The beginning of the story of Martha Lucas.
Martha was born to Hugh Lucas and Elizabeth Brann
in about January 1834 in the house of her grandparents
Brann in the townland of Corraneary, Co. Cavan.
The first record of her is her baptism in the Presbyterian
Meeting House in Corraneary on February 21st.
All the poems in this extract are set in the townlands
of Corraneary, Gallon Etra or Rallaghan in N.E. Cavan.
Before the famine: 1834 – 1846
My grandparents Brann
my grandfather breathes smoke.
he has a wooden leg
made in Cootehill
and porcelain teeth he can take out
that cost him three shillings
from a woman who had
nothing else left to sell.
my grandmother is a witch.
she will swing open the morning
and charm a new sky for me
and make the blackbirds’ singing
and the warm smell of the cattle.
I love her then so fearfully that the tears
stand in my eyes and my lips tremble
and my cousin with his wise books
says that one day I will grow
as mad as they are
and he will run away to Dublin
and get rich
and buy me a room in the best
madhouse in all Ireland.
this is my best place of all –
this white stone my dog Pat,
the grey one the fierce cat Sorry,
which I must feel if I go too near –
they will call me ‘you dirty girl’
and scour my hands with lye soap
and sit me by the fire’s edge
which is not too bad in itself
but there are spiders big as my thumbnail
and I am scared of earwigs.
my midden is by the road hedge.
it spreads flat in the snow time
but its smoke soon mottles the white
to a streaking of black cloud –
the goblins make fire from bones and offal
from night soil and straw from the byre,
their green flies glow like embers
and their beetles shine like grandfather’s boots
on market day or his black leather strop
when he scrapes his cheek soft.
its breath is the sour of turned milk,
the sick sweet as the flax rots,
the sharp sweat of raw onions;
the white grubs raise their brown snouts
through the cheeks of a thrown rat,
the black and the blue flies pick dainties.
once when it shifted it grew me
a farthing with the king’s head.
when it forges me a ruby or a gold ring
they will value my watching.
At Knockbride church
no it is not your other granny
in the box, my aunt said,
it is bones and skin
and she is an angel now.
it was all
too hard to take in,
so I watched the swallows
catching new souls
and listened to the jackdaws
who had too much to say
and sang in my head
to my angel
with the round mole on her chin
and its three white hairs.
Rallaghan, one week in May
pink on the apple tree
the dog called Dog
the whitethorn snowier each morning
the crow with a crooked leg
that danced like a showman –
Aunt Liza whose wits were addled,
they said: she held
a brass trumpet to her left ear
and mumbled and scared me
when she flapped her arms and spat,
and Cousin James and Cousin William
who threw me in the air like a top
though Len was their favourite
who liked dead things
and laughed when they shot rooks;
and Cousin Robert, yes, even then,
when we washed smooth stones
under the kitchen pump
and set them in straight lines
like soldiers, like brave soldiers.
Corraneary, 30th May 1841
I am sitting on the mounting stone
by the road wall.
I am teaching myself
to be patient.
I have a river stone in my left hand,
it is round and grey and it fits my five fingers,
and in my right the hazel twig I cut with the twine knife
he keeps by the half door –
I am working round the speckled bark
blow by soft blow. I am making a whistle for Len,
who is my favourite today. as I ease back the bruised bark,
I can feel the frown lines pull my face taut.
but now there are hands over my eyes,
I know the smell of them, so I laugh
and am glad he has not gone first into the house.
he fills my lap with a basket of claws and cheeping,
a softness and a yellowness and then it does not matter
that Mary Jane has the christening gown we sewed for two weeks
and they are cooing over her like a fat doll.
I hug him because he is my father.
I am the firewatcher,
they watch his breathing –
he is all hollowed out,
his bones rattle.
when he whimpers
and his yellow eyes squeeze tears
I wonder where
his stories are now.
will you bury him
with his wooden leg,
and his porcelain teeth?
grandmother hugs me
and spoons him white comfort
from the quart bottle
I must not touch
and my mother looks fierce
and so sad and she shoos me off
to stir fresh life
into the dwindling fire.
our tongues and fingers
dark with berry blood, we streaked
each other’s cheeks, got shy,
so gathered nuts and laughing
filled our hats and neck scarves
with red shot from the hedge roses,
and the rain beads
on the verge grass flecked
all the shades of the sky,
fell from our hazel scythes
and the savages kept their distance,
but they watched us, we knew,
their spells aimed at our thin souls,
a summoning that would snatch us
and turn us into wraiths.
but James, our captain of course,
took Will on his back
and led us safe to the fort
where from the hilltop bank
the whole world spread for us,
corn stubble, pasture, sky
and it was our world, our patched flag,
the goldest, the greenest, the bluest,
the best place there was.
The lint dams
Gallon Etra, 1844
think of the worst smell
in the whole world
says Cousin James.
the midden in midsummer
I say, baby sick, a dead rat
that bursts in the thatch.
when the flax has retted for spreading
it is all those put together,
and worse, he says,
and I have bet Mary Ann a farthing
when we empty the lint dams
you’ll be sick to the stomach,
or faint and be a spectacle
will laugh at you.
I do not like Cousin James.
he is seventeen and going
to college in Dublin
and thinks he knows everything.
tomorrow I will take a deep breath
and laugh at him, I tell Meg quietly.
she says: just to be contrary!
I whisper toadpiss in her ear,
and gag at her in my throat.
the gangrene in his leg
before they took it off,
grandmother says to nobody,
and: mind yourself, miss
or you’ll not go in the trap.
and, yes, the stench of it:
it is fly blown foul,
deader than not new dead.
it fills my throat with its longing,
but I make giants’ breath of it
in my head stream of stories
when the wind turns it onto us
which is mercifully not often.
the wet stems are
like a brown slug’s belly,
the ones with the thickest slime,
and I wave them at Cousin James
who will lose his farthing
as we spread them in the stubble field
like clean washing.
and there are aunts and uncles I half know,
cousins, so many,
and I am a field worker too
in my clogs and bonnet.
it will be fine shirts,
they are saying,
but not for us.
I am my mother’s hands.
when I have patched and sewn buttons
on my brother’s school jacket
I will make a pencase from the scraps
so my cousin Robert will love me.
her hands are all knots and calluses.
they are stiff as hooks
and the needles she cannot thread
fall through them.
this is not the story I made for myself
when the wind was too wild for sleeping,
but I have grandmother Brann’s brass thimble
with the lions and the rooster.
and my sisters hate me for it.
Corraneary Lough, 1846
petals from the headlands,
the year’s first gold –
I open my hand
and the breeze slides them
onto the lake’s
flat sheet of morning,
an offering that flecks it
to a goat’s eye
whose grey core giddies me,
into the sky’s blink.
the quiet is deepest here.
today it bears me
the blessing of good visions –
are soft red buds,
breathe on me only
of wet grass
© Antony Christie January 2017