Dog in My Docs Day*
Jennifer misses you
Christy misses the long chats with you,
he wished you didn't talk so much in the bookies,
Heather misses you,
Larry didn't know you
but Larry misses you because Heather misses you.
Eleven years to go you dyed your hair,
your uncles didn't know you,
they didn't know what they were missing.
No school wanted you.
You wanted Nirvana, you wanted the Doors,
you wanted shoes you didn't have to drag
you wanted Hush Puppies or Ghandi's flip-flops
instead you got Docs with a difference
the joy-roy gang miss you.
For your Confirmation
you took Hercules as your middle name,
you wanted a sweatshirt and baggy pants,
you left your mother and George at the Church,
kiss me there you said top your mother
pointing to your cheek
and you were off with your friends,
soldier of Christ.
Auntie Mary and Aidan miss you,
Johnny misses you,
Caroline Keady misses you.
*An extract from the poem which upset a family member
The first Michael Mullins knew of his son's suicide being
depicted in a poem was when he read a review in his local
newspaper. It was the Galway Advertiser, the same newspaper that
18 months before carried the notice of the teenager's tragic
The poem, Black Dog in My Docs Day, had been written by Rita
Ann Higgins, a local poet. She was also Mullins's sister-in-law.
The reviewer quoted part of the verse, which named the young
Mullins, described how he had been in a psychiatric unit, and
how he had spoken to Higgins about killing himself.
To have his son's private details and conversations published
in a book was deeply upsetting for Mullins. His marriage to
Higgins's sister, Bernie, was annulled many years ago. Still he
felt he should have been consulted or shown a draft copy of the
poem prior to its publication.
Mullins contacted a solicitor, and had legal letters sent to
Higgins and her British publishers, Bloodaxe Books. He wanted
further publication of the book stopped unless the poem was
removed or altered. Mullins said he did not object to the whole
poem or that the book was dedicated to his son, but to the
"unnecessarily graphic, cold and hurtful nature of some of the
passages" which "could have been rewritten so as not to cause
distress and offence".
The passages to which Mullins objects are a small part of a
lengthy poem which summarises his son's life until his suicide,
aged 18, in December 1999. Higgins describes how he was
hospitalised as a baby with meningitis, the day he made his holy
communion, and when he was confirmed - "you took Hercules as
your middle name".
She remembers helping him fill in an application for a
passport, dying his hair blue, and when his school mistakenly
said he had failed maths. "You went in yourself to set the
record straight./Your mother has the letter of apology the
school sent." It recounts his struggle with depression,
including treatment in a psychiatric ward, and the thoughts of
suicide he discussed with his aunt.
Throughout the poem Higgins names 30 relations, friends and
neighbours that miss Mullins, including his Aunty Carmel in
Florida. Nowhere in the 950 or so words is his father named.
Not surprisingly, the Galway poet has refused to rewrite the
verse, and points out that her sister, the boy's mother, was not
offended by it. The passages Mullins complained of were "out of
context" with the sentiment of the poem as a whole. "It is
really a love poem in memory of my nephew and wasn't intended to
offend anyone," she said.
So is this legal quarrel just the result of a family feud or
does it have wider implications for artists who raid real life
for their art? Does artistic freedom mean writers can say
whatever they want about a real person in fiction?
"Where would I draw the line if I started rewriting my
poems?" Higgins has demanded. "All my poems are about people.
But I suppose it's not the first time my poems have att-racted
Higgins, 46, has indeed taken poetic licence before. The KKK
of Kastle Park led to a local residents' association threatening
her with legal action. Workshops in Portlaoise prison were cut
short after another ode caused offence. After a period as writer
in residence at University College Galway, Higgins penned a
sharp poem about life in academia. The college authorities are
understood to have been unimpressed.
"In a way this row was so predictable," said Jessie Lendennie,
co-founder and managing director of Salmon Publishing, who first
discovered Higgins's talent and published four books of her
poetry. "It is in her style - tell it like it is. But this poem
has scratched an old wound and relates to a history of bad
Lendennie reveals that Higgins also wrote candidly about her
father, with whom she had a difficult relationship. He, too, was
annoyed at becoming his daughter's muse. "There was a time when
he was upset but it blew over when he saw what she had
accomplished," said Lendennie.
Higgins's first four books sold 10,000 copies, about five
times more than usual. She is particularly popular in America.
Reviewers call her gutsy, anarchic and explicit. Typical of her
work, dominated by social commentary, is The Trouble with Karen
Reilly, about the woman shot dead by Private Lee Clegg in
Northern Ireland. It ends: "She was wild/ she was free/ she was
Bon Jovi/ with the bullet in her back/ she was Clegged."
Casual readers picking up An Awful Racket, her latest
collection, are warned that Higgins is untameable, spiky and
upfront. Reviewers said the collection was not for the
faint-hearted, describing its language as savage, its imagery as
Lendennie insists that Higgins's poem about her favourite
nephew was not exploitative. "She just has to do that, and
people identify with that in her work. She could not not have
written this poem."
Still, the publisher admits that she would have thought hard
about including Black Dog in My Docs Day in a collection. "I
might have questioned it, whether it should go into a volume or
not," Lendennie said. "But I don't think the poem is malicious.
It would be obviously objectionable if a writer exploited other
people's experiences, but Rita Ann does not do that. She does
have a soft caring side too; she is no haridan."
Higgins's supporters are pointing to similarities with
Mid-Term Break, one of Seamus Heaney's best known poems in which
he wrote about the death of his four-year-old brother in a car
accident - "In the porch I met my father crying/ He had always
taken funerals in his stride". Such is the lyrical beauty of the
Nobel prize winner's verse, however, that it would seem almost
sacrilegious to complain about its inspiration.
The legal dispute between Mullins and Higgins is expected to
be settled out of court, but as the lines between fiction and
faction continue to blur, it seems inevitable that a judge will
some day be asked to decide where does art stop and intrusion
OTHER Irish authors have been accused of exploiting tragedy
to enrich their writing. Eoin McNamee wrote a fictionalised
account of the Shankill Butchers in a novel, Resurrection Man.
Though all the names were changed, relatives of the loyalist
gang's victims were still upset because the murders were so
McNamee is already embroiled in more controversy. His new
novel, The Blue Tango, is based on the 1952 murder of Patricia
Curran in Northern Ireland. Due for publication next month, it
appears to add a thin veneer of fiction to well known events and
this time the real names of the main players are used. McNamee
even suggests an alternative murderer to Iain Hay Gordon, the
Scot who was wrongly convicted of the crime. Rarely have the
lines between fiction, non-fiction and faction been so blurred.
But then, even William Butler Yeats upset people he wrote
about. One of his poems, Reprisals, was withheld at the request
of Lady Gregory, his patron, because she did not like allusions
to her dead son. "The poem was suppressed because Lady Gregory
felt it besmirched the memory of somebody who died in tragic
circumstances," said Anthony Roche, a lecturer in literature at
University College Dublin. "It is not unlike the situation with
"There is a belief that everything is fair game in a work of
art, that it has its own rules, procedures and integrity, and it
should be judged by that. However, there are other issues, of
aesthetics, ethics and taste. It's a complex phenomenon and
writers in the public sphere consider what to put in and what to
leave out every step of the way."
Sylvia Plath never erred on the side of caution. She
described the death of a neighbour in her diaries, and then used
it as inspiration for her poem Berck-Plage which included a
description of the neighbour's stiffening corpse.
While dead men can't sue, the laws of libel do protect living
people who find themselves depicted in works of fiction. The
publication of Dubliners was delayed for years because James
Joyce had included real people's names and actual locations
instead of invented ones. The author believed it added to the
Oliver St John Gogarty successfully sued Patrick Kavanagh,
the Monaghan poet, for libel over a throwaway remark about him
in his novel The Green Fool. Kavanagh had said of his reception
at Gogarty's door in Dublin: "I mistook Gogarty's white-robed
maid for his wife - or his mistress. I expected every poet to
have a spare wife."
Modern writers continue to plunder the lives of those around
them for fictional purposes. Hanif Kureishi, who left his wife
and children, was accused of writing a personal confession in
Intimacy, a novel about a man who leaves his wife and children.
"Of course it's fiction," Kureishi insisted. "It's irrelevant
where it all comes from. Some stuff came from me, lots from
other people. I can't remember which was which."
Literary agents admit that most first novels submitted are
autobiographies, thinly disguised. Some authors actually confess
that real people feature in their work.
Kate Thompson, author of It Means Mischief, said she
sometimes bases minor characters on people she knows. "Sometimes
I put people in to get revenge but they will only be peripheral
and be heavily disguised," she said.
"If somebody dissed me big time I could put them in a book
and get a great deal of vicarious pleasure out of it. There is
no way they could recognise who it is, though. I would never
base major characters on real people."
Using real people is more dangerous in thinly-populated
Ireland than in the anonymity of Britain or America, as Roche
points out. "It goes back as well to the notion in Irish society
of writing as a form of betrayal, that to write a thing down is
like informing on somebody," he said.
"In a way Rita Ann Higgins speaks with a very local sense of
her community and speaks to a larger audience through the medium
of print - some of those tensions are perhaps coming up in this
Colbert Kearney, professor of modern English at University
College Cork, said: "Some people might claim that an artist
should be free from moral constraints but I think it would be
difficult to defend that. Artists should be given considerable
scope. If it was possible to form a law on this it would have
been done already."