You find Sheela hanging around churchs. Over archways into cloisters. In cathedral misericords. Hanging high up on columns. She adorns the stone sarchophagus of an archbishop in Kildare Cathedral. She looks rudely pagan, but she appeared in medieval British and Irish Christian churches. Maybe she is a transitional figure, a goddess figure not quite vanquished until Mariolatry gained momentum. But you do find the Green Man on those medieval churches, too. (Indeed, that archbishop has a Green Man carved on his casket, as well as the Sheela, though both are discreetly on the underside. I had to lie flat on the stone floor slabs to get a photo.) Perhaps the stone masons were doing the double spiritual insurance policy; the fertility of the land and good crops was life and death.
But the Sheela na Gig is always a woman past child bearing years. Her breasts are often withered. She is always depicted with her legs held wide and with larger than life sized labia. Some Sheelas almost grin lasciviously; each one has a unique mouth expression. All have wide, enlarged eyes.
Just as we can only speculate about the true function of the neolithic megaliths, the purpose of the Sheela is also a mystery. Found in churches, we do reckon that she had religious and/or spiritual significance. Her wide open labia stand as a liminal space – the birth canal with the locks fully open so to speak. The graphically sexual stance is shocking to modern eyes, but it probably was not to our medieval ancestors. Indeed, perhaps they used Sheela’s labia as a metaphor for the sacred space of life. Perhaps Sheela was deliberately depicted as a woman past child- bearing as a way of challenging the viewer to not take this too literally. New life can appear in all manner of ways.
The Sheela that inspires the Poetry Daily today is one seen in the Cavan County Museum. This Sheela looks quite fierce. So I have imagined her as a kind of feminist poster girl. Or as a prayer card.
Sheela: A Prayer Card for the Post-Menopausal Woman
Everything before written records is mystery and speculation. That makes it a writer’s imagination’s playground. Even archaeologists speculate and best guess on the assembled evidence. But it is palimpsest, the layers of our own conditioning and experience inform the guess. Back at the Cavan County Museum another artefact grabbed me. The Corleck Head was found near Kilbride, Brigid’s Church. From that I infer that the cult of the goddess Brighid was important here before the Christian St. Brigid took over all Her associations and pre-occupations (fertility, poetry, healing, smithcraft). It is supposed that the Celts thought the human soul resided in the head, although I am unclear of the provenance of that belief. Brighid was a triple goddess – the triune maiden, mother, crone – and the Corleck Head with it’s three-way visage does echo that, although the faces look quite masculine to me.
At any rate this Sunday you can have fun making up your own story!
It started on 15th September 2018. I have been writing and posting a poem a day for nine months. I reckon it takes longer to make a book than a baby.
Later this morning I will be showcasing the written work done by nine 9-12 year olds who attend a two room-two teacher school at Curravagh in the West Cavan uplands. Funded by Cruinniú na nÓg (Creativity for Youth) programme I was able to spend sixteen classroom hours with them developing story – from the purely imaginative to writing a first person narrative of a real person or historical character they had to research. There is a small exhibition of their work and a recording of them reading some of the finished product happening at Dowra Courthouse Creative Space today at noon.
For inspiration for today’s poetry practice I look back on the week and an expedition with those children and the 5th and 6th classes from Blacklion’s national school. We had a field trip connected with another project I am collaborating on with a local ceramic artist, Jim Fee. We went to the Cavan County Museum in Ballyjamesduff. There is an outdoor exhibition that recreates a trench system from the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
The epigraph that sparks today’s poem is from Plato. Someone quoted it on Twitter. (Yes, truly!)
Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history. – Plato
History as Poetry
The latrine was used by thousands. It was a hole in the ground. Barely yards away. As close as the enemy. When it rained it overflowed. It ran into the trenches where soldiers crouched in stench, heads bowed to avoid the sniper's reach.
The nurses in Casualty Clearing were as close to the enemy as any man. With less say. They had no vote, but died for King and country, mopped up blood, closed eyes of dead men - mostly young. One was aged twelve. One was aged sixty-seven.
Victory tastes of vinegar and gall. Few are spared, less saved. It stinks of old men's money, the rattle in the bag of guineas gold swapped for a load of sabres.
Watch the children pause at the peace sculpture, doves rising like the wheel of fortune from the blasted bog oak tree. Rising as the water falls from figures weeping on their knees.
The trip yesterday to the Cavan County Museum in Ballyjamesduff filled the creative store cupboard in countless ways. Two exhibits provide the inspiration for today’s poetry practice. There is an outdoor re-creation of a World War I Somme battlefield trench system. Chilling and illuminating simultaneously. I have read about Casualty Clearing Stations in novels. They were tiny spaces, the size of a box room, in reality, with up to nineteen wounded men in at a time.
Indoors there were many exhibits, but the Famine room included shoes found at a famine cemetary site beside a workhouse. The guide explained to the children just how precious shoes and boots were to the poor. We seldom realise the grinding poverty of previous generations, how cold they must have been in these northern climes even in summer, to have gone shoeless. I have neighbours who are barely eighty who went shoeless most of their childhood. He told this story: The family had a pair of First Communion shoes that were brought out about a hundred metres from the church. He put them on to walk in for his Communion Day. He walked out and on the way home they were taken off at the same spot away from the church, and saved for the next child’s special day.
Step into the shoes of the dead departed who have no further need. They cannot hunger or bleed. But their smell lingers - trench foot, fever, the final fear. But needs must they say. They'll take me a mile, if, please God, I'm granted another day.