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Margaret Maher, Tom Kelley and Margaret's sister Mary, who married Tom.

An Irish Maid's Influence on Emily Dickinson

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Margaret Maher, Tom Kelley and Margaret's sister Mary, who married Tom.

Murray describes these borderline miraculous events as “material,” focusing instead on the creative impact Maher and the other servants may have had on Dickinson. “Dickinson was very attuned to languages,” says Murray. “Not just Irish but a lot of them. When she was a teen, she was really into Robert Burns – he uses a lot of that Lowlands Scottish vernacular as part of his poetry. She adores him – she goes around the house talking this way. So she’s really into that and I like to think of this in terms of continuity. As she gets older and more into her vocation as a writer in the later 1860s, she’s not associating with her peers – the white wealthy – she’s associating with the people in the kitchen, and more and more of them are Irish.” The most potent draw in the kitchen is Margaret Maher, who Murray describes as “quite a force.” While we cannot draw definite conclusions about the influence of Irish language on Dickinson’s writing, Murray points out that Maher was possibly bilingual (her letters seem to suggest this with her overuse of the dative) and that Hiberno-English made its way into some of Dickinson’s poems. As an example, Murray points to the use of “himself” in “Silence is all we dread”:
Silence is all we dread.
There’s ransom in a Voice—
But Silence is Infinity.
Himself have not a face.

Murray also considers Dickinson’s attitude towards death, which was macabre compared to the consolation poetry of the time. “When I think of ‘I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died’ I think of the whole Irish sense of the grotesque with death. I don’t think she was ever in a wake house but I think it’s like the Irish take on death – laughing death down. She may have arrived on it independently but there is a similarity,” Murray says. Upon her death, rather than having her family and close friends as pallbearers, Dickinson planned for six Irishmen – all former employees – to carry her casket. They carried her out the back door of the Dickinson residence, used primarily by the employees of the household.

For Irish Americans, Murray’s research for Maid as Muse reveals yet another exciting example of the incalculable influence that Famine and post-Famine immigrants had on the shaping of American literature, history and culture. For everyone who has ever read a Dickinson poem, this work, in the words of Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith, “represents a sea change.” Not only will researchers approach their understanding of Dickinson in a different way, museums are now changing their exhibits to reflect new discoveries. In the past, Murray has given tours of the Dickinson Museum in Amherst with current housekeepers and gardeners on the property. Now she’s thinking about how to integrate the servants’ stories into an exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden in April. Murray is a third-generation Irish American on both sides (her father’s grandparents are from Cork), and Maid as Muse has given her the opportunity to insert herself into a “literary lineage” that is well-worn but still open to interpretation. “More people who walk through [the exhibit] can relate to the servants because that’s mostly our story,” Murray says. “It’s the immigrant story. So Dickinson becomes more human; she becomes more fully realized.”

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