In her new book, a moving exercise in imaginative empathy, the author pays tribute to her emigrant great-grandmother Ellen and the many other ‘Irish women in aprons’ who sent home money that helped 19th-century Ireland to survive
‘She has left no trace… but bloodline,” writes Vona Groarke of her great-grandmother, who emigrated from Co Sligo to New York in 1882. Ellen O’Hara was an evocative presence in the stories Groarke heard as a child, but decades later, on a fellowship in New York, the poet struggles to find official evidence of Ellen’s difficult life.
This paucity of information is both a frustration and a gift. In Hereafter, a beautifully distinctive exercise in imaginative empathy, Groarke uses archival material, prose and, most importantly, poetry to conjure her great-grandmother into being. As she does, she makes the problem — lack of information, dead ends — part of the subject, so that Hereafter also becomes a book about the challenges of writing such a book.
The circuity of Groarke’s quest, her slight reluctance to write about her subject and Hereafter’s hybrid form are reminiscent of A Ghost in the Throat by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa — a blend of essays and autofiction documenting Ní Ghríofa’s hunt for information about the poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Hereafter also has roots in other genre-defying biographies by women such as Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger.
Groarke’s writing is intimate — and impeccably honed — but there are few glimpses into her personal life. In a book about untold stories, most of her own exist beyond the page. She keeps the focus on how she feels about her undertaking and on the forces that shaped her great-grandmother.
With a little proof and a lot of conjecture, she pieces together Ellen’s first years in New York working as domestic servant amid endemic anti-Irish bigotry. Included are a caricature from Puck magazine depicting an Irish maid as boorish and animalistic and a wanted ad specifically looking to employ a “Protestant girl”.
Though scanty, Ellen did leave traces — a misspelled name on a census or a ship’s passenger list. In 1901, now a mother of two and likely deserted by her husband, she brought her children back to Ireland, left them with her parents and returned to New York. It was 12 years before she saw them again, by which time she was running a boarding house.
Groarke gives voice to Ellen in poems she calls “folk sonnets” and through these her great-grandmother emerges as discerning, pragmatic, stubborn and infinitely sceptical about her descendant’s investigations: “Is it not a great deal of time and energy to lavish on a life that isn’t yours?”
The fraught relationship between the two women is underpinned by the poet’s awareness of the liberties she is taking in fictionalising Ellen, and of her own power and privilege, her 21st-century freedoms. The sonnets and prose passages dramatise her disquiet, as well as Ellen’s resistance to her “suppositions”.
While these misgivings are understandable — and the complexity of the connection between writer and character prevents sentimentality and creates additional tension and depth — Groarke’s doubts can feel too pervasive. She holds herself to extremely high ethical standards, never really making peace with her project, wondering if it’s “vanity” to want to imagine a particular scene, a “narcissistic impulse” or “somehow serviceable” and if there’s “a way to make it be both?”
In fact, her impulses are much more than serviceable, contributing as they do to an important piece of Irish social history. From the mid-19th century onwards, Ellen and her peers — “Irish women in aprons” — sent home money that helped their families to pay rent and bills, to buy land and property. In the early 1900s, Irish women in the US tended to stay single longer than their male counterparts, frequently working as domestic servants, which meant they could live in their employers’ homes and save their earnings.
“Dollar by dollar, pound by pound,” writes Groarke, “these women helped build Modern Ireland.”
Hereafter’s slimness belies its sweep; its bibliography is extensive, its contemporary resonance significant. Groarke is attuned to the power of space as she explores economic inequality, the impact of emigration, intergenerational trauma and ambivalent ideas of home. White space on the page mirrors the space she allows her readers to make their own connections and engage emotionally with what is a piercingly sad story as well as one of resilience.
It’s a necessarily fragmented narrative. A revelation at the end casts fresh light on the importance of Ellen and the book to Groarke and demonstrates how trauma reverberates through generations, perpetuating cycles of pain. The revelation also comes as a shock, a visceral jolt strengthened by the fact that Ellen, often “in high dudgeon at the barefaced cheek” of Groarke, has become so credible, so audible, so endearing.
At the end of the acknowledgements, Groarke thanks her great-grandmother and “all the Ellens. Because they really ought to be thanked,” she writes, “even after so many years.”
Hereafter is a fitting expression of gratitude, a reclamation or rectification as well as an attempt to assemble and understand Ellen’s life.
Fiction: Hereafter by Vona Groarke
NYU Press, 224 pages, hardcover €27.81; e-book £18.04