Donegal poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin presents Women and the State: Writing Irish History, an event at this year’s Earagail Arts Festival that “looks back and forward in time, through the lens of changing societal attitudes and beliefs, to explore questions of identity, place and community “.
Where does the desire to write come from? What triggers a literary obsession? As a young girl in the Donegal Gaeltacht, I grew up in bogs steeped in folklore, myth and superstition. It’s a drifting landscape with echoes but at eleven my penchant for poetry took another turn when my parents started fostering children. Overnight, I was catapulted into the complicated reality of other people’s lives. Of the many memories, one in particular lingers. I remember the day a teenager came home to say goodbye to the child she was about to give up for adoption. The biological mother; the ghost girl. I was only in a room with her for a few minutes and yet it was an encounter that completely changed my perspective on the world.
Since the ghost girl is with me while I write. In my first book of poetry bloodthirsty (Doire Press, 2017) the girl-ghost appears as my grandmother who gave birth in a Mother and Baby Home in the 1950s and who was separated from her child for almost forty years. In my recent new collection Poison Valley (The Gallery Press, 2021) she walks among Irish mothers who have lost children in public homes, industrial schools and orphanages. Time and again the ghost girl haunts my poetry and when the 2022 Earagail arts festival invited me to host a literary event to mark 100 years of Irish statehood I found myself compelled to honor the ghost girl of my life.
On Sunday July 24, a panel titled Women and the State: Writing Irish History will be inspired by a number of questions: what does it mean to bear witness in the literature and writing of the history of the Irish state? How can we shed light on dark corners, especially when it comes to the lives of vulnerable women and children? What are the challenges of writing Irish history? What are the responsibilities? In the aftermath of Waking the Feminists (2015), the campaign to repeal the 8 (2018) and, more recently, the Irish Government‘s report on Mother and Baby Homes (2020), this discussion will look back and forward in the time, through changing societal attitudes and beliefs, to explore themes of identity, place and community. It is envisioned that topics we could discuss could include maternal and child care, adoption, reproductive rights and modern issues of the direct delivery system.
To live in Donegal is to develop a sixth sense for what might be buried in darkness.
Literature is an act of discovery and Women and the State: Writing Irish History seeks to leave room for the nature of writing as an act of transformation. As part of this panel, I will share my experience of writing family autobiography and reimagining historical themes through the lens of myth, in particular the Donegal myth of Balor of The Evil Eye which, according to the story, locked her daughter Eithne in a tower on Tory Island and stole her three infant sons. I will also discuss how I have been inspired in my writing by the Restorative Justice Circles of Brehon Law Ireland.
The event will be chaired by writer and editor Sinéad Gleeson, author of Constellations: Reflections of Life; the panel will include a reading by poet and writer Elaine Feeney, founding member of the Tuam Oral History Project. Aoife Moore, award-winning political correspondent for the Irish Examiner, which received awards for its coverage of Northern Ireland and the Mother and Baby Homes scandal. And finally, Women and the State: Writing Irish History will feature the musical accompaniment of Bríd Harper, born in Donegal, considered one of the leading traditional Irish violinists of the last forty years.
In life and in literature, the ghost girl pushed me to a deeper understanding of the place. Growing up in Donegal was growing up in the shadow of the Atlantic, the border, the bog. It’s a place that has developed in me a sixth sense for what might be buried in the darkness. Guardian of the language of our forefathers, Donegal is where some of the earliest Irish stories – The Annals of the Four Masters – were recorded. But what I love most about the county is that it has a deep cultural sensitivity for all the different ways stories are stored through folklore, mythology, community, and ritual. Part of organizing this event in the west is re-entrenching the question of how history is recorded and who can access it. I hope this historic panel for the Earagail Arts Festival will celebrate Donegal’s unique culture and open up a conversation, stretching beyond the county, about women’s voices in Ireland and the state in which we exist now.
Women and the State: Writing Irish History is at Rathmullan House, Co. Donegal on Sunday July 24 at 3 p.m., as part of this year’s Earagail Arts Festival – find out more here.