May 24, 2021

Fiona O’Connor

Where I went to school little girls learned to sew.

In 1968 the school inspectorate praised the girls of Belgrove National School in Dublin, ‘for the neatness of their handwriting, and, above all, for their needlework’.

We sat for hours, two by two, in rows of wooden desks sewing squares of white calico. Starting from 1st class we learned ‘hemming, seaming, stitching’, according to our needlework syllabus book, which was written for Irish schoolgirls in the mid-eighteen hundreds.

‘1) Lay down a fold perfectly straight on one end.

2) Then lay the fold down a second time, the same width as the first.’

We used our milk teeth to bite along seams so they would stay crisp and straight. We had trouble winding the fabric tightly around the index finger of the left hand and then wielding threaded needles in our right. (If you were left-handed you were the citog – a strange one, and needed to change your natural inclination to conform to the Christian way of doing things.)

Childish fingers struggled to coordinate the miniscule controls needed. Faces were contorted in concentration, pink tongues poking at the corners of mouths, needles dropped, flesh was pierced, lines became crooked, threads knotted up or escaped their needle’s eye.

Through all the torturous boredom we could never escape our teacher’s eye. It was a Dickensian set up: at six years old we were being prepared for domestic life; the sewing book stipulated that by 3rd class we would reach, ‘the different modes of repair, of table-linen, of stockings, garments, etc., etc.’. And being at the tail-end of a nineteenth century Catholic education, there was of course a rich vein of cruelty involved.

The acclaimed Irish novelist John McGahern was a teacher in the boys’ section of Belgrove in the fifties. The school is the setting for his 1974 autobiographical novel, The Leavetaking, in which he depicts the sadistic culture of punishment suffusing the place. Describing the headmaster approaching in the schoolyard, McGahern writes: ‘The point of the cane makes a ragged lump in the shoulder of his brown suit as he comes towards me…its yellow crook inside the silver watchstrap between his cuff and sleeve…shock of the erection I got when first I beat a boy with a cane, taking pleasure in my supposed duty.’ (The Leavetaking)

Punishment was brutal and random, florid as a bipolar episode erupting out of the general sea level depression. But neatness was virtue, for girls above all else. Our fingers strove toward the straight seam of our redemption. In the age of Magdalene laundries threat was already in the air. Unknowingly we trod a fine line, but really we interposed, as children always do, our imaginations to make gold out of our toil. Our folds were landscapes, the stitches bird hops, herds of wild ponies grazing snow banks. Needle points dived into fibre like Flopsy Bunny disappearing into a burrow, emerged pulling a chain of possibilities.

More deeply we closed the borders, the void between our far-away mothers and ourselves. Sealing the threshold, threads were pulled to a holding tension, neither too tight nor too loose, and each daughter-stitch aligned an attitude, maintained the child’s sense of self, way back behind the public display of obedience to infallible rules.

Those whose work was best-achieved had their little squares exhibited in the big grey book, presented with much trepidation to ‘an cigire’, the inspector, when he visited the school once a year.

A book to celebrate conformity; now I’m relieved that my grimy efforts with their wanton armies of dishevelled stitches, less insubordinate than just bewildered, never made it to an cigire’s gaze.

‘Catch a thread, draw it into the fold.’

The symbolism of that girlish creation – a fold, a measured hiding place and what it might contain, how it might unfold, while you were slapped, while you’d to stand in the dunce’s corner or be sent to another classroom for humiliation, your heart pumping terror because you did not yet know how to resist – the lesson of your fingers’ intimacy with cloth, enclosing a private margin, tucking a stitch into its shelter, holding it as your own, was the lesson.

My school stood at the end of a long avenue into winter, or so my child-self reasoned. The walk home was a return to a warmer season. A line of children in navy tunics winding up the wide road, shedding cruelties. I think of the work of Agnes Martin, her fine pale lines, the siloed dots, and how her mother didn’t like her. There’s a link to writing then: invisible lines carry stitches of meaning across the white page, across the screen, and as you write meaning grows, attaches to your sense of self, both what you know and what you are yet to recognise.

Little Sister by Agnes Martin

‘Do the dying swan, Fiona,’ my mother would command, when she was ‘in good form’, as her hypermania mood swings were termed. And when she was good she was very, very good, allowing us into an imaginative enclosure rich in the romantic melodrama of the ballets she loved. ‘Do the dying swan, Fiona’, and I’d be off around the kitchen, floppety-flapping for her, sitting by the fire chain smoking.

At centre stage of her attention, I saw myself as a tragic ballerina-bird in a white tutu. A tutu was the most impossibly exotic garment of my aspirations and my desire to wear one was great, as was the impossibility that such a thing, in its infinite enfoldings of tulle, its gorgeous pom-pom-ery of fetishized femaleness, could ever come my way.

For me, as for so many little girls of the period, sex was a mysterious confection: it revolved around a chocolate box image of a man in tights holding a tutu’ed woman from behind. This was a common scene on chocolate-boxes of the period, given to mums by dads on birthdays and anniversaries. A mystery was suggested there, which I pored over long after the sweets were eaten. The feathery woman is bare-shouldered, standing on her pinched toes, plunged downwards, her raised leg exposed to the groin-line. Her face wears an ecstatic expression similar to that of the beatified saints. Her contours are revealed but safely encased in a chastity froth of tutu. While a male protuberance, also visible in plain sight, goes unexplained. All over Ireland children stared at such images, symbolic of their parents in strange configurations, and wondered at the funny feelings set off in them.

I puzzled the enigma of forbidden knowledge. Books were consulted: I plundered my parents’ novels and penny dreadfuls, searching out lines of the riddle that was sex. I knew good stuff was in there because my mother confiscated the material if she caught me. But what did it all mean? – that Veronica melted in his strong arms or, a throbbing need rose up in him until he could bear it no longer, and he took her then. What did it mean?

Forbidden books interposed the forbidden of sex in riddling lines that carried me towards a different time: to secondary school where, in the burgeoning age of seventies sexual freedom in Ireland, we girls began to take our revenge.

My best friend and I were sent to different convents in the hope of breaking us up. We were becoming a problem. At twelve we started smoking; by thirteen we were drinking cider in the fields behind our houses and trying out sexual antics with boys. Soon, although at the time it seemed far too long, we tried out men.

Getting money was a major challenge. Every school year began with a book-buying fest because Irish school children must own their schoolbooks and haul them into school each day. My friend and I would pool our budgets to buy just one set of books between us, using the left over cash for more important outgoings. The same strategy applied to the annual budget for sewing material and patterns, thread and ancillaries for our Home Economics class, because each year we would produce completed garments to be modelled at the end of term.

A Pre-Raphaelite cloak we decided on. It went with the hippie aesthetic beginning to float across Dublin. Black velvet cloak, cut on the bias with dark green silk-satin lining, a huge draping sack of a hood, long black tassel hanging from its apex, was what we conjured. A consideration was that it would mostly involve sewing up straight seams with the sewing machine, no fiddly bits. We bought the stuff and spent the rest of our parents’ money on pints and cigarettes in a pub on the quays that gave succour to children.

Over the following terms we tasked two nuns, unbeknownst to each other, to make our cloak. I’d pick up the bag of material from my friend on a Sunday evening; take it in to my class in Virgo Clemens, Coolock, on Monday. My nun would tsk, tsk, at the sewing decisions taken by the sewing sister in St. Mary’s, Baldoyle. She would set herself to undoing the collar seam, the darts, the attachment of binding, and start her revised technique. I’d stand at her desk, fingering a half-joint of Acapulco Gold in my uniform pocket, my thoughts idling towards lunchtime when I could smoke it.

Between our two celibates a beautiful garment emerged. My friend and I had only to ferry the sewing bag across to each other and then on into the pale white hands of the sisters, who were caught up in an unknown dialogue with each other’s craft – sewing, then picking apart, sewing, then picking apart.

Before it was even finished – in fact it was never finished, as we never bothered with hemming – my friend and I shared the cloak, wearing it on alternate weekends. It was the perfect multi-purpose garment for a pair of teenagers. Great for hiding things under: you could smuggle out cider and vodka before your parents’ innocent eyes. Spreading it then beneath trees under moonlight, lying in velvet and silk for French kissing with boys, for petting and squeezing and gurning and tussling and giggling and stopping to drink, to roll a joint, to consider the moon, ponder the stupidity of adults, school, exams or any requirement of mundanity.

For us the cloak was emblematic of our countercultural choice; we chose the romance of life. We would travel to India. We would never have a stupid job. We would jettison every expectation of our teachers and parents. We loved our cloak and we loved our lives. We laughed at our power to cheat the system, wrapped ourselves in our raggedy voluptuary, superior in the prowess of youth and the knowledge of sexual licence.

We did not dally long at the school of teenage panting; by fifteen my friend and I were both involved in full throttled love affairs with men.

They were two Toms. Hers was a married guy with two kids. Mine was a family friend, my mother’s friend really. She’d been flayed alive by a post-natal depression sectioning whose treatment involved ‘the standard dose of electro-convulsive therapy’ of the time. My mother had returned to us missing a number of teeth and much of her memory.

My Tom was a magnificent man in the style of the period – picture Robert Redford in All The President’s Men. He would be there with her when I returned from school; telling his funny stories, patiently listening to her, looking at her, seeing her. She would daydream creatively all kinds of photography projects for him, unknowing that he sometimes drove me down to the beach in his big brown car, and that we had found our own way to be creative with each other.

My friend’s Tom affair was more, in every conceivable way, than mine. She had cleverly developed herself; blossomed, bloomed, fruited and fully ripened into a sexual goddess at fifteen. Whereas I still presented as a child; from the waist up, a boy is what I might as well have been; it was my deepest shame. But equally, for my friend and I, the last couple of years of school became a lesson in pain. A recording of the endless conversations from our bedrooms could compose a whole tone poem just out of ‘Tom’ utterances: curt Toms, hurt Toms, wishful Tom-oh-Toms, To-oms!  – the agony of deep love-states constrained by our adolescent status and the lack, back then, of access to working telephones.

The cloak wrapped around us, we’d hold hostage the only telephone box on our estate, waiting for the promised call that never came, or came with a disappointment – the love object breaking our hearts again. Why couldn’t my friend’s Tom leave his wife, now pregnant with their third child? Why couldn’t my Tom recognise that I would make a perfect live-in housekeeper for him – looking after his lenses, organising his contact sheets, warming the bed sheets too. If only these Toms could see sense and let us take our rightful places as the all-consuming focus of their lives, as they were of ours – we were consumed by our love of the Toms.

Because they didn’t, we turned outward again. At seventeen my disappointed friend went off alone to India and I attached myself to a ballet barre in a stricter take on the romantic life.

I went to London on a dance scholarship, living in a squat in Camden Town with a load of Aussies. Every day I took the number 88 bus to a ballet studio to learn how to straighten out my limbs, impose order on my physical being.

Ballet is a training in perversity. You learn to move against yourself; all the natural inclinations of your instincts and appetites must be defeated. Standing for hours at the barre we gripped hard, sucked in our bellies, kicked and sweated. All day long we whipped our legs up and down and sideways, bent ourselves backwards, contorted our thighs to higher reaches of our pointed feet above our heads. I didn’t think then of the calico hours of childhood but now I see the influence: a self-imposed punishment; a straight line towards redemption, towards the donning of the holy tutu.

But again, the imagination interposed. My forté was free dance. I could improvise by losing myself to music, letting phrases of movement develop out of me, something my mother had always encouraged when I was a kid.

This talent for improvisation, which I also link to the writing craft, got me an audition and subsequent scholarship, at eighteen, to New York to study with The Dance Theatre of Harlem. It was my crowning achievement. I still have the dress I wore to the premiere of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s sensational production of Scheherazade on Broadway. The hand-made dress was bought for a couple of dollars from a local thrift store on East 110th street, Spanish Harlem. It represented the richness of the ballet Scheherazade, set in The Thousand and One Nights’ harem, the dancers bejewelled and silky in transparent costumes and veils. But also, the dress is a conjuring out of the kind of imaginative story-telling of my mother’s purdah in her kitchen in Dublin. Her attempts to enliven her life and ours with some glamour and fire, stories told against cold Catholic dogmas imposed by men – swan-women lifting the drab domestic space with flapping arms. In this sense I see her mirroring Scheherazade’s goal of survival in weaving her stories, and the dress captures that for me.

At City Center Theatre, West 55th  St, on opening night, we DTH students sold programmes to an audience of A-Listers: Leontyne Price, Cicely Tyson, Anna Wintour, Ivana Trump, all there that night. I was in my element, dressed in black velvet again, but also lit up with gold, rubies, sapphires and emeralds. At the same time my friend, I knew, was in India, buying precious stones to bring to the west and sell, so as to give herself another six months in the Himalayas or on the beach in Goa. We were living up to our values, the principles of freedom and non-conformity we’d sworn to whilst passing the flagon or bottle, the joint, the pipe, the bong, the mushrooms, the cough medicines or the tablets. It was a strategy paid out in the usual catastrophes for women – pregnancies, rapes, abortions, assaults. We were knocked up and down at various stages, but never sectioned, like my mum was.

Anyway, the tutu-ed life never really materialized, or it sort of did but in an unexpected way.

By the late eighties I was back in London, squatting again, this time on a South London council estate, and dancing in Covent Garden operas. During this time I made a performance piece for the 7th Women’s Work Exhibition at Brixton Art Gallery, called Realising Power. Taking excerpts from Maria Bashkirtseff’s The Journal of a Young Artist 1860 -1884, a confessional account of a narcissist’s early attempts to enter the art world of nineteenth century Paris, my piece was called: ‘I was charming in Black’.

In the piece I took some of the obsessive refrains Bashkirtseff uses throughout the book in describing herself:

I was charming in black

In grey I was charming

I was in white, charming

The black cloak was transformed into a burqa for the first part, which involved, I remember, taking a huge carrot out of my handbag and peeling it slowly onto a News of the World tabloid spread of naked women, before biting the top off it and putting the rest back in my handbag.

In the second section I took off the burqa and was naked but for a huge grey tutu skirt (belonging to Dame Monica Mason, director of The Royal Ballet, who would never know how her old practice cossie ended up in Brixton). Wearing only the tutu skirt I wandered around the gallery doing power lifts with an enormous set of bar bells. Nobody laughed, believe it or not.

Lastly, I became the dying swan, still in the tutu, dancing the final faltering steps of that ballet until I lay down and pulled over myself a shroud of white calico. This was in memory of my mother, dead at forty-five after a life of struggle in a backward country. The lesson of those early sewing squares, their aesthetics of cruelty to girls, and to the women who bore them, was contained in this image, but conformity it wasn’t.

Fiona O’Connor is an Irish writer and theatre director. She also teaches at The University of Westminster, London. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies including: The Stinging Fly, Honest Ulsterman, The Lonely Crowd, The Wrong Quarterly, Phoenix Anthology of New Irish Writing, Fiction International, nth Position, In Dublin magazine and Bookends Review. She has some writing awards, including: The Hennessy Short Story Award, Kilburn Literary Festival Short Story Prize, and Galway Rape Crisis Centre Short Story Prize. Fiona was shortlisted for a Francis MacManus Short Story Award and her work was broadcast on Irish National Radio. Since 2000 she has directed productions of summer theatre for St. John’s Mill Theatre Company, Killarney, Co. Kerry. As part of the Repeal the 8th Amendment campaign in Ireland, her play, she had a ticket in mind was performed in Ireland where it was awarded a Kerry Arts Award. The play also premiered in London in 2018, at The Etcetera Theatre in Camden. She is a regular contributor to the Irish Times Books Page, writing features on publishing. Other features have been published in the Guardian, The Morning Star, Time Out, The Big Issue, and Byline Times.

Photos taken by E. O’Connor