Author Archives: Jools Gilson

Blackamoors and “noble savages”

Bold Sir William, a Barb, and an East Indian Black - a 1772 painting by Thomas Roberts.

Bold Sir William, a Barb, and an East Indian Black – a 1772 painting by Thomas Roberts.

Researching a novel can lead a writer down some interesting roads, writes PhD student, Laura McKenna.  

When the novel is historical, there is always the lure of the twisting tracks and shadowy alleys where you can lose yourself – or chance upon some fascinating stories and background material.

My novel is set in the eighteenth century, and one of the characters is a black man who lives for a time in Ireland. The question that arises when writing such a character, is what would Ireland have been like for him. How would he have been perceived and received here in the eighteenth century?

What would his experiences of Ireland have been? What was it like for black[1] or Asian travellers and settlers two or three hundred years ago?

In the first place, it seems such travellers and immigrants were not as uncommon as one might expect. The historian, W.A. Hart, has estimated the black population in Ireland at between 2,000 and 3,000 – over the course of the latter half of the eighteenth century, rather than at any one time. As might be expected, most accounts – from newspapers, memoirs and official records – refer to individuals living near coastal towns such as Dublin, Cork, Belfast and Waterford.

Bold Sir William, a Barb, and an East Indian Black by Thomas Roberts, 1772

One of the earliest accounts of a black man in Ireland is in 1578 when Sir William Drury, in Kilkenny, ordered a blackamoor and two witches to be burnt at the stake. One hundred years later, there are sporadic mentions – a “blackamoor soldier”, one of 1500 men laying siege to Blackhall Castle in Kildare and a black servant boy at Macroom Castle brought back from Jamaica by Sir William Penn.

By the eighteenth century, there was a more significant presence, including slaves. Contemporary newspapers have occasional reports of runaways though they are mostly referred to as servants. Finn’s Leinster Journal in July 1767 cites a runaway Jonathan Rose, a black man, “who left his master’s service, Captain Kearney of Blanchville, near Gowran”, and was proficient in the French Horn and violin. Another from the Dublin Journal of 1762, advertises a runaway “black Servant Maid… We hope no Person will employ her as she is the Slave and Property of Mrs. Heyliger.” Though the advertisements regarding slaves are arresting and poignant, they are not all that different from similar ones concerning runaway native Irish indentured servants. Indeed one or two “owners” even promised to pay wages should their estranged “slave” return. Despite these advertisements, most accounts of black people in Ireland in the eighteenth century do not refer to slaves.

So who were they and how did they find themselves in this tiny outpost of Empire? Some accompanied their employers to Ireland, or were attached to a particular ship or army. A few were the result of illegitimate liaisons. For example many Protestant Irish men, middle sons, worked in the East India Company or the Bengal army and on occasion brought home a child. A smaller number came voluntarily, to preach or to work. John Jea, captured in Africa, sold into slavery in New York, eventually made his way to Ireland, where he settled and married before moving on to England. There’s a fascinating account of a company of salvage divers, working on a sunken ship in Dublin Bay, in the late 1700s using a diving bell. When the company’s owner Charles Spalding was killed (overcome by fumes in the wreck), his “Negro associate” took over. On a successful outcome, “his wife, his sister, and his moors appeared almost frantic with joy.”

There are mentions of black people throughout the eighteenth century – servants; soldiers – several accounts during the 1798 rebellion of fighters on the British and the rebel side; musicians – private, army, even an opera singer Rachel Baptiste. The first record of a black actor onstage took place in Smock Alley in Dublin in the 1770s, some fifty years before Ira Aldridge appeared in the same role of Mungo in The Padlock, in London.

What did Irish people know of other races? The theatre provided some exposure. Many productions  – often by Irish playwrights – featured black roles, played by white actors in “blackface” – usually burnt cork. These roles varied from “noble savage” caricatures in the mid-1700s to grateful or desperate slaves towards the close of the century as the opposing sides of the abolition movement became more political. The abolition debate also expanded the public’s consciousness of the plight of black slaves in the colonies. The sugar boycott was a successful propaganda coup, which spread to the major towns in Ireland. In the 1790s, one of the most influential black people of the era conducted a book tour in Ireland, promoting his biographical account of his enslavement – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. He travelled for six months, releasing two further editions of his best seller.

Olaudah Equiano

So how were black people received in Ireland? There is some sugolaudah - lmckgestion of superstition in earlier Irish perceptions but this seems largely to do with heightened situations of battles. In two separate accounts, enemy “blackamoor” soldiers are credited with immense courage and strength – one said to be possessed of “a devil or a witch”, the other to have had “the life of a cat”.[2] These, however, are the exception. In most cases, rather than a negative response, it seems curiosity was probably more common.

An interesting illustration of the public attitude was documented in The Freeman’s Journal in 1777. The paper sets the scene in St Stephen’s Green at noon, when a crowd of people surrounded a black woman and her child, staring and pressing so close that they frightened the woman and caused the child to cry. It took some “reasonable persons” to extricate her and help her “safe out of the walks”. The article goes on, “Had she in any manner differed from others of her colour or country so common to meet with, it might have been some apology to satisfy curiosity”. The writer goes further saying such behavior reflected scandal and ignorance on the entire assembly. The words “so common to meet with” are particularly striking.

Another marker of public attitudes is their response to mixed marriages. The few accounts that exist, suggest interest rather than racism.  Freeman’s Journal in 1785 gives an account of an “extraordinary match” which took place in Drumcar, Co. Louth between a local woman and a black man. “No young girl could behave with more propriety or modesty; there was a very elegant supper prepared, and the bride and bridegroom seemed as happy as possible, and are now enjoying all the comforts of married life.” Tony Small, the escaped slave who worked for Lord Edward Fitzgerald, married the family nursemaid. John Jea, the preacher, married Mary, a “native of Ireland” (his third marriage).

These examples provide only a snapshot of life for early immigrants. But they suggest that Ireland was perhaps more racially “literate” and diverse during the eighteenth century than might be expected. Unfortunately by the end of the century, more deliberate negative ideas about race – including the “Irish race” – were being propagated, to support the vested interests of British Imperialist expansion. The Age of Enlightenment was over.


[1] From the fifteenth century onwards, the terms black, negro, moor and blackamoor were applied to a wide group of people: from those of African origin, to Muslims and Arabs, to Asians, and to indigenous people of Australia etc.

[2] Mathieu Boyd has written about the origin of the Irish phrase Fir Ghorma (blue men), meaning black men, which “corresponds to old Norse Blámenn from which the Welsh word of the same meaning, Blowmen or Blewmon, may (indirectly) derive.” In old Norse-Icelandic literature, the term blámenn is used for supernatural adversaries and “berserks” as well as “dark-skinned Muslims, and a similar development occurs in Irish.”

Further Reading

W.A. Hart. Africans in Eighteenth-Century Ireland. Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 33, No. 129 (May, 2002), pp. 19-32

Nini Rodgers. Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612-1865. Palgrave Macmillan UK. 2007

Poetry in the wild

Exhaling - an inspiring view from Dzoghen Beara

Exhaling – an inspiring view from Dzogchen Beara

Not all of the MA in Creative Writing takes place in the classroom. Luckily for the 2016 students of the spring semester poetry module, the final workshop took place in the west Cork writers retreat, Anam Cara, on the Beara peninsula, writes PhD student Maeve Bancroft.

The workshop  – like all of the poetry elements of the MA – is led by west Cork poet Leanne O’Sullivan, who was born and grew up on Beara, so this is her native – and poetic – territory.

Leanne has published three acclaimed collections with the Bloodaxe imprint and was the winner of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2010.  She has also been awarded the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award and the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Irish Poetry.

Beara is only two hours from Cork city yet it’s a world apart, a place steeped in Celtic mythology and literature, where the stories and poems are written in the landscape, waiting, through the centuries, to be transcribed.

Our retreat ran from Friday to Monday in April. To shake off the minor trials and tribulations of the previous week (life!) a couple of us attended the nearby Buddhist Meditation Centre, Dzogchen Beara, http://dzogchen for the free Friday afternoon meditation. An hour later (two, if you add in the coffee and cake we had at the café), we felt renewed and ready to move forward while stepping back in time.

As part of the retreat, Leanne guided us to some of the ancient sites dotted around the Beara peninsula. We listened to the stories of place – and this part of west Cork is poetically very much her place –  then took out our notebooks to write, to sketch or to daydream to inspire future writing.

Leanne OSullivan - showing the way

Leanne OSullivan – showing the way

One of our first stops of the weekend was on the coast road between Eyeries and Ardgroom to visit the Cailleach Beara (The Hag of Beara).  This is a lump of weathered rock said to be the mythological crone of Beara who gazes out to sea in search of her husband, Manannan, the god of the sea. The Cailleach is said to have ruled winter months – being turned to stone at Bealtine (1 May) and regaining human form at Samhain (November 1).

The Cailleach is the focus of many poems and spiritual writings  – including Leanne’s 2009 collection, Cailleach: The Hag of Beara – and going back as far as the 10th century poem, “Lament of the Old Woman of Beara”.

We took in the nearby Kilcatherine Church, dating to the 7th century, and stood amongst gravestone and daffodils overlooking Coulagh Bay.

On the edge of a quiet country road just outside the seaside village of Allihies we visited another  site associated with the legend of the Children of Lir. The stone is said to be the grave of the three children who were said to be turned into swans by their jealous stepmother.  Finally we stopped at  Dereenatagart stone circle near Castletownbere, standing on the spot where the stones are arranged to catch the light once a year. As Leanne put it, trying to snare the light in Dereenatagart is very much like writing poetry. “We create a space to try to let the light through, fleetingly but lastingly.”

The stone circle at Dereenatagart

The stone circle at Dereenatagart

Photographs: Maeve Bancroft


A trio of successes

Our MA students have been making a name for themselves in the world of publishing.

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An online soap by Kelly Warburton (class of 2015/16) has been accepted by the collaborative website Headstuff –  “Pure Awkward” is about flat-sharing in Cork – written in a very distinct Cork accent – but it’s a universal comic story with a sting in the tail.  The soap opera was a runner-up in the Evening Echo soap contest run in conjunction with the Writing for Media module.


Nora Shychuk (class of 2015/16) has  been offered an emerging writer residency at the Wellstone Centre in the Redwoods, California – The writers’ retreat provides a sylvan setting for writers to develop creative work, as well as mentoring sessions for participants. The centre also publishes books through its Wellstone Books imprint.

bridget sprouls

Finally, one of our alumni, Bridget Sprouls, who graduated from our inaugural MA, 2013/14, has had a poem accepted by the prestigious New Yorker magazine – Surely, every writer’s dream! Bridget graduated with first class honours; her thesis comprised an extract from a children’s novel, which she has subsequently completed.

Congratulations to one and all!



Morrissy to give Lisbon lecture


Lecturer in Creative Writing Mary Morrissy, above, who heads up the fiction component in UCC’s MA in Creative Writing,  will present the Embassy of Ireland lecture at the University of Lisbon on Thursday, May 19.

Her lecture ,entitled “The Past Is a Foreign Country”, will consider the writing of fiction, with particular reference to historical fiction. She will also read from her latest collection, Prosperity Drive. A short story from that collection, “The Gender of Cars”, has been translated into Portuguese and featured in the anthology Contar um Conto (eds. Ana Raquel Fernandes and Mário Semião, 2014).

The Embassy of Ireland Lectures were launched by Ambassador James Brennan after his visit to the Faculty of Letters, University of Lisbon, in May 2008, to address students enrolled in the recently created curricular unit on Irish Literature and Culture. Since then, the embassy has brought many distinguished Irish writers and academics to Portugal.

Soap stars!

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Mark Kelleher, one of our MA students, has been commissioned to write a 12-episode online soap opera which will appear in the Evening Echo this summer.  The project is part of a new association between Examiner publications and the newly established Writing for Media module (EN6057) on the MA in Creative Writing.

Eight students pitched soap ideas and wrote three pilot episodes as part of their final portfolio for the module.  Features editor of the Echo, John Dolan, and his deputy, Elaine Duggan, made the final decision on which idea they would commission on the strength of these submissions.

After much deliberation, John said they went for Mark’s entry, entitled “Scattered” whose hero is a Cork street cleaner.

“We loved the strong Cork city setting for the story, and the excellent descriptive style throughout. The story gripped us from the start with its fine blend of dark topics and light moods and after introducing us to Timmy Riordan, the plot swiftly took us on unexpected turns. The subject matter of male suicide is very topical and very serious and if the story can touch local people who have had, or will have, an experience of this, directly or indirectly, it may well do some good.”

John said he was “overwhelmed” by what he called “the amazing standard” of all the submissions. It was such a difficult task choosing an overall winner, he said, that he decided to nominate a runner-up – PhD creative writing candidate Fiona Whyte.

Her soap, “Legacy”,  will appear as a short story in the annual Holly Bough, which John also edits. As you might guess from the title, there’s money and a will involved in this one!

Watch out for “Scattered” which will be appearing some time in mid-summer and congrats to Mark and Fiona, and indeed all the students who came up with such a diverse range of ideas for the project. We’re really grateful to John Dolan and Elaine Duggan, who advised on the project, and to Evening Echo editor Maurice Gubbins who started the ball rolling on this late last year.

We’re hoping that it’s the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship!


Writers “make” our courses


One of the strengths of UCC’s creative writing programme is the wealth of inspiration that comes from our visiting writers.  The School of English in conjunction with UCC’s Boole Library offers a reading series that runs throughout the academic year allowing our students not only to hear great fiction and poetry but to engage with writers of the highest calibre in discussions of craft.

Booker prize-winning novelist and Ireland’s fiction Laureate, Anne Enright, (pictured above) was among several writers who visited the MA in Creative Writing programme during the academic year 2015/16.  Anne delivered  her inaugural lecture as laureate to an invited audience at the Aula Maxima on November 19.  She also gave a master class to students.

Novelist Eoin McNamee kicked off our reading series in October and took our student writers through the pitfalls of combining real lives with fictional scenarios discussing his blue trilogy, The Blue Tango, Orchid Blue and Blue is the Night.  Cork poet and editor of the prestigious Poetry Review,  Maurice Riordan  gave a reading in early November and led a masterclass with our poetry students.  January saw multi-award winning Eimear McBride  read from her highly acclaimed novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and engage in a lively hour-long discussion about her craft with the audience at a packed reading.

Finally, as part of the national commemoration of 1916, we invited three readers with work-related to the centenary to read during our Women and the Rising events in March.  Dublin author Lia Mills, whose novel Fallen was nominated as the Two Cities One Book for 2016, poet Nessa O’Mahony along with UCC’s lecturer in creative writing, novelist Mary Morrissy  Lia Mills gave a masterclass on the writing of historical fiction while Nessa O’Mahony led a workshop for poetry students.

As well as our reading series, writers also give guest lectures to our students in our Business of Writing Module. This year, former Children’s Fiction Laureate and Little Island publishing director, Siobhan Parkinson and the editor of the premier US literary journal, Ploughshares, Ladette Randoph, spoke about their experiences in publishing.

For our undergraduate courses, best-selling author Louise O’Neill,, short story writer and marketing executive with O’Brien Press, Jamie O’Connell and arts journalist and radio producer, Rachel Andrews gave seminars on writing and publishing.



Writing & Embodiment: Jools Gilson

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How might we write the grain of embodied experience? How do we document the ache of affect, the intuitive sense of where we’re going choreographically?

Jools Gilson, Associate Director of the MA in Creative Writing at UCC, leads this workshop exploring the relationship between body-based practices and writing, through a focus on choreography, experiment and somatic experience.

Practitioners from all disciplines welcome.
Please email to book your place.

Presented as part of the Limerick Dance Artist-in-Residence scheme.

Fri 8 April | 10am-4pm

Dance Limerick Space
€10 (students €5)

English Society launches Quarryman

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UCC English Society will be launching the second edition of the college’s literary journal, Quarrymanon April 13.

The journal, with a foreword by poet Leanne O’Sullivan  features short stories, flash fiction and poems from undergraduates in English, postgraduates in English and Creative Writing, PhD students as well poetry from Prof Graham Allen,, Patrick Kavanagh Award winner John FitzGerald, Munster Literature director  Pat Cotter and other UCC alumni.  The edition will be launched by novelist Mary Morrissy, UCC’s lecturer in creative writing.

Quarryman has a long history within UCC  and was originally published as the Q.C.C. , a student magazine with a small literary section. After a nearly 30-year gap it was revived by the inaugural MA Creative Writing class in 2015.  The magazine last appeared in the 1980s when UCC witness a fervid era of writing on campus which poet Thomas McCarthy in the foreword to the first edition described as a “new Munster movement in poetry”.

The latest edition sells at €5 and will be available for sale on the night of launch.  All are welcome and admission is free.

Quarryman launch, April 13, The Creative Zone, UCC Boole Library, 7.30pm. For more information hereOr tweet  here.  

Mary Morrissy’s Prosperity Drive


Mary Morrissy’s new collection of short stories, Prosperity Drive (Jonathan Cape) has been garnering high praise since it was published in late February. This is her second collection of stories. She is a lecturer in creative writing in the School of English and the author of three novels, Mother of Pearl, The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey.

The stories in Prosperity Drive are connected, all springing from a fictional suburban street. Linked by its characters, who appear and disappear, bump into each other in chance encounters and join up again through love, marriage or memory, the form of Prosperity Drive is like an exploded novel.

“Mary Morrissy is a wonderful writer. These stories are entertaining and deft, so skilfully balanced and interwoven that when you begin to pick out the pattern it is a real moment of delight.” – Hilary Mantel

“. . .she is a true heir to Chekhov and the great writers. . .Seldom has Irish suburban life – especially the lives of girls and women been so sensitively and wittily, portrayed.” – Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, The Irish Times

“This the most pleasurable book of stories by an Irish writer that I’ve read for many years – perhaps since the 1970s heyday of William Trevor.” ─ John Boland, Irish independent

Prosperity Drive is masterful storytelling: moving without being sentimental, poetic without bring pretentious, and emotionally resonant in its minute dissection of ordinary life. It is surely one of the best Irish books you will read this year.” – Sara Keating, Sunday Business Post.

Prosperity Drive will be launched in Dublin at The Rathgar Bookshop, Wednesday, March 23, at 7.30pm.  It will receive a Cork launch during Cork World Book Fest at the Triskel Arts Centre on Saturday, April 23.

Women writers remember the Rising

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The School of English will host two Easter Rising commemorative events during March as part of its regular reading series.

Novelist Lia Mills, poet Nessa O’Mahony and Mary Morrissy, writer and lecturer in creative writing at UCC, will read together in the first of the Women and the Rising readings on March 3. Mills’s 1916 novel, Fallen, is this year’s Two Cities One Book choice and Morrissy’s The Rising of Bella Casey was nominated for the 2015 Dublin International IMPAC award.

The second event, on March 15, is a lecture by Dr Lucy McDiarmid (Montclair State University) author of At Home in the Revolution: What Women Said and Did in 1916 (Royal Irish Academy). Venue and time to be announced.

Admission is free and all are welcome

Women and the Rising (1): Creative Zone, Boole Library, March 3, 6.30pm