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Máighréad

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    Interview with Máighréad Medbh, Oct. 12, 1999

    MM:  My name is Máighréad Medbh.  I’m a poet, and I’ve also written a novel.  I was born in Newcastle West in the County of Limerick in Ireland.  That’s 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.  There’s a lot more to say, but I don’t know where to begin.

    MT: How did you start writing?

    MM:  Well, I’ve always written really, even when I was four and didn’t 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 didn’t 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 Pearse’s 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, “I’ve 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.  I’m 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t any literary background.  I hadn’t been published in journals.  I hadn’t lived the life.  But in fact I hadn’t lived an un-artistic life up until then, so it wasn’t as if it was coming out of the blue.

    Before the first book was published, I discovered rap.  We’d 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 didn’t know how to clap.  They didn’t know how to react.  If he or  she mentioned a word like “fuck,” everybody laughed nervously because, finally this was something like life.  I couldn’t stand the idea of boring people, and because I had come from a dramatic background,  I had a good taste for impact.  I thought I’d 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 I’m 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 you’re 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 can’t relate to them.  I’m sure I could do them if I tried, but I find them divorced from my body.  For me, poetry comes from my body.  That’s what I was trying to do.  That’s what I did with the rap as well.  It was discovering this brash projection outwards, a brashness I hadn’t 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 that’s what it was about, as well as everything else.  You don’t just get up there to massage people and to send them home with their preconceived notions.  You’ve got to disturb people and shake them up a bit.  Why can’t 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 they’re looking for is that youthful immaturity, that brashness, and I don’t know why we can’t 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.  That’s what I like about Sinéad O’Connor, 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.  It’s nobody else’s.  I was producing something that was half-music and half-poetry, so I wasn’t being accepted in the literary world, and I wasn’t 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 wasn’t out there pushing myself and producing.  I did produce tapes and sold them myself.  I did a lot of that.  But I wasn’t 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 weren’t professional enough because I wasn’t really a musician?  So I decided I’d stop using what I was using, like drum machines and samplers, and just use my voice.  I wrote a novel which hasn’t 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 didn’t feel like performing at all, and I felt it was over, for about six months or a year.  I felt that I wasn’t 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.  I’m 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 I’m moving towards is the balance between the literary and the spoken word, and, if sometimes my poems are more literary than spoken, that’s okay.  I still have a lot of spoken word poems to do.  I suppose I’m 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.  It’s 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 couldn’t fully deal with hunger of the body, because I hadn’t 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.

    I’ve 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 can’t 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 aren’t exclusively either male or female preserves, they’re 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. She’s 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 she’s 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 we’re 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 hasn’t been published yet, but it’s with Salmon Press, so I hope it will be.  And that’s where I’m at.  I’m 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.  I’m not quite sure how that all began, really.  I think it began with my reading Mary Daly’s “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 wasn’t systematically cruel, but he was hard in nature, I think, and really couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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 can’t actually rebel, or it seems impossible to rebel.  You don’t see that there’s an organization that’s against you.  You perceive the issues as personal and decide that the best thing is to just get on with it.

    That was my mother’s view.  She was a very independent woman, and she actually didn’t 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 wasn’t a victory, because my role model was a woman who stayed and who continued to stay in a situation that shouldn’t 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 I’ve ever come across in my life. She would say, “When you’re 18, go, get out of here,” and that’s why we all left and I took the Civil Service job.

    As regards feminism then, I didn’t 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 who’s 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.  That’s 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.  That’s I think what I needed to focus on in order to feel more relaxed, or to feel that there was more possibility.  I don’t think I’d 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 I’ve 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, you’ve alienated half the men in the room, which is a political act.  Or you’ve certainly put them on edge.   People come up to me from time to time and say, “You’ve got a very confrontational approach, you know,” and by being confrontational you’re being political, you’re getting a political response. I didn’t consciously say, “Now I’ve 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 that’s 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:  That’s 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 couldn’t 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 isn’t television.  This is real.  He could shoot and I could be killed.”

    Falls Rd, Belfast 

    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 can’t 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, you’d be more divorced from that, but down the country it’s immediate.  The Irish ballads, the rebel ballads, they’re on the tip of everybody’s tongue.  Two or three drinks and everybody starts singing them.  Even if you didn’t 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 weren’t involved in conventional politics, politics was just there.  Every time an election came up, there were problems in the household.  My parents couldn’t 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

    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 wouldn’t do for street Irish!”  Street Irish in a city where they weren’t 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 don’t 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.  It’s 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 what’s only a little below the surface all the time is a the love of the language, of the culture, of the music.

    It’s normal when you hear about a country which has an internal war to imagine the war has taken over the entire territory, and everybody’s 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. There’s been a lot of indifference here.

    MT:  I think, just because you were talking about Irish language, I’ll go right into one of the questions I wanted to ask you -- about your name.  I’ve interviewed a lot of women and asked them about their names, and it’s on the basis that women’s 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 can’t 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.  I’d just had a baby.  I was doing all sorts of things, getting involved in politics, writing, getting out there, performing, but I wasn’t 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 you’ve discovered something new, but for about 2 or 3 years, it didn’t sit very easily.  This is a message I’d like to get across, that sometimes you can do something that’s important and right, but it doesn’t sit easily for a while.  For two years, I was saying, “Maybe I should have chosen Fionnabhair, because I don’t have Medbh's warrior mentality.  I’m not really a warrior, am I?  I’m 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 I’m forcing something out of me that isn’t there.  Maybe I’ve 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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t like at all.  I then began to spell my first name “Máighréad.”  It can be spelt “Máiréad,” you can leave out the gh, but it’s 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 couldn’t 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 it’s a struggle, and that I fight.  Actually if I have to struggle against something, I am probably happier.  If everything is very peaceful, I don’t know where I am.  So it’s 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:  I’m 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.  That’s what I’d like to communicate.  You get an instinct for doing something and you do it, and even though something may be right, after you’ve 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? That’s an odd name!”   So for the first few years it was embarrassing, it was difficult to plow through all that, but in the end it’s just the way it should be.

    MT:  And what about your kids?  What’s their last name?

    MM:  They have Medbh yoked with their father’s name.  Medbh-McGovern.  Sometimes if they are playing sports or on teams, they’ll be called just McGovern; people leave out the Medbh because they don’t want to embarrass the boys with a girl’s name, or because they just don’t understand.  But the boys themselves like the two names.  They don’t mind it at all.  They’re used to it.  And they both have Irish first names.

    I’ve changed my passport.  It’s the name I’ve done business in for 9 or 10 years.  Every document has taken the change, right across the board.  It’s 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.”  They’re wrong, because Máighréad Medbh is who I am.

    MT:  What about the name Máighréad?  What does that mean?

    MM:  It’s Margaret in English, which means “pearl,” does it?   I’m named after my aunt who was a nun, and when my parents were registering us, they thought they couldn’t 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. We’ve 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 I’ve always been called Máiréad.

    MT:  And you were talking about Queen Medbh... are there any other heroines in your life?

    MM:  I’m 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 it’s a heroine type, I tend to identify with someone with a sense of humor, like Madonna.  If somebody has overcome something that I’m now going through, I would take her as a role model.  The nearest thing to a heroine is probably Adrienne Rich because I can’t 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 you’ve witnessed in your life.  Are there any particular things that have happened in Ireland, especially around women’s 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 weren’t allowed to speak on the radio.  They wouldn’t 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, wasn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 couldn’t tell their husbands, their friends, anybody, because you didn’t know who you could trust.  You were a criminal if you had had an abortion.  You still are of course, but there’s a lot more scope for talking now.  People aren’t damned as quickly as they were.  The Catholic Church is in its last throes.  In the past ten years, there’s 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 we’ve become more humanitarian.

    MT: Do you want to start the readings?  Do you want to introduce them first or just go straight into them?

    "Hibernia"

    Aisling Poet Mangan and "Roisin Dubh"

    MM: This poem’s 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.  She’d be weeping because her prince was across the ocean and she was waiting for him to return.  That idea’s 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.

    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 women’s 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.

    EASTER 1991

           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'll die

           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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t exactly knocking me -- but she was saying that she didn’t get any belly laughs and she didn’t 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, “I’m in exactly the place I want to be right now and I’m totally happy, my life is great” -- and that just wasn’t 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 didn’t sit right with me.  But I made the decision for survival, and it’s 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 I’m 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 don’t know for years why you’ve 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 don’t actually know why you did something until 20 years have passed.  Unfortunately I can’t blind myself.  I wish I could.  I wish I could just blinker myself.  But there’s no hope of catarax where I’m concerned.  I always seem to be compelled to look at what I’m doing and be aware of what I’m doing.  And I’m 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 people’s 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.

    That’s 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 it’s 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 don’t know if it is to drink
    or howl.
     

    *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.”

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    Máighréad Medbh's websites:
     

    http://www.mothermillenia.org/MaighreadMedbh.html
    http://www.salmonpoetry.com/tenant.html


    Related Transcripts:
     

    Writing:

    The Border:

    Motherhood:

    Abortion Rights:

    Queen Medbh: