Mary O’Donnell, who currently lives in County Kildare, Ireland, was born in 1954 into a Catholic family in County Monaghan, close to the border with Northern Ireland. In her preface to the book Giving Shape to the Moment: The Art of Mary O’Donnell: Poet, Novelist and Short Story Writer (Peter Lang, 2018), Éilís Ní Dhuibhne states that O’Donnell, “is one of Ireland’s most interesting and gifted writers” (2018: vii). She is also one of the most prolific writers in her country. She has published eight collections of poetry including Unlegendary Heroes (1998), The Ark Builders (2009), Those April Fevers (2015) and most recently Massacre of the Birds (2020), four novels, among them The Light-Makers (1992), The Elysium Testament (1999) and Where They Lie (2014), and three collections of short stories: Strong Pagans (1991), Storm over Belfast (2008) and Empire (2018). She has also published a dozen essays and hundreds of reviews of both theatre and books. Besides, she is a frequent contributor to RTE Radio. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne states that “whether she writes a poem, a novel, an essay or a review, she always exhibits a deep concern for truth, care in choosing the most effective word and the keen eye and sensitive ear which are the marks of the true poet” (vii). Her voice “and presence in Irish letters has been consistent, highly original, inventive and closely connected to her culture” (2), Irish culture. Her literature, obviously, reflects the spirit of the age in which it is produced and revolves around phenomena that deeply affect real Irish people. Her work deals with issues such as gender identity crises, mental illness and psychosis, the middle-class marriage in crisis, sexual awakening, sexual decline, maternal violence towards children, the artist in crisis, infertility, parenthood, dysfunctional families or “The Troubles” (social and political problems in Northern Ireland).
Her works, in Joseph O’Connor’s words, “written with immense vivacity and skill […], with great grace and cleverness” (2018: 202), have been translated into different languages including Spanish, Galician, Portuguese, Rumanian and Hungarian. She is a current member of the Toscaireacht of the Irish artists’ affiliation Aosdána. As a well-established poet and fiction-writer, she has held residencies at the Princess Grace Irish Library, Monaco; at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris; at Varuna House, Katoomba, Australia; and at the Leuven Centre of Irish Studies, Belgium. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing, a subject on which she has lectured extensively at different institutions of higher education –including Maynooth University, the University of Galway and Carlow University, Pittsburgh. Throughout her literary career, she has also won several prestigious prizes: the Allingham Literary Award 1986, the Listowel Writers’ Week Short Story Award 1990, the Bloodaxe International Poetry Competition 1990, the Francis McManus RTE Short Story Competition 1991, the RTE Austin Clarke Poetry Competition 1996, the VS Pritchett Short Story Competition 2000, the James Joyce Ireland-Australia Award 2001, the Cardiff International Poetry Competition 2010, the Fish International Short Story Competition 2010 and the Flat Lake Poetry Competition 2014. She was co-winner of the Irodalmi Jelen Award for Poetry in Translation Prize 2012.
María Elena Jaime de Pablos: Let’s talk about your most recent works in poetry and narrative: Massacre of the Birds (2020), Empire (2018) and Where They Lie (2014). In your most recent poetry collection, Massacre of the Birds, published by Salmon in 2020, you explore “space”, both natural and urban settings, as a source of discovery. For example, the poem “Buenos Aires Autumn” works as a meditative comparison between southern and northern hemispheres. What sort of space are you interested in? and what do you intend your readers to discover through it?
Mary O’Donnell: We are partly defined by the spaces around us: interior spaces, exterior spaces, but also the space within us. I see the world in terms of mirror imaging, but also in terms of micro and macro imaging. For example, in the poem “Buenos Aires Autumn” I was conscious while in Argentina for a weekend, of the diametrically opposite seasonal mirroring, of rivers and skies and temperatures, because while it was cooling down there in March, the weather in Ireland was warming slowly into spring. The poem is also about human aloneness, I believe, and the manner in which some humans look to rivers as symbols of completion, especially when they reach the ocean. In Buenos Aires, I remember looking across the Rio de la Plata and not being able to see the opposite side, which of course was Uruguay. This sense of vast space which we travel past or through has always fascinated me. We take ourselves away to other places, carrying our personalities and even our known and unknown traumas, and these places become part of us too. Psychological attachments can occur. The new and unknown may be a portal to an aspect of the self now open to investigation.
MEJP: This new collection, Massacre of the Birds, connects with previous ones by discussing some of your enduring interests, for instance, the “unheroic” that actually is quite heroic. In the poem “Finding ‘Our Place’ Heroic”, you show contemporary Irish women whose power and intelligence to face and overcome challenges make them certainly heroic. This poem reminds us of another you published in 1998, “Unlegendary Heroes”, which exemplified this idea of working women rising above all kinds of ordinary difficulties. Why is Ireland, a country which has experienced such an enormous social change and economic growth, still a place in need of heroic women?
MO: In Massacre of the Birds I decided to revisit my poem from the 1998 collection Unlegendary Heroes, and to reference that poem by updating it to a modern context. The women who feature in the new version are very different in some respects, even if they remain hard-working, labouring people. However, today’s Ireland has revealed its true legacy of repression, and in the case of this poem it is seen in the family of a migrant, in which ten year old Adaku Adebayo is “introduced to father’s friends” with all that that suggests. It is also an Ireland in which Annemarie Tuomey “lives in a hotel room, studies for her Leaving”. This situation refers to the very large number of families who are forced to live in hotel accommodation, in one room. On the other hand, the new Ireland, unlike the Ireland of the previous poem, permits abortion; there are gay rights, and women are working independently, some of them balancing all kinds of jobs, while others have lunch with friends and book Botox for themselves. It’s more of a rainbow society now, even if the near-child who gives birth in the Rotunda –like her predecessor in the older poem– cries out “Mammy, O Mammy!” On the whole, I wanted to reflect the upbeat and heterogeneous nature of the Ireland of today. Not everything is good, but many things are working very well.
MEJP: A concern for the many women who are forced to face situations of vulnerability is also present in the poems “12 Remembered Scenes and a Line”, which place emphasis on the ongoing predation that affects the lives of both young and older women, or “It wasn’t a Woman”, which evidences that gender violence is widespread. Why is writing about this topic so relevant to you as an author?
MO: The poem “12 Remembered Scenes and a Line” came into being when I recalled the number of times I myself was predated on as a younger woman. It reflects in a matter-of-fact way the occasions on which such things occurred, and I gave them little thought, accepting them as the way things were. However, the poem “It wasn’t a Woman” is a very different one, which releases the speaker’s anger into the ethers as she literally lists the violence and abuse for which women have not been responsible. The title says it all.
MEJP: Pilar Villar-Argáiz states that an “intense ecological awareness characterizes your poetry as singular and distinctive within the contemporary panorama of women’s writing in Ireland” (2018: 40). This environmental concern is evident in a number of poems in Massacre of the Birds, most particularly in the title poem. Why is nature so present in your writing?
MO: I think if you’ve grown up in the country as I did, and continue to live there as I do now in adult life, being aware of natural patterns is unavoidable. In the early stages of life, it often presented itself to me as a source of beauty, a site in which there was the growth of plants, and the presence of wild animals. One was always close to foxes, pheasants, wild cats, the occasional badger, and lots of bats! I love all these creatures, to be honest, and although I don’t stand sentimentally and swoon over anything with a furry coat or with wings, I do find that the attention other creatures apart from humans give to their correct “adjustment” in their environment, is very interesting. Perhaps in another life I might have become a zoologist. However, life has taught all of us by now that everything we took for granted as being part of our lives, is now seriously at risk. Insect life has diminished dramatically –wasps, flies, beetles, earwigs, bees– and that’s why we need to take whatever limited steps we can, each in our own way, to do something small to accommodate their decreasing numbers. At the very least, we can stick a “bee hotel” in our gardens, easily made and good for solitary bees. I wouldn’t be responsible as a witness in my life as a writer, if I didn’t occasionally write about the endangered world. It’s the one thing writers can do: bear witness.
Some poems in this collection reflect the connection I feel with the world of nature, and how the natural world influences us if we will allow it to. It is a beneficial presence. The title poem “Massacre of the Birds” is a protest about the deaths of millions of birds of migratory passage en route to and from Europe. Behind this is my awareness that, if we are violent towards the earth and its creatures, the earth –or Gaia– will in turn revolt and be violent in response. Gaia is already revolting. We see this now each summer in the northern hemisphere, with ever more dramatic heat phases sweeping across Europe, and ever more dramatic hurricanes occurring in Asia. Our “norm” now is to expect severe climate change and to learn how to adapt to this as a species. I believe it’s too late to turn things around and reduce the Gaia response to human activity, but small interventions may help in the short term.
MEJP: Motherhood and filial relationships are topics that you frequently explore in your works, also in this collection of poetry through poems such as “My Mother Says No on Bloomsday”, which describes the problematic situation that a daughter caring for her widowed mother in her final years must face. What questions do you want to address with poems like this one?
MO: In the poem you mention, I was recognising the absolute right of an older person to use that archetypical protest word No! The scene in the poem describes a very old lady who is reluctant to be showered, and her daughter’s response. It is set on Bloomsday, when –as all literary people know– the word Yes! features quite strongly in recognition of the great final soliloquy in Ulysses. But in the non-fictive world, in the quotidian, there are protests going on, and some of them occur in the lives of elderly people who have lost everything –their siblings, friends, and often their independence. I was actually trying to acknowledge my mother’s right to her independent choices. My mother’s final years influenced my thinking in a few poems of this collection. The question of elder care, of the relationships between mothers and daughters and the gradual role reversal that occurs was uppermost in my mind. The poem “My Mother Says No on Bloomsday” was published in The Guardian newspaper on Bloomsday of the year she died (June 16, 2021), with commentary by Carol Rumens.
MEJP: Empire, your most recent collection of short narrative –published by Arlen House in 2018– contains eight historical stories set partly in Burma between 1915 and 1919 –during the pre and post-Rising period in Ireland. What was your purpose in writing these stories?
MO: I wanted to fictionally reflect events building up to and around the 1916 Dublin Rising. I noticed that most conversation around 1916 centred on elements of battle, of strategy, of how the city would be taken. Nationally, the Volunteer force was ready for action (three of my granduncles were Volunteers), but as we know, nothing happened that would really draw the Volunteers from most Irish counties into the action. What I wanted was to create characters who were largely “ordinary” and not heroic or in battle. In the story “Fortune on a Fair Day” there is some discussion between the characters regarding the choices then open to Irish people. These were (for men), to sign up with the British army and go to the Somme. Alternatively, they could of course remain in Ireland, where the pacifist Redmondite following favoured no Rising or rebellion, but hoped to gain good grace for its support of England during the war. Communications failed ridiculously, as can happen. In this context, I began to think about the ordinary people, the ones who had no particular dramatic involvement in events. My purpose was to evoke their lives while the British Empire was undergoing its final period in Ireland, and to suggest some of their attitudes and views. Therefore, in one of the central stories which actually does involve the Rising (“The Black Church”), a ten-year old girl from the tenements becomes accidentally caught up in the events on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) and observes the exchanges between the Irish revolutionaries and the English cavalry. Earlier that day, she walked three times around the Black Church in the north inner city and, according to the superstition, a person who does this will call up the Devil. Now the city is exploding around her and she blames herself. The story will appear in 2023 in an Oxford University Press anthology called Dublin Tales, edited by Paul Delaney and Eve Patten of Trinity College Dublin.
MEJP: Although set in the period 1915 – 1919, Empire contains stories that deal with the transformation of Ireland in recent times as they raise questions such as abuse in Magdalene asylums, incest, clerical child abuse, etc. By bringing these issues to the surface –therefore, recognizing their existence– you are promoting debate over them in the public arena. Do you think that this type of engaged writing can contribute to national healing?
MO: I refer in the final story “The Moss Picker” to a woman who ends up in a convent to which single pregnant girls could go. In fact, these places were not actually in existence in 1919 so I took a poetic liberty with time by a few years by setting it here. However, my character isn’t abused by the nuns, and it’s not that kind of environment. One thing I did seriously wish to achieve was to draw attention to the fact that not every single nun, or every single religious organisation inflicted violence and maltreatment on its occupants. I’m not religious, by the way, but I am interested in fairness of report, and it seems to me that although child abuse ran “the length and breadth of the country” within families (according to writer Mannix Flynn in private conversation with me), there were institutions in which some people were actually safe.
MEJP: You have published three collections of short narrative so far, and curiously enough, each one has a title short story whose protagonists are a married couple. “Empire” –like “Strong Pagans” and “Storm over Belfast”– portrays marriage in a realistic way, with its lights and shades. This piece of narrative focuses on Margaret Wheeler’s efforts to realise her private dreams and ambitions while at the same time presenting herself as a suitable wife for William –egocentric, family-oriented in a traditional way, self-absorbed and slightly chauvinistic. She eventually hopes for self-realization through higher education in 1919 Ireland. You seem to establish a parallelism between England’s imperialistic oppression and William’s patriarchal oppression, between Ireland’s fight for independence and Margaret’s struggle to get her husband’s consent to obtain a university degree. Is this an example of “mirror imaging” where the personal and the political meet?
MO: I had not thought of this. The fact is that, under English rule, Margaret Wheeler still has more chance of independent achievement than she will ever have in Post-Treaty Ireland and for many decades! Ireland’s struggle for independence resulted in the oppression of women for many decades ahead, so perhaps there is a kind of grotesque mirroring in the piece. As a character, William is not per se a bad person. Nor is he unusually patriarchal for his time. If anything, he is quite the liberal who attempts, through his bafflement, to understand his wife. He loves her, but his failure to understand the deeper aspects of her nature becomes problematic towards the end of the story. And remember, she may be lesbian, as is intimated in the final pages, so there is a part of her that he may never have access to.
MEJP: Marriage troubles and adultery are also central topics in your work. Partners can neither connect nor communicate with each other and, therefore, experience a terrible sense of isolation and tedium, which pushes them to look for companionship, affection and/or sexuality outside wedlock. At a given point in the story, while living in Burma, Margaret tells her husband: “We are lucky, aren’t we, to have both found a local person with whom we have some kind of sympathy?” (O’Donnell 2018: 26). What is the role of Minh and Kyi in the story?
MO: Because both Margaret and William are relatively liberal and indeed not too role-bound in their position as employers, they are both in their way able to connect with the local people. Margaret attempts to learn the local language, while William –horrified at the ill-treatment of native people which he witnesses in Pyawadi– is able to see others as human and equal. As Irish people, neither fits very well into the groove of the colonial experience, which leaves both of them more open in some ways. Margaret is open to learning a little from Kyi in the management of her children, and as she is isolated in Burma, without her mother Mrs Ward, she is dependent on Kyi’s knowledge.
MEJP: Margaret is very closely attached to a gong, “Mother’s gong”, a domestic keepsake from the home she has grown up in. As a matter of fact, it is “the only thing she fancie[s]” (O’Donnell 2018: 9). She even takes it on the journey overseas and then back to Dublin. What does this element represent in Margaret’s life?
MO: The gong symbolises everything she loves about her home in Dublin. It is the one thing she brings with her, but on arrival in Burma, she encounters the giant religious gongs used by the monks and her tiny brass domestic dinner gong diminishes, even in her own eyes.
MEJP: As in Empire, Irish history is also at the core of your last, critically acclaimed novel, Where They Lie, published by New Ireland Books in 2014. Although it deals with the “Disappeared” in Ulster during “The Troubles”, you stated shortly after its release that there was “no political voice entering the pages, no sightings of real political figures, because this book was about trauma and loss, about betrayal and lies, about a search for truth and the revelation that, in life, as much as in Northern Ireland, the truth discovered is never quite what we expect” (O’Donnell 2014). How do you conform the truth that is to be revealed to the characters in this novel?
MO: Perhaps I was a little disingenuous to suggest there was “no political voice entering the pages . . .”! It is a highly political novel, yet its theme is firmly interrogating the role of memory and of forgetting, of memory and mis-remembering, or failing to remember. Bodies are buried and hidden, and someone hopes they will be forgotten about. But, in reality, the bereaved always wish to have the loved one restored to them, even in skeletal form. And the truth is never quite what we expect. If we observe the fate of Northern Ireland as it unfolds currently, the Good Friday Agreement –although it has not failed– is facing challenges that might never have been foretold. Brexit has injured Northern Ireland’s prospects, setting it back yet again as an inferior State which Unionists seem quite happy to see in this debacle, because they do not recognise that as things stand, Northern Ireland is a failed statelet with neither autonomy, nor a map forward. People in the Republic –often intellectuals and journalists– are busy behind the scenes testing the ground for the idea of a united Ireland. I don’t empathise with this group at present because I believe the time is still not right for unity, and that too many differences between different religious groups remain. The Republic of Ireland is a liberal democracy, we must remember, and something I cannot forget is that its liberality has been very hard won.
MEJP: Gerda McAllister, the protagonist, an East Belfast Protestant, is haunted by the ghosts of the past. Some of her loved ones were murdered and secretly buried by the IRA during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Given the opportunity to confront the truth and discover where their bodies lie, she also ponders the possibility of leaving a most traumatic past behind her. How can historical memory help heal wounds in Ulster?
MO: In Where They Lie I was drawn to reflect on an idea to do with memory and forgetting. In this novel, a Belfast Protestant journalist and her Catholic-born boyfriend, along with her family, set out to recover the bodies of two “disappeared” twin brothers. As we are aware, the secret burying of so many murdered people, both men and women, was something that defined the years of “The Troubles”. Whether or not the bodies are recovered in the end was less important to me than interrogating the idea of memory. The characters in this novel all remember certain details, but whose memory is correct? What do we really remember or think we remember? Is memory always reliable (we know scientifically that it’s not), and sometimes, even if we remember something, do we deliberately misremember or even forget it? I was thinking also when writing this book of the trauma experienced by people connected with the losses of 9/11, and of the children who in the past have been deliberately “disappeared” in South America’s Colombia, known as the “little pigs”. Who remembers what and what is the effect on those left to live? That being said, the book isn’t without humour, and a few of these characters have a dark, sardonic and sometimes unusual sense of wit.
MEJP: Being from County Monaghan, in the part of Ulster which remains in the Republic, you have enjoyed a privileged position to witness the social and historical changes in both the Republic and Northern Ireland in the recent decades. From this liminal position, in Where They Lie, you deal with “The Troubles” as they exist since the Good Friday Agreement (1998). According to José Manuel Estevez-Saá, your standpoint in relation to these “Troubles” is represented in this novel by a figure that can be considered your fictional alter-ego, Niall, Gerda’s ex-boyfriend: “the Southerner born on the border and living in Dublin, who is sincerely concerned with the traumatic experience suffered by his Northern friends” (2016: 23). Do you agree with this?
MO: My thanks to José Manuel Estevez-Saá for observing this. He is indeed my fictional alter-ego, and comes with his own baggage of sympathy and curiosity. He is willing to take his language (Irish) and teach it in Belfast at weekends. But he also possesses the inner confidence of someone raised in a Republic which –despite its early repressions– at the time of the narration, is now forward-thinking, progressive, liberal, wealthy and a little over-buoyant economically. But he accepts all of us. He is glad to be away from the border region (as I was) and to enter fully into the life of the Republic.
MEJP: Are you publishing a new book soon?
MO: My next novel is called Mother, Dear Vampire and is being represented at the moment by my agent. At 83,000 words it’s a lively book which is basically about the nature of love. As a book, it had to be written. Growing older, I discovered, was hard and not easy. I used to think of those amusing columnists and health advisors who would say that after menopause life was so wonderful, that after 60 it was even better, because their children were grown up. But then I discovered what I was to be responsible for my own, admittedly wonderful, mother, and the mixed emotions that went with this. And I began to think, surely this, the later part of life, is one of the last frontiers not really looked at in a good story, in fiction. The timing was right, I believed, but how could I approach this imaginatively, how could I do justice to one of the most complex parts of life, when it comes to all of us that there are things to let go of and more things than ever to accept? And so, the idea of an aged and dying mother being cared for by her no longer young daughter, came to me just before the first lockdown in Ireland. I took myself away to a cottage in south County Wexford and the first 30,000 words poured out of me in ten days alone, while I entertained myself at night by watching Netflix movies like “The Death of Stalin” on my laptop. During the nights I’d wake up, watch water reflections on the ceiling of my upstairs eyrie, and open up the laptop again and let more writing pour out of me. I knew the book would have a poltergeist haunting, that it would have a slightly gothic narrative which the fearless protagonist would generally go along with; I knew too that it would have a young, talented and desirable male, and more importantly, that the protagonist’s relationships with both her mother and younger sister would move into the kind of skewed but logical focus that only a protagonist like Frankie could discover. For me also, the book would bring the affection for place to the light, leaving it shimmering there like a current just beneath the water throughout the story. Essentially, this book is about love: not man-woman love, not soft-focus love either, but about harsher brands of love, the kind I’m pretty fearless about myself. I love this book. And I hope readers will love it as I do.
MEJP: Thank you very much for this interview.