The Passenger – Ireland

For Explorers of the World

essays Sara Baume Colum McCann Europa EditionsHuginn and Muninn are two ravens from Norse mythology. Sent out by Odin at dawn each day, they return at night to perch on the god’s shoulders, whispering to him whatever knowledge and wisdom they have gathered from every corner of the world. Like Huginn and Muninn The Passenger travels far and wide to bring back the best writing from the countries it visits.

I’ve been reading this over the past week and only meant to read a couple more essays today, but they were so interesting, I kept going and finished it.

Featuring long form essays, investigative journalism, literary reportage and visual narratives, it takes readers beyond the familiar stereotypes to portray a country’s shifting culture and identity, its public debates, the sensibilities of its people, its burning issues, its pleasures and its pain. It was published in the UK by Europa Editions on March 17.

Some Numbers About Ireland

Essays About Ireland and the IrishPopulation (the island of Ireland) : 6.9 million (the highest since 1851)

Population (the Republic of Ireland) : 5.01 million

People Who Speak Irish at Home : 83,000

People Who Speak Polish at Home : 120,000

Castles or castle ruins : 30,000

Eurovision Song contest wins : 7 (more than any other country)

Nobel Prizes in Literature : 4

W.B. Yeats (1923),

George Bernard Shaw (1925)

Samuel Beckett (1969)

Seamus Heaney (1995)

11 Essays

The Mass is Ended by Catherine Dunne and Caelainn Hogan

A dual narrative essay written by two women writers from different generations, talking about growing up in Ireland as a woman, how it has begun to transform from an insular, conservative society under the repressive influence of the Catholic Church and how it continued to negatively impact women’s lives long after other countries began addressing such issues. The women discuss the decline of the Church’s influence, the dismantling of a system designed to oppress women and the culture of silence.

Bogland by William Atkins

A fascinating and insightful article about the natural phenomena of the midland area of Ireland, covered in peatlands, referred to locally as bogs. Initially seen as undesirable and an embarrassment, they then became a source of revenue, economic growth and jobs, not to mention local fuel. Environmentally controversial like many fuel extraction processes, the industry is now in decline and being phased out. The bogs have been found to contain human remains from the Iron Age dating back to between 470 BC.

An Ocean of Wisdom by Manchan Magnan

An Ocean of Wisdom

Photo by Kelly L on Pexels.com

Fascinated by the Irish language and its connection to fishing and the sea, we learn how the decline of a small local fishing industry heralded the decline and disappearance of much of the language. Magnan travelled to the three areas of Gaeltachtai (Irish speaking) to discover locals words and phrases that expressed aspects of the sea, weather and coastal life, linguistic nuances that described a way of life that is disappearing (due to the impact of foreign fishing trawlers) and with it, a form of expression and being.

Like other old tongues, the Irish language has unique ways of expressing things – one example of which is that Irish regards the unseen world as being just as real as the seen, and this is evident in many ofthe phrases, metaphors and colloquial expressions that make up daily speech. So the word ceantar, for instance, means place, region or locality, while alltar is its opposite, the other realm, the netherworld. They exist simultaneously in all places at all times.

Our physical bodies occupy the ceantar, but our minds can easily slip into the alltar. Only a thin veil separates the two realms, and there were always those who could pass from one to the other, as is demonstrated by the word púicín, which refers to a supernatural covering that allows otherworldly beings to appear unseen in this reality.

The efforts to revive and reconnect to the language and the growing awareness of the importance language is to maintaining connection to a culture is encouraging. Losing language is to lose meaning and connection, reclaiming it might well contribute to the country’s healing process.

Talismans by Sara Baume

Sara Baume is know for her two fiction novels, a third Seven Steeples due out in Apr ’22, however if you’ve read her excellent work of nonfiction Handiwork, you’ll know she is a visual artist and loves crafting things, using her hands, sculpting or making things from different materials and they always have a theme.

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirdsIn Handiwork, she was sculpting birds, but here she writes about the Irish cottage, its evolution and the rise of the Irish villas that were much despised for a period of time. As she spends months creating objects that represent small scale versions of these houses, she reflects on the way Ireland’s built environment has changed.

The idea was to draw a contrast between the grandiosity of the monster mansions and my choice of coarse, everyday materials – the intention being to invent an updated and deeply cynical souvenir.

She visits a reconstructed Irish cottage with Marion McGarry, author of The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design (2017), who recounts :

‘the fire was both physically and socially situated in the centre of the house’. Whereas European families routinely gathered around the kitchen table, the Irish would push all of their furniture back against the walls to surround the light and heat of the hearth.

Everything that Falls Must Also Rise – by Colum McCann

The New York based Irish writer reflects on the choice he and many others made to emigrate, what it’s like to return, to become an outsider and be rooted elsewhere, yet still refer to it as home. Full of nostalgia, this one almost feels out of place in the collection, and the enlarged font size stands out almost as a clue to the demographic its likely to appeal to.

At The Edge of Two Unions: Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast by Mark Devenport

The BBC’s former political editor in Northern Ireland writes about a region hanging in the balance between two Unions, the UK and the EU, torn between fear and opportunity and the distinct feeling of having been abandoned. A century of Northern Ireland, how attitudes and loyalties are evolving and changing with the generations and neighbouring affiliations.

Suicides of the Ceasefire Babies (originally published in 2016) by Lyra McKee

Ceasefire suicides Northern Ireland

Photo by Luke Webb on Pexels.com

An essay written by the journalist Lyra McKee, who investigated the troubling fact that since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more people in Northern Ireland have committed suicide than were killed during the 30 year conflict.

This was a fascinating read, because it ties in with Kerri Ní Dochartaigh’s Thin Places and when I began to read Lyra’s essay and her questions, I could tell what was coming, because if you’ve read Thin Places and imagined how many other young people have been exposed to what she had been (including being told “you lot had it much easier than our generation” by their parents) and the subsequent suppression of their feelings/emotions, it’s not surprising that there is a significant proportion of the population, particularly in the towns of Belfast and Derry that have suffered the delayed effects of PTSD, without even knowing it.

Her investigation looks at the cause, uncovers existing research and also learns about how trauma survivors pass their behaviours and certain genes (when parental trauma has been experienced prior to conception) to children.

Intergenerational transmission of trauma is not just a sociological or psychological problem, but also a biological one.

Sadly, Lyra McKee was murdered in 2019.

What I Learned On My Trip to Westeros by Mark O’Connell

I guess there had to be the one that references The Game of Thrones, little more than a guided tour of the locations, an attempt to make a connection between the fantasy of the land imagined by George R.R. Martin (inspired by 15th century civil wars) and the more recent history and reality of a divided land.

Unfortunately, the lens through which he views things around him obscures the actual landscape and barely disguises his disdain for the local guides, while going off on a tangent about a novel relating to the philosophical and aesthetic preoccupations of the Argentinian author Borges.

Citizens’ Assemblies: Experiments in Democracy by Ursula Barry

An excellent and insightful look into the establishment of Citizens’ Assemblies, an invention and intervention by common people to facilitate decision making on important issues that have gone unresolved by politicians for far too long.

This was brilliant, I wasn’t aware that it was these assemblies that had been behind some of the most significant changes and reforms in Ireland’s constitution, and a model that has and is being used elsewhere in Europe, when the population begins to protest and govt wants to listen but is unable to act, here is another way that is even more democratic perhaps, than elected officials, who get tied up with multiple agendas and lose sight of the common citizen, especially those adversely affected by outdated policies and inhumane practices.

The final two essays were about one man’s interest in Irish music (from a perspective of a lifetime living in England) and rugby, neither of which particularly interested me enough to write about here!

Overall, an excellent exploration of the life and times of modern Ireland. Beautifully illustrated and highly recommended.

Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh

Northern Irish Literature nonfiction memoir troublThin Places is something of an enigma, when I bought it, I thought it was in the nature writing genre, the inside cover calls it a mix of memoir, history and nature writing – such a simplistic description of the reading experience, which for me was something else.

Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in a place between worlds, beyond experience.

This book is a kind of cathartic experience of being inside the experience of someone who has experienced trauma, who has yet to awaken from its implications, or be conscious of its effect – but who by the end will by necessity awaken to it, because it can no longer be contained inside the mind, the body and for the good of the soul, it must be expressed, broken down, if there is to be any change of coming out the other side.

Even as a child, I could see no way of staying in my hometown. The edges of the broken and breaking city never quite held themselves in place, and my own family life mirrored those fractures.

So the first part of the book I can only describe as “being in the fog”. We know Kerri ní Dochartaigh was born in Derry on the border of the North and South of Ireland, at the height of the troubles, that her parents were of mixed heritage, a Protestant father and Catholic mother;  the family existed in the oftentime dangerous in-between, safe in neither space or only temporarily, always moving, never truly belonging.

We have a somewhat difficult relationship with the word ‘tradition’ in Ireland, particularly in the North. The way that religion has latched itself onto the politics of this land has left many people with no desire to look at the imagery of their ancestors; the story of their past. We have lost, broken, murdered, burned, stolen, hidden and undone – all in the false name of tradition. Lives, places and stories have been ripped out by their roots because ‘that’s how it has always been’. I wonder, I wonder so very much these days, what wealth of imagery and meaning was lost when we became so focused on our differences here, that we buried the things that had once tied us together, the things that might still know a way through, for us all.

Though we are told this, the uninitiated reader doesn’t really understand what that means, how it actually manifests on the human level, on a day to day basis – until she arrives at the point where she realises, she needs to confront the reality of the things that happened – because she is losing it – and finding it harder and harder to function in the bubble of denial that allows her to go about her day, to work, to live.

The past, present and future all seemed to blend into one, and every single part of the story held sorrow that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how deeply I try to bury it. So many different things – situations, times of year, people – made the bad things rise up from inside to bite me again. Triggers, I know that now. It left me feeling scared, hollowed out and with no control over any of it, not really knowing how to make it – any of it – stop.

Derry River Foyle Ireland

Photo by Ducky on Pexels.com

Only after finishing Part 1 Blood and Bone did I comprehend what I was reading, a woman’s life from childhood up to the age of 28 striving to not give in to the effects of trauma, in the opening chapters, she alludes to those things, though is unable to write directly about them, until realising the nightmares will never stop if she doesn’t, the numbing eventually worse than the pain.

And so she begins to share the events. And it’s tough to read, to absorb as we imagine the magnitude of the effect these events must have had on a child, on an adolescent, a young adult. But what courage, to make that decision, to visit that dark place, to express those thoughts, recount those events, relive the disappointments, feel again the sense of abandonment, to trust that writing about it might bring one towards healing.

While there are those moments of how nature and the many metaphors and symbolism of it kept her sane, this is more about the nature of mind and the necessity of finding and/or making meaning in navigating the troubles of life, in order to overcome past hurts, reconcile traumatic events and find a way to live again, to believe in hope, to elevate one’s self-worth and be able to function in a relationship.

thin places between worlds trauma spiritual healing

Photo by Leigh Heasley on Pexels.com

It is a tough and unrelenting read, that at times I needed to take a break from, but it is one that we as readers are privileged to gain insight from, because Kerri ni Dochartaigh could very easily not be here, and yet she is – and I like to believe that in part that is because the sharing of her experience and path to healing are an important part of her soul’s purpose in this life.

This extraordinary book is part of her life’s work, she has found a way to articulate to the many, the terrible destructive effect of divisiveness , prejudice and intolerance on young people, the effect of not feeling safe during childhood and adolescence and the difficulty of becoming something other than what you knew growing up – of learning to trust, to love, of connecting to the natural environment, learning a near lost language that connects the Irish to their environment and dwelling in just being.

Naming things, in the language that should always have been offered to you, is a way to sculpt loss. A way to protect that which we still have.

Hard going at times, but extraordinary, a beating, bleeding heart, ripped open to heal.

Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Author

Born in 1983, in Derry-Londonderry at the border between the North and South of Ireland. She read English Literature and Classical Civilisation at Trinity College Dublin and trained as a Waldorf teacher in Edinburgh. She taught in Edinburgh and Bristol, before returning to Ireland in her early thirties.

She writes about nature, literature and place for the Irish Times, Dublin Review of Books, Caught by the River and others. She has also written for the Guardian, BBC, Winter Papers. Thin Places was highly commended by the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2021.

The Last Resort by Jan Carson

The only downside in reading The Last Resort is that it was so short!

Northern Irish Literature short storiesThis is the novel I have been waiting for Jan Carson to write, for here is a writer who in her ordinary life as an arts facilitator has brought together people from opposite sides in their way of thinking, encouraging them to sit down and write little stories, enabling them to imagine from within the shoes of an(other) – teaching the practice of empathy.

Her novel The Fire Starters comes from that place of darkness and indifference, when there is no empathy. I found it disturbing. I’ve since realised gothic novels aren’t my thing.

Here, Carson digs deeper into the psyche of the many that make up their community and finds a common thread that connects them, something that both pushes them forward and holds them back and shows it in its many guises, through a kaleidoscope of colourful characters. Everyone has their own mini drama and troubling perspective, that coming together might create a shift away from.

Set in a fictional Seacliff caravan park in Ballycastle on the North Coast of Ireland, as the book opens we meet Pete, who now (reluctantly) runs the caravan park and Frankie, who has gathered a few friends for the 50th anniversary of Lynette, for whom they will place a memorial bench with a brass plaque at the top of the cliff.

A caravan on the North Coast was the height of luxury, somewhere you could escape to at the weekend. They felt safe here. Or they did until that bomb went off in the car park.

the last resort ballycastle jan carson ireland

Photo Y. ShuraevPexels.com

It’s the first day of the holiday season and most of these people have been coming here for years, though for some this may be their last visit. Not everyone is happy to be here, like Alma and her two siblings, especially when they wake up one morning to discover their phones and her iPad are missing.

Alma is into Agatha Christie and when she discovers they are not the only family that has something missing she decides to investigate, even if there hasn’t been a murder. Yet. No really, there’s no murder.

It’d be easy to push someone over that cliff. It’s so crumbly. You could make it look like an accident. I can think of at least three different times Agatha Christie killed somebody by shoving them off a cliff. If my iPad wasn’t gone I’d google to see if there were more. I’m raging about losing my iPad. Now I have to run my investigation the old-fashioned way. Snooping around. Observing suspects. Taking notes on my jotter. Maybe it’s better like this. Poirot never looked anything up on Wikipedia or checked suspects’ alibis on Facebook. If Poirot was here, he’d say, forget the iPad, Alma. Use your leetle grey cells. I’m doing my best. I’m watching everyone, even Mum. It’s always the person you least suspect.

Alma’s Mum Lois has a PhD in mythology and her thing is sea monsters. Monsters, wizards and demons, that’s her parents thing, Harry Potter is for kids, Alma likes the real world, way scarier.

Seacliff Northern Ireland The Last Resort

Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

Each chapter is narrated by one of 10 characters in the caravan park and about each family we learn what is holding them back, what consumes their minds. And while there is not a murder, no smoking gun, there is the cliff – and from the beginning you sense its ominous presence, the way it draws everyone to its apex.

We meet Alma again (my favourite character) as she trails around the caravan park interrogating her disapproving adult suspects. She’s brilliant.

Richard is a complete empath, hiding it from his family as if it were a sign of weakness, a position likely to be exposed given he has used his father’s caravan to house sixteen homeless men, many of them immigrants.

I couldn’t tell Dad about them. I’ve never really told him what I really do. He wouldn’t understand. In his world, you work hard, and you do well. There’s no reason to end up on the street, hawking The Big Issue, unless you’ve brought it on yourself.

Kathleen struggles to accept her daughter for who she is, because of societal expectations, but finds it hard to follow through with her disapproval because she desperately wants a relationship with her grandson Max. She finds Alma strange, intense and curious.

Lois answers all her questions. She talks to her weans like they’re adults. When she split up with her husband, Alma was fit to tell me the ins and outs of the whole divorce. She was only ten. You have to protect a child that age. They’re not old enough to know everything. Still, I have to say I envy them – calearied as they are – at least they talk to each other, really properly talk. We’re all adults in this caravan but we’ll spend the whole weekend talking about nothing. The weather. The baby. Whether or not to put the kettle on. Avoiding the elephant in the room because nobody wants to cause a scene.

So many great lines, so much humour, angst, regret, camaraderie as the story leads to its wild denouement on the seacliff, as the thing that’s been holding them all together, holding them back, demands to be released.

Just brilliant. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Best Caravans in Fiction (A List in Progress), Jan Carson

Jan Carson, Author

Northern Ireland Author Fiction

Jan Carson by ©Jonathan Ryder

Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast. Her debut novel Malcom Orange Disappears (2014) was published to critical acclaim, followed by a short-story collection, Children’s Children (2016), and two flash fiction anthologies Postcard Stories (2017) and Postcard Stories 2 (2020).

Her second novel The Fire Starters (2019) translated into French by Dominique Goy-Blanquet as Les Lanceurs de Feu, won the EU Prize for Literature, was shortlisted for two prestigious French literary awards the Prix Femina and Prix Médicis in 2021 and was also shortlisted for the Dalkey Novel of the Year Award.

Her third novel The Raptures was released in Jan 2022.

Postcard Stories by Jan Carson

Epistolary Treasures

Jan Carson Author Northern Ireland FictionI just love the concept of these works of flash fiction, postcard size stories, that have a geographic connection to a street or location in Northern Ireland, that originated as a story written on the back of a postcard – an alternative restriction to the usual one when writing flash fiction, of keeping it to 100 -150 words – and that the postcard was both sent and retained, a gift and an accumulated collection.

This not quite Ireland proper/ is not the Mainland/ is certainly not Europe in the Continental sense.

When I first picked it up, a little while ago now, I looked at the contents and went to read a few entries from the locations that were familiar to me, Belfast International Airport, Newtownards Road, Holywood Road, Linenhall Street, Holywood, Ormeau Road, but of course that was me thinking of my own story, so it didn’t make much sense. I was looking for something that wasn’t there.

Removing Expectations

So now I read it again, this time from the beginning and just allow it to tell me its own story, its bite sized exercise in writing, the awakening of imagination, the sharing of the craft, its way of thinking of others while being in the act of creation.

The book is thoughtfully illustrated by Benjamin Phillips. You can view the images from the book via the link provided through his name. They are truly evocative.

Postcard Stories Jan Carson Ireland

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

I read, am entertained and wonder what it must have been like to receive one of these. Is there a connection between the story and the recipient, is it random, did they reply, did they understand the motivation of the author, did it matter? How did you get to be one of the recipients? Does she really have that many friends whose addresses she knows, a database perhaps, or is the postcard sending a fiction in itself?

Here she is practicing using the second person narrative voice from Week 6, February 5th, 2015, Cathedral Quarter, Belfast from a postcard sent to Claire Buswell.

When you were seven years old you threw a dart at a black-haired girl, running away in the garden. The dart lodged and stuck just below her shoulder blade. She fell forward in the grass. The flight on the dart was red and black and white. These were also the colours of the duvet cover in your parents’ bedroom. This was the 80’s. Afterwards the dart came away clean as needles. No harm done. You did not tell and neither did she.

I’ve read Jan Carson’s novel The Fire Starters, I know she is a fan of absurdist fiction. I also know that she works in the community arts sector and has taught creative writing skills to people to help build empathy, using storytelling to show how we can imagine being in the shoes of another. I remember being reassured by this knowledge, because the protagonist in her novel completely lacks empathy, and that is a frightening thing.

Cafés and Markets, Happiness or Disappointment

Susan Picken receives Week 45’s November story from Victoria Square, Belfast:

‘If your drink doesn’t make you happy, we’ll make you another,’ I read aloud, pointing to the sign above the barista’s head. It’s been there, right behind him, with the toastie machine and the coffee syrups, for so long now that he’s forgotten all about it.

melancholy free coffee happy unhappyIt turns out there are only so many free coffees a person can drink before realising a hot beverage cannot cure loneliness, grief or melancholy.

The collection ends in Week 52  at St George’s Market on a sorrowful note, that makes me think I ought to take my own aromatherapy potions to the Christmas market, offering an antidote to the melancholy nature of some of this population.

Every year during the month leading up to Christmas, Eleanor takes a stall at St George’s Market and sells disappointment in small, hand-made bottles…She stocks any number of different disappointments: the disappointment of an unsupportive parent, the disappointment of a homely child, the disappointment of being alone or not nearly alone enough, the disappointment of cats, good wine, box sets and religion, the dry disappointment of Christmas Day evening which is easily the most popular product on her stall.

I have Postcard Stories 2, so I will be hoping that perhaps, as we wander more streets in the year that followed Postcard Stories, there might be reason for more optimism and perhaps we might learn how to get on the postcard list.

Further Reading

Irish Times Interview: Jan Carson – girl from the north country by Ruth McKee

Jan Carson, Author

Northern Ireland Author Fiction

Jan Carson by ©Jonathan Ryder

Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast. Her debut novel Malcom Orange Disappears (2014) was published to critical acclaim, followed by a short-story collection, Children’s Children (2016), and two flash fiction anthologies Postcard Stories (2017) and Postcard Stories 2 (2020).

Her second novel The Fire Starters (2019) translated into French by Dominique Goy-Blanquet as Les Lanceurs de Feu, won the EU Prize for Literature, was shortlisted for two prestigious French literary awards the Prix Femina and Prix Médicis in 2021 and was also shortlisted for the Dalkey Novel of the Year Award.

The most recent book The Last Resort, a collection of ten linked short stories set in a fictional caravan park, was published in April 2021.

Her work has appeared in numerous journals and on BBC Radio 3 & 4. She runs arts projects and events with older people especially those living with dementia.

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

A stunning reflection by a 15 year old boy, over the course of a year, season by season into how nature provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to his own being.

nature writing Wainwright prizeDara McAnulty is autistic, as are his mother and two siblings, a beautiful advantage, because the family seem to understand exactly how to mitigate the intensity and lived experience of this characteristic.

As a result, they often escape their suburban habitat for the slightly wilder places within reach, places where whatever constraints they might be feeling inside, that might otherwise result in some kind of behavioural impulse, can be released into the conducive expanse of a living outdoors, an ecosystem, they feel at one with.

He reflects on the influence of both parents:

“Many people attribute my love of nature on him He’s definitely contributed deeply to my knowledge and appreciation, but I also feel the connection was forged while I was in Mum’s womb the umbilical still nourishing. Nature and nurture – it’s got to be a mix of both. It may be innate, something I was born with, but without encouragement from parents and teachers and access to the wilder places, it can’t bind to everyday life.”

Dara channels his passion for wildlife and nature into a series of journal entries, written with language that is beautifully descriptive and resonant, that conjures up exactly how it might feel like to be this young man, whose five senses are so intense, who wants to understand more, to do what he can to improve the state of our planet, its nature.

On dandelions:

yellow dandelion flower

Photo by Daniel Absi on Pexels.com

“…I love dandelions. They make me feel like sunshine itself, and you will always see some creature resting on an open bloom, if you have a little patience to wait. This vital source for all emerging pollinators is a blast of uplifting yellow to brighten even the  greyest of days. It stands tall and proud, unlike all  the others opening and swaying in the breeze. The odd one out.”

Spring ends with the announcement that the family will move to another village to be closer to a different school and for their father to be in closer proximity to Belfast. At first disillusioned, Dara soon learns there is a forest nearby and a whole new ecosystem to explore and learn. The move marks a significant change in his experience of the school system, he begins to thrive.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort. What’s a lot more effort, though, is the work Mum did and does still, so light-heartedly. She tells us it’s because she knows. She knows the confusion. That’s why she and Dad will be doing the worrying about moving, and why Mum will be doing all the planning and mind-mapping, and will somehow know how everything fits together. I’m lucky, very lucky.”

He asks himself constantly, is this enough; to observe, to spend time in nature, to speak, to write?

If this was all he ever did, it is already enough, but it is clear he is destined to do more.

Silverbar, the Sanderling

A sanderling shore bird

Observing the sanderling, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s excellent Under the Sea-Wind, where she too brings this bird to life:

I reach for my binoculars and see them: sanderlings, about thirty, moving erratically yet with powerful purpose. Blurred black legs. A flash of beak prodding the sand. Sand ploughman. They whirl with the waves, never stopping. Scurrying. Rushing. Every movement too fast for me to focus on. Dazzlers of the shore.

Sanderling plumage is snow-white and pewter-black, the crown darted with linear black-among-white. They come to winter in Ireland from the high Arctic, travelling nonstop for over 3,000 miles. Their movements are completely hypnotic, especially as I focus in one bird and observe how it moves relentlessly at speed between the waves and shoreline, sandpeckering as it goes, and repeating it all over again as the waves recede, over and over, over and over. What tenacity. I’m not sure how productive it all is, as they never stop for a second and must spend so much energy making each tack from wave to shoreline.

When he begins to doubt himself or feel overwhelmed by what he understands is happening to the environment, his ever patient, wise, knowing mother is there:

She also tells me that I need to hold on to grace and gratitude. ‘Hold them close’ she says. ‘And remember by writing down all the good things in life.’ She’s right of course, but it takes every muscle to agree.

A wonderful, inspirational book and journey to a few of the wildish places of Northern Ireland.

Loved it.

Lies of Silence by Brian Moore

Brian Moore at 100

Lies of Silence was the January read for the Brian Moore at 100 year long read along hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, which I introduced and will link my reviews back to here. A political thriller, it was originally published in 1990 to much acclaim and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, losing to A.S. Byatt’s excellent novel Possession.

Northern Irish Literature Booker Prize shortlistedIt is the story of a disenchanted man, a man who reluctantly returned to Northern Ireland from London with his wife Moira, who was keen to return. Now he is the manager of a hotel, a job he doesn’t particularly like, having left his poetry aspirations far behind him, following in the footsteps of his father, a man he feels resentment towards.

Unsurprisingly, his personal life has become entangled and just as the unspoken issues simmering below this relationship are about to boil over, he and his wife are taken hostage in their own home, he to be used as a pawn in what unfolds as a complex, thought out plan.

In the midst of the initial drama Michael sees his neighbour, a retired bank manager leave with his dog for a walk, seeing in him the average, everyman and woman who just wants to get on with life without interference from “men in woolen masks”.

Watching him go off with his dog, Dillon felt anger rise within him, anger at the lies which had made this, his and Mr Harbinger’s birthplace, sick with a terrible illness of bigotry and injustice, lies told over the years to poor Protestant working people about the Catholics, lies told to poor Catholic working people about the Protestants, lies from parliaments and pulpits, lies at rallies and funeral orations, and, above all, the lies of silence from those in Westminster who did not want to face the injustice of Ulster’s status quo. Angry, he stared across the room at the most dangerous victims of these lies, his youthful, ignorant, murderous, captors.

Under threat, as he moves towards doing what has been asked of him, he faces an excruciating moral dilemma, and a situation that spirals him into further confusion and deliberations over what the “right thing to do” is.

It’s something of a page turner, while not holding back on expressing the tensions and opinions of various characters in this complex, often not well understood political environment.

The Freedom of Self-Imposed Exile

There are also subtle hints to Moore’s own yearning for places beyond the hills of home, as seen in this passage, as he gets off the telephone from his American boss:

Brian Moore Lies of Silence Belfast City Northern Ireland

Cave Hill Mountain Overlooking Belfast City towards Belfast Lough

Dismissed from Keogh’s busy, money-breathing world, Dillon stood looking out at the mountain which reared up like a stage backdrop behind the city. Long ago, in school, daydreaming, he would look out of the classroom window and imagine himself in some aeroplane being lifted over that grey pig’s back of mountain to places far from here, to London, New York, Paris, great cities he had seen in films and photographs, cities far away from the dull constrictions of home.

It’s also clear that Moore was as keen on seeking revenge with his pen, as much as his characters do with whatever is at their disposal, his distance from the home country giving him a freedom and inclination to provoke, inform and stir the troubled pot, so to speak. In particular, the denouement.

Further Reading

You can read recent reviews here: Cathy at 746 Books, Ali at HeavenAli, Lizzy’s Literary Life, Kim at Reading Matters

February’s novel was Moore’s 1957 novel The Feast of Lupercal, whose pragonist is a 37 year-old teacher at a Catholic boarding school run by priests in Belfast during the 1950s.  I don’t have this one, though it sounds excellent according to these enticing reviews, which you can read here: Cathy at 746 Books, HeavenAli.

In March, they will be reading Fergus (1970).

I will join in the reading in:

April with The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)

May with The Doctor’s Wife.

I hope more of you might be able to join in this next one, which is one of his more well-known and popular titles.

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Northern Irish Vernacular

I liked the idea of reading a Northern Irish novel that used more of the phonetic vernacular as encountered in  Milkman by Anna Burns. Years ago on my first visit there, I bought a slim volume on some of the words used in the North but out of the context of a story or novel they made little sense and in the course of travels there wasn’t enough exposure to it to immerse in. So this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I got so into it, I started writing to a friend about weans and oul wans an shite. She thought I was typing too fast and not using spellcheck.  And from the comments I’ve read on twitter by those who would know, it’s been deemed an authentic rendition.

The vernacular dialogue in this is absolutely perfect. Captures the patter, the understatement, the colour, the wry knowingness of the exchanges. Rónán Hession

Big Girl, Small Town takes place during a week in the life of socially awkward but inwardly clear-eyed 27-year-old Majella who from the opening page we learn has a list of stuff in her head she isn’t keen on, a top ten that hasn’t changed in seven years. Things like gossip, physical contact, noise, bright lights, scented stuff, sweating, jokes and make-up.

Sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn’t keen on into a single item:  – Other People.

The list of things she does see the point in is shorter and includes eating, Dallas (except for the 1985-86 season), her da, her granny, Smithwicks (the most consumed Irish ale in Ireland), painkillers, cleaning and sex.

She lives with her alcoholic mother in a fictional border town, her father disappeared years before, presumed not to be living, though no one knows that for sure. They have just heard news of the death of her 85-year-old Granny, suspected as murder.

A Unique Narrative Structure

Each chapter begins with a time of day and an item from the list, such as:

Monday
4.04 p.m.
Item 12.2 Conversation: Rhetorical questions

and the story is narrated through her regular, unchangeable routine and manifestations of these items as she encounters them, like here where she shares one of her pet dislikes, her mother’s rhetorical questions.

Majella? D’ye not have work tae go til this evening?
Majella had work to go to, just as she had done every Monday for the past nine years. And Majella knew that her Ma knew that, because her work schedule and weekly Mass were the only routines their lives revolved around.

Donegal McCleans Malin

Outside a pub & grocery store in Malin, Donegal

Majella works in a local fish and chip shop with her colleague Marty and each evening we meet local characters and encounter more items; 3.3 Noise: Shutters in work and item 3.4: Noise: Shite singing, item 1: Small talk, bullshit and gossip, item 8.4: Jokes: Repeated jokes.

There’s routine and repetition and although it might seem uninteresting to follow along day after in this quotidian recital, even the chip counter conversations and order placements I enjoy, triggering as they do a recent (Oct 2019) humorous encounter of our own in a chipper (chip shop) in Northern Ireland.

Digression – A Personal Experience of Linguistic Nuance

I now understand better having finished the book, why the man at the chipper in Newcastle looked aghast at my son when in response to his question ‘Do you wan sauce onit?’ he replied ‘Yes please, Moutarde, I mean Mustard’. This was after my son had looked at me and said, ‘I can’t understand what he’s saying’, when the man asked him following his request for a chicken burger, ‘Wud ya likit S’thrn fried or Batter’d?’. I said ‘I’m not going to explain what battered is, so just take Southern Fried’. Who’d have thought a takeaway shop could provide such an entertaining, cross-cultural experience.

In Majella’s chipper, no one ever asks for mustard. Some of them ask for things that go beyond the everyday boundaries of pleasantries, the banter of some replays itself each visit, like an old record on repeat. Majella is clearly intelligent but hasn’t been in an environment that has encouraged to pursue that elsewhere, so instead she has found a role that suits her character (in a town with the highest unemployment rate in the country) and despite everything, it is clear that she is unlikely to become trapped by the same vices that capture most who’ve given up on their dreams.

It’s entertaining, it’s kind of sad, it’s funny and also confrontational. You read it and feel like you’re really in the skin of this character and though we might want more for her, it’s clear she’s ok and if watching Dallas reruns sounds a bit odd, it provides a bit of a cliffhanger of an ending as she reflects on the lessons of that Machiavellian character J.R. Ewing.  While most probably only saw what she was on the outside, beneath it all she was totally in charge of herself and about to become even more empowered than she had ever been.

The Author Michelle Gallen

Michelle Gallen Big Girl Small Town

Her debut novel,  Big Girl, Small Town has been nominated for the CWIP Prize (Comedy Women in Print) 2020, the UK and Ireland’s first comedy literary prize. In the podcast below she discusses why it has taken so long for this type of women’s writing to appear, suggesting that in the North there has been a sea-change, a cultural change that has finally enabled different voices to come in that allows women to write bawdy, irreverent, darkly humourous content that addresses sex in a very frank way.

Michelle Gallen – who grew up in the most bombed small town in Europe post World War II and went to school in an area with the highest unemployment rate in the industrially developed world – when interviewed, said of her motivation:

“I wrote Big Girl Small Town to shine a spotlight on the consequences of the British-Irish border on a family in a deeply divided community over decades of peace and ruthless violence. It tells the story from the dark heart of the community, revealing the human growth and resilience of a proudly ungovernable community on the very edge of Britain.”

She admits that Majella might be happier if she’d watched less Dallas and read more books. Asked how she thought Majella would have coped with corona virus, she said:

“I think that while Majella would welcome the social distancing aspect of managing Covid-19, she would – like most people – be intensely worried for the virus’s effect on those who are vulnerable: the sick, the infirm and the elderly.”

And on what she might find comfort in reading:

“She would find a kindred soul in the narrator of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. She’d have a real laugh reading Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. And I can see her finding comfort in the lovely Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession.” Michelle Gallen

Comedy Women in Print Literary Prize 2020

Further Reading & Listening

Irish Times Article – Post troubles tale of a damaged woman 

Irish News Interview – Tyrone author’s debut novel delves into our troubled past with a helping of chips and Dallas on repeat

Irish Times The Woman’s Podcast, Episode 396 starts at 27.50 : Listen to three of Ireland’s newest authors Michelle Gallen, Niamh Campbell and Rachel Donohue join Róisín Ingle to speak about their debut novels and the inspiration behind them.

Audio Extract: Listen to 2 minutes from the beginning of the novel, read by Nicola Coughlin

Milkman by Anna Burns

As you may know, Milkman by the Northern Irish author Anna Burns was the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 Chair of judges, had this to say:

‘None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance, threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.’

On finishing it I was left with a similar feeling as when I completed another Booker prize-winning novel, Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, that is, a feeling of exhaustion and of wonder, how could an author sustain this kind of writing, stay with this voice, day after day for as long as it took to write this? And what must it be like to live in or imagine living in a community as stifling as this. Just astounding.

I am in awe. It is no easy read, for it is written in a kind of double, triple speak, depicting a life and set of circumstances that is constantly in check, a circumventing of self. It describes from the inside how one young woman navigates daily life in a community that has drawn so many convoluted, coded lines of behaviour, that lives by so many unspoken, rigidly enforced violent rules, that has morphed into something so far from authenticity, that only the very ‘different’, appear able to, or indeed risk, living life true unto themselves, except those who left the country forever, their tale not told here, those that got away.

All this is told through the stream of consciousness narrative of an 18-year-old girl, as she observes her community and family insinuate a dramatic story onto her about a 40 something married man they call ‘Milkman’ (not to be confused with “the milkman”), a narrative trussed up by rumour, assumption, gossip, anything uttered or speculated on, except what the young woman has to say.

It doesn’t help that the one time she comes out of her silence and decides to share the boring truth, that there is and has never been anything going on between her and this man, she tells this to her pious mother, the one place she might find support.

During this ma looked at me without interruption but when I finished, and without hesitation she called me a liar, saying this deceit was nothing but a further mockery of herself. She spoke of other meetings then, between me and the milkman, besides the two to which I admitted. The community was keeping her abreast, she said, which meant she knew I met him for immoral trysts and assignations, knew too, of what we got up to in places too indecent even to give the ‘dot dot dot’ to. ‘You’re some sort of mob-woman,’ she said. ‘Out of the pale. Lost your intrinsic rights and wrongs. You make it hard, wee girl, to love you and if your poor father was alive, certainly he’d have something to say about this.’ she said. I doubted it.

‘Middle sister’ as she is referred to, thinks in a kind of coded language full of uttered phrases that substitute for a more succinct opinion, so that even the reader must enter into this “insinuating” talk to understand her thoughts, for nothing is stated plainly, just as nothing is observed or clarified as it really is. And we get good at it, at this revealing what is really being said, even beginning to see the humor in it, when none of it really is funny, there’s too much death, tragedy, sadness, ridiculousness. It’s not a life, it’s a trap.

It is a kind of prison that she manages temporarily to escape from or live with by going running with third brother-in-law, taking French lessons and ‘reading while walking’ literature from other, older centuries. But trying to remain separate and invisible to all the categories, has put her in the worst possible position, ‘beyond the pale’, her longest friend since primary school informs her.

‘Even you must appreciate, that as far as they’re concerned you’ve fallen into the difficult zone.’ She meant the ‘informer-type’ zone – not that I was an informer. It was that miscellany territory where, like the informer, you’re not accepted, you’re not admired, you’re not respected, not by one side, not by the other side, not by anybody, not even really by yourself. In my case though, seems I’d fallen into the difficult zone not only because I wouldn’t tell my life to others, or because of my numbance, or because of my suspiciousness of questions. What was also being held against me was that I wasn’t seen as the clean girlfriend, as in, he didn’t have other attachments. He did have other attachments. One was his wife. So I was the upstart, the little Frenchwoman, the arriviste, the hussy.

And then it is so much more as Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado shares in her brilliant essay in the Dublin Review of Books Gender in Conflict where she describes Anna Burns writing as exploring “the impact in Northern Ireland of a level of violence that has become ordinary and has turned into the cultural norm” in particular that gendered violence is everywhere and unacknowledged.

Burns’ use of surrealism is a highly effective method whereby the author defamiliarises dominant (and often misrepresentative) narratives of the conflict and its legacy that circulate within the media and popular culture. The surrealist mode allows her to represent the psychological effects of trauma – registering what she calls “the feeling reality, rather than necessarily what happened”

“In an unstoppable torrent of words, she gives voice to the women who endured unspeakable violence during the Troubles, making a powerful and necessary feminist intervention into the literary legacy of the conflict.”  Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

It’s an original, thought-provoking, cathartic read that stays with you long after reading, it puts the reader in total sympathy with the character of middle sister and creates a feeling of there being no way out, seeing her almost as the anti-hero for succeeding at least in losing herself through literature and a foreign language, gone momentarily from this nightmare, despite never being safe from the ever-present unwanted attention.

Highly recommended, if you want a more literary read and insight into the difficulty of living within a fraught political community.

The Author

Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1962. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. In 2001 she won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted
for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.

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