Words are powerful, they evoke all kinds of emotions in us, and we can shed them on paper instead of tears. In fact, Lorelei Harris might have never thought of making Letters to Ann if words weren’t so powerful.
Harris who is South African by blood and Irish by soul, has produced several award-winning radio documentaries for RTÉ’s Radio 1. She served as the station’s editor of Arts, Factual and Drama from 2013 to 2017, and just recently retired. Letters to Ann will always remain an excellent work in her decades-long career.
Harris was working as a producer on Radio 1’s The Gay Byrne Show when she came across “the words.” Those were letters sent by Irish women who were sharing their experience of adolescent pregnancies and murdered innocence. They were responding to the death of Ann Lovett, a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Granard, Co. Longford. Ann who had managed to hide her pregnancy from town’s people gave birth in a grotto on top of the town, as a statue of the Virgin Mary watched on. But her frail body gave in under the arduous task. So, Ann’s soul flew away and took her baby boy with her.
Gay Byrne, the pioneer of Irish confessional radio shows, read Irish women’s letters to Ann on his show, word by word. But they managed to haunt Harris long after that. Twelve years later, she decides to revisit Granard; the result is a cold-heartedly beautiful radio doc called Letters to Ann.
Letters to Ann begins with a haunting music accompanied by the sounds of footsteps on leaves: portraying a gloomy autumn. There is a certain coldness in that intro that almost makes the listener shiver.
The narrator jumps in shortly after, giving us a historical world tour of 1984 while the footsteps keep stepping on the leaves and move forward – that is Harris’s way of letting us know that someone is walking into the past.
That someone is Harris herself, the footsteps suddenly stop. “Here it is,” she says. She has reached her destination.
From there, the narrator’s voice takes on a Vincent Price tone, painting a picture of Harris at a cemetery in the twilight of Granard.
Harris reads from Ann’s gravestone. Then we hear church bells, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The next character is journalist Emily O’Reilly who was working as a reporter for The Sunday Tribune at the time of Ann’s death. She recalls how they – at the paper- found out about the incident. O’Reilly’s pain from remembering the events show in her long sighs.
Then the words bombard us. Actress Ann-Marie Horan reads to us the tears of Irish women, shed on paper for “the poor little lamb Ann Lovette and her baby.”
From there, Harris’s journey in town begins. We listen to her as she stubbornly tries to reignite the memory of Ann in the minds of Granard’s people. “I want to forget all about it,” one man says to her. We – along with Harris- find the Granard of 1996, a town whose people want to wash Ann’s name from like a dark stain.
A local man who speaks silently says that no one knew about Ann’s pregnancy even her lover. As the man goes to see if he can find another interviewee for Harris, the narrator tells us about “the words,” the kinds we want to run from.
Journalist Kevin O’Connor is the man who delivers those words. The ones of Ann Lovette’s pain when she tried to cut her umbilical cord with a pair of rusty scissors and how she bled to death, just to be born again as some sort of a saint for all the Gaelic teenage pregnant girls, of whom nobody wants to speak.
Kevin O’Connor remembers a drunken man who told them to leave Granard to leave them alone so that they could carry on with their normal life as Michael Collins’s portrait watched on.
O’Connor tells us how Collins had courted Kitty Kiernan in the hotel where the drunken man was speaking. And how Kitty Kiernan was supposed to be a role model for all Gaelic women. O’Connor, calls Ann Lovette, or rather the dread that made her run to the top of the town to cut her umbilical cord with a pair of scissors, Collins’s legacy.
Harris wants us to think about Kitty Kiernan and Ann Lovette: which one represents the real Gaelic woman? Would Michael Collins take up for her if he was alive or he would wash his hands off her like the rest of the town?
As we’re thinking about Collins, Kiernan and Ann Lovette, the words rain on us again. Another letter, from someone from another small town to Ann. The narration is accompanied by the sounds of children of Granard laughing and playing.
Anton Timoney, the sound supervisor of Letters to Ann who has worked on other award-winning Radio 1 productions such as Yola-Lost for words and Shame on the Titanic, does a great job of capturing the perfect audio.
Harris talks to a local man who complains about the “bad publicity” their town has gotten since Ann Lovette. He doesn’t want to talk about Ann.
Right after that interview we hear Emily O’Reilly flashbacking to 1984 and how she used to stop the people of Granard on the streets and how they didn’t want to talk to her. The choice of putting O’Reilly and the local man’s audio next together is apt as it highlights the fact that Harris is getting the same treatment as O’Reilly’s – twelve years after Ann Lovette’s death.
The theme of religion is ever-present in Harris’s piece as it is easy to understand that religion is what makes Ann Lovette a taboo subject for Granard’s people. Religion and the shame it evokes in people.
At times, Letters to Ann appears as the real version of Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult/horror film The Wicker Man. We see Harris – and O’Reilly before her – as The Wicker Man’s police sergeant who keeps asking everyone in town about a missing girl whom nobody wants to talk about.
The story that O’Reilly tells from the minute 19 to 22:18 of the piece is shocking. Ann Lovette’s school principal agrees to make a statement about her on television. The filming crew gets to the school and finds her standing surrounded by teachers and the school’s staff. Speaking over the principal’s monotone voice, O’Reilly remembers how their cameraman could not zoom in on her face so what they ended up with was the whole school in one frame while the principal was making her statement. Perhaps, it is true what they say: if a young mother dies while giving birth she will become a saint. Maybe, St. Ann put a spell on the camera so everyone in Ireland could see the faces of the people who watched in cold-blood as the nine-months-pregnant Ann made her way to class.
The resemblance of Ann’s school with the one in The Wicker Man is unnerving.
We hear an unclear murmur of a priest which fades into an ominous music. The music fades into another letter, this time of hope and regret. Ann Lovette becomes young Gaelic women’s saint. She is Granard’s Joan of Arc perhaps.
Harris knocks on doors; a woman interrupts her request right after the “I’m a radio producer from RTÉ.” “No Sorry, we don’t want to talk,” she says.
Then Kevin O’Connor’s tells us about a town in which the friends of the town’s dead little girl have vanished. Their parents had warned them not to talk to anybody about Ann Lovette.
We hear a young mother ‘s voice talking to Harris. We hear her children too. She feels terrible about what had happened to Ann, she calls her an innocent girl but like everyone else, she wants to forget about her too.
Harris knocks on another door; a man tells her to fuck off and shuts the door. Does she try to show us that women especially mothers are more willing to talk about Ann? Most of Granard’s men are reluctant to talk, are they ashamed? Is the whole male population of Granard feels guilty of another man’s crime?
We hear O’Reilly talking about having teenage kids at home while working on Ann Lovette’s story. O’Reilly says that she felt helpless thinking about the possibility of something like that happening to one of her children. The very idea of a whole town’s cruel denial of a young life lost scares us as it terrifies O’Reilly. “Ireland at its worst,” she calls it.
Ann Lovette remains faceless to O’Reilly, to us and to everyone in Ireland except for the people of Granard. We learn from O’Reilly that she was an artistic girl. What does that mean? Does it mean that she wore unique outfits? Did she paint? Was she a good singer? She must have been a dancer. These are different thoughts going on the listeners’ minds as O’Reilly says that somebody told her that Ann was very artistic. O’Reilly herself thinks that Ann must have been “a lot of fun, spiky and probably difficult.”
Toward the end of the piece, Harris interviews a local man who knew Ann Lovette. He is the first person from Granard to admit that the town’s response to Ann’s death was sickening – the hush-up as he describes it.
He thinks Ann should’ve gone to the area where the baby’s father lived to deliver her baby as “over there people would’ve helped her.”
He says Ann was a quiet, nice girl.
We listen to the narrator: “I grew up in a town like yours, I grew up and saw it all.”
Once at the beginning of the piece and once towards the end, we hear one woman’s letter to Ann read by Ann-Marie Horan in which she compares Ann’s story to Mary. A 28-year-old Irish woman who gets pregnant by a man with nine children. She gives birth, chokes her baby, buries her in a suitcase and gets back to her work two days later. Then she gets sick, spends a few days at the hospital and gets back to work again. As the letter says, she keeps her pain to herself as there was no care, “it didn’t exist then,” – it doesn’t exist now.
Kevin O’Connor tells us how he couldn’t revisit the story two years after Ann’s death as he felt that he had done enough harm to her family.
That is where Harris balances her piece by providing an opportunity for a member of the media to apologize to Ann’s family for invading their privacy. O’Connor calls Ann a modern saint, and a modern martyr.
Letters to Ann ends with a narration that compares Ann Lovette to the Virgin Mary. And wasn’t that what we were thinking the whole time?
Letters to Ann is a superb radio documentary about a town that is still red with the blood of a 15-year-old schoolgirl called Ann Lovette. And it is about a storm of words that rained on that town.