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The Shortlist

The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks

The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks

by Paula Meehan

It can be bitter here at times like this,
November wind sweeping across the border.
Its seeds of ice would cut you to the quick.
The whole town tucked up safe and dreaming,
even wild things gone to earth, and I
stuck up here in this grotto, without as much as
star or planet to ease my vigil.

The howling won’t let up. Trees
cavort in agony as if they would be free
and take off — ghost voyagers
on the wind that carries intimations
of garrison towns, walled cities, ghetto lanes
where men hunt each other and invoke
the various names of God as blessing
on their death tactics, their night manoeuvres.
Closer to home the wind sails over
dying lakes. I hear fish drowning.
I taste the stagnant water mingled
with turf smoke from outlying farms.

They call me Mary — Blessed, Holy, Virgin.
They fit me to a myth of a man crucified:
the scourging and the falling, and the falling again,
the thorny crown, the hammer blow of iron
into wrist and ankle, the sacred bleeding heart.
They name me Mother of all this grief
though mated to no mortal man.
They kneel before me and their prayers
fly up like sparks from a bonfire
that blaze a moment, then wink out.

It can be lovely here at times. Springtime,
early summer. Girls in Communion frocks
pale rivals to the riot in the hedgerows
of cow parsley and haw blossom, the perfume
from every rushy acre that’s left for hay
when the light swings longer with the sun’s push north.

Or the grace of a midsummer wedding
when the earth herself calls out for coupling
and I would break loose of my stony robes,
pure blue, pure white, as if they had robbed
a child’s sky for their colour. My being
cries out to be incarnate, incarnate,
maculate and tousled in a honeyed bed.

Even an autumn burial can work its own pageantry.
The hedges heavy with the burden of fruiting
crab, sloe, berry, hip; clouds scud east
pear scented, windfalls secret in long
orchard grasses, and some old soul is lowered
to his kin. Death is just another harvest
scripted to the season’s play.

But on this All Souls’ Night there is
no respite from the keening of the wind.
I would not be amazed if every corpse came risen
from the graveyard to join in exaltation with the gale,
a cacophony of bone imploring sky for judgement
and release from being the conscience of the town.

On a night like this I remember the child
who came with fifteen summers to her name,
and she lay down alone at my feet
without midwife or doctor or friend to hold her hand
and she pushed her secret out into the night,
far from the town tucked up in little scandals,
bargains struck, words broken, prayers, promises,
and though she cried out to me in extremis
I did not move,
I didn’t lift a finger to help her,
I didn’t intercede with heaven,
nor whisper the charmed word in God’s ear.

On a night like this I number the days to the solstice
and the turn back to the light.
O sun,
centre of our foolish dance,
burning heart of stone,
molten mother of us all,
hear me and have pity.

From Mysteries of the Home (2013) reproduced by kind permission of Paula Meehan and Dedalus Press.

About the poem

As a young working-class girl growing up in inner-city Dublin one of Paula Meehan’s favourite images was that of the statue, in the Pro-Cathedral, of Stella Maris/Star of the Sea. The Virgin Mother stands upon a crescent moon, her head surrounded by stars. Many years later, Paula Meehan wrote this unsettling, powerful poem in response to a shocking event. In January 1984 a fifteen-year-old girl named Ann Lovett died giving birth, in secret, to her baby son, at the hillside grotto on the outskirts of her home town of Granard, Co. Longford. She was found by passersby but by then her baby boy was dead and she herself died later that day, 31 January, in hospital. A whole generation still remembers the name Ann Lovett and the awful heartbreak and loneliness associated with her story.

Paula Meehan

Paula Meehan, one of five children, was born in Dublin’s north inner-city to a working class family who lived in one of the Corporation tenements flats, the Gloucester Diamond on Mountjoy Square. Meehan’s parents went back and forth to London in search of work and she was brought up, for periods of time, by grandparents in Dublin.

Her grandfather taught her to read before she went to school, turning her, in her own phrase, into a ‘print junkie’ and she still remembers her love of nursery rhymes, streets rhymes, Mass, prayer, patterns of sound. Phrases such as ‘on the warpath’, ‘I’ll have your guts for garters’ or ‘swing for you’ intrigued her for their images and implications. Her grandfather brought her to the races and the sounds and cadences of the racetrack captured her young imagination. She included them in a poem she wrote in his memory: ‘Evens Swannee River, 7/4 Navarone, 4/1 Rocky’s Doll’.

She grew up in Seán MacDermott St, attended the Central Model Girls’ School but the family moved to Finglas where she attended the local convent – she was later thrown out of the school. ‘I was expelled by the nuns, which in retrospect was the best thing that ever happened to me: I learned the habit of self-direction and independent study.’

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