In Honor of Brigid, In Honor of the Magdalenes

Yesterday was St. Brigid’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. Brigid has long been revered in Ireland, and her day is marked with many special rituals and traditions to honor her. This year marks the first time her day will be recognized as a public holiday in Ireland (on February 6), a recognition surely long overdue.

Outside Ireland, many Catholics and Christians know little to nothing about her and may not even be aware there are other Irish saints (patron or otherwise) beyond Patrick. Maybe it’s sexism or maybe Brigid’s devotees just need some better PR.

There’s no shortage of great stories and miracles about her to spread around. Some stories claim she was originally a Celtic fertility goddess whose cult was Christianized and whose pagan festival of Imbolc, which honored the coming of spring, was turned into a Catholic holy day. The Church says she was a real, historical woman who lived in the 5th century and founded an important abbey in Kildare. Irish folklore tells of Brigid liberating women from servitude and concubinage–though maybe it was really Brigid who was sprung from slavery, since her mother was said to be a slave and her father a chieftain. A more unusual legend tells of Brigid healing a blind nun, who asked to return to “beauty of darkness” after realizing “the clarity of sight blurred God in the eye of the soul.”

In honor of this day, I’m sharing a story I wrote about recently for an article in the January issue of Sojourners magazine. It’s a piece on the Magdalene laundries in Ireland–specifically, an advocacy group that seeks justice for the survivors of the laundries: Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR).

For the article, I interviewed all five members of the group. I also interviewed a woman involved with Clann Project, a JFMR joint initiative, Mary Harney. Mary’s mother had been incarcerated in a Magdalene laundry, which resulted in Mary being taken away from her and incarcerated in an industrial school. She grew up to become an activist for many causes, including the cause of justice for her and other survivors of Ireland’s religious and institutional abuse.

Another woman whose story was included was that of Catherine, who had been in a Magdalene laundry as a young woman, before emigrating to England and then the United States. Catherine passed away several years ago, but not before forming a friendship with one of JFMR’s members and finally sharing her story that she had long kept a secret.

Mary and Catherine’s stories were both left out of the final version of my article. As someone who has worked in publishing for years, in many different roles, I understand why such decisions get made. There are space limitations in any print publication, plus different angles get highlighted and centered depending on the readership. But of course, it’s still disappointing. Mary and Catherine’s stories are important to know not least so that people in the Church–and anyone concerned about human rights–understand that church and state abuse in Ireland is not a problem of the past but very much still impacting survivors’ lives and Irish society.

A vigil outside the Dáil in Dublin on February 19, 2013, organized in conjunction with the National Women’s Council of Ireland, after the release of the Inter-Departmental Committee Report (McAleese Report). Photo credit Mark Stedman/

It’s also not exclusive to Ireland. Catherine’s story alone tells us there are women who survived the laundries living among us in the U.S. The experience of JFMR’s founder Mari Steed, who was born to a Magdalene survivor and trafficked from a religious institution in Ireland to a family in the U.S. as a child, as well as Mary Harney’s tells us that thousands of their children live among us too. Steed’s life story in particular is a reminder that there were Magdalene asylums for “fallen women” in 20th-century America.

The experience and testimonies of Ireland’s survivors of church and state abuse should also be known to any American concerned about the future of reproductive rights here in the U.S. Our own federal law that gave women reproductive freedom was overturned last year, and more and more state laws are being overturned or changed to severely limit women’s freedom. These changes in laws have occurred due to the relentless efforts of so-called “pro-life” groups and individuals who claim to be doing God’s will. (Never mind, I guess, the rights of our fellow Americans who don’t believe in God or who have a very different conception of God than the fundamentalist Christian one.) Now that the “pro-life” movement has finally gotten its way, many of them are assuring the rest of us that adoption is the answer to all our concerns. Well, Ireland’s past and present can tell us something about how that tends to work out too, once church and state start to get too cozy.

When I spoke to Mari Steed, it was only a few days after Roe v Wade was overturned. It felt pertinent to ask her about the significance of the work she does through JFMR and the road ahead for activists in the U.S. On the so-called solution of adoption, Mari said, “At what point do we stop commoditizing women and children and childbirth and satisfying the desire of childless couples? We’ve got to get away from this mentality that, number 1, everyone has a right to a child.” She also pointed out that Ireland’s system stripped the choice away from many mothers in more ways than one. Of the children who were taken away from women in laundries and mother and baby homes, “many of us were not unwanted. They weren’t given the choice to do that.” Is this really what pro-life America wants? Do they have any clue?

In honor of St. Brigid’s Day, I thought I’d share those stories that got cut from my article here. I don’t have the reach of a national magazine, I know, but maybe a few readers will find this and be inspired to learn more about this issue in Ireland and in the Catholic Church. Maybe they’ll be inspired to lend some support to survivors in Ireland or the U.S. or to activists for reproductive rights anywhere. Working or writing for a number of religious publications over the past few years (even those that consider themselves progressive and centered on social justice), I’ve become accustomed to seeing women’s voices get censored or “polished” for tone. (The published version of an interview I did for one Catholic magazine with the novelist Louise Erdrich was edited to cut her comments that she supports women’s reproductive freedom and the authority of women to serve as priests in the Catholic Church. I’m still incensed about it.) Meanwhile, simplistic stories of “hope” and “endurance” serve to mollify anger about religious abuse and rightful demands for effective redress.

I think about St. Brigid’s reputation in Ireland as a woman born to another woman in bondage, as a woman who liberated other women, yet also as a woman who sheltered another woman from seeing the world clearly so she could see God more vividly in her soul. I think Brigid’s story is an eternal one of someone who rises to do mighty work. I think if there’s one certain blessing, it’s that there are people in modern-day Ireland still doing mighty work. You can read about them below.

When Mari Steed began searching for her birth mother in Ireland, she knew little about the system of secrecy and abuse that would lead her to co-found a social justice group to right its many wrongs. Born in 1960 in a convent-run mother and baby home in County Cork, Mari was one of more than 2,000 “banished babies” adopted from Ireland to the United States beginning in the 1940s. At 18 months old, she was taken to Philadelphia.

As a teen, Mari became pregnant and was put in a Catholic-run home in Philadelphia and made to give up her child. In the mid-1990s, after raising two more children, she decided it was time to find her adopted daughter and birth mother. Her American family were “decent people,” she says. “I don’t have any serious qualms with my upbringing. But I did begin to search for my mother to find out more about where I’d been.” She created a website to connect with other adopted people of Irish birth.

Eventually, she learned her mother, Josie, had given birth to her out of wedlock and was born to an unwed mother herself. In Ireland, such circumstances put Josie on the full “merry-go-round” of church-and-state institutions before the age of 30: a county home, an industrial school, then 10 years in a Magdalene laundry, then the mother and baby home. Steed, now living in Virginia, recalls she at first had no clue what all this information meant. “‘What are laundries?’ I didn’t even know what that was at the time.”

The answer led her down a rabbit hole of secrecy and obstruction. Originally founded as places of refuge for “fallen women” in the 18th century, Magdalene laundries evolved into institutions where women and girls labored for no pay as penance for transgressing Catholic Ireland’s moral and class codes. Unwed mothers, poor women, orphaned girls, women and girls who were seen as “promiscuous” or a burden on their families. The laundries were run by four religious orders in Ireland, with state oversight and funding. Survivors testify to having had their names changed and their hair shaved off. Their children were boarded out or adopted or sent to industrial schools. Some of the children, like Mari Steed, were subject to vaccine trials (conducted by the Burroughs Wellcome Foundation, now GlaxoSmithKline) while in the mother and baby homes. More than 10,000 women and girls were incarcerated in Magdalene laundries between 1916 and 1996, when the last laundry in Ireland closed and when Mari was searching for her mother.

She found her in 2001. “She was overjoyed and had been waiting patiently for the day I would find her,” Steed wrote in Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries, a book published in 2021 by the members of Justice for Magdalenes Research, a survivor-led advocacy group with the mission of helping Magdalene survivors and other Irish institutional survivors find their truth and gain justice.

Steed co-founded Justice for Magdalenes in 2003 with two other Irish adopted people: Angela Newsome, whose mother had spent nearly her entire adult life in Magdalene laundries, and Claire McGettrick, an adopted persons’ rights activist. In time the group shifted members a bit. Newsome is still a committee member, but two academics and a human rights lawyer signed on—James Smith of Boston College, Katherine O’Donnell of University College Dublin, and Maeve O’Rourke of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland in Galway—and the group of five is now known as Justice for Magdalenes Research (JFMR).

JFMR’s tireless advocacy has led to a state apology for Magdalene survivors in 2013, a “guerilla archives” of testimony and information that counters the Catholic Church and Irish State’s secrecy, and a greenlighted project that will turn a former laundry into a national site of conscience. JFMR’s members most recent book, Redress: Ireland’s Institutions and Transitional Justice, edited by O’Donnell, O’Rourke, and Smith, includes the testimonies of eight survivors in Ireland, the United States, and the United Kingdom, with all royalties going to the Dublin-based nonprofit Empowering People in Care.

How does an advocacy group that blends survivors and academics maintain its balance and keep their eyes on the prize of justice? And how do they persist when, as anyone paying attention to the ongoing reckoning of abuse in Ireland can see, the Irish church and government continue to throw so many hurdles in the way of survivors’ demand for redress? The answer may be in JFMR’s “melding of deep skills and personal experience,” as O’Rourke describes it—a mix of political activism, formal academic research, and grassroots organizing.

Claire McGettrick was born in Ireland in 1973 and adopted in-country at 6 weeks old. Since Ireland operates a closed, secret adoption system, in which adopted people have no effective right of access to their birth records, McGettrick grew up with no knowledge of her origins. “I had no information about myself whatsoever, including my original name, for example,” she says. Like Mari Steed, she went looking for her personal information in the ’90s and began campaigning for adopted people’s rights with Mari and Angela Newsome in a (since disbanded) group called Adoption Ireland. But McGettrick says their interest in Magdalene campaigning was ignited by a 2003 exposé in the Irish Times about 155 Magdalene women whose bodies had been exhumed.

In 1993 in Ireland, outrage erupted over revelations of a rushed exhumation of women buried in a mass grave on convent grounds in Dublin. The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, who operated a Magdalene laundry in the inner north side suburb of Drumcondra, had petitioned to sell some of their land after the congregation fell into debt. But the Magdalene women who had been buried on their grounds, in an unkempt area entirely separate from the nuns’ cemetery, were in the way of the land deal.

Memorial bench in St. Stephen’s Green dedicated in 1996 “To the women who worked in the Magdalen laundry institutions and to the children born to some members of those communities–reflect here upon their lives.” Left to right: Maeve O’Rourke, Claire McGettrick, Katherine O’Donnell, and James Smith. Photo credit: Bryan Meade

The plan was to exhume their remains, cremate, and rebury them in a public cemetery in Glasnevin, which required an exhumation license from the Department of the Environment with a list of the names of those scheduled to be reburied. Despite discrepancies between the number of remains found and the number of names on the license, the exhumation was rushed through. After this travesty, the Magdalenes Memorial Committee (made up of survivors and advocates) organized to install a bench in the women’s memory in St. Stephen’s Green, with a ceremony attended by then-President Mary Robinson.

But as Steed says, it felt as if more needed to be done. “It kind of felt like, ‘Is that it?’ That just seems so little for women who were literally slaves.”

Ten years after the exhumation, investigative journalist Mary Raftery took another look for the Irish Times. She discovered that unbeknownst to the public, an additional 22 remains had been exhumed in 1993 and there were numerous discrepancies between the names on the exhumation license and the names on the headstones at Glasnevin Cemetery. Even worse, some had been cremated and bundled two or three to a grave to save on costs, resulting in commingled remains (a practice outside of Catholic teaching). Attempts to hold the congregation accountable proved fruitless.

Raftery’s investigation galvanized Steed, Newsome, and McGettrick into action. As adopted people whose own identities had been obscured or erased, they realized “this could be any one of us,” says McGettrick. “We had to do something.” She adds, “The way I look at it, the same system that took my identity away is the very same system that held women against their will, forced women to work without pay, and let women and children die.”

One of their first projects was the Magdalene Names Project, which offered a narrative honoring those who lived and died behind Magdalene laundry walls. The trio photographed the gravestones at the reburial site in Glasnevin Cemetery and then posted the names as a memorial in an online adoption support group. Later, McGettrick compared them to newly released materials from the 1901 and 1911 census, revealing lengthy periods of confinement. By building a “guerilla archives,” as McGettrick calls it, they gave survivors and families a means to start accessing their information. The archives also documented the truth of what had happened to thousands of Irish women. When JFMR’s political campaign for a state apology and redress got under way in 2009, the archives helped counteract the official narratives that women in the laundries went into them willingly, that none were incarcerated for long periods of time, and that their experiences “weren’t that bad.”

Boston College associate professor James Smith teaches courses on Irish literature in the Jesuit university’s Irish Studies program. Irish literature is known for giants like James Joyce and W.B. Yeats, but Smith’s course readings focus on the outsiders in his native country, those who were controlled or hidden away through the system of industrial schools, adoption agencies, mother and baby homes, and Magdalene laundries. (In full disclosure, I was a student in one of Smith’s courses in 2004, the first I began hearing about many of these places, even after having lived in Ireland in the 1990s.) Smith became involved with JFM while researching his first book, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment.

When I ask about the group dynamics of involving non-survivors in a survivors’ advocacy group, all members bring up JFMR’s twin core tenets: “It’s about the women” and “Do no harm.” As survivors and co-founders, Steed and McGettrick are the ethical heart, and the other members defer to them and to those who come to them to seek justice.

Smith also points out the benefit of having an academic at a Catholic university on board. For years, JFM’s mission was being stymied by Irish government and church alike. The archives of the Catholic orders in Ireland were—and still are—closed. Through BC, Smith had access to historical archives that proved without doubt the Irish state sent women to laundries and were financially complicit in their abuse and injustice.

Smith’s work also got the attention of a survivor named Catherine Whelan, an Irish woman in her 70s who lived 20 miles from Boston and phoned Smith up at the college one day in 2008 after reading his book. “How do you know my story?” she asked him.

Catherine had been dropped off at a laundry at age 14 by her father. She labored there for four years before fleeing to England and then the United States, where she kept her ordeal in her home country a secret. She worked as a nurse, never married, kept pets, and read avidly, especially books by Catholic thinkers and presses, which may have been how she found Smith’s book. “Her shame was the denial of her education,” Smith says, adding that Catherine had regained her faith after a great deal of therapy and was a daily communicant by the time she met him.

Catherine recorded a testimony with JFRM, who applied for a pension on her behalf. Because she had received no wages while laboring in the laundry, she fell below the full pension threshold and ultimately received only $7.11 a week for her troubles. Catherine became, and remains, a source of personal inspiration for Smith, a human face in a dehumanizing system and living proof that the issues of JFMR’s work is one of concern for the Irish diaspora and the international community.

Maeve O’Rourke was introduced to JFMR while working on her master’s in human rights law at Harvard. “That was our turning point,” says Steed. In her early 20s at the time, O’Rourke “completely dedicated herself to the mission. She was not about to let any minister talk her down or treat her like some young thing who didn’t know what she was doing.”

O’Rourke is also credited with bringing an international human rights lens to their political campaign. But if it wasn’t for survivors’ testimonies, her focus might not have landed on the human rights issues in her home country. O’Rourke says she remembers clearly the evening in 2009 when Michael O’Brien, a former mayor and survivor who had testified in the government’s inquiry into the treatment of industrial school children (which was published in 2009 as the Ryan Report), spoke out live on television about the abuse he suffered as a child and being called a liar by the congregations. O’Brien’s fierce, emotional statement left O’Rourke at a loss for words. Watching at home at with her father in Dublin, she said, “I don’t know why I’m going anywhere [else] to work on human rights.”

O’Rourke also realized there were “gender differentials” when it came to redress for survivors. The Ryan Report focused on child victims of male clergy but ignored the women of the Magdalene laundries and women religious. She began working with JFMR. Her master’s thesis was the legal submission to the Irish Human Rights Commission making the case for human rights violations against Magdalene survivors, accompanying Smith’s research.

After the Irish Human Rights Commission ignored the case, she brought it to the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) in 2011. There, JFMR met with success. UNCAT affirmed JFMR’s case and selected it as one of four urgent cases that required action and correction within 12 months. The international pressure for the Irish state to own up to its systematic abuse of women was on. Finally, the Irish government began a formal inquiry. But to really make a legal case for survivors, JFMR needed testimonies.

Katherine O’Donnell was director of the Women’s Studies Center at University College Dublin when Smith got in touch with her to join JFMR’s campaign. Originally, O’Donnell was attracted to JFMR out of admiration for their work. Her advice to her students interested in social justice work on feminist issues had always been, “Pick the good people you want to work with. It doesn’t really matter what issue, there are so many to choose from.” Then she met some of the women. “There’s an Irish phrase called faoi geasa, and it means being under an obligation. It’s a very ancient phrase, and it also means someone has kind of put a spell on you. It felt like a very intense sense of obligation once I met Magdalene women.”

Her role within JFMR has centered on oral histories. She says as the state was conducting its inquiry, it was crucial for JFMR’s campaign to gather testimonies from the women right away, because the government had placed the Ryan Report survivors under a gag order before granting them any compensation, under penalty of a steep fine and two years’ imprisonment. In the event that an apology and redress weren’t won for Magdalene survivors, O’Donnell wanted a bulwark of voices to counter the official narratives of Irish history, which still leave out so many voices. “So even if we lost the campaign to get a state apology, we had a history.”

On February 19, 2013, Ireland’s Taoiseach Enda Kenny formally apologized to women who had been incarcerated in the Magdalene laundries. Smith says for survivors like Catherine Whelan the apology was transformative. “A cloud evaporated, a shadow disappeared. She applied to the Magdalene restorative justice scheme,” Smith wrote in a tribute to Catherine in the Irish Times after her death.

But the redress scheme saw major bungling and stalling. And the Irish state spoke out of the other side of its mouth, as the saying goes, in its official report released after its apology, the McAleese Report. The report claimed women weren’t held in laundries against their will, were not used as slave labor, were not subject to abuse, did not spend lengthy sentences or lifetimes in them but only about three years on average.

How did JFMR—and survivors—respond? First, in 2018 JFMR organized a two-day event in Dublin to honor Magdalene survivors. More than 200 women participated, many returning to Ireland for the first time in decades from North America, Australia, the United Kingdom, from everywhere the Irish diaspora has made its way. On the second day, O’Donnell led a listening exercise that gathered the women in groups to ask them three questions. What do they want people to know about their experience? What lessons should be learned? How do they want to be remembered?

JFMR at the Dublin Honours Magdalenes event in June 2018. Left to right: Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke, Claire McGettrick, Mari Steed, and James Smith. Photo credit: Paul Sherwood

Again and again, the women said they want younger generations to know about the laundries so that history won’t repeat itself. It should be taught in schools, they said. They also want the church and state to open their archives and allow survivors and their families full access to their information. Lastly, they want more than just a statue.

On July 4, 2022 in Ireland, the Dublin City Council (DCC) voted unanimously to turn over a former Magdalene laundry to the Office of Public Works for a national site of conscience. Known as the Sean McDermott Street laundry, the 19th-century building was operated by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity from 1887 to 1996, when it became the last laundry in Ireland to close. Located in an economically struggling neighborhood with a long and layered cultural history in the heart of Dublin, the laundry is also at the center of the Open Heart City project.

Led by O’Donnell and Hugh Campbell, head of the School of Architecture at UCD, the Open Heart City project successfully stopped a proposed sale of the former laundry to a budget hotel chain. Instead, the site will provide a repository for national archives of records related to Ireland’s church and state institutions. Plans include lecture and performance space, a memorial garden, and affordable housing. O’Donnell says the name comes from the idea of opening people’s hearts and intervening to bring an open heart to “the atrophied chambers of our inner cities,” as one would in open heart surgery.

JFMR is hopeful about the future of the project, although McGettrick hopes the national archives at the site will include adoption records, and she continues to advocate for Ireland’s decriminalization of adopted people seeking their personal information. O’Rourke also hopes the recent focus on the site of conscience won’t ignore immediate needs that have still not been met. Among these are effective and swift redress for survivors of all Irish institutions, including those sideswiped by the latest commission into mother and baby homes, which resulted in similar denials of culpability as well as a 30-year seal on the commission’s records. O’Rourke and McGettrick’s initiative, the Clann Project, formed in partnership with the global law firm Hogan Lovells to offer free legal aid to survivors testifying before the commission. Post-commission, they continue to advocate for survivors and push back against the church and state’s secrecy and obstruction.

“That’s really, I suppose, when injustice and I first met.” This is how Mary Harney describes the moment when she learned from “a kind priest” that her mother wasn’t dead like the nuns in the industrial school had told her. When she went back to the nuns to confront them and demand her mother’s name and information, she says “That’s when it began, when I became an activist.”

When JFMR’s members talk about the future for Ireland’s survivors of institutional abuse, they say they believe the Irish state is hoping the issue will go away on its own, as the former Magdalene women die off and the rest just wear themselves out with frustration. But the Irish state clearly didn’t count on Mary Harney.

She identifies as “a resister.” Born in 1949 in the same institution as Mari Steed, Harney was taken from her young, unwed mother at age 2 and a half, on half an hour’s notice, and fostered out to a couple who neglected her. At age 5, she was put into an industrial school that also housed a Magdalene laundry. She was nearly 17 when she got out, soon moving to the UK to find her mother. “I loved her, and she’s my heroine to this day, and she loved me,” she says. But their reunion couldn’t replace the close bond from separation.

In the UK, Harney joined the British army. “I was institutionalized,” she explains. “I was comfortable in an institution because there were rules and you obeyed them and that was that.” After the army, Harney worked as a fire department dispatcher and got involved in trade union activism, then women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and AIDS activism. In her 40s she moved to Maine to earn her BA and learned about JFMR. Harney first gave her testimony during the Ryan Report commission (“an awful ordeal”). When she heard about the mother and baby homes commission, she contacted the Clann Project, who helped her to give her testimony again. She has also shared her testimony in Redress. Even as the state’s final report denied the full truth of what happened to people like Harney, she resists. “I thought when the commission’s report came out that I could hang up my Doc Martens and stop boots on the ground activism. But I can’t. For me, I have to keep going. And it’s with the support of JFMR—we all support each other.”

Today, Harney is back in Ireland, pursuing a PhD in human rights in her 70s. She works with Maeve O’Rourke at the Human Rights Centre in Galway helping people gain access to their records and is the community organizer to a group of students who have developed lesson plans to add Ireland’s history of survivors to school curriculums. “I love all these young people because they’re the future,” she says, her voice filled with affection and pride. “They are the people who will get the word out, the young people who will see that our legacy for justice doesn’t die with us.”

Mixed Messages

“In life, there is no real safety, except self-belief.” –Madonna

So…another digital mag that I had a piece published in a few years back has gone down. The piece, an essay called “Mixed Messages,” about Madonna for the music memoir mag Memoir Mixtapes, is still available through a direct link but is otherwise not searchable. Memoir Mixtapes’ website is disappeared, though their Medium site, which featured shorter memoir-form song recommendations (including a few of mine) is still accessible.

With the main website going defunct, and with Madonna’s birthday coming up in a few days (August 16), I thought I’d reshare the essay here. The theme for the issue it appeared in was “Back to School.” So I wrote about a boy I had a crush on back when I was 12 or 13, who I once slipped a note to with some questionable Madonna lyrics. Along with unfortunate puberty-fueled crushes, the essay gave me a chance to think about the influence that Madonna–a megastar to Generation X kids and to the world, really–had on me. I was a fan. Of her music–and of her.

In this day and age, as Madonna has entered definite senior citizen status and a multitude of female pop stars who most definitely drew from her look, style, and sound have risen to fame, it’s become a trend to deride her mercilessly. On social media, dopes leave cruel and gross ageist remarks on her posts, and people call her desperate and irrelevant. I don’t get it. Madonna was unapologetically ambitious, sexually confident, and femme-presenting in a time when many female musical acts and celebrities could still not be all three at once–and definitely not the first two. Seriously, it was her and Grace Jones. She shattered sales records, concert records, chart records–for female music artists and for music artists in general. If that wasn’t enough, she advocated for gay rights and AIDS research at a time when there were literally only two celebrities publicly speaking out. It was her and Liz Taylor. Less remarked upon is her longtime championing of artists from her home state of Michigan–over the years, she’s supported Eminem, Michael Moore, Iggy Popas well as Black, female, and LGBTQ artists. A few years ago, she gave a brilliant speech on what it’s been like to be a trailblazing woman in the music industry at a Billboard Music event honoring her. And she rightly continues to NGAF and keep on keeping on no matter all the ageism and sexism lobbed at her by the clueless crowd online. Because of course, one day, they’ll find out themselves. (And I hope I’ll still be around to remind them what jerks they were.)

In my essay, I wrote a bit about what it was like to hear Madonna for the first time and follow her story–this upstart who grew up in a large, lower-middle-class Catholic family in the Midwest with audacious plans to rule the world, as she said on her first appearance on American Bandstand. Madonna’s gay male fanbase is well-known, and still fiercely supportive of her, but I can’t be the only Gen X Midwestern Catholic girl who also adored her, taking subconscious note of how she represented and challenged all the “mixed messages” thrown at girls and women in American culture. And Catholic culture. No music artist challenged the church’s misogyny and hypocrisy so boldly as Madonna–until Sinead O’Connor came along. It’s a pity the two women (supposedly) don’t like each other and never collaborated. They have more in common with each other than not.

This essay is as much about being a girl on the verge of becoming a woman. It’s written more from the viewpoint of that age, but with some interfering adult humor and wisdom–so I guess it has some mixed messages of its own. I’ve included some videos that weren’t in the original issue, which was released with a playlist of all the songs written about all the contributors. I’ve restored a couple instances where edits were made to my essay that I didn’t really agree with. My crush’s name is a pseudonym, both in the original and here, just FYI. I hope you enjoy.

Mixed Messages

The first love poem I ever gave a guy I stole word for word from Madonna. The “poem” was
the lyrics to “Burning Up,” an intensely lusty number off her first album, and the guy was a
boy at my high school whom I thought looked like Sting.

His name was Craig [not his real name], and like the woman whose song I gave him, he had a reputation.

Back in the 8th grade, when I started crushing on him, he’d been a jock verging on burnout,
or maybe a burnout verging on jock. Thirteen is that kind of liminal age when you can
easily embody two personas, no matter how contradictory, like a honey-sweet A-side with
a dirty-horny B-side spinning away underneath. If you’re a boy, that is. If you’re a girl, still
inexperienced and unsure of yourself, yet already developed, already drawing the kind of
attention better suited to a woman twice your age, it’s not so easy. People will say you’re
giving off mixed messages. They’ll call it “attention seeking” or “showing off.”

Craig was popular and I wasn’t. He was on the football and wrestling teams and I wasn’t on
anything. He reportedly hung out in other kids’ basements after school to drink and
smoke. After school I went to more school, to CCD, aka Catholic education for kids whose
parents couldn’t afford parochial tuitions. Craig had spiked blond hair and acne, was twice
the size of most the other boys, and wore a near-daily attire of black concert tees
advertising one metal band or another. Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden…bands I never
listened to or got near in my musical taste. Bands I probably wouldn’t have even known
about if it weren’t for their appearance across the muscles of Craig’s chest.

My thing was pop music, like top 40 radio hits and heavy rotation MTV faves. I liked songs
you could dance to. Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince, and yes, Madonna, whom I
took a special interest in for a completely inconsequential and self-centered reason. We
share an unusual name. Madonna is my middle name and my mother’s first name, and I
had never known anyone else called Madonna, other than the Virgin Mary—which, in an
era of classrooms crammed with Jennifer Lynns and Julie Annes, only made the name even
more extremely weird and uncool.

Until “Holiday” came along.

I was 11 when I first heard it, on the radio one winter Sunday while listening to Casey
Kasem’s countdown. Not listening actually, but dancing. Alone, in the room I shared with
my sister A, four years older than me but the closest to me in age of my five siblings. We’d
been roomies since I was born, sometimes even sharing a bed in the very full houses we’d
grown up in, first on the northwest side of Chicago and then in a suburb known for
nothing but a don’t-cough-or-you’ll-miss-it mention in The Blues Brothers.

I remember hearing Casey’s introduction to “Holiday” and thinking I misheard the singer’s
name. Once the song started, I fell immediately for its peppy beat and message of
celebration and togetherness. I was a misfit kid, a bookish loner who got bullied at school
for my weight and glasses and crooked tetracycline-stained teeth, and my outsider
experience made me a sucker for any song that pleaded for people to come together
despite their differences, even for “just one day out of life.” Dancing, like books and music,
was an escape for me, from the crowded physical spaces of home and the perpetual sense
of social awkwardness and ugliness I felt at school. Dancing was where I could pretend I was someone else, someone graceful and beautiful and cool. All it took for transformation
was a good song.

After the song’s fadeout on the countdown, Casey repeated its title and the singer’s name
and where she came from: Detroit, meaning the Midwest. Same as me, I thought. And in
the easily impressed way of young misfit girls, that was all it took. I was a fan.

It wasn’t long before I got to see this doppelganger of mine, on American Bandstand, lip
syncing and skipping around to that same great song from Casey’s countdown. If I’d been
under the notion she and I had much in common, her appearance on Bandstand quickly put
an end to that. Her look was streetwise, not suburban schoolgirlish. She wore all black, lots
of makeup, and fabulously messy hair. Her skippy-kid dance moves didn’t seem hard, but
when I tried them later in my room it proved a challenge keeping up that energy for a
whole song. She may not have been impressive vocally (live or on record), but there was
something magnetic about her, something almost feral in her facial expressions that jarred
with her song’s utopian lyrics but fit perfectly with her disco-punk-gypsy getup.

Then there was the confidence—sexual, professional, just all-around. To this day, I’ll
maintain that’s what rubs people about Madonna, what explains the perpetual trashing
she’s gotten since 1983—her audacious, undeniable, gender-role-busting self-belief. After
her performance, as Dick Clark tried to interview her over the screaming kids in the
studio, she couldn’t stop smiling and giggling at her success and sudden popularity. When
Dick Clark asks her if she was scared to go out on her own as a performer, she answers,
“Not really. I think I’ve always had a lot of confidence in myself.” Then she lays it right out
for us. “What are your dreams, what’s left?” Clark asks her. “To rule the world,” she says,
capping it off with another giggle.

“Look at this girl,” one of my older siblings (a baby boomer to my Gen X) said dismissively,
making disparaging comments about her bared bellybutton and visible bra straps. Like,
who did she think she was? Going on TV, enjoying herself, dressing slutty, dancing around,
plotting world domination.

I don’t think it’s possible for me to understate the significance of that Bandstand
performance, the seed-planting, what it was like as a suburban Midwestern Catholic girl to
see this other suburban Midwestern Catholic girl who’d not only escaped to something
bigger and better but was demanding more. Without apology.

IYKYK. Courtesy of Click Americana.

My sister soon got Madonna’s first album, but I got more use out of it, dancing to it in the
basement every week. Madonna may have been too local for A’s taste anyway. She was
mostly a Brit-band kind of girl. When she hit her teens, she’d begun covering the walls of
our room with Star Hits tear-outs of Duran Duran, Howard Jones, and Culture Club. They
took the place of my Muppets poster and her small B&W cut-outs of Matt Dillon from the
Chicago newspapers’ weekend movies section. On our closet door hung a huge poster of
that blonded-up post-punk trio The Police, A’s favorite. We fought over this space—I
wanted it for an MJ poster featuring the King of Pop in white slacks and a yellow cardigan
and matching bowtie. When A didn’t relent, I took her stick deodorant and defaced Sting
and Co’s faces with it. As it turned out, deodorant scrapes right off poster paper (who
knew?) and for years I had to contend with falling asleep under the sexy-intellectual gaze
of The Police’s lead singer night after night. Subconsciously, I must have started seeking
that same gaze among the boys at my school. Because one night, when I was just turned 13,
it struck me while staring back into Sting’s eyes: with that blond spiky ‘do and those
cheekbones and muscles, he kinda sorta looked like that one tall guy at school. Metallica
guy. Craig.

It was too bad Craig was all wrong for me. As in cool, popular, and rebellious where I was
shy, self-conscious, and unknown. We had no classes together, nothing in common socially,
and I was sure he didn’t know I was alive. He said as much when someone squealed my
crush on him. “I don’t know who she is,” he said, according to the girls who told him. Later,
presumably after someone pointed me out to him, he told our one mutual friend, “She’s too
nice.” And I couldn’t decide which was worse—being invisible or being innocent.

Something had to change and that something had to be me. I wanted so badly for it to be

The truth was my life had become overwhelmed by changes. After turning 13, I got my first
period, having already developed physically—breasts, hips, height, the works—beginning
around 10 or 11. My older siblings started getting married off. And most life-changing of
all, my grandmother had had a stroke and had come to live with us. She was given the
room I shared with A, and all our music mag pics were taken down and replaced with
pictures and statues of the Holy Family and various Catholic saints—Madonna for
madonnas, you might say. A moved into a room formerly occupied by one of our brothers,
and I moved into a tiny tandem room off hers, about the size of a large walk-in closet. After
school, I had to be home to help look after my grandmother with my siblings, as our
parents worked full-time.

There comes a time in every young girl’s life when she senses things aren’t under her
control, that there are rules she’s supposed to abide by that she didn’t make and
expectations she has to live up to that she can’t possibly meet and taboos she shouldn’t
break that she suspects wouldn’t even be on the radar if she were a boy. Most girls react to
this realization head-on, and many by trying to take control over the one thing that all
these rules and expectations and taboos seem to apply to—her body. I was no different. If I
couldn’t stop change from overwhelming my life and overtaking the space I’d tried to
carve out for myself, I could at least try and make it work for me.

So I lost weight. A lot. I did it my way and the textbook teen girl way—dancing for hours to
records in the basement after school and eating as little as a scoop of cottage cheese for
dinner and a milk carton for lunch every day. It was only the beginning.

After graduating junior high, I spent the summer getting ready for high school reflecting
on possibilities, on the dream of having a completely different look, a completely different
social life—really, any social life. Meanwhile, A was going away to college, giving me her
room and everything in it she left behind. Her last couple years of high school, she’d begun
replacing her music mags with fashion rags, bookmarking spreads of stylish women whose
looks she wanted to copy and elegant rooms whose décor she wanted to surround herself
in. She’d always had a fashionable touch that I lacked. Studying her leftover, well-thumbed
through copies of Vogue and Mademoiselle, I knew such transformation was hopeless for
me, even newly skinny as I was. I was too hungry for high fashion—hungry to be noticed,
to be loved, to stop being so invisible and innocent.

Who else could I turn for a role model but to Madonna, by now the queen of everything, not
just a pop star but a cultural tornado-exploding-supernova. I didn’t know if Craig liked her.
I mean, looking back, reminiscing on all his death metal tees, probably not. But I don’t
think it even occurred to me. The point is I liked her.

So freshman year of high school saw a new me—dressed in extra-small tank tops I
converted into ultra-short miniskirts (I’d pull the neck part over my hips and tuck the
straps in at the sides) and visible bra straps and, yes, even rosaries worn as necklaces. Did
Craig notice? Because I know my grandmother did. She complained about it to my mother,
who was either too distracted by her new role as caretaker to her mother to notice her
youngest child’s increasingly provocative attire or had raised enough kids by now to know
a phase when she saw one. The only thing my mother objected to was the rosaries. “Those
aren’t jewelry,” she informed me one morning as I was heading out of the house for the bus.
And like the good Catholic girl I still was underneath, I obeyed and put the rosaries back on
my grandmother’s bedstand where I’d borrowed them.

If Craig wasn’t impressed by my new look, maybe a good old-fashioned note would do the
trick. But what to say to a pot-smoking, Slayer-loving, teenage Sting look-alike on the
football team who I’d been obsessing about for a year now? I didn’t trust my own words,
didn’t think I could put my schoolgirl feelings and hormonal yearnings into anything
eloquent enough to convince him of the urgency of my love and lust for him. That was
where music saved the day. I mean, he liked music. I liked music. What could go wrong?

After hitting on my epiphany, I spent a couple afternoons poring over all the songs in my
record collection, reading all the lyrics on the liner sleeves, trying to determine the perfect
song to snare Craig’s attention and devotion. At some point, I don’t know when—but I
wish I did, to better determine just what I was thinking—I settled on “Burning Up.” It was
from Madonna’s first album, same as “Holiday,” already an oldie in the wake of two more
albums she’d released. Unlike “Holiday,” it hadn’t been a hit, but in some ways it had
solidified Madonna’s hypersexual reputation more than any other song from her early
career. The most notorious of the lyrics went:

Do you wanna see me down on my knees?
Or bending over backwards, now would you be pleased?
Unlike the others I’d do anything
I’m not the same, I have no shame
I’m on fire!

Over time, serious music critics would suggest that the song’s love interest was really a
metaphor for fame or power. The video seems to back this up, showing Madonna writhing
around as if in sexual agony on a street intercut with some dude driving her way—until
the last shot sees Madonna behind the wheel of the car, sans dude and smiling.

Metaphor or no, I took the lyrics literal af (especially the line “But you don’t even know I’m
alive”), and diligently copied down the lyrics (where Madonna pants in the song, I
remember I wrote “heavy breathing”), and got a friend to pass off this surefire love tactic
to Craig in the hall one day. “This is from René,” I told her to say. “Cool, thanks,” Craig
reportedly said, shoving the note in his pocket.

I don’t know what I was expecting in return. A request for a date? A note with some
favorite lyrics of his own? To be taken seriously? I mean, really? It got back to me
eventually that Craig told our one mutual friend he started laughing when he read my
note—to his credit, he also told our friend not to tell me that. She did anyway, because she
thought I should know.

Regardless of whether Craig noticed me, others definitely had. I’d been frequently teased
by boys, but now girls were talking about me too, making fun of me, even the nice girls and
other misfit girls. And even before I’d lost weight, even before the new clothing choices,
around the time I’d begun gaining inches in height and curves, I’d started to get a certain
kind of attention. One boy at school would lift up my skirt as I walked down the hallways.
At the library I’d been followed into the stacks and groped by a man. These were just a
couple incidents I’d experienced. I didn’t know what to do when these things happened, other than run away and then blame myself for “leading guys on” or tell myself maybe I
should be flattered.

Looking back, I refuse to say I was confused. That I didn’t know what I was doing, like why
I’d picked an embarrassingly horny song to give to a boy and why I started dressing like a
girl in a music video, why I’d veered so far (so it seemed) from the innocent girl who just
wanted to dance her cares away in her bedroom on a Sunday morning. On the one hand, I
tell myself I compromised my true self for a boy’s attention, a ploy that didn’t even work.
On the other hand, I know I was trying to take control and ownership of the changes
overwhelming my life and the expectations and rules overwhelming any girl. I was trying
to take a cue from my name doppelganger—Madonna, the Michigan girl with an uncanny
ability for taking every rumor, criticism, or slut-shaming insult thrown her way and
wielding it to her advantage, to power.

Within another year or two, life would throw more changes my way. By 15, my father had
been hospitalized with a heart problem, my grandmother died, and I became an aunt for
the first time. As for Craig, I finally had a class with him and picked up on some crude
remarks he made, and some rumors that he’d hurt someone after school one day. I forgot
him. I started to put weight back on and dressing in loose, dark layers. Began reading
poetry and Irish and French history and listening to The Cure and New Order. I made pen
pals with a boy on the south side of Chicago who sent me rap lyrics and detailed his
graffiti-writing exploits to me. We started spending all night talking on the phone
together, when everyone else in our houses was asleep. I was depressed and curious and
artistic and still unconfident, but cared less whether people noticed, whether it was my job
to endlessly please the world as a girl was supposed to do.

There’s a temptation now to disown the girl I was at 13, to say “I don’t know her.” I’d do as
much with Madonna in the years to come, pretending I no longer liked her or her music,
denying to myself the leaps her best songs made my heart do and the moves her beats
once made my body do. But some things are just undeniable, like the person you were
when you were on your way to learning how to be yourself, or a girl’s desire to prove she’s
the one in control of her life, or an infectious song beckoning everyone to forget about the
bad times and put their troubles down, for just one day out of life. To this day, nothing does
it for me, nothing connects me to the better moments of my girlhood, like “Holiday.”

When I was in my 30s, I ran into Craig again, in a bar in Chicago. I was attending a book
swap event, and he was a bouncer, checking IDs as all us bookish grown-up former misfit
types entered the bar. We recognized each other right away, though he had to read my ID
to remember my name. He didn’t look like Sting so much anymore. And I didn’t even recall
the note I’d given him, or the girl I’d been, until thinking about my run-in with my old
crush later that night. Once the memory surfaced, the lusty lyrics to “Burning Up”
churning through my brain, I was mortified. And then I laughed, liked Craig himself did,
like Madonna after promising she was going to the rule the world on American Bandstand.

Forgotten Cookies

I wrote a short article for a religious mag about my mother’s old church cookbook collection. It’s also about trying to keep a sense of community and celebrate Christmas this year while so many of us are separated from our families due to the pandemic. You can read the article here (note: I didn’t write that headline).

I enjoyed writing this piece. It brought back some sorely needed fun memories.

I used to be in the business of cooking and cookbooks. After graduating from high school, I enrolled in a culinary arts program at a community college. Our textbooks were about 4 inches thick with technical instructions for working with and repairing industrial kitchen equipment and recipes that yielded much higher quantities than in the average coffee table cookbook.

After cooking school, I found a job as an assistant cookbook editor at a publishing company just outside Chicago. The cookbooks were the kind sold in catalogs or found in the bargain books section of chain bookstores. They relied heavily on brand name products, and there were all sorts of rules about which brand’s recipes could run on the same page with another’s and how to order the list of ingredients and what made a particular ingredient “index worthy.”

I remember attending photo sessions where a professional photographer and food stylist set up shots of perfectly sized cookies with just the right number of stray crumbs and an impossibly frothy glass of milk in the background. (The froth was created by mixing liquid soap into the milk.)

I remember other cookbook editor tricks like the time we came up short for recipes for a slow cooker cookbook (we didn’t have the licensing to use the term “Crock Pot”) that was supposed to feature recipes submitted by “real” home cooks across America. We resolved the problem by pulling recipes from our database and making up names to go with them using the editors’ pets’ first names combined with the married editors’ maiden names followed by some random town.

Out of the whole mix, we had to pick a winner from the recipes by actual home cooks and run a special “spotlight” with a picture of the winner in their home kitchen and a mini-interview. As this was my first publishing job, I wholeheartedly believed someone on staff had tested the recipes to choose the best one. My boss had to break it to me that what we picked was the recipe by the closest cook, not necessarily the best one. “What, you think it’s just a coincidence the winner lives in Gurnee?” she said.

Apart from my professional cookbook experience, I’ve worked off and on in a local family-run bakery going back to before my culinary arts degree days. A real old school kind of place. A lot of the cake and pastry decoration ideas came from Pinterest and Cake Boss, but the recipes were the genuine passed down from generation to generation variety. They were kept in a battered black book that was locked in a safe.

The best thing about writing this article though is that I got to name drop some of the parishes I grew up in as well as one of my beloved family members, my great-aunt Florence Fagan. Florence was my maternal grandfather’s sister. She lived all her life on a farm in Iowa. She and her husband, Francis, had four children: Ruth, a Franciscan sister in Dubuque; Marie, who has her own farm in Iowa; Joe, a former priest who founded the activist organization Iowa Citizens for Community in Des Moines; and Jean, a teacher New Orleans. Florence, Francis, Jean, and Joe have all passed away.

My great-aunt and great-uncle, Florence and Francis Fagan, of Iowa.

The New Melleray Abbey cookbook mentioned in the article has at least a dozen recipes by Florence–nearly all desserts. For the curious, here’s her “Forgotten Cookies” recipe in its original “parish cookbook” form:

Walking to the Well

This is another essay that was published a few years ago at the Aran Islands Info website, which is down these days, so I’ve reposted the story here.

On Inis Oírr, to walk west means to walk towards home or to walk towards the well. By home, I mean America—for me anyway. By the well, I mean Tobar Éanna—the holy well of St. Enda, patron saint of the Aran Islands. On this smallest of the three islands, there are actually a few wells. But it’s only this one, Tobar Éanna, that has the power to heal.

Where I come from we have no holy wells. America is not a Catholic country, and Chicago people are not a very spiritual or sentimental lot. If we cry over anything, it’s things like baseball scores. And if we pray for anything, it’s most likely “please, God, no more snow” when we’re still shoveling it out of the way in April. The rest of our emotions, our hopes, our sorrows, our pleas and praise, we leave to our city’s blues legends to express for us. The average Chicagoan wouldn’t be moved much by a well, much less bend at the knees at one.

I would say maybe we Chicagoans simply take the presence of water for granted, what with the mighty Lake Michigan bordering the city on the east and a river running right through downtown. Often the more you’ve got of something, the less you see it as anything special or sacred. But then again, Inis Oírr is an island with the Atlantic all around it. And being an Irish island, it soaks up its share of water from the ever-present rain clouds in the Irish sky. It has its own lake too, on the opposite end of the island from Tobar Éanna. Though it’s a small one by the standards of the North American Great Lakes, even if the islanders do call it Loch Mór.

So if water’s not the magic ingredient, what’s so special about Tobar Éanna?

For one, the islanders say Tobar Éanna never runs dry. For another, there’s a story that if you go out to Tobar Éanna, walk around the well seven times—praying the rosary all the way—look into the well, and spot an eel in the water, you will be healed of whatever ails you. But only if you see the fish. It’s the eel that seals the deal. That’s certainly pretty special.

The story of the eel and the rounds around the well reminds me a bit of the story about the church of St. Caomhán in Inis Oírr’s graveyard. It’s said that if you can figure out the way (and believe me, there is a way) to squeeze through the tall and very narrow window at the front of the church—going from the outside in and stepping onto the stone altar—then you are guaranteed to go to heaven when you die. So, pushing yourself between the stones of a crack in the wall of a centuries-old church and stepping all over its blessed altar. Well, that’s certainly pretty special too—and rather torturous if you think about it. Torturous and complicated enough that sometimes I wonder if all these rituals and traditions, as told to visitors by the locals, are really the islanders’ way of having a little fun with us “blow-ins.” Besides, I never personally met anyone who spotted the eel in the holy well, though I have known quite a few who fit through the window in the church, including myself.

It’s nice to have reassurance that you’ll go somewhere good after you die. But if it were my choice, I’d rather have the healing here on earth than heaven in the afterworld. I’d rather have spotted the eel in the holy well than fit through the window in the church—if only because it’s clear that as tricky as it is to get into heaven, it’s healing that’s the real trick of life, that’s truly hard to come by.

I suppose this is why I used to walk out to the holy well quite often, far more than I did to St. Caomhán’s church, hoping that today would be the day I’d catch the well in one of its miracle-giving moods. Don’t even ask what I needed healing for. If it means experiencing something magical, I’ll force an injury if I have to—drop a stone on my shoe, chase a bee, stare into the sun until I go blind, break my heart over an islandman, whatever it takes. I usually went walking in the afternoon, in between work shifts at the island hotel, and sometimes at sunset to watch the sun falling on Inis Meáin on my way to the well. I’d start by the beach, walking up the road to the pier, past Tigh Ned, up a curve by the Fisherman’s Cottage, past an old pier half-sunken in waves and strewn with rotting fish bait and stinking lobster cages, then past what seemed to be a quarry (never mind that building a quarry on the Aran Islands is like installing a Jacuzzi in the ocean), and finally straight on to the well, with stone walls built up by the islandmen on my left, stone piles built up by the sea on my right, all the final way.

There were no signs pointing the way to the well. It was a matter of just walking until you stumbled across it. It’s a small island after all. You’re bound to find what you’re looking for at some point. The only way I knew I had reached the well was the sight of a distinctive-looking boulder—shaped almost like a giant egg—that was set on a high stone wall by the path that led to the holy well. I counted on this big odd stone. It always led me to the well. Except once, when I went walking out to Tobar Éanna and walked and walked and never sighted the stone nor the path. I ended up walking all the way to the back of the island, then retraced my steps up and down the road. It was all just walls, with no openings or paths or anything. I finally headed back to civilization—i.e., the “beer garden” in front of Tigh Ned. I told one of the islandmen, a big fella who ran a B&B and hostel and who was chatting with an annual English tourist, what I had seen, or rather, not seen. “Do you think it’s the fairies playing a trick on you?” the islandman said to me. There was a long pause of silence between the three of us. I sensed something of a challenge in the quiet. “Maybe,” I said. The islandman answered me with a solemn nod—and then a shadow of a smile. He left us after another few minutes of conversation, and the Englishman immediately leaned in to me. “You shouldn’t have said that in front of him,” he said to me, in the tone of a concerned father. “He’ll go out tonight and tell everyone about the daft American who couldn’t find the well and blamed it on fairies, and they’ll all laugh about it.” Bless this Englishman. He meant well. But this happened perhaps the third summer I spent on Inis Oírr and he was far too late to save me from a reputation.   

Maybe the same could be said for Tobar Éanna. A holy place, a healing place, but not powerful enough to turn back the hurtful tides of time and talk. A humble place too—just a small natural spring a foot or so deep, protected by stacks of thick flagstones and dug smack in the middle of a stony field dotted with tiny white daisies and yellow buttercups. If you could touch a wand to it and turn the well into human form, of the medical persuasion, it’d transform into a midwife, a trusted local nurse, an old wise woman with a store of healing lore in her head—certainly not a world-famous surgeon, puffed up with importance and arrogance and the gleam of new technology. There’s no special halo-glow to the place, despite its supposed sacredness. Yet it demands and draws respect from a visitor, by its spareness, isolation, and come-as-you-are—whole or hurt, damaged or daft, hopeful or just curious—character. A bit like the island it lives on.

It’s worth the walk anyway, worth a little dip of the hand into the water, a sign of the cross, a simple request to whatever powers-that-be in the holy spaces of this world to “give me a little help or relief here, will ya?” No real need to go round and round the thing seven times—unless you’re up for some exercise or some eel hunting.

And maybe it’s a blessing to never spot the eel in the well, to never be granted the gift of a miracle healing. To be healed would mean to never need to return to Tobar Éanna, and never need to return the place that gives it shelter—Inis Oírr. And for a girl from Chicago—where there are no magic wells, no mischief-making fairies, no miracles of any kind—that would be the most unwelcome wound of all.

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet

This nonfiction piece was originally published at Literary Orphans on Easter 2014, as part of the journal’s Irish-themed “Jonathan Swift” issue. Earlier this year though, the Literary Orphans website was hacked and wiped, including its nonfiction Tavern Lantern channel, where this piece was posted. The journal editors are still working on restoring the Tavern Lantern site. Until then, I’m sharing my essay here, because of all the pieces I’ve published so far, this is the one I’m most proud of, and I want people to be able to read it.

022 (2)


A woman who keeps bees is a woman I’d like to know. I think she’d be able to tell me a lot about the secrets of surviving this world. For starters, how to disregard the stings and cultivate the sweetness of life. I wouldn’t mind also taking a few lessons from the bees themselves. But we speak different languages, the bees and I. You might say we travel in different circles. They dance through air, I tread on earth. Their lives are short, sweet, and purposeful. They enjoy a profound intimacy with the world’s great beauties, the flowers.

Me? I’m 40 years here on earth—living, stumbling, bumbling, mistaking, basically wasting time. Intimacy of any kind is hard to come by, much less turn into something fruitful. The same goes with resolve. And effort. Between you and me and the bees, there are times when I’d rather stick my hand into a hornet’s nest than risk a flight at trust or hope or gumption, and a flight away from bitterness and fear.

A beekeeper is someone I’d bet on to have good advice and answers. But I’ve never known one to ask. The closest I’ve come to even meeting one was in visiting the alleged church of an alleged beekeeping saint who allegedly lived on an island off the west coast of Ireland long ago. This rumor of a holy hive-keeping woman is all I have to guide me.


Her name was Gobnait. A uniquely Irish name. To American ears, like mine, its pronunciation sounds something like what you might shout upon being stung by an insect. So of course a woman with a name like that kept bees. And it was the kind of thing holy people did back then, in the 6th century, when Gobnait had her turn on earth. In those days in Ireland, holy people were all around, almost as common as bees themselves. A land of saints, as they say. Some of those holy folks lived like honey bees, clustered together in communities of hundreds or more. Some were more like the bumble variety, settling with only a dozen or so kindred spirits. And some, like the carpenter bee, were solitary—self-marooned on lonely little rock islands or hidden away in dark and dinky caves.

Gobnait was something of a hybrid of all holy varieties, depending on where she was at in her life and on earth. On Inis Oírr, the western Irish island where Gobnait’s story first gets going, the locals say she arrived there from County Clare, just a few miles across Galway Bay, to escape an enemy or a family squabble. Who her enemy might have been, what the problem was, what sort of punishment or consequences she was running from, and whether she was ever found or followed by her pursuers—nobody knows. Not a word more about Gobnait’s life pre-flight has survived. If there ever was more to the story of Gobnait’s escape to Inis Oírr, those details have vanished or fallen away, like the features on a face carved out of stone many centuries ago.

Maybe Gobnait was already religious before leaving home. Or maybe it was her desperate dash across the bay that made her so. Maybe religious devotion was a comfort she conjured after living out on Inis Oírr—a small and thoroughly stony place, almost totally treeless and therefore shadeless, and in times of harsh weather, rather merciless. If this was where she started keeping bees, you couldn’t blame her for wanting to bring some sweetness to the surrounding bleakness. But as with her life in Clare, no one really knows what Gobnait did with herself on Inis Oírr, or even how long she stayed there. All the islanders can say is that she stayed until an angel appeared to her in a dream and told her to move on. This island was not the place for her. She was to seek out a place where there were nine white deer grazing. There and then she would find the place of her resurrection.

You don’t argue with angels. Not when there’s a heavenly reward, on earth or otherwise, at stake. Gobnait went back to the mainland so, where she wandered the country for a while, keeping her eye out for the nine white deer and the place of her true belonging. The story goes that she stopped in Kerry and Waterford and Cork, giving her name to a church here, a village there, like a child dropping crumbs or clues just in case she lost her way. Or perhaps in case anyone was looking for her. Was anyone looking for her? Wouldn’t there have been? No one seems to ask in the Gobnait story. The point has always been what she was looking for. And where she found it.

Gobnait’s reward of resurrection actually came in increments, in teases, like a dancer dropping the veils covering her body and revealing herself one inch of skin at a time. She found three deer first, in Clondrohid in County Cork. Then a herd of six at Ballymakeera, a few miles roughly northwest. Then finally nine after crossing into a village called Ballyvourney over the River Sullane. There she stayed, built a convent, and made a reputation for herself as a healer who had a way with the bees and a holy woman capable of performing miracles. Among her miracles are the time she kept a plague away from Ballyvourney simply by drawing a line in the earth along the village’s eastern borders, and another occasion during which she caused some cattle thieves to flee by letting her bee friends loose from their hives. That latter miracle might seem obvious and ordinary enough—anyone can poke a stick into a few bees’ nests and rouse their fury after all—hence, no miracle at all. But Gobnait turned her army of bees into actual soldiers, you see, and for an extra dose of no-nonsense she hurled one of the hives at the fleeing thieves and made it change into a helmet as it flew through the air at the bolting crooks.

It can be hard to square such violence, such unapologetic vengeance, with the modern notion of what a saint should be. Saints are supposed to be nice. Mother Teresa smiling on the cover of a magazine nice. St. Francis of Assisi holding a kitten in someone’s backyard garden nice. Not necessarily without backbone, but not vindictive to the point of throwing potentially murderous heavy objects at people’s heads either. Even after taking into account old stereotypes about Irish tempers (and there are stories of other Irish saints, besides Gobnait, who also liked to throw things and start up a brawl every now and again), there’s something both extraordinary and extraordinarily admirable to me about Gobnait’s flashes of anger, something so correctly drawn about a woman once chased from her home now chasing away others, making lines in the earth, marking boundaries, protecting her turf, defending the place of her resurrection from thievery and greed and disease, from any chance of being spoiled or taken away from her, especially after it took such wandering for her to finally get here.

She had a right to be so territorial. For in the end Ballyvourney was indeed her place of resurrection. Her grave is there, near the traditional site of her convent, and near a holy well, a cemetery, and a statue of a rather downcast and dull-looking little woman wearing a long cape and rosary beads and standing on a stone hive. The statue was erected in 1950, a representation more of its time, of how Ireland once wanted its women to be—modest, devout, unchallenging—than of the territorial and spirited woman who guarded 6th-century Ballyvourney.

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I have never been to Ballyvourney. That’s a bold confession on my part, as Ballyvourney is of course the go-to spot for Gobnait groupies and devotees. On her feast day, February 11th, locals and visitors make pilgrimage to Gobnait’s grave there. The day is marked with a turas, in which pilgrims visit designated stations at the monastic site, moving around them in a clockwise direction and saying the usual prayers—the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be—as they go. There’s no re-creating of Gobnait’s more memorable life moments—no hive or helmet-throwing contests, no banishing of plagues, no running or wandering. Not as far as I know. Since I only know Gobnait-devotion through the place she ran from, not to—through Inis Oírr.

On Inis Oírr on Gobnait’s feast day, the islanders huddle inside the small, roofless, stone church dedicated to her for a special mass in her honor. It’s usually a small crowd, and mostly women. Very unlike the outdoor mass in June for Inis Oírr’s patron—and male—saint, Caomhán, held in a larger yet also roofless church in the island graveyard.

St. Caomhán’s church may just get more attention because of its obviousness. The graveyard in which it lies—and I do mean “in”—is on a high dune just off the beach and the island’s tiny airport. The church has long since sunk into the sand of the dune, and the islanders used to have to clear away the sand regularly until grass was planted around the church to keep the sand back a bit. Climbing up the dune to the cemetery and coming to the edge of the church ruins is like stumbling upon and looking down into the world’s largest and most worn-out treasure chest, its top ripped off and its contents emptied out with just sweepings of dust left in the remains of the frame. Despite the church’s deathly surroundings, it has an association with luck. There’s a belief that if you can fit through the very narrow open window above the church’s stone altar, you’re bound for heaven when you die. Near the church is a small house-like structure that protects Caomhán’s grave. The islanders say if you spend the night lying on it, especially on the eve of his feast day, you’ll be cured of all illness.

Gobnait’s church, on the other hand, is hard to find. It’s in a field among many fields that cover the island, all separated from each other by high, hand-built stone walls that give the island fields and roads a maze-like appearance from above. It’s easy to get lost looking for Gobnait’s church. Which may be what the runaway saint would have wanted. And even if you do find your way, there’s little luck to be won there. Beside the entrance to the field of Gobnait’s church are a well and a tree with a bad reputation. Now on an island as barren and rocky as Inis Oírr, you’d think a tree would be seen as a blessed thing, a miracle even. After all, you can count the number of trees on the island on one hand. But the tree by Gobnait’s church is an elder, one of several tree varieties in Ireland often associated with fairies and all the tricks and mischief fairies like to get up to. Worse, Gobnait’s tree is actually a twin elder, two trickster trees grown into one. Double the trouble.

As with Caomhán’s church site, there are graves at Gobnait’s church, or maybe they’re outdoor altars—no one can decide for sure. There are also the remains of a clochán, a very small stone hut that must have kept some sacred or solitary-loving soul on the island out of the rain long ago. It has no roof now, same as Gobnait’s and Caomhán’s churches. It’s almost as if there’s a moral to be found in all these roofless old structures on the island: Stick around this place long enough and you’ll lose your head. Just wait for it.

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Gobnait’s church site was my favorite place on Inis Oírr in the days I lived there. That was many years ago, but hardly as many as when Gobnait did. I came to the island from the opposite direction than Gobnait, from America, from Chicago. I wasn’t running or escaping anything—not yet. I was just looking to spend some time in a foreign country I had visited once before and wanted to get to know better. When I went to Ireland to live and work, I expected to end up in Dublin or Cork—in a city at any rate. I never dreamed I’d end up on a tiny island off the country’s west coast.

How I landed on Inis Oírr is a story for another time. If nobody knows how or why no less a figure than St. Gobnait got there, nobody really needs to know how or why I did. There was a job there on the island, in a hotel over the summer, when I went looking for one and couldn’t seem to find one anywhere else in Ireland. That’s really all there is to it.

Though I would spend the next three months living and working on Inis Oírr (and several more summers to come), it took me awhile to come across Gobnait’s church site. I don’t even recall if I found it the first summer I was there. But once I finally did, it became my favorite spot to get away from it all. (Yes, I know, as if being on a small island on the opposite side of the Atlantic wasn’t getting far enough away from it all to begin with.) There’s a low hill in the corner of the field of Gobnait’s church, and I liked to sit there and read or look out at the pieces of the sea and mainland and horizon you could see from the hill between all the island walls. Once in a while I’d go to Gobnait’s field and find someone else, some tourists or such, already there—taking pictures, inspecting the old church and graves, maybe resting on the hill themselves—and I’d feel jealous and frustrated. How to get rid of them? How to make them buzz off?  I never really tried. Despite my big-city background, I’m not a confrontational person. I’m Midwestern, and Midwesterners don’t make waves. We never learned, what with no ocean around us.

When I found someone else intruding on my favorite spot, I tended to just walk on. Maybe I’d come back after a while to see if the intruders were gone, but usually I’d just accept it and find somewhere else to read or watch or brood. The back of the island was usually a good bet. It’s entirely uninhabited—by people, at least—and wild. At the back of the island, the stone walls are mostly tumbled down and crumbled away, leaving messy hurdles of rock for walkers to climb over only to land on more rock—great, long, fissured blocks of limestone jutting out into the sea. There may be a couple islandmen around collecting seaweed for fertilizer if the tide is out, and there may be a few tourists who’ve found their way out here—but the sound of the sea generally drowns out their chatter and the clicks of their cameras and tends to humble them into either high-tailing it back to civilization at the front of the island or finding a cranny in the rocks to cower against, as sea and stone duke it out in the fight for elemental supremacy. This part of the island can make a scaredy-cat out of a street tough and a hermit out of an attention whore.

Gobnait picked a good place to run away to, is what you think while exploring Inis Oírr. Even if it wasn’t the end place for her, it was a good hideout, a good place to recover from whatever personal apocalypse drove her here to wait for news of resurrection.



There are women I know on the island who refuse to believe the negative superstitions around Gobnait’s bad-luck double fairy tree. There are women on the island who in fact will go to Gobnait’s field to “sit with Gobnait” whenever they need time and space to think or reflect—they’ll go to Gobnait’s church over the modern church on the island or even Caomhán’s church any day. I myself never heard anything bad about Gobnait’s tree or field from the islandwomen. It was a man who told me. An islandman and a one-time sweetheart of mine.

Once while holding hands with this sweetheart and walking on the road past Gobnait’s church at night, I mentioned to him that it was my favorite spot on the island. “You know there’s a lot of superstition about that tree,” he said to me. “Lots of people here say they get a bad feeling passing it after dark. They say they don’t trust it.”

I didn’t have much to say in response to that then. I was, after all, a girl in love, young, quite inexperienced, and giddy with the romance of walking at night under a starry sky with one of the island’s handsomest men. All I had on my mind was the fire in my heart, not the cool tone in his voice. It was only two days later when he would betray me badly and break my heart.

Did the tree jinx us? Was it the double tree who double-crossed me? Or was it him? Or me? Something I said, or didn’t say, when my islandman and I passed the tree by? Perhaps there are cautions on the island against women who stand in spoken solidarity with trees. Reaching as that may sound, consider that one of the only other trees on the island had a stone beneath it dedicated to the mná na hÉireann, women of Ireland, in honor of a visit by Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson—and the stone was broken in half, replaced, and broken again. They say the “women’s tree” was eventually blown away entirely, in a storm. Maybe it blew all the way to Resurrectionville, Ireland, itself: Ballyvourney. Maybe it found refuge there, replanted itself, and grew to cast loving shade over Gobnait’s grave. Maybe it even shelters a beehive in its branches.

I dream up these notions of renewed life for a lost tree because I’m too proud and too bitter to dream up notions of renewed life for a lost love. After getting my heart broken, I became a running and wandering woman, same as Gobnait had been. But where she ran to Inis Oírr, I ran from it, and I wouldn’t return for years to come. Nor would I find my place of resurrection, despite hops around America to Australia to Bolivia to Mexico to France and Spain. And I never lent my name to any of the places I passed through, didn’t drop clues for anyone who may have been looking for me…though all along I wondered if someone might be, hoped that someone would be. I’ve also yet to come across any white deer—though other miracles, in other forms, have certainly been abundant. The most unexpected, most bitter and sweet, was seeing the face of the man who betrayed me, back in Ireland, over a decade on. He didn’t bring me resurrection. He brought a handshake. Likewise I didn’t bring forgiveness. I brought a hug. These things come in increments, in teases: one step, two steps, three steps…three deer, six deer, nine deer…a few inches of skin, a few inches of self-exposure, trust, and courage at a time.


Gobnait was by all accounts a nun and a virgin, so she may have been innocent of the disasters of love affairs. Yet her legend begins with a running, a fleeing, the kind women do when disaster is fresh and raw as a still swelling sting. Any woman who’s ever been burned can understand the desire to give it all over to God, to scorn men for solitude or society for a nunnery, to trust no one but the bees. Every woman has her own Ballyvourney ahead of her, and behind her, her own Inis Oírr. Considering that in Gobnait’s time Ireland was swarming with saints (Wikipedia’s list of medieval saints numbers well over 100), one has to wonder how much of it came down to holiness and how much to heartbreak.


Whatever their motive in the old days, holy people are a rare breed today. In Ireland, in America, perhaps everywhere, people just don’t get up and maroon themselves on an island or in a desert for the sake of the sacred anymore. Our times produce few saints. They’re almost extinct. And word is that the bees who once kept their company aren’t far behind.

It’s called colony collapse disorder, this large-scale vanishing of the bees, and it’s a red-hot topic. I could have written a whole essay here about it, written as many paragraphs as above examining all the reasons for what’s killing the bees off and the consequences for us humans and what we can do about it. I’m sure there are readers who would tell me I should have written about these things, who would tell me a personal heartbreak and the life of a long-gone holy woman are much less worthy topics of discussion in the grand scheme of things and, for further convincing, might toss off a quote that’s been going around lately (attributed to Einstein, though it’s never been verified) that says humans won’t last even half a decade if a beeless planet comes to pass. I admit this prospect is a much more pressing issue. I also admit I’m not so interested in the pressing issues.

There’s already a multitude of people shouting a multitude of questions and answers and opinions on the disappearance of bee colonies. They shout things like: Pesticides! Viruses! GMOs! Also: Climate change! Monoculture! Cell phones! Bee malnutrition! Indeed, the list of culprits gets longer as more bees disappear and more people take notice. Still, the shouting may not be loud enough, the message not yet focused enough or crystal-clear to cut through to people’s serious concern. Perhaps there’s still time for the shouters to prove themselves heroes and life-savers, or they may suffer the fate of tragically unheeded sages, of failed missionaries, of hoarse-voiced street preachers ranting and raving about the loss of faith and the coming end times.

I for one don’t doubt the urgency. I like bees. I dig their buzz. I don’t want to see them go away. I like honey, and I like all the fruits and nuts and such that bees pollinate for the world. But all the same, I’ll leave it to the know-it-alls of science, biology, and the environment to fight over the various reasons and solutions for colony collapse disorder. They can work on saving the world’s source of sweetness. I’ll work on resolving my personal store of bitterness. So I’d rather turn to that back-page place where women’s stories and women’s glories so often get buried. I’d rather investigate the mystery of a little-known female saint in a little country than the tragedy of something so large as a worldwide apocalypse.

Besides, St. Gobnait’s story is something like an apocalypse. For every life that’s ever sparked and ended is an apocalypse of sorts. So is every creation that’s ever crumbled or vanished or come to lose meaning and appreciation in time. Really, we’re all apocalypses—men, women, bees, bad-luck trees, holy people, hives, half-hidden churches on islands, and deer herds straight from a hermit woman’s dream. All runnings and vanishings are apocalypses as well. All arrivals, resurrections, and fumbles at forgiveness. All wishes, answers, shoutings, and conversions. All love affairs too…especially love affairs.

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