Derry O’Sullivan, an Irish language poet, was born in Bantry, Co Cork in 1944 and now lives in Paris. His poem, Stillborn 1943: Calling Limbo, which you can read below, is heart-breaking and beautifully written. Those of you who know me well will be aware that my outrage about Limbo was one of the reasons why I became an agnostic at age 12. My sincere thanks to Doireann Ní Ghríofa for sharing this poem with me after a wonderful chat we had in RTE Studio Cork on Thursday 11 September 2014.
Stillborn 1943: Calling Limbo
(for Nuala McCarthy)
You were born dead
and your blue limbs were folded
on the living bier of your mother
the umbilical cord unbroken between you
like an out-of-service phone line.
The priest said it was too late
for the blessed baptismal water
that arose from Lough Bofinne
and cleansed the elect of Bantry.
So you were cut from her
and wrapped, unwashed,
in a copy of The Southern Star,
a headline about the War across your mouth.
An orange box would serve as coffin
and, as requiem, your mother listened
to hammering out in the hallway,
and the nurse saying to her
that you'd make Limbo without any trouble.
Out of the Mercy Hospital
the gardener carried you under his arm
with barking of dogs for a funeral oration
to a nettle-covered field
that they still call the little churchyard.
You were buried there
without cross or prayer
your grave a shallow hole;
one of a thousand without names
with only the hungry dogs for visitors.
Today, forty years on
I read in The Southern Star –
theologians have stopped believing
But I'm telling you, little brother
whose eyes never opened
that I've stopped believing in them.
For Limbo is as real as Lough Bofinne:
Limbo is the place your mother never left,
where her thoughts lash her like nettles
and The Southern Star in her lap is an unread breviary;
where she strains to hear the names of nameless children
in the barking of dogs, each and every afternoon.
I would like to thank Cork City Council for supporting my attendance at the International Conference on the Short Story in English, which was held in Vienna this year.
At the Conference itself I was fortunate to be reading with the renowned and gracious American writer Shirley Abbott. Nuala Ní Chonchúir kindly acted as the introducer at this event, which took place on Thursday 17 July. I read a short story from my collection and showed my short film, ‘Dog Pound’.
Then Shirley read from her own work.
The audience were wonderful and most appreciative; there was no shortage of questions and we could easily have spent more time chatting.
Later that evening, six Irish writers, including myself, featured at an event in the Irish Ambassador’s Residence in Vienna. This was daunting, particularly as I was the last person to read. However, all six Irish writers – Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Alan McMonagle, Valerie Sirr, Billy O’Callaghan, Evelyn Conlon and myself – did a great job and the evening turned out to be a huge success.
My thanks to the Irish Ambassador, James Brennan, for generously hosting the event, and also to his assistant, Andrea Schwarzlmueller. And my sincere thanks to Ann Luttrell of Triskel, Cork, who organised the event many months ago and introduced the Irish writers so well that evening.
I was also very happy to see the wonderful Liadain O’Donovan, daughter of the late Frank O’Connor and a stalwart friend and supporter of Irish writing, among the invited guests.
Here’s a photo of myself, about to read at the event:
And here I am, after the reading, with the fantabulous Canadian writer Lauren B. Davis:
I have been interviewed twice on the RTE Arena program recently. The first time was on the 25th April 2014, just before the Cork launch of 'Waiting For The Bullet. I was interviewed by Evelyn O'Rourke who is brilliant, professional, and put me at my ease. If you haven't already done so I recommend her own book 'Dear Ross". Here is the link to the interview: http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!type=radio&rii=9%3A20568739%3A1526%3A25%2D04%2D2014%3A
Then last Friday, I was fortunate enough, to have a excerpt from 'The Wolf Note', one of the short stories in the collection, performed by the amazing Bee-Loud Glade of the Gaiety School Of Acting, under the direction and with the music of Roger Gregg. I recommend you listen to the whole show, but you can find my small piece at around 39 minutes. Sean Rocks is back in the chair for this one. Here is the link:
You can find out more about Bee-Loud Glade and the fantastic work of Roger Gregg on their Facebook page:https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bee-Loud-Glade/138319026245878
In April 2012, the writer Alison Wells asked me to write a guest piece for a blog she writes for writing.ie. Here is the original article in its entirety:
When Alison asks me if I’d like to write something about my favourite short story, J. D. Salinger’s ‘For Esmé –with Love and Squalor’ immediately comes to mind, even though I’ve not read it for a long time.
Most of you will probably have heard of J. D. Salinger (1919 – 2010), who was the American author of a classic novel of teenage angst called ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, published in 1951. The narrator, Holden Caulfield, is a 17-year-old American boy who thinks life is ‘lousy’, everything is ‘crumby’ and that ‘phoney bastards’ abound.
Salinger’s short story collection was published next, in 1953. Originally titled “Nine Stories’, the UK edition was called ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’.
When I first read these short stories, many years ago, I loved them, especially the title story. In fact, one of the first short stories I ever wrote is called ‘Esmé’s Weekend’ – as a little homage to Mr. Salinger!
However, on 30th March, when I see the note in my diary – ‘Write something for Alison’ – I begin to feel anxious. Maybe, when I read ‘Esmé’ again after all these years I’ll feel differently about it.
I can’t remember anyone mentioning the story in any workshop or short story conference I’ve attended. Maybe it’s twee, or old hat, or just not as good as I remember it.
Instead of actually doing any actual writing, therefore, I procrastinate…
I check my emails, I faff around on Facebook, and as I trawl around the Internet, I’m delighted to discover that the Irish writer Kevin Barry has won the 2012 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award with the hugely enjoyable story ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’.
I decide to read the on-line article about the six writers shortlisted for the award. Each of them was asked to cite their favourite short story collection. One of them, Tom Lee, has chosen ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’. How serendipitous!
(Note to self: must read Tom Lee’s début collection, Greenfly.)
Heartened by this pleasant synchronicity, I search the bookshelves for my own copy of ‘Esmé’. My books were once – only once, very briefly – in roughly alphabetical order, so it takes a while.
Finally I relocate it. I read the title story first. It’s so good that I decide to read the entire collection again…
Now, as I read, I realise that Salinger’s stories don’t always adhere to the classic ‘arc of the short story’. They are, nonetheless, wonderful.
The seond thing that strikes me, as an older reader, is that the characters, both adult and children, are psychologically complex and often isolated in some way. It seems to me that many of them possess traits indicative of what’s now called Asperger’s Syndrome. The sensitivity of the little boy in ‘Down at the Dinghy’ is one example. Teddy, in the final story, is a gifted child who exhibits slightly obsessive behaviour. Esmé herself is a little quirky. So is the narrator in ‘De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period’. I could go on…
Though Hans Asperger identified and gave his name to this syndrome in 1944, it was not standardised as a diagnosis until 1994, so it seems very unlikely that Salinger had any specific knowledge of it, or of what we now call ‘the autistic spectrum’. Nonetheless, these stories lead me to speculate that Salinger may have known people with Asperger’s syndrome, or may possibly have been an ‘Aspie’ himself.
I should point out that I’m not an expert in this field; these are just my own musings. Asperger’s Syndrome and the autistic spectrum cover a wide range of behaviour. The terms are not magic formulas and I’m not keen on labels, per se. Sometimes, however, diagnoses are useful as a means of understanding people and if this helps people to reach their full potential, that can only be good.
The Internet is not a reliable expert either… but I type in ‘Aspergers Syndrome J. D. Salinger’ and search all the same, just for interest. Sure enough, I get a few hits from sites like www.aspiesforfreedom.com, which indicate I’m not the only one who’s wondered this. There’s some debate too, as to whether Holden Caulfield, the sensitive and troubled 17-year-old in ‘Catcher in the Rye’, might have fitted into the Asperger’s category.
The fact that Salinger became a recluse in his later years may also be a hint. On the other hand, his experiences in World War II affected him emotionally, resulting in what was post-traumatic stress disorder these days. Perhaps it was this that caused Salinger to seek solitude in later life, rather than Asperger’s Syndrome.
The third thing that I begin to muse on is the fact that I’ve just used the Internet again. I wonder what old Salinger would think of this new world of Twitter and Facebook, emails and blogs? Would he enjoy it all or would he consider it to be ‘lousy’, ‘crumby’ and teeming with ‘phonies’? Somehow, I can’t imagine him tweeting.
But I’m here to talk about the title story in his collection, so here goes...
The facts of ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’ are reasonably straightforward.
The narrator receives a wedding invitation. Because he won’t be able to attend the wedding, he decides to write ‘a few revealing notes about the bride’, as he knew her six years ago (1950).
The story then moves backwards, from 1950 to 1944. The narrator is an American soldier in a top secret training program in England. Bored and lonely he wanders into town and ends up in a tea-room where he meets thirteen-year-old Esmé and her brother, five-year-old Charles. They ignore their governess’s disapproval and come over to his table to chat with him. Esmé is polite, talkative and precocious. She and the narrator discuss the war, her deceased parents, and her plans for the future. The narrator jokes with Charles, who’s a giddy little boy. He notices that Esmé’s wearing a rather large watch. She tells him it belonged to her deceased father. Esmé discovers that before the war, the narrator considered himself a writer. She requests that he write a story exclusively for her sometime, but not something childish and silly. ‘Squalor. I’m extremely interested in squalor,’ she says. After exchanging addresses, Esmé wishes him luck in the war and, quite formally, tells him that she hopes he’ll emerge with all his faculties intact. Then the children leave.
The story then moves forward in time to several weeks after VE Day (8th May 1945). It seems that Sergeant X (the narrator, ‘cunningly disguised’) has not, in fact, emerged from the war with all his faculties intact. He’s stressed and nervous and may be on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown. His comrade, Clay, tries but fails to talk him out of his depression. Then Sergeant X receives a package which has been readdressed several times. It’s from Esmé. She has sent him her father’s watch as a lucky talisman. When he reads her letter, something changes inside Sergeant X and finally he feels he’s going to be able to sleep. The chance meeting with Esmé and the arrival of her package at just the right time gives him the sense that he might be okay after all.
I’m hugely relieved to be able to say that I still love this story. It’s a strangely uplifting tale and by the time I get to the last page, I’m almost in tears.
A lesser writer might have made this story into a novel. There’s a lot going on.
In ‘Esmé’, the narration changes during the story from first person to third person. This can work in a novel but rarely works in a short story. Somehow, it works here.
The structure of the story is unusual too. The film-maker Jean Luc Godard famously said, ‘A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.’ Films can work well that way, and so can novels. Generally speaking, however, there’s not enough ‘space’ in a short story to allow the writer to mess around with time. Again, this story confounds that notion. ‘Esmé’ begins at the end of the tale, moves on to the beginning and ends in the middle. Somehow, in spite of this, it holds together beautifully.
As for themes, there are many. The first that spring to mind are hope, the squalor of war and the nature of love, particularly love in the sense of simple human connection, There are other themes too: literature and writing, youth and naivety, foreigness and otherness… for an in-depth discussion of these I recommend http://www.shmoop.com/for-Esmé -with-love-and-squalor.
There’s great dialogue, too, great scenes and some comedy moments where the narrator wanders in the small English town and meets the children. The writing is clear and simple – anyone could read this – and yet it’s full of emotional complexity.
But why does this story pack such an emotional punch?
When it was first published in 1950 (in The New Yorker), everyone reading it had been affected in some way by World War II, and it really resonated with the reading public. Salinger received more letters about ‘Esmé’ than about any of his other short stories.
In these times, the message in ‘Esmé’ is as welcome as it ever was.
Human beings around the world suffer as a result of war, famine, natural disasters, man-made disasters and poverty. In Ireland, too, we’re exhausted from the grim and dreary grind of a long recession – less dramatic than, say, an earthquake, but very ‘tough going’ nonetheless.
We all deserve an ‘Esmé’ moment. We need to believe that there is always sunshine behind clouds, and that we must not lose hope in the future. ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’ is a story that reminds us that, with a little help from our friends, we humans are a resilient bunch. We’ll be okay. We’ll carry on. This is what we need to believe.
On 12th May 2012 I met Jeremiah O’Hara in Daunt Square, Cork. It was an uncharacteristically sunny day and I was walking home from town. I had other things to do that day and I didn’t intend to stop. In fact, I walked past him at first but something odd had caught my eye so I felt impelled to retrace my steps.
Yes. The gentleman sitting quietly on the concrete bench in front of the O2 shop did have what looked like a miniature church by his side. He smiled at me and I smiled at him.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Is this yours?’
He told me it was. He had made it himself. When I looked closely I saw that his model of a church was made entirely out of matchsticks and was incredibly detailed.
‘How long did it take you?’ I asked.
‘Nineteen months,’ he said.
‘Gosh,’ I said. I was impressed. It wasn't even a church he knew, it was a church he'd imagined in his head. Now, I'm not keen on churches, but I liked his.
Jeremiah took some photographs from his pocket and showed them to me. It became evident that he’s been working with matchsticks for years. These were very complex matchstick creations.
I thought they were wonderful and told him so. The idea of making any kind of art for very little reward or recognition, without much thought as to whether it’s in fashion or out, cool or uncool, delighted me.
Jeremiah said he didn’t mind if I wrote about him on my newly-created blog and when I asked to take a few photos with my phone he said that was fine too.
As we conversed further I found out that his name was Jeremiah O’Hara.
‘No relation to Maureen O’Hara?’ I quipped, referring to the film star.
‘No,’ he grinned. ‘But they do call me “The Quiet Man”.’
(Maureen O’Hara starred with John Wayne in a 1952 John Ford film called ‘The Quiet Man’.)
Jeremiah was collecting for charity but his method was so subtle that I doubted its efficacity. He had no sign saying what he was up to. He simply sat there with his model next to him. The small jamjar for donations wasn’t even visible – he kept it in another coat pocket.
Any donations went for the Children’s Ward of the Mercy Hospital, Cork, for children with leukaemia. Jeremiah showed me the thank you letter he’d received from the Mercy Hospital for his previous donation.
He also showed me his licence to collect for charity that Saturday. He told me that the first time he did it he hadn’t realised he had to have a licence – so he made sure to be legal this time round.
I suggested that perhaps he needed a proper sign. He said he probably did. He seemed pretty relaxed about it all. I thought that being relaxed about stuff was probably a good thing.
'It will last as long as it lasts.
Rose or rock.
A brief morning, or never-ending evening.'
I wrote the above in a notebook many years ago. Does anyone know where I found it? Did I write it myself? I don't think I did (though I do have a chequered past!). Try as I might, I've not been able to attribute it to anyone. Any help here would be greatly appreciated....
Once upon a time, teenage boys liked to collect stamps. Other people collected coins, postcards, or cards from cigarette packets. Some people pinned dead butterflies on cloth and put them in glass frames.
Personally I never felt an urge to collect things. I'm not naturally a hoarder. In fact, I often long for a minimalist lifestyle, though life is far too interesting and complex for such simplicity!
About 18 years ago, a nice English man invited me to lunch with his family. I didn't realise at the time that I would marry him... and that these nice people would become my English in-laws.
The house we had lunch in was full of clocks. When I asked about this it became clear that one couldn't have too many clocks. In fact, everyone seemed to be an avid collector of something: antique pencils, thimbles, fridge magnets, dolls' houses, anything to do with ducks, jelly moulds, wind-up toys... the list was endless.
Someone turned to me kindly and asked, 'And what do you collect, Madeleine?'
I was tempted to answer, 'Men' – but, since this was not true and they were not yet familiar with my sense of humour – I thought better of it.
I had a lot of books, but since these were a motley crew, and not First Editions, I felt they didn't quite count as collectibles.
'Nothing,' I replied, a little abashed. Perhaps my life was missing something?
More time with my husband-to-be meant many trips to car boot sales, junk shops, salvage yards and antique shops in England and later in Ireland, while he acquired things and I plotted to get rid of them. (Oh, the high of delivering a bunch of stuff to the Cancer Ireland Charity shop!)
But one day, I found a few Babycham glasses at Rathcormac Car Boot Sale. Small, delicate, gold-rimmed, each emblazoned with a giddy cartoon deer in mid-leap, the glasses reminded me of my first ever alcoholic drink and I had to have them.
Babycham was a tiny, ladylike bottle of sugary fizz – an acceptable and indeed glamorous drink for women in 1970's Ireland. The bottle was cutesy and glamorous at the same time, with a pleated silvery-blue foil sockette on the bottle top.
Now I've got ten Babycham glasses I suppose I have to admit I've joined the ranks of collectors, though I'm a mere spring chicken at this stuff, compared to the greats. It's probably heresy to suggest that ten is enough, but I think it is.
One of the best birthday presents I ever got was from my friend Colette Sheridan, who gave me the little Babycham deer that's at the front of my photo. I love it.
For Irish Car Boot Sales, check out http://collectireland.wordpress.com/car-boot-sales
I’m an agnostic. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t. I’d like to believe in something beyond the secular, something amazing that would ground me and simultaneously uplift the old psyche...
In my youth, religion provided none of these. I respect those who have genuinely-held religious beliefs – but I don’t. The Catholicism I was taught made no sense to me so I rejected it. Don’t get me started on the subject of Limbo…
When I was eight years old I wanted to be a nun. By the time I was 12, I wanted to be a prostitute. My understanding of what either of these vocations entailed was vague, but it was clear I’d made a choice and religion wasn’t it.
The current exhibition at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery is called ‘The Sacred Modernist – Josef Albers as a Catholic Artist’.
When I was younger, the religiosity of this title would have made me blench, perhaps even recoil in horror.
But I’ve mellowed somewhat over the years, so, despite the religious label, I tootled in for a look.
I’m glad I did.
Josef Albers was a German artist and educator, born in Germany in 1888. He studied art in Berlin, Essen and Munich before attending the prestigious Weimar Bauhaus School, where he was first a student and then a teacher. When the Bauhaus was closed in 1993 due to Nazi pressure, he was forced to move to America with his wife. He taught in Black Mountain College, Carolina, and later at Yale and kept on working as an artist until he died.
As well as being famous for his art, his work as an educator was hugely influential on the way art is taught today.
The image, above, is a stained glass assemblage (Untitled, 1921, Glass, wire and metal, set within a metal frame).
This is a very early work. Albers made it while a student, using fragments of bottles he found in the local dump since he was initially too poor to buy art supplies. Plus ça change – and hurrah for recycling!
It seems to me that all of the elements Albers would later develop and refine are here. I love this piece. It seems so fresh and modern it could have been made yesterday. My photograph does not do it justice.
Tautonym (B) 1944, Oil on masonite (below) is another work that greatly appealed to me.
(Ok, for some reason I can't bung it in here - I have to learn how to do that...!!)
In his later years Josef Albers devoted his time to hundreds of paintings he called ‘Homages to the Square’. He began these paintings in 1950 when he was 62 and continued until his death at age 88, in 1976. The curator’s notes say:
“He never tired of creating new ‘colour climates’ and did not believe there were right or wrong colour systems so much as endless possibilities for visual excitement.”
And here’s the bit I like most:
‘For twenty-six years, the artist deliberately stayed at a remove from the trends of the art world and focused on what he believed was everlasting. When asked how he chose his colours, Josef would reply, “I work and I work and I work, I try this tube and that, I compare a Mars Yellow made by Windsor & Newton to one made by Grumbacher, and then I look up and I thank God”.’
Persistence, hard work, independent thought, endless possibilities, joy. These are things I can believe in.
'The Sacred Modernist – Josef Albers as a Catholic Artist’.
Lewis Glucksman Gallery, University College Cork, Ireland.
T+ 353 21 firstname.lastname@example.org
Madeleine D’Arcy was born in Ireland and later spent thirteen years in the UK. She worked as a criminal legal aid solicitor and as a legal editor in London before returning to Cork City in 1999 with her husband and son. She began to write fiction in 2005.