Poems by Breda Joyce

Dirty Linen

For the Magdalen Women 

In the laundry room,
you unspooled your story to the others,
scrubbing at stains that kept you there,
admitted that you had committed
the unspoken, the unforgivable. 

Under holy orders, in dim light, 
you sewed new vestments and mended more
for priestly men who 'saved you from ruin,
blue ribbons for Children of Mary
red banners for Corpus Christi
beneath the holy nuns' dictate.

Heat from the glass roof made you feel faint,
but you dared not leave your station
till the gong said so. When they found you
in the room where the van men called,
they forced you to kneel in shame
and snipped your golden hair.

On the day of your confinement,
they gave you nothing to ease the pain, 
told you to 'offer it up,
you had only yourself to blame'.
You held him while your milk came in
before they snatched away your sin.

The buried him outside the rails.
Diet still stains their fingernails.

A Bunch of Lilac

for my sister Mary

For my sixtieth birthday, your left hand
gifted me lilac, big showy cones
of white and blue, tightly knit
on broken twigs.

I recalled how they tried to change
the ciotog in you, heard again the slaps
on your soft young skin. I listened
when you told me that you hated school, 
being smacked and being kept back.

But one kind nun knew you could read
the progeny of plants, tease out
the knotted roots of tubers, 
encourage seeds to release and grow,
use Latin names we did not know.

Now as I place these flowers
in an old cream jug, I inhale the balm
of sisters growing closer. Syringa,
you tell me, is said to cure burns.
But the bruises still smoulder.

Ciotóg is an Irish language word, referring to someone who is left-handed. In Irish primary schools in the 60s, such children were slapped and forced to write only with their right hand. 

Breda Joyce, a retired school teacher, living in Tipperary. Her work has previously appeared in Tinteán. These poems are from her second collection, Reshaping the Light, published by Chaffinch Press, 2021