David Butler reads The Poison Glen, the new collection by luminary poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin, and asks her about these poems veined with silence, myth—and ultimately light.
"A babe hears first of all through bone and water, the song of the mother before the mother." —from A Blessing of the Boats by the Village Mothers, by Annemarie Ní Churreáin
Confluence of silenced voices
by David Butler
A confluence of two streams powers the imagination of Donegal poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin. The first, drawing on predecessors like Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, is the impulse to give volume to the female voice within Irish discourse, to vocalise those marginalised throughout our history.
The second, which is to some extent a tributary of the first, is to shine light on the previously hidden but entirely systemic mistreatment of unmarried or abandoned mothers down the centuries, along with the criminal neglect and shaming that accrued to what were deemed their ‘illegitimate’ offspring.
As someone whose father was born in Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home, later placed in the care of the Sisters of Nazareth in Derry who ran an orphanage and primary school, and whose own childhood was coloured by a long series of foster-siblings who were given a temporary foster-home by her parents, Ní Churreáin is well placed to articulate this confluence of silenced voices.
The Foundling Crib
In Object Lessons, the late Eavan Boland set out to make into subjects—in the grammatical sense of the word—those women objectified throughout Ireland’s tangled history. In both her collections to date, Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017), which has been reprinted multiple times, and her recently launched The Poison Glen (Gallery Press, 2021), Annemarie Ní Churreáin takes up the challenge laid down by Boland.
The impressive poem sequence ‘The Foundling Crib’, which is the cornerstone of the new collection, begins with an epigraph taken from Boland’s poem ‘Child of Our Time’, which addresses an infant killed in the Dublin bombings:
‘Yesterday I knew no lullaby / But you have taught me overnight to order / This song, which takes from your final cry /Its tune, from your unreasoned end its reason…’
Ní Churreáin’s ten-part poem, which began life as a Solstice Arts Centre commission, is a critical interrogation of Dublin’s largely forgotten Foundling Hospital and Workhouse, which was located where St James Hospital stands today and whose foundation stone was laid in 1704 by the Duchess of Ormond.
By the 1730s, a revolving stone wheel, the ‘foundling crib’, had been installed into which infants might be deposited and a bell rung, ‘no questions asked’.
Veined with silence
A chilling silence runs like an injunction throughout the poem, and the collection as a whole, down the ‘scant lanes and alleys that run like ghost-veins pulsing the blood of women.”.
In the winter of The Great Frost a stillness so cold that even The Liffey tongue grew stiff for seven long weeks, the potatoes turned to rot like teeth in some strange parable.
Poverty and starvation stalk the gaunt streets, but matters aren’t necessarily better for the foundlings, sorted upon entry into the best, sent out to nurse, and the infirm, suckled if they were lucky on ‘milk turned pale by clouds of water.’
A footnote suggests that, over the hundred years before it closed to new admissions in 1829, as many as 200,000 infants may have passed through the Foundling Hospital.
Ní Churreáin particularises such unfathomable grief in the story of, among others, Bridget Kearney, who travelled a hundred miles on foot to deposit her newborn girl into the stone wheel but later came back, ’a foundling price in her pocket, a demand on her lips’.
‘Baptism’ commemorates the death from exposure of a woman and infant in the Dublin Liberties in the harsh winter of 1825, an event which led the following year to the foundation of the Coombe Lying-in Hospital. Her frozen corpse is dug out of the snow:
...clasped inside her shawl, a newborn child, the small cheek frozen to her collarbone, like a white apple unfallen from a bough, the seed eyes opened but blinded by snow-dust.
But if this and the previous poem present a historic perspective, the centre of gravity of the collection is concerned with institutional abuses within living memory, where ‘Memory is a curse // that keeps on flowering.’
There are poems referencing St Vincent’s Industrial School, Goldenbridge; St Joseph’s Industrial School, Letterfrack; St Conleth’s Reformatory School, Daingean; St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys, Cabra; and Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home, with its chilling ‘screaming room’ for those who cried out excessively during labour. This is the institution where the poet’s father was born; there is a biographical thread to the collection, which is dedicated to Ní Churreáin‘s late foster-brother, Darry McDaid, while some poems reference her mother’s long involvement in fostering, such as ‘Ghostgirl’ and ‘The Supervised Visit’.
Myth pulses in poems dealing with the Fomorian king, Balor, his daughter Eithne whom he keeps imprisoned in an island tower for fear of a prophesy, and her brood of three illegitimate infant boys he tries to drown, one of whom, Lugh, will grow to kill the tyrant.
The collection’s title, The Poison Glen, is directly associated with this myth, as is Donegal’s Tory Island, where Balor of the Evil Eye is reputed to have lived, watching constantly like some sort of malicious lighthouse.
Lugh being the Celtic deity associated with light, this mythic backdrop allows for the hope that recent inquiries into institutional abuse such as the 2009 Ryan Report will at the very least bring out into the light a long and shameful history hidden away behind the walls of church and state institutions.
The collection closes, appropriately enough, at Fanad Lighthouse, north Donegal, with ‘A Blessing of the Boats by the Village Mothers’.
A babe hears first of all through bone and water, the song of the mother before the mother.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin talks to David Butler
Annemarie Ní Churreáin comes from the Donegal Gaeltacht. Bloodroot, published by Doire Press in 2017, was shortlisted for the Shine Strong Award and the Julie Suk Award. She is a recipient of a Next Generation Artist Award and co-recipient of the Markievicz Award. She has received literary fellowships from USA, Germany and Scotland and was Writer-in-Residence at NUI, Maynooth, and Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. The Poison Glen is her first collection with The Gallery Press.
Photo Credit: Enda Rowan
Could you tell us a little about what it was like, growing up with so many foster-siblings?
Fosterage in Ireland is rooted in ancient culture but today it’s a deeply flawed and under-resourced system.
All throughout my childhood and teenage years I felt a great sense of solidarity with the children who were placed in the care of my parents. In particular, the young women I lived with taught me much about finding community in the face of adversity, and about survival.
In just a few short years I accumulated more than 30 siblings, becoming at various points the ‘oldest’, the ‘middle child’ and ‘the youngest of the teens’.
The experience of being a foster sister also gave me unique insights into language and the dynamics of silence – how a silence can be broken, or kept, or reclaimed. Many of the children were carrying secrets, or stories they were too afraid to voice.
To a large degree it was the state care system that shifted me out of my everyday native Gaeilge and into the language of court orders, disclosures, social worker plans. So, the kinship with individual children was a positive experience for me but the infrastructure around the experience was complicated. Looking back, it’s no exaggeration to say that I was catapulted into a crisis relationship with the children of the Irish State and if I remain wary today of State care systems and policies, it’s because they disappeared from my life, without explanation or proper support, many of the people I have loved.
It is at least in part the State that has taught me what I know in my poetry about space, power structures and the unsaid.
‘Public’ art frequently occupies the intersection between the political and the personal. To what extent have your own experiences informed how you approach an enormous topic such as the historical mistreatment of unmarried mothers?
Everything I write begins from a personal view-point. I continue to be drawn to the subject of mother and child separation in Ireland only because it’s a part of my own family story.
In 1951 my paternal grandmother was sent to the Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home where she was forced to relinquish a child (my father) to adoption and the fall-out today, of those historical events, is still ongoing.
Sadly, it’s a familiar story in Ireland. This type of family rupture is very common and many families today are still tending that wound which is both institutional and post-colonial.
Broadly speaking, I do believe that the personal is political. To make a mark on the page, or a sound with your body, these are inherently political acts. Yet, I don’t think of myself as an activist, and I don’t think that poetry is in itself a form of activism.
Perhaps the truest thing I can say about it is that the poetic word does have a transformative quality for me, a special currency, and I’m drawn to the magic-making or change-making quality of poetry.
Something happens in the air around us when a poem is voiced aloud in a public space. Probably, poetry and activism have complementary roles to play. At least that has been my experience. But when I set out to write a poem I only set out to follow a plumb-line into the subconscious self. Poetry begins, Eavan Boland said, “where certainty ends”. If I come back, after my explorations, with a poem that is of interest to the world at large then that is an added bonus. It often happens like that, but it’s not the central driving force.
‘The Foundling Hospital’ is a very powerful sequence, one which I term the cornerstone of the collection. Can you tell us a bit about its composition?
A core part of the work for The Poison Glen involved visiting the left-behind sites of mother and/or child ‘care’ institutions in Ireland.
For example, I spent many hours on the sites of institutions listed in The Ryan Report. However, in the Spring of 2020 a national lockdown temporarily halted my process and when an invitation came from Solstice Arts Centre in Meath to create a new poetic text, I found myself having to work within new geographic constraints.
Sitting at home in Mount Brown one day with a series of old maps, I discovered that I was right next door to the site of the former Dublin Foundling Hospital of the 1700’s (now part of St James’ Hospital campus in Dublin 8). The Foundling Hospital was a landmark institution, taking in children from all over Ireland and from further afield.
I was astonished by the estimates that over 200,000 children and infants passed through this site. Conditions were dire and the death-toll was high. In fact one particularly grim season, it’s said that only one ‘foundling’ survived. Incredibly, no maker exists on the site today.
It does feel sometimes as if poetry keeps leading me back deeper and deeper into the subject of mother and child separation in Ireland. I realised that I was being called to write again about the subject.
I immersed myself in a book titled The History and Heritage of St James’s Hospital, Dublin by Davis Coakley & Mary Coakley (Four Courts Press, 2018) which provided a gateway into the history and from there the poem took flight.
I had long difficult hours when the writing seemed to be driving itself, sometimes day and night. It’s a dark poem, necessarily so. I channelled a lot of feeling and autobiography into that writing. The resulting 10-part poem, ‘The Foundling Crib’, honours the real-life story of Bridget Kearney who managed to claim her child back from the hospital. It concludes with two lines in her memory “Together again./ Together again”.
Besides the personal and historical perspectives in The Poison Glen, I’m very interested in your use of the myth of Balor, Eithne and Lugh. How do you read the myth?
The Poison Glen in northwest Donegal is part of the Gaeltacht landscape in which I grew up.
It’s an auspicious site and I’ve interwoven parts of its associated myth with moments from Irish history and elements of family autobiography to explore the story of the missing or stolen child.
Traditionally, the myth tells of how Balor of The Evil Eye locked his daughter Eithne into a tower on Tory Island and stole her three infant sons, drowning two of them. Lugh, the God of Light, was the surviving son who returns from his fosterage as an adult to slay Balor in the glen. Lugh strikes his grandfather in the eye, causing a poison to spill all through the glen, hence the place-name.
In my retelling, I was keen to write back the female perspective and so the poems feature the voices of Eithne, Eithne’s handmaids and Eithne’s mother.
During the writing process I came upon the work of Dr Marie Keenan at UCD who is a campaigner for restorative justice services, a system of truth and justice that dates back to the Brehon Laws and which seems to me to centre the voice of the victim in a way that is not always possible within the confines of our current judicial system.
Some of the questions a restorative justice approach might ask are; Who has been harmed? What needs to be done to repair the harm? Who should repair the harm? How might this be done?
Drawing inspiration from the concept of restorative justice circles, I decided to put the voices of my mythological family into an imagined circle and give them each a turn to speak about the family trauma. What happened when I did this was extraordinary, a new light started to come into the writing.
Unexpectedly, the poetry collection came to conclusion with a poem of blessing and light.
David Butler is a novelist, short story writer, playwright and poet. He is the author of City of Dis (New Island), and All the Barbaric Glass (Doire Press), and Liffey Sequence (Doire Press). His new collection Fugitive is out now with Arlen House.