Editor’s Note: Ancestral Hunger Pangs

My mother’s kitchen cupboards are stocked with ancestral memories; crammed with what may look like ordinary jars and cans, boxes and bottles—but I know better. These are her hunger ghosts, I think to myself every time I open the cupboards, doppelgangers of old wounds and inherited hurts.

The same goes for the freezer and fridge, the fruit bowl, even the jar for cat treats. My mother hoards food. She consistently buys too much, as if she’s still cooking for a household of eight or preparing for a food shortage or a spell of famine. She overcooks too, long used to making large casseroles that needed to stretch into a couple days’ worth of leftovers. My father and I have tried talking to her, telling her to scale back, that we cannot possibly eat everything before it spoils and it’s a sin to waste food.

But I think she really is preparing for a famine, or reckoning with the haunting of one. My mother descends from the Famine Irish, the generation that left Ireland in the mid-19th century for their lives, escaping starvation and fever, mass death, and the devastation of centuries of British colonialism. Hunger is the reason she’s here, in America, and half the reason I’m here too, along with my brothers, sisters, and all my maternal cousins.

In Irish folk belief there’s a type of grass called an féar gortach, the hungry grass. Some say it’s a different shade than the green that famously carpets Ireland, more silver in color, or patchy and withered. Others say it looks like any other grass, and you only know you’ve stepped on it too late, when a great hunger suddenly comes upon you and nothing can cure it save a bite of some bread tucked away in your pockets (if you had the forethought) or a bit of your own shoelace (if you’re really stuck). It’s said hungry grass grows wherever a corpse has been laid down or someone has died. The belief predates An Gorta Mór of the 1840s, the Great Hunger. But an féar gortach took on a new, ghastly meaning then, in an era when famine victims were found in fields and on roadsides, a ring of green around their open, lifeless mouths after a last, desperate meal of grass.

As Ireland’s potato crop failed and its people starved, its other crops were harvested and exported by the shipload to serve on British dinner tables and fill British bellies. At least a million Irish died during the Famine, their bodies buried in mass graves wherever their lives gave out. In a sense, all Ireland’s green countryside turned to hungry grass, a landscape of want and loss, of lasting trauma and emptied beauty. At least another million emigrated, became refugees, exiles, Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, hyphenated people, diasporic, hungry.

Growing up, Mom spoke often of her family’s history, sang and played us Irish folk songs, explained to us the Famine, dressed us in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it seems a stretch to suggest my mother’s food compulsions have anything to do with an event in another country her ancestors left fadó fadó. But some events are simply too large, too traumatic not to eat into the blood, the DNA, the collective cultural memory of a people.

Mother’s ancestral memories transferred to all her children, but might have absorbed most deeply into me, her last-born child and the only one to go live in Ireland years later. I am the child who’s never married, never had children. Who’s struggled with her weight, eats when she’s not hungry, and bakes when she’s sad or simply bored. Who collects cats, books, and passport stamps like they’ll fill up some loss, some second-hand but deep-rooted want and need. The famished one, always looking for some patch of grass where the hunger finally makes sense.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor René Ostberg.

Editor’s Note: This Notebook is a Shattered Jar

The notebook arrived a few months ago in a box of old things my mom sent from the house I grew up in. It was originally a gift from a high school sweetheart, filled with notes from friends about my talents and how much they appreciated me. It sounds, at first description, like the kind of thing that would fill me with nostalgia for my punkish teen years. But opening the notebook was excruciatingly awkward. The gift had been prompted by my low self-confidence and anxiety, which left me feeling like friends secretly despised me and regularly led them to actually despise me, after I confronted them for imagined transgressions. I didn’t even read the notes–I didn’t need to, I knew they were full of the same kind comments that had been used reassure me throughout my life (comments that I would not–or could not–believe). Instead, I tore those pages out and threw them away. The only thing that remains from the original gift is a Tolkien quote penned on the notebook’s inside cover:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

tumblr_nmuvzrd51g1rne95fo6_500I recently watched Song of the Sea, an animated film by Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon. The film’s villain is the owl-witch Macha, who turns mythical creatures–like faeries and giants–into stone to “save” them from negative emotions. She stores her own difficult emotions and memories in bottles and jars. Of course (spoiler alert!), Song of the Sea is about a brother and sister’s successful attempt to turn Macha back into the good witch she once was and release the enchanted creatures from their stone holds. They’re able to do so when a magical song–sung by the sister who is, it turns out, a selkie– causes Macha’s bottles and jars to break. Macha’s forced to swallow up the despair she’s been hiding from, and this swallowing allows the desired transformation to take place.

My notebook feels a little like one of Macha’s shattered jars–a ghost of the emotions it once contained. The Tolkien quote on the inside cover doesn’t let me forget what this notebook was originally for; neither does my anxiety, which I’m learning to manage but continue to live with. Yet, I am able to re-inscribe it, re-purpose it, fill it up with something new. I’ve been using it as my Tiny Donkey notebook–where I jot down to-do lists or take notes during our editorial meetings. It’s a fitting use for it, I think. Reading, studying and writing about fairy tales has become, for me, a wondrous obsession, the kind of thing that serves as a temporary respite from a self-doubting and anxious brain.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Wren Awry.

Lady Folk

by René Ostberg

Biddy Early peered down a bottle’s neck to see the future. One wonders if she ever saw Lady Gregory coming decades down the road, gossiping with Biddy’s old neighbors, collecting astonishing tales about this wise healer woman of western Ireland. Biddy Early was already legendary before she died—accused of witchcraft once, eternally at odds with the local priests, married four times over. She didn’t need Lady Gregory to make her famous-slash-infamous, or whatever the liminal space is where wise women dwell.

But Gregory needed Early. Her name lent authenticity to the cast of banshees, blacksmiths, and other characters in Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). And her neighbors’ trusting chattiness about their own peasant practices and beliefs eased Gregory’s aristocratic guilt.

Both women were western Irish—Early born Bridget Connors in County Clare in 1798, Gregory born Isabella Augusta Persse in County Galway in 1852. Early was born the year of an uprising in Ireland against British rule—a fitting start for a figure of female rebellion. Gregory came into the world at the end of the Great Potato Famine, a time when 1 million Irish died by fever or starvation. She grew up only 25 miles from Early’s humble cottage, but she was a member of the gentry, an Anglo-Irish Protestant not only protected from the ravages of the Famine but a benefactor. The man she married, Sir William Gregory, was a member of Parliament with a Galway estate called Coole Park—a place of lakes, limestone, woods and wild swans. At the height of the Famine, Sir William drafted a clause in the Poor Relief Laws that led to the eviction of thousands of peasants in the west. These were among Ireland’s poorest population, the ones who suffered the Famine’s worst destitution, the most deaths. And the strongest bearers of the old Gaelic folkways and language. Biddy’s people. With their decimation, would Ireland’s folk culture follow?

Early survived the Famine, dying around 1872 with a priest’s blessing in exchange for breaking her magic bottle. Lady Gregory was widowed in 1892. Within a year she was immersing herself in the Irish language and folk culture and soon professing Irish nationalism. She sometimes paid her peasant storytellers small tokens for their memories—but never stopped collecting their rents.

Maybe Biddy’s chatty neighbors did trust Lady Gregory. Or maybe they were simply squaring another uneven exchange with a landholder—embellishing their barter by telling tall tales. Perhaps Biddy Early also managed to square an uneven barter. Maybe those glass shards beside the blessed deathbed belonged to a decoy bottle.


René Ostberg is a native of Chicago. She has a B.A. in English from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and spent several years living and working in Ireland, on the Aran Islands and in County Down. Her writing has been featured at Literary Orphans, Drunk Monkeys, Booma: The Bookmapping Project, We Said Go Travel, Eunoia Review, and other places. Her website is reneostberg.wordpress.com.

“Lady Folk” won second place in Tiny Donkey’s Once Upon a Cartographer Contest.