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Two Exciting Debuts

2 covers - Dedalus Press, poetry from ireland and the world

AT DEDALUS PRESS, as well as publishing books by some of the best known names in Irish poetry, we’ve long dedicated ourselves to working with the rising generation of writers, many of whom are equally as comfortable on the stage as on the page.

We’re particularly pleased now to be issuing the debut collections of two of the most admired of the younger poets now publishing and performing across the country. Erin Fornoff and Elaine Cosgrove very much have their own distinctive voices, but what they share is a passion, an urgency and a belief in the power of the word, spoken and written, that promises much for their respective futures.

Small Town Synaesthesia

Erin Fornoff

At the station, slicks of oil tie-dye the puddles
in the concrete, below the pumps, as they tick over
the litres and gallons. They reflect the sun,
turn it wild, hold it in the cracked dips of the ground.

When he balances the till at the end of the shift
the numbers throb coloured across the spectrum;
they cast a lemon scent when the totals align.

The streetlight haze makes him taste salt.
Sneakers hum, make a pale green sound
as players fight for the rebound.

Colour: his secret language. Smell and taste and noise:
his tangled fluency. Can he grow to see his unruly filter
as a gift, beyond affliction? Turn his own faulty wiring
into some exalted circuitry?

The door chimes in the town’s one restaurant.
It blooms a purple sheen behind his eyes, and dims
as the noise fades. They know him when he walks in.

He’s been hanging out at this same gas station,
drinking this same beer, having this same chat,
since growing pains disheveled his sleep. He’s mastered
the edit of his own thoughts.

Small towns remake teenagers
into polished stones, tumbled by peer pressure,
grey as concrete. Every sound dances an acid trip
across his brain. He wonders what shapes
the train whistle makes when it blows
in other places. He is oil catching sunlight.



Elaine Cosgrove

What does the failed heart know anymore?
Does it know to live on until it dies;
to stop being a balled-up fury
of wringing hands that bathe in salt to wrinkles?
What does the breaker know of the lupine days
paid for on a three-bedroom at minus one,
minus you; Canary-coloured walls ear
the bounce-back of silence over dinner.
What does the connection do when it’s gone?
How do the lines fill up their hollow gaps
with new wires? Will the feedback from the
permanent interruptions make you turn off the sound?
    This from your breaker: learn to make
    a joy that’s all your own and make it very loud.

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The Singing Without Ceasing

Catherine Ann Cullen - Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

Catherine Ann Cullen on the songscape of a Dublin childhood

This post takes its title from “Family Crest”, a tongue-in-cheek poem in my collection The Other Now (Dedalus, 2016) that uses as a central motif the coat of arms of my family. On the crest is a mermaid combing her hair and, in the poem, I imagine the siren luring men to their deaths, and reflect on how ‘singing without ceasing’ has been a feature of my own life. I’ve referenced many ballads below, and used the Child and Roud ballad numbers to identify each one; if anyone would like to look at the words of the songs, see HERE (Child) or HERE (Roud).

I recently completed a PhD in which I interrogated my own work and its sources, teasing out, in the process, the strands of folk music that created the soundscape of my childhood. I examined the influence on my poetry, children’s books and broadcasting of the work of song-collectors such as Frank Harte and my uncle Gerry Cullen, who popularised a respect for what singer and researcher Padraigín Ní Uallacháin, in her book, A Hidden Ulster: People, songs and traditions of Oriel (Four Courts Press, 2003), has called ‘the men and women who lived here the day before yesterday … who held fast to their individual and collective voice through song’.

My study located both myself and my work in the aural landscape of childhood, which informed my emerging identity as a repository for the family’s songs, stories and piseoga (superstitions) as well as my passions in literature, children’s literature, music and folklore.

The PhD was prompted by a range of coinciding circumstances. One was my growing awareness of, and research into, my immersion in folksong in childhood. Another was an increasing interest in Ireland in local versions of the ballads annotated by American collector Francis Child (1825-1896) from manuscripts and sources in England and Scotland – an increase exemplified by a recent Arts Council-funded project by researchers Michael Fortune and Aileen Lambert, which brought Irish singers together in a series of events including at the National Library of Ireland, to speak about and sing their favourite versions of ballads collected by Child. (The collector did not include Ireland in his seminal work on ballad versions, published in five volumes from 1882-1898, but many of the songs he collected had been sung in Ireland, with local variations, before, during and after his time.) A third was the return to primacy of performance poetry, which places the art back in the oral, performed and often sung tradition where its origins in largely pre-literate societies lie; and a fourth, my desire to systematise my knowledge of ballads and folksong and to critically evaluate my past practice and writings, to the benefit of future work.


The Singing House

I was blessed to be the first grandchild of my father’s mother, Kitty Cullen née Hand. Dad was the eldest of her sixteen children, two of whom died shortly after they were born. She was a warm and gentle woman who had left school by the time she was 12 and was conscious of her lack of learning. If we asked her anything to do with schoolwork, she would say, “Sure, I only met the scholars coming home,” or, “I only got to first book,” that last word pronounced ‘buke’ in her broad Drogheda accent.

She loved walking the country lanes around Drogheda, and my memories of walking with her are of picking blackberries and wild flowers, each of us holding a branch above our heads to keep off the flies. I liked her names for plants, ‘poor man’s bread’ (young hawthorn leaves), ‘piss-the-bed’ (dandelions) and ‘sour-belly’ (wood sorrel).

In her small house, she fed not only her own large family, but many visitors who called or stayed. Although the house was full of music as I was growing up, mainly my uncles and their friends with guitars, I rarely heard her sing anything except one of Moore’s Melodies as she worked in the kitchen, perhaps “Oft in the Stilly Night” [Roud V931], or the popular Irish dandling song, “Dilín Ó Damhas”:

Caithfimid suas is suas
Caithfimid suas an pháiste        
Caithfimid suas is suas
Is tiocfaidh sí ‘nuas amárach

(We’ll toss her up and up
We’ll toss up the baby
We’ll toss her up and up
And she’ll come down tomorrow)

I’d heard my maternal grandmother singing a similar song in English –

We’ll throw her up, up, up,
We’ll throw her up so high,
We’ll throw her up, up, up,
And she’ll come down by and by.

She didn’t dance at all,
She didn’t dance today.
She didn’t dance at all,
Today nor yesterday.

It was not so much a dandling as a bouncing song, a song for throwing the giggling child in the air as high as one dared or the child tolerated, before catching them again.

There were other, wordless tunes that were used to dandle children on the knee, and were associated with Irish dancing – when we didn’t have a musician to hand, it was common to both my paternal and maternal grandparents and their siblings to make the dance music themselves with the nonsense words ‘tralala, tralalal’ or ‘rowtilty, dowdilty, dowdility dow’. The latter tune I later identified as “The Frost is All Over”, a tune passed on orally in many families throughout the country.

The only other song I remember my grandmother singing regularly was on those country walks when we would see lambs in a field, and she would stop and break into a tune that I have tried to trace for years. There are two verses, of which this is the first. I have never heard it sung except by the Cullens:

In the meadow green, I saw a lamb
And he lay beside his ma,
When I said to the lamb, what is your name?
He only answered, ‘baa!’

So skip, skip, my lambkin, skip, skip, away,
For you have nothing to do today
But to frolic in the fields, while the birdies in the trees
Sing a sweet little song to you.

Although my memories of my grandmother’s songs are few, I remember her welcoming presence as one that encouraged a flowering of community and music in her home. That home – a small terraced house that was always full of people – is at the centre of my passion for songs.


Seven Sources of Song

Many elements combined to create the rich songscape of my childhood, but seven critical sources are outlined here.

  1. Songs from my mother’s home in Tralee, County Kerry, where English was liberally sprinkled with Irish words and idioms, a language I have tried to capture in a poem in The Other Now, “Inheritance”. My mother, Mary Roche, attended Coláiste Íde, the Irish-language boarding school and preparatory college in Dingle, and spoke and sang fluently in Irish. My maternal grandmother died when I was eight years old, but up until then and for several years afterwards I spent summers in Kerry, between Tralee and the Gaeltacht area around Dingle, where my mother’s sister lived. Her husband and some of my cousins were accomplished traditional musicians, playing the box accordion among other instruments, and speaking fluent Irish. This contrasted with our time in my grandmother’s home in Tralee, where she and her sisters spoke and sang in English. Their chosen songs were a combination of Moore’s Melodies such as “Believe Me, if all Those Endearing Young Charms”; popular songs like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”, and Irish emigrant ballads such as “The Wild Colonial Boy” [Roud 677] or “The Boston Burglar” [Roud 261], and at every session, someone sang “The Rose of Tralee” [Roud 1978]. The romantic phrases in some of these songs piqued my early interest in poetry: the ending of “Believe Me…” – ‘and around the dear ruin, each wish of my heart would entwine itself verdantly still’ – I found especially beautiful, and being an occasionally wild and wayward child myself, I took satisfaction in the fact that the wild colonial boy, a Robin Hood figure who ‘was born and bred… in Castlemaine’, about ten miles from Tralee, was ‘a credit to his parents’, despite his disreputable ways. Often in the evenings, my great-aunt Maria would start several songs in her quavering voice, forget the words and break off with a ‘wait a while now, lads….’ In the end, she would begin a rummaging search for what she called ‘The Song Book’, which to my mind was an important family treasure. My father especially enjoyed and encouraged this comic ritual.
  2. Songs from my father, Jack Cullen, who grew up in Drogheda, within what my mother immediately recognised as the thoroughly anglicised ‘Pale’ when she moved there to teach in the village of Tullyallen at the age of twenty. Dad had learnt Irish at school, was passionate about the language, and encouraged my mother to sing in the tongue she had come to hold in scant regard. He was also an accomplished amateur singer and guitarist, who transcribed old and new ballads into a series of notebooks – a tradition I copied in childhood and have continued ever since. His repertoire ranged from songs in Irish to folksongs and American country blues. For most of his life he worked with chemicals in the laboratory of the Electricity Supply Board, and he developed severe contact dermatitis which curtailed his pastimes of processing his own photographs and playing the guitar. By the time I was about 12, he was no longer able to play for hours for his own enjoyment. He confined his sessions to our ‘under the tree’ Christmas carol singing (where he would hand his guitar to me when his hands got too sore), and the occasional extended Cullen family sing-song, when he would invariably sing “On Raglan Road”, Patrick Kavanagh’s romantic poem set to the Irish tune “Fáinne Geal an Lae”, literally ‘The Bright Ring of the Day’ but usually translated as “The Dawning of the Day” [Roud 370].

    My father’s music for “(On) Raglan Road” (right) and “Fáinne Geal an Lae” (top left)
  3. Kavanagh’s poem includes the line, ‘Let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day’, a line so synonymous with my father that it was the quotation we chose to put on his gravestone. The stonecutter told me that he had never been asked to carve the words before. At the end of “On Raglan Road”, my father always sang the opening verse of the original Irish song. The mouth music of its internal rhymes was pleasing to my ear for years before I understood its meaning, and the song was my introduction to the phrase ‘an chúilfhionn’, literally ‘the fair-backed one’, which would become central to a story for children, Sea Change, that I would write decades later as a commission for RTÉ Radio 1:
  4. Cé gheobhainn le m’ais ach an chúilfhionn deas,
    Le fáinne geal an lae.
    (Who found I there but the fair-haired maid
    At the bright ring of the day?)

  5. Songs collected and sung in Drogheda, which was becoming a centre of ballad-sourcing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mainly of English-language songs. Thanks to collector and singer Seán Corcoran and to my uncle Gerry Cullen, a respected arranger and singer, many rare local songs are back in the repertoire of traditional musicians. Gerry is a member of The Voice Squad, a trio whose style is inspired by the Northern Irish tradition of unaccompanied solo singing, and by English groups who sang in harmony, such as The Copper Family from East Sussex and the Watersons from Hull in Yorkshire. On the sleeve notes for their 2014 album, Concerning of Three Young Men, Colm Tóibín wrote of the group:They approach each song… not as a way of displaying the singer’s personality but as a way of exploring and evoking and finding the actual song’s inner core, the song’s most hidden truth… For anyone working as an artist – whether musician or writer or painter – they offer a nourishing example because of their sheer attention to detail and their sonorous mastery of form.

    Death and the Lady: a page from a song notebook of Gerry Cullen’s left in our house c. 1968
  6. Gerry’s respect for songs has been a persistent influence on my interest in ballads and indeed on my writing. During the regular singing sessions at my father’s childhood home, we children were always encouraged to perform our party pieces alongside the adults. We visited the house almost every Sunday for decades, and there was a palpable interest in any new song, especially any folk song, that we brought. For years, one of my songs was “The Handsome Butcher”, a Hungarian ballad I learned at school at the age of seven. Years later, I discovered that it had been collected and translated by the English folklorist A.L. Lloyd. It was one of many songs that my siblings and I were coaxed to sing each week in Drogheda. All our relatives knew the words, although they usually allowed us to sing them on our own, perhaps joining in the chorus. Special respect was afforded to Gerry’s songs, those which were part of local tradition and occasionally those he had written himself. Though shy of performing his own work outside of the family circle, he has penned hundreds of songs, some of them for family weddings and occasions. He also writes poetry, and when I was eight years old, I was deeply impressed when he had a poem, “Triptych”, published on the front page of the Irish Press. Gerry has always been generous to me, not only in sharing his art and his knowledge of songs. Once, when I was a young teenager, I admired a zither that was leaning against the wall of his tiny bedroom in Drogheda. He insisted on giving it to me and it remains one of my treasures, a slim, harp-like instrument, painted with a gypsy rose, that featured in a radio essay I wrote for RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany programme about music and dreams.
  7. A few songs from my paternal grandfather’s childhood home on a tiny and impoverished hill-farm in Tyrone, where the fire in the hearth (it was said) had not gone out in three hundred years. My grandfather, Joe Cullen, had a nonsense song for soothing children to sleep – ‘Eee-Aw-Bo’ – which worked its charm on his grandchildren and has continued into several generations. ‘I was singing Eee-Aw-Bo for an hour’ was often heard from an exhausted parent. It was only years later I discovered the source of the song in a late 19th century music hall song called ‘Little Annie Rooney’ [Roud 4822], whose chorus went:

She’s my sweetheart, I’m her beau,
She’s my Annie, I’m her Joe,
Soon we’ll marry, never to part,
For little Annie Rooney is my sweetheart.

Because my grandfather’s name was Joe, I suspect he enjoyed singing the song, and can only speculate that some lisping Cullen child many years ago, who did not know the words, imitated the vowel sounds of the first two lines and turned it into a nonsense, ‘lulling’ song which went into the family repertoire as

Eee-aw, eee-aw, eee-aw-bo,
Eee-aw (insert first name of child), eee-aw-i-bo,
Soon we’ll marry, never to part,
For little (insert full name of child) is my sweetheart.

Joe had a version of “The Old Woman from Wexford” [Roud 183], a comic ballad about a woman who gets a recipe from her doctor ‘to make her old man blind’. The husband tricks her into believing the recipe has worked and tells her that he would drown himself ‘if he could find the stream’. She obligingly offers to push him in – but he steps aside and she plunges in instead. It was years before I realised that Joe had a unique variant of the song – when the wife calls for help, the husband ‘took out his kibblin’ stick/And he kibbled her further in.’

There are countless versions of this ballad – over fifty are referenced in the massive collection by Coleraine man Sam Henry which was published as Sam Henry’s Songs of the People (University of Georgia Press, 1990) edited by Lani Herrmann, Gale Huntington and John Moulden. In some, the husband uses ‘a barge pole’, in some ‘a (big) long pole’, and in some ‘a churnstaff’ to push his wife, but in none of them have I found my grandfather’s ‘kibblin’ stick’. It appears as ‘kibbling, n. Also kibblin, kibling: A thick, rough stick, a cudgel’, in The Dictionary of the Scots Language, (online here: and the three examples given of the word’s usage are from the 1820s. Northern Ireland and Scotland share many dialect words, and perhaps ‘kibbling’ was once among them. It is one of the ‘lost words’ preserved only in song, a theme I write about in my poem, “In Memory of Frank Harte”. In the case of ‘kibbling’, perhaps that lost stick was preserved in our family alone, but I hold out hope that I will one evening find myself at a singing session where someone else will sing the song using my grandfather’s word.

“Rights”, a republican poem/ballad written by me, aged 10, after Bloody Sunday in 1972 – probably the least offensive of a collection I wrote into a notebook

Joe also sang ‘The Mountains of Pomeroy’, a song based in the hills near his tiny homestead in the townland of Turnabarson – a townland that features in my poems, “The Shoe-Box Coffin” and “Always Not There”. The song was one of several written by Dr George Sigerson (1836-1925), a leading light in the Irish Literary Revival, and its combination of an outlaw hiding in the mountains, and the doomed young woman who goes to meet him through a terrible storm, was thrilling to my childhood mind:

But the mist came down and the tempest roared,
And did all around destroy;
And a pale, drowned bride met Renardine,
On the mountains of Pomeroy.

That mountain tryst, and the ‘pale drowned bride’, were strong influences on one of my first attempts at ballad-writing at the age of 12, an unintentionally comic maudlin song called ‘Corinna’ about ‘a lame mountain goatherd’ and ‘a maiden so pretty and sweet’, which ended with ‘Johann’ falling in the snow and dying outside his lover’s cabin.

The way the songs of my paternal grandparents were passed to me is an example of the wonderful Irish term for oral folklore, béaloideas, literally ‘mouth knowledge’. Songs that I’ve never seen written down, and variations on songs that I have heard or read, have found their way into my consciousness orally and aurally, and I am determined to pass them on to my daughter and the wider family.

I also learned from Joe’s singing, and from that of my maternal grandmother, that local songs had an important resonance. People from Tyrone sang Tyrone songs, people from Kerry sang Kerry songs, and as a child in Dublin, I should sing Dublin songs.

5. Local songs and street games from my own city of Dublin, especially those sung by collector Frank Harte who was for some time a neighbour. I learned beloved songs from him and his daughter, Sinéad, and continued to follow Harte’s journey throughout his life. Sinéad was a classmate in my early years of school, and the first song I heard her sing, “Henry, My Son”, a Dublin version of the classic “Lord Randall” [Child 12, Roud 10], has continued to influence my writing, including a song I wrote and performed last year for Eastrogen Rising: A Rebel Cabaret. The colloquial tone of “Henry, My Son”, with its ‘make my bed, I’ve a pain in my head’, contrasts with the more formal and old-fashioned words of the English original,

….. mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied with hunting, and fain would lie down.

The song’s imitation of the Dublin accent is another characteristic I have adopted. When Henry is asked ‘what will you leave your father?’ his reply is ‘a blue su-et’, drawing out the syllable of ‘suit’ into two, in the Dublin style. In the same way, I injected an extra syllable into my song, “The Rebel Sisterhood”, (The Other Now) using the extended word ‘undergarmament’ to rhyme with ‘armament’ for comic effect.

“Henry, My Son” was among the songs that caused me to have a kind of epiphany at the age of five or six. My father had copied half a dozen versions of the related “Lord Randall” into his notebooks, and a songbook we had from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival had another ballad that caught my eye, called “Snow White Shirt” [Child 13, Roud 200]. I read these song books as if they were story books, and indeed the ballads did tell stories. “Snow White Shirt” began, ‘How came the spots on your snow white shirt? Oh son, come tell to me.’ In this song, the young man is the murderer rather than the victim, but his mother draws him out with a series of questions in the same way that the mother does in “Lord Randall”. As a child, my mother had performed in a local concert with a neighbour, singing a humorous music-hall song that mimicked this question and answer format, “Where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?” [Roud 326] – and as I grouped these songs together in my mind, I heard my Dad sing Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic, “It’s a Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, which begins, ‘Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?’

“Snow White Shirt” from The Newport Folk Festival Songbook (1965)

I remember feeling highly excited about the connections between these songs. It seemed to me that, like people, songs had histories and relationships. Some strongly resembled their parents, and some had only a feature here or there that revealed their heritage. This sense of excitement at hearing a variation on a familiar song has never left me, and the way the elements of those different songs, old and more modern, rare and popular, were bound in my mind by one strong thread, is probably the reason I remain untroubled by whether or not a song is a ‘genuine’ ballad or folksong, or a modern reworking of one, a preoccupation that is identified by two of the foremost ballad scholars today, David Atkinson and Steve Roud, in their Street Ballads in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and North America (Ashgate 2014):

One can almost hear the sigh of relief when a folk song scholar finds a second or third reference to a particular song being sung in a ‘traditional’ manner or context, so that it can be stamped ‘genuine’.

Along with the Dublin songs that filled my head were the skipping, ball-bouncing and street rhymes that were still the stuff of daily play when I was a child. Games that centred on songs that told stories – “The Farmer Wants a Wife” [Roud 6306] or “We’re the Gypsies Riding” [Roud 730] – became an unconscious guide for me when I came to write verse-stories for children.

  1. Hymns from my Catholic childhood which coincided with Vatican II and a shift from Latin Mass and sung Benediction to English- and Irish-language masses and hymns. The archaic words and the religious fervour of the hymns and chants fascinated me. Their influences on my work are two-fold. Principally, they prompted me to pitch some elements of my poetry against their conservative content, in poems such as ‘The Ballad of Síle na Gig’ or ‘Queen of the May’, (The Other Now) but they also inspired me to look at unusual words, and occasionally to create my own, as I did in my children’s book, The Magical, Mystical, Marvelous Coat.
  2. Songs from the folk revival in America and across Europe which coincided with my early childhood. Events such as the Newport Folk Festival (founded in 1959) brought Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Ewan MacColl, the Clancy brothers and many others interested in song traditions to homes all over Ireland, through song books, records and television appearances. This revival in turn inspired Irish musicians such as my uncle Gerry to look more closely at the traditional repertoire of their own areas. I still have two books from the festivals, passed on by my father, which are full of love for and history of the songs, along with their lyrics and music.

This combination of songs from four counties of Ireland, and those from the wider world, along with my direct experience of the growth of song-collecting, piqued my childhood interest in the way folksongs make present the past and ‘cut straight to the heart of life’ to quote Vincent Woods in his essay, “A World of Thirteen Acres: Folklore as Source and Inspiration”, in Folklore and Modern Irish Writing, ed. Anne Markey and Anne O’Connor (Irish Academic Press, 2014).

The Murmur of Voices

I worked for seven years as a radio producer for RTÉ Radio 1, and for four years before that as a radio researcher, and ‘talk radio’ is still a constant backdrop to my world. When I can’t sleep, I turn the radio on low and find the barely-audible voices soothing. As a small child, I loved listening to my parents and their friends singing at night after I’d gone to bed. When their voices dropped to speak, I would often get out of bed and lie on the floor to hear them better, and occasionally I tottered downstairs and sat outside the kitchen door listening until I fell asleep. Unsuspecting guests were likely to trip over my two- or three-year-old form when they opened the door to go home. That comfort of distant voices murmuring or singing was something I used in my story “Sea Change”, when after his father’s funeral, Conor is sent to sleep:

Gerry’s poem “Triptych” from the Irish Press, published February 1970

When I went to bed that night the house was still full of people, drinking and playing music and singing… The same picture came before my eyes all the time… Dad had untied the boat and was starting to drift away… I drifted with him in my mind, with the music coming up through the bedroom floor, and Mad Myles’s words echoing in my head: for everything the sea takes away, it brings something back.

While researching my PhD Context Statement last year, it became clear to me that I was alone among my siblings in experiencing and pressing my ears to much of the family music. Although there is less than a decade between my youngest sibling and myself, those years saw the crucial loss of our paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, and a consequent weakening of tangible traditions. At some level, as the oldest child, the oldest grandchild on my father’s side and the oldest granddaughter on my mother’s, I had always been conscious of my responsibility to be an ethnographer of my own folk and their ‘mouth knowledge’, interpreting and preserving the songs and folklore of my family and environment, but I had not fully realised the extent to which I was carrying out this work in my writing across many genres, for my siblings as well as for the next generation.

In fact, all of the elements outlined above synthesised into a songscape which was to shape, at first unconsciously and later more consciously, almost everything that I would write. Such use of ballads is related to the use of folklore by other living Irish writers – as Éilís Ni Dhuibhne says in her essay, ‘“Some Hardcore Storytelling”: Uses of Folklore by Contemporary Irish Writers’, in Markey and O’Connor’s book, ‘their rich images and symbols enhance and deepen the texture of my stories of contemporary life’. That songscape fostered an interest in those ballads which Child himself said in his introduction to his song collection were ‘founded on what is permanent and universal in the heart of man’, and which continue to inform and to permeate my work.


(This essay is adapted from the introduction to my thesis or ‘context statement’, A City Out of Old Songs: the influence of ballads, hymns and children’s songs on an Irish writer and broadcaster, for which I was awarded a PhD in Published Works (Creative Writing) from Middlesex University earlier this year – CAC)

Catherine Ann Cullen’s The Other Now is published by Dedalus Press (October 2016) and available HERE.

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On a Turning Wing: Interview with Paddy Bushe

Paddy Bushe

Paddy Bushe in email conversation with Pat Boran about his latest collection of poems, On a Turning Wing, winner of the 2017  Irish Times Poetry Now Award

How important is place to your writing life, both in terms of subject matter and your actual modus operandi, the locations where poems come to you and/or get written down?

Place is of primary significance in my poems, probably the element which is most essential to them. I think this may be because I grew up in a Dublin suburb to which I felt no familial or imaginative ties, and that I have a consequent yearning to  be integrated into place, to be a part of place.  Of course the result is a willed, creative process rather than an organic, natural one, and this feeds into my poetry.  I can place the genesis of most of my poems, a genesis or place that may disappear in the poem itself, but which is very much part of how it develops and survives – if it does. Love poems, political poems, poems about the nature of art – all of these can begin as a kind of invocation of place. For many years most of my work was ‘placed’ in Iveragh in South Kerry, my adoptive home. In more recent times my focus has widened, but usually with Iveragh not too far in the back of my mind.

Your poems are often ‘set’ far from home, reflecting your interest in travel and, in particular, hill-climbing and mountain-trekking. Are you actively writing, note-taking for instance, when you’re on the move? Can you make final versions in situations like that, or is it a case of poetry being something ‘recollected in tranquillity’, as Wordsworth had it?

I’m always full of good intentions about using notebooks, voice recorders, cameras and so forth. But I’m afraid I’m highly disorganised and unsystematic. Notebooks tend to be lost or neglected fairly quickly, and voice recorders gloriously blank when I return. I do find a camera useful as an aide-memoire, and even a stimulus for some new insight after a trip. Sometimes I get a reasonably complete draft of a poem. But my poems usually “stew” for quite a while after the spark first comes, generally in the form of a line or three which move around in my mind for weeks on end. So yes, I’m actively writing, but perhaps in a way that others wouldn’t notice. That’s my usual method – if that’s not too much of an overstatement – whether my work is placed at home or away.

Of course it’s not just in seemingly adventurous things activities like trekking or visiting formerly remote places (is anywhere really remote today?) that inspiration is to be found – galleries in Madrid or Paris, or conversations with musicians and poets in the extraordinary landscape of An tEilean Sgitheanach (The Isle of Skye) can stimulate poems. The genesis and working-out of most poems is humdrum enough, as it is, I imagine, for most poems by most poets. All of which is really to partially concur with Wordsworth’s ‘recollected in tranquillity’ formulation.

It’s the business of the poet, I think, to create rather than recreate. It’s what’s on the page that’s important, not the stimulus that gave rise to it.

Can you talk a bit about being a poet in two languages, Irish and English? Translation aside, how closely related is your poetry in the two languages? Are their subjects that seem more at home or more suited to one or other language?

I suppose the first thing to say is that English was and remains my first language. That’s a matter of fact, not necessarily a matter of choice. I speak, read and write more instinctively and more fluently in English than in Irish. When I began to write, in my late teens, I tended to write mainly in Irish, for ideological reasons. When I started to write again, in my thirties, aspects of that ideological commitment had faded, and I wrote solely in English. Both choices were limiting, and both exclusivist. I began to write again in Irish, especially when the “starter lines” I spoke about earlier suggested themselves in Irish, or in echoes of Irish. These echoes are especially strong where I live, which is residually a strong Gaeltacht area, and whose landscape, culture and history speak to me in Irish more than in English. So the subject and originating circumstances usually now determine the language in which I write, as well as any social or linguistic situation which may have given rise to the poem.

On a slightly different note, I find it puzzling, and indeed a matter of regret, that poets who are capable of writing in both languages so seldom do so. Of course I understand that poetry needs sources with cultural and linguistic depth that goes beyond competence, but I cannot help thinking that the choice is still often influenced – in both linguistic directions – by a hangover from the nationalistic and political takeover of the Gaelic Revival , which I believe has done great damage to the language. I greatly regret, for example, that Michael Hartnett bade A Farewell to English rather than simply making Irish welcome. Further back, I think it’s a great pity that Douglas Hyde – who opposed the nationalistic hijacking of Irish – did not write “The Necessity for Gaelicising Ireland” rather than “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland”.

Let it be said, of course, that those who would dismiss our Gaelic inheritance, for either ideological or meretriciously pragmatic reasons, do no service to our cultural life. Irish life and Irish poetry should celebrate the possibility of being genuinely bilingual, and not decide to close one eye in order to favour the other.

Many Irish language poets (who speak fluent English) prefer to have others translate their work, perhaps as a way to keep the energy within the language. How do you approach that task with regard to your own poems, a number of which appear in your new book as they did in earlier volumes?

To be honest, translating myself was a matter of necessity as much as of choice – there was no queue of translators lining up to take on the work!  But really I approach the task as I do when I’m translating the poems of, say, Cathal Ó Searcaigh or Gabriel Rosenstock. That is to respect the work, to be as close as possible to the original in meaning, line structure, sound patterns and so forth, while at the same time producing a poem which works in its own right. Obviously, as far as rhyme or other sound patterns is concerned, this can mean finding equivalence rather than exact reflection. The same applies to idioms, metaphors and so on.  As a rule of thumb, if I feel I can’t do that, I try to avoid translating the poem.

Some years back you edited the anthology Voices at the World’s Edge, a volume of poetry and prose (with photographs) inspired by the visits under your guidance of a number of poets to Skellig Michael, a place that’s part of the physical and mental landscape you inhabit. If one could put aside the crassness of turning the Skelligs into a kind of monastic Disneyland, as some Government ministers seem determined to do, how would you describe their real value in contemporary Ireland? Do you think we’ve lost the ability to admire and cherish places we are unable to master?

The island isn’t actually visible from my house, as it lies just behind Bolus Head, the northern headland of the two which enclose Ballinskelligs Bay, or Bá na Scealg, on the edge of which I live. But I suppose you could say that for a long time I have had an imaginative line of sight to Skellig, and that it has been central to my imaginative and poetic world for most of my writing life.

The value of Skellig Michael, even in a country which is increasingly post-religious, is primarily spiritual. In other words, it provides an entrance into otherness, otherness of time and place, otherness which I have seen have a profound effect on believers and atheists alike.

And of course there is the extraordinary wildlife and physical beauty of the place, which are part of that spiritual dimension, along with its role in mythology, history, folklore and the various combinations of all three which animate our perceptions of it. The commoditisation xxx of this extraordinary and place is indeed crass. One of the most shameful things I have seen in respect to Sceilg Mhichíl is a tourism promotion film, for which Fáilte Ireland actually paid €25,000 to Disney Lucas, and in which the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht spoke. Neither she nor anybody else in the film even mentioned that there was an intact Early Christian monastic site on the island. It’s only quality, the viewers are implicitly told, is how well it fits into the Star Wars narrative. It would be shocking were Donald Trump to say it. To have a government with this mentality – and this went to the highest level of government – is profoundly disturbing. Significantly J.J. Abrams expressed amazement in the film that he had been permitted to film on Skellig. He must have been amazed at the gombeen mentality that secretly gave him that permission.

Your new book takes its title from a line by Hopkins. And Hopkins is something of a guiding presence in a good deal of your writing. What is it you admire in him? Is his influence more marked in your English language writing?

I had always liked Hopkins, from schooldays on. I admire his open and absorbent sensibility, and I recognise, even though I no longer share, his fear-ridden and guilt-ridden Catholicism. He makes great poetry out of feelings and thoughts that I grew up with. I am also fascinated by his intelligence and craft. It seems to me that he combines the sensibility of a romantic poet with the intelligence and craft of a metaphysical poet. When I did an MA with the Open University after retiring from teaching in 1990, I wrote a dissertation on the influence of his feelings of exile and alienation on his Dublin poems. So I read his work fairly intensively at that time. And around the same time, on Skellig Michael, I looked into an abyss (I can be terrified of height) and Hopkins’s lines leaped into my mind:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

That led to my long sequence “Hopkins on Skellig Michael” where my obsession with Skellig coalesced with my enforced obsession with Hopkins. I should make it clear that Hopkins never went there, but I used an imaginary overnight retreat by Hopkins to explore Hopkins’s mind and work, while physically exploring the island.

As you say, Hopkins is an overt presence in this new collection, especially in “Of Paint and Clay and Words”, a line of which gives the collection its name. As regards his general influence on my writing, I’m sure there is, in both languages. But I think that’s for others to trace. It would feel presumptuous for me to do so.

The Scottish Gaelic poet Somhairle MacGill-Eain / Sorley Maclean has been another significant influence, and you walked in his footsteps, literally and metaphorically, when you translated his collected poems into Irish (Ó Choill go Barr Ghéarain, Coiscéim, 2013) a couple of years back. There’s great love of and understanding of place in his work, and great sadness at what is lost. Is it too much, do you think, to suggest that great poetry always walks a line between celebration and elegy?

Somhairle, whom I had the privilege of meeting a few times, is certainly an influence, in both languages. I think he was by far the greatest Gaelic poet, Irish or Scottish, of his era. That’s why I took the decision, against all good sense and reason, to translate his collected poems into Irish. I was very aware that the potential readership of poetry in a threatened minority language translated into a sister threatened minority language would be of interest to a minority of a minority of a minority. But I got enormous satisfaction from it, despite it being such challenging work over a period of three years.

I have also dedicated two poems to him, one in English and another in Irish. And, although the connections is disguised rather than overt, the poem ‘The Music Master and the Poet’ in my new collection is based on a story the poet and musicologist John Purser, who lives on Skye, told me about himself and Somhairle.

I also got great satisfaction out of working with my son, Éanna de Buis, on his film Ar Lorg Shomhairle: In Sorley’s Footsteps in which we traced Somhairle’s poetry in the landscape of Skye and Raasay which stimulated so much of his poetry, even though he rarely took landscape description as a subject for his poems. But he embodied love poems, political poems and historical poems in his landscape, in works of enormous power, beauty and above all, integrity.

I think there is a great deal of truth in what you say about elegy and celebration in great poetry. I’ll pass on whether or not it applies to all great poetry, but it certainly applies to many great works of art, be they literary, dramatic, musical, visual or whatever. And I would certainly think that all elegy necessarily implies celebration.

That sense of both celebration and elegy is certainly evident in the poem sequence here about Tech Amergin, the arts centre in which you and your wife Fíona were very much involved for many years. Arguments like this often, and rightly, take place in the public arena of a local newspaper. What are you hopes and intentions in giving it a new life in verse?

That sequence, which I found extraordinarily difficult to write, and still find difficult to read aloud, started out as an outburst of rage and of contempt for the bureaucracy which, in an act of corporate revenge and vindictiveness, got rid of the voluntary group which for a number of years, on a completely voluntary basis, had run a high-quality, wide-ranging arts programme at a tiny cost, and at no cost to the educational committee which held legal ownership of the centre, again entirely due to local voluntary effort. At the moment, four years later, there is a minimal programme which is a shadow of what there used to be.

The detail of that deliberate destruction of an arts programme is for another day. But as I was writing the poem, I realised that merely to vent my anger and contempt might give me temporary satisfaction, but would tell a very limited story. So I decided also to celebrate what there had been, and to try to show a little of how precious it had been in the community, and how the bureaucratic bullying which lay behind the destruction of that preciousness hurt the community which the bureaucracy nominally served. I hope the poem speaks for the belief that all communities are enriched by access to the arts, and becomes a plea for that access to be universal.


Link: On A Turning Wing by Paddy Bushe

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The Deep Heart’s Core

The Deep Heart's Core - Dedalus Press, poetry from ireland and the world

In our new anthology, The Deep Heart’s Core: Irish Poets Revisit a Touchstone Poem, some 100 poets accept the invitation to revisit a favourite, key or touchstone poem of their own, and offer a short commentary on same — as they might at a live event.

The result is an illuminating, thought-provoking and wholly engaging volume, a unique anthology as selected by the poets themselves, and a rare glimpse into the thinking, feeling and craft behind the finished poems.

The Deep Heart’s Core is both an ideal introduction to contemporary Irish poetry for the general reader and a handbook for the aspiring practitioner or student.

The Deep Heart’s Core is edited by Pat Boran and Eugene O’Connell and features a foreword by Bernard O’Donoghue.

For further information click here.


Graham Allen: ‘Military Hill’ – Tara Bergin: ‘This Is Yarrow’ – 
Eavan Boland: ‘That The Science Of Cartography Is Limited’ – Dermot Bolger: ‘While We Sleep’ – Pat Boran: ‘Waving’ – Eva Bourke: ‘Evening Near Letterfrack’ – Heather Brett: ‘Bankrupt’ – Paddy Bushe: ‘After Love’ – Rosemary Canavan: ‘Crab Apples’ – Moya Cannon: ‘Chauvet’ – Ciaran Carson: ‘Turn Again’ – Paul Casey: ‘Exile’ – Philip Casey: ‘Hamburg Woman’s Song’ – Sarah Clancy: ‘Homecoming Queen’ – Michael Coady: ‘Assembling The Parts’ – Enda Coyle-Greene: ‘Metathesis’ – Tony Curtis: ‘Bench’ – Pádraig J. Daly: ‘Complaint’ – Kathy D’Arcy: ‘Probable Misuse Of Shamanism’ – Michael Davitt: ‘Déirc’ / ‘Alms’ – Gerald Dawe: ‘The Water Table’ – John F. Deane: ‘The Poem of the Goldfinch’ – Mary Dorcey: ‘Trying on for Size’ – Theo Dorgan: ‘On a Day Far From Now’ – Cal Doyle: ‘Sirens’ – Martina Evans: ‘The Day My Cat Spoke to Me’ – 
John FitzGerald: ‘The Collectors’ – Gabriel Fitzmaurice: ‘Dad’ – Anne-Marie Fyfe: ‘The Red Aeroplane’ – Matthew Geden: ‘Photosynthesis’ – Rody Gorman: ‘Imirce’ / ‘Bodytransfermigration’ – Mark Granier: ‘Grip Stick’ – Vona Groarke: from ‘Or to Come’ – Kerry Hardie: ‘Life Gone Away is Called Death’ – Maurice Harmon: from ‘The Doll with Two Backs’ – James Harpur: ‘The White Silhouette’ – Michael Hartnett: ‘That Actor Kiss’ – Eleanor Hooker: ‘Nightmare’ – Breda Joy: ‘November Morning’ – Brendan Kennelly: from ‘Antigone’ – Patrick Kehoe: ‘The Nearness of Blue’ – Helen Kidd: ‘Sunspill’ – Noel King: ‘Black and Tan’ – Thomas Kinsella: ‘Marcus Aurelius’ – Jessie Lendennie: ‘Quay Street, Galway’ – John Liddy: ‘Scarecrow’ – Alice Lyons: ‘Arab Map of the World With the South at the Top’ – Aifric MacAodha: ‘Gabháil Syrinx’ / ‘The Taking of Syrinx’ – Jennifer Matthews: ‘Work Out’ – John McAuliffe: ‘Today’s Imperative’ – Joan McBreen: ‘My Father’ – Thomas McCarthy: ‘The Garden of Sempervirens’ – Philip McDonagh: ‘Water is Best’ – Afric McGlinchey: ‘Do not lie to a lover’ – Iggy McGovern: ‘Knight Errant’ – Medbh McGuckian: ‘Aunts’ – John Mee: ‘Travel Light’ – Paula Meehan: ‘The Moons’ – John Moriarty: ‘Faust’ – Aidan Murphy: ‘Touching Parallels’ – Gerry Murphy: ‘Poem in One Breath’ – Madelaine Nerson Mac Namara: ‘Atlas’ – Caitríona Ní Chléirchín: ‘Feiliceán bán’ / ‘White butterfly’ – Nuala Ní Chonchúir: ‘Tatú’ / ‘Tattoo’ – Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin: ‘The Copious Dark’ – Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh: ‘Deireadh na Feide’ / ‘Last Blast’ – Áine Ní Ghlinn: ‘Tú Féin is Mé Féin’ / ‘Yourself and Myself’ – Doireann Ní Ghríofa: ‘From Richmond Hill’ – Mary Noonan: ‘The Moths’ – Julie O’Callaghan: from ‘Edible Anecdotes’ – Eugene O’Connell: ‘Doubting Thomas’ – John O’Donnell: ‘The Shipping Forecast’ – Mary O’Donnell: ‘The World is Mine’ – Bernard O’Donoghue: ‘The Iron Age Boat at Caumatruish’ – 
Liz O’Donoghue: ‘Suspended Animation’ – 
Mary O’Donoghue: ‘My Daughter in Winter Costume’ – Sheila O’Hagan: ‘September the Fourth’ – Nessa O’Mahony: ‘Lament for a Shy Man’ – Mary O’Malley: ‘The Gulls at Fastnet’ – Leanne O’Sullivan: ‘The Station Mass’ – Karl Parkinson: ‘A Love Letter to Reinaldo Arenas’ – Paul Perry: ‘In the Spring of My Forty-First Year’ – Billy Ramsell: ‘Complicated Pleasures’ – Gerard Reidy: ‘Slievemore Deserted Village’ – Maurice Riordan: ‘Badb’ – Mark Roper: ‘Firelight’ – Gabriel Rosenstock: ‘Ophelia an Phiarsaigh’ / ‘Pearse’s Ophelia’ – Colm Scully: ‘What News, Centurions?’ – John W. Sexton: ‘Sixfaces and the Woman of Nothing’ – Eileen Sheehan: ‘My Father Long Dead’ – Peter Sirr: ‘After a Day in the History of the City’ – Gerard Smyth: ‘Taken’ – Matthew Sweeney: ‘I Don’t Want to Get Old’ – Richard Tillinghast: ‘And And And’ –  Jessica Traynor: ‘Scene from a Poor Town’ – John Wakeman: ‘The Head of Orpheus’ – Eamonn Wall: ‘Four Stern Faces/South Dakota’ – William Wall: ‘Alter Ego Quasimodo’ – Grace Wells: ‘Pioneer’ – Sandra Ann Winters: ‘Death of Alaska’ – Joseph Woods: ‘Sailing to Hokkaido’ – Macdara Woods: ‘Fire and Snow and Carnevale’ – Vincent Woods: ‘Homeric Laughter’ – Enda Wyley: ‘Magpie’.