Author Archives: Nessa O Mahony

Another one of those the book is dead posts (sigh)

I mentioned in my last post that I spent a number of years out of Ireland when I went back to college and studied for a Masters and then a PhD in Creative Writing. This involved spending time in a variety of rented (and borrowed) accommodation, usually surrounded by books and always by the sort of creative clutter I appear to require in any writing space I inhabit. The number of books surrounding me seemed to increase mysteriously and exponentially over the four or so years I was away; when first leaving Dublin, I only brought with me those books that seemed vital to my creative process: Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town, my collected Kavanagh, all the Kerrie Hardie collections I had to hand and Raymond Carver’s A New Path to the Waterfall, to name a few. But added to these were the results of all the visits to second hand bookshops, antiquarian booksellers and charity shops that crossed my paths in Norwich, Paris and Bangor (quite the jetsetter, was I). I seem to remember owning several copies of Richard Ellman’s masterful biography of James Joyce (the most common book to turn up in a second hand store, I discovered), a copy of Mrs Beeton and several beautifully bound copies of obscure Victorian poets and novelists.

I came to inhabit the new places I lived through familiarising myself with their bookquarters; Norwich may have disappointed on so  many other levels, but that little area around the cathedral, where antique shops jostled with booksellers along the narrow medieval streets, remains one of my most vivid memories of the city. Paris was all about the second hand, English-language bookstores; I was spending four months in a top-floor apartment with no television and only French-language radio, so I fell upon the Red Wheelbarrow and, naturally, Shakespeare & Co, with all the fervour of a gourmand having finished the Atkins Diet. I read voraciously and indiscriminately, and the piles of books grew higher and higher around my desk by the window. Of course, when, after four months, I had to leave the little deux piece with several scores of bags of books (and a few clothes), family members and friends were called upon to provide a mule service and bring cases of them home. To my eternal shame, I never called upon the one friend of a friend who’d kindly brought a batch home with her to retrieve those books. How cavalier was I with what I thought was an inexhaustible resource.

But how things have changed. I read this yesterday  and discover that the days of books are not only numbered, they are actually in the minus sign already. The advent of digital technology, the proliferation of electronic media, has put paid to the art of book printing for ever, so it would seem. We are now embracing our e-readers, our kindles and our iphones, and forgetting for ever the dusty smell of old paper, the velvet rub of aged leather binding. And this notion profoundly depresses me; I’d have never have gotten the feel for Norwich or Bangor or Paris if I’d been wandering around, head down in some screen or other. Technology has its uses, but its tyranny is to take our eyes and senses away from the world around us, and to focus us into a small narrow square of plastic and flashing cursors. The book, on the other hand, has the tangible link with everything that has gone before it – previous owners, the atmosphere of the second shelf down in the rare books section, the faint whiff of whatever coffee stained the fly-leaf.

And yes, I am aware that by writing this blog (and not trying to publish a pamphlet somewhere to post on the gates of Trinity College) I am participating in the electronic media phenomenon that is threatening to make my beloved books extinct. But this little screen I’m typing into is still surrounded by books and magazines, the floor around me is still covered with volumes that have been exciting me for decades, for months, for days.

I’d love to hear from others about their favourite bookshops, or best book finds – you’d never get the same charge from a kindle, unless you accidentally dropped a cup of water on one!

Good reading



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Writing Home: Irish Writing at home and abroad

Beaumaris and the Straits

Belinda McKeon, whose fine first novel Solace has just been published by Picador, has a fascinating piece on today’s Irish Times about the process of writing the novel, entirely Irish and Ireland-based, whilst living in Brooklyn. You can read it here:

Reading her article, McKeon brought me back to the only time I’ve lived abroad for a prolonged period, which was during the years 2002-2006, when I went back to College, to do a Masters in Creative Writing and, because it felt like a natural progression at the time, a PhD. My ‘abroad’ was no further than the UK, first Norwich, then three gloriously happy years on the island of Anglesey. But although it wasn’t very far in terms of nautical miles (a mere 2 hour ferry journey), it was far enough in imaginative terms to allow me to engage with my own culture in a very different way than had I been still living there among all that was familiar and thus unseen.

McKeon talks about listening to Irish radio, following Irish twitter feeds and even reading the online version of the Longford Leader on one occasion – this helped her to build the fictional world she was creating, not by researching it, but by recreating the emotional atmosphere that would help her to reconstruct her own version of an Irish world. James Joyce would have recognised that instinct, meticulous re-creator of an 1904 Ireland that he was, although in his case it was more a matter of plaguing the little brother to send him theatre programmes and details of who won the 1904 Gold Cup.

I didn’t want such familial or even technological aids, for that matter. When I was writing my verse novel, In Sight of Home, it was the dual vision of the here and there, the echoes of one culture in another, than captured me. In North Wales, the echoes of Ireland were everywhere; on Anglesey, the stone-walled fields of grass and granite were very reminiscent of Wicklow’s grazing planes; place-names had similar origins, for example the Llŷn peninsula originated in the same god Lugh who gave Leinster its name. That peninsula, the closest point to Ireland and beloved of the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, is littered with townlands named after the marauding Irish who swept over the 27 miles of the Irish Sea to take hostages and booty. There’s even an early Christian church named for St. Patrick (Llanbadrig on Anglsey), although closer examination reveals the five possible Patricks for whom it might have been built.

So the book I wrote was very much about reflections, of understanding oneself and one’s culture better through the mirror of another experience, another culture. Here’s a poem, taken from In Sight of Home, which tries to give voice to that:

The landscape is patient,
permits my slow

I turn a bend,
a buzzard leads me,
wing-span wide enough
to fill the windscreen
as he beats the air,
then sweeps away seawards.

I test out place-names,
my tongue still mutinies over
u’s and w’s, hellish double ells.

And proof the eye
will fool you:
standing on Mynydd Mawr
looking towards Wicklow
you might be on Bray Head,
looking back at Lleyn.

Someone speaks,
a different music soars,
reminds you that the ground
you stand on is not your own,
though it might
lend itself a while.

The first lambs out,
and it only February.
Here, where I write,
there’s a new vase,
the first daffodils
coaxing the sun.

As I result of my own time ‘abroad’, I’ve become intrigued about how Irish writers respond creatively when finding themselves living in other places, and, equally, how writers from other countries react when coming to live in Ireland. I’ll be discussing that further in my next blog entry but in the meantime would love to hear from anyone who has had a similar experience.

See you next time


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