Sunday, 6 March 2016

Old dolls

In the restored nursery at Mount Stewart, I find a beautiful, frightening collection of old toys.

I think immediately of "the time my doll died"... My mum told me that my doll had perished and she had put it in the big dark chest of drawers in her bedroom. I knew that perished meant died. I didn't know it was also something that happened to rubber toys in the 1970s. I was devastated, and afraid to go into that room, in case I saw the dead doll, for a long time.

And I think of this poem by Eavan Boland. I love the way her poetry treats "objects", which are often domestic details like the ones I'm drawn to photograph, and her hints about what has been disregarded, disguised, suppressed, but may be clearly seen when you know how to look. Past and present, innocence and loss of innocence, forgetting and remembering...

The Dolls Museum in Dublin

The wounds are terrible. The paint is old.
The cracks along the lips and on the cheeks
cannot be fixed. The cotton lawn is soiled.
The arms are ivory dissolved to wax.

Recall the Quadrille. Hum the waltz.
Promenade on the yacht-club terraces.
Put back the lamps in their copper holders,
the carriage wheels on the cobbled quays.

And recreate Easter in Dublin.
Booted officers. Their mistresses.
Sunlight criss-crossing College Green.
Steam hissing from the flanks of horses.

Here they are. Cradled and cleaned,
held close in the arms of their owners.
Their cold hands clasped by warm hands,
their faces memorized like perfect manners.

The altars are mannerly with linen.
The lilies are whiter than surplices.
The candles are burning and warning:
Rejoice, they whisper. After sacrifice.

Horse-chestnuts hold up their candles.
The Green is vivid with parasols.
Sunlight is pastel and windless.
The bar of the Shelbourne is full.

Laughter and gossip on the terraces.
Rumour and alarm at the barracks.
The Empire is summoning its officers.
The carriages are turning: they are turning back.

Past children walking with governesses,
Looking down, cossetting their dolls,
then looking up as the carriage passes,
the shadow chilling them. Twilight falls.

It is twilight in the dolls' museum. Shadows
remain on the parchment-coloured waists,
are bruises on the stitched cotton clothes,
are hidden in the dimples on the wrists.

The eyes are wide. They cannot address
the helplessness which has lingered in
the airless peace of each glass case:
to have survived. To have been stronger than

a moment. To be the hostages ignorance
takes from time and ornament from destiny. Both.
To be the present of the past. To infer the difference
with a terrible stare. But not feel it. And not know it.

Eavan Boland                                  1994


  1. Great photos .... I agree the old toys are s bit scary.

    1. Thanks, Susy! Yes, and the dolls are maybe the worst...