16Lives: Celebrating the Heroes of The Rising

Ivan and Michael O'Brien. Copyright photograph: Richard Mills birdpics@newsguy.com

O’Brien Press Publisher, Michael O’Brien, talks about developing and publishing the 16Lives series over the past eight years.

It’s easy to say yes to a brilliant concept! When Lorcan Collins marched into The O’Brien Press with the great idea of 16 Lives, a series of biographies of the sixteen executed leaders of the 1916 Rising, all to be published in time for the centenary in 2016, our response was, ‘A simple but brilliant idea,’ and ‘Go for it!’. That was in November 2007. Lorcan suggested adding Ruán O’Donnell, senior lecturer in history at the University of Limerick, as series co-editor, bringing his huge historical knowledge and academic credibility to the table.

But it wasn’t simple to anticipate all the challenges involved in a series of this scale. One fear was that some of the less well-known figures, like Thomas Kent and Michael Mallin, were too obscure, without enough known about them to make a book or find an audience. But with 2016 on the horizon, archives were opening and new facts emerging, and our ambition to create a more truthful and less propagandist history was made possible. In the case of Kent in particular, author Meda Ryan was surprised by the depth and range of information available about him and his networks.

We recognised early on the value of adding photographs to each book in the collection – of the people, their lives, their actions. Lorcan helped create a collection of hundreds of photos, which were distributed for reproduction across the 16 Lives series. The book spines are an added treat: when the sixteen books are put together, a picture of O’Connell Bridge c.1916 emerges (buy a set and see for yourself).

The 2016 centenary could have been a cynical damp squib marred by a simple-minded, propagandist approach. Apparently, at one stage the British government proposed the ‘Decade of Remembrance’ model, where we would honour the First World War, the War of Empires, equally with our struggle for independence against the very same imperialists. The Queen of England was offered as part of the 1916 package (of course she had a very successful visit in 2011). Stirring speeches at several 16 Lives launches opposed this formula. In fact, the centenary has inspired and moved young and old, native and visitor, and our friends in the EU and Britain to respect Ireland’s cultural revolution. It has encouraged a renewed look at the values of the Proclamation ‘To the People of Ireland’, all seven signatories of which were executed by the British (as well as the nine other leaders of the Rising).

We conclude the 16 Lives series with a launch by Chief Justice Susan Denham in the GPO, the dramatic HQ and symbol of the Rising (what a strange, inadequate word). We have had eight launches over four years as the books were born, and the audiences have included many descendants of the leaders who organised what in retrospect was Ireland’s cultural revolution: Cumann na mBan, Gaelic League, GAA, Abbey Theatre, Fenians, Sinn Féin, IRB, and other movements in the USA. Many of the sixteen leaders were poets and playwrights, including Pearse, MacDonagh, Plunkett, Casement, Kent, O’Hanrahan and even Connolly.

The 16 Lives project began in 2007 and, over eight years later, is now complete. History will judge its value. Thank you to everyone who made it happen: to Lorcan, Ruan and the individual authors who brought each of the sixteen to life so vividly; to the army of editors, researchers, indexers and designers who ensured the books are attractive, readable, reliable, and above all, fascinating; and to the marketing and sales staff who are working so hard to get the books into the hands of readers.

Michael O’Brien

Publisher

O’Brien Press

 

Don’t forget ‘the messages’!

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

The Rock Boy

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.

Lough Derg: Penance or Paganism?

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.

SOS Lusitania: How it got put into words

Author Kevin Kiely talks about his inspirations for SOS Lusitania on the eve of the centenary of the ship’s tragic sinking.

Lest We ForgetIn 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.

The Root of Inspiration

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 DMattGriffinublin 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.

 

Weaving a Spell for World Book Day 2015

Erika McGann catches up with us about what it was like to write her first novella, The Fairytale Trap, for World Book Day 2015, as part of her award-winning magical series.

I had an inkling of an idea for a fourth novel when the possibility TheFairytaleTrapcame up to write a short book especially for World Book Day. I didn’t know yet if a fourth novel was wanted, or if I wanted to write it, but when I was asked to do a novella for WBD in March it seemed the sensible thing to follow it with a new book in September.

So I sat down to write the novella – about 10,000 words – thinking it would take no time at all. But I had a problem with the story almost right away. I liked it, and the more I jotted down notes and possible twists in the plot, the more I thought that this story would do better as a novel. Having my school in Dunbridge engulfed by a real-life fairytale had loads of scope for subplots, character development, funny scenes and scary moments; but I couldn’t do that in 10,000 words. So I switched storylines. The fairytale plot became the fourth novel, and the fourth novel plot became the WBD novella.

So I sat down to write the novella, thinking it would be dead easy. Until I hit a problem with the story. I liked it. A 1930s-style carnival arriving unexpectedly in the dead of night – withered and fading tents, a creaking ferris wheel, a sinister ringmaster, a bearded ballerina, a haunted music box and a wicked hex – had lots of room to take the storyline wherever I felt like taking it. And the more notes and ideas I scrawled in my notebook, the more I realised I couldn’t fit it all into 10,000 words.

So I switched storylines. Again. The fairytale went back to being the novella, the carnival the novel. I won’t bore you with the details but suffice to say I switched again, more than once. I remember sitting outside in the sunshine, the cursor on my laptop flashing impatiently, worried that whichever story I picked to be the shorter, I’d regret it.

In the end, I realised I had to be sensible about it. The carnival was on Dunbridge Green, so the carnival story would feature the town, the school and probably the girls’ homes. The fairytale story trapped the girls in school – although it would take on the appearance of a medieval village, the school grounds would be the only setting. The carnival had to feature an array of new and strange characters. The fairytale plot would include references to Red Riding Hood – the granny, the wolf, Red Riding Hood herself – but it had to be limited in terms of new characters. In the carnival story the girls’ magic lessons would continue, meaning the introduction of new spells and skills. In the fairytale story their powers would be bound, and they would have to escape their predicament without the help of their usual repertoire of magic tricks.

It was obvious the fairytale story lent itself better to a novella.

So I sat down to write this short book, presuming that any challenges were now overcome. I hit the first problem a couple of chapters in. There was a clear opening for a lovely little subplot, so I began writing it and, after a few hundred words, realised it was eating into my word count. So, pained, I deleted the subplot. The next issue arose barely a chapter later, when a new character caught my fancy and I decided to expand on him. Until he started chomping through my word count. I deleted him too.

I determined that writing a short book is constrictive and terrible, and no-one should ever do it ever. Like a sulky teenager I slaved away on this cruel project, adding nothing extra, allowing no superfluous words, sticking only to the main storyline. Embracing my inner angsty teenager, I decided I was a literary martyr.

About halfway through, I began to enjoy my martyrdom. Without distractions and subplots, I had to rocket through the story, my characters leaping from one scene to the next like action heroes. What had been frustrating became a bit like a rollercoaster ride – I moved so quickly through the plot that I was tired but content every time I closed my laptop.

My writing got neater too. Keeping the number of words to a minimum meant my descriptions had to be clear and to the point, no waffling on and getting caught up in the moment when describing a pencil. I abandoned those naughty little adverbs that you know you don’t need, and cut out incidental characters that added nothing to the story.

I’ve since determined that completing a novella is binding and difficult, and everyone should try it. It is excellent practice, and guaranteed to show you where you’re liable to veer off the point and get a little sloppy. In short, it was a great writing experience.

The book was humbling, and took some getting used to, but The Fairytale Trap was a joy to write. And I hope that makes it a joy to read.

Erika McGann was the winner of the Waverton Good Read Children’s Prize 2014 for The Demon Notebook, the first in her magical series about Grace and her four friends.

Quality Time

SurgeA story by Madeleine D’Arcy, taken from Surge: New Writing from Ireland

If only one of those idiot nurses would turn his television on. All he had to contemplate was the ceiling above him. That dreadful ceiling, with its banal magnolia paint. Supreme blandness, but for a daub in a slightly darker shade right above his bed. An oddly shaped imperfection – the result, he was convinced, of something more sinister – blood from an exploding vein, a leaping spurt of pus, an ejaculation? The reason for the overlay of paint obsessed him daily since he’d found himself stretched out on this hospital bed, helpless and utterly immobile.

The multiple ignominies of the past week made him seethe with impotent fury, but at least the lackeys had not overlooked his Laya GoldPlus health insurance, so he had a private room. His field of vision was limited to the upper part of the door on his left and of the window on the right, that dratted ceiling, the helpless emergency cord dangling like a neglected toy barely visible in the corner of his eye and, thankfully, the television, hanging on its metal limb high up on the far wall.

On duty today was the one he called Nurse Wretched. If only he could speak, he’d have a thing or two to say to that bitch. He detested all the nurses, in fact, except for little Nursie Tinybones, with her soft plump hands and incongruous scent of bubblegum and flowers. And Patchett, the physio, was not a bad sort – at least she provided the only smidgen of bodily ease he’d experienced since that blasted stroke.

If only bloody Nurse Wretched would switch the dratted TV on. The careless cow had also left his door ajar. He could hear the enervating clatter of the underlings outside and smell some disastrous boiled vegetableness floating in the disinfectant air. Even more excruciating was Wretched’s fake-sincere chatter with some female in the corridor outside.

‘So, here he is, and won’t he be delighted to see you, the poor poppet!’ Nurse Wretched squealed as she swung round the door and into the room, hovering over him, showing him off as if he were Exhibit A.
‘Now, look who’s come all the way from London to see her dear old dad!’ she cooed.
If only Wretched would drop dead.

‘Thank you, nurse.’ The other woman’s voice seemed unaccountably familiar, despite the slight English accent.

‘He can’t turn his head, dear.  You’ll have to get in close so he’ll see you.’

A middle-aged woman leaned over him. There was something distinctly recognisable about her.

‘So … this is a Diving Bell and Butterfly scenario, is it?’ asked the woman in her Englishy accent.

‘What?’

‘Am I correct to assume that he knows what’s going on even though he can’t move or speak or … well, do anything?’

‘He can move his eyes, dear, but that’s all. That’s how we know he likes to watch the telly.’

The Englishwoman looked at him, and he rolled both his eyes at her.

There, he thought. See what you make of that, girlie. See what you make of that.

‘And all these tubes?’

‘Well, pet, he can’t breathe properly without them.  We have to feed him intravenously as well.’ Nurse Wretched lowered her voice. ‘He has to wear an incontinence pad down below, of course.’

‘And you don’t know how long this condition will last?’

‘No, dear … well, I’m not allowed to say.  You’ll have to talk to the Consultant.’

‘I understand. Thank you, nurse.’

‘Right, then. I’ll leave you to it.’

Exit Nurse Wretched. The door clunked shut behind her.

The Englishwoman leaned over, so that he could see her face again.

‘Well, well, Dad,’ she said. ‘Long time, no see. It’s me, Trisha.’

Yes, it was his daughter, Trisha. He recognised those bitter little eyes, the bone structure of her face, the still-beautiful hair. She must be almost forty now, he supposed.  Well preserved, all the same. The lovely smooth blonde hair – a shame she wore it shorter now – what was the name of that style? A bob? The outfit was pitiful, somewhat like the clothes that Wifey used to wear. A blue denim jacket over a white blouse. Did they still call them blouses? Cheap dangly earrings. No class. How could she? Wifey had no class either. In the end, he had despised Wifey. Though not as much as she despised him, he supposed. He blinked. I’m still here girlie. See what you make of that.

Trisha looked almost afraid, but she recovered within moments. ‘You’re in there all right, aren’t you? You’re still there, Dad. Not that you deserve to be.’

The colour of his daughter’s hair was darker than he recalled. Ash blonde, was it? In his memory, she was a fairytale child with long golden tresses. From this rancid bedtrap he could still imagine – almost feel – the smooth ripeness of her hair.

‘Trust you to have great health insurance. Just as well, I suppose.  You’re going to be here for a long time.’ She walked around the bed, and from the other side she leaned over again to peer into his face.

‘Can you hear me?’ she asked, loudly. She looked into his eyes. ‘You’re in there all right, you bastard.  Yes, it’s me, your daughter. Let’s spend some quality time together, shall we?’ She straightened up and walked back around the bed. She sat down in the chair. He could barely see her now, but he could smell a faint lemony perfume.

‘Hilarious that you can’t talk,’ she said, in a hard voice. ‘You used to have plenty to say, didn’t you? Hardly ever stopped ranting at Mum and upsetting her.  When you were in the house, the only time we had peace was when you read to me. But the books you chose – I couldn’t understand half of them. Remember Don Quixote? Tilting at windmills. I had no idea what it was all about. I was probably only four then. I just listened. I’d do anything to keep you in a good mood.’

He remembered, quite suddenly and clearly, the cover of that book: a daft old man on a horse, wearing yellow armour, and little Sancho Panza, his underling, bound to obey a lunatic who was out of control. The tale had amused him once.

‘I remember the way you brushed my hair and counted. Forty slow brushstrokes on each section, and then you’d … oh God …’ She put her head in her hands.

He thought she might be crying.  What the heck was she fussing about?

‘I wish Mum could see you now – the state of you – but she can’t. She’s dead. She died two years ago. Did you know that? I didn’t bother letting you know. If only she had had your medical insurance – but the NHS wasn’t too bad.’ She wiped her eyes.

He heard the door open. Nurse Minnie Mouse squeaked in, all pert and businessy as usual.

‘Just got to do his bloods,’ she chirped.

How he hated them all.

At his side he felt, rather than saw, Trisha rising from the chair.

‘No need to move,’ Nurse Minnie Mouse said. ‘You can stay if you like. So long as you’re not squeamish.’

‘No, I’m not a bit squeamish. Thank you, nurse.’

He felt her sit down again, a small flow of air and that lemon fragrance, with a hint of flowers, perhaps lilies.

‘You’re the daughter, aren’t you? Call me Barbara,’ Mousey said cheerfully, as she jabbed a needle most painfully into the flesh of his upper arm. How he longed to roar at that despicable woman. All her persnickety tidiness and yet she was clueless about the most basic of tasks. That small rodent face of hers was asking to be hit.

‘I hear you only just arrived from London,’ said Mousey to his daughter. ‘You must be exhausted. I could bring you a cup of tea, if you like?’

‘That’s very kind of you, but I’m fine, thanks.’

‘So, whereabouts in London do you live?’

He wished Mousey would quit sticking her nosy little nose in. He hated her even more than Nurse Wretched now.

‘Muswell Hill.’

‘That’s North London, isn’t it? I used to live in Clapham once upon a time.’

‘I lived there too, for a while, when I was ten. Then my mother met my stepfather, so we moved to North London when I was twelve.’

From his stodgy static bed he felt intensely vexed. So Wifey had met someone else, the bitch? Surely it couldn’t have lasted.

‘And do you come back to Ireland very often?’

‘Not really,’ said Trisha.

‘Well, at least you’re here now, that’s the main thing, isn’t it?’ Nurse Minnie Mouse squeaked.
He could not see what the nurse was doing, but he could hear her fannying about beside him, probably fixing adhesive labels on the vials of his still-warm blood.

‘Yes,’ said his daughter, absently.

The nurse fumbled at the bottom of the bed. She wrote on a chart with a blue biro before returning the pen to her breast pocket and replacing the chart.

‘All done for now,’ she said. ‘I’ll leave you in peace.’ Exit Nurse Minnie Mouse with a see-through envelope containing his blood.

As soon as the door closed, Trisha spoke again. ‘She’s left us in peace, Dad,’ she said. ‘Pity you never left us in peace.’ She stood up and began to pace. ‘Mum was never right afterwards, you know. She tried. God help her, she tried. But she always went for the wrong men.’

Wifey was an idiot. That had become obvious over time. He could not conceive now of any possible reason why he had ever married Wifey, but it was hardly his fault she was an idiot.

‘Mum was so naive,’ his daugher continued. ‘Of course, people didn’t talk about things in those days.’ There she was again, at the side of the bed. She leaned over and stared into his eyes. ‘Can you hear me? Yes, you can, can’t you? So, let’s see, how many years is it since we had some quality time together? Thirty, maybe? Can you cast your mind back?’

How sarcastic she was, the little bitch.

‘Of course, Mum should have faced up to things, but she didn’t.  You got off scot-free.  You probably went on doing the same kind of thing all your life. Men like you, they don’t stop, do they?’
A phone rang out, a cheerful cha cha cha tone.

‘Hang on.’ She reached down, and he could hear a zip being unzipped, some fumbling sounds. She stood up and plonked her handbag on the bed. ‘Yes, that’s fine. I’ll be there,’ she said, into one of those new-fangled phones, before replacing it in the bag. She took out a handkerchief and blew her nose, before continuing. ‘Poor Mum. I blamed her for a long time, you know. She was so naive. In spite of those enormous blue eyes she couldn’t see what was going on under her nose.’

She got up again and began to pace up and down. ‘I wanted to tell her for so long, but you wouldn’t let me.  You said I could never tell.  You used to stroke my hair. Remember? You washed my hair too. That was one of your jobs. Then you’d plait it.’

Ah, yes, he had loved every hair on her little urchin head. He used to brush it for hours and smooth it into two beautiful princess-like ponytails or plait it in various delightful ways. He could almost feel the sap rising now. How delicious it was when her little friends began to ask him to arrange their hair too, to fix it in pretty plaits like hers. Perhaps he should have been a hairdresser. In his day, only women did that job. It was a sissy job, though, and he was certainly never a sissy.
‘My friends all wanted plaits like mine. Mary Kate came to our house, one day, to play.  You came home early from work, remember? Mum said, “Great, you’re back early. I’ll just pop out to the butcher’s.” You plaited Mary Kate’s hair, and then she went home, and then you took down my hair and brushed it straight, and you said my hair was the prettiest and that you loved me more than you loved anyone and that we had to be nice to each other.  You said it was our secret.  You’d have to cut my beautiful hair off if I told, and I’d have no hair left, and I’d be ugly, and I’d look like a boy, and that would be horrible.’

She sounded almost out of breath as she paced around the room. He couldn’t see much of her, but he could feel a minuscule flow of air as she moved back and forth somewhere near the foot of his bed. Maybe she was waving her arms. A windmill daughter. Or maybe a Don Quixote daughter, tilting uselessly at windmills. Once upon a time, she had sat on his knee while he read that book aloud. She was too young to understand the story, but he read it to her anyway.

‘The shock of it. I can’t describe it. Seeing my friend, Mary Kate, with her hair shorn. Stubby little haircut, like a boy’s. The look on her face. “I’m never going to your house again,” she said. “I can’t be your friend any more.” I knew it was your fault, but I said nothing.  You cut my hair off anyway, in the end.’

He remembered that little spoilsport, Mary Kate, who had told her mother about the fun they’d had. The little brat. She had had the most delicious chestnut hair. She told her story once, but she refused to tell it again, because he’d warned her, you see. Hair first, neck next, he’d whispered in her tiny ear. Ah, the overwhelming pleasure of that thick rope of hair shifting in his hand. Oh, the sheer joy of the blades working through the sheaf of chestnut brown. No choice but to do it once again, with his own, the blonde.

‘What did you do to her? What other awful things did you do?’ She leaned over him and stared right into his eyes. ‘How could you live with yourself? I can hardly live with myself, and I did nothing wrong.  You bastard.’

She moved out of his view again and paced while she spoke. ‘You know what, I was jealous. Can you believe it? You always said you loved me the most, and then I found out you were doing the same things with Mary Kate. Crazy, isn’t it? But that’s the way it was.’

She stopped and faced the window. Her smooth blonde hair touched the collar of her blue denim jacket. Shame it was so short now. ‘We were lucky.  We got help in London,’ she told the window. ‘A great charity. I still donate. Only for that place we’d have been on the streets. The thing is, I’ve had therapy since then – loads of therapy – but I can’t get over it.’ She paused and took a deep breath. ‘I still feel guilty,’ she continued. ‘We just ran away.  We left you there to do as you pleased. That didn’t solve anything. For men like you, there’s only one solution.’

He heard her unzip her bag again. There was a metallic swishing sound. ‘See what I have?’ she said, towering over him now with a large chrome scissors in her hand. ‘Chop chop.’ She snipped the scissors open, closed, open, closed, right in front of his face.

‘How do you like this?’ she said. ‘All these tubes. I could snip them all.’

Finally, he was afraid. It would be a painful death. Such hatred in her eyes. As usual, no Wretched Nursie, no Minnie Mousey Nursie, no little Nursie Tinybones. Like buses, there was not a single bloody nursie around when you needed one.

He felt cold air on his lower body. She had raised the bedclothes. He could only imagine the pathetic sight: his bare old legs, the hospital nightdress, the bulge of his hospital diapers underneath. His warm urine flowed along a catheter, and there was an itch somewhere on his left foot that he would never be able to scratch.

‘I think I’ll take your nappy off and give you a snip,’ she said. ‘I could do a right job on you, couldn’t I? I could snip, snip, snip your dirty great thing right off.’

He felt the bedclothes being replaced carefully.

‘Hmm,’ she said and leaned over. She snipped the scissors several times, efficiently, in front of his face. Then she stopped and looked straight into his eyes. ‘Not today,’ she sighed. ‘I can’t be bothered today. Snip snip. I’ll take my time about it. See you tomorrow.’

She picked up her handbag and held it high, so he could see her place the scissors carefully inside. ‘Toodle-pip and toodle-oo,’ she called, as she left the room.

Damn it, he thought, his heart racing. He had once accused Wifey of having a fancy man. He’d even tried to slap the truth out of her. He’d been certain the child was not his own. Now, he realised he had been wrong. This girl was flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood. The same feisty spirit. That zest for danger. The delicious tension. The tantalising feeling that a nurse could walk in on them at any moment.  What a cunning little vixen. He was almost looking forward to her next visit.

But now the television was blank. That blasted Nurse Wretched. He wished she’d hurry up and turn it on.

Madeleine D’Arcy worked as a criminal legal-aid solicitor and as a legal editor in London before returning to Cork in 1999 with her husband and son. She began to write short stories in 2005. In 2010, she received a Hennessy X.O. Literary Award for First Fiction as well as the overall Hennessy X.O. Literary Award for New Irish Writer. Madeleine’s story ‘Dog Pound’ has been made into a short film, starring Frank Kelly. Her short-story collection, Waiting for the Bullet, was published by Doire Press in April 2014. She is a student on the inaugural master’s degree in creative writing at UCC.

A Taste of McGuinness

Writer and O’Brien Press Sales Administrator, Jamie O’Connell, writes about his experiences at University College Dublin under the tutelage of Frank McGuinness and how it impacted his reading of Arimathea.

In late January 2009, I sat in Room 207 of the Newman Building in University College Dublin. It’d been a particularly cold winter, but this cold Monday morning was an exciting one. It was my first class with Frank McGuinness, as part of my MA in Creative Writing.

I’d heard of Frank McGuinness many times before this first meeting. His plays, like Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and The Factory Girls, have left their mark both within Ireland and internationally. And when Frank did appear, his passion for writing was immediately evident. The books he enjoyed, he examined with zeal.

We studied Albert Camus’s The Fall in great detail. At the time, I remember finding the book a difficult read and the assigned reading each week was put on the long finger by me, generally until 11pm the night before class. However, in the years that have followed, as various events happened in my life, wisdom from that book, words and quotes, have spontaneously come into my thoughts, making life more understandable. It has given me ‘new eyes’ – something that Marcel Proust described as the fundamental role of fiction. I am grateful that Frank challenged my classmates and me to read it.

Last September, I returned to University College Dublin to complete an MFA in Creative Writing. Frank teaches a seminar on this course too; this time we studied the work of Jane Austen, notably Emma. Throughout our seven seminars, Frank’s love of Austen’s prose, her creation of the small town of Highbury with all its intrigues and dangers, has been an eye opener. His examination of the inner lives of Austen’s protagonists and the dangers lurking in this community, has rekindled my love of this eighteenth century novelist. Those who attended Sean Rocks’ interview with Frank at the Dublin Book Festival on 14 November heard him likewise speak passionately about Austen’s writing (the full interview is available on the RTE Player).

Over the last year, I have encountered Frank and his work through a different avenue again: The O’Brien Press’s publication of his debut novel Arimathea. Nominated for Book of the Year at the The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards 2013, the novel has lived up to anticipation. Reviews in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and The Irish Times have all been stellar.

Amongst all this, I’ve read the novel. The two semesters with Frank, studying Emma and The Fall, has given me a view of the novel different than most. In the social snobberies, the secret worlds, the intrigues of the Donegal town in Arimathea, I found myself thinking of Austen’s Highbury, with all its social complexities. Rural life is not as simple as impressions would appear. Both Austen and Frank have clear tight prose that drives the novel forward. One glides over the well-crafted sentences. There is nothing sluggish in either.

However, in Arimathea, elements of The Fall also appear. In each character’s monologue truths appear which don’t always show humanity in a favourable light. Yet, there is a departure from The Fall at this point; in the conclusion of Arimathea, humanity is offered a sort of redemption. An act of kindness occurs and the reason for the choice of ‘Arimathea’ as the title becomes evident.

The Sunday Business Post summed it up well: ‘a beautifully bleak first novel’. Humour mixes with pathos, as The Irish Examiner wrote: ‘deeply funny about the absurdities of human behaviour’. Both as a student of Frank’s and as an avid reader, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Arimathea is now available at www.obrien.ie and most good bookshops.