Infamy

Three days ago the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, a decision made in 1973–just one year after I was born–that essentially made abortion a legal right for American women.

This is devastating news. It isn’t hyperbole to borrow from FDR’s statement about the day Pearl Harbor was bombed: This is a day that will live in infamy.

Chicago, June 24, 2022

Make no mistake about the fallout from this decision. Women and girls will die due to lack of access to full reproductive health care. Women will lose their livelihoods since so many will no longer be able to make a fair choice between holding down a job and bearing a child–with, of course, women in lower-paying jobs and jobs without health insurance getting boxed into a corner the most. Many girls will lose their education, no longer able to make a fair choice between continuing their schooling and bearing a child they are not prepared to take care of, being so young themselves. The circumstances that led to their pregnancies, whether from a loving relationship or from rape or incest, will be moot. Some women and girls impregnated through rape may even be sued by their rapists for custody of a child not even born. It’s already happening. Women will be imprisoned for trying to exercise bodily autonomy, as will doctors in many states for trying to help women and girls, for essentially taking their medical vocation seriously and treating their female patients as equal, sentient human beings capable of making decisions about their own life and health. Women’s clinics in states that still allow abortion will continue to be targeted for violence, until the entire country is “pro-life.”

Chicago, June 24, 2022

I know nobody’s waiting to hear my take on this. I’m an ordinary American woman with a pretty average (maybe even below average) level of individual power. I’m not rich, I’m not famous, I’m not connected. I’m also middle-aged, just a few months short of 50, and post-menopausal as of the fall of 2019, with no daughters (or kids at all) of my own. Which means that today’s Supreme Court decision doesn’t affect me in the same way it would have just 10 years ago. I’m not married and never have been. Socially, I’m a lifelong loner. I’ve never been pregnant. I have cats. I’m the kind of invisible woman our country and culture ignore except to ridicule once in a while.

I’m a survivor too, but let’s face it–even in this era of #MeToo, with a current president in charge who co-authored the Violence Against Women Act (I will always respect Biden for this), our culture still doesn’t give a shit about survivors. If it did, this Supreme Court decision wouldn’t have happened. If it did, two men credibly accused of sexually assaulting/harassing women wouldn’t be on this Supreme Court. If it did, the corrupt, failed former game show host, and verified woman abuser who appointed one of those justices would’ve gone to jail where he belongs instead of the White House.

But I’m a woman all the same, and an American citizen, not to mention a human being–which should be self-evident with the phrase “I’m a woman,” but going by June 24, 2022’s decision, clearly some people still don’t think “woman” equals “human.” So of course, today’s decision does still affect me. It affects every American, everyone living in this country–red state or blue, citizen or immigrant, documented or undocumented, male or female, young or old.

On the day of the decision, I went to a march in downtown Chicago where the governor of Illinois spoke, promising to keep abortion fully legal in Illinois and firm up the state’s abortion and health care laws even more so no Republicans can dismantle them. I wasn’t there for his speech. I arrived just before the marching from Federal Plaza around the Loop began. I don’t know what the official count is, but from my view on the ground and the news footage from all the helicopters whirling overhead, it may have been in the thousands. (It wasn’t near the size of the Women’s March in 2017, no, but then again, that was planned farther ahead and held on a weekend day, rather than a weeknight on a few hours’ notice.)

I was at the march alone, but surrounded by people of all genders, races, and ages as we marched slowly through the Loop. There was everyone from moms marching with their grade school age daughters to older women with gray hair and thick waists. The majority of the people around me though were younger, looking to be in their late teens to 20s. So part of me felt a bit out of place. I wondered if this was my march to participate in, even being a woman. Maybe this is a young generation’s fight, I thought. I wondered if I should just stand off to the sidelines and cheer them on, as I saw others doing.

Truth.

As we marched along chanting “My body, my choice” (the female marchers) / “Their body, their choice” (the male marchers), I remember one very young woman behind me shouting her part to the point her voice was straining. She was the loudest person I heard at the march, chanting like her life depended on it. Because it does. At one point she passed me up or I fell back, and when I saw her it surprised me just how small and slight she was, given the volume and strength of her voice. I’d put her on the Supreme Court in a minute.

It also struck me then how fortunate I had been, despite never having had to deal with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy (though believe me, as a survivor, the risk was there). I’d been born a year before Roe v Wade and made it all the way to menopause with full reproductive rights. These girls and women around me had suddenly been stripped of this freedom, no matter which state they live in. Fifty years of precedent, just gone. Because of the unfair and hateful biases of six justices, a ruling that can’t be easily changed back (we’re stuck with them for the long haul, like a varicose vein), the girls and young women marching around me may have decades ahead of them of fear and worry and fighting for a right that should be self-evident, like our Constitution says, a right that is unalienable, that comes with simply being human. The thought of it overwhelmed me to the point of near-tears.

But it wasn’t all despair. I was just as much moved and humbled.

Roe v Wade was not an overnight success story, to put it kind of cheesily. It came through the backbreaking justice efforts of countless women born before me. Women of the Baby Boom, Silent, and Greatest generations, and the generations before them. Many of those women are long gone now. Even those who didn’t live to see Roe v Wade back in ’73 still left this world a better place. They left it as heroines. What a trampling on their graves and their legacies this evil turn of events is.

Meanwhile, many of those heroic women are certainly still alive. I saw them in downtown Chicago on June 24. The women with the gray hair and thick middles, marching too or raising fists from the sidewalk. Women who can’t get pregnant anymore may seem out of danger from the cruelty of this decision–but for subverting their freedom and that of their daughters, granddaughters, younger sisters, and younger female neighbors, for wasting all their past work, this injustice delivered a slap across the face to them too.

(Necessary not-digression: No matter how anti-child the pro-life movement may like to paint feminists and abortion rights activists, many of these women were/are mothers and grandmothers. I see these women–and it’s important to see them, to not erase them or brush them aside but make them visible–and I’m reminded of those elderly ladies, 100+ years old, born before any woman had suffrage in the U.S., who came out hell or high water to vote for Hillary Clinton, who had actually lived long enough to see a woman become president. And then…what happened? Their tenacity, grit, and pride all trampled on by the corrupt cronyism of former frat boy jerks like Cheeto and Co., Tucker Carlson, and now, Brett Kavanaugh with his creepy high school calendars tracking beer bong parties like they were as integral to his life as, say, tracking a period is to the girls he bullied.)

(Hillary still won btw. And Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill? They told the truth.)

Chicago, June 24, 2022. Not me, but I wish it was.

How hateful it is to treat the humanity and justice work of all these women, younger and elder alike, like a leaf that can be just flipped over recklessly by six supreme fools. What an anti-life decision. Because there is nothing pro-life about anti-abortion laws. It is all misogyny. All cruelty, control, and power grabs.

So how do I know this? How do I know how bad this is and how bad it’s going to get? I know because I’ve seen it elsewhere. For a time, when I was much younger, and at the age most affected by anti-abortion laws, I lived in a country with such draconian systems.

I went to Ireland to work and live in 1995, when I was 22. At the time, not only was abortion still illegal in the country, but also divorce and same-sex marriage. Contraception had only been legalized a few years prior. Yet birth control and condoms were still hard to get outside the cities, and many of these social issues were still not discussed openly. Mid-90s Ireland was a country still controlled by the Catholic Church–its schools and education system, its hospitals and health care system, its government. The seeds of dismantling it were just being planted at the time, mainly through the testimonies of a few brave church abuse survivors, who’d be joined by hundreds of others in the decades to come.

But what did this church and state collusion mean for Irishwomen? It meant Irishwomen trapped in abusive marriages could not legally escape their husbands. It meant teenage girls and young women hid their pregnancies until the birth of their child. It meant many of them still had their babies taken from them, adopted out from church-run Mother and Baby Homes illegally for cash. It meant Mother and Baby Homes unceremoniously dumping the remains of hundreds of dead babies and children they were unequipped to care for, who had become sick in their poorly regulated facilities. It meant birth records falsified by nuns, and church and state archives kept closed (as they still are) to adopted persons and their birth mothers alike. It meant one teen girl dying alone in a field in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary after she gave stillbirth to a baby whose father she never named. It meant another teen girl being apprehended with her parents in England and forced to return to Ireland, and then detained, for trying to obtain an abortion after being raped by a relative. It meant dozens of women a day travelling across the Irish Sea to the U.K. to obtain an abortion (or even just birth control). It meant girls and women, especially poor and working-class girls, rape victims, girls deemed too pretty or promiscuous or just plain spirited, incarcerated in Mother and Baby Homes or Magdalene laundries, institutions run by nuns where “fallen women” were sentenced to work out their “crimes” by laboring unpaid doing the congregation’s and community’s laundry. In the mid-90s, the last of these hellhole laundries were only finally closing–though many of the older women incarcerated in them were simply transferred to church-run nursing homes rather than allowed to finally live a free and independent life. All in all, what happened was women died. Children died. Children were abused. Mothers and babies were separated from each other. Women and girls were imprisoned and enslaved, no exaggeration, by the church and state, working together in infamy.

In recent years, many of these horrific laws and systems have been subverted, beginning with divorce in 1996 and leading up to abortion as late as 2018. Not even five years ago. The damage caused by this deeply misogynistic and abuse-riddled church-and-state system is hardly over. Survivors of clerical abuse, of the Mother and Baby Home system, of Magdalene laundry institutions, including adoptees to families in the U.S., are still fighting for their rights to compensation and redress and to their own identities through access to birth, church, and state records that remain locked away from public view. Even just six years before abortion was legalized in Ireland, a young woman died as a result of not being allowed to terminate a very much wanted but unviable pregnancy.

Back in the 90s, I was as aware of these issues in Ireland as I was oblivious to them. Ireland was (and is) a beautiful place with a rich culture and many generous-hearted people. That’s what I chose to focus on. But I saw news headlines, heard stories, noticed the wall-to-wall religious iconography in so many homes and even on the street in the heart of bigger cities like Dublin.

And I was a young woman myself. A very inexperienced and naive young woman, but a foreign one on her own, with no local family to offer me a social buffer from gossip or judgment. It was just assumed by more than one man I encountered that I was “loose” and worldly. That if I tried to make male friends or even talk to a man of nearly any age for even the most mundane few seconds of conversation that I was “chasing him” and desperate. Sometimes men would harass me or follow me home or say crude things to me, and when I tried to tell someone, people would joke about it or act unsympathetic. Like I deserved it…for what? Like I was a punchline. I was all at once too nice, too naive, too forward, too bold, too aggressive, too shy, too virginal, too teasing, too friendly, too trusting, too stuck-up, too aloof, too this, too that. Never just a person. Never just a potential friend. It was a confusing time in a culture controlled by a church viciously hypocritical towards and deeply confused about women.

I told myself I was lucky though. I was only passing through. I could–and did–always go home to a country that offered more rights for women, a country with separation of church and state declared right in its Constitution. In reality, I took the reproductive rights in the U.S. for granted, and as a still practicing Catholic at the time, sometimes I even questioned their rightness, though never to the extent of voting against them. Yes, you can be Catholic and support women’s right to choose—not to mention a Constitution that does what it claims to do by refusing to preference one religion’s belief above others.

He would. And he’d be on the side of women.

Maybe I sound smug to compare myself to the women I met and knew in Ireland back then and call myself lucky. For one, there has always been a huge disparity in the U.S. between how rights are doled out to some women than others, based on race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, language, geography, religion, ability, education level, and citizenship. The rights I was so smugly proud of in the U.S. privileged some women (i.e., white chicks) over others, founded as they were on oppression and hypocrisy.

They were also already well under attack.

The first time I went to Ireland, a year before I worked there, was in 1994. I was 21. While there I met three other American women, a mother and her adult daughters in their late 20s and early 30s. (Funny how they seemed so much older to me then.) I distinctly remember waiting with them at a bus stop (in Waterford, I think) while the younger daughter read through a copy of USA Today she had gotten her hands on somewhere. I remember her suddenly shaking her head and making a disapproving noise, reading out loud about how “another doctor” was shot to death by an anti-abortion zealot. In Florida, she said.

Rewind another ten years or so and I’m with my parents and one of my sisters in Florida for a vacation. I’m about 12 or 13. We’re in the state over spring break to visit Disney World (my one and only time, and I’m admittedly a bit old to enjoy it), Epcot, Daytona Beach, and my mom’s close friend Joyce, who lives in Fort Lauderdale. Joyce takes us around town, including to her “clinic” for a tour. When we’re inside, I note all the classic posters showing images like a man with a baby bump and messages saying, “Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?” and somehow I put it together that this is an abortion or birth control clinic or something. But I don’t really know yet what that means. Apart from the vintage posters and the picture of Gloria Steinem that Joyce keeps on her office wall, the most memorable part about our little tour is Joyce’s story of a protestor who showed up one day claiming to have a bomb with him (of course it was a “him”). Joyce tells us he waited quietly for the police to come and arrest him, and she points to the chair where he sat waiting. Fortunately, he didn’t hurt anyone that day, but Joyce still needed to start wearing a bulletproof vest to work.

Taking it to the streets and under the el, June 24, 2022.

Back home in Illinois, I make my Catholic confirmation a few weeks later, but I don’t think it occurs to me to worry whether visiting an abortion clinic makes me a sinner or anything. It’s not until another year or two later when some anti-abortion people show up on my high school campus and hand out graphic leaflets to us girls walking on the lawn and minding our own business (I remember a teacher or someone coming out and chasing them off) that I start to worry and feel confused.

But in my sociology course, I have a teacher who rails at us about knowing our rights and tells us rape is never the victim’s fault and how the “morning after pill” works and how one of her closest friends died of AIDS, and she assigns us homework like going to a store to locate and price out the condoms and OTC birth control or developing a catchy but educational advertising strategy for a form of contraception and then presenting it to the class. (My group came up with a Rockettes idea for a month’s worth of birth control pills, standing in a kickline complete with top hats and legs.) She seems kind of extreme but at least she’s never boring. In hindsight I often wonder how many of her students’ lives she saved, how many of us she kept from a situation that would’ve robbed of us our youth and health. And she did it not through prohibition or restriction or guilt and shame, but through honesty and education.

Joyce passed away several years ago from cancer, and my sociology teacher has long since retired. Is there an America for women like them anymore? Could my former teacher be allowed to teach the way she did in a school today, or even just a few years ago, as anti-choice and anti-woman laws straight out of mandated transvaginal ultrasound hell ramped up.

And now here we are, regressed to the barbarities of the past.

It startles me and frightens me to think where we are and where we’re headed. I think of the place Ireland used to be for women. I’m happy for the freedom and justice women in Ireland have won (though there is still so much to be done for survivors there, and note, we’re only talking the Republic of Ireland here—many restrictions remain in place in the North). But I’m horrified for what women here have just lost and what’s still to come from this court. Ireland’s grim past is what the likes of Amy Coney Barrett and Clarence Thomas want for America’s future.

If there’s any silver lining, it’s that strong voice of that young woman marching behind me on Friday, the sister and granddaughter of those elderly women who marched in their own day.

Back in 2018, when Ireland was gearing up for the popular referendum that would finally result in the country’s legalization of abortion, Irish citizens living around the world planned trips back to Ireland just to vote. (Absentee or mail-in voting is not allowed in Ireland.) For Irishwomen under age 50, this would be the first time they could vote in a law affecting their own bodily autonomy, as the last such referendum had occurred in 1983. Like those old women intent on voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016, many Irish emigrants moved hell or high water to make it back to Ireland and cast their vote. Literally, just to cast a vote. Those who couldn’t make it back helped fund flights back for others, sent messages of support, and organized walks and fundraisers where they lived abroad.

Chicago Yes for Ireland Walk, 2018.

In Chicago, a small group of young Irish people were among those who held a walk to show their support for the Yes vote back home. They were even kind enough to allow Americans to walk in solidarity too, which about four or five of us did. We walked along Lake Michigan all the way from Montrose Harbor to a pub in Lincoln Park (you knew it had to end in a pub). The news that came a few days later from Ireland was an amazing testament to the power of the people and proof that even the darkest days can come to an end.

Not even five years on, dark days have come for American women. They can’t last, or America won’t last. There is nothing American about taking rights away from half the population. Six Supreme Court justices have earned themselves nothing but infamy. (That includes you, Miss Stepford Wannabe, Illegitimately Appointed, Can’t Even Name The Five Basic Rights In The First Amendment Amy Coney B.)

But if it can change one way, it can change another. So godspeed the reproductive rights movement in the USA.

Midwest Access Coalition

Planned Parenthood

NARAL

RAINN

Emily’s List

Catholics for Choice

If you want to learn more about what still needs to be done in Ireland and the history of church-state oppression against women and ongoing justice work there, these are survivor-led organizations that you should check out and support:

Justice for Magdalenes Research

Clann Project

Open Heart City

Join me at Island in the City

Hi! I have a new project that I’m trying to get the word out about. It’s a newsletter at the new publishing platform Substack called Island in the City.

To semi-quote myself in the About page of the newsletter, I started it for fun and community to cope with the continued social isolation. The newsletter will dive into topics that have preoccupied my mind during the long days and nights of the pandemic. Stuff like creativity & productivity, loneliness, favorite artists, places & people, aging & ageism, class & classism, storytelling, and the life and geography of big cities & tiny islands.

I already have my first post up, about the Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger. Please check it out. This is also a two-parter post–you can expect the second part to go up next week.

What makes this different from my website and the occasional posts here?

A few things. The newsletter will be bi-monthly at the most, monthly at the least. That’s much more frequent than my posting here on my personal site.

You can also subscribe to the newsletter and get an email whenever a new post goes up. There are links to subscribe in the newsletter at Substack, and you can also do it here.

You’ll notice there’s a payment option. For now, my posts will be free. Maybe they always will–this is brand new journey and I haven’t a clue what’s around the corner with this. For all I know, there are no corners. Anyway, Substack was created as a self-publishing platform like Medium, WordPress, and Blogger, but with more of an ability to earn income for your writing. If you’ve been paying attention to changes in media and publishing over the last 10-15 years, and certainly if you’ve worked in media, you’ll know how changes have set so many media professionals adrift, especially many of a certain generation (cough, Gen X, cough). Layoffs and scale staffs, newspaper foldings, media conglomeration, the rise of blogging, the glut of blogs, free media, social media, unpaid internships, the decline of print–all of this has turned publishing, journalism, and media careers upside down and affected many writers’ income. Substack, like Patreon and other “content monetization platforms” (ugh, what a phrase–but it is what it is), allow for writers to charge for their newsletters to give some of the power back to creators.

I’m under no illusion that anyone wants to pay for my ramblings. But since the option is there, if you’d like to show your support by paying, I’d of course feel grateful and encouraged. The subscription cost is $5 a month or $50 a year. Should I ever start charging for the newsletter, it will most likely be the model most other writers are using: some free posts that all subscribers and visitors to the site will get, mixed with some locked ones for paying subscribers only. There is also an option for me to “grandfather in” my original free subscribers so they continue to get the newsletter for free even if I start charging–a gift for the support of loyalty.

What can subscribers expect to read about?

Here are some topics that I plan on writing about beyond my first posts about Henry Darger:

  • Chicago outsider artists Vivian Maier and Lee Godie
  • the Chicago Riverwalk, its bridgehouses, and the Technicolor Man of downtown Chicago,
  • Jean-Baptiste DuSable, city segregation, and the sundown towns of Illinois
  • Tim Robinson and the Aran Islands
  • the islands of Chicago (Goose, Northerly, Stony, Blue)
  • learning a minority language (Irish) in America
  • the sand dunes of Indiana, the boy who fell inside one, and the Girl X case that broke Chicago’s heart
  • the Green Mill and Michael Mann’s/James Caan’s great film, Thief
  • the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square
  • informal economies and the vanishing Chicago hot dog vendor
  • maybe more (Chicago graffiti art, Ronnie Woo-Woo, Jazz Record Mart (RIP), other Irish islands I have known, who knows?

How to subscribe and connect

To subscribe just go to Island in the City, click the Subscribe button, and add your email. If you like a post, please share. And if you like the newsletter in general, please tell all your like-minded friends.

As a gift for reading this, here’s a deer pic for your enjoyment. And there’s more where that came from. 😉

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.

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I contributed 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. Every month one of the editors interviewed some writer or artist related to folklore or fairy tales. I did this interview with the great Irish poet, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. It was a tremendous pleasure to get to correspond with her for this.


Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is a poet who practices her craft exclusively in the Irish language. Born in 1952 in Lancashire, England to Irish parents, she was sent to Ireland at age 5 to live with relatives in the Gaeltacht of County Kerry, and later lived in County Tipperary. She studied English and Irish literature at University College Cork, where she met her future husband, the geologist Dogan Leflef. Her relationship with Leflef, a Turk and Muslim, was opposed by her Catholic parents, who made her a ward of the court and forbade her any contact with Leflef. In 1973 Ní Dhomhnaill left Ireland for Turkey to marry Leflef and start a family.

After 7 years abroad, she returned to the island and published her first collections of poetry, An Dealg Droighinn (“The Blackthorn Bramble,” 1981) and Féar Suaithinseach (“Marvellous Grass,” 1984). In 1986, she released Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, featuring her Irish poems alongside English translations by Michael Hartnett. She has since published numerous Irish-language (Feis, “Festival,” 1991; Cead Aighnis, “Leave to Speak,” 1998) and dual-language editions (Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1990; The Astrakhan Cloak, 1992; and The Water Horse, 1999), along with plays, essays, and fiction. Her poems have been translated by Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Seamus Heaney, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and many other contemporary Irish poets and in more than half a dozen languages. She has taught and lectured widely in Ireland, Turkey, Canada, the US, and Britain.

Apart from her choice to write in a minority language, Ní Dhomhnaill’s work is characterized by its focus on themes such as gender roles, language and culture, sexuality, and mythology. Her poems are abundant in imagery from both local Irish folklore and world-famous legends. Her recent dual-language collection The Fifty Minute Mermaid (2007, trans. Muldoon) is a powerful work that begins with three poems on authoritarianism before heading off into a long series of poems examining the habits and culture of Irish merfolk. The poems cover topics from mermaid hair-washing and breastfeeding, to the merfolk’s struggles with assimilation, family dysfunction, and religious abuse and hypocrisy. I contacted Ní Dhomhnaill to talk about this collection as well as her thoughts on language, culture, and mythology.

Your poems are so rich in images and characters from folklore, fairy tales, and mythology, it makes me wonder what role these genres play in your everyday life. Do you regularly read fairy tales or books about folklore and myth, or is your knowledge of folklore drawn from memory and stories you’ve heard? What inspires you to write a poem using fairy tale/mythical images?

I haven’t read a book of fairy or folktales in years—the last one probably Italian Folktales translated from many different Italian dialects by Italo Calvino, which came into the house in the early ‘80s and was fought over so much by my children Timuchin and Melissa that they tore it in two. (It was a very fat paperback, and they are notorious for falling apart.) I remember having to call down to them once “who has the half that has the introduction?” for something I was writing.

But there were no children’s books in the house when I was growing up so I tore through a set of books left from my grandfather—Myths and Legends of the World, a series of scholarly books from the beginning of the 20th century, and it answered a deep need in me.

It seems that the archetypal level of reality is much more alive in me than any other level. The same could be said of three of my four children, one of whom writes screenplays, and the other two, who have a real artistic bent. Recently I read that, what with all the neuroscanning, etc. they can do now, that they have found certain strict patterns of brain movements, which are really a physical proof of what Jung intuited as archetypes. I got an email recently from the poet Tom McCarthy, where he mentioned my “brilliantly symbolic life.” I had to laugh. About 10 years ago my father died. He was trodden to death by cattle, which is what you would associate with the Paleolithic rather than the 21st century AD. I happened to meet the writer Nuala O’Faolain on the corner of 2nd Ave and 5th Street in New York City shortly afterwards. I told her what had happened. Her response was “How is it, Nuala, that everything that happens to you has to be so mythological?” So there you have it. I think the mythological level is more active in me than any other, say, realistic, level. So it naturally expresses itself as archetypes, in poetry.

But what I really love to do is to go in to the Department of Irish Folklore in University College Dublin and read the stories in the manuscripts there. These give me a physical pleasure so strong, it is all I can do sometimes not to break into tears. This is the oral tradition at its best, what I heard the tail-end of when I was sent to Kerry from England at age 5. A richness of tradition cultivated by the works of thousands of scribes, who wrote down much of the medieval corpus in little copybooks, right up to the time of the Famine, mostly in Munster [province in the south of Ireland] and East Ulster [province in the north of Ireland], so that the oral tradition was enriched enormously. An example, I once spent an afternoon talking to a farmer, Mickey Long, as he dug up potatoes in the autumn. We were looking out over the expanse of Ventry harbour. He told me how, as a young boy in 1912, the whole British Atlantic fleet had come into the harbour and were at rest there. He told me the names of the flagships, the Indefatigable, the Defence, etc. He said he and his friends had rowed out to them and given them mackerel and got cigarettes in return. Then he used a phrase that translated means “the ships were so thick on the water that you could walk from the farthest out of them right into the shore without wetting your feet,” which I recognised at once as a line from the medieval text “The Battle of Ventry,” written in Regensburg in what is now Germany by an Irish monk in 1353. That kind of richness, that was kept alive for centuries, is what I absolutely exult in.

You’ve suggested in essays and other interviews that there’s a connection between expressing yourself in Irish and deeper emotional accessibility compared to writing or conversing in English. Can you talk about that? Is it the same for poetry, since you’ve written more poetry than you have any other form of writing? Do you find poetry a more accessible means for writing about emotions or about the mythical world than other kinds of writing?

I write poetry exclusively in Irish. I can only write poetry in Irish, as it seems to be where my emotions are located. I think rationally mostly in English, because most of the books, etc that I have around me are in English, but that only engages one part of my brain. Feelings come out in Irish. Imagination also. I luckily discovered this at a very young age, at 16, when in the middle of writing a poem in the study (instead of doing my French exercise) I suddenly realized that I was actually writing Irish prosody in English, and that was a stupid thing to be doing, why don’t I write it in Irish? Which I did, and I realized it was much better. The words seemed to sit more naturally on the emotions. I realized I was only a poet in Irish, not English. I never looked back. Irish, for better or worse, is the language of my emotions and imagination, and as I have said earlier, the imagino-emotional level is the most alive part of my psyche, so, ipso facto, it has to be in Irish. Mind you, I didn’t know any of this when I started out. It was by the very act of writing that all this became conscious.

I have written the odd short story in Irish also, which I am about to bring together this summer in a collection called after the longest story in the collection, “Sean-chathracha na hAise Bige,” which could be translated as “The Ancient Cities of Asia Minor.” I owe it to Bord na Leabhar Gaeilge [Irish Books Board], so I just have to finish it and clear the decks before I do anything else. My son is always at me to write a memoir, in English, so that the things that happened to me back in the early 1970s do not happen, even in a different form, to anyone else. I am collecting material for it, like going into the Wards of Court office etc, but I see it a few years down the road. In the meantime I am working on a new collection in Irish, Urú, which means an eclipse of both the grammatical and celestial kind.

Do you think there’s something that makes Irish unique in terms of storytelling about the Otherworld, the unseen and unproven, the subconscious or subliminal? Do you think this is an advantage or characteristic of minority languages in general or something special to Irish?

Well, in a post-religious, increasingly rational and empirical world, anything that keeps the imagino-emotional part of us alive, and allows it to function, is to be cherished and cultured. After all this is what makes us different from, and superior to, robots. Mind you, rationality has its time and place also. After all I was married to a very exact scientist for 40 years, and he was always pulling me up on my “woolly” thinking. And rightly so. I am a great believer in science and what it can discover and create, but it is not the whole picture. We are, rightly or wrongly, only occasionally rational animals. You only have to look at Brexit and the election of Trump to see that. And all the “hoo-ha” in Irish society about illegitimate children throughout the large part of the 20th century is another proof. Think of it, your daughter gets pregnant at 16. The rational reaction should be to be delighted, as it means you have a fertile daughter, and the next generation is accounted for. Instead you had this whole collective reaction of shame and the madness of locking poor young girls in penal institutions, often for their whole lives, and stigmatizing both them and their children ad infinitum. How logical or rational is that? If our emotional and imaginational levels are expressed freely, for instance through the arts, then maybe we can learn not to mix up things and have our emotions express themselves in all kinds of inappropriate manners. I have a very basic theory—that when Irish people switched language to English, their emotions were left behind in the Irish they refused to use or teach to their children. That is what my mermaid poems are all about. When you read the material in the manuscripts in the Department of Folklore, the sheer imaginative richness that pervaded people’s lives is astonishing. And because the medieval manuscript tradition was kept alive for so long, sometimes by ordinary farmhands, who copied them down into paper copies, at night, by the light of seal-oil tapers, Irish does have a long and very rich repertoire for discussing the non-rational and sometimes downright uncanny. I’m sure all languages do, Irish is not an exception. But minority languages, that haven’t undergone the rationalizing effects of Aristotelian schooling, have maybe an advantage.

The Fifty Minute Mermaid is my favorite collection of yours. It’s so sharp and complex in observation and emotion, and also so beautiful and evocative in imagery. Most of its poems are about mermaids and merfolk, and many of them are humorous, but there’s also an underlying sense of trauma throughout the collection. Of the merfolk suffering and surviving, and even inflicting, various forms of trauma. The title of the collection suggests the time of a typical therapy session. I’ve heard you speak about this collection and about Irish folk beliefs in general as a projection of the Irish people’s inner landscape, as the unconscious of the community. Can you talk about about that notion and how it affects your use of mythology and folklore in your work? Is there a relationship in your view between folklore or fairy tales and trauma?

I’m glad you like my mermaids, as a lot of people don’t seem to understand or appreciate them. Because they are not really mermaids, they are my birth family, with scales and gills attached. You see, in Ireland confessional poetry of the kind often written in America is really a no-go, as we are so hugely and deeply related to and networked with each other on this tiny island, and so madly curious about each other. So I take Emily Dickinson’s dictum to heart: “Tell the whole truth, but tell it slant.” Also by changing everyone into merfolk, I can perhaps reach at a truth that goes deeper than just something depending on the significant details of my own life. This is what poetry has always done for me. In doing so, it has helped me from going mad.

Only now, as I recover from my husband’s death, do I realize that a lot of this madness is still within and around me, and that only by writing can I still keep myself sane. And the folklore material, which I am convinced is a projection outwards of our collective paysage intérieure, is the perfect “objective correlative.” To express many things. Including trauma.

Many of your poems feature islands, either specific ones like the Blaskets (or Ireland of course) or unnamed, mythical islands. Is there a place or landscape you find more inspiring to write about? Where do you most like to write?

The fact that many of my poems feature islands, well, that has of course a lot to do to the place I was exiled to at age 5. The parish of Ventry, with the Blaskets just around the corner, and a view out at sea to the Scellig Rocks (about to be made famous worldwide by their use as a background in the next Star Wars). I wrote a series of poems called “Imramm” when I was dreaming a lot of islands. I think, retrospectively, that it was about a part of my personality that had been cut off, like an island, and that was emerging from the subconscious and becoming part of my main personality. I find walking Ventry strand a marvellous aid to writing poems, or rather getting the main action of the poem going. I finish it off then later, in the quiet shelter of my tiny little southwest-facing room in Dublin. And I mean tiny—six feet by eight feet. I am very loath to leave it, and will refuse to move anywhere else until I get a suitable substitute.

Do you have a favorite fairy tale or folk tale? If so, which one and why?

Yes, it is known in Irish as either “An Gadharaín Bán” (“The Little White Dog”) or “An Gabairin Bán” (“The Little White Goat”). There are a few versions of it in the Department of Folklore material. There is a version from Peig Sayers which I love, but my all-time favourite version is a version by Máire Ruiséal, also known as Cú an Tobair. Actually I found out that it is from a book of Norwegian stories translated into English sometime in the mid-19th century, where it is about a white bear. Of course, there are no bears in Ireland, so the story was naturalized as being about a different animal. P.J. Lynch has illustrated a version of it as East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon, which I managed to pick up one time for my kids in America. It is a modern version of the Amor and Psyche story and a wonderful girl’s quest story. It is interesting that it is the story picked by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne for inclusion in the women’s volumes of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature. The versions Peig and Máire tell are basically the same but the telling is so different—Peig’s is wonderfully baroque, with all sorts of curlicues and digressions, while Máire’s is very straight, with the wonderful interpolation to [story collector] Joe Daly, who was using the edeophone with her. “Bhi clann an ri amuigh ar an…a Joe, an féidir liom an focal Bearla a úsáid? The children of the king were playing out in the…Joe, can I use the English word? I can, alright then, Bhi clann an ri amuigh ar an bpiazza.

I also love the different versions that exist of “The Handless Maiden,” a version of which I used as the introduction to my first book, An Dealg Droighinn. The dealg droighinn is the equivalent of the blackthorn thorn that the maiden has to pull out of her brother’s leg, even though he has cut off her hands. I intuitively knew that that was the story of my life. Also, the various versions of the [fairy tale about the] man who unwittingly sells his daughter to the devil, including the well-known one of “Beauty and the Beast.”

There are a whole lot of them but somehow I don’t need them as absolutely totally as I used to. I’ve worked out a lot of my obsessions in my poetry, and so they no longer come back to haunt me.

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.

—–

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

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.

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.

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)

I

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.

II

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.

171 (2)

III

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.

128 (2)

IV

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.

35783150036

V

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.

VI

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.

VII

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.

114 (2)