New Life – A Short Story By Jacqui Gregory

From Soberista’s website, a story about an alcoholic grandmother minding her daughter’s child: “They had never really talked about Eleanor’s penchant for gin, but the arrival of her first grandchild had put it on the unwritten agenda.” >

Questions arose … Would she be able to stay awake for a full day while in charge of the baby?  Would she have the energy and patience to cope? Was she a daytime drinker? How bad was her hangover from the half bottle or so that she downed last night? Maybe she was still drunk? What would happen if she blacked out when the baby needed her? Could there be some kind of terrifying accident? 

Tamponade, a poem by Eleanor Hooker

Still and light she lies,
all eight years of her,
her lips stained blue,
as though she’s feasted
on summer berries.
And when the pressure
falls inside her lungs,
it builds in the powered
bellows breathing into her.
And when you listen,
you hear only a muffled heart.

Read the rest here >>>

Session #2: giving birth

I read two short poems by Doireann Ní Ghríofa: ‘I carry your bones in my body’ (“––– nobody ––– nearlybody ––– my small someone.”) and ‘Jigsaw’ (“how the arch of your foot / fit the hollow of my palm …”)


We then read an extract from the chapter, ‘Birth’ from Anne Enright’s Making Babies (2004), discussing it as we went:

– the frankness of the writing, as in, for example, the description of what it felt like after her waters were broken; and how unlikely it would have been that such a frank text would have been published or even written a generation ago

– the subject matter being not what some people would consider “worthy” of literary treatment, lacking literary potential: “to compare dressing-gowns – it took me so long to find this one, and I am quite pleased with it, but when I get up after the meal, the back of it is stained a watery red.”

– the humour, as in the description of men sneaking out from behind the curtains to watch the replay of a goal from a Portugal v France match

– the exaggerations for effect & how tolerable they are, as in surely not all the men were interested in the football

– the willingness of the writer not to endear herself to the reader, the importance of that in her efforts to be truthful; for example, in relation to one woman: “I am trying to be sympathetic, but I think I hate her. She is weakness in the room.”

– the crudeness (= honesty?)

– the idea of when labour starts officially: “I am in what the Americans call pre-labour, what the Irish are too macho to call anything at all. ‘If you can talk through it, then it’s not a contraction,’ my obstetrician said …”

– the believability of some of the states described

– the detail of her observations of her fellow unit C occupants, at times cartoon like

– “The room is full of miracles waiting to happen”

– the tenderness of some of her descriptions, yet even within those the signature blunt style: “When I put my hand on it, there is the baby; very close now under the skin. I just know it is a girl. I feel her shoulder and an arm. For some reason I think of a skinned rabbit. I wonder are her eyes open …”

– the visceral vividness of her descriptions of pre-labour and of the ward itself and what her fellow occupants

– the beauty & power of the writing about the build up to the delivery and the delivery itself and the newborn baby (with echoes of Ní Ghríofa’s poem: “I laid her on my stomach and pulled at my T-shirt to clear a place for her on my breast.”)

– the immediate return to full-on description of the facts: “smeared as she was with something a bit stickier than cream cheese”

– the poetic nature of the final scene which in a way echoes the birth scene that precedes it, only in this case Enright-the-mother is being “delivered”, speechless like a baby, by the nurse who saves her from drowning in the amniotic fluid of the shower!

– “she is saturated with life”


Finally, we read and discussed the chapter, ‘Abdomen 2003’, from Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am in which she describes her experience of an emergency Caesarean section and the prelude to it.

– the unacceptably abrupt interruption of the registrar, who failed to allow MF to finish her “speech”

– the physical appearance of Mr C, the consultant, as described by MF, the details she has chosen to draw attention to perhaps reflecting the impression she got of him and wants us to get: “tall man with severe comb-tracks in his black hair”

– the prototypical nature of Mr C, the consultant’s behaviour: “to yank me bodily up out of my seat” … “‘Get up,’ were his first words to me …” … “‘There is nothing wrong with you,’ he pronounced …” … “talked over me…” … “What was wrong with me, that I was so afraid of a bit of pain?” … “‘Do you have any proof?'” …

– the believability of this given he is such a textbook version of the rude & brusque doctor & a perfect representative for the patriarchal nature of certain parts of medicine

– the dynamic between the consultant & the registrar, and how this might point to the negative influence he might have on all the team he is in charge of

– the factors in why MF didn’t do or say what she knows she should have to call a halt to Mr C’s patronising, insulting, unethical & bullying behaviour

– the poetic quality of having the stranger in the operating theatre represent everything that Mr C & the system wasn’t about healthcare: simple, human attention & empathy & comfort

From Maggie O Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am

This extract from Maggie O Farrell’s brilliant I Am, I Am, I Am – Seventeen Brushes With Death, was published in Time magazine, ‘adapted’ from the ‘Abdomen 2003’ chapter of the book:

“Get up,” were his first words to me. “Let me see you walk.”

I wish now I’d left there and then, but at the time I was so astonished I complied.

“There is nothing wrong with you,” he pronounced, after he’d seen me take two steps. “You will have a normal delivery.”

I started to ask for clarification but the consultant — we’ll call him Mr. C — talked over me. Caesareans were a cult, he said, a fashion. I had been reading too many gossip magazines. I assured him this was not the case but he shouted me down again: Did I realize that Caesareans constituted major surgery? Why had I allowed myself to be swayed by celebrities? Did I doubt his medical expertise? What was wrong with me, that I was so afraid of a bit of pain?

The rest of the extract can be read here >>>

Connecting words and images at the National Gallery


After a break for midterm & a reading week, we were back and as arranged met in the foyer of the National Gallery.

Usually when I bring a group to the Gallery, it’s for a creative writing exercise whereby I get them to choose a portrait from the collection and imagine it’s of a patient. I ask them to write a response of some sort to that particular patient’s situation. However, this module is about (creative!) reading, so I had a different plan in mind.

First, though, I had to do the weekly ‘Paudeen’ reading. I guided them through the various sections of the gallery to Yeats’ ‘The Singing Horseman’ and sparing them the embarrassment of having to recite aloud in public, I read the poem once through for them. Possibly just as embarrassing, actually. (Will have to get them to read it on their own next week.) I mentioned that I associated the ‘Singing Horseman’ painting with ‘Paudeen’ – hinting at what was to come.

Next, I brought them to the Zurich Portrait Prize exhibition, mentioning for later reference that here they’d find the only really contemporary work that’s in the Gallery at the moment. Specifically, in order to connect with our previous module and with medicine, I showed them Fionn McCann’s ‘Cézanne’s Apple’, a photograph of artist Brian O’Doherty. (Fionn’s medic mother, Brenda, did her art history doctorate on Brian’s work. Fionn’s medic dad, Seán, was our coordinator for the medical humanities module up until a few years ago. Fionn’s portraits of general practitioners at work hang in the halls of the TCD Biosciences building where these students spend most of their days these days.)

Next we convened in the amazing courtyard between by Joseph Walsh’s ‘Magnus Modus’ and ‘Finding Power’ by Joe Caslin (Wow!) for a briefing. I explained we were in the Gallery to explore the relationship between word & image. By way of example, I showed them Paul Durcan’s ‘Crazy About Women’ book, and read his poetic response to Jack Yeats’ ‘In the Tram’ painting.

I explained that I had reservations about the concept of the ‘Crazy’ project when it happened (so long ago … before they were born?) and it prompted me to organise a very different exploration of the relationship between word & image.

The Bridges & Crossroads project involved getting a group of four living Irish poets – Katie Donovan, Brendan Kennelly, Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Micheal O’Siadhail  – to make a selection of poems from the Irish canon (that is, by dead poets) and read the selection to a group of living Irish artists who were then asked to respond to one of the poems in a visual work. (I wanted to deconstruct Durcan’s divilment! In the end, my divilment was further deconstructed by Alice Maher’s contribution to the exhibtion, wherein she refused to respond to someone else’s words as if art was only capable of illustrating the great literary works, and instead chose to, well, paint a poem.)

I explained that I didn’t expect them to either write a poem or make an image, but instead to take a poem each from the batch I had with me and go find an image that they felt resonated with the poem in some way. I gave them a poem each – with medical connections – by among others, Katie Donovan (‘Marked’), Brendan Kennelly (from ‘The Man Made of Rain’), Angela T. Carr (‘CAT Scan’), Karen J. McDonnell (‘A Bad Dose’), Philip Brady (‘Diagnosis’ & ‘Respiratory Failure’), Leanne O’Sullivan (‘Tracheotomy’) and some fella called Micheal D. Higgins (‘The Crossing’).

I suggested they read and reflect a little on the poem they got, and then just wander about the Gallery checking out the art and seeing if anything jumped out at them as connecting with their poem, and to come back when they were ready, to tell us all how they got on, read their poem, talk about their choice, and show us a snap of the painting they had chosen. (No one chose a three dimensional piece.)

They did just that.

As anticipated, we discussed – arising from the connections – different aspects and themes of the poems than we might otherwise have done – especially visual elements; but we also ended up discussing how different aesthetic styles are picked up in both art and writing (the more abstract the poem, the more abstract the art chosen in some cases).

We heard how some people found very obvious and quite literal representations of their poems, while others struggled to find anything, and still others were too spoiled for choice and changed a few times.

One students’s initial reading of Katie Donovan’s ‘Marked’ brought her to one painting (the portrait of Maeve Binchy and her husband in the Zurich exhibition?), but as she walked on she saw another painting (involving an infant) that completely changed her reading of the poem and so she opted for that painting and reading instead.

For two of the more dense poems, I actually gave them to two different people each, and it was interesting to see the similarities and differences between the choices made for the same poem by different readers. One student thought of a song first as they read the ‘CAT scan’ poem by Angela T Carr, Massive Attack’s ‘Voodoo in My Blood’, and that influenced their choice of painting.

With the Brendan Kennelly poem I had the excuse to play them a clip from Ailís Ní Ríain’s musical setting of extracts of the poem. (And mention impressionism & abstraction in music briefly.) The Man Made of Rain (extract) – Ailís Ní Ríain from Ailís Ní Ríain on Vimeo.

Anatomy awesome, awful and aesthetic

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First & foremost to say, it was such a thrill & privilege to be able to conduct – thanks to Siobhan in the department – our session in the beautiful atmosphere of the old Anatomy Building lecture theatre (as photographed so perfectly here by Fionn McCann). Everyone was most impressed … even a tad sorrowful!

Opened up with our group recitation of Yeats’ ‘Paudeen’. They’ll know it off by heart by the end of the module!

Then had quick recap from one of the group on last week’s proceedings.


Then I set the mood for this week by reading Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill’s ‘The Mermaid in the Hospital’ as translated by Paul Muldoon. (“It was the sister who gave her the wink / and let her know what was what.”)


Then, somewhat unusually, I gave a sort of lecture on anatomy as a human pursuit and its significance in medical training – based on an essay I wrote for the ‘Irish Medical Times’ years ago when the Anatomy department was moving from its charming, nineteenth century home to the shiny new Biosciences building >

The idea is that perhaps to ensure the students adopt the appropriate attitude towards the privilege that it is learning from cadaveric dissection, some civilising influence of the aesthetic on display in the old building (architecture, art, history) needs to be / is being replaced by comparable influences in the new facilities – the orientation programme, the relatives room.


Keeping it somewhat personal, I told them about an old friend, Max Aguilera-Hellweg, who sat in this very room as a first year MATURE medical student in 1998/99, but who transferred back to the USA for the rest of his degree because of a dispute with the School arising from conflicting views of his book ‘The Sacred Heart’, which he had just published the year before. I read and analysed extracts from Max’s book, highlighting how his interest in medicine arose (a photographic assignment that led to an obsession) and his resulting intense, artistic fascination with representing the most full-on images of the workings of the body as revealed by surgery.

… Far from getting sick, I felt what I can best describe as awe. Photographing my first surgery was so foreign to any of my previous experiences that I couldn’t place it. I couldn’t compare it to anything. It is one thing to know there is a spinal cord in the hollow of your back; to see one for real is altogether different…

The cardinal glow of oxygenated blood reminded me that there was a man in there. A thick, milky-white strand covering the nerve tissue that stretches from brain stem to tailbone, splitting off into minute and multitudinous nerves, producing the sensations of heat, cold, pleasure, pain; the dura of the spinal cord lay revealed. I saw the painting above my grandmother’s bed. The one I saw as a child waking up from my nap. The one of Jesus. His heart bleeding, wrapped in thorns, engulfed in flames.

I realised I was in the presence of the most intimate, most vulnerable, most inviolate thing I had ever seen. The spinal cord had never seen light, wasn’t meant to see light, and at this moment was bathed in light. My first impulse, I must confess was to spit. To defile it in some way. Bring it down to my level. I didn’t, of course, but I felt I was in the presence of something so precious, so amazing, so powerful, so pure, I couldn’t bear the intensity.

“What is that?” I asked. “What’s it made of?”

“It’s like a sausage,” the surgeon said, “with toothpaste inside.”


We discussed the heightened language and thinking here; the artistic impulse; the impact such descriptions have on a reader, particularly whether or not they can be said to have benefits for medical student readers; we debated why Max’s impulse was to spit (including wondering was it actual!); we discussed the surgeon’s disabusing and mundane reply, in terms of professional distance and general normalisation.

Where before [as photographer] I searched the eyes of a man [for his soul!], the wrinkles of his clothes, the wear and tear of his shoes, I look now in the recesses of his flesh, the colour and texture of his liver, the markings and capacity of his lungs.

We discussed our impressions of Max from the extracts we’d read and how suitable his motivations were for someone becoming a doctor. We got into a detailed discussion about empathy.


Then we read and analysed extracts from Sinéad Gleeson’s essay ‘Blue Hills and Chalk Bones’.

We discussed how the suddenness of the migration from the Kingdom of the Well to the Kingdom of the Sick is handled (“It happened quickly, an inverse magician’s trick: now you don’t see it, now you do. From basketball and sprinting to bone sore with a limp. Hospital stays became frequent, and I missed the first three months of school four years in a row.”); the unbelievable trauma to the body and soul some treatments involve; how quickly a patient, even a young patient, become conversant if not fluent in the language spoken in the Kingdom of the Sick.

We went into some detail on the particular impact of physical difference on young people (“I got used to the limp … but gained a new self-consciousness… What I felt more than anything was overwhelming embarrassment. Ashamed of my bones and my scars and the clunking way I walked.”) and how if it’s difficult for a doctor to properly empathise with an adult patient, it can be even more difficult when the patient is a young person or a child. (Though some of them have thicker skin than others, was a point that was made.)

We discussed the clinical aspects of acne and blushing.

There are a couple of particularly harsh doctors portrayed in Gleeson’s essay, and we discussed how prevalent their behaviour might be in healthcare settings these days and whether or not efforts were being made to reduce the instances of such ignorant behaviour:

I explain this to the orthopaedic doctor, this man I’ve never met, and he does that thing I’m used to male doctors doing: he tells me I’m overreacting. A rotating blade is slicing into my flesh, but I need to calm down. When my mother starts to cry, he demands that she leave the room. Fifteen minutes later, I plead with him to stop and he finally gives up, annoyed.


On an early visit to the surgeon, to check my spine for scoliosis, I was asked to wear a swimsuit. Mortified, I cried all through the exam, and the doctor, growing impatient, threw a towel over my lower body.

‘THERE, is that better?’

It wasn’t. I was a self-conscious girl being humiliated for her sense of shame.

Perhaps understandably considering her analysis and perspective, Gleeson summarises perfectly the lop-sidedness of the relationship, particularly as it was back in the 80s:

The Doctor patient relationship had its own imbalances. I have never forgotten the sense of powerlessness in instruction: lie down, bend forward, walk for me. I have felt it counting backwards from ten under the stark lights of an operating theatre. Or when skin is sliced cleanly through. You are in someone else’s hands. Steady, competent hands – hopefully – but the patient is never in charge. The kingdom of the sick is not a democracy. And every orthopaedic doctor who examined me during those years was male.

We discussed the difference between Gleeson’s language / perspective and Aguilera-Hellweg’s.

A variety of analyses were put forward on this idea: “Our bodies are sacred, certainly, but they are often not ours alone… we create our own matryoshka bodies, and try to keep at least one that is just for us. But which one do we keep – the smallest or biggest?”

We noted the empathy behind her observation of another person in Lourdes hoping for a miracle: “He twitches occasionally but is otherwise motionless. There is drool on his face, and I want to say something to him but can’t.”

Also the pathos in: “This is the breakdown of bones, the slowing of a heart, the confinement of our own bodies: a being that once sprung into the world, vibrant and viscous and pulsing with life.”


Finally, we read and discussed Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s poem ‘To the Stranger Who Will Dissect My Brain’ (unpublished) and the students who spoke were extremely moved and impressed with the final description of the “exchange” that happens at the end of the poem between the remains and the (say) anatomy student: “Your brain will blaze bright,// alive and wild, and I,/ I will be the light.” Not only capturing the awe felt by medical students (& some photographers) but also the enlightenment – the final gift of the person who has donated their remains to medical education.

One student spoke about how the poem captured in a way that she could never achieve herself (and that no other language register could, perhaps) that feeling of awe that some students experience when they begin their anatomy dissections.


And to top it all off, the students were able to look around the old Anatomy Museum and get a sense of the history – betimes quite freakish and grotesque – of their studies.

Module opener 2018/2019

To begin my twentieth year teaching literature at Trinity College School of Medicine, and as I usually do to bring them rapidly and suddenly out of their more textbook-, fact- and learning- based world, I read a poem.

I first asked them to call to mind someone in particular they don’t like, someone who bothers them intensely, someone they would dread spending a long bus journey sitting beside, and then to give them the name Paudeen.

And I read Yeats’ poem ‘Paudeen’ to them.

Indignant at the fumbling wits, the obscure spite
Of our old Paudeen in his shop, I stumbled blind
Among the stones and thorn-trees, under morning light;
Until a curlew cried and in the luminous wind
A curlew answered; and suddenly thereupon I thought
That on a lonely height where all are in God’s eye,
There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.

And I read it again.

And I read it again, explaining that when we meet someone for the first time, as they were meeting me, we are often distracted by a variety of observations we make about them from what they are actually saying; I gave them the example of how we often forget someone’s name when they first introduce themselves to us; I said we’d be reading each of the poems we encounter a number of times!

Then I told them I was going to ask them to do something they may never have done before or not done in a very long time: a dictation. I got them to write out the poem word for word as I read it to them again, explaining first that I hoped it would help them become more familiar with how the poem is put together.

Then I told them I was going to ask them to another thing they may never have done before or not done in a very long time: a group reading. I got them to join me in reading the poem aloud all together. And then we did it again, and as we did I freed my vocal presentation even more and injected a bigger dose of emotional charge into it, by way of demonstration, by way of making sonic room for them to do the same, and by way of making them more aware that this was an informal, liberal arts environment!

And I think at least some of them felt the charge, and I discussed the power of art with them a little, comparing what we just did to singing in the shower or dancing in the dark etc. Poetry may be quieter but it can be extremely powerful in its own way, and it finds its place, especially when we open ourselves up to it.

I then went through the poem with them line by line and discussed various aspects of it, by way of illustrating close reading and starting to get them comfortable with personal perspectives and different interpretations. I paused every now and again to invite them to offer their own thoughts, but didn’t put any pressure on them to contribute at this early stage.

I also hinted at why this poem might prove beneficial to them to have in reserve when they eventually become doctors! We’ll recite it every week together.

So, that was all by way of presenting one aspect of the module: literature.


To present the other aspect of the module, namely medicine, I turned to non-fiction prose (as close to science as we get!) and read some extracts from a number of columns by a columnist whom I can’t bring myself to mention here but who wrote well and humorously about doctors many years ago, to wit:

Medical students are put through a hell which is the very opposite of education. Far from their minds being opened, being prompted to engage distant and different horizons, far from their time at university being one of mental liberation and personal discovery, medical students find themselves being funnelled into a witless, brain-sterilising marathon of fact-retention.

The very first task of medical school is the conversion of the brain from a vital ratiocinative organ for analytical thought and speculation into a machine for storing facts – in other words, a cerebral shoebox containing a vast anatomical index, in which you can find the name of every nerve-ending and every follicle, and also, in an unswept and unvisited corner, a small, withering organ called common humanity.

This is not the fault of the students. It is almost impossible for the spirit of ordinary sensitivity, of optimistic enquiry, of normal ignorant speculation working its way to enlightened conclusion, to survive the Gradgrindery of medical training. Medical students probably work five or ten times harder than art students; and correspondingly, they discover five or ten times less about human nature. That discovery is made in casual college discourse, in unstructured debate, in wide and varied and undisciplined reading. It is the very purposelessness of the liberal arts which give them purpose.”

This allowed me to ad lib on the perceived differences between the liberal arts and sciences, but in a very balanced way, emphasising that medical students indulged in plenty of casual discourse and arts students spent a lot of time reading dull books. It also allowed me to talk about the overall thinking behind humanities modules for medical students.


And so on to the main course:

Lucy Caldwell‘s eponymous story from her short story collection ‘Multitudes‘*. I read out loud this powerful story set in a paediatric ward, line by line, observation by observation, episode by episode; pausing regularly to comment or invite observations – personal and / or interpretative.

The consultant mentioned on the first page allowed me to invite one of the group to pose the well known riddle about the father and son who are in a car accident and rushed to hospital for emergency treatment, but the surgeon announces “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son”. (Until it’s no longer a riddle, what have we got? _________.**) I even gave the briefest summary of deconstructionism!

(The mention of Susan Sontag’s idea of a kingdom of the well and a kingdom of the sick prompted me to read as an aside Dennis O’Driscoll’s ‘Someone’.)

We also discussed things like how patients & staff experience things very differently; how artificial and therefore challenging the atmosphere in hospitals is for patients (… and staff!); how othering illness is; how the powers of observation/description many writers exhibit (especially Caldwell here, for instance when her narrator is describing her efforts to breast feed / ‘nurse’ her sick child), how the detail of these observations would be expected of the best doctors when it comes to understanding patients and making diagnoses. (Needless to say, they don’t need to put in writing the observations as well as Caldwell does; though I did mention how many doctors were also good/great writers.)

Finally, we discussed how literally we ought to take a narrator of a story, or how believable every detail of a story is; could particular things “actually happen” to the narrator as described, or could they be taking poetic licence or using magic realism techniques to convey a truth other than the observable truth?

“I sing over the noise of the machines and I sing myself into a sort of doze. Sometimes I try to sing alternative endings for the soldiers … Sometimes I try to sing other songs …”

We ran out of time at that stage, which is a good thing, as hopefully they’ll want to go off and read the rest of the story for themselves now.

*Also available in ‘The Long Gaze Back: an anthology of Irish Women Writers’ edited by Sinéad Gleeson.

**I should say that apart from those who knew the riddle already, no one else in the group of ten got it, male or female. This despite the mention of the consultant being the prompt to put the riddle!




Diagnosing Ireland # 2: “Home is where …”

1. Quickly referred to the non-fiction feature article written by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (in week’s 1 handout) about her overpowering desire for another child:
My Ma is amazed that five of my seven pregnancies were planned. “We just got pregnant; we were glad of a miscarriage,” she said after my second loss. But I find miscarriage extremely hard to get over – apart from the avalanching hormones, there is the anger towards my body and what I have begun to refer to as “my rotten eggs”

I’m frozen – I cannot shake the cold from my bones. From my seat on the stage in County Hall I can see a slice of the sea. When my fellow reader is answering his interview questions, I focus on that wedge of water but, like a phantom, the scan image of the empty pregnancy sac floats into view. The black, black hole of it. And the sonographer’s words: “Blighted ovum”, words I have heard before. Words that mean this foetus was, most definitely, made from one of my rotten eggs.
2. ‘Quare Name for a Boy’ by Claire Keegan (in her collection of short stories, Antartica), a story about a woman who is unsure of what she is doing about her pregnancy and “comes home” to decide. She observes her relatives’ reactions and describes their routines (involving tea and potatoes) … their interest in how she making her way in life, in her clothes and how they fit her body. And then she meets the father of the baby she is carrying:
“The green wood hisses in the grate, the resin oozing out from the loosening bark. Lines of connecting sparks, what my grandmother called soldiers, march across the soot, but you say nothing. Whatever you say, I’ll manage. I will live out of a water-barrel and check the skies. I will learn fifteen types of wind and know the weight of tomorrow’s rain by the rustle in the sycamores. Make nettle soup and dandelion bread, ask for nothing. And I won’t comfort you. I will not be the woman who shelters her man same as he’s boy. That part of my people ends with me.”
‘Drink up,’ you say, gesturing to my glass. ‘A girl in your condition needs lots of iron.’
       And so I drink my pint of Irish stout [ALCOHOL], taking comfort in the fact that you’ve named the mineral hidden in the white stripe of its head.
3. ‘Emissary’ by Angela Patten: the cows, “mouths stained green with grass stubble”, remind the poet of a famine story and she wonders why, fleeing to the town and the pub [ALCOHOL]:
“It’s still potatoes and conversation,
the same trick of living between two worlds.
No part of this watery island is more
than sixty miles away from the sea.
The stories creep up like water in your lungs,
and you can’t breathe for choking on the past.”
4. I Could Read the Sky by Timothy O’Grady
What I couldn’t do.
Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch. Ask a woman to go for a walk. Work with drains or with objects smaller than a nail. Drive a motor car. Eat tomatoes. Remember the routes of buses. Wear a collar in comfort. Win at cards. Acknowledge the Queen. Abide loud voices. Perform the MANNERS of greeting and leaving. Save money. Take pleasure in work carried out in a factory. Drink coffee. Look into a wound. Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from west Kerry. Wear shoes or boots made from rubber. Best P. J. in an argument. Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand THEIR jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.
Then he describes his father’s funeral, for which he has returned to Ireland, including the appearance of the men down the back of the church
“The heads are like the eggs of a giant bird balanced in a line along the back pew. The skin on their heads is dry and papery and white, some maybe with faint brown marks from age. You would only see this skin when the men are in church or in their beds for at all times they are in their caps…
“In the eyes of Sarah McCabe there is a look of awakening.”
And particularly the Protestant boy who learned the Irish flute from his father, travelling 11 miles by bus.
5. ‘The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks’ by Paula Meehan
“I would not be amazed if every corpse came risen
from the graveyard to join in exaltation with the gale,
a cacophony of bone imploring sky for judgement
and release from being the conscience of the town.

On a night like this I remember the child
who came with fifteen summers to her name,

and she lay down alone at my feet

without midwife or doctor or friend to hold her hand

and she pushed her secret out into the night,

far from the town tucked up in little scandals,

bargains struck, words broken, prayers, promises,

and though she cried out to me in extremis

I did not move,

I didn’t lift a finger to help her …”

6. ‘Long Distance’ by Belinda McKeon, about a woman who comes home to Ireland not long after the death of her father … It captures a new generation of Irish adults emerging from a family-based, largely closed community 
“… just one more thing on the horizon of things unbothered with; just part of the rainfall, part of the wind-gust, part of the pile upon pile of day upon day.”
The mother is NOT peeling potatoes but preparing roses.
” … They are all over the stems; they are all over … the parts fallen into sink and onto the floor; they look like a virus still thriving and still spreading; a virus of blankness and space.”
But “they” are ONLY the bites of leafcutter bees… “Sure you’d only notice them if you looked up at them too close.”

Diagnosing Ireland – notes

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William Carleton said, he wrote of:

“a class unknown in literature, unknown by their landlords, and unknown by those in whose hands much of their destiny was placed. If I became the historian of their habits and manners … it was because I saw no person willing to undertake a task which must be looked upon as an important one.”



Watercress Soufflé recipe from Regina Sexton’s Little History of Irish Food


Tamasin Day-Lewis, West of Ireland Summers

Pp 7-8.5




Caitríona O’Reilly’s Thin



by Victoria Kennefick

Sister, let’s unwrap Lent like a treat,

stroke the smooth chocolate egg beneath,

the one that we couldn’t eat;

the wafer, yes, but no ice-cream.

Little Jesuses in the desert for forty days

and nights, with no dessert.

The devil tapping on our flat-black

window pane before bed;

mother, cutting tiny slices of bread

in the kitchen corner, eating from doll plates.

She couldn’t be prouder of our ecstasy

of denial, little letter-box lips refusing

all the sins of the tongue.

Easter bells rattled the glass,

Christ has risen, Alleluia.

The Resurrection with chocolate sauce

made us sick and giddy, pupils

rising in our irises, yours

the most divine Holy-Mary blue.

We held hands, spun around,

fizzy-headed, falling down.

Open the chocolate box, sister,

see liquor-centred grown-up sweets.

Pillows of sin, full

with seven deadly tastes,

a menu read to us on waking.

In the Ordinary Time of your dark kitchen,

we drop tissuey tea bags into boiled water.

Rust whispers to transparency.

Peace blooms,

bleeding into molecules,



Nuala Ní Chonchúir: ‘I think about my 30th birthday. That was the day I had my first miscarriage – I bled out my honeymoon baby. I had my seventh pregnancy and fourth miscarriage last year at 45’


Why medicine? New world (a student’s thoughts)

New world

The world is like a new place to be.

He has gone so far, he can’t believe;

So far, he thought he would never be;

So far, his old self could never foresee,

To a place so far from misery:

The world, they call Medicine Overseas.

The first time he touched down in Dublin, he couldn’t believe his eyes, yet everything was too vivid to be a dream. He had never been to any other country in his life, so it made him feel like the world was new.

And, on top of this, to be studying medicine after 12 years of school! This also felt like a new world to him. Every morning he woke up and still couldn’t believe he was in this new world.

His dream to study medicine overseas was finally real.

But why? Why he would actually want to study medicine? What makes him willing to sacrifice his life for this stuff? For money? There are lots of other less complicated jobs that would offer tons more money than medicine. For pride? No. For publicity? Nope.

The only reason that feels true to him is just to be a champion like his father. Seeing his father being so helpful to his community while he was growing up, has left him wanting nothing more than to follow in his footsteps. Throughout his childhood, he witnessed many heroic moments at his father’s clinic: people always seeking him out for help, looking to him for advice, thanking him. His father was just too good not to be a role model. That’s why he doesn’t care if it takes so much sacrifice, his whole life even, and why he doesn’t care about the voices of criticism about his chosen path. As long as he can be a champion for the people, just like his father.

And now, here he is, in a new world of medicine and Dublin, taking his first step on that path. Realising he has only just started the journey, and there is more then a thousand steps ahead to take, he doesn’t care: the most important thing is knowing that he is on his way in this new world.