Author of the Week / 17 May 2024

Poetry & The Craftswoman Self

Author of the Week: Ireland


I was a child who always wanted to stay up late. Even when tired, I was drawn to the edge of my mother’s knitting circle. Clickety, click. It was full throttle Aran jumper construction against the clock. Telling stories, smoking Benson & Hedges, counting thick, creamy stitches by the row. Every now and then a woman would fling her needles down into her lap and let out an explosive curse. All through the night the knitters urged each other on, hour by hour, with gossip, rumours, news. Did you hear? Do you want to hear? Let me tell you! Éist! If the jumpers were finished to collection deadline, you got paid. If you got paid, your family did not go hungry. It was deft, collaborative work, narrated start to finish, and it was my first real glimpse into the art of making a thing by hand.

‘Poetry begins where language starts: in the shadows and accidents of one person’s life’ wrote Eavan Boland. I grew up in the Donegal Gaeltacht in North-western Ireland in the 1980s. This is a short way of telling you two things at once: that I grew up poor and that I grew up immersed in cultural richness. Flanked on one side by the Atlantic Ocean, and on another by the Northern Ireland border, Donegal is a county steeped in the oral tradition of myth and folklore. It is a place where generations of poor people have survived, against the odds. My people were child tattie-hokers who travelled to Scotland for work and in parts of Donegal today there still exists a quirky Scottish lilt, even among those who never left the county at all. I lived close by Droichead na nDeor (The Bridge of Tears), a famed farewell point during the Irish Famine for emigrants who left carrying letters, bits of oatmeal bread, instruments, songs. The bridge is overlooked by Errigal mountain and surrounded by a boggy landscape that sinks and sucks, pushing people out, pulling others in. As a teenager I was fascinated by the house of The Screamers, a so-called cult of free-thinking radicals who practiced primal scream therapy in the 1970s. Later came The Maids of the Silver Sisterhood who believed in a supreme feminine deity and subscribed to a strict Victorian code. I was transfixed by the maids, in long skirts and high lacy collars, sashaying through town on Fridays. Donegal is that kind of place – otherworldly and strange.

Poetry comes out of the shadows and accidents. It also come out of toil and grind. My father fished on trawlers, cut and sold turf, trekked back and forth to England for unskilled manual labouring jobs. One winter he was hired in Donegal to deliver milk from house to house. Cash in hand. At 3 am the alarm woke us, my father started the truck, and off we both hurtled over the blue-black hills. I remember that we were often chased by dogs. With the driver window rolled down, my father shouted the orders: two litres, one cream! I’d spring off a step at the back of the truck and door-drop the order. To hang on safely to the moving vehicle, I had to be alert to all the road’s bumps and dips. I was light on my feet and I rarely got an order wrong. Towards the end of winter, milk was being stolen and customers started to leave their doors on the latch. I’d slip into the kitchen, pop the milk into the fridge. To this day I love to be busy at work when others are asleep; I love the quiet hum in the tiled centre of the dark. And what you might discover. In hand. Before school, I’d change out of my work clothes and wash the milk smell from my palms.

To have a job, any job – that was the dream as a child. Late at night I’d lie awake with a torchlight listing the possibilities: a dress-maker, an inventor of recipes, a designer of postage stamps. It never occurred to me that I might apply for a job, or that I might not take a job, or that there existed a state in which I might, on some level, not always be looking for work. My mother sold hens’ eggs, made women’s fashion accessories out of scrap cloth (that we tried to sell out of the back of a van), and she was a Bean an Tí, meaning that she housed 80 Irish-language students each year. Often, she was pregnant. She worked occasionally as a waitress at a local hotel and, if a wedding party required extra staff, she took me along to help. I stacked trays, cleared away mess, filled sinks. Speeding past each other in the corridor between kitchen and dining room, the waitresses cracked jokes about husbands and children, and liked to quip ‘sparán trom / croí éadrom’ (‘heavy purse / light heart’). By the ages of twelve, I had my debut solo gig washing dishes and when my first wage came that summer, the crisp, brown envelope held more cash than my mother had ever earned in a week. Guilt mixed up with shame. Even when you’re having fun, poverty has a way of bringing you back down into place.

‘I don’t believe in social mobility…’ writes Maria Fusco in her essay A Belly of Irreversibles. ‘You are the same class as the one you grew up in even if your circumstances have radically changed.’ Fusco’s working-class childhood in Belfast reads very differently to my upbringing in Donegal but the underlying atmosphere she depicts – of anxiety, rooted in a scent of trauma and in humour as survival – is recognisable to me. The circumstances of our lives may shift upwardly, and yet, as Fusco articulates beautifully, we continue to carry within us the seed of how we were first seen, or not seen, by society. Fusco’s ‘working-class as method’ argument resonates deeply, making me think again of how poem-making can be a practical response to a reality shaped by lack, or want, and about the ways in which poems can come out of an instinctual need to make something, anything, out of almost nothing. Hour by hour. ‘I am disgusted and overwhelmed by the idea of wastefulness, yet I think I waste a lot of my time,’ writes Fusco. This desire to eliminate waste is central to how I work and why I love making poetry. There’s a joyful satisfaction in using up, to the best possible effect, every word, syllable, drop. Two litres, one cream! Fusco was poor and she grew up knowing she was poor but I did not know what I was until I began to socialise in professional arts circles. Clinking glasses with my peers, I was unnerved by a sense of my difference. This sense seemed most likely to embarrass me at dinner tables with perfectly nice middle-class people. Once, at a posh arts dinner, an inquisitive sculptor who could not place why I was at the table, or where on earth I’d come from, unleashed a litany of questions that, in the end, led him nowhere. A few sherries later he simply blurted out ‘but what does your father do?’ It was an absurd question and how to answer? My father has done – and still does – everything. Actually, that week he had raised a boundary wall around a chicken coop for a neighbour. ‘He’s a builder,’ I replied. The artist pressed on: ‘Oh. Would I know of any of his work?’

In an essay titled Making Poems Paula Meehan pays homage to ‘the craftswoman self’ who takes experience – including trauma – and makes a poem. ‘She [the craftswoman] shows me how to discover a safe form to hold the energy that a poem is. She helps me find the true, or oldest (sometimes the same thing), meaning of words; she helps me translate into words the tunes and rhythms that are inchoate sounds.’ In crafting my first poetry collection Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017) I did what I have always done – I reached for the raw material of my life and I tried to translate it into what holds and sustains. Bloodroot explores family, intergenerational loss through the Irish mother and baby homes, and the cost, over time, of a forged ‘Irish’ identity for women and children. It bears witness to the inner life of my mother’s knitting circle. Later, in The Poison Glen (The Gallery Press, 2021), I stitched family autobiography together with the myth of ‘Balor of The Evil Eye,’ a Fomorian giant who locked his daughter, Eithne, into a tower on Tory Island and stole her three infant sons. Balor is depicted as both a villain and a pitiable figure who sits at the centre of a splitting, cracking universe. The book is a portal into a family wounded by hunger.

Poetry comes out of tunes, rhythms and inchoate sounds. It also comes out of images in flashes, flares, shards and strewn parts. In Translations the Donegal playwright Brian Friel writes: ‘It is not the literal past, the “facts” of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.’ The past, like a purled stitch, is repetitive, collective and always being remade. The wool, the needle, the circle, the hand. Often, images at hand and in hand are all that I possess as I ravel and unravel meaning. Images are what I reach for when the word ‘class’ sounds not quite right on my tongue, though I sometimes find myself grasping for that word. Grasping – this, too, is how I work.

Did you hear? Do you want to hear? Éist! Poetry is, for me, an extension of place and it remains a liberation through work. Let me make a last image for you: it is a cool September morning on Dublin City University campus and I am standing on a trim, green lawn. As a new student, who is also the first of my family to go to university, I am much perplexed. I cannot figure out what I am meant to be doing in the ‘free periods’ between classes. A co-student is turning a cartwheel in the sun. Her long legs pass through the air like water. Her t-shirt, bearing the slogan A-girl, rides up over her ribs. I watch the letter A revolve. And revolve. The realisation hits that I am now among people who have been afforded something I have not: ease, comfort, a way of being unselfconsciously in the world. A few days later I signed up for the night shift in a city pub, put in place an agreement with a landlord, and start into a new era of work to supplement my university grant. The craftswoman shows me how to discover a safe form. Over time I discovered that I wanted to make poems. Occasionally I’d overhear A-girl in the university canteen, talking about her busy schedule of music rehearsals or her upcoming auditions. Never was I jealous, only curious. I worried that my clothes smelled of spilled beer or cigarettes after my work shift which often ran past 1 am.

Author

Annemarie Ní Churreáin

Annemarie Ní Churreáin is a poet and editor. Her books include Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017) and The Poison Glen (The Gallery Press, 2021). She is the poetry editor at The Stinging Fly magazine. More info: www.studiotwentyfive.com

 

Photo by Mieke Vanmechelen

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