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.
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. www.dedaluspress.com
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.
In Meehan’s poem, spoken in the voice of the Virgin Mary, who also experienced a troubled, strange pregnancy, she recalls the months gone by. The poem opens with a description, by an unnamed speaker, of a harsh winter landscape. Though bleak, the imagery has a harsh beauty to it. In contrast to bitter November wind with its ‘seeds of ice’ that ‘would cut you to the quick’ we learn that the whole town is ‘tucked up safe and dreaming’. The Virgin is alone and lonely and she imagines a faraway world – towns, cities, lanes – where men are up to no good, where ‘men hunt each other’ with ‘their death tactics, their night manoeuvres’. It’s an image of danger and violence originating and perpetuated by men.
In the third stanza, in calm tones, the speaker announces herself: ‘They call me Mary – Blessed, Holy, Virgin’. She speaks of her role in Christ’s death`, the scourging, the falling, ‘the thorny crown, the hammer blow of iron/ into wrist and ankle’ which she terms ‘a myth’. She is named as the ‘Mother of all this grief’ and is prayed to by those who come and kneel and pray before her statue in the grotto but she says those prayers ‘blaze a moment, then wink out’.
It is now All Souls’ Night, there is a keening wind, and the statue of the Virgin remembers the biting cold of January, the May communions, a midsummer wedding, the autumn harvest, the year’s cycle, but the overpowering feeling in the poem is one of grief and helplessness and longing.
The poem’s closing section speaks of a fifteen-year-old girl who gave birth before her and the Virgin admits to feeling powerless, helpless and of being disconnected from God. She didn’t, she tells us, ‘intercede with heaven’ but now she turns to the approaching solstice and the sun for strength and in doing so offers some comfort.
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.’
After the nuns, she went to the Tech and from there to Trinity College where she was one of what was then the .04% of the student population from working-class backgrounds. ‘Always on the brink of homelessness or living in some terrible kips’, she studied English, History and Classical Civilisation. After college, she set off on her travels: she lived in Crete, the Shetland Islands, and studied at Eastern Washington University.
Back in Ireland, she taught on literacy programmes and in prisons, and organised writers’ workshops. She lived in Fatima Mansions and, fuelled by anger at the oppression and the ghettoised lives of the underprivileged, became involved in workers’ co-ops. She then lived in Leitrim for three years: ‘I wanted to build a garden, watch something grow and harvest it.’
In her teens Meehan wrote song lyrics and began to make poems that would ‘honour the lives I saw, lives of deprivation but also of great courage and of course great humour, which is the signature mode of the city’. She published her first collection
Return and No Blame in 1984, Meehan has also written plays, and her most recent collection, Painting Rain, her sixth, was published in 2009. She was appointed to the Ireland Chair of Poetry in 2013 and, in late 2014, was invited to read her poetry in Beijing, on the occasion of President Michael D. Higgins’s State Visit to China. Paula Meehan has lived at almost thirty different addresses in Dublin and now lives in Baldoyle.