Bean Nighe

This summer I was delighted to receive a commission from Push the Boat Out Festival for their Poetry Feast of Mythical Beasts! They invited applications from poets to reimagine Scotland’s mythical creatures in a contemporary context. I’ve long been fascinated by the ghostly portent of the bean nighe, a woman who dies in childbirth and is consequently fated to wash the clothing of those about to die. For this commission, and provoked by recent political events, I’ve reimagined the bean nighe as a woman who experiences a miscarriage and dies after being refused abortion care. My bean nighe is fated to haunt maternity wards washing the hospital linens of others doomed to the same fate. In this performance I embody her through poetry, movement, music, and textile work.

This is by far the most emotionally challenging piece of art I’ve created. It involved intensive research into the science behind and medical care for miscarriage and abortion, as well as the emotional journeys of those who experience them. I deepened my understanding of (and anger at) the legislation preventing abortion and miscarriage care in various states and nations globally. The most difficult aspect of developing this piece was balancing my political rage with an appreciation of the deep grief of miscarriage and working to convey the nuances of these incredibly difficult circumstances. I’m very grateful to the friends and family who read drafts and provided feedback to help me negotiate that balance (see Acknowledgments below).

Photo of ‘Bean Nighe’ performed at Push the Boat Out Festival in Summerhall, 5 Nov 2022. Photo credit: Kat Gollock.

Push the Boat Out took place at Summerhall in Edinburgh from 4-6 November, 2022. The Poetry Feast of Mythical Beasts showcase ran 6-6:50pm on Saturday the 5th in the Dissecting Room. I was honoured to be sharing the stage with six other fantastic poets also performing their new beastly work: Hollie McNish, Dave Hook, Ceitidh Campbell, Anita Mackenzie, Julie Rea, and Calum Rodger. More information here.

In the post below I share the mythology of the bean nighe, detail the issues motivating me to create this piece, and link to further resources.

The fantastic graphic created by Púca Printhouse for my performance; all credit and thanks to Neil and Charley!

In Scottish mythology, the bean nighe (Gaelic for ‘washerwoman’) is a woman who dies in childbirth and is thus fated to wash the clothing of those soon to die. Her captivating, dark story is often overshadowed by that of her famous Irish cousin the bean sídhe (anglicised ‘banshee’). While the two share some similarities, such as being omens of death and keening/shrieking, the bean nighe’s mythology is unique and rich with meaning. She is feared less for being dangerous herself, but for what her presence portends: the impending death of those whose clothing she cleans. In one tale, a bean nighe is seen at the edge of a loch washing blood from over thirty smocks. The next day, the roof of an abbey collapses, killing over thirty people.

In various versions of the myth the bean nighe is able to grant wishes, name the individuals about to die, and even forewarn people of their own fates. Some versions specify that not all women who die in childbirth become bean nighe: only those who did not complete their laundry before dying. She is not portrayed as beautiful but ugly and squat, even child-sized, sometimes with long breasts she flings over one shoulder out of the way of her washing. I’m fascinated by how the bean nighe occupies liminal space: dead yet undead, passing on at the moment of giving birth, stooping at the edges of bodies of water, washing the taint of death off of clothing that no one has yet died in, knowing the details of that death but not causing it and being powerless to stop it.

As a feminist artist, I’m particularly interested in the gendered nature of the bean nighe’s labour and her tragic origin story. First, laundry has traditionally been considered women’s work, often framed as quotidian and mundane. The bean nighe’s task, however, elevates this tedious chore into a quasi-spiritual rite: she powerfully performs priest-like blessings through a most ‘female’
action. As I perceive it, she isn’t washing clothing out of malice but as a final, kind act of care, helping to usher souls to the next life with clean clothing.

Second, the bean nighe is a woman who died in childbirth and as a consequence is cursed to her grim task for what would have been the remainder of her natural life. In today’s political context where reproductive rights are being threatened globally, this narrative of cosmic punishment for the ‘failure’ to be a mother is deeply resonant. With the aftermath of the dissolution of Roe v. Wade in mind, I envisioned a contemporary version of the bean nighe as a woman who experiences a miscarriage and dies as a direct result of being refused abortion care. Like the original figure in Scottish mythology, she is punished for what is perceived as a failure to be a ‘good mother’ and sentenced to a penance of ‘women’s work.’

Through the piece, I wanted to explore the pressure placed on women in mythology and today to be ‘good’ mothers and women: to bear children, to clean, to care. Then as now, we societally punish and shame those women who ‘fail’ those responsibilities: those who aren’t meticulous in their housework, who seek abortions, who experience miscarriages, who die in childbirth. Many countries’ legal systems do not value womens’ lives as highly as the potential lives of their potential offspring. In many cases, this is fatal.

Around the world, increasingly restrictive laws limiting and/or banning abortion care are also impeding miscarriage care. The healthcare required during and following certain kinds of miscarriage is the same as that used in abortions. This can include the use of the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol and the surgical procedure known as dilation and evacuation (D&E), which assist in removing foetal tissue from the pregnant person’s body. When laws prevent these measures from being used to perform abortions, they also often prevent or impede their use for miscarriage care. This results in patients who are miscarrying needing to carry their nonviable foetuses until they deliver naturally, which can take days, weeks, or even months, and can result in sepsis and other health problems.

Compounding this issue is the lack of clarity in much legislation concerning at what point a foetus is no longer compatible with life. Under some legislation the presence of a foetal heartbeat is considered evidence of foetal life (and grounds not to abort), regardless of the foetus’ viability. The narrative of the bean nighe in my piece is grounded in the circumstances of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar’s death in Galway on 28 October, 2012. On 21 Oct, Savita experienced a miscarriage at 17 weeks pregnant in which the gestational sac protruded from her body. The miscarriage was unavoidable and the foetus was no longer viable. Savita and her husband inquired about the possibility of abortion care, but were told by the medical team that because there was still a foetal heartbeat, their ‘hands were tied’ by Irish law and a termination would only be possible if Savita’s life was actively threatened. On 24 Oct the foetal heartbeat stopped and Savita spontaneously delivered the dead foetus. She was suffering from increasing sepsis and four days later died of cardiac arrest. Inquiries found multiple issues in her healthcare, notably including an ‘over-emphasis on the need not to intervene until the foetal heart stopped.’

Savita’s story is neither unique nor confined to the past. Although in Ireland Savita’s death sparked mass protest and eventually the legalisation of some abortion care in 2018, in many countries reproductive rights are being threatened and rolled back. In the US, the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade has enabled many states to enact heavy abortion restrictions and outright bans. These laws and the confusion and fear they create for pregnant people and their medical teams are already impeding safe and appropriate miscarriage care. 

I believe abortion care should be free, safe, and legal in all situations, regardless of circumstance. I chose to focus this piece on the consequences of abortion restrictions on miscarriage care because these situations powerfully demonstrate that abortion is healthcare: essential, life-saving, and necessarily a decision to be made between medical professionals and the pregnant people they are treating.

The bean nighe is considered a ghostly omen, a portent of death: but one reason I find her story so sad is that the mythology gives her no power. She does not cause death and cannot prevent it. She only washes the blood she cannot stop. So while my piece draws parallels between the sexism and control in the mythology and today, I am at least heartened that unlike her, we are powerful. We can speak our truths, fight this legislation, and advocate for our bodily autonomy. And we must.

Resources

Learn more about the fascinating mythology behind the bean nighe here.

Learn more about how the overturning of Roe v. Wade is impeding miscarriage care in the US through these articles from NBC News, The Independent, and NPR. You can see a live map of abortion laws in the US state-by-state here.

Learn more about Savita’s story through these articles in The Irish Times and The New York Times. You can read the full report from the HIQA investigation into her death here.

In 2016, Italian woman Valentina Milluzzo died under similar circumstances to Savita; she was denied abortion care after miscarrying twins. Learn about her story here.

Zine

I’ve created a zine featuring my poem which will be on sale at Summerhall throughout the festival. It costs £5 and all proceeds from zine sales are being divided between two nonprofit organisations. The Glasgow-based organisation Miscarriage Support provides counselling for women and couples in Scotland who have suffered miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal loss. The US nonprofit Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project assists pregnant people who are financially unable to pay for safe, legal abortions or emergency contraceptives.

Acknowledgments:

This piece was commissioned by Push the Boat Out Festival for their 2022 Poetry Feast of Mythical Beasts project and inspired by the Púca Printhouse map of ‘The Mythical Beasts of Scotland.’ The project was supported by the Gaelic Books Council, the Year of Stories 2022 Community Stories Fund, VisitScotland, Museums Galleries Scotland, and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. 

The musical track opening this piece is a recording of the traditional waulking song “A Mhòrag’s Na Horò Gheallaidh,” performed by Mary Jane Lamond and others at Breton Cove Hall, Nova Scotia, and featured on the album Làn Dùil (1999). Waulking songs are Gaelic-language working songs traditionally sung by groups of women working wool in the Scottish Highlands and Islands and across the Scottish diaspora.

Thank you to Per Jonsson for creative and technical support, and for creating the cover images for this zine.

Kevin Mclean, thank you for your always on-point, essential feedback and guidance as I created this piece, and for your grounding emotional support.

Ella Bendall, thank you for lending your medical knowledge to ensure this piece was scientifically accurate. You’re already an amazing midwife.

And thank you to Shirley Dodson for so openly and generously sharing your stories. If this piece rings true emotionally for anyone who has experienced miscarriage, it’s thanks to your insight and care.