Category Archives: Student Blog

A Lone Star state of mind

When Bri Ollre came to Cork for her MA she thought she’d be writing about Irish mythology. But what has emerged in her writing is her home place, the state of Texas. 

When novelist Colum McCann ( )  came to talk to MA in Creative Writing students recently, he went around the room and asked us to introduce ourselves. I found myself sitting a little straighter in my chair and puffing my chest. I knew McCann had lived in Texas working with juvenile delinquents so I was just waiting until it was my turn and I could tell him that I was from Texas! I was just so proud of that little fact that connected us.

McCann mentioned living in Brenham, Texas—the home of Blue Bell ice cream—and I couldn’t help cutting him off to say that Blue Bell is the best ice cream in the world.

It was that Texan pride bursting out of me.

In my application for the MA in Creative Writing at UCC,  I indicated that I would be writing a “collection of short stories centered on Irish mythology” during my time in the programme. I’d written about the Greek and Roman gods before, so I thought while I was in Ireland I would  focus on the myths of my Irish ancestors. And yet all I seem to want to write about since I got here in September is where I come from: Texas.

In the past, when I traveled, I used to hide the fact that I was from Texas. I was horribly embarrassed by what others thought of Texans (loud, gun-touting racists who think the world revolves around them) and while I do know my fair share of people like that in Texas, we’re more than that. We’re more than the second largest state in the United States. We’re more than “Remember the Alamo.” We’re more than cowboys and Friday night lights. There’s a beauty to Texas that one can only see when they stop taking the shit out of how proud the people are.

I’ve lived in three different areas of Texas in 24 years and each one was unique in landscape, climate and persona. In Kemah (South East Texas), it was all beach and marsh land with hurricane season and NASA. In Lubbock (West Texas), it was canyons and dust and football celebrations that closed the town. In Dallas (North Texas), it was all city skylines and tollways and thunderstorms that shook my window panes. 

In my short story classes at UCC, I’ve written several pieces about rural Texas and the people who keep the ranching legacy of Texas alive.  I am enthralled by bluebonnets, Texas’ state flower. I have a whole poem dedicated to that flower (which is due to be published in the June edition of online journal, Dodging the Rain (  Although these flowers cannot be picked,  I love seeing them when I drive along those busy Texas highways: –  

and {it] ends with that bluebonnet highway/scarring my porcelain skin with wildflowers/that bloomed when I wasn’t looking.

When it comes to writing about Texas, it’s not something I have to force myself to do. It pours out of me. There’s just something about Texas that’s alluring in a way I didn’t recognize until I left. Part of it is the mystery of my own family. My mom came to Texas when she was 18, after emigrating from Ireland when she was four. I know her story. The Doyle clan (all six brothers and their families) left Dublin in search of better lives and fortunes for themselves and emigrated out of Cobh to Canada in 1967.  While the rest of the Doyles stayed in Canada, my grandparents took my mom and her siblings to upstate New York before eventually making their way down to Texas when my mom was 18.

My dad’s side of the family is a bit more mysterious. His parents died when he was little. I can’t even tell you where the Ollre last name comes from. says my DNA is 64% Irish/Scottish (narrowed down to Wicklow where my maternal great-grandmother was born), and 34% England, Wales & Northwestern Europe. The little bit of French comes from my maternal grandmother’s side of the family. So, maybe the Ollres were Scottish or English or Welsh? I don’t know. I’ll leave that up to to figure out.

What I do know about my Dad’s family is that all the Ollres live in Texas and have lived in Texas for as long as we can remember. I’m just about the only one who has left.

To be fair, I have started writing more about mythology in the Spring semester—especially in Poetry II  – led by Leanne O’Sullivan – since the course is entitled “Mythology/Traditional Narratives and Contemporary Poetry”—but it’s been Greek mythology I’ve been writing about. Which makes sense since it was these myths and legends I first fell in love, unlike Irish mythology which I had convinced myself that I should want to write just because of where my mom was born.

I like Irish mythology. I’m very interested in it and its origins and how it differs from the rest of the world’s legends because of how little we know about it, but I feel like I’m forcing myself to write about it; and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this MA it’s that I can’t force myself to write anything. I’ve got to let it come. Or at least, that’s when the good stuff that actually sounds like me is written.

I used to think I was unique and quirky for hating Texas. Most of that hatred was for the people in Texas who had treated me like a plaything over the years, but that hatred has been misplaced. Texas is a good place. Hell, Texas might even be home for me. I don’t know, but it’s home to the people I love most. Which may sound like cliché-writing, and makes me feel silly, but it’s true.

Now, it’s not to say Texas is the best place in the world. I’ve seen plenty of places that are more beautiful, better run and better taken care of, but I have a soft spot for that Lone Star state and I figure I can allow myself to write about her in the way she deserves—even if it means dropping my initial intentions for my time here in Ireland.



The many sides of Colum McCann

Photograph: Irish Times

Author Colum McCann read from his forthcoming novel, Apeirogon, at UCC this week and discussed the disruptive power of writing. MA student Debra Fotheringham was there.

Dublin-born writer, Colum McCann, calls himself an “Irish writer from New York,” and it was indeed all the way from his home in New York City that McCann travelled to treat the packed audience in UCC’s West Wing to a powerful reading from his new novel, Apeirogon. (The title comes from geometry – a generalized polygon with a countably infinite number of sides.)

Apeirogon is so new, in fact, that it is as yet unreleased, slated for publication next month  from Random House.

The excerpt McCann read Tuesday evening was its Irish debut. Using a deliberately fractured narrative, the novel explores the world of conflict inhabited by two fathers, Palestinian, Bassam Aramin, and Israeli, Rami Elhanan, each reeling from the loss of a daughter to violence in the West Bank. In his reading, McCann chose passages that introduced us to his main characters, two real men whose lives were forever fractured and left bereft by violence, but somehow brought together by their shared loss.

Sharp, rich, and at times darkly humorous, McCann’s reading showed us two very different families with a mutual struggle to shape a kind of normalcy amidst an unsettling amalgam of domesticity and violence.

In the question and answer session after the reading, moderator Mary Morrissy, Associate Director of Creative Writing, asked a pertinent and topical question: does the writer (in this case a white male Irish/American writer) have the right to attempt to tackle the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in a novel?

McCann’s response was thoughtful and measured.  “I think this idea of cultural appropriation and talking about it is fantastic and it’s so friggin’ necessary and there’s so much errant cultural appropriation going on that I salute those people that are calling it out. And I think it’s really kind of fantastic that they are calling it out. And another part of me also thinks that you have to be honest. When you enter a subject, it has to be full of absolute honesty and rather than appropriating from a culture, you’re celebrating a culture. Rather than looking down on a culture, you’re asking yourself, can you be allowed into a culture?

“This stuff is not easy; this stuff is contradictory; this stuff contains multitudes. It just strikes me that so much of what we do nowadays is one answer, whereas there are a number of different truths going on at once and one of the things we have to do at a university level and a personal level is to hold contradictory ideas in the palms of our hands at the same time.

“I have a complicated relationship with the idea of cultural appropriation and yet I will stand by my novel. And I do think people will take a whack at it. In fact, some people have. You’re not Israeli. How dare you? You’re not Palestinian. How dare you? But it is our story and the way we relate to others becomes a portrait of ourselves.”

Morrissy asked another difficult but important topical question: what do you think writing is for?

McCann responded, “I personally think writing is for change. I think writing is to throw people off their comfortable balance. I think writing is to disrupt. I think writing is to get in there and make people think differently or allow people to think differently. I think writing is social. I think writing is about action. I think all these things. And yet, on the other hand, I also know that writing, for someone else, can be just a very beautiful act of creating something like a poem or a paragraph or a whole novel that is just about the human spirit in itself. So I would not say that a writer has to be any one thing.”

McCann used the example of writers Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, contemporaries of each other. Where Dickinson wrote inside the mind, Whitman wrote outside the body but both created beautiful and vibrant work.

McCann’s reading and thoughtful responses to questions were rich with empathy. To us, his audience in the West Wing, he communicated a clear desire as a writer to be a kind of facilitator for seemingly disparate people to find common ground and understanding. He said, “I know my purpose, my own peculiar purpose [as a writer], is to use stories and storytelling to disrupt what’s going on and ask people, including myself and my kids and whoever else happens to be around, to question the narrative as it’s been given to us and maybe turn things around.”




Strange tales from places in the mind

The readers in the final School of English Reading of 2019, Sara Maitland and Danny Denton, transported the audience to strange places, writes MA student Debra Fotheringham. 

The physical location for Tuesday evening’s reading with writers Sara Maitland (pictured above), this year’s Frank O’Connor International Short Story Fellow, and Danny Denton (Arts Council/UCC Writer-in-Residence) was ostensibly in the Boole Library’s Creative Zone on UCC campus on an absolutely lashing November night.

But audience members found themselves conveyed to much more interesting and harrowing climes: the top of a tower in an old growth forest, on the phone lines of a Cork radio station, in the back of a car with a disembodied head, and trapped amidst unspeakable violence and death inside a London theatre.

Danny Denton  opened the evening with an excerpt from a work-in-progress. Denton’s 2018 novel, The Earlie King & The Kid In Yellow, was published by Granta Books and nominated for Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. He has widely published in The Irish Times, Southword, The Guardian and The Stinging Fly, where he now serves as literary editor. Denton is a Cork local, originally from Passage West.

Denton’s excerpt carried us through a mesmerizing dreamlike sequence of narrative voices via phone calls placed to the radio talk show of one Cork DJ, Tony Cooney. Denton ended the passage with the voice of a female caller, as she recounted a near-death experience at a London theatre when shooters storm the auditorium and gun down audience members. Denton’s description of the “gentle murmur” of the chorus of vibrating phones, as the loved ones of the dead and dying attempted to get in touch, was particularly haunting.

This year’s Frank O’Connor Fellow, Sara Maitland,  is the author of six novels and several collections of short stories. Her first novel Daughter of Jerusalem won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1979. Her most recent collection, Mosswitch and Other Stories, was published in 2013 by Comma Press. She currently resides in a home she built on the Scottish moors above Stranraer near Galloway.

Maitland read an audience-requested story from her 2012 collection, Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales (Granta). Her take on Rapunzel is told from a first-person viewpoint of the sorceress who purchases Rapunzel from her parents for a handful of salad greens. Maitland, eyes half-lidded and head held aloft almost as if reciting from memory, shared with us her lovingly crafted tale of avarice, stolen love, and impulsive and violent revenge.

If there was a unifying theme in the Tuesday’s readings, it was the importance of place, the setting that informs character motivation and action, in the works of the two writers. In the Question and Answer session after the reading, moderator Mary Morrissy, Associate Director of Creative Writing, asked the two writers to talk about the importance of place in their own work. Denton, after some thought, recounted his fascination with the theory of non-place posited by French anthropologist, Marc Augé.

In our modern existence we spend most of our time in-between places, in spaces like airports, bus terminals, and virtual spaces rather than in what Denton called the “twig snapping and crackling, windy world”.  Augé’s theory of “non-place” made him more conscious of wanting to create a world in his own work that you could “live and breathe in”.

Maitland, who has a preference for isolated places, deserts and moors, had a different response: “As we become more mobile, long-traveling, more distant, place becomes the new mystery that engages the imagination because you can go any place.”







Hunting the ghost of Lafcadio Hearn

PhD student Robert Feeney travelled from Tokyo to Matsue in search of the subject of his creative writing thesis.  Greek-born but Irish-raised author Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904), is largely overlooked in the West, but he is beloved in Japan as a cultural icon, particularly in Matsue, where his great-grandson still lives. 

Lafcadio Hearn. Photograph: Courtesy of the Miriam and Ira D Wallach collection at the The New York Public Library

The Willer Express has a generous seat pitch of ninety-one centimetres, adjustable small pillow for the back, and a head canopy for sleeping. Having had some previous experience of night bus travel in Japan, I am prepared for the rigours of the journey. Provisions have been purchased from the convini in advance, a snack combination featuring both sweet (vitamin C infused-lemon candy to strengthen my immune system against the recycled goblin breath of fellow travelers) and savoury (‘Cheeza’ crackers, foil packed for freshness).

I have re-acquainted myself with the rules of conduct, with specific regard to the sensory non-disturbance of other customers. The volume of my i-Pod has been turned down. I have thoroughly showered and deodorized. My clothing is dark and unexciting.

On the bus I am seated next to an old gentleman who obviously has not washed as thoroughly. This is a great start, as it positions me near the top of the moral high ground I so desperately want to claim. Disaster strikes, however, when, only one hour into the journey, I feel some hunger pangs and open my foil packet of biscuits. Instantly the bus is filled with the potent odours of artificial camembert and brie. It is akin to opening a Pandora’s Box of cheese, only at the bottom of the box there is no hope, only more cheese stench. My neighbour audibly sniffs the air, then with a dramatic snap pulls the seat canopy down over his head like a protective helmet. The air between us congeals and goes cold. The moral high ground crumbles beneath me like a mature cheddar. Oh well, I think, only eleven more hours of this to go before home.

At least I had the foresight to pack my snacks above my omiyagi, thus reducing my noise pollution during the trip. Omiyagi is Japanese for souvenir, an industry unto itself in these parts. In Western society, when a worker returns from holiday, they glumly resume their seat at the office and utter some choice sentences on how fantastic the holiday was, or how they wish they were still there instead of here. The Japanese worker, on the other hand, returns to the office and apologises to their colleagues for the extra workload they have had to endure because of their absence and, in recompense, gives everyone a small gift, a souvenir from their vacation destination.

While my trip was not necessarily a vacation, and my colleagues are not Japanese, in order to retain some standing on the moral high ground I purchased several boxes of Hoichi no Mimi Manju from the extensive Matsue souvenir shops. These are small pinkish confectionaries, made to resemble ears, but being a sort of sweet dumpling with a centre of fig jam. They were inspired by a folk-tale translation penned by my thesis subject, Lafcadio Hearn. In this story, a blind musician named Hoichi is plagued by ghostly fans. A helpful monk seeks to aid him by inscribing his entire body with Buddhist sutras, as a sort of protective shield. But he forgets the ears, and when the ghosts return that night, poor Hoichi loses another sense when they rip his ears from his head.

Professor Koizumi Bon, great-grandson of Lafcadio Hearn, whom I am travelling to Matsue to meet, told me that his students invented this sweet, or at least the idea for it. However, I imagine that when I try to explain all this to my colleagues (uncouth English teachers all), they will be underwhelmed by the cultural significance of the souvenir and my apology, and I will be too tired to press the point.

On my three-night journey to Matsue – on the north west coast of Japan’s main island –  I have attempted to sleep in an internet café, a laundry room and a bus. A night spent in an internet café is not as salacious as it first sounds. Many establishments in Japan cater for this exact purpose, offering large booths with lockable doors, shower rooms and price plans that cater for long stays. I paid roughly ten euro for the privilege, including an inexhaustible supply of coffee, toast and soft serve ice cream. But after standing on a crowded bullet train for four hours, the only thing I wanted was to be horizontal for whatever time remained before the seven am rapid service to Matsue station.

The space in my booth was not quite sufficient for a frame of six foot two, but I fell asleep as soon as my head hit my makeshift rucksack pillow. Unfortunately, I slept through the café manager’s knocking as he attempted to inform me that the shower room was free. When I awoke stiff-necked, there was no time to re-enter the queueing system for a wash. I resigned myself to the fact that for my first meeting with Professor Koizumi, I would be covered in the dust and sweat of work and travel. It was the middle of July, and the Japanese summer was ramping up to mid-thirties heat and one 100% humidity.

The world has largely forgotten Lafcadio Hearn, but Matsue, his first domicile in Japan, has not. Beyond the souvenir shops, his face (aquiline, owlish, in profile to hide a damaged eye) is prominent on several placards dotted about the city. I visited the bean-washing bridge, the subject of another gory Hearn tale concerning a samurai who unwisely taunts a demonic presence there and returns home to find the decapitated corpse of his infant son.

Motorised gondolas of tourists pass under the bridge at regular five-minute intervals. I stayed a while, to see if I could catch snippets of the tour guides’ speech as they passed, to confirm I was at the right bridge. But all I got, over and over, was their command to duck heads. I visited the old pharmacy shop where Hearn would buy beer, one of the Western luxuries (along with beefsteak and plum pudding) he still had a taste for. The shop was still intact and old-fashioned, but the interior was dark and I was not brave enough to push at the door.

The streets were strangely empty, ghostly. I visited Hearn’s old residence. While Professor Koizumi and I contemplated one of the gardens, we were disturbed by a ruckus in the trees above.

“What kind of birds are those?” I asked hopefully.

“Oh,” he said with a smile, “they are herons.”

After meeting the Professor, I went to the youth hostel to drop off my baggage. After some mangled discussion in Japanese, I realised my booking was for next week and, as this weekend was a long public holiday, there was no room at the inn. Or any inn in Matsue, it seemed. I wandered from place to place as a summer shower fell, even trying some of the hotels beyond my budget, until a man ran after me in the rain and told me he would rent me his laundry room, if I would have it.

The room was four tatami mats, with a small fan in the corner for ventilation and a view of a parking lot. It was ideal. I dozed for a few minutes and day-dreamed of a suited, bespectacled Hearn, walking the streets of Matsue for the first time, notebook in hand, beer buying, bridging, availing of the kindness of strangers and taking in the general comings and goings of the city. Only to flinch, remembering that he himself must leave tomorrow on the Willer Express night bus.

But there was another whole day to prepare for that.


Poetry For The Soul    

MA student Niamh Twomey writes about the February School of English reading.  Poets Paul Casey, Elaine Feeney and Liz Quirke brought the audience on a journey from Nelson Mandela’s release, through the pages of a Leaving Cert History book to the depths of human grief. 

The reading began, as all good readings should, with a Cork poet.  Paul Casey is the author of two poetry collections; Home More or Less (2012) and Virtual Tides (2016). He has also edited numerous anthologies such as the recently published ‘A Place Called Home’; a collection of poems and stories written by international writers who have made Cork their home. He is best known as the founder of Cork’s weekly poetry event ‘Ó Bhéal’ (every Monday at 9:30pm in the Hayloft above The Long Valley bar). 

He opened, quite fittingly, with two poems dedicated to Nelson Mandela on this, the 29th anniversary of his release.  His following poem “International Citizen” spoke to a universal anxiety around labelling people by their race. Yet of course, as a true Corkonian he couldn’t do a reading without mentioning our home by the Lee.  His poem about the Elysian brought smiles to the faces of everyone who has shopped in Aldi or spotted its distinctive spike from across the city.    

Next up was Elaine Feeney.  Heralding from Galway, she has published three books of poetry; Where’s Katie? (2010), The Radio was Gospel (2014), and Rise (2017).  Her work has been translated into twelve languages and she has most recently turned her attention to writing for the screen. 

She opened with a poem about horse dealers which made our skin crawl, before characteristically delving into a commentary on the female position with her poem “Pity the Mothers”.  Her hilarious introductions were almost as captivating as her brutally honest poetry.  The following poem, she explained, written on request for her Liverpool-supporting son was entitled “Ryan Giggs is a Ride”.  Her final poem was the pinnacle of her stunning performance, however.  The long poem, “History Lesson”, written in response to the glaring lack of female figures on the Leaving Cert History course, carries the audience from sharp ironic facts to heart-wrenching stories of the speaker’s ancestors.  “I spent one full hour convincing some friends that women / said poems in Ireland before / Eavan Boland.  The women friends are suspicious. / They have English degrees.”  The audience was transfixed. 

The final poet of the night was Liz Quirke, who published her groundbreaking debut poetry collection The Road, Slowly in 2018.  Originally from Tralee, Quirke now lives in Spiddal, Co. Galway with her wife and family.  She has had works published in journals such as New Irish Writers, The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, Southword and Crannóg.  She is currently working on her second collection of poems as part of her PhD in NUI Galway.

She began reading from her debut poetry collection, The Road, Slowly, which thoughtfully articulated her family relationships; how parenthood can take over and the struggle as the mother who doesn’t carry her child; « I am your mom without the biology of mothering. / All I have for you is my heart, my brain, my lists of things, / all but those nine months when I was waiting.”

For the second half of her reading she honored us with a sneak-peak of her next collection. The problem with PhD students, she told us, is when you ask them what they’re working on they’ll tell you.  But no one was complaining. These poems delved unapologetically into loss and grief.  Drawn from the tragic death of a sister at a young age and the passing of her father; the speaker in her poems was laid bare in front of our eyes in West Wing 9. 

As the reading came to an end the audience trickled out, awestruck. Paul Casey shone a light on the connection between place and identity.  Elaine Feeney humorously highlighted the lack of female voices in our History books.  While Liz Quirke’s deeply personal poetry dealt with the struggles of a lesbian mother and the heartache surrounding the death of a loved one.  This powerful group of contrasting yet equally spectacular poets made last Monday a night to be remembered. 

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.