‘The MOTH and HER’ by Kerri Ni Dochartaigh
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
Introducing Kerri Ni Dochartaigh
Mathair is the story of many mothers, a collection of ideas and experiences connected with motherhood. Here at Mathair we have the absolute privilege of sharing various incredible stories and experiences from everywhere. Although our blog is concerned with motherhood, the absence and presence, we are also very aware of all the amazing women out there who constantly birth and nurture ideas. The women who lend a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on, who prove you don’t need a family to help, guide and nurture others. We see those women and we appreciate those women.
It is our honour and privilege to introduce to you Kerri Ni Dochartaigh who has written one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Thank you Kerri.
“As with many fairy-tales, the King’s children had already been born many moons before the Queen came along. Unlike many of these ancient stories, however, the new Queen was not angry, jealous or scheming. She did not talk in secrecy to looking glasses, to huntsmen, to creatures. She did not turn her step children into beautiful swans, even though she loves swans dearly. For the thing was, the new Queen loved the stepchildren dearly, too. The Queen’s path had been a wee bit rough in her thirty years. She had encountered illness, sorrow, and loneliness; all of which had made the Queen certain that she was more ‘OTHER’ than ‘MOTHER’, and so she had accepted her path with all the inner peace and acceptance an Irish Queen can muster up."
Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes about nature, literature and place for publications which include Caught By The River, The Clearing, Oh Comely magazine, New Welsh Review and The London Magazine.
She is drawn to places that cannot be found on any map.
When she is not writing she is learning to speak Irish, drawing moths, swimming in the belly of the Atlantic Ocean and exploring her folkloric island in a transit van.
Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/whooperswan/
Words: Cheryl Gault
‘In snowfall, I haunted Motherhood’s cemeteries…
I wanted to speak to them, tell them I understood,
but the words came out scrambled, so I knelt instead
and prayed in the chapel of Motherhood, prayed
for that whole wild fucking queendom,
its sorrow, its unbearable skinless beauty…
I prayed and prayed
until my voice was a nightcry
and sunlight pixelated my face like a kaleidoscope.’
‘The MOTH and HER’
When I came along you were the size of a fig inside of your Mamma; the youngest daughter
of the man I love. You are now her youngest daughter, and no matter who else comes along
or doesn’t, you will always be the child that changed all our lives, the one that shook our
insides up like trees uprooted in a fierce Atlantic Storm; you will always be our bábóg (1).
When I met your ‘Ganga’, I was only a few moons into being thirty; an age that had passed
him by more than two decades earlier. You know, still two months shy of three, at not even a
tenth of that age I was when I met him, that he and I love each other in a way that is so deep
as to be timeless. We met each other and, like with all great love stories, knew that no matter
how many threads were all tangled up in chaotic circumstance, we would put the time in
by the fire as each new night fell; together we would undo the knots. Our separate paths were happy to meander and shape-shift in selfless and delicate compromise; this was a tale well worth the telling.
As with many fairy-tales, the King’s children had already been born many moons before the
Queen came along. Unlike many of these ancient stories, however, the new Queen was not
angry, jealous or scheming. She did not talk in secrecy to looking glasses, to huntsmen, to
creatures. She did not turn her step children into beautiful swans, even though she loves
swans dearly. For the thing was, the new Queen loved the stepchildren dearly, too. The
Queen’s path had been a wee bit rough in her thirty years. She had encountered illness,
sorrow, and loneliness; all of which had made the Queen certain that she was more ‘OTHER’
than ‘MOTHER’, and so she had accepted her path with all the inner peace and acceptance an Irish Queen can muster up. And then, one night in early June, as the day’s golden honey
melted into the soft pink hues of wilting hydrangea, as the planets made to pierce the
dimming sky with folkloric brightness, as the moths danced around the candle’s delicate
flame; a daughter was born to the youngest Princess.
You came in the week that the nightjars arrive. You came as the hedgerows were brimming
with foxgloves and daisies, as swallows dipped and dived in fields of buttercups and bright
red poppies. The world you came into held the calming scent of lavender and of dog roses, of outdoor fires; of Donegal elderflower and of salt on skin just fresh from the belly of the sea. You came as dragonflies held our gaze at roundabouts close to lakes, as the world seemed to hurtle close to the brink of chaos, as the sun rose and set every new day, without fail. You came to us, and that was the most important thing of all.
From the very beginning of your story you were drawn to light in an almost other-worldly
way. Your piercing little eyes following the glow any flame, natural or other, brought into the
spaces around you. Every single time it happened, it seemed as though you had watched us in the garden the night that you were born, somehow. As though the moths that danced around our celebration had carried the news of our joy to you; out of the garden, along the bóithrín (2) with its overgrown beauty, through the Bogside, along the historical city walls and over the River Foyle to reach you in your little hospital basket; winged creatures of the night bringing you their secrets, delicately. You have always been a moth to me, from the first moments you existed; an exquisite, ethereal leamhan (3).
The thing that I had not allowed for, that which none of us could ever have bargained for, is
that your love for me is as deep, possibly deeper still, dare I say it, than any love I have ever
known before. It has roots the like of which I have never before encountered. They run deep
enough that they can share stories with the earth’s belly. They are stronger than the pull of
the moon on us both, on the earth; on every body of water in the world. The first Sunday the
world was lucky enough to have you in it, we bought two young oaks, flitterns (4), to mark the
passing of your years. One for you and one for us; you will be with us in the soil we hold
close no matter what happens on this journey we are all sharing, in its uncertainty and heart-
wrenching wonder. You who are not my blood, you who are the granddaughter of a man
whose ring I do not yet even wear; you that came to me all out of no place at all, after a life
spent imagining there would be no child whatever in any home of mine, you have taken my
heart and grown it into a never-ending forest, into a measureless sea; you have taught me how to breathe again.
For so very long I knew no way to even try to talk of you; who would write the words of our
language? At the start, on the days you were with me, I would spend so long repeating the
same refrain; ‘she is not mine’ as strangers oohed and aahhed at you in parks, in coffee shops, in the street; words I choked on each time. I am not your mother, but I knew, even from the very beginning, that I was your something, I just knew not how to name it.
You knew, too, and for way too long you hugged and glowed at, you laughed with and loved
me; I was the only creature you never tried to name. We all danced that most delicate dance
around this gaping silence, as you named and named and named. In our back garden last
summer, as you and I sat in the stillness of early June, as the waiting world made its way
towards marking your second year with us all; a puppy jumped and played in the bóithrín
behind us. The wild poppies in the garden had been holding your attention for the whole
bright day long, and I lift you to bring you closer to the wee terrier in the lane. ‘Look at the wee puppy’ I say, and you point, firstly at the dog, then at the red of the wild flowers you love so much; puppy and poppy sit together for the first time inside your clever, sweaty wee head. ‘Poppy’ you say, again, and again, with love, with clarity and with joy. I bring you inside to tell your Mamma, your Uncle, your Grandpa; I who have less name than the wild flowers though you love me, like them, to the moon and back.
I fretted over it all, I battled it in my head, but, as is always the way with Queens; I learned to
be still in the silence of all things unspoken. All the while, I watched with overwhelming,
guttural pride as you continued to name your world. That day in St Columb’s Park when you
first said ‘oak’ will live inside me always; naming your very city as you did so; reminding of
your very first week in our world. That time ‘boop’ became ‘book’ as I read you ‘The
Hungry Caterpillar’ for the however hundredth time. The Sunday dinner, when you were first
able to ask your Uncle to light your ‘baby cankell’ for you, will hold its own wee flame on
my insides until the end of time if I have my way. ‘Goldfinch’ is proving particularly difficult
this week, but I have no doubt that you will paint its shape in your gentle, kind wee mouth very soon.
Then one Sunday just before Christmas, as the snow fell thick and fast, as your advent wreath
waited for you to light the next beeswax candle, you ran into our house, as always, making
straight for my arms; full of laughter. Your Granddad said, all out of nowhere; ‘Have you
missed Nanna?’ You repeated the word again and again and again, and we watched as your
wee face filled with love. What had once seemed an unreachable mountain disintegrated into a small ant mound in your garden. It is always, always simpler than we think since you came along. You tell me every day I see you that you are the baby, and that I am the Nanna. There could be no other role on this earth that I would take more seriously.
Before you came along, there was a crow black hole on my insides that could never quite be
sated. Often I thought the hole was located in my mind, tangling things up in thick knots with suffocating rope. Sometimes it seemed hidden in the arteries of my heart, threatening to stop the blood red river in its flow. Betimes I sensed it in my chest, weighing down on my lungs as I struggled to breathe; three million times the size of the Earth. Was it buried deep inside my belly, billions of kilometres in measurement; bearing constant seasickness in its wake; invisible to the human eye? I know very few women I count dear that are, as I am, without child; a state of being so frightfully defined by loss. The wording used both of and to me is written in the negative. I am childless, I have no offspring, there are zero dependents in the beautiful, warm, safe nest that I have built. I have no need to open a University fund, not
owning the terraced house in which I love is deemed OK as there is no-one I must worry
about leaving it to. I am told that I am so lucky; I do not have to waken in the night, I do not
have to feel my brain go to mush, I will not lose years of my creative prime by thinking
constantly of a wee one; I am not a Mother.
A list of things that have happened since you came along, in no particular order- I have, in
fact, made moves to open that University fund for the child that has her own room in my
home. I have built a shelf for books, hand-picked in charity shops; in the sitting room of that
home. Strewn throughout the small rooms are, at any given moment - a wooden
kitchen/swan/hare/canary trinket box/blocks; so many wooden objects fill our landscape up
these days. Our home has become the playing rooms of a great orchestra; you are, like your
Granddad, the most skilful, inventive drummer. You have taken to ducks this Spring, and
they are on enamel cups, hidden away atop Easter eggs; the newest addition keeps a hot water bottle safe inside its fluffy yellow belly. You tell everyone at every chance you get that
‘nanna buyed dat for me’ and I feel the insides of me swell up like the Spring tides on Inch
Island. I who sleep through every alarm I’ve ever had these last few years, jump up in the
dead of night when you cry in the room next to us those nights we have you, as if your salty
tears are flowing right into the canals inside my ear.
Since you came along I have fallen so much more deeply in love with my own Mamma; these
days I can barely speak of what she went through in 1990’s Derry council estates to bring me
up without weeping. Since you came along I’ve stopped bothering with people who don’t
make me feel good; your honesty and adoration has raised the bar exceptionally high now; I
have no room left inside of me for people’s bullshit.
You are a child that’s very being is knitted into the fabric of this house of mine. I have lost
count of the nights spent rocking you after night frets, hearing your little footsteps on the
stairs, your gentle knocking on the door as I leave anything, everything I’m working on, to
make you feel safe enough to fall back into your gentle, whimpering dreams. I have learned,
since you came into our world, that there is a look that one human can give another that is
almost unnameable in its fibres. As I make to leave your big girl room and you hear me stir,
you tell me ‘I need Nanna’ and I forget about every other thing; you need me and I will be
there for you every single chance I get. I realised when my first instinct in your early months
was to keep you warm, that our human capacity for love lives in the most complex depths of
our being but shows itself in the meeting of the simplest of needs for the ones we love. You
are at home in our house, you are warm, you are safe, and you are loved. Not mothering, it
seems, comes easily to me; I get better at dancing to its animalistic rhythms with every single
day that comes.
The most beautiful thing of all that has happened since you came along, for me, is hard to put into words. That vast black hole, untraceable, without location, terrifying; has disappeared. When it went it took away its waters too; I haven’t cried tears of sorrow for an unbelievably long time. In the place of the black hole, cheesy as I know it sounds, there is a wild garden growing in the belly of my insides. Instead of babies, I am creating space in me for growth; there is room, so much room in there, for a wild, raw love I never knew could flourish so beautifully.
A few weeks ago, I went to London to make my first steps on a brand-new path, one that
your coming along has given me the courage to take. Since you came into my life, my self-
worth has soared higher than the swallows you arrived on the wing with. I am writing my
story down now, properly; one day I hope it will take its place on the shelves inside your
home. In Stoke Newington, I walk through a beautiful graveyard, under tress full of
quarrelling jays, flirting chaffinches and almost ethereal parakeets. In the graveyard I read
Liz Berry’s ‘The Republic of Motherhood’ for the first time, and so much that had seemed
surreal before feels as natural, now, as the green of those exotic birds and of the freshly born
leaves; as normal as the Spring coming back to our patiently waiting world.
Yesterday a computer scientist just shy of thirty gave the world the first-ever image of a
black hole. Katie Bouman said “No one of us could have done it alone…It came together
because of lots of different people from many different backgrounds.” Not a mother, not a baby, but a delivery of sorts; she nurtured the algorithm, she went above
and beyond her duties; she created the space.
On the same day, He, a Taiwanese woman, also a few months’ shy of turning 30, took herself
to a hospital complaining of a swollen eye. Expecting to be treated for a simple infection, He
and her doctor were horrified to discover four bees living under her eyelids, feasting on her
tears. He had been tending to a family member’s grave and was pulling out weeds when she
felt something go into her eye. Presuming it was soil, she washed it out with water but by
night it had begun to swell up and she felt a sharp stinging pain under her eyelid.
The creatures were Sweat bees, which commonly nest in the mountains and near graves
which explained how they had found He.
As is often the way with life, the threads I have been tying and untying in the writing of this
seem to fall right into my hands. When something must be written, the story almost finds its
own words. All week there have been figs, creatures of the night, wasps, oaks, butterflies,
caterpillars (both hungry and not), mothers, not-mothers, breasts, beasts, graveyards, fairy-
tales, queens, forests, and moths. The story of you, of me, and of us, has been writing itself
all week, maybe for an awful lot longer, in fact.
I am sent deeply inspiring words from Mike Shanahan, a man full of knowledge of figs,
amongst other things. He tells me that fig trees feature in origin stories from all across our
world. The leaves of one fig tree clothed Adam and Eve. Another fig tree’s roots saved the
twin babies Romulus and Remus from drowning in the River Tiber. I think, of course, of the
story of not-mothering that founded the civilization of Rome; a wild and ancient nurturing. It
was the crown of a fig tree that provided shelter as a she-wolf suckled the boys, who would
go on to found Rome. In India, the Kuttia Kondh people say their goddess Nirantali created
the first people’s tongues from the fluttering leaves of one fig species. ‘Figs are very
motherly structures’ he tells me as we talk from our nests on Twitter; ‘The trees need the
wasps just as much as the wasps need their figs... At just the right time, they pump into the air a cocktail of chemicals that is unique to each species of Ficus. These compounds act in
concert, like a choir of distinct voices that calls out ‘welcome’ in a language only certain
kinds of wasps can understand.’
I also finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s ‘The Faraway Nearby’ on the day I finished writing
this. Her story, a deeply moving memoir touching on so much, with the relationship she and
her mother shared at its core; is also a tale of the ways we tell stories; and, ultimately, of the
power they hold. Running at the bottom of each page, there is a second story, almost hidden, told a line per page, not quite footnote; much more than just an afterthought.
It is about one line, the title of a Scientific Report from 2006; ‘Moths drink the tears of
sleeping birds’. Half-way through, these lines come- ‘Certain kinds of beauty make people
weep, the moments “when hope and history rhyme”, the arrival of the long awaited.’
On reading this line, my insides filled up with the memory of that first time I heard these
words (written by my favourite writer of all time), in Guildhall Square, delivered by the
President of America as we made those vital steps towards peace in this city of oaks. That
speech and all its beautiful, echoing resonance, was the thing that made me want to write in
the first place, and to read these words as I write about you, 21 years to the day since the
Good Friday Agreement was made, has left me weeping uncontrollably.
Everyone in the café is looking at me, wiping tear after salty tear away as I type, and I don’t
give the slightest damn; this is a ‘wild fucking queendom’, and I will kneel at any place it
asks me to. I will let you drink my tears, my not-daughter, my most beloved creature; my wee
moth. These tears are not tearing of sorrow but tears of pure joy. They dance against the
flickering flame, and I am made stronger for the shedding of them, like a moth being born
from its cocoon.
I never knew, until today, how long, how so very long, I had been awaiting your arrival, wee one.
1 The Irish word for baby
2 The Irish word for laneway
3 The Irish word for moth
4 A flittern is a young oak tree, also the bark of oak at any age. It has been used in times gone by, to mean ‘glisten or
sparkle’ (of light)
All words and images by Kerri Ni Dochartaigh