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Hidden Irelands

Lia Mills

Blood Debts, by Celia de Fréine, Scotus Press, 110 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-0956096678
A lesson in Can’t, by Celia de Fréine, Scotus Press, 80 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-0956096685

“Give me my children, whatever the cost,” says the unnamed narrator in the opening poem of the remarkable collection Blood Debts. In the poems that follow it quickly becomes apparent that the speaker has to pay a very high price indeed. This extraordinary narrative collection tells a story we all think we know but have never heard told with such skill and intensity. The controlled, fluent anger of a poet is directed against the state and its agents while relating the sorry saga of the Anti-D scandal as experienced firsthand. (Anti-D immunoglobulin is administered to women with a Rhesus negative blood-type after the birth of a Rhesus positive baby, to prevent Rhesus disease developing in subsequent pregnancies – so-called “blue babies”. In the 1970s more than 1,600 Irish citizens, most of them women, contracted Hepatitis C through the administration of infected Anti-D.)

Early in the sequence we have a poem about a young couple on their first date, a night rich with portents. It progresses quickly through the birth of their first two children and a first – lethal, as it would prove to be – injection. Neither complaint nor plea for pity, the poems issue a challenge to the secrecy and ineptitude of state agencies who should have known – and performed – better.

you never imagined this nightmare –

you lived in a democracy, yourself
and your care, under an elected government,
who cherished each citizen

far from the laboratories of jackbooted men.
(“the worst nightmare”)

The poems in this collection spread a wide net across new ground in Irish poetry, telling as they do of years of poor health, symptoms dismissed by medical practitioners: jaundice, pain, devastating rashes put down to washing powder by a nurse, denied or blamed on “the primroses in my flowerbed” by doctors, until the narrator is – wrongly – diagnosed as having Lupus, an auto-immune disease, as though to say, you’re doing it to yourself.

One exhausted morning she hears her own story break on the news (“morning ireland”) with an announcement that clusters of women had developed jaundice after being given contaminated immunoglobulin. Her life changes course in a fog of disinformation and misinformation; months of testing, retesting and delays that eventually lead to an accurate diagnosis.

Hundreds upon hundreds of women in Ireland experienced similar symptoms and knock-on effects of undiagnosed Hepatitis C, but their symptoms were almost universally dismissed and/or trivialised by medical practitioners. They were left to struggle as best they could, raising their families under a misapprehension that they were somehow defective in energy, or even hypochondriac. The poet spells out the consequences of both symptoms and diagnosis, using images of nuclear disaster and contamination, accounts of disruption to relationships luckier citizens can take for granted – sexual and maternal relations in particular, as the wife warns her husband to stay away and the mother tells her daughter there’ll be no more sharing of earrings or tweezers, or watches her sons being led away to be tested. Hints of blame litter the questions on medical forms: How many sexual partners? Use of illegal drugs?

In her afterword to this edition, Luz Mar Gonzalez Arias notes the parallels drawn between the deterioration in the narrator’s health and the degradation of the urban landscape. Nightmarish visions of a toxic, contaminated environment as in “lover” are particularly strong:

It’s no longer safe to enter that harbour –
toxins in the water might damage
the hull of any ship dropping anchor there:

when the moon is full jellyfish surge to the surface
tentacles at the ready, beside the reef
half-dead molluscs attack each other

and on the seabed barrels fester.
In years to come they may shatter
Their contents explode.

Lover, keep your distance.

In response to this poem, Máire Mhac an Tsaoi notes in her foreword: “I don’t think anything has yet been composed in modern Irish as powerful as those lines … For me, the whole revival movement has been worth it, so that its like could be provided.”

For all their excavation of new territory, these poems are aware of their place in several traditions, as is evident in the dedication of “because this is the truth” to the artist Jonathan Wade, and the incandescent “sisters”, where the poet addresses the other women who share her fate (to whom the book is dedicated). Despite valiant efforts to live decent lives, she tells them:

Our eyes are dry, our livers gnawed,
hair has fallen from our heads,

flesh has been clawed from our bones.
Definitely, dear sisters,

we have not escaped hell

Written after Marina Tsvetaeva, “sisters” is a direct reference to that poet’s “Bound for Hell”, with a nod also to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s version, “Táimid Damanta, a Dheirféarcha/Sisters, We Are Damned”. But where Tsvetaeva and Ní Dhomhnaill celebrate a rebellious joy in living even as they recognise the certainty of damnation in their future, hell has already claimed the women in de Fréine’s world, despite their best efforts to comply with what’s expected of them.

The poems also recall Eavan Boland’s epic “The Journey”, whose opening lines challenge the entire poetic canon to date with the words “there has never/ … been a poem to an antiobiotic.”

Depend on it, somewhere a poet is wasting
his sweet uncluttered metres on the obvious

emblem instead of the real thing.
Instead of sulpha we shall have hyssop dipped
in the wild blood of the unblemished lamb,
so every day the language gets less

for the task and we are less with the language.
(“The Journey”)

Celia de Fréine has taken up that challenge. Language is not just medium here, it is also subject, question and battleground.

A recurring theme in the early poems is the official denial, dismissal and trivialisation of the narrator’s symptoms, her search for the right name for what ails her. But once the story broke, it spread fast. Everyone had an opinion and not all were based on accurate information or insight. It was in response to the views expressed by a journalist that Celia de Fréine sat down to write the poems that became Fiacha Fola (and now Blood Debts):

I felt, who’s he to write this? What does he know about it? And then I realised that I knew about it. It was my story. So, in 1999 I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote the first draft.’

Five years later, just before the book was published, it won Gradam Litríochta Chló Iar-Chonnachta, awarded in association with Údarás na Gaeltachta. At her first interview de Fréine was asked who the book was about. Was it about her?

I declined to answer. I had written a book of poetry about a national scandal and I wanted the focus to be on what the book was about rather than who it was about.

So what changed her mind? What brought about her decision to publish the collection in English and to take the enormous step of admitting that the persona of the poems originated in her own lived and painful experience?

At the time I didn’t have the strength to field the questions that would have arisen had my medical history entered the public domain. Ten years later I’m tougher.

There’s something important to be untangled from this knot of entitlement and authority – the power of definition and calling something what it is, who gets to speak, tell a story, or decide whether an individual’s experience is valid – and the lengths officialdom will travel to obfuscate and delay the inevitable processes of truth.

A lesson in Can’t, in many ways a companion volume to Fiacha Fola/Blood Debts, sheds light on similar issues but from a different angle and illuminating an entirely separate area of Irish life. Inspired by seven years spent working as a literacy teacher with the Travelling community, it was also written in 1999.

At the time I didn't want to write it. Where would I get the time and energy to revise and edit another manuscript? But the book wouldn’t go away and so I again pulled up a chair to the kitchen table.

The manuscript was literally shelved while de Fréine went on to develop other work. Her first collection to appear in English was Scarecrows at Newtownards (2005). Since then her poems have appeared in dual language format. Yet all along she had an entire narrative sequence of prose poems in English languishing, unread, on a shelf. Why was it not published until now?

1999 would have been too soon ... Just as I felt the male journalist had no instinctive empathy for the women infected with Hepatitis C, I felt at the time I might be similarly handicapped when it came to writing about Travellers.

The vexed question of appropriation, of speaking for or about others is raised directly within the collection, when one of the characters says:

We don’t want to read any books about us ... books written by country people [that is, settled people] about us. We’re fed up listening to this shite.

In this way de Fréine acknowledges the complexities and dynamics of power within the relationship that exists between the literacy teacher and her students. Consciously or not, this may have contributed to the delay in publication, but

More recently I’ve come to realise that the story in the book, albeit fictionalised, is my story too. It portrays many of the frustrations experienced by teachers working in non-mainstream education. Also I felt that, with so many TV programmes portraying the lives of Travellers, the timing was right.

The title, A lesson in Can’t, plays on notions of entitlement and empowerment. In the wider canon of Irish literature, Travellers and related figures: tinkers, gypsies, tramps and nomads may be idealised or demonised. Often used to fulfil various literary and imaginative functions, they rarely write – or speak – for themselves. Instead they are written in code, often in a stereotypical, mocking dialect that goes nowhere near their own distinctive rhythms and richly allusive idiom. The name for their own language – Cant –most likely derives from the Irish word caint, or talk. De Fréine has captured the musical inflections of speech she heard daily for seven years and reproduces it here in all its vivacity (as when one girl says of a man she likes the look of: "I wouldn’t mind putting down a pot of spuds for him ... or laying back the sheets for him either") and in its dangerous limitations (as in the horrifying “Octopus Pregnancy”).

It’s important to remember that this collection was written before the Equal Status Act – and also worth mentioning the recent recommendation of the UNHRC that Irish Travellers should be awarded ethnic minority status by the State. One root of their exclusion and disenfranchisement is embedded in language and literacy. The teacher in these poems demonstrates practical skills, such as how to make a hospital appointment over the phone, how to open a bank account, how to memorise an address when you are moved on within days of mastering it, as Angela is: “the letters of the words of the place where she spent a week spinning in her head”.

Some of the information the students need is even more vital. In the title poem, one of the girls calls one of the boys a wanker. Later, alone with the teacher, the girls ask what the word means. They are all due to be married within a month. The teacher asks “for the words in Cant for the male and female private parts” and proceeds to explain.

It’s only when I mention certain times of the month that I realise I’m sharing with them facts that Kathleen’s mother who has given birth to twenty-three children probably doesn’t know. The concept that a child is conceived during a cycle is as alien to them as is the fact of orgasm. (“A lesson in can’t”)

Of all the crucial information the teacher gives them in this lesson, the thing that snags the young women’s attention is the notion of masturbation: “Do country people do it?” they ask. “Do you do it?”

Many pieces in this collection are hybrids. Prose poem? Flash fiction? They work as either or both, sometimes taking the shape of one, sometimes the other, resisting definition, unapologetically themselves. Their energy is electric, refreshing. Many have a twist or kick at the end that will floor you. They have the lyrical intensity and precision of poetry but they also have a strong narrative urge. They seem to occupy a space that straddles a border between genres, just as the classroom is an actual space where the world of the students and the world of the teacher overlap.

Celia de Fréine is no stranger to borders, or genre-shifts, or negotiating the intricacies of language. A multi-award winning poet, playwright, screenwriter and librettist she writes in both Irish and English, a practice that is not without its problems. She says that when her first book, Faoi Chabáistí is Ríonacha, won the runner-up prize in Gradam Litríochta Chló Iar-Chonnachta in 1999, a colleague took her aside and advised her to choose between the two languages. She was warned that if she continued to write in the two languages, neither tradition would accept her.

It was my Ides-of-March moment but I was too enthusiastic and full of ideas to heed her. It’s only now I understand what she meant. Very often when I mention to an English-language writer that I’m writing a book in Irish I see his/her eyes glaze over. As for the Irish-language camp, while I’ve always had huge support from a handful of writers, I have felt very much outside the Pale – an inverse Pale (…)

She goes on to suggest that the themes of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood – in the context of a national scandal – may have gone against Fiacha Fola in Irish-language circles. Another factor that could work against it is the fact that it has an urban setting and is written in urban Irish. The lack of critical engagement by her peers and natural readers means that most studies of her work to date have been carried out abroad and are based on translations into English. This means that the reader/critic approaches the poems from the point of view of theme, content, image and metaphor rather than language, whereas in Ireland readers don't seem able to get past the fact that the poems were originally written in Irish.

Leaving aside the question of readers and critical engagement and returning to the origins of the poems, how does she decide which language is right for a given subject? It turns out that when writing poetry, she begins in Irish but then moves between both languages until each version is as close as possible to the other.

Very often the idea for a poem comes to me as an image and I jot down the idea and proceed. I’ve always felt that, as Irish is more a language “of the people” it’s better suited to the surreal nature of my poetry and that through it I can more successfully mine the stuff of my imagination.

There are exceptions. Can’t, she says, could only have been written in English because it involves a part of her life that was spent teaching English. And when she wrote Scarecrows at Newtownards she wanted to write poems that had an awareness of that language because many of them are spoken in the voice of Shakespeare's women, or written in forms, such as the sonnet, which are associated with English.

Interestingly though, her approach to drama is different, possibly because of the efficiencies that theatre demands. She writes her plays in one language or the other and translates them later for pragmatic reasons, if at all. This different approach to writing raises another question. How does she decide which genre to use for a story or an idea? Is there ever any crossover? She says there can be, largely due to a new theatrical initiative she is engaged in with other playwrights.

The Umbrella Theatre Company is a spinoff from the Pavilion Playwrights, a group established by Conall Morrison in 2011 during his residency in the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire. De Fréine will see four new plays staged by UTC this autumn. One is inspired by a painting of Elizabeth Fitzgerald, the half-sister of Silken Thomas, who is the subject of her libretto The Earl of Kildare. Another of the plays, Stamen, is inspired by Oberon’s arranging to have Titania drugged so that she spends the night with another man.

As well as the Shakespeare connection, the idea for this play comes from a failed short story set in UCD in 1969 during the Gentle Revolution. At the time I was working as a civil servant and studying for a degree at night and would arrive in college and have to step over privileged students who were staging sit-ins and making speeches about how only two per cent of those in college were from the working class.

The third play, Seamstress, is a monologue written in response to a painting of Constance Markievicz. Of the character, Beth Walsh, de Fréine says:

Although a figment of my imagination, Beth is a character who has lived with me for years. She is the imagined pregnant girlfriend of my granduncle, James Ryan, who drowned in the Dún Laoghaire lifeboat tragedy in 1895. Beth’s story was originally written as a radio play; now it’s about to be written as six ten-minute monologues entitled, for the moment, Portals. These short plays will form part of the Doors installation, inspired by the work of US artist Mark McKee; they will also tie in with the 120th anniversary next year of the lifeboat tragedy and look at 1916 from a different vantage.

Until very recently, projects on this scale would have been unlikely to reach completion, but because of the proactive and co-operative approach of UTC they are possible.

De Fréine’s fourth play due this autumn is entitled Safe.

Safe is written in homage to Mairéad Ní Ghráda, whose play An Triail premiered fifty years ago this autumn. An Triail tells the story of a young unmarried mother who, rejected by society, kills her child and then herself. I wanted to revisit this theme and explore the changes in Irish society to women’s reproductive health.

The play was originally written in Irish, but plans for an Irish language production fell through, so she translated the play into English and UTC will develop it and produce a script-in-hand presentation in October. Another play, Cruachás, is to be premiered in October (by Aisteoirí Bulfin) and will go into repertory in the spring, along with her dramatisation, in Irish, of The Midnight Court.

Her publication record might give the impression that de Fréine arrived on the literary scene late but fully formed: as though she waited until her voice was mature and confident to publish at all. But since she started, she’s been unstoppable. Eight volumes of poetry, six published plays (and others produced in various settings), a libretto, prizewinning screenplays and film-poems, short stories in English – all in thirteen years. This autumn sees the publication of these two collections, five new plays in various stages of production and the installation with Mark McKee. How does she keep up with herself?

It might be truer to say that much of the writing I’m doing now is revision and editing rather than first draft. I’ve been writing for over thirty years and for most of that time the writing has been an end in itself. Now I’m writing with an eye to placing the work. Some manuscripts are finally coming full circle: I translated and dramatised The Midnight Court (part II of Lorg Merriman) in 1982. It was published in 2012. Although not written by me, The Midnight Court is what kickstarted my writing.

The question of influence is a striking and intriguing feature of de Fréine’s work. From the beginning she has initiated a conversation with strong literary figures in both traditions: Merriman, Shakespeare, Brecht, Pinter. She has engaged with canonical pieces in such a way as to produce innovative work of her own, always with a glance towards her acknowledged sources. At the same time, her development could be said to be responsive, at least in part, to accidental encounters and to chance opportunities as they arise. Residencies in Slovenia and Portugal have each yielded new work that responds at least in part to the traditions of the place where she finds herself. A conversation with an academic at a conference in the United States led to a fresh look at an old manuscript, resulting in the publication of Can’t. The establishment of UTC has brought a surge of new dramatic work.

De Fréine has a refreshing “make it happen” attitude. If the narrator of Blood Debts, working her way through pain, confusion and exhaustion, had been told where her words would lead her, would she have believed it possible? In the final poem of Blood Debts the narrator, unable to sleep, watches revenge plots unfold on TV. She wonders about her own “men in white coats”. Would she wish her own fate on them?

No.
I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
(“taken out and shot?”)

They say that living well is the best revenge, but in this case it might be more accurate to say that writing well is the best revenge.

3/11/2014

Lia Mills writes novels, short stories, essays and the occasional blog (at http://libranwriter.wordpress.com/ ). Her latest novel, Fallen, is published by Penguin. She teaches aspects of writing, most recently at the Irish Writers’ Centre and at UCD.

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