Hereafter by Vona Groarke: the poet gives thanks by evoking her emigrant ancestor in life

“She left no trace…but a line,” writes Vona Groarke of her great-grandmother, who emigrated from Co Sligo to New York in 1882. Ellen O’Hara was an evocative presence in the stories that Groarke heard as a child, but decades later, while on a scholarship in New York, the poet struggles to find official evidence of Ellen’s difficult life.

his lack of information is both a frustration and a gift. In Hereafter, subsequently, a beautifully distinctive exercise in imaginative empathy, Groarke uses archival material, prose and, most importantly, poetry to ward off his great-grandmother. In doing so, she integrates the problem — the lack of information, the dead ends — into the subject, so that Hereafter, subsequently also becomes a book about the challenges of writing such a book.

Groarke’s quest circuit, his slight reluctance to write about it and Hereafter, subsequentlythe hybrid form of recall A ghost in the throat by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa – a mix of essays and autofiction documenting Ní Ghríofa’s search for information about the poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Hereafter, subsequently also has roots in other gender-defying biographies by women such as Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Leger.

Groarke’s writing is intimate – and impeccably polished – but there are few glimpses of his personal life. In a book about untold stories, most of his exist beyond the page. She remains focused on how she feels about her business and the forces that shaped her great-grandmother.

With some evidence and plenty of guesswork, it reconstructs Ellen’s early years in New York as a servant amid rampant anti-Irish bigotry. Included are a caricature of Puck magazine depicting a rude and animalistic Irish housekeeper and a wanted advertisement specifically seeking to employ a “Protestant girl”.

Although not abundant, Ellen left traces – a misspelled name on a census or a ship’s passenger list. In 1901, now a mother of two and probably abandoned by her husband, she brought her children back to Ireland, left them with her parents, and returned to New York. It took 12 years before she saw them again, by which time she was running a boarding house.

Groarke gives voice to Ellen in poems she calls “folk sonnets” and through these her great-grandmother comes across as shrewd, pragmatic, stubborn and infinitely skeptical of her descendant’s investigations: “N isn’t it a lot of time and energy to lavish on a life that isn’t yours?

The strained relationship between the two women is underpinned by the poet’s awareness of the liberties she takes in romanticizing Ellen, and of her own power and privilege, her 21st century freedoms. The sonnets and prose passages dramatize his disquiet, as well as Ellen’s resistance to his “assumptions”.

While these apprehensions are understandable — and the complexity of the writer-character bond precludes sentimentality and creates additional tension and depth — Groarke’s doubts may seem too intrusive. She holds herself to extremely high ethical standards, never really making peace with her project, wondering if it’s “vanity” to want to imagine a particular scene, a “narcissistic impulse” or “somehow helpful”. what if there’s “a way to make it be both?”

In fact, his impulses are more than helpful, contributing as they do to an important piece of Irish social history. From the mid-19th century, Ellen and her peers – “Irish women in aprons” – sent home money that helped their families pay rent and bills, buy land and property . In the early 1900s, Irish women in the United States tended to stay single longer than their male counterparts, often working as servants, which meant they could live in their employers’ homes and save their earnings.

“Dollar by dollar, pound by pound”, writes Groarke, “these women helped build modern Ireland”.

Hereafter, subsequentlyThinness belies its field; its bibliography is abundant, its contemporary resonance important. Groarke is sensitive to the power of space as she explores economic inequality, the impact of emigration, intergenerational trauma, and ambivalent ideas of home. The white space on the page reflects the space it allows its readers to make their own connections and emotionally engage with what is a deeply sad story as well as a story of resilience.

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It is a necessarily fragmented narrative. A revelation at the end sheds new light on the importance of Ellen and the book to Groarke and shows how trauma ripples through generations, perpetuating cycles of pain. The revelation also comes as a shock, a visceral jolt heightened by the fact that Ellen, Groarke’s often “bare-cheeked top dudgeon” has become so believable, so audible, so endearing.

At the end of the thanks, Groarke thanks his great-grandmother and “all the Ellens. Because they truly deserve to be thanked,” she wrote, “even after so many years.”

Hereafter, thereafter is an appropriate expression of gratitude, a claim or rectification as well as an attempt to collect and understand Ellen’s life.


Below by Vona Groarke

Below by Vona Groarke

Fiction: Beyond Vona Groarke
NYU Press, 224 pages, hardcover €27.81; e-book €18.04

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