Mattresses airing at open windows –
this lingering vision has scarred his sixty years;
his abiding childhood recollection:
if it rains today, we’ll all sleep wet again tonight,
his mother had traipsed this same long hall,
was told: Sit there, sign that. Give him up!
Barely two weeks earlier, she had transgressed,
screamed in labour; frog-marched to an outhouse;
legs apart, she gave birth standing over
a steel commode; torn, left unstitched;
and the cold-eyed nun moved slow from bead to bead,
asked if now it was worth the few minutes
of passing pleasure.
Kept behind locked doors and iron gates,
a hundred pounds would have bought her freedom –
its lack condemned her to a lifetime of scrubbing
floors or clothes, cutting grass on hands and knees,
mending potholes; no letters, no talk, no bras,
name changed, haircut, experiments – other parallels;
this the penance for her whore’s droppings,
atonement for leading faceless men on,
for being pretty, for being naive,
for being woman.
And her stolen child, a chattel, shovelled
from home to foster home, exploited, ostracised,
dragged through nettles, sleeping with pigs,
whipped and flogged, pot-bellied for want of food,
unloved, unschooled, a life blighted
and the torment of not understanding why.
A thwarted search for belonging, for a lost mother,
her illegitimate children symbols
of defiance of the church’s power –
they were not meant to meet again,
all part of their shared punishment.
The search for his infant sister,
neglected to death –
where to start among the hundreds
of communal graves; no headstones,
only a homemade nail in a granite wall
to mark her anonymous presence;
was she coffined in a shoebox,
was she dumped in at pit filled to the brim
with baby bones? Bastard bones, unworthy
of investigation, of explanation.
So, we resealed the slabs that hid our sad, sordid secrets;
said prayers over the uncounted numbers, the unremembered names,
then taught ourselves to forget; taught ourselves to despise
and abuse and punish girls, stole their children,
buried them without respect or dignity;
crossed ourselves, smug in a theocracy that rained
Hail Marys and Holy Rosarys and Our Fathers
from one Saint Swithen’s Day to the next. Our fathers?
What of our unblamed fathers, skulking in anonymity;
what of our church that created the sin, allotted the blame,
turned our minds; what of our state, supine in its collusion,
blind-eyed to the brutality carried out in its name.
Fools, did they not know that innocence, wronged,
never rests, that we would not escape its haunting?
Mike Gallagher, an Achill Island writer, has been published and translated worldwide. He won the Michael Hartnett Viva Voce award in 2010 and 2016, the Desmond O’Grady International award in 2012, and was shortlisted for the Hennessy award in 2011. His collection, Stick on Stone, was published by Revival Press.