Interview: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is a poet who practices her craft exclusively in the Irish language. Born in 1952 in Lancashire, England to Irish parents, she was sent to Ireland at age 5 to live with relatives in the Gaeltacht of County Kerry, and later lived in County Tipperary. She studied English and Irish literature at University College Cork, where she met her future husband, the geologist Dogan Leflef. Her relationship with Leflef, a Turk and Muslim, was opposed by her Catholic parents, who made her a ward of the court and forbade her any contact with Leflef. In 1973 Ní Dhomhnaill left Ireland for Turkey to marry Leflef and start a family.

After 7 years abroad, she returned to the island and published her first collections of poetry, An Dealg Droighinn (“The Blackthorn Bramble,” 1981) and Féar Suaithinseach (“Marvellous Grass,” 1984). In 1986, she released Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, featuring her Irish poems alongside English translations by Michael Hartnett. She has since published numerous Irish-language (Feis, “Festival,” 1991; Cead Aighnis, “Leave to Speak,” 1998) and dual-language editions (Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1990; The Astrakhan Cloak, 1992; and The Water Horse, 1999), along with plays, essays, and fiction. Her poems have been translated by Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Seamus Heaney, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and many other contemporary Irish poets and in more than half a dozen languages. She has taught and lectured widely in Ireland, Turkey, Canada, the US, and Britain.

Apart from her choice to write in a minority language, Ní Dhomhnaill’s work is characterized by its focus on themes such as gender roles, language and culture, sexuality, and mythology. Her poems are abundant in imagery from both local Irish folklore and world-famous legends. Her recent dual-language collection The Fifty Minute Mermaid (2007, trans. Muldoon) is a powerful work that begins with three poems on authoritarianism before heading off into a long series of poems examining the habits and culture of Irish merfolk. The poems cover topics from mermaid hair-washing and breastfeeding, to the merfolk’s struggles with assimilation, family dysfunction, and religious abuse and hypocrisy. I contacted Ní Dhomhnaill to talk about this collection as well as her thoughts on language, culture, and mythology.

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We Look At Each Other

by Kimberly Campanello

The master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.
-Audre Lorde

He forbids us from knowing anything. From finding anything out. From unlocking the door, behind which we suspect there are so many more.

He doesn’t leave us alone, as you might have thought, with a ring of keys. He doesn’t leave us with a test after extracting a promise of obedience. Instead, he’s everywhere. He won’t leave us alone. We are given no keys. We don’t have the run of the house, luxurious beds, diamond chokers.

Instead, we do our work where we can.

He doesn’t leave us, ever. He hovers around our meals, our games, our songs. Every day, every night, he tells us things, sometimes in a short burst of speech, a tiny phrase. Sometimes he goes on for hours.

When he’s silent, we thrash in our beds, trembling for more. Will he ever tell us about the door? Will the door ever be a thing he talks about? We tarry at our work. We burn soup.

We ask about the door. He says we don’t care enough about the door for him to say anything about it. He says many things about himself, over and over again. He reassures us of his love more than once.

We get tired of this.

We get bolder.

We want to talk about the door.

We ask about the door again. He tells us to sit down. The question is too difficult to answer, he says. We are being unfair.

He talks about himself, about things, about us, but never about the door.

He won’t look at us anymore. We look at each other instead. We look at the others. And they look at us.

Still, we keep asking him about that door. We are really asking about all the little doors and rooms behind it. We are asking about the whole house.

We know because we saw the plans. The old woman shared them with us. They were in the cellar wrapped around old garlic bulbs to keep them dry. The old woman had known a time would come to unroll the crumbling paper in the light, to show the plans for the whole house.

She knows we have come at last to open these doors. She knows we have come to plumb the house’s depths. We have come to tear it down.

And we have come just in time because the plans are faded, almost invisible. The woman might have died. The garlic might have rotted into the paper. All might have been lost.

When no one is watching, we tattoo the plans onto our bodies in indigo blue. When we get through that door, we will always know where we are.

The old woman says the garlic is sprouting now that it’s seen some light. We look at each other. We have forgotten his name. We know where the door is. We have the plans.


Kimberly Campanello was born in Elkhart, Indiana, and is a dual American and Irish citizen. Her poetry collections include Imagines (New Dublin Press), Strange Country (The Dreadful Press), Consent (Doire Press), Spinning Cities (Wurm Press) and Hymn to Kālī (Eyewear Publishing). MOTHERBABYHOME, a book of conceptual and visual poetry on carceral practices toward women and children at the St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland, is forthcoming from zimZalla. Her play Constance and Eva on the radical sisters Constance Markiewicz and Eva Gore-Booth will be produced in London in September. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University in the UK. www.kimberlycampanello.com

Editor’s Note: Let the Toads Fall From Your Lips

Charles Perrault’s “Diamonds and Toads”[1] is a story of two sisters whose character traits are cleaved along the usual fairy tale lines: one sister is beautiful and preternaturally kind; the other plain and rude. The pretty, sweet sister meets an enchanted woman at a well and the woman gives her a peculiar gift: each time she opens her ruby mouth to speak, flowers and gemstones fall from her lips. The other sister tries to replicate the first one’s success but is cursed, rather than blessed, by the enchanted woman. Toads and snakes escape her mouth when she opens her pencil-thin lips. Although Perrault sends the diamond-mouthed sister to marry a prince and the toad-spewing sister into the woods to die, he didn’t really need this ending to clarify which sister was bad and which was good. It would have been clear to readers of Perrault’s day, for whom diamonds were shiny symbols of wealth and toads were associated with devilry.

The connection between toads, frogs, and evil has deep roots in Western folklore and religious literature. Throughout the brutal and bloody witch trials of 15th-18th century Europe, toads were frequently considered the familiars of black magick practitioners, hopping about villages to carry out the work of warty, spiteful sorceresses. In Roman mythology, rude villagers forbade the goddess Latona from drinking clear pond water, even after she implored, “‘Why do you refuse me water? Water is free to all. Nature allows no one to claim as property the sunshine, the air, or the water.’” As punishment for their refusal, Latona turned them into frogs.[2] And in the Bible’s Book of Exodus, the second plague the God of the Hebrews casts upon the Egyptians is that of frogs: “They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs.”

That sounds like a terrible plague, but when the Ancient Egyptians weren’t beset with frogs they venerated them. The Egyptian goddess of fertility, Heqet, was frequently represented as a woman with an amphibian head. This association between frogs and fertility was related to a natural phenomenon: millions of frogs were birthed when the Nile flooded, a yearly cycle that provided much-needed water for Egyptian crops. Similar associations are found in Aztec and Ancient Greek cosmologies, recognizing amphibians’ crucial ecological roles.

Frogs and toads are still important although, these days, they’re dying off. “Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals,” Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The Sixth Extinction. The culprit is a deadly fungus called batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). While the origins of Bd are uncertain, one thing seems clear to scientists who study the issue: it was spread by the shipment of Bd-carrying frogs around the world. Two possible vector species, African clawed frogs and North American bullfrogs, are “widely infected with Bd but do not seem to be harmed by it.” The African clawed frogs were transported to other continents for use in pregnancy tests in the 1950s and 60s; North American bullfrogs have both stowed away on ships and been intentionally exported for culinary purposes.

“Extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels,” Kolbert adds, “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.”[3]

When I re-read “Diamonds and Toads,” I find myself daydreaming about meeting the enchanted woman at the well. I imagine thousands, maybe millions, of humans–those of us concerned about the mass extinction racking the earth, an extinction caused by our species–lining up to talk to her, saying rude things and getting cursed in return. Perhaps some of us would, like the naughty sister, spill toads from our throats, repopulating amphibians across the earth. [4] Perhaps the fairy woman would tire of that curse and vary her punishments. Corals and mollusks, leopards and lemurs would leap from our mouths; those very same animals consumed by human spears and axes, guns and poison, by the pavement that has been poured over the earth.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor Wren Awry


[1] Heiner, Heidi Anne. “The Annotated Diamonds and Toads.” SurLaLune Fairy Tales. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/diamondstoads/

[2] Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Greek and Roman Mythology: The Age of Fable. 1859. Dover Thrift Editions, 2000.

[3] Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction. Picador, 2014.

[4] Of course, you could argue that those frogs would come down with chytrid fungi in due time, that they too would be wiped out. But this is a fairy tale. Fairy tales aren’t supposed to make perfect sense.