Category Archives: Student Blog

Exploring the lives of men

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Advice for a literary apprentice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC Northern Ireland correspondent, Stephen Walker:

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

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

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

Tommy Sands, musician:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The word you are looking for is transgender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



“You write the book you have in you”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Objects in the mirror of fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







Chronicles of Beara

The Poetry 2 module of the MA in Creative Writing concentrates on the relationship between poetry and mythology.  It involves a field trip to the Beara Peninsula to visit sites associated with local lore with poet Leanne O’Sullivan.  Here students of the class of 2016/17 share the experience.

An elemental connection

Of my two semesters in the UCC Creative Writing MA programme, Poetry I and Poetry II unexpectedly turned out to be the most satisfying and enjoyable, not to mention the most challenging.  I have always loved poetry and studied it for years in secondary school and college.  But until Leanne O’Sullivan and UCC, I had never been asked to write original poetry.  I can’t say I aspire to become a poet, but I believe I turned in some good work, especially during second semester and Poetry II.  The experience will help me become a better prose stylist and novelist, which is my aspiration.  The broad theme of Poetry II was the intimate relationship between poetry and mythology.  The trip to Beara brought home the intimate relationship between mythology and place, teaching us to ground our poems not in abstractions but in a vivid, concrete setting.  On Beara perhaps more than anywhere else in Ireland I felt a connection with something elemental, timeless, spiritual.  Standing before an chailleach I understood in the deepest sense and for the first time Patrick Pearse’s famous lines, ‘I am Ireland. I am older than the Old Woman of Beara.’ The entire poetry experience at UCC was life-changing.  The two days on Beara were the highlight.

           Thomas Moore

Imbued with magic

As an American who had never been anywhere in Europe before, our explorations of ancient sites and their stories was incredibly moving. I’d never seen so many places and monuments that were so imbued with magic. I feel as if I learned more about Ireland in that one weekend than I had all year. I’d visited places on my own, or with friends or family, but it was a unique experience to have Leanne as our guide, with her seemingly limitless knowledge of Beara and its legends. There is something very powerful about exploring a place with a person so directly connected to it, and Leanne did an amazing job showing us stone circles, ruined castles and churches, abandoned mines, legendary stones, and even a lovely waterside pub. This trip has given me images and stories that I know will be popping up in my writing for years to come!

                        Alyssandra Tobin

Space for fresh thinking

We stood beside our Lady of Beara and looked out across the water to see where she first perched and then leapt to land, now frozen in one attitude. There on her back and face are small talismans and entreaties for luck, for safety, for peace. In wishful thinking and hopeful gesture, people make invaluable offerings. A rose withered on a mouldy stem at the Cailleach’s feet. This weekend was set aside for us to ponder and perceive the natural world and to learn how to incorporate her into our work. The stay at Anam Cara was restful and revitalizing, and our hosts were the kindest folks. The weekend on Beara created the space for fresh thinking and poetic invention and influence. I can’t express precisely how it helped me, but I felt that this time in the wilderness of west Cork was paramount in providing us the encouragement necessary to clamber through the last dregs of the semester. I believe that the course is successful in part because the students get to take a tour of the country and stretch their legs and minds. My work would not be the same without the Beara weekend.

                        Kathryn Brock

The Power of Story

The trip to Beara was a hugely enjoyable experience on many levels. It’s a beautiful part of the country which was lovely to see. On a social level, it was also very pleasant to spend time with classmates at the end of a very busy academic year. Most importantly though, to end the module with a trip to Beara, where we visited a number of mythological and historical sites, was a wonderfully inspiring way to bring my readings into a physical space which ultimately filtered back to a more imaginative centre for me. Seeing the Hag of Beara, for example, was a moving experience which has led to some early drafting of a poem exploring her relationships with men, the joy and poignancy of living seven lives and the impact of her dealings with the well-intentioned, but, for her, ultimately fateful rise of Christianity. On this trip we also got to visit the grave site of the Children of Lir. For me it was wonderfully evocative to think of people marking this magical tale with a monument – a monument to tradition and imagination. This physical manifestation, a sort of land-marking of mythology, showed a beautiful respect for tradition and a sense of homage to the power of story in people’s lives.

                       Jacqui Corcoran

MA students at the Anam Cara retreat; back row, from left, Victor Tanner, Jacqui Corcoran, Mona Lynch, Thomas Moore, Paul Asta: Front row, from left: Alyssandra Tobin, Leanne O’Sullivan, Kathryn Brock.

Written in stone

Creative writing PhD student Fiona Whyte was lucky enough to be on a research trip to Lindisfarne, where her novel is set, when an archaeological discovery was made that has created a scholarly buzz.

Farne Island on a clear day

On the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, where my novel is set, the remains of an Anglo-Saxon stone church were recently discovered. Archaeologists also uncovered the foundations of a tower nearby. The find, undertaken by the Peregrini Lindisfarne Landscape Project, is of major historical importance and has precipitated a complete re-evaluation of everything that was known about the earliest monastery buildings on the island.

I had the very good fortune to be on the island for a few days while the excavations were being carried out and was able to view this sacred site as well as talk with some of the volunteers involved. The building, constructed of white sandstone, was situated on an exposed, wind-torn, rocky promontory just a few metres from the cliff’s edge. It stood facing the royal fortress of Bamburgh, the stronghold of the monks’ first patron King-Saint Oswald, across the water.

On a clear day, such as the gloriously sunny morning of my visit, the Farne island, used by both Saints Aidan and Cuthbert as a hermitage, would have been visible.

The find has generated huge excitement, not only because it must have been a key site of the monastic community which christianised the North-East and produced the renowned Lindisfarne Gospels, but also because up to now it had been believed that the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of the island built only in wood.

Contemporaneous accounts by the Venerable Bede describe a wooden church in which the monks worshipped. Certainly, the monks revered their wooden churches, one of which they dismantled and took with them when they abandoned the island at the time of the Viking invasions. A fascinating detail of the excavation is that the primitive nature of the chisel marks on the stone suggests that the mason was unused to working with that material.

Perhaps. The island is alive with speculation. Everyone has an opinion, a plausible theory. Archaeologists, historians, tour guides, pilgrims, tourists, hotel staff and island residents all vie with each other to produce their own hypotheses.

The monks must have chosen this challenging location for their stone church for symbolic reasons. The church dates potentially to Saint Aidan’s time because its altar is located against the east wall. It may be that this church was built around Saint Aidan’s original wooden church to act as a protective structure. Possibly it was a replacement for the original church. It’s likely that this was one of several churches on the island. The tower was presumably the tower referenced by Bede which received the beacon signal from the Farne Island announcing St Cuthbert’s death.

It struck me listening to all these theories how strong the impulse is in human beings, including among fact and evidence-driven researchers, to find a story, the real story. There seems to be some deep-seated need in us to uncover the mysteries of the past and explore their meanings. But while archaeologists and historians must rationalise and balance probabilities, the fiction writer has the luxury to imagine and invent, harnessing the known details, teasing out their metaphorical significance and building the story around them.

For me, the most resonant part of this discovery is not the material the church is made of, but its location on the precipice. I can imagine Cuthbert on a sunny day standing by the church, looking out to sea, meditating on the lonely beauty of God’s creation. I can see him on a stormy day, struggling against the howling wind, trying to reach the door of the church. I see him looking over to Bamburgh, ruminating on the latest political events. I see him looking out to the Farne Island, longing for the absolute solitude there, and I also see him on the Farne, looking back to Holy Island, to the white light reflected by that sandstone church and longing for the company he’d left behind.

The site of the church has been filled in again to preserve it. Future digs and scientific tests may uncover more of the stories behind the church, the people who built it and the people who prayed in it. For now these stories remain elusive, their clues written in stone but yet to be deciphered.



So you want to do a creative writing MA?

Graduation Day February 2017 – Tadhg Coakley is fourth from left.

Recent CW graduate Tadhg Coakley has just signed a book deal with Mercier Press – but just two years ago he was asking himself this question. Here he shares his ten commandments and some words to the wise for those at the start of the journey.

You’re thinking of signing up for an MA in creative writing, you’ve always wanted to write, you think you have it in you. You wrote some stories/poems when you were younger but they were rejected by a couple of magazines, so you let them sit there. Or you were too insecure to show them to anyone. Or you’ve had some recent success, you’re really getting going and you want to build on it.

Or you read a book lately and it was wonderful, stunning – like Solar Bones, or Anything is Possible, or some new poems by Derek Mahon in The Irish Times. And you wonder: could I do something like that, could I write something worthwhile? My time is running out.

You know you’d love to, were meant to, have to, but could you? Really? And would such a course help?

Well, the answer is yes. Yes you could, and yes it would.

This time last year I was slaving away at my MA thesis (with incredible support from my supervisor Madeleine D’Arcy), editing five short stories. Now I am working on the same material (somewhat changed and much expanded) but with a book deal, having secured a contract with Mercier Press for it to be published next year.  And oh, the moment when you sign that contract …

But without the MA, without all that went into it and came out of it, there would be no book, I know that for sure. And certainly no contract. And if I can do it, then so can you – I’m sure of that, too.

If you do this course you won’t be taught how to write – that’s something you will learn for yourself. But you will be provided with a safe and nurturing environment in which to do so. You will be mentored by serious writers in the faculty who want you to do well. You will write – you will write a lot, and your writing will be read, and critiqued by other writers. You will be treated seriously as a writer – you will, in fact, become a writer and begin to feel like one.

You will join a community of writers. You will become good friends with writers – lifetime friends. You will learn from them and they from you. When I joined the course two years ago, I knew two or three writers. Now I know dozens and some of them are close friends. You will read the work of those writers and the work of masters. Techniques will be explained. Encouragement will be given. Mistakes will be pointed out. You will develop rigour, and perseverance, you will honour deadlines, you will pitilessly cut and edit your work. You will worry, you will suffer at times, it’s hard – but the sense of accomplishment when you write a decent sentence is immeasurable.

From my own experience and that of my classmates, here are some tips for you to get the most out of your year:

1.Listen and trust the teachers, but listen and trust your own instincts too.

2. Be yourself; don’t be obsessed about marks but push yourself to produce the best work you can.

3. Embrace the workshops, learn from reading the work of others – be kind, but truthful in your responses, be open and thick-skinned about those you receive.

4. Finish what you start.

5. Be present in the course, be mindful that no system is perfectly suited to your needs but take as much as you can possibly get.

6. Be patient, nobody can become a great writer in a year, it takes many years of honing and hardship.

7. Believe!

8. Be kind to yourself, you’re doing the best you can, take pleasure in the triumphs, learn from the work that’s less successful.

9. Enjoy it, have a laugh, do other stuff – Cork is sound, like. Drink coffee. Drink beer. Have a good moan with your classmates.

10. And when it’s over, in twelve short months, don’t stop, don’t ever stop, don’t even think about it. Now you have a body of work to build upon.

Writing is hard; it can floor you sometimes and editors will reject your work, but if you have a story to tell, then it’s your story, so tell it – nobody else ever will – and keep telling it.

Writing won’t make you rich but if it’s what you have to do, then do it, and do it well.

Writing is art, remember you are producing art. Art! Be proud of that, and go for it, and sign up now.


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.