• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

Berries for Singing Birds by Eileen Casey

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Berries for Singing Birds

By Eileen Casey

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On 15th October 2019, together with three other gorgeous Arlen House collections, my new poetry book will launch in The Irish Writers’ Centre. I’ve always been fascinated by avian life so it’s inevitable that someday my poems would be framed by reference to them.

When I began writing in the 80s, I never thought I would ever write poetry. I published short stories for women’s magazines and articles for an outlet such as Modern Woman (then a very popular supplement with The Meath Chronicle and edited by Margo Davis). I published prose in First Person (The Evening Press, edited by Sean McCann) and of course, Ireland’s Own was and still is a stalwart for short stories and articles. In the early years, poetry seemed to belong to the world of academia and honestly, at that time I hadn’t much interest in writing it. I was a member of Tallaght’s first writing group (St Colmcille’s), a very progressive group of writers. No chat sessions or recipe swapping for us. No way! We’d arrive at our weekly session, pieces typed and photocopied and get straight down to business. We swapped outlet information (I worked on an electric typewriter then, no such thing as Google or Writing.ie or Angela Carr’s wonderful info page or Poetry Ireland’s Opportunities for Writers or Kate Demsey’s Emerging Writer (all invaluable sources for writers today).

One of the writers in the group was very keen on poetry and through reading and critiquing poems on a regular basis, I decided to try and write some. My very first poem (which I still have) is about the birth miracle, new life. Looking at it now it seems juvenile but there were certain things that were okay too. Before I knew it, I was hooked. The form offered challenges and also a buzz that excited and energised me. There were lots of poetry competitions around even then (some of them still there) and once I got that first win or two, there was no stopping me. The George Moore Medallion brought me to Carnacon, a beautiful, wild place in County Mayo, driven down by a powerful writer Ivy Bannister. And there were other wins too which brought me around the country and introduced me to long lasting friendships. I attended Listowel Writers Week and other writing festivals where poetry workshops abounded. In the early 90s I strapped my daughter into her buggy and took two buses to Dundrum so I could attend Eavan Boland’s life affirming poetry workshops.

My first poetry solo exhibition was with South Dublin Libraries (I was the inaugural winner of ‘Writing on the Wall’ in 2000 ) and then I had another exhibition, with a chapbook this time, for Tallaght Community Arts, ‘Seagulls’ (2005). The following year, Offaly County Council awarded me a solo exhibition, ‘Reading Fire, Writing Flame’ which exhibited in the atrium, Offaly County Council, Tullamore.  Eight poems printed onto Perspex (6 feet x 4 feet) hung in this wonderful space and caught the light which shadowed the text onto the walls. This exhibition featured also in Poetry Ireland Review and also in Irish Arts Review. ‘The Jane Austen Sewing Kit’ followed in 2007 for Birr Vintage Week & Arts Festival. I used fabric and poetry and again, a small chapbook accompanied the work. Creatively, these poetry installations/exhibitions proved very worthwhile.

In 2008 Drinking the Colour Blue came out with New Island and in 2012, From Bone to Blossom, a collaborative work with Visual Artist Emma Barone was published by AltEnts (Rua Red). Emma Barone is a wonderful artist and we also collaborated on Reading Hieroglyphics in Unexpected Places (full colour images accompanied by shoe haiku). In 2010 I won The Green Book Award for Poetry, held in San Francisco.

And now this new book. Gratitude is owed to so many people. Alan Hayes, Arlen House. He’s a great supporter of women writers. Paula Meehan, a wonderful poet, I’m so grateful for her words. Dr Christina Henri (Hon Artist in Residence, Hobart, Tasmania) who is instrumental in the Brideship Lasses/Irish Roses Project. Thanks to this amazing woman, the girls (some as young as eleven) who left Ireland during famine years, under The Earl Grey Scheme, are remembered and commemorated through bonnets embroidered with their names.  Berries for Singing Birds includes a set of 11 poems which chart the experience of these women. There’s a workhouse in Birr where I grew up but the Orphan Girls who left from there were never mentioned in any history lesson at school. This interest began when I accepted an invitation to Mary Ryan’s house in Malahide to sow a bonnet with The Headford Lace Project.  Mary Ryan is a wonderful advocate for women. So, having embroidered Mary Goff’s name onto a snow white bonnet, I wrote some words in memory of her. She’d never been traced after she left Ballina Workhouse, travelling to Australia from Plymouth on The Inchinnan. Like all the girls who left, she’d have had a wooden chest with a variety of clothes, luxuries that couldn’t be afforded in hungry famine times. Four months at sea followed before dry land and an uncertain future. Those who could sew found work in fine houses and were given weekly provisions of sugar, tea and flour.

In conclusion, poetry has brought me lots of emotional joy over the years. I recently came across a poster I kept from 1999 from The Eastern Washington University Workshop held in the Irish Writers Centre which I attended (thanks to course money obtained through a FAS Scheme). Eavan Boland (who was closely associated with Arlen House in its infancy years in Galway, the press originally founded by Catherine Rose) facilitated. It was there I met Dorothy Sutton who years later invited me to go to Lexington, Kentucky as a poet in residence. The moral of my poetry story is this: keep creative, trust your gut instincts, do what you feel is right for you and you never know where poetry will take you.

(c) Eileen Casey

Berries for Singing Birds (Arlen House) launches in the Irish Writers Centre, on 15th October at 6.30 p.m.

Berries for Singing Birds

Sheltered by holly’s spiny leaf, birdsongs
hatch on promises of autumn’s harvest.
Such late bounty fruits abundant red
so thrushes full grown, welcome
as an emigrant’s homecoming,
return to glut these crimson pearls.

Pierced through, juice spills into slumbered
earth while in the blackberry’s thorny tangle,
warblers feast. Wing to wing. Beak to beak.

Old wives ink tales. Winter scarcities.
As if such abundance, like old sins,
must be punished. Even then, juniper’s blue
bleed is a truce of feathered music, sung
in remotest places, heard in bleakest hearts.

Order your copy online here.

 

About the author

Originally from the Midlands, based in South Dublin, collections are published by New Island, AltEnts (Poetry) and Arlen House (Prose).Work features in anthologies by Dedalus, Faber & Faber, New Island, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Ireland/Trocaire, The Nordic Irish Studies Journal, Orbis (UK), The Jellybucket (USA), among others. Awards include A Hennessy/Sunday Tribune Emerging Fiction Award, The Oliver Goldsmith International Prize and a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship. She holds an M.Phil (Creative Writing) from The School of English, The Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College, Dublin. Currently facilitating creative writing in The Irish Writers Centre, Berries for Singing Birds (Arlen House) launches there on 15th October at 6.30 p.m.

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