I hit burnout sometime around idk when last year, and while I kept on reading, I definitely stopped writing reviews. But now a new semester is staring me in the face, and I have a project I want to procrastinate on, so here’s a review, because I have been reading like a fiend these first two weeks of January, and this might be my favorite thing I’ve read so far this year (might sound like faint praise but I am 13 books deep already).
I’ve read not as much of Vona Groarke’s poetry as I’d like, but I heard some good things about her latest volume, and the format intrigued me: sure, Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara has some poetry in it, but it also has memoir and history and reproductions of photographs and historical documents ranging from ship manifests to sheet music of popular music for/about Irish immigrants to America. So I ordered it along with some other recent books of Irish poetry, and finished it today while trying to ignore the polar vortex that has kept my dog from venturing further than the end of the driveway (sweet mercy, it’s cold).
Groarke had a fellowship to at the NYPL, and used that time and those resources to try and reconstruct the life of her great-grandmother, Ellen O’Hara, who emigrated from the west of Ireland to New York as a teenager, and built a life there for herself that is on the one hand not so different from that of many other Irish girls who left for America, and yet also contains within it all manner of surprises (for instance, Ellen frequently edited her age when reporting to census officials or completing other government documents). Because almost none of Ellen’s letters survived (for reasons you learn near the book’s end), Groarke must extrapolate from the work of historians, the slim pickings of family memory, but also engage in significant work of imagination. Notably, all the poetry in the volume is written in Ellen’s voice, though Groarke acknowledges the trickiness of this task, and at times lets her ancestor critique or push back against Groarke’s work. Ellen speaks entirely in loose Italian sonnets (Groarke gives herself flexibility with meter, but largely adheres to an octave + sestet, i.e. 8 + 6, stanza structure), and she is wry, unsentimental, and proud in the voice that Groarke gives her.
There is heartbreak contained in Ellen’s story, particularly in her decision to take her two children back to Ireland and leave them there for a decade while she builds up the savings to open her own boarding house in New York, and this choice reverberates through the family afterwards. But heartbreak isn’t the last word; Groarke also has the sharp observation that the work of Irish girls and women like Ellen is perhaps another, even more crucial way to understand Ireland’s 20th century political history, as the remittances sent home by these women enabled their families to buy land and build up the economic circumstances that would make the 1919 war of independence successful.
“Is it wishful to believe that the good of the money those daughters scrimped to send home didn’t end with those homes, exactly, but fed into a movement that gathered strength over the early part of the twentieth century; that resulted, at last, in an Ireland better fit to live in for those who stayed behind?”
At a time when Irish writers and historians are looking more closely at the 20th century legacy of Ireland’s women, Groarke’s transatlantic, diaspora story lands with both wit and poignance, and makes specific a narrative that is often discussed in generalities.
I loved it.