Unlegendary Heroes

Women may have a special affinity with boxes, it has been noted – and boxes are the containers chosen for a collaboration between poet and novelist Mary O’Donnell and visual artist Geraldine O’Reilly. In a response to her affinity with O’Donnell’s work, O’Reilly selected ten poems from three different collections and created a watercolour illustration to accompany each of them. Printed using silkscreen, the images rest alongside the poems in specialised solander boxes.

Thematically, the project is concerned with aspects of women’s lives and experiences, contemporary and historical. Titled Unlegendary Heroes, it includes O’Donnell’s well-known, tenderly humorous poetic homage of the same title to the women of her native south Ulster: ‘Martha McGinn of Emy / who swam Cornamunden Lough in one hour and a quarter… Miss Harper, Corley, / female problems rarely ceased, pleasant in ill-health’; a poem which was itself a response to the local legendary male heroes: ‘Tom Gallagher, Cornamucklagh, could walk 50 miles in one day’ – recorded in the Irish Folklore Commission survey in 1938. O’Reilly’s accompanying illustration is a pleasing depiction of a mid-century countrywoman in her crossover apron carrying those two buckets iconic to the Irish farmer.

To accompany the poem Wicklow, with its ominous theme of commemoration of the missing and the murdered women buried on its moors, the image is grimmer: a lonely landscape of empty road and bleak mountain. A rather beautiful heron goes with Heron and the Women, while the shame of the woman who has had to sell her hair for ‘today’s meat’ is strikingly evoked in her gaze and half-shaven head.

That these poignant pieces should have such sumptuous resting places conveys a kind of compensatory reverence. Printed on Fabriano paper letterpressed by Mary Plunkett of Belgrave Press, the limited-edition box-sets in grey and silver and purple linen are handmade by bookbinder Éilís Murphy of Folded Leaf.

Unlegendary Heroes can be seen at the Market House in Monaghan until the beginning of December, after which the exhibition will tour.

Anne Haverty