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I feel as if I’ve talked about nothing else for the last fortnight, my family glazes over when I mention the words ‘ghost signs’. But tomorrow night is book launch night! So here goes.

We’ll be in Dubray Books in Grafton Street, the brilliant photographer Lynn Nalty and myself, cracking the metaphorical bottle of champers over the book, and possibly a literal one later. The launch is at 6.30, so if you’re trudging home from work about then and it’s a cold, damp night, drop in to the warmth of Dubray where you’ll be made welcome.

The book is available all over the place! Hurrah.

Ghost Signs of Dublin – Dubray
Ghost Signs of Dublin – Easons
Ghost Signs of Dublin – Amazon
Ghost Signs of Dublin – Kennys (Galway)
Ghost Signs of Dublin – O’Mahonys (Limerick)


launch invitation


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A lovely threshold mosaic on the threshold of 63 South Great Georges Street in Dublin. The Ganter Brothers were Bavarian watchmakers who came to Dublin in the middle of the nineteenth century, but the last shop closed in the 1980s. I think there are still Ganter Brothers clocks around the country? Would love to hear of some.


Ganter Bros

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I never write poetry, though I love reading it. But after Sinead Morrissey’s talk at the RIA on Friday, in which she spoke about found poetry, I thought I’d give it a go. I nearly fell over sideways when someone said they’d publish it. The original piece came from The Daily Telegraph , and the poem I made, Babies Understand Fairness, is on Poetry24 today.

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Symposium at the Royal Irish Academy, Friday 7th October 2011.

Teaching and Learning Creative WritingSqueeze a whole day’s discussion into a blog post? Eek, not me. I hope someone else will take on that task (someone will be blogging it for the Stinging Fly, I believe). I’ve just plucked out a few points of discussion – I’m still digesting everything I heard.

1Gerald Dawe pointed out that the practice of writing is making the work, thinking about what you’re doing and then challenging yourself, or being challenged by others, to do it better. And this is the case whatever environment – academic, community workshop, garden shed – you’re working in.

2. Mary O’Donnell talked about distinguishing sincerity from truth. She reminds her students that a literal retelling may be sincere, but may not add up to a poetic truth. She described a workshop occurrence we’ve all observed, where a writer has written about a trauma of some kind, and on reading the piece aloud, dissolves into tears (I’m sorry to say, I’ve been that sobber). Other members of the workshop see this emotion and attach its weight to the poem or piece. But great emotion does not on its own make great art.

3. “Writing is not decanting of personality. The truth, on the page, need not have been lived. It is, instead, all that can be envisioned.” Louise Glück

4. The importance of developing the habit of patience.

5. Paul Perry is currently editing Beyond the Workshop. He pointed out that even if the title of the book suggests that the workshop has outlived its usefulness, the workshop is an ever-changing space, a model in flux. He outlined several rules of thumb:

  • Assume a learner stance – anticipate that your thinking will be altered in every class by the students.
  • Foster co-participation, not just by leaving silences for students to fill with responses, but by giving them clear points of entry.
  • Give students decision-making power.
  • Design major process-based assignments (such as writers’ journals, not for assessment) as well as product-focused ones.
  • Emphasise descriptive feedback, spotting patterns and philosophical themes.

6. Why should writing necessarily be a creative endeavour that happens in isolation? No-one queries whether students of music or drama should work in groups.

7. From a workshop, teachers, facilitators, students should all find their own “desire paths”, in Gaston Bachelard’s expression.

8. Sinead Morrissey spoke about teaching a particular poetry class. An early session deals with found poems (and she gives as examples work by Colette Bryce, Paul Farley, Kei Miller, Michael Longley and Ciaran Carson) and requires the students to find and shape their own poems and think about the transformative nature of context. This steers the students away from the domain of their own subjective feelings.

9. Nessa O’Mahony spoke about teaching on the National Learning Network’s Fresh Start programme which aims to get people back into the workforce. She described how students reconnected with important parts of themselves through the rediscovery of memories and the harnessing of life-writing techniques. In this field, changes can be small and can be a long time in the making.

10. Yvonne Cullen said concentration is the key, narrowing the flow, disciplining oneself. She said that after twenty years she still has the energy she had when she started, and this is necessary if you are to make every workshop count. You have to be present in the workshop, engaged with the work, giving it for those couple of hours the concentration you give your own.

11. John Kenny spoke about learning by osmosis: reading, talking, thinking and being critical.

12. James Ryan described a particular Craft and Composition class he teaches at UCD. He echoed what Mary O’Donnell had said about holding a mirror up to life – with particular reference to dialogue, actual transcribed dialogue can sound stilted and unbelievable. Writing dialogue is not imitative, it’s your own construction. He teaches a class on speech attribution, using The Dark, The Stranger’s Child and Let the Great World Spin.

13. Mary Morrissy described the teacher’s role in workshops outside the academy as helping students to

  • find a route to the subconscious
  • abolish self-consciousness
  • loosen tied tongues
  • develop the habit of writing.
    She acknowledged the difficulty of assessing and grading creative work, and pointed out that often it’s an instinctive reaction to a piece of work, a reaction which obviously lacks the academic rigour of the grading of a literature thesis.

Sadly I couldn’t stay for the hour-long moderated discussion with the audience that followed the speakers’ main contributions – but I gather an active debate got underway, and I’m sorry to have missed it. More later. And thanks to organiser Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and the Royal Irish Academy.

Reading List:

The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing  by Mark McGurl
(due out shortly in paperback so if you’re saving your pennies, wait for November)

and two responses to the book:

Elif Batuman ‘Get a Real Degree‘, London Review of Books

Louis Menand ‘Show or Tell‘, The New Yorker

Louise Glück, ‘Against Sincerity’, Proofs & Theories

The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880

NOTE: There’s something wrong with WordPress today which is not allowing me to make links or include images  – I’ll come back and edit later and see if I can fix it all up.

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Poet Helena Nolan has won this year’s Patrick Kavanagh Award for an unpublished poetry collection. Great news for Helena, who was last year’s runner-up with Kissing the Ceiling. She’s won this year with The Bone House, and accepted the award in Inniskeen on Friday night. The organisers brought things forward by a couple of months this year to avoid the snow and ice that made getting home from last year’s ceremony a bit hairy.

Previous Patrick Kavanagh Award winners have been Celia de Freine, Paul Durcan, Peter Sirr, Sinead Morrissey – a solid company. I’d love to see a collection of Helena’s in print – I’m hoping this is what 2012 will bring.

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Well, you can’t say I leap into things. At least five years after considering it for the first time, and over a year since I wrote a blog post saying I’d decided to do it, I’ve bought a hen house and two chickens: a Black Rock and a Bluebell.Chickens pecking at the grass

Having reluctantly discounted the classic Eglu  – not easily available in Ireland, too expensive, non-Irish, too much like an old iMac to look right in my overgrown, ivy-covered garden –  I drooled for two years over these cool creams and greens from Donegal  but in the end I had to cut my cloth to suit my measure and I have a plain square wooden coop that doesn’t look like a computer or a cottage. I assembled it myself from a flat pack supplied by FarmFowl in Laragh. I don’t know yet whether it will turn out to be a false economy – the ladder has already splintered and the nest box roof doesn’t seem to fit properly, though the house part seems sturdy and safe. But already – three days in – I want a bigger one and one that I can be 100 per cent sure is fox proof, if such a thing exists.

Because now that the chickens are here (driven home from Laragh in a cardboard box of wood shavings on my son’s knees) all I can think about is foxes. At night, every time I start awake I dash to the window, replaying bits of Fantastic Mr Fox in my mind. I hang out of it, trying to make out the henhouse in the dark. Nighttime transforms the squawk of every bird – probably the dreamy squawks of the chickens themselves – into the scream of a vixen. I lay awake from threeish to fourish last night googling fox deterrents on my iPhone. Foxes are intelligent and chickens are daft. It’s got to end in tears.

Our silver hen, Bluebell, escapes into the next door field on day two and we spend two hours of our precious Sunday evening combing the nettles and brambles. I remember the bit in Grimble where Grimble catches pigeons by putting his jacket over their heads, and I link it to the remembered fact from Danny the Champion of the World that pheasants will not move if their eyes are covered. It all starts to make sense.
“We must cover her eyes!”
Half an hour later we realise if we could get close enough to do this we’d be close enough to seize her. In desperation we make a hole in our own fence and act like sheepdogs to drive her through it.

Everyone who has chickens has to register with the Department of Agriculture as a flock keeper. Other than reading notices about not bringing unpasteurised cheese home from other countries, and dipping my feet before and after entering Airfield, this is probably my first ever contact with the Department of Agriculture. But I am now a flock keeper, of this tiny flock of two. The internet discussion groups reassure me that it’s not that the Department wants to overregulate – the registration is just so that they can write to me if bird flu arises again. Bird flu! More tears.

Battery chickens

I’m looking forward to the chickens stalking more confidently round the garden, to watching their combs redden, to their recognising my voice (will they?). I’m hoping to find my anxieties subsiding, and in a few weeks’ time, to find the chickens starting to lay in their wood-shavings-lined nest box.

It’s fifteen years or more since I last knowingly ate a battery chicken’s egg, and I hope I never do again. The chickens in this photo qualify as “free-range”. I can’t even bear to download a photograph of battery birds.
I’d love to hear that the early days of chicken keeping have gone well for others, it might settle my jumpy nerves – I’m not sure that rereading Fantastic Mr Fox is doing much for me. It can’t be good for a flock keeper to base care methods on children’s books featuring the wrong sorts of birds.

My chicken keeping reading list:


Self-Sufficiency: Hen Keeping

21st Century Smallholder

Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance

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Celebrating 500 posts over at the Anti-Room –  a group post by Anti-Roomers on the effect of the internet.

Bring on the next 500.

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