Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Poetry and Sick Children's Hospital

In January, I had a wonderful time recording volunteers reading my poems in the National Library. It was so interesting and moving to hear Colin, Mary, Paul and Mike reading my words, to hear their interpretations of what I have written and to see them moved by one poem particularly, 'Fragments', written out here beneath the photo of Ed and myself.

I had organised the day and poems but Ed came along to act as sound technician and his help here was invaluable. He has a great skill in working out the recording levels so that nothing peaks and each reader's voice comes across really well. Ed and I have cooperated before on the music elements of my installations and we work very well together.

These recordings have given me a lot of material to work from and Arthur took some photos to make a visual record of the day. The Drwm room's auditorium was an excellent venue for the recordings and I am very fortunate to have been able to hire it. The library staff, too, were all friendly, courteous and helpful and I'll be really happy to use it again if I need to do some more work like this.

Self with Ed in the Drwm Auditorium


People morphing in and out of
smoke like clouds,
hides mangled bodies   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

at thirty-five,
    at sixty-eight  -
wandering,     dazed,
shirtless, shoeless  -

‘he was right out of it’

Massive explosion just
removed her from this earth  -
we were screaming and panicking,
screaming but deafened,
     bones slammed tight
    couldn’t hear anything
            no sound    -

as nine-year-olds to die?

devastation, just
     devastation   -
heroes were police and
ambulance crews   -
came to help the dead and
dying, not knowing if
another device would
remove them from this earth   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

he was running  -  shouting!
spotted the thing in the
back of the car,
warn everyone   -


in his teens,
           caught full force
of the blast   -

‘he was blew to pieces’   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

looking for her children,
she drew level with the car  -


removed her from this earth   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

‘no sound, not of bird
        or anything’

he planted the bomb,
        went to the pub,
ordered a whisky   -

she was lying there,
her body full of hacks,
skull of man or woman
embedded in the railings   -

as nine-year-olds,
         as   nine-year-olds to    die  ?

Before this time in the National Library, I had been back over to N. Ireland to go to Belfast to visit one of my old places of work, the Royal Victoria Hospital. I had worked here in the late 1970s and beginning of the 80s, first of all as a student nurse in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children and later as an Art Therapist in the Geriatric Unit of the RVH.

When I returned home after graduating from Aberystwyth University with my initial degree, the Troubles were raging and jobs in the arts were few and far between. I had been led to believe that my university degree would still enable me to work professionally in an art studio but this was not the case. The etching I had done at university was 'as monks had done it' centuries before and I absolutely loved it but I knew nothing of the then modern techniques of photo litho offset, was told that my work was 'fine art' and I was an academic  -  this last said, on one occasion, as if it might be some kind of disease!  -  and so I struggled to know what to do. I thought of further study at Belfast Art College, of teaching there, of teaching at Queen's University but there were differing problems, including no posts available, with all of these things.

I followed a career for a couple of years which, in the end, I decided just didn't suit me and then I thought of that which had also attracted me for a long time, nursing. It seemed a compassionate path to take, especially in light of the bombs and terror that daily plagued Ulster; healing, in the face of destruction, seemed the right thing to do, so I started to do interviews to get into the profession. My own health had suffered over the years, so it was at the Royal that I found a sympathetic ear to my desire to nurse and they gave me a chance to train in the children's hospital, as they thought my physique wouldn't cope with adult nursing.

The position as student nurse, as I possessed a degree, had some problems but I very much enjoyed studying biology and other aspects of the nursing course and found being on the wards so interesting and rewarding. Eventually, however, my health did give out and I had to leave because I didn't have enough resistance to infection. However, I will never forget my time as a nurse, the people I met, staff and others, conversations I had, the job itself which always felt so much more than 'a job' and, above all, the children and their struggles, so very early in life, against implacable illness. I have expressed my feelings about this and written of situations I faced in my poetry and this is all part of my investigations into and interpretations of life in the Troubles.

It was a pleasure to meet Margaret Rooney and Colin Cairns (my maiden name, as it happens!) and I so appreciate all their help in getting me in to the hospital and seeing around. Margaret took myself, my sister, Joyce and Arthur round, gave us lunch and. afterwards, she even gave me a nurse's cloak identical to the one I had during my student nurse days! I loved my deep navy cloak  -  these cloaks were made of  heavy, closely felted wool and were so warm to wear  -  I don't think nurses have them any more, which seems a shame  -  gone, along with caps and the old dresses and aprons which had been the uniform for many years.

The Sick Children's Hospital building  -  a new one is presently under construction.

Statue of small child in the hospital by the entrance hallway

Former Quiet Room

This room pictured is now a meeting room but, when I nursed in the hospital, was where the body was taken when a child had died. It was a part of the training to sit with a dead child for one hour, alone, as, if it happened when you were on night duty, quite possibly alone, you had to be able to cope with dealing with death. I sat with a nine year-old who had passed away with leukaemia  - his body so still, he looked completely at peace.

Plaque for Florence Bostock

This plaque is on an inner wall in the Children's Hospital  -  I stayed in Bostock Nurses' Home during my nurse training period.

A funny little anecdote regarding the Nurses' Home is that an announcement went out one day asking nurses to stop sunbathing topless on the roof, as this was distracting the army  -  so that's why the helicopter was going round and round and round .  . . .!  (I didn't actually take part in this activity myself!)

One thing I did do was wear my hooded dressing-gown with the hood up one evening when I was crossing over to the kitchen to make coffee  -  someone at the other end of the lengthy corridor jumped up in alarm  -  I gave a wave to reassure them  -  at least, I could be a friendly ghost!!

Beautiful stained glass window in the hospital

Close-up of the Good Samaritan

Hospital entrance

Statue of Queen Victoria outside the hospital.

Looks a bit gloomy in the photos and we did have to dodge the rain but the very next day, the sun came out!

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