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Snowdrops and Twisted Hazel. c. Karen McDonnell

Snowdrops and Twisted Hazel. c. Karen McDonnell

The first day of our Irish Spring, and it’s a broad smile of a day here in Ballyvaughan. There is a whisper of warmth in the sun, and that’s good enough for me.

So out I went in the jammies this morning to photograph the catkins on the twisted hazel, and the snowdrops bedded in underneath.

An old friend died a couple of weeks ago. At his funeral, his brother spoke of his love of poetry. So today I chose to read Paula Meehan’s  ‘Snowdrops’, from her collection, Painting Rain, published by Carcanet. I can’t reprint the poem here, obviously, but I’d urge you to seek it out.

Anois teacht an Earraigh.

Let the Spring in. Or, at least, leave the door ajar …

And … we’re back!

Over a month, it’s been.

That may be a long time to be silent in blog-land but sometimes one has to be silent, as much as is possible in this busy, mad world. Life gets in the way – with its sadness, delights and – well – living.  So, I’ve been laying low for a few weeks.

A friend and I had a conversation recently: she was feeling guilty because she hadn’t blogged for a while. Life got in the way for her too. We really shouldn’t feel bad if we put down the ‘cyber pen’ for an interval.

Now, you lot! My little rant over – there’s all sorts of goings on in the Irish literary world these days …

A while back, some genius decided that Ireland should have a laureate for fiction. The tone used for that word ‘genius’ depends on whether you’re a cynic, a begrudger, a begrudging cynic, a cynical begrudger, OR a don’t-really-mind-and-wouldn’t-it-be-lovely-for-an-Irish-writer-to-have-a-decent-income-for-3-years- and- be-able-to-write-and-lecture-to-students-and-give-a-posh-lecture-once-in-a-blue-moon sort of person.

I fall into the latter category.

I can’t believe it’s been eight years, but there you go. In 2007 I was at the Ballyvaughan Book Club meeting, championing The Gathering by Anne Enright – in the face of tough criticism. It also happened to be Booker Prize Night. She’d better win, I muttered. It’s a feckin’ brilliant book.

Well, she won. And the following day a member of the book club dropped in to give me a signed copy of the book. Wahoo!!

c. Karen McDonnell

c. Karen McDonnell

Yesterday, Anne Enright was named Ireland’s first Laureate for Fiction. The international judging panel was chaired by poet Paul Muldoon who commented: “Incisive, insightful, intellectually rapacious, and emotionally rapt, Anne Enright has for almost 25 years helped the Irish make sense of their lives, from the nursery to the national debt. Through her varied and far-reaching fiction, she has also helped the rest of the world make sense of Irish life. In addition to being a consummate artist, Enright will bring a clear and radiant energy to her role.”

Anne Enright & Sinéad Morrissey  Listowel Writers' Festival

Anne Enright & Sinéad Morrissey Listowel Writers’ Festival

Enright’s next novel The Green Road will be published in May of this year. And, for any of you around Galway this weekend – she will be reading in Charlie Byrne’s glorious bookshop on Sunday, 1 February. A great way to celebrate the first day of (Irish) Spring.

No better woman.

Comhgháirdeas mór lei.


A poem for Ireland


I put up a link to A Poem for Ireland a while ago. It’s the first time this media experiment has been conducted in Ireland, and it’s been happening over the last 24 hours. Last night, RTE1 screened A Rebel Act – a documentary about poetry and poets in Ireland from the 7th century onwards. Today, on RTE Radio One, John Murray spoke to three of the judges, Anne Doyle, songwriter Damien Dempsey and John Fitzgerald of University College Cork. Anne Doyle said that people may not be surprised by the poets chosen, but the choice of poem may be surprising. (My nomination was Sinéad Morrissey’s 1801. You can hear her read it here.)

The first five of the ten shortlisted poems were revealed, with excerpts read by people in Galway. The first five are: Easter 1916 by W B Yeats, A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh, Fill Arís, le Seán Ó Ríordáin, Quarantine by Eavan Boland and, from 1978, Making Love Outside Áras an Uachtaráin by Paul Durcan.

The full list will be announced tonight on The Works on RTE1 TV. So, tune in to see what the final list is.  If you are outside Ireland you can check it all out on the RTE Player at

You have until 8 March to cast your vote.

Off yez go, now.


Looking for some light

For five days and nights we had gales and horizontal sweeps of the rain we like to call ‘misht’.  Mighty wet, for all of that. No sign of the the sun, and the muddied sky was scraping the chimneys.

Matches blew out every time I tried to light the stove. Nerves were getting rattled from lack of unbroken sleep. The weather bulletins at the end of the News mentioned the words ‘breeze’ or ‘occasional gusts’ and were met with expletives. ‘Weather reports for the Dubs. Again’, I muttered, as I got soaked trying to fill the bird feeders, and watched the compost bin blow across the garden.

In the last week, texts, Christmas round-robins and, more recently, phone calls, brought stories of loss, and illnesses ranging from flu to cancer. And I haven’t even started on the news from Australia, Aberdeen, Sryia, and, of course, an Irish  hospital where a young pregnant woman on life-support awaits a Court’s mercy for a dignified death.

So yes, all in all, there was a lot of darkness around. It felt like a shkelp-load of dementors had decided to leave Azkaban and take up residence in my little corner of the world.


On Monday, I was flicking channels around tea time. I caught the end of TV3’s weather report.  ‘The solstice was on Saturday’, said the weatherman. ‘Here’s a photo of the sun at Tara. And here’s another taken in Newgrange.’

SUN? In Ireland? Last weekend? It was almost unbelievable.

c. "through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder" -  ADVENT by Patrick Kavanagh

“through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder” – ADVENT by Patrick Kavanagh

The sun was shining.

It was just somewhere else. 

It would come back.

Today, Christmas Eve, most of the preparations have been done. There’s eight for Christmas dinner at my place tomorrow; eight of the people I hold most precious in the world. Quite frankly, if the turkey burns – it doesn’t matter. (Although, we’d enjoy ourselves a tad more if I managed to get it right!) One of my visitors is my eldest niece Leah who, as a very young child, said to her Mum one family-thronged, summer-holidays day: It’s people that are important.

The wind has settled down. The sky has lifted. The sun has appeared in a watery blue, cloud-scarred sky.

There will be clouds again. There will be light again.

It’s people that are important.

Go easy on yourselves.

Happy, tranquil, Christmas to you all.

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: …”

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