Annemarie Ní Churreáin.

New book of poems heavily influenced by Westmeath

Westmeath has a strong influence on 'The Poison Glen', a new book of poetry by former John Broderick Writer-in-Residence Annemarie Ní Churreáin.

Annemarie, who is from the Donegal Gaeltacht, was the inaugural recipient of the John Broderick Residency Award from Westmeath Arts Office, in partnership with the Arts Council.

The residency, during late 2018/early 2019, was funded by a bequest from Athlone writer John Broderick who left a large sum from his estate for the advancement of the arts in Athlone.

Part of Annemarie's residency involved the use of an office at the Aidan Heavey Library in Athlone where some of the research and writing for the book took place.

The residency also sparked a longer-term engagement with Westmeath, the fruits of which are contained in 'The Poison Glen', as Annemarie explained: “Following on from that residency, the local arts office in partnership with Creative Ireland commissioned me to write a new suite of poems on the old Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home.

“Then I came back to Westmeath and spent a lot of time in the Castlepollard Library which is just next door to the old home. That gave me a chance to be in the landscape and in the community and to spent time in the home."

The former mother and baby home in Castlepollard also has a deep personal significance for Annemarie.

“My father was born in Castlepollard in the 1950s,” she told the Westmeath Independent.

“His mother was from Derry so she was sent down from Derry to stay in the home and give birth there and then they became separated through the unofficial adoption process that was at play at the time,” she explained.

“He was sent back to Derry for a little while to an orphanage and then he was sent to Donegal.”

Castlepollard, its home and its connection to her family, left a lasting resonance.

“I knew that my father had been back to visit it and I wanted to go to see it sometime myself

“It was kind of an important building for us in a strange way because it was the last place where the paternal side of my family were kind of together.”

The poem 'The Screaming Room', powerfully relates her visit to the remains of what was a small standalone room in the back lawn of Castlepollard home where women who screamed during pregnancy were consigned as punishment.

'And later, when the birth cry hit the clean/bleached air, did anyone declare beauty?', she writes.

'Fagan's Eagles' is written from the perspective of the poem's protagonist looking out over Derravaragh Lake.

'The Peacock' was inspired by a conversation the poet had with a former delivery man to Castlepollard home, whose memories include both the sight of women working in the gardens pulling carrots and potatoes and of peacocks strutting around the site.

The overall collection takes its name from 'The Poison Glen', an area of northwest Donegal, a landscape that has its own story of family trauma.

A note to the book cites a legend where an ancient king of Tory Island, Balor, was killed by his exiled grandson, Lugh, the God of Light. One version of the myth tells that Balor of the evil eye, locked his daughter Eithne into a tower, stole three of her babies and drowned two. Later, the baby that survived, Lugh, took revenge by putting a stone or spear through Balor's eye, causing the poison to spill out all through the glen.

The poems weave a latticework of connections between institutional legacies including those of the Mother and Baby Homes (and the Castlepollard Home), Irish mythology, feminism and history.

Many are inspired by visits to the sites of the Ryan Report 2009.

The centrepiece is a longer poem, 'The Foundling Crib' that revolves around the old Dublin Foundling Hospital of the 1700s and early 1800s, which, it is estimated, was home to as many as 200,000 children and infants.

The collection helps also to reclaim female stories and perspectives and to give a voice to personal histories that are excised from official versions.

The book's back cover describes the poems as “both tender and ferocious”.

Asked how she manage to voice both her personal and the wider societal anger at the revelations surrounding Mother and Baby Homes, while respecting the survivors and their stories, she said: “That's where I think the craft of poetry comes in. The language, the form, the metaphor, all of those aspects in the making of a poem have to be considered very sensitively and very deeply because what I want to do with a subject like this is I want to honour the outrage and the loss and the unfairness but I also want to give the reader a poem they can connect with.”

The book is also not simply one that sees only the darkness of history. “I wanted to create a book that had light in it as well,” Annemarie said.

To that end, the story of Bridget Kearney, based on archive material, which backbones ‘The Foundling Crib', ends with her finding a way of retrieving her child

It's a theme that's reflected in the myth of the Poison Glen where darkness and light were battling it out. Annemarie said, in one sense, the entire country is seeking to find ways to deal with the darkeness of our own history.

“When it comes to processing institutions and histories and trauma, it's a wrestle for us to try and understand these dark histories and to try and imagine a future where things are going to be brighter.”

Ní Churreáin's gift for imagery is one of the collection's strengths.

'The Daughter Who Went Missing' cites darkness falling “upon a foothold trap shimmering in the forest/like a buried star”.

In 'The Screaming Room' an empty dresser was “toppled over like a ship in the ocean's gut”.

The book was in its final stages when the report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission was published.

Annemarie is keen both to stress that the report was not a comprehensive picture as it only covered a number of institutions and also that its findings are “deeply flawed and contested.”

She believes poetry can help provide new insights, and play a complimentary role to activism.

“In a way this is where I suppose art and poetry has some kind of important role to play in providing alternative documents.

“A poem is limited in what it can do. It is not a policy document. It's another piece of language that's out there in the world and that is maybe looking at this story from a different angle.”

The issue of activism and of the sidelining of lived testimony, brings us on to the wider question of how female voices are marginalised and omitted in Ireland.

“There is so much work to be done I think in terms of reclaiming the female voice in Ireland. It's been erased by not just patriarchy but by Catholicism, by Christianity. It was important for me to go back to the pre-Christian landscape of Donegal, and to Eithne's story and to write her back into a popular retelling of some of our ancient myths.”

The book engages also with a wider debate on feminism, violence against women and the damage from patriarchy to both women and men.

“I don't think it's poetry or arts job to do this, but poetry and art can be place where these conversations happen.”

For Annemarie, ‘The Poison Glen’ and the process of its creation have left her with strong memories of this part of the world.

“It has been cathartic for me to spend time in Castlepollard, and to have the chance to get to know the local community through the writing workshops. The Westmeath Arts Office has been tremendously supportive and I’m grateful for the time, space and many moments of light and connection I experienced in Westmeath during the writing of this book.”

‘The Poison Glen’ is published by The Gallery Press. It is available at