Donegal poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin introduces Women & The State: Writing Irish History, an event at this year's Earagail Arts Festival that 'looks backwards and forwards in time, through the lens of shifting societal attitudes and beliefs, to explore questions of identity, place and community'.

Where does the impulse to write spring from? What sparks a literary obsession? As a young girl in the Donegal Gaeltacht I grew up in boglands steeped in folklore, myth and superstition. It's a landscape adrift with echoes but at eleven years of age my inclination for poetry took another turn when my parents began to foster children. Overnight I was catapulted into the complicated reality of other peoples’ lives. Of the many memories, one in particular lingers. I recall the day a teenager came to the house to say goodbye to the infant she was about to relinquish to adoption. The birth mother; the ghostgirl. I was in a room with her for only a few minutes and yet it was an encounter that shifted my whole perspective on the world.

Ever since the ghostgirl has been with me as I write. In my debut poetry collection Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017) the ghostgirl appears in the guise of my grandmother who gave birth at a Mother and Baby Home in the 1950’s and who became separated from her child for almost forty years. In my recent new collection The Poison Glen (The Gallery Press, 2021) she walks among the Irish mothers who lost children to state homes, industrial schools and orphanages. Over and over again the ghostgirl haunts my poetry and when Earagail Arts Festival 2022 invited me to curate a literary event to mark 100 years of the Irish State, I found myself compelled to honour the ghostgirl in my life.

Annemarie Ní Churreáin

On Sunday 24 July, a panel titled Women & The State: Writing Irish History will draw from a number of questions: What does it mean to bear witness in literature and writing to histories of The Irish State? How can we light dark corners, particularly in relation to the lives of vulnerable women and children? What are the challenges of writing Irish history? What are the responsibilities? In the aftermath of Waking the Feminists (2015), the campaign to Repeal The 8th (2018) and, more recently, the Irish government’s Mother and Baby Homes Report (2020), this discussion will look backwards and forwards in time, through shifting societal attitudes and beliefs, to explore the themes of identity, place and community. It’s envisaged that topics we may discuss could include mother and child care, adoption, reproductive rights and the modern-day problems of the direct provision system.

To live in Donegal is to develop a sixth sense for what might be buried in darkness.

Literature is an act of discovery and Women & The State: Writing Irish History seeks to hold space for the nature of writing as an act of transformation. As part of this panel I will share my experience of writing family autobiography and of reimagining historical themes through the lens of myth, particularly the Donegal myth of Balor of The Evil Eye who, according to the story, locked his daughter Eithne into a tower on Tory Island and stolen her three infant sons. I will also discuss how I have been inspired in my writing by the restorative justice circles of Brehon Law Ireland.

Sinead Gleeson

The event will be chaired by writer and editor Sinéad Gleeson, author of Constellations: Reflections from Life; the panel will include a reading by poet and writer Elaine Feeney who is a founding member of the Tuam Oral History Project. Also joining the panel is Aoife Moore, the award-winning Political Correspondent for the Irish Examiner, who has received awards for her coverage of Northern Ireland and the Mother and Baby Homes scandal. And, finally, Women & The State: Writing Irish History will feature musical accompaniment from Donegal-born Bríd Harper who is regarded as one of the leading Irish traditional fiddle players of the last forty years.

In life, and in literature, the ghostgirl has dared me into a deeper understanding of place. To grow up in Donegal was to grow up in the shadows of the Atlantic, of the Border, of the bog. It's a place that developed in me a sixth sense for what might be buried in darkness. A guardian of the language of our foremothers, Donegal is where some of the earliest Irish histories—The Annals of the Four Masters—were recorded. But what I love most about the county is that it has a deep cultural sensitivity for all the various ways in which stories are stored through folklore, mythology, community and ritual. Part of having this event in the west is rerooting the question of how history gets recorded & who gets to access it. It’s my hope that this landmark panel for Earagail Arts Festival will celebrate the unique culture of Donegal and open up a conversation, extending beyond the county, about women’s voices in Ireland and the State in which we now exist.

Women & The State: Writing Irish History is at Rathmullan House, Co. Donegal on Sunday 24 July at 3 pm, as part of this year's Earagail Arts Festival - find out more here.