‘Mallow called to me like the ghost town in a Western waiting for the shoot-out’
Award-winning poet Martina Evans delves into the ancestral experiences, memories and revolutionary encounters that led to her collection ‘Now We Can Talk Openly About Men’
A boy holds a sword in Cork City, 1920s. Photograph: National Photographic Archive (Hogan Wilson Images)
There’s a smell of scorching hot paper under the hairdryer as thunder rumbles, lightning crackles. June 1997. I’m in the Holloway flat, the soaked pages of an exercise book spread over the bed, just back from covering a women’s academic conference in Strawberry Hill for Martin Doyle of the Irish Post. The Whittington hospital where I work as a radiographer is up the road and I’m doubtful about my abilities as a reporter. Radiography is what I am trained for although I often doubt whether I should be authorised to use radiation either. There is always a voice in my head saying. “What would you know?”
In 1967, I was sure that I knew my Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity, but the teacher said I didn’t and, utterly shamed, I was kept back while the rest of the class went ahead, made their First Holy Communion. Many years later, I found out it was a cover. My mother wanted me kept back because a brainy older brother who’d skipped two classes had lost concentration. The teacher didn’t agree, they didn’t speak to each other for a week, and I would never be sure of myself again.
It was a good recipe for creating a writer, a book-lover permanently racked with Keats’s “doubts and uncertainties”. The greater the doubts, the greater the itch. You know things but they tell you you don’t. They have the power, but this other awareness grows like Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms in the dark, its foot in the door.
I went forth, as usual, in high trepidation to the conference with biro and copybook and the women, who included the formidable Christine Kinealy, were a revelation. One speaker among many lit the match – Louise Ryan on republican women. I needn’t have worried about my notes getting washed away because we became friends. She was very generous with her time and personally introduced me to the British Newspaper Library in Colindale, showing me how to summon those huge old 1920s editions of the Cork Examiner, bound in red, to roll out on trolleys. I didn’t know that my book would take 21 years to complete.
I’d been nicknamed “the IRA” when I arrived at the Whittington in 1988 after trying to explain the background of the Birmingham Six to the staffroom. I just didn’t have their high opinion of British justice. Or Irish justice either. But I was told to watch my step. In doubts and uncertainties, I returned to the Irish history books, not knowing as I hurried to the Green Inks Bookshop in Archway Mall every lunchtime that it was rumoured to be a republican hotbed. Two men in dark glasses stood under the Irish tricolour in the Archway Tavern, rattling a collection box at one of my colleagues during the lunch hour. What did I think of that? He wanted to know. Not much, but I didn’t tell him.
There was my nationalist grandmother who’d gone to prison during the time of the Land League, the haunting details from the prison register: “Elizabeth Cowhey. Age 23 years. Height 5”6. Black Hair, Black Eyes. Croagh, Rathkeale. Occupation farmer. Religion R.C. Education R and W. Offence obstructing Sheriff.”
She faced the battering ram with her sister and a maid, pouring boiling water and Indian meal on the heads of soldiers and RIC men, saving her brothers longer prison sentences. Family myth had her refusing to drink out of a tin mug until it was replaced with a china cup and saucer. A country girl in Limerick Jail. What was that really like in 1889 when there was no political status for women prisoners? What made women throw themselves at danger, risk their lives and reputations? And how the men accepted their help. They wouldn’t have lasted a week on the run without the women, Louise said.
Those women’s heads
I read obsessively, addicted, while the voice in my head asked how could I possibly know what went on in those women’s heads. I didn’t have their religion or ideals, they might as well be aliens. Trapped outside their time, hopelessly attracted while doubts and uncertainties multiplied and my life unravelled, descending into the war of a protracted divorce with my daughter’s first taste of British justice at age eight. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to children caught up in crossfire.
My mother and father were picked up by the Tans. Poems inspired by their intense stories picked out with details from the newspaper library poured out in a rush, forming the basis of Facing the Public, my fourth poetry collection. I thought that was the end of the chapter. No more history books, no more boring “realistic” novels. I dumped 220,000 words. I was back to poetry, determined not to be pulled under water again.
But something tugged at the edge, my sister-in-law’s Auntie Binie trembling, whispering about the Burning of Mallow 70 years after military reprisals for an IRA shooting, my imaginary Mallow calling like the ghost town in a Western waiting for the shoot-out.
One summer morning, released from teaching, I found myself opening the old green shoebox I’d decorated with harps, taking out my notes, then realising I didn’t need them anymore. Everything had mulched down into the compost of my memory.
I wrote in bursts on pink and green cards in the hammock at the bottom of the garden. I’d longed to use colour like an artist or filmmaker. Maybe I could mix paint with “ink”, write the first half in colour, the second in black and white. It wasn’t prose, maybe not poetry, maybe a dream but I knew whose head I could get into – no fearless young revolutionary but a middle-aged mother. I knew what I would feel if my daughter started going out with a one-armed soldier with a silver plate in his head. Fierce doubts and uncertainties. I might have to take some vicarious laudanum for the worry. Now We Can Talk Openly About Men was finally born.
- Martina Evans lives in London and is the author of 11 books of prose and poetry. Louise Ryan is Professorial Research Fellow at Sheffield University