Free The Irish Giant!
Poet Moyra Donaldson's new collection takes inspiration from the freaks and geeks of the 18th century
Miracle Fruit has been described as Moyra Donaldson's 'concept album', although Donaldson points out that in fact it contains a mix of the conceptual and the personal. It is a poetry collection that explores the moral brutality and intellectual transcendence that went hand in hand during the 18th century, when the wealthy toured Bedlam to gawk at the mad and superstar surgeons built museums from dead freaks.
Published by Lagan Press, it is available in both paperback and the hardback version that Donaldson has with her. Donaldson admits she cuddled it for a while when she first received her copy. On both versions of the collection the cover is beautiful, a print of Joseph Wright of Derby’s famous painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’. The painting was one of Donaldson’s inspirations for the collection, along with a trip to a Hogarth exhibition in Dublin.
‘I became very interested in the 18th century, with the birth of science and the Enlightenment,’ Donaldson says. ‘It was an amazing time. There were so many things happening, so many thoughts happening for the first time.’
But, she noticed, not for the last. The more research Donaldson did the more parallels between the 18th century and modern society she identified. The similarities that struck her the most were those between the freakshows of the 18th century, where the Other was paraded for the amusement of the masses, and today’s reality shows, where… the Other is paraded for the amusement of the masses.
‘Look at some of the titles for those Channel Five documentaries. You can see the parallels very clearly. Sometimes the programmes are quite good, but the titles are designed to shock and appeal to the part of us that likes to look at difference.’
Compare the vitriol with which Jade Goody was sporadically excoriated after her appearance on Channel Four's Big Brother with the early tabloid smear campaign against Gizel Steevans, maligned as the 'Pig-Faced Woman of Dublin'. Talking about Steevans, Donaldson's indignation on the long-dead philanthropist's part is obvious. She admits that after four years working on Miracle Fruit, and researching the people she fills the book with, she feels a sense of responsibility towards them.
'I feel like I know them as people, regard them as people,' she says. 'Which is the opposite to how they were treated when they were alive. When they were commodities. I needed to try and find their voice, to say what they would want to say.'
That connection was heightened for Donaldson when she went to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. John Hunter was an 18th century surgeon who collected human oddities. A third of Hunter's original collection is on display in the museum, the rest was destroyed in the Blitz during World War II.
'It's the most amazing museum and the most disturbing place at the same time,' Donaldson says. 'One incredibly awful thing in the museum is literally half the face of a child! When Hunter owned the museum he would give tours to ladies and gentlemen. They were very into seeing these anatomical specimens. These bits of people.'
One poem in Miracle Fruit references the Irish Giant, one Charles Byrne, who so feared that his cadaver might be displayed in a museum that he left instructions for his body to be weighted and sank at sea. Nevertheless, the giant's naked bones are still hung in the Hunterian.
Donaldson admits that the only reason Miracle Fruit is that she realised that she would have to stop at some point. 'The more I read the more interested I got. The more stories suggested themselves,' she pauses and shrugs. 'I may return to it again. I don't know if I've satisfied my lust for the 18th century or not.'
Or maybe not. Donaldson has been writing bits and pieces to see what themes emerge for her next collection. So far nothing has stuck. In the meantime, she mentions that she's been thinking about 'starting a Free the Irish Giant Movement. Bring him home and bury him.'
Miracle Fruit is published by Lagan Press