Annemarie Ní Churreáin
- Ireland -
Annemarie Ní Churreáin is a poet from the Donegal Gaeltacht in northwest Ireland. She is a recipient of The Next Generation Artist Award from the Arts Council of Ireland and a co-recipient of The Markievicz Award. Her work has been shortlisted for the Shine Strong Award for best new first collection in Ireland and has been highly commended in The Patrick Kavanagh Award. Ní Churreáin has held the role of literary fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Germany, and The Jack Kerouac House, Florida. She was the 2019-20 Writer in Residence at Maynooth University of Ireland and a 2020 Artist In Residence at The Centre Culturel Irlandais Paris.
In her debut collection Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017) Ní Churreáin bears witness to the lives of unmarried mothers in Ireland over the past 100 years. Interweaving wild landscapes, history and family autobiography, this collection is dedicated to her foremothers.
“The title poem references the journey my grandmother took in the spring of 1951 from Northern Ireland down into Westmeath where she gave birth to my father at the Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home. It was here, in the same year that Noel Browne resigned as minister for health following the failed Mother and Child Scheme (which the Catholic Church called ‘anti-family') that my grandmother was forced to relinquish her child to adoption. It is at this point in the history of the State that poetry as a form of protest began like a code to write and rewrite itself into the DNA of who I am”.
Of her work The Yale Review has surmised that “Ní Churreáin often captures a whole world of cultural and historical implications in a single, simple, but metaphorically rich image.” The Los Angeles Review of Books states “that Ní Churreáin can condense the prototypical life of a young Irish woman into half a page while sustaining the poem’s impact is testament to her ability as a storyteller, the vividness of her language, and the universality of the portraits she is painting...”.The Irish Times praised Ní Churreáin‘s poems which “with their musicality and sensuousness, as well as their fearlessness, mark the welcome appearance of a fresh and vivid new voice”.
In her second collection The Poison Glen (The Gallery Press, 2022) Ní Churreáin explores the history and legacy of the stolen or missing child by looking to the left-behind sites of orphanages, state industrial schools, homes and hospitals including the famed Dublin Foundling Hospital established in the 1700’s. Many of these poems subvert text from government records, or repurpose Catholic prayers or rituals, or turn joyfully to folklore, superstition, cures, magic charms and pre-Christian incantations. The resulting collection is a careful, complex lattice-work rooted by the compelling mythology of The Poison Glen in northwest Donegal.
Of this book Ní Churreáin says “The Poison Glen revolved out of me the ways dreams revolve, and the act of writing is transformative. In my pursuit of a landscape through which I might better understand the legacy in Ireland of mother and child separation, I began to mine the ancient stories of Donegal. I (re)connected with the myth of Balor of The Evil Eye who is said to have locked his daughter Eithne into a tower on Tory Island and stolen her three infant sons. According to popular retellings, Lugh, the only surviving son, returns from his fosterage as an adult and slays Balor causing a poison to spill from his eye out into the surrounding glen. It’s a tale of family splits and intergenerational wounds and, inspired by the restorative justice circles of Ireland under Brehon Law, I decided to place each member of the mythological family into a circle and to give each voice a turn to speak”.
In The Dublin Review of Books poet Thomas McCarthy hailed the collection as “a poetry of furious energy and stunning verse-craft. There are poems in The Poison Glen such as ‘Creed’ and ‘The Screaming Room’ that are simply masterpieces, the former with those startling opening words “I believe in the queer, round window; / in the queer white bird ‑ watcher of bar and bolt – ” and the latter poem with its scorching truths: “I come from women who found themselves / in trouble … In their honour I can never again be silent.” Hers is a poetry that is fire and rage burning, with an intensity of feeling that reminds me of the intensity of a young Maire Mhac an tSaoi’s work, such a work of passion and intense longing”.
The Poison Glen was listed as one of The Books of The Year 2021 in the Times Literary Supplement (UK) and The Irish Independent. The book is currently being toured at festivals in Ireland and at universities in the U.S.
As a librettist Ní Churreáin has a long-standing collaboration with Irish composer Michael Gallen of Straymaker (Ireland). She was a co-writer of the libretto on Elsewhere, a new large-scale opera based on the story of the 1919 Monaghan Asylum Soviet. Set up by Donegal man Peadar O’ Donnell, the soviet presented a revolutionary vision of what a care-centred society could look like. The story of Elsewhere unfolds through the visions of Celine, a patient of the asylum who, decades later, remains ‘locked in’ to the moment of the Soviet, believing herself to be its leader. Co-commissioned by Cie Miroirs Étendus, the Opéra de Rouen-Normandie and Creative Ireland, the opera was co-produced in Ireland by Straymaker with support of the Arts Council and the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. The work debuted at The Abbey National Theatre of Ireland in 2022 and in that same year was nominated for an Irish Theatre Award. Elsewhere will tour internationally in 2023.
Ní Churreáin is also author of a letterpress book about Dublin titled Town (The Salvage Press, 2018) which appears in special university library collections worldwide.
Ní Churreáin has a diverse and busy full-time practice as a poet and writer. She enjoys international readings and touring. Her poetry has been translated into Greek, Italian and a selection of her poems has been republished in Galician as ‘From a broken rib / Dunha costela rota’ (Urutau, 2022). Ní Churreáin is the 2022 Guest Editor of The Stony Thursday Book 44. She is a mentor to emerging poets on the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. In 2022 Ní Churreáin founded the Solas Writers Residency at The Song House (formerly The Poet’s House) in northwest Donegal. Ní Churreáin is an active member of the Irish Writers in Prisons Panel. She now lives in Dublin and lectures at the Yeats Academy of Arts, Design and Architecture ATU Sligo.
/ A Villager Speaks of Eithne
How many men did it take to drag the girl
up into the island tower?
Did she spit? Or kick? Did she try to bite
through woollen binds, lifting clumps of skinhairblood
beneath a fingernail?
Did she struggle?
Or was she simply lead, like a calf,
by hazel switch into a den?
An island daughter bears the rage of pirates in her bones.
An island daughter can empty tombs with a curse.
Here, in the aftermoon of all that followed —
marriage, infants, loss —
a badger lies wide open in The Poison Glen,
red fealeastram spilling out.
It is written here among the heather rock and electric eyes:
She was not her father’s animal.
She was not her husband’s prize.
/ The Daughter Who Went Missing
If I was to tell you that a vigil was held —
candles lit, prayers said —
or that long beams of silver torchlight scanned
the village in search,
or that the river bailiff soaked by rain was forced
to plead with the villagers,
Somebody must know something
I would be lying.
Quietly, darkness fell
upon railway tracks, outhouses, derelict sheds,
upon an empty nest curled into a leafless oak,
upon a foothold trap shimmering in the forest
like a buried star,
as all night the river kept rising,
the mess at the end unstirred
and outside the house of the missing girl
a black raven cawed,
Traitors, traitors, traitors.
/ The Screaming Room
at Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home, County Westmeath (1935-1971)
Shoulder against the outhouse door,
I push until light gives way to half-light
and find on the other side a roof caved-in,
a mud floor tangled in bramble, an empty dresser
toppled over like a ship in the ocean’s gut.
It reeks in here of the secrets of the earth.
Did these walls conceal the sound an infant
made of the body as it travelled down
along darkness into the unholy strangeness
of its own new life? Were the girls told to breathe
as they opened? Were those breaths counted
with the same precision as other fortunes?
And later, when the birth cry hit the clean,
bleached air, did anyone declare beauty?
I come from women who found themselves
in trouble, who turned to their pale reflections
and asked What can I do? What can I do?
All that fire, all that burning. In their honour
I can never again be silent.
Was it winter? Did she have a name?
Nobody said if she came from The Castle
where the girls in trouble ended up.
Nobody brought her here to this threshold.
Willowy like a flame, and yet cold.
She was fifteen-years-old — maybe. Wait.
Was it she who wore that pink dress
or was it I on the day my first lover left me
a decade later? Memory is a curse
that keeps on flowering. If you enter a home
with a hawthorn sprig, death.
If you uproot a hawthorn tree, death.
Still the image remains: she is about to place
her infant in the arms of my mother.
My mother’s arms are a moon by half.
Nobody speaks now of the ghostgirl.
Nobody grieves and the infant is gone.
And the house is all sealed up
like a dead girl’s mouth.
at St Joseph’s Industrial School, Dundalk, County Louth (1881-1983)
Here, in the aftermath of the orphanage,
I watch the local schoolgirls gathering
along the street’s chipped, black railings
and, two-by two, link slender arms to troop
uptown against the sun, all high heads
and clear temples, all grit and burning,
all clean hair flashing ponies.
Who knows the earth more than a girl?
Who knows the auguries of stone?
We were often told, you are the lowest of the low,
we cupped our hands to the grass to see how low.
What cannot be written is rising up
through the cracks. I kneel to a sowthistle,
leaf-starred and gold between my fingers,
the stalk throbbing light. I encounter
it’s living testimony, as closely as I
would encounter the expert findings
of any state report.
/ A Charm to Soothe a Love-wound
Before sunlight of the next day you must
confess to the bees the name of The One
still-held in your breath. Then cover the hive
with a black shawl. Obey the saintly air.
This colony knows the bitter lamentations
of dandelion, the heather’s fury, the ivy
that crawls on earth like a lover on hands
and knees begging, Take me back, take me back.
Honey made sweet the mouth of Maedbh
who laid claim to the bull-prize but who
saw the heart of that bull torn open. Listen,
for proof only of life-after, wings humming
eternal. If it is to be so, the bees will gift you
wisdom, teach you how to bear this sting.
/ The Mare’s Eye
On the Hill of Saints we hang white sheets
against the sun. I raise them up, my mother
pegs the corners. To become a woman is to become
not unlike an animal, she says. As she braids
my hair into a river down along the centre
of my skull, some day you will be beautiful.
We milk the goats. We wash the walls.
We feed all the infant mouths in all the cots.
One day the gods will offer you choices.
My mother, who left the field of her father
for my father’s field, walks out sometimes
in the rain to stand on the edge of ferns
and look into the mare’s eye. Deep
in the attic there are sounds at night.
In the pine cupboard there is a rope.
But the mare’s eye is an orb that shines
as whole and undisturbed as any future
she might yet encounter. Perhaps
she sees within that iris a transformed
shadow of the many-chambered heart.
I am teaching you to know the earth, she says.
Look at my hands, they’re already bone.
/ Young Offender
He was the son of a lighthouse keeper.
So he knew, second-hand, a thing or two about
keeping watch. Two weeks on, two weeks off.
His father brought him down from Hell Street
to Poolbeg and he learned how to hold
the lantern. He could see the fog coming in.
He was let touch the siren. Some said the urge
to sit in darkness with a small band of men
was in the blood. But, at fifteen, the Royal Navy
would not have him. He was always up in court
for stealing milk, skipping school. Once he cut
a stack of hay bales loose and was fined five shillings.
He was sent off to the king’s county bogs
where the Brothers swore they’d break him.
He saw a boy chomping on a woollen sock.
He saw his room-mate dig spuds like moons
out of the dirt and eat them raw. All the rest,
you can imagine—the reforming that went on
at night. When he came back he was more
than a thorn. He was a man rising up
through the ranks of an invisible ocean.
/ A Charm To Protect A Girlchild
Be patient. Wait by a window.
You want a robin, but not inside
the house. It is enough to look
through glass. There he is. There he is.
Little bond-bird, guardian of news.
The robin unpicks earth’s prophecies,
thorn by thorn, feathers the world
in breath, heals the blood-path
with moss and leaf. Let him be
a sign of spheres to come. Rid yourself
of lock and key. Go closer to the flame.
Once, the elders carved out of this
tiny breast, the heart-stone and wore it
for luck. The robin knows death,
but is not death. In the omen tongue,
the girl who cannot be stolen
is named spídeog. Speak the language
of the robin. Become apprentice
to snow. Chant life, greater
/ Lugh’s Revenge
What to name the newborn son? She and I
could not agree and, as for my brittle mood,
she sensed why. Shame is a nettle den,
and a child can sting. Turn and turn
again, you cannot escape the burning.
Weary, she reached up above a door
unhooked the leather sling and laid it
into my hands the way a cat might lay
a mouse at a foot. You think you know
love, but love knows you. Love is a stone
blade fixed to a handle of chiselled ash.
Love is the cold brute tip of a star.
Love is the look that says go settle the score.
I marched up out of that underworld,
like a man with horses in my head.
I owed it to my brothers. I was no longer
a boy who could be tossed, like a worm,
among fishes. Those who condemn war
are oblivious to suffering. Outside
the gates I kept wait until he appeared,
my grandfather pushing hazel rods.
Four men hoisted his eye-lid open
and there it was, his blue iris as blue
as the last glimpse of the island
before nightfall. Oh my king.
Tormentor of my mother.
/ A Charm to Call A Cow into Your Dreams
Open the gate, and hold still on the cusp
of this field named after the sons of sons.
Here, grazing the earth buried with skulls,
you will find her waiting: the god-gift,
matron of planet and stars; she who knows
all the constellations of bone,
she who has endured the keening of her calf,
so that kings may be mourned,
she who keeps every stone tucked in tight
beneath the night throb of her auburn bellies
as we flicker like moths, briefly wild,
briefly courageous. Ask that she follows you:
suc-suc-suc. With your hand, make a bowl
spilling yellow corn-light. Swear to peer
into no house without invitation.
Say aloud, Never again will you be stolen.