Liz Quirke – Mná na hÉireann, thirty years on


and what does it look like?
Which names are remembered, what have we learned?
Anne Lovett, Baby X, Miss C,
fallen, scorned, lost and for what?
To cover up, forgive the nameless, blameless Y chromosome
and chasten those who “couldn’t keep their knickers on”.

Wheel in the priest, bring out the nuns.
Let their novena finally have a function.
The worst sinners can’t even be churched,
just held up, raised above the pulpit
in a shawl of shame fashioned by congregations
who will happily blaze a sinner’s skin.

If the spotlight shines between their legs,
it can’t travel down dim tiled corridors
into rooms where deals are made, papers signed.
Not even the moon will illuminate the shapes
of those lurking, low humming cars idling at back doors
waiting to drive fresh born bastards to godly homes,

where their crimes and those of their mothers can fade
chip away and burn and the prayerful can rise
reborn with new surnames, installed among the decent.
Only afterwards when the embers cool, the air settles heavy,
the pious can attempt to wash their hands,
cleanse themselves before they kneel to seek salvation.

But no running water can remove that handiwork.
Soot and ink are tricky tattoos.
Once under nails and caked in there’s nothing to erase it.
You can file the skin perhaps, rub palms with sandpaper
to blur the blackness and at least it can be pretended
that not all hands filled the columns in chapel log books

with only the legitimate, turned pages away
from reports of ill women, raped women and broken girls,
ignored by those suited and tied, robed and collared,
focused instead on heady pours of altar wine
and decanted back room whiskey left to warm in bellies
swollen, full of a job well done.