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: )

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 :

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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 with the subject; ‘New Writing Week 2021’.

Full details here:

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:

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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:  (Website under revision, please be patient.  Current campaigns are listed under “News”)


PEN International:

Free the Poet (Ilhan Sami Çomak)

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

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

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School Stuff

I can’t quite believe I’m saying this but: I’m going to a school reunion (on Zoom) tomorrow. I’m surprised by how rattled I am, at the thought of it. And how I’ve been living knee-deep in the past, good and bad, for this whole week leading up to it.

So I thought I may as well post a link to “Boarders“, an essay I wrote several years back about – well, about being a boarder. It was published in The Dublin Review, (Winter 2005-6)

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Margaret Keane Family’s Appeal Successful

(Update on previous blogs)

A quick note to say that the Keane family’s Appeal, heard by Morag Ellis QC Dean of the Arches, (Province of Canterbury) on Wednesday 24th February, has been successful. This means that the family can erect a headstone at their mother’s grave with the words in ár gcroíthe go deo (in our hearts forever) inscribed without translation.  A translation will be held in the parish register.

Congratulations to everyone involved:  to the Keane family for their courage, dignity and tenacity; to their legal team: Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Mary Rachel McCabe QC and Caroline Brogan, Solicitor – and also to the legal team of Conradh na Gaeilge, who also argued on their behalf.


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Labour Party Irish Society Zoom (Supporting Margaret Keane’ s family campaign for an inscription in Irish on her headstone)

Last night the UK Labour Party Irish Society held a Zoom meeting concerning the case of a headstone in the graveyard of St Giles’ Church in the Diocese of Coventry. The family of Margaret Keane, who died in 2018, went through a routine application process for a gravestone for their mother and in time for their father Bernie, who is still alive. They put a lot of thought, care and love into the design and wording of this gravestone, on which they want to include the inscription in ár gcroídhe go deo … in our hearts forever. In a shock ruling with deeply worrying implications, permission was refused, specifically concerning the Irish wording. The family have appealed the decision. The Church of England and, notably, the bishop of Coventry, a city known for its global influence for reconciliation, have disowned the decision. The appeal is due to be heard on 24th Feb in the Court of Arches, Canterbury. There is a widespread campaign to support the family. Many groups, organisations and individuals are involved, including Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann, Wales PEN Cymru, Scottish PEN, English PEN, Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge, Conradh na Gaeilge, Irish in Britain and others.

(@My_Mums_Voice and #MessagetoMargaret on Twitter; Links to more info below.)

The Zoom event took place at 6:30 pm on Tuesday 16th February 2021.

Paula Kelly (Women’s Officer of LPIS)  was in the Chair.

Bez Martin, Margaret Keane’s daughter, spoke first. Speaking for her siblings as well as herself, she said they were glad their Irish parents had brought them up in England with a perfect balance of belonging and assimilation, with deep involvement in the GAA, holidays in Ballyhaunis every year and a love for the Irish language.

Bez spoke lovingly about their parents and the values and the community they grew up in. Margaret Keane died in 2018. Learning to live without her was made harder for the family by the 2019 decision to refuse permission for the inscription they had chosen with great care to reflect those values, their love for their parents and their acute sense of loss.

However this campaign is about more than their individual case. They are representing the rights of the Irish community, not just in Coventry but beyond.

They do not want to stir up animosity or conflict (although they have endured an amount of hateful commentary on social media). They have also received astonishing levels of support from many sources, including organisations and powerful people; but the big lesson for them in this experience is that it’s the ordinary person who can make a difference.

Mary Rachel McCabe QC, one of the family’s legal team, said that Bez’s speech was a powerful reminder that behind the headlines there is a bereaved family. She gave us a brief history of the case:

Background: The parish council initially ruled in favour of the family’s headstone design, with a small query about an elevated Celtic cross, no issue with the language at all. The next level of application is the Diocesan Advisory Council, who also queried the cross but not the use of Irish. They didn’t recommend approval solely because of the elevation of the cross, suggesting an embedded version instead. This query is the reason the application was sent forward to the Chancellor of the Diocese of Coventry, Stephen Eyre QC. He ruled against the headstone, saying that “Given the passions and feelings connected with the use of Irish Gaelic there is a sad risk that the phrase would be regarded as some form of slogan or that its inclusion without translation would of itself be seen as a political statement.”

Remember, the inscription states: in ár gcroídhe go deo … in our hearts forever.

Eyre’s ruling was subsequently disowned by the Church of England and in particular by the bishop of Coventry, who noted the city of Coventry’s essential role in promoting reconciliation across the globe.  The city of Coventry has a diverse population, including many of Irish heritage, and the assumption that a person viewing the headstone would assume negative connotations to an inscription in Irish is extraordinary.

The family had no legal representation at that point, but following media attention, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Mary Rachel McCabe QC and Caroline Brogan (solicitor) got involved. Gallagher wrote a blog at the time which summarises the issues

In a witty but thought provoking speech, Caoilfhionn Gallagher noted that the words chosen by the family matter, as well as the language. Such words are chosen to express the personality of the deceased and the emotion the family wish to convey. She cited witty examples of other headstone inscriptions, including the Nation’s Favourite Epitaph (2012) Spike Milligans’ Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite (I told you I was ill), which came ahead of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Either those curtains go or I do’. Many people will recognise Spike Milligan’s inscription, but few realise that on th eheadstone it is actually in Irish and untranslated (this was news to me).  She gave these examples to demonstrate that not all inscriptions have to be particularly worthy or religious. She reminded us that after Goldsmith’s death in 1744, Samuel Johnson wrote his epitaph in Latin because he ‘refused to disgrace the walls of Westminster Abbey with an English inscription’.[1]

The goal of the legal team, beyond securing permission for the Keane family to remember and grieve their mother as they wish, is to set guidance so that no other family has to go through this experience. (The arcane nature of the ecclesiastical courts and their sundry expenses was referred to by several people during the Q & A)

Two of the grounds for Appeal are that the decision is unreasonable and that it violates the family’s Human Rights – among them the right to freedom from discrimination.  It was noted that there are several headstones with, for example inscriptions in Welsh (untranslated) in the graveyard where Margaret Keane is buried.

Gallagher referred, too, to the Blindboy Boatclub Tweet and Podcast which point out the assumption inherent in the decision, that anyone who speaks Irish or loves the language is associated with the IRA/terrorism. This point was also taken up later by speakers from Conradh na Gaeilge and others.

Caroline Brogan (Solicitor) (also Irish) noted the larger than average Irish population in the cities of Coventry and Birmingham and said that Irish is spoken on a daily basis in both cities. Coventry is an inclusive city, known across the world as a city of reconciliation. Children there are schooled in the dangers of othering and the dark places it can take us to. Mo Mowlam grew up in Coventry.

Conor McGinn, Labour MP and Chair of the Irish in Britain, spoke about his personal connection with the family and about the unequivocal support he has received from Craig Tracey, the Conservative MP for the Keanes’ Constituency, and the broader cross-party support that exists for the family’s case. He pointed out that the travesty of this decision has shone a light on the Consistory system and suggested that it would be good to use this opportunity to reimagine the relationship between church and state law.

The ecclesiastical court allows organisations to make submissions in the public interest and Conradh na Gaeilge’s London branch have stepped forward as intervenors in the proceedings. We heard their intention to remind the Chancellor of the history of the Christian heritage of his diocese and the role of Lindisfarne in the Christianisation  of England; they also intend to express the pain experienced by lovers of the Irish language as a result of this ruling and its (discriminatory) stated basis.  We heard that since his decision the Chancellor has changed the rules, so that they now purport to apply to all languages, reserving the right to the Chancellor to decide which are acceptable.

Colum Eastwood MP, leader of the SDLP, reminded us that this case goes to the heart of a bigger issue, the right of all citizens to be treated equally. He finds the ruling deeply offensive and reminds us that there is an ongoing struggle for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. He sees hundreds of people learning Irish in East Belfast, and doesn’t understand the fear and prejudice revealed by this ruling. He emphasised the importance of recognising that all traditions need to be equally valued and protected. He believes the Good Friday Agreement will be a driving force behind that process and argued that its principles should be remembered in Britain also.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher said that if the Appeal fails, they will take the unusual route of bringing the case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council; but they hope the Court of Arches will get it right and make the right decision.

Many speakers during the Q & A were from the Church of England and expressed incomprehension, pain and anger concerning this decision. They expressed solidarity with the family’s right to honour their parents with the wording and in the language of their choosing. Almost universally, speakers commented on the dignity and courage displayed by the Keane family throughout this ordeal. We all wish them well in the Appeal.

For more information on the case:

Fiona Audley in the Irish Post:

Martina Devlin in the Independent:

Owen Bowcott in the Guardian: :

[1] Life iii 85 cited in Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property by Kevin Hart CUP p 11

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Message To Margaret Campaign (Margaret Keane Gravestone Case)

You may have read about a recent case in England where the Ecclesiastical Court of the Church of England in Coventry refused permission for the family of Margaret Keane to include an inscription in Irish on her gravestone without translation. The stated grounds were that such an inscription could be interpreted as a slogan or a political statement.

The inscription the family want for their mother’s gravestone is in ár gcroíthe go deo (‘in our hearts forever’). They have appealed the decision and will run a campaign from 14th – 24th February (the date of the Appeal) to gain support. Read on to see how you can help the campaign, Message to Margaret / @My_Mums_Voice.

The campaign is supported by Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann and Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge, among others.

For more information on the case:

Fiona Audley in the Irish Post:

Martina Devlin in the Independent:

Suggestions from the family on how you can support Message to Margaret

Social media (14th – 24th Feb)

  • You can post a message on social media – a message of solidarity, a song, poem, or anything you’d like!
  • We’d encourage these from the 14th February to the 24th February
  • Please use the hashtag #MessageToMargaret so people can follow and see the responses, and tag our Twitter handle @My_Mums_Voice
  • Also follow and share any of the posts from @My_Mums_Voice

Tuesday 23rd Feb at 7pm – light a candle with #MessageToMargaret

  • We’re asking as many people as possible to light a candle at 7pm on 23rd Feb, and post a photo of the candle with any message you’d like on social media using the #MessageToMargaret hashtag
  • As an example, if you search #JohnsLight on Twitter you can see similar posts for John Hume from last summer
  • It will be a way for all of us to be together, at a time when we are forced apart

Tuesday 16th Feb at 6.30pm – join a discussion hosted by the Labour Party Irish Society

  • The Labour Party Irish Society are hosting a public discussion at 6.30pm on 16th Feb
  • The panel includes members of our family, our legal teams, Conradh na Gaeilge, as well as the Chair of the Irish in Britain APPG Conor McGinn MP and the leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party Colum Eastwood MP who was also at the AGM in November discussing the legacy of John Hume.
  • It is open to all, free to join, and the link to register with more information is here which you are welcome to share with anyone who you think might be interested:

Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann Statement in support of the Message to Margaret Appeal

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