Melancholia (The Conference)

Melancholia 1

This weekend saw an extraordinary gathering at Collins Barracks: psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, academics and artists came together to watch and discuss three striking performances/screenings in the context of psychoanalytic theories of Melancholia.




still from Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia

We watched Lars Von Trier’s full length feature and Cecily Brennan’s short film – both entitled Melancholia – and The Chocolate Performance by Amanda Coogan. There were prepared papers on theories and art and wide-ranging discussions that included art and literature, with particularly focused reference to the three works that featured in the two-day programme. It was a brilliant structure for a conference, because we all saw the same things and did (some of, I admit) the same background reading. A lot of the theory went over my head, but I was left with plenty to think about, to do with art, language, theory and experience and where those things may or may not intersect.


Cecily Brennan

I loved Cecily Brennan’s powerful 10 minute film Melancholia. A naked woman lies on her side facing out of the white box that contains her, which is mounted in turn on easel-like supports. A creased white sheet is under her. Her eyes are open. She is so still that at first a viewer might think they are looking at a photograph or a painting. But the woman breathes. Her skin glows, unusually alive. There is a painterly quality to the image – which echoes Holbein’s Sixteenth Century The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (which Brennan claims as an influence). After a while, a slow seepage of black paint becomes apparent under the woman. Slowly it spreads and overspills the limits of the box, drips to the floor. The advancing black changes the light and darkens the woman’s marvellous skin so that new impressions bloom.

The work is completely silent. The quality of the silence in the auditorium was remarkable too. It deepend as the black paint spread and when the film was over, the silence held – until the lights went up. I’d have liked to sit on in the dark for longer, but perversely, I also wanted to see the film again.

Later, Brennan told us that the work was shown on a continuous loop at IMMA.   One of the psychoanalysts said the thought of repetition made her shiver, because there’d be no progress – but she was thinking in therapeutic terms. I like the notion of cycles, return, re-visiting an image to absorb more of it.

There were many fascinating readings of this work and responses to it. But I just loved the experience of watching it because of its beauty, its strength and the interplay of light and dark.

For a taster, see:

The conference was organized by the UCD Humanities Institute and was co-sponsored by The Irish Institute of Psychotherapy, the Irish Forum for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, the Association for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland and the UCD Centre for Gender, Culture & Identities.

Cecily Brennan’s most recent work The Devil’s Pool: Madness, Melancholia and the Artist asks if there is a link between madness and creativity. It premiered at JDIFF in 2014.

See also:,211278,en.html


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Martina Devlin interviews Jennifer Johnston

These two popular local authors – We can claim JJ as a local author now that she’s moved to Dun Laoghaire ­– met for a public conversation one Friday night in the Heritage Centre (Dalkey), and then again at lunchtime the next day in The Royal St George Yacht Club, at a book lunch put on by and Dubray Books. Rain pelted the roof of the Heritage Centre, prompting JJ to remark at one stage that we might be there for the night, but the next day turned out lovely.  These notes are compiled from the two conversations.

To begin, JJ read a letter written by her uncle Billy 5 days before he was killed at Gallipoli during WWI. The letter arrived after the telegram saying that he was dead. It said that in two hours of fighting they had lost 12 officers and 450 men. JJ’s grandmother also lost her favourite brother at the Somme, and these two deaths ‘really did affect the inside of her head.’ JJ doesn’t understand why we, as a species, cannot learn not to do this (ie go to war) – and here we are on the verge of doing it again.

She tells great stories about her family and her childhood. During the 1916 Rising, for example, Her paternal grandfather, a judge, lived on Lansdowne Road near the railway tracks. Because of its strategic position, the house was occupied by rebels. JJ’s grandmother sat in the coal cellar with a parrot for the duration. Later, they got a letter from the men involved, apologizing for having knocked down a wall.

Because she was partially sighted, she had to learn the letters for the eye charts very young, and she could read from the age of 4. She said one of the best things anyone can do for their children is read to them. She also heard many stories from their housekeeper, May, who had been a member of Cumann na mBan.

JJ has written all her life, from the age of about 6. Her mother (Shelagh Richards) was an actor, her father (Denis Johnston) was a writer; their house was full of books; it was not considered a strange thing to do. It was the only thing she was any good at in school, and she was too lazy to work at eg Maths. The school was very ‘Celticky’, full of Synge and Yeats and the like. Because of her partial sight,she’d wander off and read once people started to play games like tennis. Alice was a revelation. She realized it was doing something to her that no other book had done; that you could do things with words that brought characters to life.

Her parents separated with no comment, it just happened. She was far more traumatised when her mother and May had a row and May was fired. She used to want to be an actor. She’d go and sit in the stalls while her mother was rehearsing, but her mother never knew she was there. She went to Trinity but didn’t finish her degree. Later they gave her an honorary doctorate. (At schools, teachers try to shush her on this point).

She learned a trick for How Many Miles to Babylon? – to stay out of the trenches because she knew nothing about them. Alec’s greatest problem is chilblains, and JJ knows all about those. Her uncle Billy is not in that novel, she knows very little about him. ‘They didn’t talk about him. They all had their own preoccupations about that war – its not our fault if we know so little. This is what happens in countries where there’s been civil war.’

She is disarmingly frank in her attitude to her own work. She thinks The Gates is bad – she didn’t think so at the time, obviously, but she does now. MD said that as a writer you have to learn in public. JJ agreed and said that one of the ways you really learn is by doing things wrong. She regrets not putting more work into the character of the mother in Babylon. ‘She’s a sort of bad witch. I never had the energy to take her out of the book, fix her and put her back. At schools I’m always asked about her because she comes up as an exam question.’

She dismisses her own Shadows on our Skin. MD reminds her that it was shortlisted for the Booker, but JJ dismisses that too. ‘You either win or you don’t … The Brits, God love them – they can’t cope with the Irish metabolism.’

Asked which of her novels she likes, she says Two Moons. ‘It was the first time I felt I’d succeeded in writing a proper book, the first that seemed to me to have worked.’

Her literary heroes are Chekhov, EM Forster and John McGahern. ‘You can take away your Joycean fireworks and give me McGahern any day.’


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Dates for your Diary

1. A new play – Down in History, by Jack Harte – gets a rehearsed reading  in the New Theatre, 43 East Essex Street, Dublin, on

Thursday, 6th November at 7.30 pm.

A two-hander, presented by actors Gerard Lee and Lesley Conroy, it takes a humorous look at the nature of history. Feedback from the audience is invited.

DBF-Banner-2014-300x300-square2. The Dublin Book Festival 13–16 Nov 2014

has plenty to offer: walking tours, readings, exhibitions, discussion. Check out the programme at

I’m on a Historical Fiction panel with Martina Devlin & Patricia O’Reilly, chaired by Evelyn O’Rourke, in the Boys’ School, Smock Alley (in association with the Irish Writers Centre) on

Friday 14th November 1:05-2:00 pm.

TULCA3.  NEUTRAL, a festival of visual arts curated by Aisling Prior, launches its programme at the TULCA Festival Gallery, Market Street, Galway

Friday, 7th November at 7.30 pm.

It will be officially opened by writer and documentary film-maker Manchán Magan. For more details go to

 4. Don’t forget the whole month of November is National Novel Writing Month in the UK.  Go to for more information.

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Is there a book that changed your life?

On Saturday, I was at a ‘Literary Lunch’ in the Royal St George Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire ( This was an event organized by Vanessa O’Loughlin from and Sarah Webb, in association with Dubray Books. Several other writers were there, along with many readers, bookclubs, and a bookstall run by the great people at Dubray. The star-turn of the day was Martina Devlin’s interview with Jennifer Johnston, which everyone enjoyed.  I might blog that interview later, but for now I want to think about something else.

We’d been briefed to think and talk about a book that changed our lives. I think the idea was that we would discuss these at our various tables over lunch. It didn’t happen that way, but the question got me thinking.

WWAW cover

There are many books that have influenced me deeply; on any given day I might make a completely different choice. But the book I went searching for yesterday is a battered green Penguin from 1989: Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, edited by George Plimpton and introduced by Margaret Atwood. It leaped into my hands from a shelf in WordsWorth Books in Boston soon after it was published in 1989. I was doing a distance learning/second chance degree course at Lesley College and this was my first semester. My brain was fizzing.

Many people have heard me say that I always wanted to write, but that I didn’t know a writer was something you could be – especially not if you were someone like me. It didn’t stop me writing, but I was going nowhere sickeningly fast. This collection of interviews with women writers showed me many valuable things, not least of them being that writing is something you choose to do, that it is work, and that it doesn’t just happen. Reading it, I loved the sense of sitting in on cracking conversations with these alert and varied minds as they talked about their ordinary/extraordinary lives. I was used to the weird effect of reading as it transports us to other worlds, but here was a book that left the door to my own life ajar: I could pass between them as freely and as often as I chose.  I carried the book everywhere I went, hence its battered and dog-eared appearance.


The book also alerted me to the fact that the work of women writers deserved study, so I suppose it started me down the track of recovering work by forgotten writers that was my area of research over the next ten years. You could say I was led astray, but in fact I loved that work while I was doing it.


anthology_vol1_mediumAnd of course the book also led me to the rest of the Paris Review Interviews series, which were eventually collected in four volumes edited by Philip Gourevitch, a life-giving resource for writers and an all-round fascinating read for anyone who loves books and refuses to believe that they are dead.


(I hesitate to say that there is a brilliant website as well: )



Is there a book that changed your life?

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Nessa O’Mahony on Historical Material & Irish Writing (An Interview)

Nessa O'M imageLM: Can you describe your experience of working with historical material?  

NOM: I first began exploring history through the lens of family history. I’d studied history at university – my degree was English and History – and absolutely loved it, particularly the period leading up to independence and the early years of the new Free State. I had some amazing teachers – Ronan Fanning, Michael Laffan and Donal McCartney – and they really brought along the deep ambivalence of the period; how, when independence was nearly won, the whole thing came crashing down because different people had different priorities and visions. I wasn’t very aware at that point of the role my grandparents played in the War of Independence and Civil War, but thought that from a narrative point of view, all those conflicting agendas were fascinating. And I hadn’t even begun to think of myself as a writer then.

My first poems were largely reflexive – the musings of a single white female in her late 20s wondering about life – but as time went on they became increasingly narrative-based and I began to turn to some of the family history my mother had told me throughout my childhood. Her father had fought in the War of Independence, and during the Civil War was stationed as a Commandant in Castlebar on the Free State army side. My grandmother, meanwhile, was in Kiltimagh, daughter of a family with more Republican sympathies, and she was friendly with a prominent member of the anti-treaty side. The story my mother told me was that Granny was due to meet this man (his name was Martin Lavin – he later became a prominent Irish-American lawyer) one night and he stood her up because he’d been involved in a shoot-out at another bar, in which a leading Free State supporter was shot dead, and Martin had had to go on the run. My grandfather was sent to interrogate my grandmother – he refused to search her house – and four years later they were married. What writer could turn up their nose at such a great romance, so in my second collection of poems, Trapping a Ghost, I included a sequence that imagined my grandmother had left behind a writing slope full of journal entries and letters that told that story. In fact she had left behind a writing slope, which I still have in my possession, but it was totally empty, which is probably just as well as it gave me free reign to imagine anything I liked.t_insightofhome

That gave me the taste for further historical research as a way of fuelling poetic narrative – in fact my Creative Writing PhD (in Bangor, North Wales) became a creative and critical study of the verse novel, with a historic subject at its heart. A friend who works in the National Library, Colette O’Flaherty, had come across an archive of letters from a Kilkenny woman who emigrated to Australia in the 1850s with her nine brothers and sisters. Margaret Butler spent the next 50 years writing home to relatives in the Kilkenny/Waterford area, and even though the archive consisted only of her letters, and a few other fragments, they suggested a very rich narrative indeed. That became the basis of my verse novel, In Sight of Home. This time I did have actual letters to use as a framework, but I gave myself the permission to adapt, modify and invent where it felt necessary to the plot that I was inventing. There were so many lengthy hiatuses – for example about 15 years between one letter announcing her father’s death and another announcing a brother’s marriage – so I needed to fill the gaps somehow.

And then I returned to family history for my latest collection, Her Father’s Daughter, which contains poems that focus on my maternal grandfather again, and make use of information I had recently uncovered from family research I’d carried out.

LM: What drew you to the subjects of In Sight of Home & Her Father’s Daughter?


NOM: I think the writer always needs to find some resonance in source material, otherwise why would you bother? In Sight of Home was written at a time when I myself was living away from home, admittedly only 66 nautical miles from Dublin, but still in another country (Wales) and another culture. It was the first time I’d lived abroad, so although it was a very different experience of emigration to the one Margaret Butler must have experienced in 19th Century Australia, I somehow felt connected with her. And of course because I was in creative control of the source material, I could emphasise elements that chimed with my own artistic preoccupations. For example, in one letter, Margaret describes the animals she is keeping on her new ranch in New South Wales. Because I was getting increasingly interested in wildlife and in particular the extraordinary birds of prey they have in North Wales, I decided that Margaret (and Lizzie, another character I created) would become equally fascinated by birdlife of a very different kind. But although the periods of history were different, the preoccupation with home and cultural identity is a fairly universal one, so the reach wasn’t that extended.


In Her Father’s Daughter, I wanted to do justice to two men: my own father, who had died in 2010, and my grandfather, who had died in 1970 and of whom I have only distant memories. My father was a wonderful man, but he lived in peaceful times; my grandfather was of an extraordinary generation. Those who lived through the first quarter of the 20th century saw no fewer than three armed conflicts in quick succession and my grandfather had direct experience of all three. He actually enlisted in the First World War and fought with the Royal Munster Fusiliers, before being invalided out in 1917 and promptly joining up with the IRA in the North of England, where he proceeded to fight against the very King he’d been fighting for in France. He was captured during a raid for munitions in 1920 and sent to Parkhurst but was released with the general amnesty that followed the Treaty in 1921. He then joined the Free State Army, and was active during the Civil War in Counties Mayo and Sligo. He was injured in an ambush just outside Kiltimagh and was involved in many other skirmishes. But the remarkable thing is that he, like many of his generation, refused to speak about those experiences afterwards. The stories that came down to me from my mother had been told to her by her mother; Granddad never expressed any of the anguish, trauma or disappointment that must surely have been his lot as a survivor of so many bloody conflicts. So part of my intention was to recover those lost stories, and to make sure that our generation, and those that follow us, don’t forget about the extraordinary courage of the men and women who founded our State.

LM: Can you explain the appeal of history/historical material?  For a writer AND for a reader. (Do you think it’s different, in each case?)

NOM: I suppose it depends on which historical period one is writing about. I think that the fascination of recent Irish history is that it tells us a lot about the forces that formed us as a people; it might show us how far we’ve progressed beyond, or drifted from, the original ideals of our grandparents’ generation. We might recognise ourselves in these earlier stories, or else be fascinated by the difference or strangeness of it all. It very much lies in the eye of the beholder, I think. But the great appeal lies in the nature of the narrative itself – story is powerful, whether it’s a 2,000 year old story of warring Roman generals or a 100 year old story of rival brothers. As writers, we’re obsessed with telling stories, and as readers, we want to consume as many as possible. And as Arnold Toynbee may or may not have said, ‘history is just one damn thing after another’ which means there’s no shortage of incident to use in story-telling.


LM: What about that old accusation that Irish writers are too preoccupied with the past – do you think it’s fair? Relevant? Did it influence you at all?    

I don’t think it is a fair statement. Indeed it does strike me that there’s not that much actual fiction written about the first quarter of the 20th century in Ireland at all ; it’s almost as if the previous generation had to skirt over it because there were still so many unspoken traumas they didn’t want to disturb. So writers of that generation might have written about their own childhoods in the 30s and 40s onwards, but didn’t investigate what their own parents might have been experiencing. So it’s only now, with a space of 100 years between us and many of these events, that we have the space and objectivity to reassess things through the fictive lens.

(You can find Nessa at:

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On historical fiction

Last Tuesday in the Central Library in the Ilac Centre, I took part in a very enjoyable Dublin Festival of History event – “Of guns and drums and wounds” – with Audrey Magee (The Undertaking). Tara Doyle talked to us about historical fiction in general and our own novels in particular.

One question that set me thinking was about historical fiction’s appeal for readers. I’m more used to being asked about where the idea for my own novel (Fallen) came from, rather than why a reader might be drawn to it, but now that the novel is out and about under its own steam it’s safe to think about this intriguing question. Here are some of the (fairly haphazard) ideas that came to me, in no particular order:

  • Being ‘historical’ adds weight to the setting of a story in a particular time and place. So far so obvious, but in fact every novel is set in a time and a place that is other than the time and place in which it’s read, so that distinction is an illusion. When you think about it.
  • Being ‘historical’ might also add a layer of authenticity to the story, but that’s our old friend illusion at work again. That’s not a criticism, by the way. After all, the business of fiction is creating an illusory world and making the reader feel it as real (John Gardner’s ‘vivid, continuous dream’).
  • Thinking about historical fiction in this way ushers setting into the foreground, because a historical story’s setting is about time as much as place. Or, looked at another way, time becomes the equivalent of place – and why not? Is the past not a place in our imaginations? L P Hartley had it right when he said the past is a foreign country, and yes, they do things very differently there.
  • Does moving back through time add to a reader’s sensation of being transported to another world?
  • If we already know something about the period or events in question, reading a novel set there is the literary equivalent of going back to a loved and familiar place on our holidays. We speak the language. We know where to get the best coffee, where they have wifi, how far the water rises at high tide, how to get home in the dark.
  • If we don’t know something about the period, we rely on historical fiction to give us the real low-down. The official brochures can be useful, but they don’t tell you everything.
  • Which leads me to: was it Hilary Mantel who said that history is all the things they try to hide from you? The job of historical fiction is to root around in out of the way places and shine some light into dark corners.
  • Readers (and writers) love stories that bring characters into extreme situations to see how they might act. In fiction about war – which Tara asked us about specifically – the stakes are as high as its possible for stakes to get. It’s about trying to understand the choices humans make. As Audrey Magee said, we all like to think we’d be a Schindler, but there aren’t actually that many Schindlers among us.
  • War stories are still – horribly – all too relevant.
  • Sometimes we’re just plain curious about the past, about where and what we’ve come from and what our ancestors might have been like.

Watch this space:  Soon I’ll be talking to the poet Nessa O’Mahony about history and poetry, and her two most recent collections, the verse novel In Sight of Home and her new collection Her Father’s Daughter.

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Events and Submissions

Apologies for the long silence – I was overtaken by events of my own, as it happens.  Here’s a quick posting of some upcoming events & openings for submissions.  I’ll be back soon with some thoughts on historical fiction in a discussion with the poet Nessa O’Mahony, whose latest collection Her Father’s Daughter was launched this week by Salmon Press.

From Glimmer Train:

  • Maximum word count: 3,000. Reading fee is $15 per story; please, no more than three submissions per category.Writing Guidelines.

When in doubt, which is where you’ll be living your life as a writer of all your work, short or long, write something simple and follow it out past knowing…listen.—Ron Carlson

  • Second- and 3rd-place winners receive $500/$300, respectively, or, if accepted for publication, $700.
  • The results of the Very Short Fiction Award contest will be officially announced in the January 10th bulletin, and finalists will be contacted directly by 12/23.


From Umbrella Theatre Company:

THREE NEW PLAYS at the Maureen O’Hara studio in the Mill Theatre, Dundrum will open on Tuesday 7th October. Each play will be enacted with script in hand, assisted by video animation and scene setting.

The three plays, on successive Tuesdays and Wednesdays,  cover a broad and interesting range of themes from :

  • a comedy set in 1950′s Ireland to
  • a very topical play on issues affecting the lives of Irish women from the 1960′s to the present day.
  • a stimulating perspective on the impact James Joyce’s literary pursuits may have had on his two children, Giorgio and Lucia.

The High Priest of Hackballscross by Michael Casey

- Tues 7 & Wed 8 Oct 2014, at 8pm.

Safe by Celia de Fréine
- Tues 14 & Wed 15 Oct 2014, at 8pm.

Joyce’s Wake by Michael Casey
- Tues 21 Oct & Wed 22 Oct 2014, at 8pm.

Tickets: €7


Booking: Mill Theatre 01 -296 9340   or online at



From The Progressive Film Club:

(This screening will be devoted to environmental issues)

Where :  The New Theatre, 43 East Essex St., Temple Bar, Dublin 2.
When  :  Sat. 25th October 2014
Time   :  15.00hrs

(A) 3pm - The Last Ice Merchant – 15mins

Ecuador is small in size yet rich in geographic diversity. The land ranges from the towering, snow-capped Andes to the lush, coastal lowlands, the Amazon jungle and the Galapagos Islands. Chimborazo, with an elevation of 20,700 feet above sea level, is the tallest mountain in Ecuador and the closest point on Earth to the sun due to its proximity to the equator. The summit is covered with snow-capped glaciers.
Twice a week for over half a century, Baltazar Ushca has hiked up the slopes of Mount Chimborazo, the tallest mountain in Ecuador, to harvest glacial ice that covers the highest altitudes of this dormant volcano. In the past, up to forty ice merchants made the journey up the mountain to mine the ice; today, however, Baltazar works alone. Even his brothers, Gregorio and Juan, both raised as ice merchants, have retired from the mountain to find more steady work.
The Last Ice Merchant tells a story of cultural change and indigenous lifestyle through the perspectives of three brothers who have dealt with change in different ways.

(B) 3.30pm - The Wisdom to Survive – 60mins

Climate Change, Capitalism & Community

THE WISDOM TO SURVIVE accepts the consensus of scientists that climate change has already arrived, and asks, what is keeping us from action? The film explores how unlimited growth and greed are destroying the life support system of the planet, the social fabric of the society, and the lives of billions of people.
The film examines the challenges that climate change poses and discusses meaningful action that can be taken by individuals and communities.
Will we have the wisdom to survive? The film features leaders and activists in the realms of science, economics and spirituality discussing how we can evolve and take action in the face of climate disruption.
Directed by John Ankele & Anne Macksoud
Videography: Michael Sacca
Music: Eugene Friesen – Cello
A film by Old Dog Documentaries




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