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Putting Flesh on the Archive

Keith Payne

May Day 1974, by Rachael Hegarty, Salmon Poetry, 136 pp, €14, ISBN: 978-1912561629

How can poetry do justice to the unjustifiable? After the fall of Srebrenica, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill intoned:

Tá na gairdíní dubh.
Tá na crainn dubh.
Tá na cnoic dubh.
Tá na busanna dubh.
Tá na carranna a thugann na páistí ar scoil ar maidin dubh.

Maram al Masri chronicled the lives of the unseen and unheard immigrant women and children in contemporary France by naming them and recording that she “saw them” (in Theo Dorgan’s translation). And recently, Kimberly Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME “excavated” the voices of “the children and women who had lived, worked, and died at St Mary’s, Tuam”.

You may not recall the names Colette Doherty, May McKenna or Jack Travers; three of the thirty-four people who were murdered in Dublin and Monaghan on May 17th, 1974. You may not remember the names Marie Phelan, George Williamson or Archie Harper. Their names have been published tens of dozens of times since the day they died. They have appeared on news reports and documentaries and can be found in the archive of the Coroner’s Court on Store Street, Dublin since the publication of the Barron Report in 2003. You are more likely familiar with the red-brick façade of that building on Store Street, with the carved lettering on the moulded cornice stating CORONERS’ COURT, than you are with the names of those, such as Thomas Campbell, Anne Marren or Anne-Marie O’Brien, each of whom were carried through its wooden doors. While you may recall the fact of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, may in fact remember the day, how many of the names of the murdered do you recall?

Among many of its peculiarities, poetry is a device for remembering; an archive of what is “past, passing, or to come”. I’ll wager you know exactly how that bottle of milk was carried up to Toner’s bog. Or the name of the café where Paul Durcan was asked “to keep an eye on her things”. And there’s no doubt you can call up the name of the road where Patrick Kavanagh “saw her first and knew”. But can you recall who Patrick Fay, Breda Grace or Dorothy Morris were? They are just three among the thirty-four who were killed on May 17th, 1974.

Within weeks of the bombings, gardaí had a list of eight suspects as identified by witnesses. The suspects were members of the Mid-Ulster UVF in Portadown. The RUC would not allow gardaí access to the suspects to interview them, nor was any co-operation forthcoming. After three months the investigation was wound down, there was a complete lack of interest in investigating the murders and the list of suspects was forgotten. Bomb experts interviewed for the Hidden Hand: The Forgotten Massacre documentary stated that the bombs were too advanced to be the sole work of the Portadown UVF. It has been suggested there were links with an SAS “Special Duties” team known perversely as “The Four Fields Survey Group”. All of this occurred in the aftermath of Labour leader Harold Wilson’s taking power, the doomed Sunningdale Agreement and the threat of a British army withdrawal from the North.

As reported in The Irish Times, the Barron Report on the bombings concluded that “It is likely that members of the UDR and RUC were aware of and/or participated in preparations for the attack, Gardaí did not pursue a full line of enquiry and there remains a ‘Deep suspicion’ by the report into British Army/RUC collusion, though with no ‘cogent evidence’.”

In the apparent absence of “cogent evidence”, it is worth citing Sean O’Reilly in “Border Voices”, a collaborative commission published recently in The Stinging Fly: “The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Just as writing, reading and reciting a poem is an act of defiance, a “rebel act” as one of our great archivist poets had it. In a world of market- and self-interest, of interminable newsfeeds and historical amnesia, there is perhaps no more defiant an act than remembering. Though it has to be noted that the act of remembering can, and all too often has, led to murders such as those that occurred on May 17th, 1974.

These, however, are not poems of vengeance, nor are they poems that attempt to explain how such a thing could happen – most poems would buckle under the weight. The “docu-sonnets,” that form half the poems in Rachael Hegarty’s May Day 1974, are “crafted verbatim, with allowances for metre, and hewn from bereaved families’ testimonies in the public domain: Oireachtas statements, coroner’s depositions, YouTube footage and a Yorkshire Television documentary, Hidden Hand: the Forgotten Massacre”.

My mother died the same day. She was never the same woman.
I have two children in London but I came back to this country.
I had a guilt complex because my daughter, in particular,
kept asking who killed Grandad and if I did anything about it.
At last, I can talk to my daughter and give her an answer
which makes her feel proud that I’m doing something about it.
(Deposition of Pat Fay, son of Patrick Fay, murdered on Parnell Street.)

They are poems of recording the victims’ lives; an act of defiance in itself. They reattach the cord that was brutally snapped on May 17th, 1974.

They are also poems of the quotidian. Think of what really makes up most of your day: the slide of the curtain rings on the rail, the clatter of the cutlery drawer, the awakening smell of coffee on the brew and that twinge in your lower back when you bend down to tie up the laces of your shoes. These are the details of what constitutes so much of our day; the daily round, repeated litany-like, for love, for money! And these are the details that Hegarty fills the accompanying ballads with, the details that go to make up the lives of Marie Butler, Elizabeth Fitzgerald and Siobhán Roice:

Sometimes, for pure boldness,
I get up from my chair and walk
slowly by his desk. Let on
to be vexed with a dulled pencil.         

While the evidence in Hegarty’s “docu-sonnets” establishes the scaffolding of these people’s lives – their names, their jobs, where they came from – it is the accompanying ballads – that store of lore and history that is the property of no one and everyone, that cannot be ignored by security forces or Dáil committees – that fill those structures with the people who lived their lives in them:

When the time comes, I’ll show our girls
the markers for different kinds of trees.
I’ll take them to the elder where me and John
carved out our names when we was courtin’.
They’ll likely laugh at us auld wans, once young
and carving love on a tree by the Tolka.

They are the narrative and story of who they were; the homes they had built around themselves and their families. The simple and intimate structure of Hegarty’s thirty-three ballads gives the victims a poem where they can live again. They remind us, as the bombs explode, that “for every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you”. And every time one of these poems is read aloud we share our breath with Thomas Croarkin, Patrick Askin and Breda Turner.

It is for this reason that Rachael Hegarty’s May Day 1974 is one of the most powerful collections of poetry in recent years. In this memorial collection, Hegarty gives back some dignity to each of the thirty-four people murdered that day. Each of the poems are prefaced by a short biographical note:

Josie Bradley (21)
Civil Servant, single, Coolfin, Kilcormac, Co. Offaly.
Killed in Talbot Street, Dublin. Survived by her parents, May and Chris, twin sister, Marion, and eight other siblings.

Following the biographical notes are the “docu-sonnets”:

I am Marion Bradley, twin sister of the deceased, Josie Bradley.
Josie was injured and died as a result of the bomb on Talbot Street.

...

I found my sister in that hospital on that Saturday, the 18th of May.
Josie, my twin, went into a coma shortly after I found her.
She survived until the 20th of May, 1974. Josie died at 11:30 pm.

And following each of these thirty-three “docu-sonnets” are thirty-three ballads, products of Hegarty’s imagination:

This city makes me long for colour –
Slieve Bloom green, inky blue Silver River,
Daddy leaning up to the red of a gate,
or the yellowy glow of a May buttercup
under the chin of my twin, Marion.

Incapable of dealing with the juggernaut of news and information that daily bears down on us, we need poems like these to settle us, to concentrate not just the mind, but perhaps more importantly, the breath, on the victims of the bombings such as John Walshe, Anne Massey and Peggy White. And for that breath to find its way back to the victims, to invoke John Dargle, Concepta Dempsey and Antonio Magliocco, these poems must be read aloud.

And in this invocation, Hegarty has shown us, yet again, of the essential and life-saving role of poetry. She has shown how the historical account, the deposition, the archive are not always enough. Though it has to said, that in such a talkative country of so many secrets we are gifted and enlarged by the work of Dr Catriona Crowe and her team at The National Archives. It is thanks to their work that we are seeing more and more artists engage with the archives in order to inform, remember and rebuild.

In Hegarty’s case, her unifying of archive and poem holds aloft the poetic talent, that set of Greek scales, for all to see. In seeking justice for John, Anna and Simone Chetrit, Hegarty recalls the rite of the weighing of the heart and the feather. So that each time one of these poems is read out loud, a weight will be lifted from a heavy heart.

1/7/2019

Keith Payne was the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award winner for 2015/2016. His collection Broken Hill (Lapwing Publications) was published in 2015. It was followed in 2016 by Six Galician Poets (Arc Publications) .

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