Emily’s Irish side: Play examines the connection between Emily Dickinson and her maid Margaret Maher

  • Irish native Rosemary Caine has written a musical play about the relationship between Emily Dickinson and Margaret Maher, a long-serving maid in her house. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The one existing photograph of Emily Dickinson, circa 1848, may have been saved by her family’s maid Margaret Maher, according to the Emily Dickinson Museum.  Image for Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database

  • Stephanie Carlson, at left, plays Emily Dickinson while Moe McElligott counterpoints as Maggie Maher in “Margaret Maher and the Celtification of Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson Museum website

  • The chorus in Rosemary Caine’s “Margaret Maher and the Celtification of Emily Dickinson”: Ann Steinhauser, left, Joan Haley and Corki Demers. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Stephanie Carlson as Emily Dickinson and Moe McElligott as Maggie. RECORDER STAFF/PAL FRANZ

  • The band: Michael Morgan, from left, Rick Mauran, Rosemary Caine, Chris Devine and Lynn Lovell. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Paul Franz—Paul Franz...

Staff Writer
Friday, November 25, 2022

It might seem that every conceivable angle of studying Emily Dickinson has been covered, and in just about every format: biographies, academic studies, poetry analysis, novels, movies, even TV shows.

Yet the famed Amherst poet always seems to inspire a new way of looking at her work and her life — and now Rosemary Caine is doing that via an Irish accent.

“Margaret Maher and The Celtification of Emily Dickinson,” a musical play that will be staged at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield Dec. 3-4, examines the relationship of the Belle of Amherst and an Irish maid in her home, Margaret Maher, who developed a close association with Dickinson over many years of service.

It’s a subject that Caine, a Greenfield musician, composer and singer who was born in Ireland, has been examining for a while, spurred both by her love of Dickinson’s poetry and her high regard for poetry as an art form that she says is central to Irish culture.

Caine, 77, has written the play’s script and most of the music. She notes that some of the songs, scored for harp, piano, guitar, bass and voice, are set to Dickinson’s poems. A central theme of the production, she adds, is that Maher helped curb the anti-Irish sentiment that the Dickinsons and many other Protestant Americans harbored at the time.

“That kind of feeling was very common in the first part of the 19th century,” Caine said. “But when you read about how Emily and Margaret got on over all their years together, you see that change … that’s why we’re calling this ‘The Celtification of Emily Dickinson.’”

In one scene, Emily tells Margaret, who she calls Maggie, that her father had been an anti-abolitionist and a supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act before the U.S. Civil War, which required people in northern states like Massachusetts to help capture runaway slaves.

“So he doesn’t just hate the Irish,” Margaret says. “Too bad he thinks it’s OK to go after and capture freed slaves.”

“He’s a Calvinist,” says Emily. “He hates everyone. We all hated the Irish before you came, Maggie.”

Caine, who came to the U.S. herself in 1972, says her performance piece has been inspired in particular by a 2010 book by Aife Murray, “Maid as Muse,” that examines how Maher and other servants in the Amherst home influenced Dickinson’s views on culture, with their accents and speech patterns also finding their way into her poetry.

“I used Margaret as a sort of entry point for the story,” she noted. “This is a work of the imagination — it’s not scholarship — but I think it touches on some important ideas.”

The two principal roles are played by Moe McElligott (as Margaret) and Stephanie Carlson (Emily); in addition, there’s a chorus of six women who function like storytellers and also sing as a chorus, augmenting the solos of McElligott and Carlson.

Caine says she composed part of the music on harp and part on piano, writing words and melody drawn from American musical theater styles and well as “rhythms I know from Irish dance music and an addiction to melancholy minor keys,” as she noted in a follow-up email.

 In some of Dickinson’s poetry, Caine adds, the rhythms “are quite Protestant hymn-like, so I have to be guided by the meter of the poem.”

She has also drawn on what she calls “the Celtic Canon” for two songs that recall the tragedy of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and the subsequent immigration of many Irish — including Margaret Maher and other members of her family — to America.

From music to the stage

Caine, who became a professional singer in Ireland and then continued for a time in the U.S. — today she sings with the Young@Heart Chorus — has also been involved with theater for about 20 years, ever since she formed what she calls the “Wilde Irish Women” ensemble.

The group has performed a number of musicals in the region over the years exploring the lives of Irish women through history. Last year, Caine also led a performance in Greenfield in which she set several poems by one of Ireland’s literary giants, William Butler Yeats, to music.

As she sees it, Margaret Maher, born in 1841, fits into the category of “Wilde Irish Women,” as despite a lack of much formal education, she “held her own” with the Dickinsons. She also had a love of music and the arts, Caine says, that gave her an intuitive “understanding that her mistress was a genius.”

According to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Maher spent decades “dutifully guarding Emily Dickinson from social callers” and was also “likely responsible for preserving a significant number of Dickinson poems as well as the poet’s sole confirmed surviving photographic likeness.”

Indeed, Caine’s production posits that Maher did preserve many of Dickinson’s poems, despite the poet’s deathbed wish that Maher burn them (Dickinson had stashed many of them in Maher’s trunk).

“We don’t burn poems in Ireland,” said Caine. “I imagine [Margaret] thinking ... that the Bard of Amherst lacks confidence in her own brilliance. She sees it and acts on it.”

In the play, Maher does that despite Emily’s threat that if she doesn’t destroy her work, she’ll “haunt” Margaret after her death.

“Haunt me, is it?” says Margaret. “That’s pretty harsh. Sure aren’t I terrified of ghosts.”

“Only if you don’t burn my poems like you promised,” Emily responds. “Why, you’d know me, wouldn’t you if I was a ghost.”

“The Celtification of Emily Dickinson” offers plenty of that kind of banter between the two, who share a sense of feeling out of place: Margaret in America, a long way from “my own people far across the sea,” and Emily, who says she feels like “a stranger in my own land, my own house, my own town.”

“ARRAH — go on outta that,” Margaret responds. “Aren’t you Amherst royalty.”

And when Margaret complains about the primness of the Dickinson household, as well as its lack of alcohol — “This house is as dry as a dusty desert in equatorial Africa” — Emily says “I know. Compared to you, Maggie, we’re as dull as the ditch water, I mean dishwater.”

“Let’s escape to the kitchen and do some baking,” Emily offers. “You can drink some of the cooking sherry, or the rum.”

Caine says her play is debuting two years after she received the Margaret Maher Award from the Amherst Irish Association, a group that formed in 2014 to promote connections to Ireland and Irish culture and arts. That was an honor, she said, especially because the group didn’t know at the time that she was working on her play.

She might be a bit of an “overzealous Hibernophile,” Caine said in her email, “but that comes from also being an immigrant. Not wanting to lose track of all that has sustained me in those Celtic connections over the years.”

“Margaret Maher and the Celtification of Emily Dickinson” takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 3 and at 2 p.m. on Dec. 4 at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center. More information can be found at hawksandreed.com; click on the event calendar for December.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.