Unearthing Memories by Shelagh Doonan


 I watched

as from the dark sweet

crumbling soil


rising from his fork

appeared potatoes

white and hard.


He dropped them in the bucket.

“Take these to your mo’r”.

A man of few words.


In the kitchen she was

waiting with a boiling pan.

A scrub of spuds


A sprig of mint

and soon their floury skins were peeling back.

Drained and piled steaming


into the good round dish,

my grandfather picked first

from the top of the mound


with his special two-pronged fork

and peeled the skin off each spud

with his special knife.


Two decades on, in the same

Dark, sweet soil

I unearthed


Cache after cache of

Guinness empties,

the dark brown glass



Betty’s centenary

Meat, nylons, fags

Meat, pillows, strong string


Paint pelmet, stain floor and cabinet

Mend slacks, meat, stockings, face pack, fags


Mr Schilling, Probation Office, Barnes & Avis

Mr Schilling, Campbell’s, the Liakhoffs


Cement cracks, skylight, fix stair carpet.

Post heavy stuff: gum boots, flippers, big jumpers

Cut Ter’s hair.


Coke is better for use in blast furnace –

purer form of carbon.


 Born in a Fiery Horse year

with Mandela

she left school at 14

kicked over the traces

in rural Co Down

churned butter

managed a grocery

joined the Air Force

worked on spitfires,

married, divorced, married

navigated the next five decades of

child rearing, “The Troubles”, pottery classes,

mad in-laws, delinquent brother,

thankless union work, school jumble sales,

blossoming summer school,

free-style needlepoint

pioneering Chinese cookery

BBC editorial

chemotherapy and



Scrabo Hill

In County Down there stands a hill, above the other

Drumlins thereabout.

On top, a tower, a mid-Victorian folly supposed to show

A tribute from a grateful tenantry.


One 1960’s Saturday my father and I rode up there on a

Turquoise Vespa,

To climb the tower to see the view to Ailsa Craig

But mainly to drink Fanta.


No silencer on the Vespa exhaust,

So heads had turned as we had sped

Through towns

And broke the peace on Scrabo Hill.


Three decades on, my mother and I ad libbed,

Took turns in wool and silk to re-create Scrabo Hill.

A ploughed field here, a whin bush there.

Pale green of silage cut.


Laburnum and irises around

The Big House, grey paths to cottages, a letterbox.

Social strata, seasons, stone and thatch

All caught in impromptu cross-stitch.










Unearthing Memories

In my writing, I have often found myself going back to my memories of the people and places associated with my Northern Irish mother. Writing has helped me to make sense of and make peace with my mother, and the contradictions of the caring, hardworking but fiercely sectarian woman she was.

I like the compressed, holographic way a poem enables you to evoke the arc of a whole life in a small space, or hint at the complexities of family dynamics in a few words.

In these three poems, the theme of “unearthing” comes through in different ways:

“Empties” describes my childhood self watching the literal digging up of potatoes by my grandfather, and later, in the same earth, the discovery of his large numbers of buried Guinness bottles, revealing both the practicalities of pre-recycling days, and hinting at his possible shame about his excessive drinking.

After my mother died, I discovered a number of her pocket diaries, and was very struck by the contrast between their small size and the rich amount of material they contained, almost entirely in the form of lists: of appointments, of shopping and of her hours of work as a jobbing shorthand typist, all meticulously recorded in her copper plate handwriting. “Betty’s centenary” uses these verbatim lists to bring her to life.

In “Scrabo Hill”, I have brought together memories of both my parents, and a piece of improvised “tapestry” my mother and I made, depicting a familiar landmark and imagined landscape. The poem describes both personal and public histories, and the tapestry reminds me of the boldness of “making things up”.

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