The woman I wish to have met

by Róisín Leggett Bohan

(i.m. Catherine Hackett Leggett)

In the attic, I find my father’s leather suitcase, brass latches
opening like weathered mouths.
In it, folded sheet music—foxing and wafer thin,
I open it out and listen.
Following the treble clefs and quavers I see her through the eyelet of a violin,
chin resting on the lower bout, her fingers skipping Carolan’s concerto,
a child on a piano stool keeping time, watching her every cue.
Over morning, I imagine the warm pitch and lilting-dip of strings,
walking the fog from the barrack green,
falling over the clock above the arch,
blanketing the church and spilling onto to the stables
where the horses of the 17th Lancs pricked their war-torn ears,
unaccustomed as they were to the velvet salve of an Irish tune.
The music skimmed over the slat of wood which opened to the expectant quacks
of Indian Runner ducks rushing in single file down to the Awbeg river,
behind the barrack wall, their splash and dive,
observed by the leafing swathes of Oak.
After the treaty was signed, and the British left, the children ran
through the silent bare rooms, echoed their shouts in the great dining hall,
where the long empty tables, which once served eight hundred men, sat in waiting.
Her husband was stationed in Phoenix Park paving the way for a New Ireland,
when a man in a tweed cap knocked on her door and said,
‘Missus, you have to get out, we’re going to burn the barracks down.’
And while the flames kissed the night sky, the piano sat quiet behind the barrack wall,
hidden under the leafing Oak, overlooking the Awbeg and the Indian Runner ducks.
She watched on, one hand holding a violin and in the other, my father.

Reproduced with kind permission of the author. This poem featured on the Poetry Jukebox installation in Galway from July-October 2023.

This poem was inspired by family memories of the burning of Buttevant barracks during the War of Independence. During looting prior to the fire, the family piano was taken for sake-keeping by local nuns at Buttevant convent and was returned some years later.