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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….

Another Clare & a Poem About a Pigeon Shitting

This will be short but sweet (I hope).

It’s been a busy month, which started with another literary first – a visit to Listowel Writers’ Week. More about that and a new blog project again.

The rest of June was spent making the best of the good weather. Four undergraduate years, and one spent writing for the student newspaper, resulted in neglected gardens. Now all the beds have been weeded, fresh compost dug in along with leaves composted during the past two winters, and planting is in progress. The wrought iron seat has been Hammerite-ed in brilliant white.

Front garden and new bench for cupping mugs of coffee & sea-gazing.

A new bench has been made in the front garden. At last I have a perch from which I can gaze across to Connemara on early mornings  in summer; or on clear frosty days, cupping a mug of coffee. Yesterday, having given the bench a last coat of wood protection, I managed to get my ass in front of the PC and enter two competitions, bang on the closing dates. Could do better on the creative front, but my head is pre-occupied with PhD scholarships. I await news of two applications.

Today, the sky is clear blue over Ballyv, and I am taking the day off.  If I see a weed, I will ignore it. Hell, I may even take the poetry notebook outdoors with me!

But before I go, I want to share this with you:!rii=9%3A20607024%3A4502%3A30%2D06%2D2014%3A

This is a link to an item on yesterday’s John Murray Show on RTE Radio 1.  John meets up with a poet-busker, Stephen Clare, and his trusty typewriter.  Clare has been on the street since the winter of his final year in secondary school. Poetry he says, is for everyone. And everyone can write. He’s trying to show that poetry isn’t ‘made in ivory towers’, to be dissected by academics. As well as writing a quick poem for Murray, he taps out pieces for two women chosen on the spot: a kayaker from Galway, and an inner-city Dublin woman grieving for her brother.

It’s a charming bit of broadcasting. Clare is immensely likeable, and the reaction to his on-the-spot work is both amusing and moving.

And – I’m a sucker for the ping! of a typewriter.


Now, I’m off to catch our Irish summer before the forecasted ‘low’ moves in from the Atlantic!


CALVARY and Yeats

This blog is mostly about writing and reading and the time and space around them, so it’s unusual for me to want to blog about a film.

Yesterday, the weather was grim. Real ‘filum’ weather. I had managed to prise two box-loads of books from my shelves. I was taking them to Charlie Byrne’s warehouse in Oranmore. There’s a cinema nearby. Kill two birds with one stone, I thought.

And that’s how I found myself at a private viewing of  CALVARY.   I saw a performance worthy of all those glittery prizes.  I hope Brendan Gleeson gets them.

No one else in Cinema 6.  Just me, Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, a dog named Bruno…and the rest of John Michael McDonagh’s characters.


Perhaps the fact that there was no one chomping on popcorn, slurping drinks, texting, or chewing gum with their mouths open, allowed me to concentrate more – or, rather, let the film just happen before me.

At the end of it all, I could only think of medieval morality plays. Not that Gleeson is an Everyman, or for that matter an Everypriest. Yet, somehow, he manages to convey a sense of taking on that role. As Fr James takes on the sins of his community (in both senses of that phrase), he is the prism through which his modern Irish village is viewed.

And, it ain’t nice.

Gleeson as Fr. James in Calvary

Gleeson as Fr. James in Calvary

I’m not a film critic.  What I can say is that I think Calvary is a deeply moral film. Or, perhaps, a film about morals. I felt very alone in that dark space yesterday. Not quite as uncomfortable as my seven-year old self in the confessional, no.  McDonagh uses his characters well in this confrontational film. Some of them are not very deeply drawn – but I think that is the very point. They are symbols – and they are everywhere in this country. They represent us up there on the big screen: our  petty venalities; a capacity for deep-welled malice.

Sometimes, we ain’t nice.

On the other hand, Calvary shows the hidden hurt of pain and betrayal, carried since childhood. It takes a bereft stranger to remark that the people have been really good to her.  There is room for love in this film.  The exchanges between Kelly Reilly’s character and Fr James also make a plea for the ‘underrated’  virtue of forgiveness.

There’s also room for humour.  I was reminded me of the time I went to my first over-18s film. I was 14:  the film was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I cried. My two boy friends on either side of me laughed through most of it. Yesterday, if the cinema had been full, there might have been more laughter than tears.

I won’t run through the plot. I hate spoiling someone else’s experience. But I will say that as an Irishwoman familiar with many of the actors and their previous roles, I loved how they were cast in this film. Old associations were blown out of the water; challenging preconceptions.

Finally, there is another star in the film – Ben Bulben. McDonagh makes the most of Sligo’s magnificent scenery, but Ben Bulben has a unique presence. Because of its shape, the mountain can be a soothing loaf of velvet green, or it can lour over the landscape: creating shadows; a portent of doom.

When I woke up this morning, the weather hadn’t changed. Calvary and Ben Bulben, still whirling around in my head,  sent me to Yeats’s Under Ben Bulben (1939). One of his last poems, its second verse suits Gleeson’s Fr James:

‘Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong.
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.’

And the Freebie goes to…

big poetry giveaway 2014

big poetry giveaway 2014


So: I wrote down all your names on a piece of paper, cut them out into little paper life-stories, and put them in the bowl that my sister brought me from Central America.

Then I admired the weeds in my garden while tossing the names around in the bowl. And then I picked one.

No automated shuffling apps for me!!

Karen Weyant from PA in Amerikay is the winner, and she will receive two debuts in the post:

Other Places by Jean Kavanagh (Salmon Poetry, 2014)  and

WOW! Anthology 2014 (wordsonthewaves, 2014) in which my poem ‘Upstream the Bliss of Heaven’  is included, along with other winning and shortlisted Irish poetry and fiction.

Thanks for entering the draw everyone, and congrats to Karen.

Keep writing, keep reading.

Buchaill Busan: Busan Boy

Is mise buchaill Busan! I'm an Irish boy finding my way through the streets of Busan, South Korea as an English teacher...Ok... Perhaps not so much the streets but the vast city outside the door of my single-roomed flat. Or the Love House as I've taken to calling it. You can find anything here, from cultural musings to personal adventures. Please, pull up a chair and have a poke about!

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