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‘I lied to get a bank loan, and chucked it all in and ran off to follow the grey whales’

A climate journalist, poet and film-maker discuss the love and the power of mothers, and mothering instincts to save humanity

What happens when a climate journalist meets a poet who shares her fascination with whales, and they’re joined by a film-maker whose work brings feminism and environmentalism together? They talk and laugh and vent about rage and love and the power of mothers and mothering instincts to save humanity.

Doreen Cunningham has written Soundings, a name many people remember as the Leaving Cert poetry collection. But Cunningham’s Soundings is a memoir centred on the journey of grey whales from Mexico to the Arctic Circle.

When poet Alice Kinsella got her hands on a copy, she felt the book had been written just for her. Kinsella’s book Milk is a memoir of motherhood using her experience as a starting point to ask: “what makes a mother and crucially what makes a mother mad?”

Film-maker and writer Maeve Stone is artist in residence with axis Ballymun, where she has created Ireland’s first Green Arts Department focused on building community education and climate resilience.


They are three women gripped by an urgency to create art and stories and poetry with impact, to help people feel agency and a sense of belonging to the potential of a better climate and biodiversity future. We met to discuss the connections between motherhood and climate – the conversation will continue at Westival in Westport this week when authors Cunningham and Kinsella will talk at an event entitled Journeys of Motherhood and Whales.

Catherine: Doreen, can you tell me about Soundings?

Doreen: I grew up between the beaches of Ireland and Jersey in the Channel Islands. I was an island child and had a strong relationship with the sea. I studied engineering and worked as a journalist for the BBC World Service for 20 years, specialising in climate. I am now a mum of three, and realise that the media wasn’t really doing its job properly. I worked through the time when there was a lot of denial on air . . . Soundings was born when I had just given birth to baby twins. And I suddenly realised where we were in terms of climate, and also realised that my life, which has had its dramatic moments, could carry that story. The backbone of the book is a journey I did with my two-year-old son Max, after I’d become a single parent and lived in a women’s refuge . . . I lied to get a bank loan, and chucked it all in and ran off to follow the grey whales, from Mexico up to the Arctic. I lived with an indigenous family of Inupiaq whalers up at the very northernmost point of Alaska.

Catherine: Alice, you called Soundings a “rallying cry for love” [in your Irish Times review]. Tell us about your own book.

Alice: My most recent book is Milk. It’s a piece of close-focus, creative nonfiction about pregnancy and the first nine months of the narrator’s life. I had a difficult birth where my anaesthetic failed during a C-section, and I became interested in the idea of feeling and numbing in a psychological sense. I was manically anxious in the early days, and the book explores that and it also asks, what makes a mother? And crucially, what makes a mother mad? I looked at the historical context of motherhood in Ireland and the social, cultural and political influences on motherhood. Milk touches on a lot of things. But mainly it’s asking how we can hold love and fear in the same body. The world, the climate crisis in particular, is terrifying. And modern life provides a great number of ways to distract ourselves, which is no accident. But we can become distracted from what is good too. My experience of profound embodiment, which is just fancy speak for being in huge amounts of pain and full of hormones, informed the writing of the book. I’m also primarily a poet. I’m working in collaboration with another poet on an experimental book about Mayo and whales. It’s what led me to Doreen and when I read Soundings . . . I remember giving it to my partner, being like “this book was written for me”.

Catherine: Maeve Stone, you’re a film-maker, artist and writer in the climate and feminist space. What’s your take?

Maeve: Motherhood and the female body have been present in my work for a long time. I had the radicalising moment, back in 2015 with Waking the Feminists when our national theatre was going to have its centenary year without a single female playwright on the bill, one within a schools programme, nothing on the main stage. I was quite involved in that, and also in the Repeal campaign. All the confidence I got from spending time in groups of powerful, inspiring women started to impact on the kind of work I was interested in making. In 2018, I made a piece called Unwoman which was a collaboration with a company from Australia called The Rabble and Olwen Fouéré. In 2021 I made a short film called The Mother Tree in the middle of lockdown, inspired by a book by Diana Beresford Kroeger, called To Speak for the Trees. And my latest work is called The Last Harvest. It’s looking at the idea of mothering 100 years from now.

Catherine: You’re all right in the heart of this – mothering, rage, love, fear, nurturing – those powerful visceral things that make us want to make change.

Maeve: It struck me like a bolt when my niece was born. A lot of people have these moments of awakening connected to the arrival of another generation. That’s been the point at which all of my work turned towards climate and environment. That’s been my engine since.

Doreen: I can relate. I felt I had taken my eye off the ball since [climate] was my specialist area. I’d had my head in mothering for a decade and not realised quite how far along the unfolding we were seeing has gone.

Catherine: Can there be more lightbulb moments for more people?

Alice: I think we’re in a really dangerous place where people have been going, “it’s not happening. It’s not happening. It’s not happening. Oh . . . it’s too late.” And that’s what we’re trying to avoid . . . education is the only way really, because asking people to care deeply is a big ask, because that care is terrifying for many. Something about the mothering thing that keeps coming up is that it’s a different way of living. When you’re a mother, your economic worth and your ability to earn is pretty much stripped off you, or at least to a large extent in the early days. And it made me realise how much we’d been pushed in this individualistic, capitalistic direction, and how much that is like what has been happening to the world.

Catherine: Do we risk sidelining the power of nurturing into “women’s space”?

Doreen: I think it’d be really interesting to turn that around and say, rather than opening up the nurturing space, let’s start opening up the power bases. It’s not that the nurturing spaces are closed, it’s where everyone begins their lives. But it’s the power bases that desperately need to open up and allow in marginalised voices and start listening.

Alice: In the animal kingdom, a mother is nurturing and caring to their young, whereas the most dangerous animals are the ones with young. I remember as a kid you weren’t supposed to go into the field. Don’t go in when there is a bull, but definitely don’t go in if the cows have calves. To take that rage and power and collectivise it and bring it into the political landscape is necessary. Nurture what needs nurturing, nurture the landscape, nurture the biodiversity, nurture the animals, nurture each other. But that maternal protectiveness needs to be unleashed en masse.

Doreen: And women need to be supported. I use food banks to feed my children at the moment. With the cost of living crisis, it’s women and children who are deeply hurt by the gender gap in pay. It causes real harm to women and children. It’s an effective way of silencing women.

Maeve: I absolutely agree with Alice around female rage, I think it’s one of the most constructive, powerful things I’ve ever come across. A lot of that question of awakening seems to be connected to a sense that you have power, and that there is agency you can tap into. Often it comes in a collective way. We stand with each other, we learn from each other, we create these networks as women.

Doreen: As a mother who is living in poverty and has knowledge about what’s happening, but feels very powerless, it is [a particular whale called Earhart] that gives me hope. She has been seen by scientists observing whales in the waters of Northern Puget Sound in Washington State. She’s one of the founders of a group of whales called the Sounders, and [the scientist] has seen her leading other whales to a new food source, in the inter-tidal zone, a really risky area for whales. They can get stranded on the outgoing tide, if they misjudge it. They have to scoop these ghost shrimp, the food source she’s found from the sea floor there. They can also be hit by boats, and Earhart has been hit by a boat, but survived. And there’s higher levels of toxins. For my own heart and my own emotional wellbeing day to day as we are moving through this catastrophic global situation, I think about her. I think, okay, there is the fossil fuel industry, there is capitalism. And there’s this one whale, who’s making this difference for her species.

Alice: I think our roots as Irish people are in rebellion, rebelling against powers that are oppressing us. But the difficult thing about this form of oppression is that it is marketed to us as freedom and choice. And actually it isn’t.

Doreen: I like to try and think of my family not just as human, but as extending to the nonhuman. And that’s why I get such inspiration and nurturing experience from the whales. They basically taught me how to mother. I have a difficult relationship with my own mother, because she was traumatised. If people’s love of the more-than-human world can be harnessed, and we can start to feel that we are more in community, then that is a way of reaching people. It’s not confrontational. I don’t know how to win arguments with people who are hell-bent on making money. It needs a gentle approach as well as the rage.

Maeve: One of the things that changed how I thought about everything is that the average farmer in Ireland makes around the same amount as the average artist, about €13,000 a year. There’s a core solidarity for me in anybody who’s trying to survive on that amount of money. Most farmers have another job. The thing I see in the IFA debates is people who are representing a very different kind of farmer, where the profits are really large, and where that large-scale ecological impact is happening, versus the majority of farmers, which are small holdings, which are family run, which are in this lineage and this caring role in their own communities and in their own landscapes.”

Journeys of Motherhood and Whales is part of Westival in Westport on October 26th.

Journeys of Motherhood and Whales with Alice Kinsella and Doreen Cunningham will take place at Westival - Westport Music + Arts Festival on October 26th at 6pm. Tickets €15 from