Sophie Grenham speaks to NESSA O’MAHONY about family history, fictionalising reality and the private act of poetry …
Dubliner Nessa O’Mahony is a critically-acclaimed poet, editor, novelist and teacher. To date, she has published four collections of poetry: Bar Talk (1999, Italics Press), Trapping a Ghost (2005, Bluechrome Publishing), In Sight of Home (2009, Salmon Poetry) and Her Father’s Daughter (2014, Salmon Poetry). Joseph O’Connor described In Sight of Home as “a moving, powerful and richly pleasurable read, audaciously imagined and achieved” while Tess Gallagher said of Her Father’s Daughter, “words are her witching sticks and she employs them with beautiful, engaging intent, the better to make present what has preceded and what approaches.”
O’Mahony won the National Women’s Poetry Competition in 1997 and was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Prize and Hennessy Literature Awards. In addition to teaching creative writing with the Open University and facilitating writing workshops in Ireland and the UK, she has co-edited Eavan Boland: Inside History (2016) and Metamorphic (2017). She has also guest edited special Irish issues of Belgium’s De Brakke Hond and South Africa’s Carapace, as well as The Stony Thursday Book for the Limerick City and County Council arts office, and a special Irish edition of British magazine, The North.
O’Mahony’s maternal grandfather Michael McCann, who found his way into much of her poetry over the years, inspired her debut crime novel, The Branchman. Set in East Galway in 1925, not long after the birth of An Garda Síochána, the story begins when a young boy is savagely attacked. The first in a series of Michael Mackey mysteries, readers will discover an impressive narrative full of intrigue and animated dialogue. The Branchman comes widely recommended by O’Mahony’s peers. Donal Ryan called the work, “A taut, absorbing thriller, and a lucid and fascinating account of a riven and fragile young state. Brilliantly done.”
Nessa O’Mahony lives in Rathfarnham, Dublin with her husband. Nessa will be in conversation with Mary O’Donnell at the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival on March 30 2019. www.mountainstosea.ie.
The Branchman (€13.79) is published by Arlen House and available from selected bookshops nationwide.
I’ve been living off the Scholarstown Road in Rathfarnham since 1993. It was my first house purchase, back when I was employed and pensionable. I’d always considered this area as “the sticks” and never dreamed I’d end up moving here. But when I saw the house, on a corner site of a group of five houses in a very low-density, well-designed estate, I fell in love with it. There were trees everywhere, a stream ran at the back of the houses and the Dublin mountains were just at the top of the road. Deer would even wander down from time to time. The area has filled up with housing in the interim but there’s still plenty of greenery, two great parks within walking distance (St Enda’s and Marlay) and the mountains are there any time I need them.
I grew up in Churchtown, Dublin 14. My mother still lives there, so I drop over frequently. My street, Landscape Park, was linear with pebble-dashed houses, redbrick dividing walls, and roads with tar medians that bubbled in the summer. We played on the road all the time, taking our cue from major sport events: tennis when Wimbledon was on, soccer during the World Cup, cricket throughout the summer, dodge-ball, kick the can or just sitting on the kerb talking nonsense. You could fill a whole day just trailing up and down the road, as far as the lane, which was out of bounds when we were smaller. The bogeyman lived down there! When I first began writing, I was frustrated by the lack of scenery or inspiration in Churchtown. I even tried to write a poem comparing Landscape Park to Kavanagh’s stony grey soil. It wasn’t very successful.
On early reading
My mother was a stay-at-home mum with five small children, and I was the youngest and got most of her attention (or so my siblings tell me). But I don’t have strong memories of being read to – there were the usual Ladybird books, and I do remember a hardback anthology of Greek mythological tales related to the constellations. But my strongest memories are associated with me ranging around the bookshelves in every room of the house, reading whatever I could manage to reach. My parents had an Everyman collection of leather-bounds – The Water Babies, Lorna Doone, Ivanhoe, Jane Eyre – which I read my way through. My older sisters were reading The Chalet School series so soon I was too. My brother read the Just William and Billy Bunter books, and there I followed. I even remember sneaking a read of my father’s copy of Jaws, which was completely shocking to a seven-year-old. Then I discovered Agatha Christie, and my love of crime fiction began. My tastes were eclectic, because my family read so widely.
When I first moved into my house, I wasn’t a writer. For my 30th birthday I signed up for a creative writing course and wrote in the spare bedroom, on my newly acquired computer. My view was onto the back garden, the crab apple tree and the silver birch. All my early poems were written there. Then I moved to the UK to study and when I came back, I brought my husband with me. The spare room became storage space, so I wrote wherever I might grab a moment. We converted our attic in 2015 and now I have a lovely red IKEA desk nestling under a Velux window in the roof. Looking up and out I can see the top of the silver birch and the edge of one of the scots pines that line the side of the stream. As I write this, the sky is winter-blue and there is a rosy jet contrail creasing it.
One wall of the attic is shelved with poetry books – the fiction is kept downstairs. Apart from my cluttered desk and my husband’s incredibly tidy one across the floor, there’s a William IV library chair I bought at auction for my 50th birthday, one large black chair, a beautiful oriental rug inherited from my mother-in-law and various small tables and shelf units covered in even more books. The shelves are dotted with stones, shells and pottery (including a fragment we thought was Roman until told it was Victorian sewer piping!), ceramics and toy cars my husband miraculously preserved from childhood. Samuel Beckett features on two of the walls; a wonderful John Minihan portrait is over the stairs, and a pencil drawing by D Mackintosh with the “Fail Better” quote, is on the chimney breast closest to me. If I need a break I walk the dog to St Enda’s. I get my best ideas there.
On favourite bookshops
It is so hard to make that choice because there are so many splendid ones, and I’ve been discovering even more of them since I published my novel. If I were staying local, I’d always plump for the Rathfarnham Bookshop in the Rathfarnham Shopping Centre. It is always crammed with a fantastic choice of fiction, history and the latest bestsellers. They can order in anything you want and do so speedily. In Dublin city, I’d be torn between Books Upstairs and The Gutter Bookshop. Books Upstairs is simply an Aladdin’s Cave. I defy you to go in there and not buy something. Their poetry selection is beyond compare, they stock journals, crime fiction, philosophy, children’s books and serve the best mint tea out there. The Gutter Bookshop is equally brilliant, browsing is such a pleasure there and Bob Johnston and his colleagues are terrific to deal with.
On her “To Be Read” pile
Sometimes I have to read for work, sometimes for pleasure, and the current TBR pile reflects a bit of each. I’m chairing a panel on thriller fiction at the Ennis Book Club festival next month, so I’m reading two novels by the featured writers there, Michelle Richmond’s The Marriage Pact and No One You Know and I’ve just read Tanya Farrelly’s wonderful When Your Eyes Close. Also on the work/pleasure pile are various books by Mary O’Donnell. Her most recent book of stories, Empire, brings the world of Ireland and Irish émigrés in the first quarter of the 20th century vividly back to life. On the purely pleasure pile is Nuala O’Connor’s Becoming Belle (her heroine has Ballinasloe connections, just like my detective Mackey, though she moves in different social circles) and Niamh McBrannan’s thriller The Devil Looks After Its Own. Niamh is a stable mate of mine from Arlen House and I can’t wait to get stuck into her take on Dublin as “Sin City on the Liffey.” Arnold Fanning’s Mind on Fire is also on the pile – I’ve heard so many great things about it, and it is garnering plaudits all over the place.
There is a small corner of the Burren, close to Newquay and Ballyvaughan in County Clare that I constantly dream about. We’ve holidayed there on a number of occasions and every time we come back rested and spiritually recharged. There is an extraordinary quality of light and peace there; perhaps it’s the limestone absorbing everything and clarifying the air. I don’t know. I just feel at my most natural there. I also love Mayo, the county of my grandparents, and always feel my lungs expand when I go there. My friend, the poet Geraldine Mitchell, has a lovely house south of Louisburgh where I’ve been lucky enough to stay once or twice. It’s not quite on the Wild Atlantic Way so you don’t experience the crowds you might elsewhere and there’s nothing to distract from the ocean and view of the islands. There’s space and quiet and no Wi-Fi. What more could you ask for?
On Michael McCann
I have been obsessively mining family history throughout my writing life. I only knew my two grandmothers – my paternal grandfather died long before I was born and my maternal grandfather, Michael McCann, died when I was only six. I only have the faintest memories of him and they are probably based on photographs, rather than real life. I’d love to know what his voice sounded like. In my first book of poems, I included portraits of one grandmother, who died when she was 103. She was a very determined woman. In my second book, I included a sequence telling my maternal grandparents’ civil war love story. In my third, I focused on Michael McCann’s world war one story. I was convinced that his experience of the Great War, like many other Irishman who’d fought there, had been eclipsed by all the events that had followed in Ireland and it was time for his story to be heard.
On The Branchman
I began to write a memoir of Michael McCann as a gift for my mother’s 80th birthday. In that process, I uncovered lots of previously unknown information about his time fighting with the British Army in the Great War, and his exploits as a volunteer during the War of Independence, and his time as a commandant in the Free State Army during the Civil War. The more I read of the history, the more I understood the chaotic nature of Irish society during that period, and began to think it would be the perfect backdrop for crime fiction, and so The Branchman was born. I did struggle with the idea of turning real people into fictional characters though – this was especially true of the character of Annie, who was loosely based on my grandmother. In the end, in order to make her work dramatically, I had to change her into a very different type of woman – I suspect Granny would be horrified. I keep expecting to be haunted by her – you did not want to get on the wrong side of her!
For me, poetry remains quite a private act. You write it not expecting many people to read it, at least that has been my own experience of it. So that gives you the freedom to write what you want to write and explore the concerns that have the deepest significance to you without having too much concern about what the wider world might make of it. That’s liberating, really. The experience of writing fiction has been quite different. There’s a stronger sense of an audience, of an actual readership with their own opinions on what you are writing about. There are even spaces where they’ll feedback what they think, something that’s quite alien to the poetry world. Just imagine a Goodreads for poetry books – it defies imagination, really!
On what’s next
I’m currently finalising my fifth poetry collection, The Hollow Woman and the Island, which will be published by Salmon Poetry in May. And I’ve just begun to write the second in my Branchman series. There are so many untold stories out there from Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s, and Michael Mackey still has a good deal to learn about life, and how to survive it. I can’t wait to get back into novel-writing mode.
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