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Sidelines: Tongues by Peggy O’Brien

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Peggy O'Brien © 22 April 2019.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Poets ).

One summer in Dalkey, some ten years ago, my friend of nearly half a century, Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy, gave me two objects, both prized items from her household. At lunch one day, a leisurely lunch, a leisurely day, Harriet suddenly jumped up from the table and pivoted to a glass-fronted bookshelf. From it she lifted down a very large, elegant book, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, as translated by Scott Moncrieff and with an introductory letter by George Moore. Little did I realise then that this book would become the source for my long poem, Tongues. The second object Harriet handed over to me on a similar day, again on the spur of the moment but probably not, was a painting removed from a wall in a bedroom upstairs. This seascape, now hanging in my living room, was the work of Elizabeth Rivers, the English painter, who lived for the better part of a decade on the remote Aran Islands, an experience she documented in her memoir, Stranger in Aran. Later in life, Rivers moved to Dalkey, where she died. Her house in that village, Summerfield, is still there, just down the road from Marlow, what had been Harriet’s house on the Green Road, perched high above Coliemore Harbour. Rivers, however, had died long before Harriet lived there. And now Harriet is gone too.

I never associated those two objects given to me in the same season, clearly a time when dear Harriet was dispensing certain treasures to family and friends, while she still had the power to do so. I don’t think she regarded the two objects as having something in common, apart from them both being gifts from her. As I delved, however, more and more into the still abiding mystery of the complex relationship of Heloise and Abelard, I began to think about it in relation to Elizabeth Rivers, both her life and that haunting painting. The more I read the letters the more I appreciated the slow, incremental growth of Heloise as an independent being, an achievement occurring largely at a remove from the world, a deliberately marginalised stance perhaps not unlike that of Rivers on Aran. Self-realisation for Heloise happened largely as a result of work, serving as the abbess in the monastic community she and her nuns took over from Abelard, a site he called the Paraclete. Named after the Holy Ghost, Abelard left it in a state of chaos, as though a mighty wind had blown in and uprooted everything, ripped it all apart. Heloise repaired the lot from the ground up. Some might see this achievement as merely the result of following in Abelard’s famous footsteps. I see Heloise putting her own print on the Paraclete, redeeming it with sheer labour, personal stability and an unwavering communal consciousness. Heloise didn’t have to be the centre of attention. Her concern was simply, contrary to Yeats’ vision of the apocalypse, that the centre hold for all concerned.

Rivers, born in England and educated as an artist in Paris, repaired to Aran just as J.M. Synge had done at the urging of Yeats. Only Rivers stayed for a much longer time. It is nonetheless easy, given this echo of Synge and Yeats, to read the art of Rivers through the lens of the Irish Renaissance, that is to place it in a web of cultural achievement associated mainly with male, Irish artists. Adhering to this narrative, she was simply following in Synge’s footsteps, when she went to Aran. Furthermore, to consider side by side those two objects from Harriet’s household might easily lead one to conjecture about the relationship of her husband, Frank O’Connor (Michael O’Donovan), with both. It seems probable that he bought the Moncrieff Letters, particularly given the George Moore inclusion. O’Connor, after all, knew Yeats well and would have enjoyed a direct sense of connection with the literary world Moore occupied, even at a distance from London. Moore’s realism also would have exerted a tug on O’Connor, not to mention Moore’s forays into the short story. Rivers would eventually work with the celebrated Dublin stained glass designer, Evie Hone, and O’Connor must have encountered her first-hand, perhaps in the company of the Yeats sisters, Lily and Lolly, founders of the Cuala Press with whom Rivers once published. Indeed, as Hallie O’Donovan, the daughter of Harriet and Michael, has reminded me, Rivers illustrated an elegant book for Cuala with text provided by O’Connor, artist and writer enjoying equal prominence. Given this collaboration, it is of course very probable that Michael purchased many paintings by Elizabeth. Despite the obvious presence of a female artistic sorority in Dublin at the time, however, the danger remains of interpreting such works of art – that book, my precious painting – in terms of a male network like a family tree, where all the branches and leaves are patronyms.  And the truth is that I will never know whether Michael purchased the painting, or Michael and Harriet together, or Harriet later all on her own. I only know she, a woman, gave it to me, another woman, a work of art by yet another woman.

If I look at the painting itself, this adds to the conversation about the place of a woman – a foreigner, an artist, an observer on Aran in the 1930s. The picture depicting a harbour boiling over in a furious storm is impressionist in style. Patches of white canvas peek through like the sun here and there, but glowering splotches of dark teal, grey, black and mud brown overpower any hope of light. In the foreground, almost pouring out over the bottom edge of the frame, is the sketch of a donkey with a woman on top. We know it’s a woman because a deft brush stroke makes it clear the person is riding side-saddle. She is on the edge observing the boats, the fisherman, as they fight literally for their lives. And we are observing her observing them, and implicitly constructing the eyes of the painter behind that lone woman’s eyes. We too are on the same margin, where Rivers, that conspicuous Englishwoman, must have been on Aran. Only the painting makes us see what a privileged vantage point this is, the chance to see from a detached distance the fevered efforts of others to survive, to remain at the centre, Abelard’s life-long battle.

As Rivers was an outsider in the west of Ireland, so too would Heloise be when, pregnant with Abelard’s child, she went from Paris to Brittany to spend her confinement. A woman whose background still remains obscure (she was placed as a very young child, essentially an orphan, in the convent of Argenteuil outside Paris, and then lived in the centre of that city with her uncle, Canon Hulbert), she stands in contrast to Abelard, who came from Breton nobility. Heloise was ever on the outside looking in, her stance when she initially observed Abelard deploying his argumentative brilliance in front of envious rivals and adoring acolytes.

In Tongues, my adaptation of their story, it is Dublin not Paris where they meet, in the front square of Trinity College and not at the Cathedral School of Notre Dame. The west of Ireland substitutes for Brittany, Abelard’s birthplace near Nantes and the mouth of the Loire River. Abelard’s family in Tongues hales from the southern side of the Shannon estuary, a village in north Kerry. Heloise goes there when she becomes pregnant and again after giving birth. Each time she smarts at her status as an outsider, little knowing then the advantage of such distance. In time she would find her own perch in the West, apart but near, just like that female observer on the donkey in the Rivers’ painting. Heloise in Tongues finds that safe vantage point on the other side of the Shannon estuary, in Clare, the Burren, feeling especially contained in the high Burren near Carron. Like a single, vivid orchid on a barren surface, pristine karst scoured of all prejudice – including sexism – she can be simply her own woman. This will eventually mean being the fictional headmistress at Corcomroe Abbey, a Cistercian monastic ruin, her Paraclete, down near the ever-tumultuous sea, but just enough above it.

(c) Peggy O’Brien

About Tongues:

Tongues is a radical retelling of the twelfth-century legend of Heloise and Abelard, she the rapt acolyte, he the brilliant logician. Abelard agrees, at the request of Heloise s uncle, to tutor the precocious young woman. Soon she is with child. She passes her confinement with Abelard s family in Brittany, while in Paris her uncle s henchmen castrate the fornicator. After the birth of the couple s child and a secret marriage, they both take monastic vows and live the rest of their lives cloistered from each other and the world. The first half, in keeping with the original letters, is entirely in Abelard s voice; but Tongues reveals even more of the profound suffering Abelard endures as a monk. The second half of the book abruptly announces the present day. Heloise finally speaks; a tongue of fire has ignited her, and the truth she utters exposes Abelard s absolutism as a desperate means to avoid more nuanced facts. Suddenly we are in Dublin, not Paris, the west of Ireland, Kerry and Clare, not Brittany. In this second half, Heloise reveals a hard-won sense of autonomy.

Order your copy online here.


Tongues is Peggy O'Brien's fourth book of poetry. The previous three are: Sudden Thaw, Frog Spotting and Trusting Ice. She currently teaches at University of Amherst, Massachusetts, and formerly taught at Trinity College Dublin.