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Hereafter by Vona Groarke: A rich, rewarding, heartbreaking read of an Irish woman in New York

‘We put more than money in those envelopes: in went the best part of us too; our girlhood. Lightheartedness. Our young days’

Author: Vona Groarke
ISBN-13: 978-1479817511
Publisher: NYU Press
Guideline Price: £18.99

“I didn’t come to write about you, but, somewhere along the line, out of casual curiosity, I start in on you, Ellen O’Hara, and, once I do, I’m hooked.”

Groarke’s great-grandmother Ellen, who left Sligo in 1892, aged 20, proved to be elusive when Groarke began her research at the Cullman Center in the New York Public Library, “If you’d wanted to hide, you’d have found it difficult. But why would you hide from me?”

This is a book of many questions with a real yet partly imaginary character who sometimes sits on a wooden chair in the shadowy corner of Groarke’s office. Beginning with passenger lists, using Ellen’s date of birth, Groarke found three possibilities for “my Ellen”, piecing together her story using “fact, doubt and speculation” The result is a ground-breaking blend of history, poetry and prose, a triumph of negative capability.

Groarke begins with Glenavoo, the townland where Ellen and her 20 siblings were born to Austin and Annie O’Hara. “That Glenavoo (Gleann na bhFuath in the Irish language) could mean either ‘glen of ghosts’ or ‘glen of hatred’ is not lost on me.”


And Glenavoo has more than its fair share of ghosts. “I hadn’t thought of this as a famine story, but of course it is. Austin was born in 1831, Anne in 1835: they were of an age by the time of the Great Famine (1845–52) to experience it firsthand and irrevocably.”

Groarke’s “boxy” sonnet eerily raises the famine dead, “It was an autumn harvest of strange noises on the wind:/a punch of heat or a veil of cold that could not be explained,/a patch of shadow you’d walk on and feel chilled to the bone,/cries and pleas for help from children where there were none.”

When Ellen emigrates Groarke does not have many specific facts about Ellen; she gives her a carpet bag, a plausible piece of luggage which also conjures Mary Poppins’s magic bag, perhaps a metaphor for Groarke’s box of tools, her various forms. At New York Public Library “so much of the knowledge of the world is mine to call up, to have (literally) brought to my door. I can ask questions, and if they’re practical questions, the answer will ring clear and true.”

The text is illustrated with photographs and documents, colouring these past lives of the Irish women who formed the backbone of domestic service in New York City. Meanwhile Groarke has to contend with her ghost in the wooden chair, “‘soft work, so,’ I imagine her saying to me. ‘tis very easy for some.’

“And once I hear her say this much, I can’t help but hear her say more.” Several rich sonnets are powered here by the rhythm of physical work, “laundry, sleeves and collars scrubbed in the sink/until your fingers stung with cold and your wrists flopped weak”.

But if it is tough – Ellen has dignity, agency and real earning power. Groarke quotes from Janet Nolan, “Though two-thirds of all women of working age in Ireland in 1901 had no wage-earning jobs, almost three-quarters of their sisters in the United States in 1900 were earning independent livelihoods.” And they sent an enormous amount of that money to Ireland. The Catholic Herald reported in 1861 “eight out of every ten who send money home are girls”.

Ellen’s husband, John was a “slippery customer”, leaving almost no tracks. “My mother told me her maternal grandfather was shot and killed one morning while working on the subway. Her sister-in-law said that was hooey, and that he’d taken off.”

Ellen’s two children, Jimmy and Annie (Groarke’s grandmother), were sent home to Sligo while Ellen toiled and saved, eventually opening her own boarding-house. Her children returned to New York in their early teens in 1913. Now the narrative gathers pace as Ellen’s life meets Groarke’s through the stories from Groarke’s own mother who lived in New York until she was 11 and loved Ellen very much.

This is a rich, rewarding and heartbreaking read. Groarke restores not just Ellen but all the women who “left to live in other people’s houses…We made a country by our swollen hands and aching feet,/by holding our tongues… or passing up a new coat or shoes…We made a country fit/to live in, though we chose not to, or couldn’t. And we put/more than money in those envelopes: in went the best part of us too; our girlhood. Lightheartedness. Our young days.”

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic