Salad Days – and GIY

salad daysBack in the day, we used to grow our own organic fruit, salads, vegetables and cut flowers and sell the surplus at Farmers’ Markets.  I forget the reason we stopped all that.  Something to do with cash flow, market forces, Celtic Tigers, down turns and broken legs (not necessarily in that order).

Our polytunnels are now sadly neglected, the kitchen garden has been turned into a lawn, the cold frame has made way for a decorative herbaceous border, and we buy our salads (fresh from Italy) in the supermarket like everyone else.

There’s something very wrong with that last sentence.  I kid myself that I’m into eco-friendly, green, sustainable stuff, but really? Honestly? I keep telling myself, as the rain pools in squelchy lakes all around us, that the tunnels are retrievable, but I’ve somehow lacked the enthusiasm to get down and dirty again. Until now.

Last night I was inspired to join a group of fellow gardening enthusiasts for a new GIY meeting here in the West of Ireland.  I don’t know much about the GIY organisation, but it seems like a good idea.  Their premise is: ‘When people grow their own they gain a deeper understanding of food called ‘food empathy’ which acts as a lever to a healthier lifestyle’.

I’m up for that. And meeting like-minded folk to talk the talk, to swap ideas and experience, and to exchange plants and seeds – what is there not to like about that notion?

I’ve been craving fresh watercress (which grows like a weed in the right conditions), and I just needed to hear someone tell me what a good idea it was to plant some seeds. So off I go to buy some fresh ones and start all over again. I might even manage some salads like the ones we used to grow, pictured here.

There is a writing connection here, of course.  Certain aspects of gardening can be therapeutic, but mind-numbingly monotonous at times – weeding rows of lettuce, for example.  But in the past, I have come up with some of my best story ideas while doing boring work in the polytunnels.  I always take a notebook and pen that I don’t mind getting covered in muck. Two pens, of course, because one might not work. And a pencil, because that will work better on damp paper and can be used as a dibber.

And I always take something to collect salads in – because even now, in our poor, neglected polytunnels there are self-seeded rocket and purslane plants to enjoy.

I’m off to get dirt under my fingernails before I change my mind.


I am (a fan of) Dublin

I hi_am_dublin_1024x1024ad the thrill of reading at the Irish Writers’ Centre last night (March 15th 2016), as one of the flash fiction winners in the  Five Lamps Arts Festival’s ‘I am Dublin’ competition.

Wall to wall books and original art, and very welcoming people all around –  I had a lovely evening. I got to read my piece ‘Liffey. If he. Dares.’ which was 400 flashy words somewhere between poetry and prose, which won me €60 worth of book vouchers.

The competition was judged by Dermot Bolger & Doireann Ní Ghríofa, who apparently had a hard time choosing the four winners!

The competition encouraged writers to channel their inner Anna Livia Plurabelle and to seek inspiration in the charm of the fair city of Dublin – cracks and all.   The four winners took part in the showcase event at the Irish Writers’ Centre alongside four well-known names on the Dublin literary scene:  Gavin Corbett, Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, Colm Keegan and Paula McGrath.

I am very grateful that they allowed a blow-in to come from County Roscommon to read! I really do love Dublin, the pace, the buzz,  the old and new buildings, the charm of real Dubliners, and the cosmopolitan 21st century mix going on.   I lied to the boy in the coffee shop who asked me if  I was on holiday – he then told me loads of places to visit – an excellent ambassador for Dublin!  It’s a very lively, exciting place to visit – but I’m always glad to come home to the relative peace and space of the west.

Meanwhile, the winning stories are due to be published on over the next few weeks – a busy time for the website given the proximity to St Patrick’s Day.



Life Doing Your Head In?

workshop notesI was able to spend the whole working day thinking about my mental health yesterday. Indulgent, but fascinating…

The occasion was a Wellness Workshop aimed at helping participants understand and take responsibility for their own mental health. As a writer, I spend a lot of time in my head, and while I’m in quite a good place at the moment, that hasn’t always been the case.

I understand the need to get people talking about mental health issues and the need to banish the stigma that comes as part of the package when you’re depressed – or even suicidal. Yesterday’s event was organised by the charity SOS – Suicide or Survive, and backed by the HSE and the National Office of Suicide Prevention.

We’re told that one in four people will experience mental health issues at point in their life (I would say that’s only the number of people who own up to such experiences. I reckon EVERYONE has something wrong with what’s going on in their head at some time or other).

Brian and Pat from Dublin came to share their enthusiasm and experience with more than 40 participants in Ballina’s Newman Institute. Their exuberance and communication skills made the day entertaining as well as thought-provoking (although 15 people were late – what is it with that total disregard for punctuality? But that’s a rant for another day.)

I learnt about relaxation (particularly mindfulness) and stress management, the relationship between thoughts and emotions, and the importance of coping strategies and developing a ‘wellness toolkit’ – a kind of go-to first aid kit of things that will prompt you to remember what makes you happy.

I liked the idea of ‘Think in Ink’, which encourages you to write stuff down – I’m a firm believer in keeping a journal (I’ve kept one for years, for mine eyes only!) as a way of getting rid of angst at the end of the day.

Sometimes, you just need a reminder of what can take you to a happy place, some trigger that gets the senses working. Of the whole day, that seemed to resonate with me more than anything – so I’m now putting together a pack of bits and pieces that I like the look/feel/taste/smell/sound of. Obviously a whole cat or the real George Clooney won’t fit into my wellness toolkit, but pictures of same will!

I’m also filling a wellness jar with pieces of paper on which there are suggestions of what I can do to cheer me up if I’m a bit down. Because sometimes, when there’s a black cloud overhead, it can be very difficult to remember that you have been happy in the past – and you can be again. And, if you can remember, there are some things that are guaranteed to lift the mood – in my case, a walk in the woods, or listening to Benedictus by Karl Jenkins (seven minutes of bliss!). Not to mention a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk or a game of Scrabble…

There was a whole lot more to the day than just that of course, and I would recommend anyone who has the opportunity to attend one of these Wellness Workshops – go!  They are being run at venues all around the country, or there’s an on-line version:


Same old prompts, creative writing groups – and a poem

Betty in flowerI’m sometimes asked what I take for inspiration when I’m writing my poems and stories, so I thought I’d share a few words about ideas, imagination and writing prompts.

I’m a member of several different writing groups; one is mostly for criticism of finished work which can be eye-opening (and eye-watering), but the others are creative writing groups. We take turns to suggest prompts, and then we just write. Sometimes the prompt is a piece of music, an image, a piece of poetry, a random selection of words, anything that will inspire (usually) 20 minutes of creative scribbling. And in two hours, we usually get in at least three prompts, which is a whole hour of writing time.

It is amazing what comes out of these little writing sessions. There can be half a dozen or more of us there with the same prompt – but you can guarantee that we’ll each end up with something different.

I find the words I’ve assembled in a creative writing session often need a lot more work to make them finished pieces, but I’ve made a start, and that’s half the battle…

My story ‘Five Staves and an Instant’ began as a writing group prompt, ‘I am friend to…’ It started out life as a poem, but then morphed into a story.

Another story, ‘A Week Without Mary’ began from the prompt: ‘Imagine you are left on your own for a week. Who would you miss and why? What happens?’

My poem ‘Yellow Brick Road’, about my love-hate relationship with the colour yellow, arrived after I was prompted to write about that colour at a creative writing workshop.

And the story ‘Same Old’ which appears in this week’s Roscommon Herald is another that began life as a poem at a writing workshop a couple of years ago – inspired by a conversation with some friends who all have knowledge of the same (and of course different) bachelor farmers. It began from the prompt, ‘Who would you give a lift to?’ and the story developed from there, the character arriving as an amalgam of three or four different people and plenty of imagination!

I’m never usually short of ideas on what to write (maybe time to write them all down is what is in short supply), but the writing group prompts are a wonderful mixed bag of idea-generators.

At one of last week’s writing groups I listened to a Janis Joplin song, studied a photo of teens queuing to see the Pope in 1979, and looked at a passage in a text book about the 18 different kinds of smile a human is capable of.

And in the same week, another group had prompts taken from an obituary (of a writer we didn’t recognise), the opening gambit between two characters at a railways station, and a bag of objects that included a passport, a fiver, a map, a magnifying glass, gardening gloves, a religious icon, a clove of garlic, a wooden fish, a pepper pot – and a fisherman’s ‘priest’.

It was that last thing that got me, a priest – it’s a kind of cosh used to kill fish – and I wrote the following poem from it.

in air
a hook-lipped trout
snatched from the river’s slippery grasp
lies gasping and flip-flapping
on the mud grass bank
heaving, rainbow belly dancing
silver spangles inviting
holy ministration of the priest
brass tipped and final
bestowing a trinity of blows
until cold-eyed and still
the light continues to dazzle.

If you are looking for inspiration, don’t forget, there’s loads on the internet – along with lots of cat stories. I mean, that’s why the internet was invented, wasn’t it? So we can share cat pictures and stories? Like this one of my lovely (not ugly) Betty? No? Oh…

Elephants, Retired Policemen and that Ladies’ Detective Agency

book covers 1I like quick reads for entertainment (as well as slow reads for intellectual challenge) and came across ‘The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra’ by Vaseem Khan recently.

The tag lines on the cover describe the novel as ‘utterly charming’ and ‘endearing and gripping’, which wouldn’t necessarily pull me in. But what intrigued me was the premise of a retired Indian police inspector with an elephant as his sidekick. A scrupulously honest ex-policeman with the gift of a baby elephant to care for and a nasty crime to solve, no less.

This is the first in a series of tales involving former Inspector Ashwin Chopra and is heralded as a ‘Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation’.  Writer Vaseem Khan, a London-based criminologist, has them all rather cleverly mapped out, with the next one expected in May 2016.

As I read about Inspector Chopra, I had in mind the Alexander McCall Smith series ‘The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ (I know, different continent) and kept thinking Precious Ramotswe of Botswana would really get on with Ashwin Chopra of Mumbai. Principled, honest, generous, steeped in convention and tradition, yet prepared to cross lines for the common good. I guess that’s not far from what the publishers wanted/expected.

But despite all that, I loved it! The writing is uncomplicated and the story fairly linear with a nice beginning, middle and an end (not always easy to find in modern novels), with well written characters to draw you into the story (although a life-long buddy unexpectedly turning out to be a serious baddie was a bit hard to swallow). I liked the character of Chopra’s spirited but childless wife, Poppy, and expect her to feature well in future stories.

I relished the taste of India (not somewhere I’ve ever been to) and was readily transported to Inspector Chopra’s Mumbai, its seedy side revealed as well as its quirky, well heeled residential areas. This is a quick, easy read with an exciting murder story at the heart of it.

Well written, I found it very enjoyable, and it comes highly recommended.

And just in case you’re wondering (because I might have unintentionally made it sound like I’m anti), I love Alexander McCall Smith, too. First published in 1998, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency paperback I own is from 2004; it was reprinted in 2003 (13 times) and again in 2004 (11 times). The stuff writers’ dreams are made of!