Disneyland with Books

Welcome to Kells

WELCOME TO KELLS. (Picture courtesy of the Hay Festival, Kells.)

Last year I volunteered at the Hay Festival in Kells and was lucky enough to be assigned to St Columba’s Church for the weekend.  How do I describe the church to you? Think old country churchyard. Now age it a couple more centuries. Add the remnants of four eleventh century Celtic crosses and a round tower from the same period. Now, you’ve got it.

It’s Ireland in less than an acre.

Kells, County Meath

Kells, County Meath

Into this serene scene streamed our guests: the speakers and the listeners.

Some of the visitors hadn’t planned to attend whatever event happened to be on at the time, but the location drew them in. Come for the tower, stay for the books. Could you blame them? The discussions on offer were fabulous. This is a small place, peaceful, so we didn’t have the rock star writers like Joe O’Connor. They were at the bigger venues, like the Headfort Arms. Instead, we had the poets and the historians, as befits so ancient and elegiac a site.

Being a volunteer, I sat at the back, keeping an ear out for people wanting information or looking to buy tickets, and all the while I listened to the experts talking about the difficulties of writing poetry in a minority language, or Ireland’s part in the First World War, or researching the historical background to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Each was a revelation and a joy.

There was a family from Kent who were on holiday in Dublin and drove up to Kells for the day. They enjoyed themselves so much they stayed for the whole weekend. Oh the scenery is spectacular, and the books are magnificent, but it’s the people. You know?

I do.

Everywhere you went there were happy volunteers in bright blue tee-shirts giving directions, suggesting events or places to eat, or just sharing the joy of the occasion. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing laughter or a book being quoted. (That’s my definition of Paradise, right there.)

A man wandered around the worn old tombstones in the churchyard and stopped to ask what event was up next. A discussion about the JFK assassination? Sounds interesting. So he stayed for that and for the lecture that followed too. Later, as a soft evening fell, he shook my hand and thanked me. Like I’d done it all myself: the tower and the sunshine and the books. “It’s been a day,” he said. He had that peaceful look of a man who’s just enjoyed a long massage. “This is some event. I’ll be back next year.” Then as he stepped down the path he turned and said, “It’s like Disneyland with books.”

The Hay Festival returns to Kells on June 25th to 28th.  You can get the full programme and tickets from www.hayfestival.com/kells . Tickets are also available in Kells from the Kells Chamber Office (Carrick Street) – 046 924 0055 – open from 9.30am to 5pm from Monday to Friday, and from Antonia’s Bookstore in Trim, County Meath on 046 943 7532.

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Patricia Scanlan at the Hinterland Festival

Patricia Scanlan

Patricia Scanlan

Patricia (“I Love Men Really”) Scanlan came to the Hinterland Festival in Kells last weekend and her adoring public are still raving about her.

She has a Bette Midler sort of warmth and if her wit is slightly less bawdy it’s certainly no less funny. Interviewed by Georgina Godwin, she hardly seemed to need questions to talk about her friends, her family, and her career.

Asked why she started writing, she launched into an explanation about her battle with endometriosis and frequent absences from her job in the Ballymun Public Library. Convinced she was going to be fired, she decided she needed to find another source of income. She turned, naturally, to writing.

Her first book, an attempt at a Mills and Boon story, was not a success and she didn’t like the restrictions of writing to a formula. Some time later she saw a Cosmo contest announced. It was one of those, ‘write a book and get published’ jobs. A word processor–remember those?–was the big allure of this particular contest.

With advice from her friend Maeve (Binchy, whom she met through the library), she decided to write about what she knew, that is, Irish women. Writing City Girl was liberating. “The power!”  she exclaimed, “Over Life! Death! Everything!”

The English publisher who was the first recipient of the manuscript rejected it on the grounds that it was ‘parochial.’ Scanlan says the word with withering contempt. Why should the lives of Irish women be considered any more parochial than those of English, Welsh, or Scottish people? The nerve! She added, with considerable glee, that the same company approached her 12 years later pleading to publish the same book. She allowed them to do so… for a price.

Undeterred by their initial rejection, she sent the manuscript to Poolbeg Press with a short letter that said, “If you want to be a millionaire, publish my book…” It worked, and the novel was accepted. She negotiated an advance of £150 despite the fact that Poolbeg wasn’t paying advances at the time. There’s no denying Ms Scanlan’s powers of persuasion.

Her most recent book, Orange Blossom Days, is about female friendship. Her books focus on women finding strength in themselves.

Though she is, as she says more than once, “Very fond of men,” Scanlon speaks scathingly of those males who have used their power to make women’s lives difficult. For instance, the many gynaecologists who could not diagnose her endometriosis, and whose response to her distress was a withering assumption that she must have a ‘low pain threshold.’ If she writes about women finding their own power and strength, you get the feeling this was a lesson she first had to learn for herself, and learn it she did.

Ms Scanlan isn’t afraid to explore taboo subjects in her books. Women who don’t want children, for instance.

She likens beginning a book to being at a wedding where she knows no one. Then, “You get to know them, and then they take over…” Her characters develop their own personalities but “They’re all me.”

One of her great passions is her work for adult literacy. She created the Open Doors Series to encourage other writers to produce short works of fiction intended specifically for those people who are just learning to read.  Such books are, she says, very difficult to write. Sentences cannot be too long and writers must keep the vocabulary simple. She’s persuaded her friends Roddy (Doyle), Nick Hornby, and John Connolly to write for the programme, which is now in its 8th series. (Have I mentioned her powers of persuasion?) In addition to novellas, they print collections of poetry. The books have, in recent years, also been used by students who are studying English as a foreign language.

Ms Scanlan’s appearance was greeted with great enthusiasm and you could hardly get near her afterwards when she signed books. As I watched the crowd lined up to shake her hand and wish her well I thought there could hardly be a wedding anywhere in the country where she isn’t known.

If you’re interested in the titles in the Open Doors series, you can find them here

And for Patricia Scanlan titles, see her Amazon page here

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Dermot Bolger, Pilgrim Poet

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Francis Ledwidge

One day when he was nineteen or twenty, Dermot Bolger left the cracked concrete of Finglas and made his way up the North Road to Slane in search of the ghost of Francis Ledwidge.

Ledwidge, forever 29 thanks to a shell that obliterated his body and his life in July 1917, was a poet of extraordinary potential. Had he survived the carnage of World War One, he would almost certainly be remembered as one of Ireland’s greatest poets. As it is, he is revered only by those who have encountered his poems or learned about his life. Here in his native County Meath he is remembered with equal measures of fondness and sadness as “a helpless child of circumstance.”

When the teenage Bolger arrived in Slane he peered at the cottages on the road, uncertain which one had been the home of the poet. He was subsequently pinned to the hood of a police car by the local sergeant, John Clark, who had received no less than three phone calls from residents anxious about the long-haired Dubliner who was obviously up to no good.

“I’m a  pilgrim!” Bolger cried, and recited two Ledwidge poems to prove it. The sergeant, convinced of his bona fides by this demonstration, not only let him go, but showed him the derelict cottage where the young Ledwidge had lived. The cottage next door was owned by a local artist Liam O’Brion, who gave Bolger a bed for the night in an attic surrounded by canvases and poetic atmosphere. Bolger spent the hours staring into the garden next door that had once, undoubtedly, been worked by the young Ledwidge.

Dermot Bolger told us this tale during the Hinterland Festival in Kells. The little church of St Columba’s was packed and we listened, spellbound, as he told us about Ledwidge’s life and the impact it had had on his own. “He was the James Dean of Irish poets,” Bolger said. “Who knows what he might have achieved if he had lived.”

He read several of Ledwidge’s poems, including my personal favourite, the Lament for Thomas McDonagh:

He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds,
Above the wailing of the rain.

(I have such fondness for the poem, it found its way into a play about 1916 I am writing called Dead Generation. )

Hearing Mr Bolger talk about the sad loss of an Irish poet who died on the battlefields of Belgium, under appreciated because the ‘real’ Irish poets were in the GPO fighting for their country’s independence, and long before he reached his true potential, I was struck by his passion and dedication to Ledwidge’s memory. It reminded me of a conversation I had about ten years ago.

I was working with a woman whose last name was Ledwidge. I asked her if she was related to the poet and she confirmed she was his great-niece.

“Do you have a favourite of his poems?” I asked.

“No. I don’t know any of them.”

“Your family must have some great memories of him.”

“We don’t talk about him.”

Even now, as I recall the conversation, I am struck by the same sense of sadness I felt at the time. It’s not only prophets, but poets, who are without honour among their familiars, it seems. It falls, instead, to the pilgrims, to honour their memory.

Image result for dermot bolger

Dermot Bolger

If you’d like to know more about poet, novelist, and playwright (and pilgrim) Dermot Bolger or his quest to discover Francis Ledwidge, please check out his essay: here


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The Irish Writers Centre at Hinterland

Kate Cunningham Irish Writers Centre

Kate Cunningham

On Friday afternoon, the Irish Writers Association came to the Hinterland Festival in Kells. Events Officer Kate Cunningham talked eloquently about the many benefits the Centre has to offer the beginning, emerging, or professional writer.

The Irish Writers’ Centre which is located in Parnell Square Dublin, has long been the premier resource for Irish writers at every stage of their career. In addition to being an unrivaled source of information, they serve to promote writers, and to offer educational programmes that cover every genre. In short, there is something for writers at every stage of their career.

The IWC has recently expanded to offer classes in County Cavan, something that is exciting to those of us who live in the middle of the country and cannot easily get to Dublin. Programmes and support for Northern Irish writers are also increasingly available. Many of the large crowd who attended Kate’s session were delighted to hear that we can now access a number of the programmes and sessions online.

In addition to offering classes and resources, the Centre provides writing space at the Parnell Square site.

One of the things that seemed of great interest to the Hinterland guests was the Centre’s Mentorship Programme. This is offered by a panel of professional members who are published and experienced authors or industry professionals. They offer one-to-one guidance to intermediate and advanced level writers who seek professional input on their work.

The IWC provides a tiered membership structure, so whether you’re just starting out, or are a bestselling author, there is an option just for you. It’s worth noting that  with membership you get discounts on classes. The more classes you attend, the more the membership pays for itself.

If you’d like to know more about the Irish Writers Centre, you’ll find their website is delightfully comprehensive: Irish Writers Centre

For more on the Hinterland Festival, which continues until 25th June, you’ll find a list of events here,

Finally, if you live in the Kells area and want support for your writing, consider checking out the Kells Writers Group. We meet in the Kells Public Library every Thursday at 6:30pm. Skill levels range from complete beginner to experienced professional. There is no fee for attending.

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The Hinterland Festival Launches in Kells

Following a rewarding four-year association with the Hay festival, Kells in County Meath this year opted to launch an event of its own. The name ‘Hinterland’, organisers say, is, “suggestive of something that is not merely metropolitan, something ‘beyond the pale’, mysterious, imaginative, challenging and, perhaps, just a little provocative.” This gives you an idea of what the many guests and visitors to Kells this year can expect.

Image may contain: textLast night, the festival was officially launched by the Kells Type Trail. This is the 8th year creative direcot Mark Smith has turned Kells into a canvas on which to celebrate lettering as an art form. Each year, a different word is selected and artists dot the town with representations of that word. Last year, in honour of the centeniary of the Easter Rising, the word was ‘Rise’. This year, in recognition of the poetry of Meath-born son and World War One casualty, Francis Ledwidge, the word is ‘Words’.

Seeing how the different artists interpret this word makes a walk around the town a delightful experience. Here are a couple of examples:

Words 11

“Words” on the side of the street outside the Kells Town Hall

Words 21

“Words” in the Market Square

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What Should I Write About?

What Should I WriteOne of the repeated conversations of my childhood went like this:

ME: I’m bored!

MUM: Write something.

ME: What should I write about?

It must have happened a lot because I remember several similar instances.

These days, I don’t often need someone to suggest topics for writing. I usually have at least a couple of projects on the go at any given time. The blog, though, that’s a horse of an entirely different hue. I made myself a list of topics that might be of some use. I’m sharing it with you here in case you find yourself similarly stuck:


Most of the readers of my blog are writers. If you have, or want to have, a blog of your own, then writing about your process, your failures as well as you successes, is an endlessly rich vein of subjects. My list of writing topics includes:


  • Where do you write?
  • Do you use a schedule?
  • What rituals, if any, do you need to employ before you get to work?

The submission process:

  • Revision
  • Producing a compelling final draft
  • writing the cover letter and / or synopsis
  • selecting a journal, publisher, or agent to submit your work

Other Writing Topics:

  • Plot
  • Setting
  • Scenes
  • Foreshadowing
  • Point of view
  • Dialogue
  • Story architecture
  • What novelists can learn from playwrights / short story writers
  • What writers can learn from the other arts — music, painting, sculpture, etc.
  • Themes
  • Language
  • Developing your voice
  • Learning from the Masters
  • Structure
  • Characters
  • Crafting believable heroes and villains
  • Plotting
  • Genre
  • Revisions and rewrites

Topics not directly related to writing include:

  • Reviews
  • Inerviews
  • Developments in publishing
  • Lists (like this blog entry!) can be helpful if you’re stuck for a more in-depth topic
  • Inspiration — the things that get those creative juices flowing
  • Your hobbies or interests
  • Your town or local community
  • Travel
  • Food
  • Bookshops or art galleries

That’s enough for you to be going on with, I think. At one time or another, I believe I’ve covered pretty much every item in this list. Let me know if you have anything to add or if you’d like to post a link to your own blog, feel free. I’d love to check out the competition!


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Richard T Ryan Joins MX’s Editorial Staff

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Rich Ryan

MX Publishing recently announced the welcome news that author Richard T. Ryan has joined Sherlock Holmes publishing giant from the beginning of June as Consulting Editor, bringing over 40 years of editorial experience to the role.

Rich will be helping MX consolidate their position as the world’s leading Sherlock Holmes publishers.

Publisher Steve Emecz says, “We are a social enterprise and Rich is taking this meaty role on a tiny budget which will involve a significant donation of his time. We’re confident his involvement will have a direct impact on two major causes (Happy Life and Stepping Stones).”

A lifelong Sherlockian, Richard Ryan is the author of “The Stone of Destiny: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure,” due out this fall from MX Publishing. He has also written “The Vatican Cameos: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure,” and is currently at work on a third Holmes tale.

Among his other credits are “The Official Sherlock Holmes Trivia Book,” a book on Agatha Christie trivia and the well-received murder mystery “Deadly Relations” that has been produced twice off-Broadway.

He pursued his graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame, where he majored in medieval literature. To this day, he remains a die-hard fan of the Fighting Irish.

An avid reader, he grew up devouring the mysteries of John Dickson Carr and others of that ilk.

He has been involved with newspapers and magazines for nearly 40 years and has spent the better part of the last three decades working for the Staten Island Advance in a variety of editorial capacities. He has also authored two nationally syndicated columns, and his work has appeared in papers all across America.

He has been happily married to his wife, Grace, for 39 years and is the proud father of two children, Dr. Kaitlin Ryan and Michael Ryan.

Richard was kind enough to talk to me last year. Here’s what he had to say:

Hi Richard. It’s great to meet you. I’ve been reading your novel The Vatican Cameos with great pleasure and it’s certainly getting some early buzz. Before we get into that though, tell us a little about yourself.

 I’m a native New Yorker, living in Staten Island with my wife, Grace, and son, Michael. I also have a daughter, Kaitlin, who is getting married in September. I’m a lifelong Notre Dame fan and a voracious reader. Right now, I’m working as a newspaper editor.

 You’re obviously a big mystery fan. In addition to your first Sherlock Holmes novel, you wrote a book on Agatha Christie trivia. I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you who is your favourite fictional detective and why.

 I grew up reading the mysteries of John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie. I really like several of Carr’s detectives, including Henri Bencolin, Sir Henry Merrivale and, of course, Dr. Gideon Fell. I also enjoy Henri Poirot and Miss Marple. However, Holmes will always be my favorite. Although not quite detectives I enjoy the Gabriel Allon character by Daniel Silva and Dan Brown’s Philip Langdon.

 The mystery genre is a long way from your field of study, medieval literature. What is it about the mystery genre that appeals to you?

 So much of medieval literature is based on guesswork and conjecture. You look for clues in the writing as to what the author may have been trying to say and then you try to piece everything together as a coherent whole. If you think about it, it’s really not such a far leap from one to the other.

Although I haven’t finished The Vatican Cameos yet, I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read so far. What was the hardest part of writing the novel for you?

I try to be as accurate as possible in my research, because even though it is fiction, I want it to seem as realistic as possible. This was made doubly difficult because, as you know, the book takes place in two entirely different time periods.

How did you approach your research?

To quote Holmes himself, “I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles.” Researching Victorian England was considerably easier than looking into Renaissance Italy. However, the disciplines and the approach that might be required to research a minor medieval work stood me in good stead as I delved into the history of the papal court and Renaissance art and architecture.

Jack Reacher author Lee Child says The Vatican Cameos is “an extravagantly imagined and beautifully written Holmes story.” High praise indeed. How did that come about, and what was your reaction when you read it?

Among the many hats I have worn at the newspaper was writing a weekly column on home video. Paramount offered me the chance to interview Lee when the film “Jack Reacher” was being released on DVD, and, needless to say, I jumped at the chance. After I finished the book, I contacted him and he gave me some advice about agents and publishing. Then after I signed with MX, I contacted him a second time, and he agreed to read it. He is truly a gentleman and so generous with his time. When I received the email with the quote, I was ecstatic.

Have you read other pastiches, either of Holmes or Agatha Christie’s detectives? Do you have a favourite author among them?

I have read a great many pastiches and I like the Mary Russell stories as well as the author who created that Lady Beatrice character. Her name escapes me for the moment.

(Cheeky beggar… Thank you!) What do you remember about your first introduction to Sherlock Holmes?

 My first serious introduction came when I was at Notre Dame. I saw a business student in my dorm with a book, and I asked what he was reading. It was a one-volume collection of the Canon. I asked if I might borrow it, and he let me. I read several stories that night and went to the bookstore the next day to purchase my own copy. Obviously, it is a love affair that continues to this day.

 What can you tell us about your current work in progress?

 I really don’t like to discuss something that is in progress. So can I tell you what it’s not? It’s not a bi-partite novel like “The Vatican Cameos” because we remain firmly rooted in 1901. I guess the date indicates that it is another Holmes adventure.

 Ooh, intriguing… Who are your heroes, fictional or otherwise?

 I thoroughly enjoy the exploits of Jack Reacher, Bob Swagger, Earl Swagger, Robert Langdon and Gabriel Allon, and the wizard, Gandalf. But my real-life heroes are my father, who passed away many years ago, and my mother, who passed more recently. They instilled in me the work ethic that I have and they taught me that being a good person is more important than anything else. I also owe my love of reading to my mom. But my biggest hero is my wife, Grace, who puts up with my insanity and still finds the strength to encourage me. She is my better half in every sense of the word.


Rich’s first novel will be released by MX Publishing on November 7th.  FRONT COVER

When the papal apartments are burgled in 1901, Sherlock Holmes is summoned to Rome by Pope Leo XII. After learning from the pontiff that several priceless cameos that could prove compromising to the church, and perhaps determine the future of the newly unified Italy, have been stolen, Holmes is asked to recover them. In a parallel story, Michelangelo, the toast of Rome in 1501 after the unveiling of his Pieta, is commissioned by Pope Alexander VI, the last of the Borgia pontiffs, with creating the cameos that will bedevil Holmes and the papacy four centuries later. For fans of Conan Doyle’s immortal detective, the game is always afoot. However, the great detective has never encountered an adversary quite like the one with whom he crosses swords in “The Vatican Cameos..”

It’s available for here.

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When Jane Met Nigella

Jane’s interpretation of Nigella

My friend Jane doesn’t cook. Never has. Thanks to her mother, a woman for whom the culinary arts were as incomprehensible as Euclid, Jane grew up with a lot of misgivings about food. I mean, she eats; naturally, but mostly what other people make.

A few weeks ago, due to a variety of circumstances, she found herself needing to cook. She had a few pots and pans, a moderately stocked larder, and a healthy motivation to learn how to cook something.

Did I mention the needing to eat part?

OK, then.

She’d never really had to cook before. There was always someone around who would do that for her. Usually with an, “Oh, Jane!” as they snatch the wretched pot of goo (JANE: That’s burnt goo!) out of her hand.

She started by making stuff she’s been eating for the past couple of decades. Chilli. Spag Bolognese. Baked potatoes.  She knew how these things were supposed to taste, so it seemed to make sense. The only trouble was she had been told for most of her life that she was doing everything wrong, so you can understand her apprehension.

I started talking to her in the evening on Skype and guiding her through some of the basics. Jane’s initial results were… edible. Well, some of the time. Gradually, though, she started to improve.

Last week I sent her a link to a video of Nigella Lawson cooking something delish–Nigella wouldn’t know what to do with anything that wasn’t delish!–and voila! A star was born.

Jane followed the video step by step and produced what she tells me was a cracking meal. Now, in the space of a few days, she’s begun to experiment. She made the original dish with mackerel; would sardines work as well? Yes! How about tuna? Not so much.

This is not, as you’ve probably noticed, a cookery blog. I mean, I like to cook, but I’m usually planning a story while I’m stirring the soup, and it’s not like I can’t live without truffle oil or wild garlic. Nope, usually I write about, well, writing. You surely didn’t think this time would be any different.

My point is if you want or need to do something badly enough you will learn how. Sometimes you’ll start by copying what you know. If you read romances, you’ll probably write in the same vein. Achievement depends on desire. Do you want it badly enough? If you quite like the idea of being a published author (or cook) but don’t make it a priority well, guess what, you probably won’t ever succeed. At the risk of sounding like your grandmother, you get out of things what you put in.

But if, like Jane, you suddenly discover your motivation, you may well find you’re capable of all sorts of things. You might even cook up a bestseller!

(JANE: Groan!)

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