Words as balm, songs to soothe



Poetry collection on ill health and healing inspires touring performances 

Ciara Moynihan

Often, when people are very unwell, or slowly recovering from illness, or facing the end, they can feel alone. Health challenges can feel so personal, so all-consuming, so isolating, that they can be hard to articulate – making the solitariness of the experience even more acute.
But sometimes, when the words of others resonate, there is comfort in recognising that our struggles are understood; they are part of what it means to be human. We feel less alone in our suffering and in our battles.
‘Vital Signs’ is a collection of powerful and brave poems that reflect on illness and healing, edited by acclaimed Swinford poet Martin Dyar. Described as ‘a book for our times, a book for every reader, and a testament to the value of the imagination in the face of adversity’, it includes poems by such greats as Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland and Seán Ó Ríordáin, as well as a diverse selection of leading contemporary writers, including Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Seán Lysaght and Colm Tóibín. Its foreword is written by President Michael D Higgins.
The desire to bring the anthology to a wider audience has inspired an ingenious collaboration with Festival in a Van – a mobile live arts venue equipped with sound, lights, a drop-down stage that came into its own during the rolling lockdowns of the pandemic as a Covid-safe way of bring music and the arts to communities.
No longer confined to the pages of ‘Vital Signs’, a group of the collection’s contributors, together with a selection of musicians, have been touring Ireland performing their poetry and music to inspire and comfort at a range of venues, including residential care settings – and they are coming to Mayo this week. Their ‘Christmas Sessions’ will see four performances in all – three in private settings and one public performance on Achill Island, to which all are welcome.
The first of these sessions takes place tomorrow (Wednesday), December 21, in the Sacred Heart Hospital, Castlebar, at 11am, with readings by Martin Dyar and Kiltimagh scribe Terry McDonagh, and music from award-winning Foxford multi-instrumentalist Stephen Doherty and US-born Foxford resident David Doocey, whose fiddle and concertina playing is world renowned.
The ‘stage on wheels’ will then travel to Dalton Community Nursing Home in Claremorris for another performance at 13.45pm. Dyar will this time be joined by Belfast-born Galway-based poet Lorna Shaughnessy, award-winning banjo player Enda Scahill and fiddle-player extraordinaire Mick Conneely.   
The next morning (Thursday), the residents and staff of St Fionnan’s Community Nursing Unit in Achill Sound will be treated to music by multi-talented Mayo trad musicians Emer Mayock and Donal Siggins, and readings by Dyar and Seán Lysaght. (A Limerick man living in Westport for many years, Lysaght has just released a new collection of poetry, ‘New Leaf’ – a beautifully observed, deftly wrought ode to the natural world that would make a wonderful gift for any nature lover.)
Rounding off the Mayo tour on Thursday afternoon is the public, open-to-all event, which will see Dyar, Mayock and Siggins joined by celebrated poet Alice Kinsella at Keel Community Hall for a free afternoon performance of poetry and music at 2.30pm. Kinsella was born in Dublin and raised in Mayo, and her work has been fêted by the greats of Irish literary circles, including Eavan Boland, who described her poems as ‘spirited disclosures, ready to come to the threshold of the surreal but also intimate and present in language’.
Martin Dyar’s first collection of poetry, ‘Maiden Names’ – described by Bernard O’Donoghue as ‘a thrilling new development in Irish poetry’ – was in the Book of the Year selection in both The Guardian and The Irish Times, and was shortlisted for the Pigott Poetry Prize. Dyar’s work has also received the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Strokestown International Poetry Award and the Raftery Award; has been added to the Leaving Cert prescribed poetry syllabus; and has been chosen for several prominent anthologies, including ‘Windharp: Poems of Ireland Since 1916’ (Penguin Ireland).
Having firmly established himself as one of the finest poets of his generation, Dyar has branched out into other forms of expression too. Together with composer Ryan Molloy and soprano Francesca Placanica, he has written a poetry-song cycle, ‘Buaine na Gaoithe’ for soprano, harp, and flute, which toured nationally in 2018. He has also written a play about the life and music of Irish poet Thomas Moore, ‘Tom Loves a Lord’, which toured nationally.
Another aspect of his life has given him particular insight into the world of illness and healing: an adjunct professor in medical ethics and medical humanities in the School of Medicine at Trinity College Dublin, he teaches creative writing, philosophy, and literature as part of a strand of undergraduate medical training that explores the nature of empathy, professionalism, medical law and personal wellbeing.
A perfect curator for this moving collection.

‘Vital Signs’, a Poetry Ireland publication, is available in bookshops and online at www.poetryireland.ie. The Vital Signs Christmas Sessions are supported by Creative Ireland, Poetry Ireland and Mayo Arts Office.