The death of Mary Doyle

Issue FourPoetry

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To commemorate the Official State Visit to Australia 2017 by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, we are deeply honoured and grateful to reproduce the following poem, written by President Higgins, with his kind permission:

 

By Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland

 

She knew that there was thunder

in the air

from the sulphur

she had come to know.

All day she had waited

for a visitor

to read the letter

from her daughter,

the nun,

who had written

earlier that week

from Africa.

 

Moving her hand along the handle

of her stick,

she sighs at all the stories

she has ready

of the older people

who had gone before her,

farmed these stony acres.

 

She talked too much,

she thought,

in recent times,

and then it all came clear

in silence.

She would go to the barn.

She loved it there,

where all seemed warm

and intimate too.

Taking her stick,

she stumbles

out the door

and pushes through the yard,

undisturbed

by green pools

of urine

and dung,

damp under her feet.

 

And it is the dryness

of the barn,

its thousand smells,

a shrine

that welcomes her.

In recent years, she’d come to know

a strange fire that sparks

from the embers

not lit from desire

but intimacies

stored

from days and nights

spent here

in better times

and all the laughter that filled this place.

 

Leaning towards the bin,

the smell of meal moulded

stirs the memory,

and pictures come

of hens and cheerful chatter,

the stickiness of new-born calves,

gelatin-heeled,

unsteady,

needing the pull of both hands

to stand,

 

wobbling,

waiting for the rack lick

of a cow’s tongue

that was, with laughter,

invoked

to describe the quiff

of her first son’s hair.

 

The colours of all the feathers

in a hundred nests

warm her heart,

which fills

as she tries to feel

the rounded shapes

finger-poked for eggs

in the bride years of her marriage.

Slowly rising, the warmth

moves from her fingers

through her body,

shapeless from the birth

of seven children.

 

Exploding through her head,

the thousand pieces,

gathered

in sense memory,

overwhelm.

 

She falls towards the crib

where the wood,

polished

by the neck of an itchy cow,

is marble smooth and warm

but offers no grip.

 

Lying tumbled in the rank hay,

she laughs

and still the colours come

of gold and amber,

of green gone brown.

She had it all.

 

The limber shoot

was browned by a season

that ran its course.

That rich gold head of grain

would break the stalk

in times of storm

or broken weather;

 

but, more often,

the stooking and the binding

intervened

between the time of fields

and the predictable

breaking

of the threshing.

 

She was an old sheaf

cut loose from binding,

all seed taken,

only the dried stalks

ready for the bedding

of all the life

that heated with their breath

this barn.

 

They found her

pitched forward

among the hay

and screamed

when they saw the youth

of the smile

that covered all her face.

Her stick abandoned,

she held in each hand

straw and feathers.

They would have to clean her up

for the laying-out.

 

They did not speak

to each other

or the neighbours

of where they found her

and, at the laying-out,

a holy woman

claimed

she heard a crowd

of angels

come to bring her up,

inevitably,

to Heaven.

 

It was not angels that sang her home

but cows and calves

and ducks and hens,

and they gave her colours

for her head,

and voices too,

and smiles and smells,

and the touch of love.

 

Not long after,

they decided

that it was better

to knock the barn.

It was upsetting,

particularly

to the holy woman

who said

it held memories

that disturbed her

of that day

when Mary Doyle

went out to the barn

to die.

 

First published in “The Season of Fire, Poems by Michael D. Higgins” (Brandon Book Publishers, 1993). Our sincere thanks to the two most reliable people in the Northern Hemisphere, Elizabeth Garvey and Christine Cullen at UCD Library, University College Dublin for their invaluable assistance in tracking down an original copy of this poem. If anyone would like to invite them for tea, they would be delighted.

 

 Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.