Gabriel: 'Inside I was a mess, emotionally and spiritually, a total mess'
One of the best things about hosting a writers' event in literary Listowel is the chance the location affords home talent to stand as an equal on stage with big international names.
Gabriel Fitzmaurice's latest collection of poetry - bound in a stunning publication accompanied by powerful images by his artist wife Brenda - was a case in point.
'Smitten Soul: Illuminating the Dark' was launched to a fantastic response at the Seanchaí on Thursday, marking in its way a bit of a departure for Gabriel. It represents the most personal of subjects yet for the Moyvane poet; verse hewn from the 'dark night of the sense' Garbiel inhabited for so long.
"The reason I chose Smitten Soul is that it has two different meanings. It means 'hurt' and it means 'in love with' and the book is about being hurt, in life, and also about being in love with life and also with God," Gabriel told The Kerryman.
"It is taken from a lifetime of writing, I suppose you would call it a 'pilgrim's progress', through darkness into the light. Not 'from' darkness, there's always darkness, but you get through it."
'Darkness' isn't the first word associated with a now retired school master known and loved for his resolutely good cheer. But the pillar-of-the-community appearance once belied the interior life.
"In my 20s everything appeared to be going well for me. I had a car, I had a girlfriend.It looked fine from the outside and I did a good job teaching, at least the inspectors thought so anyway. But inside I was a mess, emotionally and spiritually a total mess. Blues singers would call it the blues."
Underlying the unease was the traumatic childhood experience of watching his mother teeter on the edge of life.
"My mother was ill all my life. She had been anointed several times by the time I was five years of age. I was certain she was going to die several times. And I used to say to her 'if you die I won't go to the Mass'.
"I suppose it was just a kind of insecurity in me always that didn't leave until I met this good woman," he said, placing a hand on Brenda's.
"I never knew if my mother was going to live or die. A certain type of insecurity stayed with me that was emotional. But there was the spiritual thing as well; questioning this, questioning that. I mean this is how it felt inside but outside you'd never know it. I was playing a lot of music, songs around west Limerick and North Kerry.
"Then I met Brenda and things looked up, the first big turning point of my life and she made a man of me, I matured."
But struggles with religion would persist long into adulthood, outlined in poetry reeling from everything from the sex abuse scandals to the revelations of the industrial school system.
Gabriel's fractured personal relationship with God was to heal in a single epiphany while on a visit with the grandchildren to Crag Caves. There in the dark bowels of the earth came the light of understanding.
"This line just came to me: 'When I learned to trust myself, I trusted you' and I sat down in Crag Cave and wrote a sonnet, 'Out of the Abyss'.
"That was my issues sorted with God once and for all, because I had to learn to trust myself before I could trust God. 'Tis amazing if you don't trust yourself.
"We were brought up in a very oppressive kind of society or Church that said you had to have a sense of restitution. But, as a very wise priest said to me once, you're in trouble if you don't forgive yourself."