Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Review of Bone Road by Lisa C. Taylor

The ambitious trajectory of the latest poetry collection, Bone Road, by the accomplished Irish writer, Geraldine Mills, begins with the journey of her great-grandfather and his family from County Mayo, Ireland to Warren, Rhode Island in the late 1800s. The Assisted Emigration Scheme created by James Hack Tuke enabled Irish families, ravaged by poverty to emigrate from County Mayo and Connemara to the United States between 1882 and 84. This scheme offered a paid passage, and each person was given a new set of clothes and landing money. As many as 10,000 Irish citizens on the western seaboard took advantage of this opportunity. The decision by the author’s great-grandfather to be on that ship gives credence to the idea that the actions of our ancestors continue to ripple through future generations.

This memoir-in-verse traces both the journey to America, and the family’s eventual return to their beloved but still suffering Ireland. Work in the cotton mills consisted of grueling hours yet steady pay for the author’s great-grandfather and his family. Initially the new clothes and pocket money seemed an adequate enticement but over time they realized that “they have forsaken/one hunger for another, /mill work ten hours a day/six days a week/all year round/thousands of spindles/hundreds of looms” (33). The longing for familiar landscape echoes throughout the collection as the cotton mill call up the memory of bog cotton and the sea at Achill Head. The physical toll of mill work served to crush any dreams of permanence. Although the Ireland they left seemed hopeless, the unfamiliar community, and the drudgery of the work tempered that view.
Cover image by Charlotte Kelly

There is no easy way to mitigate hunger and poverty, and these poems posit that the concept of home is not just about feeding ones’ family; it is about history and the longing for a familiar place. “There is a place beyond the dark/where the heart goes when it is drawn/further into a winter it is already in.” (39). The Ireland they returned to might have been physically the same but the family was forever altered by their experience in Rhode Island. The author brings the reader into the challenges of the return journey and the family’s subsequent time in a workhouse. This is the story of a choice between the factory stacks and ceaseless work, or gray drizzle and hunger in the land that her great-grandfather loved. Not everyone would survive the grueling journey and the conditions at the workhouse but this decision ultimately would change the future for the author and her grandparents. “Here it breathes its best self into the light/glints open the first blackbird’s eye to sing, /shines through the kitchen window/to the slow hum of waking. /Slips the whole of the sky into its mouth, /holds onto it for all the hours/the new world beyond the ocean/is still in darkness, waiting.” (49).
A new child is named after a sister who died, and work eventually would change the day-to-day life of the family, offering a modicum of hope for the future. In the author’s generation when a butter stamp is passed down from the grandmother to the author, it becomes a symbol of the renewed prosperity of the family with its imprint of chevrons and golden wood. “Its grip burnished to sheen from all that use, /my hand folds over the honeyed wood/where once her palm pressed it/into the golden round/leaving a perfect imprint of chevrons, /a cluster of strawberry leaves, its seeded fruit, /and in that way, overlaid/all that had gone before:/blight blossom, down-lying, poorhouse.” (57).
The progression of the poems in Bone Road is musical, a sonata consisting of four movements; the quick tempo of the treadle and the turbulent tide in the first poems, followed by the brief and slower resignation to the mill conditions that eventually led to the faster-paced decision to return to Ireland. The echo of that decision is beautifully rendered in a penultimate poem called Legacy where the author celebrates her grandmother through the physical characteristics and traditions passed on to her own children. The final poem celebrates the anticipation of a new grandchild; subsequent generations offer hope and the possibility of a more prosperous future, one that incorporates history, and also the process of simultaneously embracing the past and letting it go.
Bone Road by Geraldine Mills
Arlen House, distributed in the US by Syracuse University Press, 2019, $13, paper
ISBN: 9781851322152

Lisa C. Taylor is the author of four collections of poetry and two short story collections, most recently Impossibly Small Spaces (2018). Her honors include the Hugo House New Works Fiction Award and Pushcart nominations in fiction and poetry. Lisa was a mentor with the AWP writer-to-writer program, and she offers private workshops and mentoring in New England, Ireland, and Colorado.

Monday, September 23, 2019


After three years of work I am delighted to finally let Bone Road (Arlen House) into the light of day.

My great-grandparents, Philip and Mary Heveron and their six children, one of them my grandmother, left Elly Bay in North Mayo in 1883 as part of an assisted emigration scheme to give them a better life in Rhode Island, USA. My great-grandfather was given work at one of the cotton mills. But for some reason, they couldn’t settle and returned less than two years later.

Photo courtesy of Peter Moore

 Through documented fact and imagined memory, Bone Road charts the course of their lives during those years in order to record it for future generations.

Here is a sample poem from the book:

Hunger for Somewhere Else

They’re glad to see the back of
all the wind-crippled whins,
turn their heads from
the rain over Achill head,
smoor the final fire.

They’ve had their bellyful
of stinking haulms,
grateful now to hand back
their hungry piece of grass to the landlord

and watch the dog on a scatter of stone,
a fetch in the tumbled-down scailp,
a fling of dunlins on sand
waiting for the boat to sail.

My deepest gratitude to Alan Hayes of Arlen House for another beautiful publication and to Charlotte Kelly for the perfect cover image.

I also wish to acknowledge the assistance of Galway County Council who awarded me an Individual Artist Award in 2019 to work on the first draft.

Related image

Friday, April 5, 2019

Travel Grant from Culture Ireland

                 Image result for Culture Ireland logo

I wish to express my gratitude to Culture Ireland who has awarded me a grant to travel to the US to  accept a number of  reading invitations. First stop will be the University of Connecticut, where I will read with my good friend and award-winning poet, Lisa C. Taylor. Arlen House published our poetry collaboration, The Other Side of Longing (2011) and that year we were invited by Dr Mary Burke from the English Department to present the prestigious  Elizabeth Shanley Gerson Reading. It will be a real treat to return and read again with Lisa as part of Dr Burke's Contemporary Irish Literature programme.

Lisa and I will also read together at Camber Arts, Mansfield Center.

I will then travel to St. Louis Missouri, where at the invitation of  Smurfit-Stone Corporation Professor in Irish Studies, Eamonn Wall, I will give a presentation of my forthcoming poetry collection as part of the ‘Irish Lectures, Reading and Concert Series’ that he curates. I will speak to an audience of students, faculty and community about the importance of the United States as a destination for those who availed of the Tuke-assisted emigration scheme from Ireland after the famine as experienced by my great-grandparents.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Tuke Fund

Growing up, I always knew that my great-grandparents emigrated to America with their six children, one of them my grandmother, after the famine and came back to Belmullet, Co. Mayo a short time later. We had no other information about them until a chance meeting of my sister, Bernadette, with Mary Kyne of Oughterard Heritage, Co Galway, informed us about the Assisted Emigration Scheme spearheaded by James 'Hack' Tuke in the 1880s. This scheme saw ship after ship leave the western seaboard with families searching out a kinder existence. We discovered that our ancestors were on one of those ships, the S.S. Waldensian that left from Black Sod in 1883. Miraculously, Mary Kyne was able to give us a copy of the ship's manifest that showed the names of everyone who travelled. An emotional moment to see our family's names, the Heverons, there.


Then in the serendipitous way of life, a Facebook request came, wondering if  we knew anything of the Heverons and suddenly we had a second cousin-once removed, Diane Heveran Rotharr, living in America who was doing in-depth research on our families. The information she had gathered is hugely important in piecing together their history for the generations to come for which I am immensely grateful.  

In order to verify some details for my forthcoming poetry collection. I recently contacted Ionad Deirbhile, the Heritage Centre in Eachléim, Co Mayo, to organise a suitable time to visit them. Tina very kindly arranged for us to meet their researcher, Rosemarie Geraghty. Rosemarie is passionate about her subject and  through the website Blacksod Bay Emigration has spent years trying to connect with over three thousand people who emigrated from Elly Bay in that time as part of the Tuke Fund. She was even able to show me a copy of the original handwritten manifest which confirmed that our family went to Rhode Island. 

Rosemarie showing me information on Mr Tuke

Rosemarie also brought us to see the memorial garden dedicated to all those who emigrated. The centre piece is a granite boat sculpture divided into fifteen sections, each a reminder of all the sailings that left Elly Bay. The manifest of each sailing has been carefully inscribed on the appropriate plaque and scrolling down I found my family there, five rows from the bottom.

As 2019 is the bicentenary of Tuke's birth, his philanthropy will be remembered with conferences and exhibitions on the western seaboard of Ireland and in the United States where so many descendants of these ancestors have made their home.  

All photos courtesy of Peter Moore


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Celebrating 'Live Encounters' Children's Poetry Issue

 Up to the day she died, at the age of 93, my mother could recall many of the poems she had learned at school as a little girl. She recited them to us when we were of that age and then in turn to many of her grandchildren when they grew to appreciate the music of sound.
We knew them all, the one about a girl called Betty who fell off a chair at a party, or little Willie who was regularly quoted to us because when he woke up … ‘no grumbling was heard for he jumped out of bed as bright as a bird.’
The one I loved most of all was the one about the raindrop. As it dripped down the window pane it turned into a little man who proceeded to chase the other drops before him until they gathered in one large pool on the window sill. As she rhymed out the words, my mind’s eye could only see the tiny sparkling liquid man alive and talking to me, telling me I should be doing something with my day instead of staring at him. I always argued back that if he hadn’t made the day so dark, I would be out running through the fields.
Before she died, I asked her to write them out for me and I still have the blue-lined pages with her achingly familiar handwriting: that perfect cursive of her time. I have since passed them onto the next generation so they too can teach their own children when the time comes. She was my first teacher of the colour of words.
Albert Einstein once said that: Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world… Children never have to learn this. They are the consummate holders of the ability to form images. They come into the world with a blank page and write upon it whatever they wish. They play with language in the same way they play with rattles or balls: throwing words around, shaking them to see what noise they might produce. They become sound even before their tongues find a way around their first syllable.
They find poems everywhere. In the discovery of how their hands move, in the way the sunlight falls on a table, the chase of their own shadow. Later they love more than anything else the inherent poetry in nursery rhymes; I spy games, Imagination games.
Give them a word and they’ll take them on an adventure. They will take a ladder to the sky to bring down the wind. They will sail upon the sea of the kitchen tiles. A spoon, a pair of gloves, are all props for knights and scuba divers, astronauts. It is where poetry comes from.
One of the most satisfying jobs for me is tapping into that imagination. As part of Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools’ Scheme I get the opportunity to go around the country encouraging children from four years of age to eighteen, to expand whatever vast world of imagination they have within them.
I bring my bag of tricks and they cannot wait each week to see what I will pull from it. It is usually an object that they cannot easily recognise and upon which they will build a story. Once they understand that there is no right or wrong way to respond, that their answer is as unique as their fingerprints, then it opens up a treasure trunk of all those undiscovered worlds and they are off. One tells me it’s a giant pear, for another it becomes a witch’s cottage; someone else will can see the old skin of a rattle snake, a leather belt, an overripe banana.
Children are people who live in a land where the seen and unseen happily live together. They understand the mysterious nature of writing. Take away the confines of a ruled copy and an eraser and they can take the story anywhere. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to see a child who has not shone academically to suddenly surprise themselves and their teachers (even more) with the stories they can conjure up. They grow in confidence and I have heard teachers tell me that it is the first time they realised that there was a well of untapped creativity within the child.
A teacher who continues to nurture that discovery releases the child into a magical world that helps them grow in esteem and armed with so many stories they can become anything they want.
Many countries have recognised the importance of fostering this part of the brain and from Australia to the USA there has been investment in having a Children’s Laureate. Ireland is no exception and our Laureate (Laureate na nÓg) has been in existence since 2010. According to its website, ‘it was established to engage young people with high quality literature and to underline the importance of children’s literature in our cultural and imaginative life.’ This year’s holder of the title, Sarah Crossan, is a very strong advocate for children’s poetry. It is her aim to encourage all children to write; to become the best poets they can be. She believes that by doing this it will sustain us, nurture us and help us survive.
She has seen for herself that young readers will embrace poetry if they’re given the chance. She is brimming with new ideas of how to encourage teachers and students to have a positive response to it. She is working with Irish poets and performance poets across the world, getting them into communities where children are more vulnerable. She aims to create a social media campaign where she gets well-known people in Irish culture to recite their favourite poems and talk about poetry.
One of her initiatives already has been the #WeAreThePoets project. This was a partnership between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the hope of encouraging children of all ages to use poetry as a way of expression.
            And all across the world there are people diligently encouraging children to be creative. I know of one young teacher in Colorado who is passionate about doing this, in a school where children struggle with day-to-day living. She is the bread to their souls in the way school dinners nourish their little bodies. She is not alone in her commitment.
There are magazines, and blogs and websites all encouraging children and young people’s creativity. Under the superb aegis of Mark Ulyseas, Live Encounters is a perfect example of this commitment. To dedicate, not one, but two issues to the imagination of those special creators is inspired. With its beautifully produced photography it gives an outlet to so many children who would not normally receive such a platform. It brings home to me the belief that that there is still light in this, sometimes, dark world where words are a devalued currency.
There is no more fitting way of celebrating its ninth birthday than with the songs of children. May it continue to grow and thrive.

© Geraldine Mills 2019