Select Page

The Poison Glen


Shortlisted for the Ledbury Hellens Poetry Prize for Second Collections.

The story of the stolen or missing child sits at the heart of The Poison Glen, alongside a desire to bear witness to family loss and cultures of silence in Ireland. Weaving together landscape, history, and the compelling mythology of a Donegal site known as ‘The Poison Glen’, here are poems of grit and burning, of wildness, grace and magic, of dreaming and compassion. The collection is rooted by ‘The Foundling Crib’, a poem that dwells on a long-gone Foundling Hospital in Dublin, accompanied by poems written as responses to sites of various Irish church- and state-run institutions.

In poems both tender and ferocious the book illuminates questions that run deep in the Irish psyche. Ultimately it asks, How can darkness be overcome by light?

Memory is a curse that keeps on flowering. — ‘Ghostgirl’


Books of the Year 2021 Quotes
Finally, new talent shines in Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s The Poison Glen, which has a base in the Donegal Gaeltacht and a ghastly backstory in the industrial schools, mother and baby homes and other institutions of church and state.  — John Kerrigan TLS Books of the Year 2021

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate’, Brecht once wrote, and in Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s fierce second collection The Poison Glen, we have a poet who is not afraid to address the political legacy of Irish church and State malfeasance especially with respect to the care of women and children. ‘Who am I lost to?’ Ní Churreáin writes poignantly in ‘Fagan’s Eagles’, and in ‘The Screaming Room’, there are these powerful words, ‘I come from women who found themselves / in trouble, who turned to their pale reflections / and asked “What can I do? What can I do?” / All that fire, all that burning. In their honour / I can never be silent again.’ — Paul Perry, Sunday Independent, Books of the Year

The Poison Glen by Annemarie Ní Churreáin. One of the jewels of the year arriving late in the Autumn, this collection is a Gallery Press masterpiece, presented beautifully in paperback and clothbound. Only Gallery can produce books of this understated loveliness; the art of fine book-making is almost gone from this world. Her first book, Bloodroot, came from Doire Press in 2017, but Poison Glen is a huge advance in four years, a greater leap into complexity of relationships and intensity of politics and history. Referring often to Brian Lacey’s ‘Lugh’s Forgotten Donegal Kingdom’ (Four Courts), she has created not a Lacey-work but a lattice-work of astonishing complexity in terms of myth, geography, topography, heraldry, social history and childhood trauma. Seven institutions of Reform and Industry are referenced in many of the poems that have grown ‘in the aftermath of the orphanage.’ Here in ‘the Foundling Crib’ and ‘Sowthistle’ and ‘To Hold in the Light’ Ní Churreáin lays bare the soul of our suffering island, the abandonment and brutality of life, the painful truth of things. But there are lighter moments, love moments, family moments, companionship moments, in poems such as ‘A Charm to Protect a Girlchild’ and ‘Will you write a Bird for Us?’ there are benign and life-affirming forces at work, creating buoyancy in a deep and demanding collection. A gifted Donegal-woman, youthful and lyrical, Ní Churreáin is one of the sure voices of the future. You need to own this collection. — Thomas McCarthy

The Poison Glen, Annemarie Ní Churreáin: A Review
Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s new collection, The Poison Glen, is something of a natural continuation of here earlier Bloodroot. In the latter, Ní Churreáin’s focus was mainly on the experiences of mothers, particularly unmarried mothers, at the hands of a society that consigned them to ‘homes’ that were essentially prisons and treated their babies as, at best, a commodity to be sold at a profit. Here, she turns her attention to the lost children produced by that same society by writing about not only the Mother and Baby Homes, but also industrial schools and St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra. She also brings us back to the 18th century roots of many of these institutions in a long, powerful sequence about the Foundling Hospital in Dublin.

Despite this widening of range, this new book is more focused. Interestingly, Ní Churreáin seems to have turned back from the ‘moving on’ I felt was present in the final section of Bloodroot, but the result is a book that coheres more completely than that earlier collection did. At its core is the idea of fear, not alone the fear that the abused and neglected children that we, as a society, consigned to these institutions but, perhaps more pertinently, the fear that lay at the root of that abuse. That fear centres around the idea that sex and reproduction outside the limits and control of a strict ‘moral’ (in fact there is and was nothing moral about it) structure.

This idea is teased out by a series of poems concerned with the myth of Balor and his daughter Eithne. The myth tells that Balor would be killed by his grandson, so he locked his daughter in a tower, but she becomes pregnant, and despite Balor’s orders, on of her three sons survives, with inevitable consequences. The relevance of this myth to Ní Churreáin’s concerns is clear enough, but she calls out echoes in telling details:

I shudder at the shock
of the stone-cold air,
the sill’s curve within darkness, moonlight
dragging like a chain across the floor.

[from ‘Eithne’s Mother Speaks’]

He was whipped for three days and nights.
He was sent down to the dungeon
and chained to a log like a small boat chained to a rock

The implication of the Eithne poems is, as I read it, that this fear, and its attendant abuse, predates Christianity on this island and stems from something deeper in the Irish psyche.

The telling detail is a key part of Ní Churreáin’s approach to poetry and to linking apparently disparate themes. Take, for example, these lines from a poem set at the former industrial school in Letterfrack:

From the graveyard gates two small shoes hang
by the laces, like a pair of bells ringing,
Remember, remember, the horsewhip, the empty bowl
the act of kneeling to no mercy.

[from ‘To Hold in the Light’]

These shoes stand alone as a personal memorial and also relate to a wider tendency to use shoes as collective memorials to abused children. However, the image of shoes hanging by their laces also brings to mind the use of shoes over telephone cables to mark gangland territories, a common enough sight in Dublin and elsewhere.  This chimes with ‘The Palfium Heist’, a poem that references the activities of a 1970s Dublin gangland family, and which contains the line ‘Altar was a family word meaning fist, lock, whip.’ This closing of the circle that joins the criminal act of abuse with the question of wider criminality in the community opens up all kinds of interesting questions.

I can imagine that The Poison Glen will be widely discussed in terms of these themes as part of a wider societal exploration of the legacy of the institutions it focuses on. It is, however, important to remember that Ní Churreáin is not a journalist or sociologist, but a poet, and it is as poetry that I would rather read her work. And, despite some minor reservation (for instance, would the lines about the shoes lose anything by having the explicit ‘like a pair of bells’ removed?) this is very fine poetry indeed, and, as ever, it’s the music that makes it for me:

Summer’s end was in the air,
the unflamed skeletons of thorn and hazel
already knit.

[from ‘Eithne Confronts Her Father’]

The gentle but insistent assonance of the short ‘e’ and long ‘a’ sounds, the present but not overemphasised sibilance run through these lines as emphasis of the ordinariness of Eithne’s extraordinary situation.

Some of the most interesting work here is in longer lines than any of her previous work, and she handles them with assuredness and control, as in this passage that includes the lines from ‘The Foundling Crib’ already quotes, lines that have a personal resonance for the present reviewer:

Did Bridget’s girl cry out against the sour air?
Did she dream of distant bogs

beneath the oily watch of her keepers?
Often, the bread was old, the milk turned pale by clouds of water.

Hunger. Hunger. Hunger.
Was she told of William Mills who took a chance

and made a run for it? Of how the breath whirring,
like a wing inside his chest, betrayed the effort in his legs?

Weeping, he was brought back
to the House of Correction.

He was whipped for three days and nights.
He was sent down to the dungeon

and chained to a log like a small boat chained to a rock
in the middle of the ocean.

The Bridget here is Bridget Kearney, one of the few women to ever successfully reclaim her child from the Foundling Hospital and who was named earlier in the sequence. Her name is echoed here in the keepers, a mother’s love against the prisoner’s indifference, just as William’s is, more extensively, in the series pf ‘w’ words that run through the extract. Again, I wonder about the effectiveness, the necessity, of the final simile, but that’s a minor quibble when set beside the tonal control of these lines.

The question for Ní Churreáin, for any poet once a book is released into the wild, is ‘where next?’ It’s going to be interesting finding out.

— Billy Mills, Elliptical Movements blog

Shortlisted for the Ledbury Hellens Poetry Prize for Second Collections.

‘Drawing inspiration from the concept of restorative justice – Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s The Poison Glen entwines legend from the Gaeltacht landscape with moments from history to depict the systematic mistreatment of unmarried or abandoned mothers and the children born to these women. Ní Churreáin revisits locations of state “care” institutions in Ireland over the past hundred years and beyond with an inquisitive lens that requires us to ask what the left-behind sites remember or what sense of the child remains after trauma. The Poison Glen stands as a literary monument to silenced voices.’ — Judges’ comments

The Poison Glen Title Page

Publication date: 28 October 2021
Details: 72pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 814 7
ISBN HBK: 978 1 91133 815 4

Cover: ‘Ankle Deep Woman’ (2001) © Alice Maher Charcoal & chalk on calico, 152 X 183 cms. Private collection.

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop