, half-revelations, scrupulously controlled but also continuously startling, using the language of history, religion, landscape, and myth to unlock those categories of experience for which poetry is the proper language (Holdridge 2007, n.p.).
Layered within and alongside this poetic arena has also been a growing movement to write in Irish; to use the Irish language as the primary means of poetic expression. Ni Dhomhnaill writes solely in Irish, which many believe is a deliberate act of political and cultural significance (Murray, 2009, n.p.). In ‘The Language Issue’ (translated by Paul Muldoon) she writes: ‘I place my hope in the water/in this little boat/of the language… only to have it borne hither and thither, /not knowing where it might end up’ (Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1990).
The Irish Free State, founded in 1922 following the Gaelic Revival of the late nineteenth century, heralded a resurgence of interest in the Irish language and its folklore and mythology. It became official government policy to protect and promote the Irish language, which lead to a revival of Irish language literature and the official recognition of Gaeltachtai – Irish-speaking regions. In 1926, An Gum (The Project) became a significant outlet both for original literary works and for translations into Irish from poets such as Mhac an tSaoi, and in the second half of the century saw the emergence of female writers and poets such as Ni Dhomhnaill, Boland, and Ni Chuilleanain.
Contemporary Irish female poets, while writing in Irish and in English (or in translation) and expressing their own personal poetic, have both shared, and individually explored, a number of common themes. In particular, they share the potent subjects of women’s experiences of writing in a male-dominated literary landscape; the themes of exile; of change and the quest for identity so prevalent in Irish culture; the themes of love, femininity, feminism and sexuality,’… sift[ing] through the domestic lives of [their] mother[s] and ancestors.’ (Parini, 2007); and in particular, examining female archetypes and the sacred, and acknowledging and exploring (and consequently, often subverting) ancient Irish folklore and mythology, traditions which many Irish female poets like Mhac an tSaoi, Ni Dhomhnaill, Boland and Ni Chuilleanain see as an integral part of the Irish language and part of the structure and narrative of Irish culture. As Boland has said: ‘Irish poetry has a bardic history… The Irish bards lay down in the darkness to compose.’ (Schmidt, 1997). Many Irish female writers (as well as women of other nationalities) might understandably reflect often on how they too in the past have, and still do, compose in the shade created by their socio-cultural history.
Mhac an tSaoi, Ni Dhomhnaill, Ni Chuilleanain and Boland, each one of them mothers and wives/partners, share as a consistent aspect of their writing the intimate and the domestic spaces. In First Communion Day, Ni Dhomhnaill writes of her daughter’s first communion and of her own conflicting emotions as a mother: ‘… how could I tell her about the life ahead of her,/about the darkness through which she will have to walk/ alone, despite my very best efforts, and against my will?’. Boland talks of the ‘disorganisation of the beloved moment’ (Schmidt, 1997) when composing The Pomegranate (‘In a Time of Violence’, 1994), and of how the poem opens out to include the things she loves and wants to unite, such as her teenage daughter, asleep in her room strewn with magazines, coke cans and cut-up apple; in Nightfeeds (1982) she brings together poetry and motherhood, and the complexity of ordinary women’s experiences.
Ni Chuilleanain’s poetry is subtly powerful and provocative. It can be‘…oblique, but always concrete, reflecting the elemental realities of fire, air, water, and earth, giving utterance to what most challenges speech’ (Holdridge 2007, n.p.). As an example, in Ardnaturais, where she speaks of birth (in this instance, of the sacred), and where swimming becomes a meditation on death, she writes: ‘Alone in the sea: a shallow breath held stiffly/My shadow lies/Dark and hard like time/Across the rolling shining stones’ (in Kelly 1987, 136).
While her numerous images of mythical figures, travellers, pilgrims, and women … remind us of our deepest inner sanctum, with its litany of spiritual truths, fears, and needs, these images also catalogue the importance of the ordinary and the domestic as new metaphors for human experiences and emotions (2007, n.p.).
These Irish female poets honour female strengths, each with their own unique poetic, while engaging with Irish language, culture, myth and imagery, where they constantly cross the boundaries of mythology and the everyday, and the of past, present and future.
Eavan Boland articulates it best when she writes:
I began writing in a country where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ were almost magnetically opposed… I became used to the flawed space between them. In a certain sense, I found my poetic voice by shouting across that distance.
(Object Lessons: the life of the woman and the poet in our time 1995, xi).
Boland E (1994), ‘The Pomegranate’, from In a Time of Violence, online poetry, Poets Org: American Academy of Poets, <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15385 >
Boland E (2001), Outside History, WW Norton, New York.
Burke M.G. (2003), ‘Framing masculinity in the poetry of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’, Journal of International Womens’ Studies, vol. 4, no. 3, online academic paper, Bridgewater State College, Massachusetts, <http://www.bridgew.edu/SoAS/JIWS/May09/FramingMasculinity.pdf>
Carcanet Press (2009), ‘Interview with Eavan Boland, Irish Times 22 September 1998’, online article, Carcanet Press Ltd., <http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?showdoc=6;doctype=interview>
Corkery D (1925), The Hidden Ireland: a study of Gaelic Munster in the eighteenth century, M.H. Gill and Son, Ltd, Dublin, Eire.
de Paor, L., ‘Maire Mhac tSaoi’ and ‘Contemporary poetry in Irish 1940-2000’, from The Cambridge History of Irish Literature Vol II: 1890-2000, Kelleher, M. & O’Leary, P. eds. (2006), 325-8, online book review, Centre for Irish Studies, NUI, Galway, Eire, <http://www.nuigalway.ie/centre_irish_studies/Maire_MantSaoi.htm>
Galvin R (n.d.), ‘Shouting across the Distance: Liminal States in Eavan Boland’s Outside History’, Limen 2001, <http://limen.mi2.hr/limen2-2001/galvin.html>
Ni Dhomhnaill (1996), ‘The Hidden Ireland: Women’s Inheritance’, in Irish Poetry since Kavanagh, Dorgan, T., ed. (1996), Four Courts Press, Dublin, Eire.
Ni Dhomhnaill N. (1990), ‘The Language Issue’, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Eire, 1993, Wake Forest University Press (Winston-Salem, NC).
Ni Dhomhnaill N (1993), ‘First Communion Day’, The Astrakan Cloak, trans. Muldoon, P, Wake Wake Forest University Press, Winston-Salem, USA, 33.
Ni Dhomhnaill N (n.d.), ‘Toircheas /Ark of the Covenant, Geasa /The Bond, Madame /Madame, Leaba Shioda /Labysheedy (The Silken Bed)’, online poetry, DUCIS, Dalarna University Centre for Irish Studies, <http://users.du.se/~ehm/DUCIS/NualaNiDhomhnaill.htm#Geasa>
Olsen T (1980), Silences, Virago, London.
Schmidt E, (1997), ‘Where Poetry Begins: Eavan Boland in Conversation’, American Poet, Spring 2007, < http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15939>
Sewell F (2003), ‘Between Two Languages: Poetry in Irish, English and Irish English’ in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry’ Campbell M. (ed.), Cambridge University Press, UK
Stylus Publishing and Cork University Press (2008), ‘Boyle Haberstroh, P, St. Peter, C., eds. The Field Day of Irish Writing, 1991, online book review, Stylus Publishing, <http://www.styluspub.com/clients/Books/CUP/BookDetail.aspx?productID=151524>
feet rooted in the earth
and eyes of amber water,
Head in worlds of wonder,
worlds of music,
Embers, glinting on leaves
Waiting for a new dress of
crying out in the still night air –
Cool and clear and velvet;
Homecoming, children are waiting,
Hours of peace
when the hills are sleeping,
Dawn upon the skyline,
blushes of awakening
Moving to the sea,
blue as skybright
Crying in the wind
as ghosts return to harbour
Houses warm with light
where dinner waits
Remembering winters of childhood,
Wearing cherry cheeks
And coats of green brown buttons
held by winking eyes –
Breathe in, and fill with silence
While the heart sings out,
Hear one voice calling
In the fire of darkness…
We crawl through the skylight window into the pantry and hang there by our armpits, until we drop, one after the other, like little pebbles onto the concrete floor below.
Deb browses the shelves and takes down a packet of cereal, dipping her hand inside.
I stand my ground and sniff the air, trying to sense the mood of this space.
I push open the door leading into the kitchen and we stand there, side by side, feeling for the first time, a sense of alienation from the once achingly-familiar.
There stands the formica table with its six chairs – one for Mum, Dad, Nick, Jules and Deb, and one for luck.
Empty of us now, forever empty of the family we have been.
Deb takes a small, uncertain step towards the corridor.
“Stop!” I hiss, holding her by the elbow.
“There’s something wrong. There’s someone else here. It’s not…”
We smell the alien perfume hanging on the air.
Not Mum’s soft scent, but somebody else’s altogether.
“No, Deb. we can’t” I say, and she begins to weep.
I do too, but in a big-sister kind of way, so that she cannot see.
We leave by the back door.
It clicks behind us, shutting us out, with a finality I only recognise today.
Where is home now? Where do I belong?
The emptied hills resound with memories,
stones and leaves heaped in praise of them,
on hillsides, inside caves,
among the gum and iron-bark and grasses
and the scent of the earth and wattle
The curve of his face, and the lines
that embrace his precious mouth –
she covers his mouth with her own,
The sinew and muscle and blood of his flesh
removed from her –
she is a wave, returned to the river
Is nothing real until it has gone?
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day, so instead, I sat down with Jane Eyre, uncompromisingly plain Jane with her formidable heart and soul, and a story with all the wonderful potential which a gothic setting promises. I was in for an absorbing day.
Charlotte Brontë’s extraordinary book was first published in October 1847 by Smith, Elder and Company as Jane Eyre: an Autobiography, under the pseudonym Currer Bell. As a (female) child of the 20th century, I was intrigued and a more than little frustrated that a writer’s identity should have to be constrained by her gender.
As I discovered more about the early Victorian era, and began reading the novels that came out of this time, I came to appreciate this particular writer’s skill, boldness and honesty, as well as the practical, pragmatic necessity for all three Brontë sisters to seek a wider audience for their writing. While they undoubtedly had something unique to say, they also wrote from a position of economic and well as intellectual need. The destinies of these women, as the unmarried daughters of a clergyman of modest income, were similar to Jane Eyre’s – that of governess, teacher, ladies companion, or wife.
Jane Eyre is the story of a child growing towards adulthood, unprotected and unloved and yet full of intelligence, passion and dignity, who will not allow those people who may have shaped her circumstances to be the masters of her ultimate destiny. While constrained by the strict conventions of her times: by her gender, her lack of family protection, and without independent income, she is still, extraordinarily, a unique individual. Jane’s personal integrity, developed despite – or because – of her lack of status, strongly appealed to me both as a child and as a woman as it has to countless other readers, male and female, over the past 160 years.
Set partly within the gothic tradition of romance and horror, Jane Eyre manages to avoid many of the melodramatic conventions of its genre, creating instead its own style. Like Wuthering Heights, her sister Emily’s only novel, Charlotte Brontë’s first published work is a natural progression from the sagas and characters of Gondal and Angria, worlds created by the Brontës in their childhood, and where each of them, with, and also separately from each other, would return to throughout their adult lives.
Our curiosity is aroused when we understand that the early part of Jane Eyre is semi-autobiographical; the harsh and austere environment of Lowood School, its draconian school superintendant Mr. Brocklehurst, and the death of Helen Burns all offend our sensibilities. In addition, Brontë’s two central characters are powerfully magnetic; a small, fiercely passionate and intelligent child-woman, and a Byronic, ugly-handsome and ardent man, worlds apart in life experience, but with the same, basic needs that we all have – to love and be loved, and to belong.
So, what is this book’s powerful appeal? In our present era, when Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian language and the period’s social conventions could – and at times, do – appear archaic, her storyline and characters still manage to engage and captivate modern audiences as much as they did her contemporary one. Despite our present literary plotlines and the overwhelming popularity of film and television, where everything and anything appears possible, and with which our mesmerised senses have become jaded and dulled, we still find ourselves holding our breath, on the other side of the shrubbery from Jane and Mr. Rochester, listening intently as she cries out to him:
Do you think I am an automaton? — A machine without feelings? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!
The appeal of Jane Eyre endures, because its themes of integrity, authenticity and love are at the very heart of our own experiences and desires.