Ancestral Hunger Pangs

This is the last editor’s note/essay I wrote for Tiny Donkey. As I wrote in a previous post, Tiny Donkey was a digital journal devoted to short nonfiction about fairy tales and folkore and associated with Fairy Tale Review. It was shut down in 2017, and its site was recently taken down from the internet completely. I’ve been rescuing all the essays and interviews I contributed here. This one was my favorite of all.


My mother’s kitchen cupboards are stocked with ancestral memories; crammed with what may look like ordinary jars and cans, boxes and bottles—but I know better. These are her hunger ghosts, I think to myself every time I open the cupboards, doppelgangers of old wounds and inherited hurts.

The same goes for the freezer and fridge, the fruit bowl, even the jar for cat treats. My mother hoards food. She consistently buys too much, as if she’s still cooking for a household of eight or preparing for a food shortage or a spell of famine. She overcooks too, long used to making large casseroles that needed to stretch into a couple days’ worth of leftovers. My father and I have tried talking to her, telling her to scale back, that we cannot possibly eat everything before it spoils and it’s a sin to waste food.

But I think she really is preparing for a famine, or reckoning with the haunting of one. My mother descends from the Famine Irish, the generation that left Ireland in the mid-19th century for their lives, escaping starvation and fever, mass death, and the devastation of centuries of British colonialism. Hunger is the reason she’s here, in America, and half the reason I’m here too, along with my brothers, sisters, and all my maternal cousins.

In Irish folk belief there’s a type of grass called an féar gortach, the hungry grass. Some say it’s a different shade than the green that famously carpets Ireland, more silver in color, or patchy and withered. Others say it looks like any other grass, and you only know you’ve stepped on it too late, when a great hunger suddenly comes upon you and nothing can cure it save a bite of some bread tucked away in your pockets (if you had the forethought) or a bit of your own shoelace (if you’re really stuck). It’s said hungry grass grows wherever a corpse has been laid down or someone has died. The belief predates An Gorta Mór of the 1840s, the Great Hunger. But an féar gortach took on a new, ghastly meaning then, in an era when famine victims were found in fields and on roadsides, a ring of green around their open, lifeless mouths after a last, desperate meal of grass.

As Ireland’s potato crop failed and its people starved, its other crops were harvested and exported by the shipload to serve on British dinner tables and fill British bellies. At least a million Irish died during the Famine, their bodies buried in mass graves wherever their lives gave out. In a sense, all Ireland’s green countryside turned to hungry grass, a landscape of want and loss, of lasting trauma and emptied beauty. At least another million emigrated, became refugees, exiles, Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, hyphenated people, diasporic, hungry.

Growing up, Mom spoke often of her family’s history, sang and played us Irish folk songs, explained to us the Famine, dressed us in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it seems a stretch to suggest my mother’s food compulsions have anything to do with an event in another country her ancestors left fadó fadó. But some events are simply too large, too traumatic not to eat into the blood, the DNA, the collective cultural memory of a people.

Mother’s ancestral memories transferred to all her children, but might have absorbed most deeply into me, her last-born child and the only one to go live in Ireland years later. I am the child who’s never married, never had children. Who’s struggled with her weight, eats when she’s not hungry, and bakes when she’s sad or simply bored. Who collects cats, books, and passport stamps like they’ll fill up some loss, some second-hand but deep-rooted want and need. The famished one, always looking for some patch of grass where the hunger finally makes sense.

Mom in Ireland, 1969.

Lady Folk

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I wrote for a digital journal called Tiny Donkey, which was shut down in 2017 and whose site has more recently been taken down from the internet.

This is the first piece I wrote for Tiny Donkey, before I served as a volunteer editor. The journal hosted a “Once Upon a Cartographer” short essay contest, and this is what I submitted. It’s about two Irish women: Lady Gregory, the Anglo-Irish playwright, folklore collector, and cofounder (with Yeats et al) of the Abbey Theatre; and Biddy Early, the Irish-speaking purported witch/wise woman. This one 2nd place in the contest.

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Biddy Early peered down a bottle’s neck to see the future. One wonders if she ever saw Lady Gregory coming decades down the road, gossiping with Biddy’s old neighbors, collecting astonishing tales about this wise healer woman of western Ireland. Biddy Early was already legendary before she died—accused of witchcraft once, eternally at odds with the local priests, married four times over. She didn’t need Lady Gregory to make her famous-slash-infamous, or whatever the liminal space is where wise women dwell.

But Gregory needed Biddy. Her name lent authenticity to the cast of banshees, blacksmiths, and other characters in Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). And her neighbors’ trusting chattiness about their own peasant practices and beliefs eased Gregory’s aristocratic guilt.

Both women were western Irish—Biddy born Bridget Connors in County Clare in 1798, Gregory born Isabella Augusta Persse in County Galway in 1852. Biddy was born the year of an uprising in Ireland against British rule—a fitting start for a figure of female rebellion. Gregory came into the world at the end of the Great Potato Famine, a time when 1 million Irish died by fever or starvation. She grew up only 25 miles from Biddy’s humble cottage, but she was a member of the gentry, an Anglo-Irish Protestant not only protected from the ravages of the Famine but a benefactor. The man she married, Sir William Gregory, was a member of Parliament with a Galway estate called Coole Park—a place of lakes, limestone, woods and wild swans. At the height of the Famine, Sir William drafted a clause in the Poor Relief Laws that led to the eviction of thousands of peasants in the west. These were among Ireland’s poorest population, the ones who suffered the Famine’s worst destitution, the most deaths. And the strongest bearers of the old Gaelic folkways and language. Biddy’s people. With their decimation, would Ireland’s folk culture follow?

Biddy survived the Famine, dying around 1872 with a priest’s blessing in exchange for breaking her magic bottle. Lady Gregory was widowed in 1892. Within a year she was immersing herself in the Irish language and folk culture and soon professing Irish nationalism. She sometimes paid her peasant storytellers small tokens for their memories—but never stopped collecting their rents.

Maybe Biddy’s chatty neighbors did trust Lady Gregory. Or maybe they were simply squaring another uneven exchange with a landholder—embellishing their barter by telling tall tales. Perhaps Biddy Early also managed to square an uneven barter. Maybe those glass shards beside the blessed deathbed belonged to a decoy bottle.


Ruins of Lady Gregory’s estate (Coole Park) in County Galway
Woods at Coole Park

Modern-Day Mike Finks

As mentioned in a previous post, a digital literary journal that I contributed to and served as volunteer editor for a few years ago has gone offline. It was called Tiny Donkey, and it was an offshoot of the Fairy Tale Review dedicated to very short non-fiction pieces about folklore and fairy tales. The journal shut down in 2017, but was still available to read online up until recently. With its disappearance went all the writing of its contributors, including some essays I wrote and commissioned and interviews with other writers and artists. I decided to share a few of my own pieces here over the next few weeks.

This one is the first editor’s note (but not essay) I wrote for Tiny Donkey, about the American pioneer folklore anti-hero Mike Fink. I wrote and published this literally days before the 2016 election that saw Trump rise to power.

As a personal note, after writing this and giving it to the other editors to look over, one of the other volunteer eds called it “weak.” So for a long time I felt ashamed of this piece. That particular editor was one I didn’t see eye to eye with (this editor had a habit of trying to rewrite or delete whole paragraphs of other writers’ work, for no discernible reason), and since then I feel more ashamed that I let this person doubt what I was aiming to do with this piece. (Fortunately, the journal had a terrific founding editor, who ultimately always kept us on track and was always fair and fantastic.) It’s written in an intentionally understated, matter-of-fact tone, to match the speaking tone and verbal style of the people in the part of the country where Mike Fink lore comes from, for better or worse–Midwestern people, Mississippi River people, people like my family, like my many Iowa and Illinois relatives, and like me. So here it is: “Modern-Day Mike Finks.”

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Once I tried reading a 900-page book called A Treasury of American Folklore, by the folklorist B.A. Botkin. But I only got 60 pages in before dumping the “treasure” at a book swap.

It was the stories of Mike Fink that did it, a Mississippi River boatman of the post-American Revolution era celebrated for his outrageous boasts and pranks. His boasts were of the variety that he could “outrun, outjump, outshoot, outdrink, and lick any man in the country.” And his pranks? Well, he had a curious sense of fun, this Mike Fink, and a suspiciously specific kind of targets. Like the time he shot an African-American boy walking by in the heel just because he didn’t like its shape, and the time he shot the scalp-lock off a Cherokee man’s head for acting too proud, or the time he made his wife lie in a pile of leaves and set them on fire, letting her go just after her hair and clothes started burning, all for looking at another man.

Botkin labels Fink a “pseudo bad man” without explaining what that means. Along with many other folklorists who’ve written about Fink, he tries to assure us modern folks that Fink wasn’t real, or at least, his pranks weren’t. They couldn’t be, could they?

Though I’d never heard of Mike Fink before this, I don’t need any academic or historical investigation to know he was real. That he is real. I’ve known him. Maybe you have too. Maybe like me, you see him every day on the news, in life, in the memory of personal experience. Sometimes he wears a badge, sometimes a suit. Sometimes he’s followed me on the street or leered at me on the train. When I was young I sometimes encountered him on the playground or in the school hallway, trying to lift up my skirt or grab some part of me. More than once I’ve loved him and forgiven him. Sometimes he’s the picture of everything all good and charming. Oftentimes he’s put in charge of things, more than just riverboats, like committees, laws—and bodies, usually black, brown, and female.

I think now, this election year, he’s too close for comfort to being put in charge of the whole country.

I dumped that treasury of American folklore because I was too angry and ashamed to see what else was in the folk history of the United States, what further ugliness my country’s mythology had to reveal. The book confirmed what I’ve always known about my country, and my place as a woman in it, but don’t often like to face. I can’t afford to ignore the truth and cost of such “treasure” anymore. Mike Fink is deserving of dumping. America needs the coinage of a new, transformative folklore.

Island Luck

This little essay was published a few years ago at the Aran Islands Info website. Their blog seems to be down these days, so I’ve reposted the story here. Enjoy.

“Fish, fish, fish,” says Tomas, as he dangles a fishing line over the side of his small, white boat and into the Atlantic Sea. He gives the line a wiggle, throws a wink to me sitting up at the bow, and repeats the magic charm. Me and my friend Angela, balanced on the edge of the boat at the stern, wait in silence and watch the line.

Nothing. Not even the mirage of a tug. “Sometimes it works,” says Tomas with a sheepish smile. But today the fish aren’t buying any Irish charms.

Angela and I are lucky, even if we have been out on the water half an hour without catching anything. Not only are we getting a private tour with a local around Inis Oirr—the smallest of the three Aran Islands that lurk off the west coast of Ireland—we’re also getting a lesson in fishing superstitions of the islanders.

Angela and I are working for the summer in Inis Oirr’s only hotel—a small, family-run place with 15 rooms, but no Room 13. Instead, the numbering goes 11, 12A, 12B, 14…. On a day off we’ve finally managed to nag Tomas, a local fisherman and friend, into taking us out in his boat. It’s an adventure I’ve been after since working here the summer before, but with little luck—and luck is just the problem. Western Ireland abounds with superstitions about red-headed women, an unfortunate club to which I belong. Sure enough, the fishermen of Inis Oirr think no good can come from bringing a ginger woman out in the boat. I’ve already been blamed for one fishing mishap. A couple weeks ago two brothers took me out in their boat for a short spin one morning to check their nets, only to find their motor broken down later that same day. “Can’t figure out what’s wrong with it,” one of the brothers said to me, his eyes taking on a glint of suspicion as they drifted off my face to my strawberry blonde locks. “It was working fine when we took you out a few hours ago.”

But Tomas either has more confidence in me or less in the power of superstitions. Perhaps it’s because he and another fisherman took me out on the sea on a previous occasion, with some actual success. Or maybe it’s because he’s heard I’m really a brunette who colors her hair. In any case he agreed to meet Angela and I at the slip by the beach this afternoon, and now for the first time we’re really fishing—and not just along for the ride.

He’s steered the boat to places on the sea where the seagulls have been circling overhead and floating along with the waves. “Look for the birds. That’s where the fish are,” he tells us. Once he stops the motor, he takes up the oars and rows us out a little farther and then lets Angela and I have a go at the fish. We use a long line with a small weight at one end and several bait hooks. More than once I get excited when I think I feel a tug on the line, only to have Tomas take the line and tell me it’s got caught in the rocks underwater. Angela, meanwhile, becomes more interested in steering than fishing. Tomas restarts the motor and lets her guide us where the sea is deeper, where there’s less chance of our line getting caught up in rocks, and where we can see puffins bobbing on the water. There’s a large colony of them living amongst the cracks and crags of the mighty, moss-covered Cliffs of Moher, just a few miles from Inis Oirr on the mainland. Today is a classic Irish summer’s day—some sunshine, some clouds, some gray skies, some blue—but the wall of the cliffs is so massive that even the gray moments can’t dull the bright green of the cliffs. From the edge of Inis Oirr the cliffs look like a giant green flag, rippled by the wind.

When Angela stops the boat, Tomas pulls out another Irish charm for fishing. “Has anyone been to mass lately?” he asks us. Angela hasn’t been in ages. I’m a hit-or-miss mass-goer myself, but I did make it out of bed to the island’s one small church a couple Sundays ago. “I’d say we’ll have some luck so,” says Tomas and hands the line over to me.

Sure enough, in a few minutes I’m feeling a tug—the real deal. Tomas helps me pull up the line, where a pollock has met its fate. I snap a picture of Tomas holding up my prize. Angela takes the line then for a short while and lands a tiny baby of a fish, not much longer than a cigarette. Before throwing the baby back into the sea, Tomas shouts, “Photo! Photo! Get the camera!” “Well I caught one anyway,” says Angela, not able to hold back a proud smile.

Tomas lets Angela console herself by taking over the steering again. We end up going for a trip around the whole island, only 4 square miles and nearly all limestone, just a big floating chunk of the stuff. The day brightens as we pass around the coast of the island where, across from the Cliffs of Moher, an old, hulking wrecked freighter rests—The Plassey, stuck there since a bad storm in 1960. We go on past a lighthouse and the uninhabited back of the island, where the sea has pounded and eaten away Inis Oirr’s limestone into large, step-like columns and slabs fit for a giant’s tread.

Three-quarters around now, the island’s coast is all tumbled-down boulders. I spot a small, rusted vessel marooned on the rocks. Tomas says it’s a boat that drifted up onto the island during World War II. Inside was the body of an American soldier, never identified. His grave is a little farther inland from where his boat landed. The islanders buried him there, not far from a holy well, or natural spring, dedicated to the Aran Islands’ patron saint, Enda. “Why didn’t the islanders bury him in the cemetery?” I ask. All of Inis Oirr’s other dead lie in a graveyard built around the remains of an old church on a high dune off the beach. Tomas explains that since the islanders didn’t know who he was, they had no way of knowing whether he was Catholic or even Christian and didn’t want to risk burying a “heathen soul” in consecrated ground.

When we get around to the front of the island, Tomas takes over the steering and guides the boat past the pier and up to the beach. He gets out of the boat—his feet protected from the waves running up to shore by a pair of wellies—and pulls it up onto the sand. Angela, in bare feet, leaps from the boat onto the shore. I’m more hesitant, worried about getting my shoes and socks soaked. Tomas notices, tells me to wait where I am, and wades over to lift me out and carry me farther up shore where I’m safe from getting wet. He then takes our big haul of one pollock, guts it for us, and washes it clean in the sea. Even with that head start it will take Angela and I, city girls both, a Dubliner and a Chicagoan, well over half an hour to figure out how to further dress the fish for dinner.

In the evening, after a feast of fresh pollock, potatoes, and carrots, Angela and I meet Tomas in the hotel pub to hear the locals play traditional music. Tomas has beaten us to the chase for rounds and already bought us each a drink. But once that round is nearly done, I run up to the bar to buy a pint for Tomas. “That’s for carrying me out of the boat today,” I tell him, setting the pint down in front of him. For a moment he looks politely modest and surprised. Then he reaches behind his back and fakes a look of agony. “How about paying the doctor’s bill for me broken back?” He beats us to laughing at his own joke. Then the music starts up and drowns out any more jokes and laughs. It’s been a lucky day.