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Evoking family from the stage at HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening

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HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening of Music and Poetry was even more of a family affair than usual this year. Normally an occasion that parents and adult children (and occasionally a third generation) attend in their Irish wool and finest green, this year’s Irish Evening featured two poets who themselves are family.

MeehanDurganPaula Meehan and Theo Dorgan have been poetry and life partners for decades. And from the stage on March 14, they talked about kindred, a word they used for Seamus Heaney, a huge presence of a poet who died August 2013 and who is being mourned throughout the literary world.

“Everyone feels like they’ve lost a member of their own family,” Meehan told Dorgan during that afternoon’s taping of The Writing Life, HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer interview show.

From Heaney to sassy Irish grandmothers to uprising revolutionaries, family was called up throughout the evening reading.

Dorgan started off reading “Speaking to My Father,” about his hard-working patriarch and what he must have thought about Dorgan’s labors as a poet: “I move the words as you moved the heavy tires./ I make the poems like you and Rose made children,/ Blindly, because I must.”

Meehan read her sonnet “A Remembrance of My Grandfather, Wattie, Who Taught Me to Read and Write,” which she dedicated to Heaney when he became a grandfather. And she read two poems about her grandmother, Hannah, who was raised in and virtually embodied north inner city Dublin. Hannah’s voice came through loud and clear in “Would You Jump Into My Grave as Quick” and “Hannah Grandmother,” in which she counsels her granddaughter to “tell them priests nothing,/ … keep your sins to yourself.”

Dorgan invoked his laughing aunt, his great-grandmother dying in childbirth on a ship off Cape Horn, and even read some new and “very gloomy poems,” including “Harvest Moon.”

Meehan named animal forbears in “The Solace of Artemis,” about the brown bear mother from Ireland said to be the matrilineal root of all polar bears; the poem’s narrator “is comforted” by the thought that this matriarch’s mitochondria lives on.

The ghosts in Dorgan’s poem “Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Easter 1991” were revolutionaries. Dorgan explained that on the 75th anniversary of Ireland’s Easter uprising, the government decided to ignore the event. So artists and musicians and laborers put together their own commemoration, and Dorgan wrote the poem that summoned the “soft-footed” specters from the catwalks of that jail.

Smith Theatre was thick with all the ghosts invoked from the stage: longtime Irish Evening attenders and donors Monica Gallivan Lack and Ed Harris, Heaney, all those grandmothers and fathers, sisters and family specters we carry around with us.

The family members who have already gone, those ghosts, were probably hovering just over our shoulders, nodding along with the poetry and tapping their spirit toes to the music.

Save the date for the 37th Irish Evening of Music and Poetry: March 13, 2015.

Susan Thornton Hobby
board member and great-granddaughter
of Jane Gilbane, born in County Leitrim, 1893


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