“Owning” public art

What makes a public monument? And what if the public doesn’t like it? We’ve seen recently many assaults on statues in the UK erected in another time to honour men – and it is, mostly, men – implicated in and often profiting by the practice of slavery. In other jurisdictions, we’ve seen the toppling of the graven images of dictators. Remember the excited crowds in Firdos Square, Baghdad, downing the statue of Sadaam Hussein in 2003? Or to go further back, the purging of public statuary that went with the glasnost era in the Soviet Union?

I remember being in Moscow in the early 90s and visiting a “fallen monument” site featuring the newly dethroned heroes of the revolution, at what is now the Muzeon Park of Arts. The decapitated heads and mutilated busts of figures such as Stalin, Lenin, Sverdlovsk and Zherzinsky, had been unceremoniously dumped in the open air. It was an eerie sensation to see these monumental stone figures physically broken and lying dismembered in the trampled grass of a public park. (The Muzeon Park of Arts now boasts a museum of over 700 such pieces which have been restored to their plinths. It is no longer a graveyard but a tourist attraction.)

But apart from that experience, my closest encounters with public art are the sculptures on the by-roads and motorways of Ireland . I love that large black golf ball at the Naas by-pass (“Perpetual Motion” by Remco de Fouw and Rachael Joynt), the encrusted bronze bull by sculptor Don Cremin outside Macroom, or the mock “ruin” of a Famine house on the M8 near Cahir (“Settlement” by Cornelia Konrad). Of course, these pieces of public art aren’t memorialising individuals. They are large public sculptures designed to be seen in passing so they must make bold statements. De Fouw and Joynt, for example, saw their giant golf ball as being “a light-hearted and distinctive landmark” for travellers.

Recently, I was at the launch of a public sculpture at Kildonan Park, Finglas, by Belfast artist Sara Cunningham-Bell. http://www.cunninghambell.com/#/ It is one of five public sculptures that Dublin City Council and Sculpture Dublin have commissioned for public spaces around the city. My interest in “The Bridge – Fiacha Dhubha Fhionglaise” (Finglas Ravens in Flight) stemmed from the fact that Sara was drawing some of her inspiration from Una Watters (1918-1965), a painter whose work I’ve been championing, and who was born, lived and worked in Finglas. See unawattersartist.com

As a result, I sat in on a few of the over 40 public consultations that Sara conducted prior to making “The Bridge”. Over the course of nine months, Sara met and talked with local people to discover what they wanted to see going up in Kildonan and how they wanted their area to be represented in the sculpture. The wish-list was long and varied – a recognition of the vibrant GAA heritage in the area, a tribute to local uilleann piper master Seamus Ennis and the 1920s aviatrix Sophie Pierce-Healy, as well as an acknowledgement of the work of community activists, the artistic energy of young people in the area, a nod to the local dog walkers. I wondered how on earth Sara was going to incorporate all these features, and create a piece that was also true to her artistic vision.

So did she?

The answer is a resounding yes, in my opinion. “The Bridge” is a seven-metre-tall steel sculpture comprising two figures with arms raised holding high a mirrored steel “river rug” inspired by the clear streamlet that gives Finglas its name. 

As you mights guess, it’s a compendium piece, punched (literally) through with symbols and motifs reflecting the artistic and cultural life of the locality – including, I was delighted to see, the figures of running schoolboys from Una Watters’ seminal painting, Cappagh Road, and a representation of An Claidheamh Soluis (Sword of Light), the symbol she designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966.

On the day of the public launch it was clear, however, that the sculpture not only represented the Kildonan community, but it spoke to them. Carved out of the steel shanks were profiles of local people, hand-prints of children, cut-outs of sports players. Both adults and children were excitedly pointing out images of themselves or their friends, or artistic motifs that they had contributed to the sculpture. “The Bridge” had become sanctioned graffiti but with a view to permanence. Here was a piece that was being “closely read” by the community it was designed for, while still maintaining an aspirational quality in the two soaring figures holding aloft the river banner.

Sara even managed to include the dogs! The silhouette of a patient mutt stands guard at the foot of the sculpture.

Furthermore, the sculpture is interactive – a bar code at its base will lead the visitor to further online information on all the various influences Sara employed in making the piece.

Which brings me back to those contested statues. Rather than tearing them down, wouldn’t this interactive route be a better way to go? A bar code for every historical statue. That way the casual viewer could find out why these figures were honoured in the past as well as getting a retrospective insight into what makes them dishonourable in today’s context.

Their destruction erases visible signs of history, which is almost like saying the injustices of slavery, colonialism and political cruelty never happened at all.

The Bridge by Sara Cunnigham-Bell at Kildonan Park, Finglas – I am standing in, purely for scale!

Miss Carr’s, Mary Lou and me

The Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is not someone I have a lot in common with. I certainly don’t share her politics. But when I was approached recently by her biographer, Shane Ross, I realised I had shared a number of formative experiences with her. We both grew up in Rathgar – cue “leafy suburb” tag – we both went to secondary school at Notre Dame des Missions in Churchtown – append “fee-paying” to that – both details that have been used as a stick to beat her with. What I didn’t know was that we also attended the same kindergarten school, Miss Carr’s on Highfield Road, Rathgar.

Despite these proximities, we never crossed paths (which meant I wasn’t much help to Shane Ross). Being a good decade older than Mary Lou, I didn’t overlap with her at either of these institutions, now both shut down. But all the same, I felt the chiming of connection with someone with an identical educational trajectory, at least as far as Leaving Cert. She went on to Trinity; I went to Rathmines Tech.

The Miss Carr’s connection was particularly powerful, maybe because the school was such an important foundation in my own learning life. Not least because of its guiding light, Miss Carr herself.

The school, called after its schoolm’am, now sounds quaintly Victorian. As was its location – a rambling Victorian red-brick house, two storeys over a basement. (Earlier this year, the house, long in private ownership, was sold for over E2 million. ) Despite her “Miss”, Miss Carr was a married woman and lived in the upper portions of the house. Her husband played no active part in the running of the school, and was a distant figure, always referred to – even by Miss Carr – as Mr Lee. Perhaps the school pre-dated Mr Lee, or Miss Carr was a proto-feminist, but she was indubitably the mistress of all she surveyed at 22 Highfield Road.

She was a warm, slope-shouldered woman with a soft face and a firm, carrying voice that suggested safety but command. She taught the upper classes (the school catered for children aged 4 to 7) while the two infant classes were taken by Miss Murphy. The diminutive Miss Doherty took third class. She did not wear the regulation blue nylon, chalk-dusted housecoat, but specialised in pert suits, cherry lipstick, heart-shaped spectacles and exquisite red shoes with high heels bringing a little touch of glamour to proceedings.

Even though the rooms were large, each classroom seemed filled to the gills. The two infant classes (Low and High Babies) and third class were in the basement and fourth and fifth classes shared the two light-swollen reception rooms on the ground floor with the folding doors between them. There was a lot of wear and tear on the fabric of the house. There was a certain battered quality to below stairs – chafed floorboards, scuffed footleafs on the doors. When the bell sounded and school was out, the drumming sound of the exodus reverberated throughout the house. Poor Mr Lee upstairs!

The joy of Miss Carr’s was its proximity. (For us just a few minutes’ walk from home.) It never acquired the institutional oppression of “school”; it was an extension of our domestic world. The hierarchy at Miss Carr’s was very fluid; once you were judged ready you moved on to the next class. But that didn’t mean she didn’t run a tight ship. Spellings were recited daily, tables chanted.

Reading was of paramount importance at Miss Carr’s and we were taught phonetically, now almost standard, but in the early 1960s very much ahead of its time. She kept a careful eye on slow learners. She spotted dyslexia before it became recognised officially. She gave extra tuition to anyone with reading difficulties. She knew the name of every child in her care, and knew about them. Whereas we knew very little about Miss Carr, not even her first name.

Thousands of children passed through her hands and she schooled two and three generations of some families. She maintained a keen interest in her past pupils – children who had left her at the ripe old age of six or seven!

Neither was her interest casual or disinterested.

The query about Mary Lou McDonald resurrected a childhood memory I’d almost completely forgotten that establishes Miss Carr in my personal pantheon not just as a committed educator, but as the ultimate Good Samaritan.

In the spring of 1970, nearly seven years after I left Miss Carr’s, my father died. Miss Carr appeared at the funeral, of course. Same bubble perm and kind eyes, and with the same pragmatic empathy she’d always shown in school.

Exactly a week afterwards my bicycle – a much prized hand-me-down from a cousin – was stolen from outside the same church in Rathgar. (Enough to put a child off religion for life!) Miss Carr, always with her finger on the pulse, heard about the theft. She approached my mother and said she’d like to buy me a replacement bike. She’d had a windfall, she said – probably a white lie – and wanted to share her good fortune. There was only one condition – I was never to know who was behind the gift.

A few days later a brand new Triumph 20 was delivered in all its glory. Powder blue with 20″ wheels and 3- speed Sturmey Archer gears, this was the coolest bike for girls on the market. I couldn’t believe my luck. For many years, my mother maintained the fiction of the mystery benefactor. I’m hoping that Miss Carr saw me flying around Rathgar on the new wheels and realised the delight I took in it. That bike saw me through into my 20s until, in the spirit of Miss Carr’s original gesture, I paid it forward and gave it away to someone who needed it more.

It wasn’t until Miss Carr herself died that my mother revealed the secret. I wasn’t surprised, but I was sorry I’d never got the chance to thank her – not just for the bike but for the security and homeliness of that early education.

Despite our political differences, I’m hoping Mary Lou McDonald has similarly fond memories of it.

Photographs: Irish Times

Travelling without footprint

This summer I’ve managed to travel to a far-flung island in Greece, spend a month in Siena and do a whistlestop tour of Rome, Florence, Naples and Bologna and all without producing my Covid clearance cert. How did I manage it? I travelled by armchair, returning to a genre I haven’t read since my late teens. Back then I developed a passion for travel writing, probably as a response to an adolescent restlessness and a sense of restriction – a desire to be off, to be anywhere but here. Much like now.

I marvel that only two years ago foreign travel was often a casual and spontaneous decision. I wonder if we will ever return to that spirit again. And perhaps it would be better if we didn’t, given the climate change catastrophe that’s looming.

On the plus side, the armchair traveller leaves virtually no carbon footprint.

Paul Theroux (father of the now more famous Louis) got me started with the travel bug. His marvellous train journeys were gathered under one roof in The Great Railway Bazaar which charted his sometimes bad-tempered travels by train across Europe and further afield. (Some years after reading this book, I experienced travelling on the Trans Siberian Express for myself and recognised much of its rough charm from Theroux’s accounts.)

There were other travel books I read hungrily. Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, Wilfrid Thesiger’s travels in the Empty Quarter in Arabian Sands, Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons , or Tracks by Robyn Davison who travelled by foot across Australia with a caravan of camels. Then there was Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines , also about Australia, and In Patagonia, about the region at the southernmost tip of South America. Not forgetting our own intrepid Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt, who took the world on by bike.

The attraction of these books was their narrators’ single-minded pursuit of exploration for its own sake. Shamelessly, I used that as justification for insisting on my honeymoon in 1981, that we follow the route Laurie Lee took in his seminal As I Walked Out One Mid-Summer’s Morning , a classic of the lone traveller genre. Lee was only 19 when he decided to walk through Spain in 1934. We went as far as Algeciras with him; then we parted company. He described it as a quaint fishing village with men mending their nets on the beach. But by then it was an industrial port, with chimneys belching out pollution into the clear blue sky.

As a travel writer, Lee was incomparable, but I realised I couldn’t use his book as a dependable contemporary guide. Too much had changed given the 40 odd years that had elapsed since he had taken his journey.

Lockdown has brought me back to the genre after a long absence. Lockdown number three ,in particular, with its desolate open-endedness and the prospect of stepping off the island retreating to a vanishing point. Exactly like being a bored and frustrated teenager with no means of escape.

Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift is an object lesson for the restless soul. Clift was an Australian journalist married to George Johnston, a fellow journalist and novelist ( famous in Australia for his autobiographical novel My Brother Jack, originally published with a cover painted by Sidney Nolan ). They were slaving away as hacks in 1950s London with two small children, and writing novels together in their spare time. (What spare time?) Then one wet rainy Monday they decided they couldn’t bear the post-war austerity any longer and decamped to the Greek island of Kalymnos (one of the Dodecanese between Kos and Leros) where they lived the simple, sun-soaked life they’d always dreamed of.

I was drawn to Clift initially because she was name-checked in Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, about Leonard Cohen and his Swedish lover who inspired the song, “So Long Marianne”. Clift became a godmother figure to the ex-pat crowd of assorted hippies and Bohemians, writers and artists (including Cohen and the aforementioned Sidney Nolan) who camped out on the island of Hydra in the 1960s.

Mermaid Singing predates Clift and Johnston’s time in Hydra and is a flinty-eyed but lyrical account of settling on the island where she and George and their two children, Martin and Shane ( a daughter) are the only outsiders. Kalymnos was a centre for sponge diving and every spring the boats would leave the island for six months at a time heading for the African coast and taking most of the men with them. Sponge diving is a dangerous occupation and many of the island men died or were permanently maimed as a result of dives that had gone wrong. Clift wrote about the sponge divers and it inspired a novel that she and Johnson co-authored (The Sea and the Stone, 1955).

The cliche of the past as another country has never been truer – even if one were free to travel, the Kalymnos that Clift describes has disappeared along with Laurie Lee’s Spain.

But in Mermaid Singing, the reader gets full immersion into more personal and fleeting moments of Clift’s island life. “The boat with the tan sail has come in close. Ropes are trailing from the side, and the children are dragging it in. They seem so small and bright and shining and far away, small singing scraps of flesh and colour in the great grave cadences of sunlight.”

Clift and Johnson followed their year on Kalymnos with a decade on Hydra, where they lived, worked and caroused and their children ran wild. (The postscript to their Greek idyll was tragic, however. On their return to Australia, Clift committed suicide in 1969 and Johnson died of tuberculosis a year later. Their children fared no better. Shane Johnston committed suicide in 1974. Martin Johnston, an acclaimed poet, died of alcoholism at 42 in 1990.)

Running wild has its downside.

“Only inside a book or in front of a painting can one truly be let into another’s perspective.” so claims British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar in his latest book, A Month in Siena, which does exactly what it says on the tin. In a quieter vein than Clift’s, it’s an account of his sojourn alone in the city. He’s drawn there by the paintings of Duccio, Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio, who created the Sienese school of paintings in the 13th and 14th centuries, with its echoes of Byzantine and gothic art.

Matar is great on the paintings – and the book has small but sumptuous colour plates. But he’s brilliant on the particular loneliness of travelling solo and the spontaneous and often intense relationships that can form when you step out of your comfort zone. This is contemplative autofiction, the self as city. It’s not about extravagant adventure, but philosophical reflection. Much like W G Sebald, Matar makes you feel less inadequate for having been melancholy in the midst of foreign splendours.

I’ve been accompanying my vicarious travel reading with American actor Stanley Tucci’s TV series Searching for Italy (CNN) which has satisfied my culinary wanderlust for the moment. Tucci, Italian on both sides, eats his way around the regions of Italy tasting the local produce and wangling a few recipes form the chefs he meets along the way. The food is good but the photography is even better. Made for an American audience – and built around numerous ad breaks – the programme tends towards the soundbite. Excuse the pun. But it excels in dunking you right into the heart of several Italian cities, wandering cobbled streets, sitting at outside tables with the ever present clink of conviviality.

Sometimes, though, you want even the lovely Stanley to step out of shot so that you can savour being in the fish market in Catania, or a bayside restaurant on the Amalfi coast during a lightning storm, without the chattering commentary.

Maybe I’ve been reading too much Hisham Matar?

A beach on the island of Kalymnos – Photograph: Reddit

Almost Bloomsday

In honour of Bloomsday, here’s an extract from Penelope Unbound, my speculative novel about Nora Barnacle that imagines a life for her without James Joyce. Here’s the assignation Nora and Jim fail to have before they reschedule for the iconic meeting on June 16.

They’d arranged to meet outside the Surgeon Wilde’s house, but she didn’t show. Told him a fib about having to work overtime, how Miss Fitzgerald came up to her on her way out the door, as she was trying to spear her hat with a pin in the hall mirror, and said that Molly Fowler was sick and couldn’t do her shift. 

Sure what could I do?  

It could have happened like that. Only it didn’t.  Instead she’d said – But Miss Fitzgerald, I have a date with my young man. 

As if they were an item but sure they’d only just met.  He’d picked her up on Nassau Street only a few days ago with a saucy smile and a sailor’s suit. A boy with jamjar specs, not her type at all.

I see that, Miss Barnacle, says Miss Fitzgerald, looking into the glass behind her with a kind of smirk, more music-hall than spinster. And before Miss Fitzgerald had time to cajole, for she had a way of getting on the sweet side of you when she wanted something, Nora had pulled open the heavy front door of Finn’s and gone tripping out into the dusty sunlit lozenge of the street. 

But as she hurried, hand on hat, towards Merrion Square, a strange desolate feeling overtook her, a pang of doubt. She slowed her tripping step to a heavy-footed stroll, and then to a halt.  What had possessed her, to say yes?  Yes to a college boy with a boater. Though he wasn’t the first college boy she’d had. Hadn’t Sonny Bodkin been at the university, even if he didn’t finish, too old for her, they said – no, she wouldn’t think of him now, not now.  She darted around by Sweny’s Chemists and scurried across to the pillars of the Gospel Hall.  She could hear singing from within. The Brethren must be at it, but I thought they didn’t hold with singing. But the place is thronged with them. Just as well, this way she can spy on yer man without him seeing her. 

She remembered the specs he wore. He won’t pick her out from the crowd at this distance even though the sun is glancing coppery off her hair. And, sure enough, there he was, a stick of worry, standing at the corner, hands on hips. Then pacing a little this way and that. He had on the same get-up as the day he chatted her up. Not bad-looking up close, a bit skinny, pull-through for a rifle, when did he last have a square meal, I wonder, and his clothes had seen better days. Then she remembered she’d told him where she worked.  He could duck down to Finn’s, if he had a titter of wit, and ask after her and then her fib would be exposed.  He’d know then she’d stood him up.  Deliberate like. And it wasn’t that she wanted to say no, she just wasn’t sure about saying yes.  Outright. 

And if he had come to Finn’s looking for her, would that have decided her about him? She just wasn’t sure, not like with Sonny Bodkin. Poor Sonny who had stood in the Pres garden and called out to her in the flogging rain.  And she half-delighted, half-mortified by him standing there, loyal as a beaten dog while she hid in the darkness of the auntie-room letting on she wasn’t there.  But this fella was no Sonny Bodkin, she could tell that even from afar. Sure, no one could be.  No one could be the first after the first. 

He was dithering now, she could tell.  But so was she and the longer she waited the stranger he became.  Was he a foreigner, was that what made her hesitate? A Swede maybe with those blond looks?

 Reasons not to approach. Now that she was here she could find a dozen. The minutes passed, five, ten, and her delaying was like a jelly left to set. If she had a penny for every time he changed his mind she’d have a fortune. There he’d go, gathering himself up then doubling back like a dog at a post sniffing, then trying and sniffing again. The hum and the haw of him. 

Hello, hello, she could have rushed up all breathless and false and full of sorrys and old excuses he wouldn’t even listen to because he’d be so relieved. Fellas forget themselves. She almost moved then but she didn’t.  She was stuck to the spot as if she was the one being stood up. And as she stood there debating, didn’t he make her mind up for her.  Fixed his cap on his crown and strode away up the west side of Merrion Square.  In a temper, she’d have said, by the look of him.

 And then she felt the let-down. 

What did she go and do that for? 

What was all the mirror-gazing in Finn’s for, and wondering will I do? 

She remembered the lightness of her step as she had set off and now she was morose and cursing herself for being so perverse. 

What ails you, girl? That’s what Mamo used to say. What ails you.

 No, she told herself shaking her head, I did the right thing, a fella who’d pick you up on the street like that, what kind of fella would he be? Not a patch on Sonny Bodkin, that’s what. 

 She turned to go, checking one last time to see had he changed his mind.  But he hadn’t – he was a cross white speck in the summer sunlight now. She trailed back the way she came, her hat in her hand, her hair dejected. She hadn’t the heart to do anything else with her precious night off. If she knew where Vinny Cosgrave was she might seek him out, but no, if he saw she was keen, he’d only get a swelled head. 

Miss Fitzgerald was at the desk when she came in and raised an eyebrow. 

Back so soon, Miss Barnacle? She was a prissy one. 

He stood me up, Nora, said as she donned her apron, lucky for you.

Dead or gone?

We’ve had a bird box for several years. It was a housewarming gift from a friend. There it sat, an A-frame wooden box with a tiny porthole in the front so small we couldn’t imagine any creature getting in there, let alone getting out. So it became an adornment, a pretty fixture without function, until this year when we discovered we had squattters – a couple of blue tits. Neither of us is what you might call an ornithological expert. (There’s a distinction in the bird world between the folks with the binoculars – bird-spotters who are known as birders, and bird-lovers, more commonly called bird-watchers.). We just about scrape into the latter category.

Like everyone else we’ve become more attuned to the world of our backyard since lockdown, and more aware of birdsong in general since the background hum of traffic was so drastically reduced. But that was as far as our interest went, until the blue tits took up residence.

Slowly but surely, we found ourselves watching the nest activity with as much interest as the latest Netflix box set. Not only did our focus narrow and become more concentrated, but we became proprietorial and protective of the precious cargo in our bird box. We stopped putting out food because it only attracted the bigger birds – pigeons, blackbirds, crows – and we wanted to keep our nest a secret, and safe. We noticed how vigilant the parent tits were, never approaching the nest without first doing a 360 degree scope to check that they weren’t being watched. We found ourselves doing the same.

The blue tits’ presence gave us a stake in the life of the garden which up to this had been about plant care and control. Overnight, we became invested in the part of our environment we had no control over.

All through May we watched the frantic activity of the blue tit pair. The female usually lays a clutch of 7-12 eggs which are incubated for up to 16 days, during which time the male will feed the female. After 20 or so days, the birds are hatched. The chicks are born naked and blind and need to be fed continuously involving thousands of foraging trips in and out of the nest. It’s estimated that each chick can eat up to 100 caterpillars a day.

And then the day we were waiting for arrived – when the fledglings left the nest. There were only three of them and we didn’t see them tumbling out of the tiny porthole in the box, but we discovered them on the ground trembling behind our pots, or camouflaged in the branches of plants. They were not much more than three yawning beaks surrounded by a circumference of plump yellow fur on spindly legs. They cried almost soundlessly, opening and closing those beaks with the expectation that mother or father bird might drop a morsel in there. The parent birds duly obliged.

We were looking forward to several weeks of watching them grown and thrive, but the next morning they were gone. We couldn’t believe it. Had they become victims of predators – cats, crows, magpies? (Our one raised bed and our dozen or so pots didn’t provide them with much cover. ) Or had their parents moved them elsewhere to protect them?

The answer is we don’t know. The young can stay with their parents for a few weeks after hatching. But the blue tit mortality rate is very high. Two-thirds of fledglings do not survive their first year. Of a family of 2 adults and 10 young, only one adult and one young bird will typically survive to breed.

Of course, we want to believe “our” blue tits are now fully grown and living independent lives elsewhere but the Covidian stealth of their disappearance suggests otherwise.

It’s fair to say we were bereft. There was something bleak and disowning about looking out into the burgeoning yard and not seeing “our” friends there. The daily ritual involved in hatching and rearing had become an absorbing occupation for us, a show put on for our benefit and to find the place tenantless reduced our yard to backdrop again, rather than habitat. For a while we felt shut out of the secret life of our own garden.

We’ve thought of taking the nesting box down. Could we bear to face the whole rigmarole next year should the blue tits return? For the moment, we’ve left it where it is. After all, this is nature “red in tooth and claw” – to quote Ted Hughes – and now we’ve progressed to being bird-watchers, we know the drill.

Who said knowledge is power?

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In February it was quietly announced that Warren Plath, brother of the infinitely more famous Sylvia, had died in the US. He was the last surviving family member of Sylvia’s generation. Warren Plath had virtually no presence on the internet and the notice of his death – aged 85 – made no reference to his connection to the internationally known poet. It would be tempting to think this might mark the end of an era though the interest in Sylvia Plath shows no sign of abating, even now 48 years after her death.

For my generation, Plath was one of those writers whose work was handed around like samizdat. Her poetry collections, The Colossus and Ariel, and her novel, The Bell Jar, were staples on our bookshelves . In my early 20s, I devoured Letters Home, her correspondence between 1950-1963, edited by her mother, Aurelia. (It was Plath’s fate to be “edited” by those close to her. Much of the controversy about her legacy centres around her estranged poet husband Ted Hughes’ management of her work after her death by suicide in 1963.)

Plath’s letters had a certain resonance for me. I, too, was the daughter of a widow and recognised the push/pull relationship with her mother when I first read her letters in the early 1980s. (Otto Plath, Sylvia’s father died when she was 8.)

In a widowed family (since widowhood happens not just to the wife) the need for approval is concentrated on the mother. It’s often twinned with an underlying anxiety of what might happen should the remaining parent die. On the other hand, the daugther of a widow learns to withhold worries and tailor expectations – especially financial ones – for fear of overburdening her mother.  Signs on, even through much of her inner torments while at Smith College, and later in Cambridge, Sylvia’s letters to Aurelia were determinedly cheery.

Aurelia Plath was ambitious for her children and wanted the very best for them, despite – or perhaps because of – their straitened circumstances.  The dynamics of the widow’s family are all too evident in Sylvia’s young letters. She depended utterly on Aurelia, leaned on her for emotional and financial support, wanted to please her, but resented what she called her “hovering”. Her mother gave her conflicting messages – to excel and to conform.

Lest it be forgotten, the widowed mother often longs to be free of her double responsibilities as well. In the 1970s, Aurelia wrote: “I worked to be free of her (Sylvia) & at least live my life – not to be drawn into the complexities & crises of hers.”

After her first suicide attempt in 1953, Plath was given electric shock treatment at McLean, a high-end private hospital in Boston. Her stay there was funded by the author Olive Higgins Prouty, who was a mentor of Sylvia’s, since Aurelia could not have afforded it. (Mrs Prouty paid $2500 over several months to the hospital, a tidy sum at the time. She had not realised Sylvia’s stay would be so long when she first offered help.)

The most recent Plath biography Red Comet; The Short Life and Blazing art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark, drawing on new evidence, suggests that the decision to administer ECT was partly to do with Mrs Prouty’s threat to withdraw financial support. If Sylvia had opted for psychotherapy, for example, her stay at the hospital might have been extended for a year, or more.

Plath’s psychiatrist at McLean, Dr Ruth Beuscher, over-ruled the concerns of medical colleagues at the hospital, claiming that Sylvia’s “over-riding sense of guilt and unworthiness could only be purged by the ‘punishment’ of shock treatments”.

The medical necessity of the treatment seems to have been very far-down the list of priorities.

Ironically, after two of six sessions, Sylvia’s depression began to lift, even though the treatment was then in its infancy. ( Plath had been given ECT at another hospital earlier that summer which had been administered without muscle relaxants or anaesthetic.). She told friends it was like being murdered. She would never forget the effects of it: “I need more than anything. . .someone to love me, to be with me at night when I wake up in shuddering horror and fear of the cement tunnels leading down to the shock room.”

After her death, Ted Hughes claimed the controversial treatment “pervaded everything she said and did”. Nowadays we’d call that PTSD. Little surprise that one of the dominant tropes in The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about her experiences at McLean, is the image of the Rosenbergs going to the electric chair in 1953. And the metaphor continued to appear in her work. In a diary entry of June 1958 she described her life thus: “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.”

Although she was never diagnosed as such, Plath is often referred to in retrospect as manic depressive or bipolar.  But in many ways, it was the electric shock treatment that moved her into what Susan Sontag calls “the kingdom of the sick”. It medicalised Plath’s depression, turning it into a “condition”. But a reading of her early journals reveals nothing more than a young woman with a bad case of life.

She was 20 when she made her first suicide attempt, and her diaries from that time show what we might nowadays consider as typical existential angst, replete with the solipsistic striving of a high-achieving perfectionist and the disappointments of an idealistic young adult.

“I can’t deceive myself out of the bare stark realisation that no matter how enthusiastic you are, no matter how sure that character is fate, nothing is real, past or future, when you are alone in your room with the clock ticking loudly into the flash cheerful brilliance of the electric light,” she confided in her journal.

But they also show a woman in a pre-feminist era struggling with her female and her artistic identity.  “I’m just not the type who wants a home and children of her own more than anything else in the world. I’m too selfish, maybe, to subordinate myself to one man’s career.”

Even at that stage she was grappling with how to combine being a poet and a woman.

Sylvia Plath was facing those same choices in 1963 when she killed herself. She was a single parent, recently traumatically separated from Hughes, struggling to fend for two small (and at the time sick) children on her own – an unconscious mirror image of her mother? – while in the grip of a severe depression and the worst winter England had endured in decades.

She had an appointment at a psychiatric hospital set for the week following her death so help was at hand. But she was also consumed with dread that she might be forced into electric shock treatment again, something she knew she couldn’t face. It was almost as if the “cure” had become the illness.

However, she had resolved one of those choices. She left behind on her desk the completed manuscript of Ariel, her ground-breaking second collection of poems, which was published the following year to great acclaim and established her as a poet of standing.

As a tyro writer, I admired Sylvia Plath for how much she wrote. Her collected letters have been reissued in two massive volumes in 2017 and 2018, there are her journals and calendars, along with poems and fiction from an early age. She was constantly engaged with her interior life ( perhaps, sometimes, too much) and always observing – images and ideas from her letters turned up in poems, as did passages from her journals. There is no doubt how vividly she lived on the page. This wealth of material has also meant that Plath is a biographer’s dream. The sheer volume of material written about her amounts to a kind of pathology – or is it Plathology?

To which, I suppose, this blog is adding its two cents’ worth.

Above: Self-portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, 1946: Estate of Robert Hitter

Caravaggio at the Capitol

Even though it’s nearly two months  since a mob of Trump protesters stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC, the images of those events still have the capacity to chill.  I was particularly struck by this image by Mostafa Bassim taken right at the heart of,  and in the heat of, that monumental clash between the forces of law and the ranks of  disorder. 

With due process now taking place and a new, saner administration in power, I found myself returning to  this image, not as a record of public history, but to admire its painterly qualities.  It kept reminding me of something else, and  then I realised what it was.  The composition, the colour palette, the intensity of the emotions, those faces picked out in the crowd, seemed to chime eerily with Caravaggio’s The Taking of  Christ,  his landmark biblical painting which depicts the moment when Judas Iscariot betrays Christ with a kiss.

Caravaggio painted The Taking of Christ ( National Gallery of Ireland) in 1602.  Its immediacy and impact is achieved by his unusual  technique of placing his figures close to the picture plane.  His trademark use of theatrical chiaroscuro  ( light and shade) also gives the scene a vivid sense of drama.  Some of  these artistic tropes  are evident in Bassim’s  photograph.  

The composition of both images is  strikingly similar.  The eye is drawn to the open mouthed, bare-headed protester,  centre left in Bassim’s photo, who’s also the focus of the police’s attention.  He’s  in exactly the same position as Caravaggio’s figure of Jesus. Look at those  black-helmeted riot police who are dead-ringers for the Roman centurions in their gleaming armour in Caravaggio’s work. 

 Caravaggio employs a minimal caste in his painting, suggesting a larger crowd outside the frame.  Bassim includes the crowd in his.  The low point of view Bassim employs, allows him to capture the claustrophobic crush of hand-to-hand combat at ground level while acknowledging  the flooding light from the dome of  the rotunda  creating a loftiness of effect; the “actual” struggling with the “ideal”. 

Caravaggio often painted himself into crowd scenes and in this one, he’s tagging along at the edge, the bearded young man in the top right of the canvas, peering over the heads of the others  to get a good look.  In Bassim’s  image, the “Caravaggio” figure is the fair-headed young man who exhibits a similarly intense curiosity in the bottom left of the frame – though it’s probably fair to assume that  if he’s in the Capitol building, he’s probably more than a disinterested witness. 

A red motif runs through both images.  Caravaggio adds heat and drama with the unfurling red cloak  that forms a canopy over the heads of Christ and Judas,  and continues the trope in  the red uniforms  of the soldiers and Jesus ‘s red tunic.  The equivalent in Bassim’s  photo is  the spot colour of those red  MAGA  caps dotted throughout the crowd in the Capitol. 

The  artistic associations are further enhanced  by the location of this pitched battle – the Capitol rotunda.  The rotunda  was completed in 1824 and was intended to recall the Pantheon, the ancient Roman temple with its curved sandstone walls, its  fluted Doric pilasters and  olive branch wreaths carved into the upper friezes, all visible in this photograph.  This is a ceremonial space used for important events of state,  such as  the lying-in-state of eminent citizens, and was intended to celebrate high public culture.  In the background, we can see four paintings which were commissioned by Congress from the artist John Trumbull, which depict significant episodes of US history – The Declaration of Independence,  The Surrender of General Burgoyne, The  Surrender of Lord Cornwallis and General George Washington Resigning his Commission. 

A case of history looking down on history? 

The big difference between Caravaggio’s painting and Mostafa Bassim’s  photograph is, of course,  the circumstances in which they were produced.  Caravaggio crafted his work  carefully.  He used models and posed them for tableaux and in The Taking of Christ there are numerous instances of pentimenti  (over-painting )  which indicate he changed his mind frequently about the composition and the placement of figures.  Bassim, on the other hand, had only a split-second to capture his image, while being in the midst of the fray, and probably in mortal danger himself.  As a news photographer, it’s unlikely he was considering  composition or colour as he snapped; he was  probably concentrating on catching the moment and wondering how he was going to escape the melee and  get the images  back to his editors.

This is primarily a photograph of record – as the Trump rioters now being rounded up  realise.  Many of them were identified by photos such as this. (Those, that is,  who didn’t incriminate themselves by posing for selfies and then posting on social media.) But  in my book, it’s much more than that.  In his subtle framing of the event, his sense of theatre and context,  his understanding of emotion and politics, his lightening speed of apprehension, Bassim has created a work of art in the blink of an eye.  


Punishing motherhood

Joanne Hayes and her daughter, Yvonne

Since the recent publication of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, the historic – and not so historic – treatment of single motherhood in Ireland has been under the microscope.

The Commission was established by the Irish Government in February 2015 to provide a full account of what happened to vulnerable women and children in these church institutions during the period 1922 to 1998. What emerges from the testimonies is the cruelty meted out to young pregnant women, and the unconscionable neglect of their infants by religious orders who saw them as sinful and deserving of punishment.

But what of the women who didn’t go through this system, who kept their so-called illegitimate babies? Did they fare any better?

Just before Christmas, Joanne Hayes, one such woman, received an official apology and was awarded a High Court damages award of E1.5m for her treatment at the hands of, not the religious orders, but the State and its agents – including the gardaí.

A 24-year-old single woman, Joanne was in a secure family set-up which had already embraced her daughter Yvonne, born outside marriage. She was involved in a relationship with a married man, Jeremiah Locke, and became pregnant again by him in 1984. She gave birth to a baby boy, Shane, on April 13, but he did not survive and was buried on the family farm in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry.

At the same time, 80 kilometres away, the body of a new-born baby with multiple stab wounds was abandoned on the White Strand, Cahirciveen. A Garda murder inquiry led to Joanne Hayes because she’d been recorded as being pregnant, but not having a live baby. What followed was a grotesque miscarriage of justice in which Joanne and her family were pressurised into signing statements admitting to the murder of the Cahirciveen baby. When she told gardaí about the birth of her own baby, that was neatly tied into the narrative.

“I had to kill him because of the shame it was going to bring on my family,” gardaí claimed she had said. “When the body of the baby was found at Caherciveen, I knew deep down it was my baby.

Even when blood tests determined that the Cahirciveen baby could not have been Joanne Hayes’ by Jeremiah Locke, the gardaí persisted with a bizarre theory that she had given birth to two babies who were twins, but had different fathers. In the meantime, the family had withdrawn their statements claiming they had been fabricated and accused the gardaí of intimidation.

By October that year the murder charges against Joanne Hayes were struck out.

But that was only the start of it.

The Minister for Justice of the time, Michael Noonan, ordered an investigation into the Garda handling of the case and the following year the Kerry Babies Tribunal was established. The hearings lasted six months, and proved to be an excruciating ordeal for Joanne and her family. In a five-day long cross-examination, she was asked intimate details about her sexual life and practices and was painted as a predator, although the conduct of the gardaí was supposedly the remit of the investigation. She was forced to ‘relive’ the harrowing experience of childbirth in a field, and was interrogated about her menstrual cycle and use of contraception.

In evidence she and her family reiterated that they had been coerced both physically and verbally into making false statements that implicated them in the death of the Cahirciveen baby. However, while the tribunal report established definitively that Joanne Hayes had no connection whatsoever with the Cahirciveen baby, it insisted that she had assaulted her new-born with a bath brush and choked him to death, even though forensic evidence could not establish whether the child had achieved independent life. (It’s interesting that the family’s “statements” were full of such lurid descriptions.)

The gardaí were given a slap on the wrist for running a “slipshod” investigation, but the tribunal failed to answer the central crucial question: how did detailed statements from the Hayes family, identical in details known to be false, come to be taken?

In the High Court action Joanne Hayes took against the State, she sought to over-turn the tribunal’s finding that she had killed her own son since it was completely unsubstantiated and was made despite the fact that an autopsy was unable to determine the cause of death. She said the finding allowed gardaí to imply that she was “promiscuous”, and “a woman of loose morals”.

Last December’s State apology and legal compensation officially recognises – after 36 years – that Joanne Hayes was the victim of malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, unlawful arrest, assault and battery, abuse of power, conspiracy and emotional suffering and that her constitutional and human rights had been violated.

This barrage of power weaponry ranged against one young woman demonstrates that is was not just the Church which wanted to control and punish women who stepped outside the sexual norm. As journalist Gene Kerrigan, who covered the tribunal, said at the time, the Kerry Babies case raised issues that “had more to do with attitudes towards women, morality, sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth than any impartial attempt to establish the facts around the police investigation”.

Joanne Hayes was a woman who had chosen to have not one but two babies on her own, in the same hostile environment that drove thousands of single mothers into institutions where their children were taken from them. Sociologist Tom Inglis, writing about the case in 2004, observed that Joanne Hayes was not “the classic Irish single mother”. She did not hide, or give up her first baby, Inglis goes on. In that sense, she was “a bold and transgressive figure,” and the case illustrated how “sexually transgressive” women became isolated, marginalised and oppressed.

The public reaction to the case suggested that much public sympathy lay with Joanne Hayes, but as historian Diarmaid Ferriter remarks, ” it also underlined the extent to which women were still left to carry the blame and the stigma as a result of pregnancies outside marriage”.

Joanne Hayes became a symbol of realpolitik in that darkest of decades when divorce , contraception and abortion were central to the political discourse, but women were not.

Symbol or not, the odd thing is when you google Joanne Hayes, there are no images of her as she is now, a 60- year- old survivor. The photos of her that remain are from 1984/85 when she was in the eye of the storm.

It’s as if Joanne Hayes’ life stopped then, as if she died.

Of course, she hasn’t died. She has gone on to rear her daughter protected by her community and living determinedly out of the public eye. But the lack of any kind of media visibility is – e.g. she was not in court last December when the settlement was made – speaks of a woman, whose privacy and integrity was so traduced and manhandled (and I use the word advisedly) by the State, that she could not bear any further exposure, even to mark the public vindication of her reputation and character.

“My life has become pubic property and my body a subject for discussion all over the world,” she wrote in her autobiography, My Story, which came out in 1985. That was almost her last word on the subject.

Except for this: in a letter to journalist Nell McCafferty in 2006, pleading against the making of a film based on McCafferty’s book about the case, A Woman to Blame, she wrote: “I have to live with the past every day and for the rest of my life.”

But McCafferty had already sold the film rights and could do nothing: “Unfortunately, Joanne Hayes belongs to history,” she responded.

The murder of the Cahirciveen baby – subsequently christened John – has never been solved. The frenzied violence perpetrated on that baby suggests another equally dark chapter in the story of Ireland’s relationship to its uncherished children.

Feeling Unentitled

There’s usually an “aha” moment when you find the right title for a story, or it finds you.

With “Repossession”, which appears in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd (a bumper issue of the Welsh journal celebrating five years in existence ) this moment never came, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s still a story in search of a title.

“Repossession” is about a middle-aged couple who buy their dream house at a knockdown price because it’s been repossessed from the previous owners by the bank. Shel, the wife, begins to suffer odd mental distrubances once they move in, which she suspects are linked to her scruples about benefitting from others’ misfortune, but the reader may not be so sure the two are linked.

Over numerous redrafts, the story’s title morphed into “Onset”, “Slippage”, “Drunkard’s Island”, and then with a kind of weary resignation, I went back to its original title, which by then had taken on the feel of a compromise. 

This was odd because it was this linguistic twinning that combines a ghostly haunting and property speculation in the same word – repossession – that prompted me to write the story in the first place. (Thankfully there’s no copyright on titles because as I was writing it, I discovered Lionel Shriver has a story of the same name in her collection of short stories, Property. Superstitiously, I haven’t read it.)

For some time, I had wanted to try my hand at a ghost story.  At the time of writing, I was teaching the ghost story genre to an undergraduate writing class and we had read Rose Tremain’s marvelously ambiguous story, ” Is Anybody There?” – a title that itself has echoes of that spooky poem of our childhood, The Listeners by Walter de La Mare.  (‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveler/Knocking on the moonlit door;)

Knocking is the portal to the uncanny in Tremain’s story too, which is from Tales from a Master’s Notebook. Stories Henry James Never Wrote. (Vintage Classics), a wonderfully varied compendium of short fiction from ten writers (including Colm Toibín, Amit Chaudhuri, Tessa Hadley and Joseph O’Neill) who were asked to trawl through the notebooks Henry James left behind after his death and choose one of his unused ideas as a starting point for a new fiction.  

James spent 30 years filling his notebooks with thoughts and story ideas, anecdotes from dinner-parties and newspapers, things noticed on his travels. which formed the “germs” of stories for the future. As the collection’s editor Philip Horne remarks, some of James’s ideas read like “a good Hollywood pitch” : –

Couple Asleep – Woken in Night – Husband Nervous – So Wife Goes Down – He Hears Voices – She Won’t tell Him What Happened.

Man Has been Brave By a Fluke – Lives in Terror of Having to be Brave Again.

Young Man in Mid-Western Industrial Town Fills his Room with French Culture – Refuses the Chance to Go There.

Betrayed Wife Must Have Affair to Get Revenge – Can’t.

Wife Has Long Affair – Husband Dies – They Can Marry – What’s the Problem?

Tremain’s “Is Anybody There?” is about two elderly women living side by side in a small English village, one of whom has a dark secret from childhood. When we discussed it in class, we realized how ambiguous the reality of the story is.  We weren’t sure if anything we’re told happens in the story actually does. We didn’t know who the secret belonged to – the narrator or the neighbour?  Was the story a means for the narrator to tell her own story? Were there even two women at all?  Was one the figment of the other’s imagination?

Something about that slipperiness went into “Repossession”, I hope. As readers we’re encouraged to view Shel as flakey because of how the world perceives her.  There are hints of some old trouble – substance abuse, a mental breakdown? Even her over-scrupulous conscience is considered suspect by her husband. But the real kernel of the story for me is the experience she describes shortly after having moved into the new house.

“. . . I woke early in the morning and had the strangest sensation of not knowing who I was, as if I didn’t recognize the inside of myself. You’ve no idea what an odd sensation it was, like a kind of unmooring, a slippage.  I had to get up quietly and tiptoe around the house to find a mirror.  I found one leaning against the wall in the spare bedroom. Once I saw my face, I knew of course.  It wasn’t like being lost, I knew where I was, I just needed my reflection to tell me who I was.”

My godmother, a woman in her 80s, described exactly this sensation to me shortly before she died.  She was of perfectly sound mind and I remember being struck by the existentialist panic of this moment for her – waking up and not knowing who she was.  The only way she could “come back to herself”, she told me, was by looking in the mirror.   

I remember taking a note of it.  Like Henry James, I have dozens of notebooks where ideas can fester for a long time, and often die from lack of writerly oxygen. This one sat there for eight years waiting for its story to come along, but my godmother’s experience haunted me and was something I revisited in my thoughts.  What would it be like not to “know” yourself?  And to be aware that you didn’t.

Which brings me back to the title conundrum. Here are the ones I discarded and why.

Calling the story “Onset” I thought might unfairly emphasize what is a singular experience in the story.  It would skew the reader’s expectation towards a narrative of dementia.  Shel’s “episode” might foreshadow further “unmoorings”, but equally, it might not.  I’m imagining many of us have experienced similar instances of momentary self-estrangement.

My second title option, “Slippage”, also radiated from this moment in the story. But as a title it has broader connotations. It suggests the general sense of displacement Shel experiences when she moves house – not only in terms of location, but in her grasp of time – for example at one point, history, or the fruits of her historical subconscious, opens up in front of her. But it seemed to me that this title depicted the story’s atmosphere rather than its content.

“Drunkard’s Island” is the name of a real place in west Limerick which I salted away in a notebook 30 years ago and have always wanted to use. The trouble is, as a title, it fails to signpost anything for the reader beyond, perhaps, exciting curiosity. (Not a bad quality in a title.) But it tells you nothing about the narrative, so I jettisoned it.

Unsatisfactory as it is, “Repossession” is probably the title that steers the reader least, and in a ghost story I think that’s important.  It’s a genre that thrives on uncertainty. This title does what it says on the tin; it’s a story about a house that’s been repossessed.

But still I wonder.  Is the perfect title for the story still out there somewhere?

You can read ‘Repossession’ in Five Years: Issue Twelve of The Lonely Crowd.