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Telling Lives: Irish Poets in the Archive

Raconter des vies : les poètes irlandais dans les archives
Lucy Collins
p. 169-182

Résumés

La publication de poèmes documentaires irlandais s’est considérablement développée ces dernières années et un nombre croissant de poètes s’inspirent de documents d’archives dans leurs démarches créatives. Ce phénomène tient en partie aux pratiques commémoratives officielles et aux questions d’inclusion et de mémoire qu’elles soulèvent. Il est opportun dès lors de réfléchir à l’importance des archives en tant que moyens de médiation d’épisodes difficiles de l’histoire irlandaise, ainsi que d’accueil de personnes marginalisées. L’article met en évidence l’exclusion systématique de l’expérience des femmes dans les narratifs nationaux irlandais, et la suppression de leurs voix à la fois dans la commémoration du passé et dans sa recréation artistique. Julie Morrissy dans Radical ! : Women and the Irish Revolution et Vona Groarke avec Hereafter : The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara explorent chacune à sa manière les documents d’archives et leur utilité pour réimaginer les vies de femmes irlandaises des générations précédentes.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Suzanne A. Wazzan, “The Genre of Documentary Poetry in Some Selected Samples of Contemporary Poetry (...)

1Irish poetry in the 21st century has become an expansive space, receptive to new thinking on form and tradition, and hospitable to international styles of hybrid and performance texts. In this context the rise of Irish documentary poetry, and of poets engaging with archival materials as part of their creative practice, has been noteworthy. In the past two decades Ireland has become a multicultural society and this development has coincided with a period of serious reflection on the history and values of the modern state, its violent beginnings and the afterlife of this conflict in contemporary society. It is timely, therefore, to consider the importance of archives in mediating challenging episodes, and the questions of omission and misrepresentation in our histories and social structures that documentary poetries may be capable of addressing. In a crowded media landscape – and one overly determined by established networks of influence – it can be difficult to hear diverse voices clearly. Docupoetry, in the view of Philip Metres, gives space “to intensify the voices of individuals and actions that mass media has inclined to overlook or misrepresent”.1 There have been many omissions from Ireland’s official histories and from our literary traditions, but I will focus on one here: the systematic exclusion of the experiences of women from these narratives, and the subsequent erasure of their voices from both remembrance and creative engagement with the past. In different ways, Julie Morrissy’s Radical!: Women and the Irish Revolution and Vona Groarke’s Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara explore archival materials and their role in helping to re-imagine the lives of previous generations of Irish women. The questions asked by these works apply not just to the specific lives they conjure, but to larger questions of historiography, and of the control of gendered narratives. By listening to these voices, we reach a new understanding of the past, and shed new light on our current acts of prejudice and exclusion.

  • 2 Kevin Louis Riel, Extending the Poems: Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” Annotated, doctoral (...)
  • 3 (S)worn State(s) is a collaborative project by Kimberly Campanello, Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Dimi (...)
  • 4 Poetry as Commemoration is a two-year project funded by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, G (...)
  • 5 Linda Anderson, Mark Byers, Ahren Warner, “Introduction – Poetry, Theory, Archives”, in The Contemp (...)

2The drive to recover lost voices, and to draw attention to the gaps in official records, is part of the lineage of documentary poetics. Muriel Rukeyser – among the foremost American exponents of this practice – sought to “remedy a fundamental deficiency in the nature of bureaucratic and professional production” in her work.2 In the same way, projects such as (S)worn State(s) and Radical!: Women and the Irish Revolution seek to address the persistent marginalisation of the woman’s voice and experience in Irish history.3 As Ireland emerges from its decade-long commemoration of the revolutionary period, and its role in the foundation of the state, poetry’s capacity to bring excluded or forgotten voices to prominence is ever more clear. Poetry as Commemoration is an all-island project encouraging established poets and interested citizens to use archives as an inspiration for creative work. It seeks to demonstrate that poetry can function as a means to explore sensitive subjects, benefitting both writer and reader in the process.4 This project draws on the material turn in Irish literary studies and the increased interest in the text as a physical entity, despite the ubiquity of digital modes. Poets engaging with the archive are attuned to the material artefact, and its power to communicate with the reader. The shared experiences of exploring and creating in our libraries and repositories is an important facet of the finished poem, as well as of the creative afterlives of participants. The archiving of workshop materials from the Poetry as Commemoration project expresses a similar impulse to the preservation of an established writer’s drafts – that is, the desire to capture “the material and imaginative structures in play during a work’s making”.5

Gender and nation in the archive

  • 6 See, in particular, Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”, Eric Prenowitz (trans. (...)
  • 7 Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, Thomas Scott-Railton (trans.), New Haven, Yale Universit (...)
  • 8 Mike Featherstone, “Archive”, Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 2-3, 2006, p. 591.
  • 9 Kate Eichhorn sees this potential for continuity as especially important in the feminist context, a (...)
  • 10 Ann Cvetkovich notes the invisibility of women and queer subjects in the archive as a limiting fact (...)
  • 11 Linda M. Morra, Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Canadian Women’s Authorship, (...)

3Poets offer new ways of looking at the archive as a system of knowledge; their work is important not only as imaginative literature but as a reflection on the definition and purpose of the archive itself. With its origins as a space for the protection of knowledge, and as part of the apparatus of government, the archive foregrounds its own histories and principles, as well as the boundaries that establish its identity.6 It is not so much concerned with whether a narrative is factually accurate, as with “understanding how it came to be articulated in the way it was”.7 Despite its aura of authority, an archive can – as Mike Featherstone points out – be “destroyed, stolen, purchased and relocated”.8 This emphasises the instrumental nature of the archive in defining cultural spaces and identities, especially in the context of national formation. Archives are an articulation of power, not only in their foundation and institutional setting, but in their later scope, location and use. For this reason they are important agents of continuity especially at times of conflict or social change.9 The visibility of women, and other marginalised subjects, is dependent on the preservation of their socio-political and cultural traces, and on the formation of a relationship of trust between individuals and state institutions.10 So, the refusal of a woman’s literary records by an archive “throws her legibility as a citizen and her status as an author into question”,11 and places her outside both the historical record and the literary canon.

  • 12 Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, (...)
  • 13 Maryanne Dever, “Photographs and Manuscripts: Working in the Archive”, Archives and Manuscripts, vo (...)
  • 14 Julie Morrissy’s Radical! podcast series has four episodes and can be found at https://www.juliemor (...)
  • 15 Julie Morrissy in conversation with Seán Hewitt, Radical!, Episode 3.

4Yet simply being in the archive is no guarantee of lasting visibility because, in the words of Carolyn Steedman, “[…] nothing happens to this stuff, in the Archive. […] it just sits there until it is read, and used, and narrativized”.12 For Maryanne Dever, this process of archival discovery is key – we must consider not only what is found, but how it is found.13 The order in which material is discovered or consulted has a bearing on the development of ideas, and the relationship between individual items can shape the new creation in fundamental ways. So, the journey of the individual writer or scholar is formative of archival meaning, as well as being instrumental in bringing this material into the public realm. Docupoetry not only transforms preserved language into a new work of art, it is also explicit about the close relationship between recovery and creation. The poets featured here embed reflection within their sequences, as well as commenting on their process in interviews and conversations beyond the scope of the created work of art. Morrissy’s Radical! podcast conversations illuminate the lives and contexts of historical figures, but also deepen our understanding of the writing process, especially as it relates to documentary poetics.14 The movement away from the self, from the lyric “I”, can be disorientating for a poet embarking on an archival project: Seán Hewitt notes the difficulty he experienced in making judgements about the poems he produced in his time as poet in residence at the Irish Queer Archives.15

  • 16 Seán Hewitt, “Joelle Taylor: ‘We all walk around with legions of ghosts within us’”, The Irish Time (...)
  • 17 Ibid.
  • 18 Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Durham, Duke University Press, (...)

5Yet there are other ways of conceiving this troubling of poetic authority. Elsewhere, Hewitt’s profile of British LGBTQ+ poet and T. S. Eliot prize winner, Joelle Taylor, contemplates a new definition of archive. Taylor recounts the changes to her practice brought about by the Covid lockdown: “the pandemic meant that it was just me and the page, and I realised I was an archive”.16 The formal diversity of her evolving practice, “moving from shorter lyrics to longer verse drama, taking in community history, memoir […] [raises] a sizeable army of ghosts along the way”.17 Revenants are an inevitable presence in this archival encounter, and they hold a special poignancy for Taylor, demonstrating what Elizabeth Freeman has described as the “temporal drag” involved in engaging with queer histories. Freeman associates this with “retrogression, delay, and the pull of the past on the present”.18 Though the perceived autobiographical excess of documentary poetry is often a source of criticism, it can, conversely, be a way in which the boundaries between individual and shared experience can be probed. Here we may see the operation of the personal in poetry, in ways that depart from the traditional lyrical, confessional procedures.

Unruly forms

  • 19 Suzanne A. Wazzan, “The Genre of Documentary Poetry…”, p. 1430.
  • 20 This work is briefly contextualised in relation to Ireland’s larger archival landscape in Lucy Coll (...)
  • 21 For detailed engagement with the relationship between the materiality of the text and its ethical i (...)
  • 22 In conversation with Seán Hewitt, Morrissy registers her reluctance to reveal her process of compos (...)

6The self-reflexive character of the documentary poem, and the extent to which it represents the language of its subject directly, deepens its engagement with actual experience, but also places specific demands on poetic form. While long narrative poems may exhibit some of the storytelling dimensions that are the forerunners of contemporary documentary poetry,19 there are other practices, incorporating hybrid forms and experimental techniques of printing and design, that shape current work in this mode. Complex archival artefacts, especially those spanning manuscript and print sources, material objects and digital resources, can themselves shape the poem and determine its processes of dissemination and performance. Kimberly Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME, which engages with a vast range of documentary and media representations of the Tuam Babies controversy, addresses questions of preservation and visibility of the most vulnerable of our citizens.20 Printed on semi-transparent acetate sheets, and presented in a wooden box, the project gives material shape to the relationship between disclosure and memorialisation, and to the ways in which this artwork can change our relationship with all the archival materials it uses.21 This, and other publications, exhibit an intersection between scholarly and creative impulses and chart the research process that underpins the finished work and becomes part of its texture – a level of transparency that poets may at first find difficult to reach.22

  • 23 Many of the 400+ poems received from workshop participants drew on photographic inspiration, such a (...)
  • 24 Maryanne Dever, “Photographs and Manuscripts…”, p. 286. See also Tim Schlak, “Framing Photographs, (...)
  • 25 For examples of walking events that explore questions of sovereignty, see Stephanie Springgay, Sara (...)

7Engagement with materials beyond the written text offers inspiration and challenge to poets. Photographs and other visual element can speak to – or float free of – verbal representation, drawing attention to the angle of view. For participants in the Poetry as Commemoration workshops, these images were often the starting point for a poem, a way to stimulate the creative process.23 Yet their place within archival research or sustained creative projects is more challenging: Dever discusses the difficulties inherent in analysing photographs, as well as in classifying and situating them within the archival interaction.24 Both Groarke and Morrissy use photographs to draw us into the space of creation: Groarke’s images reinforce aspects of her reflective narrative and her process of research both in repositories and online – the latter a process that aptly expresses a quest exceeding national boundaries. By contrast, Morrissy’s photographs emphasise her own presence in the streetscape, following the artistic practice of using walking as a means to challenge colonial histories and create counter-cartographies in spaces of trauma.25 This attention to spatial and visual concepts inspires Morrissy’s work and shapes the production of text. The large format of Radical!, and its blue-cast photography, suggests a retro and quasi-official publication, appropriate both to the commission and the commemorative afterlife of the women’s lives she seeks to explore.

  • 26 Joseph Harrington, “Docupoetry and Archive Desire”, Jacket2, 27 October 2011, online: https://jacke (...)
  • 27 Kimberly Campanello, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Dimitra Xidous, “Her-Text”, The London Magazine, Augus (...)

8The incorporation of multiple artforms into creative projects, whether as an initial stimulus or part of the finished work, draws attention to the multi-faceted nature of the compositional process as well as to its collaborative possibilities. The political dimensions of docupoetry, especially in the American context, have led some critics to judge the work to be “de facto artless” – to have failed to convert its foundational realism into the newness of art.26 The poets considered in this essay re-shape and expand their archival material, emphasising the creative range it makes available to them. This active engagement with archivists and scholars (whether in person or on paper) draws attention to the inherently collaborative nature of this kind of composition. (S)worn State(s) is a project devised by Kimberly Campanello, Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Dimitra Xidous, to explore women’s experiences of the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland. As part of this project, each of the poets composed ten poems and, together, wrote one long collaborative poem, published in The London Magazine, prefaced by reflections on the nature of the collaboration. Different in style and scope, all three pieces foreground the place of writing – a space where both shared and solitary creative work is possible. This is a dynamic that requires trust and fosters forms of connection that go beyond the practical processes of producing a text. The authors’ concentrated engagement with the writing process is temporal: the three sit in separate rooms contributing to a shared document: “The writing happens simultaneously”, notes Campanello. “Each poet sees the others’ words appear or their cursors flashing. The poem is let go if any changes are ‘needed’ when time ends. The poets must start again”.27 This intensity is also situated: Ní Churreáin reflects on their proximity to Newgrange when writing, and how this material / spiritual site – itself a repository of shared meaning – provided an energy that animated the creative process. For Xidous, the connection between the poets is key: their sharing of sustenance (food, ideas), the conviction that love is fundamentally political.

  • 28 Ibid., p. 118.

9The poem – though not strictly archival in process – reflects on the relationship between the female principle and language, between “She” and “The Word”, in ways that draw on more fluid perceptions of history and materiality and, obliquely, on the diverse scholarly and creative responses to the act of commemoration. Invoking silence as a generative state – “What if, in the beginning, there was silence as still and clarifying as a stone” – the poem sets the gestural against the monumental, creating a space in which origins can be re-imagined in restorative ways.28 This shared creation raises questions concerning gendered lineages and expressive freedoms that are pivotal to current debates on the visibility of women within Ireland’s archival spaces.

Julie Morrissy’s radical histories

  • 29 Morrissy cites Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis, Richmond Barracks 1916: “We were there”, 77 Women of (...)

10It is fitting that our entry point into Radical! – Julie Morrissy’s exploration of how Ireland’s revolutionary women were commemorated – is a quotation from one of those women. “Give all the trouble you can” is a piece of advice from Annie O’Farrelly to her sister Margaret, given in December 1922 as the civil war continued to rage. This resistance to norms and expectations is embedded in the reading experience of this work, which gestures towards the many versions of our revolutionary history, some of them written by women. The built spaces of the city – named for the men of the revolution, but not for the women – shape this work. Radical! speaks to the city as an archival space, explored by walking and thoughtful scrutiny, and resulting in a text combining poems, photographs and maps, together with commentary and footnotes. In this respect, Morrissy is drawing on a tradition of writing about the Rising in terms of geographical space, emphasising the commemorative dimension by taking a walking tour from Richmond Barracks to Kilmainham, in addition to reading about the barracks as a location to which female participants in the Rising were brought.29

  • 30 Joanne Byrne, “A Walk”, Richmond Barracks. The installation is inspired by Constance Markievicz’s d (...)
  • 31 These phrases are printed in large italics on pages 16-17, 34-35 and 48-49, respectively.

11As a woman walking through the streets, often at night, Morrissy reclaims the freedom to use these spaces creatively in order to resist certain established narratives, and to bear witness to the absences that have become an unremarked dimension of the physical fabric of the city. Images of the street, the roadway and the path are prominent in the photographs throughout the book and the artwork it references – Joanna Byrne’s installation, “A Walk” – is also represented here.30 The act of walking, or stepping, is materialised in a series of statements and questions interspersed between poems: “did she step back?”; “she stepped back”; “would I step back?”.31 Radical! is a composite text and its lines of thought proceed in a number of directions, uncovering multiple female lives and charting the resistance of the archive to unbroken narrative development. “Day One: Ceannt Fort/ress” demonstrates the book’s first instinct – to explore the geography of the neighbourhood, to observe its streetscapes and public spaces, and to reflect on the traces of women’s lives and histories to be found there. Meditations on fort and fortress are embedded within the text, reminding us of the fort’s strategic and protective role; it is a bounded space within which these first examinations of the public arena can take place. The act of walking at night is important, both because it reclaims the street for the solitary woman but also because it allows a striking conjunction of public and private perspectives to emerge:

  • 32 Julie Morrissy, “Day One: Ceannt Fort/ress”, in Radical!…, p. 10.

at night I walk the avenues
examining walls and gardens
clocking tricolours
peering through windows I spot
seven freshly ironed white shirts         hanging
on a clothes horse
in a neighbour’s front room
ready for work32

  • 33 Fintan O’Toole discusses the way Catholic ideology shaped suburban design in parts of Dublin (Finta (...)

In this tantalising image the tricolour, flag of the Irish Republic, is juxtaposed with the freshly ironed shirts, reminding us how the invisible work of the home supports the public image of the state. What the poet is searching for, however, is a more visible image of womanhood. It is eventually found in the statue of the Virgin Mary, protected by glass box and fence – her own fortress which preserves her in this changing space –, the legacy of suburban landscapes envisaged for a community embedded in its Catholic faith.33

  • 34 Julie Morrissy, “Lily”, in Radical!…, p. 12.
  • 35 Julie Morrissy, “Looking for Lily and Kathleen, Deansgrange Cemetery”, in Radical!…, p. 20.
  • 36 The poem cites Jade Wilson’s “Overgrown Weeds at Deansgrange Cemetery ‘very hurtful to families’”, (...)
  • 37 Julie Morrissy, “Looking for Lily and Kathleen…”, p. 21.

12The monumental past is a thread that connects a number of the poems in Radical!. The role of the gravestone as a marker of the individual life, and a signifier of how the community remembers, is a recurring interest here. The short poem “Lily” recounts how Lily O’Brennan – who was both a writer and a member of Cumann na mBan – worked to locate the graves of volunteers killed during the Rising: “imagine her feat / that search / her determination to make / absolutely certain / we would remember the Men”.34 An eleven-line poem set in the upper left-hand corner of an empty white page, the text of “Lily” – and its title – is a physical manifestation of the reduction of the woman’s significance in favour of her role in upholding the memorialisation of male participants. By contrast, “Looking for Lily and Kathleen, Deansgrange Cemetery” records the invisibility of the women’s own graves within a crowded burial space “row after row / expanding in all directions”.35 The poet, equipped with few details about the graves she seeks, traverses the space of the cemetery, creating a poem of to-and-fro. It is a text that incorporates recent criticism concerning the neglect of the space and its impact on the bereaved,36 layering larger concerns with the immediate experience of the poet, “lost among the overgrowth”. When she does find the women, it is through the medium of Irish: “Áine Ceannt, baintreabac Éamuinn Ceannt / Deirbsiúraca, Caitlin Ní Braonain / and Eilis (Lilí)”.37 This shift in language marks the doubleness of so many citizens, especially during the revolutionary period, living and dying in Irish and English. This is acknowledged in the poem that follows – “Stooped, Tripped and Fell” – which is printed in the two languages. It concerns the life of Elizabeth O’Farrell, now recognised for her role in the Rising and especially in the surrender. This account sits close to the centre of the book and the poem directly incorporates Elizabeth’s own words, her anxieties and reproaches which shape the processes of memory and creation. At first it is Elizabeth’s footsteps that haunt the poet – another act of walking, this time demanding extraordinary courage:

can you imagine her walk
up Moore Street
Pearse, Connolly, MacDiarmada invisible, inside
The Army ahead
and an improvised white flag

a step
another step
and another

  • 38 Julie Morrissy, “Stooped, Tripped, and Fell / Chrom, thuisligh is thit”, Ciara Ní É (trans.), in Ra (...)

can you imagine?38

  • 39 Ibid., p. 24.

Morrissy reverses the impact of William Butler Yeats’s “Easter, 1916” by naming the famous male rebels only to render them invisible, even cowardly, in allowing an unarmed woman to take the risk of exposure to hostile fire, not just on this momentous walk, but later, as she traverses the city, spreading news of the surrender. O’Farrell recalls feeling “weak at the knees” during this journey yet she persists.39 Sometimes she must wear a blindfold; sometimes she walks without an escort and narrowly escapes being shot. Despite her bravery, and the wit and resourcefulness of her interactions with both Irish and British authorities, she is erased from history. This erasure is powerfully symbolised by her removal from the photograph of the surrender, a deliberate act that signals a larger refusal to honour the women who fought. It is the kind of enforced “stepping back” that the intertext of this book suggests – a process compelling women to accept, even to themselves grow to believe, that they had a less important role to play than men. It is important that Morrissy’s retrieval of this woman spans languages, revealing her fate and that of the Irish language to be entwined. The poem is also accompanied by photographs of Moore Street, and of the commemorative plaques there that memorialise the signatories of the Proclamation, but with no mention of Elizabeth O’Farrell’s contribution.

13There were other aspects of O’Farrell’s life that were subject to erasure too. Her headstone, that once bore the name of her life partner Julia Grenan, now shows O’Farrell’s name alone. “Faithful Comrade and Life Long Friend” begins:

at every turn
I hear phrases like:

  • 40 Julie Morrissy, “Faithful Comrade and Life Long Friend”, in Radical!…, p. 40-41.

                                     There was no intention
                                     An error was made
                                     No intention to remove or erase40

  • 41 Julie Morrissy, “An Appreciation”, in Radical!…, p. 54.

The poem directly records the platitudes that excuse the removal of any official acknowledgement of the women’s partnership. This is reinforced textually by the reprinting of the poem on the facing page, faded to the point of being almost illegible. Morrissy remains haunted by these women, however, and carries their words and reports of their lives through her day – back and forth between library and home, imagining and re-imagining the revolutionary events and the way they were shaped by, and have in turn shaped, the space of the city. Despite the influential role of women in the poet’s life, these women from Ireland’s past are only now beginning to shape her understanding of the history of the state: “I am lonely for them”, she writes, “for the women I never knew”. “I am lonely for those days of change / lonely for all we achieved / and all we haven’t / yet”.41

Here / after: Vona Groarke in the archive

  • 42 Vona Groarke, Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara, New York, New York University Press, 202 (...)

14Vona Groarke’s Hereafter also pursues a woman through the archives, but this is one woman, an ancestor, a person for whom the poet is compelled to create a past and a narrative that can be understood by future generations. This is a multi-genre work, primarily composed of sonnets and prose passages but also including photographs, documents and quotations from archival materials and secondary sources. As much as she traces Ellen O’Hara’s life through these pages, Groarke reflects on the nature and purpose of the search, and her own place in this story of female lives and opportunities. The first chapter of the book opens with her great-grandmother’s arrival to read her tea leaves – “It seems she gets by by fortune-telling on the other side: / no version of the future, she says, is wasted on the dead”.42 This opinionated woman is in possession of knowledge, but disinclined to answer the poet’s questions, as she assembles the scant clues and imagined details that mark the starting point of this book project. Soon Ellen, like Morrissy’s women, disappears into thin air, but the impulse to follow her remains, for both poet and reader.

  • 43 Ibid., p. 3.

15This opening chapter is set in a library in New York, and dwells on the happenstance of the writing subject: “I didn’t come to write about you, but, somewhere along the line, out of casual curiosity, I started in on you, Ellen O’Hara, and, once I do, I’m hooked”.43 The poet questions the relationship between real and imagined in this book but roots us first in a certain point of origin – the register of baptism, summoned from the National Library of Ireland. Place fundamentally shapes Ellen’s life story, and the poet’s re-creation of it – she is a woman situated in space and time and placed within a family lineage, shaping this personal quest. From the start, Groarke’s work contemplates the interconnected nature of lives – how we seek company in stories and look for connections between past and present:

  • 44 Ibid., p. 6.

Because if birds sing the syllables of a name. And a shadow falls where no shadow should be. And words still mean what they did when we wrote them, we cannot be alone.
Nor am I.
I have whole lives in mine.44

As this passage suggests, there is much that is surprising about this act of reclamation. It suggests the elements of chance that attend our capacity to conjure the past, and to heed the small hints and details that provide its contours. Yet despite the vividness of the book’s reclaimed subject, this is effectively a hymn to the instabilities of memory, to the aspects of history that cannot be retrieved. The search for Ellen is also a search for form, for a way of telling a fragmented story – in the knowledge that shifts in mode and representation will change the nature of the life examined here. Choosing the sonnet as a way to give voice to her great-grandmother’s experience, the poet creates a bounded text, emphasising the episodic nature of the representation and what may remain unaccounted for in such a sequence. The lyrical prose that connects the poems and archival images offers a space within which to reflect on the process of research and writing.

  • 45 Ibid., p. 19.
  • 46 Ibid., p. 27.

16The dynamic that shapes the movement among forms is also expressive of Ellen O’Hara herself. Her departure from Ireland is figured statistically: “Between 1880 and 1890, 808,116 people left Ireland, 708,612 of them immigrating to the United States”.45 Ellen is just one of this extraordinary number, reminding us of the patterns and singularities to be found in archival searches. The poet locates three women of the correct name and age sailing to New York during the winter of 1882-1883. Any one of them could be her great-grandmother. This is not the first time in the book that possibilities will multiply, opening different imaginative avenues for poet and reader. Emigration stories are captured in the formal documentation of passenger lists and landing records, though they are compromised in other ways by changes to name and age, by uncertainties of address and occupation. Ellen’s initial journey across the Atlantic reinforces the complex and onerous nature of the migrant experience, the hardship and confusion that marks her gestation in a crowded ship and birth to a new existence. Two sonnets, interspersed with quotations, and an image of a ship’s manifest, capture the enmeshed nature of fact and fiction and the disorientation created by confinement with so many strangers, and subject to the wildness of the sea. Already, Ellen must adjust her thinking, making changes that will shape her future life and the telling of it: “New words I had no meaning for: embark, knots, electric, stairs / all in a mess of accents, so you didn’t know where you were”.46

  • 47 Ibid., p. 49.
  • 48 Janet A. Nolan, Ourselves Alone: Women’s Emigration from Ireland, 1885-1920, Lexington, University (...)

17The life of the domestic servant, which Ellen adopts on arrival in New York, was common among Irish girls moving to American cities. It allowed them a measure of comfort and more pleasant working conditions than those employed in factories or mills. In thinking about Ellen’s life, Groarke exposes us to the vulnerability of these young women – such as the barefoot girl from Westport who cannot afford the shoes she needs to take up work. The gulf between those with leisure time and those constrained to labour is deep, but there is room for small sensory pleasures: the space of the unshared bed; the orange eaten in secret. These novelties are enough to tip the balance of Ellen’s commitment toward her new life: “Every time after when you eat an orange you’ll think of that first taste of it, how you thought at once you’d not want to live a life again with no oranges in it”.47 Already the challenges of returning to Ireland are signalled, when set against the rich variety of cosmopolitan life in New York. Far from a “passive retreat”, Janet A. Nolan argues that Irish women “actively chose to abandon diminished lives at home and to embrace adventure abroad while seeking jobs, husbands, and an independent adult status”.48 Glimpses of this life, afforded by photographs and historical studies, shape the extended portrait of Ellen as servant, engaging subtly with the stratifications of gender and class, the resilience required to navigate complex relationship and learn new skills. Ellen herself is less impressed by these accounts: she re-enters the poet’s research space, glancing at her printouts, looking at cartoons and classified ads:

  • 49 Vona Groarke, Hereafter…, p. 55.

No smiles now. You slap shut the book, shake your head,
pause for a moment, then open it at random to a spread
with the heading “The Uppishness of the Irish Bridget,”
then put the book, very definitely, down. Yes, stupid
is what they took you for: primitive, superstitious, naive,
and stubborn. (Of which last your being here is proof?)49

Ellen as subject becomes a filter for her own story, directing and dismissing, becoming a new kind of unreliable narrator. In this way, the individual comes alive in the collective archive, offering a corrective to assumed positions, even those of the 21st-century poet and reader.

  • 50 Ibid., p. 61.
  • 51 Ibid., p. 62.

18The archive is a surprisingly unstable place in this narrative. In January 1921 – in an uncanny premonition of the destruction of the Four Courts in Dublin – the records of the 1890 census, housed in Washington DC, were largely destroyed by fire.50 The report in The Baltimore Sun gives this in truncated form: “Blaze Originates In Basement Where Papers Were Stored – Water Poured Into Vaults Complete Damage – No Duplicates Of Documents Which Can’t Be Replaced. Three Firemen Overcome”.51 This eradication of key data is especially significant for immigrant populations for whom information is already incomplete. The identity of Ellen’s husband, and the subsequent story of their marriage, is constrained by these gaps and we are left to consider probabilities rather than facts. The birth of her children, their return to Ireland, and Ellen’s departure to resume work in New York present a more difficult story of family separation, and of the conflicting cultural allegiances of the subsequent generation.

19Throughout the book, the relationship with home is negotiated by text. Letters kept families connected but through the fictions of contentment and progress – anxieties and homesickness are kept at bay.

  • 52 Ibid., p. 51.

Into the envelope with the letter went the bank order, and that was it then, for a while, the length and breadth of the cord connecting you with home. Until the next letter would come with news of all well, thank God, the weather promised fine, the new calf hale and the turf all saved.
Into the envelope went the bank order so no one would say you’d sent an empty letter, empty but for words.52

  • 53 Ibid., p. 97.

The slowing of time is a feature of these communications: news travels belatedly, if at all. The practice of sending money home, to allow later family members to follow in the footsteps of the first migrant, is invoked repeatedly and limits what Ellen can spend on herself, despite diligent saving. These letters become even more poignant when she is at a distance from her children: “Twelve years of only her handwriting and theirs, to stretch between them and her. And reports from their aunt and grandmother, their height, how they were doing at school, Jimmy so good around the farm, Annie’s lovely chestnut hair”.53

  • 54 Ibid., p. 92.

20Those ties are made tenuous by distance and language is lost too: those who lived between languages, or chiefly through Irish become monolingual: “English is all their home now. English for writing, English for talking, English with different weather in it, streets and crowds, no fields of corn or rain on the slant with a sideways lilt to it”.54 Their accents changed too, widening the gulf between them and the family still in Ireland. These divergent histories shape the search for Ellen and draw Groarke to reach a political conclusion through a “Modest Proposal” of her own:

  • that Ireland’s early 20th-century independence movement was underwritten by the economic confidence of a people now secure in its land ownership;
  • that this security was, in turn, underwritten by remittances sent back home by emigrant sons and daughters (though mainly, if contemporary accounts are to be credited, by daughters);
  • that the link, therefore, between the work of Irish women abroad and the foundation of the Irish state is clear and strong (if largely unacknowledged).55

Conclusion

  • 56 David Garneau, “Extra-rational Aesthetic Action and Cultural Decolonization”, FUSE Magazine, vol. 3 (...)

21This realisation links Groarke’s story of an elusive forebear to Morrissy’s uncovering of forgotten revolutionaries. All these women, in their different ways, labour to serve the idea – or the actuality – of Ireland. All are present in documents, photographs, memories, yet none are accorded the prominence or the recognition of their male peers. By crafting a hybrid form of commemorative text, each poet creates spaces within which these women can be voiced and represented and, in doing so, releases overlooked material traces into the public realm, so readers can experience the sensation of discovery and connection for themselves. The documentary poem not only gives power to the marginalised subject, and to the material records of complex lives, it gives agency to the reader, allowing us to move freely amongst these reclaimed figures. Here archive becomes art – a “laboratory of odd ideas, of sensual and intuitive study, […] a way for the marginalized, refused and repressed to return”.56

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Notes

1 Suzanne A. Wazzan, “The Genre of Documentary Poetry in Some Selected Samples of Contemporary Poetry: A Critical Approach”, Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 13, no. 6, 2023, p. 1430, DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.17507/tpls.1306.11.

2 Kevin Louis Riel, Extending the Poems: Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” Annotated, doctoral thesis, Claremont Graduate University, 2018; quoted in Suzanne A. Wazzan, “The Genre of Documentary Poetry…”, p. 1434.

3 (S)worn State(s) is a collaborative project by Kimberly Campanello, Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Dimitra Xidous, re-imagining women’s experience in the Decade of Centenaries and challenging “worn” narratives of “perpetual female suffering and self-alienation” (https://www.kimberlycampanello.com/swornstates). The project was a recipient of the Markievicz Award for 2019 and will result in a publication by the Salvage Press. Radical!: Women and the Irish Revolution by Julie Morrissy (Dublin, National Library of Ireland, 2022) is the pamphlet of poems, images, translations and notes arising from her time as poet in residence at the National Library of Ireland, 2021-2022.

4 Poetry as Commemoration is a two-year project funded by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, and based at University College Dublin Library, in partnership with Poetry Ireland, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Quotidian – Word on the Street. It offered over a hundred workshops in archives, libraries and schools across the island of Ireland. Grief’s Broken Brow, a hand-printed special edition of the ten commissioned poems from the project, was published by the Salvage Press in 2023. Further details on this publication can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_TARY5sWIc.

5 Linda Anderson, Mark Byers, Ahren Warner, “Introduction – Poetry, Theory, Archives”, in The Contemporary Poetry Archive: Essays and Interventions, Linda Anderson, Mark Byers, Ahren Warner (eds.), Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2019, p. 9.

6 See, in particular, Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”, Eric Prenowitz (trans.), Diacritics, vol. 25, no. 2, 1995, p. 12: “Because it is entrusted to the outside, to the external substrate and not, as the sign of the covenant in circumcision, to an intimate mark, right on the so-called body proper. But where does the outside commence? This question is the question of the archive. There are undoubtedly no others”.

7 Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, Thomas Scott-Railton (trans.), New Haven, Yale University Press, 2013, p. 28.

8 Mike Featherstone, “Archive”, Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 2-3, 2006, p. 591.

9 Kate Eichhorn sees this potential for continuity as especially important in the feminist context, and a means of countering Susan Faludi’s claim that “feminism’s heritage is repeatedly hurled onto the scrap heap” (Kate Eichhorn, The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2013, p. 25-54).

10 Ann Cvetkovich notes the invisibility of women and queer subjects in the archive as a limiting factor on the creation of a public culture for these groups (Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures, Durham, Duke University Press, 2003, p. 9).

11 Linda M. Morra, Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Canadian Women’s Authorship, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2014, p. 3. These omissions have a significant impact on the formation of literary canons. See also David Greetham, “Who’s In, Who’s Out: The Cultural Politics of Archival Exclusion”, Studies in the Literary Imagination, vol. 32, no. 1, 1999, p. 9.

12 Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2002, p. 68.

13 Maryanne Dever, “Photographs and Manuscripts: Working in the Archive”, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 42, no. 3, 2014, p. 284.

14 Julie Morrissy’s Radical! podcast series has four episodes and can be found at https://www.juliemorrissy.com.

15 Julie Morrissy in conversation with Seán Hewitt, Radical!, Episode 3.

16 Seán Hewitt, “Joelle Taylor: ‘We all walk around with legions of ghosts within us’”, The Irish Times, 29 January 2022.

17 Ibid.

18 Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Durham, Duke University Press, 2010, p. 62.

19 Suzanne A. Wazzan, “The Genre of Documentary Poetry…”, p. 1430.

20 This work is briefly contextualised in relation to Ireland’s larger archival landscape in Lucy Collins, “Hidden Collections: The Value of Irish Literary Archives”, Irish University Review, vol. 50, no. 1, 2020, p. 195.

21 For detailed engagement with the relationship between the materiality of the text and its ethical implications, see Adam Hanna, “Contemporary Encounters with the Law: Kimberly Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME (2019) and Julie Morrissy’s Positions Gendered Male in Bunreacht na hÉireann / 1937 Constitution of Ireland (2020)”, Nordic Irish Studies, vol. 19, 2021-2022, p. 16-20.

22 In conversation with Seán Hewitt, Morrissy registers her reluctance to reveal her process of composition, and how this was challenged during her residency at the National Library of Ireland. This is discussed in Radical!, Episode 3.

23 Many of the 400+ poems received from workshop participants drew on photographic inspiration, such as Caroline Bracken’s “Poster Boy Speaks, 1923” and Ella Padden’s “Wedding Party Woman”.

24 Maryanne Dever, “Photographs and Manuscripts…”, p. 286. See also Tim Schlak, “Framing Photographs, Denying Archives: The Difficulty of Focusing on Archival Photographs”, Archival Science, vol. 8, no. 2, 2008, p. 85-87.

25 For examples of walking events that explore questions of sovereignty, see Stephanie Springgay, Sarah E. Truman, “Research-Creation Walking Methodologies and an Unsettling of Time”, International Review of Qualitative Research, vol. 12, no. 1, 2019, p. 85-93.

26 Joseph Harrington, “Docupoetry and Archive Desire”, Jacket2, 27 October 2011, online: https://jacket2.org/article/docupoetry-and-archive-desire.

27 Kimberly Campanello, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Dimitra Xidous, “Her-Text”, The London Magazine, August / September 2023, p. 115.

28 Ibid., p. 118.

29 Morrissy cites Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis, Richmond Barracks 1916: “We were there”, 77 Women of the Easter Rising, Dublin, Dublin City Council, 2016 (Julie Morrissy, Radical!…, p. 61).

30 Joanne Byrne, “A Walk”, Richmond Barracks. The installation is inspired by Constance Markievicz’s diary entry: “Nature should provide me with something to live for, something to die for” (https://www.richmondbarracks.ie/news/a-walk-installation-by-artist-joanne-byrne).

31 These phrases are printed in large italics on pages 16-17, 34-35 and 48-49, respectively.

32 Julie Morrissy, “Day One: Ceannt Fort/ress”, in Radical!…, p. 10.

33 Fintan O’Toole discusses the way Catholic ideology shaped suburban design in parts of Dublin (Fintan O’Toole, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland since 1958, London, Head of Zeus, 2022, p. 53-63).

34 Julie Morrissy, “Lily”, in Radical!…, p. 12.

35 Julie Morrissy, “Looking for Lily and Kathleen, Deansgrange Cemetery”, in Radical!…, p. 20.

36 The poem cites Jade Wilson’s “Overgrown Weeds at Deansgrange Cemetery ‘very hurtful to families’”, The Irish Times, 24 June 2021.

37 Julie Morrissy, “Looking for Lily and Kathleen…”, p. 21.

38 Julie Morrissy, “Stooped, Tripped, and Fell / Chrom, thuisligh is thit”, Ciara Ní É (trans.), in Radical!…, p. 24-32.

39 Ibid., p. 24.

40 Julie Morrissy, “Faithful Comrade and Life Long Friend”, in Radical!…, p. 40-41.

41 Julie Morrissy, “An Appreciation”, in Radical!…, p. 54.

42 Vona Groarke, Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara, New York, New York University Press, 2022, p. 1.

43 Ibid., p. 3.

44 Ibid., p. 6.

45 Ibid., p. 19.

46 Ibid., p. 27.

47 Ibid., p. 49.

48 Janet A. Nolan, Ourselves Alone: Women’s Emigration from Ireland, 1885-1920, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 1989, p. 73.

49 Vona Groarke, Hereafter…, p. 55.

50 Ibid., p. 61.

51 Ibid., p. 62.

52 Ibid., p. 51.

53 Ibid., p. 97.

54 Ibid., p. 92.

55 Ibid., p. 157.

56 David Garneau, “Extra-rational Aesthetic Action and Cultural Decolonization”, FUSE Magazine, vol. 36, no. 4, 2013, p. 16; quoted in Stephanie Springgay, Sarah E. Truman, “Research-Creation…”, p. 87.

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Lucy Collins, « Telling Lives: Irish Poets in the Archive »Études irlandaises, 49-1 | 2024, 169-182.

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Lucy Collins, « Telling Lives: Irish Poets in the Archive »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 49-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2024, consulté le 28 mai 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/etudesirlandaises/18313 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/etudesirlandaises.18313

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Auteur

Lucy Collins

University College Dublin

Lucy Collins est maître de conférences en poésie moderne à la faculté d’anglais, de théâtre et de cinéma de University College Dublin. Après des études à Trinity College Dublin et à l’université de Harvard, en tant que chercheuse postdoctorale Fulbright, elle enseigne et mène des recherches dans le champ de la poésie moderne et de la poétique. Elle a publié des articles et des livres sur la poésie moderne irlandaise, britannique et américaine, notamment Poetry by Women in Ireland : A Critical Anthology, 1870-1970 (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2012) et Contemporary Irish Women Poets : Memory and Estrangement (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2015). Elle prépare une étude des poètes irlandais pendant la période de l’État libre d’Irlande, à travers leurs réseaux internationaux de poètes et de maisons d’édition. Elle est cofondatrice de l’Irish Poetry Reading Archive, un recueil électronique national.

Lucy Collins is associate professor of modern poetry in the University College Dublin School of English, Drama and Film. Educated at Trinity College Dublin and at Harvard University, where she spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar, she teaches and researches in the area of modern poetry and poetics. She has published essays and books on modern poetry from Ireland, Britain and America, including Poetry by Women in Ireland: A Critical Anthology, 1870-1970 (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2012) and Contemporary Irish Women Poets: Memory and Estrangement (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2015). Her current project is a study of Irish poets during the Free State period, exploring their networks of association with poets and publishers internationally. She is co-founder of the Irish Poetry Reading Archive, a national digital repository.

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