I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Suffer Little Children

Little Witness, by Connie Roberts, Arlen House, 96 pp, €13, ISBN: 978-1851321155 Witness poetry has always been associated with the articulation of extreme experiences of events like war, dictatorial regimes or political persecution. In 1983, the poet Czesław Miłosz wrote that, due to the “extraordinary and lethal events” that occurred in eastern Europe in the twentieth century, people from that part of the world “tend to view [poetry] as a witness and participant in one of mankind’s major transformations”. But Connie Roberts’s aptly named debut collection of poetry, Little Witness, alerts us to the fact that in Ireland, “lethal events” also took place within the private sphere, that barbarism occurred in people’s homes and in institutional settings. A preface explains that she, her mother and her siblings were subjected to violence at the hands of her father. She was admitted to an industrial school at the age of five, where she spent most of the rest of her childhood. Thus she fell victim twice to Ireland of the late twentieth century, where Irish family law statutes, which had not changed since the nineteenth century, treated domestic violence as a private matter and where the industrial school system, the abuses and cruelties of which have recently been exposed, were still in operation. Little Witness is a testimony from that era of Irish history; to quote Carolyn Forché, who coined the phrase witness poetry, these poems “bear witness to dark times”. Poems about Roberts’s experience of living in an industrial school depict that world in all its cold, uncaring reality. In “Omphalos”, “a pigeon-grey orphanage yard [is] / clotted with kids: see-saws, pissy knickers … / and along the cloister, two-seater barn red swings / that we ride like horses till Miss Carberry’s Supper! Supper!” “Not the Delft School” describes children in a dormitory, searching each other’s hair for lice – “scores of wingless / insects, like grains of ground pepper” – while “the housemother douses some heads / with paraffin oil” and “overhead, a fluorescent light flickers”. Even rare moments of happiness come to a bitter end; in another poem, a beautiful depiction of the unusual delight of eating an orange in bed ends with “next morning: awoke to the smell of / my sister’s pissed-in oilskin bed”. This is a world that seems to get by without love. In “Altar”, “Sundays we walked / through the town like a herd of goats, /…



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