Is there moss on my head?

Writers, Writing and Reading.

I read recently that Frank Shovlin is writing a biography of John McGahern, which is good news for all fans of the Leitrim writer, although it must be said that he will have a hard time finding anything new to say about McGahern, as John himself had ploughed that furrow diligently. Still, Shovlin did a superb job of editing the correspondence of McGahern in 2021, which I have just finished reading.

For my recent birthday I asked for ‘The Letters of John McGahern’, which runs to over 800 pages. This was a more interesting read than any novel; reading the Leitrim writers thoughts, opinions and queries as expressed to friends, fellow writers, publishers etc, is a journey through the fraught life of one of our great novelists. It comes as a surprise that in fact he only wrote six novels, but of course he wrote many short stories and an absorbing Memoir.

As always one thing led to another, and when I realised that I had only read half of McGahern’s output, I decided to make good the deficiency, so I bought one of his unread books on Kindle, a used copy of another, and a new edition of another from my friends at Kenny’s.

When I finished the Letters I started on the novel, The Leavetaking, which is quite short, then started rationing myself to one short story a day. As McGahern is renowned for the brilliance of his short stories I wanted to try to analyse as I went, to see if I could learn anything that would help me in my efforts to improve my own writing.

The Letters are an eyeopener; John was very caring and kind to his friends, bur spared no one’s blushes when it came to his opinions about literature. Although his views were always sincerely held and without malice, they were not always kind. He dismissed Iris Murdoch’s work as poor writing, but most surprising are his comments in his last letter to Paul Muldoon about the quality of his friend Seamus Heaney’s poetry, his comments are surprising, to say the least. He was being treated for cancer at the time so maybe the treatment affected his judgement, we’ll never know.

McGahern was lucky in as much that his dreadful father and unhappy childhood provided him with a lifetime’s supply of material for his life as a writer, and it can’t be denied that he extracted every ounce of pain and sorrow from his family history. Despite the many cruelties he suffered he always bore himself with dignity and courage, as befitting one of our greatest writers.

Having read most of his short stories and a few more novels, I have now spent so much time in Leitrim, in McGahernland, where the sun rarely shines and where the rain never stops and dampness is a constant companion, I now feel that I have moss growing on my upper extremities.



The Irish language has a delicate way of saying something is back to front, we say it’s  ‘tóin ar aghaidh’, or arse about face. I have made a habit all my life of doing things out of sequence. For instance, most people get an education which prepares them for life, then they start working,  I did it the other way round. When I retired from work I then went to Maynooth University in search of an education. The ordering of my life though was outside my control at the time, most men of my generation didn’t get even to secondary school.

When I was studying for my degree in Irish I came across the memoirs of Ernest Blythe and enjoyed reading them. A few years later I took a vagary ( or a figary as my mother called it) and decided to translate them into English. This took about a year.

When I had completed this task I decided to write my own memoir. This also took the best part of a year, as I am a two-finger typist, or at best maybe three fingers. Then I had another brainwave, it occurred to me that I should write my life story in the first official language, so off we go again, as Gaeilge.

Now these two enterprises, Blythe’s story and my own infinitely less interesting one probably contain a couple of hundred thousand words, all laboriously hammered out with two fingers; I won’t count the many, many essays I laboriously wrote, in two languages, while studying in Maynooth.

Now here’s the thing; three weeks ago I was struck by another ‘figary’ and decided to learn to type. I found a brilliant app online and am happy with my progress. But it could be said that the cart was definitely in front of the horse.

Sitting in the garden the other day drinking coffee, I remarked to the light of my life that I found it strange that if I failed to put a capital letter at the start of a sentence while writing on my phone, it automatically changes the letter to upper case. Why, I wondered, did this not happen on my computer? Why did Microsoft Word not offer this service, thus saving me the bother of having to use one of my three typing fingers to press the ‘Shift’ key at the start of each sentence, hundreds, maybe thousands of times on each document.

So I googled it. And guess what, it is there, it was there all the time, it just hadn’t been activated.

So now I can ignore the shift key, forget capitals and let the software do the work for me. But the big question is now, will I have the opportunity to make use of this great labour saving technology in a substantial way? Will I get to do much more writing? Who knows? But I did use my newly acquired skills to type this piece, so the effort has not been entirely in vain. Follow your ‘figaries’.


There is a lovely expression in Irish, amadán críochnaithe, an utter fool. Many times during the course of my life I have resigned myself to the fact that I fit comfortably into that category. It gives me no pleasure to admit this, although my foolishness is somewhat mitigated by some of the good decisions I have made during my better moments.

Many years ago I was a heavy drinker, but we won’t go into that as the wasp said looking into the pint of stout. One morning I awoke with the mother and father of hangovers, my head pounding, my stomach heaving, but I had to go to work, so I got out of bed, showered, had a cup of instant coffee and a cigarette and headed for work; delicate doesn’t begin to describe it, I put on my sunglasses and minced my way to the bus stop.

The conductor smiled broadly as he gave me my change, ( yes it’s that long ago). I noticed his smile lingered as he made his way back to his post beside the driver’s cab. It was still there as I approached the door to get off. I attributed his good humour to a naturally sunny disposition.

I stopped at a newsagents near the Abbey Theatre to buy my Irish Times. The woman behind the counter gave me a warm, beaming smile when I paid her. Two happy people, not bad I thought, and the day is still young.

The usher on duty in the foyer greeted me warmly, a man not noted for his amiability. I was hoping that our director wouldn’t be too nitpicky today, all I wanted was a quiet, stress-free session to get me through to the break, when I could have a ham sandwich and a pint.

On my way to the toilet I popped my head into the kitchen and asked Margaret, our lovely tea lady if she could make me a coffee. She didn’t say a word but acknowledged the request with a winning smile.

As I was washing my hands in the toilet I was startled when I looked in the mirror and saw someone odd looking back at me. There was one bloodshot eye staring menacingly back at me, the other one was still concealed behind the darkened lens; there was only one lens in my sunglasses.

I was slightly disappointed to realise that the friendly demeanour I had encountered all morning during my trip to work had been caused, not by a sudden improvement in the general feeling of goodwill in the Irish people, but by my own bizarre appearance.


Serendipity: the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. (Coined by Horace Walpole, 1754)

I finished reading an excellent biography of Sylvia Plath yesterday, Sylvia Plath by Linda W. Wagner-Martin. In it she tells of a visit by Sylvia and her husband Ted Hughes to Connemara, where they stayed with the poet Richard Murphy in his house in Cleggan; the visit was not a happy one, their marriage was in deep trouble by this stage.

Today I was having lunch in the sunshine in our garden and remembered Murphy’s own splendid memoir, The Kick and wondered if there was an index in it where I might learn more about the visit of the two famous poets to the small Irish fishing village. There was no index, but I leafed through it, looking for approximately the right year in the early sixties.

I found it and imagine my delight when I discovered a very detailed and impartial account of Sylvia and Ted’s few days in Cleggan, their visit on his boat to Inishboffin and how they reacted when he took them to visit Thoor Ballylee and Coole Park. Ted left Connemara a few days later without saying a word to their host and Sylvia left shortly afterwards, leaving a very relieved Richard Murphy behind her.

Last week I ordered a biography of Ted Hughes from Kenny’s, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life and am looking forward immensely to the poetry and another account of the turbulent marriage of the very troubled Plath and of the source of much of her unhappiness, Ted Hughes, one of the great poets if the 20th century.



Once the learner of a language has acquired an interest in that language, the next requirement is a good bilingual dictionary; then it becomes necessary to find out how the nuts and bolts all fit together, so a grammar textbook becomes a necessity. In 2005 I started with an English language primer ‘Teach Yourself Irish’ which I found to be simple, clear and comprehensive. Then when I had started studying for a diploma in Irish in Maynooth University I bought ‘Cruinnscríobh na Gaeilge’, another excellent beginner’s guide to a very difficult tongue. Some of the elements that learners have difficulty with is the VSO* system, as opposed to the SVO of the English language, which is simpler. Inflection of words also complicates matters and having two genders doesn’t help, but some languages, Russian for instance, has three.

Irish is the oldest vernacular language after Greek, so learning Old Irish entailed a great deal of hard work but a lot of pleasure, and no small amount of pride in the achievements of our ancestors, who created a literature of great distinction shortly after the coming of Christianity in the 5th century brought writing to Ireland, literature which is highly regarded and prized wherever great art is appreciated. So several good textbooks were required to help my studies in Old Irish.

But it was in the study of Modern Irish that my magpie tendency came to the fore. I love old books and so, among the practical grammar books to help me with my studies, I also collected a few old curios, designed to help and encourage previous generations. Shortly after Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) was founded in 1894 they brought out a series of small handbooks to try to arrest the decline of Irish, which Douglas Hyde and other far-seeing people saw as imminent. The booklets were written by Rev. Eugene O’Growney and sold in their thousands; my copy says on the cover ‘Five hundred and second Thousand’. The editions I have date from 1918 and cost sixpence. I have a couple of school text-books from the thirties and forties, printed in the old typeface with its own distinctive lettering, with dots over letters to denote lenition. One of the best is a very small booklet written by the playwright Mairéad Ni Ghráda, which consists of just 48 pages, 24 leaves, but it is a gem. These books are not old enough to be antiquarian or rare enough to be valuable, but I treasure them nevertheless.

Doing a quick count, I find I have just under twenty grammar books of various types and styles, and if I had absorbed even a hundredth part of their contents, I would be a happy man. Alas, buying a rule book does not transfer the knowledge therein to the owner’s brain, however eager he or she may be. But we’ll go on learning, the journey is worth it.


*VSO= Verb, Subject, Object.

SVO= Subject, Verb, Object.

The Treasury

The Treasury

Recently I bought the ‘Concise ENGLISH-IRISH Dictionary’ the latest addition to the small but important list of dictionaries dealing with the Irish language. The book weighs in at a mighty 3kg and has nearly 2000 pages and is a wonderful source to explore the riches of our native language. So impressed was I that I began to wonder if there was a collective noun to describe a collection of dictionaries, as in ‘a flamboyance of flamingos’ or a ‘drift of swans’, as the collective noun can often be as beautiful as the articles they describe, but I failed to find one. So I decided that a ‘Treasury’ of dictionaries seemed appropriate. When I looked up ‘Treasury’ in my thesaurus to find a synonym I found ‘thesaurus’, I had come full circle.

I have print dictionaries covering six languages: Modern Irish, Old Irish, (I count both as a single language), English, French, Russian, Latin, Welsh, and sundry phrase books, all bought when I found myself interested in a particular language. My interest in Welsh began when I was 75 but foundered after a short period of study as I found that the ability to retain new spelling systems decreases alarmingly as one’s age increases, but if a language has been learnt earlier in life the brain finds it easier to recall the correct sequence of letters in a word. For instance, I find that I have retained a reassuring amount of Russian vocabulary and spelling, probably because I started learning the language when I was still only in my forties. But I find I have to rely more and more on the Ó Dónaill Irish dictionary when writing in Irish, partly I suppose because, although I had a fairly good basic familiarity with the language from my days with the Christian Brothers in Primary school, the orthography (spelling) and script have changed since then, and I didn’t really start to study Irish seriously until I was in my mid-sixties., after I had retired from the Abbey Theatre.

One of the treasures on my bookshelf is my copy of Dinneen’s Irish-English dictionary; ‘Being a thesaurus of the words, phrases and idioms of the modern Irish language’, which dates back to 1927, being an enlarged version of the book first printed in 1904. It is printed in the old Cló Gaelach, with lenition indicated by a dot, the ‘séimhiú’, rather than the letter h and employs the lovely old lettering as opposed to the Roman type. As this was the type in use when I was going to school in the forties and fifties it presents no problems at all for me, although younger people may struggle with the lower case ‘s’ and ‘r’ letters.

Dinneen also shows the breadth of possible meanings contained in Irish words. For instance, the word ‘gaoth’ can mean: subtle, wise, prudent; a dart, a shooting pain; an inlet of the sea, a strand stream left at low water; wind, air, a draught of air or wind; a whizz, vanity, idle talk; a glimpse, a hint, a suggestion; nothing. He also of course gives examples of expressions which give a context to the various meanings which can be constructed using the word.

I think Treasury is a very accurate description of any dictionary worthy of the name.

The Tale of a Cat.

About fifteen years ago Finola arrived home from a visit to her friend Deirdre bearing a cardboard box. Air holes had been cut in the box, to allow the kitten within to breathe. Our dog Bran was highly suspicious of the box and its mysterious contents and barked loudly at the intruder. Colm, our eldest son, suggested that taking the kitten out of the box and letting Bran see it might allay his suspicions, as indeed it did. He seemed happy enough to accept the kitten, as this was not the first feline to share our house with him. He stopped barking and settled down now that the answer to Schrodinger’s paradox of quantum mechanics  had been solved to his satisfaction.

We called the kitten Sweeney, as this was the custom in our house. My sister Muriel had been married to Andy Irvine of Sweeney’s Men, so she called their cat Sweeney. She later gave a kitten to Eamon Morrissey, who in turn gave one of her kittens to us. We too called her Sweeney. But that line died out eventually.

Our new Sweeney was an aloof cat; she did not make friends easily and did not wear her heart on her sleeve. She grudgingly accepted petting and signs of affection. I felt that she thought she had come down in the world by being taken from the lovely leafy marine resort that is Howth, to the less salubrious environs of D15, and that she regarded the two baskets in the garage and her own armchair and chaise longue in the living room as her entitlement and the many choices of cat food and other delicacies as no more than she deserved. Her haughty demeanour caused me to add to her name the sub-title ‘Eva Braun’ (Hitler’s mistress)

Recently she has been unwell, so we took her to the vet. On hearing the symptoms and giving her the once over she outlined a few courses of action: one set of tests cost about   € 500, the other menu, which included a colonoscopy, cost about € 700. This might lead to chemo-therapy if the results of the tests proved positive for cancer.

This week our very kind vet did an ultra-sound and took a sample of the growth that had been revealed. We will have the biopsy report next week. The vet mentioned in the gentlest possible way all the probable outcomes of the case, up to and including euthanasia. She gave Sweeney an injection of steroids to tide her over, and some medicines for us to administer to her.

We took our cat home and she headed out to her usual sunny but sheltered spot in the back garden. A few hours later I opened the back door and found the dismembered remains of a sparrow on the mat; Sweeney had practiced some euthanizing herself; Briseann an dúchas tré shúilibh an chait, mar a déarfá.(Breeding breaks out through the eyes of a cat)

The vet reckoned that one way or the other Sweeney hasn’t got too long to go. We are not going to inflict enemas and needles and chemo-therapy and long periods in a strange environment on our fifteen year old family member; she will stay here with us, lying out in the sun, being spoiled, and when the time is right we will ask our kind vet to come to the house and send her to sleep, in her familiar place. She deserves no less.


One of the delights of Perth is King’s Park, within walking distance of the city centre, and corresponding roughly in size to our own Phoenix Park. Mind you, with the Bougainvillea in flower, cockatoos and kookaburras singing in the trees and the temperature in the mid-thirties, it doesn’t really remind you of the Phoenix Park.

The main road through King’s Park is lined with tall, elegant gum trees, which provide just enough shade to make a walk in the park comfortably cool. At the base of every tree is a small plaque, maybe a foot long by eight inches high, and fixed in the ground by a spike coming out of the bottom of the plaque, no other form of fixing is visible. Each plaque bears the name of an Australian soldier killed in the First World War, and they were erected by the soldier’s families. They are incredibly sad, these bronze plaques, put there, under a gum tree, to commemorate the killing of a boy, thousands of miles from home, in Gallipoli or some other cold, wet, scene of mass carnage. I saddened me to think that such commemoration would not be possible in the Phoenix Park; the plaques to our heroes would disappear very quickly.

Nearby are the Botanical Gardens, so after my walk, I would find a place to sit and enjoy the sun, a rare enough treat for any Irish person, especially in the middle of March.

Last year I had the rare good fortune to pay my first visit to Paris. On my first day there I set out to visit the Arc De Triomphe, breathtakingly visible from the Place De La Concorde along the Avenue Des Champs Elysees. Napoleon commissioned the Arc as a tribute to France’s military heroes, but didn’t live to see it built. The view of Paris from the top of the fifty metre high Arc is something you could never forget.

Coming from the Place De La Concorde the first part of the Champs Elysees is a park, the road is lined with trees, and on the footpath on either side of the road there was an exhibition of sculpture. Priceless pieces of art, on the footpath, you could put out your hand and touch them, Picasso’s six foot tall woman, Giacometti’s frail thin man, Henry Moore’s squat Locking Piece. And I thought, what a wonderful expression of confidence by the City fathers in the cultural refinement of the citizens of Paris, that these works of art could be left unguarded on the footpath.

Later on in the year I went with my family for our holidays to Sligo. One of the things we do every year that we come here is to have a picnic in Hazelwood, on the shores of Lough Gill. It is a small wood, dense with undergrowth, with mossy paths leading through the trees, and the lapping sound of the lake reminding you of its presence. There is nowhere on earth nicer for a walk.

Dotted here and there in clearings in the woods, are pieces of sculpture, commissioned originally I think by Sligo County Council. And as befits their location, they are all made of timber. The largest piece is by James McKenna, and is called “Fergus Rules the Brazen Cars”. It consists of three elements, of heroic proportions, two horses and a charioteer. The horses are about nine feet high and ten feet nose to tail. Fergus is of the same noble stature. To walk through the trees of Hazelwood, to turn a corner and see this inspired piece of art in front of you would take your breath away.

But this year was different. Someone, using a sharp implement, a hatchet or a rock, had gouged lumps out of the horses. Fergus had lost a part of his head. The horse’s heads had been attacked, pieces were broken off their legs and tails, and worst of all, their backs and haunches were mutilated and were no longer weatherproof. In time the rain will lodge in the holes, and slowly rot away the entire, wonderful work of art.  God knows how long these pieces could have lasted if left alone, many generations to come could have been delighted by them.

Further along the trail is another of my favourite pieces, two wooden doves sitting on perches, framing the view of the lake. This too had attracted attention since my last visit; one of them had been decapitated.

My picnic sandwiches had a slightly bitter taste that day. I think it will be a while before I go back to Hazelwood.




Last year I spent the best part of ten months reading and translating the memoirs of Ernest Blythe: one time Minister for Finance, one time Managing Director of the Abbey Theatre, but full time lover of the Irish language and patriot. I didn’t succeed in getting permission to go any further with my translation, the copyright holder had promised them to someone else.

But I didn’t mind. I was disappointed not to be able to show my work to potential publishers, but on the other hand I had started the work out of a feeling of duty to a man who did me a favour when I was a young actor, and consequently changed my life. Because his memoirs were written in Irish they would never have been read by more than a couple of hundred people, and the fact that Blythe was unpopular after his stint as Minister for Finance for taking a shilling off the old-age pensioners would have lessened his readership even more. But I did the work, I went as far as I could; I was happy with that, so what next?

One night last autumn I watched a programme on BBC4 presented by A.N.Wilson on the subject of T.S.Eliot. Apart from some of his famous one liners, ‘I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’, from his wonderful Love Song of  J.Alfred Prufrock, I knew little or nothing about Eliot. Wilson’s programme explained that Eliot had in fact studied Philosophy in Harvard, and while engaged in that wrote poetry as a sort of hobby.

I bought a biography of Eliot, Young Eliot, by Robert Crawford and learnt a lot more about these formative influences on the young genius. Around this time I also came to realise that Iris Murdoch, the novelist, had also spent many years studying and teaching Philosophy before she became a writer. The penny dropped that I knew nothing about Philosophy, so to rectify this deficiency I had a look at the website of the Philosophy Dept. of TCD, and discovered that they had an extra-mural course for people such as me, to introduce us to the ‘Big Questions in Philosophy’. I enrolled before Christmas for the course which was due to start in January. I am also attending another course in the same college on the subject of Paleography, which I started last October.

When I arrived outside the Thomas Davis lecture hall in the Arts Block of TCD last Tuesday for my first lecture, who did I see sitting there but one of my oldest and dearest friends, Paddy Murtagh. He was also waiting for the lecture on Philosophy, a subject he has been studying on and off for years.

Paddy and I met in 1961. We both joined an amateur drama group, The Young Dublin Players, on the same night; I was working as a fitter in the Air Corps, Paddy doing the same job on the diesel engines for C.I.E. Another recruit that night was John McColgan, who later went on to fame and fortune with Riverdance.

Paddy and I stayed in touch over the years, we’ve played golf together on occasions, and both our sons are PhD graduates in engineering from TCD. So although we haven’t met for the last five years or so the old links have been re-established and no doubt will produce a lot of interesting chat and discussion over coffee, on philosophy and hopefully, less demanding subjects.

The Ascent of Man

About forty five years ago one of the best TV documentary series ever was broadcast by the BBC, and to the best of my knowledge it has never been repeated. In it was charted the progress of mankind, from its origins on the plains of Africa millions of years ago, to the discovery of the intricacies and structure of DNA in the 20th century. This 13 episode documentary series was written and presented by the scientist Jacob Bronowski. He went on in episode after episode to show the evolution of the human; how the increase in skull and brain size allowed man to fit himself to all environments; to use his imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness to change his environment.

He details man’s switch from hunter/gatherer to farmer, and how this allowed him and her to settle in one area. We learn how man’s use of fire allowed him to make new tools and weapons, and says that ‘there is nothing in modern chemistry more unexpected than putting together new alloys, with new properties; to turn iron into steel.’ We learn how the invention of the wheel and the domestication of oxen and the horse propelled man forward.

Along the way he lights our darkness with dazzling displays of scholarship on science, philosophy, art, literature, and all the achievements of the human race. He explains to us the huge importance of the Roman arch in architecture, and how a later refinement of this, the flying buttress, allowed masons to insert massive stained glass windows in walls that had previously been used to support a roof. This gave us the magnificent cathedrals of the 12th century.

He recounts for us how Copernicus and Galileo fought conservatism in thought with mathematics and imagination. He explains in understandable language the findings of Newton and Einstein, and how the pioneer of atomic science, Ludwig Boltzmann, came to commit suicide in despair before his theories were taken up and expanded and developed by Niels Bohr and Rutherford and others.

It is a work of immense scope; a wonderful celebration of the genius of mankind, and yet in one of the final episodes Bronowski is found kneeling beside a pond in Auschwitz, where he says the ashes of four million people, including most of his family, were washed away. And he says ‘that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave’. He quotes Cromwell  addressing people who wield power ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ; think possibly you may be mistaken’.

He goes on to say ‘I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and as a witness’.

In this day and age of the primacy of the ignorant in politics, we could do with a repeat of this wonderful celebration of humanity.

*Man is used in the OED meaning: human beings in general; the human race.

Bronowski, J. (1973) The Ascent of Man. London: Published by the British Broadcasting Corporation.