A TRAVELLER’S TALE
By Frances Devlin-Glass in conversation with EILEEN HALEY, quilt-maker, feminist and poet.
A recent sentimental return to the Araluen Valley in southern New South Wales in search of dragons (immense monitor lizards that 40 years ago removed utterly all impetus to swim in the upper reaches of the Moruya River) took us by a circuitous route to Braidwood and, by sheer fluke, to a quilters’ exhibition.
There, one whimsical quilt in a series of dancing women, goddesses as it turned out, took my eye. Coincidentally, it had already taken the judges’ eyes and been awarded a prize outside the established categories.
All the quilts were witty and quirky, and full of joy. Constance Markievicz (this alternative spelling is used on the quilt), the rebel countess, and one of the signatories of the Easter Rising proclamation, in this representation is a dancer surrounded by camogie players dressed in rainbows. The artist visited Ireland 2005 and was struck by how many rainbows she saw, so this raiment is granted the girls who play against a pattern of tiny fields, some rocky. Constance herself is dressed in the uniform she used for her part in defending Stephen’s Green as a leader of the Rising with a holster for her pistol. Curiously, the band she led in 1916 was a Boys’ Brigade, but the artist takes the liberty of aligning her with women hurley players. For me, reading her as a modern incarnation of Queen Maeve, the warrior goddess of Connaught, was irresistible.
The indomitability of this woman is captured in the quilt: one things of her courage as a leader of men in Stephen’s Green, her defiance of the British (she was incarcerated in very ugly jails – Kilmainham and Holloway Prison – three times in the course of her life), and her election as the first woman Cabinet minister in Europe. She is a figure for women to celebrate. I personally draw the line at blood sacrifice, which, along with Pearse, she clearly embraced: many Tinteán readers will be familiar with her demand to be executed alongside other leaders of the Rising. The British refused to do so, on the grounds she was a woman, a reason that to her was spurious.
The quilt also reminds us of Constance’s toffee-nosed background: at the bottom of the frame are ‘left-off clothes of all descriptions’ (as Joyce would have it), a knowing reminder of her Anglo-Irish landlord progenitors: her father was one of the kindlier landlords of Coole Park, Sligo (and his two daughters are immortalised in Yeats’ poem), especially during the famine, and probably unwittingly formed her for her role in the (socialist) Irish Citizen Army and for a life of service in the Dublin slums, as well as her court debut. The lace and corsetry and fine gowns appear to have been discarded with élan.
Why is Constance imaged with a camogie (women’s hurley) team? The quilt maker was one Eileen Haley, and there was a collection of poetry for sale by the same artist, which cast further light on the nine quilts which comprised the series. Full Circle published by Gininderra Press in 2007 is a series of encounters with female deities around the world. It includes an Irish sequence in which she relates the sense of a return to the culture of her youth, growing up very much as an Australian child in an Irish enclave in Brisbane. In retrospect I remain surprised about how very Irish, Catholic and self-enclosed our schooling and even university lives were, something that was invisible to me for decades, and how powerfully the transmitted narratives of the Irish nationalist struggle shaped our identities.
A poem written while Eileen was in Ireland in 2005 perhaps not only gives some clues to the quilt and its concerns but also casts light on the uncanny sense some Irish-Australians have of inhabiting two cultures:
At a Hurling Match Waterford The white-legged athletes stand to attention on the field in the cold of a wet evening their hurls at the ready The anthem starts the crowd in the grandstand rises and bursts into song And waves of shivers pass up and down my spine the dead come close through the mist and rain the exiles the emigrants poets dreamers republicans croppies this is not just a game not just some music not just a bunch of fans rugged up against the cold here to cheer their side on this is the Ireland of the coming times for which the heroes died
Astonishingly, I learnt that I knew the artist, and it was the poetry which clinched the identification. Eileen was in my English Honours class at the University of Queensland. Even then, she was a free spirit. So, it was a personal delight to reconnect after 40 years, and via such exuberant artifacts.
Serendipity is the traveller’s best gift.