Trauma, Disremembering and Postmemory in Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “The Fifty Minute Mermaid”

By Fanni Fekete-Nagy

The widely acclaimed contemporary Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill first published her long sequence of poems about mermaids as the closing section of her 1998 collection Cead Aighnis. The sequence was later transformed into the bilingual volume, entitled The Fifty Minute Mermaid (2007), with translations by Paul Muldoon, one of Ní Dhomhnaill’s most prolific translators. The thirty-six poems dealing with mermaids in The Fifty Minute Mermaid form a loosely constructed, often fragmentary narrative that details the struggles of a group of murúcha, or merfolk, who have left their home in the sea under difficult circumstances and have started a new life on dry land. The merpeople’s reasons for leaving remain unclear; they seem to deny, suppress and then, as a result, slowly forget their past life. Unable to find their place among land-dwelling humans, the merpeople’s repressed past haunts them, causing anxiety, distress, and conflict between old and new generations of mermaids. Ní Dhomhnaill’s elaborate take on the mermaid trope has attracted a wide range critical responses: Hiroko Ikeda has discussed questions of language use and translation, Rióna Ní Fhrighil interpreted these poems as literary representations of various human rights issues, and Cary Shay, in the final chapter of her monograph on the poet, Of Mermaids and Others, analysed the poem sequence from psychoanalytical and feminist viewpoints. 

This article focuses on the merfolk’s attitude towards their forgotten past, highlighting the multi-layered processes of remembering and forgetting that cause the mysterious past to be erased from public memory by the end of The Fifty Minute Mermaid. Firstly, the article explores the mermaids’ failure to put their past experiences into words, drawing on Bessel van der Kolk’s theories on psychological trauma in The Body Keeps the Score (2014). Secondly, the paper examines the experiences of the younger generations of mermaids and the effect their parents’ suppression of the past had on them, using Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory as defined in The Generation of Postmemory (2012). Finally, historian Guy Beiner’s concept of “disremembering,” which had been applied to tragic historical events in Irish public memory, is employed to describe the long-term consequences of the mermaids’ distraught relationship with their past. Brought to bear on the memory processes of Ní Dhomhnaill’s merfolk in The Fifty Minute Mermaid, these concepts help us understand how the poems act as a warning against the suppression of communal memories and the loss of the connection to a shared past, however traumatic the events may have been.

Ní Dhomhnaill is well-known for her innovative use of folk material which has become an essential part of her poetic world. Frank Sewell claims that for Ní Dhomhnaill, “retelling folk-type tales allows for articulation, offers a mode of expression for the otherwise inexpressible or, perhaps, unspeakable” (40). “The extended metaphor of the mermaid,” to use Ní Fhrighil’s phrase, is perhaps the most multifaceted example of this “mode of expression,” since the figure of the mermaid often embodies precisely the inability to speak or to express (112). This can be seen in “An Mhaighdean Mhara” from the poet’s first collection, Cead Aighis (1981). This early poem is loosely based on a common Irish folktale type, entitled “The Man who Married the Mermaid” by folklorist Bo Almquist (5). In the short poem, later translated by Michael Harnett as “The Mermaid,” the first-person speaker, the mermaid, relates how she was abused by humans trying to break her silence (Ní Dhomhnaill, Selected Poems 52-55). Cead Aighnis, Ní Dhomhnaill’s 1998 collection, continues the topic of silence, as indicated in its title which translates as “permission to speak.” Here, the mermaid sequence that was to become The Fifty Minute Mermaid in 2007 appeared alongside a number of poems and translations that explicitly respond to recent international conflicts and human rights violations (Ní Fhrighil 112).

These poems, such as “Dubh” and “An Obair,” address tragedies where silence is considered morally wrong. Three poems from the first part of Cead Aighnis, including “Dubh/Black” and “An Obair/The Task,” remain part of The Fifty Minute Mermaid, but there is a clear shift in focus in the 2007 iteration. While Cead Aighnis mostly engages with a specific historical context, The Fifty Minute Mermaid is more universal. As Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill stated in a talk in 2014, the mermaid sequence was about “any kind of loss, the loss caused by forced emigration, by cineghlanadh, or ethnic cleansing, by trauma in general” (“We Need to Talk about Ireland”). In this more general context, the continued theme of silence is transformed in The Fifty Minute Mermaid into mermaids lying, spinning yarns, repressing and denying a past that is, for them, unspeakable. Starting as a single short poem and later developed into a complex sequence, the figure of the mermaid and the narrative framework woven around it allows the poet to engage with the consequences of silence.

Keeping silent about the past takes many forms in The Fifty Minute Mermaid and Ní Dhomhnaill offers a number of explanations for these silences in her poems. One possible explanation is that the mermaids have suffered a trauma which rendered them unable to speak about the experience. Van der Kolk describes how trauma may make memories unspeakable:

All trauma is preverbal. […] Even years later traumatized people often have enormous difficulty telling other people what has happened to them. […] Trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past (n.p).

If the mermaids were traumatised, it might seem as if they could not remember the reason they left the sea. In fact, they do have memories of the event but they cannot put them into words. For example, in “Admháil Shuaithinseach/A Remarkable Admission” the merfolk claim they “had gone through some sort of ethnic cleansing” (The Fifty Minute Mermaid 87).[1] At the beginning of “Bunmhiotas na Murúch/Founding Myth,” we read: “They were in flight from something. That’s as much as they remember” (45). In both cases, the presumably catastrophic event that caused the merpeople to leave the sea is mentioned passingly and in vague terms. In both quotations, the phrasing is detached and unemotional, conveying the sense that the mermaids are struggling to put their experience into words. Perhaps the most explicit description of trauma is given in “Na Murúcha agus an Ceol/ The Merfolk and Music” after a mermaid loses her temper when she hears others listening to loud music. After relating this episode, the narrator specifically claims: “What lies at the bottom of all this, of course, is the trauma of their being left high and dry” (107). The sound of music, according to the narrator, suddenly brought back the mermaid’s memories of the initial difficult period after arriving on land. The mermaid herself, however, does not admit to her distress, but instead turns against her friends. Her reaction in this poem is not unique, however: Ní Dhomhnaill’s mermaids often react with hostility to questions about their past. While it may be that they cannot bear to be reminded of their traumatic experiences, their hostile reactions and their stubborn silence distances them from others, barring any attempt at healing or reconciliation.

Surprisingly, given these silences, the mermaids relay elaborate accounts of their origins in two poems. These accounts, however, are revealed to be ambiguous appropriations of stories from the Christian tradition: “Bunmhiotas na Murúch/Founding Myth” is a rewriting of the story in chapter fourteen of the Book of Exodus; while “Miotas Bunaidh Eile/Another Founding Myth” suggests that the ancestors of the mermaids were spirits who were thrown out of heaven and fell into the sea, coming to land in an effort to return to heaven. Although these poems do not initially seem to fit the idea that the mermaids have experienced trauma, van der Kolk suggests that traumatised people often exhibit similar behaviour. He claims that:

most survivors […] come up with what many of them call their ‘cover story’ that offers some explanation for their symptoms and behaviour for public consumption. These stories, however, rarely capture the inner truth of the experience (n.p). 

The two adapted traditional narratives in these two poems can be read as “cover stories” for the mermaids that they tell to avoid talking about “the inner truth” of their past experiences. Van der Kolk describes these cover stories as defence mechanisms, and the myths told by the mermaids seem to offer them harmless ways to escape traumatic memories. These stories, however, sometimes have negative consequences in The Fifty Minute Mermaid. In “Na Murúcha ag Ní a gCeann/ The Merfolk and Washing Hair” a disturbing, folktale-like story is told to explain why mermaids rarely wash their hair and why, if they do, it must be before sunset. This, again, can be read as a cover story, told in place of the real reason why merpeople obsessively avoid water. The impact of the story is expressed in the last lines:

This story is still being told, to this very day, to
scare the living daylights
out of the young females of the species (67).

Here, the older generations, perhaps involuntarily, transmit an inexplicable anxiety to their children through this cover story. While these stories may help the older generations deal with the painful past, for the younger generations, they become another form of silence for the younger generations. They fail to offer any explanation about the troubling past, leaving them confused and anxious. 

Considering Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory, in relation to Ní Dhomhnaill’s poems, makes the effect of these stories on younger generations of mermaids clearer. The term postmemory refers to the experiences of children of survivors of historical trauma. Although the younger generation has no first-hand experience of it, this trauma can deeply impact their lives through their parents’ memories. Hirsch claims that children can be traumatised themselves by the fragments of memories they have heard from their parents; they can be afraid of things their parents fear without knowing why. Writing about Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Hirsch notes that in Spiegelman’s text “the father’s violent experiences can acquire the status of fairy tale, nightmare, and myth” (46). This inheritance of anxieties occurs in “Na Murúcha ag Ní a gCeann/ The Merfolk and Washing Hair,” where the older generation’s fear of water is transformed into a frightening story that, in turn, engenders further inexplicable fear in their daughters.

Another example of the effects of postmemory can be found in “Cuimhne an Uisce/ A Recovered Memory of Water,”[2] where a mermaid’s daughter experiences strange hallucinations about her bathroom filling up with water, likely a result of fragmented memories her parents have passed down to her involuntarily. These flashbacks cause the mermaid’s daughter “a terrible sense of stress” (31). She seeks help from a psychiatrist, but she finds herself unable to describe what has happened to her, because she simply “doesn’t have the terminology” (31). This example reveals the real dangers of the older generation’s attitudes. Unable to avoid transmitting fragments of their memories to their children, the older generation nonetheless refuse to acknowledge their trauma and use strange tales to cover up all verbal traces of the reality of the past, thus permanently preventing their children from resolving their inherited fears. The woman’s wordlessness in “Cuimhne an Uisce/ A Recovered Memory of Water” is a result of her parents’ silence about the past. Although she wants to speak about her experience, she cannot, and thus the anxieties she has inherited from her mermaid forbears will continue to haunt her.

Some poems tell us that the mermaids could at some point recall more of their past and their silence in these cases is a conscious strategy rather than the psychological result of trauma. The mermaids’ attitude to their past can be considered as a form of what Guy Beiner terms “disremembering.” According to Beiner, disremembering is a vernacular word in Ulster that “often implies a disinclination to remember” and can mean “pretend to forget.” He continues: “[p]ractices of disremembering bury secrets, which can only be excavated with difficulty” (30). Disremembering is demonstrated in “An Mhurúch agus Focail Áirithe/The Mermaid and Certain Words.” In this poem, the mermaid has, when she was young, collected several tales, “charms, old prayers, riddles and such” about the past from her relatives, which now lie hidden in the archives of the university library (79). The mermaid, now older, does not seem to attach any value to “those old superstitions, or any of the old traditions” (79). Instead, she denies any connection to the manuscript, or as the narrator puts it: “she would prefer to suffer a heavy nosebleed rather than admit she ever had a hand in its composition” (79). The mermaid here shows a definite disinclination to remember; she pretends to have completely forgotten her childhood engagement with the past and decides to be silent about her memories in her adult life. The only reason her memories can be recovered by others is that they are preserved in writing. 

In an earlier article, Beiner suggests that “the raison d’être of disremembering is the removal of memory from the public sphere, rather than its total obliteration” (“Irish Studies” 311). He claims that “recalcitrant memories persevere in private, on the margins of public silence” (308). As such, following Beiner’s reading, disremembering does not immediately erase memories, which can survive in hidden ways. In two poems, “Leide Beag/A Tiny Clue” and “Leide Beag Eile/Another Tiny Clue,” the mermaid recalls lullabies and blessings from her sea-heritage when she believes she is alone with her baby or when her child is in danger of death. In contrast to a direct denial of remembering in “An Mhurúch agus Focail Áirithe/The Mermaid and Certain Words,” the mermaid here allows her memories of their earlier life in the sea to resurface in intimate, private settings. Such instances in the collection leave some hope that the mermaids’ memories of the past might still be preserved, though in a fragmentary form, hidden from public view.

“Spléachanna Fánacha ar an dTír-fó-Thoinn/Some Observations on Land-Under-Wave,” the last poem of the volume, takes a view to recovering the past similar to “Cuimhne an Uisce/ A (Recovered) Memory of Water.” Here, the narrator’s attempts to learn more about the mysterious island where the merfolk may have originated are thwarted by the mermaid’s reluctance to remember:

Our own mermaid knows where this island lies.
That’s one thing I’m definitely sure of. 
At one stage in her life she even described its entranceway […].
Though she was probably a witness to many dark deeds—
of that I’m pretty sure—she’s now
completely mum about them.
She’s much more given to propose just how splendid a thing is silence (159).

With that, the last hope of finding the old home of the mermaids is lost forever, and the final stanza describes it as “a complete world which has disappeared from memory” (161). In the world of The Fifty Minute Mermaid, denial and practices of ‘disremembering’ cause the mermaids to be completely cut off from their past. The process of forgetting that takes place in the collection is reminiscent of the way Beiner describes the consequences of widespread disremembering in a community, calling this phenomenon “social forgetting:”  

practices of social forgetting can also be regenerated, insofar as they can be transmitted to a second generation (and beyond) in a fashion similar to what has been labelled postmemory, thereby creating trans-generational traditions that facilitate a lasting culture of social forgetting (“Irish Studies” 313). 

We have seen that inherited fragmentary memories may haunt and traumatise the younger generation of mermaids, but the final poems of the collection suggest that inheriting complete silence about the past is no less painful either.

The Fifty Minute Mermaid demonstrates how the attitudes of the older generation to their past are transmitted to future generations as fears and fragments of memories. Throughout, Ní Dhomhnaill highlights the problems caused by the repression of the past and disremembering by using a complex imaginative framework that allows her to explore these issues without limiting the scope of the sequence to a single historical or cultural context. The attitudes to the past exhibited by the mermaids in the sequence, though varied, prevent them and their children from coming to terms with their past. Their silence, whether it is the result of an inability to speak due to trauma or a result of conscious repression, gradually causes them to lose their connections with the past and leads to the obliteration of their memories. Thus, the poems read as a warning against negative attitudes towards the past and disremembering. They show that these attitudes not only cause distress to those who refuse to remember, but they may harm later generations and finally lead to the complete disappearance of these memories. Ní Dhomhnaill gives powerful poetic expression in the stories of merpeople to complex and often confusing human emotions and attitudes that complicate people’s relationship with their painful histories.

[1] Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poems are quoted in Paul Muldoon’s English translations as they appeared in The Fifty Minute Mermaid (2007).

[2] The word “recovered” is Paul Muldoon’s addition to the title, whereas the Irish title would literally translate as “a memory of water.” I consider the English title misleading, since, in my reading, the poem suggests precisely that the memory can no longer be recovered.


Fanni Fekete-Nagy, “Trauma, Disremembering and Postmemory in Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s The Fifty Minute Mermaid,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2021): n.pag. Web 8 March 2021. DOI:

About the Author

Fanni Fekete-Nagy is a PhD student at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest. Her main research interest is contemporary Irish poetry in both English and Irish languages. Her doctoral research concerns biblical allusions in the poetry of Medbh McGuckian, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. She completed her MA in English Studies in 2017, specialising in Postcolonial Literatures and Cultures. In the autumn of 2017, she presented a paper on Medbh McGuckian’s poetry at the 4th International Postgraduate Conference in Irish Studies hosted by the Centre for Irish Studies at the Charles University in Prague. In 2019, she presented on Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s work at the Third Galway Conference of Irish Studies at the National University of Ireland Galway. In the same year, she was also awarded the Irish Embassy of Hungary Student Bursary Award, enabling her to participate in an intensive Irish language course in An Cheathrú Rua in County Galway. Fanni is a founding member of the Bible and Literature Research Group at the Faculty of Humanities at Eötvös Loránd University. 

Works Cited

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