Eavan Boland’s Dublin – visit the exhibition online

This week sees the official launch of a new website: A Poet’s Dublin – Eavan Boland (https://apoetsdublin.wordpress.com/).

The website has been designed to complement and extend two earlier initiatives that celebrate the poet’s seventieth birthday: a book Eavan Boland – A Poet’s Dublin, edited by Paula Meehan and Jody Allen Randolph and an exhibition at ILLUMINATIONS, the digital gallery at NUI Maynooth, curated by Jody Allen Randolph and Moynagh Sullivan.  The website features twelve poems with corresponding photographs and three prose pieces, recordings of the poet reading her work, and commentary from writers and critics.

The website, compiled by ILLUMINATIONS curator Colin Graham, is an invaluable resource and an example of all that’s good about the internet. It brings together text, recorded readings and commentary along with photos taken by the poet; and it’s freely available 24/7, anywhere in the world with an internet connection.  Take advantage of it.

Eavan Boland – A Poet’s Dublin is published by Carcanet

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Hidden Irelands (an interview with Celia de Fréine in the Dublin Review of Books)

This is the text of a recent essay based on an interview with the poet and playwright Celia de Fréine, published by the Dublin Review of Books at http://www.drb.ie/essays/hidden-irelands


(by Lia Mills)

Blood Debts, by Celia de Fréine, Scotus Press, 110 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-0956096678
A lesson in Can’t, by Celia de Fréine, Scotus Press, 80 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-0956096685

“Give me my children, whatever the cost,” says the unnamed narrator in the opening poem of the remarkable collection Blood Debts. In the poems that follow it quickly becomes apparent that the speaker has to pay a very high price indeed. This extraordinary narrative collection tells a story we all think we know but have never heard told with such skill and intensity. The controlled, fluent anger of a poet is directed against the state and its agents while relating the sorry saga of the Anti-D scandal as experienced firsthand. (Anti-D immunoglobulin is administered to women with a Rhesus negative blood-type after the birth of a Rhesus positive baby, to prevent Rhesus disease developing in subsequent pregnancies – so-called “blue babies”. In the 1970s more than 1,600 Irish citizens, most of them women, contracted Hepatitis C through the administration of infected Anti-D.)

Early in the sequence we have a poem about a young couple on their first date, a night rich with portents. It progresses quickly through the birth of their first two children and a first – lethal, as it would prove to be – injection. Neither complaint nor plea for pity, the poems issue a challenge to the secrecy and ineptitude of state agencies who should have known – and performed – better.

you never imagined this nightmare –

you lived in a democracy, yourself
and your care, under an elected government,
who cherished each citizen

far from the laboratories of jackbooted men.
(“the worst nightmare”)

The poems in this collection spread a wide net across new ground in Irish poetry, telling as they do of years of poor health, symptoms dismissed by medical practitioners: jaundice, pain, devastating rashes put down to washing powder by a nurse, denied or blamed on “the primroses in my flowerbed” by doctors, until the narrator is – wrongly – diagnosed as having Lupus, an auto-immune disease, as though to say, you’re doing it to yourself.

One exhausted morning she hears her own story break on the news (“morning ireland”) with an announcement that clusters of women had developed jaundice after being given contaminated immunoglobulin. Her life changes course in a fog of disinformation and misinformation; months of testing, retesting and delays that eventually lead to an accurate diagnosis.

Hundreds upon hundreds of women in Ireland experienced similar symptoms and knock-on effects of undiagnosed Hepatitis C, but their symptoms were almost universally dismissed and/or trivialised by medical practitioners. They were left to struggle as best they could, raising their families under a misapprehension that they were somehow defective in energy, or even hypochondriac. The poet spells out the consequences of both symptoms and diagnosis, using images of nuclear disaster and contamination, accounts of disruption to relationships luckier citizens can take for granted – sexual and maternal relations in particular, as the wife warns her husband to stay away and the mother tells her daughter there’ll be no more sharing of earrings or tweezers, or watches her sons being led away to be tested. Hints of blame litter the questions on medical forms: How many sexual partners? Use of illegal drugs?

In her afterword to this edition, Luz Mar Gonzalez Arias notes the parallels drawn between the deterioration in the narrator’s health and the degradation of the urban landscape. Nightmarish visions of a toxic, contaminated environment as in “lover” are particularly strong:

It’s no longer safe to enter that harbour –
toxins in the water might damage
the hull of any ship dropping anchor there:

when the moon is full jellyfish surge to the surface
tentacles at the ready, beside the reef
half-dead molluscs attack each other

and on the seabed barrels fester.
In years to come they may shatter
Their contents explode.

Lover, keep your distance.

In response to this poem, Máire Mhac an Tsaoi notes in her foreword: “I don’t think anything has yet been composed in modern Irish as powerful as those lines … For me, the whole revival movement has been worth it, so that its like could be provided.”

For all their excavation of new territory, these poems are aware of their place in several traditions, as is evident in the dedication of “because this is the truth” to the artist Jonathan Wade, and the incandescent “sisters”, where the poet addresses the other women who share her fate (to whom the book is dedicated). Despite valiant efforts to live decent lives, she tells them:

Our eyes are dry, our livers gnawed,
hair has fallen from our heads,

flesh has been clawed from our bones.
Definitely, dear sisters,

we have not escaped hell

Written after Marina Tsvetaeva, “sisters” is a direct reference to that poet’s “Bound for Hell”, with a nod also to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s version, “Táimid Damanta, a Dheirféarcha/Sisters, We Are Damned”. But where Tsvetaeva and Ní Dhomhnaill celebrate a rebellious joy in living even as they recognise the certainty of damnation in their future, hell has already claimed the women in de Fréine’s world, despite their best efforts to comply with what’s expected of them.

The poems also recall Eavan Boland’s epic “The Journey”, whose opening lines challenge the entire poetic canon to date with the words “there has never/ … been a poem to an antiobiotic.”

Depend on it, somewhere a poet is wasting
his sweet uncluttered metres on the obvious

emblem instead of the real thing.
Instead of sulpha we shall have hyssop dipped
in the wild blood of the unblemished lamb,
so every day the language gets less

for the task and we are less with the language.
(“The Journey”)

Celia de Fréine has taken up that challenge. Language is not just medium here, it is also subject, question and battleground.

A recurring theme in the early poems is the official denial, dismissal and trivialisation of the narrator’s symptoms, her search for the right name for what ails her. But once the story broke, it spread fast. Everyone had an opinion and not all were based on accurate information or insight. It was in response to the views expressed by a journalist that Celia de Fréine sat down to write the poems that became Fiacha Fola (and now Blood Debts):

I felt, who’s he to write this? What does he know about it? And then I realised that I knew about it. It was my story. So, in 1999 I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote the first draft.’

Five years later, just before the book was published, it won Gradam Litríochta Chló Iar-Chonnachta, awarded in association with Údarás na Gaeltachta. At her first interview de Fréine was asked who the book was about. Was it about her?

I declined to answer. I had written a book of poetry about a national scandal and I wanted the focus to be on what the book was about rather than who it was about.

So what changed her mind? What brought about her decision to publish the collection in English and to take the enormous step of admitting that the persona of the poems originated in her own lived and painful experience?

At the time I didn’t have the strength to field the questions that would have arisen had my medical history entered the public domain. Ten years later I’m tougher.

There’s something important to be untangled from this knot of entitlement and authority – the power of definition and calling something what it is, who gets to speak, tell a story, or decide whether an individual’s experience is valid – and the lengths officialdom will travel to obfuscate and delay the inevitable processes of truth.

A lesson in Can’t, in many ways a companion volume to Fiacha Fola/Blood Debts, sheds light on similar issues but from a different angle and illuminating an entirely separate area of Irish life. Inspired by seven years spent working as a literacy teacher with the Travelling community, it was also written in 1999.

At the time I didn’t want to write it. Where would I get the time and energy to revise and edit another manuscript? But the book wouldn’t go away and so I again pulled up a chair to the kitchen table.

The manuscript was literally shelved while de Fréine went on to develop other work. Her first collection to appear in English was Scarecrows at Newtownards (2005). Since then her poems have appeared in dual language format. Yet all along she had an entire narrative sequence of prose poems in English languishing, unread, on a shelf. Why was it not published until now?

1999 would have been too soon … Just as I felt the male journalist had no instinctive empathy for the women infected with Hepatitis C, I felt at the time I might be similarly handicapped when it came to writing about Travellers.

The vexed question of appropriation, of speaking for or about others is raised directly within the collection, when one of the characters says:

We don’t want to read any books about us … books written by country people [that is, settled people] about us. We’re fed up listening to this shite.

In this way de Fréine acknowledges the complexities and dynamics of power within the relationship that exists between the literacy teacher and her students. Consciously or not, this may have contributed to the delay in publication, but

More recently I’ve come to realise that the story in the book, albeit fictionalised, is my story too. It portrays many of the frustrations experienced by teachers working in non-mainstream education. Also I felt that, with so many TV programmes portraying the lives of Travellers, the timing was right.

The title, A lesson in Can’t, plays on notions of entitlement and empowerment. In the wider canon of Irish literature, Travellers and related figures: tinkers, gypsies, tramps and nomads may be idealised or demonised. Often used to fulfil various literary and imaginative functions, they rarely write – or speak – for themselves. Instead they are written in code, often in a stereotypical, mocking dialect that goes nowhere near their own distinctive rhythms and richly allusive idiom. The name for their own language – Cant –most likely derives from the Irish word caint, or talk. De Fréine has captured the musical inflections of speech she heard daily for seven years and reproduces it here in all its vivacity (as when one girl says of a man she likes the look of: “I wouldn’t mind putting down a pot of spuds for him … or laying back the sheets for him either”) and in its dangerous limitations (as in the horrifying “Octopus Pregnancy”).

It’s important to remember that this collection was written before the Equal Status Act – and also worth mentioning the recent recommendation of the UNHRC that Irish Travellers should be awarded ethnic minority status by the State. One root of their exclusion and disenfranchisement is embedded in language and literacy. The teacher in these poems demonstrates practical skills, such as how to make a hospital appointment over the phone, how to open a bank account, how to memorise an address when you are moved on within days of mastering it, as Angela is: “the letters of the words of the place where she spent a week spinning in her head”.

Some of the information the students need is even more vital. In the title poem, one of the girls calls one of the boys a wanker. Later, alone with the teacher, the girls ask what the word means. They are all due to be married within a month. The teacher asks “for the words in Cant for the male and female private parts” and proceeds to explain.

It’s only when I mention certain times of the month that I realise I’m sharing with them facts that Kathleen’s mother who has given birth to twenty-three children probably doesn’t know. The concept that a child is conceived during a cycle is as alien to them as is the fact of orgasm. (“A lesson in can’t”)

Of all the crucial information the teacher gives them in this lesson, the thing that snags the young women’s attention is the notion of masturbation: “Do country people do it?” they ask. “Do you do it?”

Many pieces in this collection are hybrids. Prose poem? Flash fiction? They work as either or both, sometimes taking the shape of one, sometimes the other, resisting definition, unapologetically themselves. Their energy is electric, refreshing. Many have a twist or kick at the end that will floor you. They have the lyrical intensity and precision of poetry but they also have a strong narrative urge. They seem to occupy a space that straddles a border between genres, just as the classroom is an actual space where the world of the students and the world of the teacher overlap.

Celia de Fréine is no stranger to borders, or genre-shifts, or negotiating the intricacies of language. A multi-award winning poet, playwright, screenwriter and librettist she writes in both Irish and English, a practice that is not without its problems. She says that when her first book, Faoi Chabáistí is Ríonacha, won the runner-up prize in Gradam Litríochta Chló Iar-Chonnachta in 1999, a colleague took her aside and advised her to choose between the two languages. She was warned that if she continued to write in the two languages, neither tradition would accept her.

It was my Ides-of-March moment but I was too enthusiastic and full of ideas to heed her. It’s only now I understand what she meant. Very often when I mention to an English-language writer that I’m writing a book in Irish I see his/her eyes glaze over. As for the Irish-language camp, while I’ve always had huge support from a handful of writers, I have felt very much outside the Pale – an inverse Pale (…)

She goes on to suggest that the themes of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood – in the context of a national scandal – may have gone against Fiacha Fola in Irish-language circles. Another factor that could work against it is the fact that it has an urban setting and is written in urban Irish. The lack of critical engagement by her peers and natural readers means that most studies of her work to date have been carried out abroad and are based on translations into English. This means that the reader/critic approaches the poems from the point of view of theme, content, image and metaphor rather than language, whereas in Ireland readers don’t seem able to get past the fact that the poems were originally written in Irish.

Leaving aside the question of readers and critical engagement and returning to the origins of the poems, how does she decide which language is right for a given subject? It turns out that when writing poetry, she begins in Irish but then moves between both languages until each version is as close as possible to the other.

Very often the idea for a poem comes to me as an image and I jot down the idea and proceed. I’ve always felt that, as Irish is more a language “of the people” it’s better suited to the surreal nature of my poetry and that through it I can more successfully mine the stuff of my imagination.

There are exceptions. Can’t, she says, could only have been written in English because it involves a part of her life that was spent teaching English. And when she wrote Scarecrows at Newtownards she wanted to write poems that had an awareness of that language because many of them are spoken in the voice of Shakespeare’s women, or written in forms, such as the sonnet, which are associated with English.

Interestingly though, her approach to drama is different, possibly because of the efficiencies that theatre demands. She writes her plays in one language or the other and translates them later for pragmatic reasons, if at all. This different approach to writing raises another question. How does she decide which genre to use for a story or an idea? Is there ever any crossover? She says there can be, largely due to a new theatrical initiative she is engaged in with other playwrights.

The Umbrella Theatre Company is a spinoff from the Pavilion Playwrights, a group established by Conall Morrison in 2011 during his residency in the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire. De Fréine will see four new plays staged by UTC this autumn. One is inspired by a painting of Elizabeth Fitzgerald, the half-sister of Silken Thomas, who is the subject of her libretto The Earl of Kildare. Another of the plays, Stamen, is inspired by Oberon’s arranging to have Titania drugged so that she spends the night with another man.

As well as the Shakespeare connection, the idea for this play comes from a failed short story set in UCD in 1969 during the Gentle Revolution. At the time I was working as a civil servant and studying for a degree at night and would arrive in college and have to step over privileged students who were staging sit-ins and making speeches about how only two per cent of those in college were from the working class.

The third play, Seamstress, is a monologue written in response to a painting of Constance Markievicz. Of the character, Beth Walsh, de Fréine says:

Although a figment of my imagination, Beth is a character who has lived with me for years. She is the imagined pregnant girlfriend of my granduncle, James Ryan, who drowned in the Dún Laoghaire lifeboat tragedy in 1895. Beth’s story was originally written as a radio play; now it’s about to be written as six ten-minute monologues entitled, for the moment, Portals. These short plays will form part of the Doors installation, inspired by the work of US artist Mark McKee; they will also tie in with the 120th anniversary next year of the lifeboat tragedy and look at 1916 from a different vantage.

Until very recently, projects on this scale would have been unlikely to reach completion, but because of the proactive and co-operative approach of UTC they are possible.

De Fréine’s fourth play due this autumn is entitled Safe.

Safe is written in homage to Mairéad Ní Ghráda, whose play An Triail premiered fifty years ago this autumn. An Triail tells the story of a young unmarried mother who, rejected by society, kills her child and then herself. I wanted to revisit this theme and explore the changes in Irish society to women’s reproductive health.

The play was originally written in Irish, but plans for an Irish language production fell through, so she translated the play into English and UTC will develop it and produce a script-in-hand presentation in October. Another play, Cruachás, is to be premiered in October (by Aisteoirí Bulfin) and will go into repertory in the spring, along with her dramatisation, in Irish, of The Midnight Court.

Her publication record might give the impression that de Fréine arrived on the literary scene late but fully formed: as though she waited until her voice was mature and confident to publish at all. But since she started, she’s been unstoppable. Eight volumes of poetry, six published plays (and others produced in various settings), a libretto, prizewinning screenplays and film-poems, short stories in English – all in thirteen years. This autumn sees the publication of these two collections, five new plays in various stages of production and the installation with Mark McKee. How does she keep up with herself?

It might be truer to say that much of the writing I’m doing now is revision and editing rather than first draft. I’ve been writing for over thirty years and for most of that time the writing has been an end in itself. Now I’m writing with an eye to placing the work. Some manuscripts are finally coming full circle: I translated and dramatised The Midnight Court (part II of Lorg Merriman) in 1982. It was published in 2012. Although not written by me, The Midnight Court is what kickstarted my writing.

The question of influence is a striking and intriguing feature of de Fréine’s work. From the beginning she has initiated a conversation with strong literary figures in both traditions: Merriman, Shakespeare, Brecht, Pinter. She has engaged with canonical pieces in such a way as to produce innovative work of her own, always with a glance towards her acknowledged sources. At the same time, her development could be said to be responsive, at least in part, to accidental encounters and to chance opportunities as they arise. Residencies in Slovenia and Portugal have each yielded new work that responds at least in part to the traditions of the place where she finds herself. A conversation with an academic at a conference in the United States led to a fresh look at an old manuscript, resulting in the publication of Can’t. The establishment of UTC has brought a surge of new dramatic work.

De Fréine has a refreshing “make it happen” attitude. If the narrator of Blood Debts, working her way through pain, confusion and exhaustion, had been told where her words would lead her, would she have believed it possible? In the final poem of Blood Debts the narrator, unable to sleep, watches revenge plots unfold on TV. She wonders about her own “men in white coats”. Would she wish her own fate on them?

I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
(“taken out and shot?”)

They say that living well is the best revenge, but in this case it might be more accurate to say that writing well is the best revenge.


Lia Mills writes novels, short stories, essays and the occasional blog (at http://libranwriter.wordpress.com/ ). Her latest novel, Fallen, is published by Penguin Ireland. She teaches aspects of writing, most recently at the Irish Writers’ Centre and at UCD.

- See more at: http://www.drb.ie/essays/hidden-irelands#sthash.LlbVFG0g.dpuf

Or: http://www.celiadefreine.com/

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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: http://www.cecilybrennan.com/content/melancholia-2005

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. http://www.cecilybrennan.com/the-devils-pool

See also:






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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 Writing.ie 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 http://www.dublinbookfestival.com/

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 www.tulcafestival.com

 4. Don’t forget the whole month of November is National Novel Writing Month in the UK.  Go to  http://nanowrimo.org/ 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 (http://bit.ly/1tEfICz). This was an event organized by Vanessa O’Loughlin from writing.ie 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: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews )



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: http://nessaomahony.wordpress.com)

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