2015 Irish PEN Award for Literature: Éilís Ní Dhubhne

Eilis 1_black and whiteOn Friday 20th February, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne will be awarded the 2015 Irish Pen Award for Literature. Her first short story was published in the New Irish Writing page of the Irish Press in 1974. Since then she has published 25 books and collected many awards, as well as being widely anthologised. She writes long and short fiction, poetry, books for children, plays and essays in both Irish and English, and has been widely translated into other languages. Often asked to adjudicate writing competitions, she has also served on many boards and committees related to writing, such as the Board of the Irish Writers’ Centre, the committees of Irish Pen and the Irish Writers’ Union. She teaches on the Creative Writing MA programme in University College Dublin. She was elected to Aosdána in 2004.

Éilís took time out from a busy teaching and publicity schedule to answer some questions about her work, this award, and writing in general. She was (typically) generous with her time and her ideas, so this is a longer blog than usual.  Put the kettle on and get comfortable …


LM: You’re often asked to judge prestigious writing competitions such as the Listowel Short Story Award, The Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair and so on – and you’ve been on the receiving end as well, having won loads of prizes throughout your career from the early Hennessy award to being shortlisted for the Orange Prize with The Dancers Dancing. Are awards important to writers? Why?

ENíD: The awards such as Listowel, the Hennessy are important insofar as they provide an outlet of kinds for emerging writers, and are hugely encouraging to those who win them. Having judged some of these competitions, I am aware that the competitions are exceedingly fair, that every attempt is made to select the very best piece of writing, and that the winners owe their prize to their talent and the quality of their submission. I would also say that usually a number of submissions are worthy of winning and usually when I am adjudicating I regret that I cannot give several awards. Another thing to bear in mind is that there is a kind of story which tends to rise to the top of the pile: very well written, of course, but also tight, imaginative, and a bit unusual. It is the story which stands out that gets there. Finally there will be an element of subjectivity in the adjudicator’s choice. What all this means is that if you don’t win a competition it doesn’t mean your story is not excellent. But I think most writers know this very well, are not discouraged if they don’t win. So I think the advantages of these competions far outweigh the disadvantages.

The awards for published books are somewhat different in that these are in the nature of rewards or recognition for established writers mainly. Reputation can play a role in deciding who gets on a shortlist. I’d suspect that the lottery element is higher at this end of the prize spectrum. We all know great writers who seldom get the big awards. For example, when Edna O’Brien won the Frank O’Connor Award for a collection of short stories, I am pretty sure she made the point that this was the first big award she’d received in her life. David Lodge, whom I think an outstanding novelist, is hardly ever on the Booker shortlist. I don’t know why. The reward for the writer who wins a hugely prestigious prize such as the Booker can be enormous, in terms of sales. Though I think this effect – huge sales – might be mainly associated with just that one prize, the Booker. Some prizes seem to have little impact on the buying public. This year, for instance, my impression is that most people in Ireland, even in the literary world, haven’t read anything by the 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize, and don’t remember who the winner was. I have been told he is wonderful and have intended to get a novel by him for several months now but haven’t got around to it.

Are the prizes important? The stock answer to this question is that they focus media attention on books and that this has to be a good thing. That seems to me to be a valid response. The risk that they promote a celebrity culture, that they focus attention on just a few authors at the expense of others, is also there. But my instinct is to trust the reader. Fiction readers, the book clubbers, are discriminating. They can see through hype and often demonstrate this in robust criticism of celebrity books. Of course, this robust rejection may come after they have actually bought the book – the prizes certainly work as a great publicity machine for the works involved.

Dancers Dancing (2)

LM: What does this award (the Irish PEN Award for Literature – given in recognition of an outstanding contribution to Irish literature) mean to you?

ENíD: It means a great deal to me. I am thrilled and humbled to receive this recognition from Irish PEN. The prize has been awarded to many great Irish writers and it is a huge honour to have my name on that list. I feel as proud and pleased as if I had won the Nobel Prize.


LM: You give a lot of your time to working behind the scenes to develop career structures for Irish writers – I’m thinking of your time on the committees of the Irish Writer’s Union and Irish PEN, on the Board of the Irish Writers’ Centre and in Aosdána – not to mention your teaching work on the MA and MFA programmes in UCD. Can you talk about that? How necessary do you think it is?

ENíD: The organisations, such as the Irish Writers’ Union, PEN, the Writers’ Centre, are important in that they nurture writing, provide forums for debate, and transmit practical information (e.g. regarding legal issues, funding, publishing contracts ) to writers. Perhaps even more importantly they give writers an opportunity to meet one another and become members of a community. Writers have always gathered together informally in coteries, ‘schools’ – think of Yeats and the Cheshire Cheese Club, Strindberg and the Red Room, the Bloomsbury Group. These groups seem to have evolved organically as it were but institutions like the Irish Writers’ Centre provide more formal opportunities for that sort of interaction – and for writers at all stages of their careers.

As a writer, it’s crucially important that one has time to devote to writing and reading and contemplation. But I value the social side of it too. Over the years, thanks to these organisations, and the writers’ group to which I have belonged for a quarter of a century, I have found many of my closest friends in the community of Irish writers. The committee work I do because I want to give something back – committee work is selfless, sometimes boring, largely thankless, and always voluntary. But none of these organisations would exist without the unpaid work of boards and committees and in a way I think one has a certain obligation to lend a hand.


LM: Do you think there’s enough support for writers in Ireland? Are there more effective things we could do?

ENíD: We have a reasonable amount of support, thanks to the Arts Council Bursaries, Aosdána, the artists’ exemption, and funding for publishers. Recently all of this has come under threat due to the recession, cutbacks, negative media coverage of state funding of the arts, and possibly a casual attitude to the arts by the present government. We need to protect the level of support that exists and to campaign to increase it. Writers in Ireland earn very little money, on the whole. The market economy nurtures an attitude which equates the value of e.g. a novel or a picture with its capacity to sell. Artists know that marketability is never a reliable gauge of aesthetic worth (although marketability doesn’t exclude it; best sellers can be a great works of literature. But frequently this is not the case.) Without good funding literature will suffer.

Could we do anything differently? Possibly we could consider forging tighter links between grants, publishing, and libraries. I often wonder why the artists’ exemption has never been used as a way of developing the Irish publishing industry, which has struggled since the Act of Union in 1800 moved the centre of Irish publication activity from Dublin to London, where a good bit of it still stays. If in order to avail of the exemption the most popular writers had to be published here, rather than in England, it would surely promote the growth of a healthy and prestigious home industry. (This move would now be unpopular among writers who have established their connections with London, and possibly it is too late for it to make much difference since publishing is in such trouble anyway.)

We could also consider asking Irish libraries to commit to buying Irish published books in quantity. Of course they do this to some extent already. But in Norway, for instance, the public library system buys a thousand copies of every book published in Norway (or something like this – I may not have the details exactly right.) This may indeed reduce ordinary sales, but it provides a guaranteed return to publishers and writers and means the books have the potential to reach a wide readership.


LM: You’ve been a member of a writers’ group for 25 years. What has it meant to you? Do you think every writer needs one?

ENíD: As I said above, it has been a very important part of my life, not just my writing life. I don’t think every writer needs a group. But for some writers, the structure a group provides is very helpful. And the literary friendships I have found invaluable. It’s wonderful to be at the launch of a book by one of the group members. There is such a feeling of warmth and celebration when one of us is published or has some success. And it is such fun! At this stage, my writers’ group is like my family.


LM: This award is generally known as an award for ‘lifetime achievement’. Can you remember what you set out to achieve in writing when you started? Could you have imagined the career that you’ve actually had? How do they measure up to each other?

ENíD: First, I just set out to write. I didn’t know what I was going to write, or what genre. I started with short stories because that seemed the natural way to start, and I stayed with that genre for a long time. I learnt how to write a certain kind of (modernist, epiphanic, metaphorical) short story mainly by writing it, and, of course, reading. After many years I figured out a different way of writing a long short story, and usually write ‘long stories’ now. When I wanted to write a novel I found I had not a clue how to do it, although I had read thousands of novels. I figured it out by studying closely the structure of a novel I admired (E.M. Forster’s Passage to India.) That structure I used in my first novel, a futuristic sort of science fiction book, The Bray House.   For a good while I did not have any clear ambition about my themes – they changed from work to work; I just wanted to become a good writer. When I discovered literary feminism, sometime in the late eighties, I found a goal. For many years it was to write about women’s lives and women’s experiences in Ireland, since it dawned on me(finally! I was very sleepy and unobservant) that the female voice was to a great extent absent from Irish letters.


LM: You have a massive publication record. You’ve written across genres (novels, short stories, poems, plays, essays and critical reviews) and in two languages. Do you have a favourite form? How do you manage to be so prolific and have a working life as well?

ENíD: I’ve written about twenty-five books, as well as many articles, reviews, stories and poems. It looks like a large output, but of course many writers would have a much bigger one. My favourite form, the form I feel best at, is the one I started off with, the short story. I think that following that is, surprisingly, the research article. I don’t do as much of that as I perhaps could but I still love doing research, posing a question, and looking for an answer. I love writing a scholarly article, finding the best words and clearest sentences. Novels I find quite difficult. A novel is a very complex animal and requires a great deal of commitment and stamina, and many diverse talents. It’s underestimated as a literary form, I think. When I hear people saying ‘the short story is harder,’ I think, not at all. But some writers have a knack for the short stories, maybe – being a short story writer is maybe a bit like being a poet.

I have managed by doing it one day at a time. There’s always time. You don’t have to have endless reams of it to write a story, or even a novel. You need to set up a rhythm, a regular routine, and stick to it.

 I write in many genres because I can. Also, if you are trying to make any kind of a living from writing, you need to write in various genres and practise various literature-related activities. For most people, a patchwork career is what is feasible.


LM: Can you talk about writing in Irish as well as English?

ENíD: My father was an Irish speaker, but I became bi-lingual from the age of five – when I went to school. English is my first language. I always thought of it as the language of literature, when I was a child, because English was the language of my reading, which was extensive and catholic if not deep (I had no difficulty enjoying The Famous Five at the same time as I liked Pride and Prejudice and, one of my fourteen year old picks, GK Chesterton). Even though I went to an all-Irish school, and spoke and wrote fluently, I didn’t read much in Irish apart from course books. (As an aside, I would add that almost all the novels on the curriculum, in Irish and English, were odd choices for teenagers. Dicken’s least attractive novel, Hard Times, for instance, and the one by Thomas Hardy least likely to appeal to sixteen year old girls, The Mayor of Casterbridge. (The latter, as far as I remember, nobody, possibly not even the teacher, ‘got’.) We discussed ad nauseam sin and guilt and atonement, in our essays about The Mayor. As you may remember, his sin is that he sells his wife and child to a sailor for five guineas. As one does, in Wessex! This little mistake we equated with, say, missing Mass on Sunday or stealing a sheep. The enormity of the act, its implications for gender issues, was glossed over, and its point missed. Naturally anything touching on sex had to be brushed under the carpet. I don’t know who put it on the Leaving. Later they replaced it with the much more appealing Far From the Madding Crowd. And how I would have loved Tess of the D’Urbervilles at the age of sixteen. In Irish, we read An tOileánach, and Rotha Mór an tSaoil, and Dialann Deoraí. All books I appreciate very much now, but they did not resonate with fifteen year old me. Given that their subject matter was the lives of men in pursuit of arduous outdoor occupations – hunting and fishing, gold mining, and labouring on building sites in England – these excellent novels were not likely to be models for a young female writer from Ranelagh.)

 Anyway. I began to write in Irish sometime in the mid or late 1990s. Somebody invited me to try and I realised I could. I’d never stopped speaking and reading Irish, since my folklore research meant I was usually in constant contact with the language and my family, my husband, and many of my friends were Irish speakers. It was a bit like a homecoming. I have an emotional attachment to Irish. My father was a native speaker, and presumably a long line of my ancestors in Donegal spoke nothing else. I realised I did not want to be the one to break that language chain stretching back through history, and writing in Irish is my link in the chain.


LM: Do you enjoy teaching (creative writing)?

ENíD: I love teaching creative writing. It’s very fulfilling, I learn a great deal about the craft as I clarify aspects of writing for students. And I love the interaction. It’s a real privilege to be with people as they develop their talents. I always loved discussing literature – closely analysing stories and poems and novels. I loved it in school and in college, and it’s a real pleasure to continue to have these wonderful conversations with young writers.


LM: What are you working on now?

ENíD: I have just finished a novel for young people, as Gaeilge. It’s called Aisling, at2013-08-24 17.47.02 least at the moment. I have three or four projects lined up which I hope to work on over the next ten years. I have been quiet for a while, since my dear husband died late in 2013 and for most of last year writing fiction seemed too difficult, and, in the early stages of bereavement, somehow trivial. I took great comfort from fiction and films, though, even during the toughest months. And I wrote a diary, and several book reviews, which I could do, somehow. But now I’m getting my energy back and have plans!

LM: Thanks, Éilís.  And many congratulations on the Award.


Previous winners of the Irish PEN Award for Literature include Brian Friel, Edna O’Brien, William Trevor, John McGahern, Seamus Heaney and Jennifer Johnston. For more information: http://www.irishpen.com/

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s website is at: http://www.eilisnidhuibhne.com/172275256

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Liz McManus: Interview


a_shadow_in_the_yard140x210Liz McManus’s first novel, Acts of Subversion, was published in 1992 and was shortlisted for the Aer Lingus/Irish Times award. Then she was elected as a TD for North Wicklow. She was a TD for 19 years, a Minister of State 1994-1997. She retired from politics before the last General Election and went back to writing full time. A Shadow in the Yard is her second novel. She is the current Chair of the Irish Writers’ Centre Board and she’s writing a third novel. Before her political career she was actively involved in the struggle for women’s rights and was founder member and director of the first Women’s Refuge in Bray.


LM: In an interview at the back of the book you say that social and cultural change and political upheaval are central to A Shadow in the Yard. Then you go on to say that you think writing ‘is a way to meet the challenge of living in a world that refuses to stand still.’ Could you say more about that?

LMcM: Because it had taken me 24 years to write a second novel I’m acutely aware of the changes that have occurred in Irish society over that period and I found myself exploring those changes through the lives of my characters. Two women of different generations face similar challenges but the context is radically different for each one. Maybe I should have written that writing – for me – is a way to meet our own challenges.

Liz McManus

LM: I love your reference to Nadine Gordimer saying ‘The novel is what happens when the riot is over; it’s what happens when people go home.’ Has Gordimer been a particular influence on you? What other writers have had an impact on you?

LMcM: Yes I love it too. It is a great guide for someone like me who has emerged out of years of political engagement into the reflective, imaginative world of literature. Gordimer is not a particular influence but I like the way she can be intensely political without losing the detachment that is required of the writer. She understands that character takes precedence over ideology. Funnily enough, that old misogynist Hemingway has had an influence on me. His writing is crystal clear and wonderful. I like Richard Ford, John Banville, Éilís Ni Dhuibhne. Recently I read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and was blown away.

LM: You also say in that interview that your life as a TD (dating from 1992 to the last General Election, when you retired from politics) was too busy for writing. But you did continue to write: you’ve been a member of the Web writing group for 25 years. Anything you’d like to say about that?

LMcM: There is a world of difference between dabbling in writing – which is what I did while I was a TD – and the sacramental, total immersion into the waters of the imagination. To have the freedom to write for as long as I can and about what I choose: that is so liberating I have to pinch myself sometimes. I still dream that men will come to my door, demanding to know how I escaped out of the bubble of Dáil Eireann.

LM: A Shadow in the Yard has some interesting reflections on marriage. Would you like to say more about that?

LMcM: Marriage, oh dear! It is a subject of never-ending interest. Two people tied together in bonds of matrimony – it sounds like torture or some sadomasochistic ritual. We dream of marriage, choose to tie the knot but that doesn’t mean we have the faintest idea what is in store afterwards. Such a fertile ground for fiction… no wonder we all write about it.


LM: Few writers from the South are brave enough to write about the North (Mary O’Donnell’s recent Where They Lie comes to mind). Can you talk about that?

LMcM: I am haunted by Northern Ireland. My mother came from Co Antrim. Because she wasn’t a Catholic my childhood was shadowed by the fact that she – and, by extension, I – was different. In 1969 I worked in Derry. It was a time of the Civil Rights Movement when hope reigned and anything seemed possible. What followed was thirty years of a sordid, unnecessary war in which thousands were killed or maimed. I find it laughable that some political parties are rewriting it as a war of liberation. It was anything but. The exigencies of the Peace Agreement depend on our collective amnesia but I don’t believe that is good politics. John Hewitt, in his poem “Mosaic” reminds us of the suffering of those accidentally caught up in the violence. My fictional character, Rosaleen McAvady is one of them. I wanted to tell her story.

LM: I like the way A Shadow in the Yard explores the choices we make and how they reverberate through time and other people’s lives. I can’t talk about the end without giving it away, but can I say this? – There is a beautifully nuanced acknowledgement of an aspect of the issue of reproductive choice that doesn’t get nearly enough air in Ireland, with the debate being as fraught as it is. Can you talk about that? Where do you stand on the ‘Repeal the 8th’ campaign?

LMcM: My view is simple. Women can be trusted to make decisions that are appropriate for them. The rights we exercise by travelling to the UK should be granted in our own country. Reproductive rights are a matter for legislation not our Constitution. Repeal the 8th? Yes.

LM: You raise questions about whether we can ever really know another person, or whether we can ever belong to another person. Can you say more about that?

LMcM: The relationship between Rosaleen and Kevin is a traditional one. His power is challenged by her increasing independence. Only when you are free can you give yourself fully to someone else, can you belong to them. In Rosaleen’s case, she does not experience the freedom to be fully herself.

LM: One of the characters feels a deep antipathy for one of her children. This is a disturbing aspect of the novel, but it does have a bearing on the overall themes – did you find that situation difficult to write?

LMcM: Not particularly difficult. I felt it appropriate because in those days, the unwanted child was absorbed into the lives of women as a matter of course. There was no proper contraception and no abortion. It was inevitable that some women found the situation frustrating and at times, unbearable. You have to remember that this part of the book is set in a time preceding the Women’s Liberation Movement in Ireland. Women did what their mothers did then.

LM: Do you think writing is (or should be) political?

LMcM: No and yes. More than anything else, writing is about character. And yet, in my writing at least, characters can’t be disconnected from their context. That context is, invariably, political.

LM: In what way are the two worlds (writing & government) different, and how are they the same?

LMcM: In government you have to assess a situation quickly and make a decision. It won’t always be the right decision, as we know, but that is the way government works. There is no time for reflection, even for creativity. It is about judgement and clarity. Writing, for me anyway, is very different. It is about allowing ideas float around in your head, and to wait for characters to take up residence in your being and direct operations. It is about surrender as much as about control. In politics if you surrender, you’re dead.

LM: What are you working on now?

LMcM: Another novel. It’s based on papers belonging to my mother’s family. They were Unitarians. I’m interested in how the radical ideas that they promulgated were submerged by Nationalism and Orangeism and yet, somehow, they survived. It will take forever to write. I feel it is a race between me and dementia to get it finished.



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150px-Enright_Anne_koeln_literaturhaus_181108That Anne Enright has been named as the first Laureate for Irish Fiction is good news for all of us. She holds the position for three years and in that time she’ll teach one semester each at New York University and University College Dublin while continuing with her own work. She’ll also deliver an annual lecture and ‘engage in a number of public events’. (http://www.artscouncil.ie/laureate/) The Laureate is also being supported by the Irish Times.(http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/anne-enright-named-as-first-laureate-for-irish-fiction-1.2084453)

The annual lecture is just one of the reasons why Anne Enright is such a good choice for our first fiction laureate. She’s an original and sometimes provocative thinker and she’s not afraid to speak her mind, so her lectures promise to be interesting, unsettling and entertaining all at once. Her fierce commitment to writing – art and craft – and her support for Irish writers are beyond question. She knows what’s going on around her. Writers who have her to thank for an initial nudge towards the attention of readers, publishers and prize committees in other countries include Mary Costello and Eimear McBride. Her Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2011) was an exhilarating selection of writers and writing. It was a pleasure to read, not least for Anne Enright’s rich, thoughtful Introduction – proof, if anyone needed it, of her deep and long-standing commitment to, knowledge of and love for Irish writing.

Incidentally (or not): the Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke at the Inauguration Ceremony at the offices of the Arts Council on Merrion Square last Thursday night. He spoke well. He name-checked some interesting younger and emerging writers, as if he knows what’s going on too. Afterwards, I heard an English woman say that you’d never get an English MP, let alone a prime minister, giving time to an event in support of the Arts. True, it was a big deal for him to come out that night. It’s not exactly a long walk from Government Buildings to the Arts Council but it was a filthy night. Freezing cold and sleety, brutal traffic to be negotiated even for those of us on foot. I’m not usually a fan, but full marks there, Taoiseach.

The selection committee were:  Paul Muldoon (Chair), Paula Meehan, Siobhan Parkinson, Deborah Treisman, Blake Morrisson & Juan Gabriel Vasquez

For Anne Enright’s own take on the state of Irish fiction:



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The Right to Blog

Two days ago I got an email/Press Release from Irish PEN calling for the release of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – and his lawyer Abu al-Khair – from prison. Badawi’s crime? Setting up a website, the Saudi Free Liberals Forum. As for his lawyer – who knows? Badawi has also been sentenced to 1000 lashes.

Raif Badawi

“For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live… a splendid slogan.” Raif Badawi


I’ve looked at some translations of Badawi’s articles (e.g. from a Guardian article by Ian Black*, and a single article on the WordPress site https://raifbadawi.wordpress.com) and yes, they are angry and confrontational, but what they call for is secularism and the right to political debate and free speech – rights we are guaranteed in Ireland and an ideal many of us aspire to.  Badawi says: For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live.

A comment left on the WordPress site on September 11th 2014 says: Fucking liberals Ur wrong that’s why Ur as in jail (sic). Go fear allah

It is extraordinary to think that on the same planet, in the same century, someone like me – and who the hell cares what I think? – can turn up at a computer any time I like and post whatever I feel like posting without fear. I’m not talking about embarrassment, or the dread of over exposure/self-revelation/being wrong/loathsome comments.  I’m talking about being put in prison and sentenced to 1000 lashes – to be given in public, in the presence of an angry, jeering crowd – 50 at a time, at weekly intervals, until the sentence is discharged. I’m talking about prison. Flogging. Repeated, public flogging. Persistent trauma possibly leading to death. A website shut down and a young family living on another continent.

It’s extraordinary that all of this started years ago, and that Raif Badawi and Abu al-Khair have been in jail since 2012. Do we only hear about it now in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and that display of unity in Paris a week ago today? Maybe. If so, now is the time to support Amnesty and your local PEN in their efforts to put pressure on governments to secure the release of these men. Let your TD know that you expect them to support free speech.

This Friday’s flogging, the second of the sentence, was postponed following a doctor’s report. If the pressure/debate continues, these men might even be released, back to their lives and their families.

* “A look at the writings of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – sentenced to 1,000 lashes” by Ian Black:   http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/14/-sp-saudi-blogger-extracts-raif-badawi

Amnesty Ireland: http://www.amnesty.ie/

Irish PEN: http://www.pen-international.org/centres/irish-centre/

PEN International: http://www.pen-international.org/

PEN Canada: http://pencanada.ca/


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On Literary ‘Success’

Coming up to the end of 2014 I came across a flurry of articles and postings about literary ‘success’, as in: how to pursue it/get it/be it/extend it/prolong it/exploit it.

It got me thinking about what ‘literary success’ actually means. I’m pretty sure it means different things to different writers, and that it changes over the course of a writing life. When I started to write seriously, my definition of success would have been to get into print. Getting paid would have come a close second. Next: to be accepted for publication by x or y, specific publications/publishers I admired. Then: for my novel to be published, for it to be good enough to reward a reader’s time, attention, money …

Well. You see where I’m going with this. Whatever stage you’re at in your writing life, whatever criterion you’re using, there are always going to be people who are further along and more secure than you. They win more awards, get more favourable reviews, make more money, have a bigger international profile. There’ll be others who are on their way who aren’t quite where you are yet, who might even envy you, their perception being that you’re more secure than you actually are (is there a writer alive who feels secure?).

Every time I start something new, I want it to work on its own terms, whatever those terms are; to achieve whatever aspirations I have for it.  The focus is on each piece of work, not on the trajectory of my (admittedly erratic) progress through this life of writing.

The reality is that every time you start a new piece of work, it’s all to play for, all over again. It’s always about the work you’re doing right now, this minute. Will this story work? Will I be satisfied with it, will an editor want it, will a reader connect with it?   By the time reviews come in, favourable or sour – and be warned, you will get both – you’re working on something else. Don’t get distracted by either praise or blame, they mean nothing to the task in hand.

Let’s forget about the number of followers you have or not, or even whether your advance is enough to live on until you get the next book finished. Give yourself a break and think of it this way: Every time a story or poem is accepted for publication you’ve essentially won a competition for that particular space in that particular edition of that particular journal or magazine. That’s one kind of success, if validation is what you need.

But the real success or failure will happen where you never get to know about it: that moment where an individual reader begins to read. Will the world of your story spark and come alive for this person, this time? Will your characters cross over from page to mind? Will they stay there?

Maybe. Maybe not. Readers – and their circumstances – vary. I suppose real success would be knowing that your stories never fail to lift from the page and assume their own life, but can that ever be true? And even if it miraculously becomes the case, would that lucky writer be aware of it?

The one sure thing is that when one story goes out, another one is waiting to begin, and it’s all to play for, all over again.

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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 https://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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