What was it about Seamus Heaney that endeared him to so many?

seamus_heaneyTears came instantly to my eyes when I heard about Seamus Heaney’s death.

To many Ireland’s greatest ever poet – certainly the one who connected most with the ordinary folk who make up the majority of the populace – Heaney died at the age of 74 today following a brief illness.

I learned of it, as so many people learn of so many things these days, on Twitter. Someone posted a link that looked all wrong. “BBC News: Seamus Heaney Obituary” it read.

It looked all wrong. It felt wrong. I pressed the link, hoping and, if I’m honest, half-expecting it to have been caused by some unexplained kink in technology.

My immediate reaction, when I reflect on it now, a couple of hours later, was clearly one of grief. When the truth became apparent, tears sprang instantly to my eyes.

Since then I’ve been trying to explain it to myself. Why was Heaney so universally loved and cherished? Here’s what I’ve come up with:

– I never met him, but I felt like I knew him well.

– His smile was always warm; never was there a sign of artifice.

– His humility was always genuine; never, ever, was there a hint of conceit.

– His voice. Oh, we should be glad for the wonders of technology, because his voice can exist forever and a day. What an incredible voice.

– His clarity. Whereas a certain diligence or the aid of footnotes might be required for a spell with Yeats, Heaney seemed to speak to everyone. The potency of “Mid Term Break”, say, was immediately apparent to my eight-year-old self and remains undimmed three decades on. There was no obfuscation. Like Patrick Kavanagh, even more than Kavanagh, Heaney chipped the essence of existence out of the seemingly banal.

Heaney’s work touched so many, even those otherwise indifferent to poetry. That, the gift of cerebrally connecting with the masses, is surely one of the hallmarks of the great artist.

Looking at Heaney from afar, he never seemed to be interested in art for art’s sake. With him, it felt that art was life, and life was art.

The solace, because in art there is always solace, is that in his death Heaney will find thousands of new readers, and his words will seduce most of them too. Over half a century or so, Heaney has built an altar that will attract worshippers for many more half-centuries to come.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Here’s a montage of Heaney reading “Digging”, compiled as part of a BBC documentary a number of years ago:

Frank McGuinness’s debut novel – one news item, two exciting strands

Frank McGuinnessThere are two equally exciting strands to the news that Frank McGuinness’s first novel will be published next month.

McGuinness, renowned playwright and poet and, as Professor of Creative Writing and writer-in-residence at UCD, an influence on many young Irish writers, will see his debut novel Arimathea hit the shelves from September 2nd.

The story is set in McGuinness’s native Donegal in 1950. The protagonist is Gianni, a young Italian religious painter – or, at least, painter of religious items, most notably the Stations of the Cross at a local church.

The arrival of an outsider is about as routine as you might get when it comes to creative writing, but it will be interesting to see the McGuinness take on it. Given his convincing touch in poetry and especially theatre, it should be lyrical and powerful, possibly with the odd injection of dark humour too.

It’s certainly one of the most eagerly awaited Irish novels of the year, as evidenced by the blurb quote from Sebastian Barry:

The great spirit of Frank McGuinness radiates in this magnificent novel. Myriad voices converge on one glistening core; it is a high-wire act earthed in the deepest humanity.

Arimathea, incidentally, was a biblical-fictional city, and the hometown of Joseph, who donated his tomb to house the body of the fallen Christ.

The second interesting strand in the story concerns the publisher. Brandon Books had originally been established by Steve MacDonagh in Dingle, Co Kerry in 1982 but had ceased to trade following MacDonagh’s death three years ago at the age of 61.

Brandon had published writers as diverse as Ken Bruen, Neil Jordan and Gerry Adams in both fiction and non-fiction, but having been brought back to life as an O’Brien Press imprint it will now be focused exclusively on literary fiction.

In the four decades of O’Brien Press, said publisher Michael O’Brien,

we have published in about 20 different genres, but not adult literary fiction. Brandon Fiction will fulfil our ambition to see Irish creative writing secure a world audience from Dublin … there is so much literary talent, and we are the leading independent publisher.

People are negative about the future of literary publishing and the future of the book and are reducing their lists. But we believe that we can achieve world reach with our list. Brandon Fiction will include acclaimed names and new talent in literary, contemporary, historical and crime fiction and will continue to honour Steve MacDonogh.

While Arimathea is its first book, next month will be a busy time for everyone at Brandon Books with two more to follow within ten days: Mary Morrissy’s The Rising of Bella Casey (September 12th) is a fictionalised tale following the real-life sister of playwright Sean O’Casey; and Hunting Shadows (also September 12th) by Sheila Bugler, a crime fiction novel set in south-east London.

Click here for more information about Brandon Books and its forthcoming publications.

JP Donleavy’s conspiracy theories and Claire Kilroy on writing

The Moth magazineThere are excellent interviews with JP Donleavy and Claire Kilroy in the latest issue of The Moth magazine.

With full accreditation (visit The Moth magazine website here; purchase a subscription to The Moth for €20 a year here) I thought it would be okay to include a couple of brief snippets in the blog.

From an interview with Claire Kilroy, in which the Dublin writer discusses new motherhood, dating alcoholics and the writing process:

Editing is my favourite part of writing because the risk is over, you’ve written your first draft. That’s the bit that I hate because you have to invent, and inventing is hard. Some people find it really exciting to get their story down but I find all of that terrifying because it’s just like the abyss – I literally don’t know what a book is going to be until I’m a year and a half into it – and once I have a first draft, no matter how bad it is, I can work on it. I’m excited then.

The interview with Donleavy is even more fascinating. The real-life inspiration for The Ginger Man’s main protagonist, Sebastian Dangerfield, was Donleavy’s Trinity College friend Gainor Crist, who like Donleavy arrived in Dublin to study on the GI Bill after World War II.

Dangerfield is remembered fondly (once you’ve only known him on the page) as one of the most enduring characters of 20th century literature. Dublin in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s was a city that felt like a village, with “characters” such as Donleavy, Crist, Anthony Cronin and Brendan Behan (who was, incongruously but rather delightfully, one of the first people Donleavy met in Ireland in 1946).

Crist died in 1964 in Tenerife, where the long-haul liner on which he’d been travelling to the US in search of a job had made a stop-off. He was 42.

JP DonleavyCrist’s wife (I thought about adding the qualifier “long-suffering”) Pamela O’Malley de Crist gave an insightful interview to the London Independent in 1995 when she said that she had yet to visit her husband’s grave. In The Moth, Donleavy (right) speaks about his own trip to the Canary isle cemetery.

His tendency towards the tongue-in-cheek is well honed, so I haven’t a clue whether there is honesty in these thoughts, but if you take them at face value it’s a fascinating revelation.

Something very strange happened in connection with Gainor. I went to his grave in Santa Cruz and the man who took me to show me where it was was sort of grinning and laughing, and I realised it could be that Gainor Crist wasn’t buried there. He had a gravestone and all the trimmings, but I knew that he wasn’t down underneath. It’s the first time I’ve ever told this story because it sounds so crazy … He had so many debts and problems and so on, it was the obvious thing to get rid of them all. He buried himself, but he wasn’t in the coffin.

Because repetition is often a good thing (I’ve seen lots of Mad Men) here again are the links to The Moth:

Visit The Moth magazine website here
Purchase a subscription to The Moth for €20 a year here

Audio: Cormac McCarthy on using James Joyce as the model for punctuation

Cormac McCarthyHere’s some audio I hadn’t heard before: Cormac McCarthy, Pulitzer Prize winner and the author behind iconic works such as The Road and No Country for Old Men, speaking about his minimalist approach to punctuation.

The reason I’m posting here is because he cites James Joyce as a reference point for his punctuation style, while also name-checking 18th century writers (“like Swift or someone”) who “wrote so well but punctuated so poorly”.

While there’s a lot to be said for clarity and “simple declarative sentences”, as McCarthy says, I can’t help feeling that he takes things to the other extreme.

Having used quotation marks, sub-clauses and parentheses in the space of a few short lines, I’m probably emblematic of all McCarthy rails against, but a confession: I love the contribution punctuation can make to a great sentence.

The audio below is taken from a rare interview McCarthy gave to Oprah Winfrey in 2008.

Roddy Doyle and the mindset of the writer

Roddy DoyleFor anyone interested in Irish writing, today’s Irish Times is a hell of an investment.

There’s a full-page excerpt from Julian Gough’s recently published Kindle Single Crash! How I Lost a Hundred Billion and Found True Love, honorary Irish writer Molly McCloskey reviews a new book of essays on artists and writers by Janet Malcolm, Gabriel Byrne reviews Roddy Doyle’s new novel The Guts and there’s an extensive interview with Doyle himself by Patrick Freyne.

It’s Freyne’s interview that prompts this blog. Doyle has always been candid in calling out the bullshit when he smells it, and he’s at it again in places here, while there are also fascinating recollections of The Commitments’ creative…

I drove the guy in the next room demented as I replayed an old tape … It’s so much easier with iTunes

… and publishing processes:

The whole shebang would cost about the same [to self-publish] as a second-hand car. My wife was the publicist, my students were on the cover … There was very little fiction being published here then, so it got reviewed in all the papers

Possibly the most striking thing about the whole interview, and something I hadn’t heard Doyle speak about before, was the way he got to writing in the first place.

[Having started a job as a teacher] I was living on my own, with no responsibilities, a bit of money for the first time in my life and three months off in summer. I went to London to get away from my friends, got a bedsit and went to Wood Green library and wrote every day.

Leaving the country to get away from his friends. I’m sure this is a level of dedication that is fatally lacking in many aspirant writers. To write well, you can’t have everything else too. To write well, you probably can’t have much of anything else at all.

I recall the words of an intense, inconsistent and inspiring creative writing tutor, when asked about whether writers needed to be dissatisfied, unhappy.

If you’re happy, why write?

Patrick Freyne’s interview with Roddy Doyle is here

The Guts is published by Jonathan Cape

Kevin Barry’s favourite reads

Kevin BarryKevin Barry’s award-winning collection of short stories, Dark Lies The Island, receives a US release next month and the publicity trail on the far side of the Atlantic has already started.

Barry, the recent recipient of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, last week spoke to The World – a radio show jointly produced by Public Radio International and the BBC World Service and broadcast coast-to-coast in the US – about three of his favourite reads.

They are James Joyce’s Dubliners, Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

The majesty of the prose in Joyce’s Dubliners is what lingers, he says.

As someone who writes short stories myself, when you read the work of this very young man, it’s really terrifying, you know? Because you’re looking for a slip in the rhythm, or the sense, or just an under fit adjective…

The series is labelled “Summer Reads”, but Barry feels the brighter months are a perfect time for darker material:

I often think, if you’re thinking of summer reading, actually in a weird way it’s a good time to tackle the darker stuff, you know?

Do you want to read this stuff in a dark winter’s night with a gale rattling the shutters on your windows? Or is it good to have some sort of light and air and summer light around you? I weirdly read “2666″ on the beach last summer. I’m sure I looked pretty pretentious, but you know in a weird way it worked for that moment, and for that setting.

Dark Lies the Island is published by Vintage in this part of the world and Graywolf Press in the US (available there from September 24th).

Listen to the interview with The World’s Carol Hills here.