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Limerick in Spring, 1918
Seated quietly by the April fireside,
Lucy May Fitzell reads Rupert Brooke’s poems.
Joshua, whose first gift to her was a pair of gloves,
offers titbits of news: Ottoman gains in the East;
butter prices; rumours of a general strike.
He rises and riddles the failing embers.
In the Methodist Sunday morning Lucy May’s hymnal is bookmarked
with a photograph of her brother Bill –
away with the Seaforths in Palestine.
Her gloved hand touches his sepia face.
She remembers picnics in Kilkee and sings
‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’.
Lucy May watches Royal Welch Fusiliers
playing with her children in the garden.
Mr. Sassoon has returned to the front; Mr. Graves
remains. Her affection lies with the parade of boys
who sprawl on the lawn, on scratchy rugs, firing bullets
of Manchester vowels and Welsh consonants.
She calls Eileen from the piano in the drawing room
and Amy from the flowerbed where worms are.
Private Davies lifts Louie high on his shoulder.
Captain Swales walks with bent knees as he
holds Joan’s hand. Lucy May shepherds them
in to the dining room where there is
honey still for tea.
I wrote about this poem in my writer’s blog a few years ago – when it was first published in the Stony Thursday Book. (It’s also in my collection This Little World.) I had the joy of reading it in Limerick when the journal was launched; bringing the poem home, so to speak. When I began to research this poem about my family’s connection to the first World War, I didn’t realise I’d find Limerick connections to some of the most famous war poets of that era.
In autumn 2011, I was writing a series of poems about women on the edges, the margins, of history. I wanted to explore the Irish domestic experience of World War l. I was able to do that through my great-grandmother, using stories my grandmother told me about that time:
Limerick was a garrison town. My great- grandmother used to give Sunday teas for some of the soldiers in the barracks. I suspect they met at Church. My granny remembered the soldiers marching through Limerick every Sunday, on their way to religious services.
Grannie had a box of photos of some of those visitors to the house. Over the years, I’d ask her to take out the photos and tell me about them. The soldiers mentioned in my poem are the men in those old photographs.
Did Sassoon and Graves come to tea?
Well, I took a bit of poetic licence – telescoping events. In ‘Goodbye to All That’, Graves mentions being posted to Limerick at the end of the war. And, the Graves family had a long association with Limerick – Robert’s grandfather was a Bishop of Limerick. Though I think Graves had mixed feelings about his Irish ancestry! An email I have from the curator of the RWF Museum states that Graves was in Limerick from 1917 until he was demobbed in 1919.
Since writing the poem I’ve discovered that the poet and artist David Jones (‘In Parenthesis’) was also stationed in Limerick. He moved there from the Western Front after a severe bout of trench fever. There’s more of a chance that he could have sat at Lucy May’s tea table.
As for Sassoon visiting my family? Well, I don’t think Sassoon was a ‘chapel’ sort of chap. While he wrote several poems during his stay in Limerick, there’s also an account of his going to a hunt in County Limerick. On that occasion, he got ‘high tea’ from a Mrs. McDonnell of Ballinacurra House. There would be a lovely symmetry to the episode, but I don’t think I’m related to her!
Sassoon was in Limerick with the Third Battalion for less than two months – early in 1918. Like Graves and Jones, he was in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. I’m not a military historian, but the best way I can describe the Third Battalion is as a feeder unit, or a posting for soldiers as respite before going back to the Front. Sassoon wasn’t long out of Craiglockhart War Hospital when he was posted to Ireland. He was impatient to get back to the war.
There are seven, possibly eight, poems from his time in Limerick – including one called ‘In Barracks’. (Another interesting poem is from in July 1918 – ‘Letter to Robert Graves’.)
‘Remorse’, was written in Limerick on 4 February 1918, just four days before he left for Palestine. He was there until May 1918, when he returned to the Western Front.
REMORSE Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,–each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
“Could anything be worse than this?”–he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees. . .
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs . . . “O hell!”
He thought–“there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.”
As for my great-granduncle, and the other soldiers who came to tea . . .
After I’d written the poem, my mother told me another story: my gran-aunts used to sing for the soldiers. Seemingly there was one song they hadn’t heard before, and one of the children copied it out for a soldier. His family later wrote to my great-grandmother; he had been killed and the sheet of paper with the song on it was among his belongings when he died. One soldier wrote to Lucy May until the 1950s. We also have a Christmas card that was sent to her in December 1918. It’s printed in Welsh & English. I’ll post a copy of of it in December.
Bill survived, but he didn’t remain in Ireland. Family connections were lost, and I never met him although he died when I was a teenager. I believe he is buried in Cheltenham. So, there’s more research to be done.
A few years ago, I found Bill’s original WWI photos and digitised them with the help of a friend who’s a photographer. There are photos from Egypt, the Sudan, Palestine and, I think, Salonika.
How many of the pals in these photos came home?
I started writing this post at dawn. The sky-chill lifted gradually as the clouds pinkened from the east. There was rain during the night, but the sky is fairly clear now: the bare branches fan out against the increasing blue. The harbour is still. The tide is going out.
Impossible to imagine, truly, the last few hours before eleven o’ clock one hundred years ago.
And poetry lovers – did you have a nice World Poetry Day?
I’ve just been updating d’aul Writer’s CV. It never ends, the administration!
This time last year, I was working like mad on the final drafts of This Little World. It’s hard to believe that a year has gone by. And what a wonderful, creative, engaging year it has been! I’ll write a bit more about that soon.
Sold another book today – always a nice event. There are just ten books remaining here in my literary HQ. Doire Press have a couple, and there are also copies at the Ennis Bookshop. Easter is coming up. What could be better than chocolate for Easter? Poetry AND chocolate! Jus’ sayin’.
So, I’m still scribbling away. I’ve put up a few reading events on the website; if you can get to any of them, it would be lovely to see you. I’m reading with the Poetry Collective at the DeValera Library in Ennis, next Thursday. (The Library’s hosting lunchtime readings once a month.)
So, if you’re in Ennis doing the shopping, or just want a break from the office, why not come along and hear a variety of work at 1.00pm on 29 March.
I was delighted to be interviewed by Sophie Grenham of The Gloss Magazine. The result appeared online this week, and I’ve put up the link below.
It’s lovely to be asked questions about one’s writing. Answering them is another matter! As I said to Sophie, I hope I avoided being a git and actually made some sense. Questions are good, though; like the students in NUI Galway, they made me think a bit more about what I do, and why.
I’ll be hoping for evenings like this next week when I head to Bantry – the lovely town situated between the Beara and Sheeps Head peninsulas.
I’ve been to the West Cork Literary Festival several times as part of the audience. This time – HUZZAH!! – I’m going as one of their featured writers.
I can’t wait to be there. WCLF is one of those events that has everything: a great line-up, a wonderful bunch of volunteers, a superb location, and a fantastic hinterland to explore when you get a bit of time off. If the weather is good – well, that’s a bonus.
I will be chatting to Eibhear Walshe, and reading from This Little World, at 11.30am in the Bantry Bookshop next Wednesday, 19 July. Thanks to Margaret and her staff for having us. If any of you are down for the Festival – please come, and say Hello!
This gets to be a bit of a working holiday for me. I’m taking an extra night off so that I can take in as much of the other writers’ events as possible. Lucky me.
We’re due a write-up about the whole book thing. Life in the book lane has been pretty fast and furious this past month. And, real life has also got in the way – as it does. I think time to regroup is in order; then I promise a ‘daycent’ sit-down-with-a-cuppa post over on the Writer’s Blog.
In the meantime – enjoy the summer, my lovelies. And if you want to purchase This Little World, please visit www.doirepress.com where Lisa & John will be only too happy to sell you a copy!
The house elves in Doire Press and Ballyvaughan have been busy: organising wine, glasses, a lectern and – in my case – sorting out what to wear, Darlings!
It’s been an amazing few months: chock-full of poet-type angst, comradeship at Annaghmakerrig, excitement at being chosen by Doire Press, worry that I wouldn’t make the grade, delight in signing the contract. It was thrilling to see the proofs appear on the desktop; even more so to tear open the envelope and hold the first copy of my debut collection in my hands.
So now is the time to celebrate with Lisa and John from Doire Press, and with my family and kind, loyal friends. I’m extremely grateful to writer & poet Celeste Augé for launching This Little World into the wider world. Apart from the speeches, there will be wine, and a bit of poeting. Mostly though, PARRRTAAAAY!!!
If you happen to be in Galway on Saturday, don’t just stand there peeking through the window, or standing in the doorway. Come in and join us!
I’ve been preparing the manuscript of my first poetry collection. And I invested in a week at beautiful Annaghmakerrig to give myself a good run at re-drafting newer poems, as well as looking over the older ones. Of course, being where I was, the first thing I did after unpacking was to sit down and write a new poem. It was a great start to the week and set me up well for the next day’s writing. No trips off on the gatch this time, apart to Newbliss for the newspaper.
It was wonderful being back in ‘my old room’! They’re very good to me in that place. I had tweeted Miss Warby to let her know I was on my way. She tweeted ‘Welcome, darling.’ when I arrived! Spoilt, I was, pure spoilt. It was lovely to meet a whole new bunch of people – artists and writers, musicians and a dancer. But, typical in Ireland, it turned out that the writer Liz Nugent and I had met – many moons ago! A long story, and you’re not getting it here. The nightly dinners were a joy – great food and conversation – sometimes presided over by the Centre’s director, Rob. Many thanks to vegetarian Helen who was our cook on St. Paddy’s Day. she went beyond the call of duty: The ham was scrummmmmy.
Home to reality, and writing, writing, writing. But also a moment or two to enjoy the fact that Marie Lecrivain, guest editor at Al-Khemia Poeticahad published my contribution for National Women’s Day in the U.S., and on St. Patrick’s Day at that. Nice one, Marie.
Also came news that my poem, ‘A Bad Dose’, had been shortlisted for Cúirt/UCHG Poems for Patience, 2017. I was delighted. And a tie this year – well done to poets Lorna Shaughnessy and Marie Cadden on their joint win. Both of their poems will be printed and hung in University Hospital Galway. It’s a great idea, I think.
This week I’m formatting the manuscript and this is what I was doing two mornings ago:
Each slip of paper is a title of a poem. Talk about getting into shape!
Yes, I’m heading back. To the house, the lake, the lovely staff and – if the vibes are all aligned – perhaps a meeting with Miss Worby, the resident ghost.
I’ll be redrafting and making the final push towards my first collection: This Little World.
The dreaded lurgy has been getting me down for the past few days, but the antibiotics are kicking in and I can’t wait to get up to Annaghmakerrig. (For more about this wonderful artists’ residence, have a look at Forward! Retreat! – Part the Second on my Writer’s Blog above.)
Now, I must away to pack my books, notebooks, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.