Find inspiration in Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, Margaret Maher


No algorithm for an Irish accent, Siri types “The Calcification of Emily Dickinson”. No fear of it.

She who lived in self-orchestrated darkness, hidden in the prominent Main Street house in Amherst, is more famous than ever.

Movies, books, biographies and recently Apple’s “Dickinson” all seek to analyze his life and poetry. All costumes and related material, scripts, edits and director’s notes have been donated to the Emily Dickinson Museum, ensuring a renewed interest in the reclusive poet.

I came across the arc of a story written and researched by San Francisco writer Aife Murray, “Maid as Muse,” which focuses on the servants of the house – lives in the shadow of their superiors, the elite Dickinsons. A risky venture, yet another take on the iconic poet, I decided to enter through the servants quarters and tie myself to the ropes of the apron of Margaret Maher, a maid from Tipperary, Ireland, her story and the relationship with the Dickinson family, especially Emilie.

Maher had all the characteristics of the Wilde Irish Woman genre that I love to see on stage. Given the anti-Irish sentiment in the house, Margaret, thanks to her industrious and fiery nature, ultimately earned the respect of the Dickinson Puritans.

Aife Murray, in “Maid as Muse,” explains that secret Emily, hiding poems in Margaret’s trunk, gave instructions that they were to be burned to her death. Margaret had a different take on the engraving of poems. A bit of a poet herself, she wouldn’t do anything of the sort.

It comes from the tradition of the Bard. Poets counted more than kings and the last of them, Brian Boru, died in 1014 after getting rid of the Danes, descendants of the Vikings. It had been a long time since the Irish had royalty, but they had poets galore.

Presumptuous perhaps, but the kind of idea sparked by Aife’s book and a magnetic print to Margaret, a footnote in the Dickinson Archipelago, absorbed and captivated me. Aife’s mission, similar to mine, to get Margaret out of the back kitchen, tell her story, and prevent her erasing the multiplying myths of Emily Dickinson.

Where to start with 1800 poems?

I started to read them. I chose a few. They have become songs. I wouldn’t be the first to dare and hardly the last.

Then, when I lived in Emily’s town, visiting Irish friends was no stranger to poetry. In our day it was part of a primary and secondary education, rote memorization of Keats, Shelley, Longfellow and WB Yeats, but not Emily Dickinson that I can remember.

Now she teaches in Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, world acclaimed, she almost competes with Yeats in Ireland where the story of her withdrawal from the world, her single status reluctant to publish add to its mystique. What voyeuristic curiosity wants us to dig and seek answers to Emily’s mystery. Scholars have neither the time nor the patience with this, they focus only on its prolific output, the nearly 2,000 poems.

Surely that’s enough, but it isn’t, judging by Emily’s recent appearance in so many leaps forward in contemporary culture. She is another new movie, stage and radio star.

Emily as a feminist, Emily as a lesbian, Emily as a mistress, Emily as a baker, Emily a misunderstood living maid.

Oh good?

Will there be fakes of the famous white dress?

The Gúna Bán, who keeps it pure and simple, the white dress that hides her pain, her Gúna Bán.

Emily, An File, the Irish word for poet.

The story of Margaret Maher and Emily comes alive for me in the kitchen where domestic intimacy transcends the master-towel relationship.

Emily the baker, more famous for a few cakes and pies than for 1,800 poems.

This genius gravity should have sown terror in the heart of any impostor. But Margaret encouraged me.

In writing this performance piece, enthusiasm, presumption, poetic license and imagination go beyond scholarship.

I decided to leave behind the dubious impostor posture and in doing so I produced not a magnum opus to show for my time in COVID, but at least one work where my Wilde Irish Women and Men and a audience will be the judges of Margaret Maher and “The Celtification of Emily Dickinson”.

When I hammer a song on the piano like Gún Bán, Irish for White Dress, the sacrosanct nature of its heritage gives way and somehow merges into the accent that gives rise to a song.

Out of nowhere, a melody lands in my fingers and lyrics appear.

Margaret starches, washes and iron her Gúna Bán.

A pure and simple turf dress, its Gúna Bán.

I see the ironing board on the stage, a duet dialogue.

As Margaret passes by, she sings,

Miss Émilie!

Please take a break, you have poems to write, cakes to bake.

Emilie sings

She won’t see me put on, with too much labor and pain

She takes care of all the important tasks and gives me time to stay awake

and write and dream and fantasize about the world and God and the birds, about the world and God and the birds and life.

Written by Rosemary Caine, a musician who lives in Greenfield, and with lots of help from Emily. “Margaret Maher and The Celtification Of Emily Dickinson” will make its maiden trip to Hawks & Reed in the fall of 2022. Caine is a member of the Young @ Heart Chorus.


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