Old Parish and Helvick

Old Parish and Helvick

This is the Irish south coast, in the nominally Irish-speaking part of Co. Waterford that centres on An Rinn (‘Ring’, which translates as headland or promontory). The road signs are all in Irish, the schools teach through that medium, but most of the people there use English most of the time. Nevertheless if a visitor wants to speak the language, he or she will be accommodated. They all know it and can show it off. In any pub or café the language can typically be overheard.


The Old Parish (Sean Phobal) area, it is locally believed, was the first Christian parish in Ireland, in late Roman times, and indeed this part of the south coast was the first Christian part of the island. Many of the gravestone inscriptions are wholly or partly in Irish.




One of the roads to Helvick Head from Old Parish is known as Sea View or Radharc na mara. Helvick is a place name of obvious Scandinavian origin and the rocky shelf to which the name refers can still be seen beyond where the fishing harbour wall meets the hill.



Cré na Cille – the deadly Irish novel

Cré na Cille – the deadly Irish novel

O Cadhain s&b pb 227062.indd

Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-70) is a name that can be anglicised as Martin Kyne. He was a former IRA prisoner from Connemara who became Professor of Irish at Trinity College Dublin. His 1949 novel Cré na Cille (literally, clay of the church) has been translated into at least half a dozen languages, with two English versions finally appearing in the past five years. It is said the first English attempt, in the Fifties, turned to dust when the young woman hired as translator joined a convent. There have also been stage and radio adaptations and an Irish-language feature film (2007).

The two central characters are the rival sisters Caitríona and Neil (pronounced Nell). Caitríona is dead in a Connemara graveyard but continues to live their feud from beyond the grave. Hence the brilliant conceit but the tragic element, evident from the first chapter, is that Neil took the man Caitríona loved.

Pursuing an ambition to read it in Irish was a proud undertaking in my book, though I was nearly fifty before I got round to it. Before long I got used to the non-standard spelling Ó Cadhain favoured but still had to turn to the dictionary quite often, not being completely familiar with our past customs either. After a hundred pages I hoped Caitríona would be seen yet to have put one or two over on her sister, by way of reprisal. The carry-on at her wake, the treatment of her corpse, is practically sacrilegious, even to a non-believer.

All updates come from the newly buried, though a French pilot arrives after a plane crash and no one can understand French. A hundred and fifty pages in, Caitríona gets her first bit of good news since she was lowered. It seems her previously despised daughter-in-law is a new woman since going over and hammering Neil’s equivalent over an insult and, when Neil tries to intervene, shoving her into the fire.

There is a key section near the middle of Cré na Cille – a passage of criss-crossing accusations of rural stealing and robbing this, that and the other – that performs two non-comic functions. It reminds the reader (a) not to take all that is said here at face value and (b) similarly not to take all that the living Irish say as gospel.

Towards the end of the book I began to wonder nonetheless would the whole prove less than the parts. With fifty pages to go it looked like there would be no climax, as I read a diverting passage of hospital slapstick about the mixing of two patients’ innards. That life goes on above ground seemed to be the overall message but I didn’t want to finish it just feeling sorry for Caitríona.

Nevertheless there is a kind of climax, in the end, when one ghost likens Neil and Caitríona to two pups he once saw watching a dying mule. In stopping the other getting at the mule, the one gets so worked up that it expires but, when the mule itself goes, the other pup just slinks away, leaving it all to the dead one.

agus nach bhfágann ansin ag an gcoileán caillte é.

It thus seems the positive reports of Neil that torment Caitríona have something to them and that she really wasn’t so bad after all… once Caitríona was gone. Otherwise, half the community – above ground – ends up in court and/or prison.

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Head Space : 1999

Head Space : 1999

Twenty years on… from Dublin… from truly the lowest ebb… on a programming course… 😦 … f*ck me, it was some dump.


13th July, Tuesday

The plankton eater was complaining about the pointless questions asked by his neighbour (Hugh). The plankton was eaten for his colon. Gone overboard on health food (including liquid protein) and still he doesn’t look overly healthy.

14th July, Wednesday

Some petty c*nt of an assistant manager put me out of the “staff toilets” in the corridor next to the canteen. I couldn’t believe it when it happened. I’d finished my leak. I didn’t say a word to him in response to “You’re not allowed in here” but just looked at him, washed and dried my hands and left. We’d been told not to react to things like that.

12th August, Thursday

Stalag FÁS: Marcos and the Limerick boys were prevented from driving out to the nearest shop at breakfast time and then Marcos was put out of the staff toilets.

3rd September, Friday

Niall and I are sitting down to breakfast in the canteen when the plankton eater comes over. “I’ve got nits,” he says, straight out, before we take a bite. Niall christened him Nit Boy. Hugh won’t sit upstairs on a double-decker bus. He’s afraid of heights.

6th September, Monday

Went to James’s Street post office this morning but got no rent allowance. They had new computers. Made it more of a pleasure, more of a breeze, for the blonde to tell me there was nothing there. Any question was cut short by telling the customer to go see social welfare. Who are the true parasites? The option is always to f*ck them out of it, for some small satisfaction, but you ration that. What about the day one of the Hitler Youth behind the glass gave the fella called Mustapha the grief about ID? No one else, just the dark-skinned gent. He said he was coming there every week and that he wasn’t a refugee (“I’m not refugee, I’m married here”). Not that the public servant’s words were objectionable but his tone was far out of order, as was his ‘discretionary’ (i.e. discriminatory) cheek. They wouldn’t be long having manners put on them up in the Barn. According to my neighbour, they never give anyone hassle up in Dolphin’s Barn. They wouldn’t dare.

7th September, Tuesday

Nothing there again this morning. This was the extent to which the Nazi with the earring was helpful: he muttered something behind the glass and when I said “What?” he exaggerated the words “Is it your day for signing on?” After a long wait in Bride Street, where I was almost the only Irish person in the queue, I discovered it was only a computer problem. I asked if I could get changed back to Leonard’s Corner post office.

10th September, Friday

A bunch of us were drinking in The Full Shilling in Finglas. Niall was asked to leave after slagging a one-legged biker.

13th September, Monday

Compassion on the bus. I gave Niall and Dara a tenner each and we had a few pints in Bowe’s. Niall was thinking of nine quid out of reach in the bank and Dara was locked out of his flat.

21st September, Tuesday

At breakfast in the canteen, the plankton eater complimented the state of my teeth. He said he’d noticed on the bus the previous afternoon.

Last night I’d fallen asleep when the Algerians underneath came in after midnight and woke me up with their mouthing. They kept it up for an hour and when the guests left, one of the tenants had a ferocious dump. The smell wafted up to me, like a coup de grace. Open both windows. They had been good, quiet boys since the confrontation over the blaring of Rod Stewart a few weeks ago, when I stamped on the floor and one of them came up, giving out in broken English. I had a cold so I wasn’t worried about this Arab hothead. I figured the only way to get through to him was to speak French. He backed down and said sorry, once I’d explained and turned up my radio full blast, as a demonstration.

18th October, Monday

A whirlwind start with Mike, the fat English instructor, at ‘C’, or C++? He described one of my programming attempts as “logical spaghetti”.

19th October, Tuesday

The plankton eater told us he’s been riding a married woman for a couple of years and in an effort to get her to break it off with him he stole £60 from her purse. It didn’t work but it’s not much of an exaggeration to say Gary was in awe.

21st October, Thursday

In the night the winos were fighting in the back alley. When given out to, a woman among them mentioned the (symbolic) fact that a window was between them and the person giving out. A male wino shouted, “Nobody tells me what to do with my woman!” The power of the powerless.

26th October, Tuesday

It got to a stage where (I reckon) Mike was trying not to tear out his hair, while I was trying not to laugh, as he attempted to drum in the structure of a program I couldn’t grasp. I wanted the code, not the (mathematical) philosophy.

27th October, Wednesday

No class due to roofing. Three radio ads are signs of the times:

(a) an appeal for factory workers in Blanchardstown, money spelt out;
(b) the soccer player Paul McGrath on about a plastic surgery clinic;
(c) a hotline for software piracy.

29th October, Friday

A multiple choice exam in Basic 2. 14 from 18 = pass mark. I got 14. Some educated guessing and plain guessing.

2nd November, Tuesday

Cold and bright. No heating due to the roofing. Had a couple of pints in the Bridge with Niall and the plankton eater.

4th November, Thursday

The tool’s equation of maths with fun reminds me of how in school such problems seemed as meaningless as cryptic crossword puzzles. What on earth is the relevance of calculating massive prime numbers to what we’re doing?

10th November, Wednesday

Past the halfway point now. With this thing I feel I’m in the trenches. It’s not helped by this tosser, this smart-arse talking to me like I’m a schoolboy. He’s putting me off learning the blasted language. Life feels full of annoyances. This is what it’s like, tired in the evenings. Walking up through town I saw a city of students. Some buskers on Grafton Street were doing I Shot The Sheriff in the style of Oasis. Some yahoos on the Green were mixing up Brits and Britney Spears in a Spanish guy’s head, explaining the crowd and the limos outside the Fitzwilliam Hotel (re MTV Awards, Thursday) and up on Wexford Street, across from Whelan’s and the Mean Fiddler, an aged-looking Noelle Campbell-Sharp stood in a black skirt and leather jacket talking to some green-jacketed bozos. All I heard while passing was “…really f*cking something. Now let me introduce you to…” One limo was reportedly burnt out on the Northside.

11th November, Thursday

A drunken scumbag landed beside (almost on) me on the bus. Fiddling with a walkman, he said he’d just robbed a car but his mates had driven it away on him.

14th November, Sunday

While my brother was a distant silhouette on a beach I thought about the fact that at twenty-one I couldn’t imagine being thirty but at thirty-five I can easily imagine being fifty.

15th November, Monday

Class abandoned due to lack of heating. Stages of life are only stages but should one worry, getting older, that the chances of better periods lessen? From ‘This will end’ to ‘How will this end?’

21st November, Sunday

Looking for the hoover, Sarah knocked on the door of number nine (top floor). One of those Algerians emerged (scratching his balls) from a haze of dope smoke and a sing-along to camel music. No, they didn’t have it.

30th November, Tuesday

Windy, then wet. Didn’t sleep too well. Still, there was a bit of poetic justice in the end of the day that made my day. Despite having the exam program done for them by Dazza and then keeping it to themselves, the Three Licks still failed, to general delight. Everyone bar Keith failed.

I wonder how long it will be before I lose it with fat, snide Mike. I’d have done it before now if I thought he was worth rearing up on but he just may pester me over the edge soon. He seems to be goading me to quit, to suit himself, but he’ll be the last person I’ll do anything to suit.

This morning on the bus I had to listen to a DCU student who incidentally looked a bit like me, with glasses and cap. I saw what he looked like when I looked around to see who was talking like that. He was from the West and he was pontificating in the manner of a typically ignorant student of some technical subject. The object of his bullshit was a girl who was both Australian and Jewish. He told her that the passing of the Millennium marked two thousand years from the start of “modern civilization”. She was able to point out that the Romans were established long before that and when he turned to the purely Christian thing she countered with the priority of Jewish history. Then he said, “You’re a lapsed Jew, I presume” and (luckily for him) she said, “What’s ‘lapsed’?” He had been to America so of course he knew everything. He knew nothing, except that “California rocks”, and I wanted to shoot him.

2nd December, Thursday

Dazza told Keith he thought he’d have to extend the course (on a day when he did forty-five minutes’ teaching).

Went to see Morrissey at the Olympia. Seventeen songs. When he threw his (first) sweaty t-shirt into the crowd it arrived back on the stage after a few minutes. (“When I threw it in I didn’t expect it back. Really, I insist.”) When he sang “Do you care how animals die?” I’d swear I heard a chorus of “No!

4th December, Saturday

Frost. Tour guide to T. and V. A good day was had, in the cold, bright capital. First time in the Cellar Bar. T. told me his junkie half-brother survived a shotgun blast, which blew a hole in him, but died later of an overdose. The Yugoslavian Mafia have now flooded Oslo with good, cheap heroin.

7th December, Tuesday

Having had a bad night (hot, aching, dizzy, with laboured breathing) I was surprised this morning to find the oncoming ‘flu’ gone. Cold twilights leaving Finglas. The women on Camden Street looked well, wrapped up but feeling the cold. It made them more alive. You could see it in their eyes, in their faces.

8th December, Wednesday

As well as the cold now, the wind is up and the rain is down. Some vessel is missing off Galway in the storm. Since last night I’ve had a pain in my left shoulder, roughly speaking. Nothing’s gone.

14th December, Tuesday

I was only words away from a successful cog at the telephone program test. I had a hard copy of the program inside my jacket but made a simple error copying it and the program wouldn’t run. I’d never have seen the obvious mistake.

15th December, Wednesday

Which word is more accurate, “lonely” or “alienated”? When the majority of women seem to dream of timber floors and freezers big enough to hold a man, I cling to the latter term. You know the way they think when you pass them on the street because you can hear them talking into their mobiles.

The Boys from Ballymun

The evening bus picked them up on Ballymun Road. At first they seemed to be talking about an ominously immediate situation like shoplifting or mugging. The more sober and coherent of the two made two points.

(a) He’d batter anyone who decided to mix it
(b) It only takes a minute to get away

When they were talking about how much “a fix” is these days (£20) I thought ‘That’s cheap heroin’ but they were on about prostitutes. The same guy said he got one for £15, when he was a truck driver. He used to park the truck down on Benburb Street and do the business. “You wouldn’t go down there now,” said his more out-of-it companion (who was carrying something in a grey bag). Reason? “They’re all riddled with AIDS.” The first one said he’d had a fourteen-year-old down there who’d been abused by her father since she was six, “until he put her out on the game”. They said they’d roast that man on a small fire. “I’d keep adding coal to it and his screams would be heard for a thousand years,” said the main talker, the leader. Then he extrapolated.

You see some people with their kids and they’re f*ckin’ bootin’ the bollix out of ’em and punchin’ ’em in the head. I mean, what do these people be tinkin’?

They said that Ballymun’s kids had gone quiet “because their fathers told ’em ‘Watch out for him’ and ‘Stay away from him’ and so on”. They were scared, in other words.

But Finglas is still a wild place. The kids are into it, turnin’ over coppers’ cars with coppers inside in ’em.”

Their last earwig-able subject was driving. On being told he couldn’t drive the number two said he’d driven when he was pissed. Then the leader told his own parable.

This is what I did. I went and bought a car off the knackers and I got me ould fella to drive me up to the industrial estate. By nine o’clock that night I was a f*cking rally driver. I was fifteen.”

Those two were an education. And these are only the bits I could make out from their conversation, while the clicks of the lighter signalled joint-rolling was going on (“Put in more soup”).

16th December, Thursday

Ran off a hard copy of the doctoral thesis. 190 pages. I need to go over that with a pen in order to come up with a total draft for January. I could have done it by now but who would look at it over Christmas? Who will anyway?

I’ve addressed a letter to the customer complaints section of Dublin Bus on Upper O’Connell Street.

Since last July I have had to use the 19/19A service on a daily basis and in general the impression I have formed is that it is an utter disgrace… This morning I was the last passenger on a single-decker 19A that turned on to Cedarwood Road. The bald, bespectacled driver stopped the bus and disembarked, saying he’d be back in a couple of minutes. Given that the terminus for the 19A is McKee Road, for which I had paid, what really made me lose my temper was the fact that the same driver had pulled the same stunt at the same point a couple of months earlier. On that occasion he said he wanted to go into a shop to get his breakfast so I said it was okay, got off and walked up Sycamore Road. This time, I got off and asked why he wouldn’t do his job – with a few expletives added, admittedly – and he then gave the excuse that he wanted to go to the toilet. Colleagues of mine who use the same route have had similar experiences with this individual. Employees like him and another individual who happens to live on Sycamore Road and who has been witnessed taking breaks in his own house during shifts only add to the common impression that many of your drivers treat the public with contempt.

Even a fellow driver parked on McKee Road confessed that the last chap indicated was taking the piss.

22nd December, Wednesday

Town is mad. It would be a good day to punch a few people’s lights out. I lost it a bit with some screeching little slappers on a bus stuck dead in traffic.

23rd December, Thursday

Did my bit of shopping. Got a poster for Bela Lugosi’s Dead in Final Vinyl. At the end of the night Dermot bought a voucher so I could have a lap dance in Strings. I declined the offer.

29th December, Wednesday

Before the end of the year let me note the last strange thing told to me by the plankton eater, of a morning in the canteen. He said he saw a girl electrocuted at a rave in a big squat in London, in Willesden Green. She was heating a hash knife at a cooker when she let the knife touch the ring. Dodgy wiring meant she was blown back against the wall, dead. He said that three fellas tripping with him at the time started crying and that they weren’t right for days. When I asked him what he did, he said he just left, along with everyone else.

30th December, Thursday

George Harrison was stabbed by an intruder but his wife managed to knock the guy out. I hope nothing takes to the air in Russia (Y2K). The Finns have stocked up with iodine tablets.

Law & Order in Dublin

Law & Order in Dublin



I got burgled on 24 June. The Algerian refugees in the basement had been fiddling with a satellite dish in the back yard and helpfully left a ladder standing against the wall. Not noticing the ladder, I left a window open that warm Saturday night and the little f*cker, a teenager, climbed up and in. He passed a lot of items – a few CDs, all my tapes, a tape recorder, a reading lamp, remote control, phone charger, some foreign coins, a cap, a couple of pairs of jeans and an old pair of black shoes – out through the window to an accomplice who must have vanished into the night upon hearing that something had gone wrong. For some reason they didn’t take my passport or overcoat, which were the most valuable things there. Not a proud boast. The TV set wouldn’t have fitted through the window. The kid did find a spare set of a friend’s keys on the table and he got greedy, entering the hallway in order to explore other enticing possibilities, upstairs.

The chap who lived directly above me was watching Alien at the time and got an extra fright on hearing a rattle through his keyhole. He was a bit of a nutter (in his own words, he “out-aggressed” the visitor) and he even took a hammer off him before telling one of the other tenants to call the police. I arrived back to find cops in the hallway in their caps and yellow jackets. I thought it was quite amusing until I saw my place had been trashed, with books and papers everywhere. At least he hadn’t ripped the posters. It took me until five in the morning to put it all back together. I sobered up in the brightness and ended up throwing out a lot of stuff, like in a spring clean. The cops came back and took away stuff to be finger-printed, like a black glove, for instance. We were now in OJ territory. They also gave me the number for Victim Support. I didn’t phone.

On 25 October, the scene was the room they called Court 55 at the juvenile court in Smithfield. I was sworn in, holding the Bible in my right hand and repeating the ‘whole truth and nothing but the truth’ stuff like I was on TV. I nearly laughed. The prosecuting officer – still only a trainee garda – had told me what to say i.e. that I’d come home in the early hours to find my place had been ransacked and that the Gardaí had taken the accused into custody, having found him on the premises and having found on him some foreign currency and a bunch of keys. There was no point in mentioning the stuff that was gone.

He then produced a brown envelope full of French and Norwegian coins and asked if they were mine. I presume they are. The solicitor for the accused jumped in. You just said you presume they are yours. I just smiled. I know what you’re getting at and it’s an obvious question to ask, I suppose. Look, I don’t even know if money can be fingerprinted and I can’t prove to you scientifically that that’s my money but I believe it is, to the best of my knowledge. He smiled and then he came over to the bench. There he, the cop and I inspected the money, pushing the coins around for a while until I was told I could step down. I swept the coins into my hand. I presume I can take these? The judge was smiling too at this stage. I’ll make an order about them later. Then the solicitor said it was all moot as his client had been wrongly arrested on a Section 4 or something. After a short deliberation the judge said she did not like technicalities appearing in her court but unfortunately she had to throw the case out.

Another officer then entered and took the stand – it was a seat, actually – while the accused still sat in the dock, with his hands in his pockets, like he was behind a school desk. His tired and worn mother looked on from the back of the room. This garda said he’d arrested the lad for causing hassle in a shopping centre, for threatening to punch the head off a security man and for telling the officer to f*ck off, after which there had been “a bit of a scuffle”, in the officer’s words. The defending solicitor started pestering him. It sounds very like you lost control of the situation. I was looking at a man in a grey suit who sat beside the judge. He was looking at the lawyer like he was a piece of shit. It was hard not to laugh.

The officer flatly denied this assertion, insisting he’d only had some trouble getting the cuffs on him. The judge took the cop’s side, saying the lad had got enough of a warning and that the officer was only acting like a trained officer of the law, unlike a mere shopping centre security man, for instance. Given the accused had already been bound over to keep the peace, the judge gave him three months, suspended, plus some probation, and told him he was very lucky. I still felt like laughing. The judge thanked me as we filed out. Moral: what was the point of all this?

A Writing Life

A Writing Life

Chuck Ross submitted a freshly typed copy of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1969 National Book Award winner, Steps, to fourteen publishers and thirteen agents as an unsolicited manuscript. All twenty-seven failed to recognise it and all twenty-seven rejected it.”

The Cynic’s Handbook, p. 63

Apart from a streak of cynicism like that shown by Chuck Ross, what’s really required for a writing life? Anybody that’s interested will be familiar with the usual advice from how-to books and features: try to write something every day, get an agent and be prepared for all the rejection slips. To my mind, though, it would be much better if all those books and advisers started off with the following quotation. It doesn’t matter how pretentious or down-to-earth the writing ambition is. We all think we have something to say and we want the world to hear it.

“The creative artist seems to be almost the only kind of man that you could never meet on neutral ground. You can only meet him as an artist. He sees nothing objectively because his own ego is in the foreground of every picture. (…) If he is a writer, he tends to associate only with other writers and with the various parasitic growths which batten on writing. To all these people literature is more or less the central fact of existence. Whereas to vast numbers of reasonably intelligent people it is an unimportant sideline, a relaxation, an escape, a source of information and sometimes an inspiration. But they could do without it far more easily than they could do without coffee or whiskey.”

– Raymond Chandler

If you can stand that much detachment, you then have some questions to ask yourself. For example, would you really like to spend most of your time, when you’re out of the house, attending literary lunches and book festivals, seeing the same kinds of faces, hearing the same conversations and answering the same old questions? Would you cope with sitting for hours in bookshops, waiting to sign something, anything? Could you take it if a customer finally came up and you lifted your pen and then the person only asked if the bookshop had a toilet? Even prize-winning scribblers have endured that… and worse.

Right now I’d like you to try and see the writing life from the point of view of a witness to a couple of literary bigwigs in live action. In this case, I was only present to help a book dealer friend get stuff signed. In 2006, in Listowel in Kerry, the Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee made a rare festival appearance. It was hot enough in the hotel function room already but his first reading – a piece about agri-tourism in an arid region of South Africa – did not encourage the will to live. It was hardly accidental when audience applause filled a gap between sheets of paper, when he was slow to turn a page. Next Coetzee read from his then work in progress (“Diary 2005”). In other words, these were his musings from the year before. He seemed to be preoccupied by George W. Bush, as many people were at the time, I suppose.

The next day, in the hotel, John Banville worked the same crowd with some dry self-deprecation. When a woman near the front got up and left without a word he felt obliged to ask, “Was it something I said?” The only time he smiled was when he quoted something he’d written at the age of twelve. I wondered if it was sheer coincidence then, or just a writerly dig, when he mentioned he might have sold the kiddie stuff to the University of Texas in Austin – the place where Coetzee had studied, according to the festival programme.

By then it was well into question time and many present were no longer listening. Some of the elderly were dozing in the heat, while the people sitting by the windows had already been diverted by an incident on the racecourse, just across the river, where a horse ambulance had to be called to the scene. Banville is known to ask, “Why do we do it?” and “Certainly not for the money” is one of his answers but, of all the people there that day, my dealer pal at least was in it for the extra money that the writer’s signature would bring.

I was there to carry up half the large stack of books. To lessen the bad impression, in other words, but, assuming the writer got paid for his appearance, why would anyone in their right mind have been there otherwise, especially on a hot day? The most sensible answer, to my knowledge, comes from Bret Easton Ellis, who said he only went to such events as an unknown because he wanted to make contacts. Evidently he could stand the bullshit. For getting involved in such stuff is, in the end, a matter of temperament.

When does a writer first become an unknown? It’s when he or she decides to write. In my case, the age was seventeen and the genre was poetry. At eighteen, I got my first rejection slip. It came from the old Irish Press newspaper, in early 1983, the year I started keeping a diary. Later, the most interesting period of my younger life came between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-six, when I wrote diaries about, among other things, my adventures in various jobs in Belfast, Dublin and London. A variety of jobs is good for a writer, as it is good for any person, but the point of such reminiscing is that as late as 2012 I was still fussing with those diaries, thinking there’s a novel, a book there, somewhere.

A Hollywood lawyer called Fred Leopold once said real people as characters in films can have lattes and muffins but cannot say, “Let’s go and have sex in the bushes” and you may get positive comments from traditional publishers about your writing about your own life but, unless that life is a horror story and/or a triumph of the human spirit, nobody else will publish it.

Then you may be tempted to become your own publisher. After all, it’s a long-established practice in the music business, with no stigma of vanity attached. New technology has made even paper book production cheaper – no printer should manage to con you into paying for printing plates any more, for instance – so you shouldn’t have to risk your life savings on your masterpiece either, not least because you now have the option of e-books.

So, what kind of writer are you? If you manage to restrain your urge to tell your whole life story, you might pick a subject that allows you to express your view of the world in a way that just might possibly be of interest to others.

Another key question is, if you are a writer, is that all you are? Now we are getting down to the business of books. According to Samuel Johnson, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. I first got into self-publishing in 2002 but mention of that year means a digression about protecting one’s interests. It was then that I had to act on the upshot of one of many false dawns. There is never any shortage of what Samuel Beckett called “discourteous bastards who won’t let you know where you stand” so let’s talk for a while about silence.

In 2000 I submitted a play script to a Tony-Award-winning theatre company (i.e. Druid) in Ireland. Then one of the company’s representatives asked to meet me in Dublin, in April 2001. At this meeting the chap described the script as like a middle-class version of British TV’s The Royle Family and he said they wanted to do it later that year. At the same time, though, my driving instructor – he was an actor – warned me not to expect too much from that quarter and he was right. In March 2002 I got back in touch.

“You may rest assured of the lasting impression made by the lack of courtesy shown me by you and your company. I’d ask for my script back only I couldn’t see the point, given that an e-mail costs less than the price of a stamp and I haven’t received even that minimum after almost a year. Such casual, arrogant rudeness may seem to cost little or nothing when dealing with someone who is unknown and without the influence that can command prudent good manners. That would be a short-sighted view. Whatever fortunes rise and fall in the future, the fact that I was misled and shabbily treated will remain uppermost in my mind.”


In the end the excuse was they hadn’t the money and so I didn’t make my dramatic writing debut there. I finally got another play, called Happy Nights, professionally produced, in both senses of the word, by another Irish company (the late Red Kettle) in 2007. Based on a real-life break-in at Samuel Beckett’s country cottage in 1961, when thieves stole his wine and even his old underpants, this short play imagined two tramps burgling their creator’s house. John Hurt showed up and he liked it but nothing grew out of it afterwards. But what really could have come of it, theatrically or financially? Of sixteen new plays by established writers that were put on in London’s West End in 2005, only two made any money.


At other times, the silence can be sinister as well as discourteous. In late 2007 I submitted a proposal for a TV history documentary, backed by extensive research, to an Irish production company that took it up with enthusiasm. For a year or so I thought I was in the loop. Then silence descended again, due to funding issues, I thought, until I discovered by accident that the thing had been commissioned and was in production. Legal advisers were then called in and happily the project soon got put back on the rails, contractually. Plus I got paid, even if I had to pay a lawyer out of that. The legal lesson was that copyright isn’t just about plagiarism, it also covers adaptation, and it was nice to win one for a change.


Anyway, let’s get back to self-publishing: in 2002 I had a couple of partners and we were all in it for the money. By the way, if possible you should avoid collaborators who don’t contribute to improving your material. Otherwise, the only partners worth having for paper books are your printer, your wholesaler and your media contacts, if any. Wholesalers are useful for getting your book to places you cannot get to yourself but don’t rely on them to flag your product to booksellers. If a wholesaler takes it on, your book will appear on a list of titles and it’s up to the shops to spot it and ask, “Um, what’s this?”

The original idea – not mine – was to write a series of history books about the Irish in America, with each volume covering a different Irish county. I wrote the text for four of these books in what we called the Journeys in America series. These covered Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Clare. Two of them – the Cork and Waterford books – made a modest profit, selling over 2,000 copies between them, while the other two were an expensive waste of time despite some good reviews, such as in the Irish Times, where “innovative and useful” was the verdict.

Our venture, High Table Publishing, was conscientious about administrative matters – such as getting a tax number and registering a business name – but we lacked experience in the book trade. There are many books about Dublin and the population of that city doesn’t care too much about its history in the first place, so printing 2,000 copies of Dublin Journeys in America was an exercise in cultural futility. Less than 250 were sold and I ended up depositing many of them in charity shops in the city, just to shift some boxes.

When it came to writing about Clare, geography came into play. I left Dublin for Waterford on the south coast in 2004 and found I could even sell my books in supermarkets there, and in Cork, but Clare turned out to be simply too far away. Our wholesaler had in the meantime lost interest. After a while it wasn’t a new title any more and it certainly wasn’t Harry Potter. We had also found out the shops at Clare’s many heritage sites were a state-owned brick wall so the Clare book was doomed, logistically. Three-quarters of 1,000 copies still sit in their boxes.

Nonetheless if you’re still confident and determined and you go ahead with your idea, don’t be mean with free copies to the media. It’s a hit-and-miss approach but it’s unavoidable. Otherwise, you will probably know enough about the world already to assume a degree of critical stupidity. It’s less likely that you will fail to assume critical fairness but remember that the critic almost certainly hasn’t picked up your book as a fan. It is work, to be done in a hurry, and it is your tough luck if you get a smart-arse on top of that.


When it came out in 2010, the then deputy editor of the Irish Independent called The Cynic’s Handbook “smart, funny and illuminating” but sales were neither good nor bad. In the meantime I’ve continued to get out of the house and make a living and maintain the discipline of writing things that other people can understand.

The most recent project that made it to this world was Fiddlers Cross, a film about a new banker in town, making his name, scorching the earth around distressed loans. After another busy day working the guillotine for his employers, he heads down to a local pub to unwind. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it, someone with ambition, and now he needs something stronger than fishing. Silence descends when he walks in past the creaking door. Then, through a random act of kindness from a fellow stranger, with whom he finds he shares a love of angling, our banker turns up a further business opportunity. It will involve a touch of moonlighting but, if he plays his cards right, he’s in for a major bonus. First he needs to borrow some cash that’s just resting in the vault and that no one will miss between two working days.

Starring Gerry O’Brien of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, King Arthur, The Tudors and Father Ted, this short film was the work of first-time director Michael McMahon, with whom I wrote the script. It won first prize in the Best Screenplay category at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in August 2014.

November 2016