Poetry with punch: a personal story about a national disgrace
Poet Celia de Fréine on Blood Debts, about the Anti-D scandal, of which she was a victim, and A Lesson in Can’t, based on her seven years teaching Travellers literacy
Celia de Fréine: “Although writing and storytelling are an end in themselves, any book that has as its backdrop a national setting packs a bigger punch. Fiacha Fola: Blood Debts is a personal story set against a national scandal. With A lesson in Can’t, not only is there a national backdrop, there is an international dimension also”
Blood Debts, the English translation of Fiacha Fola (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2004), is a book of poetry which gives an account of the Anti-D Scandal as seen through the eyes of a woman infected with Hepatitis C.
The Anti-D Scandal first became public in 1994 when it was disclosed that a contaminated blood product, manufactured by the Blood Transfusion Service Board, a subsidiary of the Department of Health, had been administered to thousands of Irish women.
Anti-D is an immunoglobulin given to women with Rhesus negative blood within 48 hours of their having given birth to babies with Rhesus positive blood. It ensures that the mother does not produce antibodies which might attack a subsequent foetus. Before Anti-D was invented such infants, often referred to as “blue babies”, were born in poor health and sometimes died.
Many articles written at the time and in the years immediately afterwards referred to Anti-D as an “agent given to pregnant women” or as a “vaccine that saved the lives of newborn infants”.
Such articles vexed me and, finally, in 1999, in a fit of pique, I sat down and wrote Fiacha Fola. But my vexation at sloppy reportage was not the only reason I put pen to paper. The story of the Anti-D Scandal was my story. It had happened to me. Who better to set the record straight?
My life had changed in September, 1977, when, within hours of giving birth to my second child, contaminated immunoglobulin was pumped into me. One minute I was a healthy young mother of two, the next a woman grappling with a life-threatening illness.
As a young adult my friends had derided me for wanting to speak the first national language. I ignored them. Down the years I managed to cling to my patriotic outlook despite discrimination by the State against women. What happened to me in 1977, though, thrust me into a nightmare the likes of which no citizen of this country should have to endure.
But at the time I wasn’t to know that. During the 20 years that followed no satisfactory explanation of my ill-health presented itself: why was I permanently exhausted? what caused my rash? why did my skin turn yellow?
These were the years before Google when I had to rely on members of the medical profession for information. I was told regularly that I was exhausted because of the work involved in raising a family; I had a rash because primroses grew in my garden; the colour of my yellow skin was normal (that doctor was Indian). By degrees the conundrum of my physical symptoms triggered psychological anxieties: could they be right? did I imagine what was happening to me? was I losing my mind?
After the scandal had become public and after many hospital consultations, I finally received a diagnosis: I had contracted Hepatitis C in 1977. I discovered also that some doctors realised in July of that year that the jaundice their patients presented with had been caused by contaminated Anti-D. When they advised the BTSB of this, the BTSB had not issued any more of the batches in question but had not recalled those already sent out to hospitals. The Anti-D that infected me had lain in wait in a cupboard for months. One reviewer of Fiacha Fola referred to my voice as angry. No doubt about it. I was livid.
Although all of the events in question had happened in the English-speaking world, I decided to write Fiacha Fola in Irish. Experience had taught me that, when writing, it is through Irish that I can tap into the more surreal part of my brain. And this story was surreal.
Fiacha Fola went on to win several awards, the most prestigious of which was Gradam Litríochta Chló Iar-Chonnachta. Máire Mhac an tSaoi, who judged the competition, agreed to write a foreword to the book. Her imprimatur helped hoist its sail and launch it onto the stormy seas of Irish literature. However, as it’s in Irish, not many have read it – which is why I felt it was time to publish Blood Debts, its English translation, and bring my story to a wider audience.
A lesson in Can’t is inspired by the time I spent working as a literacy teacher with Travellers. It was also written in 1999 and like Fiacha Fola: Blood Debts, is a book of poetry with a narrative thrust. The story told in this case begins on my first day as teacher and ends when I move on.
I was in poor health when I wrote it and the last thing I wanted was to have to write another book but the story wouldn’t go away and eventually I managed to get it down on paper. After it was finished I put in on a shelf and there it languished until 18 months ago.
At the time that I wrote it I felt: who am I to write about Travellers? During my early days as a teacher I had brought into class any stories or articles I could find written about Travellers. These were, invariably, written by settled people. My students soon let me know how they felt about the pieces in question: “we’re fed up listening to this shite”. I had no wish to write more of the same.
However, in recent years, with many TV programmes about Travellers and many of their stories making their way into the public domain, I felt that perhaps the time might be right to add mine to the melting pot. I realised also that it was my story too: I had spent seven years of my life in this job.
Although writing and storytelling are an end in themselves, any book that has as its backdrop a national setting packs a bigger punch. Fiacha Fola: Blood Debts is a personal story set against a national scandal. With A lesson in Can’t, not only is there a national backdrop, there is an international dimension also.
Recent DNA analysis has established that Travellers are a separate ethnic minority. Although they have been recognised as such in the UK since 2000, they have as yet to achieve this status here. The Irish Government has persistently refused to grant this recognition in spite of the concern of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
In order for such recognition to be established, the more stories of discrimination, disadvantage and disempowerment that are brought into the public domain the better. If this book helps in some small way, then the writing of it will have been worthwhile.
Blood Debts by Celia de Fréine (Scotus Press, €12, ISBN 978-0-9560966-7-8)
A lesson in Can’t by Celia de Fréine (Scotus Press, €12, ISBN 978-0-9560966-8-5)