Co-ordinating book cover and outfit, anyone?

Skirt and book setIt might go the same way as the 1970s fashion for ties cut from the same fabric as the shirt underneath them but hey, it was worth a (completely coincidential, honestly) shot…

What Becomes Of Us got its first airing in front of a very full house in the Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar on Thursday April 2nd. There was some top speechifying from Ivana Bacik and Ciara Considine, and a little bit of reading out loud by me. Many thanks to Bob at the Gutter for hosting such a great evening and to Ciara, Breda, Joanna and Susie from Hachette for all their work on the book’s behalf. With Ciara and Ivana

And here’s what people are saying about it…

It was reviewed by Louisa Cameron on Arena on RTE Radio 1 on April 1st (about 19 mins in on this link).

“A thoughtful, poignant and insightful novel … there’s a hint of Binchy in McKervey’s ability to tell a complex, entertaining story with intelligence and wit” (Irish Times)

“A beautifully written account of a time when women, still subjugated, were determined to fight for their rights. It’s also a story of friendship, neighbourliness, what family really means, and where it can be found … All of the characters are superbly drawn” (Irish Examiner)

“An impressive debut … There is plenty to admire and contemplate in this enjoyable portrait of Ireland’s many-layered past” (Sunday Business Post)

“An assured debut” (RTE Guide)

(This shelfie is the before shot. I’m glad to report that the after shot was an empty display)

book display

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When grand isn’t good enough

The ever-persuasive Bob Gray from Red & Grey design asked me to work with them and illustrator Barbara Hoffman on an advertising campaign to highlight the work of Ashoka, an organisation that I had to admit to him I didn’t know much about. (Bob soon changed all that). The end results are now on a billboard near you. In Ireland we tell each other that everything is ‘grand’ over and over. But it’s not, and Ashoka is an organisation stuffed full of people who are determined to challenge ‘grand‘ and in doing so, make things better for everyone. CHANGE5CHANGE CHANGE2 CHANGE3 CHANGE4

The Hennessy Literary Awards

At the 44th Hennessy Literary Awards on February 24th, Sara Baume was named Hennessy New Irish Writer 2015, Paula Meehan was inducted to the Hennessy Literary Awards Hall of Fame, Simon Lewis won the emerging poetry award and I won the first Fiction Prize. (Woo hoo). image

 

 

 

 

Books featuring drinking, yes; I’ve seen plenty of them. (Raymond Carver is the obvious choice I guess; David Lodge also writes fantastic drinking scenes in The British Museum is Falling Down). But a book that actually is a drink – that was new to me. And as you can tell from the phoIMG_4322to – Margaret Halton of United Agents is on my right – I’m very happy with my lot. As well as the personalised, book-bound bottles of cognac we received, Hennessy also put up a generous prize fund. A big thanks to Hennessy, to Ciaran Carty, Martina Devlin and Xiaolu Guo.

 

When the nominations were announced in January I wrote, ‘there are few outlets for short stories, and even fewer that publish so consistently and with such a profile as New Irish Writing. Just being accepted for it was a big deal for me; getting this far is extra jam on the bread.

I got the jam and then some.

 

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The group photo is from the Irish Times website.

 

26 is the magic number

A couple of years ago I came across the collective 26. I don’t remember exactly how, but most likely while reading an old blog piece by writer-for-business and one of 26’s co-founders John Simmons. A highly regarded copywriter and former writing juror for D&AD, his books on writing and why tone of voice matters in design and advertising are must-reads for business writers. I recommend starting with We, Me, Them & It then if you’re thirsty for more (sorry) Innocent: Building A Brand From Nothing But Fruit. I took two of his D&AD copywriting workshops some years ago and he is as enthusiastic and encouraging in person as in print. After one of the workshops he asked if he could include a piece I wrote in his book Twenty-six ways of looking at a blackberry. (My answer: ‘cripes, yes please!’)IMG_3748

So I linked on over to 26 and found a creative community united by a love of words and a determination to make words work and live harder. What’s not to like? It’s a busy, friendly not-for-profit, run for and by its members. In 2014 I signed up for two projects: 26 Atlantic Crossings and 26 Designs.

26 Atlantic Crossings was a collaborative exhibition between 26 visual artists from Prince Edward County in Ontario, Canada, and 26 writers from Ireland and the UK, who ‘gave voice’ to a piece of their artwork in the form of a sestude. (It was new to me too: John Simmons’ invention, a sestude is a piece of writing with exactly 62 words, i.e. 26 in reflection). The this-side-of-the-Atlantic bit was organised by John and Faye Sharpe. My editor was Tom Collins. I was paired with artist David Boorne, who lives with his wife on a farm in Prince Edward County, 300k in from Toronto. The farmhouse dates from the 1880’s, which as Dave said himself, is an old house by Canadian standards. His artwork was a sculptural series of frames, itself forming one long framed piece. I loved the idea of the frame being the content itself, and I wrote a piece about the imaginary pictures that may once have inhabited each. One of the many things I enjoy about 26 projects 26 acis that they are encouraged to develop and turn and find their own forms. 26 Atlantic Crossings evolved into a book designed by Sophie Gordon.

With 26 Designs – managed by Katie Treggiden & Ellie Parker, and my editor was Elena Bowes – six of us were paired with 26 new designers during London Design Festival, and asked to write 100 words in response to one of their designs. These pieces were illustrated and all featured in the new design magazine Fiera, edited by Katie. I was lucky enough to be pulled out of that hat with London-based designer and bone china specialist Richard Brendon, who will be exhibiting at the V&A Museum this year. I had come across him before in magazine features about his stunning Reflect series, which brings life back to antique saucers that have lost their other halves, by teaming them up with highly reflective cups. He launched his new Speck series during the London Design Festival. Every piece in this collection is decorated with a seemingly random array of dots. Hmm, I thought. I sat down to work on my response to Speck just after I came back from an overnight stay in the Fastnet Lighthouse. The tiny dots breaking up the clear white of the china reminded me of the beam of the Fastnet lamp, and the way it touches the sea, flaring to life for a moment before moving on.26 designs piece The beautiful illustration is by Assa Ariyoshi.

I regret not putting my name forward for was 26 Ghosts, a ghost story writing project last year. At the time I convinced myself it was because I wouldn’t have something done in time, but really, I was afraid I wouldn’t come up with anything at all. Afraid of a ghost story? Tut Tut. That’s not the 26 way.

I shall know better next time.

Thanks to Rosa aged five for the ’26’.

26

The search for Josephine Rowe

(This is a longer version of a piece which was first broadcast on Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio 1 on January 25th.)

The dead aren’t easy to find. You’d think they would be, what with death notices in newspapers, indexes of wills, and even the online census to hurtle us back in time as far as 1911 whenever we want. And yet, when I went hunting for a woman called Josephine Rowe, who died in 1945 (and even that piece of information was hard won), she proved surprisingly elusive.Macushla sheet music But the story doesn’t start in 1945 – how could it start where it supposedly ends? – so let’s go back further. To 1910 maybe, because it was about then Josephine wrote a poem called Macushla – the literal translation is my pulse, but it’s used to mean my darling or sweetheart – which was set to music by a man called Dermot MacMurrough. It is a sentimental plea for love; a tale of longing and loss and despair. John McCormack, in one of his earliest outings for the Victor Label, recorded it in 1911. On this recording, he was accompanied by the Victor Orchestra and it was produced by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Someone sure understood what branding meant in that company. In this 1911 version you can hear his highest voice ever recorded, yet to my one-hundred-odd-years-later ears it sounds so forced: the high, brassy crackle of his voice over the repetitive fuzz and static of the disc itself reminds me of the train in the story The Little Engine That Could valiantly struggling, “I think I can I think I can” up the hill. John McCormack’s recording was to be the first of many. In 1933 Macushla was used in an American movie Paddy The Next Best Thing, and five years later, unlikely as it sounds, in the film Hawaii Calls. Fast-forward sixty years and Frank Patterson sings it in the film Michael Collins. Zip forward again and not only does Hilary Swank have Mo cuishle embroidered on her boxing silks in the movie Million Dollar Baby, but the crowd sings the song at various points during the film. More recently, Rufus Wainwright has given it a defiant heartbreak I never could discern in previous versions. You can find him on YouTube, dressed in well-worn lederhosen, singing Macushla in cities around the world. His mother, the late folk singer Kate McGarrigle forced him to learn it, he jokes. So what about its author? I became curious when I wrote What Becomes Of Us, a book set in 1965-1966. There is a scene in which a central character, a child called Anna, sings Macushla to herself, unintentionally imitating the speeded-up whine of the old record player it’s played on. Josephine Rowe was born in Carlow in 1861 or ’62, where her father had a jewellery and watchmaking business. A respected and popular man, when Matthew William Rowe died in 1899 the Leinster Express reported that, ‘his disposition won for him a large circle of friends, who deeply mourn his death. Mr Rowe had passed through many of the painful scenes which have occurred in Ireland, and his retentive mind could recall the sad scenes of the cholera and the famine years.’ The report doesn’t mention that he went bankrupt in the year his daughter was born.

But what of his daughter? Josephine seems to have ping-ponged from Ireland to England and back for decades. The 1881 census records her as a pupil teacher in Kent, by 1889 she’s in Dublin and marrying Joseph Crawford, a clerk from Rathmines. There is no sign of her in the Irish census of 1901, but in 1911, the UK census finds her aged 50, married for 21 years and without children, alone in lodgings in Twickenham. She lists her occupation as ‘lyrical writer and journalist (unattached).’ I presume that unattached means what we would now call freelance, rather a reference to her solitary status on census night. Not long before that, in December 1910, her poem The Lights O’ Lundy was published in the North Devon Journal. This poem isn’t up to much in my opinion, so I have decided to believe it’s just a piece of its time, and shouldn’t be subjected to too harsh a contemporary scrutiny. Lundy is a island in the Bristol Channel, twelve miles from the Devon coast. These days, it is permanent home to about twenty people. I came across it – so to speak – during my exploration of the Shipping Forecast as part of the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. Her poem has a Macushla-lite quality to it: ‘Oh! flashing lights o’ Lundy/ I see you softly gleam-/ Across the waster of waters,/ You fling your silvery beam.’ It continues in that vein for some time, as you can see.

The Lights of Lundy In 1923 her second book, entitled Lyrics, Irish and Other was published. It was available to purchase for three shillings and sixpence directly from its author, now based in Gloucester. Does selling her book by mail order from her house imply things weren’t going too well? Possibly. As it would seem to have been in her life, in her writing she had only the one Macushla: a song which, for all its syrupy nostalgia, resonates with our sentimental hearts. A hundred years later I wonder would she have been dismissively referred to a one-hit wonder and consigned to bargain bins and the occasional just-before-Christmas live performance? Josephine Rowe died in Gloucester on April 1st 1945. The National Library of Ireland and Trinity College each have a few signed copies of her books and manuscripts in their collections. According to the UK Index of Wills and Administrations bequeathed her effects to a solicitor called Robert Tweedy Smith. She left £160, 14 shillings and sixpence; by far the smallest sum recorded in the dozen other deaths that keep her company on that particular page of the Index. This solicitor had also inherited money from a spinster in Worthing some years before. His name appears on passenger lists of ships that sailed to New York, New Zealand and Jamaica. But his life, and how he spent the small sum that was all Josephine Rowe owned when she died, is a story for another day.

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With many thanks to JJ for the tip-top research.
The shorter version of this piece can be heard on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, January 25th. Piece starts 38 minutes in. 

Keeping good company: the 2014 Hennessy nominees

I’m one of 18 writers shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards 2014. The shortlist was announced in The Irish Times today – January 24th – and there’ll be a big do (what the article describes as a ‘gala ceremony’) on February 24th. This year’s panel are writer Martina Devlin, facilitator Ciaran Carty and author Xiaolu Guo (be still my beating keyboard: I have a big writer-crush on her, since I read Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth in 2008). There are few outlets for short stories, and even fewer that publish so consistently and with such a profile as New Irish Writing. Just being accepted for it was a big deal for me; getting this far is extra jam on the bread. Formerly in the Irish Independent, New Irish Writing is moving to The Irish Times. So many Irish writers got an early (or even their first) run out in New Irish Writing – the list includes Mary Costello, Patrick McCabe, Deirdre Madden, Neil Jordan and Sebastian Barry, as well as one of my favourites Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. She is going to be presented with the Irish PEN Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature 2015 in February.

My story, The Dead of Winter, was published in May last year. It was inspired by the sight of Rockfleet Castle, in Co Mayo, on a wet summer day in 2013. We were on a boat tour of the bay with a clatter of kids and friends on a rainy summer holiday. Dark and inaccessible, the castle had a solid dignity that stuck with me. Then I came across Granuaile and her meeting with Queen Elizabeth in a book of my daughter’s about pirates. Four hundred years ago two of the most powerful people in Europe were women. I find the story of the only time they met very moving, because the reason for that meeting wasn’t power or status; it was love. I took Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s folklore module on the creative writing programme in UCD, and an exercise she gave us was to use folkloric motifs and structure. I remembered that boat trip, and Granuaile, and wrote the story in response. the dead of winter image

The Dead Of Winter

Typical, just typical. I’ve trudged five cold, rain-sodden miles out from Newport to visit Grace O’Malley’s castle only there’s nothing to see. Not even a sign – unless you count the tatty Office of Public Works: Keep Out notice swinging from the broken railings, which I don’t. What was I expecting to find, I wonder? A boom-time Interpretative Centre? Jaunty, pirate-themed cafe? I jam my hands harder into the pockets of my fleece. Even a leaflet would have been nice.

Rockfleet Castle sits at the edge of the water, squat and square and solid. It must be black as soot on the inside. Now that I’m closer (that gap in the railings somewhat undermining the creaking authority of the Keep Out notice) I can see that the castle is the edge of the water: its walls climb from the sea, a gift thrown to the land.

I have taken myself away from my life for three days.

‘That’s all I want,’ I told my husband, ‘three days away.’

‘A mini-break?’ he said. ‘There’s great deals, hotels are on their knees this time of year. But I’m too busy to take time off.’ He was sitting on the end of our bed, clipping his toenails. ‘Maybe… ‘ he said, ‘if Mam took Cuan, and Jack went to your sister? I’ll think about it.’ Each slim sliver he placed neatly on the floor, and when he was finished he gathered them into a pile. A tiny white shoal dropped into the bin under his night table. For me to fish out, I supposed.

‘By myself,’ I said.

‘You want a mini-break by yourself?’ He looked puzzled. I realised he could imagine only the holiday we would take together. Us, sipping Guinness in country pubs; us frittering away a day in deciding where to have dinner. He thought I wanted the holiday I would have with him, only without him.

‘I want to be alone. For three days. That’s all. I won’t get through the winter otherwise.’

‘But what about the boys?’ he said, in bed now, the glow of the iPad ghoulish on his face. He thinks I make too much of it. Of her. That it – she – consumes me. That I alone tighten the iron band around my heart. I know he thinks it, and he knows I know.

Water laps the sides of the castle, licking the stone.

‘You alright there?’

‘Jesus!’ I jump, whirl around, ‘You scared me half to death!’

‘Sorry.’ The man is wearing an oil slicker and black bobble hat. He steps back and holds up his hands as though I am cranky dog, liable to nip. He looks older than me, though that could be the beard. He points down a half-hidden slope that leads to a small jetty. The prow of a boat bobs in and out of sight. ‘You were getting fierce close to the edge.’

‘I was looking for a door.’

‘It’s around the far side, but the castle’s shut up for the winter. You’ve no fear of ghosts then? It’s haunted by Grace O’Malley herself.’

‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘Sure.’

He nods and I can’t tell whether he didn’t get that I was being sarcastic, or just didn’t care.

‘She died here, but her head was buried out on Clare Island and her body is said to set sail from here every night in search of it.’

‘There’s no such thing as ghosts.’

‘There’d be no such thing as ghost stories, so,’ he shrugs. ‘I’ll take you out in the boat, if you want? I’m done fishing, there’s feck all out there today but it’s light enough for a half hour.’

‘You’re a fisherman?’ I say stupidly. I’ve never met a fisherman before, which now strikes me as odd, considering how much fish I eat.

‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘But in the summer I do better from the tourists. Two hour tour, 20 euro a head. Seals, mussel farms, Louis Walsh’s summer house, the lot.’ When he nods the bobble on his hat jigs up and down. ‘They can’t get enough of Louis Walsh.’

I imagine my husband’s look of horror if he could see me now: alone in the dusk in a dead-end with this stranger, this sea-faring giant. My jeans are stiff from the rain and it’s awkward to climb down the metal ladder to the boat so I take off my thick gloves. I gasp when my hands touch the freezing iron and he – Murrough, his name is – grabs my elbow. Once again I picture my husband’s face (waves of horror, a distinct undertow of reproach) and all of a sudden I’m conscious of the scared thump in my heart and about to exclaim, no! do you know what? I think I’ll leave it for today after all, when he jumps back saying, ‘It’s them last few rungs are the tricky ones, people jump thinking they’re in, only they’re not.’

We chug out into Clew Bay, the engine announcing us to the darkening sea. I guess I can always fling myself overboard if I have to, though the water looks so unforgiving I decide I will take my chances on board. I feel an unexpected pang for the Seaview Hotel, for my small room with its commanding view of the leisure centre’s external ventilation system. Guilt had caused me to book cheaply and unwisely, and thanks to its Winter Warmer Offer – three nights for the price of two, breakfast and dinner thrown in – the hotel is humming with guests. My fellow bargain hunters are either much older than me and enjoying mid-week leisure time, or families with pre-schoolers.

‘I took the early retirement package,’ a man had confided to me in the lift, his pinkish cheeks and juniper breath telling a story of golf, of gin and tonics at the nineteenth. ‘And we’ve not looked back since.’

I am that holiday oddity; a woman alone. In the restaurant I’ve noticed older women looking curiously at me. The mothers of small children regard me with something more like envy: I know they are picturing my long hours of unbroken sleep in clean sheets, and my not driving around aimlessly for an hour every lunchtime because the toddler refuses to nap in the twenty-euro-per-night-surcharge travel cot.

I have spent the last two days rambling up and down The Greenway trail before coming back to the hotel for a late swim when the pool is quiet. I have kept myself busy and alone. That way I can think about Poppy, can let her fill my thoughts entirely, and still play fair – more than fair; play kind – with the present. When I phoned home Cuan and Jack were chatty and said they missed me. My husband sounded tense and bemused and only when I hung up did I realise why: he hadn’t actually believed I’d go.

‘Who owns that house there?’ I point at the long low lines of grey stone; a ghostly shape flittering through a bank of winter trees.

‘Yer man who used be the American Ambassador. Funny enough, no-one gives a feck to see his house.’ The boat motors along for another minute and then, ‘Once upon a time,’ Murrough says.

‘What?’ This must be his patter for tourists. ‘A fairy story?’

‘A true story.’

‘Then you shouldn’t have once upon a time. If your story is true, it’s a legend and they can’t start with once upon a time.’ I am aware of how daft, how childishly pedantic, I sound.

‘It’s my story,’ he doesn’t look at me, ‘I can have it whatever way I want.’

I turn my head to the sea because my eyes have filled with tears.

‘Once upon a time,’ he says, then laughs, ‘Fair enough. In 1593, Grace O’Malley, pirate queen of Ireland, set sail for London from the very same harbour as ourselves. Her youngest son Tibóid – her favourite for reason of being born at sea – had been taken prisoner by the English and charged with treason, which carried a sentence of death.’

He pauses. I edge closer to the wheelhouse.

‘She sailed her ship the Malendroke as if her own life depended on it and when she got to the Thames Estuary word was sent to Queen Elizabeth. Pirate corpses hung along the Estuary, so she’d have known her fate if she didn’t play her cards right. Elizabeth sent her a list of eighteen questions, but when she received Granuaile’s answers she left her waiting six weeks before agreeing to see her.’ His voice is bigger than the story needs, I suppose he’s used to a chattering, camera-flashing audience. ‘It felt like a lifetime to Granuaile, but it was a good omen; she’d been warned she might be still waiting at Christmas.’

Christmas. Poppy died on December twenty-second, three years ago.

‘She had meningitis,’ I’ve heard my husband tell people, but to me meningitis had her. It consumed her, destroyed her. And now, when summer is over and the boys go back to school, I feel the draw into winter as a tug to that date.

I close my eyes and let four hundred years fall away. Two women living men’s lives face each other. A Queen trussed up in a farthingale, face harshly painted, rotting teeth shored up with pieces of stale bread. Bright and garish, she is a flightless tropical bird. Grace O’Malley has hair woven from waterweeds and loose, homespun clothes. Her face is raw from a life at sea. They are the two most powerful women of their age and the only time they will ever meet is for one to beg the other for a life.

The boat lurches and seawater slops over my jeans. Spray touches my eyelids and they shoot open. Through the wet light of the wheelhouse his yellow oil slicker gleams like gold.

‘-and so,’ he is saying and I realise I must have missed a bit, ‘Granuaile’s words worked. Elizabeth released her son and let her ply her trade in peace in these waters. The Queen was so impressed she had her lads draw a map of Ireland with Granuaile included as a chieftain of Mayo. She was the only woman ever to be named a chieftain.’ He pauses and raises his eyebrows till they disappear under his hat. ‘And,’ he adds with a grin, ‘they all lived happily ever after.’

‘How do you know so much about her?’

‘My own people are descended – I don’t know how many greats back – from her grand-nephew, he was another Tibóid.’ He turns the wheel in a wide arc. ‘Let’s head in now, maybe we’ll get a seal or two to perform for us on the way.’

We head back for the harbour and Newport and the road to Dublin and my life of the last three years and the years before that and the years yet to come. I can’t see it, but I know Croagh Patrick rises, tall and broad and severe, from the mists on the land to one side. I turn my back to it and look at Rockfleet looming ahead, the moon turning its grey stone to silver. The castle was owned by Granuaile’s second husband, Murrough says, but under Brehon Law she divorced him by calling Richard Burke, I dismiss you, from a window and lo! it became hers. ”Twas easier done in them days,’ he grins.

I picture her on the turret, red hair fizzing and gossamer-thin nets spinning from her fingers as far as her eye could see and her heart could want.

He tucks his boat into the crook of the harbour and we clunk up the ladder. My lungs are full of sea-cold air, my throat scratchy with salt. I offer him twenty euro. ‘Ah, you’re grand,’ he gently pushes my hand away, ‘You didn’t see much after all.’

And from up ahead I hear the wind grab the loose Keep Out notice and beat it, beat it hard against the railings.

Showing and telling about show don’t tell

That creative writing can be taught is a debate as old as the teaching of creative writing. Show And Tell, my take on the subject, was published in Connections, the UCD Alumni magazine circulated with the Irish Times on Friday September 5th. (I recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing in UCD.) Many thanks to James Ryan, Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Molly McCloskey, Paula McGrath, Andrea Carter and Grainne Shanley O’Toole for their comments and contributions!

You can read Connections here.