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Launching Keepsake

This week sees the launch of my new book Keepsake, published by the lovely Little Island crew!.  It will be launched in Stonehouse Books, courtesy of bookseller extraordinaire Liz Walsh, on Thursday 25th May at 7.00 pm.

It is hard to describe your own book (at least I think it is), but I will try.

It is a tale set in Ireland (in a fictional town called Carrigcapall) and concerns a boy and his horse and a girl and her granny. There are other characters (both human and four legged) who wander in and out of the story – but these four matter most. Three of the characters love horses and that’s a pretty lucky turn of events for Storm, the horse, whose life is in danger.

As I work from character maybe I will leave the description at that for the meantime. Mary Esther Judy, children’s bookseller at Charlie Byrnes Bookshop in Galway, was the first person to review the book in her brilliant blog Fallen Star Stories  and you can find it here.

I have been lucky enough to have a primary school down the road from me reading the book pre publication – St John’s Senior in Kilkenny. They selected the book as their One School, One Book project and have been doing mighty work on it for the past few weeks. One of the teachers at the school, the inimitable Orla Mackey, prepared a Keepsake workbook for the students with all sorts of wondrous and creative ideas in it. These notes will be available on the Little Island website as well as on Seomra Ranga, and I will put up a link to both on my own website.

Here is some of their work!

Artwork 3Art Work St Johns 1Art work 2

Prejudice and Selective Outrage

Lots of definitions of prejudice around, but a look at the origin of the word provides the simplest explanation: praeiudicium (Latin) meaning prior judgement.

Not one of us is without prejudice: we make prior judgements every day based on our experiences. We cannot see everything afresh every time.  When we are prejudiced about which apples we prefer, how we like our tea, which is the simplest way to get to work or which well is likely to contain water, that’s just us using our life experiences to make decisions. It’s pretty normal. 

A broader definition, in the Cambridge Dictionary, defines prejudice as follows: an unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling, especially when formed without enough thought or knowledge.   And that definition gets to the heart of what I actually want to talk about.

 Having spent a large portion of my adult life in South Africa under Apartheid I am no stranger to unreasonable opinions or feelings.

 I am no stranger to casual racism.

 I am no stranger to hearing sentences which begin with ‘They are all’ or ‘All – insert racist epithet – are lazy or dishonest or stupid or greedy … or similar’.

 I am no stranger to people who assume you share their views without bothering to ask you first.

 I am no stranger to the violence, the hatred and the grotesque oppression that has been the consequence of prior judgement and naked racism. The consequence of a mentality which puts us and them into separate but not equal categories.

I am no stranger to lazy thinking. And lazy talk. And self righteous anger.

I am no stranger to hypocrisy.

 Which brings me to prejudice against travellers in Ireland.  As far as I can see, as a blow-in to Ireland (a country I have grown to love, I feel privileged to be living here), this is a form of prejudice which somehow has gained respectability. I do not speak here of everyone in Ireland, we are not all the one. I know many settled people who would not share these views.

 I do however speak of those wh0 have this prejudice and somehow manage to insert it into everyday conversation in a way they would not were the people they were speaking of a different colour to them or of a different sexual persuasion.

 This has come to the fore recently in Kilkenny, the city I have made my home, as a consequence of a number of high profile cases of abused animals which has led to an outpouring of hatred directed towards all travellers. I have read comments online calling travellers ‘the scum of the earth’. I have read comments stating that they should all be shot. Other comments suggesting that all travellers should be drowned at birth; that they should not be allowed children let alone animals. These comments sicken me. Adults sitting at home typing these words into their gadgets, with no thought whatsoever about the people they direct their loathing towards.

I would like them to emerge from the safety of their little online world and come and say these things to the families they do not know. I was talking to a woman this week, a mother holding the hand of her toddler, who said to me had I seen that some woman was saying on Facebook that she should not be allowed to have children. And worse, that the children should be drowned at birth. She also said to me, nothing’s new Paula, it’s the way it is. I wonder what the person who wrote those words would say if she were to meet this mother, or her husband or her children; children who go to school in the city knowing that the parents of their classmates think this way?

 Prejudice takes hold when it is not gainsayed. When it is not refuted. When it is not rejected. That’s all I’m doing here. Gainsaying it. Nothing makes it right.

 I am not saying, in any which way, that any one group of people has right on their side – we are all humans and (apologies to Life of Brian) we are all individuals. We need to be judged as such – according to our actions. It is how most judicial systems work  (however flawed) – someone commits a crime, sometimes they are caught, sometimes they are tried and sometimes they are convicted. On the basis of their actions.  However the passing of judgement against entire communities brings to mind recent history – in Europe, in Africa, in America, in Australia. History we would surely prefer not to be repeated?

 And as to the question of the abuse of animals – which led to a protest last week. Anyone who knows me would know I am against the abuse of animals. In all cases. Against  the way in which animals are factory farmed to be eaten; in the way in which greyhounds and thoroughbreds are used till they are ‘no use’; in the way in which chickens are farmed; pigs are farmed; puppies are farmed to provide Christmas presents; lambs are slaughtered; mares are kept pregnant (and stationary) to provide women with hormones to keep them young; in the way the slaughter houses work; in the way in which circus animals are trained; lobsters are boiled alive; in the way in which we in Ireland export hundreds of thousands of live animals to be killed elsewhere; in the ways that animals are tested so that the makeup people use doesn’t hurt their eyes. So many ways, the list has scarcely begun.

There is a lot to be protesting about in relation to cruelty to animals – not one iota of doubt about that. But the recent protests did bring me to a phrase I heard this week (in reference to another protest) – beware selective outrage. We can all learn from that.


New Book! Keepsake

I must try and speed up my writing output – but that is for another day! In the meantime I have a new book coming out with Little Island. It is called Keepsake. The cover (which cannot be revealed just yet) was designed by the brilliant Olivia Golden, and it is beautiful – all I could have wished for. I have been involved with Little Island since their inception but this is the first time I have worked on a book with them. It  was and is a delight to work with Siobhan Parkinson and Gráinne Clear (all those fadas..) a formidable team.

Hard when you are close to a book to know how it will be received – but having read it after many months, I like it. It was a scary book for me to write because for the first time I am writing a full length novel for children set in Ireland. I am a blow-in of the first order and have always felt unwilling to write a book set here as it was not as familiar to me as, e.g. South Africa or Zambia. But I have been here for fourteen years now, so I thought I would give it a try. I enjoyed writing it and hope that shows.

As much as I can probably say about it at the moment is that it is an adventure story and there are horses, people  and dogs in it along with just little bit of magic to send it on its way. Orla Mackey has written some mighty Teaching Notes for it, as always, and those will be available online when the book is out.

In  place of the cover…. courtesy of Orla Mackey




Grattan and Me

Just over a week ago Grattan and Me by Tom O’Neill was published and launched by Dalkey Archive Press.  OK, so Tom O’Neill, besides being an author and a million other things, seemingly all at the same time, is my husband. I could be accused of bias. But, bias or not, this is a brilliant book. Tom has written for a long time, he is one of those writers who needs to write. He needs no deadlines, no commissions, no encouragement. He just gets up in the mornings and writes before he starts the rest of his day.

Grattan and Me, the book that followed his previous books for young adults, is a hard one to describe in short form – luckily, Rob Doyle found the words and described it ‘freewheeling, jokey, metafictional romp that fizzes with imagination at play,’and it would be hard to beat that. So I won’t try. But (and here comes the shameless promotion bit) it is available in all good bookshops (!) and online.

Tom was given a spot in the Irish Times to talk about the book and where it came from. That article can be found here.



Writing and more writing

It has been so long since I blogged. No excuses available.

But in the meantime I was delighted to be part of two short story collections – Magic! which was edited by Siobhan Parkinson, beautifully illustrated by Olwyn Whelan and published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. My story is called Finbar the Furious: The Ogre who could do no Wrong. I loved writing it and being part of this collection. Thank you Siobhan!Magic!

The second collection is Once Upon a Place, a Laureate na nÓg  and the brainchild of Eoin Colfer. This was published by Little Island and wondrously illustrated by PJ Lynch. My story in the collection is called Beautiful Dawn. Again, I felt privileged to be a part of this book. Thank you Eoin!

Once Upon a Place

Since then I have been working on another book for children, this time, unlike The Butterfly Heart and The Sleeping Baobab Tree which were both set in Zambia, it is set in Ireland. More specifically set in Kilkenny where I now live. I have for many years resisted writing books set in Ireland as I still feel something of a stranger to the country. However I have now lived here for thirteen years and am starting to get used to it… So, I thought I would give it a try. I am hopeful it will come out in the early part of next year. Not going to talk about it much till it becomes a reality – but a couple of the characters in it somewhat resemble creatures like this one below..


So .. now back to other writing. Firstly to a work in progress – this time for adults and co-written with my partner Tom O’Neill. We are almost there with this one.  (Tom, by the by, has a book that has been accepted for publication by Dalkey Archive Press – very, very exciting!)

Then on to another work in progress – also for adults – that might take longer… not as much progress as I would like with this one. But a start made.. and a start is better than a non start..

So, there we go.

Once Upon a Place

In June this year Eoin Colfer, our brilliant Children’s Laureate, visited the St Catherine’s (aka Wetlands) halting site homework club in Kilkenny. He had put out a call at the start of his Laureateship asking people to send in requests for places to visit on a proposed storytelling tour. I sent one in asking him to come to Wetlands and, happily, he agreed.


The age range of the children he told stories to was quite wide but he kept them perfectly enthralled. The week after his visit one of the Homework Club workers asked young Rocky whether he could tell him the story that Eoin had told them. He recounted it back to him almost word perfect. It was that kind of story.

Peter Salisbury was down with his camera, Nessa Mahoney organised everything in her inimitable style (!) and Eoin’s friend Chris was there recording the event for a podcast. In addition Irish Traveller TV sent a camerawoman there to record the event. An interesting outfit, a volunteer based production and website group dedicated to improving the image of Travellers and Gipsies in Ireland today. Their website is here.


I sat and watched and wondered at the ability Eoin has to tell an engrossing story about something small and everyday. All the elements were there – plot, tension, characters, mighty dialogue, humour (and more humour) and, of course, the essential nappy and a few embellishments. The images he created in the story are as clear in my mind today as they were the day he told them. And the same goes for the children. That’s a gift.


I volunteer at the homework club once a week and have learnt a lot from being there. Great work being done by the full time staff who run it and by the children themselves. St. Catherine’s Halting Site has been a temporary halting site for thirty years. This year houses are being built there. The Father McGrath centre produced a report on the living conditions at the site from a Children’s Rights Perspective.  It can be viewed here

This post is really just by way of thank you to Eoin, to Nessa, to Peter, Chris and CBI who all made the visit possible. To the community at Wetlands who welcomed them with open arms. To Micky, Emmet, Rocky  and Claire who run the Homework Club and do such fantastic work there. And especially to the children who listened to the story and told Eoin some stories of their own!

‘I’ll keep this to show my children’

During the past months I have been working with a variety of schools – some of them as part of the Development Education Programme which is a joint initiative of Poetry Ireland and World Wise Global Schools, some with Writers in Schools (also Poetry Ireland!) and some directly with the schools as part of their JCSP programme.

This year I spent time in Bridgetown, Limerick, Kilkenny and Rathkeale. Each school different to the other but all interesting! I will in time write about each of these individually, but in the meantime wanted to post the pictures of their work.

One of the things I have been doing in each school is gathering the pieces of writing the students have completed into booklets – for the students themselves, their parents and the teachers. In Limerick the students sold the booklets as part of an effort to raise funds for the victims of the Nepal earthquakes.  The booklet we worked on in Rathkeale will be worked on at the start of next year and will hopefully be out in December.

Booklets from Colaiste Nano Nagle, Bridgetown Vocational College, Kilkenny City Vocational School.

Booklets from Colaiste Nano Nagle, Bridgetown Vocational College, Kilkenny City Vocational School.

Part of the reason I do this is that is something solid for the students to hold onto at the end of a six week author in residence session. Something that they can take home and show their family, something they can show their friends. I think this creates additional value. In one of the groups a student said to me she was going to keep the booklet to show her children. I was delighted by that thought!

In Kilkenny we have held launches for the booklets with the wonderful Stonehouse Books, and last week we launched the booklet First Words written by some First and Second Years.

kcvs launch 2KCVS launch

Launch at Stonehouse Books, May 2015

I think this is something I will carry on doing as part of any future author in residence sessions I  do. It gives the students a goal to work towards and a sense of satisfaction at the end of it all and it gives me all that and more!

Small and Free

I’m working with three very different secondary schools at the moment (just started!) and really enjoying it. One in Rathkeale, one in Limerick and one in Bridgetown, Wexford. As I said to one of the teachers, this gives me an opportunity to go back to teaching (which I used to do, way back when, and loved) but I get to do all the good bits and have none of the accompanying heartache of the administration, reports, more administration and reports… Thank you Poetry Ireland for these opportunities!

It also makes you think (as it should) about the way we pass on skills, the way we pass on the elements of the craft of writing. When I first looked at exploring fictional writing I attended a course given by Siobhan Parkinson, in the Smurfit Business School, called Write That Novel. I had searched through loads of different courses for one that would deal with the different aspects of writing that I felt I needed to look at: creating characters, writing dialogue, narrative voice, point of view, plotting, setting, genre, structure, editing and the rest ! When I saw the course outline of Siobhan’s course I had no hesitation in applying for it. And it was all that I could have wanted and more.

I was not looking for a course that wanted me to explore my inner self, get in touch with my feelings, write stream of consciousness things .. I wanted to understand the craft. And while I cannot claim to understand it fully yet, I have the framework and that is what I was looking for. Uber thanks to Siobhan!

The rest was of course up to the individuals in the course. It was up to us to practice, to write and then to write some more.  And to discover whether writing was something we could do. That is not of course a given. In the same way as we would not all become artists if we were given the techniques of painting, drawing, sculpture, etching or anything else. I certainly wouldn’t.

Another thing I have to be grateful to that course for is the fact that our writing group, The Crabapples, emerged from that course. Eleven years later we are still meeting!

In working with Secondary school students what I love to see are the gems that emerge. The small beautiful pearls of writing that are as individual as the students themselves. Made even more beautiful when they come from the pens of young people who felt they could not write. Did not like to write. That’s the reward for me. With permission I hope to post some of their work once completed but will leave you with one line that has stuck in my head. One group in Limerick were working on poems on the issue of child marriage and in one of the poems this line emerged: I wanted to be small and free.

Simple words, beautifully put.

As yet I have no pictures of the schools so, apropos of nothing (and because I do not like posts without images), here is a picture of Old Greg .. a dog who found his way to our farm, terrified, thin and not well – and just look at him now. We are glad to have him.

iphone January 2015 703

Art and other things

Over the past couple of months a friend of ours, Tommy Cuddihy, was laid up after a foot operation. While this must have been extremely frustrating for him, the result of it (in non medical terms) was brilliant. He produced a picture combining elements of both The Butterfly Heart and The Sleeping Baobab Tree. I still do not know how he did it as it contains pressed metal and beautiful colours, but I do not really need to know because I love the result!iphone January 2015 700

iphone January 2015 698

iphone January 2015 699

That is such a brilliant Baobab tree .. and as for Ifwafwa on his bicycle, the detail of the small bits of orange plastic on the wheel spokes,  and Nokokulu’s yellow car – just astonishing.

So, a huge thank you to Tommy for this – a real work of art. And it got me back to my blog which has been sorely neglected for the past while. So a double thank you.

Libraries in County Clare

Last week I spent a couple of days in Clare – visited Scarriff, Killaloe, Ennis and Shannon. This time of year always reminds me of the work being done in the libraries in Ireland – and always reinvigorates my hope that we do not go the way of Britain where public libraries are being closed. Hundreds closed so far I think. In the North as far as I know, one has already been closed and ten are under threat (See

What always strikes me in the libraries is the variety of things that happen under their roofs! Storytelling, PC training, book clubs meeting, Leaving Cert and Junior Cert studying, Summer reading challenges, drama workshops, film clubs, creative writing workshops and more!

I took a look at some of the summer activities for children in the Clare libraries, outside of the reading challenge, and they included a Sculpture Trail, a visit to the Ennis Old Friary, Story Time, crafts, jewellery making and  visit to the museum. And all free. All a public service. So … long live the libraries of Ireland and their energetic librarians !

The classes I met, from national schools and secondary schools, were great. In Ennis I had fifty girls from the secondary schools and we did some work together on the issue of child marriage. In a very short space of time they produced some beautiful poems written in the voice of a young girl who had been told she was to be married. Really excellent and empathetic writing, I am hoping they will send me copies so I can put them up on the site.

Off to Wexford and Carlow this week, then Cork next week!


In Ennis Library

In Ennis Library

On the way to Killaloe

On the way to Killaloe