So terrifying…The Armagh Big Read

So terrifying…The Armagh Big Read

The Accidental Wife was the first Armagh Big Read

 

armagh big read 5
Lord Mayor of Armagh Garath Keating and Helen Osborn of Libraries NI and I grinning like Cheshire cats

 

What a simply terrifying and exhilarating experience it was to turn the county of my birth into a giant reading club for the months of February and March 2017.  To know that the library shelves were groaning under the weight of hundreds of copies of my debut collection, The Accidental Wife , and to know that my family and all my old friends had only to pop into town and pick up a copy before settling down to see if they could find themselves between the covers (relax everybody, you’re all far too nice/normal/sane to be written into that particular book!)

 

armagh big read 2
We also had some schools take part, which was great fun. Here is Lismore Comprehensive from Craigavon

 

The Armagh Big Read public meetings part of the project started off calmly in the beautiful village of Bessbrook with an all-female audience with a significant proportion of teachers and librarians in the mix.  Interviewer Anthony Quinn and I could barely get to the end of a sentence before the next intelligent, thought provoking question came along. It was also lovely to meet Liz Weir, Libraries NI’s resident story-teller (what a great job!) I know Liz through her involvement with Women Aloud NI, a group which seeks to raise awareness of women writing in, about or from Northern Ireland. It was great to meet her in person at last.

The three other sessions went well… all had their own distinct personality and vibe…particularly Portadown, where I could hardly get a word in edgeways and had to keep explaining to my mother that my use of “bad language” doesn’t reflect badly on her refined character and vocabulary!

 

Armagh big read 1
Just before the Portadown event. Note the rictus of horror on my face!

 

Rather than bore you with any more details, I thought I’d share this little piece of doggerel I scribbled after the Portadown meeting, about the experience of inviting hundreds of people to read and critique your work, set in their homeplace, whilst you yourself have scarpered off to live elsewhere!  I wouldn’t call it a poem ( I wouldn’t insult the poets among you.) I’ll just call it a heartfelt reflection on a fascinating experience…

 

The artist’s fear of the home-town crowd

 

“And there is my sister, my mother close behind.

And have they seen the nude?

Oh Jesus, have they seen the nude?

I should have hung a hat and hid his magnificent erection

A fedora to cover the fuzz,

So lovingly festooned about the base of the proud member.

Well…

I mean, come on,

They both are married women

But, oh my god,

I should have thought of my mother when I planned the retrospective.

 

“And here is Auntie Josephine,

And little cousin Seamie

And they have seen the nude.

 

“And have they seen the dancers carved from Connemara marble?

And have they seen the bronzes?

A thousand hours apiece have crafted those twelve-inch bronzes.

And have they seen the studies?

My notebooks crammed with pencil, charcoal, light and shade,

Before ever scalpel was raised to clay

Or chisel to rough-hewn block of marble, seeking the imprisoned arabesque?

 

“Of course they fucking haven’t.

But they have seen the nude.

 

“Oh Shit!

Grey A-line skirt, white blouse and simple crucifix at throat.

Here comes Mother Benignus.

And she has seen the nude.”

 

And that is what the Armagh Big Read 2017 felt like…wonderful, terrifying and fun.

With much thanks to Peter Hughes, stock controller of Armagh Libraries, who was the driving force behind the whole crazy wild project!

Armagh big read 4

My father’s parting gift…

My father’s parting gift…

Burial to book launch…

I never intended to write a book (or three) it just kind of happened. Now that the launch for my first published book, entitled The Accidental Wife  is organised and confirmed for Wednesday 21st September, in Barker and Jones Bookshop Naas, I thought I’d share an essay I wrote a few years ago about how the floodgates opened and the words poured out. I should of course have shared this two weeks ago, on my dad’s birthday, but that’s me…the genius idea always comes a bit too late.

So here’s the essay, written three years ago when I hardly knew how to switch on a laptop!

My father’s parting gift

365 days ago, I had no idea that one year later I would have written a memoir. I have always known that I can make words leap and soar and bounce around, but I never felt I had anything about which to write. “How many books about Teenage Mutant Ninja Vampires does the world actually need?” I wondered.

My father and I, 1970s Armagh, clip-clopping along. We shared many interests: a passion for horses, history, old books, peace and quiet. These shared hobbies drove us out into the highways and by-ways of rural Armagh. He taught me to ride. He walked beside me, holding a long rope, for years, until I was judged safe, and released. During these long, self-indulgent trips a relationship grew that transcended the hero-worship small girls have for their fathers. We were friends.

My father died a year ago today, after an accident from which he was recovering slowly but satisfactorily. We re-arranged the furniture, on Friday, to facilitate his return from hospital on Monday. He died on Sunday morning.

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The early, numb weeks passed in a straightforward fashion. I had four very young children, and a husband to organise. Women whispered at the school gates. “Isn’t she doing well? Isn’t she coping great?” I wondered what all the fuss was about. Friendly people commiserated and I would reply, “Yes indeed, he was a very elderly man. Yes, it was for the best. Yes, things could be a lot worse.” I really thought I meant it!

Afterwards? What I’d call ‘the lost weeks’. I would spend a morning full of murderous rage and frustration; tearing the house apart looking for my wallet, only to find it in the salad drawer of the fridge. I would return from Tesco to feed my family of six for a week, with a half-dozen unripe, unwanted mangoes, and no milk. I leapt to my feet, cursing, late for the school run, having sat down for five minutes, two hours previously.

As always, in times of crisis, I turned to the written word. I ploughed through heavy tomes by eminent psychologists and sociologists. Eventually I landed, by chance, upon ‘You’ll get over it’ by Virginia Ironside. She was full of wise advice and sympathy. I was not going mad; I was grieving!

A little secret tribute

On 27th July 2012, I opened my rarely used laptop. I would write a story, a family history. It would be a secret tribute to my father. I would show nobody. Three hours later, I looked at the work. It was a dusty, half-remembered family legend, passed on to me, probably accidentally, while he re-told and embellished it for his own friends. The piece was finished. It was whole and complete. I did not think, or pause for breath. I submitted it everywhere, I didn’t know any better, didn’t know that you shouldn’t submit your first story, didn’t know it’s supposed to be rubbish and live in a drawer forever.

It was published in January 2013, by The Chatahoochee Review in Georgia, USA.

Then I couldn’t stop

The writing continues. I sit down alone. Two hours later I read my new story. It spills out, fizzing, on to the screen, while I type, five or six disorganised fingers flailing, struggling to keep up with the words. Fiction, scripts, memoir, family tales.

A precious child-free hour, snatched here and there, equals a thousand words vomited into the open maw of a blank screen. During the other 160 hours per week the stories jostle and fight for position, shrieking to be released next from their incarceration. “Write me!” they plead. “Tell me.”
I edit in the kitchen, lunch-boxing a thousand ham sandwiches or stirring bolognese. Insomnia is my constant companion. I lie unquiet in the small hours; stories flash and streak across my mind until I long to clamp my hands over my brain’s ears, and scream “Enough! Let me be!”

My stories and memoirs whirl across the internet; a prize here, a shortlist there, hundreds of rejections. A short story which has arrived in a blur of busy fingers, unprovoked, uninvited, lurks in my hard drive. Each time I log on, that story- a young woman deceived by an American GI during the war- screams its rage and its indignation. “I am not a story!” it yells; “I am a PROLOGUE, get me out of here!”

And the tears have come too. I cry constantly. I cry, listening to the news. I sob at adverts for cheese, and at Tom and Jerry. I weep when my children laugh. Thank God for Virginia Ironside!

How long can this exquisite torture last? If the beehive of buzzing words sinks back into hibernation, leaving me sane again, I will be ever grateful that I, briefly, wrote. My hope is that I have been permanently blessed; my father’s parting gift.

Deep breath, everyone

Wow! I really wrote that. The extravagance of the words and the melodrama makes me cringe. Reviewing that piece makes me realise how far I’ve come, in a fairly short space of time. Endless, hypercritical revision has cut thousands of adjectives, adverbs and exclamations out of The Accidental Wife.

If I wrote that essay today it would be half as long, and a lot less hysterical. But the American GI has sneaked into The Accidental Wife,  and the world can breathe more easily, because the long-form memoir is safely where it belongs, on a hard-drive, never to see the light of day. accidental wife final cover

 


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Plusses and minuses

Plusses and minuses

The conversation went something like this:

“Mummy…?”

“Erm?”

“Mummy?”

“Give me a minute…”

“Mummy! Mum! MUM!”

“Can’t you see I am reading an important letter? What is so urgent?”

“Sinéad is cutting her own hair with the Arts and Crafts scissors!”

AAAAARGH!”

So on the minus side, my five year old has lopped a huge whack off her beautiful, golden tresses.

On the plus side, I wasn’t paying attention because I was reading a letter from Kildare County Council Arts Service informing me that I have won the 2016 Cecil Day Lewis Emerging Writer Award. Woo hoo!

The bursary will help me finish the research and writing of my novel-in-progress, which was a finalist in the Greenbean Novel Fair 2016 at the Irish Writer’s Centre (and which I, rather amusingly, thought was finished six months ago!) It’s a huge vote of confidence in the novel and I hope I go on to experience one fiftieth of the success of previous winners such as Hazel Gaynor, Martin Malone, Laura Jane Cassidy, Eileen Keane and dozens of others over the years.

So well done to me, and well done to the lovely people at Kildare County Council Arts Service for all their support to local established and emerging artists. Over €50,000 was allocated this year in a plethora of artistic fields. I am proud to be among them. The award will be presented at The Kildare Readers Festival in October; how great to be on stage instead of in the audience as usual!

Now, I gotta ring the hairdresser… (just in case Daniel Day Lewis turns up to congratulate me – not to mention the arts and crafts scissors catastrophe!)

 

 

 

Staying true to the story…the Pushcart Prize

“The Visit” is the best story I have ever written.   I can understand why some people after reading it would describe it as “the IRA story”, but it is not in essence a story about terrorism.   It’s actually a love story, the deepest, purest form of love I can think of, and the terrorists are really in the story to allow Alo to display his love.  The story does have this element of truth…similar ordeals were endured by people I knew, and are being endured all over the world, with innumerable acts of quiet self-sacrifice as a result.

I thought long and hard before I sent the story to The Ilanot Review, a reputable journal in Israel. I was really torn between sending it to Ilanot, where I knew it belonged, or keeping it and entering it in contests, which might win me enough money to pay for a ream of paper and an ink cartridge.  It is really, really tough to send out good work in the knowledge that you will receive no payment, especially when a story has taken tens of hours to write.  I used to enter a lot of competitions, and I did have some small successes.  Getting published in a journal, however, brings you a sense of satisfaction which is a great sustenance in the early years of writing, when you often feel you are writing into the void.  Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of sustenance that you can pay the mortgage with, or put in the children’s school lunch-boxes.

In the end, I was true to the story and sent it to the “Conflict” issue of Ilanot.  Today, I received word that they have nominated it for The Pushcart Prize!!!!!!!!!!!
I am a realist: I am not going to win the Pushcart Prize, but this is the greatest compliment that an editor can pay a Short Story writer. Thank you so much, Ilanot.

Read the story here…

http://ilanot.wordpress.com/the-visit/

response to Milk fed veal calves

Here is a kind, measured and well thought-out response to my article on Trigger warnings in English Literature Classes in American Universities, written by the wonderfully talented, Irish, Young-Adult author Celine Kiernan. She speaks a lot of sense…. are we being unkind to distressed young people by not warning them of the content of the works they study? Any thoughts?…………

http://celinekiernan.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/trigger-warnings/

The Tyranny of the Small Screen

The tyranny of the small screen.

 

Have you ever been to a puppet show?  I don’t mean a Punch and Judy at the beach, I mean a real, professional production.  There is only one full-time professional puppet theatre in Ireland, that I am aware of, The Lambert Puppet Theatre based in Monkstown in Dublin.

When my contemporaries were children, living in the Republic of Ireland, the Lambert family dominated children’s programming.  School-going children rushed home to watch Wanderley Wagon starring Eugene Lambert as O’Brien and a host of animal puppets.  For tiny tots there was Bosco, a bizarre, androgynous squeaky-voiced, red-haired, squeaky-clean boy who lived in a box (bosca, in Irish) who thrilled pre-schoolers with tales of derring-do, naughty black crows and friendly ladybirds.

I missed all of this puppet-related mayhem.  Living in Northern Ireland in the midst of the Troubles and keeping our Catholic heads down in the town of Portadown—birth-place of The Orange Order—we had no access to the (allegedly) papist, priest-ridden seditious programming offered by the Free State broadcaster.  I had to make do with Mr Ben and Captain Pugwash; no sacrifice at all.

When the opportunity came to take my four children to see the Lambert show in The Moat Club in Naas, a scant ten minute drive from home, I hesitated.  Today’s kids are so sophisticated, I told myself, so blasé, so horribly wordly-wise.   They will scoff at the notion of a puppet show, Bosco will seem like a museum exhibit to them.  Tickets only cost ten euro, but multiply that by the seven members of the family and you get quite an investment.  Seventy euro would enter a lot of writing contests, I thought, just before I pressed the Confirm Purchase button.

Yesterday, the Moat Club was a pandemonium, a Babel, a rampage in a sweet-shop.  I looked at my kids before the tiny curtain was raised, the two young girls vibrating with excitement on the edge of their seats, the two (slightly) older boys flung haphazard onto their pews with scowls on their faces.  The muzak stopped, a tiny drumroll, the curtain inched upwards and 75 minutes of mayhem ensued.  Screaming, roaring, clapping.  “Oh no you didn’t!”   “He’s behind you!”   And laughing.  Laughing.  Lots and lots of laughing.

The children’s faces were lit up with a joyful glow, an innocent delight, a mischievous spirit of anarchy.  Evil was vanquished.  Good triumphed.  Bosco finally found his little, lost egg (it was in his weetabix, apparently) and the Seven Dwarfs wished Snow White and her necrophiliac Prince Charming long life and happiness, as they rode off into the sunset.

And all around me, the tyranny of the small screen.  Dads, Mums, Grandparents.  Rummaging in their pockets.  Checking their Facebook pages, writing emails, updating their statuses.  “Yes, love, very funny, oh he’s very bold isn’t he…… hold on a minute pet…..this is important.”

Important?  If it weren’t so sad, I’d have laughed.

Crying in the street.

Crying in the street.

My itinerary for today certainly did not include enough time set aside to write a blog. It contained a horribly early start (earlier than a school-day, sigh), two very young sons playing hurling matches in two separate teams, on two separate sides of a huge pitch while two even younger daughters threw themselves (repeatedly) headlong down the concrete steps at the side of CLCG Nas na Riogh’s clubhouse.

A mad scramble home for toast and milk before an afternoon football match at Round Towers in Kildare Town and- in between- a bloody protest bloody march for bloody Newbridge bloody Credit Union. As if I didn’t have enough to do.
Why a protest march with a double buggy and four children under the age of eight? You might very reasonably ask. And I would answer: guilt-tripped.

Newbridge Credit Union is a major sponsor of Sarsfield’s GAA club where my kids train, and also of Newbridge Community Games. As my eldest has stood twice on the podium at the Community Games National Finals, I felt I couldn’t ignore the repeated texts and emails asking for support for the sponsor. Personally, I would rather have eaten a broken bottle.

I’ve never been rich and I’ve definitely never been poor. I’ve never been a member of a Credit Union and I have only the vaguest idea of what the movement is all about. Like many other unions, Newbridge is in danger of closing, due to post-Celtic tiger issues that I neither knew nor cared about. I literally went along so I could hold up my head the next time I meet the fabulous team of volunteers who run Newbridge Community Games.

Probably because I have neither enough money to worry me, nor too little, to keep me awake at night, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the country’s financial situation. You’ll never hear me talking knowledgably about “Fingers” and “Drummer” as if I had shared a locker with them at the K club. I don’t feel victorious or glad that Michael Lynn has been arrested in Brazil, I didn’t foam at the mouth when I saw clips of Brian Cowen on the news last night. I just don’t let it get to me.

But, as I walked down Main Street Newbridge today I finally got it, if only a taste, and if only briefly. Forty five minutes of “Why are we here? What’s a banker? And is that a real skeleton on the back of that lorry?” is enough to make anyone stop and think.
All around me were elderly, stooped shoulders, furrowed brows, whispered conversations. “We need an AGM?”
“What’s happened?” “Is the money safe?”
“What about the jobs?”

After less than ten minutes I could feel the tears welling up behind my giant bug-eye sunglasses. The children kept asking me to repeat myself and I kept tailing off in the middle of sentences. My chin was wobbling and my lips thinned and plumped as I ground them together trying to contain myself.

I’m not a big fan of public displays of emotion. I shed no tears beside my father’s deathbed, nor at his wake and funeral, although (lest you think me some kind of monster) I can no longer listen to “The JCB Song” by Nizlopi without breaking down. Crying on the street is not my normal MO. I could neither understand nor control it.

Outside the Office Centre came the coup de grace. Standing, clutching his rollator, carrying home his few provisions, stood a familiar face. I am sure that a few enquiries would easily elicit the man’s name, he’s an institution in the town. Everyday he pushes his wheeled trolley along the street. His suit is clean and pressed and swamps his frail body. On his left breast he wears a line of campaign medals on their ribbons, stars and circles and oblongs glinting in the Autumn sun. The children were fascinated.

“Wow, he must have been a great soldier, all those wars and still alive! WOW!”

And I wondered if this shaky-legged veteran lies awake at night worrying about the ten euro reduction in his pension, and the new broadcasting charge, and the property tax and the water charge and his grandchildren in Melbourne and Dubai and London.

And I couldn’t keep one tear from spilling over my saturated lashes.

How did we let this happen?

And I finally realised that what I was feeling was shame.