On Balance…

The pleasures of books, chocolate, pies, piano playing and puzzles are the fancy curlicues of my life since Covid 19 sauntered in, alongside the grim gargoyles of death, disease, social distancing, not to mention the endemic usage of phrases like ‘strange times’ and ‘stay safe’. Life is so strangely balanced between light and dark, don’t you think?

Colum McCann’s latest book, Apeirogon, A Novel, is a story of balance. It must have been a labour of love to write. It is observant, astute, intelligent, detailed yet freewheeling, tight but unwieldy at the same time. As I say, a labour of love, certainly to read, but I am glad I did. I am currently reading Isobel Allende’s A Long Petal of Sea about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the life of a Spanish émigré, a medic, who travelled on the Winnipeg, organised by Chilean poet, Neruda, to carry the Spanish refugees to Chile. Again, the book depicts the horrors of disease and death caused and encountered by human kind. I must say, as I get older, death and illness seem have a more tenacious hold on my life

During our own war on Covid 19, I have found the clamour of Facebook too much to bear, so have had to keep away from social media. I also lack the impetus to write, but I force myself to pen the odd charming poem about walking in the woods, Spring time and loneliness. However, in the main, I have retreated, cocooned myself, you could say, in the back rooms of the bungalow to re-piece together our globe by doing a puzzle of the world as depicted by all the continents and their habitats. I also practice my piano scales. Somehow, playing piano scales, the scale of C in particular, gives me a stronger sense of control over days which pass in mindless contemplation. I imagine myself as the piano player in Sarajove, except I’m in Cavan and, sadly for my neighbours,  the scale of C is not as melodic as the Adagio in G Minor.

Funnily, enough music chimes strong in another book I have read during this time, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. It too is strangely redolent of our current experience of isolation and confusion. It tells of a large group of industrialists and foreign dignitaries listening to a recital by a world renowned opera singer. They are kidnapped and kept prisoner in the vice presidential palace over a period of two months. It is beautifully written and shows how people adapt to their circumstances, and if given time, silence, and a different environment, people will carve their own particular significance and being into the dynamic.

Family quizzes feature on a weekly basis. I organise zoom poetry sessions between old friends and so while I might not be writing much, poetry does feature. I listen to The Verb, a wonderful arts programme on Radio Three and am currently reading a book where Helen Mort writes poems in response to philosophical papers, again a rather odd coincidence given the philosophical bent of physical isolation. It is a rather fine volume called Poems, Philosophy and Coffee. Family and old friends feature more in my daily life –if at a distance – that is people who have experienced the times I consider to be my real, actual life and not just the days that have passed with me in them, as the current days do.

So, I almost didn’t write this month’s blog:  the week in Portugal didn’t happen, nor the Cork Poetry Festival, nor the Trim Weekend. There have been no visits to Dublin, Limerick or anywhere. There was no Easter Egg hunt. However, as it turns out, and it always does when I put pen to paper, that I have been engaged, absorbed, and as Ann Patchett illustrates in Bel Canto, I have carved out a new life…and I haven’t even got to the pastry making or the delicious liver and bacon casseroles I’ve been making nor the endless games of solo boggle!

Stay safe!

World Puzzle
liver and bacon casserole
heart of pine cones found in the forest
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An Existential Conundrum

It has been 21 days since Leo Vradkar first appeared on TV and announced school closures and other cautionary measures around tackling the Corona Virus. I had been watching Boris earlier, so when Leo came on, I was very proud and relieved to be an Irish citizen. He brought tears to my eyes. The only other person who has been able to do that was Stephen Spielberg with ET back in the 1980s when I found myself weeping uncontrollably in the cinema, while laughing manically at this manipulation of my tear ducts. It was a similar experience on my living room sofa on the 27 March. Fortunately, because I already lived in social isolation, no one saw.

Social isolation has its benefits…as maybe people are beginning to recognise. There are more people exercising, smiling and waving while also keeping their distance. There is a great feeling of camaraderie. The community is sharing food, making deliveries to those who need it. No longer is it shameful to feel lonely, for everyone is feeling lonely or frightened. There are new forms of engagement. I am doing quizzes on-line with family. I am in contact with friends who before I would speak to only occasionally. Social distancing in supermarkets means a much more enjoyable shopping experience where one has time and space to ponder and choose.

My days haven’t changed dramatically due to Covid 19 because as a writer/poet, and retired person living in Cavan, they don’t really involve other people. I wake up, write or edit what I’m working on, get up, take the dog for a walk, listen to podcasts, have lunch while listening to the radio, read a book, listen to more radio, clean, shop, cook, watch TV and back to bed. After a few weeks of this routine, I do get what I term ‘Cavan Fever’. However, I am usually able to offset that with a visit to Limerick or Dublin, or a book launch or some poetry festival somewhere. Obviously, the Corona Virus has stopped that travel. So, after twenty one days of ever increasing restrictions and walking around in ever decreasing circles, it feels as if my eyes are beginning to dart side to side, my hair is standing up on end, and my skin is feeling prickly.  These are the physical symptoms I feel.

But, I wonder at this physical reaction because the quality of my day to day life is good. Since Leo made his first announcement, I have given myself ‘permissions’ which for some reason I didn’t before. I decided to learn piano, to improve my mind by studying The Guardian Crosswork (Simple and Cryptic), to do puzzles, to paint, to allow myself cake and chocolate. I feel guilty saying it while all around me the world collapses, but my life is good. The restrictions on movement make me feel twitchy, but when hundreds of thousands of people are dying across the world, twitchy is grand.  Okay, when I watch the news, I feel sick. The emergency hospitals going up in Central Park in New York, in London exhibition centres, in grand Piazzas in Italy and Spain are horrifying to see, but by the same token, it is wonderful to see people come together,  work and respond as one – as a society. Why does it take such calamity for us to improve our lives, both as a society and as individuals?

There is so much discussion about Covid 19 – is it earth’s natural solution to the tyranny of mankind. I don’t want to add to that, but for me there is an uncomfortable question inherent in the unfolding Corona virus scenario that we need to consider. In the future, how do we make our society reflect the values around human rights that Covid 19 has shown us all to hold?

I am lucky. I don’t know anyone who is ill. The Irish lock down has presumably stemmed the spread of infection and the subsequent number of deaths. What I’d like to know is how we hold on to the benefits that the virus has shown us are possible without requiring the threat of death? Hopefully, the future Irish Government will reflect on this!

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Home from Home

It seems that I haven’t stopped crying recently. I spent the weekend in London, and then the last few days in County Kerry and throughout this time I have required a constant stream of tissues which, unfortunately, I never had! The tears have been big, round rolling ones which spill involuntarily out of the eye. I usually tried to wipe them away before anyone saw. When I didn’t succeed, these tears led to big, embarrassed, foolish grins plastered on my face over which I had no control.

It all began when I returned to London to see The Boyfriend at the Chocolate Factory Theatre in Southwark. I flew into Gatwick and travelled into town. My brother, and his partner, my oldest childhood friends, various university friends, some with family, and my own daughter had already arrived at our pre show dinner,  so when I sat down, I felt a little emotional at having my nearest and dearest so close at hand. I managed to keep my composure but of course the show itself triggered the lachrymose gland that would continue to leak for the next five days!

The Boyfriend provoked a variety of emotions – joyous nostalgia, horror at the unremitting sexism, and amusement at how successfully the production undermined its own sentiments through exageration. It was almost grotesque. The costumes were rich in jewels, glitter and shimmer. The ‘girls’ were pitch perfect in giggle and chatter, and Mme Dubonnet was a treat to behold. Her outfits were perfect and her acting was superb. The dancing was fabulous. I do recommend it, particularly for people of my generation though I have to say, at 60, we were the youngest in the audience.

When I was at Primary School, my class put on The Boyfriend. We were nine years old. Watching the performance, I quivered with retrospective embarrassment at how our porky, pre-pubescent bodies must have looked, kicking and twirling in our flapper costumes. Aged ten, I had little concept of irony so I think all those songs yearning for Pierrots and love, and boyfriends in Bloomsbury, probably have a lot to answer for!

The next day, Maria, Malcolm and I set off to Colchester to visit Martin and Kobi, who had turned down the invitation to The Boyfriend. Martin is one of my first loves and has recently returned from New Zealand (where he is now a citizen) and he and his Kiwi partner, Kobi, are buying a place in Colchester…don’t ask. Anyway, after driving around endless Colchester roundabouts and suburban posh streets in Storm Enrique, looking at the hundreds of houses they didn’t buy, we drove out to Mersea Island to a popular sea shack to  eat gorgeous seafood. To get to Mersea Island, we had to cross a toll bridge over miles of brown, roiling, schlucking, glorious mud. Admittedly, there was actual water at the coastline with colourful, pretty boats jangling in the marina, but it was definitely offset by the grey sleeting curtain of wind and rain.  The shack, however, was a shanty of delight: live, crawling lobsters in tanks, mussels, crabs, shrimps, tuna, herrings, salmon. We feasted well! Me, a little too well and while I managed to contain my tears, my stomach rued the over-indulgence as Malcolm, Maria and I drove on to stay their country pad in Suffolk.

I awoke on Saturday to storm Jorge (I don’t know what happened to the storms beginning with F, G and H) and at the crack of dawn, we left Suffolk (I was fully recovered) and returned to Sunny London where I was meeting another old friend, Lesley. At about six o’clock, after visiting a rather fine textile and costume exhibition at 2 Temple Place, a very bizarre mushroom exhibition in Somerset House, and rather fine David Bomberg and Nicholas Maes paintings at the National Gallery, we were crossing Shaftesbury Avenue on our way to an Indian Restaurant on Carnaby Street.

“Look, Mary Poppins is on at the theatre!” I said, suddenly very excited. Some of you may know that Mary Poppins is my heroine and role model. ‘Practically perfect in every way’ is my daily mantra. “Let’s just see,” I said, disappearing into the foyer. In a click of the fingers I had bought two top priced tickets for just half their value – Seat 13, Row D, in the stalls – and in one hour, we were gazing up with expectant faces and gappy grins.

It was a magnificent and spectacular performance. I have never seen a show like it. The sets were wonderfully detailed and very sophisticated. Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane was like a huge dolls house. Bert and the Chimney Sweeps tapped and swept across the roof tops, even up the sides and over the ceiling of the theatre, and Mary Poppins flew with her parrot umbrella across the auditorium. It was true magic. She sailed up the bannisters, pulled standard lamps from her glorious carpet bag, and with a click of her fingers righted the wrecked kitchen destroyed when Jane and Michael baked a cake. The dancing statues were magnificent, and I loved Mrs Correy’s Talking Shop. I couldn’t control the tears. They streamed down my cheeks in utter joy! The songs were fabulous and performances superb. Zizi Strallen was a wonderful Mary Poppins and Petula Clark was the bird lady. It was indeed, to my view, practically perfect.

The British Library, which is where I met Jayne on a lovely, sunny Sunday, was a less exuberant joy but still a pleasure. I loved the maps from the 16th century, the manuscripts you can browse through, written by the Brontes and other beloved English writers. From there, Jayne and I ambled our way through Bloomsbury, calling in at the lovely Persephone bookshop, past our old Alma Mater, Kingsway- Princeton FE college, through the ancient grave yard where my first real boyfriend used to meet me for kisses and joints, to the new Boulevard Theatre in Soho to go to a poetry reading. The poets were a mixed bunch, but the event is a weekly one run by a crew called Live Cannon which I will check out. I enjoyed it. It is a venue to look out for.

Then back to Maria and Malcolm’s and a Sunday dinner (no longer a tradition in our house at home) where I enjoyed heated discussions with Mary, their fervent and committedly vegan seventeen year old, about her school’s appalling policy on toilets for trans people and its undemocratic attitudes. I had forgotten how teenagers keep you on your toes.

Over the weekend, there had been much discussion about the Covid 19 virus in London. Mary’s school discovered one of the pupils was a possible threat and kept him in the stock cupboard until he could be collected, so I was relieved to be back on home territory in Ireland on Monday and driving down to Kerry to take part in my beautiful Citizenship Ceremony at 9.30am on Tuesday morning. Arriving in from London, it was as if I had spent the weekend saying my goodbyes to my British heritage.

Would you believe, I welled up during the Minister of State’s speech at 10am in the morning! Due to my previous work, I have heard many Minister of States speak; but I have never found myself so poignantly moved. After taking my oath of fidelity to the state, I openly wept when judge Mcmahon pronounced that I was now Irish. Tears coursed down my cheeks. I couldn’t fling my arms around my closest Irish compatriot because of the Corona virus, but I nodded with shining eyes and we decided to elbow nudge instead. I have lived here for twenty-five years, and have many friends and acquaintances. I have worked for State agencies and across the country in a community development capacity. I have been very active in my own local community in Cavan, but I have always felt as if I didn’t truly belong because I wasn’t Irish. Now I am!

So, my weekend was a bit of a roller coaster of emotions. Being in London, spending time with my oldest friends in the place I was reared, visiting the landmarks of my youth, going to exhibitions and theatres reminds me of the girl I once was, and makes me feel safe. However, coming home to Ireland, receiving acknowledgement and acceptance of my life here as a mother, worker and woman and becoming a citizen of the land of saints and scholars was tremendous. You won’t believe this, but after the ceremony we took a drive through the Dunloe Gap of the stunning scenery of Macgillycuddy Reeks through blue skies, glorious sunshine and amazing black, formidable clouds. At the pass, I got out danced at the end of triple edged, watery rainbow!

Macgillycuddy Reeks
macgillycuddy Reeks again
Martin, Kobi and Maria on Mersea Island
Certificate of Citizenship
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Taking a New Path – Out of Doolin

I was at the Doolin Writers festival last weekend. Its my fourth year going to Doolin and the faces are becoming more familiar. I might even remember people’s names when I turn up next year. It’s strange how friendships evolve. I meet someone once a year in a workshop, share a few readings, become firm friends over a few drinks and then don’t see them again for a year or even two, and some people I don’t ever talk to, yet every year I feel a part of something at Doolin! I feel like a fish swimming in a shoal or a starling flying in a murmuration.

Usually, going to festivals, at first, I feel cautious, nervous like a rough sketch of a charcoal character, or a figure in one of Lowry’s paintings. Probably, it is what most people feel, but if the workshop facilitator is good, s/he is able to turn us all into fine art (not saying that Lowry is not fine art). This year the workshop facilitators were excellent and I was turned into a Yeats figure (particularly after a few in Fitz’s bar).

I loved Jessica Traynor’s Poetry Workshop. She is a very adept painter, to continue the metaphor. Her brush strokes were deft, detailed and loving. We discussed and wrote poems about winter – the cold, bleak rawness of winter.  I had brought a poem of mine called the Grand Scheme of Things (after Arthur Rimbaud) to workshop. It is a poem about a slow realisation of how little our lives are in the grand scheme of things. It turned out to be the start of an interesting journey.

Pauline Clooney’s workshop on Memoir was fascinating and pointed me in a direction I wasn’t really expecting to take. When I was writing about the previous day, (as per one of Pauline’s exercises) I realised that I had not prepared for this writing weekend, it had merely been a date in my diary. In the morning, I had just got up, got the dog to the kennels, got in the car and driven . I couldn’t even remember which workshops I had signed up for. Describing my day, I suddenly realised that I had lost faith.  It was also in the memoir workshop that I met my dad. From his bag he gave me a French baguette, a camembert and a bottle of wine so we sat down and shared it. It was an unexpected pleasure and made me realise how much I have missed him in the last thirty years. Kathy D’Arcy pushed me further down this self-reflective path on our Ginko walk on Sunday.

However, before that I went to Christodoulos Makris’ poetry workshop on experimental sampling which was brilliant. He was measured, gentle, quiet, a most unusual kind of rule breaker. I was still unaware at this stage but his workshop about breaking rules and patterns was to encourage me and gave me confidence to strike out on a slightly path. That path came with our Sunday morning walk with Kathy D’Arcy as a guide.

I had thought I was going for a wind swept guided walk over the cliffs of Moher – presumably Kathy would stop me taking selfies too near the edge. I was wrong – about Kathy and the Cliffs of Moher. The cliff path was closed due to the weather (it was wet and freezing) and Kathy pushed me over an edge I was not expecting.

Apparently, this was a walk involving exploration of self (remember, I had not prepared for this weekend). There were three parts to the walk and each section was to be walked in silence. The first section we had to think about our past. The second section we considered out present and in the final section we thought about the future, the goals we had, the challenges we were going to face. After each section we sat on a rock or a bench in the freezing chill winds and did some free writing – writing anything, without stopping.

I should mention at this point my feelings about the Doolin landscape. I think it is a startling one, but I find it unsettles me and this morning, it was particularly bleak, and cold. The harsh, sweeping winds, the vast grey sky was reflected in both the ocean and rocks of lime strewn around the land. The small white buildings scattered across stumpy fields, to me, look lost and forlorn.  There are no distractions, little loveliness.

On my walk in the past I recalled being nervous as a child, unsure, always watching, and then forcing myself to plunge into life. Then, it occurred to me, life took over and somehow, I disappeared. Walking along, single file, in silence with the wind pumping at my eyes, I wondered what happened to that child. I couldn’t remember much about her. The only image I could recall from my past was giving birth to my children (and I think that was provoked by the white sea spray smashing against the black rocks). Thinking about my present, I felt the cold stone beneath the soles of my feet, and the freezing wind scorch my cheeks.  I watched a sea gull balancing on the soaring wind, squawking. The manicured green flow and bump of the pitch and putt course reminded me of curvaceous shape of a woman lying down, oiled and massaged. I couldn’t think of anything else. Not only do I not recall my past, I don’t know what my present is, I thought to myself.

Thinking of the future, and my goals, my first thought was to wonder if I had one. Maybe I should focus more on me, I thought. I don’t seem to know very much. I can’t remember anything about my childhood. My present is just full of stones, wind, gulls and pitch and putt courses. Maybe, I need to discover more about myself.

I have enough self awareness to know that my way of dealing with challenges is to move on. I have always shied away from self-reflection, been sceptical about meditation, felt there were more important things to do, like tackling poverty, inequality, politics. I could try, I thought. Nah, I thought. Yes, I thought, I’m just scared. It would be good to know if there is more to you. Nah, I thought, its too self-indulgent. Anyway, I don’t know how to. I remembered Kathy said to think about the challenges. Possibly, I am my greatest challenge.

The last section of the walk we were able to talk and I asked Kathy how to even begin to try being more self aware. Write, she said. Try the Artist’s Way. Yeah, yeah, I said, instantly dismissive. Everyone says that, she said. I ordered it when I got home.

So, I will try this path of self reflection. I still feel sceptical, but, when I thought about the weekend, it was strange – everything pointed me in this direction. My lack of preparation, my realisation that I had lost faith (in everything), my choice of poem to workshop, my meeting my father at the memoir workshop, taking a workshop in experimentation and doing a Ginko walk – without checking what it was.

Susan Tomaselli, June Caldwell, and Donal Minihan were the key organisers of the festival. While, I will hold them responsible for whatever happens, I also want to thank them for a fantastic writing weekend.

Doolin Writers Festival Programme
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My Stats of 2019

Review of 2019

This year has been full of revolving doors, escalators, immigration queues and giant flying machines on aprons. I have visited different countries, cities, cathedrals, cafes, museums, mausoleums, islands, people, parks, paintings, riches, royalty and seen much poverty scattered liberally around streets.

I’ve watched, read and heard about many protests – in Paris, Hong Kong, Beirut, Gambia, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, India, Venezuela, Brazil, Sudan, London, Dublin. These are the ones that immediately come to mind. I’ve seen amazing ‘planet earth’ film and photography on TV, on-line, and in exhibitions – beautiful photos that depict our amazing world that is now under threat.

I’ve read about thirty books with characters from Lagos, Korea, London, Dublin, New York, Ohio, Idaho, Jerusalem, Belfast, the Dominican Republic, Paris, Ghana, Sligo, Norwich, Cavan, Maine, Chicago, India, Italy, Amsterdam, Yorkshire, China, Canada, Holland, Istanbul, Greece, Jordan and Mexico. Stand out books were The Lost Children by Valeria Luiscelli, Education by Tara Westover, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, Welcome to Lagos by Chibundo Onzu, An Orchestra of Minorities by Chicozie Obiama and a book of short stories, The Lemon Tree by Julian Barnes.

I have watched hundreds of hours of TV, Netflix and Prime (I loved Pride, with Dominic West,  Fleabag, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Games of Thrones, The Crown, Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty, The Hand Maid’s Tale).

I have walked approximately 2,000 kms and swum 100,000 metres (conservative estimates) through woods, along lakeshores, by beaches, in strange, wonderful cities.

I have written about 30 new poems, spent hours (approx. 700) happily editing poetry and short stories in bed and submitted approximately 50 poems/short stories to competitions/literary journals. I have been published in three journals, shortlisted in two competitions, not heard back from most and read at three events this year. I have been to five literary festivals. I have written about 14 blogs (you can check that at kateennals.com) and listened to about 200 hours of book and political podcasts. I have run four literary evenings in Cavan, two writing weekends and one eight-week poetry workshop on form, which was fun, and I mentored three poets.

I also worked with the Freedom to Write campaign – highlighting four imprisoned writers: Nedim Turfent, Turkey, Chimengul Awut from China, Galal El-Hairy, Egypt and Dawitt Issak, Eritrea.

I have daubed thirty paintings and tried my hand with water colours, oils, acrylics, pastels. I have discovered my perspective is completely askew which probably explains some of my poems.

I have celebrated 60 years this year. God knows how many cakes I’ve baked and scoffed in compensation for having to watch Brexit unfold. I have experienced glimmers of hope at the Labour Party Conference and during the recent UK election when I listened to John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn talk of green industrial revolutions, nationalisation, co-operatives, jobs, and home building but Boris Johnson and Tory voters broke my heart on Friday 13th December .

The learning from the year? Life goes on, day by day, and I want to enjoy it in a million different ways until it stops when all the agonising, wondrous beauty will disappear forever: all the lovely photographs on Instagram, all the protests, all the books, all the natural disasters, all the rubbish in the oceans, all the miles and metres walked and swum, all the stories, all the love, the poems, the wine, cakes and then there will be no more failure nor any more Tory Party. But, until then, I am yours and looking forward to 2020.

Donegal
Kate’s painting!
Mount Etna
Tunisia
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The Day of the Imprisoned Writer – Speak Out

Today is the day of the imprisoned writer and last night a fantastic crowd of about sixty people came to Poetry Ireland in Dublin to listen to poems by four poets who have been silenced and imprisoned by their Governments: Galal El Hairy, from Egypt, Chimengul Awut from China, Nedim Türfent, Turkey and Dawit Issak from Eritrea.

There were brief introductions to each of the imprisoned poets and writers from the members of a group, Freedom to Write who organised the event and then four Irish poets read their work.  These writers were imprisoned for writing articles or tender, gentle lines about freedom by people more concerned with personal power than in the magnificence and beauty of their countries. It made me ask the question, who is the real traitor? Dawit Issak from Eritrea has been imprisoned for nearly 19 years with no trial. He has been ‘disappeared’ with no trial and no word, and there are many writers like him across the world.

Photographs of the poets were on the Poetry Ireland mantelpiece, like family photos, and there were brief, very beautiful, haunting musical interludes from from two musicians, Eamon Sweeney and Cormac Breatnach who played a kind of low whistle (a tabhar dom do lambth) and spanish guitar/banjo kind of instrument (sorry, I didn’t get its name). The music was very effective. Having heard the poems, closing my eyes and listening to the beautifully clear notes and melodies somehow moved me closer to the imprisoned poets. I imagined the confined space, the dirt, the hunger, the sorrow, the longing to be free and human.

I seem to spend much of my time, these days, being relieved or grateful. I have much to appreciate: I am not homeless, I have a basic income, I am educated. I am free to travel, think, and write. I can vote. I am healthy. There is love and friendship all around me. Yet, I still feel a sense of increasing powerlessness, and the closing in of walls. This may be due to age as well as the rise of the power of the individual reflected in our politics and social media. I find it debilitating. Feeling simply grateful and relieved that it’s not me who suffering is degrading, and I wonder if it is reflective of what happened in Germany in the 1930s. Being part of the Freedom to Write Campaign, actively un-silencing the writers Governments imprison, by reading and hearing their writing, makes me feel stronger. As writers and poets we want the power of language released and channelled into expression, love, reason, beauty and civilisation – the key elements of humanity.

Last night, I felt grateful that I was free to hear the poetry and music, and that I could come home to a warm and welcoming home, but I also felt angry and frustrated that in this world that so many people today are imprisoned, if not by governments or dictators, then by poverty, bullies, injustice and most of all, insecurity. It is good to speak out. On the day of the imprisoned writer, speak out.

The Irish poets reading the work were Celia de Fréine, Colm Keegan, Maria McManus, and Chris Murray. Thank you to the Freedom to Write Group for organising, and to Poetry Ireland and Irish Pen for the support.

Galal El-Behairy, poet, lyricist and activist (MALE)

Poet, lyricist and activist Galal El-Behairy is serving a three-year prison sentence for ‘insulting the military’ and ‘spreading false news’. He is being held in the notorious maximum-security prison Tora prison in Cairo. Nicknamed ‘Scorpion’ Prison, Tora has been condemned by scores of human rights organisations for its serious abuses, including denying inmates access to lawyers, their families, medical care and basic of hygiene products. Its infamous solitary confinement cells — which El-Behairy was subjected to — are cramped and airless. According to Galal El-Behairy’s lawyer has shown signs of severe torture, after his initial detention during which he was held incommunicado for a week.  On 31st of July 2018, Cairo’s Military Court sentenced El-Behairy to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 000 Egyptian pounds (560 USD). Following El-Behairy’s conviction, the publisher of his latest book of poetry, The Finest Women on Earth, terminated their contract with him and publicly stated that its agreement to publish the work did not imply its agreement with the book’s content. Galal El-Behairy remains in prison, and is currently serving his sentence. 

Dawit Isaak has been held incommunicado in Eritrea for over 17 years (MALE)

Dawit Isaak, an award-winning Swedish-Eritrean journalist and writer, has been held incommunicado in Eritrea for over 17 years. His case is emblematic of the dire situation facing independent journalists in the country, many of whom have been subjected to systematic arbitrary arrests, threats, harassment and enforced disappearances over the years. Isaak was one of several journalists arrested during the government’s September 2001 crackdown on independent voices in the press and politics. Very little is known about his current circumstances. Although Eritrea’s Foreign Minister claimed in a 2016 interview  that all of the journalists and politicians arrested in 2001 were still alive – including Isaak – no proof has yet been provided. Similarly, there is little information available concerning the charges against these prisoners; the Foreign Minister has said that those arrested would be tried “when the government decides.” Isaak was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2017.

News editor and reporter, Nedim Türfent  (MALE)                                                 ‘No matter what the price or consequence might be, we will never compromise from the magical creations of writing and of the written word. We would like to repeat once again our gratitude to PEN members, who have stood by us on this path.’ Nedim Türfent

15 December marked one year since news editor and reporter, Nedim Türfent, was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison on trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which scores of witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him. Prior to his arrest, Nedim Türfent was covering Turkish military operations in southeast Turkey. He spent almost two years in solidarity confinement in harrowing detention conditions. His sentence was upheld on 19 June 2018 and his lawyers have lodged an appeal before the Constitutional Court. Determined to keep writing, Nedim Türfent started composing poetry while detained. PEN International believes that Nedim Türfent is being imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.

Chimengül Awut a renowned Uyghur poet    (FEMALE)                                                                 Police in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, arrested Chimengul Awut, a poet and editor for the state-owned Kashgar Publishing House, in July 2018, according to Radio Free Asia. Awut was arrested as part of a more than year-long crackdown on the publishing company in which several other former and current staff were detained.

As well as Awut, police arrested Ablajan Siyit, a deputy editor-in-chief and translator, and former editors-in-chief Osman Zunun, who retired 10 years ago, and Abliz Omer, who retired 20 years ago, according to the RFA report. The report did not name the other staff arrested.

According to the report, the staff are accused of producing books that were deemed “problematic” or “dangerous.”

RFA cited a member of the local judiciary as saying in a phone interview that the arrests were part of a government investigation into books that may be politically sensitive. The judiciary member said that Kashgar Publishing House was accused of publishing more than 600 books that fell into this category. The investigation focused on authors, editors, and those who authorized the publications, according to Radio Free Asia. 

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A Limerick Weekend of White Russians, Walking, Mushrooms, and Curved Stone Arches

Squalls of rain and galloping clouds followed me down the swerve of the N55, the straight of the M6 and the temptations of the M18 (Gort, Ennis, Ennistymon, Doolin). I was driving down to Limerick to spend the weekend with my son, Joe, last Friday. It was national ‘slow down’ day which encouraged me to stay at the speed limit, so I felt excited and virtuous when I arrived, laden with crusty, a gorgeous looking home-made quiche, bottles of Vodka and Kalhua, and my walking boots.

                Joe lives on Kings Island, so after a few white Russians and a light supper, we headed up to Katy Daly’s opposite the castle for a few. It’s a great local: blazing fire, burnished wood, people in full, Friday night flow of bon-hommie and chit chat.

                On Saturday morning, we headed out early to take Poppins Dog for a walk in the trails of Broadford, before lunching at Springfield Castle where one of Joe’s friends runs a The Green Café on a Saturday. Once we got to Broadford, we sought directions from an old man on a bike. He had few teeth and the thickest of Cork/Limerick accents. With extensive flamboyance, he gesticulated where the trails might start, one of which seemed to be the car park and the other which pointed us in the direction we were facing. So we followed his hand gestures and, after that, a series of blue arrows which led us a merry dance up and down winding, narrow country lanes, past barking rottweilers, and then disappeared (as signage in Ireland does) leaving us in the middle of nowhere in a bleak pine wood landscape and a farm of turbines. So, we stopped the car and headed up on what looked like a Coilte path to explore the windmills. After traipsing through cleared pine forests for an hour, we decided it was lunch time and to go to the Castle cafe just as it started to rain.

                Unfortunately, Google maps had put the X for Springfield Castle in the wrong place so immediately after performing a rather impressive hairpin turn, we ran into a sign which said this is not the entrance to Springfield Castle. Thankfully, the sign gave detailed instructions about turning back, bends, kilometres and stone arches. We knew we had arrived when we turned through above mentioned stone arch and jolted our way along the longest, straightest, gold leafed, tree lined, potholed avenue I’ve ever seen. After brilliant avoidance driving by Joe, we parked about 100 yards away from a fine gothic turreted, Virginia creepered castle in a park land of meadows, trees, ponds and walled gardens (with more stone arches). We followed another, more accurate, arrow through the arch into the walled garden. A middle-aged woman in mac and wellies, with head scarf and empty flower basket over her arm, greeted us with a smile and disappeared through a gate on the right and we turned left for the café.

                On entering, we gasped. It was massive, full of light and stone, with a huge black stove/BBQ structure where Dan, Joe’s friend, was cooking delicious smelling food from the kitchen gardens and farm. Dan had kept us a table and waved us towards it with a steel spatula.

                The grey stone wall was hung wooden pallets turned sideways and decked with green spider plants, ferns, Aloe Vera, and others. Silver dustbin lids, acting as lampshades, lined up high above the long and square tables that looked like they belonged in the dining hall of King Richard III. Old church organ pipes, decorated, hung on the wall, back lit in silver. Blankets were scattered around in case we were cold. The smell from the wild kitchen range was glorious, the tea was strong and served in solid large tea pots, and the staff were friendly and chatty. My skewers of chicken and roasted vegetables were moist (the meat that is, not the skewer) and served with a salad of fresh salad leaves, and an array of different coloured tomatoes. The chips were home made and tasted of potato. The chilli sauce and ketchup were also homemade and beautifully tangy. I wasn’t as convinced by the fermented aubergine, onions and beetroot served as a side dish, but Joe enjoyed his unusual veg hash of onions, potatoes, turnips and strange roots.

                After lunch, Dan suggested we walk around the farm and gardens, keeping Poppins on a leash as there were deer. We wandered into the walled garden, peering into large tunnels of flowers: lupins, marigolds, delphiniums, and through veg beds, all muddy, overgrown, full of weeds which is how I think a walled garden should look. The western tower at the back of the castle (it looks like St Kevin’s at Glenda Loch) looks ruined. The eastern one appears to have been restored and looks lived in. We walked through more stone arches and into a beautiful plantation of birch trees which was saturated with a silver light. We discovered the deer and worked our way around the castle to find ourselves at the front, admiring the luscious spread of deep green and bright red Virginia creeper climbing around and across the six full length ground floor windows and central, grand, stone arched front door. The six gothic turrets give the castle a fairy tale look. Three cars were parked in front, and we chatted to an older man emptying his boot of bags. It was soon obvious that this was Dan’s father. The timbre of the voice and the shape of his eyes matched. It is always startling to see such strong family resemblance. Anyway, Dan’s father told us that the house was originally built in the 1850s but had been burned down by the IRA during the Civil War, except for the servants’ quarters above the stables which had been an extension built in the gothic style. His wife’s great uncle had rebuilt the castle in the 1930s in that same gothic style. Next, their massive collie and black greyhound looking dog soon arrived on the scene and took a territorial dislike to Poppins and launched an attack. Joe plucked her from the growling fray of teeth, shouts and boots and we waved our goodbyes to the sound of frantic apologies.

                “An interesting place,” said Joe as he negotiated our way back down the drive.

                “Must be a nightmare to keep going,” I mused, “I really liked it.”

                I do recommend lunch in the Green Room Cafe if you are in the Limerick area on a Saturday. It’s good food, and interesting. I will go back…we still want to do the trails.

                It was a great start to my weekend which continued to pass in a convivial atmosphere of food, markets, walks and sunny adventures of mushroom picking in Cratloe woods…followed by a wary discarding of said booty. It concluded on the Sunday night with famous fiddler, Martin Hayes in conversation with poet, John Kelly in St John’s Church (not the Cathedral which has the longest spire in Ireland and is incredible gauche looking). St John’s Church is itself a discovery – a gorgeous old church in a splendid limestone fronted square built back in the 1750s by the famous architect, Francis Bindon. I don’t know much about architecture, but when you stand in the square, you know it is perfect. It is perfectly balanced. Fortunately, it was dark, so I couldn’t see the uPVC windows restoration work that I read about later on-line.

                Fortunately, there was no uPVC about Martin Hayes. I don’t know much about the fiddle music, either, but listening to Martin Hayes play was an exquisite experience. I closed my eyes, and it was as if there were a range of musical instruments. I would have said at least three. Martin Hayes does something with his bow which conjures up one melody which seems to dialogue, dance and dovetail with different tunes. It was like magic. He was a great conversationalist too, with many amusing anecdotes about life in the States, New York in particular. A perfect evening.

                We had started our Sunday earlier by having breakfast in Limerick’s Milk Market. I had wanted to visit the mushroom stall there (I need encouragement about my mushroom picking abilities). Sadly, it wasn’t there because apparently it was family relaxation day and not market day. An odd phrase, I thought, Family Relaxation Day, it doesn’t sound very enticing, but whatever…it summed up my weekend in Limerick with my son, walking, talking, eating and drinking, perfectly.

Joe and Poppins
Springfield Castle Tunnels
Birch Plantation
Springfield Castle
Martin Hayes, Fiddler
The Abbey River, Limerick
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