Sunday 26 May 2019

Meet the woman who gave Harry and Meghan a tour in Ireland: 'I was asked if I knew how to shake their hands'

Jessica Traynor (34) is the deputy museum director of Epic. She gave Prince Harry and Meghan Markle a tour of the museum. She is a poet. She lives in Ballybough, with her husband, Declan, and their one-year-old daughter, Abigail

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The day starts at 6.30am. My husband Declan and I listen to Abigail, our one-year-old daughter, chat away to herself over the baby monitor. We lie in the dark, thinking, 'Isn't that cute?'. Then the chatting becomes cranky. By 6.45am, I'm up to feed her. After a little bit of play, we all go downstairs and have breakfast before Declan heads off to work.

We live in Ballybough, which is a really old, historic part of the north-east inner city. We are a two-minute walk from Fairview Park, a 10-minute walk from the seafront, and a 10-minute walk from my place of work - Epic museum.

Before our daughter was born, I was the kind of person who would have had a very full working day, between my previous life as the literary manager at the Abbey Theatre, and my current job, working in the museum. I used to work a lot of 12-hour days, and then I also kept an eye on cultural activities, going to see plays and doing poetry reviews.

I am also a poet. My second book, The Quick, will be launched on October 30 in Poetry Ireland on Parnell Square.

But now, with Abigail, the drive is to get home at the end of the day and just spend as much time as possible with her. We are very lucky to have my mum and dad minding her during the week. It gives me fantastic peace of mind.

I walk into work. I'm the deputy museum director of Epic. The museum and our office are both situated in the CHQ building.

Epic is a museum of Irish emigration. We look at emigration from a thematic approach, and we cover history from the Sixth Century right up to the present day. But rather than talking about it year by year, we look at the different motivation factors for people leaving, like the pull of land or unemployment.

Obviously, the Famine was a huge factor, but we also look at the economic peaks and troughs, to the more recent waves of emigration that have lasted.

It's an ongoing story. We tell the stories of different individuals. We want people to feel a tangible connection to individuals, whether they are famous members of the diaspora like JFK, right down to a woman called Big Rachel Hamilton, who used to work on the docklands in Glasgow. She left Ireland just after the Famine.

Some people had to make the gut-wrenching decision to leave. But we also focus on how the Irish were given the opportunities to shine and succeed in other countries. We celebrate their achievements.

During my day, I project-manage several exhibitions. We're doing a series of story-collecting weekends, where we collect living history. We ask returned emigrants to come in and tell their story. Another project is 'Blazing a Trail'. It is all about Irish women abroad and the amazing things they achieved all over the world. The people we feature have to have spent a significant portion of their life abroad, and achieved something noteworthy to their country of residence. They can also be the child of Irish emigrants.

When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle came to Dublin, I gave them the tour, along with our founder, Neville Isdell. The photographers left after a few minutes, and it was just the four of us.

Everything about their visit was choreographed. While I was waiting for them to arrive, one of the gardai asked me if I knew how to shake their hands. Apparently, you are supposed to give them a very limp handshake - it's protocol.

Then I completely forgot about it and gave them both a bone-crushing handshake. They were casual and warm, and Meghan seemed very grateful for all the fuss everyone was making. We were walking down the stairs and I was admiring her shoes. The heels were really thin stillettos. You are trying to be polite and natural, and just not to be a total eejit. I said, 'You must be exhausted, on your feet all day'. But she said that she was fine.

They were keen to talk about Irish history. We have a few quirky stories in the museum, and the ones I really enjoy are about women who went away and disguised themselves as men to fight in wars or work as doctors. Because I know that Meghan is interested in women's empowerment, I was teasing out all of those stories. After a while, Harry said, 'Hang on a minute, you've got a lot of cross-dressers in this museum.'

After their visit, we had a huge bump in the number of visitors.

When I get home from work, I play with Abigail. Then it's the big bedtime ritual, where we brush her four teeth and put her down to bed. She sleeps like a dream. Then I have dinner with Declan. In the evenings, I'll work on my laptop.

People talk about finding the time to write, but poetry infiltrates my entire life. You just have to make sure that you are receptive to the little ideas that are bubbling away in your subconscious all the time. With poetry, you don't need eight hours a day, as long as you have an idea and you make little notes to yourself. Since I've worked in Epic, history informs a lot of my new poetry.

I'm usually in bed by 11pm. I have surreal dreams, and they often get transformed into poetry. Dreams are metaphors and symbols. Sometimes you can come up with a fabulous image that only your subconscious brain could have created. I have to say, there is a lot to be said for dreaming.

epicchq.com

@JessicaTraynor6

In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

'The Quick', by Jessica Traynor

is published by Dedalus Press

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