Bloodroot is Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s perceptive and meticulous debut collection, an exhumation and interrogation of the exile faced by the women of Ireland within its borders.
The life and legacy of the Magdalene Laundry is one obscured by indignity and hostility. Initially established to reform street workers, the appeal of a laundry service with an unpaid workforce saw the operation expand to include unwed mothers, women with learning difficulties, and even beautiful girls who might attract the wrong sort of attention.
The opening poem ‘Untitled’ immediately articulates the depth of the coercive silence that punished and controlled the female body. The series of poems that follow in this first section read not as timid or quiet, but intensely focused: guiding the reader through the entangling seaweed and sharp stones of seemingly innocent events, whispered warnings, and lessons learned too late, before plunging them into the deep and dark reality of a shameful past.
If the reader is gradually numbed by the first section, the articulate cold of the second will hit them like an ocean wave. Poem after poem speaks to the scandal, the negligence, the contradictions rife in a system wherein the punishments for giving life far outweighed those for taking it. And Ní Churreáin’s anger is palpable. It is also articulate, distinct, and tempered like steel. No words are wasted in her scathing indictment of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation in ‘Six Ways to Wash Your Hands (Ayliffe, 1978)’:
The scent of a child in an unmarked grave may get in beneath
Your fingernails and cause all sorts of problems in later life.
Those who have been silenced understand the power of words, and these poems fight against this silencing with precision and clarity.
As though to break from the past, and place, of Ireland, the final section opens with a poem set in India. Another is set in Tibet: another, Goa; others, Florida. A fitting tribute to the Irish penchant to travel, it brings a more relaxed, personal feel to the collection. Here the poems are saturated with water: water for washing, cleansing, learning and unlearning, making new, and starting again. It might allow the most casual reader to believe that such a break, such a new beginning, is possible. But the past is not a physical location: it cannot be left behind. Ni Churreáin says as much in this opening poem, which is haunted by its title: ‘Laundry’. The poem itself is about the simple, innocuous pleasure of clean clothing moving in the wind on a pleasant day. But the discerning reader knows what ‘laundry’ has come to mean, and is made nervous to learn that:
Side by side they hang: his shirt, my summer dress
As if they know each other well.
The innocence of the moment is thus sullied by its broader context. The reader is expected, perhaps, to determine whether the image is sinful or not sinful, thus falling into the false dichotomy that was the basis of a savage, unrelenting ideology that ruined the lives of so many of Ireland’s women.
Bloodroot gives body, blood, and breath to the women of the Magdalene Laundry, and Ní Churreáin is in the vanguard of a generation that refuse to be silenced or intimidated. Intent on ensuring the past is not only revealed, but its victims heard, and its offenders held to account, her debut collection adds a singular and powerful voice to Ireland’s contemporary cannon.
Bloodroot. Annemarie Ní Churreáin. Doire Press: 72pp: €12. ISBN: 978-1-907682-58-2