That Realm Untenanted(Essay published in Irish Spirit (2001), Dublin: Wolfhound Press)
In the first act of �Waiting for Godot�, Estragon asks for a carrot but Vladimir gives him a turnip instead, which he doesn�t like. After a search Vladimir finds one carrot in his pocket and exhorts Estragon to make it last as it is the end of them. In the second act, Vladimir produces nothing but turnips and a black radish and as Estragon likes neither, he has nothing to eat.
If ever there was an allegory for hunger, it�s this play. A tree, a country road, evening. Two men waiting for an eleventh hour redemption which promises and does not come. They have no power, no will to act, nothing can be done. The state of starvation is a type of paralysis. You are too weak to save yourself from the rapid careering towards death, and obviously, even when you were strong, you were not in a position to save yourself from stepping onto the slope. This is Beckett writing from his creative perch on, as he once described Ireland, �the last ditch of Europe�.
I was no stranger to ditches where I grew up on the outskirts of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. My father was a labourer with Limerick County Council. We had very little money but we were never hungry. My father dressed well on his days off and my mother made sure that the house was well kept and the children clean and warm. I had a new coat every winter. We would have denied poverty and never considered ourselves members of the �working class�. We had books and the intellectual confidence that comes from being academic achievers. With that confidence, though, was coupled a kind of fear. As long as we continued to achieve academically, we were guaranteed acceptance in society�s various institutions. If we stopped, we had no fallback because we were economic and social mavericks, belonging neither with the poor nor the rich, neither farmers nor townies. To confound things, our home life was turbulent and isolated. The institutions became our greatest friends because they gave us a definite place and recognised our potential.
Education saved us from the willess condition of the poor, but we were always only a slip away from it. It may have been some consciousness of this that made me ashamed of my origins for up to ten years after I had left home. Poverty, instead of radicalising you, can keep you conservative through its state of desire. The minute the single mother of two in a small council flat identifies with the society queen of a television �soap�, her enslavement is secured. I was a lot like that.
Only some of my poverty was economic. Mostly it was emotional. But its history was economic. My father had experienced hunger. He had grown up in an earlier and, must have been, even rawer, version of Frank Mac Court�s Limerick, in an area of abject deprivation, where his mother, the story goes, once had to sell pots and pans to the neighbours in order to buy food. When his fifteen-year-old sister died of consumption, his father carried her body to the cemetery on his shoulders. My father knew all about the various shades of want.
When I began to explore the subject of the Famine, I didn�t immediately make these connections. My first feeling was exclusion. I like to delve beneath the skin of my subject and find the part of me which relates to it. Method Writing as others have called it. But with the famine, I doubted that I could find a connection. After all, I had never been hungry or seriously deprived. One of my deprivations was itself a barrier: the fact that I had never had a sense of belonging to a community. The average Irish community of the early 1800s was a heaving, bouncing, careering animal of several symbiotic parts. The people were �ar sc�th a ch�ile�; one person�s good fortune was everybody�s, one person�s need was everybody�s. In the teeming rural villages, people lived a higgledy consortium of immediate and urgent close relationships, startlingly like aspects of inner-city life today. I, on the other hand, lived in a post-famine consumer-orientated Ireland of scattered rural dwellings, closed doors and reticence. Where was the possibility of empathy? I even had insufficient Irish to comprehend their mindset, the labyrinthine psychic echoes that are corollary to language. I had little knowledge of farming. I wasn�t sure that I was the right person to undertake this task at all, until I broadened my concept of history.
It is almost impossible for a serious poet to ignore history. When you look for subjects, or even for resonances and contexts, your most immediate store is your own past, and that past is entwined with and sculpted by the pasts of several others. What Irish child has not heard of the famine by the age of seven? What Irish child is not aware of world famines? What Irish child has not listened to her mother�s dissertations on the starving children in the world and their relevance to her own uneaten and wasted porridge? When visitors call, it is ingrained in us to offer them tea and food in the first five minutes for fear of being thought stingy.
While travelling with my brother once I stayed in the family home of a casual friend of his in Clare. I was fed a large meal when we arrived, at around 9pm, a mammoth fry-up at nine the following morning, and an epic dinner at 1pm. I could hardly waddle my way out the door, such was the hospitality they demanded of themselves, and such the appreciation they expected of their guests. An ex-priest�s housekeeper of West Cork provenance, who lived in a flat downstairs from me in Cork city, adored Bishop Casey because he was �lovely and fat�. It must have made her feel that the country was getting somewhere if its natives could afford rotundity. She herself was bony as a bird. Whatever your disposition, your historical connections abide with you like the down on your skin, unshiftable.
Eavan Boland has described a stronger sense of exclusion than mine in her book �Object Lessons�. She had not even grown up in Ireland, and to cap it all, one of her ancestors had been the Master of a Workhouse in the 1800s, on the privileged side of the b�ithr�n as it were. But then, who of us who walk now on this soil is not privileged, descended from the survivors, the lucky or better-off who did not emigrate and did not have to die? The dead and expatriated embodied the last vestige of a distinct native Ireland in their poverty-devilled lives. With them expired any hope of re-instating Irish as the first national language, as did the ancient system of land-ownership called rundale, with its complex determination of rights, its pre-industrial flexibility. By surviving, I could be said to share in some of the guilt of the oppressor, more so because I accept the system that made space for itself by wiping out the human resistance.
Eavan Boland stood her ground and claimed her territory. Her right to be a poet for this country did not need to be won. It was ancestral and made sweet by noble intention. Regardless of her socio-economic background, she could take an individual stance in the present, applying honesty to all of the conflicting issues. In one of her poems, �That the Science of Cartography is Limited�, she addresses herself to one of life�s casual lies, evocative because it is very close to the truth: the lie behind the Map. She remembers standing on an overgrown famine road, one of those built under the Relief Works and left unfinished, and comments that, although the road is a physical and historical reality, the map does not show it. Even if it did, the flat representation of the landscape could not communicate the story of the people who have lived in it.
In general, Eavan Boland�s work seems to be driven by a desire for a true homeground. I find hers a pessimistic vision, forever considering fractures, splits, loss, the future that mocks the present, the brief nature of our lives. She is conscious of the several worlds that can co-exist at one time, as in �In a Bad Light�, where she considers the women who wear the dresses of silk, cr�pe and satin, and the poor seamstresses who make them. �In a Bad Light� bears a striking similarity in theme to �The Tabinet Weaver�, a poem written in the eighteen fifties by Elizabeth Willoughby Varian, describing a poor tailor making a fine garment to earn some money while his hungry family look on in their bare, dingy home. Both poets have an intuitive understanding of the territory of hunger.
My feeling of inadequacy, in retrospect, was exactly the tool I needed in order to look at the Famine period. It was a direct legacy of it. At the time, my dilemma ended in this logic: that I was Irish - however inadequately or impurely � and that I understood other types of hunger, such as loneliness, hopelessness, loss of faith, desire. That I walked the soil, that my ancestors had also used the soil as their basic support. The objective facts of the famine story could be read in a dewfall of history books but the emotional memory must reside in the earth. I literally asked the ground to be my guide, came from my own clumsily tilled life to divine the earth for some of its secrets. I began the first poem: �no matter how broken, the ground will transport me...� And I think it did.
Exploring the period of the famine revived my relationship with the West Limerick countryside. The characters in the story had to have somewhere to live, so I placed them where I knew best. I re-discovered my love of the county�s simple lilting greens, the cossetting demeanour of the roadside hedges and trees. I was alleviating my own hunger for identity.
It is difficult to pinpoint exact causes for social and cultural trends. At any given time, a multitude of events are taking place, all of which have been dominoed by previous circumstances. The psychological devastation described in Patrick Kavanagh�s �The Great Hunger� was the diurnal legacy of the rural upheavals of the eighteenth century and the post-famine phenomena of larger farms, sole inheritance by the eldest son and general de-population. Religion is the last refuge of the deprived, diminishing in importance as a society gains more control over its economic life. I don�t believe that it was the driving force behind the type of deprivation suffered by Kavanagh�s character. I consider it the whip and not the hand. The real oppressor was a nation�s fear in the face of its own independence, its desire to perform, and the very real spectre of penury. After all, Kavanagh�s Ireland still remembered a time when obtaining sufficient food was a daily worry.
Ironically, the flesh that was so scarce in the early eighteen hundreds became the moral stalker of the following century. In order to stay alive, you now had to mortify and deny the flesh without the release of early marriage and the wild, salving social interactions which featured in previous generations. Eithne Strong�s character, Nance, in her poem, �Flesh is the Greatest Sin�, is in some ways the female counterpart of Kavanagh�s Patrick Maguire. For Nance, natural body growth, which had been stunted in a previous century, is a dangerous corrupter.
On another level, what we know and have experienced as Catholic guilt may be a distorted remnant of shamanism. Listening to the environment, denying oneself certain loved things, suffering pain, are ways of settling universal scores or increasing the potential of the mind; fasting is a time-honoured route to spiritual enlightenment. Interestingly, John F. Deane has returned to the idea of suffering as ecstasy in his collection �Toccata and Fugue� (Carcanet 2000). Seamus Heaney repeatedly conveys a sense of duty to the environment and to society, and the concomitant restraint. It is the tension between desire and restraint which opens his �door into the dark�.
While starvation is the ultimate powerlessness and the antithesis of survival, hunger strike is a remarkable vehicle for gaining political clout. It is entirely disarming. The spectacle of a human being who is wasting physically for the sake of an ideal is one which approaches the godly. The hunger strike, an ancient Irish form of protest, found a ritual expression in 1981, when ten men, in utter discipline, fasted to their deaths in a Northern Ireland gaol. The way in which the fasts began, staggered as they were, felt like a silent procession up to a great door, one man standing to the side as the next was presented. This was the door of institutional justice, but became a door into the dark, a dark that the men seemed to illuminate as they entered. It was, for me, one of the most profoundly affecting periods of the Northern Irish conflict, and one which, when remembered, arouses feelings of admiration, annoyance and guilt.
Starvation always possesses an accusatory quality, whether it is in the face of a Kenyan woman who glares at the camera lens or in the emaciated appearance of Lavinia Kerwick, whose anorexia seemed to me to be a form of rage against a system that would send the man who raped her back onto the streets before she had had a chance to recover. In Katie Donovan�s poem, �Strike� the aggrieved hunger striker will feed her community with the remains of her body. Her physical disintegration will give life to her sense of justice, will give flesh to her ideal.
A fasting person may deepen my faith in human transcendence, but the first image I saw of early nineteenth century famine victims sent me into denial. I still remember the moment. It was in school and I may have been around eight. I opened a page of my history book and saw a drawing of a starving woman and her child. Until then I had been under the impression that only black people died of hunger, and the only black people I had ever seen were small faces on the sides of charity boxes. They were black babies, half-toy half-human, who lived in some land suspended between fantasy and the earth. Looking back, I amaze myself with the efficiency I deployed in blocking all reaction to the picture. But when I sat down to write a poem called �Easter 1995 - Hunger� it was the first image that returned.
�...a woman and her daughter in a history book,
their bones pointing out from their flesh.
They weren�t even black.
And I don�t want to see my face,
I don�t want to stroke the bones of my disgrace.
That I could be the one to die,
that I�d not have the power to destroy...�
We have been reticent. The Famine was not commemorated in 1945. We had to wait for more national confidence before we could look at it straight. Many communities around the country had had a culture of silence on the subject. Some old sores still ran, such as those connected with souperism in the west. Nuala N� Dhomhnaill in �Plutonium� refers to this, and to �radachur n�icleach na Staire�, translated as �the radioactive / Rain of History�. But in the past ten years we have been able to avoid little of the poisoned smoke of memory, the society turning inside out, vomiting up whatever has been sickening it. In 1995, the whole country remembered the famine, from every local library to a national stage in Millstreet. We could finally voice our anger and pain.
Now that we have some national economic power, we no longer need to make a virtue of suffering; our children eschew suffering altogether. It hardly seems possible to write the kind of poem which John Swanwick Drennan did in �When Famine Was sore in the Land�, where redemption is seen as the flip side of destitution:
�And, lighted thus, misfortune shows
The purpose of her earthly woes
Pointing a meaning for our woes
In every virtue they evoke.�
We still take pessimistic stances though, as if we had a fear of returning to the dark days, as if we still weren�t sure of our right to joy. I think we have that right, although it has taken me a while to reach that conclusion. I used to think that I couldn�t be happy while somebody starved in the world. Recently I did a reading where I looked at Michael Hartnett�s work, a poet who addressed the dark imagination if anyone ever did. I concentrated on his dark side, but found myself finally dis-satisfied that I hadn�t lightened the mood before I left the stage because the audience seemed to have lost energy, and so had I. The Irish tend to take sadness on board like water through a leaking hold.
Michael Hartnett walked his life with the mantle of the dispossessed poets of the seventeenth century on his back. While you can produce great art that way, I think one can also create great art in celebration. But then, if we didn�t feel some lack, we might not speak at all. Our lack of political and economic power tuned us to produce a panorama of song. Existence itself is an odd number, is desire. There�s a joke that goes like this: a man walks into a caf� and asks for coffee without cream. �I�m sorry�, says the waiter, �We have no cream; you�ll have to take it without milk.�
Which hunger is it that moves you?
(The phrase, �That Realm Untenanted� is taken from Aubrey de Vere�s poem, �The Desolation of the West�.)