by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Upon analysing a poem, I find it useful to decode it in a particular way. I like to read the poem as if it were a story. This helps me to generate an understanding of both the poet and the poem’s context. The following notes outline the story of ‘Translation’. Once an understanding of this poem’s story has been established you will then be able to more effectively create your own opinions and observations.
The Story of the Poem
- *Ní Chuilleanáin read this poem at a ceremony commemorating the reburial of the Magdalene Sisters remains in Glasnevin. Their remains had previously been found in an unmarked mass grave.
- Magdalene Laundries were a series of asylums administered by nuns institutionalized ‘fallen women’ (troublesome, pregnant, sexually promiscuous girls etc.)
- The poet mentions that somehow the work conducted by the gravediggers finally ‘evens the score’ between the Magdalene Sisters and those who treated them so poorly (nuns/their family/society).
- The poet describes how the women who suffered at the hands of the church were just like any other woman ‘There are women here from every county, just as there were in the laundry’ (simile)
- This stanza describes the conditions/atmosphere in which the Sisters worked – dirty water, clouds of steam escaping from an iron sounding like an innocent giggle (personification/striking image).
- ‘The high relief of a glance’ is a reference to a painting of Jesus that would have hung on the walls of the laundry – which should’ve offered the Sisters hope, relief and consolation, but instead represents an organization that went against its moral code and persecuted women for breaching the Catholic church’s sexual morality.
- ‘White light blinded’ the word ‘blinded’ might suggest that how blind Irish society was to the suffering that the Magdalene Sisters endured.
- A powerful image emerges: ‘ridges under the veil, shifting, searching for their parents’.This image describes how the remains of the Sisters have left the soil bumpy and uneven – possibly hints at this scandal as being Ireland’s dirty secret, a secret that was swept under the proverbial carpet.
- This striking image may also acknowledge how lost the souls of the Magdalene Sisters were and how the persecution of the Sisters will live on in the memory of Irish society.
- The poet brings the readers attention back to the setting of the laundry – it’s a very noisy atmosphere which uses tactile sensory (wet) descriptions to capture the reality of the laundry room’s condition.
- ‘…one voice had begun’ – Ni Chuilleanain imagines how one woman may have spoke out against her situation. We get the sense that the brave Magdalene feels liberated and empowered by her outburst of protest.
- The cry of an infant is used to describe how this particular Magdalene Sisters message will be heard; loud and piercing.
- Through the mention of a baby the poet draws our attention to the all of the babies who were taken from their mother’s care after their birth.
- What would the Sister say now? Last 6 lines aims to answer:
- They would speak about the idioms (language) that was used to describe them ‘fallen girls’ etc. Such words would have covered her in shame like a ‘baked crust’.
- She would say that her experiences in the laundry were like a parasite inside of her (metaphor) or that they affected her like an evil spell.
- If she was to be washed clean of these idioms then maybe this spell would be lifted and she would be unshackled.
- Ní Chuilleanáin has poignantly translated the women’s suffering and the harsh conditions in which they were exposed to into words.
- This poem offers the reader a sobering reminder of what went on in Irish society as recent as the early 1990s.
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