‘The sharpness of the factory girl’s tongue’

In the late 1980s a number of innovative ideas were introduced to industry and business, that cleared the runway for the Celtic Tiger take off. The one that made great sense, and had an energy about it, was the inventory strategy known as just-in-time. A Japanese idea that spread through Europe like a Spanish forest fire in a heat wave. Instead of stockpiling raw products for manufacture or for sale (with all the attendant headaches of storage costs, temperature, accounting, etc, etc, ) the management skill was to wait until stocks were low, and then pick up the phone and make sure your supplier gave you exactly what you needed at the right time, in the right place, and the exact amount just-in-time. Suddenly, everyone was doing it. Suppliers were kept on their toes, trucks delivered through the night, and a bit of excitement was injected into the work place.

Excitement of a different kind was felt among the employees on the factory floor. Galway poet Rita Ann Higgins remembers when suddenly there were ‘jobs aplenty in Mervue Industrial Estate’. As a young girl, ‘when the only priority was washing the hair, and slapping on layers of makeup’, she rushed with all the others to join up. Soon she was hooked ‘on the chatter from the girls in the shirt factory, the stories about the boys and dance halls, and what went on in the backs of old cars after dances. The kissing stories, the telling-all stories. Someone was ‘such a ride’, someone else was ‘the town bike’. Factory lore was enhanced with nods and glances, and the internal rhythm of licentiousness was palpable. ‘In reply to the question, “What was he really like?” the ultimate put down was when a little finger was exhibited and crooked into the shape of a worm. The repartee from the factory girls was honed and blade-like. No nearby male was exempt from the sharpness of the factory girl’s tongue’.

The girls would jive with each other in the factory toilet, and the Tannoy system blasted out the popular songs all day long. Toilet breaks were taken often. It was also a chance for a quick fag and more dance hall stories. ‘Magical times, half innocent, half pagan. We were the factory girls; we were cutters and stitchers, and we were happy most of the time.’

Her mother took the house money from her pay packet, and Rita Ann was given her own spending money. She would go straight to Dunnes to buy something new for her weekend dance. ‘Usually it would be something white because of the fluorescent lighting in the Hangar ballroom. We all wore white. We looked like brides. We were brides of the stitch ‘n time.’

A good laugh

I have always thought Rita Ann Higgins’ poetry was like open-heart surgery. The beating heart is there for all to see. Her latest collection Hurting God*, is part essay, part rhyme, and part autobiography, and has an ‘Under Milk Wood’ quality to some of it. Using all her writing skills she shares some of the highlights of her life from a childhood in Ballybrit, working, her mother and father, her illness, the birth of her child Heather, the death of her brother, survival, and finally, at least to date, peace and contentment living in Spiddal. The struggle, however, is always more interesting than the arrival. Her mother was tortured by the simple annoyances and prejudices that she felt were hurting God in some way. ‘I knew by the look on my mother’s face. She had a hurting God look, she wore it often. When cousin Patsy came out to visit wearing her black slacks, I knew by the look on my mother’s face that she was hurting God.’

‘Our memories were all shoe-boxes and Halloweens and things sticking out of the top of wardrobes.’ Her father was raised in Leitir Móir, but his father gave him to a farmer in Menlough to work his heart out until it was time for him to join the Army. Rita Ann remembers him polishing and shining his shoes every time he went for a walk. Her mother constantly prayed for the grace of a happy death. When they went out, the children ‘did the devil’s work.’ They played ‘Mimic a Father’. “ If I take off my belt to you you will feel it”. It was a good laugh. Such a funny thing to say. Another funny ‘Mimic the Father’ game was my brother chasing me with a wooden crocodile, “Come back here you striapach, don’t you give me back cheek. I want front cheek and I want it now”. We laughed and laughed and why wouldn’t we?’

Another language

Rita Ann’s father had fluent Irish, but he discouraged his children from learning what he considered ‘that poverty language’. Yet driving the children on a Sunday visit to relatives in Cois Fearraige her father lilts “ Di diddle di diddle diddle diddle diddle dum. After a while he stops lilting and starts singing Peigín Leitir Móir and An Bhfaca Tú Mo Shéamuisín? And then he goes quiet. He is having sad thoughts. Then he snaps out of it and he starts lilting again.”

Irish, ‘the language my father loved and hated,’ was the language spoken over the boiled chicken lunch. The relations ‘speak in tongues, full of sing, full of sorrow’. One Sunday her father tries to find his mother’s grave. ‘This is a treasure hunt. We get to the old graveyard and the boulder’s uncles are spat out all over the place. I know that today there would be no Peigín Leitir Móir. He can’t find her. He tries this corner and that corner. She was buried just inside the wall. Which wall I didn’t know one wall from the other. I mime a lilt. He tries all corners.

‘The treasure hunt ended badly. No sign of the mother who died when a father was six months. We were soon on the road with no signs. He didn’t need directions. The stone walls were his map. The briars were his heather. His face was red. He didn’t lilt. I didn’t mime’.

The Other Language

I was in Leitir Móir

with my father

I was young, very young.

My father’s relations

were speaking in another language

they were laughing in another language

they were drinking in another language

they were barking in another language

they were arguing in another language

and when all the talk came up about emigration

they were crying in another language.

NOTES: Hurting God, is Rita Ann Higgins’ ninth collection of poetry, published by that extraordinary Jessie Lendennie, of the indomitable Salmon Poetry, Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare, without whom few Galway poets would ever see the light of a bookshop shelf. Rita Ann’s book is on sale at Charlie Byrne’s €12.

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