How Gail McConnell used poetry to come to terms with her father’s murder
For most of McConnell’s life she refrained from writing poetry, although she briefly joined a writing group as an undergraduate student at Queen’s University Belfast ( where she teaches now) and “probably wrote terrible cat poems when I was eight or nine,” she laughs admits.
Studying for a doctorate on Seamus Heaney and other Irish poets, she felt too aware of the weight of the island’s “extraordinarily rich tradition”. “I think that’s what deterred me from trying to write when I was a doctoral student. I was afraid to be an imitator. I didn’t want to write Seamus Heaney’s bad pastiche… It’s really only been six years since I’ve kind of turned to writing poems.
The turning point came in 2015, when she “was approaching the age of 35, which is my father’s age when he was killed.” A “very strange feeling” that she “would forever be older than him” brought him back to the forefront of his thoughts.
That year she began to write a long play, “in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep”. It became a poem called “Type Face”, also drawing inspiration from recordings of her father’s death – but totally different in style and tone from The Sun Is Open. Arch and ironic, it starts with McConnell opening an official report on the murder, and noticing that it is printed in the Comic Sans typeface (“Oh Church News and Christmas Rates Font”).
This odd mismatch between casual style and dark subject matter is reflected in the form of “Type Face” – rhythmic and rhyming couplets, “like some sort of 18th century disaster, some kind of joke”. At one point in the poem, she curtly explains how she found herself using euphemisms to describe her father’s death:
The word I tried not to use is murder (it puts people on edge and sounds absurd in my own mouth). Verbs that minimize agency are best – are dead, have been killed, and more recently have been lost. All these lost lives.
It comes from “a nervousness to use language with caution,” she says, given that her personal tragedy is also part of public history. “It’s a complicated story and it’s a complicated set of terms. In Northern Ireland, we have never really had a truth and reconciliation process. ”
Accordingly, “In the way I describe this event, I am talking about all this politics and all this noise… To say ‘murder’ sounds like an accusation – but murder is what it was. Or an ‘execution’ is what the IRA called it. It’s really busy… even now I notice I’m having a hard time talking about it exactly. There is a nervousness in claiming a certain victim status, and also an awareness that this was one of the many murders. ”
The UK government’s proposed amnesty for unrest-related crimes “risks trying to whitewash and erase the past,” she said. “I think the only way to have a more stable future is to deal with the past properly… The news of the past is very felt in Northern Ireland. It is the centenary of the score, in 1921, and it is an event that we really have trouble knowing how to commemorate or even talk about, it is still so controversial.
Although aware of the “intergenerational trauma” hanging over the country, she does not want to paint a gloomy picture.
“There are so many good things going on in Northern Ireland, there is a really progressive policy” – one example being the legalization of same-sex marriage last year. When McConnell converted her civil partnership to marriage, the wedding ceremony was not a big deal (“It was like 10 minutes, it cost us £ 8”), but it meant she could travel to America for visiting his wife Beth’s family, when Covid restrictions meant the country was only open to citizens and their spouses.
Becoming an IVF parent with Beth was the subject of her Fothermather brochure, adapted for a Radio 4 show last year. The title poem plays with his uncertainty about his name, as a non-biological parent: “(not) having a father made me want (to be) a father / What am I to you?” Mother? Father? Or?”
“And then when [her three-year-old son] Finn came, in some ways maybe it was easier than some of my over-thinking had imagined, ”she laughs. “When we were on vacation in the States this summer, I heard him introduce us. He said, ‘This is Gail and this is Beth, this is my mum and this is my mum. And I thought, well, to him that’s who we are.
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