Nobel Prize–winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney famously penned "The Cure at Troy"—his version of the 5th-century BCE play Philoctetes. One of its oft-cited passages was written to recognize the legacy of Nelson Mandela, whose struggles in Apartheid South Africa were a source of inspiration for Heaney during the work’s composition:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
While these verses have been used to inspire and persuade—memorably by President Bill Clinton during the Northern Ireland peace process in 1995—they also underscore the power of poetry to capture, if only aspirationally, the alignment of two forces: hope and history.
Vona Groarke, also an award-winning Irish poet, deploys her writing talents to depict the life of a single person, her great-grandmother, with a nod to the historical period in which she lived.
“I am no statistician, no historian,” Groarke writes in Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara, a new “lyrical portrait” that is part of NYU Press’s Glucksman Irish Diaspora Series. “I seek other ways to tell the story. Wanting to fill in those stark, impersonal outlines, I cast around with my poet’s eye for color and detail; for something more than a rail of fact to hang the story on.”
In 1882, Ellen O’Hara (and, later, Ellen O’Grady) left her home in County Sligo for New York City. But while public records left a slight trail of her life, large voids remained, tasking Groarke with filling them by using a combination of speculation, logical conclusion, and “poetic license,” including representing Ellen’s voice in the form of a “folk sonnet”—a 14-line rhyming passage.
Though recreating Ellen’s history presented challenges, in writing and researching the book, Groarke became increasingly aware of the shortcomings of traditional historical and biographical accounts.
“What’s often missing with history is the imaginative projection—the softer idea of how lives were experienced as opposed to just the facts of what happened and when and what it felt like to be inside the occurrence of those facts,” observes Groarke, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester’s Centre for Writing and writer-in-residence at Cambridge University’s St. John’s College.
NYU News spoke with Groarke about how she reconstructed the life of her great-grandmother—and what goes into making poetry, creative writing, and history rhyme.
The absence of any personal records of Ellen’s and gaps in the governmental record forces you to speculate, in some cases, about what transpired decades ago. For instance, you imagine the day Ellen reunites with her children after more than 10 years apart: “Ellen dresses in her best clothes to go to Ellis Island to meet them off the ship. She stands in the hallway on her way out, throws an eye over the wooden floor she has polished this morning, herself. Thinks of the bedrooms she has readied for them, the beds turned down and neat as pins, the two chairs she had painted bright red to make the rooms look young.” How do you balance enriching our understanding of the past while not “fictionalizing” it?
Every time I go beyond what is recorded and what can be objectively verified, I draw attention to the fact that that’s what I’m doing. But there are complications involved in this process—I am using my own subjective imagination to occupy another person’s life and I’m doing it without any authority, other than poetic license.
So, yes, I use my imagination. Yes, I use empathetic projection, and yes, I use my creative writing skills. But I don’t pretend that I’m not doing any of those things because I think that would be unethical and it would make for a very different book—a novel. My approach was to meld the genres of the novel, poetry, and history and come up with a more reflexive and, I think, interesting experimental way of trying to get at what I call “the truth of a life.”
Much of the book is set in the 19th century. You wrote this in the 21st century. Did you think about how your 21st-century imagination might present challenges in situating yourself or the reader 150 years ago in time?
I think it was something I thought long and hard about when I was writing and researching this book in the New York Public Library in 2018 and 2019—trying to create a character who would be plausible as coming from the time that Ellen did, and who would only talk as people from that time and place would have talked. But in the end, I decided that kind of focus wouldn’t really serve the book. Ellen is a fictional character, and I think it’s okay to ask the reader to discern that she’s a figment of my imagination, and that I’m conjuring her using these different genres and approaches. I don’t want her to be judged only by a standard of historical accuracy, although I keep an eye on not sounding altogether wrong. I’m still hoping that she comes across as an Irish American great-grandmother, as well as having a personality all her own, as good fictional characters should.
However, if I were somehow able to access a recording of her voice or a photograph of what she looked like, would she match up exactly with my depictions of her? Would I be able to graft one onto the other? I doubt it very much. But I think my job as a creative writer is to create a character that is plausible within the terms of the character, while not arguing with the facts of historical origin.
Yet, you do rely on the work of historians to paint a larger picture of the periods in which Ellen lived—with a notable focus on immigration. For instance, in exploring how she made a living in America, you cite NYU historian Hasia Diner’s work: “As late as 1900, 60.5 percent of all Irish-born women who labored in the United States worked in domestic capacities.”
While the book uses facts in terms of what happened to her—her life story—it also embellishes and invents. However, I think the minute you throw history in there, people start wondering, “Oh, okay, so now do I have to read it as history?” But that’s why the history quotes are presented in a separate way from the other writing. I’m not trying to pretend that I’m writing history because the history has been researched and written beautifully by historians. And I could not have written this book if I didn’t have access to the work that’s already been done by researchers in that period who have turned up so much information about the lives of women who were like Ellen.
You list happenings involving more than a dozen other Ellen O’Gradys alive at the same time, including a former deputy police commissioner. But none of these were your great-grandmother. While these were biographical “dead ends,” did they nonetheless enrich the story of her life and of the period?
Yes, they really did for me, because with immigration, you have this very obvious crux of choice and chance. So if Ellen had not emigrated, if she had stayed in the West of Ireland living on the tiny farm with her 11 brothers and sisters, it’s fairly predictable how her life would have gone. But in making that huge decision to emigrate, she was then exposed to the workings of chance. So there was a lot more that could go wrong and there was a lot more than could go right in her life.
She wasn’t in control of her circumstances—in the same way that most recent immigrants weren’t. They were buffeted by chance. And what Ellen was able to do was to respond to those circumstances using her personality and her resilience and her strength, and so on.
So I thought: Okay, let’s look at stories where people have different personalities and different life circumstances, and a different bucket of chance is thrown over their heads. Let’s look at people who have the same name as her and use just that small point of coincidence to create a kind of contrasting backdrop, to glimpse the kind of better lives or, indeed, the more tragic, empty lives, that she might have had.
I think the most tragic story there is of an Ellen O’Grady whose life is just a single sentence in the historic record. That’s all we have of her: one sentence to sum up a whole life. The truth is, I’m lucky to have the family stories of my Ellen to fill out my sense of who she was. Without that, she might have been nothing more than a few Census entries and a headstone. But that’s the way history works: the record can be spare and brutal.
You write about a pocketwatch, given to your mother as a christening gift in 1924, and your own efforts, years later, to get it repaired in Dublin. While it couldn’t be fixed, you nonetheless write, “It’s a beautiful piece of engineering, even if it doesn’t do what it was intended to do.” What unintended impact—beyond your original aims—do you think an innovative historical account such as yours could have on readers?
The formal innovation is my way of trying to make an old story new so it resonates with contemporary ways of questioning and expanding what we know of this historical period. I want to explore not just the subject of the book —the what—but also the how. The interlocking components of the telling, the little mechanism of the book, are designed to engage the reader in several different ways.
I think every piece of creative writing is a proposal put by a writer to an audience. And better creative writing, I think, doesn’t give the full answer to the audience, but invites the audience to contribute imaginatively something that could be an answer to what’s being proposed by the writing.
So with Hereafter, I chose the cover image of the inside of the watch as opposed to the face of the watch because I’m recording myself recording the story—the machinery of the book itself is exposed within the book.
I think this working of imagination and of constructing character and voice offers cues to the reader so that they can feel it in themselves—they can try and imagine a voice themselves. And if they do that, they’re contributing. And once a reader contributes, they’re in.