Guest Writers · On Writing

Mary Ann Mulhern – Poet

I can barely believe it’s the last Saturday of November! This means that it’s also Mary Ann Mulhern’s final instalment of her guest post. Over the past few weeks, Mary Ann has shared some incredibly touching and powerful stories about her intriguing and unique childhood as the daughter of a gravedigger.

As a poet, Mary Ann’s poetry has captured the hearts and minds of everyone who reads it. As well, she challenges her readers to think beyond the top layers of life and search beneath to the inner struggles and injustices of those in our past, present and future. She dares to write about topics that frighten us into inaction – only to throw us the word ropes that will help us get out. Mary Ann’s words reach into the very depths of what it means to be human.

Here is the question I asked Mary Ann:

As November is a month of collective remembrance, write about how you ‘remember’ people, places, and things in your writing. From witches to convents to sexual abuse, how has the act of ‘remembering’ affected your writing life?

Here is Mary Ann’s response in full – all instalments including her final post. Please remember to read through to the end for details about a FREE SIGNED BOOK GIVEAWAY!


From Tough the Dead

In this house words and tears
Have a place
My father is a man
Who puts shovel to soil
Whose sweat bleeds into rock and clay
He knows the depths of grief
Feels it in his hands
Climbing up from graves

I am a gravedigger’s daughter who grew up in a cemetery house in St. Thomas, ON. My parents were Irish immigrants denied an education in Ireland. My father, Patrick Mulhern, was the gravedigger and caretaker of Holy Angels Cemetery. The cemetery house at the edge of the burial ground was home for my parents, my three brothers, and I.

In my pre-school years, my brothers and I played for hours among tombstones in the cemetery my father tended. During those years, I watched my father dig graves with sweat pouring from his shirtless body in summer. In winter, he burned old tires all night over grave plots in order to melt the frost so that he could begin to dig. Winter graves were the worst. Funerals in snow seemed sadder than those in the sunshine of summer.

In those young years of hide-and-seek, it never occurred to me that I would ever die. These were my precious years of innocence about matters such as death. One day, my oldest brother, Ed, told me that I too would die. I can still remember feeling the shock of his words. I could actually feel them in my flesh, and I was afraid. I think that everyone is afraid to die- we don’t know when or how or why this will happen, but it most certainly will happen.

As we age, this reality comes more sharply into focus, and the knowledge that a grave “waits for us” forces us to think about life in a much different way. My parents are dead, my brother Ed is dead, and some of my friends have already passed on.

When I visit graves of my family, I am reminded that one day I will join them there. An oak tree shadows the lettered stone at the head of my parents’ graves. A year ago I noticed a single brown leaf had fallen on their marble marker. I’ve saved that leaf. When I look at it I return to the cemetery, to graves beneath the shelter of a tree, and I feel as if I’ve gone home.

November is indeed a month of remembering. As I look back on my ten years as a writer, I remember incidents of luck. In July 2001, I won the Freedom Festival Poetry Contest. That event triggered a meeting with Marty Gervais, publisher of Black Moss Press. He encouraged me to write about my experiences as a young woman in a convent- He published this as a collection in my first book of poetry, The Red Dress. This book has since gone into four printings. I was interviewed by Mary Hynes on Tapestry a national CBC program.

The fact that I had grown up in a “cemetery house” became the next focus of my writing. My second book of poetry, Touch the Dead was published in 2006 – again by Black Moss Press. This book was short-listed for the Acorn-Plantos award.

In 2007, Marty Gervais asked me to write about the Father Charles Sylvester priest-pedophile case that was prosecuted in Chatham, ON. I interviewed several of the women who’d been abused by Sylvester as little girls. Also, the crown attorney, Paul Bailey, worked closely with me. Marty Gervais’ Editing & Publishing Practicum class edited and designed what would become my third book of poetry, When Angels Weep. This book was also short-listed for the Acorn-Plantos award.

I became intensely interested in the fate of women charged as “witches”, and researched the Salem witch-trials of 1692. From this came my next book, Sleeping with Satan that was published in 2010.

Marty Gervais asked me to write a sequel to The Red Dress. Last year his students in the Editing & Publishing Practicum class edited and designed, Brides in Black. This book launched April 8, 2012. Thus, as a writer, I’m deeply grateful for my good fortune with Black Moss Press!

I think that a big part of grieving is “regret”. We are sorry that we left things undone and unsaid when it comes to loved ones who are now dead and buried deep in the cold womb of earth, never again to “speak to us”. As a child, I remember vividly my father digging a summer grave, sweat pouring down his face, his chest, his back. I saw naked layers of earth as his shovel pierced the ground- sod, clay, gravel, moist lumps of black, black dirt. Sometimes a stranger would interrupt his work to ask questions, to seek answers about the dead. I really think that people believed my father had some connection with those he buried, those whose coffins felt the first sound of clay from his spade after the prayers, after the flowers and tears. The living wanted to know if there was ever any sign, any sound, any voice from the world beyond the last breath.

I’m certain that there never was, and yet, people wanted desperately to believe they could somehow make amends, make requests, and hang on to hope. What I remember most is that my father always listened to the living, which he believed to be as much “a work of mercy” as it was to bury the dead.

Now that it is November, we honour both “ghosts and saints” with Hallowe’en and All Saints Day. The ghosts we fear the most may indeed come to”‘hunt us down” as the poet Thomas Lynch says. We can only pray that the saints will intercede for us, bring us back into the ‘light of resurrection’ where we can have rest and peace.

Last year I walked through a Mennonite cemetery. Many of the tombstones were engraved with hands, clasped in one last “farewell”, as the beloved set out alone into an absence even cyberspace dare not enter, dare not break.

When I was about six years old, a grieving woman came to the cemetery house. She brought a box of beautiful clothes that she wanted me to wear. The woman tearfully told my mother, my father and I how her own beloved little girl had died of a fever the doctors could not treat. My parents knew all about this, but the sad story was new and confusing for me. The woman kept staring at me and asked if she could kiss me. Being a child I could not understand her sorrow, could not share any dimension of her inconsolable grief. And, I stepped away from her. Soon after, she left the house, got into her car, and drove away. I never saw her again. To this day, I regret my refusal of her kiss, a gesture that might have helped her begin to heal. Such are the straits of childhood – that uncertain curve of understanding we must all learn to navigate, and sometimes misread signs along the way.

Being Irish, my mother feared threads of death hidden in lovely seams of satin, linen and silk. She said fevers had a way of clinging to fabric, however lovely, however costly, waiting for the flesh and bone of yet another child. I never saw the box again, never wore any of the coats, dresses, sweaters and skirts. My mother may have buried them in the attic or basement and let them slowly turn to dust, like the dead girl who’d worn them last fall, last winter, just this past summer. That ghost child never held a golden leaf from autumn, never wondered at the harvest moon, stars of September, sudden dawn of October, the sun rising up from graves of darkness into day.

the letter

my letter
the only one
snatched from fires
of the inquisition
small words faded with fear

come to the prison
bring something to kill me
before the torture begins
bring it today

he hides a knife
the one I use to cut the umbilicus
of newborns
the same blade delivers me now
without a cry

After researching the three-hundred year horror of witch-burnings throughout Europe, I wrote the poem, “the letter”. It was later published in the Windsor Review. These public burnings of innocent women were driven by religion: Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism. Women who had any knowledge of herbal medicine or women who were midwives were suspected of being liaisons with Satan. Neighbours or relatives coveting their property accused some women who were widows or who had small farms of being witches.

I believe that these thousands of murders were driven by a fear of and a hatred of women. One prominent European physician visited one of the “torture chambers” where women were subjected to unspeakable pain, misery and humiliation. He stated that if any bishop or priest were put into that kind of agony, even for a moment, torture chambers would be barred from earth. Only after the enlightenment did witch burnings end in Europe.

Sadly, Calvinism brought these deeply rooted superstitions to Salem. The Puritans were a joyless people for whom there were no outlets other than work and church. Satan was very real to these people, and when a young child had a “spell” it was immediately blamed on “witches.” Hysteria spread rapidly and, within six months, nineteen individuals, mostly women, were hanged on Gallows Hill. Only when the governor’s wife, Lady Mary Phips was accused, did this persecution end.

Many of the accused women were widows. Their accusers were teen-aged girls who associated with a slave named Tituba who said she could tell their futures. In some cases, accusations were driven by land disputes and jealousies. The women could not defend themselves in the courtroom and they were not allowed lawyers. They were hanged for “sleeping with Satan” and bringing blight and sickness to Salem.

It’s interesting to me that in this year, 2012, women continue to be hunted down for wanting knowledge. Sixteen-year-old Malala of Pakistan was targeted by the Taliban for lobbying for schools for girls. Some girls in Afghanistan have had their faces disfigured with acid for daring to “go to school”. Thus this intense fear of women “having knowledge” continues.
What would we (women) do with power? Power seems to make us dangerous – a universal threat to the human race! Maybe it all goes back to the biblical account of Eve – who dared to eat fruit from the tree of “good and evil.”

We women all stand accused. We need to mourn the thousands who died such cruel and merciless deaths after agonizing weeks of torture. They are also “our sisters” to whom we owe so much.



As promised, I will be giving away a signed copy of Mary Ann’s book, Sleeping with Satan.

To be qualified to win this book, please answer the following question:

Why were some women in Salem accused of being witches?

The first three people to answer to correctly will be entered in a draw.  The winner will be announced as soon as possible!

And…because everyone has been so generous with their reading and their commenting, I’m adding ANOTHER free signed book giveaway to the mix!

To be qualified to win this book, please answer the following question:

What was Mary Ann’s father’s job occupation?

The first person to answer this question correctly, wins a signed copy of the book!

Thank you again, Mary Ann!




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