On Sunday 17th April at 6 pm on RTÉ lyric fm, Claire Cunningham presents Sublimer Wishes, the final programme in a series of three which tells the stories of poets whose work has been rediscovered.

Below, Claire describes how the series came about.


On Saturday 6th October 2018 I spent the day sitting at at the back of a large room in Poetry Ireland's premises on Parnell Square. I was there to attend an event called Missing Voices: Irish Women Poets of the 18th-20th Centuries.

Speaker after speaker gave a short talk about an Irish woman poet from the distant past – and, in some cases, the not-very-distant past - most of whom were completely new to me. I had heard of Lola Ridge, yes, as I had already started making a programme about her life and work for RTÉ lyric fm. I was vaguely aware of Patricia Avis and Blanaid Salkeld, but had never read any of their poetry. And the poem The Man From God Knows Where rang a bell, although I couldn't have named the poet who wrote it, Florence Mary Wilson.

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Listen to the first installment of Sublimer Wishes

We heard about Ellen Taylor, born into poverty in the 18th century and who worked as a servant. A slim book of her poems was published in 1792, but little is know about her apart from what can be gleaned from the introduction and from the poems themselves. Donegal-born poet Madge Herron, who might be described as an early performance poet. Angela Greene, who won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1988, published her debut - and only - collection in 1993, and then slipped out of sight.

I knew immediately that I wanted to tell these stories on radio. When RTÉ lyric fm commissioned a three-part series, and the BAI offered to fund the series under the Sound & Vision funding scheme, I made a start. I recorded the first interview, with Seán Hewitt talking about the poet Emily Lawless, in February 2020 and, well, then everything ground to a halt.

Over the next two years, in between lockdowns and Covid surges, I took the opportunity to record other contributors when I could.

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Listen to the second installment of Sublimer Wishes

It was particularly fascinating, in the case of some of the more recent poets, to meet some family members and people who remembered them. Her friend Susan Connolly recalled how she and Angela Greene encouraged each other, and Angela's daughter Miriam Greene described the room where her mother, surrounded by books, did her writing, and the special moments they shared when her mother asked her opinion on poems in progress. I met Madge Herron's niece, Patricia Herron, in a remote valley in Donegal beside the ruins of the house where Madge had lived as a child. In Belfast, Jennie McClearn recalled the eccentricities of her grandmother, Freda Laughton, and the thrill of discovering an archive of unpublished work which is now being studied by academic researcher Emma Penney.

As I had no recordings by the poets themselves reading their work, with the exception of Madge Herron, the poets' words were brought to life in readings by actors Eleanor Methven, Paula McGlinchey, Cathy Belton and Ingrid Craigie.

While I was working on the radio series, Maria Johnston and Conor Linnie were editing a book that also evolved from the Poetry Ireland event. Irish Women Poets Rediscovered: Readings in poetry from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, was published by Cork University Press in 2021 and contains 17 original essays on seventeen extraordinary Irish women poets.

For some time, I considered calling my series of three programmes, each focussing on three poets featured in the book, Missing Voices, using the same title as the event in Poetry Ireland in 2018. But then I came across the poem by Olivia Elder, who was born in Aghadowey in Northern Ireland in 1735, where she laments all the obstacles that get in the way when she wants to spend time reading and writing:

For spite of all sublimer wishes

I needs must sometimes wash the dishes.

And Olivia had given me the perfect title for the radio series: Sublimer Wishes.

Episode 3 of Sublimer Wishes is presented by Claire Cunningham on The Lyric Feature, Sunday April 17th at 6 pm on RTÉ lyric fm. This episode features Ellen Taylor, Emily Lawless and Freda Laughton. Listen to more from The Lyric Feature here.