Are these the five most valuable books by living Irish writers?

anne-enrightThe recent developments at English PEN have really caught the eye of the wider public – and not just those concerned primarily with the arts, as the Financial Times coverage attests.

English PEN is a worldwide writers’ association which campaigns to defend the right to freedom of expression of writers (and readers), both in the UK and around the world.

And it has come up with a phenomenally brilliant idea to raise funds: a series of 51 first editions which will go to auction Sotheby’s in May.

These are not just any old first editions, either; they’re also annotated by the author, making them as unique a series of books as any you’re likely to see.

There’s a significant (and welcome) Irish interest, with five of the 51 by Irish writers: books written and annotated by John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, Seamus Heaney and Colm Tóibín will be part of this very literary auction at Sotheby’s in London on Tuesday, May 21st.

The special quintet is comprised of Booker Prize winners The Sea (Banville) and The Gathering (Enright), Barry’s A Long, Long Way (Booker- and IMPAC-shortlisted), Tóibín’s reputation-forging second novel The Heather Blazing and Heaney’s breakthrough second collection Death Of A Naturalist, published in 1966 and including, alongside enduringly perfect pieces such as “Mid-Term Break” and “Digging”, at least one hilarious note by Heaney.

Alongside the title poem, he jots:

Once described by a reviewer as ‘a long disappointing poem about frogs’. But in fact it’s quite short.

This particular famous five is quite probably the most valuable series of books in existence written by living Irish writers.

So hats off to everyone at English PEN. I’m sure I won’t be the only one following events from Sotheby’s with interest in a few weeks’ time.

For more details visit the “First Editions, Second Thoughts” microsite of English PEN.

The full list of “First Editions, Second Thoughts” is here.

Audio: Paula Meehan reads her poem “Well” live from the Cúirt International Festival of Literature

paula-meehanI’ve been looking in jealously from afar (if not afar, then from the other side of a small country) as Seamus Heaney, Sheila Heti, Laurent Binet, Michael Harding and many, many others have been pitching up in the City of the Tribes for the annual Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway this week.

Our own much-loved Paula Meehan and the brilliant recent Pulitzer Prize winner Sharon Olds read together at the Town Hall Theatre on Friday evening and they appeared live on RTE Radio 1’s Arena show with Sean Rocks before they went on stage.

Below Meehan, award-winning poet and playwright and member of Aosdána, gives some background to, and a beautiful reading of, the poem “Well”.

(If you’d like the written version, “Well” is reproduced on the website of Dedalus Press here.)

Source: Arena, RTE Radio 1

Some bright early reviews for Paul Lynch’s Red Sky In Morning

Red-Sky-in-Morning-Paul-LynchThe arrival of a first novel by an Irish author which has been the subject of a multi-sided, multinational publisher auction doesn’t happen every week, so Paul Lynch’s first book, which arrived on shelves on Thursday, is a pretty big deal.

Lynch, a former film reviewer with the Sunday Tribune amongst others, saw Red Sky In Morning bought by Quercus for Ireland, the UK and Commonwealth territories 14 months or so ago. The US edition, another big deal, will be published by Little, Brown later in the year.

Lynch spent a good chunk of his childhood in Donegal and he returns there in part for the setting of Red Sky In Morning, although it won’t have been overly familiar ground as the book is set in 1832 between Donegal and America.

The plot concerns Coll Coyle, a farmer whose family are on the verge of eviction, and the apparently appropriately monikered Faller, described variously as “a grim creature” and “sinister henchman” of the landlord, who pursues Coyle across the Atlantic after an attempt at bargaining with the landowners ends badly.

Anyway, I’ve yet to get my hands on a copy so that’s about all I know for now, apart from the fact that it’s been well received so far.

Writing in the Metro Herald on the day of publication on Thursday, Sheena Davitt declared:

Lynch’s searingly dark lyricism is redolent of Cormac McCarthy at his most Gothic … This is a fine novel by an arresting new voice in Irish fiction.

The Nomad Reader blog chipped in with:

There’s a quiet haunting to this novel that begs the reader to give the novel your undivided attention.

There’s plenty of other reviews to be read elsewhere on the web but the big hitters in the mainstream media have yet to deliver their verdict, which will go a long way towards deciding whether Red Sky In Morning will be harbinger of doom and gloom or a long and beautiful day for Paul Lynch.

(For what it’s worth, here’s the cover of the Little, Brown edition which arrives in the US in October.)

From Galway to the Gate: This week’s notable literary events around Ireland

cuirtThere are few places I would rather be this week than Galway for the annual Cúirt International Festival of Literature, which features Irish writers of renown such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Edna O’Brien as well as Laurent Binet, who was responsible for one of the most critically acclaimed novels of recent times, last year’s HHhH.

From the perspective of emerging writers, one of the events to catch the eye is Over The Edge’s reading evening, which takes place in the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday afternoon (4.30pm), features readings from several writers including Cúirt New Irish Writing fiction prize winner Hugo Kelly and does not have a cover charge.

Michael Harding (feature interviewee in today’s Sunday Times culture magazine) will read in somebody’s kitchen, Keith Ridgway and Leanne O’Sullivan will give fiction and poetry workshops respectively – although you’re probably too late for those as the deadline to apply passed a fortnight ago –  festival director Dani Gill will interview Binet and Sheila Heti (the author of this year’s How should a person be?) on characterisation in the novel and Lucy Caldwell (whose All the Beggars Riding was published earlier this year) and Indian-American poet and novelist Tishani Doshi will talk about the origins of stories with Galway City Arts Officer James C. Harrold.

And all that’s nowhere close to even the half of it. Download the full Cúirt programme here (pdf 17MB).

What: Cúirt International Festival of Literature

Where: Galway (multiple venues … including kitchens)

When: Tuesday-Sunday

Find out more: www.cuirt.ie


If you happen to be around Belfast with some time on your hands this week, you could do much worse things than make a date with Brian Friel’s Translations, directed by Adrian Dunbar.

Where: Grand Opera House

When: Tuesday-Saturday, 7.30pm; Matinees Thursday and Saturday, 2.30pm.

How much: £11.25-£28

Find out more: http://www.goh.co.uk/translations


Peter Gowen, originally from Youghal and now based in London with his family, is a playwright by spare time, actor by night and chef by day – “corporate fine dining, cooking for bankers, hedge fund managers and VIP clients,” he said this week. His latest play, which he performs himself, is entitled The Chronicles of Oggle, which has been eight years in the making and aspires to treat big Irish themes with an Irish sense of humour. It is also the debut production of the Everyman County Touring Initiative.

Where: Everyman Palace, Cork

When: Monday-Thursday, 8pm

How much: €9-€15

Find out more: http://www.everymanpalace.com/category/mon-22-thu-25-apr/


It’s more than 30 years now since Frank McGuinness’s Factory Girls was first staged at the Abbey Theatre. The story of five women who stage a lock-in in a shirt factory in Co. Donegal when faced with losing their jobs is as relevant now as it was then.

Where: Millennium Forum, Derry

When: Wednesday-Saturday, 8pm; Matinee Saturday, 5pm

How much: £12.50-£16.50

Find out more: http://www.millenniumforum.co.uk/content/factory-girls-frank-mcguinness-city-factory


Banned for 32 years after it was written, George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession is now regarded as one of his finest plays and it is currently on an extended run at the Gate. Variously described as “magnificent”, “stunning” and with “exceptionally high performances” by the national media, the production stars Sorcha Cusack, Tadhg Murphy and Bosco Hogan.

Where: Gate Theatre, Dublin

When: Monday-Saturday, 7.30pm; Matinee Saturday 2.30pm

How much: €25

Find out more: http://www.gatetheatre.ie/production/MrsWarrensProfession

Four on Friday: Translations, the Kerry Group award, Ulysses liberated and Mike McCarthy on TV

Translation is experiencing something of a rebirth. Half of the shortlist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award announced recently were originally published in a language other than English, while a small outfit such as Peirene Press is forging a solid reputation as a translator of note – Peirene’s canon of novellas (four books and one theme each year) are now available in Chapters Books.

So Rosita Boland’s piece on the art of translation, in the Irish Times culture blog section today, is a timely one.

“Translation is the art of losses, you always have to lose something,” says one translator succinctly; thinking about loss while engaging in the creative process is quite artful in itself.

I particularly like the line from András Imreh, who has translated the work of Seamus Heaney into Hungarian:

I had never been to any bog, because there are none in Hungary. I was taken to one here. I don’t remember any concrete words or individual metaphors that were solved as a result of the visit, but seeing the bog gave me a wall to put my back to.

The shortlist for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year was announced this week, with Lucy Caldwell, Gavin Corbett, Claire Kilroy, Kathleen MacMahon and Thomas O’Malley making the grade.

There are summaries of the novels and extensive quotes from all five shortlisted authors, as well as adjudicator Robert McCrum, over here.

Here’s what O’Malley, nominated for This Magnificent Desolation (Bloomsbury), had to say:

You write in isolation and you have your good days and your bad days and sometimes the sense that anyone will ever read your work let alone understand and appreciate what you’re attempting to do seems very far away indeed, yet it is the hope and faith that some audience out there will connect to your work that, in part, sustains you as you write.

this-magnificent-desolationI’ve yet to read This Magnificent Desolation, but it ranks as the best cover of any Irish book I’ve seen this year (right).

James Joyce must be out of copyright, right? There’s hardly a week that goes by without another Joyce story or treatment or evolution. My favourite this week is on a crowdfunding project to publish a fine print edition of The Works of Master Poldy, undertaken by Irishman Jamie Murphy and American Steve Cole of Liberate Ulysses.

More on the project, the basis of which lies in a line from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, and which aims to find funding through crowd-investment tool Indiegogo, can be found here.

Writes Billy Mills in the Guardian:

There’s something about a well-made physical object with good design, quality materials and fine printing that no digital substitute can match.

Amen to that.

Finally this week, a pointer to the TV3 Player for an interview with acclaimed Mayo writer Mike McCormack on his new edition of Getting It In The Head, amongst other writing related diversions.

Not long before he was signed by Lilliput Press a couple of years ago, he said, he was doing a reading in Dublin when…

one person showed up, and I think she’d just ducked in out of the rain.

A couple of books and TV appearances later, things are a fair bit rosier these days.

Unfortunately the show isn’t broken into segments on the TV3 website so you might have to sit through a full HD streamed ad break and a bit of other fluffy stuff from Sybil and Martin before you get to the Mike McCormack interview. No-one said it had to be easy, but in the interest of saving you from the worst of it, the interview starts at around the 28:30 mark.

The Morning Show, Wednesday, April 17th

Would you like to join the Irish Writing Blog online book club? The April choice is Strumpet City by James Plunkett – more details here.

Commemorative coin is “greatest insult to the Joyce family ever perpetrated by Ireland”

James Joyce commemorative coin

By pointing the finger at the entire country, it’s hard not to feel like we’re all to blame.

Stephen James Joyce, grandson of the writer and the man who held the keys to the entire Joyce canon until copyright expired two years ago, was quoted in the Irish Times weekend edition about the Central Bank coin debacle this week.

Joyce is seen by many as a controversial figure for the manner in which he governed the Joyce literary estate, although it’s perhaps a little unfair to criticise him for trying to shield his famous antecedent from all the worst elements of commercialism here, particularly given Joyce’s mixed relationship with his native country.

But possibly the most striking, and dispiriting, thing in the whole thing is the news that the whole lot of 10,000 coins had been sold out by Friday, two days after they were issued.

That’s 10,000 coins – containing an incorrect quotation, with a stated value of €10 and a retail price of €46 – gone at a rate of 200 an hour.

But I suppose we shouldn’t really be surprised when the trappings of culture become more important than culture itself.

Four on Friday: Mark Cantan, Keith Ridgway, Enrique Vila-Matas and Philip Larkin

Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas

Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas

The Four on Friday blog has become terribly sporadic, so apologies for that. I still think it’s a nice way to get lots of references to good writing from around the web into one place so here goes another.

The first piece is from a couple of weeks back: I read it, loved it, made a pledge to include it in a blog such as this … and then struggled in vain to set aside the time to put together a blog such as this.

So it’s a fortnight late, but maybe that’s no bad thing. Given the volume of reading material available to everyone these days, every time they pluck their mobile device from their pocket, there’s a chance a few people might have missed it, which would be a shame.

Mark Cantan is a lot of things. His Twitter profile lists comedy writer, actor, director, editor, puppeteer, musician and pistolier. He’s also someone to watch out for; minds like his don’t come along every day or week.

His short play “Somewhere”, part of Fishamble’s Tiny Plays for Ireland venture, is really a series of one-liners about people who may or may not be doing something, somewhere in Ireland, right at this moment.

I usually pull a quote or two but I couldn’t choose which part to include here as a tempter to click through. The best thing you can do is read it all. It’s fantastic.

Read “Somewhere” by Mark Cantan

I finally got round to reading Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway recently, and I’m hoping to include my own thoughts on it here in the next week or so. For now let me point you in the direction of a piece on John Self’s The Asylum blog from last year, which offers a concise summation of my own feelings:

This is a book which I read twice before reviewing it, to unpick the connections but also because I selfishly wanted the pleasure again. And now as I thumb the pages to write this, and get nervous with excitement at seeing the best bits again, this time both fresh and familiar, I wonder if I can resist a third go.

The third and fourth parts of this particular Four on Friday are a bit of a cheat. The mission of the blog is “Irish writing”, so it’s probably a bit tenuous to apply that to Dublinesque, the novel by Enrique Vila-Matas originally published in 2009, translated from  the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean and included on the shortlist announced this week for the International Foreign Fiction Prize.

But when a noted foreign master (who I admit I’ve yet to read – so little time, so many crappy little urgent tasks to do) writes a novel about the past and future of great literature, and sets it in Dublin on Bloomsday (June 16th), then that’s surely enough to qualify for reference here.

There are loads of reviews around the web, most of them hugely positive, for Dublinesque. I’ve decided to include here a piece from Rochester University’s Three Percent page, which describes itself as a resource for international literature, and which will be winging its way into my Google-endangered RSS feed very soon.

The novel concerns Samuel Riba, who has failed, it seems, at marriage, literary publishing, and maybe even life itself.

[Riba] dreams of the day when the spell of the best-seller will be broken, making way for the reappearance of the talented reader, and for the terms of the moral contract between author and audience to be reconsidered. He dreams of the day when literary publishers can breathe again, those who live for an active reader, for a reader open enough to buy a book and allow a conscience radically different from his own to appear in his mind. He believes that if talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader.

While I would say “Amen” to that, the cynic in me fears that dreams such as these are destined to be disappointed. Nevertheless, there’s nothing like great writing to beget great writing, so there’s always hope. (And in the week that translated works comprised half of the ten-book shortlist for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, there’s a strong argument that such hope comes from so-called “foreign language fiction”.)

From the Three Percent review of Dublinesque:

Vila-Matas, as in his other works already translated from the Spanish, crafted Dublinesque in a meta-fictional, semi-autobiographical fashion. Forever fascinated by the nature of enigmatic authors, Vila-Matas works into the narrative references to authors both living and dead (including Julien Gracq, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Walser, Georges Perec, Paul Auster, John Banville, Brendan Behan, Italo Calvino, Rodrigo Fresán and his late friend Roberto Bolaño). Dublinesque is also, in part, an homage to both Joyce and his fellow countryman Samuel Beckett, both of whom loom large in the plot, structure, and thematic essence of the story itself.

Read Jeremy Garber’s piece on Dublinesque from Three Percent here

The title of the Vila-Matas book is taken from the title of a poem by Philip Larkin about an Irish funeral.

There is an air of great friendliness,
As if they were honouring
One they were fond of;
Some caper a few steps,
Skirts held skilfully
(Someone claps time),

And of great sadness also.

Read Dublinesque by Philip Larkin here

Would you like to join the Irish Writing Blog online book club? The April choice is Strumpet City by James Plunkett – more details here.