‘Writing of, and to, and with the dead is a fraught undertaking’

Gail McConnell’s The Sun Is Open addresses the IRA murder of her prison governor father

The Dad Box is one of those flat-pack affairs you buy in a multipack from Ikea. Open it out, fold up the sides, punch pins through the holes in the corners, bend back the legs, put in all your stuff and set the lid on top.

The stuff I had was passed to me by my grandparents, aunts and my mother, some of which had been passed to them by my father’s colleagues and friends. He was the assistant governor in the Maze Prison and one morning as my mother and I stood in our east Belfast driveway to wave him off to work, he was shot and killed in front of our house. It was March 1984. The IRA claimed responsibility. I was three-and-a-half.

It has been a lifetime’s work, living in this aftermath and trying to find language not only for this event, but for all the textures of the childhood in which it took place. Bananaman, skateboards, holiday Bible clubs, Wendy Houses, helicopters, Tetris, bomb scares, north coast beaches, memory verses, breaking news, Alphabites.

Trying to absorb phrases like "laceration of the brain" in a font that was giving me jazz hands was an overwhelmingly jarring experience

I first wrote about my father's murder in a long poem called Type Face. Like thousands of others, I had received a Historical Enquiries Team report about my father's death, produced in Comic Sans. Trying to absorb phrases like "laceration of the brain" in a font that was giving me jazz hands was an overwhelmingly jarring experience.

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The HET report gave me an ironic entry point into my dad’s murder, the history that shaped it, and the politics that inform its remembrance or commemoration. The poem has plantation, partition, and the decade of centenaries in its sights. Type Face casts an ironic and angry gaze from and at an adult world.

But that world is only part of the story. Just as the event of my dad’s murder is one part of my childhood. I made the Dad Box as a way of dealing with the material – putting all the long columns of newspaper cut-outs reporting his murder and its aftermath in one place, along with the school magazines, church bulletins, letters, photographs, witness statements and reports from the Commons and Lords in which he appeared. No sooner were they in the box than I found myself going through all this stuff by lifting it out and spreading the bits of paper all over the spare bedroom floor.

The Sun is Open sifts through this stuff, attempting to decode the fragments left behind and, with them, piece together a history and a life. The poems are composed as unpunctuated blocks of text and include material, indicated in grey, from the Belfast Telegraph, Foucault, Shakespeare, Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Old Testament, Pops of the 70s, Hansard, SuperTed, Keats, Donovan Wylie and my father’s undergraduate diaries as a history and politics student at Queen’s University Belfast in the late 1960s.

As I put the tape into my old Walkman, pressed play and listened, I realised I was hearing my father's voice for the first time. Except it wasn't the first time.

It was amazing to see my father’s handwriting, noting day-to-day happenings in the cramped boxes of the weekly view. My aunt recently passed me an audio cassette of me and my cousins singing choruses, and as I put the tape into my old Walkman, pressed play and listened, I realised I was hearing my father’s voice for the first time. Except it wasn’t the first time.

That’s the strange thing about losing a parent so young. For a long time it felt impossible to imagine that we had had any kind of relationship at all. Because I couldn’t remember him, the Dad Box became a sort of wonky archive, all of its photos and reports the evidence that my father had lived and died. Photos of us together became a very poor substitute for my memories. It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I began to understand something of the extraordinary bonds that can form between a parent and child through touch, gesture, nonsense, holding and play – day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year. Our son is almost three-and-a-half. And with him I have lived a whole lifetime.

Poems let you talk with the not yet living. Fothermather addresses the person we now call Finn while he was a cluster of cells forming in a private fertility clinic, and then growing in my partner’s womb. But poems also let you talk with the dead – and with yourself, self-conscious in the act of trying to talk with the dead in the company of a readership.

Writing of, and to, and with the dead is a fraught undertaking. I didn’t want to try to animate the dead subject by quoting too much of my father’s diaries. No amount of citation was going to revive him. Perhaps I didn’t want to share them either.

What I found myself drawn to instead was the generic material you find in any standard diary – first aid instructions, advertisements, the Tube map. These texts began to resonate in new ways: “Begin with victim on his back. Place your mouth over his mouth. If there is no air exchange, do not touch him.” And so I set about letting language do its work, piecing together this material to try to speak of, and even to, my father. Not so much resuscitation as repetition with a difference.

In her remarkable books of essays and poetry, Denise Riley writes brilliantly about Echo as the figure of lyric. Her work opens up the ways that language is both outside and inside us; public and private; radically historical and utterly plastic. We speak, but we are also spoken. Echo makes an appearance in The Sun is Open, echoing the Eko guitar my father played, which I now play.

These are compressed and often breathless poems, like the jumble, rush and squash of a child’s narrative, where everything everywhere is happening now. Some are ruptured with absence. Many bring music and song. I wanted to make an expansive book, a bit like the landscape of childhood itself, where everything could belong: colouring in with crayons; planetary happenings; piano lessons; grief and the work of mourning; speaking in tongues; lough shore picnics; prison architecture and surveillance; the negligence and culpability of the British state in relation to Irish life; the pleasures of a Wendy house tea party; a visit to the dentist; Zig and Zag.

The Sun is Open might be elegy, might be lyric, might be what Ciaran Carson calls "pain-making work". Whatever it is, it's an invitation to lift the lid on the Dad Box and see what happens next.
The Sun is Open is published by Penned in the Margins today (September 15th)