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PD JAMES: So long to a formidable woman

Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

No more Adam Dalgliesh to look foward to.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling poorly and confined to my bed, my go-to genre of book is the crime novel. And no better example than the writing of PD James.

One of my favourite Adam Dalgliesh novels is Original Sin (1994) in which the action revolves around the Peverell Press which operates from a marvellous old London building on the banks of the Thames.

Latterly, PD James had written a sequel to Pride & PrejudiceDeath Comes to Pemberly. I’m not a huge fan of such literary endeavours. The book sold very well, and the subsequent TV dramatization was well-received. What was fantastic about the book, though, was that it showed any would-be writer that age has nothing to do with it – James was still producing good work in her nineties.

Death has come to PD James.

This little post is just a thank you for those comfy duvet, coffee, and crime novel days.

Here is a link to the obituary for Ms James in The Guardian.

John McGahern| 80th Anniversary

John McGahern

John McGahern

It seems fitting to mark what would have been John McGahern’s 80th birthday.

In his obituary of McGahern for The Guardian in March 2006, Richard Pine commented that McGahern was arguably the Ireland’s most important writer since Samuel Beckett. Yet Mc Gahern studies are still at an early stage.

The James Hardiman Library at NUI Galway is a place I know rather well.  As an undergraduate, I fed my JSTOR habit there constantly, and sighed over many an assignment at the first floor computer suite.

One of the most tantalising words under ‘Book Search’ was  Basement. For this book lover, it conjured up dusty tomes smelling of old leather and cloth, with creamy rough-cut pages. Pure fantasy, of course. Special Collections on the ground floor held some of the Library’s precious holdings. The basement , though also a home for old journals, held books that had to be ordered at the main desk. And, until recently, the Library had a space problem when it came to accessing archives.

Not any longer.

Research Building, James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway. Photo: NUIG

Research Building, James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway. Photo: NUIG

The new Research Building gives postgraduate students and visiting scholars a comfortable and up-to-date space in which to do their research. And it makes the lives of the staff a bit easier too!

A few weeks ago I signed in to the Archive Room. Archive Librarian Kieran Hoare had arranged for two boxes to be brought up: Box 20 &  Box 21 from the John McGahern Archive were waiting for me. I surprised even myself with my reaction to these cardboard treasure troves.

I sat in front of them for a while, rather like a child in front of a large, wrapped Christmas present; too excited to open it. Eventually, I shook myself. Removing the lid, I gently lifted out the first folder and, rather teary-eyed, opened up the intimate world of a great writer.

Box 20 contains, in the main, work related to McGahern’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s play, Power of Darkness. There are drafts and redrafts; introductions discarded, re-written. Gradually, the handwriting became more familiar. I strained to read struck-out phrases or words. Trying to read a writer’s mind.

McGahern Mss. Photo from NUIG

McGahern Mss. Photo from NUIG

Reading and writing. Nothing beats it.

Though seated in a brand new, quiet research room, the feeling was that of freewheeling down a hill on a ‘high-Nelly’ bicycle. There is a great privilege in research, although it’s a hard task at times. I hope I’ll never tire of the byways it takes me down.

The John McGahern Archive is one of the jewels in the crown at the Hardiman Library. Find out more about it at

And today, on what would have been McGahern’s 80th birthday, maybe take a trip to your own library. Read an essay or two from Love of the World – ‘The Solitary Reader’ perhaps. Or settle in, this winter’s evening, and take up That They May Face the Rising Sun.


Radio Days: Memory and Anticipation


You know, I’ve just remembered something this very minute: my first recording for radio. Ennis , circa – well, maybe we’ll ignore the date – but it was Ennis, and it was community radio. I sang a song I’d composed myself, which got into the top twenty of a national song contest for teenagers. I’d forgotten about that moment until now… now that I’m back in front of microphones.

My first memory of the radio is the back room in our old house in Limerick. My brother was in the playpen and Mummy was sitting in an armchair peeling oranges. There was a newspaper on her lap. ‘The Kennedys of Castleross’ was on the radio. I didn’t know the name of the programme then, of course. But the theme tune places the memory in that time after lunch; when children have been fed, the baby is down for his nap, and a mother can take the weight off her feet.

As in Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987), we only had a radio in the house when I was very small.  Radio Days is a beautifully written and acted film. The way stories overlap, the sense of place and family and yes, the sheer nostalgia of it, make it the perfect film for a winter’s evening by the fire. In it, Diane Keaton sings ‘You’d be so nice to come home to’. Apart from making me want to walk into the film and take over in front of the orchestra, the song title describes the film perfectly!

radio recording days

radio recording days

Radio Days highlights so well the craft that went and still goes into making radio programmes. It’s all there: from the recording of dramas and voice over work (Mia Farrow is hilarious in one of her best roles) to the glamour of attending live recordings in Radio City Music Hall in the heart of Manhattan. There’s the gossipy socialites with accents of cut glass. Then there’s the Masked Avenger, whose every adventure is followed by the kids in our young hero’s Rockaway classroom. ‘BEWARE, EVILDOERS – WHEREVER YOU ARE!’, cries the Masked Avenger – who is a short dumpy man on the other side of the mic.


Radio. Radio. Radio.

I confess:  I’ve had my radio moments with Gerry Ryan and others. I got onto a panel to discuss a book, travel, and vampires with Marian Finucane. A few years ago, I won the John Murray Show’s Golden Voice Competition. I like radio. I like what it can still do in this helter-skelter world of in-your-face, up-to the-second reality nonsense. There is no substitute for a change of tone, or a pause where it’s not expected.

This week I started a diploma in Media Production/Radio. Already, we fledglings have put together the bones of a playlist, written intros, and delivered them in studio. Our blushes are spared for a while yet – but we will be broadcasting live on the Net in the New Year. By the time it’s all over, I should be able to podcast my poetry and other work on a website I’ll have designed myself.

Best of all will be developing the radio skills to connect with the great YOU out there.


Penblywdd Hapus, Dylan


I can’t imagine Dylan Thomas as an old man. But I bet that even at the age of a hundred his voice would be interesting. Here is a link to him reading Do Not Go Gentle.

On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, there’s a lot of Dylan in the media. No bad thing, that. Michael Sheen and Kate Burton will perform in a production of Under Milk Wood in New York; on the stage where it was first performed. But if there’s a place I’d like to be today, it’s at Swansea Grand Theatre where a 36 hour Dylan-fest is taking place. The festival was opened yesterday by Jo Brand, and will include readings by schoolchildren and actors such as Lisa Rogers, Helen Griffin, Ian McKellan, and  Sian Phillips.  Ireland’s President, Michael D. Higgins, is visiting Wales and will drop by to take part in the celebrations.  And why not? Thomas had an Irish wife – Caitlín MacNamara.  Better still, a County Clare wife! I like to think of  him as one of Ireland’s ‘literary in-laws’.

I love Dylan, plain and simple.

At a long-ago Dublin Theatre Festival,  I sat enthralled by Emlyn Williams’s one-man show about Thomas. I’ve performed excerpts from Under Milk Wood so I have huge affection for the play. I harbour a secret ambition to direct a production for local radio. And, if I do get to do it, I’m bloody well singing Polly Garter’s song myself!

When I was acting, I tracked down a copy of the original recording of the play on cassette at McCullagh Piggots music shop in Dublin. That wasn’t today nor yesterday, either. Those tapes are the reason I still have a cassette player.  Here is Kate’s father, Richard Burton, reading from Under Milk Wood   You might like to check out this site as well:

Or, perhaps, this:

under milk wood

There are the stories and the poetry and the lectures and the lies and the legends and the half-truths and the drink and the hard work and New York and the Larne boat- house and the laughter and the tears and Dylan reading Dylan and others reading Dylan.

Off you go now and find some of them.

Me, I’m going to light the fire, make a cuppa, and listen to those cassettes again.

“To begin at the beginning: …”

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.

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