Edith: A Novel (Interview with Martina Devlin)

1921. While Treaty negotiations are being conducted in London, Ireland is a restless, uncertain, dangerous place. Edith Somerville is in her family home, Drishane House in Castle Townshend. The Somervilles, an Ascendancy family, have been there for centuries but their position is uneasy, for financial as well as political reasons.

Edith needs money to keep the house going and courage to stand her ground while night raids are carried out by the IRA and some of her neighbours are being burned out. Still grieving the death of her cousin and long-term writing partner, Violet Martin, she attempts regular contact through automatic writing and séances, despite the disapproval of the servants, who threaten to leave. Simultaneously haunted by one of their literary creations, Flurry Knox, Edith welcomes the ghostly presence of both and decides to write a play based on elements of the successful The Irish RM series of novels, to raise money.

Martina Devlin’s novel, Edith, explores the tensions of class, identity and conflicting loyalties that plagued Ireland at that time, while following Edith Somerville through the process of writing her play and trying to sell it in London’s West End. Along the way she encounters notable characters such as George Bernard Shaw, Dame Ethel Smyth, Nigel Playfair, James Pinker and a group of shadowy, threatening subversive figures who close in on her but can’t weaken her determination to continue living in her home, Drishane House, Castletownshend, overlooking Castlehaven Bay in Ireland.

***

Can you tell us where this novel came from, Martina? It springs from my trips to Castletownshend, which I first visited more than twenty years ago. It is impossible to walk about in the village without being conscious of Edith Somerville, who lived her life there and whose work was inspired by the area and its people. Edith was one half of the commercially- and critically-acclaimed Somerville and Ross writing partnership, and after Ross’s death she convinced herself they continued to collaborate beyond the grave. Edith was interested in spiritualism and practised automatic or trance writing, as others did at the time, but she took it a step further: she believed Ross was channelling plot and character suggestions from the afterlife. She continued to insist the books were written by Somerville and Ross, and her agent and publisher both humoured her because it created mystery – which is good for business. When Trinity College Dublin awarded Edith an honorary doctorate in 1932, she insisted that Ross (Martin Ross, nom de plume of her second cousin Violet Martin) should be cited alongside her.

The financial worries of running a house like Drishane ring true. There is a heart-stopping moment early in the novel when she confronts her brother Cameron (who owns the house, by virtue of being male) about his careless attitude to money and he tells her to stop criticising him: ‘You don’t have the right.’ Isn’t it the case that Edith Somerville had supported the estate for years through her literary earnings and this crisis wasn’t new? Can you say something about that? Yes, Edith was determined to keep that house in Somerville hands at a time when her neighbours were selling up and moving to Britain. It remains in the family today largely due to her efforts. She funnelled her considerable income stream from writing and other projects into maintaining Drishane House – a property she knew she would never inherit because she was female, although the eldest child, with five brothers and their sons in line ahead of her. She helped to keep the house intact using her writing and illustration fees (she was a talented artist and illustrated the Somerville and Ross books, plus she designed two of the covers); rental income from properties bought with her book earnings; and revenue from horse training and farming. Clearly, she was a hard worker and highly motivated. She earned her first money at the age of sixteen by designing a greetings card.

It’s striking that Edith is the person who feels rooted in Castle Townshend and is determined to stay there despite the risks, while the rest of the family (who have rights of ownership) have scattered to safer territory. There’s a scene where her cousin Lottie says, ‘Those old houses suck your blood and grind your bones.’ Edith replies ‘Not if you love them.’ But it’s not just the house that holds her in place. Your Edith loves Ireland, although Somerville and Ross have been accused of exploiting Irish people and exaggerating stage-Irishness. Can you say something about that? She was extremely attached to West Cork and to her family’s place there, and considered herself to be both British and Irish. She was an early adopter of hybrid identity, as laid out in the Good Friday Agreement many decades later. When the new Irish State was born, amid violence, and neighbours were leaving – fearful for their safety – she wrote to her sister Hildegarde saying their family had enjoyed several hundred good years in Ireland, and must stick it out and hope for the best.

You’re right to point out that Somerville and Ross are accused of Oirishness, and some of their dialogue smacks of Paddywhackery today. However, they were careful about noting down vivid phrases as they heard them, and sat through court cases in Skibbereen (refashioned as Skebawn in the Irish R.M. stories) taking copious notes of local idiom. To my mind, the work is largely affectionate rather than exploitative, but with definite traces of ‘de haut en bas’. The characters who get up to no good tend to be the native Irish, although Flurry Knox and his grandma Mrs Knox have rascal tendencies and belong to Somerville and Ross’s class, while the authors save their sharpest barbs for English people visiting or stationed in Ireland. Their work is also valuable as social history because they were charting the demise of their caste as it was happening.

Introducing Flurry Knox as a character is an inspired idea – can you talk about that? Where did the idea come from? I was looking at Edith’s illustrations and it struck me that they show us Flurry, the “half-sir”, exactly as she saw him. And then it occurred to me that he was the closest she had to a son – he was partly modelled on a couple of her brothers – and must have been someone she spent a lot of time with mentally. There has always been speculation about which parts of their work Edith Somerville wrote and which parts Violet Martin/Martin Ross wrote, but I believe Flurry was almost entirely Edith’s. She was unfailingly indulgent towards his faults – George Bernard Shaw thought her far too forgiving of Flurry’s misbehaviour. Flurry was useful as a character in my novel because he allowed me to show her dwelling on the glory days of the past, at a time when she felt a failure. And failure is more interesting than success.

Drishane, the house, is a living character in this novel. Can you talk about your research and your extensive, detailed knowledge of the place – its topography, its architectural details and its history? Edith reads like a new kind of Big House novel … and of course this period in Edith’s actual life was followed by The Big House of Inver, whose story, in terms of the declining fortunes of a wealthy family, is not a million miles removed from the story of Drishane as you tell it. Drishane is a handsome Georgian house with spectacular coastal views, dating from around 1780 – home to the Somervilles for nine generations or 250 years. You step right inside history when you walk through its doors. Every corner tells a family story, Edith’s artworks (and earlier paintings of her ancestors) hang on its walls, and if the village has a strong sense of her presence, then the house is even more permeated with her. It has a sweeping central staircase, and it’s easy to imagine her running down it because the dinner gong had sounded, or up it to change out of muddy hunting clothes. She also used the enclosed servants’ stairs or back stairs, which lead into the kitchen, when she wanted to pass undetected. She was quite athletic in her youth, known to hop out through a window near her bedroom onto the flat roof just below it, and make her escape that way. Anything to avoid an interrogation from her Mama about her movements.

Similarly, you send Edith on a visit to the home of George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte (who was Edith’s cousin) in Ayot St Lawrence. Did that visit actually happen? And was GBS really such a bad driver? Shaw was a notoriously bad driver! He was always having to pay for damages. And yes, Edith did visit Shaw for advice on her play in 1922, following a brutally frank letter from him saying she should give up all thoughts of playwriting because she was too ladylike to make a proper job of it. Shaw’s wife Charlotte was a cousin of Edith’s, and intervened, inviting her to stay with them. He was working on St Joan at the time but appears to have tried to suggest cuts to Edith’s play, Flurry’s Wedding, over the course of that visit. I have read various versions of the play – she worked and reworked it over a seventeen-year period – but it is always too long, and clunks. Shaw’s advice went unheeded.

The novel is full of authentic contemporaneous detail, whether about weaponry, historical events or domestic routines. How do you carry out research into all of that and how long does it take? I spent about four years working on Edith. It helped that I was able to visit Drishane House and wander about, seeing the studio where she worked, along with personal possessions (riding boots, sunhat, easel, artwork, annotated manuscripts). Much-loved and well-worn possessions bring a character to life for me – it stimulates me to see objects that mattered to them. Those visits allowed me to get the layout of the house into my head. Her studio was conveniently situated for the stable yard – a reminder of how horses and dogs were the two abiding loves of her life. It was also useful to read her letters in situ, held in the family archive, and talk to the Somervilles about their ancestor. It reminded me she was a much-loved relative as well as a famous writer.

Drishane – and Edith’s presence in it – would not survive without the loyalty and care of Philomena and Mrs O’Shea in the house and Mike Hurley, who looks after the horses.  Can you say something about the bonds and the tensions and undercurrents that exist between all these characters? In your earlier novel, The House Where it Happened, the protagonist was a servant. Was it interesting to assume the opposite point of view for Edith? I thought about telling Edith from the perspective of the servants because it is a viewpoint that comes more readily to me. But I decided to push against my comfort zone (William Golding said the writer should be a moving target i.e., not rest on their laurels) and consequently the stance is Edith’s. However, Philomena the housemaid does challenge her about the automatic writing, which makes the servants uneasy. You can see that Edith is friendly with them – especially when her brother is absent and she doesn’t feel it necessary to maintain the distance between employer and employee. But at the end of the day it is an economic arrangement and power is not equally distributed.

Drishane – and Edith’s presence in it – would not survive without the loyalty and care of Philomena and Mrs O’Shea in the house and Mike Hurley, who looks after the horses.  Can you say something about the bonds and the tensions and undercurrents that exist between all these characters? In your earlier novel, The House Where it Happened, the protagonist was a servant. Was it interesting to assume the opposite point of view for Edith?

I thought about telling Edith from the perspective of the servants because it is a viewpoint that comes more readily to me. But I decided to push against my comfort zone (William Golding said the writer should be a moving target i.e., not rest on their laurels) and consequently the stance is Edith’s. However, Philomena the housemaid does challenge her about the automatic writing, which makes the servants uneasy. You can see that Edith is friendly with them – especially when her brother is absent and she doesn’t feel it necessary to maintain the distance between employer and employee. But at the end of the day it is an economic arrangement and power is not equally distributed.

Having just seen a rehearsed reading of your most recent play, Curves of Emotion (about the Joyces), I was struck by the proximity of your playwriting experience to the writing of this novel. I know the play came after the novel had been completed, but it must have been in your mind somewhere – and you wrote your first play (about Constance Markievicz) fairly recently. Did that experience attract you to the idea of Edith Somerville’s play? Or how did your interest in Edith’s failed play come about? I stumbled upon Edith’s failed play by chance. I found references to it in the Drishane archive when I was doing research there, and followed them up. I found multiple versions of the play in Queen’s University Belfast’s special collections, including a handwritten outline complete with marginalia.

I think it’s just a coincidence that I wrote a novel about a writer’s failure to have her play staged, and followed it up by writing a play myself about Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, Curves of Emotion (which was staged, fortunately). But maybe there’s no such thing as coincidence. That said, the Markievicz play Call Me Madame has just been published by Arlen House. Something theatrical is undoubtedly whirring away in the background.

Letters from various historical figures play a part in the novel – are those letters real? Or did you invent them? The Shaw letter is real – it’s in the archive – but the rest are invented. Edith was a typical Victorian lady in some ways, although not in others, and wrote thousands of letters, as well as keeping a diary for most of her life. I loved reading her letters because they were her unmediated thoughts – when she and Martin wrote to their agent, Mr JB Pinker (James Brand) asking about royalties due, they called them their stand-and-deliver letters. When they felt they ought to write letters of apology, they referred to them as grovels. The pair had a well-developed sense of fun, and their humour shines through in the letters.

What are you working on now? I’m writing about Charlotte Bronte and Ireland, but far too slowly for my liking because I have been doing other things. Interesting things, but still. I’m happiest when I’m immersed in novelising. Note to self: focus. This novel has been bubbling away for two years now. At least I’ve managed plenty of research, always my favourite part. Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels for that wonderful line, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” It was published in 1847 – an early statement of female independence. As you can see, I am drawn to remarkable women.

Martina Devlin
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Link to Catherine Dunne’s interview about the Arlen Classic Literature Series edition of Another Alice

(We have exchanged interviews because Catherine’s second novel, A Name for Himself, is also part of the Arlen Classic Literature series. Other titles include Marian Thérèse Keyes (Ed) A Life of No Light Toil:An Anna Maria Hall Reader; Carmen Cavanagh by Annie Smithson (with a Foreword by Alan Hayes); and Kate O’Brien’s Pray for the Wanderer, (with a Foreword by Caitríona Clear).

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Interview with Catherine Dunne (3rd May 2022)

This interview marks the publication of a new edition of Catherine Dunne’s second novel, A Name for Himself (first published in 1998) as part of the Arlen Classic Literature series. The new edition features a Foreword by Mia Gallagher. Because my first novel, Another Alice, also features in that series (with a Foreword by Paula McGrath), we arranged to swap interviews on each other’s websites. Other titles in the series include Marian Thérèse Keyes (ed) A Life of No Light Toil: An Anna Maria Hall Reader, Kate O’Brien’s Pray for the Wanderer (with an Introduction by Caitriona Clear) and Carmen Cavanagh by Annie Smithson (with an Introduction by Alan Hayes).

Catherine, Thanks for talking to me and congratulations on the re-issue of A Name for Himself. It was your second novel and marks a distinct change from your first. Who were your influences, if any?

As soon as I finished writing In the Beginning, I knew that I wanted to write something that was completely different from that first novel. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed, didn’t want to set up any expectation that ‘more of the same’ was about to follow.

I was lucky, in that the story that became A Name for Himself presented itself to me – chose me, in a way: I didn’t need to go looking for it. It settled itself into some internal space and wouldn’t go away.

I think it’s probably one of the stories that has exerted the strongest, most obsessive, grip on my imagination. Part of that, I think, is that I was terrified by the old adage that ‘everybody has a book in them’. Just one! I wanted to make sure I had at least two.

Was it hard to stay within Farrell’s point-of-view?

That was one of the spooky parts of the writing experience. I felt as though I was looking over his shoulder the whole time. I felt a degree of empathy with him that was, at times, disconcerting. He was with me during the days of writing, and also at night, when I had some very disturbing dreams.

We slowly diverged, of course: and I looked on, sometimes in horror, at the way the story was developing. In many ways, it felt inevitable, right from the beginning. It was – and I know other writers will argue with this – as if Farrell was in charge. Of course I could have made him behave differently: but then the story would not have felt authentic. I followed him, right to the end.

A Name for Himself was first published in 1998. Do you think things have changed much for women in Ireland since then?

In many ways, Ireland has changed so much in the intervening years that it’s unrecognisable. Walls of silence have been breached: the authority of the Catholic church has all but disappeared; we have had the economic highs and lows of the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath; emigration is no longer a central feature of our society, and we have instead become much more multi-cultural.

For women, many things have changed for the better. EU legislation regarding equality has pushed Ireland – sometimes unwillingly – into a new era. Divorce is legal; gay marriage is legal; abortion is legal, albeit in a restrictive form.

However – and it is a very significant ‘however’ – there still exists in this country a ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women. That has not changed in the intervening years. From daily humiliations on the street to threats in person and on social media, to assault and rape, women do not feel safe.

It is important that the conversation is now a public one, and that the veil of secrecy around this kind of violence has at last been lifted.

At what point in your writing career were you able to give up teaching and write full-time? (I’m asking because I have an idea it might have been around the time of publication of this, your second, novel – although I could be wrong?)

Catherine Dunne
(Photo: Noel Hillis)

I took a career break to finish my first novel, In the Beginning. The moment I finished it in the summer of 1995, I immediately began writing A Name for Himself, because the story had come to me almost fully formed, and it haunted me.

But during those early years of my break, I didn’t think of myself as a writer: I used to describe myself as ‘a teacher on career break’. I knew I was writing on borrowed time. I wanted to use every precious minute, in case I didn’t get the opportunity again.

By 2000, I knew without any doubt that writing was what I wanted to do full time, and with publication and teaching and facilitating – all the extra strings that writers have to their bows – I’m still at my desk, more than a quarter of a century later…what a scary thought!

In her remarkable Foreword, Mia Gallagher links Farrell’s insecurities and possessiveness to the difference in social class between Farrell and Grace and – crucially – Grace’s wealthy father. Gallagher writes that Farrell succeeds ‘in crashing, albeit temporarily, through the unspeakable barriers to entry on this island.’ Was this part of your thinking when you wrote the novel? Could you say a little more about that?

By the time I came to invent the character of Farrell, I’d spent almost twenty years working in a school in a disadvantaged area. Those years were crucial in forming my understanding of class barriers in Ireland.

I’d watched, for example, as students filled out application forms for jobs, or courses, only to be passed over, time and again, because of their home address. When the same students applied, using a different, more ‘respectable’ address, the response was invariable positive.

My students taught me many things, among them how to recognise and acknowledge the bias that is built into so many areas of Irish society.

Farrell is acutely conscious of this, and it is part, but only part, of his insecurities and possessiveness around Grace. His need for control stems also from a complicated past and his reluctance to face his own fears.

Another of your earlier titles, An Unconsidered People (2003) has also been published in a recent new edition (New Island, 2021) Can you say something about how that came about?

As with so many aspects of the publishing industry, the new edition of An Unconsidered People came about in an unexpected way. The publisher contacted me just as we were emerging from the last of the lockdowns, to say that there had been a marked uptick in interest in the title during the pandemic.

I think for so many people, that strange time of isolation and fear also became one of reflection, or revisiting old interests, or developing new ones.

The publisher thought the time was right for a new chapter, exploring the nature of emigration from this country in the decades that followed An Unconsidered People’s first publication. The original edition dealt with the half a million or more people who left this country for Britain in the dismal 1950s.

Diarmaid Ferriter very kindly wrote a new Foreword, and so the new edition was born.

I think stories of emigration/immigration are universal: they are woven into the texture of our lives, particularly in this country. Understanding the challenges and loneliness of immigrants as they seek to make a new life for themselves in another country is something we all need to nurture – even more so today as we try to support and welcome Ukrainian people as they flee the devastation that has been visited on their country.

What are you working on now?

I’m just completing a new novel with the working title of A Good Enough Mother.

Using the voices of several characters, I’m exploring the experience of motherhood in Ireland.  From the ‘unmarried mothers’ who fled to London in 1950s to have their babies in secret, to the young girls and women incarcerated in our mother and baby homes, to the challenges of motherhood in the present day: this novel has kept me in its grip for four years now.

During the lockdowns, it was the project that kept me engaged and curious – and writing. I’m very grateful to it.

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Interview: Marian Therèse Keyes on Anna Maria Hall (1800-1881)

This interview marks the publication of A Life of No Light Toil: The Anna Maria Fielding Hall Reader Edited and Introduced by Marian Thérèse Keyes, one of the 2022 Arlen Classic Literature Series.

Is this your first book, Marian?

This is actually my 5th book! Over the last few years I was involved in 3 publications that tied in with the Decade of Centenaries at dlr Libraries – 2 of those with New Island Books. People on the Pier celebrated the bicentenary of the pier in 2018 and Betty Stenson and I worked on that. Then Divine Illumination in 2019 marked the centenary of Sr Concepta Lynch’s astonishing Oratory in the grounds of the Dominican Convent, Dún Laoghaire. I worked with Librarian Nigel Curtin and Archivist David Gunning on the latter and we also produced What’s in a Name: Dunleary, Kingstown Dún Laoghaire in 2020, marking 100 years since the name change back to Dún Laoghaire during the War of Independence. My first book was Politics and Ideology in Children’s Literature (Four Courts Press, 2014) co-edited with Dr Áine McGillicuddy.

Did it feel strange to cross over from being a librarian to writing and editing?

Not at all! To be honest, most of my working day at dlr LexIcon was spent writing – whether it was blurb for festival brochures, e-bulletins, press releases, book reviews, promotional event literature or text for exhibition panels. Many of these exhibitions are collaborative ventures working with, for example Anne Makower and Christopher Fitz-Simon for the recent All Right on the Night or with Jennifer Johnston’s family for the exhibition celebrating her 90th birthday in 2020. Online versions of these and other exhibitions can be seen at https://libraries.dlrcoco.ie/events-and-news/online-exhibition I would see these exhibitions as ‘mini-publications’ as it’s so important to condense and edit the material into manageable panel lengths to attract and sustain audience interest.

Can you tell us about Anna Maria Hall and her work? 

I first came across Anna Maria’s work when I was cataloguing a major collection of children’s books in London in the mid-1990s. I found out she was Irish (born in Dublin in 1800 and spent her childhood in Wexford until she was fifteen when she went to London) and I wondered why I had never heard of her. Her books were beautifully produced, often had Irish themes, characters and settings and were illustrated by many well-known artists of her day, frequently of Irish extraction. As I delved further, I found out that in addition to over 40 children’s books, she was famous in the 1830s and 40s for her Sketches of Irish Character, novels, plays, gift books, annuals and travel literature – the pre-Famine 3 volume Ireland: its Scenery, Character etc. produced jointly with her husband was highly successful. She worked hard as an editor in the periodical press, her husband said she had produced over 150 books in her lifetime – other commentators have suggested that she produced between 400-500 books including the joint publications – and yet by the time of her death in 1881, most were out of print. I was obsessed by the extraordinary invisibility of someone so fêted and highly regarded in her lifetime.

What do you most admire about her?

I admire Anna Maria Hall’s passion for her work, her zeal to give her readers, especially children good quality books that would prove educational and enjoyable. Through her travel writing, she sought to encourage people to visit Ireland and to sample the unique ‘character’ of the Irish people and she attempted to capture the customs, tales and traditions before they vanished. Many letters exist demonstrating how generous she was to young women writers, newly arrived in London and seeking work writing for the annuals, magazines and journals of the day – she was generous with her many contacts and selflessly nurtured her protegées.

I was also rather envious of her disciplined approach to her daily work routines. Such was the order of her writing room that she boasted that she could go to any of her bookshelves in the dark and lay her hand on what she wanted. Yes I’m a librarian but I can categorically state that I will never have my bookshelves at home in that kind of order!

By all accounts she was quite an activist and philanthropist – can you tell us something about that aspect of her life?

 She played an important role in the setting up of the Hospital for Consumption at Brompton – the Halls lived nearby from 1839-49 and as this was quite a rural part of London in the mid-nineteenth century, the hospital was sorely needed. Throughout her writing life, she was a passionate advocate for the plight of governesses, not only through her writings but also her frequent bazaars and fund-raising activities in support of the Asylum for Aged and Decayed Governesses. She was also tireless in her support of temperance causes and produced Boons and Blessings, a beautifully illustrated volume of cautionary tracts in 1875.

What is your favourite of her books/stories?

I have a particular fondness for the autobiographical Grandmamma’s Pockets (1849) as it features the young Annie Fielder – it sets the scene of her life in Wexford and includes many of the characters that appeared in her earlier Sketches. Marian (1840) is another important book, an early example of a boarding school novel, pre-dating Jane Eyre by a decade and featuring a foundling narrative, an Irish laundress – Katty Macane, a heartless school mistress Arabella Womble, and lots of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. I really enjoyed her popular play The Groves of Blarney, a melodramatic story of disguise, kidnapping and revenge, based on a real incident in Blarney in County Cork in 1812. There’s a lightness of touch in her delineation of her characters and the humour and energy permeates the dialogue keeping a lively pace throughout. She excelled in her portrayal of lovable rogues, romance and farce and this play is, in my opinion on a par with the plays of D.L. Boucicault much later in the century.

Can you give us an example of a passage that gives a sense of her style?

I enjoy how often Anna Maria refers in her later books to what she read as a child in Bannow, Wexford where she had no friends of her own age or siblings but loved her many pet animals and especially her many books. Her favourite books fed her imagination and had a lasting impact on her writing.

She began reading – perhaps for the twentieth time – Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; breathing on the leaves, that they might turn without crackling, and pausing every now and then to contrast some of its passages with the Faery Queen; and when it grew so dim of light that she could not see, she started at the hooting of the owl she had heard from infancy, and fancied the shadows of the copper beech, as they lay upon the snow, men in armour, and the poplar trees to be Knights Templar; and one in particular Goliah himself.

Mrs. S.C. Hall, Grandmamma’s Pockets (1849)

Another favourite passage is one where she shows her sense of fun when describing some of her male characters. She made no secret of the fact that she had a preference for penning her heroines over her heroes and also that she saw herself as addressing predominantly female readers. Nonetheless, despite her protestations, her novels had many well-rounded and complex male characters, but she evidently enjoyed describing some men who were clearly in thrall to their overbearing wives.

Poor Lady Bab had the satisfaction of possessing a singularly tame and gentlemanly-looking husband… Mr. Hesketh was a sort of hanger-on to his wife’s reputation, having no very distinctive attribute of his own, except, indeed, that he played the flute, and frequently formed a sort of soft undulating accompaniment to his wife’s eloquence, which he was ever politely careful not to interrupt.

Mrs. S.C. Hall, Marian; or a Young Maid’s Fortunes (1840)

What are you working on now? Are there more books in the offing?

I always enjoy doing some research – finding out more about lesser-known women artists and writers has been a hobby of mine for years. Since I retired at end of February this year I’m renewing my love of Art History – I used to teach in Limerick School of Art and Design back in the late 1980s and I spent the 90s working in the National Art Library in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. At present I’m researching women book illustrators who were active here in Ireland in the 1930s and 40s but have been side-lined or forgotten. So, who knows, I’ll see what I can discover first!

New Titles in the The Arlen Classic Literature series include: A Name for Himself by Catherine Dunne, Pray for the Wanderer by Kate O’Brien, Another Alice by Lia Mills and Carmen Cavanagh by Annie Smithson.

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Read for Ukraine

At a recent “Dialogues on War” event organised by PEN International, in a conversation between Andreiy Kurkov and Philippe Sands, Kurkov was asked what people could do to support Ukrainian writers. “Read their books”, was his reply.

Sands’ own brilliant East West Street illuminates Ukraine’s extraordinary role in European history and International Human Rights law. Part memoir, part family history, part legal analysis, the book reads like a thriller.

Here is a link to a list of recommended titles by Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian authors, put together by PEN International. The list was edited by Diana Delyurman, Iryna Rodina and Myroslava Mokhnatska.

And here’s a selection from that list, with additions from people who were on that call and later calls:

Applebaum, Anne Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (History)

Hnatiuk, Ola Courage and Fear (History: Lviv during WWII)

Kurkov, Andreiy Grey Bees (Novel; currently on the Dublin Literature Award 2022 longlist)

Kurkov, Andreiy Jimi Hendrix Live in Lemberg (Lviv) (Novel)

Marynovych, Myroslav The Universe Behind Barbed Wire: Memoirs of a Ukrainian Soviet Dissident

Plokhy, Serhii The Gates of Europe (Historical study of Ukrainian identity and sovereignty)

Sands, Philippe East West Street (History, Memoir, Family History, Human Rights Law)

Shevchenko, Taras (Poetry)

Snyder, Timothy Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Non Fiction: History)

Zabuzhko, Oksana Selected Poems (Poetry)

Zabuzhko, Oksana  “One Hundred Years of Solitude, or the Importance of a Story”(Essay: https://agnionline.bu.edu/essay/one-hundred-years-of-solitude-or-the-importance-of-a-story/ )

Zhadan, Serhiy What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected Poems (poetry)

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The Flowering

Look! It’s a Woman Writer!: Irish Literary Feminisms 1970-2020, edited by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and published by Arlen House is an anthology of essays by 21 Irish women writers who were born in the 1950s. Ní Dhuibhne gave contributors (full disclosure: I am one of them ) an open brief, to write about their literary careers. The result is a fascinating evocation of change at work in Ireland at the end of the twentieth century. Publisher Alan Hayes, has contributed a long essay detailing the history of feminist publishing in Ireland. The book is liberally illustrated with photographs, images of book jackets, etc.

To mark its publication, The Dublin Review of Books has published this interview between me and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne : https://drb.ie/articles/the-flowering/

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New Theatre New Writing Development Week

The New Theatre are running their New Writing Development Week again.

The event, a series of performed readings on the New Theatre stage, will take place in November or December 2021, actual dates tbc.

This opportunity is open to writers resident in Ireland. Send your script as a PDF with a synopsis and biography to TNTscripts2021@gmail.com with the subject; ‘New Writing Week 2021’.


Full details here: http://www.thenewtheatre.com/new-writing-week-november-2021/

Submissions due by 8th July.

New Writing Development Week is funded by funded by The Arts Council, Dublin City of Literature UNESCO and Friends of The New Theatre.

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Brexit Diary

We were in London 2018-2019 for much of the drama surrounding the Brexit debate. The good people at EFACIS (Thank you Hedwig Schwall, Anne Fogarty, Joachim Fischer) have published these extracts from a diary I kept at that time:

http://kaleidoscope2.efacis.eu/publications/brexit-diary-october-2018-december-2019-1

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SEASPIRACY

The documentary Seaspiracy is harrowing to watch but you must watch it. Everyone on the planet should see it, urgently, because one of its major impacts is to break the news of how far advanced we are in our reckless rush to destroy our own world. It shows – not carelessness or waste or the effects of things we can’t see but are beginning to recognise (global warming & the melting of ice caps, e.g.) – but deliberate, calculated destruction; indiscriminate slaughter of marine life and the laying waste of oceans.

This film broke something in me. It shattered the glass floor of my mind. A thing I’ve often said about writing is that it’s a way to explore what it is to be human in our time. This documentary showed me what a local, personal level I work on. To realise what it really means to be human in our time is terrifying. The horrendous, wholescale greed, cruelty and destruction our species is capable of left me feeling that as a species we may not be worth saving.

I can’t imagine the courage and distress of making it – and maybe there is hope and a vestige of consolation there, because the urge, ability and bravery to tell a story like this in the best way possible against overwhelming odds is human too­ (Thank you Ali and Lucy Tabrizi for that crumb of hope). There are people who resist what’s happening in our oceans. There are people who put their lives on the line – and lose.  

I’m not going to say more about it. I realise that what I’ve written here is unlikely to send you rushing to the nearest screen, but you must, you really must, watch this. Be warned, brace yourself, but watch it.

There have been arguments against the documentary, moves to debunk it, some of its findings are being criticised. Of course. But you know what you see when you see it. Read George Monbiot. And the big question remains: Why do the big environmental organisations never talk about the issue of overfishing and destruction of the seabeds and coral reefs?

So watch it. Do your own fact checking later. Make up your own mind.

You can watch Seaspiracy on Netflix. See the official trailer here

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Letters With Wings: When Art Meets Activism (Imagine! Belfast Festival)

This event, organised by Letters With Wings, was dedicated to the women artists Chimengul Awut (award-winning Uyghur poet) and Nûdem Durak (a folk-musician of Kurdish origin who is a political prisoner in Turkey).

Participants included: Lia Mills (Chair of Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann), Catherine Dunne, Celia de Fréine, Kate Ennals, Moyra Donaldson, Evgeny Shtorn, Gianluca Costantini (activist, cartoonist and visual artist), Antje Stehn (Rucksack, A Global Poetry Patchwork), Simone Theiss (Westminster and Bayswater Amnesty International Group) and Letters with wings’ poet members Nandi Jola, Csilla Toldy and Viviana Fiorentino.  It was a powerful, inspirational evening and a great privilege to be involved at all.

My contribution was quasi-introductory and was followed by a long line of brilliant insights, ideas and reflections from the other contributors. Look them up and follow them.

There is an account of what I said and read on the Irish PEN/PEN nahÉireann website

(With thanks to the Imagine! Belfast Festival & its production staff: Richard, Emma, Gillian)

Details/Useful sites

Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann:  www.irishpen.com  (Website under revision, please be patient.  Current campaigns are listed under “News”)

PENWrites: https://www.englishpen.org/pen-writes/

PEN International: https://pen-international.org/

Free the Poet (Ilhan Sami Çomak) https://ilhancomak.com/

Ahmet Altan I Will Never See the World Again (Granta, 2019)

https://pen-international.org/news/turkey-free-ahmet-altan

Eva Gore Booth poem: “Comrades” from Broken Glory. Maunsel, 1918.

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