Mary O’Donnell - A Selection of Poems

Details: Poems given in Poem Hunter - online; accessed 22.02.2023. Also includes, "Unlegendary Heroes" - as given at Poetry Foundation - online; accessed 22.02.2023.

Unlegendary Heroes
A Girl from the East Alex in the Garden The Final Shrug
Old Roman Towns 60th Auschwitz Anniversary Following Frida
Fairy Rath Antarctica The Haircut

Unlegendary Heroes

‘Life passes through places.’ - P.J. Duffy, Landscapes of South Ulster

Patrick Farrell, of Lackagh, who was able to mow one acre and one rood Irish in a day. Tom Gallagher, Cornamucklagh, could walk 50 Irish miles in one day. Patrick Mulligan, Cremartin, was a great oarsman. Tommy Atkinson, Lismagunshin, was very good at highjumping—he could jump six feet high. John Duffy, Corley, was able to dig half an Irish acre in one day. Edward Monaghan, Annagh, who could stand on his head on a pint tumbler or on the rigging of a house. (1938 folklore survey to record the local people who occupied the South Ulster parish landscape.)


Kathleen McKenna, Annagola,
who was able to wash a week’s sheets, shirts
and swaddling, bake bread and clean the house
all of a Monday.

Birdy McMahon, of Faulkland,
walked to Monaghan for a sack of flour two days before
her eighth child was born.

Cepta Duffy, Glennan,
very good at sewing—embroidered a set of vestments
in five days.

Mary McCabe, of Derrynashallog,
who cared for her husband’s mother in dotage,
fed ten children,
the youngest still at the breast during hay-making.

Mary Conlon, Tullyree,
who wrote poems at night.

Assumpta Meehan, Tonygarvey,
saw many visions and was committed to the asylum.

Martha McGinn, of Emy,
who swam Cornamunden Lough in one hour and a quarter.

Marita McHugh, Foxhole,
whose sponge cakes won First Prize at Cloncaw Show.

Miss Harper, Corley,
female problems rarely ceased, pleasant in ill-health.

Patricia Curley, Corlatt,
whose joints ached and swelled though she was young,
who bore three children.

Dora Heuston, Strananny,
died in childbirth, aged 14 years,
last words ‘Mammy, O Mammy!’

Rosie McCrudden, Aghabog
noted for clean boots, winter or summer,
often beaten by her father.

Maggie Traynor, Donagh,
got no breakfasts, fed by the nuns, batch loaf with jam,
the best speller in the school.

Phyllis McCrudden, Knockaphubble,
who buried two husbands, reared five children,
and farmed her own land.

Ann Moffett, of Enagh,
who taught people to read and did not charge.

Exiles (Palmerston Poems)
1: “ Girl from the East, Palmerstown traffic-lights  

She swings between steaming morning cars,
one trouser leg doubled back above the knee,
her main business, The Big Issue, clamped
beneath her elbow. A squall of snow
bears down just when the eye is drawn
to the omission: a metal pin, her stiff bird gait,
a crutch. A cloak of ice billows over windscreens,
bullets of hail lodge in folds of her blown-back
hood. Her forehead is knotted against such force
that shreds  air  sky  time
A single footprint, clone of the one

before, visible on the ground, and black discs in snow
from her crutch, like inverted commas before
and after every footprint, track the script
   of her labour.
       Drivers in snoozing cars register the matter,
faces inscrutable, stall briefly at the gleaming pin,
the raw air below her thigh. Somewhere
in Romanian earth,
       the molecules of her incinerated limb have
       Here, she is at war with deficit.

2: “Alex in the Garden  

In his homeland, a builder. In Ireland,
he sweeps the piled sheddings in my mother’s garden,
the sinewy fen of his body spreading to reach
lacey drifts from lime, sycamore, larch.

When he weeds, he scoops beneath the roots,
leaving no evidence of a plant’s history; when
he paints a trellis, it is saintly, Vilnius white.
On Sunday evenings, icons appear in the open
rhombus spaces between crossed slats of wood:
St Stephen, other martyrs. In the field above 
the house, a stoat flashes, white as snow.

He leaves Koruna chocolate, photographs of his wife
and daughters flaying birch-branches after sauna,
himself on cross-country skis. His whiteness struggles
for survival in the red speech of our North, he
tries to match his landscape to the stranger’s, pondering
aloud, “What is this number, this number ee-yit?”

He has shaped shrubs like Eastern spires nestling
in snow, thick-shouldered and undauntable. But
when my father died, he shed fat tears
at the wake, they flowed unashamed,
watering his roots and ours.

The Final Shrug  

The Russians have come, the world has not stopped.
Ivory-cheeked, blond, their blue eyes blaze
with things we never knew. They shop decisively
for cut-price familiars: beetroot and celeriac,

horseradish, tinned pork, violent mustard.
Their fertility makes a boisterous fire.
The Russians have come, rangy as wolves,
their mouths and wide eyes, their busy movement

stoking a pain we may not wish to feel.
Neither pilgrims, nor helpless, their shopping
is a choreographed dance away from one-roomed

working as equals. We wait in the check-out queue,
trolleys creaking with packs of German biscuits, rye
bread, Polish beer. Regard our unsacred lurch away
from history, as we wait, and wait. See the

dark font of legendary slops, our efficient handling
of what we have learned together. The Russians have come.
They are with us as we shrug it all away, the old pain
of never having, the empty cupboard, the unfed hounds

of our countries howling at the moon for something, anything.

Old Roman Towns  

The roof tiles on the new extension
are the colour of crushed peaches

grown in the foothills of a volcano.
Inside, men twist pipes, steel girders

support the ceiling. What drew us
to break walls, adding height and light?

This is a necessary space,
the new romance of brick and stone

we hankered for twenty years ago,
in Yugoslavia. We looked down

from the hills on old Roman towns,
drank in the mineralised heat

that radiated from the roof-tiles.
This was how to live, we thought: passionate

beneath a roof the colour of rich earth,
overlooking cobbles where people

met at evening near the sound
of an antique fountain.

Now we know differently.
it was not, after all, how to live,

as tribes of the Balkans drowned
in blood. So, in the speckled wars,

slouching beasts tearing the earth,
what drew us to rebuild? We extend

ourselves closer to birch and ash,
hearts more urgent than ever as the wind

rolls in from the west. What jeopardy
inside these walls and windows,

whiskey on the table,
bare feet stretched to the night fire?

60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz”(Poetry Reading - Irish-Polish Society, Fitzwilliam Place)

The signs are auspicious: twisted brass supports
a chandelier, a hanging, ochred basin.
Bulbs glow within. On the walls, a crimson phoenix,
a huddled Polish farmhouse in black and white.
To my left, an iconic Mother of Christ, in blue,
gold and red. The fireplace tiles are blood-hued.
Whisperers gather, as if in church.

We smile our greetings, a city’s oddities caring little
for race and pace, the fashion and passion
of the street, pinned together, genteel and awkward:
men with antique ponytails, women in baroque skirts,
safe in this chamber where all is liberation.
When the poets unleash the wolf of the imagination,
our ghost selves float above polder and plain,

over successions of invaders, where things happened
in secret. While the Irish railway shunted trippers
between towns and cities, Poland’s chemin de fer
led standing millions to the chambers, unseen.
Yellow eyes, perhaps, witnessed death on the long poles
of smoke, would sometimes have drawn closer
to the rank odour of flesh not raw.

With us now, they wake in our minds again,
guardians of the unpaceable horizon, seekers
of crooked paths, far from the solution-makers.
In dreams, nothing is final and blood does not spill
behind averted backs: it washes, tidal, through the days,
warming and cooling to love’s barometric fevers
as men fill wombs and children are born,

despite risen spectres, the unquiet ache
of a cut people. Later, there is tea, coffee, praise
for the poets, praise for fidelity. Knowing what can
go wrong, we choose oddness. Out of tune and time,
we file into the ashen night, opt for the long, drawn, note,
the howl in the wilderness. Hair-shirted in the cold,
we find a gift of bees, honey, the dripping, golden, combs.

Following Frida  

That mono-brow wouldn’t work today.
Girls wax the in-betweens, the ups and
downs, smooth, smooth. Sometimes,
the greenery around the hacienda
itches so much we sneeze and tickle,
create unnecessary frowns, a slippage.
There’s always Dr. Death, of course,
his bright smile, that happy mouth
inviting us to pout and make kiss shapes.
Kiss, kiss! Kiss, kiss! he urges. His short needle
makes cushions of our worries. Little prick here,
another there, there, there,
it’s all right darlings, growing old
needn’t hurt so badly.

The hairs remind us, marching to link brow
to brow, shadowing our lips.
We want to be Frida, earnest with hair,
mocking Dr. Death’s short needle
before it punctures our flesh.
Old, old! we shout the words he hates,
loose and old, not tight and old!
Senses, raging, in need of colour
as we behold ourselves, mirror-wise,
the women we always were,
just older, looser, still there.

Fairy Rath  

Here lie the faggoted bones of babies -
stillborn, miscarried, or unbaptised,
returned to the fairies who borrow souls.
They do not mean to hold,
long to test themselves in human traces,
imagine the possibility of blood,
the beating logic of a good heart,
dividing cells, pink fingertips,
the casings of a child’s nails.

But some fear to pass. Drivers
hurry downhill, graze pot-holes in the rush,
avoid small voices
at the shelf-edge of hearing.
Walkers scuttle, call dogs to heel.
Yet I hear no dark whisper,
have sat within view of the rath
on an April Monday,
when the estral celebration is at an end,

near the beech whose roots feed off the wets,
below circling daffodils,
what some believe are rotten.
Bluebells toss in tides, the big field groans
and cracks to life around the rath,
pushing the load of young barley.

I could be stocked, mocked for the shame
of superstition. I hear what I hear,
know what I know: voices behind birdsong,
ticking wings the underside of leaves,
the quick buzz as they set out,
humming to those who’ve passed
and go no further. They bear them back
to this safe place, unthieved, borrowed.
Within the circle, all is wholesome:
the sentried rath, soil stitched with bone
fine as porcelain. Old gods lean in close.


I do not know what other women know.
I covet their children; wardrobes
stocked with blue or pink, froth-lace
bootees for the animal-child
that bleeds them.

Their calmness settles like the
ebb-tide on island shores -
nursing pearl conch, secret fronds
of wisdom, certitude.
Their bellies taunt.

I do not know what other women know.
Breasts await the animal-child.
I want - maddened by
lunar crumblings, the false prophecy
of tingling breasts, turgid abdomen.

Antarctica: The storm petrel hover;
waters petrified by spittled winds:
Little fish will not swim here.
Folds of bed-sheet take my face.
Blood seeps, again.

“But you are free”, they cry,
“You have no child” - bitterness
from women grafted like young willows,
forced before time. In Antarctica,
who will share this freedom?

The Haircut  

“Can you raise your head?” I ask.
He sits, towelled in green beside the radio
as I raise the comb and scissors into the air.

The hair that used to crinkle in curling scripts
around his crown, unheeding of sweet cedar,
grooming oils, is soft as spider’s web, like down,

impossible to feel. “Mind the sideburns,’
he instructs. What I lift in the comb slips and slides,
the scissors barely grasp the ends, indifferent

to the rites of neatness. This hair wants to let be,
extrusions of frail growth lie close to his pores,
stopgaps against escaping ethers.

But I nick and trim, attempting body, bounce
and sheen, while on the radio Albinoni’s cellos,
those grave bows, play for us, the forsaken.

Clippings collect along his shoulders, weightless drifts
criss-crossed with metallic strands, like Chinese script
dismantled from the page. Against my will, this fluent

reading of the inevitable, symbols combed from feeble
months. I gather the cuttings, ask my unfleeced father
to hold still, adjust my face before he turns.

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