Someone told me that marks on the wall of St Agnes’s Ward in the Mater Hospital were bullet holes from when Máire Comerford was on hunger strike. When? Were the shooters trying to kill her or break her out? My informant didn’t know but I saluted Máire privately as I trundled my mobile X-ray machine in and out of the ward in the mid-1980s, not even sure what I was saluting. They might have been scuffmarks.
A decade later, set alight by a paper Louise Ryan gave on Republican Women at an academic conference in Strawberry Hill, London, I began to research those revolutionaries of the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War. I was simultaneously fired up and anxious because I’d always used the demotic, the human voice in my writing.
Unaware of the term appropriation then, I was nevertheless hyper-aware of how difficult it is to imitate other voices. I’d cringed through too many bad imitations of my Cork accent by Dubliners and Londoners. Furthermore, how could I possibly recapture a past I’d never known? And yet, my father and uncle had taken part in both wars and my Uncle Tommy had spent time in prison. More importantly, their mother, my 23-year-old grandmother, went to Limerick Prison in 1889 for her role in Parnell’s Plan of Campaign.
Why were the women hardly mentioned? I wanted to write about them yet from my end of the 20th century, I was frustrated because I couldn’t imagine their faith in a cause which I knew was going to end so bitterly. It took me over 20 years to find a way to write about them indirectly in Now We Can Talk Openly About Men (Carcanet 2018).
In March, I was commissioned by the Poetry as Commemoration team at UCD to write a poem using the UCD Special Archive. I was wary of approaching the Cumann na mBan again. Would I find myself dealing with the same problems: fear of clumsy appropriation? My father had been held hostage by the Black and Tans and I’d found it much easier to write about him and other teenagers caught up in war. These poems were published in Facing the Public (2009).
I wondered if I could write about one teenager in particular – Kevin Barry – but I soon realised that was a tall order, not something I could write in a few months. Old familiar frustrations began to creep in. Then, by chance, I met Roy Foster in London, where I live. When I mentioned my commission, he immediately told me to look up Máire Comerford’s papers in the Special Archive and, even as he spoke, I knew my quest was over.
When I originally researched this period at the end of the last century, the most inspiring documents were the eyewitness accounts in de Valera’s Irish Bulletin (in the British Newspaper Library) along with the memoirs of Kathleen Clarke, Ernie O’Malley and Siobhan Lankford. Comerford’s bullet holes were always at the back of my mind but I couldn’t find much about her then. I was a single working mother, living in London without the internet and little opportunity to travel. Although I loved her engaging interview with Kenneth Griffith in his documentary A Curious Journey, there wasn’t enough for me to write about.
Over 20 years later, things were different. I had direct access to the 1950s typescript of Comerford’s memoir On Dangerous Ground held in the UCD Archives, and the Archives team were incredibly helpful and speedy with their responses. Evelyn Flanagan, Head of Special Collections, also recommended Liliput Press’s handsome 2021 edition of On Dangerous Ground, illustrated with richly evocative photos. Meticulously edited by Hilary Dully from the original typescript, it’s a terrific read, a page-turner. Dully’s partner is Comerford’s nephew, Joe Comerford, and there is a particularly charming photo of Joe and Máire Comerford on horseback. She was obviously a special aunt.
Of all the first-person memoirs I’ve read, this is by far the most inspiring. Comerford has an unforgettable, idiosyncratic voice, her language rich with imagery, full of physical movement. Both astute and tender, she feels modern. I could identify with her. Was it her sense of humour? Her honesty? Her lack of self-aggrandisation? Her intense love for animals? I was certainly drawn to all of these qualities.
And her characters hum with life. Michael Collins is wryly visualised through the many women who acted as his “housekeepers” – a band of Cinderellas fearlessly risking prison sentences to keep the ‘Big Fella’ safe and fed. She has an unerring instinct for the quotidian details that magic a book to life. Máire Rigney, one of Collins’ many “housekeepers”, was asked to “never fail to make a milk pudding every day…When she’d prepared his meal of blancmange, poultry or fish, she would lay it out on a small table to the rear of the house, then knock three times on the office door. In the three months he never spoke to her.”
During the War of Independence, Comerford stayed at Alice Stopford-Green’s house in Stephen’s Green and it had only one comfortable chair (Stopford-Green’s). There wasn’t one comfortable seat for Comerford to “snuggle” with a book. When I read this, my identification was complete. How I wished I’d known her. From the first pages of On Dangerous Ground, I knew no one else’s voice would do. I had to use Maire’s words somehow.
As I read, I made a note of the stand-out phrases and descriptions. Then, over a period of six weeks, I edited and rearranged the words I’d chosen. I was particularly moved by her description of how animals were cared for in her childhood home and I used those phrases to make a refrain. And I had enough words left over to write a second poem, Women’s World, about Michael Collins’s “housekeepers”. My young self, driving a mobile X-ray machine through the wards of the Mater hospital in the 1980s, never imagined such vicarious living although I have yet to find out if those were real bullet holes in St Agnes’s Ward.
I would like to acknowledge Poetry as Commemoration, UCD Library and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. The poem will be published alongside nine other commissions in a fine print edition by The Salvage Press in Spring 2023. Presenter Olivia O’Leary will be talking with two of the Poetry as Commemoration organisers, Catherine Wilsden and Evelyn Flanagan, on the Poetry Programme on RTÉ Radio 1 on Sunday, November 6th, at 7pmand Martina Evans will read her poem.
On Dangerous Ground: A Memoir of the Irish Revolution by Máire Comerford, edited by Hilary Dully was published by Lilliput Press in 2021
Martina Evans’s latest poetry collection American Mules (Carcanet 2021) won the 2022 Pigott Poetry Prize.
Blood Pulled My Shoe Off: The Birth of the Free State in the Words of Máire Comerford
For Roy Foster