Rita Ann Higgins - the fearless poetic voice

Rita Ann Higgins. Pic:- Mike Shaughnessy

Rita Ann Higgins. Pic:- Mike Shaughnessy

RITA ANN Higgins has been one of the most individual and outspoken voices in Irish poetry for the last 25 years and her poetic journey continues with the publication of the ‘part essay, part rhyme’, Hurting God, a fascinating refection on family, religion, memory, and community.

On the bus from Mervue

Rita Ann was born in Ballybrit in 1955, one of 13 children and she lived there, “near the racecourse” until she was 11, when the family moved to Mervue. At this stage in her life, books and reading were not a pastime.

“The only books I remember were the Irish Messenger Of The Sacred Heart and St Jude’s Novena Book, they were the only reading material I remember,” Rita Ann tells me as we sit for the interview in The Cellar Bar on a Monday afternoon.

However her sense of self confidence and outspokenness were already present, qualities she attributes to her mother.

“I always had a sense of self esteem as my mother instilled that in me,” she says. “She would say ‘Red suits you’ or ‘Your hair looks nice’. If you have that self esteem everything else falls into place.”

It was not until Rita Ann suffered a serious bout of ill health in 1977 that her interest in reading and writing was lit and her path to becoming a poet opened up.

“I was 22 when I had TB,” she says. “I was in a sanatorium and I don’t know if it was the boredom or the cold weather - it was December ‘77 - but I started reading. I never had any interest before. The first two books I read were Animal Farm and Wuthering Heights and after that I thought ‘Books are the way to go’ and from then on I never looked back.”

Once fully recovered, and with her new passion for literature, Rita Ann enrolled in a writing course in UCG, given by an American called Jessie Lendennie, who would later found the Salmon Poetry publishing company.

“Jessie encouraged me from the get go and that’s how I started,” says Rita Ann. “I had my first poem published by Salmon and other poems started to be published and then I got a letter from Oxford University and the prison in Cork both asking me to come and do readings.”

Rita Ann’s profile was on the rise but it was the publication of her debut collection, Goddess On The Mervue Bus by Salmon in 1986, that announced her as a new, distinct, and exciting voice in Irish poetry. Not only in Galway, but across Ireland the collection was causing a stir and an excitement which rarely greets poetry.

As Kevin Higgins has written for the Galway Advertiser: “The Irish poetic revolution of the last 20 years began with Paul Durcan startling audiences with his surrealist poetic tales and continued with the caustic, troublemaking, poetry of Rita Ann Higgins.”

“I had a lack of formal training in these things and wasn’t aware of the rules but I wrote the way that I felt was right for me,” she says. “That’s the way I write today. I’m driven by instinct and the truth.”

Hurting God

Since then Rita Ann has published numerous collections of poetry, written plays for the stage and radio, edited anthologies, and won awards for her work. Now comes her latest work, Hurting God, published by Salmon and which will be launched in Galway this weekend.

The book is subtitled ‘part essay, part rhyme’ and features poetry and autobiographical prose, some of which is new while others are previously published. The inspiration for this approach came from an essay Rita Ann wrote for Salmon on writing poetry.

“I wrote the essay for Jennie and thought ‘I could do that again’, so I called her said ‘Jessie I have an idea’,” says Rita Ann. “She loved it and that was good as I need deadlines, I need to be under pressure. In some instances the essays were in response to poems written a long time ago and some of the poems were written in response to the essays.”

The process of writing and compiling the book also came at a tough time for Rita Ann when her husband was in hospital suffering from cancer.

“My husband was very ill last year,” she says. “I would be at the hospital with him and then when I came home it was very late and I couldn’t sleep so I started writing and out of that came this book.”

Thankfully Rita Ann’s husband is recovered now and the product of those stressful nights is Hurting God. “I think this book is a tribute to my parents and my family,” she says. “I think I handle the subject with delicacy and dignity. I stand by every word of it, every full stop, every comma.”

The book’s title comes from the collection’s main essay which itself comes from a term Rita Ann’s mother often used. “My mother was very religious,” she says. “She was steeped in Catholicism and devotion to the Blessed Virgin and God, but if you misbehaved you were told you were ‘hurting God’.”

The role of faith and religion in the lives of the people Rita Ann grew up around dominate the book. It is a reflection on ‘Catholic Ireland’ from the persecutive of ‘post-Catholic Ireland’. One of the stand out poems is This Was No Ithaca, a tribute to the devotion of Irish women to Catholicism and how, despite the Church treating them as ‘second class citizens’, women were the backbone of the faith in Ireland.

“Women polished the altars and had a part to play in the community, but perhaps to their own neglect,” says Rita Ann. “It was their life but it was also an escape from the drinking husband, the many children. They felt they needed to give something back. It was a type of dedicated innocence but it was hugely significant to them. This poem is no criticism of them.”

However the more negative side of Catholic Ireland, the overbearing power of and the deference to the clergy is explored in another of the collection’s finest poems - The Priest Is Coming And We Can Feel It In Our Bones.

“It’s about the power of the priest,” says Rita Ann. “It was written a long time ago and is about when I was in the TB ward. It was unusually mundane in there but when the hospital knew the priest was coming everyone went into a tizzy, cleaning and polishing, and you knew something was happening. The patients didn’t know what it was but they knew it was something big.

“The Church made a powerful impact but for me it wasn’t in a positive way. The priest and the guard and God were feared more than anything and I personally found that oppressive.”

As well as reflecting on Catholic Ireland, Hurting God also features memories of growing up and family (the poem Be Someone recalls the kind of things Rita Ann’s father used to say to her ) and also takes a look at a different kind of supernatural belief to religion - that of the Irish ghost, the púca.

The Púca is a humorous recollection of various superstitions people once carried out to ward off evil spirits.

“We always imagined we could see something at the end of the garden,” says Rita Ann, “at the edge of the bushes or on the branches of the trees, the púca was always there. I suppose the elephant in the room was religion and the elephant outside the door was the púca.”

So now that Rita Ann has written a book that is in part autobiography, would she be keen to compose a full memoir? “I would like to write a memoir,” she says with a smile, “as I have a lot to say!”

Rita Ann Higgins’ Hurting God will be launched in the Town Hall Theatre this Saturday at 2pm. The guest speaker will be Des Kenny. The event is open to the public and all are welcome.

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