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A Stony Thursday

Ready to launch

Ready to launch

A storm broke as I set off yesterday evening from my parents’ house in Ennis, heading for the launch of The Stony Thursday Book at the Cuisle Poetry Festival. By the time I reached the edge of Limerick, a monsoon was pelting itself at the windscreen. I skirted around the back of the North Circular Road, along a roadway cut between its back gardens and the banks of the Shannon. In the downpour , afraid to take my eyes off the road, I flung a thought in the direction of  the first home I had known. Further on, before I headed for the bridge, I did the same to the last house on the left : my mother’s old home; where my Great-Grannie Fitzell had died.

IMG_1176 (2)

You submit. You hope. You get rejections. And – in the words of dear Samuel Beckett – you go on. Sometimes the email brings good news. In August, Peter Sirr – guest editor of this year’s Stony Thursday – emailed to say he was accepting two of my poems. He doesn’t know it, but his email couldn’t have arrived on a better day.

Knute Skinner, Jo Slade, Peter Sirr

Knute Skinner, Jo Slade, Peter Sirr

The book is a thing of beauty, thanks in no small part to the artwork by John Shinnors – one of my favourite artists. Among the many contributors are Sara Berkeley, Moya Cannon, Gerard Smyth, Mary O’Donnell, Fred Johnston, Thomas Lynch, Harry Clifton … I could go on and on.

It was great to meet Peter at last and there were a few familiar faces around. Eiléan NI Chuilleanáin and Macdara Woods will be reading later in the weekend. Both gave us a preview last night, reading their contributions to the anthology.  Also reading were John Sexton, Jo Slade, Noel King, Knute Skinner, Paddy Bushe … and your humble correspondent!

Later in the evening Paddy, Slovenian poet Veronika Dintinjana, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill gave marvellous readings of their work. The variety one encounters at poetry readings never ceases to amaze me. It was a hugely enjoyable evening. And while Paddy and Nuala may be familiar to some of you, return to them. Veronika’s work – she read in Slovenian and English – is like a precision bombing. A quiet comfortableness created, then a line comes in for the kill before you see it coming.

It was a special moment for me. The last time I had been in the Belltable (as it then was), I was acting with Island Theatre Company. Then, my Grannie was alive. Now, reading Limerick in Spring, 1918 I could bring her, her siblings, and my great-grandmother back – if only for a few moments. The poem is an attempt to funnel the Great War into an Irish domestic setting, and to acknowledge a part of Irish life that was almost written out the history books:  something as simple as giving soldiers a Sunday tea.

Fitzells and visitors

Fitzells and visitors

As the readings finished, Nuala Ní Dhomnaill, who was sitting across from me, said that she thought my poem was beautifully ‘achieved’. Well, dear Reader,  it was just as well I was sitting down, or I’d have fallen out of my standing. A compliment is always a lovely thing – but a compliment from Nuala was hug-yourself-good! Better still was the mini discussion about the context of the poem; about getting historical facts right; about the joys and frustration of research. Those few minutes, snatched before Nuala’s reading, were moments I’ll treasure.

That, and bringing my womenfolk home again.

Limerick in Spring, 1918

Limerick in Spring, 1918


Happy National Poetry Day!

Busy busy today, so here is a quick contribution for the day that’s in it:

a link to The Pillow, by the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti.

You can read an interview with Barghouti in The Guardian here. I also recommend that you read his wonderful memoir, I Saw Ramallah. It was one of the books I read before I travelled to the Palestinian West Bank in 2008; its lyricism and images remain with me.


I’ve just finished reading Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallaxwhich won the 2013 T.S. Eliot Prize. One of my favourites from that volume has to be ‘1801’.

Recently, I bought a second hand copy of The Rattlebag, edited by Seamus Heaney & Ted Hughes. I’ve been dipping into it every night before I put my head on my ownpillow. It’s fun: just opening a page and seeing what a poetry lucky dip has in store for me before dreamtime.

Whatever you do this National Poetry Day – have a good one. And, if you can just take a bit of quiet time for yourself, read a verse or two.

A Poem for Ireland

Yesterday saw the launch on RTE Radio and Television of  A Poem for Ireland.

Initial submissions will be whittled down to ten poems. There will then follow ‘A national conversation’, before the winner is announced. Nothing like a national conversation to throw up a bit of controversy.

John Kelly will also present a new documentary on Irish poetry from its earliest origins (written, presumably) – well over eight hundred years ago.


.A poem for Ireland

Dig deeper, search further, think harder … Get voting, People.Let’s get a varied list!

Visit the website to cast your vote.

Like on Facebook


Wink & Elbow Language

Frank McNally is a bit of a gem. He’s heading for Junior National Treasure – only because he hasn’t reached the official age of retirement.

I have read his Irish Times columns for many years. I love his humour, turn of phrase, and the way he can twist a theme in on itself. His love of language is infectious.

Today, he wrote about a small item in the property market lists: The sale of Billy Brennan’s barn. Being a Monaghan man, this is familiar terrain for McNally.

Those of us who recognised the name smiled immediately, and read on. You may read ‘Bidding for Literary Fame’ here.

To elucidate a little, here is the poem which references that barn:

Inniskeen Road: July Evening

The bicycles go by in twos and threes -
There's a dance in Billy Brennan's barn tonight,
And there's the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone. 

I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

-Patrick Kavanagh

…   The words of another Monaghan magician.
Patrick Kavanagh (

Patrick Kavanagh

Walter Macken Re – E – newed

A quick update on the Walter Macken front.

Bello publishing – part of PanMacmillan – are to release some of Macken’s out-of-print novels as E-books.

You can listen to a report about it on today’s Morning Ireland on RTE Radio 1. It includes a short interview with Macken’s eldest son, Wally (Walter Jnr).

Great news for those who have wanted to discover, or re-discover Macken’s work.

The Silent People, the second of the history trilogy - set during the Great Famine

The Silent People, the second of the history trilogy – set during the Great Famine


Chips … with a side of Yeats & Heaney, please.

Yeats Memorial Building

So I arrived in Sligo on Sunday, in time for the launch of the Yeats International Summer School by Alan Gilsenan: film maker, writer, playwright … hell, renaissance man basically.  The next time I blog about the School it will be in a more serious vein, and I will return to Gilsenan’s speech because he made some very pertinent points. Some things haven’t changed since Yeats spoke of greasy tills and Art beaten down.

But for now, a quick postcard from Sligo:

As I type in the internet café the sun has come out at last. It’s either poured, rained, spat, or mishted [sic] since I got here. And what matter. Sunday found me in a grey Drumcliffe brightened by the rector’s welcome to our bundle of Yeats scholars arriving for Evensong – now a long established tradition. The service included a prayer of gratitude for the patrons of the School, notably those who fund the Pierce Loughran scholarship, of which I am a happy and grateful recipient. Thanks to the Loughran family I am in Sligo fed and found, with entry to all events.  Whether a believer or not, it’s always nice to say thank you. And my Mum will be delighted that her pagan daughter ended up in a church on a Sunday, singing All Things Bright & Beautiful!

There was a trip around Yeats country, and a dinner for everyone to top off  Sunday. Then, time to settle in, get my bearings and find a rhythm to the days.  I’ve never stayed in Sligo before,but I think I’ve managed to grasp the one way system and to suss out the decent parking spots. Some of us are staying outside the town in the Yeats Village student accommodation (yes, the poor man is everywhere).  I’ve furnished my student nest with necessities: real coffee, cafétiere, books, my poetry notebooks, a radio, chocolate. Reader, I’m a happy camper.

The day breaks into two lectures in the morning, lunchtime events here and there, a  weekly-themed seminar from 4.30 to 6pm, with evening readings at 8pm followed by mayhem in various bars. There was an Open Mic in the Yeats Memorial Building Café today; another one next week.  The Yeats Society is housed there and is a great resource – the library in particular. The staff and volunteers are fantastic. Looking to the future, they have formed a Young Yeats Society, some of whom are volunteers for these two weeks of the School. One of them, Kerry, is in my seminar.

Today I needed time out, and drove south west to Strandhill, where I hit the lauded Shells Café for a very late brunch. Bless them – I got there on the cusp of 1pm and they still gave me a breakfast of Eggs Arnold and damn fine coffee. Oh, and a side of chips.

Those chips!

They were the chips of our memories: chips from a real Italian chipper; the chips you had as a kid on the first day of your holidays at the seaside; the chips your Dad brought home as a surprise; chips with crunch, and crispy bits; chips that were handcut; chips – in short – that were made and cooked with Lurve.

shells cafe

I will dream of those chips. In fact, I may have to travel back out to Strandhill for another SOUP PLATE of them. Yup – they arrived in a soup plate. €3.  I repeat. €3. That’s all. For a little bit of potato heaven. Served with a smile.

I got a takeaway coffee in a funky Shells paper cup and stood at the sea wall, letting the incoming mist hit my face, clearing cobwebs of academic argument. Then, turning Mighty Aphrodite – the Blue VW Polo – around, I headed up Knocknarea mountain and back around to the archaeological site of Carrowmore. I was running out of time, but another €3 at the small, perfectly formed Office of Public Works centre bought me the chance to walk a mown grass path up to the large cairn. I circled it and the megalithic tomb within, before heading back to town in time for my seminar. This week it’s Yeats and Heaney, and it’s just GREAT. More of that anon.

But for now, a little tongue-in-cheek whatnot I conjured up on the drive back into Sligo:

The Yeats School Days – in Clichés.

Three euro to park in the Cathedral,

Three euro for 5000 years of Carrowmore.

You pays yer money,

You takes yer choice.

Then straight off the rocks,

Into Heaney and Yeats.

Shaken and stirred.

c. Karen J McDonnell July, 2014.

Straight off the rocks

Straight off the rocks

Now, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve a reading from the Gallery Poets to get to!!

A Literary Summer

Summer is flying by. The days dedicated to gardening, catching up with jobs around the house, visitors, and coffee in the The Tea Rooms & the Soda Parlour  have been bookended by two literary firsts for me. As I head off to the second one, it’s about time I mentioned the first!

Welcome to Listowel

Listowel Writers’ Festival is must for readers and writers alike. Now running for 43 years, it’s a festival embraced by the community which hosts it. In that respect it reminded me very much of the relationship the people of Wexford have with the Wexford Festival Opera. When I lived in Dublin it was difficult to get time off work and, as I didn’t drive then, Listowel seemed a far off place to get to. This year, I told myself, THIS year I’ll get there. No exams, no job… feck the no money. Just pull it out of the savings and go! And, if I was going, I was going to do a workshop.

Writers’ Week  ran from 28 May to 1 June this year. I signed up for a couple of events – as my budget allowed. The workshop was Travel Writing with Mary Russell - a woman I’ve long admired. Anyone interested in knowing about Syria (before it was torn apart) should read My Home is Your Home. And also check out The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt a book about women travellers that inspired a young artist friend of mine, Clodagh Kelly. Her painting of the same title hangs in my kitchen. For Mary, travelling from Dublin to Listowel sans voiture is not a problem. Bus and train and an unhurried attitude. That’s all it takes.

The workshop was fantastic. Weeks before, we had emailed work to the wonder-workers at the Festival Office. This Mary had already read and written comments on – it was handed out to us on the first day. That day too we had homework – 500 words if you don’t mind. Not having a laptop, mine had to be written and then written out ‘good’, as we used to say in school. It was fun managing that between readings, socialising, and an open mic in a pub!

The three days spent with Mary and in the company of fellow classmates flew by. The sun shone – most of us went for al fresco lunches together. Mary joined us. She ensured a class photo was taken, and made time to meet up with anyone who wanted to discuss their work. Such commitment to her class was truly appreciated. Everyone had time to speak or read in class, the information and tips that were given were really helpful, and we had to work hard while we were there. What more could you ask of a workshop?

Mary Russell: a damn fine writer; a true lady; a pleasure to meet.


Listowel is situated in lush north Country Kerry, surrounded by hills. The river Feale runs through it and behind the Listowel Arms Hotel where many of the readings took place.  Staying in a B&B in the centre of town was a great decision. There was free parking for the whole of the festival and many of the venues were either near or in the central Square. Lucky Listowel to have the Seanchaí Centre as well as  St John’ s Theatre (in a small renovated church). Pubs had music, readings and open mics. I took part in Poets’ Corner myself – with the support of a classmate and the locals.


Like Wexford, Listowel is a place to which people return year on year. This first-timer enjoyed watching the ebb and flow of conversations, laughter and greetings. For myself, it was a chance for a face to face meeting with a Facebook friend, writer and poet Mary O’ Donnell, as we flew in different directions to & from readings. I reconnected with a woman I’d met when I read at last year’s Strokestown Poetry Festival, and with its 2013 artistic director, poet Martin Dyar. And proving the phrase ” You can do nuthin’…”  I bumped into Ríona, the Societies’ Officer from my University!

After a morning’s workshop, with a limited budget and a choice of up to 20 events a day – what was a girl to do? I focussed mostly on poetry: The Gallery Press Tour with readings by Vona Groarke, Gerald Dawe and Peter Fallon;  Sinéad Morrissey interviewed by the wonderful Anne Enright; and the fiction writer and poet writer Tishani Doshi – who was new to me. Doshi’s collection Everything Begins Elsewhere is worth seeking out.

Saturday was a fiction double-bill.  Writer Louise Doughty was paired with Canadian writer Mary Lawson: a refreshingly down-to-earth interview. Lawson’s self-deprecation had a witty edge as she described how the writing process works (or doesn’t work!) for her. In the evening, it was standing room only for Philip King and Joseph O’Connor. Anyone who has read O’Connor’s early journalism or listened to his radio diaries will be familiar with the humour that the writer delivers – he had the Listowel audience in stitches with his readings from The Thrill of it All.

Those of you travelling to Ireland should consider making Writers’ Week a part of your holiday. The Festival offers a huge choice of events, workshops and – for the writers out there – competitions. It is run like clockwork with enthusiasm, humour and pride.  There’s time for sitting in the cafés, walking by the Feale, or haring off to Ballybunion for a swim.  And, of course, time for browsing in the local bookshops. My birthday present to myself: a signed limited edition of George Moore’s Héloise and Abelard, found in Woulfes Bookshop.

Oh, the hidden cost of festivals – book buying!


The problem with Ireland now is that you could spend your whole summer going from one literary festival to another – if you had the dosh. I’ve been drooling over the programme for Kilkenny Arts Festival. But my summer will be bookended by a trip to the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo. I head off on Sunday and I’ll blog about it soon. I’ve noticed that Enniskillen is hosting, at the same time, the Happy Days Festival - dedicated to dear Samuel Beckett.

I feel a drive over the Border coming on….

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