Rhymes and Reasons

By Tod McGinley

Her life as a poet is well documented, but Emily Dickinsonís intimate connection to Ireland is rarely recognized. Sister Mary James Power, a teacher at Sisters of Notre Dame school in Malden, Mass., published "In the Name of the Bee" in 1970, a book that touches on Dickinsonís love of the Irish.

The book prompted this reporter to investigate the links further, discovering that toward the end of her life, Dickinsonís Celtic connection grew ever stronger. Indeed, Irish immigrants touched Dickinsonís life at many points, although it remains unclear how that connection may have influenced the artistís work.

Dickinson was born in 1830 and died in 1886. She lived during the Civil War and the Irish Famine in mid-century that resulted in so many immigrants crossing the Atlantic from Ireland in the notorious "coffin" ships.

Prevalent in Boston and elsewhere at this time were the notorious "Help Wanted ó Irish need not apply" notices.

Many of the Irish newcomers headed out 100 miles or so west to the fertile Connecticut River Valley, and settled to farm or find employment in Massachusetts towns like Springfield, Holyoke and Amherst.

As many as 10 immigrant workers from Ireland may have worked on the Dickinson estate in Massachusetts at any one time as the poet grew into adulthood.

They were paid and they served, but some of them became close friends to the reclusive Emily Dickinson, who has been acknowledged as one of the greatest of the American poets.

When she was young, Emily was indeed "the Belle of Amherst." She, like other young girls of that era, attended dances, social gatherings, church, and was well known and seen in town. In 1847-48, she schooled near Amherst College at the time a men's school in which her father and older brother, Austin, were involved.

She traveled to Boston for treatment of eye problems that bothered her and also visited Philadelphia.

Dickinson, who by now was writing prolifically became more and more reclusive and hardly left the estate.

Rather than being the Belle of Amherst, she became more "the little nun," as others labeled her and she took the phrase up herself.

She dressed in white and spent her time writing poems and letters, of which only a few were published in her lifetime.

She spent long hours in her garden between the homestead and the evergreens, where she came into contact with Irish gardeners and stablemen.

But it was in the large homestead that she became an intimate of the Irish, where the head housekeeper, hired by Edward Dickinson, was the formidable Margaret "Maggie" Maher, from County Tipperary. This woman ran the household, was loved by all, and worked for the Dickinson's for 30 years.

In one letter, the poet wrote to cousins, "Maggie is still with us, wild, warm and mighty!"

Another woman, a laundress, was a Mrs. Mack, referred to by Emily and the others as "Emerald" Mack, no doubt in deference to Mackís place of birth: Ireland.

One staff member, Margaret OíBrien Lawler, often washed dishes in the kitchen while Emily Dickinson did the drying.

When she was not in her room writing or attending her ill mother on the second floor, the poet spent her time in the house in the kitchen, many times making bread and cooking with Mrs. Lawler.

But she never greeted visitors, and would often stand behind a partly opened door out of sight when a family friend came to play the piano for the Dickinson's.

Dickinsonís May 1886 funeral confirms her close connection to her Irish friends.

Not a churchgoer for most of her life, but more a transcendentalist following Concordís Emerson and Thoreau, the poet planned to have her own burial service to be held in the homestead.

Knowing that she was in the last stages of her journey, Dickinson specified that the pallbearers that were to carry her white coffin to the cemetery be the men from Ireland that she had to come to know from working among them in her gardens on the grounds of the property.

"My Wars are Laid Away in Books," by Alfred Habegger, tells the story of Dickinsonís funeral.

Habegger relates the short message that she sent to her cousins, Louisa and Frances Norcross. While confined to her bed, she wrote: "Little cousins, ó Called back. Emily."

The service was held in the library of the Homestead. The Rev. George Dickerman conducted the service. There were four honorary pallbearers, personal friends of the writer father, Edward Dickinson, and they included the president of Amherst College.

Six Irishmen at the rear door of the building picked up the casket. They were Thomas Kelley, Dennis Scannell, Steven Sullivan, Pat Ward, Tom Moynihan and Dennis Cashman, all immigrants who worked at the Dickinson estate.

This was a very private ceremony and the men actually carried the little white casket through he gardens and fields all the way to the West Cemetery in Amherst.

The distance was at least one half a mile, which translates as a distance just short of nine football fields.

All reports are that it was a beautiful May day in New England when Emily Dickinson was laid to rest.

And because it was her Irish friends that did the honors at the request, I like to think that with all due respect, some Irish eyes were smiling, and perhaps some of those pallbearers did indeed hear the angels sing.

This article is reprinted from the August 13-19, 2003 edition of the Irish Echo in New York City.

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