The Gaelic word for anxiety is “Imní”. Other translations include grief, sorrow, and tribulation. These are the emotions and feelings that permeate Little Witness (Arlen House), the debut collection of poems by award-winning Irish poet Connie Roberts. They are the burdens of an institutionalised Irish life. Roberts, who teaches creative writing at Hofstra University in New York, spent 12 years in Mount Carmel Industrial School in Moate, Co Westmeath, Ireland along with her 14 siblings, a”refuge” of sorts from her alcoholic father. She took 15 years to write this book. It is a haunting and harrowing accounting of a beleaguered young life. These poems are not for the faint of heart. They will grab you when you want to look the other way.
Like a literary magpie, Roberts has borrowed from among the best in the Irish literary tradition, including Seamus Heaney and John McGahern, to help give voice to her own traumatic childhood experiences – and it works, brilliantly. Right off the bat, she takes us inside the walls of Mount Carmel to reveal a world of dread and fear, and without nurture. This is her omphalos, a far cry from Seamus Heaney’s Mossbawn.
No Mossbawn or Inniskeen
to take down from a shelf
and leaf through….
My omphalos is a pigeon-grey orphanage yard
clotted with kids: see-saws, pissy knickers,
a clay-filled Kiwi tin on a hopscotch square,
British Bulldog, freckled faces, conkers
on shoelaces, pig-tailed girls twirling twine
skipping ropes by St Martha’s kitchen,
Jack stones, scabby knees, chinny-alley marbles,
and alongside the cloister, two-seater barn-red swings
we ride like horses till Miss Carberry’s Supper! Supper!
Roberts was just five years old when she arrived at Mount Carmel in 1968. She would spend the next 13 years there, save for a brief interlude in 1971, when she returned with her younger brother Tony to the troubled family home she describes as the place "where the troubles are” in the poem (Eden) Derry. No one was immune from her father’s tyrannical outbursts. Mother and children suffered mercilessly and repeatedly. Roberts captures the terror shockingly in A Crown for Their Last Night in Ballybrittan as they waited anxiously in the kitchen for him to return from the pub, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
He’d gone to town ravenous
for drink. They sat with their mother, the clock
ticking loudly on the dresser, afraid
to ask, when’s Daddy coming home? The look
on her face said it all. Soon he’d parade
through the door, his face black, bloated. Bulbous
eyes, red as the blood that ran down his face
(he’d fallen off his bike). Murderous
intentions. Sweeping brush in hand, he’d chase
the kids out into the fields. They’d hear her
squeal, no, Bob, no! as they ran like terriers.
Roberts and her little brother, Tony, find refuge in a ditch beyond the long grass. Anxious and shivering in the cold, they sit and pray and wait for the storm to pass.
Let’s say the rosary
for Mam. Our Father who art in heaven…
But our prayers couldn’t drown the war
inside the house: dishes in smithereens;
You fuckin’ bitch, I’m going to kill you!
A murderous pummeling follows until he tires of it.
He soon grew tired when she refused to budge,
Shouted at our silhouettes in the field,
yeh pair-a-bastards, come here! My brother peed
in his short pants. As the urine trickled
into his wellies, our mother crawled
inside the house. Father stared, his eyes crow-black.
When the children return to the house, their hearts hammering in their ears, they smell his rage, taste his terror as their father tells them, “Yer mother’s had a bit of an accident…she fell off a chair.” The children turn to look at their mother.
Her back to us, Mam cowered in the corner
of the kitchen like a beaten hound beneath a table…
Next day, the nuns took them away....
Reading these words makes the reader wince and want to turn away in horror, feeling helpless at the unspeakable brutality you have just witnessed. It’s rare for a poem to pack so much punch, no pun intended, let alone a collection of poems, but this is a book filled with recollections of unimaginable rage and violence-and no one is spared, not even the littlest of the children as revealed in the title poem Little Witness. The six-line poem is stark, vivid, and real. It mimics the abuse.
To stop it from crying,
my father picks up the bare-bottomed
baby from its cot, holds it
upside down by the ankles,
like a plucked turkey,
and beats the stuffing out of it.
With the beatings often came hunger. Desperate times called for desperate measures. In the poem The Bread Bin was Empty, Roberts’ father has spent all his money on drink at the pub. Her mother is forced to take matters into her own hands, as she loosely interprets the Gospel teachings and pilfers a church collection box, while her offspring keep watch. The sing-song rhyming technique Roberts employs here and elsewhere in her poems helps take the edge off a bad situation.
The Lord helps those who help themselves.
My mother took him at his word.
We stole into the church like elves.
The Lord helps those who help themselves,
so into the poor-box we delved
and robbed its contents unperturbed.
Still, amid the brutality and anguish, there are glimpses of happiness sprinkled throughout, such as when Roberts describes eating an orange in bed late one night in her dormitory (Quiet Time), and humour, when at a loss to find something to mimic snow for the nativity set, she and another girl break into a locked cupboard and steal cotton wool-filled sanitary towels (Arts and Crafts).
At times, her father could be gentle and kind. Of the 15 children, Roberts says she was his favourite. His pet name for her was “Sangel, angel with an S.” Her saving grace was that she could read his mind, she would fetch his boots or his cigarettes before he would ask for them. He would take her blackberry picking or to the nearby dump, where he would rummage for discarded toys, which he would clean up for her when they returned home (Doctor Rabbit). He would sing songs to her as she sat on his knee, and take her to the pub. “He was a happy drunk here,” she recalls. And he would buy her gifts, a black and white panda on Christmas Eve, and a fat yellow fountain pen on another occasion.
The memory of the pen reminds Roberts of a man who spent hours teaching her to write in script at age eight. He was always proud of his own penmanship. Her father was a smart man. But he was a frustrated man, whose life fell far short of his own expectations. And he vented his anger and frustration on those closest to him (Wounds).
you’re why I am
the way I am,
with your red lips,
your basket of eggs
by the banks of the Figile.
I was there to milk cows,
to cut hay,
not to spend my days in a council house
in the arse-hole of Ireland.
God forgive you.
I could’ve joined the guards
like my father,
settled in the barracks.
Bollix, I could’ve been McGahern.
The allusion here is to Michael Moran, the tyrant in John McGahern’s novel Amongst Women (1990). A former member of the IRA, a devout Catholic and pillar of the community, Moran reveals a darker side to himself in the family home, where his second wife, Rose, and his five children bear the brunt of his vicious temper.
Like Moran, Roberts’ father seeks refuge in religion and the Rosary to quiet the turmoil raging in his head. But the comfort he gets from it is fleeting, and it is only a matter of time before the storm clouds approach anew. The poet throws his prayers back in his face in the aptly named poem Litany.
“They are nothing but conspirators in your wrath of destruction.”
That the Roberts household is dysfunctional should come as no surprise to the reader. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poem Good-for-Nothing Irish Blues, where we get the perspective of the poet’s mother. Despite the unrelenting abuse she cannot bring herself to leave him. It is all too familiar.
Years he’s punished me with his fists.
Kicked me in the groin.
Years he’s punished me with his fists.
Kicked me in the groin.
Whisht, once he tried to drown me in the Grand Canal.
The judge said he’d always be a good-for-nothing
way back when.
Aye, the judge said he’d always be a wastrel
way back when.
But that judge don’t see how hard he tries
time and time again.
The dysfunction raises its ugly head, again, in the poem Mother Visits the Orphanage. Here through a not so imaginary dialogue, she begs her 10-year-old daughter to return with her to the beleaguered family home.
He really misses you.
He cries at night by the fire.
I’ll write letters to him, Ma.
He’ll give up the drink if you come home.
Sure, amn’t I grand here, Ma.
Please, child, he’ll stop beating me if you come home.
I’m sorry, Ma.
If he kills me, I’ll come back and haunt you.
The emotional blackmail takes its toll, it leaves its mark on the poet. A mother asking a child to make an impossible choice, not unlike the one the she is asked to make by a guard who is called to the house after what is clearly another domestic confrontation (Earliest Memory).
Night, way past my bedtime.
He asks if I saw Daddy hit Mammy.
I drag my eyes from his kind face
to my mother’s desperate blue eyes,
from there to my father’s baleful stare,
back to the face a few inches from mine, and lie.
Although Mount Carmel offered respite from this “house of horrors”, the industrial school in Moate felt like a prison to the young Roberts. She hated the rules and the regimented life imposed by the nuns, along with the abuse that came with it. She admits to feeling ashamed of having grown up there, “not wanting to be branded an orphan” by the experience (Acceptance). It was bad enough being labelled “convent children” and paraded “through the town like a herd of goats, farmer-nun goading us on...” (Altar).
This was an experience she’d rather soon forget. Indeed, she lied about it for years, unable to tell her husband. She would tell people she was from Tullamore, the town of her birth, rather than Moate. But when the orphanage was razed in the 1990s, she finally returned with him to the place that was her home from 1968 to 1980. A nun gave her a two-inch tile, saved from St Martha’s kitchen, a memento, which she now treasures (Acceptance). For better or for worse, Mount Carmel is part of who she is.
These poems are the fragments of a life, her life. They have allowed her to name the monsters, to share the pain, to forgive and to bear witness to her experiences, as well as those of others who like her were institutionalised and suffered terribly as a result.
None is more wrenching than the poem Letterfrack Man, which is in memory of Peter Tyrrell who self-immolated in a London park in 1967 to draw attention to the abuses he suffered while in the care of the Christian Brothers in Letterfrack Industrial School in Galway, Ireland.
One day I will go to Hampstead heath
to read his postscript, written in
oily black ash that Friday in April.
In that hollowed ground
where they found him,
his last meal, a pint and a take-away,
his overcoat melted to the bone,
I will stand a long time;
weep that it took so long for his
match to spark a revolution.
Ireland was not ready for Peter Tyrrell’s sacrifice in 1967 or his harrowing account of life in Letterfrack, which was finally published in 2006 under the title Founded on Fear (Irish Academic Press).
Since then, there has been a public accounting in various official reports of life in Ireland’s orphanages and mother-and-baby homes also known as the Magdalen Laundries.
Roberts gives us a glimpse of life in The Laundry, where the young girls in Moate toiled. It could have been any of the laundries around the country. Again, she cuts the edge with humour, this time with a reference to an Irish dance. The imagery of drudgery juxtaposed against one of enjoyment isn’t lost on the reader. The laundry is the young girls’ dance hall.
In the Folding Room to the left, a nun feeds
white sheets through a cylindrical mangle,
two flush-faced girls fold the hot, pressed cotton,
dancing back and forth, as in The Walls of Limerick.
In the wake of the explosive McAleese Report into the Magdalen Laundries in 2013, Taoiseach Enda Kenny addressed parliament and offered a public apology to the so-called “fallen women” who were enslaved behind the convent walls for decades, and for the State’s role in sustaining these laundries.
In an at times emotional speech, Kenny said these “fallen women” were “wholly blameless”, adding that the report “shines a bright and necessary light on a dark chapter in Irish history...It was a cruel and pitiless Ireland distinctly lacking in a quality of mercy.” He promised compensation and an appropriately agreed government-funded memorial, which has yet to be built.
As I write, an effort is under way by activists in Dublin, including Mannix Flynn who Roberts mentions in the poem I Dreamt I Saw Peter Tyrrell Last Night, to save the Donnybrook Laundry from being converted into luxury apartments. Their goal is to turn it instead into a museum to remind the Irish people of what life was like for all the women who toiled behind its walls, “scrubbing away our nation’s shadow”, as Kenny so aptly put it in his 2013 speech. Whether the government will support the effort remains to be seen.
Against this emotional backdrop, Roberts’ collection of poems bears witness to the pain of one family blighted by alcohol and to the institutionalised life that followed for the Roberts children and the many others who were entrusted to the State for whatever reasons during this bygone era, and as such it is an important literary contribution to the twisted theocracy that once ruled Ireland.
Emmanuel Touhey is a Washington-based writer and journalist. He was raised in St Vincent’s Children’s Home in Drogheda, Co Louth