Poet Paula Meehan's new collection For the Hungry Ghost is inspired by the Hades episode of James Joyce's Ulysses, and written through the powerful and deeply personal lens of the grief and trauma she has experienced, inherited and lived.
Ahead of a live performance of the poems at this year's Kilkenny Arts Festival, in collaboration with master musician David Power, Paula introduces the For the Hungry Ghosts below.
'To mark the centenary of the publication of James Joyce's masterwork, Ulysses, three of Ireland’s most innovative arts organisations and practitioners – ANU, Landmark Productions and MoLI – joined together, assembling hundreds of Ireland’s artists, creatives, arts workers and arts organisations across multiple genres to present Ulysses 2.2, a year-long odyssey of creative, artistic and experimental responses to the 18 episodes of Ulysses that chronicle an ordinary day in the life of Leopold Bloom.'
Thus goes the general note to the huge project that is Ulysses 2.2. My great pleasure, terror, and privilege was to be invited to respond to the sixth episode of the mind bending, mind altering, mind delighting trip that is James Joyce’s book of life.
The sixth, the Hades episode, charts Leopold Bloom’s journey on the 16th of June 1904 across Dublin to Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Prospect Cemetery, Glasnevin. It is also a journey into Bloom’s interior obsessions, into the underworld of his emotional life: the suicide of his father; the death of his child; his relationship with his wife Molly; the anxiety attendant on his daughter’s blossoming into womanhood.
It mirrors the ancient journey of Odysseus on his journey to the underworld of Hades as he made his magical and meandering way home to Ithaca from the Trojan War.
I would have first encountered Ulysses as a student. I heard it long before I read it, during a damp penniless winter in a cheap seaside rental. I once wrote a haiku about the experience:
That Skerries winter
you reading me Ulysses
night after broken night.
So for me the book is forever bound up with another awakening, into a pure poetry out of the mouth of a lovely Dublin young fellow I was crazy about. And the inevitable heartbreak at the end of that destabilising passion, the year of the Dublin bombings
At the same time, back there in 1974, I was technically a student in Trinity. One of the most influential encounters was with my teacher, WB Stanford, the renowned classicist. He inculcated a love of the ancient Greek poets, the ancient Greek theatre, the ancient Greek myths. So strong did the myths imprint that I have spent much of the rest of my life rambling the actual landscape of Greece, exploring the dinnseanchas of the Bronze age and eating lotus on a succession of Greek islands. Ikaria, the one I have come to know and love, as a second home, is the location for many of the poems in For the Hungry Ghosts.
Watch: Paula Meehan talks For The Hungry Ghosts
The Dublin that Joyce recorded was the Dublin of my great grandparents whom I never got to meet in person. It was the Dublin too of my beloved grandparents when they were children, Hannah and Wattie. I felt I was borrowing Joyce’s lens to try to see into the past and into the legacy that would animate most of what I’ve subsequently written.
My great grandmother Annie Plunket was born on Purdon Street, and was one of the last of the Dublin madames. We cannot be certain about Annie’s literacy. In the 1901 census it is recorded that she can read and write. The 1911 census records that she cannot read or write. On the registers for the birth of two of her sons Thomas and Walter’s and the death register for her daughter Mary, Annie leaves her mark (X). But who in the Monto was telling truth to power in that revolutionary moment?
My grandfather Wattie, her son, used tell me that I took after her — she always had her nose in a book he said. Her age on both the 1901 and 1911 census puts her birth year in either 1880 or 1881 which means she was married at 13-14 years of age. Her first son John Joseph Meehan, was born on 2 February 1895, which indicates that she was pregnant when she married or that he was a premature baby.
I have always felt haunted by her. And by the difficulty of finding a reliable truth for her.
Eventually she sat down and negotiated a kind of truce with Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary. It was the death knell, a harbinger of an inevitable change in the economy of the area. The soldiers were pulling out, the docks were in decline and a powerful Theocracy was in the making.
The Hades episode of Ulysses offered me a powerful lens to look at grief & trauma as I have experienced, inherited and lived them, and offers the spur to ritualise them through poetry.
I work as a poet in the chasm between that written record and the folklore, the stories that have reached my ears by divers routes. If one contradicts the other, then one also sheds a kind of celestial light on the other. The folklore has been a bigger signpost than the historical record. Ever since Terry Fagan, the oral historian of the old neighbourhood, came up to me in 1983 outside the NCCAP offices on Summerhill and said 'I have great stuff on your great granny, Mrs. Meehan’, I have been on the trail.
My grandmother Hannah was born in 1904, on Lower Tyrone Street, (now Railway Street) that fated year when Joyce met Nora. My grandfather Wattie, was born on Mabbot Street, now James Joyce Street, another street name change in a long line of erasures in that part of Dublin. Wattie taught me to read and write before I went to school, giving me this powerful tool of survival. With Hannah I would visit her old pals in Mary Murray’s basement on the corner of Foley Street where Dinny had a pigeon loft out back and I’d hear stories of the neighbourhood, stories it’s taken me a lifetime to contextualise. The heart is the organ that Joyce privileges in the Hades episode and so it offered me permission to explore heart mysteries.
Hannah and Wattie were children of the Monto, in Joyce’s day the biggest red light district in Europe. I fancy he saw them and wrote them into his book. I fancy he saw my ghosts, my beloved dead, while they lived and loved on those streets. He had a sharp eye for the relicts of imperial trauma.
I have long believed that the legacy, often unarticulated, of imperial trauma has come down through the generations in subtle and sometimes personally undermining ways.
The Hades episode of Ulysses offered me a powerful lens to look at grief & trauma as I have experienced, inherited and lived them, and offers the spur to ritualise them through poetry. And in the process, perhaps, close the door on certain obsessional subjects for good. To say, in effect, you have had your spake, now let me rest. Whether that particular cohort of ghosts will let me be is yet to be discovered.
My response so is a collection of elegies, songs of mourning & signposts to recovery & survival.
I believe the uileann pipes are powerful resonators that can channel volcanic emotion. Heard live, and turned in the hands of the master musician, David Power, a magician of the chanter, drone and reed, the tunes, like the poems, can ritualise and assuage grief, can open the heart to the woundedness of creatures.
After two years of the COVID plague, these poems came in an intense spell of creativity — the invitation to respond acted as a catalyst for my exploration of my own underworld and my own beloved dead.
Paula Meehan and David Power present For the Hungry Ghosts at the Parade Tower, Kilkenny on 13th — 14th August 2022, as part of this year's Kilkenny Arts Festival - find out more here, and find out more about the ongoing Ulysses 2.2 project here.