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Distracted by Abstracts

heaney conf

Oh law!! – as my grandmother used to say – how I wish I was going to this:

But – as many a grandmother also said – we can’t have everything!  The ‘writer’s budget’ will only stretch so far, and I’ve already applied for a place at the Heaney Centre’s poetry summer school in Belfast.  Fingers crossed, and saving the euros just in case…

‘Seamus Heaney: a Conference and Commemoration’ runs from 10-13 April, and takes place around what would have been the poet’s 75th birthday.

I’ve been taking a look at the abstracts for the conference, and doing a bit of academic/literary drooling.

You can have a look for yourself on the link below:-,442100,en.pdf

Photo - QUB website

Photo – QUB website

Freebies! Big Poetry Giveaway 2014

This is a nifty idea!

big poetry giveaway 2014

big poetry giveaway 2014

 Poets are giving away books.

Ideally it should be one of my own books and one by a favourite poet. Posted to you…the lucky winner…anywhere in the world.

But Kelli, at Book of Kells, is a decent gal: the rules allow for poets with chapbooks to join in the fun.

And, for those of us awaiting the delight of seeing a first collection in print - we just post off two of our best loved poetry collections.

So, that’s what you’ll get from me. Plus a signed copy of my poem Upstream, the Bliss of Heaven which recently won the  2014 WOW! Poetry Award.

The giveaway ends on April 30th, and the winner announced in the first week of May.

I will draw the winner from the comments left below.

While you’re at it – tell me YOUR favourite poet!

Walter Macken – Home is the Hero?

Water Macken 1915-1967

Water Macken

The article below appears in today’s SIN :


The centenary of the Galway writer Walter Macken occurs on 3 May 2015.



I admit to having a soft spot for Macken. As a child, I was introduced to his historical trilogy by my grandmother. I was captivated; the books fuelled my interest in Macken. Many years later, I acted in his play Home is the Hero with Island Theatre Company in Limerick. My grandmother was still around to catch to show.

When I returned to Galway as a student, I was surprised at a lack of interest in Macken. Eventually I learned that there was a plaque on the wall of his childhood home on St Joseph’s Avenue. Last week, I paid it a visit. The plaque could do with a face lift.

Plaque at Macken's birthplace.  Photo c. Karen McDonnell

Plaque at Macken’s birthplace.
Photo c. Karen McDonnell

Walter Macken’s early work was with the Taibhdhearc theatre in Galway. There he met the actress and journalist Peggy Kenny, whom he married. He worked as the Taibhdhearc’s producer from 1939 to 1947, before leaving to join the Abbey Theatre. (Later, he was a nominee to that theatre’s board of directors, also its Artistic Advisor.) He left the Abbey when offered an acting role on Broadway.

While in America he was offered a seven-year acting contract by a Hollywood studio. The producers were baffled by his response: he wanted to return to Ireland to finish a novel. The success of his third book Rain on the Wind allowed Macken to concentrate on writing full-time. His published work includes books of short stories, many novels, seven plays and two children’s books.

Last summer my eye was caught by an Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times. Written by Dr Eamon Maher of the Centre for Franco-Irish Studies at the Institute of Technology Tallaght, ‘Revisiting Walter Macken’s Connemara’ considered Macken’s deep connection with the West. Dr Maher also lamented the dearth of critical discussion of Macken’s work.

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Is this perceived lack of interest in Macken a case of out of sight, out of mind? Or: outside our time, unworthy of our interest? Or: plain snobbery?

I have been attempting to get some answers to these questions. Quietly, one academic (no snob himself) suggested that there was snobbery about Macken’s work. Speaking to me a week ago Ultan, Walter Macken’s youngest son, said: “My father was a popular writer. But there was depth to the characters in my father’s work. They reckon his books sold a million copies in the course of his life.” A million copies between the first publication in 1946 and his death in 1967.

At a time when media and publicity machines were aeons away Macken had a dedicated readership. Dickens was popular. Popular is no sin. Ultan Macken added: “Because he’s easy to read, academics never took account of him. […] It always hurts me, and it hurt my mother as well, that whenever they’re talking about famous Irish writers he’s never mentioned.”

It hurt Walter Macken that his novel Quench the Moon was banned in 1948. His American publisher wrote at the time: “Don’t they do that to the best books?” In all, three of his books were banned in Ireland.

 Macken’s son commented that the fates of characters in the books were shaped by his father’s faith: “My father had a very strong belief in God and what was morally right.” His moral outrage found a voice in Brown Lord of the Mountain which deals with the rape of a young woman with special needs. The novel was based on a true story that Macken knew of, when a young Oughterard girl in similar circumstances had been made pregnant. Twice.

His work didn’t always appeal to the commentariat’s view of the Motherland. Ultan’s biography of his father Walter Macken – Dreams on Paper (Mercier Press, 2009) recounts a scene where Walter commented on a review of Quench the Moon in the Connacht Tribune. The event described by Macken, the reviewer opined, could not occur in Ireland. Yet, as Walter wryly observed, there was a report of a similar incident in that same issue of the newspaper.

Macken’s research, particularly for the trilogy, was intensive. In his book, Ultan Macken describes the months his father spent on all aspects of historical minutiae, and the journeys he made with his father as he plotted the routes taken by characters in Seek the Fair Land and The Silent People.

Macken wrote about what he knew: the land, the people and their ways. He wrote in his time, of his time, and with his own and his time’s view of Ireland. Re-reading his work as an adult, one is struck by an individualistic, lyrical structure, often underscored by repetition of phrasing. His is not a Synge-like re-transmission from the Irish. His style is his own; giving voice to his own.

How might Walter Macken be commemorated in his centenary year?

Anne McCabe, artistic director of the Taibhdhearc said: “As Artistic Director, [Macken] was responsible for 97 productions including 76 plays.He was extraordinarily industrious, he wrote, translated, directed, acted, designed costumes and sets. The Taibhdhearc intends to celebrate 100 years of Walter Macken’s birth in its programme next year, 2015, through a series of plays, readings and lectures for the summer season.”

Eamon Maher suggests that a one-day seminar might be held at NUI Galway “which would bring together invited speakers to discuss various aspects of Macken’s work.” Dr Maher is particularly interested in “the traces of Catholicism in his novels and […] how his own strong personal beliefs found an outlet in his writing.”

The varied facets of Macken’s work and life would easily form the basis of a seminar at the University. The approach of the centenary year is an opportune time for the University to consider naming a lecture hall or humanities research room after one of Galway’s most prolific writers and actors.

Wuppertal University holds 6000 Macken papers, for which Peggy Macken received approximately £8500. Ultan Macken retains copies of letters written by his father, and family documents, which he says will be for his children to dispose of. He would like to see the Wuppertal archive repatriated, if possible.

Asked how his father’s centenary should be marked, Ultan Macken’s response was immediate: “There should be a statue of him in Galway. That’s what I would like to see. And the papers returned. I don’t think he is forgotten.”

He let Walter’s words voice his legacy: “When people pick up my books in a hundred years time, they will read them and say, so that’s how people lived then”.

Next year the people and institutions of Galway have a chance to celebrate the work and centenary of Walter Macken. At the very least, the plaque on the wall should be refurbished. A statue would be better.

The campaign starts here.”


Walter Macken & his youngest son, Ultan.

Walter Macken & his youngest son, Ultan.

 Dust jacket photo for Ultan’s book  about his father: Walter Macken, Dreams on Paper (Mercier Press, 2009).     





Being Proud of One’s ‘Darlings’



One of the first things anyone attending a creative writing course is told is ‘One must be prepared to kill one’s darlings’. A fancy term for edit, polish, edit, polish, scrap, edit, polish, edit.

There comes a time, however, when one has permission to not only love one’s darlings, but to be proud of them.

In my third BA year, the Writing Year, I wrote a song cycle of poems. Based on 11 real women and one from Greek mythology, it’s still a song cycle in search of a composer.

Some of the poems have been submitted individually for publication, and in competitions. Two made the longlist for the Wordsonthewaves (WOW) competition. One made it to the shortlist.

Upstream, The Bliss of Heaven was one of those poems that arrived almost fully formed. It hung around the edges of my work while I fretted over the difficult pieces as time ticked away and my twelve-week deadline approached. Then I picked it up, gave it a polish, and double-checked that my beginner’s Latin was correct (thank you, Francesca!).

That was that:  a little poem about Margaret Roper and her father Thomas More; slotted chronologically into a folder, along with its 11 sisters and biographical notes.

Last night, my ‘darling’ won this year’s WOW Poetry Award. It is published in the WOW! 2014 Anthology.

I’m proud.

WOW! Anthology

WOW! Anthology



Cloudfall. c. K McDonnell

Cloudfall. c. K McDonnell

It’s been a month of storms since I last posted on readwritehere. Mea culpa for my absence.

I live in limestone country – a great conductor of lightning. Twice I’ve been at work on the PC and the power has shut off. Fortunately, I didn’t lose anything important. Other nights, I’ve been awakened by the wind battering hail against the bedroom window. Then I’ve heard a slight bip! as the phone cut out. I’ve still been awake when a rude beeeeeep! signalled that the phone was ‘back’.

The land is saturated. Two routes are cut off from Ballyvaughan into Ennis and Gort. As I drove home last night via Corofin, after visiting my parents in Ennis, it looked like the water was about to come out on that road too. If that happens over the next few days the only way to Ennis will be via Ennistymon, or to go north to the N18 and then travel south again.

But I don’t have land, waiting to dry out before it can be planted or ready for the heavy tread of cattle. I don’t have feed sitting beside cattle sheds in danger of flood damage. I don’t have to get children to school through fields because the roads are closed or just plain destroyed.

Yes the sea came in, curious, to the front door last week. And left seaweed in the front garden for the second time in a month. Still, Bessa the Cat and I have dry paws…unlike some of my neighbours up the road, who were invaded by seawater as it breached the pier and sea wall.

The Flaggy Shore in New Quay had a road. It is now a road of sea boulders, each one beautifully rounded, in varying shades of grey. It looks like a Famine Road that refused to die or seep back into history; disavowing all offer of comforting moss and softening grass. It’s just one of many roads up and down the West coast that has been sea-altered. Blown about.

When Seamus Heaney died, one of the poems that was quoted, and indeed played on radio – often readings by Heaney himself – was Postscript. It refers to the Flaggy Shore. These are the final lines:

‘You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open ‘

Sometimes, it is not the wind that catches us. Rather, it is listening to that forceful thing as it comes tearing over the mountain, with its own mountain-scraping voice…howling down the curves and through the ash trees – pronged into the sky – and BANG! up against a window. It’s our imaginings and fears that catch us. Strange things pass indeed, and we blow ourselves open.

Or a phone call comes, unexpected: catching us off guard, and our hearts with it. And we are blown open.

There’s many a make of storm. As our hearts well know.

At the back of a storm is a kind of light. Trying to be itself.

And that will do.

Bringing Home the Christmas

Winter solstice at Newgrange. Photo Dept of Environment, Irl.

Winter solstice at Newgrange. Photo Dept of Environment, Irl.

I spent a while thinking about this post; what tack I might take for Christmas 2013. Perhaps the low pressure and tight isobars affected me: my thoughts blew all over the place, before shaping into a little funnel centred around home.

I was talking to my mother about a week ago – saying how this year I seemed to be noticing and indulging in the winter darkness; pinpointing the hour when morning light would creep around the edges of the bedroom blind; welcoming the diminishing light as early as 3.30pm. The stove is a constant friend. My wise mother reminded me that last year I was in a frenzy of exams and preparing for Christmas. This year I had time to experience the changing season.

We were spoiled with our summer, and one consequence was the leaves’ refusal to leave – Irish trees were cheery creatures well into December, all russets, reds, golds. But we have paid for our good weather lately. Atlantic storms have been rolling up at our doors here on the west coast, then flinging themselves across the country – presumably so no one feels left out.

So – the title of this post is derived from reading my Danaher (again) and also from that connection with the light, or lack of it. ‘Bringing in the Christmas’ is ostensibly about how we prepare for the mid-winter feast day, but it also holds echoes of the pagan festival. How we prepare is as important as how we celebrate – and adds to that celebration. There were the old customs of cleaning and making new the home, of gathering in the treats and meats for Christmas, of lighting the candles in the window for the passing Holy Family on Christmas Eve night. In rural Ireland in the middle of the last century- when cars were not universally owned – a trip into the nearest town was a major part of Christmas. It was a social event but also a time to sell produce and to buy. Christmas is still a wonderful time to be in the market towns of County Clare.

Ennis Market. photo

Ennis Market. photo

There are many ways of bringing home our Christmas – be it from the market, or from the supermarkets on the edges of our towns and cities.  This year it’s the home part of that phrase that’s getting to me. We agreed in my family this year that presents, if any, will be small. And so, I’ve been making lemon curd, gingerbread, and the usual cranberry sauce to hand out to family and friends. I will contribute to the Christmas feast with my special creamed leeks and the smoked ham that is sitting in its glaze in the oven. Although my family will be sharing meals in different parts of the country, and the world, they will be the focus of my thoughts.

Last week an old gentleman from the village died. I don’t pray – but that morning I looked up at the stormy sky and asked (something) to maybe, just maybe, stop the rain while everyone was in the graveyard. The wind screamed around the church while the priest conducted the funeral service; at once respectful yet filled with a sense of the local. The personal items offered up during the Offertory reflected Bernie’s long and rich life. A neighbour spoke with warmth and emotion about the way in which he had been welcomed into the area by Bernie and his wife Doreen. And he sang, as he had been requested to, one of Bernie’s favourite songs. People who had cared for Bernie were named and thanked individually, as were the local men who dug the grave. The rain stopped as the funeral reached the graveyard.

What has this to do with Christmas, or bringing it home? 

I’m not religious. I don’t do Mass. I used to go to midnight Mass because I love singing and I missed the carols and hymns. Years ago - in Ballyvaughan church actually – I found myself saying: ‘I can’t do this anymore; I just can’t believe any of it.’ And so I abandoned the carols.

At Bernie’s funeral, I realised  that had been a mistake. Not that I had a road to Damascus moment ( and I have been on the real road to Damascus). Rather, I realised that it didn’t matter what I believed about religion – it mattered that I believed in the people who were there, the community that makes up the place I now call home.

My postman will drop in a package to my aunt if I’m not at home. Jackie will drop in scones, just because that’s what she does. Doreen was one of the first people to speak to me in Ballyvaughan. Siobhán in the post office took a call from someone who couldn’t reach me and needed to let me know I’d won a poetry competition. People stop to talk, to encourage, to question. Yesterday, Steve from Kinvara came to unblock a back gutter that fancied itself a waterfall; probably the last job he wanted to do coming up to Christmas. (Especially in storm force winds.) He wouldn’t take a penny for his trouble.

The Christmas market went ahead last weekend despite the storms. On Sunday, I arranged to meet a friend Claire and we stood in the village hall, drinking coffee and eating Shirley’s mince pies; watching and taking part in all the meet&greets, while the choir sang carols. Doreen had turned up on Saturday. Of course she had. Doreen is always at the Christmas Market.

Ballyvaughan Christmas Fayre

Ballyvaughan Christmas Fayre

Against the backdrop of floods, high tides and storms has been the toing and froing of shopping, baking, meetings with friends and family. Best of all have been those ‘look who I bumped into’ moments that we especially treasure at Christmas.

Before I headed into Ennis at the weekend, I rang my mother to see if my parents wanted me to do any shopping in the supermarket on my way in. As usual, the talk was of the weather. but Saturday being the 21st my mum wondered if they’d had any luck up at Newgrange. I was able to tell her that the sun had made a short appearance – that the light had appeared and picked its supernatural way down the passageway, into the prehistoric chamber. My mother is one of the ‘happy few’ who have been in Newgrange at the winter solstice. It has never let go its hold on her. Her delight in a short Saturday sunbeam is part of bringing it home at Christmas for me.

In The Year in Ireland, Danaher says that he can remember as a young man in Co Limerick, the descendants of the Palatines  firing from shotguns at noon on Christmas Eve. I am descended from those Palatines also, and while I don’t have a shotgun to let off today, I allowed myself be a silent member of the Grussenschuss!  I went to the village stores at 2pm to hear the usual Christmas Eve carols. Jim dresses as Santa. The staff make mulled wine and hand around cocktail sausages and other treats. Children and adults collect for local charities. This time, I took a music sheet and joined in the singing.

Welcome home, Christmas.





When You Shouldn’t Eavesdrop on Animals


'So, who's booking the stable for Christmas Eve?'

‘So, who’s booking the stable for Christmas Eve?’

I rang a friend today to enquire about his dog. The dog has a bad cough, and she’s an old dog. Having been reassured that the dog would last a while longer, I signed off my call with words to the effect of:  ‘it’s important that she’s in good voice for Christmas Eve.’

There was a silence on the other end of the line. 

‘For Christmas Eve’, I repeated. ‘You know, when all the animals can speak. Did you never hear that before?’


There was a good chance he thought I was mad. On the other hand, the fact that he’s from Texas might mean he hadn’t heard of this old story. I thought it a world-wide tradition. I explained myself, and the questionable state of my sanity was cleared up – at least until the next time I bombard him with weird Irish-isms.

But, it started me thinking. (A dangerous thing, indeed). Where did this belief come from? Well thanks, Google, for nothing. The story appears in various versions around Europe, and in the Americas too.

Time to consult Mr Danaher. Regular visitors to the blog will be familiar with nuggets gleaned from his book, The Year in Ireland:

” At midnight on Christmas Eve, according to a belief held in most parts of Ireland, the cows and donkeys kneel in adoration of the Christ Child, and at that moment, too, they have the gift of human speech. Nobody, however, should spy upon their devotions, much less speak to them at that sacred moment.”  

Danaher goes on to say that stables might be decorated with seasonal foliage, and that children sometimes tied sprigs of holly to cows’ horns.

As children, my brothers, sister and I loved the idea of our animals speaking. Once, our menagerie comprised of three cats, a rabbit, and a dog. On Christmas Eve I lay awake; imagining what they might say to each other.

Even now, I stand in front of animals on Christmas Eve and instruct them to say nice things to each other. Yes. Probably a true sign of madness, but – as my mother says about Hello magazine - harmless. Then again, although I’m no Dr Dolittle, animals listen to me in a very serious manner. It makes me think it’s all ‘going in’!

Come Christmas Eve, I won’t eavesdrop on CAT – or any of the felines and canines of my aquaintance. And neither should you, because

A. You might hear something unpleasant about yourself.


B. You might get your illusions spoiled.

And who in their right mind wants spoiled illusions for Christmas?

The Year in Ireland. 1994 ed. Mercier Press

The Year in Ireland. 1994 ed. Mercier Press

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