Nov 042014


With the publication of her intensely moving debut novel, Solace, Belinda McKeon quickly established herself as an important new voice in Irish literature. While we eagerly await the arrival of her second novel, Tender (to be released in March 2015), Uimhir A Cúig is delighted to feature her remarkable new story, “Route.”

Annie and Brendan have emigrated to the US from Ireland; however, as Annie recognises, “what they are is immigrants rather than emigrants.” A couple not so much leaving as arriving, but leaving what and arriving where? A couple who married in a church not necessarily because they wanted to but because they felt obliged to for their elderly relatives’ sakes – “just do the damn thing.” And what role does duplicity play in all of this – long ago lies, imaginary friends? Just what is left to believe in? The past, might be one answer, even if it is, perhaps, an imaginary past. McKeon takes us on this journey too. Where we came from and where we end up is just as uncertain as we, like McKeon’s characters, struggle to grapple with “the plentiful and illogical absurdities of the world.”

—Gerard Beirne


In a quiet moment, of which there are precious few, Brendan takes care to speak out of the side of his mouth. “Our table is very loud,” he says, flickering his gaze onto Annie’s, and Annie is proud of how good they have become at this surreptitious communication; is it marriage, she wonders, or is it just the whole emigrant business? Though, actually – and, if she’s honest, much less pleasingly – what they are is immigrants rather than emigrants, as their friends here are never slow to remind them, albeit always in the velvet case of laughter, always with the understanding that, since they are such good friends, they can poke fun at one another over anything at all. So: nothing like one immigrant population bitching on another. That was Rob – grad-school Rob, now barman Rob – to Annie, a few weeks ago, after she had said something about the Polish women in Greenpoint, about the way they glared. The way that sometimes, you caught them staring at you, sweeping their eyes over what you were wearing, as if to say, this has gone beyond a joke. As if to say, you people: how can you go out like this? And Annie sees something else in their eyes, too, something which, maybe, it takes one cor-faced Catholic woman to read in another, which is, You’re a bit long in the tooth for this messing, aren’t you? When are you going to cop yourself on?

“Don’t worry about it,” Annie mutters back to Brendan now, as they both pretend to be listening to whatever turn conversation is taking at the other end of the table. “People don’t notice it here in the same way.”

From his throat, a low, sceptical chord. He sips his Bloody Mary. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve seen a few people wince.”

Annie shrugs. “Let them wince. Nobody knows us here. So who cares?”

Brendan glances at her, and when he speaks, his tone is colder. “What’s that got to do with it?” he says. Brendan has views on this; Brendan does not think Annie should care about this thing about which Annie cannot cease to care.

“Nothing,” Annie says, shaking her head, but he knows, and she knows he knows, and so on, ad infinitum, and down where Martha and Jack are sitting, the decibel level is once more steadily climbing, as Martha teases Jack about something to do with football, something to do with the Jets, and it’s evidently a killer blow, a comical blow, because up goes the cry – EH-OH! – like something from a television show, and meeting it – AIYKK! – is a second roar of approval, of commendation, of glee. Jack holds his hands in the air as though defeated, and Martha bumps fists with Jessica, then with Tasleen. Opposite Annie sit Meghan, the birthday girl, and beside her, Liz, the only person at the table who has experienced parenthood, and who talks about it enough for all of them. That’s not fair, Annie says to herself, as soon as this thought arises. You had to ask her to see the photos. Hold your horses. Drink your drink.


Escarole salad, chilaquiles, pork and grits, baked eggs with leeks and truffles; this is brunch so elaborate that it might have come from some computer programme. And yet, so utterly par for the course; this is Smith Street, on a Sunday afternoon in October. The ten-dollar gin thing in front of Annie is called a Sleepy Hello, and she could tell from the first sip that she would need three if she was to get anywhere close to drunk. Which means that she is probably safe, as far as confessions go – though since confession is the word which has most readily come to mind, possibly not.

What would he say, Brendan, if she told him that less than an hour ago, as she headed for the subway after the gym, she walked up the steps of a church and she went right in? An instant previously, she had been admiring a stained-glass window, thrown open to the street, and the way it looked against the golden yellow brick of a building; but it had been an abstract, hazy sort of admiration – the smugness had still been uppermost, her real attention had been on the subway entrance across 7th Avenue, and on whether the lights would stay green long enough for her to get over there. And then, somehow, she had been on the steps. And then, somehow, she had been in the hall. She had been at mass. Near to it, or within reach of it, or lurking in the background of it, but however she put it, she had been there. Mass.

Or, service, actually, which makes it easier to take. It was a Methodist church, something Annie discovered herself to have already known as she walked into the hall, something she must have picked up from a sign or a noticeboard in between the yellow brick and the stained panes of glass. Methodist Church of Whatever. Methodist Church of The Village, she thinks it might have been, now. Or Village Methodist Church. One of those. Village, she imagines herself saying to Brendan.

So, it’s fine, she hears herself continue. It was Methodist. Or, better still, it was only Methodist; how about that for a nice spot of distancing and evasion? It was only Methodist, and I only stood in the hallway even though a woman – smiling, dreads, floral dress – invited me to go all the way in. I only stayed for ten minutes, and the preacher, who was female, and in her twenties, and wearing a Madonna headpiece, namechecked the Gay Men’s Chorus in her sermon, and I only stayed even that length of time because I could see that there were singers and a pianist on the altar, and I was curious to hear what they might sing, and when it turned out to be You Raise Me Up, I got out of there, and really, I only went in because I had a few minutes to kill.

The worry, of course, would be that he might not mind. Or, worse still, that he might somehow, actually, approve.

Annie stood in front of an altar with this man two years ago; beside this man she knelt there, on what turned out to be the excruciating-to-kneel-on beads of her dress; beside this man she prayed the prayers and rolled out the vows. They did this. They went there.

But everybody understands what this kind of thing is about. Everybody understands why this kind of thing is, sometimes, unavoidable. There are parents, some of them elderly, and elderly is code for just do the damn thing; everybody knows that. There are arguments, and because of just do the damn thing, you are too cowardly to get into those arguments, and besides, there is an aisle, and some part of you is hard-wired into thinking that only an aisle will do for walking up and for walking down. None of this is admirable. None of this is brave. But. There is no need to get carried away.

“How are the grits?” Brendan says, just seconds from finding out for himself, given that he is sliding a fork into the creamy mush on the side of Annie’s plate.


“Want to try?” he says, gesturing towards his own.

She shakes her head. “Stuffed,” she says. “Already. Here.” She pushes the small bowl of potato cakes towards him. He glances at her as though he does not dare hope.


“Potatoes,” Annie says, giving the word the thick-tongued intonation she and Brendan give it when they say it here, as a joke. A joke that only they get, given that to everyone else, their accents probably sound exactly the same as always. “I’m sure.”

“Yay,” her 36-year-old husband says – her smart, sarky, word-whirring husband, he actually says “yay” – and he polishes them off.


Meghan and Liz are talking about children. Meghan earns money for taking care of them during the day, and Liz pays money to other versions of Meghan to do the same thing. They have been talking, they tell Annie, about how extremely good their kids – Meghan’s charges and Liz’s daughters – are at lying. They are pros, apparently; unblinking, unwobbling pros, and already Liz’s youngest, at sixteen months, is showing signs of being the slyest of them all.

“I’m doomed!” she says, smiling as though this is the most delicious prospect in the world. “I’m completely doomed!”

“But every child lies, don’t they?” Annie says.

Meghan looks at her blankly.

“Come on,” Annie says. “Didn’t you?”

Meghan opens her mouth as though to respond, then just twists her lips and gives Annie a slight shake of the head.

“I don’t believe you,” Annie says. “I think you’re lying now.”

“Uh-uh,” Meghan shrugs, twirling her straw and casting her gaze out to the street. “I’m not. I just never needed.”

She is blonde, and petite, and pretty the way a girl on a poster for dental floss is pretty. When she is not minding children, she writes essays on urban space and eco consciousness and on the city of the future, which is a place, from the way she’s described it, in which Annie is not sure anybody is going to want to live. Who, Liz’s little liar, grown up to be ultra-cognisant of others? A likely story.

“I lied like a sailor,” she says, aware that the simile is wonky, and she takes a big swig of her elderflowered gin. “It came to me so naturally that a couple of times I actually shocked myself.”

“Like when?” Brendan says, beside her, and she almost jumps; she had, somehow, almost forgotten that he was there. Not that it would have made any difference, not that she would have told a different story, but still. Her declaration was for Meghan’s sake, and for Liz, who has still not shown her own hand where duplicitousness is concerned, but who scarcely needs to; wee Victoria has not licked it off the ground.

“Like, too many times to remember,” Annie says, giving Brendan a playful nudge. “But a long time ago. Not lately.”

Brendan arches an eyebrow at her. Then he laughs, and they all sip their drinks and make what headway remains to be made of their food, and as Brendan puts some chorizo on Annie’s plate – she has to try it, he says, to her protests, she has to take just a bite – he asks whether either of the girls ever had any imaginary friends.

Liz shakes her head, exhaling a light laugh, but Meghan’s expression suggests that she regards this as a trick question. “Imaginary?” she says, and she tilts her head to one side. “Like, people you pretend are there?”

“People you pretend are there,” Brendan confirms, nodding, and suddenly, Annie realises where this is going. “Or,” he says, “people that other people think you’re pretending about. Until they discover otherwise.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Liz says, deadpan.

“No, no,” Annie says, shaking her head at Brendan. “We’re not…”

“Come on,” Brendan says. His grin is boyish, enthused.

“What’s going on?” Meghan says, holding her fork in mid-air. “Is something going on with you two?”

“Annie has a story about an imaginary friend,” Brendan says, still grinning.

“Jesus,” Annie says to him. “I haven’t thought about that story in, I don’t know, fifteen years.”

“Tell us!” Liz says, looking to Meghan for back-up, but Meghan just continues to switch her gaze from Brendan to Annie.

“It’s stupid,” Annie says. “I don’t even think I believe it anymore.”

“You said you knew the girl, didn’t you?”

“She was a friend of a friend,” Annie shrugs. “But I heard something since…I don’t know,” she says, shaking her head. “I can’t even remember it properly.”

“You can remember it perfectly bloody well,” Brendan says, and he turns to Meghan and Liz. “So,” he says. “A friend of Annie’s. A friend of a friend.”

“In Ireland?” Liz says.

“In Dublin,” Brendan nods.

“Ok,” Liz says, as though this somehow adds an extra layer of credence. “Ok.”

“She was babysitting,” Brendan says, and he nods towards Meghan, whose face twitches as though she has been outrageously accused in the wrong, “looking after this little boy. And…” he nods towards Annie. “And…”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” says Annie, and she takes a mouthful of Sleepy Hello, and she gropes for the story as she was told it by her flatmate Gemma in Phibsboro twelve or thirteen years ago, one night when they’d had whiskey and when every story about everyone they’d ever known seemed to be pushing to the surface and heaving itself out onto the floor between them. Gemma; where is Gemma now? Married too, and with a couple of kids, and with the negative equity that is as tightly woven into their generation’s existence as email, or Ikea, or kale. “I didn’t really know this girl,” Annie says, and Brendan makes a noise that says, get on with it, don’t be trying to wriggle out of it, and Liz looks at Meghan and Meghan looks down the table towards the other conversation, the conversation that is still, impossibly, about football, and she looks back.

“So, she was minding this kid. And his parents told her, you know, little…”

“Jasper,” says Brendan, nodding very gravely.

“Jasper?” says Annie. “Jasper was not the child’s name. But anyway. The parents told her everything she needed to know about looking after him. Where his food was. Whatever.”

“Where his food was?” Liz says, laughing. “Are you sure she wasn’t looking after a cat?”

“She saw the imaginary friend,” Meghan says abruptly. She shrugs at Annie. “Right?”

“She saw him?” Liz says, holding up a hand for silence. “Sorry, explain this to me. She saw what?”

Meghan is frowning. “Isn’t this a movie?” she says. “Doesn’t this…”

The Sixth Sense?” Liz says impatiently. “But nobody saw him!”

“This is pointless,” Annie says to Brendan, and she lifts her glass. It is almost empty. She sucks loudly through the straw.

“You might as well finish it,” Brendan says. “The story, I mean.”

“I’m not going to finish it,” Annie says. “They know what happened.”

“I don’t know what happened!” Liz protests, a hand on Meghan’s arm. “I want to hear the rest of the story!”

Annie sighs. She remembers the shock of this, from when Gemma told it to her in that basement flat where the heating always took forever to come on; she remembers the genuine chill which dropped down her spine when Gemma came to the big reveal. A gunk, that was what her mother would call it; she got a gunk, and for weeks afterwards – it was so silly, so embarrassing, she was afraid to look at a window after dark, for fear of what she might see reflected there. A broom handle, a cheap old table, a fridge door covered with novelty magnets and unpaid utility bills; that was what she would see. But she didn’t look. Not for ages.

“The parents told this girl that the child had an imaginary friend, just so she’d know, if she saw the child talking to himself, not to worry, that this was the reason, and it was perfectly normal, and cute, and blah,” she says. “And sure enough, she did notice the kid making occasional comments to the space beside him, and she tried to be nice, to interact a little bit with the…friend – to ask him questions, or to ask the kid questions on the imaginary friend’s behalf. That kind of thing.”

“Bad move,” Meghan says. “Never patronise the imaginary friend.”

“Yeah, well,” Annie says, suddenly determined to maintain control. “That’s as it may be. So. She gets through the evening, and the kid is well-behaved, and he puts his pyjamas on, and he gives her no hassle, no hassle at all, and he’s quite content just to go up to bed. And as she’s reading to him – “

“Oh no, no, no, no,” Liz cries, covering her ears.

“Hang on,” Annie says, pointing to her. “Not yet. As she’s reading to him, the kid is making occasional references to the friend. Asking him questions, explaining stuff to him, that kind of thing. And it’s fine, and she goes along with this, a bit, and when she’s saying goodnight, she makes sure to say goodnight to the imaginary friend as well. And.”

“Oh god,” Liz says, hands to her ears again.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Meghan says.

“And later that night,” Annie says, and now she realises that she does not want this story to end, that she wants to keep stringing them along like this, even Meghan, who is trying so hard to look as though she does not care for a word of it. There is more of her father in her than she thought, Annie realises, her father who loved nothing more than to keep them all up at night, scaring the life out of them, telling ghost story after ghost story, her father who was never as happy as when he had an audience, attention, an atmosphere that felt like approval, even if it was only actually a hunger for distraction. Lately, it has felt as though she is having discoveries like this every day. Lately, too, she has been opening her mouth, and saying something – something to Brendan, usually, because it is with him that her intonation is at its less contrived – and hearing, quite clearly, that it is not her own voice, but her mother’s voice which has come into the room. It is not a mystical thing, this phenomenon; it is to do with aging, and timbre, and genetics – nothing more mysterious than that, nothing more poetic. And yet.

“Later that night,” she says, “the babysitter goes upstairs to check, say at 9 or 9.30 or something, whatever time a four year old boy is meant to be long asleep by, and she hears him chatting in his room. And she says to herself, right. Enough is enough. And she opens the door. To say, time to go to sleep now…Jasper. Time to say goodnight to friendy there and close your eyes.”

She pauses. Even if the story is ruined, there is nothing wrong with a pause.

“And he’s there.”

“Oh my fucking God,” Liz says, hands to her mouth. “Who’s there?”

“The friend is there,” Annie says, and she laughs with true delight at Liz’s reaction. “Sitting at the bottom of the bed, looking around to see who’s disturbing their conversation. Looking her right in the eye.”

The people at the next table register only mild irritation at the jump in noise levels; Liz’s shriek is at least over with quickly. Beside her, Meghan is adamantly shaking her head, talking about how this is a movie, how it is definitely a movie. Brendan drapes his arm around Annie’s chair, and she leans into him; they are laughing, they are enjoying themselves, this is effortless, this is fun. Which is how Annie comes to sit up straight, suddenly, and look at Brendan, and say, while the soundtrack of Meghan’s cynicism and Liz’s horror is still unfolding, that they should tell them the other story, the one about the guy on the road, and she knows as soon as she has said it that Brendan has gone into a different place now, that Brendan is not interested in playing this game anymore, that Brendan does not want to be at a brunch table with the Annie who would tell this story – but no, it is not even that, she sees, pushing her hair back from her face and looking, unsmiling, at him as he looks, unsmiling at her; it is that he does not want her to be an Annie who would believe this story, who would drag it up again and thereby prove to him that she has not listened to him when he has told her to let go of it, to see sense on it, to understand that it is not, and cannot be, the story she for some very worrying reason so fervently maintains it to be.

She gets it; he looks at the Annie for whom this story is a real one and he wonders if he knows her at all. If he is right about who she is. If he did what was wise, after all, standing with her in front of that altar, listening to those prayers for their future blessedness and fecundity, tolerating the doggedly old-school priest who told them to keep the Blessed Mother and her saints in their home always, to make a place for her, presumably, in between the imitation Eames and the Crate and Barrel lamp and the black and white films they send flickering up onto the wall from their fancy, ugly, clunky projector, that horrible piece of office equipment which allows them to bring Bogart and Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart into their living-room, large as the night, whenever they please.

Annie, Annie hears her mother’s voice say. Watch what you’re saying. But Annie is angry with her clear-sighted husband, by now, and Annie will tell the story of the old man on the side of the road if she damn well pleases. So she tells them, and this time, Meghan does not disguise her interest, and this time, the noises that Liz makes are of a different kind, and this time, the others at the table listen too, and if Annie is not mistaken, the couple at the table beside them are angling their ears in her direction as well.

It lays its track down easily; their last week in Ireland before moving here, the pressure to visit everyone, to say to cousins, and aunts and uncles these formal goodbyes, as though they would see them any less often than they had while living in the same country as them. This was before the recession, so the term had not yet come back into currency, the term that everyone who emigrates is using now – the American wake, or the Australian one – fair enough, Australia is a long bloody way away – or the London wake, which is just silly, which is clearly just an excuse for a piss-up and a chance at a few good luck cards stuffed with twenty-euro notes. Annie and Brendan had used the term too, but with what they thought of as hilarious irony; nobody really saw it that way, they knew, and all of that was so long ago now, all of that suffering and misery, that it was absolutely fine to joke about it, and their going-away party was a laugh and a bit of a bragging opportunity all at once. But the visits; the visits were a chore. Driving to Galway and Cavan and Roscommon; cups of tea and ham-and-tomato sandwiches, and beer that Brendan could not drink because he had to drive back again, and the same questions, and the same answers, and the same old lines. They had done it because their parents had expected them to do it. It had not occurred to them to say no, no thank you. The inkling of such a possibility was only beginning to occur to them now. Now that it only half-mattered anymore; now that their parents were one-half gone.

It was August, so it was still light out at half-nine or so, which was when they were heading to Annie’s cousin’s house, and this cousin lived up the Arigna mountain, so the roads were tight, and steep, and winding, but Brendan knew this country well – Brendan had grown up close to here, had come these roads with his father and the cattle lorries – and Brendan was driving as Brendan usually did. They were talking, letting off steam about whatever visits they had been required to undertake already that day, and they were listening to the radio, to the arts thing on Radio One. And it was on a straight stretch of road that they met him, and he was just as she remembered him, insofar as she could remember him at all.

He was then, perhaps, twenty-five years dead.

She knew it was in and around that, because of the way the memory of his funeral was held in her mind; it was all angles and shadows, with no sense of human expression, no trace of how an emotion had looked, taking over an adult face, which was something she could remember from later funerals, the strangeness of a man’s weeping, or of her mother’s weeping, for that matter. This one, though; too early for that. Those pictures in her mind were made up of pew backs and of knees and of the slant, high up, of the ceiling; that had been her perspective on the world then, which meant that she had been three, maybe four years old. Jodie had been their neighbour; her neighbour, the old man who lived in the tin-roofed house up the lane, who chatted to Annie, who treated her like a neighbour no matter how tiny she was, how frightened she was of his greyhounds. Annie’s mother brought her up to visit him almost daily, and the three of them talked – it was like that, it was not Annie’s mother and Jodie talking over her, or down to her, it was the three of them talking, and then Annie and her mother talking some more as they walked down the lane again afterwards, or sometimes, Jodie walking her down. And when she saw him on the mountain road that evening, she had recognised him instantly, before ever it entered her mind that such a thing was an impossibility.

“I said to Brendan, long before we went around that corner, I said to him, hey, that’s Jodie. I hadn’t even registered that it couldn’t be him: I just saw him, and that was that.”

“You never know with these things,” Brendan says now, and his voice is wary. He tries to touch Annie’s hand.

“I saw him,” Annie says, almost savagely, and she pulls her hand away.

Someone says it: “Eh-oh!”.

“He lifted his hand, as though he was telling us something, and I said to Brendan, I said, Jodie, and he said, Jodie who? And I said, slow down. And he said, why, do you want me to stop? And I said no, just slow down, just slow down. And he did. And when we came around the next corner…if we had been going any faster…”

“There was a guy in a tractor, cutting a fucking hedge,” Brendan says with a grimacing shake of his head. “With a hedge-cutter; he was taking up our whole side of the road…but…there was room – I would have been able to brake…”

“You would not have been able to brake,” Annie says, and she looks to Meghan and Liz, to the others at the far end of the table, for support. They stare back at her, eyes wide, faces deadly serious.

“He saved you?” Liz says, right on cue.

“He saved us,” Annie nods, and to the noise of Brendan’s heavy sigh, she does not even turn her head.

“Irish roads,” says Meghan, reaching over Liz for the water jug. “Rather you than me, by the sounds of things.”


Presumably, Annie thinks as she sits on the bus later – alone – these recorded messages are played over the tannoy at random; presumably, the driver has nothing to do with it. The driver is just making his way from Greenpoint to Prospect Park, doing battle with all those shining, chubby SUVs, watching as his passengers haul themselves up his steps, as they dip their Metrocards into his machine; listening for the right kind of beep. He’s doing his thing, and then somewhere along the line – he doesn’t know where – the recording jolts itself on, and the bus is filled with the voice of a guy who could be at the Academy Awards, asking the audience to please welcome some hugely famous, greatly beloved actors, such is this guy’s drama and intensity, such is his sense of this as a moment when all ears ought to be his, all attention locked with full focus and reverence on what he has to announce: that assaulting a New York City bus driver is a crime. Annie looks around, but nobody else on the bus seems to be paying the voice the slightest heed; they are still absorbed in themselves, or in one another. Gazing out the window at Crown Heights, as it slugs past, all bodegas and clothes stores and worship halls and hair salons. Listening to each other; debriefing one another after another day. Listening to their music, whatever it was; nodding so deeply, so slowly that no degree of dead-eyed stare could convince the observer that here was anything less than vivid life, engaged and excited life. Annie looks at them, her fellow passengers, and she realises that what she is trying to do is to catch someone’s eye. To find someone, in that instant after the syrup-voiced warning has played over the speakers, with whom to connect laughingly, wryly, with whom to make wisecracks about the announcement and how comical it is, coming the way it does, coming with that camp flourish, that elegant timing, as the bus slams and rattles its way along Utica or Nostrand.

“Sure, we’re not going to do anything to him,” Annie imagines herself saying, pulling her face into a comical expression, while her interlocutor nods, and laughs, and sends her eyebrows high towards her hairline. Her interlocutor will be a woman, a woman in her 50s, Annie decides: a teacher, or someone who works in a hospital, something like that. She will be black, because everyone on this bus is, except Annie, and she will take absolutely no shit; she will be in full agreement with Annie about the plentiful and illogical absurdities of the world. Sure, we’re not a bit interested in you, love, Annie hears herself continuing, and the woman will nod and laugh and move her head in accord. That’s right, maybe she will say – That’s right, Annie feels reasonably sure, is a good approximation of what a woman like this would say – and she will smile a purse-lipped smile – not unlike Annie’s mother’s smile – and her eyes, her eyes will be beautifully bright. Mmm-hmmm, she might then say – another sound that Annie can hear in her head, a sound she feels sure to be the right sort of one, at least – her agreement emphatic, her enjoyment of the joke intense; Sure, we have better things to be doing than assaulting that lad, Annie might go on to say. “That lad”: so Irish, so much of Annie’s part of the country, but these kinds of descriptions are the same the world over, and she is certain the woman will see her meaning without any snag. Then the woman will laugh in a final confirmation of pleasure and approval, and Annie will shake her head and say, Oh, well, and the two of them will go back to their business. And, have a nice day, or you have a nice day, now!, whichever of them – probably Annie – will be first to stand up and press the cord for the stop to come.

—Belinda McKeon


Belinda McKeon is the author of Solace, which won the 2012 Faber Prize and was named Irish Book of the Year as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize. She has contributed to publications including the New York Times, the Paris Review and the Guardian, and is also a playwright. Her second novel, Tender, will be published by Picador in April. She teaches at Rutgers University. Her website is


Oct 012014

Liam Carson’s memoir, Call Mother a Lonely Field (shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize), was described by Pol O’Muiri, writing in The Irish Times, as “a lyrical prose poem about being one of the first generation of Belfast children to be actually raised – reluctantly at times – with Irish.” The opening and closing chapters framing the memoir are both titled Tearmann, the Irish word for sanctuary. For his father, Liam Mac Carráin, Carson tells us in the opening chapter, Irish was a place of refuge. “He was once interviewed for BBC Radio Ulster’s Tearmann— where guests were asked what gave them sanctuary in their lives. He chose the Irish language itself. He hid within and took comfort from words.” Carson himself when he eventually resolves his relationship with the Irish language describes it as “a blessing that—finally—I have returned to the linguistic sanctuary my parents bequeathed me, for which I am eternally grateful.”

“Will Irish survive?” he ultimately wonders. “Nobody knows,” he determines. “If it does, it will not be the language of the past, because we are not the people of the past. But a generation ago, men and women like my father and mother gave their children something that still fights erasure. If it endures it will be because there must always be a return to one’s own tearmann, where something of one’s soul and being is kept alive.”

If the Irish language survives, it will be because of people like Liam Carson also who has dedicated so much of his time to bringing the Irish language and Irish language literature to the forefront of our cultural life providing us with comfort and a much needed sanctuary.

—Gerard Beirne


Once upon a time…I was a reader, but not a reader of literature in Irish. I was a speaker of Irish, or a kind of Irish, having been brought up speaking the language in Belfast in the 1960s. My father had many books in Irish – the classic Gaeltacht memoirs and novels by writers such as Séamas Ó Grianna and Seosamh Mac Grianna, Maurice O’Sullivan, Peig Sayers, and Tomás Ó Criomhthain. I never read these books. For one, I didn’t feel my Irish was good enough to engage with them. For another, they didn’t seem to have much to do with the world in which I lived – in 1970s Belfast, my cultural reference points were Bob Dylan, The Doors, punk rock, and science fiction. English was urban and urbane, Irish was a harkening to a mythical rural idyll that never existed in the first place. Like many Irish schoolchildren I went to the Gaeltacht in the summer, and whilst we improved our Irish at morning classes, there was never any mention of poetry or literature, other than that which we encountered in wonderful songs like ‘Thíos cois na trá domh’.

There would be occasional moments when what seemed to me like two disparate cultures would meet. I remember seeing the Donegal band Clannad in a theatre in Gaoth Dobhair. They came on to the stage, hippies with their long hair, jeans, waistjackets and began to sing ‘Níl sé ‘na Lá’. Here was a traditional song reworked, with modern jazz bass lines quivering under a folksy surface. It was magical.

Years later, many years later, I became interested in Irish again – and through the medium of literature. On a visit to Donegal, I felt the language calling to me again. At the Oideas Gael bookshop, I bought a couple of poetry collections by Cathal Ó Searcaigh — and Sruth Teangacha/Stream of Tongues, by Gearóid MacLochlainn. This book shattered my ignorant notions of what existed within Irish literature. I realised what I had missed by not reading Irish. It is not the purely nostalgic literature I once imagined; it can be very much of the present. MacLochlainn writes about my home — west Belfast – and learnt much of his Irish from my father. I recognized myself and my city in his poems. Here were the soldiers, the helicopters, the sirens, the plastic bullets and the Molotov cocktails. Here were people listening to reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, punk and rap. Here were people swimming between Irish and English. Cathal Ó Searcaigh combines a profound knowledge and love of his Donegal tradition — the poets and storytellers who came before him — with the sensibility of somebody who has read Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lorca and Cavafy. I learnt that some of the most engaged, innovative, and beautiful writing emerging from Ireland is in Irish. I became like a thirsty man, drinking from a long-forgotten well. Caithfear pilleadh arís ar na foinsí says Ó Searcaigh — we will have to return to the springs. And in this, we hear echoes of English poet Kathleen Raine’s mission of ‘defending ancient springs’.

It wasn’t long before I was trawling second-hand bookshops for back issues of the wonderful poetry magazine INNTI, brilliantly edited by the mercurial Michael Davitt (whose book title gleann ar ghleann is surely a conscious nod to Bob Dylan). And what Dylan’s blonde on blonde was to the rock lyric, so INNTI was to Irish language poetry. It exploded the categories, crossed borderlines, broke the rules.

I also discovered the dark and surreal work of Dáithí Ó Muirí, one of Ireland’s finest short story writers in any language. Ó Muirí sculpts language with consummate skill, fusing clean accessible lyric Irish with the hipster prose of modern rock journalism. He work carries the influence of fantasy writers such as Ray Bradbury and JG Ballard. This is Irish magical realism, a literature that exists in the context of Borges as much as Máirtín Ó Cadhain.

In his stories people can fly; a mother and daughter see visions of an ice castle on an Indian mountain, and discover a holy well that seems to vanish into thin air. What permeates these tales is the surreal logic of dreams.

But within his alienated landscapes, there exist potent reminders of the world we know. In ‘Cogadh’ (War) we find the fear of the other that lies at the heart of war. His imaginary citizens erect a wall to protect themselves from attack – and immediately the reader is reminded of the twenty or so ironically named ‘peace lines’ that still separate catholic and protestant communities in Belfast; or of the ‘security wall’ that the state of Israel has built around the Palestinian territories.

In many of his stories, the background is replete with televisions pumping out the news of a tireless vaguely defined conflict that echoes the ‘war on terror’. African immigrants ‘éalú ón gcruatan thall, bochtanas, gorta, foréigean’ (flee from distant hardship, poverty, famine, violence). This is Irish literature which is simultaneously global.

Irish cultural commentator Diarmuid Ó Giolláin recently put forward the provocative proposition that traditional folklore might find a rebirth in a post-modern culture where the grand narratives of the 20th century novel are in retreat, and where ‘little local stories’ (‘scéalta beaga aitiúla’) have been re-invested with value. In Irish literature, these ‘little stories’ have recently found potent expression in Alan Titley’s delightful Leabhar Nora Ní Anluain. On the one hand, it is utterly Gaelic, and takes as its model or framework classic collections of traditional folk narratives such as Leabhar Sheáin Í Chonaill – and some have also compared it to Boccaccio’s The Decameron. On the other hand, it is a book utterly of our time, with a subversive critique of global neo-liberalism and all forms of colonialism at its heart.

But it is not enough for a literature to exist. A literature needs readers. Writers need readers, listeners, they need a platform on which to sing their songs. In 2004, with the assistance of Poetry Ireland, I set out to create the IMRAM Irish Language Literature Festival. It was co-founder poet Gabriel Rosenstock who named the festival IMRAM – a ‘voyage of discovery’. It means constantly finding new ways in which to frame Irish language literature – through eclectic and imaginative event programming that fuses poetry, prose and music. IMRAM has also featured film, drama, puppetry, debates, lectures, and writing workshops for both adults and children. IMRAM’s core mission is to bring writers and readers – and particularly new readers – together.

IMRAM’s message is positive – and places the Irish language and its literature at the heart of public life within a modern, energetic and multicultural framework. IMRAM believes that it is crucial to place Irish language literature in an international context. Irish language writers do not exist in some strange Gaelic ghetto cut off from the rest of the world. It is impossible to imagine Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry without the influence of John Berryman or of Marina Tsvetaeva. And it’s worth noting that her poem ‘Dubh’ (Black) is an impassioned cri-de-coeur response to the tragic fall of Srebrenica in 1995, during which Serbian forces under the command of the notorious General Ratko Mladic slaughtered eight thousand Bosnian men and boys in the single worst act of genocide on European soil since the Second World War.

Liam Ó Muirthile has spoken of his deep attachment to French poetry, particularly poets François Villon and Jacques Prévert. Gabriel Rosenstock has long engaged with eastern literature – Indian, Chinese, and Japanese. He is one of the world’s foremost writers and translators of the haiku, possessed by the spirits of Basho, Buson and Issa.

There has always been traffic between Ireland and the rest of Europe, Ireland and the world at large. And there have always been writers who have reflected the spirit of the age in its broadest sense. Seosamh Mac Grianna wrote what I would describe as existentialist noir, he evoked the zeitgeist of the 1930s, and of the individual trying to come to grips with the darkness of the age.

For IMRAM, the trick is to find the points where literatures and cultures meet. For me, it was obvious that Bob Dylan should be translated into Irish. His songs draw on a tradition with Gaelic roots, they have traditional themes, airs and lyrics that lend themselves perfectly to translation to Irish. In Gabriel Rosenstock’s hands, these lyrics were not just translated, they were transmuted, as if by a process of literary alchemy. Thus the questioning ‘how does it feel’ of Dylan’s original becomes a demand to simply tell one’s story – ‘mínigh an scéal’. Or in Dublin parlance, ‘what’s the story?’, Dylan’s ‘like a complete unknown’ becomes ‘i do bhard gan dán’ – a poet without a poem. Thus storytelling and poetry become the core of Dylan’s torrent of language.

Creative and themed events are at the heart of IMRAM’s mission. We believe that literature must engage with othe art forms – music, visual arts, dance, drama. In 2009, IMRAM staged The Riverrun Project, a bli-lingual poetic and sonic voyage through modern and historical Dublin. This featured specially commissioned work by Biddy Jenkinson, Dermot Bolger, Liam Ó Muirthile and Máighréad Medbh, performed to original music and sound effects created by Seán Mac Erlaine. Graphic artist Margaret Lonergan created on-screen projections, showing a mesmerising series of often quite beautiful images of modern Dublin, carefully selected to match the poems being read.

In 2010, IMRAM transformed experimental poet Séamas Cain’s book tríd an gcoill was transformed into a sonic and visual installation by sound artist Slavek Kwi, and staged in City Arts over five days. Slavek Kwi fused Cain’s recital of the poem with a sound-track of sounds gathered in Dromore Wood in County Clare; in addition hundreds of still images and film-clips were used, both on a large screen and on a small screen within a ‘speaker-tree’.

For the 2011 Dublin Writers Festival, IMRAM produced two special commissioned performances. The first of these was The Aisling Project, in which poets Paddy Bushe, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn and Dairena Ní Chinnéide performed newly composed poems in the aisling form addressing the current state of Ireland. These were performed to beautiful effect with specially composed live music by acclaimed composer and multi-instrumentalist Seán Mac Erlaine, and powerful on-screen projections by artist Margaret Lonergan.

In conjunction with the Goethe Institute and Poetry Ireland – IMRAM and the Dublin Writers Festival also staged Orpheus Sings a tri-lingual celebration of Rainer Maria Rilke. Peter Jankowski read the original German texts. Celia de Fréine read her sparkling Irish versions of Rilke, along with selections from Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s translations of Duino Elegies and Valentin Iremonger’s translation of The Life of Mary. Eva Bourke read fresh new English versions of Rilke, including selections from his earlier work and from New Poems. The poets were read to musical from harpist Cormac de Barra, and artist Margaret Lonergan created on-screen projections of photos and art celebrating Rilke’s life.

For a number of years now, IMRAM has been working in close association with design and typography students in the Dublin Institute of Technology, creating an annual Cló Project. Poems and short prose texts are selected and given to students, who create imaginative new typefaces and graphics for the poems and stories. In 2012, we took the project to the streets of Dublin, producing 30 large billboard poems. This meant that Irish language poetry had a significant visible presence, seen by thousands on their way to work.

In 2012, IMRAM also experimented with dance, commissioning acclaimed choreographer and dance artist Fearghus Ó Conchúir to create an otherwordly exploration of Daithí Ó Muirí’s surreal novel, Ré. Using live dance, music and visuals, the show featured dancer Ríonach Ní Néill, with music by Alma Kelliher, and lighting by Ciarán Ó Melia.

IMRAM staged La nuit est ma femme at the 2013 Dublin Writers Festival – a literary exploration of Kerouac’s relationship to French, to Catholicism and Buddhism; of his bi-lingual identity; and of his fraught relationship with America. The selections drew on poems, haiku and novels. Two writers – Gabriel Rosenstock and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn – both translated and responded to Kerouac’s work. The texts were read to improvised jazz accompaniment by The Dirty Jazz Band and on-screen projections created by Margaret Lonergan. This event saw a capacity crowd (the majority students in their twenties) in the Workman’s Club.

IMRAM is eleven years old this year, and we are currently developing beyond being an annual festival into an organization that programmes and curates events for other literary organizations and festivals throughout Ireland and beyond. We are always open to creative partnerships, open to new ideas, dialogue, and communication. We are here to celebrate literature in Irish – a literature that has proved surprisingly alive and flexible in the face of all the challenges that face any minority language. We continue our mission, like a rolling stone…

—Liam Carson


Liam Carson was born in Belfast, and is the author of Call Mother a Lonely Field, published by Hag’s Head Press and Seren Books. He is the director of the IMRAM Irish Language Literature Festival, which he founded in 2004.


Sep 022014

sarah micSarah Clancy


When asked to contribute poetry to Uimhir a Cúig I was enthusiastic, but on reading the second part of the request, namely that I might also provide a few thoughts on slam or performance poetry in Ireland I grew a little more hesitant. With thoughts of writing this commentary and of my own reluctance to be categorised I conducted a brief and very unscientific survey on my Twitter and Facebook accounts to ask various writers and performers what they thought performance poetry actually is in an Irish context. The overwhelming trend in response was a rejection of the definition of ourselves as purely performance poets or ‘slam’ poets. Many of my fellow writers indicated that the difference between page and ‘performance’ poetry was whether or not our work was memorised and performed to an audience, and for me that is nearly as narrow as classification of performance poetry in Ireland can go.  I don’t particularly want to get into the much-flogged-hackney debate about which form of poetry is more poetic, nor do I want to go over the much-mentioned or mis-mentioned role of spoken poetry in Ireland and literature’s history. Instead I’d like to tease out (with the help of all the people who gave me their opinions) what performing poetry is like here and some of what (other than the obvious) divides and unites the page and stage methods of delivery.

It is irrefutable that a writer personally delivering their work in public has a whole range of what I’ll call emotional manipulation ‘tricks’ at their disposal if they chose or learn to use them:  they have their physical presence, they have their tone of voice, eye contact or lack of it, they can dictate the pace of the poem, insert poignant pauses and depending on how their appearance or manner engages the audience they can add layer after layer of meaning, wit or irony to words that are absent if, as with traditional printed poetry, a quiet reader sitting alone has to interpret a piece unaided. Conversely though, as someone who was dragged around to literary events from a young age I heard many readers, poets in particular who were terrible, terrible readers of their own work and whilst I forgive some of them – (the ones who were nervous or who really wished not to be in the public eye) there was frequently a type of soul destroying reading where the hefty profound pauses between words and thick silences supposedly laden with meaning at the end of each utterance presented poetry as some type of Latin mass to which some people had access and the rest of us never would.

These type of readings now seem to be an endangered species however (thankfully), and I put this down to the good influence of a whole gang of poets who are interested in both the written and performance aspects, particularly the ones who encourage other writers (people such as Kevin Higgins, John Walsh and Lisa Frank of Doire Press, Stephen Murray, Dave Lordan, Colm Keegan and Stephen James Smith) These ‘crossover’ poets (and writers) are threateningly at-large on the small literary circuit here at the moment. For any writer going off to do a public reading there’s a great risk now that you might be faced with being billed with Kevin Barry hamming  his way through a variety of his character’s voices, or with the fury and passion of Dave Lordan unleashing his vernacular poetry or ‘frags’ upon you, or with Elaine Feeney’s warm demeanour tricking you into thinking you are in safe hands before she launches into the creative and fearless deconstruction of everything middle Ireland holds dear from the GAA to the catholic church, you might find yourself lulled by Billy Ramsell’s Cork accent and mesmeric voice as with limitless ambition for what language can be made to achieve, he tries to describe music more musically in words than the music can describe itself in notes. If like me you are totally prudish about hearing sexual exploits described in public, you might find yourself squirming beside our adopted Canadian Dimitra Xidous as she takes a totally un-Irish relish in describing her own and others genitalia and how they might combine in a range of inventive ways mostly related to food. There are many other poets just as impressive and engaging that I could and should include here for mention but those will be enough to indicate that in Ireland, the notion of performing your poetry or writing is by now firmly ensconced within the literary scene rather than an outside element. Perhaps it was always like this and I just went to stuffy readings? Several of  the writers mentioned above are award-winning ‘page’ poets who have published collections of their poetry as well as being performers (except for Kevin Barry who is an award winning short story writer and novelist and Dave Lordan who is a playwright and prose writer as well as being a poet).

Whilst there are exceptions to every bold statement I might make about performance poets in Ireland, you will see from the above that it is safe to say that a lot of the poets here who regularly or irregularly perform their poetry are, at the very least as concerned with their written, published work as with their performances. I am even going to hazard a foolhardy statement and say that for the most part even in ‘competitive’ performance poetry in Ireland as represented by long-running annual events such as the Cuirt International Festival of Literature Grand Slam Championships, the North Beach Nights Series and the All Ireland Grand Slam Championships (which feeds qualifying candidates through from events held in each province of Ireland) the successful poets[1] seem to owe more to traditional lyric or narrative poetry than they do to rap or hip hop or the influence of the Beat poets, as seems to be the case in other perhaps more culturally and ethnically diverse countries.  We seem here too, to have less of the ‘confessional element’ that I have seen and heard in popular spoken word from North America. Yes we have lots of people with poems about gender and sexuality and politics and bullying etc. but generally here to be successful in competitive events or well received at the others, people’s personal experiences need to be put through a spin-cycle of imagination and deflective imagery that I haven’t seen evident in competitive performance poetry from the US or Canada. This is also the case in many social settings in Ireland though; we are not generally straight or forthright talkers about emotional issues.

For context, a word or two about my own stance on things; I am often described as a performance poet and I vary between being amazed that anyone would call me a poet at all and between being unhappy with the restriction implied by the label. I started to pay proper attention to my own desire to write creatively in around about 2009, and now five or six years later, a relatively short time in the life of a ‘poet’, I have had two full length collections of poetry published and have another one The Truth and Other Stories due out this month. I am not making any claims for the merits or standard of my various emissions – that’s something any interested others can assess as and when they want – what I am saying is that for someone who gets variously described as a slam poet, a spoken word poet or a performance poet (even by my own publisher) I have actually published more written or page poetry than many people who are described as poets without any of the various prefixes attached, and sometimes if I am in that kind of humour, I wonder why should be the case.

In my own writing, I don’t consider the page and performance poetry as separate things and I don’t generally consider which arena or form I am writing for at all when I sit at my computer or scribble in a notebook. I write very instinctively and sometimes when I am finished I find that I have captured something in a way that I like, and sometimes I haven’t.  In the latter case I usually delete it. The ‘finished’ poem then, if it survives my delete button, will sometimes be a piece that lends itself particularly well to the immediacy of performance in public, but in fact if I have written a poem that to my own standards is one to keep then even if it’s not a performance ‘hit’ it should almost without exception, be able to be read or performed aloud in a way that maintains its rhythm and meaning. This does not mean that I’ll necessarily perform the poem in public; what it means is that if it sounds wrong, awkward or uncomfortable when I read it aloud to myself then I haven’t finished it, and I need to adjust or rewrite or rethink whatever lines jar either on my tongue or in my ear.

Speaking personally again, for me if a poem is to be effective in a noisy bar or other public space filled with the circulating thoughts and movements and concerns of others it needs, in some way to be able to claim and own that space. It’s a mistake though to think that performance poems need to be strident or obvious or raucously funny. Often a quiet, eerie poem can silence an audience much better than a more in your face piece.  In a lot of cases with poetry-performed-out-loud-in -public when the performer is doing a whole set rather than just one piece they can usually establish a connection with the audience by presenting some familiar or accessible work and in doing that they can in a way ‘earn’ the right to have more complex or less immediate pieces heard, and in this way anything, even the most obscure or un-crowd pleasing poems, can be aired without losing the engagement and energy that comes from connecting with an audience.  This all sounds weird perhaps, but if compared to a singer songwriter or a band it’s very familiar to us: they play a few old favourite or hit songs or even a cover version (the crowd pleasers) then they play their new material to introduce it to their fans, they let it sit and then they’ll play a few more hits to send everyone off satisfied. This works in performance poetry too. If you’ve gained an audience’s trust and attention they’ll come with you to places they wouldn’t necessarily chose to go by themselves.  I have no proof of this, but I suspect that sometimes when a performance goes well you can get an audience to engage with a poem they may have skimmed over or not bothered to read in your book.

William Wall a novelist, poet and friend who responded to my Facebook question pointed out that for him the flip side of the range of ways a performance-poet has of communicating through poetry is a slight over-determination. In some cases the reader or the audience is told what to feel about the poem, often in no uncertain terms and so the ambiguity or the space for a reader to interpret or respond to a poem themselves, (which is perhaps one of the chief defining criteria of a piece of art) can sometimes be lost or diminished. In terms of detailing differences between the page and stage forms, I think this is a valid point; that page poetry may well retain a capacity within its ambiguity to access the sublime in a way that is very rare in ‘performance’ poetry.

The first two poets I ever saw give what I would call a ‘performance’ of their work in public were Rita Ann Higgins and Maighread Medbh. Both of these poets and those first performances I heard are useful to put the theory of performance poetry as overly-deterministic to the test.  That both are woman is not a coincidence; some of what struck me about both events (which took place some years ago) is how unusual it was or unfortunately still is, to have woman claiming and occupying stage space for their own work on their own terms.  I am not sure how Medbh would self identify if we asked her to classify herself poetically, but I do know that Rita Ann Higgins does not claim membership of any ‘performance poetry’ sub or supra strata in Irish poetry.

Despite the fact that I mostly agree with Wall’s point regarding the narrowing of creative ambiguity when poetry is performed, I’d have to make an honourable exception for Maighread’s work, which certainly keeps one luminous eye on the  sublime. I first saw her perform in the quiet reserved venue of Galway City Library during one of the Over the Edge Series of readings run by Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar Du Mars and she took the space at the front of the room and through presence, energy and movement as well as through the intensity of her poetry created a charge and a level of discomfort amongst the audience that fascinated me- this was not consoling poetry.  I didn’t and still don’t find her poetry immediately accessible. On the page or computer screen I find her work resonant and deeply unsettling but each time I have watched her in the flesh performing I have been moved and impressed by her bravery. Hers was a performance of poetry that blew space open rather than summarised or encapsulated any particular event or experience.

Staying with that point about the possible loss of ambiguity in performances or readings it is worth looking at some of the ways a totally deterministic performance of a poem is in itself (or can be) an act of imaginative creativity. For me a fine clear example of this was that reading by Rita Ann Higgins some years back (I think it took place at the Cuirt International Festival of Literature).

In a crowded room filled with the type of people who attend literary festivals (myself included) she read her poem ‘Some People’. She left no wriggle room for anyone listening, it was her poem, her hook and us her audience were on it.  The poem begins:

Some people know what it is like
to be called a cunt in front of their children

It then continues to describe a litany of demeaning, horrible and sometimes absurd things that some people and their children know before finishing in magnificent understatement:

and other people don’t.

The closing lines and in fact the silence that lingered after them perfectly captured the unbridgeable gap between the majority of her audience and the people who the poem speaks about. As a member of that audience I had no doubt at all that I was one of the ‘other people’.  In this case the poem in question also works brilliantly on the page but it works there in a way that is different from hearing it read aloud in public:

In public it is a direct, confrontational and political act, an intervention in polite discourse.  For a woman to stand on stage at a civilised poetry reading and say the word ‘cunt’ in the way it is used in this poem; as an insult hurled at a woman in front of her children is not business as usual. Right from the off we were far, far out of our comfort zone. The impact of the physical presence of a woman writer standing there and using either her own personal experiences or witness, and her willingness to be personally publicly identified with the demeaning experiences she describes is immeasurably greater than the effect of the words on the page alone.

On the page parts of the poem are amusing, striking and inventive, but performed, in person they are devastating.

The reason I highlight this particular poem is to point out what I see as something vital in poetry that is performed and that is that it necessitates a willingness on the part of the poet to be personally identified with what they have written.   In my experience in effective or good performance poetry there is no dispassionate distance available to the poet because it is that distance (which IS available as an often effective device within page based poetry) that will diminish a performer’s chances of connecting emotionally with an audience.  Even if performance poems are not autobiographical in any strict sense, when they are performed by their writers themselves the creative aspect of the writer’s personality is being demonstrated in a physical public space and that in itself is an intimacy that the remoteness of the covers of a book can help to shield us from.

To a large extent (and possibly a matter for me to take up with my psychologist rather than here) most of my own public interactions in any sphere are performative but what causes me stage fright and nervousness quite often is that in performance poetry even if I am not the ‘speaker’ in any particular piece and even if, as is usually the case my poems are not a verifiably true reportage of anything that has actually happened, every time I stand there and perform one of my own poems, I am exposing my own vulnerable creativity and allowing it to be linked back to my own physical presence, my actual body and voice and demeanour while I stand there on the spot.  For me that is the best thing about performing my own poetry and for me that is the horror of performing my own poetry.  Whilst having a book or a poem published is hugely thrilling to me it is something that happens at a distance, whereas performing is hyper-personal.  In one final point it is worth mentioning that like most writers I know, the making public of my writing either in performance or in a publication (or on Facebook which is my bad habit) is actually a side effect. What I am actually addicted to (other than reading which is my first love) is the act of writing, the excitement of inspiration and moments of realising that inspiration into something that didn’t exist before I wrote it and hopefully each time into something that doesn’t mimic what I have written before. Yehaw, that’s what that feels like.

—Sarah Clancy



For Lazarus, whose alarm clock is ringing
For Elaine

In the terminal’s time warp the sun-on-glass glare
and the lack of appropriate places to sleep
have me left bug eyed and pacing static-filled corridors
that send sparks through my fingers and hair
when I touch things (or if I touched things) and I’m thinking
of how we came to be each others others and
how it is that people like us come to mean things to each other.
Without knowing it does so, the heat from the sun’s kiss on
the plate glass windows licks at my neck and like it, you and me are helpless
our warmth spreads without any permission, we’ve no borders,
no boundaries and we’ve been friends since we met
so I can say; Lazarus get up out of that because I want to talk to you about how
I’d resolved to be only one person all of the time but then
a woman came in to my ninth floor hotel room and stood
at the window looking down at some city or other beneath her,
I (or the me I was using) stayed at a distance with my back
to the wall and across those great acres of room space and bed space
and sheet span I watched the light burnish her edges;
her ribcage, her jaw and the fine hairs on her arm
and as the evening grew gentler I watched the rise and fall
of her breath while the day itself melted and Lazarus
I wanted to go to her but this me that I’ve chosen to be
all of the time now didn’t know how or where to begin,
I didn’t believe that my static filled fingers could touch her
and that she might welcome it and I wanted to tell you
that I mightn’t be able to stay being me in situations like this
where I have all the ingredients gathered and measured
and then I forget how to cook them (if that was in fact,
me there in the bedroom and not one of my minions)
and I’m saying this because I’ve learned that staying one person
isn’t straightforward and sometimes being truthful is less accurate
than having the courage to act the part beautifully,
and Lazarus I want to tell you whenever you get up
that I might not be able and I know you’ll know what I mean
because we are each others others and we know things
Lazarus, it’s high time you were up.


It’s the Dark
A poem for my selves

On this day of halogen and helium
we are dodging shadows
our eyes squinting against late afternoon sun
but it’s with us, despite the whiteness;
it’s a hand not held
in a dark bedroom, of a dark house, on a dark street
where no one ever thought to leave a light on for us
it’s every unblown birthday candle
a school of sorts, an education,
it’s a taunting lane with pine trees and a wind channelled down it,
it’s the terror that made our fat legs pedal faster,
made us flee it,
as if in the bright lights of the kitchen hours later
we still wouldn’t feel it
it’s that car journey we didn’t want to go on
those other headlights sweeping past in freedom
and our relentless windscreen wipers beating rhythm
to the place we swore we’d never get to
on a morning night wouldn’t relinquish,
it’s a bridge in an inferno crumbling
and I can tell you there’s no crossing back over
it’s the confessional where we don’t know what to say
or even who to answer
it’s a hundred pagan folk memories;
nameless because they never tried to conquer it
it’s the dark
it’s the dark
it’s the dark
and it’s best to leave it be.


Sad Bear’s Dance

In the middle of a critique of post-feminist lit the academico asked for examples
she cased the joint for samples. ‘You there in the corner’ she pointed ‘how do you
and like I do when put on a spot I back-answered, retorted; ‘as chat ups go,
that one’s a keeper, and I’m really liking the cut of your jib’. She insisted excitedly
that I was manifesting a notably insidious strain of patriarchy and said; ‘Sisters
and the few selected males amongst us, can you see how our specimen is acting
unwittingly contrary to feminist interests… Seems she’s internalised, oh yes she’s
……….aping it.
Picking fleas from my fur I said well in the interests of political correctness, are we
here gender or sex? And she; ‘Whichever, I’m asking are you an X or a Y and if
……….you’re happy
with that designation or do you feel you’ve been put in a box?’ Never till now, I
……….was thinking
but yer wan just wouldn’t be stopped; ‘I’m asking did you learn it or just be it,
speaking, science we’re talking, not myth?’ And I said ‘Oh science is it? Why didn’t
……….you say?
Well you’ll be happy to know I’m empirical, a walking experiment and I propose
……….that there are
waaaaay more letters than that. I’m a boy if you want, a man for all seasons and
the moon calls I’m her bitch, I’m a wave that never comes far enough in, an eight
……….year old child
in a dress, in my father’s high heels call me princess — and sure while we’re at it get
on your knees for your king, and if we’re talking here subject and object then I’m
……….the rent boy
you’ve always wanted to bugger, I ‘m a work in progress – might never be
a construction fallen foul of the bust, so come on in with your cork board and
sure I’ll prostrate myself for your pin- why wouldn’t I when I’m my own favourite
blank canvas, an artwork unfinished and I’m thoroughly glad of your interest –
……….here listen,
yea I know — Eureka! We could begin our own travelling freak show and go out
on the road if you want, we’ll meander through small towns and hamlets and
and when the crowds surge I’ll get my kit off oh yes I’ll perform to entice them
while you pocket our ill gotten loot, then later when it’s quiet and they’re gone,
I’ll slow dance on your chain like the saddest of bears until someday, when
I’ll about face and savage you, in that way no one ever predicts, however often
this rictus of captive and victims’ enacted, and I’ll be happy at it let me tell you,
happy as a striped jacketed monkey transplanted to the coldest of streets, ‘cos
I’m a one trick pony reading up on peripheral vision, realising she has it and
asserting that I can grind any organ I wish, and I trust that answers it?’



Your tight lips and stubborn back
and the sound of our dinner dishes
being none too gently stacked
have sent me outside
to sneak a cigarette
in the closest thing a summer night has
to darkness.

My match strike flares
and blinds me for an instant
as I guiltily inhale.
Down on the bog-land
below our house
there are car lights moving slowly,
then going out.
A door thuds shut
and no other sound comes up.

Close-by my ear I hear
your barefeet lubdubing like my heartbeat
across the wooden kitchen floor.
My nicotine plumes fray
then disappear,
and on the uplift of the breeze
an acrid petrol smell
mingles with the gorse, wildflower
and wet earth fumes.

In the morning all there is
is wood smoke and a few blackened patches,
otherwise the gorse bushes
stand out flag-yellow
and unmolested.
Bogland doesn’t always burn
that easily, even after
a surprise late night baptism with petrol
up here, where we are,
a sly sea mist can sneak
in to douse it
so it’s left to smoulder
neither burning nor put out
like we are
like we are.


 —Sarah Clancy


Sarah Clancy is a page and performance poet from Galway City. Her first themed collection of poetry, Stacey and the Mechanical Bull, was published by Lapwing Press Belfast in December 2010 and further selections of her work were published in 2011 & 2012 by Doire Press Galway. Her first full length collection of poetry Thanks for Nothing, Hippies was published by Salmon Poetry in April 2012 and was launched at the Cuirt International Festival of literature that year. It has since become a poetry bestseller. Cinderella Backwards a CD of poetry by Sarah and her fellow Galway poet Elaine Feeney was released in December 2012.  Her forthcoming collection The Truth and Other Stories is due out from Salmon Poetry in September 2014.

She has had success in slam or performance poetry circles winning the 2011 Cuirt International Grand Slam Championship, twice coming in as runner up in the North Beach Nights Grand Slam Series (2011& 2012) and in 2013 she was runner up in the All-Ireland Grand Slam Championship.  She has also been placed or shortlisted in many page-poetry prizes including the Listowel Collection of Poetry Competition, the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the WOW awards and the Over the Edge Poetry Competition. In 2012 she received second prize for her poem ‘I Crept Out’ in the Ballymaloe International Poetry Competition judged by Matthew Sweeney.


Aug 062014

imageDavid Hayden

In his novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust famously introduced the concept of involuntary memory where the taste of a madeline dipped in tea brought back to his narrator, Marcel, a memory of the past, the memory being triggered unconsciously, effortlessly, by a sensory experience. Memory researcher and cognitive psychologist, Marigold Linton, rather poetically, described these involuntary memories as “precious fragments,” and I was reminded of these precious fragments when first reading David Hayden’s story Memory House.

Generally by placing events in sequential order and suggesting a connection between them, the writer gives meaning to plot, the narrative allowing causality to be inferred, but here the construct of the narrative replicates the fragmented process. If we accept that selfhood exists in the continuity of memory, then the narrator’s search for identity lies in the retrieval of encoded past experiences. In this regard, Hayden’s vivid language is rich with the sensory detail necessary to provide the triggers. Ultimately, however, we learn of the narrator’s personal history not through the memories themselves (which are not described) but through their metaphorical impact.

Metaphor, as we know, is not simply a figure of speech but a form of thought, and the associative nature of Hayden’s writing coupled with the sheer power of his imagistic words reveal marvellously the internal unseen world.

—Gerard Beirne


Memory House


The memory house is in my mind; today and everyday. Each thing is itself and is a way out to another object or to a time that happened or almost happened or didn’t happen.

I am the broken plate lying on the kitchen floor. Eight main pieces are grouped together on the yellowed linoleum that is cool beneath my bare feet. Scores of fragments are scattered in the greasy shadows, or wedged under the heels of the table.

The warped, lemon-shaded light is my mother’s eye. It gives off a gentle heat and can see nothing. Each chair is a misplaced friend. If I sit down I will remember who, and why they became lost and, perhaps, where they are today.

The table is a stony beach on a Cretan shore. Facing north, a salt-thickened breeze pushes back my hair. There are lights out to sea but none behind me. My baby boy rests warmly on my hip, his eyes narrowing as he looks out into the future.

From upstairs I hear the blunt crack of steps on a broken board. I should be alone here. I’ve always been alone here. But lately I’ve found evidence of a visitor. In the bathroom I found a damp, half-smoked cigarette in the sink. The sink is my broken tooth with taps for tears; hot and cold. I didn’t see the assailant’s face and I still wonder if he cut his hand.

The air is coloured with the smell of bay rum and sandalwood. I look into the empty bath. It is the smile of a girl I liked at school forty years ago. I open the window and the staleness is sucked out into the dark leaving the room cold and alert.

I’m on the stairs sounding like a horse and then comes the kitchen.

From the shadowed pantry three white eyes stare out. They are flour, rice and sugar. Clouds of flour become thoughts cased in bone, grains of rice pulse out from my wooden heart through cracked ceramic veins, sugar crystals swell in my bladder.

I must go.

Down two steps, across the rushing carpet its pattern forming, distending and breaking; the floor underneath could be one great muscle. I am at the bottom of the stairs and at the top of the stairs with no motion in between. I follow the urinous smell to a battered door.

I pull the pure cord in the dark and something white and sticky pours from the ceiling; it is light. The cord is clean from the fat circular fitting at the top but halfway down turns brown as a stick, ending in a grey, plastic bell fragment.

I relax my muscles and micturate a stream of sugar into the bowl which piles up on the slope before slumping into the water. I shake and grains patter on the floor.

The hair moves on the back of my neck, tall, dry grass, my head a rounded dune travelling slowly to the shore, a mud-choked littoral, the smell of ozone, sewage and tobacco smoke. I turn around to see a fat, white cigarette left on the top stair post, it is burning rapidly and by the time I am within reach it is all ash.

There is a clatter in the kitchen but from where I am I cannot move. Someone shouts and the sound billows out behind me then funnels away before sweeping back over my head and down the stairs. I follow, passing the mirror at the bend in the staircase. I look into the glass and a seagull gazes back, stone blue pupils, yolk yellow iris, beak wide open dripping black tar. I hiss back.

Downstairs the sea crashes against the windows, a pane shatters, the grey water plunges in then the wave rescinds taking the glass with it.

All stills.

In the kitchen a broken umbrella and belted raincoat lie on the table. I don’t recognise them and return to the living room where I squat in front of the fireplace placing coal in the grate a piece at a time from a galvanised bucket using a pair of brass tongs. The matches are damp but one flares and I start the kindling. Moonish smoke rises from the pyre and begins to fold on top of itself, layer after layer. I lie on the mossy sofa, a spring pressing into my back. The fire begins to roar orange and my fingers unclench in the easy warmth.

Rolling forwards, one hand forks over my face and I sneeze, a green smile twitches on the floor like a tapeworm. The smile ripples towards, then over, the tiled surround, puckers slightly then kisses the hot coals. I hiss again, bitumen breath and a white gas cloud the size of a sugar cube puffs from my mouth. I put my hand behind my back, dig under a cushion, pull out a bag of broken biscuits and begin nipping off the hard pastel frosting. I throw the biscuit discs towards the fire but I miss each time.

The radio comes on loud in the yellow bedroom. I feel like my teeth are going to fall out. I get up and the sofa’s skin stretches and snaps back to itself. I stumble for the stairs. Light is washing and blinking around the trembling frame of the bedroom door. The handle rattles. I know I will be shocked if I touch it. There’s a rushing sound behind me and I run into the bathroom waving steam away. The shower is on, yellow, green, red, sprays from the head into the tub and onto the floor. I close my eyes and grab the tap turning and turning, and when the flow stops I stand up and hear silence where the radio’s clamour was. I undress and get into the bath which frees me of the need to sleep that I have had for as long as I can remember.

The dark, unfilled rags that are my empty clothes wrap around each other on the floor. I step back into them and walk into the yellow bedroom. A young, well-fleshed dog fox is sitting on a stool in front of the dressing table its brush trailing on the floor. In the mirror I see the fox’s jaw exposed, fizzing with yellow maggots, its eyes staring steadily, wisely into themselves. On the bedside table there is a glass full of water in which is a pair of dentures made with far more teeth than can be contained in a human mouth. A small metal box, a radio, shines next to the glass. I switch it on and there is a loud belch followed by a round of applause. I switch the radio off.

On the stool in front of the dressing table is a coat. From behind me there is a gagging then a throaty gurgle, a wet, chunky evacuation, perhaps through the nose as well as the mouth. On the bathroom floor in front of the toilet bowl lie strands of tomato and lumps of shrimp. I clean the floor and open the window, which slams shut immediately that I release it as if the outside air were resisting the gastric stench within. On the third attempt I manage to wedge the window open with a toothbrush.

I look up through the glass into the massing sky, bruised silver-grey and violet, and raise my arms, my hands, thinking through the sudden pain in my head, and see a frozen lark fall at great speed before exploding on the concrete path, scattering its music all around the garden in numberless, glittering fragments.

I open the back door and for the first time walk outside and when I look back I see nothing but trees. I sit on a rock and watch the nearest one to me. Silver bark crumbles from the trunk and snows onto the ground. The tree trembles.

I stand up in brilliant sunshine and turn to look over a rotten stile at a meadow that slopes away; long grass, scrubby, clumping weeds with tight pink buds, yellow butterflies twitch in the air, white mushrooms nose up through the damp soil, swallows dip and roll. In place of the sun a giant, golden, severed hand radiates in the sky. The hand closes into a fist making the world dark. Turning around, I run for the trees, eyes twitching up to the trunks and boughs that are scarred with hoops that glow orange ember. I trip over the step and fall into the kitchen smoke rising from my jacket.

The smell, like toasted marshmallows, makes me feel sick and hungry at the same time. I roll to my feet and approach the bread bin, carefully lifting the lid and, as I put my hand in the loaf scuttles into the corner pressing up against the side, palpitating under the bag tie.

This is my hunger.

I put the hand under the tap and watch it turn red.

Walking quickly from the sink I step out of my shoes, they float away and I feel lighter and truer. There is a breakage far in the distance but still inside. The stranger is coughing and laughing in the parlor.

I reach the door which gasps softly as I push against it and sighs as I pull it back. I refuse to do this again.

I step onto an irregular orange rug, the burning sand cradles my feet, one move, two moves and I am struck by a jag of glass that pierces my foot to the pith and I stand bleeding freely. The desert turns red and I become blue while my foot pulses. I move off into a corner and reach for the floor which spins around to meet me. Within reach there is a narrow bed and, propped next to it on its side, an empty television. I can’t remember all the programs I must have watched there when it had a screen but I know the time must have passed because here I am inside, looking at myself, watching nothing. I cough and, for a moment, I think I must be the stranger – I am a man after all – but I hear laughter outside the window, and then I think that he must be a piece of me that has broken off and is living a happier life than the one that I lead but, somehow, still cannot completely escape the original self who now lies maimed on the parlor floor.

But then I remember.

I don’t smoke.

I can’t be the stranger.

The pillow ascends and approaches as if interested in my breath. It becomes as big as the moon; or maybe it is merely close and white and glowing cold like a pillow does before one falls into its plump, lightly wrinkled face with one’s own red, heavily wrinkled, bewhiskered one. The moon or the pillow is behind me and my face is in front of me and the lack of a breath is not troubling me and I grow calmer and darker, waiting for the world to fall away not knowing whether it will fall up or down. I land heavily on my knees. (There will be a bruise.) The room shakes awake and I long for a blanket. I hear a long crisping sound, a suck and a pout, nearly silent, and a louder, but still quiet, exhalation, sour smoke drifts over my head and I struggle to stand, to turn, to see the secret smoker, to seize him – because it must be a him – to push him over, to crush his pack and kick away the yellow lighter, with its grind wheel and shimmering liquid gas, into the shadows of the shadows under my bed where I will reach for it in the morning – should the morning come.

I scramble sideways, pull myself up and balance on toe-tips, fingertips, before shuffling forward and rising in one long stretch. On the stairs I hear the rolling grind and fat thump and thump of a heavy ball descending.

I press my fingers into the palm of my left hand to dig out a chemical itch. I hold the sparkling hook in the air above my head before dropping it into my mouth and swallowing. There’s a fishy wiggle and a tickle and then it’s gone into the acid darkness.

There is a tapping under my feet, not on the plaster ceiling some distance below, but a hard, sore-knuckled rapping on the boards directly beneath the coarse leather of my shoes. There is a muffled shout from the same place; it must be hard to breathe there. I stamp my foot twice, three times and the sound stops. I fold over and put my ear to the warm wood.

The dark is hovering in the dark and behind these are the walls.

“Are you there?” I say but when I realise that I’m talking to myself I stand up.

Vines twist around the iron loops and knots of the bed head. There is a force of sweetness passing through these living cables, swelling the grapes that group together and nod towards the pillow. Dragonflies rise and fall in the turbid air, rapid wings making a deep hum and I imagine that this is what makes my glasses tremble and slip down my nose. I go to lie down and I’m relieved to be that little distance further from the earth, pleased to be upheld, and I recognize the vastness of the effort required to keep flesh, bones, skin, frothing blood and the soft, thinking matter of the brain from parting, each from the other, and sliding into the soil.

I sense the possibility of no more happening.

There is a sudden fall, a cough, of soot in the chimney and a small cloud passes over the tiles and settles on the carpet.

The stranger’s sounds make sense for the first time.

He is saying: “Get out of my house.”

I turn around and a man is standing close to me swelling large on the in breath, shrinking and warping on the out breath.

I talk and my words run backwards but I pull the sounds in and blow them out in the right direction.

“This is my home… my house. I have the deeds in my pocket. I always carry the deeds.”

I hand them over for his inspection.

“You see,” he says, waving the papers in the air. “I have the deeds. This is my house.”

“But all of this is mine. It’s what I’ve lived. Look – look… The rug there – it’s the skin I tore from my back when I fell off my boy’s scooter after steeping down a gravel path in the park.”

“Everyone has skin.”

“My books. All my books. I’ve read them.”

“No one has the words. The mind is on a slope and the words pour off like water and who knows where they go?”

“Not the words. The books. They’re mine… Downstairs… in the drawer. The knives. They cut my food.”

He has folded his arms and begun a slow, wet smile that I fear may never end.

“There’s no food in this house.”

I point upwards to the ceiling, his gaze follows and he cries out at the rough, fibrous shag of an over roasted slice of beef; wet strings of fat hang down, bloody drops pendulate, hesitating to fall.

The stranger reaches over and returns the deeds.

“It’s your house. It is.”

He stands wavering; thinning out.

“What am I doing here?”

“You’ve been scaring me.”

“I was happy scaring you. I never thought that it was my house. I was lying.”

“I know.”

“I couldn’t live in a house like this.”

“Neither do I.”

The stranger looks down at his shoes and so do I. They are just shoes.

“The truth is… I can’t remember anything.”

—David Hayden




An Apple in the Library


The librarian sits at her desk; unblinking, because unable to blink, unmoving, because unable to move. Air rushes between the stacks making a hoarse throat-music. The lamps are on and the ceiling is covered in scars.

The books know but are still.

The reader pushes at the door, considers his choices when it resists him, then pulls on the door, which opens. There is no knowing what the librarian is thinking. It is possible to know what the librarian is thinking.

The reader approaches her.

“Do you have an apple?”

If it were possible she would be nodding, not talking, nodding; indicating the shelf behind the reader where the apple is. He turns around and turns back.

“I’m sorry. I need the apple. And you can’t help me?”

The librarian stares at the reader. She knows that she cannot help. He smiles, considering his own simple appetence, it is a lovely thing, perhaps better than the apple sought; but still he must have the apple.

“Who brings you here? Are my questions cruel? I don’t feel cruel although I know what it is. I can look at you and in seeing you not see you, only a dark part of myself which I do not recognise as myself but as you; the surface of you, made a thing; a thing I see and want, or don’t want, to look at, to act on.”

Every day. Every single day,” thinks the librarian.

This is a loud thought but the reader can not hear it. She thinks it again.

Every single day.”

“I’m sure the apple is near,” says the reader.

“I have the idea of it in my hand. I possess the weight of the idea; not much, it is sufficient and, while lighter than many ideas, it is, at the moment, larger and more present than all those other thoughts.”

You are loud, unsheathed and boring, but you have a good smell; cleanliness with a superadded element, a bright unguent applied on the face with the fingers of each hand in a soft, swirling motion that awakes the skin, makes it live and feel like my skin, my flesh, once felt; a good smell; the odour of self-love, of care, of caring to be seen, of inhabiting one’s aliveness and feeling it both never ending and short-lived.”

The lights blink off and the library stages a presentiment of endless darkness. The reader can smell the apple now; it is behind him or, perhaps, over his head, floating. He reaches up into the dark pursuing his sense and the lights blink on and he is staring at his hand reaching out to nothing.

The librarian has a thought but it is not in words. The reader wants to be guided to the apple by words, by the alphabet even, but the fruit is before, or outside of all that; it is possible that the apple leads to the words but not the other way round.

“I will look at the books. It’s all right that I look at the books?”

The reader looks again into the librarian’s face.

“Everything I need to know today is in there. What do you do with it all, I wonder?”

Love. It’s enough.

“The apple is near and you are here and if I take the trouble to search I will find it.”

You are so vehement. It’s right behind you; you might not find it; perhaps you will.

“I like being here with you; so little moving.”

Your lips are moving.

“Everything that I need here and unable to leave.”

Nobody talks like you; it’s not credible; it’s not a good thing.

“There’s no resurrection except in small moments.”

The reader turns and finds the apple; the apple finds his hand. The apple is more than one simple green, perfectly imperfect as a minor sphere with spongy facets that can take the light and appear white in patches, but never completely. Wood, a stalk, and a tiny, heart-shaped, serrated leaf which, when lightly tugged, pulls back, belonging to the apple. He pushes the fruit into his mouth; his tongue’s memory of other apples creates an unthought motion to test, to paint the smooth, cool surface. Between the head and the hand: the apple; and out of the head, the mouth, the teeth. The reader is biting and chewing and it’s all happening very quickly.

The librarian thinks:

Is he eating the apple? Is the apple eating him?

The apple is finished.

The reader stands with one arm and hand free, the other bent slightly at the elbow; the core pinched lightly between his thumb and fore and index fingers.

“What I have had must come back to me; a thing, an event; done to, done by, me or who or her or him. The core turns brown, my fingers wet and sticky and fragrant.”

My eyes pour out meanings, longings – not him – meanings that stop at my eyes, which are dry; terribly dry.

The reader raises the core to his mouth and his tongue works, the teeth click and snap, and white flesh pulses out and around the fibrous, seedy pith and the apple grows fuller and more itself, and a waxy, green ribbon peels out from the reader’s mouth and spins around the fruit until it is complete.

The reader places the apple back on the shelf.

“Thank you.”

The librarian blinks.

The reader leaves.

—David Hayden


David Hayden’s short stories have appeared in The Yellow Nib, The Moth, The Stinging Fly, Spolia and The Warwick Review, and poetry in PN Review. He was shortlisted for the 25th RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story prize. Memory House is from his unpublished collection of short stories titled It’s Darker With the Lights On.

Jul 102014


With a background in the sciences, it’s no great surprise that I am drawn to writing with its roots in such disciplines, and with further interest in the therapeutic nature of words, why wouldn’t I be a big fan of the Hippocrates Society for Poetry and Medicine? Based in the UK, the society provides a forum for people worldwide interested in the connections between poetry and medicine. It hosts an annual medical symposium and runs the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. It pleased me no end then when Paula Cunningham (a dentist) placed twice in recent years in the NHS (National Health Service) category – winning the award in 2011 (A Chief Radiographer Remembers) and taking third prize this year (A History of Snow) both of which are published below. I met Paula years ago at the Eastern Washington University Summer Workshop in Dublin. I remember her reading upstairs in Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street (with its façade inspired by Tutankhamen’s Tomb and its magnificent stained-glass windows by renowned Irish artist Harry Clarke). A café made famous by Joyce in Dubliners and by other literary patrons such as Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh and Sean O’Casey. Paula read a poem that night. It may or may not have been titled “Hats”, but it was filled with hats and filled (like the great café itself) with an historic array of Irish literary figures – on that night as I recall amongst the many hats she wore, she wore her “Brendan Behan hat” and her “Paula Meehan hat”, but that night it was obvious to all that there was only one hat that fit and that was her “Paula Cunningham hat”.

Many of the poems here have, as she herself put it, “bodily/medical under/overtones” – an unintentional, but welcomed, tip of the hat in my direction. Her first full collection was published this year (currently shortlisted for 2014 Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize) and is, naturally, entitled Heimlich’s Manoeuvre.

—Gerard Beirne




Pierre Curie, who was wont to carry radium
in his breast pocket, the red brand
on his chest which would never heal,

his femurs already aglow, and the dray horse
on the narrow Paris street beside Pont Neuf
that robbed the white-hot lesions of their prize.

He dreams the powder Marie kept at her bedside,
its pretty scintillation as she slept; her own death
from leukaemia, the damage accruing slowly like a debt,

the compound interest in the body’s bank.
He imagines her fingertips scraping each page
her notebooks, her letters, her cookbooks yes,

that seventy years from her death are housed in lead,
how researchers at the Bibliotheque Nationale
are required to sign a disclaimer.

He’s surer of DNA, its ladder and its snakes,
how everything unravels and decays. He presses
the bright red button again, again.



It was wild sudden.
Her daddy phoned me to work.
She was that hot he just had a sheet over her.
I felt the heat before I lifted the sheet and seen the rash.

You’d never forget that rash.
People say to me ‘How would you know?’
and I just say ‘You’d know if you seen it.’

The wee spots and these big blotches like birthmarks –
everywhere only her face.
Her wee lady and all.
I phoned and they said do the glass test.

I pressed really hard
and her bawling, but it didn’t change
so we brung her up.
There was this old man in the queue

very wheezy, he said to the girl
‘I want them to see this child
before they see me.’
And within two minutes we’re in the ambulance.

She was bouncing up and down on the trolley,
you wouldn’t believe it. Like something
out of the Exorcist. The doctor come
and he told us prepare for the worst.
She’s a bit of hearing loss, that’s all,
in big rooms, like, but she’s grand.
They say it’ll all come right, the ear adjusts.
Her daddy brung her in snow in a shoebox –

she’d never seen it before.
They’d pushed her cot right up to the window,
the flakes sweeping past like confetti,
a bit of a rose in her cheeks, and her all eyes.

The cars in the car park were buried in minutes,
it was one snowy evening, the whole
of the country froze. She’d been in four weeks
and I mind she was eating an orange –

a mandarin one of the nurses had peeled.
That’s when I knew she really was on the mend.
They said if we’d even been five minutes later.
I think of that old man yet.

Cunningham-Heimlichs-manoeuvre (1)



I’m small enough to fit
into a teacup. You underestimate
me; this flesh means nothing

and mostly I keep
to myself. I love bone,
its occasional braille,

but mainly I cherish its smooth darkness.
I thrive on disturbance, I know
about waves, the way molecules

bounce and knock – slow,
fast. I abhor
vacuums. My centre is

all coil and deep canal.
Though I live for sound
and music is everything –


– imbalance is the biggest part
of movement. Because of me
the deaf stand up and dance.



At the Winter Park ski-holiday reunion
who swans in only Stevie
whose legs don’t take him far –
he’d been tinkering under a car
when the bomb went off.

Answer: the skin.
It’s Trivia night
and we’re in with a chance.
All the other tables are offering liver.
What is the largest organ in the body?

In Winter Park we’re triple-
wrapped in thermals
but he’s shirtless:
a sophisticated instrument
of thermo-regulation.

Homoeostasis: the body
as a furnace;
the sweat-glands
and erector pili muscles
co-operate to keep the body cool.

The hypothalmus
is conductor of the body’s
secret business;
but skin grafts don’t have glands
and scars are bald.

Anyway Stevie has walked
the twenty yards from his special car
and he’s wrecked
and his stumps are sore
and we get tore in to the drink

and we all get legless
and everyone in the Welly Bar
(we’re only here for the ramps
and we’ve jumped the queue)
is legless and Stevie has taken his off,

all smooth American tan
with the socks and the cool shoes on,
and we laugh out loud
at the pretty woman
on stilts who almost

jumps out of her skin
and the plastered people
who swear
they’re seeing things
and we know they are.[1]



…the furthest distances I’ve travelled
have been those between people – Leontia Flynn

1. Father
(at the Forty-foot Gentlemen’s Bathing Place)

Seven thirty a.m.
and I love that men
are different
when wet.

We’re sea-changed,
leagues of seals,
rasping, clapping,
rapturing the air.

I’m glad the water’s cold.
And though my father
taught me everything

I know about salt water,
for fifty weeks per annum
he remained arms’ length inland.

2. Farther

Not necessarily needing to know
I launch into these buoyant
introductions: ‘Hey Dad, it’s Paula,
your favourite daughter your

beautiful blow-in from Belfast,’
my mother priming him well
in advance, so that I’m a little
deflated but hardly surprised

when he risks ‘Are you married
to one of my sons?’ ‘Father’
I breeze ‘Bishop Hegarty’d

never agree.’ And his smile as he
fathoms the quip soon sinks, repeating
how terribly terribly sorry he is.

3. Further

Close to the close of your life, you wash up
in a strange house with a woman old enough
to be your mother insisting she is your wife.
Despite your rebuttals she’s wedded to her lies.

You try the doors, her ladyship has them locked.
You spot your father’s shooting-stick,
you’ve really got to fly, you say, and put
a window in. Next thing you la- la- la-

land in some class of hotel where the women
are very much younger with lovely hands;
the exits here, you swiftly establish, are shut

with a hush-hush code. You’ve stashed the stick
and smash a panel in. They belt you in a comfy chair,
to anchor you, they say, and call you ‘pet’.

4. Faster

I don’t think I ever married, did I? This
at the buzz-locked doors as I’m heading, the same day
he’s quizzed me how long this interment (sic) will last.
You did Dad, the Star of the County you claimed.

He grins. And I’ve more to report. Go on.
She bore you six children. Away. It’s true.
Would you like me to introduce you to one?
I would. God. That would be great.

Well Father. We shake.
It’s a pleasure to meet you.
He beams.

When I leave I am borne
on the keen conviction
he liked me.

5. Falter

Our father one ankle in Heaven
trouser-leg rolled to the knee –
your time not come – the other one
stuck as it is and swollen.

There is yet time in this dry hotel;
as your wide straddle falters the tide recedes
til your greeting’s a watery smile you float
for the flickering hosts of the faces you meet,

above whose static you tune to the sirens –
song with your name on –
well within reach;

though embracing’s beyond us
I’d sing to deliver you
home for the last how long.[2]


—Paula Cunningham

Paula author photo

Paula Cunningham was born in Omagh and lives in Belfast where she works as a dentist. Her chapbook A Dog called Chance was a winner in The Poetry Business Competition in 1999 and was published by Smith Doorstop. She has also written drama and short fiction and has held awards from the Arts Council of NI. Her poems have been widely published and anthologised.

Her first full poetry collection Heimlich’s Manoeuvre was published by Smith|Doorstop in 2013. It was shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh Best First Collection Prize, and is currently shortlisted for the 2014 Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize for First Full Collection. Individual poems in the collection have also won awards. Paula is now working towards her next collection.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Winter Park Colorado is the US National Ski Centre for the Disabled.
  2. An earlier version of this poem won 3rd prize in The Ballymaloe Poetry Competition 2012 and was published in The Moth.
Jun 012014

Photograph – Veronica Carroll

Raymond Deane was born on Achill Island in county Mayo, the largest island off the squally West Coast of Ireland.  The artist Paul Henry lived and worked there from 1910 to 1919 and his paintings of Achill, such as his depiction of the pirate queen Granuaile’s castle, entitled The Tower, capture the unique meshing of light, sea and landscape. Raymond’s compositional oeuvre including works such as Seachanges (with Danse Macabre) for ensemble, Ripieno for Orchestra, and the electro-acoustic Passage Work also seem to inhabit this dramatic Atlantean lit world. An inheritance, surely, of his boyhood in Achill. Embers for string quartet with its stark and ethereal beauty was composed when Deane was only 20. This remains the composer’s personal favourite and perhaps the most widely performed of all his works.

His work is finely crafted and exquisitely textured. Black humour pervades as in the subject matter of his latest opera (libretto by Gavin Kostik), The Alma Fetish, based on the true story of the love affair between artist Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler and the “anatomically correct” doll that a distraught Kokoschka had made in Alma’s likeness when the affair ended. Doll and artist lived together until ultimately Kokoschka had her publicly “executed”.

Raymond is also known for his writing. The gothic novel Death of a Medium (Published by Odell & Adair, UK, 1991) describes the quest of a failed composer in 19th century Dublin to find his father who himself is embroiled in a quest of his own to find the libertine Duc D’Urval with a phantasmagoric dénouement in guillotine-ridden Paris. The novel currently has the interest of a film production company.

— Siobhan Cleary



Minerva Owl from Raymond Deane’s new Noctuary album (Resonus Classics), played by Hugh Tinney – release date June 2014


If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst. – Thomas Hardy

A substantial body of work exists comprising of the memoirs and autobiographies of composers. The most eulogised of these is Hector Berlioz’s moires, published posthumously a year after his death in 1870. This is a rollicking, colourful testament of Berlioz’s life equally intimate and tender, particularly when writing of his heartbreak, sense of failure and loneliness even after becoming a celebrated composer.  More recently John Adam’s Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life  released in 2008 is a wry but informative look back at Adam’s life combining childhood memories, cultural history and music criticism.

In My Own Light released this May is a welcome addition to this repertoire. Bob Quinn, the Irish filmmaker, writer and photographer describes it as “a superb and shocking memoir. Elegant prose first lulls us into complacency with a rich, obsessively detailed, account of an Irish childhood. Cleverly, inexorably and despite a warning prologue, we are drawn into a subsequent nightmare recalled dispassionately. The absence of self-pity heightens the horror of a life almost destroyed. Only a very talented artist could have survived the self-inflicted travails described and at the same time become one of Ireland’s finest composers. The book leaves one with a feeling of relief, even joy.”

The memoirs were written in an attempt to re-examine his past, and in particular, his descent into near fatal alcoholism. No misery memoir this, however, as Deane’s honesty, wit and humour allow a lightness on even the darkest subject matter. He was determined not to romanticise his relationship with drink which he describes as “shabby, squalid and sordid.”

The memoir is in three parts corresponding perhaps to the three movements of a symphony, each with its own tempo and style. The first accounts for his first 10 years as a boy in Achill. Contrary to the narrative of memory he previously held of an adverse childhood, he found writing this part of the memoir that his childhood was perhaps not the source of his alcoholism. Instead he describes a comfortable, middle-class background with everything provided for in an idyllic setting. Probed, he admits to have been an anxious child and was bullied by his less well-off peers, but not as badly as he had previously conjured up in his mind. His father is described as a “very nice man” who had his own battles with alcoholism. This was carefully hidden from Raymond (a drunken gait was described as the effects of prescribed medication for example) until one of his siblings spilled the beans when he was 14.  One wonders how this secrecy contributed to a young boy’s anxiety, and indeed a mere three years later, at the age of 17, Raymond had embarked on his own drink-ridden path of self-destruction.

The second part of his memoir picks up when the Deanes moved to Dublin in 1963. Raymond was thrilled at the move and didn’t miss his rural idyll. Dublin provided more stimulation by way of libraries, museums, concerts, and Raymond began to compose there at the age of ten, deciding at that tender age that a composer is what he would be.  He left school at the age of 14 wanting to concentrate on music and writing and embarked on a self-designed course of study, “reading everything that was worth reading”  including Kafka, Woolf and Faulkner (not regularly prescribed reading on any school syllabus at the time).  He matriculated into university where he studied music at UCD.  The isolation of his previous years study had its consequences and Raymond found it difficult to socialise with his colleagues. Drink became the answer to this solution bringing with it its own set of problems from which he was unable to escape for the next 18 years.

The terseness of the language of the third part underlines the torment of these years when Deane reaches hellish depths mired in the grasp of severe alcoholism. Brief sojourns as a pupil of Stockhausen in Cologne and Iseung Yun in Berlin were cut short as Raymond tried to balance his heavy drinking with the demands of rigorous 20th century compositional technique.  A further decline on his return to Dublin left him on life’s edge. He chose to admit himself to St Pat’s Hopsital and began his road to recovery.

The next part of the story is unwritten but thankfully less troubled.  Raymond successfully remained off alcohol becoming a prolific, flourishing and esteemed composer, writer and activist (he is a founding member of the Ireland–Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC). He describes himself as “happy” and fulfilled, and although he abstains from alcohol, as a “hedonist enjoying life’s pleasures”. He divides his time between Dublin, France and Germany.  He feels very lucky that he escaped the alcoholic lifestyle, no doubt mindful of countless of his contemporaries that were less fortunate. He remains optimistic about his future with his opera “The Alma Fetish “ due for a full production by the Dublin company “Wide Open Opera”,  a commission by the exciting new ensemble “The Robinson Panoramic Quartet” and he is in talks about a movie based on his Death of a Medium. He is toying with a follow up to the memoir, this time more “hallucinatory” in style. At age 61, it is clear Deane has faced and conquered whatever demons he had and is grateful for the second chance that life handed to him. In spite of terrible odds he has come through due to his own determination and resourcefulness. An inspiration indeed for those who may find themselves in similar desperate circumstances.

SC: What prompted you to write a memoir and why does it end when it does, at the relatively young age of 35?

RD: That is when I stopped drinking. The memoir was an attempt to explore the reasons why I drank so destructively and what, if any, were the childhood roots of this.

SC: Did you find a reason?

RD: No… Maybe there is no reason. Perhaps it is genetic… I was an anxious child who was terrified of growing up. I saw my father, having responsibilities, paying bills etc. and I didn’t want to be an adult. But I discovered through the writing of the memoir, that my childhood wasn’t nearly as bad as the one I had dreamt up in my imagination. I was bullied at school because I was different. I lived in a big, comfortable house and came from a more middle class background than my peers but on the other hand, I lived in an idyllic setting for a kid. I had plenty of freedom, and I was given every opportunity I could wish for, music lessons for example. But I ended up squandering all of this.

SC: Growing up in Ireland in the 1950’s by current account, seemed to bring its own set of troubles, in particular the oppressiveness of the Catholic Church. Do you think this had anything to do with the stresses that may have propelled you into alcoholismalong with many of your contemporaries?

RD: No. I don’t think so. I think it was just part of who I was.

SC: The second part of the memoir begins when you move to Dublin at the age of ten.  This seems to be a significant turning point for you.  Why did your family move? And did you miss the rural island setting of Achill?

RD:  We moved to Dublin in 1963 because my two brothers had left home and my sister was a boarder in Loreto, Stephen’s Green. I was thrilled and I didn’t miss Achill at all. I missed my piano which was still in Achill, and while waiting for it to be transported, I visited the Dublin public libraries and studied all the available piano scores. It was then at the age of ten, I decided I would be a composer. I hid this from everyone though because I was afraid of being called a sissy!

SC: By whom; Siblings? Friends? Parents?

RD: I grew up in a time and place where gender roles were very rigidly assigned. A little boy was expected to be a little man. Any perceived deviation from this – such as an interest in the arts rather than in sports – was subject to explicit mockery from peers (the word “friends” would have been too strong in my case). However, I may have been over-sensitive to this possibility. I used to hide my manuscripts behind the radiators which would cause a smell whenever the central heating was turned on in the winter!

SC: Was there a particular composer or piece of music that influenced your decision to become a composer?

RD:The “most influential piece I heard as a child” (as described in my memoir, in fact) was probably Nicolai Gedda singing the Flower Song from Carmen.

SC: Did you do any writing at that time? Short stories? Essays?

RD: Yes. Prose mainly.

SC: Do you find a difference or a similarity in composing to writing?

RD: Composing is more abstract, but I find that in either, I enter a world inhabited by characters. So if I am walking down the street, these personalities, themes, images are in my head while the real world passes by.

SC: You left school at the age of 14.  An unusual decision for a boy of your background and academic potential. Why was this?

RD: I left school because I wanted to concentrate on music and writing, and because I was fed up of mathematics, history, geography, Greek, and the likes…I felt completely relieved and not particularly anxious – I was confident of getting in to university because I could concentrate on studying English, French, Irish, Latin, and music (it was possible to do only those in the Matriculation) and I knew I was reasonably competent at all those subjects. I started reading a lot and by the time I was 23, I had read everything that even now I feel was worth reading. I practised piano, wrote and composed. I also walked the dog a lot!

SC: You studied music at UCD.  Did you enjoy this? Looking back, do you find it was particularly helpful for a subsequent career in composition?

RD:I didn’t particularly “enjoy” studying music in UCD, because I hardly did any study – I “knew it all already”. I found some of Seoirse Bodley’s lectures on modern music helpful. In 1974 when I graduated, I went to study in Switzerland, in Basel, with Gerald Bennett who was, himself, a pupil of Pierre Boulez. I studied then with Stockhausen in Cologne and with Isang Yun in Berlin.

SC: You were drinking quite heavily at this time.

RD: Yes.

SC: What were the circumstances of you giving up drink?

RD: People don’t give up drink because x, y, or z – they give up because they’ll die otherwise, or because they just age out of it, or whatever. I had reached “rock bottom,” on the verge of death, having to make a choice between life and death and choosing life… But in fact no choice being involved – given a firm push by the good people in St Pat’s.

SC: You have been sober now for nearly three decades. How easy or difficult was it to make this resolve and does it remain a temptation?

RD: In 26 years I’ve never had the slightest twinge of temptation to go back on the hooch. It’s not a question of resolve – just of the absence of temptation.

SC You later spent some time in Paris. How did this come about?

RD My sister worked for 12 years at UNESCO in Paris. She bought a small studio apartment in the 17th arrondissement (she lived in the 15th) as an investment, and put it at my disposal. I spent a few months of the year there between 1990 and1994. I came to love the place, and I still do.

SC You still spend lot of time there and in Fürth (Northern Bavaria). Do find this time away from Ireland beneficial?

RD:I need to be “away from home” for appreciable periods, be it in Germany or France, because I thrive creatively on a certain feeling of alienation from my surroundings. I don’t mean the kind of alienation I feel in Ireland – despite its cultural and political conservatism, which are repellent to me, I still feel “at home” here, a kind of insider – but the sense of being an outsider, being surrounded by people speaking a different language (which, fortunately, I also speak and understand) and having different customs. In such an atmosphere I feel freed up to work without interruption, and with a clearer perspective on what I’m doing, and also to pursue my culture vulture instincts…

SC: How did you become a political activist?

RD:I was involved in a detached kind of way in the East Timor-Ireland Solidarity Campaign, which evolved into the Ireland-Palestine SC in 2001. Its first chair was Tom Hyland, who was head of ETISC since its foundation but who soon found that he didn’t really want to continue heading the Palestine group and resigned. I was elected chair in absentia, so I was more or less thrust into intensive activism.

SC: Would you describe yourself as a reluctant activist?

RD: Yes.

SC: You’ve had some very nasty (and untrue) comments written about you in the press as a result of your activism.  Does this get to you?

RD: Press defamation DOES get to me, at least for a while. Actually, the old AA slogan helps: “This too shall pass.”

— Raymond Deane & Siobhán Cleary

cover image by Jerry Cassidy

cover image by Jerry Cassidy

 Extract from the last chapter of In My Own Light


That April I moved into a first-floor bedsit overlooking Upper Leeson Street.Increasingly I concentrated my drinking on Grogans, a famously bohemian public house presided over by the legendary Paddy O’Brien, a man who had served and refused service to Patrick Kavanagh, and who was benignly disposed towards me. Here I fell among thieves, and not just in the figurative sense. Among the hardened drinkers who became my regular cronies was Danny, a dapper rogue with an enviable way with women and an unenviable prison record. Danny rapidly ascertained that I possessed a cheque book, and seemed convinced that it was intended primarily for his benefit. He would play chess with me on my tiny portable set and would cheat shamelessly and without subtlety, taking back moves and moving pieces around when my back was turned. Eventually, when I tired of this and told him I would play no more, he simply appropriated the set and found other victims.

A more congenial companion was my old friend John Jordan. Nowadays, frustratingly, he lapsed into a comatose state after one or two drinks. John had a fine mind, had known everyone worth knowing, and could, when he wished, converse with an eloquence that contrasted blatantly with the drivel spouted by most of my associates. He was a generous man who, when compos mentis, would always stand me a pint or a short. On seeing me he would invariably exclaim “Ravel! Ma mere l’oye!” and reminisce fondly about Annaghmakerrig.

No matter how shaky I felt, I was never too self-conscious to sidle into Grogans and sit in a dark corner with a pint of water until such time as a willing victim entered the premises and either plied me with drink or “lent” me money (or both). Sometimes Paddy O’Brien or Tommy Smith, one of the pub’s co-proprietors, would let me have a few drinks on the house. When my cheques bounced they did not make too much of an issue of it, although they kept a tab of what I owed them.

Of course I had a major orchestral work to write, and this necessitated periodic trips to Bunclody. Whether I arrived drunk, hungover or semi-sober, my father always met me at the bus-stop and was always welcoming and non-judgmental. He would “feed me up” and slip me a few pounds when I left.

That summer my drinking, already excessive, took a turn for the worse. It required increasing quantities of alcohol to relieve the horror of my hangovers, yet my capacity for the stuff was diminishing drastically. This meant that by the time I had begun to feel semi-human, usually in the early afternoon, I was ready to stagger home and collapse into a short-lived and unrefreshing stupor. At seven or eight p.m. I would emerge from this with a fully reconstituted hangover, and start the whole awful process again.

This harrowing schedule often entailed waking during “the hour of the wolf”, at three or four a.m. Unable to get back to sleep I would lie there until morning, racked with anxiety, soaked in perspiration, trembling, nauseated, and dreading the delirium tremens that somehow remained at bay. I ate little, although sometimes Danny dragged me into a restaurant during the “holy hour” when he would eat with a healthy appetite while I picked at a snack and concentrated my attention on the wine. I would pay for this with a cheque, whether or not I had the funds to cover it.

On 8th July as I lurched homewards I collapsed somewhere on Leeson Street. I awoke to find myself in bed in an unknown environment. Someone had apparently taken the unacceptable liberty of inserting a wire into my penis. When I sought to remove it, my hand was clasped by an attractive young woman in a white uniform, whose firm but gentle words were: “Don’t – it’ll be very sore.” I drifted back into pleasing unconsciousness. When I came to, I was in a different bed, surrounded by curtains. My body was free of intrusive appendages. I felt drained but peaceful, and sought in vain to remember how I had arrived wherever I was.

The curtains were drawn aside and a doctor materialised. He told me I was in Saint Vincent’s Hospital, an ambulance having picked me off the street three days earlier. I had suffered an epileptic fit, and been “transferred to Casualty comatose, feverish, with abnormally low blood pressure and a severe metabolic acidosis”, to quote the medical records that I accessed a quarter century later (metabolic acidosis is an excess of acid in the body fluids). I was also suffering from dangerously rapid heart rhythm. On resuscitation I had been able to inform them that I had been drinking an average of ten pints of beer daily prior to my collapse (a figure plucked out of the air, and omitting any reference to wine, vodka and whiskey).Growing increasingly agitated over the following days I had been heavily sedated and indeed “became unrousable due to excess sedation”, which necessitated my transfer to intensive care.The words that most horrified me were “epileptic fit”. The doctor reassured me that I was not an epileptic, and the fit I had suffered was probably due to withdrawal from alcohol; such fits need not recur were I to avoid getting into such a state again.

Later that day my father visited me, bringing me a copy of Thomas Flanagan’s novel The Year of the French, which turned out to be an excellent piece of hospital reading. He had been summoned by the hospital when it seemed that my life was in danger (interestingly, this is not mentioned in the medical records). Of course he had been terribly worried but, he gently concluded, I was better now, and perhaps this was the shock that would lead to my changing my life… Yes, I responded fervently, definitely! I had learned my lesson, and everything would be different from now on.

I was taken for an endoscopy. Liquid Valium was injected into my arm to sedate me while a tube was inserted down my throat to ascertain the condition of my gastro-intestinal tract. I coughed and retched and sweated and sobbed. The doctor, disconcerted, ordered more Valium, to no avail; I went on retching and weeping until the procedure was finished. An hour later the doctor visited me, expecting to find me in a state of unconsciousness. Instead, I was sitting up in bed reading The Year of the French. He appeared baffled, and almost disapproving. The medical records mention Valium, but not my failure to respond to it. My stomach was fine, and a biopsy revealed that my liver was “as well as could be expected”, and would undoubtedly recover fully “if I gave it a chance.” Had this latest and most spectacular collapse not occurred on the street but while I was at home, nobody would have known about it and I would certainly have died.

Of course I emerged from hospital a new man. I had seen the error of my ways and henceforth would shun the embrace of Dame Ethyl. I had no fewer than three lucrative commissions waiting for me and I completed them, working mainly in Bunclody, in an unprecedented spate of concentrated work. These, like Écarts, were avant-garde pieces, quite remote in style from my earlier (and later) works, but effective for all that.

I was busy, healthy, sober, and making money. Each evening I went on a pub-crawl, drinking litres of non-alcoholic beer just to prove that I could resist temptation. Once more I anticipated amorous adventures and was undaunted when they failed to materialise – after all, it was just a matter of time until Anette and I were reunited.

We agreed to spend a week together in the Canary Islands that autumn. On 4th November I flew to Gran Canaria, where she had booked us into a German holiday resort (where the restaurants advertised Kaffee wie zu Hause! – “coffee just like at home!”). We were reasonably at ease with one another, although I felt from the start that she was insufficiently appreciative of my self-reforming zeal. I half hoped that she might confine her drinking to mineral water in solidarity with my virtuous abstemiousness. I resented the pleasure she clearly derived from a glass of wine with her meals, and envied her ability to slake her thirst in this warm climate with glasses of cool, refreshing, tempting beer.

We visited the Playa del Inglés and sneered at the crass loutishness of the Brits. We swam twice a day. We hired a car one rainy day and drove into the mountains, terrified by the absence of barriers on the abyss side of the wet winding road (lucky Anette could calm herself afterwards with a cool, refreshing, tempting beer). We took a boat trip to Tenerife, where I admired the snow-capped volcano and fantasised that it was the Popocatepetl of Under the Volcano.

As the holiday wound to a close, it became clear that it would not give renewed impetus to our relationship. I believed that I had proved my readiness to change my life in the interests of such a renewal, but that she was unwilling to meet me half way. I felt cheated, and bitterly resentful. We were leaving on successive days, so I saw her off at the airport, continued by bus to Palma, and booked into a hotel. Soon I was sitting at a terrace overlooking the sea, a large, cool, refreshing beer in front of me.

Four months without alcohol had toughened my system, so that it took a while for me to disintegrate again. After Gran Canaria I practically severed contact with the rest of my family. I learned that my father was spending Christmas in Dublin with John and his new wife Ursula, but there was no question of my inviting myself around. Instead, I accepted an invitation from the poet Michael Hartnett to partake of Christmas dinner in his house, which was a few doors away from my Leeson Street bedsit. When I arrived, Michael nervously ushered me into his sitting-room, where the table was laid for one. He himself was on the dry and his wife, fearing contagion, had ordained that I should eat alone, be given one single glass of whiskey, and sent on my way. The impulse to walk out in a dignified huff seized me momentarily, but I had little dignity left, was hungry, and “had a mind for a dhrop”.

A week later my Dublin Millennium piece, Thresholds, was performed at the NCH, conducted by Proinnsías Ó Duinn. I had attended no rehearsals. I sat in the reserved seats with a retinue of Groganites, as the habitués of that drinking establishment are known. After the concert I refused to see in the New Year with any of the musicians or even to congratulate Prionnsías on his exertions.

The year began in a blur and degenerated steadily. I stopped shaving, and took to sleeping fully clothed on the couches or floors of various cronies’ flats, which were mostly dirty and often malodorous. I began to smoke heavily and soon had acquired my first and last nicotine stains.

On my birthday, 27th January, I trundled homewards before the holy hour and decided to have a quick drink in O’Dwyer’s at Leeson Street Bridge.

“A pint of Smithwicks, please.”

“I’m sorry, we’re all out of Smithwicks.”

“Oh? A pint of Harp then.”

“Sorry, there’s not a drop left.”


“All gone.”

I gazed at the flippant young man, and noticed my image in the mirror behind him.

“Look, I know I look a bit ratty because I haven’t shaved in a while, but today’s my birthday…”

“Happy birthday, then. Maybe you’d be better off going home for a nap.”

I went around the corner into the neighbouring pub, O’Brien’s.

“A pint of Smithwicks, please.”

“I’m afraid we’re all out of it, sir.”

I bought a half bottle of vodka in the nearest off-licence and went home. I had broken my last remaining glass, so I mixed the vodka with water and sipped it gloomily out of a cup. If desperation mixed with desolation has a taste, then this was it.

—Raymond Deane


Siobhán Cleary  was born in Dublin.  She studied music at the NUI, Maynooth, the Queen’s University, Belfast and Trinity College, Dublin where she completed a Masters in Music and Media Technology. She has composed in all the major genres, producing in addition to orchestral, chamber and vocal works, a number of works for electronic media and film scores. Her pieces have been performed and broadcast widely in Europe, USA, Canada, South America and Australia.  Her orchestral work ‘Threads’ was selected by Vienna Modern Masters for performance at the Second International Festival of New Music for Orchestra in Olomouc in the Czech Republic and later released on CD. In 1996 as a Pépinières European Young artist Laureate, she was composer in residence in Bologna with the Argo Ensemble. In January 1998 a concert devoted to her music was given at Cité International des Arts in Paris, She has been commissioned by The National Symphony Orchestra The Irish Chamber Orchestra, The National Chamber Choir, the Arts Councils of both England and Ireland, Cité International des Arts in Paris as well as many individuals soloists and ensembles. She is the founder of Ireland Promoting New Music which promotes the performance of contemporary music through its series New Sound Worlds. She was elected to Aosdána, Ireland’s state-sponsored academy of creative artists in 2008.


Raymond Deane was born in Co Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, on 27 January 1953. He was brought up on Achill Island, Co Mayo. From 1963 he lived in Dublin, where he studied at University College Dublin, graduating in 1974. He was a founding member of the Association of Young Irish Composers, and won numerous awards as a pianist. He subsequently studied in Basle with Gerald Bennett, in Cologne with Karlheinz Stockhausen (although he doesn’t consider himself “a Stockhausen pupil”), and in Berlin with Isang Yun. He was featured composer in the 1991 Accents Festival (with Kurtag) and the 1999 Sligo New Music Festival (with Roger Doyle). He has featured in several ISCM festivals (Mexico City, Manchester, Hong Kong), in the festivals l’Imaginaire irlandais (Paris 1996), Voyages (Montreal 2002), Warsaw Autumn (2004), and regularly in the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers (his Ripieno for orchestra winning a special prize in 2000).

He was artistic director of the first two RTÉ Living Music Festivals (Dublin 2002/2004),  showcasing the music of Luciano Berio and contemporary French music respectively. In 1992 he published Death of a Medium, a novel (Odell & Adair), and he continues to publish essays and articles on culture and politics. He was awarded a Doctorate in Composition by the National University of Ireland (Maynooth) in 2005. He has been a member of Aosdána, the government-sponsored academy of artists, since 1986. He is now based in Dublin, Paris, and Fürth (Bavaria).

May 092014

Ripped and torn (4371)-crop

I met Martin Mooney in August ’95 at The Poet’s House (where he was a faculty member) in Portmuck, on the Antrim coast in the northwest of Ireland. I have memories of musty mornings in damp stonewalled cottages without electricity, stormy days filled with writing and workshops, dark evenings of readings and raucous conversation, and scandalous nights best forgotten.

Somewhere amidst all of this he signed my copy of Grub (Blackstaff Press), his first collection. A remarkable book of poetry that had burst out into the world in 1993 – winner of the  Brendan Behan Memorial Award,  nominated for the Forward Prize, shortlisted for the Rooney Prize for Irish literature, and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation to boot – socially aware poems of shipyards, pubs, punks, and politics.

A few years later, as an occasional reviewer for Poetry Ireland Review, his chapbook Bonfire Makers (Dedalus Press) landed on my doorstep. I can feel the brunt of its words yet –  “Picture yourself drinking with your father,/the talk collapsing down through itself like/badly-erected staging. You are both/on the verge of drunk, and everything/is either forgiven or forgotten” (Painting the Angel) or “It’s no fucking metaphor,/The stuff comes in hundredweight/drums, like dehydrated rage,/a bad temper you could add to water” (Caustic).

“Martin Mooney is a poetic force to be reckoned with,” I wrote, and later on in the same review, “In a world filling ever increasingly with bad poetry, Mooney is a godsend.” He sent me a note of appreciation some time afterwards, but as an atheist apparently had some reservations about being a ‘godsend’!

The fragments below are a departure, prose fragments from a book in progress – snatches of memory – or as he himself says, “For me, remembering is like looking out of the window of a ferry in a heavy chop – just random slashes of sea, sky, coastline.”

— Gerard Beirne

I have a terrible memory. The past is fits and starts, jump-cuts, snatches of sights and sounds too trivial to be called epiphanies. ‘Moorfield Street’ is an attempt to gather together some of these fragmentary episodes into some kind of autobiographical order. As a document it falls far short of memoir, and if it is poetry I’d be the first to admit it struggles to attain that condition. And it avoids narrative connectedness, because I can’t help suspecting that narrative connectedness could only be – given my terrible memory – confabulation. Not of course that there aren’t confabulations in here still.

But by way of narrative background, or context: Moorfield Street in east Belfast is where my maternal grandparents James and Isabella Kirkpatrick lived, from the 1940s until my widowed grandmother moved to a sheltered housing complex. My parents had their troubles, and I spent a lot of time during my childhood in the Kirkpatricks’ Victorian terraced house. I remember it as another kind of sheltered dwelling, a safe house and bolt-hole, and it feels good to renew acquaintance with that security.

There is also, in middle age, the realisation that what one remembers of childhood is now historical. The house in Moorfield Street is still there, modernised with parquet floors and indoor bathroom. But the world of the 1960s and 70s – which in east Belfast was still the postwar world – has been dissolved in the annotations of local historians. These texts are a species of precipitate.

—Martin Mooney



I envy your memory, the way you recognise people on the street and know their names, the way you can correct me so confidently. For me, remembering is like looking out of the window of a ferry in a heavy chop – just random slashes of sea, sky, coastline – or trying to watch something through binoculars, magnifying and multiplying every blink of the eye, every shake of the hand, every twitching muscle in my forearm.


Moorfield Street

At the turn of the stairs in Moorfield Street there was a window onto the back yard. The glass was old, uneven, with that gel-like pooling towards the bottom of the frame. Around the edge of the window, smaller frames in coloured glass. Sometimes I’d sit quietly on the top stair of that flight and watch sunlight take colour on the old wallpaper, moving its oblongs of red, blue, green as the morning passed.

The house was louder with clocks than any I’ve known before or since. The coal fire – we had gas – crackled and spat in the grate, and individual lumps of coal hissed out tiny plumes of smoke. A Swan Vesta would crackle, dottle bubble in my granda’s pipe stem. When he spat into the fire, phlegm sizzled on firebrick.


martin mooney

James Alexander Kirkpatrick and Isabella Shaw Kirkpatrick. In a photo booth, sometime in the 1970s.


The Bridge

With Granny Kirkpatrick on the up line platform on Sydenham halt. It must be late July or August, there’s the high summer smell of oil shimmering on the gravel track bed, of the putrid black mud of nearby Connswater. She is holding my hand. We have to cross to the other platform to catch the train that will take us a few miles to Holywood where we can sit on the tiny beach and watch the ships come into the port of Belfast. At the far end of the platform, the iron footbridge seems to buckle slightly in the heat haze, then pull itself together. All of a sudden – I don’t remember hearing thunder – the bridge is struck by lightning and glows faintly blue. We stare, then walk on and tentatively cross.


Sounding Moorfield Street

Factory sirens in the morning and afternoon. My post-war ears hear warning and all-clear, howling over the rooftops. Early on, before I am up but long after Granda Kirkpatrick, the whirr and chime of the Co-op electric milk float. The Maine man’s lorry, heavier lemonade bottles clanking in their crates. A short run through the entry, the electricity sub-station hums behind its bars. I know I could squeeze between them, but the steel and smoothly-moulded ceramics of the Frankenstein apparatus frighten me. A Skyvan’s twin-engined throb. Incongruous chickens cockadoodldoing somewhere nearby.



From Moyard to Newtownards, my father’s home town. Ian and I spent the night in a big bed in Granny Mooney’s house, shared with aunts and uncles not much older than ourselves. Next day we moved into the new house on the new – the still-unfinished – estate on the slopes above the town. This had been pasture, hazel and holly woodland, and the roads and avenues were named after the flora torn up by the builders. Whin. Juniper. Ilex.


Does He Know?

Granny Kirkpatrick: Does he know?
Mum: Does he know what?
Granny Kirkpatrick: Does he know?
Mum: What, Mai?
Granny Kirkpatrick: About his Daddy?
Mum: What about his Daddy?
Granny Kirkpatrick: You know what.
Mum: What?
Granny Kirkpatrick: That he’s RC?
Mum: Oh for God’s sake!


What We Ate

Egg boiled and beaten in a cup with butter and salt. Lentil soup with the heel of a plain loaf dipped in. Toast made on the gas ring. Boiled potatoes served with butter and salt. Stewed beef from a tin. Fray Bentos pies with layers of damp flaccid suet pastry under the dry crisp flaky pastry top. Cheese triangles. Chops and sausages. Shepherd’s pie. And what I wouldn’t eat: onions, tomatoes, baked beans, peas.

And later, Toast Toppers. Cremola Foam. Chicken Tonight. Soda Stream. Birds Eye steakettes. Oven chips. Vesta beef risotto. The microwave. Frozen stir-fry. Crispy Pancakes filled with a volcanic paste of mushroom and minced beef or poultry fragments, blistering the roof of my mouth.



The bin lid was upturned and set back in the mouth of the galvanised dustbin. Newspaper was crumpled, sticks for lighting the fire put on. A bonefire for Hallaseve. We had sparklers, false-faces, a box of Bengal matches. Bully Martin. Bully Ian.



As if he lives in a fortress, as if he feels himself under siege, Granda Kirkpatrick has cemented pieces of glass into the top of the back yard wall. They are the bottoms of bottles, different shapes and sizes, shark’s-fins of different coloured glass catching the light. The smoky glass of a milk bottle, the brown of beer bottles, the vivid blue fang of Milk of Magnesia.



To dress in the morning was to get on you, and to undress for bed was to get off you. If it was cold I kept my simmit on. In the toilet, to pee was to wee-wee – boys used their wee man – and a turd was a loadie. When she was upset or sad Granny Kirkpatrick would sigh something that sounded like ‘lawnie days.’ When I was upset or sad they told me to straighten my face. My feet were kebs, my ears lugs, if I swallowed Bazooka Joe bubble gum it would stick in my puddings. A splinter under the skin was a skelf, to be dug out with a sewing needle or it would fester.

—Martin Mooney



Martin Mooney is the author of four collections of poetry – most recently The Resurrection of the Body at Killysuggen (Lagan Press, 2011). He was born in Belfast and has worked as a civil servant, creative writing teacher, arts administrator and publican. As well as writing poetry, he has collaborated with visual artists on a number of site-specific projects, and with composer Ian Wilson on ‘Near the Western Necropolis’ for mezzo soprano and chamber orchestra.

Eyewear magazine recently called Mooney ‘…one of the best Irish poets writing under the age of 50.’ And according to Sinead Morrissey, ‘Gritty, disturbing, often uncomfortable, terse, controlled, aggressive, lyrical, Martin Mooney, at his best, extends the boundaries of what is and is not appropriate subject matter for poetry.’


Apr 062014

Nuala Ní Chonchúir author photo

Nuala Ní Chonchúir, like Doireann Ni Griofa who was featured in last month’s Uimhir a Cúig, is bilingual although she writes predominantly in English. A prolific writer of novels, short-story collections, flash fiction, and poetry, she utilizes a variety of constructs and perspectives often to explore the intimate issues of gender, sexuality and the corporeal.

In her story “Tinnycross,” Ní Chonchúir alludes to the prodigal son parable, but here the unexpected presence of a wife in the family home repositions the fraternal conflict. Her assertive influence shapes the emotional and material divides, internally and externally, yielding ultimately a resolution with hints of forgiveness if not exactly salvation.

The vocabulary rarely comforts. Not surprising since the returning son finds that “the familiarity of everything” is “both balm and thorn to him.” He is at odds not just with his brother but “with every blade of grass on every acre of the land.” To this end, Ní Chonchúir uses language like a plow, turning over the upper layer of the brothers’ hardened relationship to bring to the surface the roots of abandonment in the hopes of cultivating some form of reclamation. A cruelty borne out of rectitude, decency even.

—Gerard Beirne


By the time Oliver drove the avenue under the horse chestnuts, the bluebells were already thinning out. He had noticed puddles of cherry blossom along the pathways in the village. It struck some tender part of him that another year was hurtling towards summer, leaving him in a muddled January place, trying to catch up. The house lay squat and crabby ahead, and Oliver could feel his mood switch to match it; the undulating angst that always accompanied him at Tinnycross began to roll through him. He was a young man again, suckled and strangled by the place, and at odds with every blade of grass on every acre of the land.

He pulled up in front of the house and sat for a while to quell his building rage. Oliver knew that like all such rages his agitation was mixed with a kind of love. He often longed for Tinnycross – for home – for a version of it or the past, but it also repelled him. Wanting to be calm when he confronted Bunny, he sat in the car and waited and willed himself peaceful.

 After five minutes Oliver got out and went around the side of the house to the back door; the front door was never used. He stepped into the kitchen and was assailed by its brightness. And then by the sight of a woman standing at the table – his mother’s deal table – kneading dough with care in a cabled bowl. She was silver haired, neat as an egg, and she – for it could only have been she – had reawakened the kitchen. His mother’s furniture still stood: the table, the dresser, the chairs, but all of it looked fresh and the walls were painted. Things were immaculate again.

‘You must be…’ Oliver searched on his tongue for the right term. ‘You must be the cleaner,’ he said, eventually, settling on that word because he could come up with no other.

‘I’m Bunny’s wife.’ She threw a glance his way as if she had been expecting him.

‘His wife?’ Oliver said, and snorted. The woman stopped kneading and stared at him. ‘Is Bunny home?’ he asked.

‘He’s below in the field. Will I ring his mobile?’

‘No, I’ll go down to him.’

She wiped her fingers on her apron and came towards him with one hand out. ‘Fidelma,’ she said.

‘Oliver O’Donnell.’

She smiled. ‘I know who you are.’

Oliver left the kitchen and stood in the yard. The land fell to the river – Tinnycross was one huge field with no ditches or fences to mark it out. Hay bales sheathed in black plastic were dotted around like giant cuts of liquorice, and a stand of rape burned its yellow among the green and brown. His heart swelled into his throat and he drew a few deep breaths. The familiarity of everything was both balm and thorn to him. It was quiet in the yard but he could hear the far off burr of a tractor and the bird calls that were the same bird calls as forty years before. Oliver gazed down over the land. How could a field – one ordinary field – have such a pull on him?

He looked at his shoes, then at the muddy track that lead from the yard to the land. A wife? Well. That surely changed things. By what luck had Bunny, of all people, got himself a woman? Oliver shrugged and headed down the track, at first treading the verge to avoid the muck and save his shoes, then staying off the grass because it was littered with pearls of sheep shit like beads scattered from a rosary. The brother is a quarehawk right enough, he thought.

Oliver looked up to find Bunny strolling towards him; he was a shambles as always in his torn fisherman’s jumper and folded down wellies. The wife’s ministrations had extended only to the house, it seemed. Bunny was swinging a stick like a dandy.

‘Olly,’ he said.

‘Bunny. How’s the form?’ They shook hands. ‘And it’s Oliver. Please.’

‘So I don’t get to be Bernard but you get to be Oliver. Big man Olly.’ Bunny slapped the ground with his stick.

‘Did you get my letter?’ Oliver said.

‘I got a letter from Folan and Company, if that’s the one you mean.’

‘We need to settle this, Bunny, for once and for all.’

Bunny whacked the tree beside him with his stick; it was the old hawthorn, bent sideways by the wind, its branches beseeching the tree beside it. That hawthorn was their mother’s favourite tree; she would stand under its dense crown to call daddy from the field.

‘Settle, Olly?’ Bunny said. ‘What’s to settle?’

‘Ah, don’t start.’ Oliver put his hands on his hips and stood in front of his brother.

‘You think you’re the prodigal coming back here. Well, you’ll get nothing out of me.’

‘Bernard.’ Bunny’s wife had come down from the house without either of them noticing. They both looked at her. ‘Why don’t we go inside and talk?’

‘It’s none of your business, Fidelma,’ Bunny said.

‘Oh, I think you’ll find that it is,’ she replied.

She walked behind them up the track towards the house, a shepherdess herding a pair of recalcitrant rams.

Oliver stood in his parents’ bedroom, watching dust waver in the air. Their marriage bed had become Bunny’s. The lousy shite hadn’t even bought his wife a new bed. Oliver recalled his father’s last days in that bed. Daddy had started to say their mother’s name again; it fluttered out of his mouth like a butterfly looking for somewhere to land. It sounded alien launching off his tongue: ‘Catherine. Catherine. Catherine.’ He hadn’t called her by name for years; hadn’t cajoled her, or pleaded, or thanked her with her given name. Their mother sat by the bed day after day, holding their father’s hand, soothing him, wiping his drink-haunted face.

‘It’s all right, Daddy,’ she said. ‘I’m here, I’m here. Your Catherine is here. I’m right beside you, Martin.’

Mammy was gone now too – Oliver had not witnessed her death – but he could feel her in the house still, a revenant gliding from room to room. He put his hands on the cold iron of the footboard and gripped hard; he rocked himself and pushed his chin to his chest.

‘Come through to the kitchen, Oliver.’ Fidelma stood in the doorway; her voice was gentle. ‘I’ve made tea. We’ll talk.’

He didn’t turn to look at her. ‘Both mammy and daddy died in that bed.’

‘I know that. Bernard told me.’

‘I’m not trying to be cruel,’ Oliver said, hanging his head. ‘I just remember. This place makes me remember.’

‘Memory is a true thing, but it can make fools of us too,’ Fidelma said.

‘This all ends with Bunny and me. No offence, but you won’t be producing an heir. Tinnycross will go to God-knows-who.’

‘Let’s talk it out and see what we can come up with between us.’

Oliver followed her into the kitchen; Bunny had their father’s seat at the side of the table near the range. If visitors ever deferred to daddy, wanting him to take the head of the table, their father always said, ‘Wherever O’Donnell sits is the head of the table.’

Oliver said this to his brother, hoping to make him smile, but Bunny ignored the remark.

‘We’ll give you a third of the market value,’ he said. ‘There’s the three of us in it now.’

‘Mammy died during the boom; I’m entitled to half of what it would have gone for then.’

‘Are you trying to put me out of my home?’ Bunny crashed his fist onto the table. ‘Are you trying to kill me?’

‘I only want what’s mine.’ Oliver rattled a teaspoon around his mug. ‘My business has gone under. The bank is talking about repossessing my apartment.’

‘Well, boo fucking hoo. If you can’t look after yourself, it’s no concern of ours.’

‘Tinnycross belongs to both of us, Bunny. Mammy always said it. There’s no way around that.’

‘You took your time looking for your share.’

‘I thought you’d give it to me and, then, well, you didn’t.’

‘And bankrupt myself? Are you fucking mad, Olly?’

Fidelma reached across and squeezed Bunny’s arm. ‘We have my money, love; the money from my house.’

‘You want to give the man who killed my mother your money?’

Oliver stood. ‘Ah, here, there’s no need for that.’

Bunny dropped his head and spoke his words to the table. ‘Mammy asked you to come to Tinnycross and you wouldn’t come. She asked you again and again.’

‘It wasn’t that simple, Bunny, and you know it. I was in Dubai for Christ’s sake.’

‘Your mother begged you to come and you turned your back on her. You turned your back on Tinnycross.’ Bunny pushed back his chair, stood and left the room.

‘Not to worry, now,’ Fidelma said, patting Oliver’s arm.

‘That was harsh. Bunny knows I was abroad, I couldn’t get on a plane every time she asked me to; she was always trying to get me to come. I helped mammy in other ways.’

‘I know you did,’ Fidelma said. ‘Bunny is very attached to this place; we both are. He lashed out there and he shouldn’t have.’

Oliver suffered a twist of jealousy – Bunny hadn’t just landed himself a woman, but a decent woman, one who was happy with what she was made of; a woman secure in herself and the world; someone who liked to give.

Fidelma invited Oliver to stay the night. He didn’t want to, but he didn’t want to leave everything undone either; he hesitated.

‘Sure stay. Do,’ she said.

‘I will so,’ Oliver said, and thanked her.

Fidelma made up his childhood bedroom. He could barely get himself across the threshold and into the bed, the room bulged with so many memories: days spent in sickness fevers, nights spent in girl-induced ones. At least it smelled different now – he couldn’t have stood it if the room held the small boy and young man stench of himself.

Oliver lay rigid in the narrow bed, watching the moon with her mouth agape, spilling light over Tinnycross. He could see the corner of the barn, lidded with corrugate and lit up by moon-glow. He felt the presence of his parents and was unsettled by the knowledge that through the wall his brother was in their bed with his wife. His decent, loving wife. Sleeping warmly beside her or, perhaps, complaining about him in a low voice.

In the morning Fidelma propped a neat envelope against the milk jug that sat on the table in front of Oliver. He was breakfasting on his own; Bunny was already out on the land. Oliver picked it up, knowing without opening the flap that the cheque would have her signature on it; hers alone.

‘Are you sure?’ he said.

‘I am. It’s best to leave himself to me; I can deal with him. I’ll sort it out.’

‘Thanks a million, Fidelma,’ Oliver said.

When he had finished eating he shook her hand.

‘Don’t be a stranger,’ Fidelma said, and she let him out the front door and waved him off as he drove away.

The plains around Tinnycross were green and dappled with sheep. Every other field held an inky lamb among its white brethren. This lamb was always a maverick, sitting or standing apart from the others, living its own quiet destiny. Oliver drove past and watched the lambs, willing the dark ones to gambol and play with the others, but they stayed where they were, resolutely alone.

He thought about Tinnycross as he drove further and further away from it, on towards the city. He could feel the backward pull to it, to its green and its yellow and its light. Oliver knew he might never see the place again. Is it possible, he wondered, to be in love with a field. And if it is possible, is it wise?

—Nuala Ní Chonchúir


Nuala Ní Chonchúir author photo

Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. A chapbook of flash Of Dublin and Other Fictions was published in the US in late 2013 by Tower Press and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appears April 2014 from New Island. Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, appears 2015 from Penguin USA and Penguin Canada.


Mar 042014

2014 bio photo colour doireann

It is well-understood that the language we speak shapes our perception, the structure of the language affecting the ways in which the speaker conceptualises his or her world. In this regard, bilingualism has been shown to have many cognitive advantages including an additive effect on a person’s creativity. Doireann Ní Ghríofa, a bilingual poet writing both in Irish and in English, exemplifies this. Although the written poems appear on the page in a single language, the thought processes to create them are borne of a far more complex interplay. I like to think of this interplay occurring in a type of cognitive marshlands, a ghostly transition zone between water and land with its own unique emotional ecosystem. Doireann’s poems, it seems to me, dwell in that world, and emerge from it like a rare and endangered species might emerge from its wetlands habitat through an early morning, low-lying mist.

— Gerard Beirne

My poem Waking gives voice to a woman waking up in the recovery room of a maternity hospital. At the core of this poem is the sense of disorientation, loneliness and loss that follows a miscarriage. This is an experience that is, sadly, not unfamiliar to me, personally.

I chose to dedicate Waking to the memory of  Savita Halappanavar, whose  appalling death while under the care of the Irish maternity system left many in shock. She was admitted to hospital while suffering a miscarriage, and despite her repeated requests to terminate her pregnancy, she was denied the procedure that would have saved her life. Savita’s death led to many protests both in Ireland and abroad, where protestors demanded a review of Irish law that prevented her from accessing the abortion that would have saved her life. I would wish nothing more for Savita than to allow her the treatment she needed in order to wake up and draw breath, and it angers and saddens me to live in a country where a woman must die in order for society to effect essential constitutional change.

I am very grateful to the talented filmmaker Peter Madden for interpreting my poem visually with a sensitivity that I believe honours those many, many women who each year suffer the pain of miscarriage in silence. The haunting soundtrack is an original musical composition by guitarist Stephen Moore that adds further depth to the collaboration.

Glaoch/Call is a consideration of modern life and love. I am intrigued by the multiple paradoxes of contemporary life — we are more connected than ever through technology, and yet there often remains a fundamental disconnect between us, an emotional distance, a fundamental interpersonal detachment. This poem arose from dissonance between these opposing constructs, and our collaboration in film seeks to further explore this matter.

—Doireann Ní Ghríofa




Recovery Room, Maternity Ward
(for Savita Halappanavar)

The procedure complete,
I wake alone, weak under starched sheets.
As the hospital sleeps, my fingers fumble
over the sutured scar, a jagged map
of mourning stitched into my skin —
empty without and empty within.
Cradling my hollowed womb,
I trace this new wound and weep.
The only sound I hear now is the fading retreat
of a doctor’s footsteps, echoing my heartbeat.





Ní cheanglaíonn
…………………………aon chorda caol,
aon sreang teileafóin sinn níos mó.
I réimse na ríomhairí,
………………..ní thig liom
do ghuth a bhrú níos gaire do mo chluas.
Ní chloisim tú ag análú. Anois, ’sé an líne lag seo
…… t-aon cheangal amháin atá fágtha eadrainn
agus titimid
……….as a chéile
……….arís eile.



No slender thread,
………………………………no telephone cord
binds us anymore.
Now that our computers call each other,
…………I can’t
………………… your voice to my ear.
No longer can I hear you breathe. Now, we are bound only
…………………………… a weak connection
and we break up
……………………………..and break up
………..and break up.


Frozen Food

“The Iceman was carrying a sloe, presumably to eat” –Mandy Haggith

In the frozen foods aisle I think of him,
as I shiver among shelves of plastic-wrapped pizza,
green flecked garlic breads, chunks of frozen fish.
I touch the cold wrappers until my fingers
tingle, until my thumbs numb.

Strangers unpacked his body in a lab and thawed his hand.
His long-frozen fingers unfurled one by one,
his fist finally opened, let go,
and from his grasp rolled
a single sloe.
Ice-black with a purple-blue waxy bloom,
it waited through winters and winters
in his cold fingers.
……………………………………………………….Inside the sloe,
……………………………………………………..a blackthorn stone.
………………………………………………………Inside the stone,
…………………………………………………………….a seed.

In a frozen aisle, white on glass
I watch my breath freeze.


The Ledger

a sonnet for Edna O’ Brien

This chapter begins in a pharmacy.
Over the counter, you smooth prescriptions,
weigh powders, pass parcels. You nod shyly,
greet customers, mix tonics and potions.
Yellow liquid pours into glass bottles—
here, cures come from chemical addition.
All summer, you study, fill tins with pills,
dispense tablets, count coins, make medicines.
Summer blooms fade and fall. Rain returns. Bored,
you think up tales with each cream you concoct.
Every time the bell rings over the door,
you conjure symphonies of secret plots.
Name—ailment—payment. Pencil strikes paper,
filling the ledger, each word a step to your future.


In the University Library, I open the Book of my Finger

I study the same words again and again.
Smells of damp tobacco and beeswax polish
hover over a hundred desks of beech.
A sudden incision slices my skin,
splits my fingertip—a narrow breach.
The wound is so thin that it barely bleeds
but the slit stings, insists that I look again.
My cracked fingertip turns inside out.
Broken skin become walls, white-limed, gritty.
In the split, the red roof of a cowshed peaks. Doubt
rusts in my blood. I can’t live in this city.
On my palm, a road through streets and roundabouts
leads me home. Under beech trees a bee flits, free.


Radioactive Relics

Her papers still hum
in lead—lined boxes labelled Curie
in the Bibliothèque Nationale:

boxes filled with jotters
filled with the spools and loops
and curlicues of her hand

page after page of trials and tests
ideas in metamorphosis
the gleam of polonium and radium
the slow glow of understanding

a century later, her papers
still set our Geiger ticking
like a metal heart.

—Doireann Ní Ghríofa




Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual poet based in Ireland, writing both in Irish and in English. Her poems have appeared in literary journals in Ireland and internationally (in France, Mexico, USA, in Scotland and in England). The Arts Council of Ireland has twice awarded her bursaries in literature. Doireann’s Irish language collections Résheoid and Dúlasair  are both published by Coiscéim, and her bilingual chapbook A Hummingbird, Your Heart  is available from Smithereens Press. Doireann was the winner of a Wigtown Award (Scotland) in 2012. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (USA) and her pamphlet of poems in English Ouroboros was longlisted for The Venture Award (UK).  

peter bio photo

Peter Madden graduated from IADT National Film School, Ireland in 2011. Currently working in photography and video advertising, he also works in short documentary, short film and music videos, editing the award winning short documentary ‘Rose’ in 2011.  His own directorial pieces have been screened at Irish and international film festivals. He works with two media based companies; Replayhouse and Little Beast, and has just recently co-created MadBag Films, all based in Dublin, Ireland.


Feb 042014

john kelly2

In the same year (1998) John Kelly took the journey from Belfast to Dublin to present the ground-breaking music show Eclectic Ballroom (listen here) on Radio Ireland, this other Irishman was making the journey from Dublin to a remote community in Northern Manitoba (Canada). A few years later when John joined RTÉ, Ireland’s national radio and television broadcaster, to present the award-winning and cult classic Mystery Train, I was still sequestered in my own little world listening to a small First Nations radio station broadcasting local Cree gospel music, Métis fiddle, community announcements, and bingo — so sadly our airwaves never crossed. Since then John has established himself as one of Ireland’s best known music and arts broadcasters currently hosting The Works, an arts series on RTÉ Television, and The John Kelly Ensemble on RTÉ lyric FM. But as if this wasn’t enough, he has also published a number of critically acclaimed novels. The extract below is from his forthcoming novel, From Out of the City (Dalkey Archive Press). The language is rich, exuberant. At times like “that terrifying colony ensconced in the ruins of Liberty Hall,” it dive-bombs, screeches, wheels, and plummets; other times it flourishes in a lush lyrical reverie. And funny, shrewdly funny. Joyce, Beckett, Donleavy….quietly wandering around in the background, amidst the ruins, smiling wistfully at the outrageous absurdity of it all.

— Gerard Beirne


Dublin, some years from now, and the President of the United States has just been assassinated during a state dinner in his honour. The official account has already taken hold but a hawk-eyed octogenarian named Monk, believing that there’s nothing that cannot be known, has a version of his own—a dark and twisted tale of both the watcher and the watched.

But this, says Monk, is no thriller or invented tale of suspense. It is, he insists, an honest and faithful record of breakage and distress at a time when dysfunction—personal, local, national, global and even cosmic—pervades all. A time when everything is already broken and when, in many ways, the shooting of a pill-popping President is neither here nor there. The only thing that matters, Monk tells us, is the truth. And this is why, stationed high in his attic room with a Stoli in a highball, he does what he does. “There’s divinity in it,” he says. “And a modicum of love.”

“The book begins with a prologue in which the narrator, Monk, tells us of the assassination of the American President while on a state visit to Ireland and gives his thoughts on same. Here, with Chapter One, Monk tells us about himself and his place and he begins to speak of his very particular activities and preoccupations.”

— John Kelly


The feast of St. Isidore of Seville and I awoke to the sound of rain. It panicked me briefly – that old spurt of fear that I’d been transported through the night to some foreign land where summer downpours are still imaginable. I thought perhaps that I was in Iceland or Nova Scotia but a quick scan across the yellowing sweep of my pillow was enough to assure me that my locus was as was – my own country, my own house, my own room, my own scratcher. Which was very good news. And what’s more, there had been no bad dreams, it seemed, from which to thrash awake. No twistings of the limbs, no tightenings in the chest, no pulses in the lumpy bald- ness of my head. An erection too no less. On this unexpectedly wet morning of my eighty-fourth birthday, lo and behold, a boner of pure marble. Happy Birthday to me, I whispered to myself. For I’m not a squishy marshmallow. We’ll roast you on a stick. Bum-tish!

Eight tumbling decades since I first landed at the South Dublin Lying-in Hospital, Holles Street named for Denzille Holles, Earl of Clare – a place now infested with cut-throats, brigands, smackheads and rats but still serving then, at the hour of my arrival, as The National Maternity. A very palace of human nature.

— What kind of a name is Monk? asks the midwife.

— Named for Thelonious, says my father, his eye on the clock.

— Felonious?

— θ, says my father, Thelonious with a θ.

— Oh right, says the midwife (a culchie). Little Thelonious.

— Yes, says my father, as in Thelonious Sphere.

— You have me there again, says the midwife (Roscommon).

— Thelonious fucking Monk, says my mother with a sigh. A fucking trumpet player.

— Piano, says my father, buttoning up his coat. And celeste on Pannonica.

— I see, says the midwife, not seeing at all (Boyle).

— At one stage, says my mother, this prick was pushing for Stockhausen.

— Stock what? says the midwife (somewhere out beyond Boyle).

— And Suk, says my mother. That was another one.

— It’s pronounced Sook, says my father, and I never once suggested Suk.

— Stockhausen, says my mother. For fucksake. Stockhausen or Suk.

And so this is the pair — Bleach and Ammonia — who gave me life and this grand ruin of a house in which to enjoy it. 26 Hibernia Road, Dún Laoghaire. Three-storey, over-basement, Victorian residence c.1850, features including original replaces, quality cornice-work, centre roses, paneled doors and five generous bedrooms of proportions considered gracious. From the street, it resembles every other house in this section save for its evident security apparatus — a multitude of surveillance cameras perched like blackened gargoyles on the walls. All of it necessary alas as we live in changed times and while Hibernia Road, leading to Britannia Avenue, now Casement Avenue and named for Sir Roger, was once an address considered salubrious (c.1850), it’s now no more than a desolate trench of dereliction and crime. Burned-out, sea-blown, not altogether inhabited and shoved well back from the main strip, Hibernia Road is, these days, neither visited nor traveled. Not by citizens. Not by Guards. Not even by the gentlemen and ladies of the military. Ours or theirs.

In fact the whole town of Dún Laoghaire, named for a 5th-century king of Tara, is now largely defunct and undesirable. Like a mouthful of rotten teeth it grins ever more grotesquely into the swill of Dublin Bay — Cuan Bháile Átha Cliath — polluted beyond all salvage by plutonium, uranium and flesh and where sits, in apparent permanence, a Brobdingnagian aircraft carrier, named not for Kevin Barry, just a lad of eighteen summers, or Maggie Barry who sang “The Flower of Sweet Strabane”, or James J. Barry of Barry’s Original Blend Corkonian Tea, but for Commodore John Barry, the Father of the American Navy, born in Wexford in 1745. The thing has been sitting there for so long now that people don’t even see it any more. And if they do they pass no further remarks. And in any case, don’t all the nice girls love a sailor?

Dún fucking Laoghaire. Where I have lived all my life. Dún Laoghaire, Dún Laoire, Dunleary (briefly Kingstown) where the monks of St. Mary’s caught their shoals of herring. In the 17th century it was a landing place for big-shots and men-of-war and in 1751 a shark was hauled ashore. In 1783 an African diver disappeared under the waves in a diving bell, and in 1817 the first stone of the East Pier was laid and all those virgin tonnes of granite were dug out of Dalkey Hill and dumped. Otherwise there’s not much to commend the place at all. Not now anyway. Dún Laoghaire. 9.65 km ESE of the metropolitan hub — the very spot where the Millennium Spire used to be and, before that again, an effigy in Portland Stone of Lord Horatio Nelson, Viscount and Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe etc., etc. e Pillar blown to smithereens of granite and black limestone in 1966. Granite from Kilbride. Pedestal, column and capital. His nibs on the summit, myopic, head lathered in the guano of herring gulls. Vice Admiral of the White and my two uncles that did it. Maguire and Patterson. And Clery’s Clock stopped dead at 1:31. Faoileán scadán. The colony. The colonized. Nelson’s blasted colon : the colonoscopy for fucksake. And I’m sleepy now. Might roll over yet and perhaps some dreams will come. And snooze. And slumber. And I might as well. Only young once. Snuggle and snooze.

But of course this rain was wrong and I raised my head to check once more that this really was my room. And surely it must be. The goose-down duvet, grey and unstained, the clock and the Glock, the empty glass still fragrant with dusty Hennessy, the ancient maps of Paris and the Dingle Peninsula, the curling snaps of smiling people long dead, and the sideboard with the stolen bust of Berkeley fitted with old wraparound shades, now a bookend for the little concertina of Sci-Fi paperbacks all read so eagerly when I was a boy so happily in love with the future. Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, nicked sixty years ago from the Long Room of Trinity College and taken out the front gate in a wheelbarrow. So yes, I assured myself once more, with an element of certainty now, that this was, surely to goodness, my room. My own leaba in number 26 and I had not, unless I was grievously mistaken, been kidnapped or otherwise rendered in my sleep. And it was my birthday too. And in Dún Laoghaire, as if to mark the occasion, there appeared to be actual precipitation.

These thoughts, such as they were, uncontrolled, semi-conscious and leapfrogging each other, were suddenly interrupted by a most extravagant yawn. My jaws shifted and cracked and a pain shot through my skull like a little private bullet of my own. And then there followed the long slow-motion masticatory shimmy in order to correct the jawbones again and with that second crack there came a certain peace, not so much a click this time as a clock, and I could relax again, still alive, glubbing now on my pillow like an old lippy cod. Gadus morhua. Extinct source of vitamins A, D, E and several essential fatty acids. And what a treat that would be on my birthday. Cod and Chips from Burdock’s of Werburgh Street, named for the church of St. Werburgh, named for Werburgh of Chester, a Benedictine abbess, prophetess and seer of the secrets of hearts. And Burdock’s had haddock and ray and lemon sole and scampi and goujons — until that final scare, that is, and everyone stopped eating fish. Even the cormorants in Dún Laoghaire stopped eating fish and they all died away with the seals. The Germans call it Seezunge. And the Spaniards too. I do miss a bit of tongue, says Missus McClung. Lenguado. All things lingual and gustatory. Larus argentatus. And that terrifying colony ensconced in the ruins of Liberty Hall, dive-bombing all who might chance it on foot across the Tara Street Bridge. Screeching. Wheeling. Plummeting. And the best of it all is that it’s more than likely that I know every last one of them — both chancer and gull — by name, reputation and record. Because nothing gets past a man as invisible as me. Oh where oh where is that gallant man? Eighty-four today.

But now on this unexpectedly wet morning in my gargoyled house on Hibernia Road, my sub-duvet reverie at an end, I finally manoeuvred myself to the edge of the bed, gripped my thighs and pressed down hard, the pressure of it translating to push and the body yielding to forces and physics and, whatever the kinetics, whatever the systems and sequences of internal pulleys and cranks called upon so early in the day, my creaking self slowly loomed and my cool morning arse presented itself to the blue grain of the room. I’m up, says I. Another day another dolor — and I announced in the darkest voice of MacLiammóir, Comedia nita est. Then chuckling like a changeling in my white t-shirt and abby boxers I lurched to the window, parted the curtains and peered into the light. Time to think straight now. Time to assess. Time to focus. To get, says you, to the point.

But again I stress that this is not about Richard King or his assassination. Nor is it about how, when they asked me where I was when it happened, the incident in question, that I was able to tell them that I was at home, at number 26, seated on my sofa, a Stoli in a highball, watching the rolling coverage just like everybody else. Or about the fact (and this is something I, of course, neglected to tell them) that I could barely breathe that night as I waited, waited, waited for that newsflash to come, for confirmation from the Castle that the bullet had flown and that ambition’s debt had finally been paid. No. Not at all. This is not about any of that. And it never once was. It’s more about me and where I live and what I do. And it’s also about those people in my care and who will enter soon. But for now this is just me, on my birthday, eighty-fourth, out of bed and at my bedroom window in my boxers and my vest.

And so what did I see? One of my foxes, soaked and muddy, was dragging a blue hula hoop across what used to be a flowerbed and I immediately pictured what I must have missed — the moonlit fox gyrating like a pole dancer and counting out the revolutions. The thought of it made me giggle and I decided that perhaps this really was a very good day in Dún Laoghaire. There hadn’t been rain in months and now here it was at last. Real dancing rain just like the glorious downpours of my childhood and I could smell within it some strange hint of the perpetual. Pandiculation followed. A temporary deafness. Then elbow pain and recovery. I placed my pistol in the drawer, closed it tight and then, and only then, I began to pad the bare boards to the bathroom. I take no chances now, ever since the time I found myself half asleep at the sink, putting toothpaste on the barrel, about to scrub my thirty-two teeth with a loaded weapon. I’m far from doddery but even so.

The electric is erratic these days, water even more so, and so I showered for the thirty-second legal max. en I dried myself off, dressed quickly in a clean white t-shirt, shorts and sloggy bottoms and descended to make myself a camomile tea with honey substitute. Lots of men my age couldn’t manage these stairs at all but I’m as supple as I ever was, my joints constantly swimming in fake fish oil. Thanks to the good folks in Nippon my bones are fortified by every available mineral, vitamin, and dietary silicon smoothie, and once I’m up and about I have neither ache nor pain. Not physical pain at any rate. Jesus, Mary and Joseph where would we be without the synthetics? And without the Japanese? Dab hands the Japs and we’d be lost entirely without them. But fuck it I do miss the bees. I wish the Japanese would sort the bees. And the bee’s knees. For honey, substitute is no substitute. The signs were there for years and nobody lifted a fucking finger. It wouldn’t have happened in Japan. Only it did. World without bees. Amen.

From the kitchen window I watched the fox, still tossing the hoop, and although I always hate to spook such a scene, the instant I punched in the code, Vulpes vulpes shot off like a brushstroke and the hula hoop rolled, keeled and settled on the burning grass like a portal. Sorry Foxy Loxy, I muttered as I put on my trainers and stepped out into the air, raising my face briefly to the skies for the wet of the rain, the actual rain, and I walked briskly, swerving around my dripping barricade of dumped antiques, down to the tumbledown shed which, these days, leans drunkenly against the sycamore. I took my tea with me. The rain was warm and syrupy and it plashed with pleasure in the steaming mug.

There was a wood pigeon balled up in a beech (I have the eyes of a raptor) and a blue-tit was hanging on the giant echium — the self-seeding, tit-feeding echium growing about a foot a day like some slow-motion purple rework. There were wrens up until about fifteen years ago. Troglodytes troglodytes. And blackbirds too. And I used to see them run low across the lawn like infantry out of their trenches and I loved to listen to them sing, watching them snuggled in the holly bush, thinking themselves well defended in the jags.

These new alien finches can be unexpected company at times, but it’s not the same. And the shrikes I can do without. Butcher birds. Cruel impalers. Cracticus something and there’s always one on the shed, eyeing me up, a shrew in its bill, or some supersized beetle which arrived in a suitcase from West Africa.

The shed (the dacha I call it) is warped and narrow and it houses century old, half-empty buckets of paint, an original mountain bike, an axe, bits of obsolete surveillance equipment and sheetweb spiders the size of kittens. I love it in there. Most especially in the rain. As a child, the sound of rain always soothed me and I used to hunker in this very same shed, watching the showers lash the cordylines in scenes which seemed tropical. For a moment, I felt like I was the same child again, sheltered in my hidey hole, enjoying the thrilling little shivers which enveloped me — Bleach and Ammonia back in the house arguing about the nap of the lawn or the pressure in the tap. Heavenly, I told myself, perfectly at peace and in the shed, and then with an almost overwhelming sense of liberation, I lowered the front of my sloggy bottoms and pissed with panache from the dacha porch. Breathing deeply like some ancient God I targeted the agapanthus with my jet.

On my first day as sole owner and occupier of number 26 Hibernia Road, flush with freedom and possession, the very first thing I did was relieve myself in this very garden. As the Gods made Orion. The second thing I did, and just as symbolic, was remove most of the contents and dump them outside. Bedsteads, mattresses, tables, chairs, sideboards, china cabinets, Ottomans, bedside lockers, standard lamps, carpets, rugs, mats, holy statues, vases and assorted prints by late 20th-century racketeers. These I piled on the flower- beds before going back inside to lie on cushions on the floor and crank up the thumping Hi-Fi. Compact discs in those days. My preference then was for bands like New Order, Pere Ubu, Suicide, and The Fall. My father’s study, with its CDs of Bartók, Stravinsky and Stockhausen, I locked up and left alone. He was a vulpine man, my father. Vulpecular. But he liked his music, eschewing the wigs for the moderns and enjoying it in his own way. I liked it well enough too, but I was never in the mood for it. Not in those days anyway.

By four in the morning, I had begun to realize my actual discomfort and I returned to the barricade to strip it of essentials – one sofa, one rug, one kitchen table and one chair. These I reinstated in the house while everything else was left bewildered to the elements, where it lies to this day, piled up and creaking, providing shelter and security for generations of scraggy Dún Laoghaire foxes, all of them, including the one with the hula hoop, born and bred within its labyrinthine heap. Otherwise the place hasn’t been touched at all and number 26 has somehow distilled with natural precision to the point of being quite perfect for my purposes.

On two floors, front and back, the rooms full of boxes (cereal and shoe) stuffed with photographs, files, scribbles, cuttings and notes, now packed almost to the ceiling, decades of profiling stacked in dense little cities of leaning piles of paper and card. Priceless material all of it, of course, and a fire hazard beyond all imagining, but if it goes up, it goes up. It’s no use without me anyway. Without meaning. Like a web without a spider.

At the very top of the house, with a dormer window facing the street, is the actual HQ. On one side of the room, under the plunging slope of the ceiling, is a bank of monitors, permanently on, which links me to the city and beyond. The rest of the space is commanded by a high-back swivel chair of distressed black leather and a fold-out single bed covered in notebooks, orange peel, pencils and sharpenings — the never forgotten stench of desk — all laid out on a carpet so grey and so stained with decades of spilled coffee as to resemble, with some accuracy, a map of the surface of the moon. And this is where I do what I do. And I do it without cease. It takes sustained and careful husbandry but I’m able for it still. There’s divinity in it. And a modicum of love.

— John Kelly


john kelly

John Kelly has published several works of fiction including, Grace Notes & Bad Thoughts and The Little Hammer. His short stories have appeared in various publications and a radio play called The Pipes (listen here) was broadcast in 2013. He lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he works in music and arts broadcasting.

Gerard Beirne is an Irish author who moved to Canada in 1998. He is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and continues to live in Fredericton where he is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead. He has published three novels, including The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) which was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express (England). His most recent novel is Charlie Tallulah (Oberon Press). His poetry collections include Digging My Own Grave (Dedalus Press) which was runner-up in The Patrick Kavanagh Award. His personal website is here.



Jan 072014

john mackenna

In the mid-nineties, I returned to Ireland from Washington State having completed my MFA in Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University. I was young, heady on a mix of Russell Banks, Ray Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford et al. Ford, it seemed had taken it up a notch. His characters less inclined towards defeat (than many of the other so called “minimalist” writers) and more inclined to take some control upon their lives, to seek some form of transcendence or at the very least self-knowledge. But the landscapes were harsh, crude, rugged, the lives equally so- in any case, I was a visitor and intoxicated with the abundance of, for me, unexplored literary territory. I returned to Ireland with an expectation of disappointment – back home to a familiar landscape, a familiar literature.

Into this entered John MacKenna’s collection of stories, A Year of Our Lives, published shortly after I returned – at first glance, as far removed from Ford and my intoxication as I could imagine and yet… strangely similar – minimalist yes, the landscapes harsh, the narrative confessional but revelatory –It provided me with a way back in, a fresh vantage point. A few years later I was off on my journeys again, but the beauty and lyricism of MacKenna’s writing has remained with me since….soberly beckons me home.

“The Angel Said” is from a new collection, Once We Sang Like Other Men – “a book of thirteen stories based on twelve men who followed a socio-political leader  to his execution and now, twenty-five years later – are scattered across the globe.” His novel Joseph (coming from New Island Press in September) is a contemporary telling of Joseph the carpenter’s story and the collection is a contemporary retelling of the stories of the twelve apostles – Peter telling the first and last stories, thus the thirteen.

— Gerard Beirne


I sit at the small table and eat my breakfast, wondering, as I wonder every morning, where my brother is. I ask myself the questions I ask first thing each morning and last thing each night. Is Peter alive? Will we ever find each other again? Does he wish to meet or has too much icy water flowed under the bridges of experience? Then I wonder if he’s well and if he’s enjoying his life greatly or to some extent or at all. Is he happy or at least content? And then I stop this gradation of life, this slotting of emotions into pockets.

I wish him only happiness.

I don’t wonder if he thinks of me. That thought has no part in this daily process. That’s for a time I rarely dare to dream about, a time when we might meet and sit and drink coffee and talk or not talk, a time when we might recapture in silence the warm energy and the familiarity of our comradeship.

And then I finish my breakfast and watch the passing shapes of the figures in the street – quavers and semi-quavers with minims in tow; figures of darkness and, occasionally, figures blessed by the light of the falling snow.

Once my morning meal is over, I go and wash in the small bathroom that is never bright and never warm. Snow piles halfway up the thick little windowpane in winter and pigeons squat there, blocking and unblocking the light with their comings and goings all year round. In winter I stop shaving; it’s easier that way. My beard sprouts in all directions and for those few months I can imagine that I might have been born here, might be one of these people and not an interloper from somewhere beyond the Black Sea.

In the small room that houses my bed and my instruments and music, I perform my little ritual of tidying, as I do every morning, carefully straightening the sheets, punching my pillows into shape. I take my violin from its case, randomly choose a piece of sheet music – probably the only random thing I will do in any day – and place it on the music stand. I pause and then play the chosen piece through twice, before carefully replacing my violin in its case and putting the sheet music back in its ordered spot.

Beyond the window, in the cemetery, young boys are throwing snowballs, dodging behind the headstones, squatting in the shelter of small crosses before launching their next attack on each other. Their voices come faintly across the ledgered lines of memorials, some as dour as those they commemorate; some sporting bowed ribbons for the season of the living; a few splashed with the petals of winter flowers. Two young girls in very short skirts and skimpy tops stand at the gate of the cemetery watching until the boys, in a show of bluster, turn their icy fire on them and drive them laughing through the gates of death and back onto the living street.

I leave the room, closing the door behind me, and complete the other odds and ends that need doing – making sandwiches, washing my cup and plate before putting on a coat, scarf and hat and leaving my apartment for the short walk to the church where I work as choirmaster.

I am a creature of habit. Perhaps I was always so, though I like to think there were weeks and even months when I was otherwise, the weeks and months when Peter was about.

There is a young boy sitting on the narrow stairs of his parents’ house. It is late in the night; more than late, it is the early hours of the morning. The boy sits in the most uncomfortable position possible, his back arched and aching, his hands clasped tightly about his knees, his fingers welded painfully together. He does not move. His pyjamas are thin and the night is cold, but he wants to suffer. He hopes that he can barter with God, swap his discomfort for his parents’ happiness. If he sits here for another sixteen minutes and forty seconds, if he counts to a thousand – slowly – then the arguing will end, peace will flutter through the winter window like the angel of the Lord and happiness will, at last, be tangible. Despite his youth, he understands the meaning of the word tangible.

What he doesn’t understand, though he has an intimation of it, is why he is being used as a shield in a marriage that seems incapable of generating anything but anger and discontent. Even he, a boy of ten, can see how much better life would be for everyone if the owners of the voices from the kitchen were to move elsewhere, one to one end of the village, one to the other. But, instead, the war goes on, and his welfare is invoked as a justification by both parents.

If it wasn’t for….

Well I’m not going to walk out and leave ….

An intermediary without power, the phrase pops like an organ stop as I’m locking the door at the foot of the stairs.

That is what I was. An ineffective go-between, my role defined by those who needed to justify themselves.

“Without power or respect,” I add out loud.

A passing figure looks up, frowns an even deeper frown and then returns his eyes to the frozen snow that pleats the footpath. I turn my key a third time and the lock creaks into place. I try the door: locked, tight.

I look up, as I do every morning at the massive edifice that is my workplace. It sits like a great bird, its profile moving slowly across the summer days, its darkness a permanence on the winter skyline. Nothing in this part of the city can exist without this reference pile impinging on its being. No one who lives in this quarter can get into or out of bed without its real or imagined shadow gouging a deep, slow path across their dreams and imaginings.

The young boy, who sat on the winter stairs, stands at the edge of the sea. The late summer sun is bending and creasing the horizon in shades of red and orange and ochre. The setting sunlight is still warm on his face and he knows that it will hardly be gone from one sky before it pushes like a cerise mushroom into the other sky, sidling above the morning mountains.

As yet, the rising dread as the time for his brother’s return to sea approaches has not become the uppermost thought in the young boy’s head. He is happy in the knowledge that the dark shape in the crimson water is his brother’s punt, moving between the lobster pots, and that before the sun has gone down Peter will be stepping from that small boat into the water and he will rush to help. They will paddle through the shallows, each with a hand on the light gunwale, lifting the boat clear of the sea, leaving a track on the pale sand as they drag it above the tidemark.

“Good man,” his brother will say. “Only for you.”

“You’d have got it clear on your own.”

“But together we’re better.”

The phrase will stick in his mind. The phrase will become his mantra and will keep him afloat in the days after Peter has gone back to his naval training.

“I like when you’re here,” the young boy says, uncertainly.

His brother turns the punt over and it lies like a turtle on the sand.

“I know. It’s tough for you. Being here with them when they’re like this. But it probably seems a lot worse for you. I don’t think they even notice that they’re arguing. It’s a way of life for them. They’d miss it if they couldn’t bicker.”

His brother smiles but the young boy feels a frozen rock lodged in his stomach.

“Hey, I’m not gone yet,” Peter laughs. “Let’s do something tomorrow. Let’s take the sailboat out and have a picnic and when we get back we’ll go to the cinema. A day away, just the two of us, all day. We’ll get up early, be gone before they’re even awake. Ok?”

The young boy smiles a big smile and his brother puts his arm around him and they do the elephant walk all the way up the beach.

I make my way, as I do each morning, through the cemetery, wandering between the stones, walking every path. I have my own reason for taking this circuitous route. It’s not to familiarise myself with the faces and names and dates on the monuments; nor is it the strange attraction of the military section of the burial ground – though I always stop there and consider the remarkable cholera of loss with which the twentieth century infected this country: the Great War; the Revolution; the Second World War, an infection that recurred with devastating consequences.

But it’s not this remembered wretchedness that is the object of my morning walk. My stopping is simply a way to justify the other stop I make on a daily basis, putting it in the safe keeping of the routine. If I linger among the war dead, then why should I not stop, too, at the grave of Nikolai Kalinnikov? If one is habit, why should the other not be just the same?

Sometimes my caution angers me. Why should a choirmaster not stop to remember his choirboy? Why should one human being require an excuse to linger at the grave of another? What is it that I fear?

Nikolai Kalinnikov will have been resting here for two years in one month’s time. His anniversary is bearing down upon us and we will remember him in word and music when the day comes round and I, perhaps, will remember him more than most. His burning eyes and sweet laughter, his energy and constant sense of fun, that occasional and guarded smile that was the antithesis of laughter. A smile that was as infrequent as it was promising.

Other than in the course of my duties, I doubt I spoke personally to Nikolai more than a dozen times in the almost three years we spent together as teacher and pupil. But when I did, I saw a different person, not the wild young thing who was always rushing; not the urchin who laughed at every joke; not the boy who was forever involved in pranks, and not the chorister whose voice was deeply beautiful. I saw a child becoming a young man; eyes that were intense and a smile that asked and promised everything.

I loved Nikolai Kalinnikov. Not with some seedy, leering intent. Not with thoughts of touching or being touched by him. Not with the intention of his sleeping in my bed, but with a love that made me happy and sought only for his happiness. I never laid a finger on his skin, never kissed his face, never considered such possibilities and yet something in that enigmatic smile made me believe that he might some day kiss my mouth, touch my skin, that he might suggest we lie together in a distant future – not here but, perhaps, on the warmer shores of my own country.

And then, one bitter morning two winters ago, he leapt, as he always did, from the open door of the city tram as it slowed on the corner beside the church. Not for Nikolai the one-minute walk from the next stop. Life was too full to waste time in walking backwards from a point that had no necessary place in that day’s itinerary.

So he leapt, as he always leapt, running to keep pace with the tram before making the safety of the footpath. I had seen him do it many times but I wasn’t there that morning to watch his legs go from under him and his knees buckle as the tram unexpectedly picked up speed. He slipped – not for the first time – and skidded on the packed ice beside the tram tracks, but on this occasion, rather than tumbling harmlessly, to the amusement of his fellows, he slid across the ice, body spinning until the force of his skull against the pavement kerb brought his fall and his life to an end.

I saw his body that afternoon. Two of us teachers were dispatched to formally identify his remains, to spare his parents the trauma. Ironically, we travelled on the very tram from which he had slipped. Someone had placed a small bouquet of winter evergreens on the rear platform from which he had so impulsively and carelessly leapt.

In the hospital we were led to the dismal morgue where Nikolai lay beneath an icy sheet. His handsome young face had barely been scratched by the packed ice, but it had been grazed by death, and I wondered whether that kind of death is any less demeaning than if his features had been ripped and burned by the sharpness of the ice. His vigorous body looked out of place in that charnel house and I thought of another emaciated body, that of a young man who had survived at another time and in a different place, and I was perplexed.

Often on summer evenings, when the young boy’s older brother was away fishing on one or other of the half-dozen trawlers based in the small harbour close to their home, he would walk down to the dock wall and stare at the distant horizon, willing the trawler bow to slice through the evening mist. And sometimes a trawler would appear and the young boy would patrol the low wall, wishing the hull to be red or blue or yellow, depending on which boat his brother had shipped on.

And once, once only, when the boy was at the harbour, the hull was red, as he had hoped, and his brother brought him on board and allowed him to assist with the unloading.

“You have a good helper there, Peter,” one of the trawler men had said.

“None better,” his brother had replied, tousling his hair and smiling at him, and the young boy had felt a pedestal rise beneath his feet and wished he could travel for ever in the light of his brother’s shadow.

But more often the young boy is sitting at the kitchen table in the silence. From outside come the sounds of summer children at play and then the silence is broken by his father’s booming rant about something or other that is of no importance and the young boy sits and listens but he does not hear. He is watching the notes that climb slowly and slide quietly, up and down the stairway of the treble clef. And as his father’s voice becomes intolerably loud, the young boy recites the words that cast a spell, silencing his father’s spitting tongue – tonic solfa; stave; staff; ledger; space; brace; rest; interval; quaver; semiquaver; demisemiquaver; hemidemisemiquaver.

These are beautiful words that have no place in his father’s vocabulary.

And he hears his mother say: “I’m not sitting here if you two can’t be civil to each other” and he’s tempted to smile because he hasn’t spoken a word but he doesn’t smile because that would bring his father’s palm crashing against the side of his face and leave his eardrum ringing, his hearing muffled. Instead, he satisfies himself with the knowledge that there is no one who can disturb the words inside his head because no one can hear their soft hum and their sharp jingle or see the way they wind about each other, one touching the next and that, in turn, caressing the next. Tonic solfa – he loves the warm encouragement of the word tonic, the way it says wellness. It touches him like his mother’s hand touches his forehead when he has a winter fever, with sureness and compassion, telling him everything will be all right. The word is there for him, as she would be. Then there’s the sharper sound of the word solfa. When he sees the word, he sees an axe head and then a very short handle and the axe head is of a gleaming, steely silver. It rests in the comfortable arc of his father’s skull. Around the silver head there’s a pool of quiet blood, fresh but not flowing. His father is sitting calmly in an armchair, the axe lodged in his cranium. He is watching television and the young boy knows his father will never shout again, never raise his hand in anger. The axe has dulled his viciousness and made him content to sit and watch whatever tripe the set beams at him. And everything is peaceful in the house. Tonic solfa, he thinks but he doesn’t forget himself; he doesn’t smile or invite the violence of the real world into the serenity of his imagination.

But sometimes he sits on the cold stairway, wishing his father would strike him, wishing his scalded skin, his shaken jawbone, the burning in his ear, the pain in his head could replace the words and tears pouring up through the dark floor of the sad, brutal world. Believing that one act of acceptance on his part, one rain of blows might wash away the stale stink of anger and frustration that hangs about the house like the smell of rotting fish. He would willingly sacrifice his eardrum or his jawbone or the straightness of his nose or the sight in his eye for an end to this cacophony. And, in the dark of night, the magic words become nothing more than a collection of letters, ineffective and useless. Space; brace; rest; interval; quaver. Mere words.

There is a photograph of Nikolai Kalinnikov in the corridor behind the church altar. It hangs in a space shaded by two pillars, so that his beautiful, smiling face peers from the shadows and seems just beyond reach.

One afternoon, some jostling boys dislodged it from its hook and shattered the glass in the plain timber frame. I volunteered to have the glass repaired and, at the same time, had the photograph copied. I put the copy carefully in the sheet music of Tchaikovski’s Happy is the man in my bedroom.

Occasionally, when by chance I pull that piece of music from the shelf and play it through, I spend a moment or two looking closely at the face of the boy I loved. Love.

Otherwise, I try not to catch his eye in the gloomy church corridor. I prefer to imagine his voice among the voices of the young men hurrying to choir-practice. And, as they crowd into the rehearsal room, I keep my eyes firmly on my roll-book, postponing the moment when I must look up and destroy the illusion that he is still among them.

“Gentlemen,” I say quietly and they fall silent and some of them smile and some are clearly concentrating and some simply wait in that great silence that precedes the music we shall sing together.

Once, when the young boy was a young man and was travelling in his brother’s company, and in the company of other young men, they were crossing a choppy sea in a small sailboat and the waves were high and the night was dark and no one seemed sure if the boat would float or sink. Peter came and sat by him and put his arm around him and whispered: “Do you remember the night we went out in the punt to check the lines and we pretended there was a storm and we rocked the life out of the old flat-bottom?”

“Yes,” the young man says.

“Well tonight is just like that. All these other guys are terrified. You and me are the only ones who know it’s all a joke. We know we’re not going to sink, but let’s not tell them,” and then Peter delivered a conspiratorial pat to encourage him to mask his terror.

“What’s going on?” John, one of the other young men, asks. Even in the darkness his face is a moon of fear.

“Nothing going on, just talking,” the young man says.

“Are we sinking? Is this thing in trouble?”

“No trouble. Peter has it all under control.”

“You’re not just saying that.”

“We’ve been out in worse, him and me, and survived. We’ll be alright.”

“I don’t understand you sea-people,” John says, his voice a little calmer. “I’ll bet you can’t even swim. I’ve heard that about sea-people – they don’t learn to swim; it only prolongs the agony of drowning.”

“I can swim,” the young man says. “I think I swam before I walked. Stop worrying. Peter will get us safely across.”

“I hope you’re right.”

And the young man smiles in the darkness because he has been infected with his brother’s optimism and belief; they have shared something private and personal. Even in the midst of all these other people, the threshing of the waves and the slap and scream of the straining boat-timbers no longer frighten him and he turns his face into the rain and laughs quietly.

Occasionally, when I’m relaxing after choir practice, sitting over a steaming mug of tea, and I hear one of the choir-boys in the corridor singing a pop song he has heard on the radio, I think of the Captain and his love of music.

I was the first one in our town to fall under his spell but it wasn’t his music that cast it, though it was his singing that first caught my attention. I heard him perform at a reading in the back room of a coffee shop. His singing was harmless, in tune but lacking any power or subtlety – bland is the word that best describes it. At the time, he’d sing only his own songs and they, too, were bland, without identifiable tunes and lyrically nothing better than rhyming propaganda. But when he spoke, between the songs, and when he told stories, it was an entirely different experience. The words and images drew you in, taking you to the place about which he spoke. For me, it was like being back at the silent table in my boyhood kitchen. The words he used echoed the words and images I had used to keep my father’s anger at bay. They were different but their effect was the same. They had the power to render the present obsolete and make what he was saying the only reality that mattered.

It was the stories and the characters that peopled them that made his words electric. When he talked of someone he had met in a village square and what that person had said or done, I was there. The sun was toasting my back and the hot sand was caught between my sandaled toes. I was sitting on the low wall of a well. The cup he handed me was filled with clear, cold water and, as I drank from it, I felt a freshness and a cleanliness that made it different from the bottled water of the city bars and cafés.

And it had to do with more than taste or smell. It was filled with the possibilities that suddenly fell into my lap, the thought that everything need not always be the same; the notion that the generals, whose nailed boots dug into our shoulders, would not always be in charge; the belief that freedom was not a delusion. Belief was the key – I had believed in Peter when I was a boy, known that his presence would protect me from violence, silence and noise. And now there was someone else in whom I could believe, a man who was telling me that things could change and would change. His faith was infectious, his words beyond denial.

On Friday nights, after the folk-club had closed, we’d go back, ten or fifteen of us, to the Captain’s house and play music and swap songs. And sometimes, when the Captain sang, I’d strum his guitar and play the harmonica. Once or twice I put tunes to his words and we’d struggle over the compromises of song writing until the sun came up, reminding us that we had work to do.

I was a music student then and the Captain was not yet the man he would soon become. The charisma was there and the stories were there but he hadn’t quite found his direction.

Peter was living in a village just over an hour from the city. He had married and had children, built a boat shed, got into building and repairing boats. He still fished but only to feed his family and to supplement his income from the boat-building. I took him to see and hear the Captain a couple of times and I knew, very quickly, that he was as impressed as I was – more so, even.

After a couple of months, I began to recognise that the Captain’s forte was as an entertainer and the nature of the music he enjoyed was different from the music I love. Music was a means for the Captain; it is an end for me.

I was still intrigued by his stories but I could see an emerging pattern. The characters were becoming less important, the message more so. The group of friends who had gathered around him began to solidify, Peter at the helm. I stayed within the group, more out of habit than out of the commitment that Peter and Jude and some of the others possessed. Perhaps I stayed because Peter was such an integral part of the whole thing and leaving would have seemed, to me at least, like a betrayal.

Mostly, now, when I think of those days, it is as an adjunct to memories of my brother and to the recurring question of whether or not I will ever see him again. He had been my saviour and, as I grew up and moved out of the fear of my father’s pathetic need for control, as I began my musical studies, in the holidays when I went to stay with Peter and his wife and their children and watched him at work in his boat shed, I recognised how much I owed him. And the only thing I could do to repay him was to sit on the porch of his house and play the sad songs he loved on the harmonica.

Now, all these years later, I regularly wake sweating, the source of my certainty gone. I get out of my bed, strip it of its soaked sheets and throw them in the laundry basket before stretching clean, dry sheets in their place. Then I step into the shower and wash away the perspiration of fear and loss. This doing keeps my mind occupied but the warm water in the small, freezing bathroom cannot wash away the sadness that envelops me. And afterwards there come the anger and the other questions.

Who keeps their word?

Even my brother disappeared after the Captain’s death. Yes, I went before him but I kept in touch, by letter and by telephone, whereas he seemed simply to disappear from the face of the earth,

Who considers another more than they consider themselves?

If my love for Nikolai were unadulterated, would I still be here, alive and healthy and working, as his skin and flesh and eyes and hair turn to whatever it is they become before turning into dust.

In the face of failure, our lives are a lie and the lie becomes a road to nowhere. There is a moment when summer turns to autumn and a moment when autumn turns to winter, but we can never identify that moment. All we can do is recognise it after at has happened.

Once, when we were camping in the desert, I heard someone singing a song around the campfire and one of the lines lodged in my head: It’s just that I thought a lover had to be some kind of liar too. It’s one of the few maxims that has remained in my memory from that time.

“Gentlemen,” I say and the choristers fall silent, “before you go home, I want you write down some words.”

The students fumble in their bags, producing pens, pencils, notebooks, tattered sheets of paper.

“We’re ready, sir,” one of them says. “Well, all of us except Popov.”

“I’m ready, sir,” Popov says earnestly.

“Write this, please: ‘The angel said: Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.’”

Bent heads, pens and pencils moving and then a hesitation as they wait for more.

“Is that it, sir?”

“That’s it.”

“And what are we to do with it?”

“You could think about it.”

“Not a lot to think about, sir,” Popov says. “In fact I’ve thought about it.”

The others laugh.

“And the conclusion you’ve come to?”

“It’s from the Bible,” he says.

There’s further laughter and cries of: “Brilliant.” “Popov the genius.”

“Wow, did you work that out yourself, Valentin?”

The uproar seems to frighten Popov. He is afraid that I’ll blame him for the din.

“I’m not being funny, sir. It’s just that I’m not sure what we’re supposed to get from it. That’s all.”

He looks about him, willing the other boys to be silent.

“You’ve probably got all you’ll get from it – ever,” someone sniggers.

He blushes.

“It’s all right,” I say quietly and I wait for the clamour to die down. “It is, Valentin, as you say, from the Bible, from Luke’s gospel, to be precise: the annunciation.”

“I knew that, sir,” Popov says, too quickly.

“Yeah, you did! We believe you,” the voice comes clearly, sarcastically from the back of the room.

I wait, again, for silence and, finally, it falls.

“All I want is that you think about those words and I want you to listen to this.”

Reaching behind me, I press Play on the CD player and the music begins, Mussorgski’s The Angel Said.

The students listen, enthralled, their faces beaming, already mouthing the unfamiliar tune, listening for the words, wanting to sing. And then the music ends.

“Tomorrow we’ll begin work on that piece. In the meantime, think about those words.”

Notebooks and pens are put away, satchels are thrown over shoulders and the students begin to shuffle out.

Popov stands at my desk.


“Yes, Valentin?”

“I wasn’t being smart with you, sir, about the sentence you gave us to write.”

“I know that,” I smile. “It’s not a problem.”

“Good,” he says but he doesn’t leave.

“Is there something else, Valentin?”

“Yes, sir, but I don’t know if it’s something I should say to you. It’s difficult, but I need to talk to someone about it.”

I look into his face, the stern face of a nineteen-year-old who is still at sea in the world.

“Would you like to come for a cup of coffee?” I ask. “We could walk to the Chay restaurant. If you like, but only if it suits you to talk today.”

“It suits me, sir, if you have the time.”

Popov packs his bag and I gather my bits and pieces and we walk together to the tearoom on the corner of the street, music huffing from the shadow of a doorway.

“One thing,” I say, as we sit down. “In here, you are Valentin and I’m Andrew. ‘Sir’ stays outside with the accordion player.”

Valentin winces and swallows.

“I’ll try.”

I order two coffees and sour cherry vareniki.

“So, are you enjoying the music?” I ask.

He nods.

“Actually, let me withdraw that question. Let’s leave ‘sir’ and ‘music school’ outside the door and enjoy our food without giving academia a thought.”

Valentin smiles and I’m reminded, for a moment, of the shadowed smile of the man I once knew, the young man dismounting from horseback, elated but cautious about sharing his elation.

The waitress arrives and the coffee and cakes are served.

“Eat up,” I laugh. “These are most definitely not going back to the kitchen!”

Valentin and I eat and drink and make small talk about the goings on in the city.

“It is ok for me to say something to you that may surprise you?” he asks.

“Of course.”


He sputters, a crumb of cake catching in his throat, so I pick up his sentence. “And you can be assured of my discretion. What we speak of here remains here and if we speak of it again, then that will be all right, too. This conversation will have no bearing on anything that happens in the choir.”

He nods and breathes deeply, staring at his cup, uncertain, uneasy.

“We’ll have more coffee,” I say, signalling the waitress.

While we wait, I listen to the music coming from the street. The wheezing of the accordion reminds me of my own harmonica playing from twenty years before.

“I played the harmonica,” I say quietly.

Popov looks up.

“Did you, sir? I can’t imagine that.”

“Ah, we all have skeletons in the cupboard. My brother liked me to play it while he worked in the evenings.”

“You have a brother, sir?”

“Yes,” I say with more certainty than I feel. “Just the one.”

“Does he teach music, sir?”

I let the formality go, knowing how hard it is to break a habit.

“No, he builds boats.”

“That’s different. From teaching music I mean. Chalk and cheese.”


The waitress arrives with the fresh coffees.

“It’s about Nikolai Kalinnikov,” Popov says quickly, once she has left.


“Yes, sir.”

“His death was such a waste of talent…of life,” I say. “He was a bright young man.”

“And great fun.” Valentin’s eyes are suddenly bright and more alive than I’ve seen them before. “I was in love with him.”

I say nothing, not because I’m surprised or hurt but because I’m thinking of Nikolai, remembering his smile and his hair tossing as he hurried along the corridor or crossed the street.

“I’ve shocked you, sir.”

“Good heavens no, not at all. It’s just that I was thinking of his hair, how beautiful it looked, even in death. It was still bright and full of life. I identified him at the morgue and I remember how vibrant his hair seemed. His skin was blue and lifeless, but his hair still looked as though it was waiting for him to get up and run so that it could lift in the breeze. I know that sounds strange but it’s true.”

Popov shakes his head and there is a film of tears about to shatter in his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m talking too much. I came here to listen.”

“No, sir, it’s wonderful to talk about Nikolai. Some of the other fellows talk about him now and then, but almost as though they’re afraid, as though his death might be contagious. Some just want to forget the accident ever happened but that means forgetting him, denying his existence.”

“You two were close. I hadn’t known.”

“Not in choir. We were careful not to be too close in choir – people talk and snigger. We didn’t want that.”

“I understand.”

“Every day I pass his photograph in the corridor and every day I think about him, sir, and I don’t just miss him as a friend. I loved him. I loved the way he kissed me. I loved touching him. Does this make any sense, sir?”

“It does,” I say, thinking again of the young man on horseback but thinking, too, of Nikolai.

“He liked you, sir. Not that we don’t all like you, but he talked a lot about you.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

I can feel my own eyes filling, so I drink deeply, the bitter coffee cauterising my senses.

“How do I go on, sir? Does it get any better or does the pain ever get any duller or do I give up?”

“I haven’t seen my brother in almost twenty-five years,” I say. “I have no idea if he’s alive or dead, but I can’t give up. I need to go on believing that I’ll see him again.”

“I thought it would be easier, sir, by now. I thought things would have become more bearable but they just seem to be getting worse.”

“I don’t believe, if you truly love someone, that their loss ever becomes bearable. You learn to accommodate the pain; I think that’s as much as you should expect.”

And then we are silent and each of us in turn sips his coffee, an excuse for avoiding speech, and the music outside stops and, a few moments later, I see the accordion player pass the window of the coffee shop.

“I’m sorry for taking so much of your time, sir. I needed to tell someone. I don’t know what else to say but I’d like if we could talk again, if you didn’t mind, sir.”

“Nothing at all to be sorry about, Valentin. Of course we’ll talk again. I’d like that. Nikolai was a fortunate young man and so are you – you had each other and you will always have each other.”

“Thank you,” he says. “Thank you.”

Outside, darkness has descended. We walk to the street corner without speaking and stand at the spot where Nikolai died.

“Will you pray for me, sir?” Popov whispers.

“I think they shovel my prayers into the bottom of a bucket with the ash from hell,” I say.

He laughs.

The tram rail hums at our feet. We walk together to the tram stop.

“Thank you for the coffee and cakes,” Popov says.

“You’re most welcome.”

A tram judders into sight and eventually squeals to a halt beside us.

“This is mine,” he says.

“Safe travelling. And we’ll talk again about Nikolai, about anything. Nothing will ever change what was between you. That’s a wonderful thing. Love is never truly lost,” I say.

He smiles gently and I can understand what Nikolai saw in him. And then he’s gone and I turn and trudge slowly back towards my flat, avoiding the cemetery, taking the longer way through the evening streets, remembering the sound of harmonica music and something that was a long time ago. And I think of Valentin and Nikolai and I know that soon it will be time for me to think about going home to the warmth of the summer sand.

— John MacKenna


John MacKenna is the author of fifteen books – novels, short story collections, memoir and poetry. He is a winner of the Irish Times, Hennessy and Cecil Day Lewis awards. His novel Clare, based on the life of the English poet John Clare, will be republished by New Island Books in their Classic Irish Novels series in spring 2014. His new novel, Joseph, will be published in autumn 2014, also by New Island.

Gerard Beirne is an Irish author who moved to Canada in 1999. He is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and continues to live in Fredericton where he is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead. He has published three novels, including The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) which was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express (England). His poetry collections include Digging My Own Grave (Dedalus Press) which was runner-up in The Patrick Kavanagh Award. His personal website is here.

Dec 032013

Louise Manifold & Kevin Barry

Today Numéro Cinq begins a new special feature tagged Uimhir a Cúig, which means Number Five in Irish, wherein you will find some of the best in contemporary Irish literature and culture exhibited. To launch Uimhir a Cúig, we have a video by the amazing and uncanny Galway artist Louise Manifold with text and voiceover from the massively celebrated Kevin Barry, winner of last year’s Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award for his novel The City of Bohane as well as the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize. Barry is a wonderful read. He is especially good on the rhythm and nuance of Irish idiom (his stories set in pubs are wonderful, put you in mind of Flann O’Brien) and comedy in a dark time. Cotard’s Delusion happens to be a real pathology in which the sufferer believes he is dead.


This is a piece I wrote to go with a video and audio installation for an artist called Louise Manifold in Galway based on Cotard’s Delusion — a rare mental state in which you wake up one morning and believe yourself to be dead. It was apparently Cotard’s that inspired Beckett’s The Calmative. Louise filmed the interior of a derelict old cinema in New Jersey — as good a locale to define a state of living death as any!

—Kevin Barry



My wife is distraught and has refused to accept the facts of the situation. I suppose her reaction is common to the bereaved. She cannot accept that the old realities are done with now. That I have no heat in my bones to lend her now. She rants like a mad woman – she refuses to accept the pure state of my absence; she will not accept that I am no longer here. I can only hope that time will do its patient work on her now – as they insist it will –  and that she can find something or someone to live for again; she is not an old woman yet.

It is Saturday I can tell even by the feel of the streets and somehow by the way the light falls – there is a species of winter light that holds the particular resonance of Saturday – and it is late morning, and the people are about and lost in the make-busy routines of their lives, as though any of it matters, and I move among them and sometimes, even still, I draw passing nods from the acquaintances of my old life, but I do not return their smiles and gestures – how could I? – and their faces fall into frown and puzzlement then, and I sense the way a chill of cold certainty passes through them. Word will have got around of my demise, and they will know it is a spirit they have seen, or sensed, or a cipher, or a ghost, for I could be nothing else now and no other, for I have passed on, and I throw no shadow in the white winter sun.

But I can taste the world still even though I am no longer a part of it. Still there is the waft of coffee from the cafes but it stirs nothing in me. Still from the tannoys of the shops I can hear sentimental pop music – old love songs I would have held her to, in discos, in 1978 – but it stirs nothing in me. Still I can recognise the beauties of the planet – they are all about on this fine bright Saturday –but they stir nothing in me.

I could not name for you the precise moment of my death. I suspect, of course, there was a significance about the moment when the tendrils of smoke came from my nostrils. It was a sweetish, greenish-black smoke, as from the burning of a seasoned ash wood. Perhaps something left me at that moment – another might call it a soul – and it was perhaps then that I become merely this husk; I became something to be carried on the breeze off the river, on the wind off the bay.

I can witness the moments of my old life still but only as a stranger. I am puzzled by my actions. By the decisions I made and the paths that I took. What a fool I was. What a happy poor fool I was. What a happy and arrogant and deluded poor fool I was.

I walk straight ahead with my shoulders thrown back and the head held high and the people walk straight at me but they swerve at the last moment though they cannot see me but somehow they must sense me – I was once of the tribe, and my scent is about the streets still. These are the streets of our lives and our Saturdays, as though we are a confluence at the centre of the universe – what arrogant poor fools – and I walk on, as always I walked on, and as ever I am drawn to the water.

The occult places are where the rivers enter the sea and I walk now by the mesmerizing roar of the black water, and I am drawn along the same old pathway again – tang of sea – and I walk into the saltwind and into the light; I am there and I am not there; I have become water, wind, light.

— Kevin Barry


Kevin Barry is the author of the story collections Dark Lies The Island and There Are Little Kingdoms and the novel City of Bohane. He has won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and many other journals. He also writes plays and screenplays. He lives in County Sligo, Ireland.


Born in Co. Galway Ireland, Louise Manifold studied at Central St Martins College London and the Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology, Ireland. She has exhibited extensively throughout Ireland, and internationally in group exhibitions at ISCP, New York. Proximal Distances Chicago, Supermarket Art Fair, Stockholm, Red House Arts Centre Syracuse New York, Candid arts centre, London. 411 Galleries Shanghai, China and the Botin Foundation, Spain. Louise has been the recipient of numerous awards from Galway City Council, Galway County Council, The Arts Council of Ireland and Culture Ireland,  In 2009 she was one of the four artists short-listed nominated for Allied Irish Bank Art prize. Louise is currently based in Galway and is on the board of directors of Galway Arts Centre, and  Artspace studios Galway, Ireland.