Dispatches from Ireland by Heather O’Neill

Photo of Heather O'Neill by Julie Artacho

Posted on: 25 August, 2023

Category: Dispatches from Ireland, Max Margles Writing Residency, QWF News

I was recently in Jerusalem, where you can follow in the steps of Jesus. Here in Dublin, you can’t help but find yourself walking in the shadow of James Joyce. I have been to where he went to school, the library where he read, the bar he drank at, the seaside where he picnicked, even the pharmacy where he purchased his soap.

Sometimes, I have to ask Irish speakers to repeat themselves. But you often have to do that with a Joyce text as well. You have to reread it. You go back to the beginning of the sentence and read it again, only to find it has a new meaning. As though the sentences are alive like a sort of plant. Each of his sentences is like a climbing vine that wraps its body around different objects, and erupts with roses in the most unexpected places.

Sometimes Irish writing almost seems as though it is magical realism because of this propensity.

You believe you have just read an account of a mythical selkie that has crept out of the sea. When in truth, all you have read is the description of a young girl looking in a pocket mirror.

Samuel Beckett did most of his writing in Paris. He wrote in French just to undo the Irishness of his writing. But it’s still there, of course. Everything he wrote is written under an Irish sky. There’s so little light, it creates a black and white world. He travelled over on a boat to Paris. But the cloudy overcast Irish clouds came with him. As though he was Eeyore, always destined to have a grey cloud over his head, no matter how far he wandered. No matter how fast he cycled on his bicycle, he could not outrun it.

Much of the contemporary writing I like coming out of Ireland is still marked by the syntactical irreverence of Beckett. Such as the writing of Eimear McBride, Anna Burns and Anakana Schofield.

It takes forever for my clothes to dry. There is a washing machine in my apartment, but not a dryer. I touch the hanging dresses two days later and they still feel wet. But then the dresses that I had not washed feel damp to the touch too.

In truth, the rain is not as prominent as I thought it would be. Frank McCourt’s descriptions of the dampness of his Limerick childhood in Angela’s Ashes left too great an impression on me. His book was so popular in North America when it came out, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a copy lying around, like mushrooms that had sprouted after a storm. I thought it would rain almost all day. It would make my bones ache. The pages of the book I was reading would wrinkle under my fingers. The wallpaper would peel right off the wall in front me. The wooden floors would be so rotten, I would sit in a bathtub and crash right through the floor.

I make a plan to visit Limerick, just to see the rain there.

I go to the Marsh Library. There is a desk at which Bram Stoker sat to do his research for Dracula. I always forget that Bram Stoker was Irish. It’s hard not to conflate authors’ works with their biographies. I once assumed Bram Stoker was from Romania. I imagined him traveling by horse through a dark Gothic landscape, dark hair rising up in a devastating pompadour, in order to visit castles and discuss metaphysics with pale vampires over a glass of blood.

It turns out that Bram Stoker was a sickly wee Irish lad who had to spend much of his childhood in bed. His mother would tell him stories of other sick children, who had accidentally been presumed dead and were then buried alive. They would bang loudly on their coffins and cry to be let out. She told him, if he were to pass the cemetery at night he would hear the little children moaning and complaining. Then, I presume, she would kiss Bram Stoker’s forehead and send him off to ride a nightmare in the dark.

I look along the spines of the books to see which might have been the ones Bram Stoker used for his research. Eight hundred of the large leather-bound books have gone missing over time. They once locked scholars up in cages to prevent them from stealing the large books from Marsh Library. Somewhere hidden away in someone’s library is a copy of The History of Vampire Children. One that details how they sleep in small white coffins. And how they have cages with pet bats named Betty or Gertrude. How they go off to school at sunset, dressed in beautiful black pea coats and black boots, with black bows in their hair. And practice floating a few feet off the ground after midnight.

I am interested in such a book because I believe there is a vampire gene. Because I have, since a child, been unable to sleep at night. And stepping outside on a sunny day blinds me and my skin begins to burn instantly. But it might have simply to do with being Irish.

In Dublin there are local historians who give unauthorized tours of the city. They don’t have PhDs in history. They are stand-up comedians, looking to pay the rent. They take you to the sites of the city’s most notorious murders and rejoice in the utter debauchery and irreverence of the past denizens of Dublin.

I can’t help but feel a relationship between the way they tell stories with the way the Irish community in Montreal does. My father’s family was so fond of this. I was raised in a tradition of oral story telling. I listened to older thieves around the kitchen table describing their criminal mishaps as though they were the most wonderful adventures.

The members of the lower class who make the history books are the great criminals and revolutionaries and orphans. Instead of recording their history through sonnets, theirs is the tradition of ribald speeches of defendant men and women on the gallows.

That is the strange gift of a life of hardship. You have an extraordinary tale to tell. But to tell it, and not have people feel sorry for you, but admire you, is a magical gift! What a sleight of hand: To tell of a tale of crime, but have its themes be innocence and love. And for this to be accomplished, humour and poetry is needed. For what do poetry and humour do other than to give you an unexpected conclusion, subvert the ways your mind turns to logical conclusions and accepted ideas.

As the great Irish wit Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Through word of mouth, I hear about an older gentleman named Terry Fagan who will give you a tour of Monto. He has a tape recorder around his neck of interviews he made years before of people who lived in Monto when it was still a red-light district. When they built a wall around it to keep the vice in.

He tells the most empathetic account of the young women who entered the violent world of the sex trade in Monto, overseen by ruthless and vicious madams. He says there was a woman called the Lady of the Lamppost, who would sing at night, and sometimes all the young women working the streets would join in a melancholic refrain that would be heard all over Monto.

We stop in front of a Magdalene Laundry. “Do you know what happened here,” he asks me. “I do, unfortunately,” I answer. Then he nods, implying he does not have the heart to put that history into words. We stand and look up at the empty windows, silently. And the ghosts of all the girls who were imprisoned for being unwed mothers, rape victims, simply too jolly, peep out with their pale Irish faces and eyes the colour of rain.

There is a startling Caravaggio at the National Gallery of Ireland called The Taking of Christ in which Judas plants a kiss on Jesus’ cheek. It’s a kiss that illuminates the two of them in its significance: It is the moment in history when a kiss became a symbol of deceit as much as love.

The painting had previously been unknown to history. But it was discovered hanging on the wall in an apartment in Dublin in the 1990s. Who knows what its journey might have been – being at the back of an antique store, languishing on the lawn of an estate sale, passed from a grandmother to a nephew – before someone said, “No, really mate, where did you get the painting hanging over the table in the living room. It is a little bit out of the ordinary, don’t you think?”

I stand on a replica of one of the boats the Irish crammed onto during the Famine in the late 1800s. Impossible to imagine 250 souls squished into the small frame. But these boats left the Irish shores in wild numbers. Before the famine there were 8.5 million people living in Ireland. They have still never fully recovered their population, as there are 7 million living in Ireland and Northern Ireland today. Many of these boats arrived in Montreal, much to the horror of the locals who were terrified of these Coffin Ships that brought cholera and typhus along with its odd orphans.

It was a potato blight that caused the famine. When the potatoes came out of the ground, they looked like black fruit the underworld sprites had cursed with the tips of their protruding fingers.

The farmers wept and cried when they harvested the black potatoes. What does one do with a potato the colour of ink? Go forth and spin your tales around the world, of course.

I inherited being able to tell the future from my Grandmother, who was a McDonald. She read cards on Coloniale Street all through the 1920s, describing the gait of lovers who were soon to arrive in young women’s lives. She stopped during the war years, as mothers were lined up outside her door, wanting to know the fates of their sons. But she didn’t have the heart to tell them. I was always told that fairies and magic existed. I was always told I had a power of divination I had to be careful with.

I am going to explore the deeper past of Irish history now. To try and meet the fairies and banshees that haunt the land.

This piece is part of the Dispatches from Ireland series written by QWF’s annual Max Margles Writer in Residence in Dublin.