Student Blog

Trying to find your place

Creative writing often has an uneasy place teetering between English Literature and Education and occasionally going solo.  PhD students in creative writing, Laura McKenna and Fiona Whyte were at the Shared Futures Conference in Newcastle earlier this month, where more than a hundred panels discussed pooling creativity and research strategies. Laura McKenna describes how they got on.

“Reflections on Time and Place” was a panel on historical fiction and since Fiona and I are committed exponents of the genre, it was an obvious choice for us.  This was like having a pleasant discussion among a group of people with shared interests, which it was. We covered issues of inspiration, authenticity, the necessity (or otherwise) of spending time in “the place”, what research tools have proven useful, and the importance (or otherwise) of adhering to “known history”.

The result?

The panel and chair worked well together, and were a fine bunch of people (I would say that, wouldn’t I?) The two other panelists, Julie Primon and Paul Pattison, were PhD candidates, with historical fiction creative projects and the chair, Sean Baker, was also a doctoral candidate in creative writing. All the projects were interesting and covered different periods in time which allowed a diversity of responses. The “audience” was interested, participated and asked relevant questions of the panel.

Can you sense the big however hovering? Well, here it is.

Audiences were small – one of the problems with having up to fourteen panels running concurrently. Our  panel was set up for the purpose of discussion but there were fewer than 10 in attendance. Given the aims of the conference, I was not sure who would be present to ask questions. Professional writers? Language experts? Critics? English literature academics? Creative writing theorists?

It was difficult to know how to pitch a presentation. Would it hinge on Place as a concept? Or Sense of Place? How have other writers dealt with issues of place, of authenticity, of voice and dialect? Why is there even a debate on the place of historical novels within the literary fiction genre? (perhaps not relevant to this panel topic).

These were all subjects we did not get to and which might have provided a meatier conversation. That’s not to say I could have answered the questions, but I still think it would have been a valiant and worthwhile exercise.

As an aside, on the issue of visiting “the place”, it’s impossible for me to visit most of my settings; New Brunswick, Fort Erie, St Louis, New Orleans, Charlestown, Antigua etc etc —though I wouldn’t say no to a travel bursary!

Creative Writing Discourse

“Creative Writing Discourse” was a panel with  Jen Webb, University of Canberra; Katherine Coles, University of Utah; Paul Hetherington, University of Canberra and Paul Munden, NAWE. This session looked at the current state of play of creative writing programmes in the US, Australia and UK. What was interesting about this was the great disparity in emphasis on Critical/Academic vs Creative, both in terms of the proportion and the focus of the critical component.

Katherine Coles reported that (in general) the emphasis in the US is strictly on the creative output. It is considered that the critical requirement is addressed by course work (two years of PhD in literature course work followed by one year intensive reading then creative component). She herself is evaluated on basis of her creative output and is perceived to bring prestige to the university.

In Australia, CW must legitimize its existence as an academic programme, resulting in a strong emphasis on theory. While UK programmes place less emphasis on the critical exegesis than their Australian counterparts, there is little consensus on what the content should be (Theory? Process? Or nothing to do with the creative output at all in some cases?) or the length.

The issue of who should be admitted to a PhD programme was discussed and was thoughtful and thought-provoking. Some felt that many PhD candidates don’t have sufficient rigour in either academics or process, leading to speculation that applicants may sometimes be accepted because they bring in money to universities, and don’t require much in the way of facilities or input.

Other discussion points: Perhaps the US system of extensive coursework would make good this gap in academic grounding. Likewise the Australian system might benefit from the US workshopping approach instead of the hands-off independent work that is currently more common.

Literary salon meets Desert Island Discs

The great joy of the conference for me was an event that crossed a Literary Salon with Desert Island Discs: “John Mullan in conversation with Sarah Dillon”.  Dr Mullan, is Professor of Modern English Literature at UCL. In my limited sphere he is the author of How Novels Work and countless articles and interviews on contemporary literature for The Guardian. He was funny, witty, erudite and quite the mimic. He read from his selection of four favourite or personally meaningful texts. And the word “read” does no justice to his delivery. His knowledge of and delight in Jane Austen in particular, was infectious.

He had stories about academics, about writers whom he has interviewed and he spoke of them in a manner that suggested ‘I shouldn’t really say this but I’m among friends’. He had some wonderful lines including one on Young Adult fiction: It’s the ladder you kick away. Of course, he’s a consummate professional on either side of the interview table, skilled at balancing humour with erudition.

If you haven’t heard him speak before — and I hadn’t — here’s a snippet from another interview.



Beautiful things to hold

MA student Jacqui Corcoran, with a background in broadcasting, describes how she and fellow student, book-binder Paul Asta, set about marrying craft and enterprise to produce a thing of beauty with their Wildlings project.

Rilke’s advice to “ask yourself in the most silent hour of night: must I write?” is wise counsel, mirrored in a recent talk at UCC from visiting writer Lionel Shriver. Shriver, a high-profile, prolific writer who has had much commercial success, was forthright about the very real struggle it is to make a living out of any creative practice.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions we might ask ourselves as creative writing students, is not the more obvious do we have the talent, but the more practical question – are we ready or able to fully commit to a career and life that will demand so much and (if we’re even lucky enough to get published) will probably give little or no financial reward in return?

The Business of Writing module on UCC’s MA in Creative Writing attempts to offer students a springboard to explore ways to earn a crust in the arts. The module features a series of lectures featuring writers, agents and publishers coupled with a one-week work experience placement. For our work experience this semester, fellow student, poet and book-binder Paul Asta and I decided to set up our own enterprise.

I use the term “enterprise” loosely. The word is usually taken to imply some sort of task being tackled in the hopes of reaping financial reward. For our project, Wildings, we invited our fellow creative writing students to submit poetry, fiction and memoir samples. We collected these into a chapbook and made audio recordings of the writers’ work. The project was never about making money. With contributions from participants, we went some way towards covering our costs, but this project was about something else entirely.

So what was it about? At the informal launch of Wildlings last week, one of our fellow students put it perfectly when she described the CD and chapbook as “beautiful things to hold.” She was right. The final “product” was very nice. But, for me, it was also about the process.

There was something very satisfying in  watching the transition of writers’ words to the page and on to the CD. It was about marrying of different elements of our work and being able to present a memento to our classmates and tutors of our time together, a token of sorts. It was about finding a way to gather samples of our writings and say – this is what we did, here is the evidence of our various journeys.

It was about holding some moment, capturing, or at least attempting to capture, some essence of our learning experience. It was about the understated, home-crafted pieces that evolved out of Paul’s hours of typesetting, printing and hand-stitching the booklets. It was about designing covers using a simple print of mine that had some personal resonance around taking steps towards a writing life. It was about mastering the challenges of new software and failing old technology! It was about hearing confidence and change in people’s voices as their individual creative journeys evolved on and off the page, on air and when the microphone was switched off.

In a recent Guardian podcast, outgoing chair of Arts Council UK, Peter Bazalgette, was asked why public money should be put into the arts. He spoke of the obvious social and economic benefits, but also the intrinsic benefit of the arts as a way of telling human stories that help you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

Mentioning myself and Paul’s project in the context of far more worthy and worldly discussions on the arts might seem a lofty parallel, but being creative and actually creating doesn’t always have to be about the making of monumental work that will change the world.

Wildlings won’t be making any waves other than the ripples caused in a few raised glasses at The Abbey Tavern last Friday. But all the hard work has paid off in the shape of these beautiful things to hold. That is the reward.

Entering John Montague country

Poet and MA student Úna Ní Cheallaigh mourns the loss of the late poet John Montague’s voice and, in particular, the lyrical notes of his home place in Tyrone, a heritage that she shares with him.


I found myself reading Montague again today.

Yes, reading silently the poems of John Montague, poet and teacher. His final collection, Second Childhood was published earlier this year by Gallery Press. This was to be launched initially at the Cork International Poetry Festival in February, with the poet reading from his work.

But in the words of the Scots poet Robert Burns –

The best laid plans of mice and men –

Gang aft aglay and leave us nought

But grief and pain for promised joy.

John Montague departed this world unexpectedly on December 10, 2016, and instead of reading to us at the festival, the event became a tribute to Montague the man, the poet, by a younger generation of writers who were privileged to have known him, having him as mentor and teacher when they studied at UCC, spending many hours with him at his home on Grattan Hill. We were not left with grief and pain but a gift of poetry that will be ours for as long as it is read by those he inspired and tutored in the craft.

On that very special occasion, hosted by Theo Dorgan, words of tribute were spoken by his publisher Peter Fallon; poems read by former students Greg Delanty, Thomas Mc Carthy, Gerry Murphy, Liz O’Donohue  and Theo Dorgan. His daughter Sybil read “Bird Boy”, the final stanza singing to us –

the grown man, serving his guests

plates scented with saffron,

ragged leaves of coriander, cumin,

halts, as phantom birds begin to sing.

As I listened to the poems being read I became unsettled. I could not put my finger on it. The disquiet stayed with me. Days later it dawned on me. Yes that phantom bird on my shoulder, the voice I hear when I read his poems silently, John’s voice. I realised I had never heard anyone else read his poems aloud. He was raised in Co. Tyrone and his voice was that of my grandfather’s people who grew up on a farm near Fintona, not far from his maternal home, a place he brings us to in his poem ,”The Locket”  –

 Of your wild, young days

which didn’t last long, for you,

lovely Molly, the belle of your small town,

His poems are full of places I heard talked of, Ballygawley, Garvaghy and Glencull and songs learnt in school  – the”Eriskay Love Lilt” of his poem, “The Old Pathway”Even though he lived abroad for many years in America and in France, his accent remained Northern, always an Ulsterman. He embraced so many other cultures but still the voice remained the same. Hearing his poems being read by others in different voices was like a rite of passage for his work. I was familiar with most of the poets who read that night. I had heard them read their own work in public before, so this added to the strangeness of it all. Now as I read Second Childhood quietly to myself, I carry his voice with me, my second voice, the lilt and cadence of the line will always be Fintona, Garvaghy and Glencull –

That note of impossible longing

Montague gives me back the voice of my people, their farm in Fintona sold, a way of life lost. His voice in my ear as I write, stirring me to speak of Mc Phillemy, Shannon and McNally, my lyrical voice will always be Tyrone – Tír Eoghan – John’s Country.

This post originally appeared on –




Knocking on history’s door

Image courtesy of Durham World Heritage site

The novel Fiona Whyte  is writing as part of her PhD project is  based on the life of the 7th century visionary St Cuthbert.  She visited Durham Cathedral, the site of his burial, but found plenty of other stories there, both old and new.

The dragon-like Sanctuary Knocker on the north door of Durham cathedral marks the threshold of a sacred space. During the Middle Ages, people who had committed an offence could seek sanctuary by rapping on the knocker and would be given 37 days to reconcile with their enemies. After that they would be required to stand trial or leave the country. For me, the knocker is a reminder that this magnificent building is constructed as much from story as from stone. It raps on the door of the past and calls up the stories which are grounded, literally in some cases, within the body of the church.

I take a guided tour with Isabel, one of the volunteer guides. Isabel is a person conscious of the power of past and of story, and she narrates the history of the cathedral through a series of vignettes, centering them around the various pilgrimage stops of the church, interlinking the present with the past and always making her listeners alive to the continuing presence of those who built the stories.

We begin our pilgrimage in the nave with an account of the origins of the cathedral. It starts on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne where Cuthbert was prior and bishop. Due to Viking threats, the monks abandoned the island in the ninth century, taking with them the uncorrupted body of St. Cuthbert, the head of King Oswald, the bones of St Aidan and other treasures. They settled at Chester-le-Street, remaining there until 995 when further Norse threats caused them to move again.

At one point in this next part of their journey the cart bearing Cuthbert’s coffin became stuck in the ground and could not be dislodged. Then, providentially, one of the brethren overheard two dairymaids discussing the whereabouts of a lost cow, believing it had wandered to ‘Dunholme’. Taking this as a sign from Cuthbert, the monks now easily moved the cart and set off for Dunholme where they began the construction of Cuthbert’s final resting place, and where, presumably, the dairymaid found her lost cow. So Durham cathedral is not so much the home of Cuthbert’s shrine, but a shrine around which a great church was built.

A black marble line runs across the nave. This was the line beyond which in medieval times women could not go. In response to this, Bishop Hugh le Puiset – an enlightened man for his time, according to Isabel – ordered the construction of the Galilee or Lady Chapel where women could worship. The tomb of the Venerable Bede, who wrote a Life of St Cuthbert, lies here. Isabel tells us how a monk called Alfred, annoyed by the lack of veneration shown to Bede in his own monastery at Jarrow, removed (or stole, depending on your interpretation) the body in 1022 and had it buried in Durham cathedral where the great historian might be accorded the respect he deserved.

Another stop takes us to the Quire and the throne or cathedra of the Bishop of Durham. This throne was built by Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham (1345-81), clearly a rather proud man, as at the time his throne was claimed to be the highest in Christendom, higher even than the pope’s throne in St. Peter’s in Rome. This highly decorated work served also as Hatfield’s tomb.

Not all the stories and stops are rooted so deeply in the past. When we come to the breath-taking Pietà, a wooden sculpture by local artist Fenwick Lawson, Isabel recounts another story. The sculpture was loaned to York Minister in 1984. That same year David Jenkins, known for his controversial views on the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, among other things, was appointed bishop of Durham. Two nights after his consecration York Minster was struck by lightning and went on fire, causing the sculpture to be singed and splattered with lead. This was interpreted by some as divine disapproval for Jenkins’ views, though as one of my fellow pilgrims (who just happens to be a volunteer guide in York Minster) remarks: it was a bit tough on York! However, the view of some was that far from damaging the work, the heaven-sent fire had actually enhanced the sculpture, and Lawson decided not to carry out any remedial work on it.

Image courtesy of Durham World Heritage site

An even more recent story focuses on the stained glass window near the north door. Entitled “Daily Bread”, this work, designed by Mark Angus, is a gift from the local Marks and Spencer’s staff and is an abstract representation in aerial view of the Last Supper.

Once, when taking a group of children on a tour, Isabel asked them to suggest which of the circular shapes representing the apostles might be Judas. The children were a bit flummoxed, but one little boy quickly worked out the answer – it was the green one, of course, because Judas grassed on Jesus!

The pinnacle of the visit for me takes place at Cuthbert’s shrine. He lies behind the high altar beneath a simple stone slab that bears his name in Latin: Cuthbertus. The head of King Oswald lies with him. The shrine is quiet and still, a place for solemn contemplation, and Isabel does not accompany us up the steps that lead to it.

This is not a place where stories are told, it seems, but rather where their meanings are meditated on. I light a candle and think about the many stories I have read and heard about Cuthbert and this great cathedral. I wonder where my story will fit into it all, but that is another day’s work.


When I write, I laugh a lot. . .

Lionel Shriver with, left, Associate Director of Creative Writing, Mary Morrissy, and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, Dr Alan Gibbs.  Photograph: Maeve Bancroft

Just like her writing process, Lionel Shriver’s reading at UCC was peppered with humour despite dealing with the serious political issues of the day, writes Uversity student in creative practice, Luisa Geisler.  

It was an exercise in “complete bullshit”: that’s how Lionel Shriver described the first excerpt she read at the final event in the School of English reading series. The “bullshit” referred to a fictional presidential address that features in her latest novel about a catastrophic economic crisis that overtakes the US, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047.

Shriver, a novelist and journalist, is the author of 13 novels, including the National Book Award finalist So Much for That and the Orange Prize for Fiction winner and international bestseller, We Need to Talk about Kevin.

Released in 2016, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047, portrays a dystopian future in which the dollar goes into freefall and the novel investigates the effects of a fictionalised globalised economic crisis on a family and its money. Before reading the fictional presidential address to the nation, Shriver said she had a ball writing it, and recommended it as a good creative writing assignment. “When I write, I laugh a lot,” she explained

The after-reading discussion was co-chaired by Mary Morrissy, Associate Director of Creative Writing,  and Dr Alan Gibbs, lecturer in American literature, whose research interests cover contemporary American literature and trauma narratives. Shriver had fun with the idea of trauma narrative. “I think that’s all I write, it’s trauma fiction,” she joked.

Dr Gibbs quoted Philip Roth pointing out “that actuality is continually outdoing our [fiction writers’] talents”. Some of the events in the futuristic The Mandibles overlap with recent events in the US. In the novel, the US cannot repay its national debt, and Mexico has built a wall on the border to prevent Americans trying to flee there with their savings. The wall-building echo was clear.  Shriver explained, however, that she started writing the book before Trump began his campaign for president. “So he got the idea from me!”

Shriver’s humour shone through even when discussing difficult themes and explaining part of the research for her novel – economics – which she talked passionately about. She emphasized the importance of polemical writing. “I’m frustrated with the fact that a lot of writers these days are avoiding certain subjects because they’re too scary, too controversial,” she said. “And when you start censoring yourself, that’s the beginning of the end of free speech.”

This statement reflected her approach to the Q&A from the audience, in which she answered questions without hesitation. Two topics seemed to dominate. The first was We Need to Talk about Kevin, Shriver’s novel whose impact persists even though it was released in 2003. Asked about the film adaptation, she said she liked it overall. While complimenting the casting, she felt, however, that “John C. Riley just wasn’t attractive enough for Tilda Swinton”.

The second recurring topic was US President Trump. “I do think he’s a problem for fiction writers,” Shriver said, “he’s so outlandish that I can’t imagine coming up with any fictional character to fill that role who wasn’t comparatively tame.”

Shriver was adamantly against giving in to hysteria as a response to Trump’s power. “He is incompetent, he is stupid and he doesn’t understand how government works. And that means he’s not gonna be good at making it do things.” She tried to end on an optimistic note: “This is a weird thing and a bad thing, but it’s not the end of the world. Maybe we should end on that thought.”

And even if we as an audience didn’t want to be haunted by the thoughts from that discussion, we were.

The reading took place at the Creative Zone, Boole Library, on March 14.

Babel at the ORB

On the eve of International Women’s Day,  the second reading in the School of English International Poetry Series brought together an Italian and Irish poet, each speaking in her own tongue but reaching way beyond the language divide, writes MA student, Úna Ní Cheallaigh.

Poets Laura Accerboni (above) from Lugano, Italy and Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh from Kerry treated us to a cornucopia of language and sound. The need to know the languages spoken was unnecessary; like music, poetry in its lyrical quality can be enjoyed for its soundscape. However, text translations were projected on screen, guiding and enhancing the experience.

When Laura Accerboni stood at the podium to read her seven poem sequence – La Parte Del L’Annegato,(Playing the Drowned, translated by George Tatge), we were taken by surprise.

She faced the audience and without introductions or reference to her script, she spoke not to us but beyond us. Her voice carried to somewhere else and she was a conduit, allowing each line to find its own way into the space. It had an eerie quality, reminding me of the voices from the urns in Beckett’s Play.

This was not a spoken word performance, as the presence of the speaker became irrelevant. There was no separation as she embodied the work. Once she spoke the first line in Italian,

Il freddo/e poco piacevole

(Coldness/is rather unpleasant)

I knew that for me, following the translation on screen would create too many degrees of separation from what was actually happening in the moment. I needed to keep eye contact with the source of the voice. It was mesmerising. Playing the Drowned  is powerful, haunting and elegiac in tone. The poems do stand alone on the page but hearing them spoken aloud by the poet was a gift, that can’t be defined. I was reminded of W. B. Yeats’ question in his poem Among School Children – How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The Irish language poet Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh also raises questions in her poems, an international landscape providing the terrain to explore issues of language, borders, identity and loss.

Such is the territory of Coast Road, (Gallery Press 2017), her recently published bi-lingual selection of the work of Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, from her two previous collections in Irish, Péacadh and Tost agus Allagar, both published by Coiscéim Press. The poet’s joy in reading from this book for the first time was shared with us; she explained that she had also given birth to her daughter six weeks ago, and this was a special occasion for her to read to us now and a timely celebration.

Her poems, read in Irish and in English, brought us to the Bronx, Harlem, Antartica and back to Tuam. Her reading of Rianta, (Stains), dedicated to Jean McConville and the children of the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam was poignant in the light of discovery of mass graves. Dán do Thadhg, by contrast, celebrated the birth of her nephew.

Her finale poem, a villanelle, Grasse Matineé was a fitting tribute to the festival itself and what it has achieved, the opportunity for languages to speak to each other. The poem was read in English first, a wonderful translation by Alan Gillis which managed to capture the sounds and rhymes of the original. The treat in store for us then was Laura Accerboni reading an Italian translation, which became a feast when Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh read her poem in Irish, the repeated line –

Íosfaimid oráistí ar ball

(We’ll eat oranges later)

Sensuous and tantalising to the listener, but we knew we did not have to wait until later; we had already been guests at a Babylonian feast.



Chased by Nazis in Dundalk. . .

PhD student Laura McKenna was at the second reading of the School of English  series in which Mike McCormack, Claire-Louise Bennett and Conor O’Callaghan read together.  The different voices led to a discussion of voice  – and place – in writing.

When Conor O’Callaghan, right,  dreams of Nazis chasing him down the streets, those streets always belong to Dundalk.

This observation was typical of the quirky, entertaining and informative discussion that took place during the second of UCC’s School of English Reading Series on January 31, featuring  Mike McCormack, recent winner of the Goldsmiths Prize for Solar Bones, Conor O’Callaghan, poet and novelist and Claire-Louise Bennett, short story writer.

Conor O’Callaghan was first to read. “Just six pages but slowly,” he said. I hadn’t read his novel, Nothing on Earth, but found his excerpt a compelling blend of clear observational prose with an unnerving edge. I’d heard Claire-Louise read before, at the Cork Short Story Festival and I bought her book Pond on the strength of it. Wonderful stuff, but she haunted my own reading of her stories; I could actually hear her voice in my head. It could be due to her theatre background but I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s a ventriloquist as well as a highly original writer. The spoken words seem to rush out of her in a way that goes beyond the “stream of consciousness” tag. Mike McCormack chose a passage from his book relating to the protagonist’s father, highlighting both the novel’s roots in Mayo and the tone of helplessness in the face of illness/grief/mental disintegration.

So the readings were good but things really kicked off with the discussion afterwards, chaired by Mary Morrissy. The interplay between the speakers was nuanced, considered and at times very funny (which from my limited experience isn’t always the case). They even took to questioning each other.

Roots and place were discussed and the importance of setting; very important it seems for Conor O’Callaghan, always Dundalk, hence the Nazis dream. And besides, until recently Dundalk has not featured highly on the literary map. We’ll have to take his word for that.

When Mike McCormack begins to write, as long as the story is firmly planted in Mayo, then anything can happen, but the inspiration always comes from Mayo. Especially the landscape of Louisburgh. (Which I had to look up when I got home, I mean how does a village in Mayo get such a name? Why, it’s named after the fortress town of Louisburg in Nova Scotia and not due to any recent civic twinning initiative but because a member of Lord Altamont’s family had taken part in a siege the 1758, and although I wondered if he survived.

(I resisted checking but couldn’t help noticing that before the Louisburgh title was conferred upon the presumably unprepossessing Mayo village – if it even amounted to a village back then ­– it was known as Cluain Cearbán which means Meadow of Buttercups and which I believe is a far superior and vastly prettier name than Louisburgh and oh dear, I think Claire-Louise Bennett may be taking up residence in my head again though I’m sure I’m flattering myself and really must stop and revert to the literary evening in question. . . now.)

Claire-Louise Bennett’s landscape of choice is an interior one, that of her character’s consciousness and sub-conscious.

Point of view was discussed and in particular the draw or magnetic pull (Mike McCormack) to the first person perspective, which, it seems, applied to all three writers. In contrast, Mary Morrissy reported setting out to write in the first person in more than one of her novels but finding that third person felt right. Mike wondered if he should push himself to try out other points of view, noting that even in his short story work, the first person perspective takes precedence. Perhaps, he suggested, he should give space to “we”. He didn’t sound convinced. In fact, all four writers conveyed a sense of the voice speaking for itself.

I just hope it doesn’t continue to speak to me!

The next reading in the series is by Lionel Shriver on March 14.







Bringing a fantasy poetry festival back home

Lecturer in Creative Writing, poet Leanne O’Sullivan, above, describes the prestigious Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia, a festival where she met a host of international poets, and which is the inspiration behind a new international poetry festival she is curating at UCC this month.

Last August I was invited to take part in the Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia – a festival I was both intrigued by and apprehensive about attending.  Not least because of reading in Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Known World”, the following account: –

‘Beria!  Beria!  Beria!’

Screeched Vladimir Chupeski, every time

He smashed a vodka glass and filled another

During those days and nights of ’78

When we hardly ever sobered at the Struga

Poetry Festival.’

Almost 20 years on, the Struga Festival – – still boasts the participation of writers whose reputation in world literature precedes them.  In 1978 Heaney was in good company – in “Known World”, quoted above, he names in that same poem Rafael Alberti and Hans Magnus Enzensberger.  At Struga 2016, I tentatively orbited the fearsome presence of Margaret Atwood and had quiet coffees with the great Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, with whom I share a publisher.

But one of the wonderful things about attending a festival whose 30 participating poets come from all over the world is actually not knowing who’s who – not being aware who is a god or a demi-god when out amongst their own people and readers.  This ignorance of celebrity created a sort of camraderie and lack of self-consciousness in our diverse group, and most of all allowed for one of the most exciting experiences I know of: the discovery of new poetry.

It had been some time since I had fully taken part in a poetry festival, and after a week my head was bursting with these new voices, accents, preoccupations: the strikingly self-possessed Laura Accerboni, the gentle but fierce Aurélia Lassaque, Runa Svetlikova’s strange rooms and Yolanda Castaño who sees poetry in just about everything.  There were so many others, and I so much wanted to bring everyone home with me!

There were also other international festival directors scouting talent for their own events, and whenever I was in their company, rather than ‘networking’, I found myself swapping notes about who we had just heard and who I would want to read at my “fantasy” poetry festival.

When I approached the Director of Information Services in the Boole Library, John FitzGerald, about the idea of holding a series of poetry readings at UCC that would feature poets from other European countries along with Irish poets, he was more than supportive.  The platform that is given to the arts, and especially to poetry, is one of the truly outstanding qualities of the University.  As the language departments also offered their support, this fantasy poetry festival began to flesh itself out, and I’m delighted to say that we will be holding our first readings of the series at the end of this month (February 27th) with Monika Rinck (Germany) –  – and Mary O’Malley  (Galway) – – and readings will continue throughout the month of March.

All of the poets included here are women.  This was not initially a deliberate attempt at creating an all-female programme, but rather a feature that emerged as the planning developed, and one which I am very excited about.  As a young writer and reader, I was very conscious of the fact that there were very few women poets at the forefront of the Cork poetry tradition – a tradition that is very strong but noticeable for its lack of female presence.  It was only when I entered my late twenties and thirties that I saw them coming along – Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, Kathy D’Arcy, Victoria Kennefick, Roisín Kelly, Niamh Prior and many more – all filling the various platforms around the city with their own particular poetry.  It was too irresistible not to include some of these poets in UCC’s own reading series.

UCC has been a steady home place for Cork’s emerging writers, and I would like to thank particularly the Boole Library, the English Society, the French Department, German Department, Italian Department, the Irish Centre for Galician Studies, Roinn na Nua-Ghaeilge, the School of English, as well as Poetry Ireland for their support in this venture.  It gives me such joy to be able to share some of the magic of Struga, and to introduce Cork’s poetry readers to some new, vibrant, innovative and exciting voices.

Truth, lies and ‘post-truth’

MA in Creative Writing graduate, Mark Kelleher, considers the broader implications of living in a “post-truth” era.


The Oxford Dictionaries’ recent selection of “post-truth” as its word of the year was a suitably unorthodox one for a period of time that frequently resembled a protracted episode of The Twilight Zone.

The accompanying definition – hardly needed – stated it was an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’

In short, the truth is still out there, somewhere – it just might not be as relevant as it once was.

If the word itself is abstract, the reasons why it was chosen and why it may well now feature in common parlance are easily identifiable. The UK’s unexpected decision to isolate itself from the EU and the grisly sight of Donald Trump’s surreal ascension to the US presidency have led many to justifiably wonder if we’re about to usher in an epoch in which the wheel of time will begin to reverse.

Their outcomes and potential consequences aside, the campaigns from which both results triumphed were marked by mythologies. Inaccurate information was regularly disseminated and used for the purpose of crude political point-scoring.

While it’s impossible to quantify just how many were hoodwinked, the fact that Facebook has come under fire for its hosting of false stories is enough to tell you how much misinformation is out there.

There is a danger, however, in fixating on the year’s two most confounding events when trying to make sense of this post-truth existence we’ve all been seemingly dragged into.

To reduce the issue to something strictly political-based might similarly be troublesome. The problems with gravitating towards untruths run deeper than that.

If a society that abandons the truth is one that leaves itself open to harm and manipulation, so too does the individual who follows the same perilous route.

While cultural commentators might suggest that history reveals that the truth has only ever mattered to people when it’s benefited them, post-truth has only recently been brought to its grim extremities. Anyone with an iota of self-awareness and a web connection will be able to tell you why: social media and the people who use it.

While critics bemoan Facebook and Twitter for the anti-social tendencies it has inspired in its users, the graver impact of both platforms is  largely ignored.

Heralded for providing quick and easy access to an incomprehensible amount of people and data, one would be forgiven for thinking it’s only a matter of time before the world’s woes will be solved by a tweet or the ultimate selfie. Not so. Instead, social media has collapsed in on itself, not least because its flaws mirror those entrenched in the people who comprise its traffic.

Twitter is the most problematic medium. Rather than creating an environment where conflicting issues can be maturely discussed, it has formed a vast echo chamber that is heavy on heart but slack on nuance. To put it bluntly, many users tend to exclusively follow and interact with people whose interests and beliefs match their own.

As a result, the other side of any argument is rarely seen. The problem with this is obvious: it creates a mindset that our views are irrefutably right because everyone else we are tuning into agrees with us.

To lay the blame on social media might be foolish, though. Regardless of its many pitfalls, it is still merely a representation of human behaviour. Therein lies the fundamental problem: us.

In order to understand why we behave in this way, it’s worth turning to psychology. Confirmation bias, which afflicts all online and offline lives, is the tendency to seek out or interpret information that verifies the preconceptions we hold. It’s not difficult to see why such a phenomenon exists: we don’t like thinking that we might be wrong. It hurts the ego and exposes our deep-seated imperfections.

In most cases, the results are relatively innocuous. If I enjoy a novel or a movie, there is no harm in me wanting to hear the opinions of those who also enjoyed it, rather than those who thought it was crap.

Our biases become dangerous, however, when they inform decisions that have the potential to severely alter our lives and the lives of others. Be it in the polling booth or how we react to global warming and the recent refugee crisis, we need to be completely aware of and confront objective reality.

For those of us who are adults, doing this isn’t simple. It involves a stripping away of our long-held, flimsiest notions and a total commitment to the truth, even if that truth is something that discomforts us.

That alone, however, is not enough to secure a better future in which rationality has been revived and applied accordingly. We also owe a duty of care to the world’s youth. We need to somehow make sure, be it in the classroom or in the home, that from as young an age as possible they critically engage with the world around them.

It might require a reform of the school curriculum, where accumulation and regurgitation still takes precedence over creative thinking and expression. It might even demand a transformation of the way in which we speak to children in their formative years.

Clearly, something needs to change. We owe it not only to ourselves, but also to those whose quality of life is dependent on a recognition of what is inarguably true. Only time will tell if such a future can be moulded.

An early indication may well be what is chosen as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries twelve months from now.

A version of this article appeared in the Evening Echo – – on November 30.

Walking in her character’s footsteps

A key to a trunk, one of the many belongings left behind in the quarantine station.

A key to a trunk, one of the many belongings left behind in the quarantine station.

PhD student Maeve Bancroft took the journey one of the characters in her novel did to the quarantine station on Grosse Ile, Canada, 169 years after the Great Famine.

I’m travelling to Québec to carry out research for the novel that will become my PhD thesis.  I set out to write a historical novel about Grosse Île, a quarantine station, in Canada. I wanted to write about the Irish in 1847 when so many travelled across the Atlantic in search of a better life in. However, as I was doing my research of the terrible conditions, the mass migration of people, children orphaned, people drowned, I was also reading about a modern day exodus from Syria. I couldn’t write about one and not the other so my novel will have a parallel modern-day narrative.

As a novelist I aim to work my way into my characters’ heads, to describe their experiences, to walk in their shoes.  However, it would be a lot easier to do that if my character was a well-fed woman living in west Cork in 2016 who enjoys entertaining family and friends rather than a woman (Ellen) living in west Cork in 1847, dying of starvation yet willing to risk walking to a ship to emigrate in search of a better life. It’s as difficult for me to imagine that, as it is for me to imagine a woman in 2017, leaving her home in Syria, possibly her parents, friends and job, to start the long trip west looking for much the same thing as Ellen.

Then there’s the travelling on foot and on un-seaworthy boats, losing loved ones along the way. Both witness children orphaned, left alone and at risk of being taken advantage of (just because it was the olden days doesn’t mean children were not taken advantage of). The similarities shock me. It’s inconceivable yet I want conceive it to write it.

I need to get a broad background to help with character development and my storyline. I do that initially by reading. I research and hope it’s lodged somewhere, snagged in a coil of grey matter in the back of my brain… then I let it dissipate. Most of my historical research will (I hope) remain unseen. It will inform the creative piece but shouldn’t be obvious. Sometimes, I panic at all the details and I need reminding (I talk to myself a lot) that I’m writing a novel, a fictional account, not a history book.

It’s important to me to get out and walk. I walk for two reasons. Firstly; I want to walk the routes that Ellen and my other characters walked. Secondly; I think when I walk, I daydream, I talk to myself – I sometimes even answer back. As a result, my storyline develops and my dialogue improves on the page.

I decided to go to Canada in May. Why May? Why Canada?

Because my character leaves Reen, a small townland in west Cork, to head to British North America (now Canada). Ships entering Canada had to stop at Grosse Île, a quarantine island, which is about thirty miles down river from Québec City. The little island is in the St. Lawrence River which freezes for the winter. The island therefore, was only open as a quarantine station from May to early November when the river was free of ice.

It takes about six hours to fly to Montréal on Air Canada. As I peeled the plastic off my white, rectangular, partitioned aeroplane meal-tray I thought of Ellen who could have spent up to 60 days crossing the ocean. . . that’s eight and a half weeks. . . with little, or perhaps towards the end, no food. And scant supplies of dirty water. Often it was brackish water- as the supply dwindled it was mixed with salt-water to eke it out.

I passed through immigration with a ‘Welcome to Canada Ma’am”. I collected a rental car in Montréal and drove through the rush-hour traffic towards the St. Lawrence to take the highway parallel to the river towards Québec. More specifically, to an area called Levis which is across the river from Québec City, but on the correct side for my trip to the ferry for Grosse Île the following morning.

Co-incidentally, this is the area where the residents in mid-June 1847 appealed to the Governor General not to permit hospitals or fever-sheds to be built in their parish while helpfully suggesting other parishes. Another co-incidence is that the name I chose for my first character, Ellen, is the name of the the first person to die in quarantine on Grosse Île in 1847 – little Ellen Keane was four years and three months old. She had survived the famine and exodus from Ireland, she had survived the horrendous ocean crossing, the long trip up the St Lawrence river and finally, having been rowed ashore to the quarantine station she died of fever within a day. The ship she had travelled in was the Syria, the first ship to arrive that summer. I imagine there will be other co-incidences prior to completion of the novel.

The following morning, I embarked the ferry with my packed lunch in my backpack. It is a historic site but, despite its name, it is not a big island. It’s about a mile and a half in length and half-a-mile in width. However, it is higher than the other islands in the Isle-aux-Grues archipelago, so bigger in that sense. A group of high school students arrive all chattering in French. It felt nice to be away alone after so many years, where no-one knew me and there were no connections what-so-ever.

I was sent with two others to the wheelhouse to hear the information about the river in English while another guide spoke to the French speaking visitors. Grosse Île is one island out of a series of small islands in the river. From the 1800s onwards, hundreds of thousands of people left Europe for North America with the attendant risk that epidemics (measles, smallpox, cholera) could be carried with them. Hence, the establishment of quarantine stations on the Atlantic coast and in the St Lawrence. Ships suspected of having sick on board were required to stop at these stations to be examined, have the sick removed and hospitalised, have the ship disinfected and obtain a certificate of clearance prior to proceeding to the port of landing.

The quarantine station was established on Grosse Île in 1832 to prevent the spread of cholera by people arriving to Canada via the St Lawrence river. It continued to operate as a quarantine station up to 1932. Between 1939-1945 the Department of Defence used it to carry out bacteriological warfare tests and it reverted to use as a quarantine station in 1956 when the Department of Agriculture used it to quarantine live animal imports from Europe.

Once the guide has finished I chatted to the other two – a father and daughter. She had been away at college in New Brunswick for three years and had just finished her finals. Her father drove the long trip to bring her, and all her belongings, home. They stopped off to investigate their ancestry on their way back home to the small town they live in in Ontario. They asked if it was my first time in Canada…the usual chit-chat. No, it wasn’t my first time in Canada and it turns out that no matter where you go there is a connection! The small town they are returning to in Ontario is the same small town my husband is from. And they know my father-in-law.

I had read so much about the island. About the thousands of people who died and were buried there in 1847. About ships lined up in the estuary, sometimes so many ships that the line stretched for a couple of kilometres. Ships that stood at anchor with the sick as well as the healthy kept on-board because there wasn’t enough room on the island. About children orphaned or families separated as the sick were kept in quarantine while those that appeared healthy were finally sent up river towards Québec and Montréal. Of those, thousands were incubating typhus so became sick and infected others upriver.

The shores of the majestic St Lawrence were scattered with the Irish: starved, sick, dying, dead. Many did survive (presumably some prospered and others didn’t) resulting in a huge Irish diaspora in Canada (seventy million worldwide).

But the word has a sadness. Diaspora: scattering /dispersion. A scattered population whose origin lies within a smaller geographical locale.

In May in 2016 the island was quiet and the sun shone upon us. On approach, the view is dominated by a huge cross on Telegraph Hill to the left of the landing dock, on the western end of the island. It is a fifteen-metre Celtic cross, erected by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1909 to commemorate the tragedy of 1847.

I wonder what someone like Ellen was thinking and feeling in 1847 as the boat bumped against the pier. As part of the tour, we were taken to the disinfection building which was constructed in 1893 during continuing improvements to the quarantine system. People and their belongings were disinfected on arrival at Grosse Île. We are shown huge metal furnaces, wire cages which held clothing and belongings for disinfection and tiny shower cubicles with multiple shower heads. It was extremely efficient but put me in mind of Dachau concentration camp in Germany which I visited years ago.

We visited the Anglican and Catholic chapels and the Lazaretto. Built in 1847, the Lazaretto is the only building from that time still standing. It was built to house the healthy at the east end of the island but quickly became an infirmary to deal with the numbers ill with typhus, dysentery, starvation. The building gives an idea of how closely together people were cared for on wide, wooden pallet bunks, and how easily disease could spread. Poignantly, there are belongings left by past inhabitants of the buildings. A rusty trunk-key, a blackened penny, broken china.


We hopped on a little tractor-train to go back towards the west end of the island. A short walk along a trail brings us to the cross at highest point on the island. The guide mentioned plants as we walked, plants I had never heard of: skunk cabbage, dwarf water smartweed, Tuckerman’s quillwort. The cross is impressive and has inscriptions in Irish, English and French. .

We continued our walk towards a bay, known as cholera bay, and came to a furrowed field; the Irish or western graveyard. It is corrugated like the lazy beds in Ireland (the earth is scooped and piled in regular ridges for potato planting). But here it was coffins rather than potato drills that caused the undulating green field.

White crosses mark the green too, but there are a lot more bodies than there are crosses. The coffins were stacked one on top of the other. We are silent as we walk. Then a phone starts: Leonard Cohen, poet and singer from Montréal. . . If it be your will / that I speak no more / and my voice be still / as it was before / I will speak no more / I shall abide until / I am spoken for / if it be your will.

One side of the graveyard is edged by poplars and another by a memorial.  Stone walls enclose iron sail sculptures and a ten-foot high wall of glass faces the graves. Etched onto the glass are thousands of names of people buried on Grosse Île.  The lower section has tiny ships –  each to signify an unnamed person (upwards of 1500).  The man from a small town in Ontario reads through the list of names until he finds his own name, which is also the name of his great-great-grandfather who made it to Grosse Île but no further.

The Irish Memorial commemorates all who died including Irish immigrants, medical staff, clergy and other workers on Grosse Île. There is also a monument, the Monument to Physicians, erected by the medical officer, Dr Douglas, to remember his colleagues who died serving duty in 1847.

We don’t have much time alone but when we do, I sit on the rocks and remember reading about people dying on the shore of Grosse Île in 1847, in some cases crawling up the beach having been dropped in from the ships in a punt. It seemed like something so awful could never again happen. . . and yet, I have seen pictures of dead children washed up on the shores of Greece in 2016.

However, today, this shore is peaceful. Seaweed sways in the current and points in the direction of Québec, my next stop.