Interview with Máighréad Medbh, Oct. 12, 1999
MM: My name is Máighréad Medbh. Im a poet, and Ive also written a novel. I was born in Newcastle West in the County of Limerick in Ireland. Thats down Southwest and inland. Like most of us in that era, we had very difficult childhoods. I had a very difficult childhood.
I live in Dublin now. Theres a lot more to say, but I dont know where to begin.
MT: How did you start writing?
MM: Well, Ive always written really, even when I was four and didnt know any words, I was out the back with a biro and paper writing letters, well, my form of letters. Originally, I wanted to dance and sing, and didnt get around to doing the dancing. I used to sing a lot. So poetry for me comes out of movement and song. In my teens, I loved Dylan Thomas. I also learned off poems, like Pádraig Pearses poems, and other poems that I met along the way.
When I was about 16, I remember distinctly, this scene. My brother was cutting logs for the fire at the back of the house. Because he was cutting and making noise at the same time, I found it possible to approach him. He was my mentor at the time. I really looked up to him. He was three years older than me. I said, Ive written poetry. He stopped for a second, and then says, Well, so have I, but I burnt it all. So I went in and burnt all my poems. Im sorry because I remember a particular one that I showed to my mother, and she was quite surprised. It would have been interesting to have those poems now.
After that I joined the Civil Service for a number of years. Everybody joined the Civil Service, well, all of our family did, because you needed a job, and you wanted to get away from home. So that was something to do, and I didnt have enough money to go to university. I wanted money, I wanted independence, I wanted to get away. So I joined the Civil Service, which was basically a social life for me anyway. I worked as few hours of the day as possible, and then socialised. I studied at night, and I did acting and all sorts of things.
I only started seriously writing poetry again when I was 29. I had been dabbling all along but when I was 29 I got involved in a Writers Workshop. We brought out a couple of books which got good reviews, and then I decided to do my own collection, which was published quickly. I was surprised that the collection was published so quickly because I thought I hadnt any literary background. I hadnt been published in journals. I hadnt lived the life. But in fact I hadnt lived an un-artistic life up until then, so it wasnt as if it was coming out of the blue.
Before the first book was published, I discovered rap. Wed been doing poetry readings. There was a poetry scene. The poetry readings were pretty low key, and especially poetry readings by professionals. The amateurs were much better, more exciting. The professionals were always totally boring. Everybody sat there as if they didnt know how to clap. They didnt know how to react. If he or she mentioned a word like fuck, everybody laughed nervously because, finally this was something like life. I couldnt stand the idea of boring people, and because I had come from a dramatic background, I had a good taste for impact. I thought Id go with the rap sound. Rap was so exciting, and it was poetry as far as I was concerned.
I had left the Civil Service, and I was on the dole. Some money came my way and I got a drum machine, and the partner I was with at the time also got a drum machine. He started doing radical political rap, and I did the same, with an emphasis on feminism. It all went down very well. I was living in Belfast at the time. It was very exciting. There was a lot of energy around. I used some of the regular hip-hop rhythms, but I also used Irish rhythms. As time went on, as the years passed, I used fewer of the hip-hop rhythms and went with the traditional songs, the songs I knew. I went with a type of consciousness and a type of approach that suited me better. I suppose I go from being contemplative to being very flippant, and thence to anger, but Im really quite contemplative. That would be probably the larger side of me. So I went with more organic rhythms.
My original purpose with poetry was always to make the sound and the form mirror the sense, so that it becomes a kind of dance - what youre talking about is reflected in the form of the poem. That was my answer to the perennial question, instead of trying sonnets and sestinas and haikus. I find them impossible because I cant relate to them. Im sure I could do them if I tried, but I find them divorced from my body. For me, poetry comes from my body. Thats what I was trying to do. Thats what I did with the rap as well. It was discovering this brash projection outwards, a brashness I hadnt been brought up to project. You can see a kind of reticence with most Irish women singers: it is still a lot more acceptable to sing slow airs and sensitive stuff than to get up and shout and yell and scream. Which is what I started to do. I thought there should be screaming in poetry. There should be rock in poetry. There should be profanities in poetry, because thats what it was about, as well as everything else. You dont just get up there to massage people and to send them home with their preconceived notions. Youve got to disturb people and shake them up a bit. Why cant poetry be like rock? Why is it if a 19-year-old poet produces a book of work that has edges to it and is a bit strident -- my first book, The Making of a Pagan, was called strident -- the critics say, When she matures everything is going to be okay? If you go into rock music, what theyre looking for is that youthful immaturity, that brashness, and I dont know why we cant accept it in poetry. We all know that everybody matures, but there is such an important contribution to be made by people who are immature and urgent and nervous and growing up in public with their knickers off. Thats what I like about Sinéad OConnor, because she shows all of those things.
The way it progressed though is that I tended to fall between two stones. Now this is just my own career problem. Its nobody elses. I was producing something that was half-music and half-poetry, so I wasnt being accepted in the literary world, and I wasnt a musician. Because I had two children and my home situation was a bit difficult, childminding and that sort of thing - I had difficulty with contacts. I wasnt out there pushing myself and producing. I did produce tapes and sold them myself. I did a lot of that. But I wasnt sending demos to record companies.
I came to a point where I had to make some sort of decision: Where was I going to go? Was I going to continue with music, find a band, or continue with producing my own songs which I felt werent professional enough because I wasnt really a musician? So I decided Id stop using what I was using, like drum machines and samplers, and just use my voice. I wrote a novel which hasnt been published yet. I do still recite poetry. For a while there I just retired. I was hoping that nobody would ask me to do anything, because I didnt feel like performing at all, and I felt it was over, for about six months or a year. I felt that I wasnt going to perform again, that I was going to go into philosophy or something.
But that seems to have turned around quite a lot. I am writing. Im producing works for the page. I just published another book. This is my first one since 1990, since I got into performance poetry. I perform works from the book. I recite them. I sing them. I suppose what Im moving towards is the balance between the literary and the spoken word, and, if sometimes my poems are more literary than spoken, thats okay. I still have a lot of spoken word poems to do. I suppose Im focusing more on writing now, and am quite open to doing nonfiction work in the future. But funny enough when I took the pressure off myself with regard to performance, I began to feel quite relaxed about the whole thing.
My latest book is Tenant. Its a narrative sequence which tells the story of a fictitious family who lived during the famine years. The location is West Limerick where I grew up. It was a very interesting project because, it was written for the internet as a multi-media sequence. I wrote a poem a month, having done the background research as well. It has a poetry layer; a fictional layer and a historical layer. It was a journey in a lot of ways, because in exploring hunger, I knew I couldnt fully deal with hunger of the body, because I hadnt really experienced it. I could only look from the outside at hunger of the body. But I could certainly understand hunger of the mind, and a certain type of hunger of the body, for example hunger for self-expression. So the characters in Tenant, are not so much starving for food, but for national identity, personal identity; starving because they feel in some way isolated from others around them. All of these are dealt with within the context of the actual events. Each poem is placed at a point in time, say, February 1847, when something specific happened. They follow the planting times and they follow the harvest times and the failure of the crop.
Ive been thinking I should get out of this, but I like a poetic sequence to be a circle. Even though it may not come across when you read it, in my mind the text is contained in a shell, a capsule. The capsule is thematically the fairy tale of Rapunzel, the split mind, the animus and the anima. When a nation is colonized, what survives well is what would normally be identified as the feminine side: desire, dreams, hopes, imagination, the artistic side. But you cant express your identity and neither can you get anything material from the world, because all of your material resources are controlled by the colonial power. While these arent exclusively either male or female preserves, theyre usually identified as male and female sides of the psyche. So if you take say the Rapunzel story as being like a dream, where each part of the story represents a part of the human being, the dream side, the desire side, is thriving and alive, but the side which is normally represented as male, that fights for your dreams, is dead or is ailing. The first and last poems in Tenant have the speaker disassociated from her drive, which manifests in the form of a shadow, a prince at the bedside. Shes disassociated from her individuation, from her ability to achieve. And at the end she rises from the earth, because the earth is where our memories are, she rises, and because shes weeping, she gives sight to the man she now meets, to her male side. So in the same way as Rapunzel, by crying, opened the eyes of the prince, by crying, by weeping, by remembering the tragedy of the famine, we can open our eyes to all the various aspects of life and all the things that were going to experience, all the things that our forefathers and foremothers have experienced, and take the reins and move on. In the end she is put back together again.
My latest book is a book of dreams. It hasnt been published yet, but its with Salmon Press, so I hope it will be. And thats where Im at. Im working on a novel now. [This book will be published in 2001.]
MT: In terms of style and content, what has changed over the years? Would you have considered yourself a political poet, and has that changed?
MM: Yes, I would have considered myself a political poet. Im not quite sure how that all began, really. I think it began with my reading Mary Dalys Pure Lust in 1988. I was pregnant. You see, pregnancy radicalized me. Having a baby radicalized me because I thought, I have to be myself now. I have to stand for something now that I have a baby. Also, Pure Lust was extraordinary for me because for the first time I got the sense of a world-wide conspiracy. I mean, my father was quite a misogynist, really, and, I had seen this in action, and the theory behind it. He wasnt systematically cruel, but he was hard in nature, I think, and really couldnt relate. He actually had a misogynist philosophy. He believed that women were out to get men. He used words like female wiles and head of the household. He was supported in all of this by theology, and a set of ideologies that went back for thousands of years. But I didnt think about it in those terms. I thought that when I left home that it would all be over, finished, and, I am never going to take any shit from anyone! And, I dont have to. And, I am quite powerful. In a family situation where you have a challenge to survival, you can end up being very conservative and not radical at all, because number one is survival. In some situations, you cant actually rebel, or it seems impossible to rebel. You dont see that theres an organization thats against you. You perceive the issues as personal and decide that the best thing is to just get on with it.
That was my mothers view. She was a very independent woman, and she actually didnt change at all, not one iota of herself, I think, for my father. She always managed to maintain a sense of joy, which in her life I think was a victory. But for me, it wasnt a victory, because my role model was a woman who stayed and who continued to stay in a situation that shouldnt have been allowed to exist. Politically, you could say, she should have taken a stand and moved out or whatever, but in her life, I think she got greater dignity by dealing with it, staying there, still being joyful and still doing her own thing. The problem was that, the children, were lost in between. They were both living out their own destinies, and we were caught because we had no choice. We were reared to leave. My mother would never have held us back. She was actually the most unselfish person Ive ever come across in my life. She would say, When youre 18, go, get out of here, and thats why we all left and I took the Civil Service job.
As regards feminism then, I didnt make any political connections for about ten years after leaving home. I was again trying to survive emotionally, so I was drinking, socializing, doing drama classes, writing some poetry, getting into all sorts of different things. When I discovered Mary Daly, it was like the bottom dropped out of my world, because it was a global conspiracy, and things have never been the same since. After that, because I have quite a combative attitude, I felt, I have to fight against this. I also felt that the world was suddenly a horrible place, that there was no hope really. How could this kind of conspiracy have been in train for so long? It was quite overwhelming. I started reading more feminists, and then of course felt it had to get into my work. My work was always personal and autobiographical, but with the personal becoming political and the political personal, you begin to see everything in a political light.
It was very good for me, because it was, well, I suppose it was an education. It was necessary. It had to happen. But I was kind of forcing myself to grow up and forcing myself to be brash and strong and to say something about all of these issues. I think that one of my first poems was about rape, Our Streets, which is in The Making of a Pagan. I put drum beats and sounds to that. In a sense, the discovery of feminism liberated my work from what it could have been. It could have been quite pedantic, because looking back at some earlier poems, they were quite measured. I was quite focused in on verbal and line structure. I might have stayed there, but the discovery of feminism and a political place for the poet breathed an extra sense of life into the work as well as myself.
For about six years now I have considered myself a political poet, but in the past couple of years I have been broadening my view of everything. For about five or six years, my writing would always have had this backdrop of duty that says: I have to include women here. If I include women here, they have to be a particular type of woman. You have to be saying a particular type of thing. The duty held me back from joy in my work and in myself because everything shrunk to a whip over my hand: Who am I going to offend? You have to be correct here, and also what are the repercussions? Am I going to hurt somebody whos vulnerable by saying this?
All of those concerns were driving me crazy after about five years, and I needed to return to who I was, whether that was politically correct or not. I needed to speak in my own way. I needed to live in my own way. I needed to work out my own relationships in my own way. I needed to work out my own poetry, listening to something deeper than the present political canon, whether it be feminist or Republican or whatever. Thats not to say that I regret the political work at all, but this was a movement on, and I suppose I discovered that the personal, the purely personal, in the sense of what you can get from your personal life and personal searching and personal journey, is more universal than politics. Politics is a point in time, and every society is a point in time, and time is an enormous continuum. I became more interested in searching for universal truths, rather than for the particular truth of ideologies, and you discover universal truths from tiny things that happen everyday. Thats I think what I needed to focus on in order to feel more relaxed, or to feel that there was more possibility. I dont think Id be suited to being a political writer long-term because I find it too depressing.
MT: So have you come through on the other side of that, or are you still in the middle of processing all of it?
MM: My new work is very different from the political work. It is not overtly political. I think Ive moved away quite a lot from being identified as a political poet as such. Then again, as a woman, if you get up and you do a really overtly sexual poem, for example, youve alienated half the men in the room, which is a political act. Or youve certainly put them on edge. People come up to me from time to time and say, Youve got a very confrontational approach, you know, and by being confrontational youre being political, youre getting a political response. I didnt consciously say, Now Ive stopped being political. What happened was that I discovered other things in my life. Living in Belfast for a year, meant I could never be the same again. I could never ignore political matters again. I could never be unaware of certain responsibilities ever again. So thats always there somewhere. I suppose I feel my first responsibility now is to express myself as honestly as I can, and I feel much more liberated in that.
MT: Thats another thing I wanted to ask you about: the border, which comes up so much in your work. What do you mean by the fact it changed you, and that you now have this responsibility?
MM: It was another chapter in my political awareness. It was a crash course in politics. I have always been very personal, a bit mystic, and I respond to everything physically. Living in a place like Belfast, you are pushed into taking a side, you have to make decisions, you have to be aware. It was 1989 when I moved up there. At that time the British Army was swarming the streets. You couldnt get away from it. The night we got arrived we heard gun shots on the other side of the wall. I was never afraid for my life, but I remember a week after I was up there, I was traveling in a black taxi up the Falls Road and there were soldiers pointing guns at the taxi. For the first time I thought, This isnt television. This is real. He could shoot and I could be killed.
I studied history in college, but in addition to that, you grew up in Ireland with a consciousness of the border. We all did. Practically every household had political arguments. My father was Labour, and my mother was Fianna Fáil. So my mother kept saying, The English have to go. I mean you cant live a few weeks in an Irish household without the mention of the English and the Irish, even still, and certainly in those days. My parents were products of the Civil War. They were brought up in a certain political atmosphere. My father was always considered a Free-Stater in West Limerick, which was DeValera country, so that constantly came up. For the entire length of time that he spent in Newcastle West, he was considered a Free-Stater, or he perceived himself as a Free-Stater. So politics was always there, and the border was an ever-present reality. Possibly if you grew up in Dublin, youd be more divorced from that, but down the country its immediate. The Irish ballads, the rebel ballads, theyre on the tip of everybodys tongue. Two or three drinks and everybody starts singing them. Even if you didnt understand them or feel anything for them in your everyday life, there is this power that the words and the music carry, and it lives on in our lives. So politics, even though our family werent involved in conventional politics, politics was just there. Every time an election came up, there were problems in the household. My parents couldnt talk to each other! My mother used to think the English had to get out, and my father used to say if the English got out, there would be a bloodbath
Falls Rd, Belfast
Going to Belfast meant that I understood it a bit better. Living with the people in West Belfast, just off the Falls, one thing that struck me very strongly was their amazing endurance and the trouble they went to to learn the Irish language. Learning Irish in school was no problem for me, I loved it; a lot of people hated it because it was compulsory. But the Belfast people went to so much trouble for it. This woman said to me, Oh, she says, I only know street Irish. I gaped at her, thinking, What I wouldnt do for street Irish! Street Irish in a city where they werent taught Irish at school, where they had to go out and personally learn it from scratch. I thought the notion of street Irish in Belfast was so amazing and romantic. I suppose maybe what you dont understand if you grow up in America, and even talking about it now, you may forget as an Irish person, is that our history is very very important to us here, and our land. Its almost inescapable really, especially I suppose in a family like mine, because my uncle and grand uncle were involved in the Gaelic League, and my grand uncle was in the first Dáil. We have a political background and an Irish language background, so whats only a little below the surface all the time is a the love of the language, of the culture, of the music.
Its normal when you hear about a country which has an internal war to imagine the war has taken over the entire territory, and everybodys running around with guns, but the reality is much stranger, how you can have pockets of intense political activity, and 40 miles down the road you have a glib indifference. Theres been a lot of indifference here.
MT: I think, just because you were talking about Irish language, Ill go right into one of the questions I wanted to ask you -- about your name. Ive interviewed a lot of women and asked them about their names, and its on the basis that womens last names are always husbands and fathers, but I assume that yours was chosen and not inherited.
MM: Around the same time as I discovered Mary Daly, I discovered Julia Penelope. I liked what she had done with her name, and of course discovered that many feminists had changed their surnames. I chose my name because you cant inherit a name in the female line. My name originally was Máiréad and my surname was Buckley. I chose the surname Medbh, because Medbh was a mythical Irish queen, who was quite a raunchy type really. It was very odd because at the same time that I changed my name, I had changed my life. I had left my job. Id just had a baby. I was doing all sorts of things, getting involved in politics, writing, getting out there, performing, but I wasnt conscious of changing my name because I had changed my life; I changed my name for the sake of feminism, to make this feminist point. Maybe you do change your life automatically, or maybe you change your name because youve discovered something new, but for about 2 or 3 years, it didnt sit very easily. This is a message Id like to get across, that sometimes you can do something thats important and right, but it doesnt sit easily for a while. For two years, I was saying, Maybe I should have chosen Fionnabhair, because I dont have Medbh's warrior mentality. Im not really a warrior, am I? Im not really as brash and as full of myself and as raunchy as Medbh is at all. Why did I chose Medbh? Maybe this is dishonest. Maybe Im forcing something out of me that isnt there. Maybe Ive tried to present myself as being a bit more brash than I am or being more of a warrior than I am. And then of course I spelled it in an odd way. I spelled it in the old Irish way, which made everything difficult. The reason I spelled it in the old Irish way was to remember history. Because of my interest in words, I like to remember how they were spelled before, where it came from. I didnt want to spell it in an Anglicized way. Medbh McGuckian spells her name Medbh, so I spell my second name, my surname Medbh. Of course I sometimes get mistaken for Medbh McGuckian, which she wouldnt like at all. I then began to spell my first name Máighréad. It can be spelt Máiréad, you can leave out the gh, but its the gh in the middle that gives it the guttural sound: Máighréad.
After a few years it became so natural that, at this point, I couldnt imagine being called anything else. Things took an interesting turn when I started studying astrology, because I discovered I have Mars in my ascendant, and I also have Venus in Aries, so I am a warrior and my whole attitude to life is that its a struggle, and that I fight. Actually if I have to struggle against something, I am probably happier. If everything is very peaceful, I dont know where I am. So its not so much that I discovered the warrior that was in me, but over time I realized that I did have quite a warrior approach to life, and whereas I might not be as successful as Queen Medbh, the energy is there.
MT: So you kind of grew into it in a way?
MM: Im not sure I grew into it. I think I made the right choice in the beginning, not knowing that it was the right choice. As the years go by and you experience different things, you discover the many different aspects of yourself. Thats what Id like to communicate. You get an instinct for doing something and you do it, and even though something may be right, after youve done it, you are going, Aargh! How am I going to face other people here? How am I going to say my name is Máighréad Medbh? Every time I say it over the phone I get, Sorry? What? Thats an odd name! So for the first few years it was embarrassing, it was difficult to plow through all that, but in the end its just the way it should be.
MT: And what about your kids? Whats their last name?
MM: They have Medbh yoked with their fathers name. Medbh-McGovern. Sometimes if they are playing sports or on teams, theyll be called just McGovern; people leave out the Medbh because they dont want to embarrass the boys with a girls name, or because they just dont understand. But the boys themselves like the two names. They dont mind it at all. Theyre used to it. And they both have Irish first names.
Ive changed my passport. Its the name Ive done business in for 9 or 10 years. Every document has taken the change, right across the board. Its not just a stage name. But if I go home to Newcastle West, they often introduce me with, This is Máiréad Buckley, who writes under the name of Máighréad Medbh. Theyre wrong, because Máighréad Medbh is who I am.
MT: What about the name Máighréad? What does that mean?
MM: Its Margaret in English, which means pearl, does it? Im named after my aunt who was a nun, and when my parents were registering us, they thought they couldnt register Irish names. They thought they had to be in English. That attitude was a relic from colonization. You must remember we are a very young state. Weve only been established since 1921. So the birth certificates in my family show English names, but my mother and father wanted to call us by Irish names, so they translated them. My birth certificate says Margaret and Ive always been called Máiréad.
MT: And you were talking about Queen Medbh... are there any other heroines in your life?
MM: Im not so sure about heroines really, but certainly writers. Adrienne Rich is just a tremendous source of power, strength, and sustenance for me. Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, these are contemporaries whom I admire an awful lot. Queen Medbh would be a heroine, but I would tend to identify with the underdog, or if its a heroine type, I tend to identify with someone with a sense of humor, like Madonna. If somebody has overcome something that Im now going through, I would take her as a role model. The nearest thing to a heroine is probably Adrienne Rich because I cant do anything without having a book of hers close by.
MT: The last question I have before we go into the readings, and this might be too vague, but one of the themes of my project is change, and it seems like obviously your work has changed, but I was also curious to ask you about the change youve witnessed in your life. Are there any particular things that have happened in Ireland, especially around womens issues, that have really impacted on you? I mean obviously being a mother was a big one as you said earlier, but would there be any issues that happened along the way that really propelled you either to get involved politically or to write politically?
MM: There have been so many issues in the past ten years, and for me, it has been a very hectic ten years, so to look back is interesting. When I wrote Easter 1991, for example, we had a censorship act. That was aimed at the Republicans, at Sinn Fein. They werent allowed to speak on the radio. They wouldnt even let you talk about gardening on the radio if you were a member of Sinn Fein. But there was also a sense of being censored right across the board. The question of abortion, I think it came up in 1992; that was when the X case was, wasnt it? What was extraordinary was that when that occurred I realised that if you had ever had an abortion, you were better advised to keep it to yourself. It was a criminal offence in Ireland, so we were experiencing an enforced silence. There was lots of silence about divorce, too. You could be divorced in England and come over here, but there was a shame about it. People would be in second marriages but the neighbors wouldnt know. Nobody would know. There were certain things you could not say. I was disturbed by images I had of women in the countryside, women walking the fields with a secret they couldnt tell their husbands, their friends, anybody, because you didnt know who you could trust. You were a criminal if you had had an abortion. You still are of course, but theres a lot more scope for talking now. People arent damned as quickly as they were. The Catholic Church is in its last throes. In the past ten years, theres been so much exposure of the child abuse that took place in Catholic institutions, by nuns and priests, that the general faith has been severely undermined. The bastion has been broken.
With the breaking of that bastion -- and of course the coming to justice of corrupt politicians -- we now have an open field, at least a much more open field than ten years ago, at least to speak. Legal divorce is a reality now, and at least abortion information is available. In 1991 you couldnt get information on where to go for an abortion. It was illegal to give information. I considered an abortion in 1990, and I think if I didnt have to travel to England, I might have had it There were women who were working in the area -- you could go to certain places where women would give you information, but there was a climate of fear. I think that fear has dissipated. You know, when a society is church ridden, decisions are more likely to based on ideals and notions of the deity, which become more important than the flesh and blood human in front of you. I think weve become more humanitarian.
MT: Do you want to start the readings? Do you want to introduce them first or just go straight into them?
MM: This poems called EASTER 1991. Obviously it was written at Easter, 1991. What I wanted to do here was to reclaim a very old image of women -- for poetry and for women. Ireland has been depicted for quite a long time as a woman. The land is seen as feminine, which is fine, but the problem was that the vast majority of published poets up to the beginning of this century were men. So you had a poem in the 1600-1700s called the Aisling where a woman, who was a fairy woman, would come to the poet, personifying Ireland. Shed be weeping because her prince was across the ocean and she was waiting for him to return. That ideas all very well except that it can be disabling if you feel that, as a woman, you have no control over what happens in your country ? and that is how it panned out. Pádraig Pearse wrote a poem called Mise Éire, which means, I am Ireland. I wanted to write my own.
Aisling Poet Mangan and "Roisin Dubh"
Also around Easter 1991, censorship was very very difficult in Ireland. If you spoke about Republican matters, you were looking over your shoulder all the time. There was quite a heavy police interest in groups like Sinn Fein, both down South and up North. People were being intimidated quite a lot.
Another source of intimidation of course was the abortion issue and generally, speaking about womens issues in an open way was unacceptable. Looking back at this poem now, nine years later, I can recall very strongly how it was and how things like this desperately needed to be said at the time.
I am Ireland and I'm sick
sick in the womb / sick in the head
and I'm sick of lying in this sickbed
and if the medical men don't stop operating /
I am Ireland / and if I die
my name will go down in the censor's fire
my face in the mirror is shy /
I have painted it too many time
there's nothing to like about this kind of beauty
I am Ireland / and I don't know what I am
they tell me things in sham films like The Field /
that the travellers are pink-faced romantics in fairy caravans
that my villages are full of eejits and lúdramáns
that my pagan power is dead
it was made for Hollywood / not for me
I am Ireland / and I'm silenced
I cannot tell my abortions / my divorces / my years of slavery /
my fights for freedom
it's got to the stage I can hardly remember what I had to tell /
and when I do / I speak in whispers
I am Ireland / and I've nowhere to run
I've spent my history / my energy / my power / my money
to build him up /
and he gave me back nothing I didn't take myself
inside my head the facts are loud /
only two women's shelters in Dublin /
on Stephen's Day a man petrol-bombs one /
and on the same day / gets out on bail
abortion is a criminal offence
abortion information is stopped
divorce is denied /
the Gardaí don't interfere
the facts are loud /
Sharon Gregg dies in Mountjoy
Fearghal Carraher dies in Cullyhanna
Patrick Sheehy dies in Nenagh
Dessie Ellis is handed on a stretcher to my enemy /
the facts are loud /
Bishop Cathal Daly wants less talk of AIDS
thousands emigrate each year
half of my children are poor
and the poorest of all are my daughters
I am Ireland / and the poor die young
and the poor are easily sold
and the poor are the ones who fight
and because they fight / they die
I am Ireland / and the Angelus Bell is tolling for me
this illegal border will always be /
unless we get up off our bended knee
the priests run my schools and my history
there's no free state in the Catholic See
I am Ireland / and I'm sick
I'm sick of this tidy house where I exist /
that reminds me of nothing
not of the past / not of the future
I'm sick of depression
I'm sick of shame
I'm sick of poverty
I'm sick of politeness
I'm sick of looking over my shoulder
I'm sick of standing on the shore /
waiting for some prince to come on the tide
Mise Éire /
agus an ghaoth ag éirí láidir i mo chluasa
agus n'fheadar an é biseach nó bás a thiocfaidh
Mise Éire /
agus n'fheadar an bhfuil mé óg nó sean
Mise Éire /
agus níl mé ag feitheamh a thuilleadh
I am Ireland /
and I'm not waiting anymore
EASTER 1995: Hunger
Then I saw the face of hunger
walking Dublin tearful with no heart to belong
the voice in my head booming:
you're wrong / you're strange / you're gutless / you're insane
I saw the face of hunger
the little girl crying as she begged outside the Ulster Bank
locked in a cage called Family
I saw the face of hunger
staring from the boxes of my childhood and now
that tell me some pence would salve the sins of centuries
I saw the face of hunger
an old man dancing in a London street
young men walking with humbled heads
a woman and her daughter in a history book
their bones pointing out from their flesh
they weren't even black
And I don't want to see my face
I don't want to touch the bones of my disgrace
that I could be the one who'd die
that I'd not have the power to destroy
that so many people could have looked and despised
I don't want to see my face
I can almost understand
what it's like to be Irish on a strange ground
what it's like to live on the Ormeau
while the Orange Order march
what it's like to have your culture banned
Don't sing that song Don't fly that flag
what it's like to be moved along
to be barred from pubs
to be stared at and snubbed
And I can almost understand
what it's like to struggle for a fancied supremacy
clutching the faded brocade of Empire
what it's like when your safe place burns
and the only option is an open field
and by god you can't stand the light on your eyes
You don't want to see your face
you don't want to see the marks that have no grace
you want to pretend that poverty has ended
that all human suffering has been suspended
you don't want to see your face
I can almost understand
because I cry at the thought of hunger pains
but the world has grown so big
that you don't know the power of your own hand
or the harm your indifference makes
you're on the line that won't stop for breath
your children need and need and need
you're too dog-tired to analyse
But the world has grown so small
Today is America / tomorrow is all
Can we find the one true place
the safe house of the open heart
where all things happen that were ever done
and you can almost understand
that being small doesn't mean you're wrong
that being weak doesn't mean you'll never walk
that being strong doesn't mean you'll live forever
that being hungry doesn't always mean you'll die
What's in me now was in you then
Can we begin to mend the rift
that keeps the present from the past
that separates the Us from Them
and come to know in some unbordered time
that we were all born
from the same careless remembering wind
That I might want to see my face
to stroke and ease the bones of my disgrace
that I might see my terror die
that I might know what to destroy
that I might want to see my face
This is called The Emerald Pool. It was written last year, in 1998. When you get involved in the feminist movement at any level, certainly for me, I felt an obligation to be doing things which were supporting women but also to be happy myself, and that wasnt always so easy. For example when I brought out the first book, which generally feminists hailed as being great, one woman criticized it because -- well it was sort of an oblique criticism, she wasnt exactly knocking me -- but she was saying that she didnt get any belly laughs and she didnt get any sense of great confidence in the book. And why should there be? It seemed to me as the movement gained force and strength that to be in any way angst-ridden was suddenly unacceptable. So you had to present yourself as having made it, having everything worked out ? we all had to be in a position where we could say, Im in exactly the place I want to be right now and Im totally happy, my life is great -- and that just wasnt the case.
Certainly, in my own life, I found myself making a decision that was totally against everything I knew to be, well, politically acceptable. There were aspects of it that didnt sit right with me. But I made the decision for survival, and its not something that I could really relate to everybody, and not something I could relate in a political meeting by any means. I think most of the time there are very broad issues at work in our life, very very broad energies, things that come from, maybe your family, or from maybe before you were born, a certain fatedness, connections between people that may lead you to do things that may not to other people seem very rational. I rationally made this decision that Im talking about, rationally, because it was the lesser of two evils. And I was interested in trying to present in this poem how you can live life at two different levels. Sometimes you can make a choice, and you dont know for years why youve made that choice. You can look at people who have addressed this sort of thing, like Isabelle Allende, and see that there are issues that are so huge that you dont actually know why you did something until 20 years have passed. Unfortunately I cant blind myself. I wish I could. I wish I could just blinker myself. But theres no hope of catarax where Im concerned. I always seem to be compelled to look at what Im doing and be aware of what Im doing. And Im also aware of the implications.
The emerald pool is an archetypal symbol for the Piscean consciousness.
THE EMERALD POOL
I am no self-contained woman
no deep-throated double-breasted repository of power
I am a wild dog scrounging for scraps
in a forest scorched of nourishment
and why am I here -
because it spins me shelter
from the pack that is forever snarling at my scent.
Here I can hide feed my pups
our bodies swell and our spirits wait.
When one day you are at the window -
outside is a clamorous flux
of words philosophies analyses trends
untended nature parks chains cars computers
confident heels ascending knees argument
certain involvement laughs love hope
other people desiring other peoples methods -
and all you are is a spot where you stand
the spaceship departing in a light-cone
infusing the message We will return -
there seems no choice but to enter
the only portal that remains unshielded.
Thats how I came to say yes
and accept even briefly the silence that warps me.
To stand here and watch may be radical too
as cruel on the gut as fighting
as hard to be scaled in the still deep emerald pool
as it is to be armoured in the field.
I have known that element as if I could live there
I have floated face up and down
and once I swallowed some
that shaped inside.
I felt it form into a hand-shaped bowl
that sits there now in a beg
as if I could bend to a place so internal its distant.
This is my habit.
I swim and am sleeked come striding out
shoulders back hair pressed to my neck
my sculpted body a polished teak.
I rest until the trees start a whisper at my back
the forest begins to cackle and the sun does nothing to help.
My fingers stiffen lose their quickness
mass up like the toes which have begun to arch
and sprout sickles of claws.
My skin turns harsh
my body convulses and re-forms.
In the emerald pool
the image I see shows two new eyes
bulging behind the fringe.
My warp-spasm has not phased it.
Sí Gaoithe* in the valley
and this cursed pool will only sit prettily green
waiting to lap me in.
When I open my mouth I dont know if it is to drink
*Máighréad adds: 'Sí Gaoithe' mean 'Fairy Wind' and refers to a freak wind, a type of tornado, or maybe the tail-end of some hurricane from the Atlantic.
Top of Page