Hymnless Heart: Two Poems for Ireland by Yvonne Higgins Leach

By Yvonne Higgins Leach


Mass Grave Outside Skibbereen, Ireland

We pause at the top of the stairs above the mass grave
that is Abbeystrewry Cemetery.
The nearby plaque blares a figure I cannot comprehend.
How is it that 9,000 lay below this grassy, closed-up wound of earth?

skibbereen 3The road across the way a gash of histories:
the creak of the wooden burial carts over gravel,
the shroudless dead ashamed of their bumbling bones,
the jab of spade in dirt, a rosary falling from a palm.

Everything hollowed out or broken.
No wakes. No funerals.
Not like the natural catastrophe of the Spanish flu.
No, this epicenter of horror is the atrocity

of lost identities in the pits of Auschwitz,
is the stacked bodies after the massacre at Wounded Knee,
frozen in position in the December snow.
England’s guise of action hovers here,

like some souls I feel, still stuttering from hunger,
confused by the speeding cars over pavement,
driven by the children of Skibbereen
eight generations later, the famine deep

in their nerves like mercury.
The plaque screams out
Man’s Inhumanity to Man.
This place is marred like my hymnless heart.

Past the road, the River Ilen forgets, and tries to dazzle,
sparkly as a chiffon ribbon.
I refuse the sheer light of midday sun
rinsing away another nameless day.


The Famine Exhibit in Skibbereen, Ireland

It is like most other exhibits—
a dedicated building, squeaky floors,
display boards laced with facts, the voice
skibbereen 2of a famous actor articulating
through a black handheld.
The sour light of afternoon spills in,
thin and smothering.
All of us strangers weave through
the rooms: measured maps, quotes
from witnesses and politicians,
things that signify the time sit
meekly in the compressed air of glass cases,
the replica of potatoes consumed with blight
so real the muck moves freakishly.
It all registers—evictions, workhouses,
soup kitchens, even work relief and the roads
that lead to nowhere. Yet everything is blurred
and we feel ruined inside.
The tremble deep in our throats
stops us from even a slight comment.
Such stunned silence.
Someone in the group pushes the bar
on the exit door and the latch catches
loudly as if to say This Way Out!
and so we enter what is left of the day,
squint-eyed, dumbfounded.


Editor’s Note: Those seeking more information about the history of the famine in Skibbereen and the rest of Ireland can find out more here.

Yvonne Higgins Leach earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from Washington State University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Poetry from Eastern Washington University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Crack the Spine, Dear Cancer…An Anthology, Fogged Clarity, Lilac City Fairy Tales Anthology, Reed Magazine, South Carolina Review, South Dakota Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Sweet, Windfall, and Wisconsin Review, among others. Her first collection of poems, Another Autumn, was recently published by WordTech Editions.

The two photographs accompanying these poems, as well as the photograph used as the cover image, were taken by the author during her visit to Skibbereen, Ireland.

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