Layers and Lineage

Life in here on the other side is just the same – only much better, and more difficult.  Anne Enright.

We quote Anne Enright a lot in this house. More specifically, we quote Making Babies, her hilarious and honest memoir about her experiences of motherhood. When I was pregnant, I trawled the shelves, actual and virtual, for writers writing about their childrearing lives. I drew tired and frustrated (often deeply angry) with writers who spoke of typing while breastfeeding, how they simply gave up sleep and continued to produce literature or academic tomes while the child suckled happily on their breast. For the record, I’ve tried and you can’t type while feeding a baby. And even if you could physically manage it, you often have little to write about. Life becomes very small when you have a young child. (I know this is not a revelation, but it is to me, so bear with me.)

But at some point, we emerge on the other side, weathered but alive. The brain still works. And the domestic and the political are now forever entwined.

I’ve been thinking about the passing down of genetic traits, and also of stories, histories and public secrets. And not only because the little fella has discovered my desk chair swirls all the way round and thinks this may be as good as the playground when the day is wet. I’ve been thinking about lineage.

We’ve lost two people in the last eighteen months who brought such colour and energy to this blog: Val Mulkerns (1925–2018) and Pat Laffan (1939-2019). RIP.

Both accomplished professionals, in theatre and literature, but both also deeply kind and generous souls who shared much with me. Mulkerns and Laffan were intimate friends of Ria Mooney and gave such beautiful, vivid accounts of her and her work.

On hearing of their passing, I couldn’t help but wonder what is being lost, and think about what we are preserving, and how we’re doing it. It could make you melancholy, or it can make you smile –

Because, when all seems to be lost, something else pops up…

Stephen Dunford, an author, historian and musician based in Mayo, contacted me after coming across my writing on Ria Mooney. More specifically, he was interested in F.R. Higgins, as he is currently working on a collection of all of Higgins’ work to be published with some of his own illustrations. He was curious about a poem I mentioned: a poem Higgins wrote for Ria that was hitherto unpublished. I promised to go back to him, in the short stretches of time I sometimes have when the child naps.

Dunford Illustration

I needed time because I wanted to check notes: I had a feeling there were two poems, although the earlier blog posts hadn’t been clear on this and I wanted to prove it. Repeatedly, I tried to pull books out of boxes and check old files until the child had to be lifted again. But nagging at me at the same time was the thought that somebody wanted to publish ‘Ria’s Poems.

If you believed in such things, you’d consider that Val Mulkerns had a part in this.

Dunford wrote asking me about ‘A Wish for Ria’. It came to light via Mervyn Wall, a writer and a civil servant who worked for Radio Eireann and as Secretary of the Arts Council. He shared the poem with Val Mulkerns long ago, and hence with James McGlone. Wall was one of the intimate circle to visit Ria’s Wicklow hideaway for long evenings talking and singing. And he remembered the verse that hung on the wall there, written by Higgins. It was short and simple, a heartfelt blessing:

These hills and glens this evening pour

Their tides of peace towards Ria’s door.

O may they for a lifetime shut

Their sunset wealth in Ria’s hut.

It’s a lovely verse, but I was thinking about another poem. Some time ago, I had an email from Maev Kennedy, daughter of Val Mulkerns. Maev is a writer, but her speciality is archaeology. And she had been digging for treasure. She wrote to tell me how she’d been clearing out her mother’s house, full of books and papers and a life lived steeped in culture. She was, by her own admission, exhausted and emotionally shredded, but compelled to check it all. She wrote to me:

On the last day I came to an old Spanish straw basket, classic tourist souvenir with a bullfight painting, full of dessicated shoe-cleaning stuff.  […]And at the very bottom there was a mismatched envelope, holding a letter from Ria …

The letter from Ria was, as usual, chatty about theatre and family, but she also told Val about a poem that Fred had written for her. Ria says:

I am enclosing the poem which was expurgated from the proof copy and some evening when there is no one else but you and Maurice [Val’s husband] I will tell you the reason for it not being included in the printed edition of The Gap of Brightness.

The secret of why it was ‘expurgated’ from the volume hasn’t survived, but the poem did. Val Mulkerns published it as an Appendix to her autobiography of Ria. I’ve read it many times, always thinking about the romance of having a poet lover dedicate a poem to you. Did his wife object to its publication? Did the editor fail to see the romance and consider it inferior? 

The Ring Maker begins:

Through you, whose hands have wrought the airy gold

Of crosses and cold elemental cups


The final verse is:

My thanks! For unto her—who yearns with heart

All reverence for our hushed holy land—

Whose mind is gentle, passionate and wise

Deeply in things that share earth’s darkest hints—

For her, this ring; to keep the artist mind

The stamina of Ireland, upon her hand.

Along with a copy of the poem, Ria kept that ring, wearing it until the silver grew thin and the ring misshapen.

And now that I return to the poem, after a distance, I see something different in it than the romance of an illicit affair. Higgins speaks of Ria’s wise mind, her reverence and stamina, her ‘artist mind’. I realise that he respected her intellect and artistry, that he considered her vital to the cultural life of Ireland.

That’s what was expurgated, intentionally or not.

I so look forward to seeing these poems in print, along with some of the beautiful illustrations created for the volume. Some things fall away, but certain things endure. Maybe that’s lineage.

2 comments on “Layers and Lineage

  1. Lovely post, Ciara – so glad you managed a post in between the minding and raising. Hope you’re getting sleep!

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