“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  http://nurcanbaysal.blogspot.com/

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 orla@fightingwords.ie

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: https://pen-international.org/

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

Frontline Defenders: https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/

Fighting Words: https://www.fightingwords.ie/


Irish Writers Centre: www.writerscentre.ie

Staccato Literary Salon hold sessions every month at Toner’s: https://www.facebook.com/groups/417591508451471/

Banshee Literary Journal: Bansheelit.tumblr.com


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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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Martina Devlin: On Writing Truth and Dare

(Martina Devlin talks about her latest book, a collection of short stories: Truth And Dare: Short Stories about Women Who Shaped Ireland)


LM: Why did you decide to write fiction about these real historical figures, rather than historical/biographical accounts?
Martina Devlin: There’s magic in fiction. Also, I wanted to breathe life into my women and thought I could do it more convincingly with fiction which allows greater potential to explore human frailty. Some of these women notched up exceptional accomplishments, especially considering the times they lived in, so approaching their stories as biography carried a risk. It might end up like a shopping list of achievements. The project is unusual in that I blend fact and fiction – I reshape known episodes from their lives, inventing conversations and some scenarios while remaining true to the general thrust of what happened. For example, Speranza, Lady Wilde, wrote to the governor of Reading Jail asking for her son, Oscar Wilde, to be brought to see her before she died. That’s a fact. As a writer, I took that nugget of information and imagined (a) why she thought the governor might accede to her request and (b) how she reacted to his refusal. I admire the women I write about – their selflessness and idealism, as well as their practical streak, finding ways to circumvent obstacles – and hoped this fact-into-fiction method might bring them as vividly alive for readers as they are for me.


LM: Where did the idea of writing fictional portraits come from? I’m thinking about your Alice Milligan story in The Glass Shore, was that the first?
MD: Yes, Alice was the catalyst. I wrote about her for The Glass Shore, a wonderful collection edited by Sinéad Gleeson, and people seemed to be interested in Alice although she’s largely unknown among the general public outside her birthplace, Omagh (also my hometown). I learned her poetry in school and knew where she lived. That engagement people showed with her fictional portrait helped me to realise how stories can reach people – they seem to be more real to the audience, somehow. After Alice, I had a go at conjuring up Countess Markievicz and followed her up with Anna Parnell, by which stage I was hooked. Recreating these women is an act of ventriloquism, of course. But I don’t intend it to be fake or disrespectful. For me, it’s an act of celebration.

The idea for the collection came to mind because this year is the centenary of the vote for (some) women in Ireland and Britain, and I wanted to find a way to mark it. I’m a storyteller so it was natural for me to do it by telling stories.

LM: How does writing a collection of short stories like this differ from writing a historical novel, like The House Where It Happened?
MD: You tackle a short story via a sideways manoeuvre, whereas a novel is full frontal – at least the way I approach them. To be honest, the collection was more manageable than a novel because each story is bite-sized, although several are halfway to being novellas. When I was writing them I had the strongest sense that I was slipping inside each person’s skin – I felt like a character in a fairy story who finds a swan’s coat, tries it on and is transformed. The Truth & Dare women dared to imagine a different world and I had to find a way of entering their world, too. Metaphorically, I borrowed their clothes.

LM: How did you choose who to write about?
MD: It was partly a case of them choosing me. Belfast born Mary Ann McCracken has been tapping on my door for ages, except I didn’t know how to tell her story. The same goes for Countess Markievicz. When I decided to try my hand at a collection, I thought about who I admired and why – I chose my heroes. Mary Ann topped my list. And that told me I was looking for women who were daring, who pushed against boundaries. One of the lessons they taught me is the value of partnership because they supported one another.

Every society, every generation, needs heroes. But we have to be reminded about the women, in particular, because so many pioneering women who rattled their cages and challenged the status quo (man-made rules for the benefit of men) have been submerged, minimised or reduced to two-dimensional figures. That’s a misrepresentation of our past. And the past matters because we can learn from it and be inspired by it. These women didn’t ask anyone’s permission before taking control of their own destinies; they just did it. Some of them, such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Dr Kathleen Lynn and Dorothy Macardle, were jailed for their beliefs but that didn’t deter them. I see these women as sticks of dynamite – the repercussions from their actions reverberate still. We can vote, attend college and enjoy workplace protection because of them.

LM: Who did you leave out? (Will there be another collection later?)
MD: I’m haunted by all the women I left out – it’s a really long list but the one I regret most is Anne Devlin. The best I can say is I’d like to write more stories. However, I don’t believe in follow-ups or sequels. For me, I mean. They work for other people. I think if a writer isn’t changing and challenging themselves, they’re not simply standing still but sliding backwards. It is not a question of my becoming bored with a subject. It’s to do with the artist’s responsibility to stretch their parameters. William Golding said the writer should be a moving target and I’d go along with that. I accept that I may lose readers but perhaps I may also gain some. Fundamentally, I don’t want to be an old lady looking back on my life and wishing I’d taken more chances.

LM: Not much chance of that! Do you have favourites among the women?
MD: Mary Ann McCracken because she was loyal, honourable and persistent. In 1798, she walked her brother, Henry Joy McCracken, to the scaffold after he was condemned to be hanged as leader of the United Irishmen’s Northern army. Afterwards, she discovered he had an illegitimate child by a Cave Hill gamekeeper’s daughter and insisted on taking the little girl into the family in 1798 – to heck with any wagging tongues. She made a difference with her life, championing all sorts of causes from the anti-slavery movement to a campaign to stop children being used as chimney sweeps.
I also have a soft spot for Constance, Countess Markievicz. Her heart was in the right place and the people knew it: they turned out in their thousands in 1927 when her coffin passed by, although the Cumann na nGaedheal government refused her a state funeral. The people snapped their fingers and gave her a de facto one. I came across a telling detail during my research. A countrywoman offered the Countess some eggs to help build her up during her final illness. She didn’t manage to deliver them in time … so she left a nest of eggs among the wreaths. A promise was a promise and she felt Madame ought to have them anyway.

LM: What are you working on now/what’s next?
MD: I’m writing a novel about Edith Somerville as part of a PhD in literary practice at Trinity College Dublin. It’s set in 1922-3 when the new Irish state was taking shape – imagined into being; a period of adjustment for someone such as Edith, associated with the ancien régime. I find the period fascinating. Also, I’m interested in Edith’s act of faith in staying and throwing in her lot with the new state – the Ascendancy class didn’t know if property rights would be respected, for example. It’s a pity someone like her wasn’t offered a place in the Senate because she had plenty to say and her contributions would have been worthwhile.
She and her writing partner, Violet Martin, aka Martin Ross, intrigue me for a number of reasons – not least because they pushed against boundaries and were business-minded about their work. They were among the first to have a literary agent, James Pinker from London, who also represented D.H. Lawrence, Henry James and Arnold Bennett. Somerville and Ross were quite clear that they weren’t dilettantes but wanted to earn a living from their writing, asking for royalties rather than one-off payments because their books sold well and pushing for serialisation rights, too. I believe their reputations as writers suffers today because of their Ascendancy backgrounds but we have to find a place in modern Ireland for people of all traditions. Our definition of Irishness remains too exclusive, too racially pure – we have a tendency to pay lip service to diversity despite making a song and dance about our European identity. I deliberately included women in my collection who weren’t born in Ireland, such as Maud Gonne, but who are identified with the place and the people.


Martina Devlin is a novelist and journalist. She has had ten books published, including a collection of short stories Truth & Dare, a novel about Ireland’s last witchcraft trial, The House Where It Happened (optioned for film), and About Sisterland, a dystopian novel about a world ruled by women.

Her work has won a number of prizes including the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize and a Hennessy Literary Award, and she was three times shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards.

A current affairs commentator for the Irish Independent, Martina has been named columnist of the year by the National Newspapers of Ireland. She is vice-chair of the Irish Writers Centre and a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin.

Contact Martina via her website www.martinadevlin.com

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Nuala O’Connor & Sarah Maria Griffin at the LexIcon (October 23rd)

This blog is disgracefully late, but I still want to record elements of a most enjoyable interview/conversation that took place in the Dun Laoghaire LexIcon a fortnight ago between Nuala O’Connor (Nuala Ní Chonchúir) and Sarah Maria Griffin (SMG), current dlr writer-in-residence. They were talking about Nuala’s latest novel, Becoming Belle (Penguin, 2018).

The Belle of the title is Isabel Bilton, who left a middle-class English military family in the late nineteenth century to become, first a music hall star and then the wife of the young Viscount Dunlo, ending up as the Countess of Clancarty despite his family’s objections. The novel is based on a true story. Nuala’s last novel (Miss Emily) was also based on the life of a real person, Emily Dickinson.

She tells us that she’s a hermit by nature. Life makes her uptight and anxious but when she’s writing she’s free. Relaxed. She likes novels because they offer more space to work in but she loves poetry and short fiction too – she’s in love with language, basically.  She had a bilingual childhood and has a degree in Irish.  Her sisters were into crocheting, knitting, always making things. She remembers her mother saying ‘Nuala’s not artistic’ and her sisters cracking up, laughing. Because of course she’s an artist – in language.

She was working with a theatre company in Galway when someone suggested she should join a group and try to publish her stories. She says she was clueless and needed someone else to say it to her. Her first writing teacher was Mike McCormack, then she took a poetry course with Louis de Paor and a group grew from that.

SMG asked if there’s a central question in her work. Nuala said that she had felt that Emily Dickinson had been largely misrepresented and misunderstood. In school she’d been given the dark, depressed version of Dickinson – “it suited me, I was a goth.” But Nuala (who is also a poet) felt there was so much more to Dickinson: the cook, for example. The woman who loved flowers. She wanted to create a real, human representatio

When writing these women, she’s trying to bring them out onto the page. Day to day, she’s at her desk, trying to write scenes, working in the dark. She doesn’t know what she’s doing until the end or even later. She first came across Belle Bilton in Ballinasloe in 2005, doing local history research. She discovered a woman who was a deeply flawed but very human character. Nuala wrote a poem about her first, then a piece of flash fiction, and the story grew from there.

She has a real gift for research, unearthing the telling detail and expressing it in such a way that the time and place she writes about become real for a reader.   She used the British Newspaper archive (she’s a subscriber) and the National Archives at Kew, where she found the marriage certificate and the divorce petition that Viscount Dunlo signed; she went to the Café Royale for something to eat and to Conduit Street, where Belle had lived – ‘ghost chasing,’ she called it.  Staff at the National Portrait Gallery in London were helpful, giving her images to photocopy. Since the book was published, people with connections to the story have come forward – the current Earl Clancarty has a copy.

SMG: So it’s a magnet then, as well as a book.

NOC: She was a real person; it’s a huge responsibility.

 Inventing the Victorians (by Matthew Sweet) was a great resource. ‘It’s a brilliant book,’ and shows the Victorians as real people, with as much excess in their lives as any of us. They were into opiates, for example; self-soothing.  But they weren’t supposed to acknowledge those experiences. ‘Then you had to deal with editors who wanted to remove the opium scene, or the childbirth scene … Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot – they weren’t allowed to include such things in their writing, but I’m writing in the 21st century…We get a sanitised, biased account of that time. The Victorians were a lot freer and more open than we give them credit for.’

SMG: Those missing pieces are really important …

SMG remarked on a quality of incantation in the narrative. ‘How do you do that? Do you keep a diary?’

NOC: As a kid, yes, I kept a diary. I keep a journal when I’m travelling.

SMG: Now, though: aren’t you keeping a journal of the book you’re writing?

NOC: I’m trying to; I’m creating this document, it’s a tool. It’s so helpful when talking about it later – after I finish, when it comes to promotion, figuring out what the book is about. I’m using a brilliant notebook – Claire Keegan says buy the best, then you feel something beautiful in it…

SMG: … ritual, intentional.

Nuala does her research at night: reads, takes notes; then does her creative work in the mornings; gathers her notes and tries to make a scene.

SMG: It’s full of shards, like a mosaic. There are movements  in it – like music.

NOC: If it’s all on one note, it’s like shouting at the reader.

They talked about endings; readers’ expectations and the expectations of editors – who generally want a positive outcome. But readers, Nuala says, are intelligent. They get ambiguity.

SMG loves the use of fabric in the book, remarks on the ways in which Nuala is alert to fabric; Nuala talked about her college experience of putting on plays, amateur dramatics. She bought loads of clothes second hand. Her sister made costumes; another sister was a set designer. Her writing is tactile but she also uses colour and smells.

SMG: (Reading Belle) is a sensual experience for the reader.

NOC: As women too… It’s about our presence in the world as bodies, how our bodies are valued. Belle would have been very much of that world. Her image was on cigarette cards, posters etc.  Reviews in her time said that she had more heart than talent.

SMG: Belle is a good example of acquiring an artistic practice as a method of achieving freedom. She sets her life in motion by artistic practice – which is kind of what we do. Can you talk about that in your own life?

NOC: Working in a theatre in Galway, I became aware of writers as people, colleagues. I wanted their lives, knew the life would suit me. But someone had to say it to me. Someone had to suggest that I find a group, try to publish my stories.

SMG: Is there anything you would tell yourself, maybe back when you moved to Galway – what advice would you give yourself?

NOC: Don’t worry about what people are thinking. Do what you need to do. 500 words a day, or 200. It doesn’t matter. Set modest goals and stick to them. Keep your hand in with reading, exercises. Walk by the sea. Anything that feeds you.  Wake up telling yourself a story.

SMG: Tell us about your ‘cabin.’

NOC: It’s new, an investment, I love it. It has two desks, one for the computer and one for writing. Even doing my taxes in there I’m happy, smiling. I protect my time. The first thing I do every day is the creative part. Mentoring and teaching come later.   I do it in sickness and health. I’m a writer for my sanity; it’s my job as well as my passion and vocation.

SMG: Is this bit (book promotion) anti-writing?

Well, Nuala enjoys this part too. Travel is a bonus but the real bonus of the writing life is in the friends you make. Still, most of the time she just wants to be alone, writing.

SMG believes in the well (of inspiration?) we need to fill so that we can be creative.

NOC: Don’t only fill it up with books.

SMG: Is there anything you go back to for inspiration?

NOC: Visual art. I take the bus to the Hunt Museum  or the National Gallery. I did the Julia Cameron 12 week course (The Artist’s Way).  Certain books are talismanic: Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast; Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice; I’m happy those books are in the world.

She also has a list of books she wants to write. At the moment she’s writing about the wife of a well-known person, but she wasn’t telling us who. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait very long to find out.

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Feminism, Brexit and the Irish Border: Rita Duffy at the Courtauld Institute of Art


(Images are low-res screenshots of overhead projections, taken on an iphone on the night. Go to http://www.ritaduffystudio.com for proper images)

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Low-res screenshot of “Soften the Border” by Rita Duffy

Edwin Coomasaru, a post-doctoral Fellow at the Courtauld Institute introduced Rita Duffy as ‘an artist getting to the heart of the turmoil around us.’ His introduction asked what feminism/gender have to do with Brexit. For answer, he gave us a lightning tour of recent statements, tweets and newspaper headlines to remind us of the inflammatory rhetoric of eg Boris Johnson, pointing out that both Leavers and Remainers use metaphors of powerlessness and that descriptions of effeminate masculinity come thick and fast as Britain is represented as being pushed around by EU bullies. It’s in danger of becoming an EU colony, according to Breitbart. This is classic military strategy, Dr Coomasaru tells us – before showing us a tweet from Nadine Dorries reminding everyone that David Davis is ex SAS, trained to survive and trained to ‘take people out’; followed by a headline from Clare Foges of the Sunday Times “Our Timid Leaders can learn from Strongmen”: i.e.  Trump, Putin, Dutarte, Erdogan… (yes, those individuals are name-checked in that article).


Then we got Arlene Foster declaring that the Good Friday Agreement is not sacrosanct. He didn’t mention the DUP’s ‘red line’ being ‘blood red’ but I think we’d all got the point. The audience was quite agitated by now, (well, this section of the audience was agitated, you’re lucky the notes are in any way legible) so it was a good time to bring on Rita Duffy.

She reminded us at the outset that the Border is not an Irish Border, it’s a British Border (Take that Boris!) The border in Ireland is the beach.  (Oh, we were in excellent hands, here). Rita Duffy lives on the Border. She talked about the experience of women on both sides of the political/religious divide being similar: ‘a paradox of similarities’ and quoted someone whose name I really wish I had caught: People who grow up in war zones are like clay pots fired at too high a temperature – ‘we have fatal cracks we spend the rest of our lives trying to fill.’

The tradition of murals – she loves the idea of taking art out of the galleries and began to make mural sized images herself. She showed slides and talked us through her work, including her Divis Flats project (Drawing the Blinds) and looming portraits of communities divided by walls, and massively dark portraits representing paramilitaries and soldiers. You couldn’t give these away in Belfast then, she said. They were eventually bought by the Imperial War Museum. Other images included a painting of the parka Mairead Farrell was wearing when she was shot( “a haunted garment”) and an orange jumpsuit: “Guantanamo, amas, amat …” Irony is a key feature of Duffy’s work.

She told a story about a policeman who bought a painting, and said if there was anything he could do …? She asked for an AK 47; then cast it in chocolate. That same policeman carried it through security on its way to be displayed in the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. It was also shown during the West Belfast festival. In London people talked about the smell of chocolate. In Belfast they read the serial number and wondered where she’d got the original.

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Low-res screenshot of “Laundry Day in Derry” by Rita Duffy

“Laundry Day in Derry”, a painting of hundreds of bright clean shirts hung out to dry across the top of William Street, recalls the iconic photo of Edward Daly waving a white handkerchief while trying to help Jackie Duddy on Bloody Sunday (that photo was taken on William Street).

Recent work is playful, using humour to puncture prejudice and historical posturing no matter how entrenched they might be. She began to make artefacts that pun episodes or slogans in our history: Nurse O’Farrell’s Suture and Save (Repair the Nation) riffs on the famously airbrushed photograph of Pearse surrendering to General Lowe in 1916. Those nurse and soldier dolls ask: who gets to tell the story and in what way? Who has to stay silent inside the story? “Somme Sticking Plasters” tell their own story. The Unite Ireland Sewing Kit tea towel – with map – is a bestseller. “Don’t be surprised,” Rita Duffy tells this hall (by now) full of students, “if this is the outcome of Brexit.”

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Low-res screenshot of artist’s photo

The items sold in her 2016 “Souvenir Shop” are familiar by now or should be. Items from that project have travelled around the world and found their own correlatives – in Washington her Civil Rights March pillow was displayed alongside a Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’ pillow.

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Low-res screenshot of artist’s photo of a “Souvenir Shop” installation (Washington)

“Soften the Border” was a colourful textile installation on the bridge between Belcoo (Fermanagh) and Blacklion (Cavan) aimed at softening the Border with cushions. It was adopted and added to by locals furnishing soft items and witty afterthoughts of their own. Shown on TV, it went viral, which led to surreal happenings like Al Jazeera turning up to interview a local farmer on the bridge.

Someone commented on the prevalence of food in her work, which she put down in part to feeding growing men.  But seriously, she talked about the Irish tradition of hospitality, how insistent we are about feeding people.  And about famine, then, the memory of it; and the hunger strikes.  To refuse food is a particular insult.  It says, I do not accept you, I do not accept your food, I will not give you friendship or respect.  Someone else mentioned her use of fabric, material etc.  She referred to the history of linen in the North.

Her most recent project involves groups of women North and South – including a group of Travellers who know all about being prevented from passing – coming together to knit, sew and make dolls. There is a group that meets every Tuesday evening to knit and sew together, during which time tea is drunk, biscuits are eaten and stories, inevitably, are told … the withdrawal of funding from Brussels will mean this kind of human communication and exchange will be stopped. It’s a chilling thought. This whole evening was like a masterclass in how skilfully art can subvert politics through invention, intelligence, wit and above all, openness. It is light years away from the posturing and jingoism that constitute the contribution of supposed leaders and policymakers. I wish even one of them had been in the Courtauld Institute tonight. Which is a question in itself – the arts have power, but do the powerful pay attention?

[P.S.: Has she read Anna Burns’s Milkman?  Not yet, but it’s the first thing she’ll do when she gets home and isn’t it brilliant that she won (the Booker)?]

Posted in Art, Brexit | 7 Comments


One year ago today, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist who exposed corruption and criticized the Maltese political establishment, was assassinated. She had received several death threats; fires had been set near her home; her dog had been killed. She knew she was in danger. The final line in her last blog says: “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.”

She posted her blog, as any of us might, stood up from her desk and went out. Within half an hour the car she was driving blew up.

Tonight, we went to a vigil held at St James’s Church, Picadilly organised by International PEN, other NGOs and Maltese citizens living in London. The church is opposite Malta House. I’d guess there were two hundred people there, maybe more. Some holding images of Daphne, some with tealights, candles, other forms of light. There were speeches calling for justice for Daphne, for, at the very least, a public inquiry to be held. Three people have been arrested for her killing but there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to find out who ordered it. On the contrary, life has been made extremely difficult for her husband and sons as they try to discover the truth.

We crossed the road and laid flowers and lights at the door of Malta House. It felt urgent to be part of this vigil, as we wait, with little optimism it has to be said, to hear what really happened to Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Embassy. Knowing that human rights lawyers such as Waleed Abu Al-Khair and bloggers like Raif Badawi are still in prison in Saudi. Knowing, it has to be said, that so many writers and human rights workers are in Turkish prisons too. Because of their work. Because they speak truth to power, because they question power. And maybe because power has stopped caring when its excesses are publicly exposed.

These days we need courageous journalists more than ever. Is that why more and more journalists are coming under attack?

At this year’s Nollaig na mBan celebration at the Irish Writers’ Centre I spoke about Daphne as part of the Freedom to Write Campaign (the other speakers, about other women writers who have been killed because of their work)  were June Considine, Liz McManus, and Éilís ní Dhuibhne).  Here’s an extract from that speech, to refresh your memory about who Daphne Caruana Galizia is and what she stood for. What she still stands for.

“I knew nothing about Malta until Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated but the more I read of her work, the more familiar it began to feel. She wrote against the marriage bar for working women & the financial dominance of husbands (it persisted, as legal fact, until the mid-90s); she wrote in favour of divorce (legalised in 2011) and of same sex marriage, legalised last September. Malta is the only EU country that has a total, outright ban on abortion in any circumstances – Maltese women go to Italy or elsewhere for terminations.

Daphne worked as a newspaper columnist and editor until her death. Newspapers have lawyers that try to anticipate and avoid lawsuits, but her blog, Running Commentary, allowed her to be more expressive and direct in challenging corruption and cronyism in Maltese politics, to say what she damn well meant & to hell with consequence. She was provocative and controversial but her courage is breathtaking. She investigated connections between politicians and money, between business and politicians, politicians and known criminals/underworld figures/rogue states. As the first person to break news of Maltese involvement in Panama, Politico named her as one of “28 people who are shaping, shaking and stirring Europe” & called her a “one-woman WikiLeaks”.

She received frequent death threats. Her home was subject to more than one arson attack, the family dog was killed and its body left on the doorstep as a warning. She was the subject of a campaign to ruin her financially through libel suits which froze her bank account – still frozen at her death even though a crowdfunded precautionary fund had been paid to the courts.

Daphne broke news of members of the Maltese establishment’s links to Panama on 22nd February, 2017. You can read her own account of how she did it on her blog

In her last blog post she wrote about some of individuals she named in February: They “hunted around the world for a shady bank that would take them as clients. In the end they solved the problem by setting up a shady bank in Malta, hiding in plain sight. … There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.”

That blog was posted on 16th October, 2017 at 2:35 pm.

Half an hour later she was dead.”

One year ago today.

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