0

Inspiration

 

I was in RTÉ yesterday evening recording the following piece for Arena. The idea came from an article I noticed in a newsletter from the Mining Heritage Trust of Ireland.
Funny, where the old inspiration comes from.

 

Here’s a link to Arena if anyone fancies a listen or scroll down for a read…

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/arena/#2306411

the-iron-man

Inspiration

There is an iron giant in the south of England. Girders for limbs, shoulders made of rotating sheave wheels, drawn beams and a hefty spinning fan at his gut. Thick chords loop from joints, pulled and pivoted by puppeteers in orange jumpsuits, smoke billowing about their feet. This brute was made to mark the tenth anniversary of world heritage status being given to the mining region of Cornwall and Devon, an obvious link being the helmet that sits on the giant’s head, metallic and curved, circular lamp at the front.

It’s fitting to have such an inventive piece of apparatus represent that mining community, an enterprise that altered the landscape of the world through pioneering techniques and the fueling of an industrial revolution. And on seeing an image of this giant I could easily imagine the metal beast prowling the nearby fields at night, feeding on barbed wire fences and old rusting tractors, just like the character in Ted Hughes’ book, The Iron Man.

Hughes was from a mining town himself. And inspiration from the scarred countryside of his youth is evident throughout the book. It’s certainly not uncommon for writers to use their environment as a tool to add depth or drama to a piece. Not only can it build emotion or atmosphere but it might also be a way for a writer to better understand their surrounds and their place within it. In the early part of Hughes’ story this iron figure is practically lost to the hard terrain. So perhaps something can be read in the fact that it is always the life in his eyes which stands him apart, the headlamps in a tall treetop, the two green lights at the top of the cliff, the changing colour as he sinks beneath the sea.

It may even be the footprint of a past experience that attracts writers to different aspects of their environment, or the sense of possibility that these surrounds carry. That could explain why some are drawn toward the old and some the modern, to the wild or the tame or the manicured.  When a doomed building is being demolished in phases it is often possible to see beyond the usual façade, to the layout and décor and hints of the personality of previous occupiers. There are tales in these exposed rooms, just as there are stories beneath the rocks and among the trees, in the new and the dying and the dead. And underground too, where the brave miners burrow deep into the earth, their tunnels supported by wood and steel, that could so easily seem like the limbs of some strange mechanical beast, if happened upon in the dark of night, when nobody else is around.

 

 

Some photos of the iron man...

 

 

2

Science and beer and stuff

One of my essays was on RTÉ Arena on Monday. It’s just below this paragraph if ye want to have a read…a smidgen past that blurred square graphic…

More of a fan of the old wireless? Have a listen here instead

Creativity and home brewing

beer

The Sciences is not an area that’s been kind to me. Dependant on exact conditions, it might put some in mind of failed laboratory experiments in school. Bi-metal strips refusing to bend, blurred microscopes, cheap prisms dispersing limited colours. For the unenthusiastic student, each fruitless experiment pushes science ever closer to alchemy. This is probably why I wasn’t overly confident when I decided to tackle home-brewing. Thermometers, hydrometers, siphons and paddles, it is a game of patience, often days before there are any signs of movement. It does give time to think about other sciences, such as the science of writing.

But I’m not talking mathematical papers or industrial reports. More along the lines of technological advances, those online programmes which can edit a novel, tools that highlight clichés. If it takes your fancy, you could publish a shopping list, sell it online and even buy a few good reviews while you’re at it. Recently, in Japan, a novel that was co-written by a computer programme made it past the first round of a literary contest. It would be nice to think that people would fail to relate to an algorithm driven literary work. But, alas, we are only too willing to apply human characteristics to the inanimate or the automated, whether that is to fall in love with a car or yearn for a house. I once saw a TV programme about a woman who married a Ferris wheel called Bruce.

Besides, there can be some advantages to working with computer programmes. Algorithms don’t fail to meet a deadline. They don’t argue with their editors or turn up drunk at a reading. But in order to claim that art can be artificially replicated, the question of why someone engages in art must be asked.  Perhaps what makes art true is that behind it all, you do it for yourself.  There is the satisfaction of working on the piece, the patience, the sense of achievement when finished. Whether you believe this is a literary novel, a mural on your Granny’s back wall or even the careful fermentation of a gallon of beer, at some point there is the Victor Frankenstein moment of bringing something to life. That metaphorical first breath. The bubble in the airlock. It’s alive!

So many aspects of technology involve relinquishing menial, physical tasks, the things that give us time to contemplate, that require movement and effort, that keep the little old ticker ticking away. Perhaps someday a programmer might create an algorithm which proves that contentment doesn’t always lie in the things we give up, but also in the things we take on.

 

 

4

Writers…

My latest essay on RTÉ Arena is about the writer stereotype.  Have a listen here or gander on for the full text…

Making it as a successful writer

 

hemmingway

 

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  Not all writers have a cat. They don’t all drink coffee either. There’s the odd turtleneck but that’s a shame most of us carry at some stage in our life. The domain of the writer can be soupy with stereotype and myth. The classic underdog tale is a popular one, bestselling author initially rejected by umpteen publishers, out of work when the news of publishing finally came, possibly living under a motorway bypass. Often, the stories surrounding the writer can become as fictional as the work they produce.

There is the overnight success article that fails to mention the fruitless years of learning the craft. The author who doesn’t believe in editing.  The tale of the classic novel completed in less than a month minus the boring details of all the failed drafts that went before.

Anybody who has ever signed up for a writing course or workshop will have encountered the famous six word story – For sale: baby shoes, never worn. One of Hemmingway’s finest works we are told. But the truth is Hemmingway never wrote the work at all. It seems to have started out as an advertisement in a Brooklyn newspaper in 1921, ‘Baby carriage for sale, never used’, only to make several appearances in altered states before being attributed to Hemmingway in the 1990s, thirty years after his death. In reality, you could say it took multiple writers a number of decades to write the piece.

I suppose there is romance in the legend of the genius writer. As there is in the idea of the writer as an adventurer. Certainly, a lot of scribes still reel off a list of exotic places they’ve travelled to on their Bio. But there is a financial cost to the act of discovering oneself in Kathmandu or writing poetry naked on an island in the Mediterranean. The image of well educated, comfortable writer has formed a large part of the stereotype.  It’s pretty difficult for most to aspire to a career in writing when the finances are not there to back them up.  Besides, aspirations can be collective and based on experiences or the perceived experiences of those of a similar background.

The online environment can be a more economical tool for writers to reach larger audiences, the likes of blogs and online journals bringing a diverse blend of people into the literary mix. It would be nice to think that this will naturally bring varied writers and stories into the mainstream. Because In arenas where diversity is not contrived or over-emphasised, it doesn’t need to be constantly defended or debated. It works as a challenge to stereotype merely by existing as fact.

11

Heroes

 

Team A

Picture the scene. The sun is beaming. The air tastes of cut grass. Huey Lewis and the News are rolling from a boom box. There’s a bunch of teenagers break-dancing on an old piece of lino. And some skinny kid is standing next to a BMX just off to the side. That kid was me. But don’t think the get-up of ball cap, khaki trousers and black converse runners was casually thrown together. Not at all. It was completely inspired by my hero at the time, Howling Mad Murdock, the unhinged helicopter pilot from action adventure series, The A-Team.

A group of us kids were obsessed with that TV programme. To the point that B.A. Baracus’ words of wisdom infiltrated our daily vernacular. Everything was to be pitied. I pity the fool who’s never seen the Teen Wolf movie. I pity the fool who never tasted no ‘Catch chocolate bar’.

And I aint visiting no Granny’s today, fool.

Of course there were other heroes over the years. Marty Mc Fly inspired me to try to build a flux capacitor out of a remote control car. There was Knight Rider, Luke Skywalker and even the Hobbit guy from the Goonies. But Murdock was my first inspiration.

It’s difficult for my heroes in adulthood to compare. Of course there are other writers and people who I respect and admire. One in particular influenced my writing a great deal and although I’m a massive fan I don’t think she’d be too impressed if I started to imitate or wear the same clothes as her.

I suppose a lot of people can relate to the admiration of a favourite teacher when young and the craving of recognition from them.  This need to impress can even remain when schooldays have long since passed. I’m no different and that’s why I was especially pleased to spot an old maths teacher at a production of one of my plays a few years back. He was a man who inspired me in many ways and I was pretty eager to hear how he rated the play.

 

Tangent

‘So, what did you think?’ I caught up with this teacher immediately afterward.

He scratched his head for a bit, raised an eyebrow.

‘Do you know when you were talking about that guard fella,’ he said.

I knew he was referring to a brief scene in the play where one character’s posture is compared to “three sided shapes and tangents or any number of the trigonometric theorems that were drilled into a child’s head in school.”

I nodded in acknowledgement and wrung my hands expectantly. My maths teacher leaned in close. He then steadily tapped me on the shoulder, exactly like he had done when I was in secondary school.

‘I think,’ he grumbled. ‘You might be confusing the tangent line in geometry with the tangent function of trigonometry for that part’.
And without any further hesitation, he rambled off to talk to someone else.
In typical Irish fashion, I was quickly brought back to earth.

0

The Irish Language

I’ve an essay on RTÉ Arena this week and it’s about the Irish language.
There’s a fantastic poem by Biddy Jenkinson after the essay – Cumann na bPíobairí.
Biddy is a poet, short story writer and dramatist who writes in the Irish language.

The text for the essay is below but if you want to hear the poem too, have an old listen here…

 

http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=b9_20956703_1526_22-03-2016_

 

 

irish language

I haven’t considered reading a poem in a second language since secondary school. But I happened upon an article in the newspaper archives by the late Nuala O’Faolain, written after she attended an Irish language event in Westport. Admitting to a limited grasp of gaeilge, she told how this didn’t detract from her enjoyment of the poetry, paying particular tribute to the poet who writes under the name Biddy Jenkinson.  Curious at how it would read, I found a book of Biddy’s work in the library and despite a meagre understanding of Irish, immediately, I could appreciate the harmony between words, the form of the poem and in my own clumsy way I could get a taste for the rhythm.

Over the years, I’ve heard Irish described as harsh or ugly. It’s been slammed as a dead language. People offer reason upon reason for not learning it, complaints which are anything but new. In 1961, the president of Cumann na Sagart stressed that its revival would be more successful if people stopped shadow boxing around the reasons why it should be revived. He went on to say that the ‘majority’ wished to have Irish as a language spoken with ease and confidence rather than grammatical formulae and specimen essays. This is one point I continually hear these days, some 50 odd years later.

When I remember Irish in school, I think of essays written in the past tense, usually centred around a dog and a bike and always ending with me running ‘ar nós na gaeoithe’.
I see fat books of verbs and an English to Irish dictionary for every word to be translated into a sentence of gibberish. But language doesn’t show itself off textbooks or manuals. It blossoms in poetry and prose. It comes alive when spoken and sang. You don’t memorize a language. You live it.

My daughters attend a local gaelscoil where allowance is made for limitations and mistakes when speaking Irish. It hasn’t taken long for them both to surpass my knowledge.  I see it in the cheeky sideway glances when I try to help with their homework and the correction of mispronounced focals. I might not have succeeded in learning the native tongue just yet. But I’m more aware of it now, more willing to give it a chance.

When I hear statements of how the print book is dead or that radio passed away when the television was born, I think of how Mark Twain quipped that ‘reports’ of his death have been ‘greatly exaggerated’.  If the Irish language had a voice I’m sure it would be uttering the same thing. Or to quote Nuala O Faolain on listening to the words of Biddy Jenkinson,

“In what sense is Irish, as they say- dead, if new life like this poetry can be born of it.”

 

 

0

Goodbye

This latest essay was aired on RTÉ Arena on Christmas eve. The essay  is about 20 minutes in and it’s about the demolition of the last tower in Ballymun. I’m very grateful to Dermot Bolger for letting me quote from his poem ‘Incantation’, a piece which has just been republished in ‘That Which is Suddenly Precious’ with New Island Press, a really brilliant collection of poems.

Check out the essay here:

http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A20903857%3A1526%3A24%2D12%2D2015%3A

 

Or continue on if you’re in a  bit of a reading humour…

 

450px-Joseph_plunkett_tower

Goodbye

It would be easy for some to compare my town to an island, culturally detached from the mainland, diverse in its identity and habits.  For many, the sight of the seven towers piercing the sky would stir up old news stories and hearsay, talk of castaways and savages and native lotos eaters. As kids we were aware of the stigma that came with being from an area like Ballymun. A role was expected and failure to play it out gave rise to the familiar phrase – “You don’t seem like someone who’d come from that place”
I’m not sure which bothered be more, the prevailing stereotype or the perceived notion that I wasn’t Ballymun enough to be from Ballymun.

In 2004, a wake was held on the eve of the demolition of the first of the seven tower blocks. Artists celebrated the life of these structures. Their imminent loss was mourned. More than ten years have passed since that event and finally, in early October, I watched from my window as a mechanical beast chewed into the hide of the last remaining tower.

For some, those buildings represented poverty and depravation.  Others viewed them as symbols of resoluteness and community. For me, those towers and the rows of flats which weaved through the town were the backdrop and stage to so many of my childhood memories. They were football matches against the lads from the four stories with Pelé Mooney slicing through our defence like butter. They were countless hours hanging upside down on windowless frames beneath concrete balconies. Suffocating wind traps. Unyielding shadows. Mountaineering. Spying through a grill and watching an old world in a new way.  They were those long summer evenings on the tenth floor of Eamonn Ceannt Tower with one of my closest friends, off-key wailing, wild guitar strumming and the feeling that we were conquering the world.

I think back to that wake event and to the point in the evening when Dermot Bolger passionately recited his poem ‘Incantation’, a haunting piece which sews together marked moments in the lives of the inhabitants of Ballymun. Looking around I couldn’t help but notice a harmony between the words in the poem and the crowd who watched the event unfold, the differing emotions directed toward this doomed tower and the obvious diversity of people who once called this place home.

 

Every whiskey, every Valium, every cigarette,
Every couple holding hands in a kitchenette,
Every laughing child being spun in the August sun
Every boy with a piebald horse to gallop on.

Every mother dreaming about some different life,
Every first tooth, first communion, every surgeon’s knife,
Every welder, office cleaner, every unemployed,
Every girl who fought back when her dreams died.

Every life that ended here and every life begun:
The living and the dead of Ballymun.

 

 

 

3

Names

My latest essay on RTÉ Arena is about ‘Names’.  Have a listen here or gander on for the full text…

http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A20879715%3A1526%3A12%2D11%2D2015%3A

names

Names

Funny things names.  It would be pretty unusual to just invent one from scratch. Instead, they are foraged from surroundings and experiences, stolen from history and nature, inspired by colours and flowers, jewels, even occupations. For a long time in Ireland religion played a major part, from apostles to the pious or the prevailing pontiff of the time. There was certainly no shortage of John Pauls knocking around my housing estate in the 1980s.

Influences come and they go and what may have seemed odd to folk in the last century can become commonplace in the new. In this era of the celebrity obsessed, the famous are often mimicked, kids named after the place they were conceived. Brooklyn, Nevada. Paris, even Ireland.

When it comes to branding a character, there are some authors who will mull over it for weeks. But does it really make any difference? Take my Dad for example, a man known by many titles.  ‘Donal’ to my mother, ‘Granda’ to his grandchildren, ‘Mister’ to the kids on the street. On any number of Christmas cards he is Ronan. And for some strange reason all correspondence with the gas company refers to him as David. Yet, nobody calls him by the name that’s on his birth cert – Daniel. I can’t help but wonder if his life would have turned out differently if he’d stuck with the original title? Would people have treated him differently? Would he have grown that moustache?

Of course some could use Charles Dickens as an argument to support a lengthy naming process, a writer famed for selecting the colourful and unusual, often ones which hint at a character’s personality. Mr Wopsle, Bill Bitherstone. Chester, Chick and Old Martin Chuzzlewit.  Some of his characters, like Scrooge and Pecksniff have even found their way into the everyday vernacular.

I generally go for the common or the understated, normal people in deep crisis or extraordinary situations. The problem with this is that I sometimes forget what I’ve called a character as I move through different sections of the book, similar to that moment at a party where you’ve forgotten the name of the person you’ve only been introduced to three seconds before. But surely your ability to empathise with a character shouldn’t depend on a name.  William Shakespeare wrote –
That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.
And it’s easy to see the truth in this. On the other hand, back in the late 16th Century and failing to be of noble family, if he had been christened Mable Shakespeare, we may never have seen this observation in print at all. Or at the very least, we may never have discovered that she wrote it in the first place.

2

Bucket List

My latest essay on RTÉ Arena is about a bucket list.  Have a listen here or gander on for the full text…

http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A20856634%3A0%3A%3A

must fix the garden

Bucket List

I frequently have brief, inspired moments where I feel compelled to do more with my life. The remnants of these whims are scattered about my house. There’s the Irish language course book – half read. The easel buried under a mountain of toys. The tin-whistle rusting in the attic. It’s true that other commitments are partially to blame for the abandonment of these projects but I’ve also been of the belief that they can just be revived at a later date.

My daughter turned eight the other week and watching her open presents by patiently tearing off every last piece of tape on the wrapping  I couldn’t help but think how it only seems like yesterday that we would prop her up on a highchair and blow the birthday candles out for her.  You see, age is the craftiest of all feckers. By the time you realise you’re old, it’s too late to do anything about it. So I’ve began to draft up a bucket list. I’ll admit, it’s not the easiest of tasks for me, especially as I’m aware at how quickly it could manifest into one long index of chores, those must-fix-up-the-garden type ambitions or the thrilling fantasy of finally clearing out the attic.

Funny, how I will often contemplate a character’s decisions more than my own, attentively charting their ambitions and motives. Recently, I came across an image of Joseph’s Heller’s map for Catch 22, rows and columns with lists of characters and key events and notes to keep in mind for different stages of the plot. There are similar relics from other writers archived across the world, drafts and scribbled ideas from early on in their careers.

With the constant and rapid change of technologies this kind of material could be lost in the modern environment. Likewise, with so many musicians selling digitally there is the risk of many artists vanishing completely from records. Artistic images, photographs, important speeches and videos, the British Library calls it The Digital Black Hole. In an attempt to counteract the problem it has begun to archive whole websites. While in the US, the research library for congress signed an agreement with Twitter allowing it to archive all public tweets.  In years to come one of your tweets may help to form an anthropological analysis of today’s society.

Check out what I had for dinner. Hash-tag – Greasy potatoes. Hash tag – Vomit.

Perhaps writers and artists should make a concerted effort to hold onto their digital material, those embarrassing early drafts, the stories that failed to make publication, even that email sent to Aunt Greta explaining why there is so much bad language in the novel. And maybe a catalogue of my own writing should be sitting at the top of my bucket list. After that, I’ll be free to concentrate on the more exciting challenges in life, like getting around to tasting a cloud berry or a dragon fruit. Or my greatest of all ambitions, finally learning how to speak French without a Dublin accent…

Ouest le marché de fruits s’il vous plait?

10

Tom Ennis

My latest Essay on RTÉ Arena is about my great grand uncle Tom Ennis.  Have a listen here or read on for the full text…

http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A20841562%3A0%3A%3A

Tom EnnisOpenness

A photograph once inhabited a shadowy corner of my gran’s house in Ballybough. Despite the age and encroaching dark border you could still make out a group of eight people. There was a lady reading a newspaper at the forefront. To the very rear stood two men in military uniform. As a child, my cousin would often grill my gran as to the identity of the people in the photo but there was never much information offered beyond the response of ‘family’.

The Irish have a reputation for being a friendly and open people.  Yet for my gran’s generation and many before, intimate, family business was rarely discussed.  This probably goes to explain why small talk has evolved into an art form in this country, the skill of incessantly talking but never really saying anything. Some linguists claim that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow. The same can probably be said for the Irish when it comes to terms for the rain.

Spitting. Beating. Hammering. Or perhaps it may only have been pouring on the day my cousin got his hands on a manuscript relating to bygone family. But that detail is unimportant. What is significant is how this manuscript revealed the identity of a number of people in the photo, one of which turned out to be our great grand uncle, Tom Ennis.

Tom was a Major general who’d been associated with the Irish volunteers as early as 1913. Heavily involved in the 1916 rising, he also led the attack on the customs house in 1921, where he was seriously wounded resulting in a permanent limp.  A volunteer medical officer saw to him after his escape and told how Tom received a number of visitors as he recuperated in a nursing home on Eccles Street. On one such occasion, Oscar Traynor informed Tom that Lloyd George was to order for barbed wire to be put up all over the country to enforce the suppression of I.R.A. activities. “What the hell does he think we’ll be doing while they’re putting up the barbed wire,” was Tom’s quick response.

Further on, there’s an article which initially seems out of place in a manuscript mostly relating to the Easter rebellion and the war of independence. It refers to a murder in the Phoenix Park, sketching a scene in which a soldier shoots his young love through the heart before turning the gun on himself. The sister of the deceased woman testifies how there was no formal engagement between the couple as her parents disapproved. One of the parents she was referring to was Tom. The murdered girl was his twenty year old daughter, Miss Úna Ennis.

This account followed me around for a time after and I couldn’t help but dwell on how a military man like Tom would have outwardly reacted to a tragedy like this. I wondered if he spoke about his daughter much, if he told those around him how he missed her. Or perhaps he just fixed a photograph to a wall in his house. And if anyone referred to it he would just deflect, distract. And through his silence, allow the truth to merely fade into history.

2

Creative writing awards 2015

pencil A Creative Gathering

Every year DCU Library runs a Creative Writing Competition for adult literacy groups throughout North Dublin. It aims to reward those who have returned to education to improve their reading and writing skills. Over 100 entries are received each year from more than 10 literacy groups in North Dublin and Library staff volunteer to participate in the judging and organisation of the competition. This years worthy winner was “Growing up in Finglas in the 60s” by Jimmy Conway. It takes a real gift to capture a scene from your past and even more to make it entertaining and funny. And Jimmy did just that. I was delighted to be the guest speaker this year and DCU library have blogged about the evening if you would like to check it out.

https://dculibrary.wordpress.com/2015/06/08/creative-writing-competition-2015/

Otherwise, here are a few quotes from some of the brilliant guest speakers of past events…


Stories are beautifully unpredictable when done well. Figure out what you love to read and think about, what excites you. Chances are those are also the things that you will love to write about.      
Nuala Ní Chonchúir


“Stop reading like a reader; start reading like a writer”
Christine Dwyer Hickey


“If you’re going to be an artist or a writer you’re in for a long apprentice”
Peter Sheridan


“Everyone’s life is valid and worth writing about”
Dermot Bolger


“Simple. Clear. Devoid of the unnecessary. For me, that’s what makes a good story”
Róisín Ingle


“Anyone who has survived childhood has the capacity to be a writer”
Anthony Glavin


(In stories) “things begin to unravel when we are forced to accept a truth we’ve been avoiding, or our world discovers a truth about us”
Marian O’Neill


“Learn to walk in your character’s shoes”
Patricia O’Scanlan