Archive for July, 2010

A Nation agog with Molly Allgood: In Synge’s Footsteps in North Mayo

25/07/2010 Comments off

Ireland is agog with her – with Molly Allgood. What would she have thought if she had even the faintest imagining that her name would be flying around the nation on the airwaves, on the web, in rooms and libraries where book club members gather in 2010? It seems that Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light has made Molly more famous than her ‘tweedy tramp’, Johnny Synge, whom she carried in her head all her days.

She did not like all the walking but she traipsed after him on the Wicklow hills while the cancer was growing within him and he told her of the strange work he was writing about a storyteller in Mayo as they tramped over the crushed butterwurt and heather. And he read her a few soliloquies from The Playboy and told her the play was driving him mad.

I went in Synge’s footsteps once to the places in North Mayo, in Mullet and Erris, where Synge travelled – briefly in 1904 – and for a month with Jack Yeats in 1905. My trip was the day of Barak Obama’s inauguration on a bleak January day in Belmullet when I listened on the car radio to Elizabeth Alexander read the inauguration verse: ‘Sing the names of the dead who brought us here.’

The drizzle was rolling in when I reached Doolough where Synge watched the girls picking cockles; a red fishing boat bobbled in the water at Doohoma where the ‘Achill boat’ once came in. This was the boat where, in Playboy, the Widow Quinn and Sara Tansey wanted to conceal Christy Mahon and whisk him away.

Though they never visited these parts together, I imagine Molly and Johnny ‘astray in Erris’ – an easier image on the imagination than the inebriated old woman meandering around the streets of London, unable to get him out of her head.

Deserted Island Boost for Writing

19/07/2010 Comments off

Islands, especially uninhabited ones, boost my imagination. It is as if you can see layers of life and memory wrapped within them in a stark way.

At the weekend I stood on Querrin Pier in West Clare at full tide in a fresh wind and watched the round tower on Scattery Island out on the Shannon Estuary. The first time I visited the place was via a boat ride from Limerick down through the estuary past strange places like ‘Scarlet Reach’ and ‘The Dead Woman’s Rock’ where lines of cormorants hovered – all black and silent. I had spent the journey tidying up the Contacts on my mobile phone when, suddenly, the round tower of Scattery loomed up ahead of us.

Another time while I watched Scattery in the distance, a fisherman was gathering bait at the pier and he told me that he fished for wrasse at the Arches of Ross on  the Loop Head Peninsula. He waited each year, he said, for the bloom of the flag iris to arrive before he started to fish for wrasse.

The layers of history on Scattery start with the 6th century round tower – the largest in Ireland and the ruins of six churches and the holy well of St. Senan. Another layer is that of the sea pilots, for which Scattery was a centre in the nineteenth century, when the pilots guided ships From Kilbaha at the mouth of the estuary as far as Limerick Port. The most poignant layer is the recent community whose signature is in the line of deserted cottages facing the mainland; the last two islanders left in 1978. A former lighthouse keeper, Don Scanlon, has written a vivid Scattery Memoir.

As I am promising myself to visit the island again soon on a fine day with my notebook, the eighty year old Jennifer Johnston is being interviewed on radio and talks of her writing as being ‘like breathing’ and culture as that which ‘drives people into the future with dreams in their heads’. Her words make me wonder about what dreams the generations of islanders in Scattery held in their heads as they stared out across at the mainland.

Old Words Made New: Dorothea Brande’s Classic on Writing & Creativity

12/07/2010 Comments off

I’ve been re-reading Dorothea Brande’s book , On Becoming a Writer. Hard to believe the Chicago woman was born in 1893  and published her classic on writing and creativity in 1934. It’s an easy read and you could almost get through it at one sitting.

What makes the book refreshing is that it’s not about the nuts and bolts and techniques of writing but more about the temperament and attitude of the would-be writer or, as John Gardener says in his introduction: ‘This book is all about the writer’s magic.’

I first read this book about five years ago and can see that I have most underlines in the Chapter ‘Learning to see again’.  Brande recommends that, for a half an hour each day, we transport ourselves back to the  state of the wide-eyed innocence that was ours at the age of five or so. She calls this ‘the experience of fresh seeing’, like turning yourself into a stranger in your own street so that you are seeing and hearing everything through fresh eyes.

But it’s not just the fresh seeing that is important for Brande, it’s letting the unconscious work its magic on this material through assimilation and accretion, allowing it in its own time to feed into one’s writing. She believes that the unconscious is the home of shape and form and can see types and patterns that the intellect misses.

So today I’ll practice ‘fresh seeing’ and start with the fierce magpies in the chestnut tree in my back garden and the blackbirds that I know will be doing their best to steal what’s left of the loganberry crop.

Hands Moving at the Speed of Falling Snow – Aideen Henry Poetry Collection

07/07/2010 Comments off

I’ve been reading Aideen Henry’s first poetry collection, Hands Moving at the Speed of Falling Snow (Salmon Poetry). We both attended the poetry workshops given by Mary O’Malley and Mick Gorman as part of NUI Galway’s MA writer programme. I have good memories of listening to Aideen read some of these pieces in a room that looked out on the city’s Quincentennial Bridge.

So taken was I by that particular view that I even wrote a poem entitled ‘Quincentennial Bridge’, where I experimented with the ghazal form (rhyming couplets with a refrain repeated in the 2nd line of each couplet):

Gulls float above in their worldliness, like they’re licking Heaven

and a rat crawls on broken glass at the base of Quincentennial Bridge.

Aideen’s collection is an intriguing world of Irish language speech, west of Ireland places, anatomy references and emotions of searing loss. Above all, the writing is visceral and instinctual: the child eating brown bread and fresh duck eggs with the Seanchai; the bone-crunching handshake at mass; the steel surgical knife on soft flesh. The heightened experience of the body and the flesh in all its senses is at the heart of the collection.

In a humorous poem, and one of my favourites in the collection, an undertaker tells the writer that she will make a great corpse and when she asks why, he replies: Those cheekbones. Time won’t touch them. The collection is wonderfully illustrated with several images by the artist Carmel Cleary, taken from her photographic tour of Utah and Arizona.

It’s good to see the fruit of all those hours spent overlooking Quincentennial Bridge!


Yesterday’s Newspaper Today

07/07/2010 1 comment

It’s seldom I don’t get to flick through the newspaper on the day I buy it. I’m afraid I’m not one for the online version. I have to feel the rub of the print ink on my fingers and the anticipation of what’s over the next crackling page.

But last evening my fingers were black from gathering the fruit in my small garden plot. I was mesmerized by the volume of gooseberries and blackcurrants. Not so many loganberries, which isn’t surprising, seeing as I’d watched many a blackbird waddle off with a red juicy piece in its beak.

With my attention on the fruit picking it was this morning before I faced yesterday’s paper. It’s the faces looking out at me from the pages that hold my attention, especially those that don’t appear to have set-up expressions for the camera.

Maura Mulkerrins owned the first B&B on Inish Meāin and she doesn’t look at the camera but looks down towards the ground with faint images of dotted island houses behind her. She wears a royal blue cardigan, her grey hair is combed back tight over a lined face and she has a fine bone structure that seems to tell in itself the story of her island years. Her face makes me think of summer trips to Irish college in Aran.

Marian Wallis looks up at the camera, standing outside the court after the inquest into the death of her son, Maurice , in a cycle accident. There is such searing pain in the face that I I have to look away. I find myself wondering if that look will ever leave her. There’s a photograph of her child underneath – the same eyes, but this time laughing with mischief.

Drew Faust is head of Harvard University. She’s pictured in Dublin’s  Stephen’s Green with the ducks floating on the water behind her and not taking a bit of notice of the important visitor. She seems to be telling us to be careful least we turn education and the creative arts into a utility.  Construction and property were our saviour in the past decade and now it looks like it’s going to be the creative arts.

Harry Clifton is our new Professor of Poetry and I put his latest book Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004 on my list of ‘books you can buy me for Christmas’. I like his apt line: ‘Our one-step-forward-two-steps-backward advance’.

I fold yesterday’s newspaper in half, then in quarters, and place it in the recycling bag on top of a squashed Heineken can and an empty box of Barry’s Gold Label tea and wonder if I’ll make a habit of it: leaving the news to settle and reading yesterday’s newspaper today.

 2 July 2010

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