Hanna Greally

Kind of apt that my latest essay has the idea of support at its heart. Gives me a chance to say thanks for all the support and kindness that came  our family’s way recently, not only in the past few weeks but in the year leading up. A light in the dark that is very much appreciated.
Go raibh míle míle maith agat.


…Now, down to this business of essays. Click on the link if you want to listen to my RTÉ Arena essay about the brave and brilliant Hanna Greally.
Otherwise, get your scroll on and have a bit of a read underneath…

Listen Here



Hanna Greally

The reality of mental illness can be swallowed up by the myth, twisted tales born from half-heard conversations or bouts of curtain twitching.  Some are called different. Or difficult. Touched.  Hanna Greally was one with such label. A writer from Athlone, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in the midlands in the 1940s and would spend most of the next twenty years institutionalised for what is frequently described as a nervous breakdown. Her book Bird Nest Soup, first published in the 70s, is an account of her experiences in the hospital and her numerous attempts to escape. It gives a harrowing insight into the approach to mental illness at the time, how it was more about containment than healing, and how the treatment could often be the stuff of nightmares.

One of the standout things for me on reading was the concept of circumstance and how easy it is to become a victim of it. It was Hanna’s mother who encouraged her stay in the hospital, a woman who bore large struggles of her own. This was a time in Ireland that release was only granted when an immediate family member opted to sign the patient out. Hanna’s mother died when she was institutionalised. And with it, Hanna’s chances of freedom.

In the book, she speaks of how, without love or hope, many patients deteriorated from their original personalities and became so introverted that they lost touch with reality. She remembers her friends in the hospital.

‘The outcasts,’ she writes. ‘The unloved, the incurably embittered and the spirited, still fighting for their liberty.’

These are terms that could easily be attributed to so many sections of our communities at present, a large number who are also victims of circumstance. And in the same way that no amount of little blue pills will ever eradicate mental health problems, these issues cannot be contained with quick or temporary solutions. People are most vulnerable when they retreat from society or do not have the skills or means to be part of it. And the outcome for these victims of circumstance is not so much a reflection on the individual, but on the priorities of society as a whole.

Mental illness doesn’t disappear with the departing ambulance or the closed hospital door. The underlying factors are too complicated for it to just vanish, no matter how the wealth of a country transitions.  It is part of a cycle of concerns that will forever ebb and flow, issues that might put in mind those coastal parts of Indonesia which are consistently prone to flooding. The poor can’t afford two story homes further inland, so strong wooden posts are constructed beneath their homes to keep them free of the water.
When shifting the land or changing the tides is impossible, it is important to gather around those at greatest risk of submerging and work together to lift them out.



My latest RTÉ Arena essay is about the power of the photograph…

Click here to listen

Or read on…


The photograph

The kids have turned the house into an art gallery. Stick drawings with spindly limbs and dotted features. Knotted creatures and smiling clouds, stuck to doors and along the hall. There are even posters of plays performed in their bedrooms, along with a list of characters and proposed future dates.  Like with most galleries, consultation is needed when one of the exhibits is to be moved. One such negotiation led to us taking a photo of a potato-headed sketch on the wall before we could proceed with repainting the kitchen. Of course, the resulting photograph encouraged a new art-form into the household and I’d regularly find strange photos on my camera phone. Lego man posing on table. Close up of Moshi Monster Magazine.  Bunny toy with red blanket draped behind like a cloak. Images that say so much about the things that excite and inspire them.



Like with Josef Sudek’s beautiful, almost otherworldly view of Prague, a photograph can contain so much personality and atmosphere. Stories too. They have the power to awake empathy and to change perception, Dorothea Lange’s images of people during the great depression a good example of this. I suppose the impact of the photograph shouldn’t surprise, considering how the trigger for so many memories can be held as a single snapshot in the mind. A visit to Florence- the corner of a Botticelli painting. The Great Gatsby- two eyes on a billboard. Lord of the Flies- a conch lying on a beach.

Recently, while researching for a book, I stumbled across an article from 1957 about two houses that had endured a series of trials. They were damaged by German bombers in 1941, floods in 54’ and then a fire in ’57 which a ‘Mr Daly’ claimed to have licked the back of his head as he escaped. The photograph above the article was of a smiling woman outside one of the unlucky terraced houses on Strandville Place. I was surprised to find it was my grandmother.  There was a time when getting a photograph in the newspaper was a big deal. I imagine a number of copies were purchased and shared. People would have stopped her on the street to discuss ‘the man from the Herald’.

I uploaded the article and it appeared on social media amid the selfies and the holiday snaps and photos of kittens dressed in little waistcoats and hats. The responses showed a further aspect to the photograph, how it has the power to ignite dialogue and memories. My cousin mentioned how our Grandfather would speak of the bomb damage to the house, that he would claim to have caught one of the bombs as it fell from the sky. She said she believed him for years. And isn’t that such a lovely snapshot for a child to have in their head. Granda running down the North Strand Road. Sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
A great big bomb in his arms.
And a huge grin on his face.



See you on the other side, Dad

The Pop Song

Here goes my essay from Arena this week…

Essay: Songwriting




A small part of most people still loiters in their teenage years, vapoury connections to cult films or gloomy records, character defining fashion, those sky blue bellbottoms, the domineering shoulder-pads, that flannel shirt.  For me there are scenes of awkward bass-guitar playing on creaky stages or in cramped rooms. And it’s always these memories that carry the urge to try my hand at writing a song.

It’s easy to assume there’s a step-by-step guide to songwriting. Certainly, trends appear when it comes to mainstream radio, lost or forbidden love, the odd dodgy cliché, familiar backbeat and guest featured artist. In reality, music is no different to most other art forms where paint-by-number frameworks can be used to make it more appealing to larger audiences.  But good writing is more than just structure, as are good songs.

Tracy Chapman feels that songwriting is like creating something from nothing, saying that when it comes to composing, it as if she isn’t really in control. Paul Simon too, who says he doesn’t understand exactly what all his songs mean but part of what makes a good song is that people get different meanings from them. So many of their songs have storytelling at their heart and like a good short story, a song should say a lot with few words.

Other writers tend to bury their words deep in the music, Kurt Cobain, Bjork, very different styles but the blend of lyric and sound almost create emotive shapes in the mind. David Bowie used a technique at the writing stage that bore some similarities to this, where he would cut up lines of text and allow the new word structure to provoke a set of images, encouraging him to look at the familiar from a new angle, a technique that’s used by some poets.

There is often criticism that the constant sampling and adaption of songs weakens the modern scene. But the folk tradition of songwriting revolves around recycling, the likes of Bob Dylan continuously using classic folk songs to influence the melody of new material. Sometimes the artist only realises the similarities after completion, which happened when REM credited Leonard Cohen on their track ‘Hope’ because they felt it bore a resemblance to his song ‘Suzanne’.

Like all art its worth investigating your reason for carrying it out. In the late eighties two members of KLF published a manual on how to have a number one hit and there are times when it seems as if songs are released specifically in the hope of being picked up by an advert or sporting event.  There was a time when the Christmas song was the jackpot. If money is the motive it might be worth keeping major celebrations in mind. It would be easy enough to squeeze the line ‘walking up the aisle’ or ‘happiest day of our lives’ into a song. Even better if you can think of something to rhyme with ‘it’s time to cut the cake.’



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…




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...



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


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.




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




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.



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.



‘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.

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…





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.”




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:



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




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.





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




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.