Skip to content

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.

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

Shakespeare, Gandalf, The Abbey Theatre… & Me.

acting shakespeare

Happy 450th to the Inevitable Willie S, as my brother once christened him. Birthday and Death Day – as dramatic as they come.

So, a little story for Shakespeare’s birthday.

A long time ago, in Capital City, I was part of a group of drama students. We acted, we discussed, we despaired, we made our own costumes, did our own publicity, and went to as many plays as money allowed. I had friends who fortunately had a bit more dosh, and had seen shows in London. One of them was Ian McKellan’s Acting Shakespeare.

McKellan on Shakespeare

McKellan on Shakespeare

So we were well warned when we heard that McKellan was bringing the show to the Abbey Theatre for one night only – persuaded by a school (whose old boys were most of U2), for the benefit of an AIDS charity. We got our tickets early.

The show was marvellous. I can still see him stretched out on the stage…a Romeo hiding in the shadows. I remember his Juliet, and the poignancy of his Mistress Quickly.

The evening flew by. But, our London-play-going pals has us primed.

Ian (for plain Ian he was then) had barely opened his mouth to ask for volunteers when our gang dashed from our seats towards the stage. Some hauled themselves up. McKellan reached out his hand to help me onto the stage. I was star-struck.

Gathering us to him in a huddle (his arm around my shoulder), he whispered his plans. He was going to do a scene from Richard III. He needed us to play dead. One of us might like to fall decoratively into the throne that was placed stage right.

‘I’ll click my fingers’, he said.

We watched. We listened.

We listened. We watched.

He began to tell a story about an old actor who always forgot his lines when it came to listing the dead after the battle: the parchment handed to him by the messenger had the relevant names written on it.

McKellan’s  hand curled up behind his back.

Fingers poised.

We focused on the fingers.

The fingers clicked.

We dropped in a single thud.

Guffaws from the audience.

Best audience I ever had.

And there we lay, the dead of Bosworth Field, as McKellan held a full house in the palm of his hand.

Surrounded by his volunteer ‘bodies’, he told the story of the night the messenger handed the actor a blank piece of paper and how he attempted  improvisation: adding to Plantagenet history barons with names such as Boeuf du Bourgignon -  populating the play with more fallen nobles than Shakespeare had intended.

McKellan brought the house down.

And then he gathered us up again, to join him in a curtain call.

I wrote to him and sent the letter on to his next venue. He wrote back.

Ian, Sir Ian, Gandalf, Patrick Stewart’s best theatre & Twitter buddy, maestro… call him whatever takes your fancy. To me he’s a gent.

I still have the letter.


I could give you a link to a serious Hey Nonny Nonny song for the day that is in it.  But, no – there’s this instead!



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

Buchaill Busan's Life at Love House

All the life and learnings of this Irish Buchaill in Busan.

O' Canada

Reflections on Canadian Culture From Below the Border

History at Galway

From fadó to not-so-fadó

Interesting Literature

A Library of Literary Interestingness

'Two loves I have, of Comfort and Despair' - Reading and Writing

Over The Edge

'Two loves I have, of Comfort and Despair' - Reading and Writing

Stinging Fly

'Two loves I have, of Comfort and Despair' - Reading and Writing


'Two loves I have, of Comfort and Despair' - Reading and Writing

Medea999's Blog

Just another site

'Two loves I have, of Comfort and Despair' - Reading and Writing

Parlay-Voo Frawnsay?

The ramblings of an Irish girl in France


Writer and Journalist


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 53 other followers