My Life in Books: Fatti Burke

This week, we asked illustrator and author of the best-selling Irelandopedia Fatti Burke about the books that have stood out in her life…in the first edition of My Life in Books.


Book that reminds you of…Love
Brooklyn – Colm Tóibín

Book that reminds you of…Childhood
Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (13 3/4) – Sue Townsend

Book that reminds you of…Adulthood
‘Tis – Frank McCourt

Book that reminds you of…School
About A Boy – Nick Hornby

Book that reminds you of…Regrets
Not That Kind of Girl – Lena Dunham

Book that reminds you of…Growing Older
Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

Book that reminds you of…Change
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Book that reminds you of…Heartbreak
High Fidelity – Nick Hornby (oops! two Hornbys on the list!)

Book that reminds you of…Pop Culture
Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

Book that reminds you of…Danger
It – Steven King (first book to make me scared to go to sleep)

My Review of DWF 2014

Over the course of nine days in May, the Dublin Writers Festival captured the attention of the city, treating it to tales of trials and tribulations, weaving wonderful worlds for its people to explore – and seizing the chance to show us that the art of writing is very much alive and well.

This year, I was lucky enough to be a part of it. I took in four events throughout the festival, all of which covered vastly different topics; all of which helped me to realise that there’s a whole world of writers/weirdos out there that are just like me.

I was wooed to a “Date With An Agent”, taught a lesson in the school of crime-writing, enlightened into the story of the infamous whistleblower, Edward Snowden – and given a deep insight into the mind of a once-troubled comedian in Johnny Vegas.

Pretty varied, right?

Here’s a review of what I saw, witnessed and experienced, broken up into nice, sweet bunches of literary liquorish for you to enjoy… or, at least, to distract you until something more interesting comes along.

Day 1: Date With An Agent

Dating has never really been my strong point, so when I learned that I was to be a part of “Date With An Agent”, I began to worry about all those silly little things one associates with dating: what to wear, what to bring and, of course, what to talk about.

What to talk about? The answer should have been obvious: my book. It was the reason I was invited to attend after all. But there I was, fretting about which elements were the most important, which parts needed work – and what would make the agent I was meeting sit up and go: “I need to sell this”.

The event, hosted by The Inkwell Group’s Vanessa O’Loughlin, took place in Dublin Castle. Throughout the day, we were treated to writing workshops, given tasks and, not unexpectedly as prospective authors, told how to deal with the inevitable rejections coming our way. (In fact, the first hand-out we were given was emblazoned with the words, “COPING WITH REJECTION”, which raised more than a few uncomfortable laughs in the crowd.)

However, the focus of the day was, of course, the agents. We 75 would-be writers were here to pitch to them our books, our ideas and, in some cases, our very souls. They were here to listen to us, to critique us and, in some cases, take our ideas that little bit closer to reality.

Although I wouldn’t call my own “date” a resounding success, I definitely took some invaluable information from it. Being told that I wrote well was encouraging; being informed that my main character was a bit passive was, unfortunately, a truth I hadn’t really confronted before.

Overall, the event was worth attending. I met blossoming writers of all ages, all of whom wanted to tell their story; none of whom were so insular as to fail to ask me questions about my own book.

Whether phony or not, it was gratifying to hear their positive opinions on my story. I realised that we were all in the same boat: full of passion and hope, mixed in with a healthy dose of pragmatism.

The future of Irish novel-writing was sitting in that room with me and, I promise you, we have a lot to look forward to over the coming years.

Day 3: The State of Crime (with Arne Dahl, Brian McGilloway and Sinead Crowley)

One day you’re sitting in a room with 74 people just like you; two days later, you’re sitting listening to the musings of three of the most respected crime writers in Ireland and Europe.

I was live-tweeting this event on behalf of the Dublin Writers Festival – and, such were the fantastic insights given by the writers, boy were my fingers sore at the end!

Dahl, McGilloway and Crowley discussed their own books, the difference between crime-writing and other types of writing – and took questions from the crowd (like why so many crime writers feel the necessity to cram an irrelevant love story into an already packed novel!)

The event, despite the seriousness of the subject matter contained within crime novels, was light-hearted and jovial, with McGilloway in particular impressing, with his insights into how one writes a crime novel: “As a writer, you do the same as a detective: you work backwards.”

Dahl, more considered and thoughtful in his approach, tended to elongate his answers to questions, but endearingly so. In fact, some of the most profound points of the discussion came from his mouth: “It is a necessary pre-condition in crime novels to have a good plot, but it is not enough.”

Crowley, the only female member of the panel, was also an engaging presence, succinctly summing up how most writers feel from the beginning of a novel to the end: “Something I learned when writing my first book was how much things change as you’re writing.”

I’m not much of a crime reader, but after seeing such an esteemed group of bestselling writers in person, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing a trick by not taking advantage of what appears to be some of the most compelling contemporary writing out there.

Day 8: The Snowden Files (with Luke Harding)

After a work-enforced break from festival proceedings (damn you, financial commitments!), I returned to action, live-tweeting again, this time from the Smock Alley Theatre. This was, by far and away, my favourite event of the week.

Luke Harding, journalist with The Guardian and writer of “The Snowden Files”, captivated the large audience; not only with the description of his book, but also by providing insights into one of most intriguing people in the world, Edward Snowden.

For those who don’t know anything about Snowden (how was that rock you were living under?),he is, essentially, the person who exposed the NSA for the sneaky, underhanded, corrupt, shady organisation we and Hollywood think they are.

Over a number of months, Snowden, who had worked at the NSA, leaked important documents to journalists, all of which detailed that ‘Mericaw was not only spying on potential terrorists, but also its own people.

In this absorbing discussion, Harding, an eloquent speaker and all-round nice fellow, described Snowden’s journey from high school dropout to one of the most wanted men in the world.

What was most interesting was discovering that, although Snowden’s acts were bound to attract headlines, he was not like Julian Assange, the world’s most prominent “platinum-haired” whistleblower, in that he did not want to be famous; fame was thrust upon him.

I think it’s fair to say that those in the audience would have stayed listening to Harding talk for hours more – and his book, “The Snowden Files” is sure to be one of the most sought-after texts when history eventually examines these monumental events.

Day 9: Johnny Vegas in Conversation

The headline is misleading. This show was not about seeing Johnny Vegas in person. No, it was, in the end, about something much more profound, much more absorbing – and much more real.

On the last night of the festival, with live-tweeting privileges bestowed upon another, I was able to focus on what turned out to be one of the strangest events I have ever been at.

Johnny Vegas did not show up, primarily because Johnny Vegas is not real. He is the alter-ego of Michael Pennington, a very funny, very warm man, who created Vegas to confront his own fears and I haven’t read Pennington’s book yet (“Being Johnny Vegas”), so I hope I am not horribly wrong when I suggest that Pennington’s creation came about as a result of serious inflictions on his childhood. Although Pennington never used the term, “clerical abuse”, nor the word, “schizophrenia”, they are topics at which he heavily hints in his efforts to explain the story behind Vegas’s existence.

Interviewed by the (frankly, annoying) Pauline McLynn, Pennington proceeded to explain how Vegas became a part of him when he was at his most fragile. It is not Pennington we see on stage, but Vegas, a much more confident and indomitable personality than he.

Although the event was marred by some disruptive interviewing by McLynn – and the double sleeping couples on either side of me – it achieved its purpose. What I thought was going to be a run-of-the-mill comedy session was actually a much more insightful look into the psyche of a person whose worst experiences brought about the arrival of someone who gave joy to so many people. I now want to read Pennington’s book, something I would never have thought before I arrived at the National Concert Hall that night.


Nothing worth having is easy, which is why the Dublin Writers Festival must be commended. To co-ordinate such an array of writing talent all around the city, all within the space of nine days, could not have been a simple task. I was not involved in it as much as I would have liked, but what I saw, I loved.

The fate of Irish writing lies within the people I came across during the week – and I know that we have nothing to fear in the future. We have Yeats and Wilde in us, but festivals like this instil within me the belief that there will be more Irish names on the tips of the tongues of future generations.

Watch this space – and come back for more next year.

By David Rafferty

Mark Graham’s Year of Festivals in Ireland

If you’re a fan of festivals, you’ve probably heard of Mark Graham. You might have read his column in the Irish Times or come across his blog online. He’s the guy who spent a year going to three festivals in Ireland every week. Graham, who is more hipster than hippie, was in Culture Box last week to talk about his book A Year of Festivals in Ireland. The idea came to him after a rejected mortgage application. He had managed to get the 10% deposit together and was told his application might be considered if he had 20% deposit. Disappointed and angry, he asked himself why was he letting a financial institute with a worse credit rating than his own tell him what to do? Instead of taking the bank’s advice, he bought a fourth-hand VW camper van and decided to see if it was possible to go to three festivals a week in Ireland, every week, for a year. He also started to write about it – first on the blog, then he was asked to write a column for The Ticket in the Irish Times, and then the book for New Island. Graham said that he had never written anything before starting the blog, and one of the joys of writing was that he discovered how pleasing a well-chosen simile could be. Talking about doing the pilgrimage on Lough Derg he wrote “Donegal in June has all the warmth of Twink with a hangover.”

Although he found the writing satisfying, the real joy was the project itself. Graham enjoyed travelling around Ireland and meeting new . He found lots of people doing small but amazing things to make their communities a bit more fun. He took in an eclectic mix of festivals from the All Ireland Culchie & Egg Throwing Championship in Co. Leitrim, to the Hen Racing Championships in Co. Waterford and the National Ploughing Championships in Laois. There was match-making in Lisdoonvarna, cloud appreciation in West Cork and story-telling on Sieve Bloom, plus a host of music festivals from Dingle’s Other Voices, the Fleadh Ceol in Derry and the biggies – Electric Picnic, Body & Soul, etc. And of course of own Dublin Writers Festival.

Graham is a man who likes a drink and talked candidly about the relationship between festivals and alcohol. He admits that some festivals are enhanced by having a few drinks; you wouldn’t have same experience, the same conversations or even encounter the same sort of people if you were not having a pint with them. He also mentioned Buckfast as the festival drink of choice because of its caffeine content, and shared a few Buckfast recipes which all sound fairly lethal. The Craggy Island Iced Tea, for example is equal parts Buckfast and Bulmers.

But there are over 850 festivals in Ireland, including 65 walking festivals, and it’s possible to meet odd and interesting people at all of them. As Graham says “It’s impossible to walk up a mountain with an Irish person without them finding out everything about your life”. For him, the people are really what make festivals in Ireland special. A festival allows like-minded people to come together, they create a shared sense of community and it gives people a chance to let their hair down. He cited this as reason why big businesses are still keen to invest in festivals – they know they can make money because festivals are recession proof. People want to escape the depressing reality of the economic doom and gloom but they can’t afford a week in sun. Instead they’ll make do with three days in a field with a bottle of Buckfast or a weekend climbing up a mountain. Festivals provide an escape and the Irish are good at making that escape special.

His year travelling the country has left Graham optimistic about our prospects as a country. His enthusiasm in describing the festivals he’s been to is pretty infectious. Asked for his top festival picks, he said the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival was hard to beat for sheer feckless abandon and he thinks that Failte Ireland is missing a trick by not sending tourists to the Ballinasloe Horse Fair.

A Year of Festivals in Ireland, which sounds like a very positive and life-affirming read is available from The Gutter Bookshop, Amazon and New Island.

Selina Guinness’s Interviews John Carey

If you know John Carey your heart beat a little faster when you heard he was coming to Dublin for the Writers’ Festival. If you don’t know John Carey you haven’t been paying attention.

Professor Carey is a literary critic, author, and Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. He has chaired the committee for the Booker Prize, reviews books for the Sunday Times and is a frequent guest on television and radio. In her introduction, interviewer Selena Guinness (author of “The Crocodile at the Door”) described her guest as an iconoclast writer and figure in literature. All true. Yet in person he isn’t at all what one expects. An iconoclast ought to be gigantic, imposing, a bit, well, in your face. Not so Professor Carey. He is softly spoken and genial. His intelligence and critical skills hum like a dynamo in the background, but are never showy. In many ways he is a perfect example of his message, which is: the real worth of anything, whether it’s a human being or a work of art, is not always immediately apparent to the casual eye.

For a man who has spent his career challenging elitism both in terms of class and of education, Professor Carey sadly admits that some of his own literary heroes were elitists. Carey cites a letter D.H. Lawrence wrote in 1908, in which he fantasised about building ‘a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace’ for ‘all the sick, the halt and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the “Hallelujah Chorus”.’ Lawrence further suggested that ‘All schools be closed at once’ because ‘The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write.’ Carey sums up this philosophy, saying, “His ideas lead straight to Auschwitz.”

Other greats of the modernist period, Woolf, Eliot and Pound, were also intellectual snobs and it is this sense of the perceived superiority (by themselves, at least) of the elite that raise Carey’s hackles. And yet, he tells us, one can enjoy the works of Lawrence or Woolf yet remain appalled by their elitism.

Carey related a story about fellow university student, Sir Roy Howard, who once dismissed him as ‘nobody’. The term rankled and, one suspects, continues to wound. It was this elitism both in terms of class and of education that has made Carey a determined advocate for art that speak to everyone. It was a philosophy he brought with him to Keble University, where he first taught. He made it his mission to bring in grammar school children rather than those who had been nurtured exclusively in public schools. This attempt to change the class system met with some degree of success, Carey says matter-of-factly. That such actions should ever have been considered extraordinary seems bewildering now, decades later.

In books like “What Good are the Arts” and his current work, “The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life”, Professor Carey has removed much of the mystique from both the institutions in which he functions and the artists he has spent his life studying. Art, he tells us, should be accessible to all. Taste is relative and is determined by education and background, by what we’ve been taught.

He denies that it is impossible for a work to be both literary and popular. “Lord of the Flies” was popular with 20m copies sold, he says. But it also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What better example of a work that is both literary and popular? He adds that many people consider Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to be major poets.

The sum of the event served as no more than a teaser for John Carey’s work as an erudite and highly educated man whose life’s mission is to make art accessible to all comers, regardless of background, education or social status.

Interviewer Selena Guinness did a fine job of introducing the audience to the professor’s life and career. They share a history and an easy rapport. One in of her final questions was obviously designed for those students who were present. Ms Guinness posed a question about heuristics touching on Barthes and New Historicism. No doubt the students were delighted. Still, it was evident more than a few of the non-elite members of the audience were bewildered by the question.

Oh, the irony.

The City was Us

The City was Us: 1000 Years of Dubliners at Smock Alley Theatre last Wednesday wasn’t so much a reading as an event.

Author David Dickson, Professor of History at Trinity College, introduced the audience to this extraordinary portrait of the city as told by its citizens. These were, for the most part, ordinary men and women who lived in Dublin at various times over the past millennium. There were business men and convicts; politicians and satirists. We heard twenty-two excerpts from speeches, letters, articles, and diaries. The tales they told were, by turn, hilarious, terrifying, and sad. One wonders how the author narrowed his selection from the vast store that fills his book.

Professor Dickson related the background of each of these people and put their stories into context, while the excerpts were brought to life by Melissa Nolan and Cathal Quinn. It would be unfair to call Ms Nolan and Mr Quinn mere readers. They gave us performances full of verve and wit. Through them, the voices of these individuals came fully alive and left me longing for a fuller account of these feckless and fervent Dubliners of the past. Isn’t that exactly what you want from a book reading?

Cathal began by speaking as Richard Stanihurst whose contributions to Holinshed’s Chronicles dated to 1577. Cathal’s delivery reminded me of a young Donal McCann. I can give no higher praise.

His other characters included Sir Edward Newenham, John Beresford, poet Maurice Craig and many more.

I was pleased to see women had a fair representation too and these voices fell to the very talented Melissa Nolan. She was, by turn, Anne Pepper, a woman about to be executed (by strangling and being burned at the stake, no less); satirist May Laffan; and ‘Patsy’, a young mother whose joy at being offered a flat in Ballymun during the 1970s withered in the reality of high-rise living.

The event was pretty well attended for a lunchtime offering. I was intrigued enough by the work to add The City was Us not only to my reading list, but also to my Christmas list for several friends and a couple of sisters. Now if I could only find a way of getting Cathal and Melissa to read it to us too…

Interactive Fiction: Read it, write it, share it!

Anyone who attended the excellent “Writing for Games” talk last Saturday as part of the Dublin Writers Festival will remember the writers (Rob Morgan, Antony Johnston and Joe Griffin) onstage talking about the rise in literary games. While “literary video games” may seem like an oxymoron to the uninitiated, personal experience attests that they really are out there, and one tiny branch of this mighty tree holds the games classified as “interactive fiction.” On this delightfully sunny day in Ireland, I’d like to open a window into the world of interactive fiction for you:

So, what is interactive fiction?
In the struggle for a definition, an easy gateway is to think of interactive fiction today as the evolution of choose-your-own-adventure books that many children of the 1980s will remember. That is, interactive fiction tells a story that changes depending on the choices you make during your reading of it. This makes interactive fiction a fertile ground for many types of experimental writing and intensely personal explorations in which themes of sex and identity feature strongly.

Over the past few years, the global game development community has latched onto the potential of interactive fiction, especially as a “gateway drug” into game design. We can find visual novels, hypertext fiction and more complex forms that use player text input to determine the next steps of the game … and all of these can be classified as interactive fiction. To ease our way in, we’ll focus on hypertext fiction for today. As I’ll show you later, the most popular tools for creating hypertext fiction are free and so simple that a novice user can create and publish their first game within a day.

I’d like to read some interactive fiction, where should I start?
My interests skew experimental, so I’m going to point you towards three of my favourites in that arena (all are free and playable/readable in your browser without the need to download anything):
Howling Dogs” by Porpentine
Sacrilege” by Cara Ellison
Even Cowgirls Bleed” by Christine Love
Of course, there is so much out there across all genres, that the pieces that speak to me may not resonate with you at all, in which case you can take a look at Emily Short’s comprehensive list that will help you to find a piece that speaks to what you personally are interested in.

OK, I like this! How can I get started and make some interactive fiction myself?
The most popular entry-level tool is called Twine. It’s free, open-source, works on both PC and Mac and is relatively simple to use. By simple, I mean that if you are familiar with using Microsoft Word and have any experience at all with HTML/code, the learning curve is not steep. You create branching stories in a diagrammatic way, and when you are ready to publish, you can upload your game or story as a simple HTML file either to your own website, or for free on

Once you have a basic grasp of Twine and are bitten by the interactive fiction bug, there are many other established formats for creating more complex interactive fiction, including Ren’py, Inform and ChoiceScript. There’s also a wonderful new way of creating graphical interactive fiction called Fungus, created by Irish designer Chris Gregan who has put the time into creating some seriously helpful learning resources to help newcomers.

If you need a bit of help getting started, I’ll be teaching an interactive fiction workshop at the Circa Words experimental writing festival taking place on June 15th, so get in touch with the Irish Writers Centre if you would like to attend. After that, my friends and I held a day-long Twine-based game jam last year in Dublin and it was so much fun we are likely to run another one over the summer, so if you try Twine out and enjoy it, let me know and I’ll add you to the contact list for the event.

Can I adapt something I wrote already to interactive fiction?
Absolutely! By doing this, you can learn a new way of presenting your work in addition to increasing the chance of your work being read by others. Creating interactive fiction is free, easy and brings immersive, experimental writing to many people who would never buy a poetry chapbook, even if the contents are exactly the same. To show this, check out the contrasting experiences of Dan Waber (who wrote “A Kiss“), between the response he got to the same work via literary journals versus the viral promotion of it through the interactive fiction community.

I hope I’ve convinced you that giving interactive fiction a try is well worth the effort. If you do go ahead to make something in Twine, please do send it to me, I’d love to be immersed in your story!




Tonight: Ray Davies in Conversation with Joseph O’Connor!

For all those heading to see Ray Davies speak later tonight at the National Concert Hall we hope you will have a great time and here is a tune to get your excitement levels a little higher. The Kinks released the song, “You Really Got Me”, on August 4th, 1964. Speaking in the documentary, Imaginary Man, Ray responds to a question about the song by saying, “64, the end of 64, that’s when I was born. I was literally born when that was a hit.” In that case this year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Ray Davies’ rebirth as the artist, icon and rock legend that we have all known him as. So Happy Fiftieth Birthday, Mr. Davies!

Gruff Rhys in Whelans

Saturday was the first day of the festival and a gloriously, sunny first day at that. Despite the sunshine, there was an eager queue waiting outside Whelans, all happy to leave the balmy evening and go into the dark bar for Gruff Rhys’ talk about his new project American Interior.

The evening began with Tony Clayton-Lea interviewing Rhys about his new multi-platform project; American Interior spans an album, a book, a documentary and an app. It follows the footsteps of famous Welsh man John Evans, a distant relative of Rhys, who went to America in 1790 to find a rumoured tribe of Welsh-speaking Indians. The Welsh Indians were said to be descendants of Prince Madoc who, according to Welsh legend, discovered America in the 12th century, three hundred years before Columbus. Rhys, who was aware of John Evans from his childhood, was asked to write the music for a play marking the 200 years since Evans’ death in 1999. While his music wasn’t used in the play, due to touring commitments and the death of the director, it made him more interested in John Evans’ story. Fifteen years later, on tour across America, he realised he was very close to the journey that Evans had taken but didn’t have time to visit the places and explore the story properly. When he returned to the UK, he asked his record company if his next tour could follow John Evans’ journey and give him time to visit and explore his destinations. Rhys wanted to verify the tall tales that he was told about John Evans as a child, stories that sounded far-fetched but that you accept when you’re young. He wanted to find out what was true and what was myth. The record company granted his request and the tour evolved into a series of musical lectures about Evans’ journey, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation and a three-foot model of Evans, rebuilt in felt. The story of this tour, and Evans’ original quest, are told in the American Interior book and documentary. The songs, however are less didactic and instead try to create the emotion of John Evans’ journey or concentrate on one small detail. Rhys didn’t want the song to just consist of facts.

Rhys also talked the early days of Super Furry Animals; how he met band-mate Bunford for the first time on the roof of a train and how getting signed to Creation Records was like winning the pools. He also talked about a new Super Furry Animals release – a beer called Fuzzy created by the Celt Brewery.

The second half of the evening was a performance of songs and stories from America Interior, complete with projected slides and a special appearance from the felt John Evans. It was a treat to see these songs performed in such an intimate venue and the crowd were captivated. The story of John Evans’ adventures in America was interspersed with songs played on an acoustic guitar, harmonica and a few electronic gadgets. It was a very special way to spend a Saturday night and a great way to get a history lesson!

DWF Venue #6: The LAB, Foley Street (Sheena Barrett)

(Interview with Sheena Barrett, arts officer and curator @ The LAB)

What and where is the LAB?The Lab

The LAB is Dublin City Council’s Arts Office, a dynamic hub of activity housing a gallery, rehearsal and incubation space for a range of art forms.  It’s on Foley Street just off Talbot Street. It’s very near Busaras and Connolly Station, in the heart of a really historic part of the city once known as ‘the Monto’, a cultural pocket with neighbours including Oonagh Young Gallery, Dance House, Talbot Gallery & Studios and creative pop up spaces Units 3 & 4.

What happens there?

The Arts Office is based here and we run a range of programmes, provide advice, funding and support to artists and communities across the city. The building itself is full of flexible spaces that take on different energies depending on who is in them. Last week we had an international symposium on performance with speakers from New York and Sweden occasionally interrupted by singing children at their contemporary dance class in the room next door.  Meanwhile, downstairs, we had some actors doing a read through next door to opera rehearsals. There’s also an MA from iadt for artists, curators and critics.  So while the gallery is showing work that’s at a stage ready to invite in the public, artists across all art forms are busy honing their craft upstairs.

In the LAB Gallery, we support emerging artists, often providing them with their first solo show.  We also focus on fresh ways to develop engaged audiences for the visual arts; we have a programme of events, talks and workshops with every show.

What is your role and how did you get there?

I’m an arts officer and curator with Dublin City Council. I studied History of Art and French and subsequently Arts Administration & Culture Policy at UCD. I previously worked as Project Manager for Breaking Ground, Ballymun Regeneration’s art commissioning programme. I have also worked at the National Museum of Ireland and the National Gallery of Ireland, Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Artworking Consulting and at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. I joined Dublin City Council’s Arts Office 8 years ago just after the LAB was built.  At the LAB I curate the gallery’s exhibition and events programme.

Kids Lab

(Image – looking for rainbows – visit from local montessori group to our last exhibition)

What makes The LAB special?

What makes the LAB special is our relationship with artists and audiences. We work really hard to support artists through the process of making work but we don’t think it stops once the show opens. We want to get people talking about art, but also about the issue the art raises. We actively encourage artists to work with people from other disciplines, like architects or engineers – or nine-year-olds. We love when artists are interested in the world around them and we can introduce to them to other interesting people and they have those moments of understanding, or share ideas and knowledge.

OBeirne Drury Lab

(Image of artist Aisling O’Beirne meeting Professor Luke Drury at Dunsink Observatory to prepare for her forthcoming show in September)

There have been lots of highs. A recent one was For The Birds a one-off event created by James Ó hAodha for Tonight, You Can Call Me Trish, curated by two young curators who won our emerging curator award, RGKSKSRG. As part of the exhibition, James was commissioned to devise an encounter with a specific community of interest. His work For the Birds consisted of a series of idiosyncratic exhibition tours, which took place in the gallery on the final day of Trish. It was pretty special.

I also love quieter moments, like people’s responses to our current solo exhibition Ultra, by Barbara Knezevic and I really enjoyed the talk she gave on the opening night.  I find artistic processes very interesting, and I sometimes find those conversations become even more interesting when they are discussed with others, like when Geraldine O’Reilly will be talking to poet John F. Deane (DWF: Wed 21st May @6pm). It allows for the unexpected, and the audiences tend to be very involved in sharing their own interests and responses.

Can you talk about The LAB’s setting, and how it interacts with its neighbours?

The LAB is on Foley Street. It’s a really urban space, surrounded by new office and apartment blocks. It’s also a really historic part of the city with families who’ve lived here for generations who remember when this street had tenements, sewing factories and the infamous Monto. It is an area deeply imbedded in the history of the Lockout in 1913, the Easter Rising and the War of Independence.

Door - Costello

(images courtesy Terry Fagan, North Inner City Folklore Project Foley Street in the 70s)

I think the historic nature of the place can really add great potency to politically charged exhibitions. You really feel the weight of history.

Door - Foley St 70s

A few years ago we had an exhibition of live performance curated by Amanda Coogan called Labour showing work by ten Irish female performance artists.  It was a very intense experience to be involved in and I think has to be one of my highlights.  The work had toured from London and Derry but in a sense the issues raised seemed so at home in this context. It was very poignant.

What makes you cranky?

Lot of things! Mostly what I listen to on the radio in the mornings. I think there are so many incredibly interesting people in this country and we don’t hear their stories enough. What I love about this work is the moments when people come together and experience really great projects, where artists took huge risks, might have failed, but still did it and put themselves out there. What makes me cranky is not being able to support more of it, take more chances, and find ways to shout about it a bit louder so more people can choose to get involved.

If The LAB wasn’t here what might be here in it’s place?

I wonder about that. Sometimes I wonder if one of the best things for the people who walk down this street is that it feels a bit safer, or there’s something curious to look at. It has always been an issue for me that the office blocks across the street keep their shutters down, even though people are working inside. Surely the streetscape deserves better. I think there’d still be a need a for place like this, but I love that it’s here. We’re just off the bustling thoroughfare of Talbot Street, tucked away in a place that’s quiet enough to look at the work, but alive enough to make you question how it fits in with the rest of our lives. That’s pretty special.

Clothes Lab

(image – installing Catherine Delaney exhibition, other-stuff, 2012)

Admission to The LAB Gallery is free Monday to Friday 10am to 6pm and Saturdays 10am to 5pm

The Lab, 1 Foley Street, Dublin 1Foley St map

DWF Venue #5: Smock Alley Theatre (Caoimhe Connolly)

smock-alley-stained-glass-windowWhat (and where) is Smock Alley?

Smock Alley Theatre is a renovated 17th century theatre on the banks of the River Liffey, on Essex Quay.​

What happens there? 

The Smock Alley Theatre of today plays host to a huge variety of events ranging from theatre, dance, music, literature + fine-art to weddings, award ceremonies, conferences, fashion shows, pop-up markets, gala dinners, college society balls, secret gigs, product launches and presentations, film shoots and festivals, right through to murder mystery tours and paranormal investigations.

Can you describe Smock Alley, for someone who’s never been there: what makes it different?

Well it’s a very impressive building with 2 highly atmospheric theatre venues and a quite stunning Banquet Hall which can be hired for private and public events. We pride ourselves on our friendly staff and try to make sure that everyone who comes through the doors feels welcome.

Has it always been a theatre or has it had other identities along the way? Can you talk about how it fits into the history of the city?

Smock Alley was the first Theatre Royal built in Dublin. John Ogilby opened it in 1662 as part of the Restoration of the British monarchy and King Charles II in 1660 along with London’s Drury Lane (1662) and Lincoln’s Inn Fields (1661). It was the first custom-built theatre in the city and still remains in substantially the same form, making it one of the most important sites in European theatre history. ​​

The old theatre closed in 1787. The building was then used as a whiskey store until Father Michael Blake bought it to set a church. When the bell tolled in 1811, 18 years before the Catholic Emancipation, it was the first Catholic bell to ring in Dublin in nearly 300 years. The facade still boasts ornate stained glass windows and the original ceiling plaster work remain in Smock Alley as a witness of this time. 

Smock Alley had been built on land re-claimed from the Liffey, it was unstable and the gallery collapsed twice; it was rebuilt in 1735. The old theatre closed in 1787, where its’ story continued with the ‘church chapters’ of the building’s history. It was a 7 years struggle to raise the funds for the excavation and restorations but doors were eventually re-opened in May 2012 making this month our 2nd birthday (or 352nd!). 

Smock alley theatre

Can you talk about its location (in the heart of Temple Bar, set back from but facing the river), its surroundings and the general atmosphere?  Temple Bar gets bad press sometimes, it’s associated with bars and crowds, with stags and hens, and then there is this extraordinary fusion of past and present, slightly off the beaten track but facing the quays … Do you think people are fully aware that it’s there? Do you think Dubliners have taken it to their hearts?

We’re building our reputation as a great place to spend an evening. The most common reaction of first time visitors is one of shock as they either had no idea ​​we were here or that they didn’t realise how amazing the building is.​ It really is a hidden gem. Although we’re in Temple Bar, we’re in the ‘old city’ area, which is much quieter, so we don’t have issues with marauding hens and stags​.

Can you describe your relationship with the streets outside the walls, your neighbours etc? 

We are very lucky to be situated in such a supportive community, we have excellent relationships with those in our vicinity Dublin City Council, The Gaiety School of Acting, Queen of Tarts, Tamp + Stitch, The Bakery and local businesses round these parts. We also run a series of literary talks with our neighbours The Gutter Bookshop.

What’s your role and how did you get there? 

I am currently the marketing manager. I was originally hired to project-manage the build and development but I loved the building so much I couldn’t leave. ​

What do you love about your job?

The high ceilings, the pace, the volume of people you meet each day, week, year. So much culture, so little time.

What’s your favourite recent event?

We had TEDX Talks here in April talking on the subject of creativity. The energy was electric.

Have you had any disasters?

*Sigh* An old building sometimes has leaky roofs…and walls. But nothing compared to the several gallery collapses in the early years of the original theatre. Due to nature of the land it was built on; marshy and reclaimed from the Liffey, the upper galeries collapsed during a performance, on more than one occasion. ​Quite a number of people died as a result of these collapses. Thankfully these days patrons don’t need to put their lives at risk to come and see a show.

If Smock Alley wasn’t a theatre, or if it hadn’t been rescued and restored, what do you think it would it be?

​Perhaps an absolutely enormous Costa Coffee or maybe some kind of McDonalds mothership… ​

What do you imagine will be here in the future?

After 352 years, I hope and ​suspect we won’t be going anywhere for a while.

Smock Alley Theatre  6/7 Exchange Street Lower, Dublin 8    smock alley map

DWF Venue #4: The Irish Writers’ Centre (Valerie Bistany, Director)

What (and where) is the Irish Writers’ Centre?

Front door IWC

The Irish Writers’ Centre is an organisation that supports writers at all stages of their development. We also promote writing in general and Irish writing in particular. We are a national resource centre for Irish literature and welcome all those interested in Irish literature to our beautiful Georgian building at 19 Parnell Square, on the north side of the square facing the Gardens of Remembrance.  We are flanked by the Dublin Writers Museum on one side and the Hugh Lane Gallery on the other.

What happens there? IWC Giro

Lots!  We run a diverse programme of creative writing workshops, seminars, lectures, readings, and other events, such as a lovely one last Friday in our Dublin City Writings lunchtime series called City Bike Tales as part of the Giro D’Italia events; audience members were invited to share cycling-themed stories and poems in an Open Mic setting, hosted by Alan Clarke, who had illustrated his selected poems beautifully.  The atmosphere was fantastic, made all the more special because each reader had taken the trouble to write a bespoke (no pun intended!) piece and delivered it with passion and aplomb.

Our year-round creative writing courses are led by established writers across a range of genres, forms and styles and many of our students have gone on to publish and lead successful careers as writers –  we’re pleased that many come back to the IWC as facilitators and so the cycle (!) continues.

IWC HallWe are open to all literary enquiries and our building is a creative space for writers’ groups, publishers’ meetings, book launches and other literary endeavours at subsidised rates or for no cost. We also rent out our rooms during the day to keep the wolf from the door. Our members can avail of rooms during the week to simply come and write, or to hang out with a cuppa and read a book from our library.  Sometimes, members of the public drop in simply to view our wonderful contemporary Irish art collection belonging to Frank Buckley which is on permanent display at the IWC.

A new strand of our programme is the area of professional development for published writers.  Entitled Mindshift, it attempts to answer some of the needs expressed by authors.  In fact, to address the burning issue of money and how to find it, we are running our 3rd Mindshift event in the IWC entitled “The Business of Being a Writer” which focuses on all aspects financial.  We’ve invited Sarah Bannan of the Arts Council and Ray Yeates of Dublin City Council to speak about funding opportunities, Jane O’Hanlon of Poetry Ireland will unpack the Writers in Schools scheme, Mia Gallagher will share her experiences of being a Writer-in-Residence and tax expert Gaby Smyth will speak about the nitty gritty of managing all aspects of taxes and finance with the professional writer in mind.  It takes place this Saturday May 17th as part of the DWF and is really a must for any writer looking for the latest information on finances.

Who is the centre for?

The Centre is primarily for writers and the majority of our programmes are created with the writer in mind. However, we encourage those who are curious about writing.  For instance, a new initiative is the New Irish Communities Workshops aimed at those who are not native English speakers, but who want to write creatively in English.  We are also welcoming to readers, not only as audience members, but as inquisitive learners – earlier in the year we ran an excellent course led by Harry Clifton on Reading Modern Poetry which was very popular.

Anyone can drop in with a literary enquiry and we will endeavour to answer it.  Much information is already on our website and we send a comprehensive newsletter every Wednesday (to anyone who signs up) with sector information on events, competitions and opportunities, as well as our own news of course.

What is your role and how did you get there?

I’m the director of the IWC, (though CEO may be a more accurate description). My background is as a professional arts manager, producer & events coordinator having worked primarily in professional theatre and dance but also with young people in Ireland, England and the USA.  I’m also a creative facilitator and a mediator, and am particularly motivated in supporting artists’ creative processes. I have done much work in this area with artists directly, but also with arts organisations and their Boards in vision planning.

What is your favourite  of all the events the centre has hosted since you took over as Director?

2014 Novel Fair winners

I think the Novel Fair is certainly the most well-conceived and exciting IWC event that I’ve attended.  It is a brilliant opportunity for any aspiring novelist to meet a whole rake of publishers and agents at once, and to have those contacts forever.  The Novel Fair was launched in April and if anyone is thinking of entering, you have till October 24th to hand in your 10,000 words.  Have a go!

As they were my creation, I am very invested in the Mindshift series and am keen to reach out to published authors. But to answer the question directly, last Friday’s City Bike Tales was simply brilliant and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Have you had any disasters?

It is quite a leap to be a first-time director in a new, unfamiliar sector and certainly my learning curve was steep.  No overt disasters yet, but rather, with every set-back my ability to change and adapt to a new set of circumstances increases.  Change in the fast lane!

If you could host one literary extravaganza, a major event with no budget or space restrictions, what would it be?

I would love to put on an international event which connects writers with philosophers, scientists, children, musicians, choreographers, educators, politicians (yes even them), and to have debates around really simple questions, the kind that a child might ask, such as “why do we write?” or “”can we really write down what we think?” or “do all artists need to be able to write to create art?” or questions that may not be to do with writing at all.  It would be fantastic to see more discussions around issues that are important to us all as a race but that tend not to be debated in the arts sector, because we are generally too inward-looking.  I can understand why this is, and am certainly a culprit myself, but as a converger my natural tendency is to bring things together, and to aim for more joined-up thinking.

There are big plans to develop the north side of Parnell Square as a Cultural Quarter: can you talk about those plans and how the IWC might be involved?

As I understand it, the Colaiste Mhuire site to the west of the Hugh Lane Gallery and no. 20 next to us, is to be developed as the new Dublin City Library.  The library at present, is bursting at the seams in the ILAC Centre site so it is high time for a change.  Work is underway at the moment to raise funding for this new site with a huge footprint that will be able to accommodate all of the library’s archives, a StoryHouse, a 200-seater auditorium, an intercultural hub and design and music centres. The stated target opening date is Christmas 2017.

This is an exciting development which will enhance the cultural development of Parnell Square and bring more footfall in our direction.  There is a direct and complimentary correlation with the library (for readers) and the Irish Writers’ Centre (for writers) sitting side by side and working together in producing programmes that will benefit both constituent groupings. For example, we are already planning a programme that links writers with library book clubs.

What do you love most about your job?

The freedom it offers to have an idea and then to make it happen – this is the creative part of a largely administrative role and it is a great thrill to see ideas made manifest. It is also scary and nerve-wracking because one can never be sure if it will work.  So an event or programme idea that receives genuine praise and is deemed to have been of value is a fantastic incentive and motivates me to keep my ear to the ground but to be brave in risk-taking. For instance, I’m really excited about our upcoming Experimental Fiction festival entitled Circa Words 2014 which is taking place over Bloomsday Weekend.  We’ve invited online magazines and journals to the Centre where we will share, chat, debate, read and workshop– and lots more besides.

Does anything about it make you cranky?

My greatest frustration is to do with my impatience at the pace of change.  If I had a magic wand I would wave it now and speed the world on. It takes time for any organisation to evolve and develop.  My own vision of an ideal IWC is constantly changing as I learn more, as we try different things, as we succeed, fail and try again. I am blessed with a fantastic team of people who are committed, enthusiastic and ambitious for the future of the Centre, and without whom none of the work could ever happen.

What makes me cranky?  Computers, phones and flaky projectors.

If it wasn’t what it is, what do you think the Centre would  be?

That’s an interesting question. I imagine that it could either be Chapter Two (a new version of Chapter One restaurant downstairs) or it could be derelict like next door, the old Ierne ballroom.  Two intriguing polar images.

What do you imagine will be here in the future?

The Luas coming to Parnell Square alone will change things for the better. If the Cultural Quarter takes off, then there is every chance that there could be a strong influx of new traffic to Parnell Square. It will rejuvenate existing businesses, attract new ones to the area and the Irish Writers’ Centre plans to be at the heart of the good news. The northside could do with a lift and this is the perfect opportunity.

The Irish Writers’ Centre:

19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1 IWC map





Continue reading

Interview with children’s author Erika McGann

There are lots of events for children in this year’s Dublin Writers Festival. There’s Chris Judge’s Storybird for the 6+ age group, Derek Landy talking about Skulduggery Pleasant and Laura Dockrill’s Darcy Burdock event for the over 8s.

Irish children’s author, Erika McGann was recently announced as this year’s winner of the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award. The winner of this award is chosen by young readers from local schools in Waverton, Cheshire and is awarded to a debut British or Irish author each year.

Erika’s winning novel, The Demon Notebook tells the story of Grace and her four best friends who are failed witches but one night stumble upon real magical powers. The book has a great mix of magic and suspense, with a few scary moments thrown in.

I interviewed Erika and asked her about her books, about writing and about other aspects of the writer’s life.

Why witches? What attracted you to the realm of the supernatural and what do you think attracts your readers?

Witchcraft was the big thing when I was in school, and I still love the mix of fun and darkness about it. I think young readers always have a love for the supernatural because of all the possibilities. The rules are dictated by the author – they can differ from book to book – but there’s so much scope. Characters that feel timid or weak can become powerful with the introduction of magic, and that’s something that appealed to me as a kid.

There are two books in the series already published (The Demon Notebook and The Broken Spell) and a third, The Watching Wood, on it’s way. Are there many more in the series? Do you know yet what will happen to the girls or where the series will end?

I haven’t started a fourth yet, I’ll see how number three goes! But there is a complete story in each book so, wherever I finish, there won’t be any cliff-hangers left hanging.

What’s the hardest thing about writing? And the most enjoyable thing?

The hardest thing is the discipline. I admire those writers that can maintain a very strict routine, writing for hours a day. It’s something I try to emulate, but keeping too rigidly to a schedule makes me rebel a bit. Finding the right balance between a steady workflow and giving yourself time to think through ideas is a frustrating thing that I’m nowhere near mastering. Give me five or ten years. Or twenty.

As for the most enjoyable part of writing; it’s the writing. When you’re in the zone, and typing away without much effort, it’s brilliant. And you get all smug and self-satisfied when you finish a big chunk of pages you’re really happy with.

You do a lot of readings in schools and events like the Dublin Book Festival and World Book Day. How does it feel meeting your readers?

I love doing book events. I think I say it every time I’m asked but, when my first book came out, the thought of speaking to a big group of kids for an hour sounded like a particular kind of hell. I was terrified I’d be heckled and laughed out of libraries with tears in my eyes. In reality, kids make a fantastic audience. Keeping their attention is not difficult when it comes to talking about books and writing; they’re dying to hear (and talk) about developing characters, building a story and designing book covers. And hearing kids talk about your characters like they know them is pure joy.

What piece of advice would you give someone who wants to be a writer? What do you wish someone had told you starting out?

The best advice I could give would be to write what you enjoy. It’s like any job that way; the more you enjoy it, the better you’ll do it.

My brother’s an author, so there wasn’t much I didn’t know about the business before I started. But it would have helped if someone had advised me loosen up when writing. Before I took it up a few years ago, I hadn’t written any kind of story since school. Being new to the idea of a novel, I think I was a bit too careful and didn’t let go when I felt like it. You can always fix things after the first draft, so I’d tell any budding writer now not to hold back. Go mad, if you want to, and sort the mess out later.

Who are your favourite writers? YA or otherwise.

Still loving The Hunger Games, so Suzanne Collins is a favourite. Each film makes the series feel brand new…sigh. And I’ll always love Roald Dahl. I think his books are imprinted on the DNA of several generations, and that’s how things should be.

And most importantly, when’s the new book out?

September! It seems like it’s ages away, but I’ve got the U.S. edition of my first book coming out next month to tide me over.

The Demon Notebook and The Broken Spell are both available from O’Brien Press.

Interview with Mary O’Donnell

MaryODonnell001IMG_7457Mary O’Donnell’s new novel WHERE THEY LIE (New Island) will be launched on 15th May, 2014

Is there more than one meaning in the title, Where They Lie

I suspect there is. I found the novel difficult to name for quite a long time, but one day my daughter and I did a brain-storm at the kitchen table, tossing titles around on bits of paper for quite some time before settling on this one. It seemed right. It refers to a place in which the bodies of the two men may lie, and also to a place in which truth is hard-won.

What drew you to the subject of the Disappeared?

I came to it from two directions. First of all I realised that I hadn’t quite finished with the title Continue reading


I’m thinking of the days…

Seeing as today is Saturday, once again we bring you a song by The Kinks. This time the song of choice is “Days” and the days we’re thinking of are the nine days left until Ray Davies will stride onto the stage at the National Concert Hall on May 19th. Remember this year Dublin Writers Festival will have an extended nine day run, from Saturday the 17th through until Sunday the 25th. We have whole host of exciting events coming up so check out our full line-up to make sure you don’t miss out. In the meantime, sit back, turn the speakers up to 11 and hit play: