NonfictioNOW Conference, June 2017

In 1937, W.H. Auden (b. York) and Louis MacNeice (b. Belfast), published their co-authored Letters from Iceland, “the most unorthodox travel book ever written” (Daily Mail). Less an account of their actual journey undertaken the previous year, than a mock-heroic model of collaborative practice, Auden describes Letters from Iceland as a “collage”—“a form that’s large enough to swim in.” Playful in spirit and parodic in intention, these verse epistles, absurd tourist notes and personal correspondence combine to produce a non-fictional text that refracts the poets’ anxieties about the imminent collapse of Europe. In a foreword to the 1965 edition, W.H. Auden explained: “though writing in a ‘holiday’ spirit, its authors were all the time conscious of a threatening horizon to their picnic—world-wide unemployment, Hitler growing every day more powerful and a world-war more inevitable.” This panel seeks to remodel, and reflect on, the conditions of this collaboration.

Read more: Friday 2nd June 2 – 3.15 pm

The New Irish Poets

The New Irish Poets is a landmark anthology of the newest generation of Irish writers now making their mark in poetry at the start of the 21st century.

Selina Guinness’s lively selection covers over 30 poets of all ages from all parts of Ireland who’ve produced first collections over the past ten years, offering rare insights into how the freshest writing talents have responded to a period of profound social, cultural and political change in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.

Dynamic and confident in their diverse voices – whether conversational, caustic or solemn in tone – these poets open up the world to unexpected horizons, unsuspected pleasures and surprising conclusions. The book supplies a new measure for Ireland in the coming times.

The New Irish Poets features all of the prominent new poets who’ve received major awards and international critical recognition as well as giving a platform to less well-known new writers published by small presses. Illustrated with photographs and helpful editorial commentaries, the book includes a parallel-text selection of poems by three new Irish-language poets.

Nearly half the writers are women, and there’s a broad mix of young and old, ranging from Fergus Allen, now in his 80s – but who made his début ten years ago – to the youngest, Leanne O’Sullivan, who was only 21 when this anthology appeared: her first collection Waiting for Her Clothes was published by Bloodaxe at the same time.

With its wide-ranging, up-to-the-minute selections, The New Irish Poets bears witness to the amazing growth and flowering of contemporary Irish poetry over the past decade. The poets featured are: Fergus Allen, Jean Bleakney, Colette Bryce, Anthony Caleshu, Yvonne Cullen, Paula Cunningham, Celia de Fréine (Irish poems with English translations), Katie Donovan, Leontia Flynn, Tom French, Sam Gardiner, Paul Grattan, Vona Groarke, Kerry Hardie, Nick Laird, John McAuliffe, Cathal McCabe, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn (Irish poems with English translations), Dorothy Molloy, Martin Mooney, Sinéad Morrissey, Michael Murphy, Colette Ni Ghallchóir (Irish poems with English translations), Conor O’Callaghan, Mary O’Donoghue, Caitríona O’Reilly, Leanne O’Sullivan, Justin Quinn, John Redmond, Maurice Riordan, Aidan Rooney-Céspedes, David Wheatley and Vincent Woods.

Read more

These Derelict Fields

“The first night, it was raining so hard that I had to pull in on the Featherbed and wait for it to ease off, even though I was already late and not at all sure how I would find Glenasmole Community Centre in the warren of roads that lay below me in the dark. Yet as I crawled down the flooded boreen, grateful for the burnt-out cars that marked out verge from bog, I felt full of the joyful conviction that I would succeed in my mission: to pass the REPS course that would make me a farmer, if only on paper. The most important thing I had found out since becoming caretaker of my late uncle’s flock of 57 ewes and herd of 14 cattle was that the state agricultural agency Teagasc, for a modest annual fee, would suffer to answer the enquiries of a Big House ingénue. It was Teagasc who advised me that twenty hours’ instruction on the maintenance of hedgerows, farm safety, fertilizer usage and drainage schemes was all that stood between me, my certificate, and the monthly paycheque, issued in Brussels, for entering the Rural Environment Protection Scheme. But while I was confident that I could pass the course, I had to acknowledge that much of a sheep was still a mystery to me, and quite what suckler cows were for, or, more to the point, how they generated any income in their steady mooch from mart to abattoir with only the occasional calf squeezed out every other year, remained an unsolvable riddle.”

Read more

The Universal Soldier

“Herodotus was…a Greek Carian, an ethnic half-breed. Such people who grow up amid different cultures, as a blend of different bloodlines, have their worldview determined by such concepts as border, distance, difference, diversity. We encounter the widest array of human types among them, from fanatical, fierce sectarians, to passive, apathetic provincials, to open, receptive wanderers – citizens of the world. It depends on how their blood got mixed, what spirits settled in it.”

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels with Herodotus

The Universal Soldier – Essay

Know Your Place: InContext4, Words for SDCC

In Context 4: In Our Time.                                             

InContext4 website

The curators of the South Dublin County Council’s new programme for public art, Aoife Tunney and Claire Power, kindly invited me to speak at the launch of InContext4 on Thursday 15th September 2016. Their commissioning brief invites artists to propose work that acts as “a gathering point and catalyst for social change, focused on the sense of place, belonging and civic awareness in South Dublin County.”  Havoc Dance Company embodied this exciting approach in their beautiful site-specific performance in the civic space around Tallaght Library on the night.  Here’s my text. 

I’ll begin with a paradox. If someone says ‘Know Your Place!’, aren’t you really being told to get lost, disappear? It’s a contradiction explored by Rebecca Solnit in her collection of essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit points out that “Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.”[1] ‘Losing things’ may embody carelessness, absent-mindedness, a sense of dispossession that may be hard to master, but which probably won’t undo the owner’s very sense of existence. ‘Getting lost’ advances further down the scale of loss towards self-annihilation. Disorientation, involving the evaporation of all known compass points brings a forensic urgency to the task of observation. Once you have stumbled off the path, without a map in a place you barely know, don’t you look around for landmarks and take the position of the sun? All those reprimands: ‘Know Your Place’, ‘Don’t Get Above Yourself’, and best of all, ‘It’s Far From X You were Reared’ – all imply that adaptation to new conditions requires small acts of subversion to your identity. Individuality is discovered in the process of slipping that old, familiar leash.

It seems to me that Solnit’s title – A Field Guide to Getting Lost – provides a manifesto of sorts for In Context 4, this exciting new vision for the South Dublin County Council programme of public art.

When I was a kid, my dad decided to take a shortcut through Tallaght on the way to Newcastle one Sunday morning where we were due to go beagling across the fields. Lamp posts, and the skeletal frames of half-built houses, soon replaced the hedges, before the road flowed into a delta of new suburban tributaries around what is now Fettercairn. The Ordnance Survey could not keep pace with Tallaght’s development in the late 1970s. Without a map, but with the morning sun behind him, my father reasoned, we’d soon reach Kerrs yard, or as SatNav today would have it, ‘’our final destination”.

There were no clues in that half-built landscape to guide a stranger, and no kerb or corner had yet acquired the significance that comes with habitation. The sun was useless as a daylight star. My father should, of course, have stopped to ask directions, to start that conversation when a person lost entrusts his safety to a person found, and listens closely to hear the route described. “Do you recall a stack of breezeblocks about a mile back?” The most ordinary things are turned into landmarks when described to a stranger. Only through another’s call to look up and look around, can things passed, or passing or to come, become our way stations on the path back from being lost, places to recover meaning from that moment of panic when we face annihilation.

This is an old-fashioned story. The estates were empty that Sunday morning and it was some time before my father finally admitted defeat and found his way back onto the road that led directly home. It’s hard to get lost these days, and it’s not just the residents who know their way round. On Street View anyone can scope out a neighbourhood without risk of wet or conversation.

People too are mappable. We can all be scoped in profile, befriended or defriended, rejected or accepted before we’ve ever met. Emanuel Levinas says we discover our humanity in the gaze of the other, that moment of trust when we lose ourselves in another’s eyes. How I wonder, is this encounter compromised if we let our social network first determine who appears on that horizon? In the face-to-face encounter, the window rolled down, do we find new features to discover? Or, if we have lost our capacity to get lost, always knowing how to reach our final destination, do we not also lose our ability to engage fully with the people we meet along the way?

Before Sat Nav, there were field guides, but they didn’t announce the species – you still had to use your own eyes to spot and identify the bird. Art’s best ideas come from making strange, from telling others why they should consider an ordinary stone a landmark. They come from risk, and adventure, from getting your feet wet in your encounters with the world. And if public art provides a door to elsewhere as tonight’s performance suggests, then In Context4 provides a brand new field guide to show us what is there to discover and inhabit just beyond those horizons we tend to set for ourselves.

[1] Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Penguin 2006.

New story out with Faber, May 24th

A new story, ‘The Weather Project’, will appear this month in All Over Ireland, a Faber anthology of contemporary short fiction, edited by Deirdre Madden. Also included are new stories by Colm Toibin, Eoin MacNamee and Mary Morrissey.  Mine recounts a seventieth birthday trip to London and the different memories the city evokes for a mother and her daughters. The title comes from this exhibition by the Danish artist, Olafur Eliasson, at the Tate Modern, which they visit during the day.

The Weather Project

I look forward to reading from ‘The Weather Project’ and discussing the short story form with Eoin MacNamee and Deirdre Madden at the International Literature Festival, Dublin on Sunday May 24th. The panel will be expertly chaired by Prof. Stephen Matterson, 6pm, Smock Alley Theatre.

Croc on One

I’m delighted to let you know that I’ll be reading The Crocodile by the Door each night next week on RTE Radio One’s, Book on One.  It’s a programme for night owls as it goes out at 11.10 pm after The Late Debate.  It will also be available by podcast for four weeks – you’ll find all the details here:

Sweet dreams!


When the Grass is Greener

“I never knew an animal like it for dying,” says my neighbour, gazing at the flock of sheep we’ve just herded down from the summer pastures to be ready for the shearer the next day.  I look again. They seem to me to be in fine condition, all eighty-five ewes and their chubby lambs, but now I fear he has spotted something I’ve missed.

Until we started farming at Tibradden seven years ago, I thought grass was just grass.  But conversations such as these, two pairs of gumboots stalled at a fence, have taught me that a sheep will assess a field with the acuity of an addict raiding a drug cabinet. Insufficient lime in the soil and the grass tastes bitter. Insufficient cobalt and the sheep will pine, meaning they don’t eat and won’t thrive.  Insufficient copper and new lambs suffer swayback, teetering unsteadily on their front legs while the hind ones remain weak. And all it takes is a sniff of the air for a sheep to tell if the grass is worth grazing or if there’s better elsewhere.  We’ve been mending fences in a bid to stop them straying, but it doesn’t always work. Recently I found twenty ewes massed in a scrum against a gate, trying to burst the bolt.  So now I’m all on for diplomacy.

The past hard winter had the Dublin Mountains coloured ochre till late April.  When spring finally came, I ordered sixty tonnes of lime from Carlow to keep the grass sweet to persuade them to stay. “I didn’t believe you could still find fields full of sheep in Dublin 16,” the spreader said, hopping down off the tractor he’d driven from Red Cross via all the back roads to avoid the M 50.  He’s right: it’s getting to be a rare sight.

As each farm disappears, so do the contractors and their shared expertise and labour. The nearest agricultural vet lives in Enniskerry. Sean Cooney who scans our pregnant ewes for single, twin or triplet lambs, farms in Glenealy.  Our shearer is a Wexford man. For agricultural supplies, we drive to Naas or Baltinglass. Our sheep are sold at Doyle’s mart in Blessington of a Tuesday. The nearest abbatoir for our freezer lambs is O’Gorman’s of Castledermot. And recently, the Department of Agriculture cast the decisive vote of no-confidence in our area by moving their branch office from Tallaght to Naas.

All this means that loneliness can be a peril for the South Dublin farmer.  Our farms may face the city, but our livelihoods depend on the rural hinterland beyond the mountains. “You can’t graze the view”, they say round here.  Yet this is the fate, I think sometimes, of those left farming on the edge of the Pale. We work part-time jobs or run several enterprises to keep these fields grazed by wandering beasts that turn little profit from nose to tail.  We watch the skinned pasture grow stemmy overnight to wave in the breeze that funnels down the slopes of Kilmashogue.  The sight of a buzzard being pursued off the premises by irate songbirds is our brief reward, or the early morning glimpse of a hare loping through the tall grass like a hound.

But this isn’t what we speak of when we stand talking at a fence, the other pair of gumboots and mine.  Our shearer knows a man with a cure for the orf, a disease that leaves cold sores around a sheep’s mouth and eyes, who lives beyond Manor Kilbride.  You ring him up and he says a prayer and overnight the blisters on the sheep’s mouths dry up and disappear. It always works for him and it’s cheaper than the vaccine.  “Do you think it would work on Protestant sheep?” I ask.  “It would surely,” he replies.

Why, I sometimes think, chasing our resistant ewes round a sodden field some dank January day, why do we continue to do this? “Because,” my husband says, “it’s become who we are, and it’s how we inhabit the place.” And looking at how each of our bodies has changed, I realize this is also physically correct. His shoulders have broadened under the weighty sacks of ewe nuts he hoiks through the fields.  I’ve lost my waist to two sons and two shelves of recipes and the hours I spend at my desk trying to keep our books straight. It may not be a particularly fair match of consequences.

I lift my eldest son up into the lime tree that stands in our front field. He climbs through its nest of branches to a perch high above me, there better to inhale the heady scent of its tiny green blossom.  “Do you think,” he calls down, “anyone else could have got this far before?” Beyond him, the car ferry has just pulled out from the East Wall and is nosing into the expanse of the bay.  “No love,” I reply, “I think that’s about as high as anyone could ever get.” When he was five, he quietly broke my heart by telling me that when he was older he was going to live in New York.  There’s silence from the tree.  “Do you know, Mum,” he says after a few minutes, “where we live is pretty cool really.” And it is, I think, it really is.

Evening Herald, 2/7/2013.

In memoriam Sarah Broom, poet & critic.



Obituary for PN Review.



When I first met Sarah Broom in Oxford in 1995, I did not expect the friendship of this slightly reserved, analytical New Zealand girl to mark me for life. She had come straight from Leeds University with an MA in Irish Literature to begin doctoral work on contemporary British and Irish poetry with Bernard O’Donoghue.  These interests qualified her to join the Women and Ireland Group – an association of graduate students united by an irreverent feminism and a lively approach to academic debate about Irish interests. Gradually Sarah persuaded us out-of-doors and into the parks and whatever reserve there had been, disappeared, racquet in hand.

In 2000, Sarah returned to her home-town to take up a lectureship at Dunedin’s Otago University.  She was accompanied by her husband, Hilkja (Michael) Gleissner, a German law student whom she had first met at the age of eighteen at a youth festival in Japan.  She moved to Massey University, Auckland and there completed a monograph, Contemporary British and Irish Poetry: An Introduction (Palgrave, 2006).  Her choice of poets was typically adventurous and independent; it was clear that she was tracking the nuances of contemporary poetic debate in these remote islands with an attention and objectivity few of us could match.

And this bore fruit.  She gave up her lectureship, and with her two small sons to raise, devoted what time she had to writing poetry.  In late 2007, pregnant with her third child, she wrote saying she thought her collection was nearly ready to send on. Then came the news.

An asterisk occupies one page of Tigers at Awhitu, her debut collection published in the Oxford Poets series (Carcanet 2010, & Auckland University Press).  In February 2008, when Sarah was in the twenty-eight week of pregnancy, she was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. Her daughter, Amelia, was delivered safely and Sarah – a fit non-smoker – was given, at 35, barely months to live. The poems on the other side of the asterisk assess the cruelty of that punctuation and expose the fury of her love for her children and Michael.

What comes before it are the poems that astonished me when I opened up the file she sent.  Her poems inhabit landscapes where the central figures are tracked, penetrated and kept alive by the ceaseless drive of an un-mythical nature.  In ‘Muriwai’, the trails left by motorbikes in the sand describe her own aesthetic:

‘a measured, even space for opening up

the unmeasured, the riven, the exposed.’

While it takes courage and great intellectual clarity to occupy this space poetically, over the past five years Sarah accomplished something braver. She gave up her body to medical research, persuading the pharmaceutical companies to accept her onto trials that would see her travelling from Auckland to Melbourne and Boston for treatment at regular, exhausting intervals.  And through it all, she fought to preserve that essential part of her, what W.N. Herbert identified in his glowing review as ‘the fragile sanctuary of the imagination’ (Poetry London).

Last Christmas, Sarah sent me Gleam. It is a collection written in extremis, and contains some of the most beautiful and startling poems about dying I have ever read.


“and when I walked out last night

it was cold, the coldest night this winter,

and when the stars asked me to join them

in the sting of their bareness, I let them

take me, and they carried me between them,

clusters of stars all along my body, and I arched

right back and pointed my toes and fingertips

and was as long as ever you could imagine,

and they did not let me go.“ (‘Vigil’)


Sarah Broom died on 18th April 2013, five years on from her initial diagnosis.  Gleam will be published by Auckland University Press in July 2013.  She is survived by her husband, Michael Gleissner, and their three children, Daniel, Christopher and Amelia.