Catherine Ann Cullen is an award-winning poet, songwriter and children’s author. One glance at her reams of accomplishments, and it’s plain to see that she’s a writer in demand. She was recently unveiled as Poetry Ireland’s inaugural Poet in Residence, as part of an exciting neighbourhood initiative. This will involve extensive work with a number of diverse communities within Dublin’s North Inner City for the next two years, as well as working on her own projects.
Born in Drogheda, Co Louth, Cullen is a graduate of the M. Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin, and holds a PhD in Creative Writing/Public Works from Middlesex University, London. She was the A&L Goodbody Writer in Residence in St Joseph’s Co-Ed School, East Wall, Dublin, for which she won the 2017 Business to Arts Award for Best Use of Creativity in the Community. She is also resident writer on the Bookmarks project run by Trinity Access Programmes since 2012. She has produced a number of documentaries, current affairs and features programmes for RTÉ Radio 1, and has lectured in radio journalism.
Cullen’s books for children include The Magical Mystical Marvelous Coat (2001), Thirsty Baby (2003) and more recently, All Better! (2019). The first title won a gold award for poetry and folklore from the American Parents Association. Her three poetry collections include A Bone in My Throat (2007) and Strange Familiar (2013). She won the Francis Ledwidge Award in 2009 and 2016, and was a recipient of the Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship for Poetry 2018/19. She was joint winner of Poetry Ireland’s Joyce-Cycle Poetry Prize 2019 and won the Dublin City Council?Camac?Song Contest 2018.
Cullen’s most recent poetry book, The Other Now (2016), is a gorgeous compilation of new work, as well as poems from her previous two collections. Her interests in folklore, myth and popular song ring true in the outstanding verse she’s produced over the last decade. One can expect to enjoy timely celebrations of the life of Rosie Hackett and the women of 1916, work that connects us with victims of political injustice, and through the breathtaking images of Caravaggio, eavesdrops on the voices hovering this side of darkness as they contemplate the seven works of mercy.
I live in Kimmage with my husband Harry, daughter Stella who is 14, and Clara the dog. I love the area. It’s a handy cycle to town, and has a lively community and plenty of small pleasures to enjoy. Right beside us is the tiny Poddle Park where a heron has taken up residence. Lorcan O’Toole and Eamonn Ceannt parks, and the glorious Bushy Park with its woods, lakes and river walks, are all nearby. Our local pub closed five years ago and we were delighted when it reopened this year as The Four Provinces, a craft beer pub run by the lads who have a micro-brewery in the industrial estate behind. They are Gaeilgeoirí and music lovers as well, it’s the best of all possible worlds. I buy all my clothes and most of the furniture in the local charity shops. There are plenty of reasonable restaurants around but Harry and I both enjoy the guilty pleasure of cooking at home.
I was born in Drogheda, my father’s native city, and spent my first years there, in a flat above a butcher’s shop. Dad was the oldest of 16 children and I was the first grandchild. Even after we moved to Dublin, and our family increased to six children, we drove to Gran’s house in Drogheda every Sunday. We knew every game and skipping rhyme and were encouraged to sing after dinner. My mother was from Tralee, so early summers were spent there, swimming in Banna or Ballybunion and visiting cousins in Dingle. Home was around Terenure, very near where I live now. My mother was a wonderful baker and as children we had dinner in the middle of the day and “tea” in the evening. Our teas were famous, there were always a few neighbours tucking into Mam’s scones and tarts. We also invariably had one of my father’s family staying with us while they went to college.
On early reading
My parents fostered a love of books in me and I was a voracious early reader. I loved the Ladybird books, especially the fairy tales in English and in the Irish translations by Máiréad Ní Ghráda. The Elves and the Shoemaker was a favourite in both languages – I still covet the purple velvet shoes! I read everything by Enid Blyton, and finding a William book in my Gran’s house gave me a passion for Richmal Crompton, a sophisticated and hilariously funny writer. Katy Carr and Jo March were role models as creative free spirits. Libraries were and are very present in my life. My father regularly called into Ringsend library on his way home from work and brought us a dozen books at a time. On holidays in Skerries the first task was to join the library there. I read everything in Terenure library and our school library and sought out legends and myths from around the world. When I graduated to the adult library at 12, I went straight for the poetry shelves. I remember Desmond Egan’s work and the beautiful Goldsmith Press volumes from that time.
My family roots are entwined irrevocably in my writing. Having a mother from Kerry, with the flavours of Irish in her speech, and a father from Drogheda, which my mother found shockingly Anglicised when she arrived there to teach at the age of 20, tuned my ear to accents, language and especially to Hiberno-English from childhood. Being the oldest child and grandchild also made me feel responsible for absorbing and preserving family history and tradition. Growing up with “sing-songs” as the entertainment of choice on every occasion has given me a love of songs and ballads, and a need to reconnect them to poetry. I was delighted when Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize, I think it started an important conversation about the literary value of song. I wrote songs as a teenager and in the past few years have returned to songwriting along with writing poetry. It has brought me back to my roots.
I’ve carved out a study from the box-room. There’s an old writing desk from a secondhand shop in Harold’s Cross and an oak chair from Newmarket Brocante. Over my desk is a small print of Communicating With Prisoners by Jack Yeats. It was a gift from Harry after I brought song-collector Jerry O’Reilly into Wheatfield prison to talk about the Traveller song tradition. I’ve ended up working with prisoners often since. There’s a large canvas of typesetter’s shelves on the wall too. I love old type and plan to produce some broadsheets next year. There’s barely room to move as the room also has a bed handmade by a woman engineer as her college project. It’s like a ship of dreams. I always have tea going cold in a mug from Dun Óir pottery. My new role in Poetry Ireland means I also have a desk in Parnell Square – pure luxury!
On independent bookshops
In Dublin I love Books Upstairs. I remember it from its original spot upstairs on South King Street when I was in school. I always thought its College Green incarnation was a little cramped, so I was delighted when they moved to their beautiful building on D’Olier Street with spacious rooms and a café, a wonderful venue for Sunday afternoon readings. Maurice and Ruth have done so much for writers in the city and beyond, long may they thrive! Then there’s The Gutter Bookshop, Alan Hanna’s in Rathmines, the Dubray chain, Chapters, the Winding Stair. I can’t get out of Charlie Byrne’s whenever I go to Galway. In fact, wherever I go I hunt down an independent bookshop or two. A recent visit to Liverpool let me discover News From Nowhere, and in New York I start with Strand Books. I used to dream of opening a children’s bookshop, but I’m not that brave!
On her “To Be Read” pile
I’m looking forward to reading A History of Ireland in 100 Words by Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Sharon Arbuthnot and Gregory Toner (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2019). I’m hoping some of those words will stimulate new poems in a series I’m writing based on Hiberno-English words. Instead of a Shrine (UCD Press 2019), the collected lectures from Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s tenure as Ireland Chair of Poetry, is another must-read. Ní Chuilleanáin is an inspirational writer and thinker, I have admired her since I was one of her feckless students at Trinity decades ago. I love her intellectual strength and how her work is embedded in international myth and story and yet is unmistakably Irish. And there’s always a pile of poetry books to be dipped into, it grows by the week.
I escape into song when I can, at the Góilín Traditional Singing Club in Club na Múinteoirí in Parnell Square for example. I don’t need to sing myself, though I sometimes do. I enjoy hearing all the songs: Child ballads and new ballads, songs in Irish and songs from other traditions. My PhD was based on creative writing and ballads and I’ve given some academic papers on unusual songs. I feel in my element in the company of singers. My uncle Gerry Cullen is one of the group called The Voice Squad and their unaccompanied harmonies and love for song has been very important in my life. The Poolbeg chimneys are also a very resonant image for me and I like to walk the South Wall near them. My father Jack Cullen worked in Poolbeg for most of his life, ending up as the manager of the chemical division there. To me, those twin chimneys are the dreaming spires of Dublin.
On Poetry Ireland
It’s a privilege to be the first Poet in Residence. I don’t have to fill anyone else’s shoes but can wear my own, usually a pair of flowery Doc Martens. I was chosen for the role partly because of my experience in a wide range of writing and educational settings. I’ve worked for years on the Trinity Access Programmes and am strongly committed to educational equality. I’m also keen to demystify poetry. Primary schoolchildren have no fear of it, but the pressure of having to analyse poetry in secondary school seems to kill the joy for many. Then there are whole communities that don’t feel poetry reflects their experience. There’s a quote from Heaney on the wall in Poetry Ireland, “I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” I want to turn that around so that everyone can “see themselves” in poetry. I’ll be working with all kinds of groups to achieve that, and I hope I’ll also be writing up a storm myself.
Reading and writing poetry has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Poetry encapsulates experience like nothing else can. Poems can embody love and heartbreak, birth and death, or just the memory of my mother making brown bread or of my father developing photographs in the makeshift darkroom of the cupboard under the stairs. I love the economy of it, the obliqueness or directness of it, the control of words and thoughts that it forces. I never tire of hearing poets reading their work. We are rich in poets here in Ireland and I would urge anyone who has never been to a poetry reading to get along to Poetry Ireland or anywhere else where poems are read aloud and lose and find themselves.
On what’s next
I’m working with the Pathways group for former prisoners at Poetry Ireland every week and will continue that through 2020. I’ll also be doing mini-residencies with local schools around the North Inner City, writing poems, prose and songs. I’m presenting a paper about nuns in broadside ballads in London in February, off to Scotland with some young poets in March and to New Jersey in April to perform some of my songs and poems about the women of 1916 at Montclair University. It’s going to be a hectic year, just the way I like it!
Read more from the Writer’s Block series