This month we catch up with Nicola Colton. She tells the story behind the creation of her critically acclaimed picture book, A Dublin Fairytale:
A Dublin Fairytale began as a daydream on the bus; I imagined archetypal fairytale characters inhabiting famous landmarks and places in Dublin. The idea’s first application came in the form of a ‘promotional pack’ comprised of five postcards featuring characters like a troll at the ‘Ha’penny Bridge’ and a dragon at the ‘Spire’. I also created an illustrated map of the city, featuring famous landmarks like Trinity College, which became ‘Trinity College of Sorcery’ and different characters like mermaids inhabiting the River Liffey. I sent the promotional pack off to prospective clients and Emma, the art director from The O’Brien Press, saw potential in the idea as a picture book.
I began to look at bringing the characters together to form a story. I wanted the narrative to follow a fairytale-type structure and also allow the reader to explore Dublin. I worked out a route for Fiona, the main character, to take and began the story from there. Helen, my editor, was very helpful and encouraging during this process. I was really excited to feature Dublin in a picture book and to illustrate places that were familiar to me and to bring them to life in a magical way. I didn’t grow up in Dublin, but I lived there for eleven years and it’s a second home to me. I always found it to be a very vibrant city and no matter how long I’d lived there, there was always something new to discover. I wanted that sense of discovery and enchantment that I felt about Dublin to come through in the book.
Shortly after I signed the contract to write and illustrate the book I moved to Bristol. I began work on the book in a new city; which was strange at first. In hindsight I think it was a good thing as I was really missing Dublin and I put a lot of extra love into the illustrations as it was a way for me to revisit the city. Being away from Dublin meant it now held a sense of nostalgia for me and I reflected this in the muted and dreamy colour tones I used throughout the artwork in A Dublin Fairytale.
I’ve always loved fairytales and Red Riding Hood was a particular favourite as my granny
gave me a storytelling doll based on it when I was six. My granny died shortly after; so reading fairytales always made me feel close to her. It was nice to feature a Red Riding Hood-type character in the book – the main character Fiona, who sets off on the fourth page in her favourite red raincoat. As Fiona is on a journey through the city to her granny’s house via the Witches’ Market on Moore Street. it was also a way for me to visit my granny again through the story. Creating this book was an opportunity to combine my love of fairytales with a city that I love.
I felt a responsibility to reflect Dublin and its beautiful buildings and landmarks to the best of my ability so I wanted the artwork in the book to be very detailed and carefully executed. I spent a long time working on the ‘Trinity College’ spread, in particular, as it such an impressive and iconic building and I wanted to get the details right. I enjoyed adding my own fairytale tweaks like turning the statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith into a wizard and witch to reflect the sorcery theme. I also liked adding lots of things happening in the background like a ‘spell cloud’ billowing from one of the chimneys and some sorcery students chatting in the background.
I spent a long time on the Witches’ Market spread as well as I wanted to add lots of little details for children to pore over. I loved Halloween as a kid (I still do!) and one of my favourite things around that time was to draw witches with lots of potions and bottles of curious things in the background. My dad used to collect old apothecary glass bottles and they always held a fascination for me and looked like something a practitioner of magic would use. I really enjoyed designing bottles and coming up with silly ingredients and labels for the spread. As Moore Street is full of colourful characters and is Dublin’s oldest food market it seemed like the perfect setting for a Witches’ Market.
The spread where Fiona is walking through St Stephen’s Green Forest and mistakes the giant’s legs for trees is based on the perspective I had as a three- to five-year-old. I was very shy back then and remember hiding behind my dad’s legs any time I was introduced to a grown up I didn’t know. I remember thinking they were like trees and feeling very small, but safe behind them.
It’s been really exciting and surreal to see the book published and out on the shelves in bookshops. When I received my first copies in the post I was very impressed with the printing; the uncoated offset paper really works with the soft colour palette and textures I chose.
I was also excited that it’s a hardback book, which makes it that little bit extra special.
The O’Brien Press team did a fantastic job on the production and design. The book launch in Dubray Books was fantastic and little touches like cookies featuring characters from the book (baked by The Cake Café) really made the event. Geraldine and Ruth in the Marketing Department did an amazing job organizing the launch.
Another highlight was being asked to paint a scene from the book in Dublin’s iconic Hodges Figgis bookshop window. It was a wonderful experience and also afforded me the opportunity to meet people who bought the book and to hear their feedback. I was pleasantly surprised that about half the people buying the book that day were tourists. It really made me happy that people from outside of Dublin and Ireland are interested in the book too.
The most important thing for me, though, has been the response from children. I’m really thrilled when parents tell me that the book is now part of their bedtime routine and when I hear about children’s favourite characters or parts of the book. I created the book with young children in mind so it’s wonderful to hear when it resonates with them.
Her website is www.nicolacolton.com.
This month, we’re celebrating all things Irish with the publication of You Know You’re Irish When … by Séamus Ó’Conaill. Seamus has compiled a hilarious list of iconic Irishisms, from classic Irish quirks to the more recent additions of what it means to be from the Emerald Isle. Here are some of the highlights:
You Know You’re Irish When …
- You’ve no idea what is the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael
- Most of your overdraft in your thirties was going to friend’s country weddings
- Until you were twenty-five, your favourite cheese was EasiSingles
- Mammy let you watch all the violence and swearing on TV you liked. But God forbid there was any ‘sexy’ stuff going on
- You vote for your local representative because, didn’t your father vote for his father?
- You know where you were when Anne Doyle announced she was retiring from RTE News
- After you turn forty, you find yourself buying the local paper for ‘the deaths’
- They’re not ‘errands’. They’re ‘the messages’
- You know what ‘I’m running five minutes late’ really means
- You were warned as a child you’d get ‘square eyes’ from looking at the telly
- You ask someone: ‘Are you goin’ out, or are you goin’ *out* out’
Anymore Irishisms you know of? Tweet us at @OBrienPress!
‘Seamus O Conaill has distilled our very nature into the pages’ Irish Daily Mirror
‘He’s compiled a list of things that are unique to us Irish – and he’s nailed it!’ Today FM’s Early Breakfast Show
Author Jan Michael writes about her inspirations for writing The Rock Boy in 2001, the story of a Albanian refugee boy finding shelter in Malta:
I have visited the Mediterranean island of Malta ever since my parents moved there some forty years ago. I love the island’s quirkiness, its rich history and buildings, its country walks, and I love swimming from rocks into the sea. The language is Semitic, so even though the island is Catholic, God is ‘Alla’ (pronounced ‘Allah’). That’s because Malta was first inhabited by Phoenicians, who came from present-day Syria, and later governed by the Arabs. Now Syrians are one of the largest groups of people who come to Malta after fleeing their country because of war. Many other refugees come from Albania. They have been escaping since the 1990s, and even today, Albanian children are still being trafficked into Western Europe.
When I wrote The Rock Boy, many Albanians were fleeing their country, coming across the Mediterranean, and landing in southern Italy and Malta. In the book, I write about one boy called Artan, who is discovered washed up in a rocky cove by young Jo. He is battered and bruised and barely conscious. Jo, along with her friend Andreas, shelters him, feeds him – and hides him from her family, and from the police. Eventually her family does find out, but fortunately, through sponsorship, Artan is allowed to stay.
I didn’t set out to write a book about boat refugees, but that’s how it turned out. As I started the story of Jo and her adventures, I was reading in the local paper about refugees arriving in Malta by boat. I went to see the woman who had opened the refugee centre, and what I heard from her – and what I went on to read about – became the major part of Jo’s story.
Malta is a small island and pretty crowded, but I was impressed by the Maltese kindness and generosity to the desperate people arriving on their shores from Albania, and more recently, from Syria, Libya and Eritrea. I knew, though, that not everyone feels so welcoming, and that’s why Jo shelters Artan in secret.
Around the same time, in a British newspaper, I read about two brothers who escaped from political thugs in Kashmir, India, by stowing away over the wheel casing of an aeroplane. When the plane landed at Cairo Airport, the older boy had frozen to death on top of his brother and had to be peeled off. His protection had saved the life of his younger brother. Their story burrowed its way into my mind, and that younger brother somehow merged into an Albanian boy I called Artan.
Whenever I read or hear of such stories, I think of the hospitality, always warm and generous, that I have witnessed in the many countries I have lived in and visited. I think of the kindness of strangers and hope that I, too, if called upon, would be as warm and welcoming as they.
Born in the Yorkshire Dales, Jan Michael spent an idyllic childhood there and in the Seychelles, also living in Lesotho and Pakistan. Since university, she has worked as an editor and literary agent in London, Amsterdam and Yorkshire. She has written thirteen books which have been published in several languages, including the children’s novels Hill of Darkness, The Rock Boy (also performed as children’s opera in Germany), Just Joshua (winner: Dutch Vlag en Wimpel prize), Leaving Home (winner: Dutch Silver Slate Pencil and the Jenny Smelik-IBBY Prize) and Moorside Boy.
This autumn, with the release of Six Nations, Two Stories, The Balls.ie Guide to Life, and Punching Above Their Weight, we’ve a whole host of sports stories to entertain and inspire! To celebrate our athletic turn, this month’s blog post is an extract taken from The Balls.ie Guide to Life. Enjoy the highlights from ‘Nearly 100 Things that Only GAA People Say’:
A select few sayings and phrases have become enshrined in the vernacular of the GAA’s media, players and public. We don’t know how they got there, but we know they’re not going away. Some of them are stock sayings by Cyril Farrell and Ger Canning. Some are things you hear from auld lads in the terrace at a club match. Some you hear from the county manager or captain after a match. Combined, they make up the odd and illuminating vocabulary of the GAA.
Stuff Only GAA Fans Say
‘They’ve another fifteen on the line that are as good’ Regularly said about Kilkenny’s hurlers, and now Dublin’s footballers. Often followed by the words ‘… if not better’.
‘He was a great minor, but then the drink got him’ The most common (and probably correct) explanation for why blazing underage talent burns out before turning twenty-five.
‘Bend your back’ Usually said to a new underage player who has played a lot of soccer but not much GAA and has a tendency to dribble the ball ‘soccer style’.
‘He’s good, but the brother is better’ How often did we hear this about Alan and Bernard Brogan? Or Seamus and Aidan O’Shea?
Stuff Only GAA Players and Managers Say
‘A draw was the right result in the end’ Said after a highly competitive and entertaining game, usually because ‘neither team deserved to lose’.
‘What do you think of that, Joe Brolly?’ Perhaps the most modern GAA cliché.
‘They wrote us off during the week’ A common potshot by triumphant managers at members of the radio and press corps who offered fair-to-middling criticism of their team.
Stuff Only GAA Pundits and Commentators Say
‘Tight Pitch’ According to the rules of the game, all GAA pitches are of a standard size. But GAA fans know that’s not the case. A tight pitch is the toughest place to go: there’s no space to play, and the opposition fans are right on top of you. It’s generally cited as a factor for the underdog having a chance. Two famously tight pitches are St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge and Nowlan Park in Kilkenny.
‘Wide-open spaces’ The opposite of the tight pitch. The underdog fears the wide-open spaces of Croke Park and Semple Stadium that always seem to be opening up.
‘Gone to the well’ When it comes to crunch time in the Championship, you don’t just dig deep, you go to the well. No team has gone to the well more down the years than Brian Cody and Kilkenny, particularly before said All-Ireland final replay.
The GAA Winners Speech
‘A hUachtarán, Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael, taoiseach …’ No great (or even mediocre) speech can begin without dropping a cúpla focal as an act of deference to the assembled dignitaries and GAA bureaucrats.
‘To the sponsors: we couldn’t have done it without you, lads’ There is no greater faux pas than to omit mention of the team sponsor. And while you’re at it, thank the bus company, the restaurant that provides the post-match carvery, the water-bottle supplier, and the lady who makes the tea.
‘Finally, three cheers for the losers. Hip hip!’ The celebrations cannot really begin until the captain has issued some sort of semi-patronising acknowledgement to the losing side.
The Balls.ie Guide to Life will be available from 28 September.
Debut author Maureen White talks about what inspired her to write The Butterfly Shell.
My first novel The Butterfly Shell was recently published by The O’Brien Press and the first time I held the actual book was an exciting and strange experience.
Exciting – because it was actually finished and existed outside of me.
And strange – because I felt like I was holding in my hands a kind of transformation. An idea somewhere had taken hold and that idea evolved into a story and then along the way other people become involved and here it was. And, of course, the beautiful cover by artist Emma Byrne heightened the feeling that this was bigger than just my story.
The experience of writing a novel was a new one for me. Theatre is my background. Theatre I understand. I have written plays, but that always feels like a communal act. The play changes once the actors get a hold of it, then there follows intense, collaborative rehearsals leading up to Opening Night and a real, live audience.
Books are different.
With books the intense writing period is followed by collaboration with the editor and publisher leading up to – Publication Day! But the difference here is the audience is invisible. Writing is an act of faith and while you are writing you make an invisible pact with the future reader – you will give them your all and, in turn, this as-yet-only-imagined reader, will give their all in reading. But you will never know if that is the case or, indeed, if there will be any readers.
I didn’t set out to write a book for young audiences, though right from the start I was interested in telling a young girl’s story. Armed with a germ of a story and a memory of being 12, I started. I have worked for years as a Dramaturg, helping playwrights develop new plays. Whenever I am asked, ‘What do you look for in a script?’ I have one answer – one that makes me want to turn the page.
And so I tried to remember that and write something that might make someone want to turn the page. As it turned out with The Butterfly Shell, that someone was a young reader, probably someone who could relate to Marie’s age, if not her experiences. People have asked me where the idea for The Butterfly Shell came from – was it based on my experiences? Was it about my daughter? ‘No’ to the last two questions and to the first all I can say is, ‘I don’t know where ideas come from or what gives them their pull.’ Perhaps the stories we hear as children stay with us. Or maybe unexpected gifts are the key. A few years ago my sister gave me a gift for no reason at all (definitely the best kind of present). It was a butterfly made of abalone and I was fascinated- by the shell, by the shape, by the gift. And when I started writing I was confident that it would find its way in some form into the story.
I am delighted that what I was writing turned out to be for young readers. Kids’ books matter. I thought that long before I wrote one. And it is important we feed our kids a varied diet – adventurous, comic, serious, worthy, not so worthy, long, short and the whole range of books that defy definition. The young reader (and indeed the adult reader as well) needs to be exposed to a variety of experiences and imaginations because literature helps us make sense of the world around us.
As I approach the launch date for The Butterfly Shell I realise I have learned a lot about this book business on the way.
Patience was the biggest lesson – It is so easy to be intimidated by the sheer number of books out there (why on earth did I start this book??) and very intimidating to read articles about how someone or other wrote their debut novel on a bus in one month while she baked bread and raised 9 children and held down 2 jobs. (My advice is if you are a writer never ever read inspirational articles on very successful writers).
The Butterfly Shell took a very long time to write. Many walks on the beach which of course in retrospect I say were a necessary part of the process but in fact probably had more to do with procrastination. Many times I put it away -probably because I didn’t know where it was going but again, in retrospect is no bad thing to do every now and then- you sometimes come back to it with fresh eyes and energy which is all you need to keep going. Once I left it for a year as my house was flooded and we had to move and family events made writing very low on my agenda. I think each story takes whatever time it takes to write. I had to be patient that mine was taking this long but its timing also meant I ran into the right people on the way. People who would make a difference.
I am still amazed at the difference an editor can make. The collaboration with Liz Hudson and its energetic examination of details resulted in the kind of shifts I couldn’t have imagined on my own. And so the book transformed and I am convinced a kind of alchemy oversees the entire process so when I look at The Butterfly Shell I see more than just my story. I see the imprint of everyone who helped and the possibility of everyone who might read.
A debut is exciting. By very definition it can only happen once. But it is that excitement that fuels you on to the next book. I look forward to the lessons I will learn with that one …
Maureen White is a playwright, teacher at the Gaiety School of Acting and dramaturg for Rough Magic Theatre Company. This is her first novel for young adults.
With this summer’s three-day retreats to Lough Derg to conclude on 13 August, here’s a little extract from Old Ways, Old Secrets about the famous pilgrimage to the island on the lake which was the sacred Sanctuary of St Patrick.
Another event occurs around Lughnasa each year, although it could hardly be called a celebration. In late July and August, pilgrims throng to tiny Station Island on the remote and mysterious Lough Derg to endure three days of harsh penitential observances. These include staying awake for the first night and all the next day, fasting for twenty-four hours, circling the stony ground of the island barefoot while saying prayers, and generally experiencing discomfort at the level usually reserved for trainee commandos. Yet the pilgrims not only survive, but many come back again, year after year.
In pre-Christian times, there was a belief that here, at the edge of the known world, was an entrance to the Otherworld. Originally it would have been used by druids in their search for illumination and wisdom; they undertook severe trials such as starvation, isolation and sleep deprivation to extend their powers.
Later, it was a place where the wealthy could themselves endure the starvation/sleeplessness ordeal. By experiencing the Christian Purgatory now, they believed, they could reduce the amount of penance due after death. The earliest maps of Ireland sometimes show Lough Derg and nowhere else, indicating its renown. Martin Behaim’s world map of 1492 is one such example. There is certainly evidence of priests complaining to Rome about the charges levied at Lough Derg in medieval times. So popular did it become that several popes tried to close it down.
Early documents record a mysterious cave at Lough Derg. Guillebert de Lannoy, in his Voyages et Ambassades of 1430, made a cryptic reference to a second, by that time forbidden, cavern:
At the end of this cave, in which I was shut up for 2 or 3 hours, they say is a mouth of another cave, but St Patrick stopped it with a stone which he placed upon it, and it is still there …
The permitted cave is clearly marked (as ‘Caverna Purgatory’) in Fr Thomas Carve’s Lyra Hibernica, dating from 1666. Here visions were seen, both hideous and beautiful. Some spoke of strange vapours that put you into a trance. Today, alas, that cave (and any further passages which may once have led off it) lies buried beneath the massive dome of the church that dominates the tiny island. It is unlikely that any concealed entrance, any locked trapdoor could be found under the massive weight of limestone and marble, polished wood and wrought iron. Whatever lies hidden keeps its secrets.
St Patrick, we are told, fought some of his most demanding battles at Lough Derg, conquering a fearful serpent and imprisoning it forever in the lake. As we have seen, a saint taking on a serpent or dragon is always an attack by Christianity on pagan beliefs. Thereafter the island was given the name of St Patrick’s Purgatory. Old boatmen say the serpent comes out during storms and lashes her tail across the lake, showing she’s still there, just biding her time.
The island on Lough Derg is a strange, brooding, almost threatening place when viewed from the embarkation pier on the mainland. The church and associated buildings so completely cover the little islet that they look to be floating in the water. Casual visitors are not allowed. You go there on pilgrimage for the full three days or you don’t go at all.
And yet pilgrims praise the Lough Derg experience as one of enormous peace and happiness. ‘I loved it. It was so peaceful, and you had time to think,’ says one. ‘I went because I needed an answer to something really important, and I got it,’ says another. ‘I went with a special request and promised I’d go back if it was granted, and it was, and I did!’ says a third.
Druids seeking enlightenment, pilgrims seeking answers? Perhaps the island on Lough Derg hasn’t changed its nature very much after all. We’ve just changed the way we express our beliefs.
Extract taken from Old Ways, Old Secrets by Jo Kerrigan (published in May 2015)
About the Author:
Jo Kerrigan grew up amid the wild beauties of West Cork; after working in the UK as writer, academic and journalist, she returned home to the place she loved best. She now writes regularly for a range of publications, including The Irish Examiner and the Evening Echo as well as international magazines, and operates a very popular online weblog.
Author Kevin Kiely talks about his inspirations for SOS Lusitania on the eve of the centenary of the ship’s tragic sinking.
In school I knew the bare facts about the Lusitania based on our history book that had a poster from that era ‘Lest We Forget‘. The poster was explained in class and we learned that the Lusitania had been torpedoed and sunk. It was an effective stirring colour poster showing the ship about to keel over. The liner was engulfed in fire and smoke and the passengers were falling. Some were in the water waving their hands. Others sat shivering in lifeboats. There were Americans among the passengers. Many of them drowned and because of this President Wilson in America declared war on Germany and the Kaiser. There were photographs of Wilson in an open-top limousine and the Kaiser in a uniform wearing a helmet with a spike on it. This was basic history with the facts as mere headlines.
Of course, in school I heard the teacher tell and retell the Titanic legend. I began to read a novel entitled A Night to Remember with its minute-by-minute depiction of the tragedy and vivid accounts of survivors who calculated how and when to leap from the sinking ship in order to have a change of saving themselves. I particularly remember the cook or kitchen porter who drank a bottle of liquor and scrambled along the flagpole wearing his life-jacket as the Titanic collapsed below him and sank under the waves. The book was on a shelf beside others such as The Longest Day documenting the D-Day Landings on the Normandy beaches.
The real history of the Lusitania never entered my consciousness fully until the summer of 2006. I had been in Cill Rialaig, the Famine village, and visited a childhood haunt, Ballinskelligs. My adventures took me out to the Big Skellig one day using the cheap-fare boat. But I was restless in Kerry and one Sunday morning travelled east. I have relatives outside Cork city and although we have lost contact, it seemed an idea to take that route. I reached Cobh in a sort of minor torpor and nostalgic mood. I decided to break the journey, and found a B&B high up in the town near Park Terrace. I wandered around. To anyone who does not know Cobh it is full of rising and falling pathways, and footpaths giving different views of the giant harbour. It is a labyrinthine meandering harbour with lakes and islands linking Cork to Cobh and the Celtic sea. At sunset, I saw different aspects of the harbour with sailing vessels and one giant cruise liner.
I sat in a pub along Westbourne Place. The spirit of the Lusitania haunts Cobh. Its story emerged as if some being had transfixed my attention and taken me hostage until the bare outline of the plot was written down: Finbar Kennedy runs away from home. His father is staff captain on the Lusitania. Finbar arrives in New York having escaped with his life. Like many others, he boards the ship on its return voyage into disaster amidst spies, gun-runners, world history and romance. He miraculously survives against so many dangers. In every way the story was implicitly true. It was the real-life story of the survivors.
In 2009, I was lecturing at the University of Idaho, and had abandoned my original excitement and enthusiasm for the Lusitania. I was absorbed by poetry, and an academic text demanded a treasury of research. It seemed that my tale of a runaway would remain as a manuscript. One night, towards the close of the year, I was invited to a faculty dinner. Across from me was Richard Spence, a history professor and author of books on international espionage. His wife led us in a triangular discussion to which he vaguely contributed. I, out of politeness added about as much as he. I wanted the subject to return to literature and away from history. However, when the name Aleister Crowley came up, I agreed that I had heard of him and made a few comments to keep the conversation going. Professor Spence, according to his wife, had just published a book on Crowley, entitled Secret Agent 666 where it mentions the plot to sink the Lusitania. Our discussion opened out about the inquests into the disaster, and how Captain Turner in command of the Lusitania seemed frightened to speak about it during his lifetime. Professor Spence had read international intelligence documents to inform his book. I mentioned that I had begun a story but remained uncertain as to how it could ever get finished. Professor Spence promised to have a copy of his book sent to Brink Hall at the university where I worked in the English Department.
Secret Agent 666 led me back to the Lusitania as the story came alive filled with real characters and real history. Crowley is a common Cork name, and was perfect as a real passenger which slightly altered his actual role in 1915. I kept my plot line deliberately vague in places where history has no actual documentation. However, the actual events required little detective work based on the full research. Back in Ireland, I went to Cobh on a day trip to walk the town and its hilly streets. I was enacting my young hero’s return home. What you write about actually happens in part to yourself, which is true of SOS Lusitania for me. Soon, I had a very emotional and historically accurate narrative, hammering it all together into a clear prose style.
At the editorial stage, Íde ní Laoghaire literally came on board, and creatively suggested the Historical Note. The fact that The O’Brien Press considered publishing political history and conspiracy wrapped up in fiction is in keeping with their tough-edged principles. Already they had published A Horse Called El Dorado where the central character escapes from Colombian drug dealers and endures a series of dangerous journeys arriving in Ireland. Life in Ireland proves difficult for the hero who, through the Travellers, finds a vocational career in horse racing. The novel won a Bisto Merit Award in 2006.
I am currently re-visiting SOS Lusitania in order to bring the story into 1916 using additional real-life characters from real history. The story has suggested a trilogy to lay bare this crucial historical period. The sinking of the Lusitania unleashed events which still resonate into the twenty-first century.
Kevin Kiely has had several collections of poetry published, plays broadcast on RTE and is engaged in literary journalism and editing. He has received Literature Bursary Awards from the Irish Arts Council, and is Honorary Fellow in Writing with the University of Iowa. SOS Lusitania is his first book for young readers.
This month’s blog is by food writer and cook Valerie O’Connor, author of Irish Bread Baking for Today, the handy paperback based on bestselling and hugely praised cookbook Bread on the Table. Why not try out one on of her fantastic recipes for Easy No-Knead Spelt Bread?
I bake this bread constantly at home and in my baking classes – it’s so easy when you don’t have to do any kneading. This is a great introduction to yeast breads as you get all the benefit of a good rise with none of the effort. This bread freezes really well, so if you’d like to make two loaves and freeze one, simply double everything.
500ml/18floz tepid water
1 tsp honey
1½ tsp fast-action yeast
500g/18oz wholemeal spelt flour
Approx 50g/2oz porridge oats
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp mixed seeds
Preheat the oven to 200C/390F/Gas 6
Prepare a 2lb loaf tin
1. In a jug measure 200ml/7floz hot water, dissolve the honey, then top up to 500ml/16floz with cold water, add the yeast and leave it to ‘sponge’ (froth up) for 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl mix the spelt flour with the oats and salt, pour in the yeasty water and mix well to combine. The mixture will be wet and puffy, a bit like a thick porridge.
3. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, sprinkle the mixed seeds over the top, cover with a tea towel and leave aside for 40 mins to 1 hour until it has risen to just below the top of the tin. Any warm, draught-free place is good for this. Have the oven preheating for 30 minutes before the loaf is due to
4. Put the tin into the oven and bake at 200C/400F/Gas 6 for 10 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and bake for a further 50 mins.
5. When the loaf is baked, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for about 20 minutes. Run a knife around the inside of the tin, tip out the loaf and return it to the cooling oven to crisp up the crust.
Valerie O’Connor is a cook, food writer and photographer; she has cooked in professional kitchens from Brussels to Malaysia. She is a qualified organic horticulturalist and tutors in food growing, cooking and baking. She is widely published in the press and has appeared as a guest critic on Masterchef Ireland.
Author and award-winning illustrator Matt Griffin talks about the inspiration behind his debut novel, A Cage of Roots.
The process of writing A Cage of Roots began with a walk. This is something I do whenever I’m faced with a big illustration project or anything that requires a high degree of creativity. I need the air, the motion, the colours, and most of all I need to start the walk with a blank slate. For the first kilometre or so, I probably resemble an extra from The Walking Dead. So effective is my ability to turn off any distractions, such as thinking, that I am often in danger of forgetting that thinking is the reason I went for a walk in the first place. And so it was that I shuffled zombie-like along the paths of Lees Road Park in Ennis with a mission to create my own dark version of ancient Ireland.
As ever, when I pick up the pace, my brain follows suit and the cogs grind into action. I start to see things. Not like a movie, as such – more like the visions you have when you’re reading a book and you forget that you are actually reading. Random scenes flash before my eyes, and as I walk, they coalesce into a narrative. It may sound cheesy, but the story presents itself to me and I just watch. Then I rewind and replay, not just to refine it but to make sure I don’t forget. It’s probably quite a frightening sight for my fellow walkers. I’m sure joggers go off-piste into the undergrowth to avoid me. But in those moments I am completely and utterly lost in the story, and nothing less than a nuclear explosion would distract me. It is a happy time.
Emma Byrne, the brilliant Art Director at The O’Brien Press, was the first person to suggest that I might try writing a story of my own. She could tell from my illustration work at the time that I had a penchant for both Irish myth and the darker side of fairy tales. I had written in a journalistic capacity in my twenties, but I hadn’t written fiction since school. I did, however, keep stacks of notebooks filled with concepts for stories. I never had a shortage of ideas – but this was a real chance to show that I could bring a book from concept to finish. It was a challenge I gratefully accepted, suffered panic at the hands of, and eventually relished in. I went for my walk, dreamt up the bones of the story, and got to work.
It needed some refining.
As a first-time writer, I needed guidance. I could put nice words in the right order, but building a story, with arcs and strands and consequences, was next-level. It took hard work and the wisdom of people who know better. I had learned a lot from a friend of mine, the director/animator/puppeteer Damian Farrell, with whom I had worked on a feature film concept. But I was still wet behind the ears. Thankfully, once again, The O’Brien Press had faith, and my editor, Susan Houlden, helped me develop from a potential writer to (I hope!) a writer. Without that guidance I couldn’t have done it; it’s that simple.
Being an illustrator first, it was imperative that I have art in my book. These kind of books don’t often have illustrations, it was argued, but my dream from early childhood was to make my own world in words and then to be allowed to show glimpses of it with drawings. (As an impossibly cute young scamp, I obsessed over Tolkien’s artwork in The Hobbit as much as the story.) As it happened, I heaped incredible pressure on myself to produce my best work, and as your best work is always ahead of you (lesson there, folks!), I am already dissatisfied with it. That is my lot as an artist, though – I am never happy with my work for longer than a day.
I was also allowed to design the cover, and I would probably be dissatisfied with that too if it wasn’t for the embossing. That saves it. (Thanks, Emma!)
So now it’s on to the next story in Ayla’s adventure. I’m already knee-deep in it, having walked and dreamt on a clear day halfway up Mullaghmore in the Burren. This time, the drawings will be my best work ever. For a day at least.
Matt Griffin was born in Dublin in 1979 and grew up in Kells, Co. Meath. After a brief attempt at third level education he spent eight years in London working in the media, before moving home to Ireland in 2008 to pursue his dream of becoming a fulltime illustrator. Since then he has garnered a reputation as one of the most eclectic graphic artists in contemporary illustration, collecting awards and accolades for his work in publishing, advertising and, in particular, the field of poster art. His passion for visual design was always married to one for writing. He lives in Ennis, Co. Clare, with his wife Orla and daughters Holly & Chloe.