Mary O'Malley

Mary O'Malley was born in Connemara in Ireland and educated at University College Galway. She lived in Lisbon for eight years and taught at Universidade Nova.


She served on the council of Poetry Ireland and was on the Committee of the Cúirt International Poetry Festival for eight years. She taught on the MA programmes for Writing and Education in the Arts at NUI Galway for ten years, held the Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University in 2013, and has held Residencies in Paris, Tarragona, New York, NUI Galway, as well as in Derry, Belfast.


She is active in environmental education, specifically marine. She is a member of Aosdána and has won a number of awards for her poetry, including the 2016 Arts Council University of Limerick Writer's Fellowship.


A widely published poet, Marys eighth collection, Playing the Octopus, was joint winner of the Michael Hartnett Award in 2018. Her new book, The Shark Nursery, is forthcoming from Carcanet press. 

Q: Eavan Boland once described the need she felt, as a poet, to be “not just the voice of a history but the witness to a silence”, particularly the silence of women’s lives within the (Irish) literary canon. Does this resonate with you as a writer? And in your own work, do you ever find yourself drawn to historically suppressed or culturally jettisoned areas of experience? Questions of outer silence and inner memory seem to shadow many of your poems, including ‘In the Name of God and of the Dead Generations, which observes: “We have spent a small ransom / remembering the famine / that some of us never forgot”. 


A: The question is interesting on a number of levels.  My earlier work arose out of the silence not of women in particular, although of course I did address that silence in several books, but of a whole section of Irish culture set aside by history and stranded between languages. I felt deeply inarticulate and also shamed by the loss of the Irish language. That was a sort of psychic weather I grew up in.  I searched and could only find people like my family and those I knew in literature in Irish and in the songs and the music. I think that’s still true to an extent. So I had to make my way in a language that mostly described my place, when it described it at all, either in terms of its extreme poverty as Jack B. Yeats and Synge did in their brilliant work for the Congested Districts Board, or with a certain romanticism, seeing us as a kind of exotic peasantry, or in the sometimes patronising tones of the travel writers. The patronising tone was often, though not always, unintentional and as a young reader I saw how powerless it made me and I resented it. Where the Rocks Float has a few poems about that.


I was reared in a place that has undergone a second wave of colonisation, this one by tourism. The fishing has been destroyed and much of the life that went with it, what used to be called culture.  This was done casually, for the most part, to feed the voracious appetite for tourism. You see references to this in Walcott’s Omeros, for example, but there is always a cost. A very high cultural cost, I think, as well as a human one. And so the irony. I could never afford even the most modest house in my area. It’s an effective  kind of regulation, I suppose, an unintended consequence.


Q: In different ways, ‘The Wound’ and ‘The Otter Woman’ use an idiom of fable to dramatise the heartbreak and sometimes literal violence that women endure in their relationships or over time. In the second poem, we read that “He pinned her to the ground, his element. / This was not what she came for / but what she got.” In the first, a woman who is initially shrouded in legend is left scarred and grieving by a man who wounds her body and cannot understand the “ache” she feels. Can you tell us how these poems came about?  I’m also curious to know whether the mythic/fabulist register you sometimes use has proven helpful for exploring themes and emotions that might otherwise be difficult to address head-on.


A: Well, the seal woman and the otter woman were both written after I suffered several episodes of a collapsed lung. The experience was so traumatic – I was a young woman with two young children then – and the wound is in fact a reference to the way a doctor pierced the chest to insert a drain while I was still conscious. I couldn’t even get to the end of a line of a poem without coughing, and something in the visceral connection of the breath and poetry became absolutely clear to me then. I think poetry actually did a lot to save me during that period.


I read Walcott’s long poem Omeros while I was recovering, and decided I needed a myth close to home. I also felt, wrongly or otherwise, that I wasn’t ready to appropriate the Greeks just then. I mean in terms of experience. I grew up near otters and seals and I loved them. The old myth of the seal woman came to my rescue, but later I needed a physical metamorphosis and invented the otter woman because the otter has fur. I used the convention of the love affair rather than write directly about my operations, which would have been self- indulgent and probably not very good as poetry.


The other thing going on there was the sense of being between worlds, neither entirely at home in one or the other. I was exploring the limits of rational thought but I was also exploring what happens when you move from the Tír Faoi Thonn onto dry land, and vice versa. After all, that’s largely what the selkie legends are about. I was also trying to figure out the bargains that are made for love between men and women. The line you quote is actually quite literally true – what we come for is rarely what we get.  


The poem ‘The Wound’ is the retelling of a story common enough along the coasts. I was thinking about men who fear or mistrust women in that poem, but also about the necessary part certain superstitions and traditions played in what was a very skilled and dangerous way of life. And of course it alluded to the fear some men have of women, not something I’m judgmental about but which caused a lot of suffering on all sides. I was surrounded by men who treated me almost exactly as they’d treat a boy, at least till I was about sixteen so I had little personal experience of that distrust and fear until much later. Perhaps that was why I found it hard to accept.


The thing about a good myth is that it is powerful and true and because of that, a myth bears re-invention for each age. The use of myth is a powerful tool for a poet, but one to be handled with care. As for the fabulists, I read a lot in Spanish and the surreal nature of the Spanish imagination resonates strongly with the surreal nature of the Gaelic imagination. Goya is one of my favourite artists and I am intrigued by his lines:  El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (translated as The sleep of reason produces monsters). Too much of the so-called rational produces monsters, perhaps?  How else can we possibly account for war? 


Q: A few days before our correspondence, United Nations member states signed a long-anticipated treaty intended to protect marine life and biodiversity from (further) exploitation and pollution. The agreement arrives at a time when oceans globally, including Irish waters, are bearing the burdens of rising temperatures, habitat destruction due to the multinational fishing industry, and large-scale contamination from plastic and other manufactured materials. In your opinion, is this a historic agreement – or is it, perhaps, too little too late? And what does the state of our oceans have to do with (your) poetry, if anything?  Like many readers, I think of your work as sea-rhythmed and, very often, oceanically themed – as in your 2012 collection, Valparaiso.


A: I sometimes think I only write about the sea. A healthy sea is a healthy planet and its diversity is one of our greatest riches. I became involved in Sea Week, an exploration and celebration of the life of the seashore and the sea itself in about 1989. I was disappointed with the tired narrative being peddled by a largely urban and middle-class group of ‘experts’ and activists and was invited to join a group of scientists, archaeologists, artists and others who formed a very loose group for about twenty-five years. Those people were dedicated and I learned a great deal from many of them. It was like my idea of what a university should be, a group of people interested in the same thing and sharing their various expertise. I love the democracy of the seagoing people, that inherent respect the average scientist or fisherman has for the element they make their living from.


As a result of previous poems and interviews, I was invited by the Department of the Marine to do a residency on the Celtic Explorer. I loved the monastic rhythms of the ship, and it was an ideal place to work. The international scientists were generous with their explanations and I started Valparaiso as a kind of log of the voyage.


During lockdown, I took to studying the shipping sites again, as a way of feeling less cut off. A poem I wrote about the Hookers, during one of the less extreme lockdown periods, when I saw the sails being raised for the first time in almost two years is now inscribed on a plaque beside the Claddagh Basin. I've always felt safer on boats than anywhere else. 


As to how much punishment the sea and the planet can take, I’d say we’re at if not past the turning point. The nuclear waste used to be the biggest threat, now it’s probably mining and cables and plastic and a tsunami of exploitation that no agreement will stop, because nobody is likely to take on the vested interests, whether it’s green capitalism or the old sort makes little difference. The minerals needed to make batteries for mobile phones and electric cars are mined with much the same levels of toxic damage and exploitation as mining has always caused.


But poems are not journalism, and a lot of mine come from the sea. Laments are as likely as celebrations, and then there are those bursts of joy, which I think are present in Playing the Octopus and Gaudent Angeli.


Q: You recently guest-edited an issue of Reading Ireland dedicated to the work and legacy of Derek Mahon, whose late poems critiqued what he termed, in his penultimate collection, “the bedlam of acquisitive force / that rules us, and would rule the universe.” I’m inclined to suggest that you also maintain a skeptical attitude, in your poetry, to industrial and “acquisitive” trends in Western society. Is this a fair designation of your work?  And in any case, was Mahon an influential literary figure for you (and were there others)?


A: I think Derek Mahon is a wonderful poet, lyrical and clear-thinking. Poets are outsiders, very often either by nature or in many cases, circumstance. There is a very cosy status quo, and of course I question it. That is one of the artist’s functions, or habits if you prefer. I think Mahon was wary of the cosy consensus, as am I. I’ve been accused often of being a ‘contrarian’. It’s a tired old label for people who don’t accept the status quo, and very lazy but it shuts down open discussion. This left me in a very lonely place and Eavan Boland and Derek Mahon, along with Thomas Kinsella, helped me to keep going. I didn’t know either Mahon or Kinsella, though we met a few times, but I know their work. That’s what matters. 


I wouldn’t say I am a sceptic at all. The opposite. I just dislike hypocrisy. If you’re going to ‘save the planet’, cut your profit margins. Otherwise stay quiet about it and count your money. 


I still believe in miracles of discovery. I’m curious and engaged but I think it’s a poet’s inclination to call blather what it is. And Ireland has become a bit smug listening to its own PR, while our health service fell apart, our National Broadcaster spent more and more time talking to themselves, taking scenic trips to places called ‘rural Ireland’ as opposed to ‘the capital’, which I always assumed referred to Washington, instead of making the sorts of useful informative programmes a national broadcaster should make. I mostly watch TG4 though I used to watch RTÉ as well.


Q: Do you consider yourself an Irish poet? And relatedly, I wonder if your knowledge of other languages and cultural traditions has altered the tone, perspective, or concerns of your poetry (written in English). I’m conscious of the fact that you speak Irish fluently, but also that you’ve spent stints and even extended periods of time, at various points in your life, in Portugal, Spain, France, and elsewhere.


A: My Irish is far from fluent, I’m afraid, but I’m a fluent listener because I mostly have R na G on in the car and I mostly watch TG4. English was not the language I wanted but it was the language I got. Like many other Irish poets, a lot of the poetry comes from Irish, both the canon and my own childhood. Most poets write at least some poems out of some sort of chasm, and perhaps to counteract erasure but sometimes we write just to sing, and those are the magic times.


I remember first hearing a recording of Caitlín Maude reading her own poems. It lifted and confirmed something in me. But it also made me aware of loss. She was so crystalline in her delivery, with her perfectly pitched voice. I still listen to her and Michael Hartnett when I’m in need of a certain purity of tone. Michael used to tell me about her, her singing as well as her poems. And I knew Máire Mhac an tSaoi from my school curriculum. An entirely different poetic voice, with considerable formal authority. I did meet her and she was very kind to me. She told me she wasn’t at all sure of herself when it came to poetry, a lot of self-doubt. That astonished me but I saw when she was speaking to me that it was true. I think she told me because she knew I hadn’t much confidence myself.


There is an eternal liminal space between languages for me and for many poets, I think. I was born too close to Irish for it to be otherwise. My emotions are rooted in a different soil than English, you might say. This isn’t unique to Irish poets, I’ve heard the same thing from Hispanic and Asian Americans. I read a lot of poetry in Spanish, less in French, and I think it gives me confidence – the connections made are familiar to me, as is the almost shocking fluency of metaphor. And very close to Irish poetry. Take Neruda or Machado and Jiminéz. Also the Brazilian writers, such as Adélia Prado. I find their poems immediate and accessible, and often familiar.


I don’t know what influence any of it has. I only know which poets give me the courage to keep going and which set sparks going. One day it might be re-reading Hopkins, another day George Seferis. It’s all about language, in the end. How we use it and whether we can distinguish the true note from the false. 

Mary O'Malley // June 2023