There is a duality to place. There is the place which existed before you came to it, closed in the secrets and complexities of history; and there is the place you experience in the present. This essay is about such a duality as I discovered it in two locations. I begin with Dundrum, a suburb south of Dublin, where I have lived for eighteen of my forty five years—longer, in fact, than in any other single environment. The second is an altogether darker, grimmer region, a hundred miles southwest. Both of them prove to me there is the place that happened and the place that happens to you. That there are moments—in work, in perception, in experience—when they are hard to disentangle from one another. And that, atsuch times, the inward adventure can become so enmeshed with the outward continuum that we live not in one or the other but at the point of intersection.
I suspect this piece is about just such an intersection. It is, of course, a particular version of particular locales. But there may well be a more general truth disguised in it: that what we call place is really only that detail of it which we understand to be ourselves. “That’s my Middle West,” writes Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, “not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling returning trains of my youth and the streetlamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that.”
Questions of place were far from my mind that first winter, the second of our marriage, when we. moved out here. We unpacked our books, put up our shelves, and looked doubtfully at the raw floors and white walls of a new house. From the upstairs window we saw little to console us. Dundrum at this time, in the early seventies, was already starting to wander out toward the foothills of the Dublin mountains. On those winter nights, in the first weeks of January, we learned to look for the lamps on the hills after dark, yellow and welcome as nocturnal crocuses.
For all that, we were disoriented. I, at least, was thoroughly urban. The Dublin I had known until then was a sympathetic prospect of stone and water and wet dusks over Stephen’s Green, a convivial town of coffee and endlessly renewable talk. I knew nothing of the city of contingencies. Now here it was, visible and oppressive and still at a distance from the love I would come to feel for it.
The road outside our window was only half laid, but the house next door and the houses opposite were finished. There was good progress about halfway down our road. Walls were up, roofs were on, gardens were rotovated and, in some cases, even seeded. After about seven houses, however, it gave out into mud and rubble. In a cold dusk it all seemed incomplete and improbable.
Now, on a summer morning, when the whitebeams are so thick they almost obscure the mimicking greens and grays of the mountains, I look back to that time and consider its revelations. That first spring, however, I thought of little else but practicalities. Ovens and telephones became images and emblems of the real world. The house was cold. We had no curtains. At night, the lights on the hills furnished the upper rooms with a motif of adventure and estrangement. In the morning, the hills marched in, close or distant, promising rain or the dry breezes of a March day.
Now, also, I find myself wishing I had had less sense of locale and more of local history. It was all too easy then to allow a day to come down to the detail of a fabric or the weight of a chicken. If I had looked about me with a wider sense of curiosity I would have noticed more. To start with, I would have seen a past as well as a present. I was oblivious, for instance, to the fact that Dundrum had its roots in Anglo-Norman times, when the castle had first been built to ward off the Wicklow clans. Its destiny as a residential center had been settled centuries later, when the Harcourt Street railway line was opened: with its assistance, the distance between Dundrum and the city center became a mere sixteen minutes.
All was changing by the time we arrived. Indeed, the arrival of young couples like ourselves was a signal of that change. But enough distinction remained to give a sense of the grace and equilibrium of the place it had been. Granted, the farriers at the corner of the village had been gone some twenty years. But the cobbler remained. Further down, the experiment of a mink farm had failed and a shopping center was in the process of replacing it. Above all, the location remained: the wonderful poise of the village at the edge of theatrical, wooded cliffs and under the incline of the Dublin mountains.
Occasionally I would be aware of the contradictions and poignance of our new home. But in the main I missed the fact that the shops, the increasing traffic, the lights on the hills, and we ourselves were not isolated pieces of information. They and we were part of a pattern—one that was being repeated throughout Ireland in those years. Before our eyes, and because of them, a village was turning into a suburb.
My account of the other place begins with a journey. If this were a poem, that journey would become a descent. I packed the car one summer night—a camera, biscuits—and set out at dawn. I left the suburb folded in light, the whitebeams already taking on a grayish glitter, a dog barking somewhere.
It was a necessary departure. Like so many Irish, I knew too little about my family. Ancestor-worship is not sanctioned by the Irish past. Whatever I knew about previous generations was a matter of rumor and accidental memory; conversations overheard and reluctant answerings. Now—in something of the spirit in which the puzzled citizens of an older culture traveled to their oracles—I was setting out for a place of origin: the answers might be ambiguous, but there was a relief in the interrogation.
I drove southwest. The Irish roads offer no ornament. Fifty years ago, all but the most direct of them would have been witnessed only by locals going at the pace of the herd. The average road between small towns is bordered by fern-choked ditches and, in summer, by weedy altitudes of cow parsley.
It was summer now. And now, for a brief moment, those roadsides were colored. I was used to blond splashes of coltsfoot and, further west, to the pageant of hawthorn. What kept taking my eye was something different: a shrubby, low plant with blue flowers. It was unsettling. I had seen that shade of blue before in the lips of old people—the terrible blush of shallow breathing. Now it occurred at every turn; it became the color of the journey. Later I would find out that the name of the plant was Cyanotis.
By midmorning I was turning left at the rock of Cashel, the old stone fort of the kings of Munster. Its towers and sharp rock facings still look out over the fertile plain of Tipperary. Ten miles up the road and I had reached Clonmel. I asked an elderly man for directions. He pointed me to the Old Western road on the far side of the town. Then he lifted his hand higher to the peak of the Comeragh mountains which reared up at the end of the street. You could get a grouse up there, he assured me.
I had lived in cities all my life. I made a distinction between a city one loved and a city one submitted to. I had not loved London, for instance, where I had spent the greater part of my childhood. The iron and gutted stone of its postwar prospect had seemed to me merely hostile. I was not won over by its parks, nor the scarlet truculence of its buses which carried me forward and backward from school in the early fifties. I learned quickly, by inference at school and reference at home, that the Irish were unwelcome in London. I absorbed enough of that information to regard everything—even the jittery gleam from the breastplates of the Horseguards as they rode through the city—with a sort of churlish inattention. All I knew, all I needed to know, was that none of this was mine.
New York was a different matter. The noise and speed of it persuaded me to try again. I was just twelve when I went there. I liked putting on skates in winter and shorts in summer. I had never known extremes, whether of dress or season, before—and, on the edge of puberty, I responded to their drama.
Then there was Dublin. By the time I came to know it, those other cities had prepared me to relish a place which had something of the theater of a city, and all of the intimacy of a town. These were the early sixties. There were still coffee bars set into the basements of Georgian houses, where a turf fire burned from four o’clock in the afternoon and you could get brown scones with your coffee.
None of it prepared me for a suburb. There is, after all, a necessity about cities. By the time you come to them, there is something finished and inevitable about their architecture, even about their grime. You accept both.
A suburb is altogether more fragile and transitory. To start with, it is composed of lives in a state of process. The public calendar defines a city, when banks are shut and shops are opened. But the private one shapes a suburb; it waxes and wanes on christenings, weddings, birthdays. One year it can seem the whole road is full of bicycles, roller skates, jumble sales. Garages will be wide open, with children selling comics and out-of-date raisin buns. There will be shouting and calling far into the summer night. Almost as soon, it seems, the same road will be quiet. The bicycles will be gone. The shouting and laughing will be replaced by one or two dogs barking in back gardens. Curtains will be drawn till late morning and doors will stay closed.
Clonmel is the county town of Tipperary. Its name comes from the Irish—Cluain meala, meadow of honey. This is a storied part of Ireland. The Danes visited it in the eighth century. Cromwell fixed his batteries here on rising ground to the north of the town and received one of the worst reverses of his Irish campaign.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century Clonmel prospered. Travelers praised its regular streets, its well-built houses “the greater part of which are rough cast, and are either cream-coloured or white, save here and there one of neat appearance, whose front is often curiously ornamented with blue slates.” The rows of thatched cabins had been cleared from the outskirts of the town. Corn stores were hoarded by the river; the quays were embanked with limestone ashlar. “Mr. Banfield,” simpers one contemporary account, “has added much to the appearance of the town by the erection of a row of very genteel houses.”
It was a garrison town with two militia regiments of the Tipperary Artillery quartered there. Sometime after the Crimean War my great-grandfather took up a position on this headquarters staff as a sergeant major. He could read and write, that much is certain. Otherwise, he could not have kept accounts or made a note of provisions. And he was something of a dandy. “He had a head of thick nut-brown hair the colour of your own,” wrote my grandfather to his son. “My mother used to tell us how, on parade days when his toilet was of special care, he used to curse the waves in his hair that prevented him getting it to lie as he wanted.”
A peacock, a soldier, a literate Irishman in a dark century. But I had not come to find him. I turned out past the town center and took the Old Western road. After a hundred yards or so it takes a broad, bluish turn—those shrubs again—and becomes a gradual hill. To the right there is a sudden crest with a straggle of buildings. I walked up the hill. It was steep, the path winding and edged by trees. They had a dark, inappropriate presence. I would not have recognized cypress or yew, but these I thought deserved their legend. The higher I went, the more the valley—the old meadow of honey—scrolled beneath me.
The buildings were grim. One ran the length of the hill, an institutional ramble of granite and drainpipes. Below it, further down, was a smaller building. Over to one side was a separate house, and further down again, at road level, a small church and a deserted school.
I needed to see all this. Sometime in 1874, with a growing family to maintain, my great-grandfather cast around for a secure position. He took the only one vacant—”the only one,” as my grandfather put it, “to which a Catholic could hope for appointment.” Sometime in the autumn of that year, with the approval of the Board of Guardians, he became master of that most dreaded Irish institution—the workhouse.
More than a hundred years later, it was hard enough to distinguish, from that scatter of granite, which building was which. The largest one now served as the local hospital. I went inside. Two women, one elderly, both dressed as nurses, came over. The older one was sweet-faced and vague. The younger one was definite. Yes, this had been the poorhouse—she gave it its folk name—this building overlooking the hill.
Poetic license is an age-old concept. Traditionally, poets have been free to invoke place as a territory between invention and creation. I myself might once have proposed place as an act of imagination or an article of faith. But here, on a blue summer morning, I could feel it to be what it has been for so many: brute, choiceless fact.
We yield to our present but we choose our past. In a defeated country like Ireland we choose it over and over again, relentlessly, obsessively. Standing there looking back at the bleak length of the building, I refused to imagine him—my ancestor, with his shock of nut-brown hair. In truth I was ashamed of his adroit compliance, the skillful opportunism by which he had ensured our family’s survival.
Instead, I imagined a woman. A woman like myself, with two small children, who must have come to this place as I came to the suburb. She would have come here in her twenties or thirties, but whereas my arrival in the suburb marked a homecoming, hers in the workhouse would have initiated a final, and almost certainly fatal, homelessness. At an age when I was observing the healings of place, she would have been a scholar of its violations.
There were several reasons why she might have been there. The most obvious—unmarried motherhood—remains the most likely. But she could as easily have been a survivor of an eviction—hundreds of them, complete with bailiff and battering ram, took place in Ireland every year of that century. British cartoons and a few old photographs tell the story: wretched homemade tables strewn on the road, the cabin door barred, the windows boarded up. She may even have married a soldier—Clonmel, after all, was a garrison town. Hadn’t my own great-grandfather fallen for the stagy glitter of the uniforms? Didn’t his wife fear that her children might do the same?
Whatever my woman’s reasons for being there, her sufferings would have been terrible. When I looked up the hill I could see how the main length of the building ended in a kitchen garden. There was a small house with blunt gables and an outhouse. Was this where my great-grandfather lived? Where he stabled his pony, collected his ration, sheltered his children in the security of his position as overseer of other people’s tragedies? At least, by these visible survivals, I could guess at his existence. There was no trace of hers.
The Clonmel workhouse—or, to give it its more respectable title, the Clonmel Union—was founded in 1838. In that year, and against all informed advice, the English Poor Law of 1834 was extended to Ireland. Until then this building had served as a catchall: asylum, orphanage, geriatric ward. The Survey of Clonmel, for instance, published in 1813, clothes its account of it in the chilly language of nineteenth-century altruism:
A very extensive House Of Industry was finished two years ago in the west end of the town, both at the public expense of the county and by private subscription. It is a common receptacle for all descriptions of mals fortunes, serving at the same time as a place of confinement for vagrants and lunatics, as well as an asylum for the poor and helpless.
In 1838, when the Poor Law was introduced, Ireland stood at the edge of her greatest ordeal: the famine. In the next few years the workhouses would fill to overflowing with the children of emigrants, the orphans of typhus, the debris of a preventable tragedy.
Most of the buildings which accommodated them were themselves casualties of bad planning and hasty decision making. The walls and ceilings were not plastered. Limestone was burned on the site and then used as a crude whitewash. Maintenance was scanty. Contemporary accounts tell of sparrows nesting in the downpipes and water leaking through the mortar. Subsistence was deliberately harsh. The diet consisted of oatmeal and bread; milk at times, but by no means always or in every workhouse. In many, the children got gruel instead. In the 186os a radical improvement consisted in putting ox-heads in the soup: three ox-heads for each hundred inmates. There were small, carefully planned degradations to go with the larger ones. Children, for instance, were refused footwear whatever the weather—the Guardians believed it unwise to get them accustomed to shoes.
By the 187os, when my great-grandfather became master of the Clonmel Union, there were some improvements. But of what interest are historical modifications to the person—to this woman—for whom suffering is fresh, first time, without memory or hope? She would have felt no hope at 6:00 a.m. when she rose; no hope at 9:00 p.m. when she finished a day of carefully scheduled monotony.
Yet she also would have seen the coming and going of the seasons. She also, like me, must have seen them in her children’s faces. The meadow would have glittered beneath her on fine days; on wet ones the Comeraghs would have loomed in heathery colors. She may not, however, have seen them for long. Statistics argue persuasively that, more than likely, she would have died—still of childbearing age—in the fever hospital a hundred yards down the hill. Clonmel was low-lying. The River Suir ran behind its streets with an ornamental sluggishness, and drainage was poor. Every few years typhus swept through the town. Its first victims must have been the inmates of the workhouse. It would have been my great-grandfather’s decision where to bury them. He would have consulted the Board of Guardians. There were rules for such things.
And where does poetry come in? Here, as in so many other instances, it enters at the point where myth touches history. Let me explain. At one level, I could have said that there were summer dusks and clear, vacant winter mornings when I was certain the suburb nurtured my poetry. I might have found it hard to say how or why. In every season the neighborhood gathered around me and filled my immediate distance. At times it could be a shelter; it was never a cloister. Everywhere you looked there were reminders—a child’s bicycle thrown sideways on the grass, a single roller skate, a tree in its first April of blossom—that lives were not lived here in any sort of static pageant; they thrived, waned, changed, began, and ended here.
Inevitably, this sense of growth could not remain just at the edge of things. Apart from anything else, time was passing. Roads were laid. Houses were finished. The builders moved out. Summers came and went and trees began to define the road. Garden walls were put up, and soon enough the voices calling over them on long evenings, the bicycle thrown on its side, and the single roller skate, belonged to my children. Somewhat to my surprise, I had done what most human beings have done. I had found a world and I had populated it. In so doing, my imagination had been radically stirred and redirected. It was not, of course, a simple process. In poetry, let alone in life, it never is. It would be wrong, even now, to say that my poetry expressed the suburb. The more accurate version is that my poetry allowed me to experience it.
Yet there remained a sense of unease, as if some part of me could not assent to the reassurance of patterning. On bright days, for no apparent reason, my mind would swerve. Then I could sense, below the levels of my own conscious perception, something different: as if I could still remember—indeed had never forgotten—that place is never so powerful as when it is suffered in silence.
At what point does an actual, exact landscape—those details which are recurrent and predictable—begin to blur and soften? Sometimes on a summer evening, walking between my house and a neighbor’s, past the whitebeam trees and the bicycles left glinting in the dusk, I could imagine that I myself was a surreal and changing outline; that there was something almost profound in these reliable shadows; that such lives as mine and my neighbors’ were mythic not because of their strangeness but because of their powerful ordinariness. When I reached a point in the road where I could see the children at the end of it, milling around and shrieking in the consciousness that they would have to come in soon, I would stand there with my hand held sickle shaped above my eyes. Almost always I was just trying to remember which cotton T-shirts my children were wearing so I could pick them out in the summer twilight and go and scoop them up and bring them in. But just occasionally, standing there and breathing in the heavy musks of rose beds and buddleias, I would feel an older and less temporary connection to the moment. Then I would feel all the sweet, unliterate melancholy of women who must have stood as I did, throughout continents and centuries, feeling the timelessness of that particular instant and the cruel time underneath its surface. They must have measured their children, as I did, against the seasons; they too must have looked at the hedges and rowan trees, their height and the color of their berries, as an index of the coming loss.
Is it true, as Patrick Kavanagh says in his beautiful poem “Epic,” that “gods make their own importance”? Is the origin, in other words, so restless in the outcome that the parish, the homestead, the place is a powerful source as well as a practical location? On those summer evenings, if my thoughts had not been full of details and children, I could have wondered where myth begins. Is it in the fears for harvest and the need for rain? Are its roots in the desire to make the strange familiar, to domesticate the thunder and give a shape to the frost? Or does it have, as Kavanagh argues, a more local and ritual source? Is there something about the repeated action—about lifting a child, clearing a dish, watching the seasons return to a tree and depart from a vista—which reveals a deeper meaning to existence and heals some of the worst abrasions of time?
Not suddenly, then, but definitely and gradually, a place I lived became a country of the mind. Perhaps anywhere I had grown used to, raised my children in, written my poetry about, would have become this. But a suburb by its very nature—by its hand-to-mouth compromises between town and country—was particularly well suited to the transformation. Looking out my window at familiar things, I could realize that there had always been something compromised in my own relation to places. They had never been permanent, therefore I had never developed a permanent perception about them.
Now here at last was permanence—an illusory permanence, of course, but enough stability to make me realize that the deepest sustenances are not in the new or surprising. And with that realization came the surrender of any prospect of loving new things, a prospect so vital when I was younger. Instead, many of the things I now did—from the casual gesture of looking out a window to the writing of poems—became an act of possessing the old things in a new way. I watched for the return of the magpies every February to their nest in the poplars just beyond my garden. I took an almost concert-hall pleasure, in an August twilight, in listening to the sound of my neighbor’s garden shears as she cut and pruned and made things ready for another season. None of this was purely instinctive; none of it involved an intellectual suppression or simplification. I had a clearer and clearer sense, as time went on, of the meaning of all this to me as a poet. I knew what repetitions meant in poetry. I understood those values in language and restraint. When Coleridge wrote, in the Biographia Literaria, of metrical units as “at first the offspring of passion and then the adopted children of power,” I felt I understood a concept of linguistic patterning that both lulled the mind and facilitated the meaning.
Now here, in front of me every day, were repetitions which had almost exactly the same effect. The crocuses under the rowan tree, the same child wheeled down to the shops at the same time every day, a car that returned home with the same dinge on its bumper every night, and the lamps which sprang into symmetries across our hills at dusk in November. What were all these if not—as language and music in poetry are—a sequence and repetition that allowed the deeper meanings to emerge: a sense of belonging, of nourishment, of a life revealed, and not restrained, by ritual and patterning?
Now let me rewrite that scenario, darken the evening and harden the detail. The road is no longer paved; there are no streetlamps. My own outline is no longer surreal. It is the harsh shape of that woman, that client of my ancestor. My lips now are as blue as hers—the shallow blue of those shrubs. I have no house, no room in which I write, no books. My children are not healthy and noisy. They are the fractions of my own grief clinging at my skirt, their expressions scarred with hunger and doubt. Instead of bright cotton and denim clothes they wear fustian and the hated flannel. And they, like me, are ripe for the fevers that come in off the marshes and stagnate in the water of the town.
Of course this is impossible. The most awkward memory is known to be a figment, not a ghost. Yet even as a figment this woman was important. She cast her shadow across the suburb. She made me doubt the pastoral renewals of day-to-day life. And whenever I tried to find the quick meanings of my day in the deeper ones of the past, she interposed a fierce presence in case the transaction should be too comfortable, too lyric.
It would be wrong to say her presence changed my idea of poetry, but it changed my idea of place. Then again, it would also be true to say that my most optimistic view of place had never excluded her. Familiar, compound ghosts such as hers—paragons of dispossession—haunt the Irish present. She is a part of all our histories. The cadences I learned in that suburb, those melodies of renewal, had their roots in her silence—which involved a hard, unglamorous suffering. And I imagined the woman’s pain often, imagined the mute hatred with which she must have looked at my great-grandfather as he descended from his trap, unharnessed his pony.
In thinking about her at all I was exercising a peculiar, perhaps even dangerous, freedom inherent in the shifting outlines of a defeated history. Such a history is full of silences. Hers is only one of them. And those silences, in turn, are the quicksand on which any stable or expressive view of place will forever after be built. The more I thought of her, the more it seemed to me that a sense of place can happen at the very borders of myth and history. In myth there are the healing repetitions, the technology of propitiation. In history there is the consciousness of violent and random event. In the zone between them something happens. Ideas of belonging take on the fluidity of sleep. Here is a nose, an eye, a mouth, but they may belong to different people. And here, on the edge of dream, is a place in which I locate myself as a poet: not exactly the suburb, not entirely the hill colored with blue shrubs, but somewhere composed of both.
I could put it another way: A suburb is all about futures. Trees grow; a small car becomes a bigger one to accommodate new arrivals. Then again, there is little enough history, almost no appeal to memory. The children learn the names of the sweet shop and the bike repair shop. They talk about the sixty-foot tree in the grounds of an old castle. The fact that the castle is a Norman keep and may cover Norman remains is of no interest.
A workhouse, on the other hand, is—to adapt Yeats’s phrase—the fiery shorthand of a history. Fever, eviction, the statistics of poverty—it infers them all. The immediate past of a nation sleeps in its cots and eats its coarse rations. What a workhouse lacks is a future.
What I have tried to write about here is neither the metaphorical nor the emblematic but something which may, in fact, be the common source of both. There is a quality about the minute changes, the gradations of a hedge, the small growth of a small boy, that makes a potent image out of an ordinary day in a suburb. Nothing I have described here can catch the simple force of looking out my window on one of those mornings at the end of winter, when a few, small burgundy rags would be on the wild cherry tree, but otherwise everything was bare and possessed a muted sort of expectancy. The hills would have the staring blues that signaled rain. A car would pass by. A neighbor’s dog would bark, then be silent. Maybe the daffodils, which had been closed the week before, would now be open after an afternoon of that quick, buttery sunshine that is the best part of an Irish spring.
But all of this constitutes the present tense, and the present tense is surely instructed by the past. Women poets—Anna Akhmatova and Adrienne Rich come immediately to mind—are key witnesses to the fact that myth is instructed by history, although the tradition is full of poets who argue the opposite with force and eloquence. In my case, to paraphrase the myth, I gradually came to know at what price my seasons and my suburb had been bought. My underworld was a hundred miles southwest, but there too the bargains had been harsh, the outcome a terrible compromise. The woman I imagined—if the statistics are anything to go by—must have lost her children in that underworld, just as I came to possess mine through the seasons of my neighborhood. These reflections have been about how that past, those images and her compromised life, came to find me in the midst of my incomparably easier one. And how I wanted to be found.
“The Woman, The Place, The Poet” reprinted from Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time by Eavan Boland (c) 1995, 1996 by Eavan Boland. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
“The Woman, The Place, The Poet” first appeared in the Spring/Summer 1990 issue of The Georgia Review.
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