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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.

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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.

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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!

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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:  http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!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.

Enjoy.

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

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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.

calvary-brendan-gleeson-kelly-reilly-

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

RESULTS OF  readwritehere‘s THE BIG POETRY GIVEAWAY

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.

May Day – custom made


May Day gorse on my front door. Ballyvaughan 2014. Photo c. Karen McDonnell

May Day gorse on my front door. Ballyvaughan 2014.
Photo c. Karen McDonnell

Yesterday, I set off in Mighty Aphrodite, that trusty Blue VW Polo. Our mission was to find a gorse bush accessible to me and my scissors. It was May Eve after all.

I grew up in a county town, and my childhood was full of the flowers of the May, and altars at the back of the primary school classroom laden with jam jars of cowslips  and primroses. We played in the fields across the road and cycled down local lanes in search of blackberries. Despite the countryside being on my doorstep, I had never encountered the custom of the May Day gorse until I moved to Ballyvaughan.  On my first May Day in residence, many doors were garnished with yellow and grey-green prickly sprigs. Even the shuttered front of the old garage  in the centre of the village wasn’t forgotten.

Yesterday I found myself wondering if it was a custom peculiar to this area. My trusty Danagher might supply an answer; indeed he devotes a whole chapter to the subject. But Dear Reader, I decided to spare you my Danagher on this occasion and I consulted another book that has been languishing on my shelves. I give you Speranza, Jane, Lady Wilde – mother of Oscar. I opened Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. With Sketches of the Irish Past. 

Before I launch into May Day customs, I have to tell you about this book. It’s falling apart at the seams, even though it hasn’t been opened in many a year. It is a facsimile of the 1888 edition published in London by Ward & Downey – reprinted in 1971 by O’ Gorman Ltd., in Galway with an introduction by Terence de Vere White, then literary editor of The Irish Times. 

The O'Gorman 1971 edition of Speranza's Ancient Legends..

The O’Gorman 1971 edition of Speranza’s Ancient Legends..

The greatest peril of the researcher is not heeding lessons from Homer’s Odyssey. Sometimes a gal needs to stop her eyes, if not her ears, to avoid the sirens that pull one down byways and off the main subject. But I’m with Robert Frost on this one: take the road less travelled by all means but – like Hansel & Gretel – leave enough of a trail to get back to the main path.

Off down the Googley road I went, in search of Galway O’Gormans and I found this article in the Galway Review  about Ronnie O’Gorman, founder and publisher of the Galway Advertiser.  Is Ronnie part of the family firm that printed my copy of Speranza’s Ancient Legends?  I only studied in Galway; not being a native girl I’m not in the loop! So, comments welcome below.

And so back along the metaphorical trail of breadcrumbs to May Day. Bealtaine, or Bel tine; Baal’s fire.  A weird marrying of the pagan, – the beginning of our Irish summer – and the international celebration of the worker.

Here is our Jane on two of the great Irish festivals:

‘The great feast of Bel, or the Sun, took place on May Eve; and that of Samhain, of the Moon, on November Eve; when libations were poured out to appease the evil spirits, and also the spirits of the dead, who come out of their graves on that night to visit their ancient homes. The Phoenicians, it is known, adored the Supreme Being under the name of Bel-Samen, and it is remarkable that the peasants in Ireland, wishing you good luck say in Irish, “The blessing of Bel, and the blessing of Samhain, be with you,” that is, of the sun and of the moon.’

Having a particular love of the Middle East and North Africa, and a fondness for poor Dido, I’m rather taken with that excerpt.  I’m sure Bob Quinn – who wrote and filmed Atlantean – might like it too!

But the dangers from the Otherworld were not just present during Samhain. Many of the customs of Bealtaine focus on placating the fairies, who might curse farm production or kidnap a child and replace it with a fairy changeling. A burnt-out coal might be put under a butter churn, or a child’s bed. And here is where my little sprig of gorse enters the story: primroses or yellow flowers were ‘scattered before the door, for the fairies cannot pass the flowers.’  Primroses were also tied to cows tails to prevent the supernatural theft of milk. Maybe the hanging of yellow gorse was just a ‘step up’ from scattering or perhaps it makes more sense to hang a thorny plant where bare feet can’t step on it. Branches of the sacred ash tree and the later flowering whitethorn also feature in May day customs.

All through the night of May Eve fairy music might be heard as fairy dances were held at raths; Speranza says there was a tradition ‘in the old times’ of dancing around a May-bush, a custom also prevalent in the Slavonic countries and Italy. Dante, she states, fell in love at a May Day festival.

Fire and salt were two sacred possessions of man – to give them away on May Day was to court bad luck for the rest of the year. No salt, lighted sods of turf, or milk left the house.

Lady Wilde writes that the way the wind blew on May mornings was a means of prophecy. She tells a story relating to ’98  [1798 - the year of the Rebellion]  -

‘An old man, who was drawing near to his end and like to die, inquired from those around him -

“Where did you leave the wind last night?” (May Eve.)   They told him it came from the North.

“Then, ” he said, “the country is lost to the Clan Gael; our enemies will triumph. Had it been from the South, we should have had the victory; but now the Sassenach will trample us to dust.”      And he fell back and died.’

And… he was right!

I could go on and on – that’s the nature of customs. I’ll end with one of my own customs for this time of the year: seeking out the gentians. This beautiful flower is the symbol of the Burren. It grows in secretive patches on spring grass under the shadow of limestone cliffs, near the sea, or in inland fields. Locals – and those who come here every year on botanical expeditions – know where to find them. I photographed these last year, on a pet May day when sitting on the grass wasn’t going to result in pneumonia.

Gentians in the Burren. Photo c. Karen McDonnell

Gentians in the Burren. Photo c. Karen McDonnell

Known as the Banner County, the Co. Clare colours are blue and saffron yellow. In the month of gentian and gorse it seems appropriate to sign off with a hearty ‘UP THE BANNER!’

Happy May Day. Wherever you are, may l’Internationale be your companion – there’s always room for old stories and anthems.

 

Alistair MacLeod – Slán


Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod

I’ve only just found out that this dear man died at the weekend.
Alistair MacLeod – a great writer; admired and loved.

No Great Mischief is a book that broke my heart…in the best possible way. It is a book of family, clannishness, connections, understandings beyond words. Being Irish, it was easy to understand the Nova Scotia/Scots Gaelic that peppered the work. I became the book’s John the Baptist. I pressed it on all comers. No one was safe.

I think of MacLeod as Nova Scotia’s McGahern. No doubt people more qualified than I will have something to say about that. Nevertheless, the two authors rest side by side on my book shelf.

I was fortunate to meet Mr MacLeod at the Dublin Writers’ Festival in 2007.  He was standing in a corner, unnoticed, waiting for another writer’s session to begin. We exchanged smiles, a few quiet words, and he signed my battered copy of No Great Mischief

A lovely man, gone too early.

Slán is beannacht, is solas síoraí ar a anam uasal.

This is a link to a Canadian response to his death.

No Great Mischief

No Great Mischief

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