Category Archives: Student Blog

Story before study

Is the past unknowable?  MA student Mairéad Willis writes about the latest School of English reading, where award-winning writers Paul Lynch and Carys Davies discussed how to approach history when writing fiction.

Paul Lynch’s Grace and Carys Davies’s West are novels with historical settings, but Lynch wants you to remember that so-called “historical fiction” actually speaks to the modern world.

Lynch,  the author of two previous novels, and Davies, who has written two previous short story collections, read from their latest works in the Boole Library Tuesday night as part of the School of English reading series.

Grace follows the titular character, a 14-year-old girl travelling on her own during the era that the reader knows to be the Great Famine, although the book never names it. West takes place during the expansion of the U.S. government into Native American and French lands at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It tells the story of mule breeder Cy Bellman as he searches for the living specimen of a massive beast whose bones have been discovered in Kentucky.

Neither author set out to write a work of historical fiction. While answering questions after the readings, Lynch explained that fiction set in the past can comment on the present through “refraction,” an idea about which he has written recently on the LitHub website. (See link below.)

Davies was inspired to write the story that became West when she learned that the first Americans to discover mammoth bones believed that the creatures might be alive somewhere. She pointed out that characters written in the past are compelling because “they don’t know what they’re living through, but we do”.

Neither novel is typical of the escapism the term “historical fiction” might imply.  Both authors ask their readers to consider aspects of the human experience that remain constant over time: the quest for meaning and the struggle to survive.

The readings revealed that Lynch and Davies use different writing approaches. The style of Grace is ornate, reflecting Lynch’s attempt to bring the reader as close to Grace’s own experience as possible. In contrast, Davies’s prose is much sparser, inviting the reader to consider what might lie in the silences between what the characters say.

One question that often troubles prospective writers of fiction with a historical setting is the research required to recreate the past, but Lynch and Davies both claimed that story comes before study when writing. Davies wrote a draft of West before conducting much research, although she spent months afterward editing the novel to make it true to history. Lynch stressed the importance of understanding the sociopolitical world of the novel, but he, too, often lays only a thin foundation in research before he begins writing.

When an audience member asked whether they ever came across a new historical detail that changed their story completely, Lynch and Davies differed from one other in their answers. Davies commented that although later research did change her story, the changes were improvements. She cited as an example that reading treaties in which the American government traded goods like beads and cloth for Native American lands dramatically shifted the way she approached the story of the novel. 

Lynch, on the other hand, said that once the narrative has set a course, he is hesitant to stop it. While writing, he knew that many people living through the famine saw it as an act of God and therefore renewed their commitment to the Catholic. Church. He was more interested, however, in the idea that such fear of God may also have led to the rise of independent preachers with small, fervent followings. He learned from an historian that there had been such groups post-Famine, and so he decided to include that in his novel instead of focusing on the more prominent, but also more obvious, influence of Catholicism.

Lynch and Davies’s powerful novels serve as reminders that although the past may seem like another world, the events of history have profound resonance in modern life. As different from their ancestors as modern people may imagine they are, these books force readers to engage the past with empathy. The technological and sociopolitical scenes may change, but the questions at the heart of human experience never really do.

 Paul Lynch’s LitHub article on historical fiction:

Paul Lynch’s website:

Carys Davies’s website:



What would you do to survive?

That was the unsettling question writer-in-residence at the West Cork Arts Centre Maeve Bancroft posed to five MA students who recently spent a day at the Great Hunger Exhibit in Skibbereen. 

Imagine being hungry, sick, not knowing if you would ever eat again. That was what Maeve asked us to do at the start of our day in Skibbereen. Before visiting the exhibition, we had gone to  the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, and learned the bare, ugly statistics of the Famine.

We stood in a two-foot by two-foot box on the floor which represented the space given to each occupant of the girls’ workhouse dayroom during the famine. Two-by-two was smaller than we had imagined it would be. None of us could lie down in a two-by-two square. We could not even sit.

Next, we went next to Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre.  The exhibition featuring artwork from the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac University, Connecticut – see – so was divided between two floors. On the ground floor were paintings made during the Famine, and on the first floor were statues and paintings created in the past 150 years.

The most painful pieces of art to look at were made by artists born years after the famine. In “Burying the Child” by Lilian Lucy Davidson – featured above –  a hollow-cheeked, blue-skinned father dug a grave for his infant son, pausing to look directly at the viewer as if to say ‘Don’t look away.’ It was pointed out in the audio guide that when a person suffers a trauma, it is difficult for her to rearrange memories of horrific details into a coherent narrative. Perhaps this is why our society has only recently begun to produce artwork depicting the famine. The film Black 47, released this year, is among a very few set during this haunting chapter in Irish history –

Another piece of artwork in the gallery, Rowan Gillespie’s “Statistic I & Statistic II,” consisted of two tables inscribed with the names of immigrants buried in a mass grave in New York, where they died shortly after their arrival. We’ve learned about the famine in abstraction from statistics noted in textbooks or from lectures, but to read those individual names and firsthand accounts of suffering brought the horror of the famine home to us. The exhibit forced us to consider in stark terms the implications of not only the Great Hunger, but starvation around the world.

In the late afternoon, Maeve took us to the Abbeystrowry Cemetery, where nine thousand people who died during the famine were buried. There was a flat, grassy field and plaques dedicated to their memory. While some of us found this place peaceful, others felt unsettling.

On our way to another graveyard, this time by the workhouse, we wandered by a polytunnel. Maeve drew our attention to the different types of vegetables, leafy greens and juicy cherry tomatoes growing there. She explained that if it had merely been a matter of growing enough food to support their population, the Irish could have survived without the potato. Many crops grown during the famine were actually exported to make a profit for landowners, despite the widespread starvation in their own backyards.

The workhouse graveyard was a quiet plot of land near the hospital. There were branching trees and no headstones, and it was strange to think that beneath our feet lay the remains of hundreds, if not thousands. When Maeve left to bring the car around, a horse in the next field came over and nuzzled us. The day was full of moments like this: strangely sweet, strangely funny, strangely normal.

Afterwards, we talked about what the day had inspired us to create. It had been difficult to write, we agreed. Who were we, who had never starved, to tell these stories?

Since our visit some of us have written about our day in Skibbereen and some have not, but we have all spent moments walking through the day again in our minds.

We’d like to thank Maeve Bancroft for inviting us to Skibbereen and for her hospitality during our visit. (Maeve is currently completing a creative writing PhD at UCC with a novel about Famine emigrants to Canada.)

By Mairead Willis (with Marie Haugh,  Hailey Hughes, Christine Kannapel and Niamh Twomey)

MA students in Maeve Bancroft’s writing studio in Uillinn – from left, Niamh Twomey, Marie Haugh, Hailey Hughes, Mairead Willis and Christine Kannapel


Seven nuggets of wisdom

John Banville at UCC. Photograph: Maeve Bancroft

MA student  Molly Twomey shares seven “nuggets of wisdom” she learned from John Banville’s recent master class at UCC.

When John Banville came to UCC this week to read for the School of English Reading Series, he also spoke to the MA in creative writing class about writing and his process. Banville is the author of some 20 works of fiction including the Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea.

I  recently read The Sea, which Seamus Heaney called “munificent in its own mischievous, mortally serious way.” I was entranced by the protagonist, caught up in his imperfections and self-torture. I could not wait to meet the man behind the novel, to pick his brain and learn from such a prolific writer.

After listening to Banville for a total of three hours, there were several nuggets of wisdom that I took to store in my writer’s box. But they’re too nourishing to keep locked away and I want to share them.

  1. All writing is creative. It doesn’t matter if it is an article, an instruction manual or a science book. Every time you write something, you are creating, and it is your interpretation of reality through language.  
  2. Literature is not escapism. It is escape into the world, not out of the world; it is an escape into truth. It brings us into recognition of how extraordinary we are in our ordinariness. It is a mistake to use art to escape from the fact of being alive. The value of literature is that it intensifies the sense of what it is to be alive. Art reawakens us, the deadened part of us, to what it is to be a human being.
  3. The sentence is the greatest invention of humankind and the basis of civilisation. Through the sentence we declare ourselves to be. We declare love, war; our laws are graven in sentences. We go to the work of art to experience a finished object, one that has a beginning, middle and an end. Nothing else in life has this quality.  We don’t remember our birth and will not experience our death; all we have is the confusion in the middle. To write a sentence is to be in an unhuman place, writing about the human place. We string sentences together, they make an object, which we put into the world and by some peculiar process other human beings find themselves in sympathy, in empathy with it.  That is gloriously rewarding for the writer.
  4. Allow your artistic ability to be directed by instinct, not rationality. Trust the sentence to guide you.
  5. All works of art are failures. Fail, fail again, fail better as Beckett wrote. What is important is the quality of the failure.
  6. Writing doesn’t get easier as one becomes more experienced, but it doesn’t become more interesting. Beware of facility. If one finds oneself at the stage where one can say anything, express anything, then the danger is that this is exactly what one will do; say anything, any old thing. Language has a tendency to turn around and bite you on the bum. Beware of imagining you’re in control and that language is your servant.
  7. Your thoughts are not original but that does not mean they’re not valuable, if you can find an original way of expressing them.


Between a rock and a hard place

Allison Driscoll came to the MA in Creative Writing as a poet in the making. As the year progressed, she wasn’t so sure – until, that is, the annual poetry retreat to the Beara Peninsula

I came to the Masters in Creative Writing as a poet. I wanted to pursue poetry under the guidance of the wonderful Leanne O’Sullivan, whom I had met in Transition Year. It was then that she ignited a passion for writing and I have basically followed her around ever since; continuing to learn and to grow. But poetry only makes up a small part of the MA programme, so I absolutely had to take fiction modules – and I dreaded it.

It turned out that I had nothing to fear. The spark that had ignited when I came to poetry erupted again.  I leaned into it and I wrote stories and I loved it. I really love it.

However, with this new passion I found I couldn’t write another poem. I wanted to throw out every verse I had written in semester one and was daunted by the prospect of a thesis in either a genre.  The annual MA retreat to Beara could not have come at a better time for me.  It was my saving grace.

We were so fortunate to be able to take a weekend out and immerse ourselves in writing and being writers in the Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat in Eyeries. In the car on the way down some of discussed the fading lustre of poetry.

Earlier, Leanne had asked this question: are we writers? It was a question we were to ask ourselves every time we came up against an obstacle, be it lack of time or lack of productivity. And while I always responded with a resounding yes internally, I couldn’t say it aloud. I was so unsure, caught between a rock and a hard place.

And then we retreated. We closed the doors to external pressures, to deadlines and to reading what we’re told to. I had a whole library wallpapering my bedroom at Anam Cara and I read from names I knew and ones I couldn’t even pronounce. I found the work of American poet Billy Collins and I was so jealous. I was fired up. And I was itching for my notebook.

Leanne has spoken about Beara and all its inspirations for many years. I only regret not having come sooner. The landscape beats with poetry and its heritage and folklore furnishes a writer’s mind. Titles and first lines came to us all several times throughout the weekend like familiar dreams and we raced to get them down on the page. We met the Cailleach and we walked among the dead in Kilcatherine before moving onto the copper mines. We ascended to the top to look out over the turquoise water which glimmered under the sun. The pulse of the place flowed underfoot and into each of us.

The very essence of the peninsula is writerly. And that was only the excursion element of the trip. At Anam Cara we had time to read and write. Like the men who erected the ancient stone circle we visited whose only task was to survive, ours was only to “be”. All we ever have to do as writers is be. And we need to grant ourselves permission to do that.

At Anam Cara on Saturday night, local healer and seanchaí Mary Madison paid us a visit. She energised us all with her good-humoured stories and her performance of them. We lapped it up for hours as she told tale after tale to us. It was great to be able to gather together and share cultures that are worlds apart and have a common thread of being writers together. .

On Sunday morning we spent some time at the cascades behind the Anam Cara retreat. On our way down we stopped in a bee hut and discussed our current preoccupations; the itch in our writing hand at that very moment. It was so varied and so honest but there was a common trope which was restlessness. It seems part and parcel of the calling to be a writer but it doesn’t make navigating it any easier. We took a moment to give ourselves permission to exist in the world as writers, and if the answer to “are you a writer” is always yes then that is all that matters.

At the waterfall we all wrote poems. The energy of the land infused me and I wrote without stopping because I felt the need to. The urge had returned. On the way home we felt better and could answer the writer question without hesitation. I have come away from the weekend at the beginning of that journey. I am not only ready to get back to poetry but I am excited by the prospect.

And who says I can’t do both?




Just diving in!

Tom Waits’ lyrics formed part of debut novelist’s Danny Denton’s reading material for his first novel. Photograph – Michael Putland/Getty Images

Creative writing student Irene Halpin Long tries to rediscover the joy of just diving into books after a year of directed reading on her MA.

As a teenager and young adult, I always scribbled notes in books I was reading. I enjoyed highlighting chunks of dialogue that I liked the sound of, re-reading them aloud and pretending I was each of the characters. As well as looking up the “big words” in the dictionary, I relished drawing tiny circles around alliterative or consonant sounds in a sentence. 

There is a certain freedom to one’s learning when you don’t know why you are doing it. Since starting my MA in Creative Writing, reading has stopped being a leisurely activity.

Before returning to Ireland in August 2015, I had lived abroad for 13 years and my reading choices were heavily influenced by my emigrant experience. Craig, my husband, is South African. When I met him, I started reading books by J.M. Coetzee, Bryce Courtenay, Nadine Gordimer and Athol Fugard.

I was drawn to works of non-fiction, like Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and I write what I like by Steve Biko because I wanted to educate myself about the country Craig comes from. I wanted to learn more about its political and social history. Exploring South African fiction at that point in my life was exciting because I felt I had a personal connection to the country.

Athol Fugard is best known as a playwright.  His only novel Tsotsi, tells the story of a young gang leader in the township of Sophiatown who has a shoebox containing a baby forced into his arms by a woman he tries to rape.  Forced to deal with the unusual situation he finds himself in, his life begins to change dramatically. I was mesmerised when I read this book. Along with being plunged into a world I had no experience of, I loved the authenticity and melody of the dialogue written by Fugard.

Some of my ex-pat friends were from Jamaica, so I also read books by Marlon James and Andrea Levy. Levy was born in the UK to Jamaican parents. I read many of her novels but The Long Song stood out for me. It tells the story of a girl called July who lives on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, just as slavery is abolished. As well as offering a glimpse of Jamaica’s history via fiction, I was interested in how Levy explored her Jamaican heritage from the UK.

My bookshelf at that time reflected my friendships and some of the thoughts and experiences I was having as an emigrant – thoughts on how my emigrant experience and that of my peers would stand, in historical terms, beside those of our ancestors; thoughts about where Craig and I would live in the future – South Africa or Ireland..

The only Irish books I owned at that time were The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne and Maeve Binchy’s Whitethorn Woods. All the rest were in my parents’ attic, lovingly packed away in a cardboard box.

When I came home and started the MA, I felt I had to catch-up on my Irish reading. How could I be an aspiring Irish writer who hadn’t read all the Irish authors? I didn’t necessarily like everything I was reading, nor did I have the time to read everything. Reading started to become a bit of a chore and my imagination was beginning to freeze over. Since reading stimulates writing and vice versa, I felt suffocated by my own thoughts. I decided I would have to cop myself on. It’s reading and writing, Irene! Go out and ask someone for advice and get out of your own head!

The first person I decided to approach was Tadhg Coakley. Tadhg graduated from the MA in Creative Writing in 2017. His novel The First Sunday in September emerged from his dissertation and is forthcoming from Mercier Press in August. The novel is a polyphonic narrative told from 18 different characters’ point of view on the day of a GAA final. When writing the book, Tadhg read short fiction by Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, John Cheever and Lorrie Moore, as well as more contemporary short story writers like, John McGahern, Kevin Barry, Donal Ryan, Claire-Louise Bennett, Danielle McLaughlin and Madeleine D’Arcy.

“I also read a lot of non-fiction for research purposes, on topics covered in the book, such as depression, dementia, identity, sexual behaviour, masculinity, adoption, Parkinson’s Disease. And I read a lot about sport, especially GAA writing,” Tadhg told me.

“I read as much as I can, mainly fiction, though I have been reading a lot of literary articles about fiction and sport recently. I read for pleasure, but also to learn and to find ways into stories I might not otherwise encounter – to get ideas on subject matter, as well as technique”.

Tadhg’s advice was “read what you yourself would like to write. Look at what works, what the writer is doing and why she is doing it. What did you enjoy? Why? What moved you? Why? How was the novel structured? What did that mean? Read a lot. Re-read your favourite writers. Make notes on what stands out. Think about it. Try it”.

Tadhg’s advice was echoed by Danny Denton, author of The Earlie King and the kid in yellow. Recently published by Granta, the novel is set in an Ireland where the rain never ceases. “The book was written over three to four years”, says Danny. “I read a lot – good, bad and indifferent – during that time. I remember that reading Pylon by William Faulkner gave me an awareness of objects in a scene that I tried to bring to my own work. I re-read Marie Heaney’s Over Nine Waves and John Moriarty’s Turtle Was Gone a Long Time. I would definitely say that they were formative.”

Drawing influence from areas outside of writing is a key component to creativity, according to Danny. Lyrics from Tom Waits albums, for example, were also on his reading list, particularly Rain Dogs

“I read for pleasure and insight. If something is particularly pleasurable, a scene, for example, I mark it with a pencil. I destroy the books I read, dog-ear them, admire them again and move on. That gives me pleasure.”

Danny also suggests that the aspiring writer should challenge his/her reading choices. “Read something you wouldn’t normally choose”.

This advice brought me back to the 14-year-old girl who still occupies a space inside my head. She certainly had no problems marking her books and diving head first into the pleasure of reading. I also draw inspiration from my toddler, who forces me to re-read Mole and the Baby Bird by Marjorie Newman and Patrick Benson, about five times each night before bed! The pleasure she takes from reading is infectious.

Exploring the lives of men

E.M Reapy and Roddy Doyle at Tuesday’s reading – Photograph: Maeve Bancroft


Readers who braved the weather on Tuesday were rewarded with a stimulating reading and discussion about violence and silence in the lives of men, writes MA student Siobhan Ryan-Bovey

As “the Beast from the East” rolled in on a dark Tuesday evening, a dedicated group of writers, readers, and book lovers alike, buzzed in the Creative Zone of the UCC Boole Library. They had all come in anticipation of hearing readings by Irish novelists Roddy Doyle and E.M. Reapy.

Roddy Doyle is, arguably, the more well-known of the two given the length and breadth of his career, whereas Reapy was reading from her debut novel.  Doyle is an author of both children’s and adults’ literature, and is known as a master of dialogue. He has also founded a flourishing organization called “Fighting Words” that offers free tutoring to children and teenagers in creative writing.  

Doyle’s most recently published novel Smile was published in 2017 and deviates from “traditional realism” as Associate Director of Creative Writing, Mary Morrissy, who introduced the readers, put it.  E.M.Reapy read from her novel Red Dirt which won the 2017 Rooney Award.

Initially, these two authors might not seem to have much in common but in naming the event “Men in Crisis”, Morrissy kindly gave her audience a thread with which to tie these two authors together.

Reapy’s novel is based on the experience of Irish backpackers in Australia. In the section she read to us, two young men make a decision to abandon their friend who’s having a bad reaction to an acid trip, in the middle of the outback.  She uses fresh, colloquial language but manages to avoid making her characters’ problems seem frivolous. In her exploration of the difficulty of being a foreigner abroad, she shows the poignancy of male relations and the difficulty of dealing with guilt. Murph, the character with whom Reapy said she identified with most, finds the depth of his self-reproach difficult to deal with and to communicate.

Similarly, but closer to home, Doyle’s early pub scene from Smile  – a novel about the aftermath of child abuse – introduced us to the world of his protagonist, Victor, who has found himself in an uncomfortable new chapter of his life, alone, separated from his wife and back in the territory of his childhood. Victor strikes up a conversation with a man who convinces him that they were classmates in secondary school though Victor has no memory of him.  The scene is both hilarious and uncomfortable.  We sense there is something amiss in the conversation, something strange going on underneath.

During the Q&A session following the readings, Morrissy asked the readers why they had chosen these topics to write about. Doyle claimed he didn’t plan his work too meticulously. “The planning is in the writing,” he said. He did most of his thinking on the themes explored in the novel only after its publication when he saw how it had struck a chord with many people.

Interestingly, both authors used experiences from their own lives to flesh out the troubled existences of their characters. Reapy began writing the section of the novel she read from, after her own experience as a fruit picker in Australia. In Doyle’s case, he drew on his own experiences at secondary school in Ireland at a time when corporal punishment was still legal.t Reapy began her writing her novel while still in Australia, but Doyle needed distance to write Smile.  Decades had passed since his own time in school before he tackled writing about it.  Doyle said that the process of writing on the subject of abuse had a “coldness to it” because of the very process of writing: taking away, replacing, and manipulating words to create a certain effect.

Both authors need silence and space to write. Reapy likes pure silence while Doyle prefers the silence of “everyday noise” around him.  He also listens to instrumental music. While they both had their own style and their own way of finding their way to a story, it seemed that neither of them could have written their novels without giving a large part of themselves to their characters, and on Tuesday night at UCC, to their audience.

Siobhan Ryan-Bovey’s work also features in Headstuff’s Irish Essayists:


Advice for a literary apprentice

Viktor Frankl. . . . whose family perished in the Holocaust.

As a mature student of creative writing, Irene Halpin Long regards her studies as a “literary apprenticeship”. In that spirit she decided to ask some practitioners in the field of writing  for some practical advice.

My first semester has ended and I find myself asking even more questions than I have answers about what I should be writing about and how I should write. During these moments of self-doubt, I seek solace from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh who suggested that “young writers should get other degrees first, social sciences, arts degrees, or even business degrees. What you learn is research skills, a necessity because a lot of writing is about trying to find information”.

I’m a latecomer to creative writing. I’m a qualified accountant and auditor and I’ve always had a keen interest in current affairs. Working as an auditor, I formulated questions about businesses, broke them into their component parts to find potential weaknesses, dug out information from directors and business owners so as to understand their companies and to try to add future value. I’ve  also learned to fine-tune my active listening skills, to work under pressure and to organize. So, Welsh is right about one thing – the skills I acquired from my career in finance have proved to be transferable.

But the problem is that at 36, I hardly qualify as a “young writer”. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I don’t have the luxury of time.

Since May 2017, I have been working from my makeshift home office as a freelance feature writer. I spend a lot of time making calls to editors of newspapers to ask if they have read my article pitches. I have also submitted some pieces of fiction to publishers. I now class “rejection letter collecting” as one of my new hobbies. I wonder, am I naïeve to try to work across genres?

As a self-labelled literary apprentice, I decided to approach three of the speakers at the Rostrevor Literary Festival, held in November 2017 – which I attended – and seek their advice on how to proceed.

The three people I approached for advice had participated in a panel discussion on “Brexit, the border and borders of the mind”. The discussion centred around the effects of Brexit from political, social, geographical and psychological standpoints. One of the people I approached was Ciarán Ó Cuinn who said of the discussion “people felt free to speak their minds, not leashed by party political issues. I liked the literary framing of the event. It was about the broad impact of Brexit beyond politics”.

The diversity of voices on the panel inspired me to seek advice from people who are from differing professional backgrounds. I reckoned that a journalist – Stephen Walker – a musician – Tommy Sands – and Mr Ó Cuinn, the director of the Middle East Desalination Research Centre (MEDRC) would give me a broad view of writing as a career.

BBC Northern Ireland correspondent, Stephen Walker:

Stephen Walker successfully combines working as a journalist and working as a writer. As well as reporting from Westminster and Stormont for the BBC, Stephen has written three non-fiction books.  Forgotten Soldiers charts the story of Irish soldiers in the British army who were executed in the First World War on desertion and cowardice charges. Hide and Seek profiles  Monsignor Hugh O’ Flaherty, the resistance priest, who was responsible for saving 6,500 Allied soldiers and Jews during the Second World War, while Ireland’s Call follows 40 Irish sporting heroes who died in the Great War.

“Being a journalist,” Stephen says, is a seven-day-a- week job so you have to create writing time when you can. When I am writing my books, I write early in the morning and on my days off.

”To the aspiring writer,” Stephen advises, “write all the time. Write for as many outlets as possible. Seek payment and do not work for free. Your work has a value and do not undersell yourself”.

Tommy Sands, musician:

Tommy Sands grew up on a small farm in Mayobridge, Co Down, where he said, he “learnt the language of neighbourliness”.

“We naturally fostered a higher quality of disagreement through language. We were going to disagree on political things, but we tried to find a higher quality of disagreement so that we could function as neighbours.”

Tommy chose to write via song and music. He said his “earliest memories are of watching feet tapping to the same rhythm, regardless of the political dissuasion. I realised that music and art could connect up the sacred things inside us, without our knowing or understanding”.

I asked Tommy if someone, like me, a creative writer who is also interested in writing for media, can bridge the gap between the two.

“Yes, I think so”, said Tommy, “the very fact that you want to be a creative writer means you have an interest and a love for the written word and a need to express oneself, tell a story. If that story has a moral that is relevant to the present day, it’s going to be all the more readable and attractive to people”.

Director of Middle East Desalination Research Centre (MEDRC), Ciarán Ó Cuinn:

Before Ciarán moved to Oman to run MEDRC, he worked for more than a decade in Irish politics and as a ministerial adviser in three government departments. A significant part of his work involved writing speeches, articles, press releases and parliamentary questions. Because he has political and policy experience, I asked Ciarán whether or not he thought the creative writer has a responsibility to use her voice in the mainstream media?

“Whether you are interested in current affairs or not, you have a duty and a responsibility to society,” he said.

“I’m a big fan of  Viktor Frankl who saw responsibility as the essence and meaning of life. In his opinion, human freedom is not freedom from, but freedom to.”

Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. His experiences in German concentration camps shaped his therapeutic and philosophical outlook. He is best known for his book Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, Frankl wrote “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way”.

Ciarán’s advice echoes Frankl’s idea of choice. “Whether that responsibility is best exercised in the media is a whole other question. Current affairs media demands concise, precise, direct responses. It’s not for everyone. It’s sometimes best for current affairs to flow through the writer or artist than vice versa.”

The word you are looking for is transgender

M.F. Whitney, creative writing MA student, cited a recent reading  by American transgender author and activist Jennifer Finney Boylan at UCC, during an “intervention” in a Cork coffee shop

Jennifer Finney Boylan. . . in the new balance of  Act 3.                                             Photograph: Joel Page/AP

As I was sitting in a coffee shop near UCC recently, a coterie of professionals sat at the next table; doctors or solicitors, I estimated, judging by the conversation. I was making notes on an essay but I could not help but overhear what they were saying, which involved mocking a “he/she” – their words – a patient or client; laughing about the clothes “he” wore and how “she” still looked like a man.

I was horrified by the language these well-spoken people were using to describe another human being. As they were getting up to leave, I approached one of the men in the group. I wrote on a piece of paper – “The word you are looking for is transgender; please read this book by Jennifer Finney Boylan called She’s Not There.”

Boylan is a New York Times bestselling author and political activist. She was a visiting professor in UCC in the 1990s when I was an undergraduate.  At that time, she was identifying as a man. She was back in Cork in October reading from her memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, which charts her experience of the process of changing genders. Seeing her as “Jennifer” for the first time, was like meeting someone whose name is on the tip of your tongue while you say – “Haven’t we met before?”

Boylan was born a woman in a man’s body. Hearing her speak about not having had a voice that represented her true self was a revelation. She accompanied the reading with a commentary on the notion of gendered imagination and changing the discourse around transgender identities.

She is an elegant, eloquent woman with a jolly dash of humour on the side. She read from the first chapter of her memoir, in which she describes her mother ironing her father’s shirt, noticing the small details of the steam and the noise the iron made. It was an early recognition that she would never wear a shirt like her father’s; a man’s shirt.

Boylan also read from a piece entitled “Teachers and Students and Gender” which recalls her time as an MFA student, when she studied under the American post-modernist writer, John Barth. Barth, she explained, defined plot as “the incremental perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a complexified equilibrium”.

She sought to impress the definition on our minds before she read her piece, relating it to her own life: “Think of the relationships you have, most of them exist in a kind of uneasy equilibrium; a delicate balance except when something goes out of whack, someone dies, or someone falls in love, or they win a million dollars, or you’ve lost the sight in one eye, or your dog can’t stop sneezing. Something happens, which represents the end of everything being in balance, and now you are someplace else.

“In a story, Barth would say that’s the difference between Act 1 and Act 2, and that meridian you cross is the point of no return, inside a dramatic vehicle.

“A set of relationships involving other human beings is gradually disturbed, from a place where everything is in balance to a place where everything is out of balance. In Act 3 – the catastrophic restoration, things are put back, but put back to a new balance at the end of the story. A story is a journey from a sense of balance, to a sense of chaos, to a sense of new balance. One cannot put things back the way they were at the beginning, because then the story will be boring.”

As students of writing, we are learning techniques to give characters a voice that “hews close to the bone of the character” as one of our lecturers, the Frank O’Connor International Fellow,  Marie-Helene Bertino, puts it.  As writers we are looking at the world through our character’s eyes and thinking of voices that are true to those characters. The language we use to describe other human beings matters, we must not demean or stereotype people by the words we use, in life or writing. We have a duty of care, both to the characters that we create, and to our fellow human beings.

I would like to think that I tied an invisible string from Jennifer Finney Boylan to the coffee shop coterie and gave them an unanticipated ending to their morning. One of the group apologized for being “indiscreet and offensive.”  I hope they took my advice and read her memoir. Alternatively, they might have mocked me while they walked to work. Either could have happened, but the worst would have been to sit there and say nothing.

Later, I thought of another Barth quote. The end of a story, he said, can be a profound re-imagining of the beginning.



“You write the book you have in you”

Liz Nugent: who read at the first School of English reading. Photograph: Aidan Crawley, Irish Times

MA student  Claire Zwaartman questions the notion of genre, after attending  a reading by three Irish crime writers at the first of the School of English reading series.

Crime novels? Nah, don’t read them. Well, that’s what I thought, until I remembered my love of Arthur Conan Doyle or the novels of Wilkie Collins I read as an undergraduate. My first independent reading as a child was Enid Blyton’s mystery books. The baddie being exposed, the puzzling questions cleared up and the notion that good will out, were deeply satisfying. If only life were so compliant. . .

Three Irish crime writers, Julie Parsons, Liz Nugent and Alex Barclay, who came to read at UCC last week, reminded me of that satisfaction.

Julie Parsons is the author of six novels; her latest, The Therapy House, has been shortlisted for the 2017 Crime Fiction Award. Liz Nugent’s first novel Unravelling Oliver won a Crime Fiction of the Year award in 2014 and the follow-up, Lying in Wait, won a Listeners Choice award at the Irish Book Awards 2016. Castletownbere-based Alex Barclay is the author of eight crime thrillers.  Her most recent novel, in the Ren Bryce series, is The Drowning Child.

Of interest to many of us was the distinction between crime as a genre and how it might differ from literary fiction. The writers clearly had been asked this question before but didn’t seem to be at all concerned about where their work sat.

Alex Barclay said that after she had written her first book, it was her agent who classed it as part of the crime genre. I was surprised that this seemed to be the way all three of the writers started out. If I had been asked, I probably would have expected them to start out with a recipe of sorts, a plan for what the finished work would be like, a pre-conceived  notion of what they were aspiring to do. But as Liz Nugent put it: “You write the book you have in you.”

Focusing on the category it will fit into before it even exists seems foolish. Their advice –  to just write  – was very liberating.

Other pre-conceptions about what crime writing is were also challenged that evening when Alex Barclay read two short stories – “Calloway Hart and The Town of Sable Forge” from the collection The Big Book of Hope, and “The Reveller” from Belfast Noir. If I had missed the poster on the door I would not have recognized this work as being crime. Her stories were poetic and beautiful, dark certainly but the language was gorgeous and the imagery vivid.

Not at all what I was expecting. But what had I been expecting? Clichés, corny language and one-dimensional characters?

The issue of violence came up during the Q and A.  The writers were asked if it was difficult to get inside the mind of a violent person, and how to write about a murderer convincingly. Julie Parsons told us a fascinating story about how she met and interviewed a woman who was in jail having killed her husband with a shotgun after a night of heavy drinking. The woman in question, Norma Cotter, was convicted of murdering her husband but to Julie she came across as a normal woman who did a terrible thing. The idea that, under certain circumstances, any one of us could be capable of killing another person is compelling. When Julie asked her what she missed most about being in prison she answered: “Hearing a dog bark and putting out the washing.”

This remembered detail was so telling of the normality of both the woman and of Julie’s writerly instinct. As Liz joked, people don’t go around with ‘murderer’ emblazoned on their foreheads.

Liz went on to tell us that a book she cannot read is Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, because she found it too graphic. Which again reminded me of how arbitrary the categorization of books is – Ellis’s book is considered to be literary fiction.  So, the rationale behind how some novels are classified as crime and others are not, remains a mystery. The main message I took from the evening is that if it doesn’t matter to the writer, why should it matter to the reader?



Objects in the mirror of fiction

St Cuthbert’s ivory comb: Photograph courtesy of Durham Cathedral

Objects in fiction are powerful tools, lending depth and layers of meaning to the narrative, speaking to the reader through their own voice. PhD student Fiona Whyte, writing a novel on the life of St Cuthbert,  discovered the power of props when she visited the newly opened Treasures of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral.

“The Tutankhamun’s tomb of the North East” – that’s how historian Dr  Janina Ramirez ( ) describes the recently opened Treasures of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral. Beautifully and sensitively arranged in the cathedral’s medieval Great Kitchen, the treasures include St Cuthbert’s coffin and portable altar, as well as his pectoral cross and, poignantly, his comb. These objects are witnesses, Dr Ramirez says, the connection point between our world and the early Christian Anglo-Saxon world. They speak to us; we just have to learn how to listen.

I travelled to Durham to see these artefacts and, yes, to listen to them as well. I wanted their stories to feed into mine, to become characters in my novel about Cuthbert. I’d been to Durham before, as well as to Lindisfarne and other places associated with Cuthbert, but now I would see some of the objects most intimately associated with him, things he touched, wore and carried with him in his daily life.

I arrived at the cathedral with the air of a medieval pilgrim. It didn’t feel right somehow to proceed directly to the Treasures, to approach the relics of the saint without conducting the appropriate rituals. So instead I first of all walked through the cathedral, exploring the aisles, the side chapels, the quire, marking out key stages, before finally making my way down to the 14th-century Great Kitchen where the treasures are housed.

Tutankhamun’s tomb indeed! The exhibition contains priceless artefacts and relics. The centre-piece of the exhibition, St Cuthbert’s coffin, is made from English oak and is regarded as the most important wooden object surviving in England from before the Norman conquest. This is not the coffin he was originally buried in. Eleven years after his death the monks of Lindisfarne exhumed Cuthbert’s body, intending to wash his bones and place them in a reliquary for veneration. Instead, they found his body wholly incorrupt and had to set about making a new coffin.

The coffin is decorated on all sides with beautifully carved figures of archangels, apostles, Mary and the Christ Child and Christ in Majesty. It seems as if the monks were surrounding Cuthbert with these powerful religious symbols both as a proclamation of his sanctity but also to invoke continuing divine protection for his miraculously preserved body. Interestingly, the coffin also has runic as well as Latin inscriptions, a nod to the language spoken by Cuthbert and the people he ministered to.

For me, the personal relics are the most captivating feature of the exhibition. Cuthbert’s portable altar was originally a plain wooden oblong inscribed with crosses which was later covered with silver plate and a central silver roundel. This is almost certainly the altar which Cuthbert would have carried with him as he journeyed, preaching and ministering to the people.

Cuthbert’s gold and garnet cross is a hybrid design. Its cloisonné style echoes the pagan Anglo-Saxon past, but the cross also reflects the design of monastic manuscript illumination. Damaged in his lifetime, the lower arm is worn and some of the stones have been replaced with glass. However, it gleams as brightly today as it must have done when it hung about his neck.

And then there’s the most intimate object: his comb. Made from ivory, it’s large and  slightly grubby-looking. Cuthbert would have used it to ceremoniously comb his hair and beard before saying Mass. It’s a touchingly prosaic object, and it’s unlikely that the monks would have placed it in his coffin if it didn’t actually belong to him.

So what to do with these treasures? If historical artefacts can tell tales about the past, in fiction they can do so with added value. Objects in fiction are powerful tools, lending depth and layers of meaning to the narrative, speaking to the reader through their own voice. A simple teacup, a stone, a pen can become invested with meaning and take on a symbolic role in the story. Think of the ring in The Lord of the Rings. In historical fiction, artefacts can provide inspiration for the narrative or even serve as the framework for the story. Odo’s Hanging by Peter Benson, – › Authors, –  for example, is an imaginative retelling of the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Treasures exhibition tells us revealing stories of Cuthbert’s life, the Anglo-Saxons and the early Christian church. But for me the exhibition is haunted by questions and gaps in the narrative. Who carved the exquisite but slightly primitive drawings on the coffin? How did the pectoral cross come to be damaged and what happened the missing jewels? Where did Cuthbert get the altar and where did he journey to with it? Who gave him the comb? Questions and lacunae such as these provide another treasure trove, another Tutankhamun’s tomb, one for a fiction writer to bury herself in.

Dr Janina Ramirez’s lecture, The Treasures of St Cuthbert, is available at