This is a really complicated echo-chamber - after all, we don't know
if Nessa O'Mahony is in any way, shape or form the alter ego of
Sheehan; we don't know (and O'Mahony isn't telling) which of the Butler
letters are made up, and which are original; we have to see if we can
skip between the two journeys of (self-)exploration; and, just to keep
the mixture rich, we are even given occasional notes by Sheehan about
the defects in her poetry, poetry, of course, with which O'Mahony has
provided her. And one can easily add to this sense that everything is a
bit odd - after all, Ireland, 1850s, potato famine, isn't it? O'Mahony
is having none of this. She presents us with an altogether other kind
of historical fact, that of fairly prosperous Irish families going to
make a new life. Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a verse novel? None
of the above.
What really works is the cutting between one genre and another, one
time and another, and (best of all) the way that minor characters start
working their way into the foreground. Chief amongst these is Lizzie
Murphy, an almost extraneous figure at first, an orphan Irish girl who
finds her way to Australia and into service with the Butler family,
before marrying into it. Lizzie's narrative seems so clearly distinct
from Margaret's and Fiona's that it almost a shock to find, much later,
that she is Fiona's creation.
In some ways, I think it is the situations more than the characters
which grab the reader - the various culture shocks which are
encountered, the way in which the main figures are separated from what
they know, the way they become entangled with what was and what is, the
way they become mixed up (so it is the structure, too, of In Sight Of Home that
engages the reader, the ambition of asking the reader to consider on
the one hand a rather hapless encounter between a fizzing present day
media woman with a chaotic Welsh academic; and on the other hand, the
doubly parallel universe - in time and space - of the women in
This is a really challenging read. Narrative free verse is
incredibly hard to do (arguably the hardest of all genres), and also
the hardest to sustain. Mixing in the letters keeps the readers on
their mettle. One moment you're with Fiona's aspiration to have a cat
and feed it Whiskas, the next you're in the outback, writing very
proper letters to a cousin. Complexity can be a curse. Not here. You
have to go back and read it a second time, a third. I thought it was
It'll cost you fifteen euros. Go on, go on.
Sarah Hackett, The Irish Post, August 2009
This beautiful collection of poetry from Dublin poet O'Mahony is inspired by a real archive of unpublished correspondence recording the Australian adventures of the emigrant Butlers of Kilkenny. Evocative, touching and subtle this is an outstanding read where the personal letters of the past contrast with unique verse of the present.
Review: Marie Lecrivain for Poetic Diversity, a Los-Angeles based online magazine (December 2009)
All of us are traveling - at some point in our lives - whether we want
to or not. Strangely enough, we often travel in tandem with others at
different times - say, like, in centuries, or even eras, and Nessa
O'Mahony's, In Sight of Home
, a novel in verse, unevenly and successfully illustrates this concept.
tells the story- through letters, journal excerpts, and poetry, of two,
actually, three women - Margaret, Lizzy, and Fiona - searching for
personal, and, in Fiona's case, professional fulfillment. In the
beginning of Home
, Fiona, a
writer/poet, discovers the story of Margaret Butler and her serving
girl Lizzie, two women who emigrated (based on actual historical
accounts of the Butler family) from Mother Ireland to Australia at the
latter half of the 1800's. Various personal issues, and what seems to
be an overwhelming case of ennui force Fiona, along with her treasure
trove of letters, to pull up stakes from Ireland to resettle in Wales.
It's worth noting that in the United States, the Irish diaspora to
America has been documented to death through various books and films,
but not so much their immigration to Australia/New Zealand. With the
notable exception of Colleen McCullough's watershed victory of The Thorn Birds
(Richard Chamberlain wasn't fooling anyone back then), I, in my limited
literary travels, I haven't come across much, and it's refreshing, as
the third generation descendent of Irish immigrants, to read another
version of the tale.
That being said, In Sight of Home,
is, at first, difficult to approach; a novel in verse buoyed by
epistolary tracks, along with the swiftly shifting points of back and
forth from the mid-19th to the 21st centuries, is a bit dizzying. The
universal themes of womanhood, along with O'Mahoney's excellent and
well-crafted verse, save Home from a land of literary confusion.
Whether it's Margaret's obsession to maintain the status quo while
occupying what she considers to be "alien soil," or Lizzy's struggle to
make a place for herself in the Butler household, or Fiona's quest for
an identity outside her familial boundaries, each one's journey is
honestly and painfully expressed. As Home
progresses, and Fiona delves further into the story of the Butler clan,
her own life, both internally and externally, takes on aspects of
Margaret's and Lizzie's, particularly when the question of motherhood
arises, as in "Extracts from Fiona Sheehan's journal, 16th May, 2003":
Three weeks late.
Each morning the trip,
the wait, the stomach lurch
at finding no red
dotting the towel,
The bathroom closes in,
I take the kit out of the bag
crinkled with constant opening
Nausea rises -
it could be a sign
or just nerves.
But I know what I don't want:
has no claims on me.
It's too late for that;
I've watched friends, paid dues
with visits, teddies, the odd poem.
Not my time.
I put the box back, resolve
to wait a while longer.
In Sight of Home
is an ambitious work, combining vastly different literary genres, as
well as different eras into a provocative and rewarding read. O'Mahony
has set the literary bar higher with her new offering regarding the
universal and ongoing story of womanhood. It's enough to inspire me to
consider writing a novel in verse (considering at this stage only), and
it's given me a whole new appreciation for the depth and bravery of
O'Mahony as a poet, in that she is fearless, and evolved enough, to
Copyright 2009 Marie Lecrivain
Review: All poetry's children by Kevin Higgins. The Galway Advertiser, December 03, 2009.
In Sight of Home
by Nessa O'Mahony (Salmon Poetry) is a moving verse-novel about the Butler family who emigrated to Australia in 1854. The opening lines of 'Orphan' made me reflect that in 2009 - this year of endless complaint - we have perhaps grown just a little whiney.
The narrator is writing from Loughrea Workhouse in September 1847: "I wasn't born here,/but don't remember any other home./Ma brought us in one winter/when our stomachs got too loud,/she died soon after."
The book takes the form of letters from her protagonists - some in verse, some in prose. The diary entries by Fiona Sheehan, a Dublin writer using the archives to track down her ancestors, make the world of the 1850s and the world of 2003 collide very beautifully here.