Gerry Sweeney's Mammy: Dónall Dempsey, D&W

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This poetry collection deals, among other things, with the author’s childhood in Ireland, the deaths of siblings and older relations and his fascination with words and reading. It contains numerous references to and quotations from famous writers of the past, from James Joyce to Emily Dickinson.

Sounds familiar, even commonplace? Forget it. These poems and this collection transcend all expectations of a volume of sensitive, sly, self-conscious backward looks. Instead this one sparkles with originality, vitality, and the love of life and language. As Dónall Dempsey writes in the poem ‘Sticking One’s Head Out of the Universe’:


     the words haul it all

     from that There to this Here.

     . . .

     allowing this 60 year old child

     to somehow survive

     so that he can

     be it

    all over again

    a forever first time.


The past is where all our poems begin, and Dónall manages to sculpt chunks of his past into  exuberant and original creations that dance on his pages. The list of poem titles is itself fascinating, not a dull one in sight, including ‘His Wooden Leg Stares at Me’, ‘A Thin Slice Of Ham in the Hand is Better Than a Fat Pig in a Dream’, ‘Eat Your Alligator, Tilly!’ and ‘In Bed with Emily Dickinson’. The poet can describe the mundane in brilliant concrete terms, as in the poem ‘Much Ado About Something’:


     All is well

     in this my make-shift

     Shakespeare theatre

     made from Kellogg’s

     Cornflakes packets.

     See the great cock crow

     under the proscenium!

     Weetabix boxes

     construct the wings.

     Rows of nightlights

     serve as footlights.


The use of surreal language is convincing in its starkness, as in ‘The Always a Forever’:

     The lake pulls the sky down
     holds it tightly to itself so
     it cannot escape
     fish swim from cloud to cloud
     the sun a hole burnt
     in the sky's blue silk


The collection is peopled with memorable characters: the eponymous Gerry Sweeney’s mammy, “like having a spare mammy”; Uncle Michael, who looks like “he’s a dream/ made of summer”; Uncle Seanie “feet planted firmly in this field”;  and the dead sibling that haunts the collection:


     Almost 5,000 acres

     could not contain my grief.

     The Curragh blazed yellow

     with furze.

     The world was as beautiful as

     it could ever be.

     But not for me.

                    (‘All The Way from 1967’)


His father is also fondly remembered:


     … the ordinary

     magic of my father

     cradling me

     in his arms

     gathering up the littlest

     of my scattered dreams

     stroking my hair

     & tiptoeing backwards     out of the room

                                      (‘Scattered Dreams’)


Prose pieces are included here and there. Some act as notes or glosses to poems but others function more as standalone prose poems or even flash fiction. Some, one imagines, would be perfect as introductions to the poems when read in public. You can imagine the poems in this collection as great spoken word poems, but this is not to take away from their impact on the page. This is a substantial collection at over 130 pages and promises more joys and flashes of revelation with each reading.

Michael Farry

Michael Farry is a poet and historian. He has had poetry published in magazines and anthologies in Ireland, the UK, Australia, Canada and the US, and has won awards in a number of poetry competitions. His first collection, Asking for Directions, was published by Doghouse Books, Tralee, in 2012. 


Dónall Dempsey, Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy, Dempsey & Windle, £7.99



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