From TRAVELLING the world as a freelance MUSIC and ARTS journalist to becoming a PEACEKEEPER with the United Nations, HELENA MULKERNS has quite a story to tell …
Helena Mulkerns has enjoyed a fortuitous career which has seen countless stamps punched on her passport and numerous strings added to her bow. Originally from South Dublin, Helena’s calling as a freelance arts journalist and performer has brought her to Paris and New York. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Hot Press, the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and the Irish Times. Her next move took her to a completely different environment; as a press officer and photographer for the United Nations. Over the guts of a decade, Helena worked in Central America, Africa and Asia. After her return to Ireland in 2008, Helena began to make waves as an editor.
Ferenji and other stories, Helena’s first book, is a greatly moving contemporary collection of stories. Set in conflict and post-conflict zones, the tales are told through a spirited civilian voice. Colum McCann has praised Ferenji as ‘Smart, nuanced, provocative and so well written.’
Helena lives in Sandymount, County Dublin. She is currently writing her first novel and running 451 Editions, an independent publishing venture.
I’m based right now in Sandymount, in a Victorian sea-facing house with the most lovely room with a view over the bay that anyone could wish for. We are so lucky in Dublin to live beside the sea. Every morning I photograph the dawn, and often post the image on my Facebook page or on my blog. You can watch the sky change through the year as the sun moves across the horizon, and tell time in the morning by the ships sailing in and out of Dublin Port. I usually take a walk down the promenade around nine, or head over to revise what I’ve written earlier in Brownes of Sandymount village over a coffee. Sandymount really is a village, with its pubs, Books on the Green indie bookshop, a health food store, and even a Tesco. All nestled around a perfect little triangle of green. The only thing that’s missing is a good public library, but Pearse Street isn’t far away.
I grew up quite close to the sea in the Kilmacud/Blackrock area, so I would say that’s one thing that stands out about a South County Dublin childhood. Every morning in the summer, I joined a gang of neighbour kids who walked to Blackrock baths to swim with the Dublin swimming club. In fact, that early training later saved my life when I nearly drowned in a rip-tide incident in Donegal. I’m still a year-round sea swimmer. The only other place I lived in as a child was in a thatched cottage right along the low cliffs close to Kilmurvey Bay on Inis Mór when my parents de-camped there from Dublin to make a documentary on the island. We ended up staying longer than expected, so I went to school in a two-roomed schoolhouse and was slagged mercilessly for the first few September days for being a jackeen. The island has changed a lot, but sometimes, especially when furthest from home, I remember the currachs on the pier in Kilmurvey and the demon sound of a storm wind and waking up to look out at the cornflower blue Atlantic through a small, whitewashed cottage window. So I suppose ‘home’ for me always involves the sea.
I have moved so many times that I am fairly pragmatic about my writing environment. I like to do creative writing in my bedroom. I try to sit at my writing table by 06:15am each day. It’s old, with two legs propped up with coasters because the floor slopes, and the chair is at odds with it, since it’s pure white IKEA plastic. But I like it! The desk faces the wall and just about fits my Mac, an A4 writing pad and a few pencils (I only write in pencil, never ink). To my right is a bookcase along the wall facing the sea, with a large old fashioned sash window in the middle. Thankfully, double-glazed. To take a break now and then, I move away from my desk and sit into a low, old fashioned bedroom chair to read, or just look at the strand and the sky. For my day job work, I go downstairs at 10:00am and sit at a more official office desk with a design screen. Because I share the desk with a house mate, I often write or work outside the house. It may be a cliché, but I love writing in cafés and I find I get a lot of work done in them. I came to the conclusion that if writing is a lonely pursuit, then a café provides a workspace where the sound of people and coffee machines and conversation keep you company in the background. I love that. You can be off in a story on a mountain top in Yemen while actually sitting at the window in The Fish Shack in Dun Laoghaire!
For me, escape means any kind of travel, even the travel itself. I love people-watching in airport departure lounges and the sight of new cities coming into view through the window of a vehicle. I love the sound a chopper makes warming up and the silly lurch when it takes off almost vertically. The buzz of walking out through the arrivals gate in a country you’ve never been to before. Chatting with strangers while waiting for taxis; late night cocktail bars in old hotels. And hotel rooms! Nothing quite like the haven of a fresh new hotel room, all yours for a finite time to relax and create in. It’s one of the best things about travel. In terms of actual places, I love the mystery and sheer beauty of Istanbul. When I lived in Afghanistan, I used to go there on R&R to a small hotel that looked out over the Bosphorus. Venice and Paris have the same kind of magic. I lived in the latter for three years, and that’s where I learned to love writing in cafés.
On the UN
I’d been having a lot of fun working as a journalist for years, also organising events from music gigs to poetry readings to the BANSHEE collective, which I founded with Emer Martin in 1997, along with Imelda O’Reilly, Caitriona O’Leary, Elizabeth Whyte and Darrah Carr. We had a blast performing around New York for about two years, but when we broke up (as you do) I found myself a little burned out and felt I needed a more serious challenge. So I applied for work in peacekeeping and was sent to Guatemala, where I got to serve as a monitor during the democratic elections that followed the Guatemalan Peace Accords in 1996. Learning about and seeing the fallout of a thirty-five year struggle against unimaginable repression and poverty, and then witnessing what happened in that election (the victor was a known murderer and represented a party run by one of the country’s most brutal former dictators) I began to understand the massive complexity of peacekeeping. You get to meet truly heroic and dedicated people working in the field who devote their lives to try and create a better world for others and that is inspiring. However, you also encounter the worst of humanity; corrupt money-grabbers who manipulate systems without compunction and who exploit, rather than assist the vulnerable. Everything is intensified. I have fierce admiration for people I have worked with in Guatemala, Africa and Afghanistan, where I found life to be mostly energising and at times heart breaking.
On her nightstand
I used to have quite an extensive library, but it’s diminished hugely. Due to my work with the UN, I’ve had nineteen different addresses over the past twenty years, between New York, Guatemala, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Galway, Kabul, Wexford and now Dublin. Books had to be shed along the way, and since I don’t like eBook devices very much, one solution has been to purchase audio books instead of physical books – which can be stored on a computer or phone. So now only my phone sits on my bedside table, but I’m still a voracious ‘reader’. Right now, on the top of my phone’s reading list is Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, The Taliban Shuffle, by Kim Barker, Montpellier Parade by Karl Geary and Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin. The World’s Emergency Room: The Growing Threat to Doctors, Nurses and Humanitarian Workers by Michal VanRooyen for research, Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor and Redeployent by Phil Klay because it was the single most powerful inspiration to me to finish my own book of short stories. Pre-ordered: The Three Daughters of Eve – because I love everything Elif Shafak writes.
On career highlights
Working freelance as a music and arts journalist is the most fun you can have with your clothes on and sometimes without! I got to tour with Irish bands in the States, went to the Oscars, interviewed rock legends like Bowie and REM, film legends like Francis Ford Coppola and Sophia Loren; got drunk with Irvine Welsh after the media blitz for Trainspotting; sang a blues song at four in the morning outside Sin-é Café with the entire cast of The Commitments; asked Anthony Keidis backstage at the MTV Awards whether or not a ride was out of the question – how fun is all that! I also got to be part of the ‘New Irish’ experience, where the generation that emigrated in the last recession effectively created a wonderful arts scene in New York and other parts of the States that produced some great musicians and artists. I never finished my great Irish rock’n’roll novel, but I have a collection of short stories inspired by those years on my hard drive, unedited, and might resurrect them yet!
Ferenji and other stories (€12.95) is published by Doire Press and available from bookshops nationwide. The eBook and audio editions will be available this summer.
SOPHIE GRENHAM @SophieGrenham
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