THE OPENING verse of Geraldine Mills' new poetry collection, The Bone Road, reads: “They’re glad to see the back/of all the wind-crippled whins,/turn their heads from/the rain over Achill Island,/smoor the final fire.”
On the back cover, Mills tells us that a Quaker, Mr Tuke, visited the west of Ireland during the Great Famine. Haunted by what he saw, he returned in 1880 and saw it was still ravaged by congestion and poverty. In order to alleviate the destitution, he set up an Assisted Emigration Scheme known as the 'Tuke Fund' which supported whole families going to North America with their passage paid, a set of new clothes, and landing money when they arrived.
Among the 10,000 people who benefited from the fund were the poet’s great-grandparents and they and their six children arrived into Boston Harbour on July 4 1883, and from there on to Warren, Rhode Island, where the great-grandfather, Philip Heveron, was given work in the cotton mills. They could not settle there and, now with seven children, made the journey back. The great-grandfather went directly to County Mayo, and six months later the rest of the family were united in Belmullet.
'Mills succeeds in retrieving the harrowing experience suffered by the countless numbers forced to leave their homeland due to hunger and poverty'
“This verse memoir” Mills writes, “attempts to chart the course of their leave-taking and homecoming through documents, fact, and imagined memory, in order to retrieve those lost parts of my family’s history.”
Mills succeeds, not only in retrieving the lost parts of her family’s history, but also in retrieving the harrowing experience suffered by the countless numbers who were forced to leave their homeland due to hunger and poverty. Whereas those who were lucky enough to benefit from the 'Tuke Fund' were employed when they arrived in the US, their quality of life deteriorated sharply. This is highlighted by two poems in particular.
'Cotton' describes the cotton mills where Heveron worked: “First the seed/the cream of flowers/pods becomes boll/dries, splits open,/curves back/ to expose fibres.//Then the carding/ the drawn slivers/the inning/the roving/ the sizing/the spinning/the warping/the slashing/the weaving/the spooling.//Sheeting/shorting/sateen/twill/bolt of them/ flowing/ like rivers/into/Narragansett Bay.”
'Inspired by the birth of her grandchildren, the main theme of the collection is continuation'
Contrasting with this is the nostalgic poem 'He Longs For Bog Cotton': “That lover of wet places;/some years there was so much of it,/its fruit transformed puiteach/into snow-covered tundra.//A counterpane of white above the bog,/picked to soften the inside of his shoes/when he walked to Belmullet on fair days,/flick of hare’s-tail along the sedge.”
Inspired by the birth of her grandchildren, the main theme of the collection is continuation: “I will tell our grandchildren/as they wave their spangled banners,/carrying lineage in their eyes//of a man, a woman, their six children,/who, grateful for the passage paid, left behind the bone road, took the boat,/grasped the hand of refuge//waiting for them on the other shore”.