IN 2007 Mary O’Malley made a voyage on the Irish marine research ship the Celtic Explorer. It took her out into the Atlantic and returned her to a country made strange.
Valparaiso, her new collection of poetry, began while the writer was at sea. It is a book of searches and discoveries, plumbing oceanic depths, and returning to a shore that ‘marks the start of possibility’. As the scientists charted a course dictated by the demands of research, Ireland careered from boom to bust. Throughout the work Mary explores the science of going under and staying afloat and at the end finds herself changed by an odyssey that has taken her around the Atlantic and Europe, into her past, and back to a kind of homecoming.
A week ahead of the book’s launch in Charlie Byrne’s next Thursday at 6pm, Mary O’Malley met with me to talk about the book. She began by describing how it came about.
“I was out in Letterfrack at Sea Week which I’ve been going to and involved in for well over 20 years now and someone from the Department of Marine was there,” Mary tells me. “He had heard me reading a few times and he invited me to go on a trip on the Explorer and it was arranged and I went the following June /July.
“Because I’ve often written about the sea I had decided the next book, this book, would have no sea in it and I was really serious about that – and this is what happened!”
She goes on to describe the experience of being on the Celtic Explorer:
“She’s like a floating science lab. She’s completely computerised; I was looking for the wheel but there’s no wheel anymore. She is equipped with absolutely every electronic and technological gadget you could imagine from fabulous colour printouts, one of which now hangs on my wall. And we had great food as well. And the berths…I’m claustrophobic so I was really scared about that, I was even planning to sneakily sleep on the deck but the berths have a window and are roomy. The voyage was only 10 days but I could have happily gone for a month.
“There was an international research team from the university. A lot of the crew had been fishermen who were kept off the sea by new EU rules that have totally obliterated what I would consider our coastal heritage and coastal culture within the past 20 years. Everything seemed to coalesce to lead me to something and to give a shape to something I already needed to explore without knowing it.”
Mary notes with concern the multinationals’ encroachments on maritime resources.
“When you look at the seabed on a chart it has mountains and the other geographical features that a land has, but these guys are looking on it as territory and are buying up oil rights, mineral rights, fishing rights, energy rights, by the bucketload, and I found all that very interesting. It was interesting to have the two viewpoints onboard – the scientific/exploratory one and then the crew who’d been fishermen and were very skilled workers.”
The voyage was funded through research into microscopic creatures called dinophysis.
“They were trying to glean information that would enable them to predict their paths in the ocean,” she says. “One of these creatures can kill the mussels in fish farms so the information would have been useful in addressing that. We were hanging in a grid off the south west coast of Cork and Kerry, out around Fastnet. And there was the ocean teeming with life, not at all the empty space that people might imagine.”
The poems in the new collection do not concentrate solely on the Celtic Voyager journey, but also describe Mary’s own personal voyages to the European continent.
“One of the first I wrote was the very first poem in the book which begins ‘Out now’ because of that very strong sense of having to leave Ireland at that time,” she says. “This was not simply a personal reason, it was an artistic reason.
“At that time I found Ireland nearly impossible to work in, I found it toxic, constricting, I was both devastated at what was happening to the country, just the sheer lack of manners and discernment and a lack of discourse more than anything else. It became almost impossible to say anything that was critical of the economic boom without being made to feel that you were somehow backward. I found that stifling and going to the continent there is always great debate no matter what. And the great thing about someplace like the Irish College in Paris is that that debate could take place very freely among Irish people there in a way I found it didn’t take place as much here.
“The genesis of the book was about five years ago just before things went wallop, Ireland was rich. There was also the really strong sense for me of doubting myself, I was thinking ‘maybe I’m wrong’. I found language had become a complete lie and I had to get away to trust the language again, so that words would mean what they meant again.
“The book is a journey and I didn’t know how that journey was going to end. The interesting thing that a boat teaches you is that the journey will end or you drown. It kept me afloat at a particularly difficult time.”
Several poems in Valparaiso address the themes of religion and faith.
“I suppose I was admitting that the question of lost faith would have to be addressed again. Its absence is huge in my life. One of the churches I went to a lot was St Sulpice, I’d run in for a look of the painting Jacob and the Angel, but maybe that’s all the beginning of another exploration.”
The title poem ‘Valparaiso’ comes from a poem by Monsignor Padraig de Brun
“The original poem was written in English by Gogarty. It’s not a poem I like but then Monsignor de Brun wrote what is effectively a new version which is magical and magnificent and one of those magic poems that you can’t imagine where they came out of. I do a little retranslation as a homage.”
Valparaiso is published by Carcanet Press.