No Small Talk (Brexit: the Use and Abuse of Language)

Are you concerned about the divisive rhetoric used during prolonged Brexit debates?  Irish people living in Britain report noticing a change in atmosphere and attitudes when the Backstop was a live issue. Friends in the North are understandably sickened by all that’s been said – and left unsaid. Many of us mourn the casually inclusive ‘We’re all in Europe Now’ attitude that made such a difference to the dynamics between all of us who live on our two islands, Ireland and Britain. So what can we do to remind ourselves and each other of all the things that connect us, and what better way to do it than through writing, the arts, and conversation?

NO SMALL TALK is a group of writers who have come together out of concern for the level of division and increasing hostility that has crept into the rhetoric around Brexit. We want to generate links between writers and artists in both Ireland and Britain to challenge this debasing of language and the perversions of truth which are now regular features of public discourse. Our aim is to restore positive links and connections between us all.

To this end, we will hold an introductory meeting on Tuesday, 12th November at 7:00 pm in The Teachers’ Club.

EVENT: Brexit: the Use and Abuse of Language


Bobby Mc Donagh, former Ambassador to the UK

Jo Burns, award-winning poet

Evelyn Conlon, novelist and short-story writer

Carlo Gebler, writer and teacher

CHAIR: Martina Devlin, writer and journalist

WHEN: Tuesday 12th November at 7:00 pm

WHERE: The Teachers’ Club, 36 Parnell Square West, Dublin 1

Following the speakers’ presentations, we hope to see genuine audience engagement in a discussion which will lead to future events and an evolving network of interested writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers. Please spread the word among people who might be interested in joining us in this endeavour.

Admission is free but you must reserve tickets through Eventbrite:

WHO WE ARE: No Small Talk is a sub-group of WORD, a professional writers’ association based in the Irish Writers Centre. (Celia de Fréine, Martina Devlin, Catherine Dunne, Margo Gorman, Sophia Hillan, Liz McSkeane, Lia Mills)

MISSION STATEMENT:  “The aim of this group is to initiate and facilitate a conversation among writers and artists of Ireland & Great Britain in order to strengthen the existing links between us, to recognise the various languages spoken on these islands and we will challenge the current public discourse that creates division and conflict.”

The event is sponsored by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature.

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Writers Under Threat: Nurcan Baysal, Daphne Caruana Galizia


Daphne vigil 16 October 2019 Photo: Simon Robinson

Last Wednesday I was at a moving, powerful vigil for murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Many people spoke about Daphne’s life and read from her work. She had been a consistent campaigner against corruption and collusion throughout her working life, decades in which she and her family withstood a sustained campaign of villification, isolation, intimidation, and blatant threat (both legal and physical), before she was killed by a car bomb in October 2017. Her lawyers say that her death was entirely predictable and preventable, having followed persistent and escalating intimidation. Many Freedom of Expression organisations, including PEN International, Article 19 and Reporters Without Borders, are campaigning for justice for Daphne; they have called for a fully independent, thorough investigation into her murder since it happened.

Nurcan Baysal

At that vigil, I stood beside Nurcan Baysal, who was named Global Laureate of the 2018 Front Line Defenders award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk and is currently on a residency with English PEN. She is at risk because of her work as a writer and journalist, documenting human rights abuses in Turkey. She has been accused of supporting terrorism because she reports instances of abuse against the Kurdish population in Turkey and in Syria, but she also reports PKK transgressions: she is against violence and war, tout court.  Listening to what people said about Daphne Caruana Galizia at her vigil, I was struck by the extraordinary commitment and dedication shown by people like her, people like Nurcan Baysal, who has been arrested and imprisoned more than once, but who has so far been acquitted of all charges against her. Like Daphne, she experiences official harassment and all kinds of more random abuse on social media. Her friends are either in prison or in exile. What gives such courageous, principled people the strength to carry on in the face of so much antagonism, hostility, isolation and danger?

Three days after that vigil, Nurcan’s home in Diyarbakir was raided early in the morning by, she says, 30-40 armed police. She is safe because she is not there at the moment but expects to be arrested on her return. And, she says, her kids were terrified by the scale of the raid. She goes on to say: Those who demand peace and human rights are silenced and brutally oppressed in Turkey. I am just one of them, thousands of others are currently in prison. Your indifference is killing us. Please do raise your voice and stand in solidarity with our struggle before it’s too late.

A statement by Daniel Gorman, Director of English PEN says that English PEN condemns the raid on the house of courageous journalist Nurcan Baysal by Turkish Security Forces. This raid comes as part of an ongoing assault by the authorities on a free media in Turkey, still the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. We call on the Turkish government to respect international conventions on freedom of expression and to support a free and independent media. [Here]

Please read Nurcan’s own powerful article, “I have a debt to Uncle Adnan’s children and all other Kurdish orphans” on Ahval 

She also has an essay in the recent publication by Front Line Defenders and Fighting Words of Yes, We Still Drink Coffee!, an anthology of essays and artwork by and about Human Rights Defenders, curated and edited by Orla Lehane, which will have its Dublin launch in November at the Dublin Book Festival.

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PEN Vigil for Daphne, London, 16th October 1917

It’s hard to believe that almost two years have passed since the Maltese anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, but 16th October will mark the second anniversary of her death.  A fierce critic of the political establishment in Malta, she had received many death threats; she knew she was in danger but she kept writing. On 16th October, 2017 she posted an entry on her blog, ending with the line “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.”

It’s such an ordinary thing for most of us, to post a blog – as I am doing now – then get up from the desk and go out, already thinking about other things. But within minutes, the car Daphne was driving blew up.

Three men charged with her murder have yet to be put on trial. According to PressGazette, a public inquiry is about to start in Malta. But Daphne’s family and other campaigners have called for a fully independent international inquiry into her murder.

PEN International is still campaigning for justice for Daphne and her family. This year they are creating a poetry memorial, because the actual memorial in Valetta has been repeatedly destroyed.

If you are interested in submitting a poem, please observe the following criteria. Poems should be:

  • Under 100 words
  • Three stanzas maximum
  • The poem should make some reference to Daphne Caruana Galizia, the destruction of her memorial,  or the case itself
  • There is no deadline as this is an on-going project and poems will be added to the PEN website as they are submitted.

Please submit the poems to

In addition, to commemorate Daphne’s life, her bravery and her legacy and to continue their call for justice in her case, PEN will hold a vigil in London on 16 October near the Maltese High Commission. (Please check PEN International website for firm details closer to the actual date). Some memorial poems may be read on that occasion.

More info here

And here

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Suspension of UK Parliament, August 2019 (1)

Yesterday (28th August) Boris Johnson asked the Queen to suspend Parliament and she agreed. Jeremy Corbyn (Labour) and Jo Swinson (Lib-Dem) sent letters to the Queen asking her to refuse BJ’s request but they were too late; she had already given her consent. Very, very few people knew this was going to happen; the day before, Nicky Morgan had said it wouldn’t. She must be furious – but will she resign?


The extraordinary circumstance of Brexit, its extensions and its travails, mean that the current Parliamentary session has lasted 400 days. It is tradition for an incoming Prime Minister to set a date with the Queen for Parliament to resume, initiated by a Queen’s Speech which sets out what we would call the Programme for Government, followed by a couple of days of debate on same.

Boris Johnson, as incoming Prime Minister, seems to be within his rights to do this now, even though he was barely confirmed as PM before Parliament broke up for the summer. But what he has done is ensured that Parliament will be suspended in the lead up to the third date set for Brexit, a date which he has consistently said is fixed: Oct 31st. Parliament will sit for one week (starting next Tuesday, 3rd September) followed by the suspension. MPs will return for the Queen’s speech on 14th October. There is a crucial European summit on 17th, after which there will be little room – and even less time –  for manoeuvre.

The day before the suspension, there was an all-party meeting to discuss Opposition strategy for blocking a No-Deal Brexit. They have overcome their differences and shifted their focus from a No Confidence vote to a legislative approach, they were pleased to inform us on the evening news. No rebel Tories showed up at this meeting, although we are assured that there are several and that they will tip the balance against Boris Johnson,  his Cabinet, and the enabling support of the DUP.

Meanwhile, the Privy council was moving secretly towards Balmoral and the delivery of Johnson’s request to the Queen to set the mid-October date for her speech.  The news broke on Wednesday morning with a letter BJ sent to MPs informing them of the new Parliamentary timetable.

Cue: outrage all round. People are furious at what they see as a fundamentally anti-democratic manoeuvre, preventing Parliament from exercising its role and duty of holding the Government to account and doing so at a time of national crisis. Critics include the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, who called it a constitutional outrage. As did Philip Hammond, senior Tory and, under Theresa May’s government, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Arlene Foster welcomed the move. Well, why wouldn’t she, when her own Legislative Assembly has been suspended for so long it looks as though Direct Rule could return to the North?

Even on the streets (in London) people are talking about this suspension (“prorogation”) of Parliament. They talk about a constitutional crisis, and wonder what it means.  The UK doesn’t have a written Constitution as such but it does have a legal framework and long tradition underpinning its legislative and political systems. It’s confusing when politicians talk about ripping up the constitution when there is no such document; but when they refer to a constitutional crisis, this is what they mean: tradition and law find themselves, like the rest of us, in uncharted waters when it comes to Brexit. The limitations of the referendum versus its result; the significance of the outcome; the lies that were told beforehand; questionable sources of – and mechanisms for distributing – funding; Theresa May’s approach to negotiating a deal and all the sorry failures that followed; extension after extension.

But whatever anyone thinks about TM’s approach, it has to be said that she showed up in the Commons, day after punishing day, and faced her critics and her accusers, standing sometimes for 2  or 3 hours through gruelling, marathon sessions of question and insult. In Europe, she cut a lonely figure among all those jocular, backslapping handshaking leaders but she went back, over and over again. She made me think of Michael Collins, sent by DeValera on his futile, fatal errand. Boris Johnson has been called a coward: his approach to criticism appears to be to choke it off at source.

On the other hand, many Leave supporters think he has taken a bold, decisive step and simply outsmarted his opponents. And it has to be said that many people don’t care. They’re either indifferent to politics or they want whoever is in charge to get on with it and bring the uncertainty to an end.


In the late afternoon the crowd at the gates of Downing Street were no bigger than the usual group of tourists with their cameras – the only odd feature was a young woman sitting on the pavement with a notebook, intoning poetry I assumed to be her own, like a biblical message: “Lance the wound …” She was so deeply engrossed in her declamatory trance, it wasn’t in me to interrupt and ask her what she was doing or why, although later I really wished I had.

There was more action up at the Cabinet Office, where a small group of EU standard bearers had gathered, along with a man in a clown suit wearing an unflattering BoJo mask with an inflatable frankfurter-like nose. Occasional shouts erupted.  Occasional jeers were offered by passing Leavers. At one stage, a standard bearer came out to exchange insults with one of these, but the police were there instantly to break it all up, before retreating to their unobtrusive but watchful position. A woman called Sinéad who wears an Irish flag (I’ve seen her before, she tries to come to the protests every day after work) has an EU beret on. I’ve tried to find one before with no luck. She tells me I can get them online but as it happens I buy one later from a People’s Vote person, it’s a fundraiser for the Remain campaign.

The crowds thicken after 5.  Parliament Square fills up. A coalition of left-wing groups have called a protest rally. They’re in Abingdon Green first, but Lib Dem and People’s Vote placards are there too.  Bollocks to Brexit stickers are back, bigger and more vivid than they were before. Dick-tator! Declares one placard.  Stop the madness, pleads another – and: This is Bigger than Brexit.The word fascist is in the air. There’s a cardboard cutout of Mosley at the gate leading into the Commons. There are many shocked-looking people who might never have been around these protests before. The speakers describe their own anger and ask the crowd to share it. It’s time to get angry, they say. It’s time to show it. There are new chants: Stop the Coup! Some passers-by are hostile. “Why do we have to put up with this?”  I heard one young man ask. Fucksake! is in the air too. Those tossers again. The crowd swells and spills over onto the pavement;  people mass at the barriers across the road as well. Parliament Square fills up. The helicopters (police or media?) will be there until late.  Next week, when Parliament returns, will be fiery.

The Welsh Assembly (Wales voted to Leave) has been recalled. In Scotland (which voted to Remain), Nicola Sturgeon called BJ a Tin Pot dicator and said this was a dark day for UK democracy and that BJ’s action has brought Scottish Independence closer.  I wonder about that. Has anyone considered the effect of introducing a European border to the land mass that is Great Britain?

Both sides are adamant:  this is either a cynical manoeuvre to disrupt the democratic process, or it is a perfectly normal application of parliamentary tradition. Tory spokespersons are insisting that they don’t see anything wrong with prorogation now. The opposition have had plenty of time to act before now. This is normal practice, they claim. Perfectly legal.

It may be legal, but is it honest, decent, truthful?

There are legal challenges afoot already. One in Scotland, led by Joanna Cherry and another here in London by Gina Miller.

Walking away from the protest … was that Offred I saw retreating around a corner?

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“Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light” at The National Gallery (London)

The Sorolla exhibition in the National Gallery (London) stunned me. I didn’t know enough to have expectations, and then found myself in front of immense canvasses that spilled light and colour into the gallery. My absolute favourite was this one:

“Mother” by Joaquin Sorolla

The image onscreen doesn’t do justice to the overwhelming effect of the painting,  its power and colour, its radiant peace. I have never seen this subject in a painting before. For all the madonna-and-child images we’ve seen since childhood, this exact idea, the calm-after-birth/storm, was new to me in art.  The paradox is that it is the distance between the mother and her newborn baby that is so evocative: they are separate now, at peace, something new beginning. Photographs of me at similar times testify more to the blotchy, sweaty and usually untidy physical reality that follows birth. This painting is the emotion made physical: we made it and there you are. 

I see you.

A patronising review in The Guardian more or less says that only an idiot could think highly of this artist’s work, but this idiot doesn’t care. Several standout paintings in the exhibition will make you sit and stare, then stare longer. Give yourself plenty of time, you won’t want to rush this.

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light runs until 7 July in the National Gallery; more info here

It will be in the National Gallery of Ireland from 10 August – 3 November; more info here

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CELEBRATE INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: Wednesday March 6th @ Toner’s (Baggot Street) at 7:30 pm

Here’s a small break in tradition: this blog doesn’t usually advertise events in advance (or ever) – but this event is different. The Freedom to Write Campaign group is organising an (almost) International Women’s Day Reading, hosted by Staccato Literary Salon and supported by Banshee Literary Journal. The theme is Freedom of Expression and we will feature the work of two brave women writers who are at risk because of their writing. All the information you need is below.

With thanks to Irish PEN, Fighting Words and Frontline Defenders


This is a Freedom to Write campaign event

Hosted by Staccato Literary Salon

& Supported by Banshee Literary Journal, Fighting Words and Irish PEN


Laura Cassidy,

Celia de Fréine

Lauren Foley

Lisa Harding

Maria McManus

MUSIC: Tracey Gallagher

FEATURED Writers-at-Risk:

NURCAN BAYSAL (Turkey) read by Lia Mills

HADEEL BUQRAIS (Kuwait) read by Catherine Dunne


Who we are: The Freedom to Write Campaign is an independent group of writers that has emerged from WORD, a professional writers’ network associated with the Irish Writers Centre (sic). We work to promote Freedom of Expression by raising public awareness about the plight of writers who are at risk or in prison, or who have been murdered because of their writing. We are linked with Irish PEN and we have worked with PEN International, Fighting Words and Frontline Defenders on some of our actions to date.

Members of FTW have recently worked with Fighting Words and Frontline Defenders on a book that highlights the work of our featured writers-at-risk, along with others (see below). We decided to recognise these two brave women as our featured writers-at-risk for this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations.

Picture Jason Clarke.


Nurcan Baysal is a Kurdish human rights activist and writer, based in Diyarbakir, Turkey. She has been active in poverty and development issues and in setting up a number of NGOs in the Region and has won many awards for her work. She is a member of the women’s movement and several peace movements in Turkey. She is at risk because her journalism, blogs and other writing focus on human rights and war crimes. Her latest book O Sesler/Those Voices describes the bombardment of Diyarbakir 2016-217.



Hadeel Buqrais is a human rights defender and writer. She works as a freelancer to monitor and document human rights violations by the Kuwaiti government. She has been actively involved in  ‘Namshi Laha’,  (‘Walking for Her’), a campaign to secure rights for women in Saudi Arabia. Hadeel also campaigns for equality for the Bidun, an ethnic minority within Kuwait that is subjected to wholesale discrimination.


In summer 2019 Fighting Words in partnership with Front Line Defenders will publish a collection of writings by women writers about women human rights defenders around the world. The publication includes pieces about Kurdish journalist Nurcan Baysal and Kuwaiti writer Hadeel Buqrais, in addition to human rights defenders from Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt, Palestine and Somalia. For information on this publication contact

For more information on how you might support Human Rights work in relation to writers who are at risk, in prison or have been murdered because of their writing please go to the following websites:

PEN International:

Irish PEN:

Frontline Defenders:

Fighting Words:


Irish Writers Centre:

Staccato Literary Salon hold sessions every month at Toner’s:

Banshee Literary Journal:


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The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square (London)

The Foundling Museum on London’s Brunswick Square is a treat to visit. We’ve been there twice in the last few months and on both occasions we nearly had the place to ourselves. Which seems like a point in its favour, but it’s not so great from the museum’s point of view; it deserves more traffic – especially with its current exhibition. For Bedrooms of London, photographer Katie Wilson and writer Isabella Walker have compiled a series of images of the bedrooms of children living below the poverty line in this city.  Its premise is all the more effective for being so simple: a series of photographs of rooms where children sleep, with short textual accounts of their circumstances, describing their living situations, how they got there, what they want and what they lack, what they imagine to be ahead of them. The absolute knockout realisation comes from the predominance of single-parent – for parent, read mother – families among these brave, exhausted people. How trapped they are. The photos and text are sobering, they deserve attention. Although there are one or two supportive fathers, the overwhelming impression is that it is women who are left to cope in these extreme circumstances.

Where are the fathers of these children? One of them, we are told is ‘pursuing his dream of becoming a rap star’ while the young mother of his small children struggles to provide for and protect them, unable to work until they are both old enough for school. That simple line, about the pursuit of a dream, says it all. The question of absent fathers is all too familiar, but we don’t hear it asked often enough. We should never stop asking. All talk of the Magdalen Laundries in Ireland is about the women – where were the fathers of all those babies? Who concealed and protected those men so that they were free to get on with their lives and ‘pursue their dreams’ while their partners were caught and, effectively,  imprisoned? In one of the exhibition stories, we are told that a woman called Kelly, who had been trafficked as a domestic slave, now lives in one room with her one-year old son. They rarely leave their borough because travel is so expensive. She fills her time cleaning their bare room ‘so that she doesn’t have to think.’

The Bedrooms of London exhibition was made in partnership between the Childhood Trust & the Foundling Museum. A previous exhibition, Ladies of Quality and Distinction, showed portraits of women who signed Thomas Coram’s 1735 petition to King George 11 calling for the Foundling Hospital to be established. The portraits temporarily displaced portraits of illustrious men who served on the board. (Note: temporarily) The museum’s website points out that, although the ‘face’ of the hospital was male, women were essential to its day-to-day management at every level, from wet-nurse to matron. Isn’t it interesting that the acceptable face of such an institution was male when the over-riding circumstance that caused so much misery and hardship for women was the absence of male support. A striking feature of the hospital’s history is that the arts world was quick to offer its support to the enterprise. Hogarth was a key influence here, donating paintings and persuading his friends to do the same. Handel composed an anthem for the hospital and performed several fund-raising concerts. There is an ongoing, comprehensive arts programme of which Bedrooms of London is the most recent outcome.

Upstairs we went to a screening of Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold’s powerful 2009 film set in Essex. Fifteen year old Mia, tough, aggressive, free-spirited and brave, navigates the treacherous currents of her time and place while practising for the dancing audition that she hopes will give her a way out of her circumstances. No spoilers here, but I will say that at the end of the film, she leaves home. But if the suggestion is that she is riding into the sunset and a new life, my own depressing sense of her story is that she’s headed more or less directly for the world of the Bedrooms of London exhibition downstairs. Which is, of course, the world she is trying to escape.

A few months ago we came across Lily Cole’s film Balls, not in the Foundling Museum (which also showed it at the time) but in Haworth Parsonage. Cole was the Bronte Society’s creative partner for 2018 and she made the film to mark the bicentenary of Emily Bronte. In it, she imagines Heathcliff as a baby, being brought to a Foundling Hospital by his mother. The title comes from the Foundling Hospital’s custom of having a collection of white, black and red balls in a bag, chosen blind by each petitioning mother in turn. If you chose a white ball, your baby was accepted, conditional on a medical exam. A black ball meant rejection. A red ball put your baby on reserve, to be taken in if a white-ball baby failed the medical. There is no melodrama in this quiet, extraordinary film. It quietly reaches inside your ribcage and tugs your heart loose, as though mistaking it for one of those fateful, desperately needed, absolutely dreaded, balls.

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BREXIT (The night Theresa May’s deal was voted down)

Reuters reports today that there are plans afoot to move the Royal Family out of London if things turn sour  I didn’t intend to blog about Brexit, but this jogged my memory. We were in London in the middle of January for the vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal (defeated 432-202) and Jeremy Corbyn’s subsequent vote of no confidence (lost, but not by much). The atmosphere in Westminster was peculiar.  I made notes on my phone. Tourists went on taking selfies of themselves in front of buildings famous from news stories like this one, more interested in the bricks and mortar than in history unfolding all around them. People wrapped in flags – EU flags, Union Jacks, St George’s Cross (and some in an amalgamation of some or all of those ) – strode up and down or stood conferring in urgent, impassioned groups. Buses and vans drove around in circles hoping to have their slogans caught by TV news cameras. A few hardy people did the same with placards. Then there were the badges and the stickers. Leave Means Leave.  Bollocks to Brexit. Cancel Brexit. We Demand a People’s Vote.


The Leavers are louder, is my unprofessional assessment. They have drums, too, which have uneasy connotations for an Irish observer. The Remainers seem more numerous but also more restrained. Do those two things cancel each other out? It’s hard to know whether a second referendum would produce a different result. A lot of people say they blame the EU for the mess they’re in now. Some blame Ireland. Some MPs who should – and probably do – know better, blame Ireland. Here’s what people were saying on the streets, on the day of that vote. The vote Theresa May lost, before she undid her own hard-won agreement in order to win support from her own party; before she made it clear to the rest of the world that there was no point in negotiating with her about anything. A deal, apparently, is not a deal at all.

One old woman was yelling that Remainers should be shot while another, wearing a festive EU beret and wrapped in an EU flag, walked calmly past.  A lone, home-made, placard pleaded: MPs: Vote with your conscience. A Liberty Bell tolled. There were UKIP banners and People’s Vote banners.  A Spitting Image-like montage depicting Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and David Davis drove around in widening circles, reappearing at regular intervals. It declared Brexit is a monstrosity. Regular appearances by an Original Tour bus, (effectively a Union Jack on wheels) was a happy accident for the Leave camp.

Photo: Simon Robinson

An excited type shrieked for the police. He didn’t have to wait long, they were everywhere. “Anyone with a Bollocks to Brexit sticker should be arrested,” he insisted. He was nearly in tears. They tried to soothe him. An American reporter came over to a different group of police and asked them to make the drums and the liberty bell stop.  She was told that they were exercising their democratic right to be heard. She said they were interfering with her viewers’ democratic right to hear what she had to say. She was there on behalf of the entire media, she said, gesturing behind her. Her colleagues were just getting on with it. Some were checking their notes. One reporter smoked non-stop. Every time I saw her, she had a fresh cigarette in her mouth. It looked like a festival in there, where the media were. There were little white tents and a few large stages. I wondered who got to decide which channel could go where – some were clearly in more advantageous spots than others. I suppose there was money involved. Leavers and Remainers hung over the railings side by side, hoping their banners or their painted faces would be caught on camera. The arguments the exchanged were mostly civil, although one man did say to a young woman, I hope you get home safely – an oddly threatening comment, no? A man waved a trio of balloons on what looked like a pantomime fishing rod, edging it closer to the BBC and Channel 4 stages.

There were balloons, there was singing. A woman asked a Leaver: will you be happier, if we leave? A man held up a banner saying: Leave, then negotiate. Another man came up to him and said, I like your banner, it’s the best I’ve seen. If we just leave – then all the french farmers and cheese and wine makers will sort it out. They want to sell to us – they’ll burn Paris to get a deal.

Someone yelled: Surrendering our Sovereignty is treason! Two young women passing-by exchanged looks. It’s really scary when you hear someone say that, one of them said.

A woman turned to me sadly: Just in two years, this has happened. The language that can be used against us is very aggressive.

There was a lot of jostling near the media railing, a stir of interest: Is that her? Asked who they were looking for, they said, Laura Kuenssberg. The week before, pro-EU MP Anna Soubry was hassled by a hostile crowd on her way back to Parliament from the BBC stage.   There were shouts of Nazi! She told reporters that she wasn’t afraid but Jo Cox was on everyone’s mind.

There was a lot of discussion, some shouting but no jostling today.  Back at the media scrum, there was a lot of complaint about John Bercow’s interventions. He was defending parliament, one person said but was contradicted by another: He’s not fit to be Speaker, it’s disgraceful.The word treason was liberally chucked around, attaching itself to named individuals on one side or the other as well as to Remainers in general and the People’s Vote organisers in particular.


Around in Parliament Square the People’s Vote had a stage and giant screens broadcasting speeches to a crowd, thousands-strong, who cheered and waved their banners. It could have been a match, everyone in their colours, each side with its own chants. I think it was Tony Robinson who said, Let me be clear: there is no left wing case for Brexit and got a roar of approval. When the vote was announced, Theresa May’s bill being defeated 432-202, there were chants of Resign! They eventually faded. We peeled away, wondering what would happen next.

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Contemporary Turner? Katie Paterson & JMW Turner at Turner Contemporary Gallery, Margate

“A place that exists only in moonlight” – Katie Paterson and JMW Turner (26th January – 6th May 2019)

What a surprise it was to find the Turner Contemporary Gallery. I have to admit, the seafront at Margate looked fairly forlorn on a chill, wet Friday morning in January until we came on the Gallery and went in, not knowing what to expect. We were met by Cornelia Parker’s whimsical, gorgeous Perpetual Canon installation in the fabulously light space of the Sunley Gallery: 60 Brass instruments, once part of a band, now flattened to two dimensions and suspended in perfect, shining balance in front of windows overlooking the North Sea and Antony Gormley’s Another Time.

Upstairs, we had an informal preview of the Katie Paterson exhibition, due to  open the next day. We had no idea this was on, let alone that we would have access to it before the formal opening. I was a fan of Cornelia Parker’s PsychoBarn, which I’d seen at the RA, and was thrilled by Perpetual Canon, but I’d never come across Katie Paterson’s revelatory work before. It would be impossible to express the full extent of its mind-opening impact, you really need to experience this work for yourself.

Paterson’s thematic range is apparently infinite in one way, admirably focused in another.  She works with ideas about light, space, time, matter, colour and form, collaborating extensively with engineers, astronomers, technologists, geologists, paleontologists and foresters. Many of her projects will span a lifetime’s work and one, Future Library: 2014-2014 reaches beyond her own lifetime. This project has seen her plant 1,000 trees in Norway, destined to be used to make paper for a series of books, to be written at a rate of one per year, each by a different writer and held in trust, unread until they are all printed at the same time in 2114, by which time none of us are likely to be around to read them. We can have a sneak preview though: a title page of manuscript is on display, part of this exhibition.  Text by Paterson explains that her project “questions the present tendency to think in short bursts of time …”

Time, she explains in another panel of text, features in all of her work. It’s hard to describe why she is drawn to it, but “it’s to do with being outside myself, and being inside a more universal network where distance and time might not necessarily exist.” A string of ordinary-looking beads suspends from the ceiling as though from the sky, each bead turns out to be a fossil, a dated piece of geological evidence of the passage of time.

In another room, an automated grand piano plays Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, hitting an occasional wrong note, missing the odd beat. This is Earth–Moon–Earth. A wall panel explains the installation.  The musical score of the Sonata was translated to Morse Code, which impulses were then transmitted to the surface of the moon. The sound that was reflected back was altered due to irregular features on the Moon, some being lost (presumably in craters) while others were partially absorbed or deflected – this is the same principle used in diagnostic ultrasound, which negotiates the inner spaces and physiology of our bodies. On the grand piano at Turner Contemporary, the left hand plays the original, perfect, score while the right hand plays the altered version returned from the moon. (I know, you might have to read that bit again.) The effect is uncannily human.  You hear an odd note here, a hesitation there, a missed bar somewhere else. Two separate wall panels display the score-as-code: one perfect, the other with gaps and alterations.

The ambition and scope of this work is mind-blowing. Paterson herself doesn’t seem to find anything unusual in its fusion of art and science. Another wall panel offers her view that “I don’t find my work itself scientific: it deals with phenomena and matter, space-time, colour and light. Like turner’s work, it is rooted in sensory experience.”

And here is the link with Turner. Paterson has chosen about two dozen of Turner’s paintings, representations of light and colour: earth sea and sky; the moon and cosmic events – to be displayed in conjunction with her own work. Turner’s awe-inspiring Eruption of Souffrier St. Vincent, for example, is displayed opposite Paterson’s Cosmic Spectrum, a spinning colour wheel made in collaboration with light engineers to approximate a colour for the universe, a colour that changes over eons.

Caroline Herschel’s annotated copy of Flamsteed’s 1729 Atlas Coelestis

An extension of the collaborative principles of the exhibition (a video shows Paterson in conversation with local residents in order to choose three works from the Ideas series for development), Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville are also represented in the exhibition via notebooks.


It would take a normal mortal a lifetime of looking and thinking at Paterson’s work to absorb even a fraction of its implications. There is far too much to describe in a mere blog and in any case,  this artist will also be several steps ahead of us – another lifetime’s work already in progress is Ideas: a series of artworks designed to be completed in the viewer’s imagination. The artist expresses short bursts of ideas in silver lettering. It’s up to us to do the rest:

“Precious metals/returned/to their stars”

“A night light/the colour/of the end of time”

And, of course:

“A place/that exists/only in moonlight”

(The Ideas series is published in book form, available to buy at the exhibition)

See more about the exhibition here


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Interview with Celia de Fréine: On writing a biography – in Irish – of Louise Gavan Duffy

LM: Congratulations, Celia: your biography (in Irish) of Louise Gavan-Duffy – Ceannródaí – has been shortlisted for the very first Irish language category in the upcoming Irish Book Awards. For as long as I’ve known you, you have consistently championed writing in Irish, calling for its inclusion at literary events and on panels and in anthologies. Before we talk about Ceannródaí, can you tell us what this new category of award means to Irish Language writing generally and to you in particular?

CdF: This new category of award helps place Irish language writing centre stage. There are already several awards for literature in Irish, in particular those awarded by Oireachtas na Gaeilge every year but, generally speaking, it is only the world of Irish language speakers who knows about these. With this new award many people in the book business will be made more aware of Irish language writing. I am thrilled that Luíse Ghabhánach Ní Dhufaigh Ceannródaí has been shortlisted for the award and in the year of its inception. It has drawn attention to my book and garnered lots of good wishes and interest in it.

LM: Do you see yourself as a language activist? Could you tell us about your role in Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge, for example?

CdF: Yes, it’s true to say I am an activist when it comes to writing in Irish and to promoting that writing. Aontas na Scríbhenoirí Gaeilge is a lobby group that seeks to explore what opportunities are available to writers in Irish, to create new opportunities and to decide how best to exploit these opportunities. I am at present chair of the Aontas. So far we have met the Directors of various institutions to discuss what we can bring to the table and how our needs can be met.

LM: What drew you to write about Luíse/Louise Gavan-Duffy in the first place? And would you tell us how your interest grew from writing the play to writing a full-length biography? Were you nervous about taking on such a big project?

CdF: When I was in America some years ago I attended a talk about Constance Markievicz and during the discussion afterwards drew attention to the fact that when it comes to discussing the women of 1916, Louise rarely features. She was however the first joint secretary of Cumann na mBan, spent Easter Week in the GPO and co-counded Scoil Bhríde, Ireland’s first gaelscoil, in 1917. Her legacy lives on to this day in the Irish spoken in the classrooms and playground by the four hundred plus children who attend her school and in the other gaelscoileanna throughout the country.

As the 2016 centenary celebrations drew near there seemed to be little interest in Louise so I decided to write a play about her. When I had written the play I realized not many had seen it. As I had already done a fair amount of research, I decided to continue and write the biography so that her achievements would be put on permanent record. And yes, I was shaking in my shoes at the thought of taking on something that big.

LM: Will it be translated into English (please say yes)? And if so, will you translate it or would you leave that task to someone else?

CdF: Although lots of people are reading Ceannródaí (which includes lots of quotes in English and French) and although the feedback is positive, I keep hearing from others who are unable to read it in Irish and who have asked that it be translated into English. The answer is that yes, it probably will be translated into English. And by me. Already three different publishers have expressed an interest in the manuscript.

LM: You write poetry, essays and plays in both English and Irish. How do you decide which language is right for any given subject?

CdF: With poetry I’m always moving between languages. I tend to write plays in Irish or English, depending on who the target audience is. Essays, talks, etc., are in response to demand / requests also. Ceannródaí is my first book length work of prose. Had anyone told me a few years ago that that book would be a biography in Irish I wouldn’t have believed them. As a poet, or indeed as a playwright, I tend to write with a minimum of words and have always baulked at the thought of a full length book in prose. But there is no accounting for what happens!

LM: You’re writing a novel in Irish now, can you tell us about that?

CdF: It’s a novel set in Connemara and involves a young widow, who comes to work for An Garda Síochána as a forensic psychologist and who teams up with a Detective Inspector whom she knows from way back. It’s the kind of book that could develop into a series but, as soon as it’s finished, I’ll be heading down the poetry route.

LM: It sounds like the kind of book that would make for good television too …TV stations take note.  Best of luck with it all, Celia and in particular good luck at the Book Awards on 27th November.

Voting is still open here

There are 18 categories to vote on.  Visit An Post Irish Book Awards 2018 for the full list of shortlisted entries.

An extended interview/conversation between Celia and me features in the current issue of Irish University Review Vol 48 issue 2 (November 2018).

An earlier interview can be read online in The Dublin Review of Books here.


Celia de Fréine is a poet, playwright, screenwriter and translator who writes in Irish and English. She was born in Newtownards, County Down and now divides her time between Dublin and Connemara. Awards for her poetry include the Patrick Kavanagh Award(1994) and Gradam Litríochta Chló Iar-Chonnacht (2004). To date she has published eight collections of poetry of which cuir amach seo dom : riddle me this (Arlen House, 2014), Blood Debts (Scotus Press, 2014) and A lesson in Can’t (Scotus Press, 2014) are her most recent. Her plays have won many Oireachtas awards and are staged regularly. Luíse Ghabhánach Ní Dhufaigh Ceannródaí, her biography of Louise Gavan Duffy was published by LeabhairCOMHAR in 2018.

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