…the last notes of “The Woman of the House.”


I was 22 when I travelled to Ireland the first time. I’d graduated from university and I felt drawn to the landscape(s) I’d loved in my Irish literature course. I had a thousand dollars and an idea of a place I could live, a cottage arranged for me by the friend of a friend. But it didn’t work out for a lot of reasons, mostly because Travellers had camped in the remote little house in the mountains in County Mayo and burned the floorboards for fuel. I went off with my rucksack and asked in post-offices, shops, and any other place I could think of: Did anyone know of a place I could live? Somehow (a long story) I ended up in a cottage on an island off the Connemara coast. It was a small island, with a population of 60. There wasn’t electricity or running water and my toilet was a pink plastic chamber pot, emptied over the stone wall into the grass, and rinsed in the tide just below the wall.

I had in mind a writing life. Every morning I’d wake up, make a cup of the cheapest instant coffee I could find in the grocery store in the town I’d go to once every week or ten days, depending on weather and if someone was going to the mainland strand and had room in the currach for me. From the strand I’d either walk the 7 miles to the town or else borrow a bike from the farmer whose fields rose above the sand at Eyrephort. I’d wake up, drink my coffee, and then write in my journal. I’d actually brought a typewriter with me (ah, dedication) and I’d scribble notes towards poems. The scribbles were often very prosaic. Somehow the long cries of the seabirds, the wind coming down my chimney, the quavery notes of the man who played his tin-whistle on the lane, or boreen everyone called it, the familiar moaning of the donkey who lived in my field, somehow these didn’t really lend themselves to tight syllabic lines. I wrote a lot. I was lonely. I had two love affairs with men who didn’t talk much, one on the island and one off it. I had so little money that I ate mostly rice from a five pound bag I bought in Galway, measuring it out by teacups full, and I picked nettles, silverweed, mussels on the rocks below my cottage. I was grateful for the potatoes left on my doorstep, the occasional cabbage.

When I came back to Canada, I was intending to just stay long enough to get my life into order and then I was going to return to the one man who lived off the island. But in the interim, I met the man who became my husband. Before we married, I did go back, for three months, not to the island but to a village not far away. In Canada I’d taken the little prosaic scribbles and tried to fit them together as a series of prose poems. When I showed them to a couple of friends, they said the same thing: Write more, tell the whole story. So during the period I lived in the village, I did that. Not exactly my story. Somehow I wanted to know a couple of things and in the way you can find these out by venturing a little further into the unknown, I tried to find them out. What would have happened if I’d married the fisherman on the island, what would have happened if the beautiful man in the Travellers’ camp who invited me for a drink had led me to a quiet place under the fuchsia? (We had the drink but I didn’t follow him.) And so I wrote, I walked in what the Irish call weather (“Weather, isn’t it?”) and that we might call rain, and at the end of the three months, John arrived and I tucked my pages into my rucksack. Those pages became a novella in due time, my first novella, Inishbream. Because my publishing life has never enjoyed a smooth trajectory, it wasn’t published for nearly 20 years.  Jan and Crispin Elsted at the Barbarian Press printed it in 3 beautiful states, with wood-engravings by the wonderful John DePol, I have the first two states and the third, bound in turbot skins, set in a clamshell box, with little driftwood handles, I have only seen in photographs.

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On days like today, rainy, with Irish music filling the airwaves, I am there again. I am at the table by the window, the one John DePol so beautifully caught—the deep casements, my broom leaning against the mantle, the primroses I’d lifted from under a hedge on my walk back from the town and put into a teacup—, and I am listening. There is wind, the donkey looking out to sea the way he did, moaning, half in love with loneliness, and oh, Miceal on the boreen is playing his tin-whistle.

     It seemed that even the stupid blind wind would subside when Miceal’s bent fingers jigged over the length of the whistle, and instead of its hollow, monotonous tones there’d be the sweet sad airs of the Celtic heart.
     Someone else wanted reels or “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies.” We listened till the cows came home. When it darkened, you could see the frail lights begin to bloom on Bream and Turk and the occasional headlamps of evening cars on the Sky Road. The summer people would drive to the mainland viewpoint and would park, casting their beams over Mannin Bay and out to the islands. They’d see the pale gaslight or candlelight smudging the dark of the archipelago and the long piercing flash of Slyne Head, the keepers over each season attentive to craft warnings and the forecasting of gales. And if they stepped out of their cars, they’d hear the mourning donkeys and the last notes of “The Woman of the House.”

tin whistle

Note: Inishbream was published as a trade edition in 2001 by Goose Lane Editions. I also have a few copies here if you’re interested. (The Barbarian Press editions have been out of print for years though copies do show up at fine press auctions from time to time.)

2 thoughts on “…the last notes of “The Woman of the House.””

    1. I had the opportunity to spend a weekend at the press while the first books were being bound — John DePol’s beautiful papers over boards, quarter-bound with Japanese silk — and the binder described the beautiful special books. I saw photographs. But with fine presses, often a very deluxe edition is created for the purpose of financing the others. They’re pre-sold and so I wasn’t expecting to have one of them! Yesterday friends came for a visit and I showed them the first two editions and saw again how skilfully they are printed and bound. Grateful to have this attention to my work…

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