Core Curriculum: Creative Writing and History

Is it feasible to write creatively about history? The responsibility to be truthful and accurate has to be set against the writer’s duty to be fresh and interesting. I knew, starting out on this project, that it would be challenging. Historians had given me bedrock truth but I had set myself the task of taking a general story of nineteenth century Irish emigration to the United States and reeling it in, close to home. Against the bigger historical facts, I had a few bits and bobs of family lore about people in my mother’s line who had crossed the Atlantic and made new lives in New York City. It’s an old story and a familiar one; so what did I think I could bring to the telling of it as new?

I’m an Irish poet with eight poetry collections, each of which engages in some way with the traction between historical fact and how it’s experienced and understood via personal narratives. I’ve always been interested in writing poems that make small stories resonate and big stories intimate. When I moved to New York in August 2018 to take up a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, I knew that my mother’s stories of growing up with her Granny in the city would be something I’d have to explore. The stories, for me, were a kind of toehold in the city; a way, I suppose, of belonging, or feeling like I could.

These were old stories in several ways: old in that they were told to me over forty five years ago, but also old in that the lives they originally belonged to were three and four generations ago. I began the story with Ellen O’Hara, born in 1862; my great-grandmother. Ellen left County Sligo at a time when Irish emigration was characterized by the number of young, single women who travelled alone and poorly, to find American work in mills and as servants, and to send money home to their families, by way of remittances.

Women like Ellen succeeded (if they did) in ways that seldom earned recording in historical narratives: what is it, after all, in the great, public scheme of things to have raised two children to lives better than your own?  And little mark did I find in the end, particular to Ellen. But I did find a bigger story, the story of so many Ellens and the kind of narrative paths their lives tended to have. Off the boat and into domestic service, working fifteen hours a day for wages they could mostly save and send back home, their room and board being covered. Out of domestic service and into marriages with holes knocked in them by long absences with men off working wherever they could find work, often far from home. Out of wounded marriages and into running small-scale boarding houses where younger Irish immigrants could find a familiar kind of home. And out of one scantly-educated generation to the next, with book learning and certificates, and less punishing work.

Give or take, that was Ellen’s story too. My job, if I was to tell it well, was to take the bare bones and dramatize it, but very carefully. I watched myself create an Ellen, a woman not slow to offer an opinion, and to put her down, four square, in my office, with plenty to say for herself. And because she was not inclined to throw words about, she spoke efficiently, in what turned out to be loose, boxy sonnets, about her life and work.

Ellen is at the centre of Hereafter, but there’s another character too, the woman (a version, I suppose, of myself) who reads and researches and questions Ellen, and who puts that searching and questioning at the heart of the book. She writes about the difficulty of conjuring lives as hidden as Ellen’s, and how the telling is to be managed so as to be vivid, and also true. The truth is supported by the use of quotes from historians who have done significant research into Irish immigration and the lives of servants, and what they did with whatever money they earned. Hereafter proposes that the financial contribution of such emigrant women to the foundation of the Irish State was both generous and significant, if largely unacknowledged up to now.

Hereafter is a mix of poetry, lyric prose, history and images that, together, animate and personalise a story with a factual, historically-authenticated basis in the experience of Irish women immigrants. It’s fact and it’s fiction: at one point, Ellen accuses the narrator of writing ‘fairy stories’. But if there’s invention, there’s honesty too, I hope, in the way the machinery of invention is acknowledged and accounted for.

Funny thing, really: you invent a ghost and you watch yourself inventing her, and then you find you just can’t not believe in her, even though you made her up.

Last summer, down a lane behind Lough Talt in County Sligo, I found the remains of the house in which the real Ellen O’Hara grew up. If I should have encountered her anywhere, it really should have been here. But it was just a derelict cottage, not nearly as resonant or haunting to me as the plain brown chair in the corner of my NYPL office, that I had Ellen sit in whenever I had her call on me. There, amidst all the books, maps, photographs, historical journals, computer databases and my inventing hand, was where she came to seem real to me; where I heard her voice cohere. A voice I created, certainly, but a voice that seemed (to me, at least) to be not wantonly or entirely false.

Sometimes stories tell themselves, and sometimes they need urging. Hereafter is a record of that urging, eventually rounding (I choose to believe), on a plausible version of truth.

So far, at least, and for the time being, Ellen has kept shtum about whatever I may have got wrong.

Vona Groarke has published twelve books with The Gallery Press in Ireland, including eight poetry collections, the most recent of which is Link: Poet and World (2021). Her Selected Poems (2016) won the Pigott Prize for Best Irish Poetry Collection published that year, and her translation of Eibhlín Dubh Ni Chonaill’s Lament for Art O’Leary was re-published in 2020 to accompany an opera by Irene Buckley. Later this year, New York University Press will publish Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara – an account of Irish women domestic servants in 1890s New York, which arose out of her time as a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library 2018-19. She has taught at the U.K.’s University of Manchester since 2007 and, this year, will become Poet in Residence at St. John’s College of Cambridge University. Otherwise, she lives in South County Sligo in the west of Ireland, where she reads and writes.

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