Cobh by Colm McDonagh
Something in the Water.
There must be something in the water that nourishes writers on this Great Island of ours, as it has such an abundance of them. Perhaps, as the Lee flows along, it gathers stories from its many tributaries and courses, tumbling them in its stream as it flows ever onward on its journey to the Atlantic. Or maybe it’s the nature of living on the harbour, where for centuries ships have sailed and sheltered as the flow of commerce from across the nation has funnelled goods and people to its quaysides; then onward to new horizons waiting out past Roches point.
Something draws them to come to rest, like so many grains of sand, onto the shores of Cobh. This never-resting, ever-changing harbour has borne witness to the heartache of the emigrant and the excitement of unknown adventures for those drawn to a life on the ocean. Cobh’s every corner is etched with history and the endless search for fresh possibilities seems to stimulate the creativity of the local writers. They wait like Heaney at his desk, ‘Between my finger and my thumb, The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.’, and what a range of stories our local writers unearth in their digging.
When one sits down to write about writers and ponder on who to speak with before the next Cobh Readers and Writer Festival takes place from April the 11th to 14th 2019, it is a privilege to be able to reach out to someone like Trish Carlos, who kindly took some time out of her busy life as a teacher, mother and writer to speak to me. Trish, as I am sure most local people will know, is a talented writer, whose first book ‘The Silver Comb’ has built up a solid fan base and her short stories which she publishes online on her website, http://www.trishcarlos.com, are also reproduced regularly on local media.
I began by asking her you describe what current project she is working on? ‘‘The first, is the follow up to my first book of the ‘Dare to Believe’ trilogy, the second book is called ‘Human Child’. I am mid-way through the writing of that. The plot and all that kind of stuff is all settled, and the characters are organised. I know what is happening and I am just physically doing the writing bit at the moment. I am working through the chapters, once that is finished the editing process will start.’ I am personally enjoying reading Trish’s short stories and I asked her would she give us a flavour of her work to come, which has gained an audience both online and through social media. ‘I am…working on a body of short stories, which I have started publishing on my website this September. They are seasonal-ish; the October ones were a little more on the sinister side for Halloween. The November ones are about remembering lost ones, because it is the month of all souls. Decembers will be Christmassy, with different takes on that. I hope these will see me up to the New Year.’
If you are like me, you may be a little in awe of someone who is so busy, yet is still able to be so creative, I wanted to know how does she find time to fit her writing into her packed schedule? ‘It’s the first thing that suffers, unfortunately, as it’s my release and my relaxation. I love it. Just to escape into the world of it. As a mom, and working a full-time job, and I also help to run a Charity called ‘Butterfly Wings’. I work with the Cobh Readers and Writers Festival as well. So, it suffers, but I must be disciplined; two or three nights a week I sit down for at least half an hour, if not more; inevitably if I have managed to sit myself down it will be more. Because once I’m into it, I’m into it and that’s it.’ Like so many working mums, Trish has only so many hours in the day, ‘It’s normally after the boys go to bed, and the lunches are ready, and the house is tidy, and I have everything sorted that I can sit down.’ When lots of other would then be thinking about putting their feet up or their head down, Trish says that ‘Unfortunately for me, I am a night owl, I do like to sleep but I am a night owl. Those first ten or fifteen minutes when you are getting settled in bed, and you think you are ready to drift off, that is when I get a lot of my ideas. So, I have taken to writing things into my phone to get it out of my head.’
During the summer I read one of Trish’s posts about her writing space, so I asked her to share the story again with me. I was struck at the time by the manner in which she wrote about it; it obviously means lot to her and maybe it helps her to create these wonderful tales by being seated in front of it, ‘I have a beautiful desk that my husband restored for me, it’s his grandmothers’ desk. Which she acquired from UCC, it’s an old lectures desk. It’s old, we are not sure, but we think from the 1800s. It was being thrown away but through a family connection they managed to rescue it and it ended up in Declan’s Grandmothers house, under about fifty layers of paint and once it was stripped back its beauty was revealed.’ This successful rescue and restoration took great care and great time to achieve ‘Even its original ink wells are intact, and it still has loads of ink stains on it, as when Declan took the paint off it and restored it, he was very sympathetic to its original state.’ Trish makes great use out of this wonderful old desk ‘I have it in my little study…so that’s where I write. I am typist rather than a longhand writer. I do my notes and my plots and all of that out in my little notebooks; then I sketch out where I think the stories are going to go, but when I actually sit down to write I am a typist.’
A question which I have been asking nearly everyone for this article is, ‘do you think there is anything about Cobh or living in Cobh that sets you up as a writer?’. ‘I think we are a town that is steeped in history and architecture; we live on the second largest natural harbour in the world. There is so much in the town, culturally we have such a rich background of nautical history and in terms of Irish history, Cobh has a lot of links to so many things.’ Then Trish brought up a great point about the identity of our town, ‘We are islanders too, being from Cobh is very important to me; my mom is a blow-in, but I would see myself as a Cobh person. My first book is based in Cobh, so for the whole trilogy the main character is based out of Cobh.’ She went on to say that ‘I just feel that we have such an enormous number of things to share with the outside world, that it provides so much inspiration, you can’t help but want to write about it.’
The Sliver Comb, Trish Carlos
Eager to pick up some tips from this inspiring lady, I asked her did she find there any supports available to her as a writer in Cobh? Were any groups or government funding available when she first started out? ‘Well, I choose the self-publishing route, which means as you said earlier, I am a bit of a maverick, so I went out on my own.’. She has also reached out to and has been supported by many people., ‘I must say the Cobh Readers and Writers were a great support. Some of the members there are self-published authors, like Anne McSweeney and Anna Keating were great in helping me. Paula Courtney who was our local librarian at the time was also great when I was trying to get things up and running.’ She also touched on a really important part of self-publishing, funding the projects, ‘My local credit union here in Cobh have been phenomenal. Self-publishing a book isn’t cheap and Michael and all the staff there were a great help to me. I don’t think I would have been able to do it without them.’
A quality which Trish shares with so many fellow Cobhites is that she is always giving back to her community. Trish helps to run the charity Butterfly Wings and their big annual fundraiser is the ‘Butterfly Ball’. I for one think it is a real credit to Trish, her entire family, and all her friends. ‘We set up the Charity in 2006 when I was the Cork Rose. My Aunt was ill at the time with breast cancer and she missed out on going to Tralee for the festival and the celebratory ball afterwards. It was the one time that it would be within our ability to throw a ball and people wouldn’t think who do this crowd think they are. So, we threw a ball that year, but unfortunately, we had it all organised and she sadly passed away before it took place. We held it in celebration of her life and in her memory that year. So, the charity grew out of that.’ The people of Cobh are so generous and supportive to this wonderful charitable effort, which as Trish explains is in ‘…our thirteenth year and just the support is brilliant. It’s always locals, always the same people, always tying in, always helping, always supporting us. The next ball is the 9th of March 2019.’ I have included links to all of Trish work and websites below. I am sure that her short stories will gain followers with each passing week and I am convinced that her next book will be as successful as the first. If you are looking to give a book for a teen this Christmas, then I think that ‘The Silver Comb’ would be a great idea to start.
Steeped in history this mighty island has a host of local historians and many of those have put pen to paper, however standing out from this talented crowd is Dr Michael Martin. The creator of the internationally acclaimed ‘Titanic Trail’, he is also the author of a number of books on different historical topics and the very popular souvenir booklet ‘Titanic Trail (Cobh/Queenstown)’
Michael was born in Dublin in 1958. He came to Cork in 1974 and he worked with the Simon Community in the Johns Street in the night shelter as a volunteer, before he joined the Irish Naval Service in 1975, where he gave 23 years of exemplary service, including service with the United Nations. He began to put down his roots in Cobh when as a young man he and a few of his comrades were among the first to apply for and receive living out passes, which allowed them to reside off the base in Pearse Street in Cobh in 1977/78. So, Michael feels that he ‘got a different perspective on Cobh, because up to that era most people who came down from up the country and joined the Navy, only really knew Cobh from going out there on a Friday or Saturday night. They weren’t really immersed in the community.’ This immersion he feels allowed him to build a consciousness of his surroundings, not just of the main streets and coupled with a long-held interest in history it formed a lasting impression. I asked Michael what drew him to take his first journey in writing?
Dr. Michael Martin
‘I had been writing things like poetry from the time I was very young, I always had an interest in literary things.’ He shared with me that he had a very specific motivation when he decided to write his first book. ‘…because as an outsider to Cobh I just marvelled at the architectural beauty of the place and the heritage of the place, and in 1997 it seemed to me that there was Tourism product in the town centre at all. Buses would arrive down the low road to the Heritage Centre, the passengers would visit the centre, go to the shop and the restaurant. Then it would be back onto the bus and back out the same way via the low road.’ This led Michael to decided that he must conceive some way of getting people to come along into the town. His idea was a little booklet and he raised sponsorship for a series of phosphor bronze plaques around the town. ‘…the idea of this first little booklet was people would come into the town, buy this little booklet and head off around the town and have the place interpreted for them’
Having retired from the Naval Service, Michael set up and still operates a historical guided walking tour of the town of Cobh and has had visitors from over 85 countries on his walk. I was curious to find out how the locals perceived this Dublin man’s mission to expose tourists to the architecture and heritage of ‘their town’? He recalls that when it was first proposed to an early version of what is now the Cobh Tourism Committee, they were not too receptive. However, he expressed his determination and drove on with his quest. ‘…the local population did find it a bit strange to have this Dublin fella walking around the place, showing other people their town. But there is a great deal of pride and ownership among the people of Cobh’
Michael has rightly been praised for his pioneering efforts and he received the Cobh Mayors award in 2005 for his work for the town and was made an honorary citizen of Baltimore USA by the Mayor there in 2003. His ‘Titanic Trail’ stands out as an example to others and tourism in the town is growing year on year. There are now a range of options for the tourists to enjoy, including other walking tours and even three museums to visit. His booklet, ‘Titanic Trail Cobh/Queenstown’ has sold over 84,000 copies to date, which by any measure is an exceptional success story. In 2004 he went back to full-time education in University College Cork and University of California at Berkeley where he completed his PhD on Irish Civil-Military Relations in 2010.
The Titanic Trail.
Michael’s other books include the following titles, ‘Spike Island: Saints, Felons and Famine’ from 2007 explores and compares the ecclesiastical period on the island with that of the period during which it was used as a convict depot during the famine and later. ‘RMS Lusitania: It wasn’t, and it didn’t’ was published in October 2014. This work examines the events surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania and raises uncomfortable questions about actions taken before, during and after the sinking of the ship by a German submarine in May of 1915. While acknowledging the great human tragedy of the incident, the book challenges the traditional narrative ‘it was a savage attack on an innocent vessel that brought America into the war’ and sets out to show that it wasn’t an innocent vessel and did not bring America into the war.
His latest book, published in October 2016 entitled ‘Breaking Ranks, the shaping of civil-military relations in Ireland’ details the emergence of these representative bodies. In 1989 Michael Martin played a leading role in the efforts to attain the right of association for serving members of Ireland’s Army, Navy and Air Corps. During the lengthy negotiations that eventually followed with representatives of the government, he was the lead negotiator and strategist. When legislation and regulations were finally enacted he was the first in the history of the Irish State to be elected to the position of General Secretary of the newly formed statutory representative body for members of the Irish armed forces.
Breaking Ranks, Dr. Michael Martin
He is currently hard at work on his next book, a history book based on Cork harbour and this newest addition to his ever-growing library of works is due for publication next year. I wanted to see could I gain a few insights into his method and Dr Martin explained that ‘…I use a little bit of everything in my writing, but it is very rarely spontaneous. Most of my writing is done in the winter because my work is seven days a week in the summer months. I like to do most of my writing in the morning, up early maybe 7 o’clock, and I am disciplined enough to say ‘right, you are writing until 10 or whatever.’ For a change of scene and as a type of retreat Michael will try to get a ‘…cottage break or similar in some remote place; Castletownbere, or Bantry, and I have even been up in the Tipperary mountains. Given the time of year, these holiday homes or villages can be very inexpensive and there are often largely empty at that time of year. But I do feel you need that separation and tranquillity.’
Another creative veteran who calls our island home is the truly talented Michelle Dunne; mother, business manager, peacekeeper and novelist! With four novels already to her name, it was no surprise that Michelle has an active current project. I was keen to have her tell me all about it. ‘I’m working on a book called “The People Upstairs ” at the minute and I am just finishing up the first draft. My first two novels were published on a small scale as e-books some years ago; then I took my writing in a very different direction and wrote a fictional book based on some of my own experiences with the army and UN.’ Her work was recognised as having that special something and when a high-profile literary agent who had represented such huge authors as Salman Rushdie signed Michelle up, she says ‘I thought I’d hit gold!’
However, Michelle’s journey shows something important to any prospective authors reading this, that it takes hard work to make an idea into a draft and it takes an even more gargantuan effort to turn that draft into a book. ‘While they were offering that out to publishers, a single publisher at a time, with each taking months to consider new projects, I wrote a fourth book called “While Nobody Is Watching”.’ This next volume in her series of books is she explains, based around a ‘central character Lindsey Ryan, who is a former soldier living with PTSD.’ It was also a new departure for her writing ‘It was more of a psychological thriller.’ Again, Michelle meet with success as ‘the agency loved it, and after another year or more of submitting, it turned out there was some interest in this. But, before a publisher would commit to the project, they wanted to know what comes next! So just like that, I had to write another book, my current project just to prove that I could.’
Michelle’s military background has given her huge experiences to draw into her writing, I wanted to know more about her service and what it meant to her? ‘Well, you can find a number of books about the military, most of which are quite negative, especially from the female perspective. My experience was the opposite of that, and after seeing one particularly negative account, I suppose I wanted to write the other side.’ She is hugely positive of her time in the Defence Forces, ‘I joined up the best recruit platoon ever! I’m still friends with most of them today. After that I went to an infantry unit in Limerick, the 12th Infantry Battalion.’ She and her female colleague were the first women to be stationed there. It took some adjustment for the other soldiers, as she tells me that ‘granted, at first they didn’t seem to know what to do with us, but in no time, we were a part of the furniture there.’ Following in the footsteps of generations of Irish soldiers, Michelle volunteered for United Nations Service, ‘I went to Lebanon for 6 months. As it transpired, I ended up being the only woman in B-Coy and our six months was spent in a very active area of operations at that time. Not long after coming home, upon completion of my NCOs course, I was promoted to Corporal and I went on to train recruits in Limerick.’
Michelle Dunne on a UN rifle range in South Lebanon
She remembers her time in the Army with great fondness ‘My experience in the army helped me to develop as a person. In my mind, it built character and helped me to develop a thick skin, which absolutely helped me as an author!’ The never give up attitude has stood to her as she says that ‘you have no idea how many scathing rejection letters I received in the early days, but rather than being put off, I learned from each one and used them to improve my writing.’ She adds that ‘Plus, there’s no better place in the world to get inspiration for writing than being a part of any military group; the characters, the stories … they’re second to none!
If you were not already impressed by Michelle, you might be finding it hard to believe that she is also a manager in a busy company, ‘Fit for Life’; like Trish Carlos above I wondered how does she fit her creative work into her life? ‘It’s a nationwide company delivering services like physio, rehab & staff training in relevant areas to nursing homes, hospitals etc all over the country. I help manage the Munster region, so I’m on the road a lot.’ This time spent away from home is not easy however Michelle says that ‘I never leave home without a book though, that’s always been the case. But when I’m working on a project myself the book is replaced with my laptop, so any spare minute that I’d usually spend reading, is spent writing instead. Mainly lunch breaks and when I manage to get an hour or two in the evenings.’ Her writing is her passion and despite such demands on her time, she feels that ‘It’s not always easy fitting everything in, but I absolutely love books, both reading and writing, so it’s never a chore. It’s always a pleasure whenever I get the chance.’
Winning hearts and minds.
Creative writing is not just limited to books, we have on the island a thriving theatrical scene, the foremost of the thespian groups being ‘The Haulbowline Theatre Company’ and one member of that group is a noted screenwriter and playwright, Glenn Kavanagh. I caught Glenn while he was away in England recently and he had some time to spare, wasting no time I asked him to describe what he is currently writing. ‘I’ve written for many places around Cork, such as for CIT and Cork Arts Theatre, but mainly with Haulbowline Theatre group. I write plays, mainly dark comedies but other content as well.’ I am glad that Glenn mentions that ‘Every year we do a series of one-act plays in the Sirius Arts Centre for the Cobh Readers & Writers Festival.’ These one-act gems were well received by anyone who attends them in 2017 and they were a real treat for festival goers. With solemn ceremonies and commemorations taking place across the country in this the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice, Glenn is involved in Cobh’s commemoration efforts ‘I’m writing a small piece for remembrance of WWI in November and will perform it myself along with pieces by several others.’
Glenn Kavanagh, 2nd from left.
Since Glenn’s writing is so different to our novelists and historical writers above, I asked him what does he think it is about Cobh that makes it such a hive of writers and creative people? ‘I never knew how popular it was until I met with other writers. But I suppose it must stem from experiences down through the years and then it spreads through generations…hopefully that will continue to happen and grow.’ He couldn’t put his finger on it, yet he offered that ‘the town is big with all arts, be it music or theatre. It’s a big wonder why there’s no dedicated theatre or venue as such!’ He also added that ‘I suppose when people are exposed to other writers, they then want to have a stab at it themselves. That’s what happened to me anyway’
Glenn is a local small business owner and fits all his writing in around his work, he tells me that ‘I constantly write the whole time, if I get an idea for a play or screenplay to maybe use in the future or to at least hold onto the idea.’, which seems to be a really common theme with all our writers. Their creative mind never seems to fully switch off. Glenn credits David McCall as someone who influenced him as he started out writing and along the way, many others have helped and supported him. ‘…he did a play with us in transition year and we were acting in it and I was curious that he wrote it himself and he didn’t do a course or go to college’ Inspired, Glenn put pen to paper and ‘ I wrote a play about the teachers in our school but due to some of the teachers it never went ahead’, however, this was the start of it all. He was greatly encouraged by ‘the feedback from people I showed it to, they loved it and I progressed from there!’
The Haulbowline Theatre Group
As he progressed to college after secondary school, he was again supported by Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), ‘In terms of support, CIT was a huge stepping stone and the feedback from that opened doors for me. Eventually, I found my way back to my roots in Cobh and have been writing regularly with them for the past 2 years!’ His time in CIT was a formative experience ‘I acted with the society my first year. The director, Bryan Humphreys, had read some of my material and asked me to write a play for the following year, which was brilliant support and it opened up everything.’ Glenn echoes Michelle by facing the critics and drawing lessons from the good and the bad ‘I also thrive on any negative feedback and it drives me to get better’. When he is not working or rehearsing or performing, Glenn is writing! ‘I write at my desk at home, but I could get an idea any time of the day and jot it down on paper or even my phone for later.’
Last, but by no means least on my journey across Cobh prying into the creative lives of all these wonderful authors, I had the opportunity to talk to Trevor Laffan. Trevor is a retired Garda and a blogger/journalist whose work is widely read. A recent article of his in the Evening Echo is a must read, in it Trevor describes with a humbling honesty his recent illness and his operation for prostate cancer. I got to speak to Trevor on his first journey outside his home since his operation. You can tell by the energy which comes across so naturally from Trevor, that he is a person of great strength and I am sure everyone wishes him the very best for a speedy recovery.
Trevor was the Sergeant in charge of community policing in Cork for ten years before he retired, before that he was in the communications centre which is responsible for command and control for about five years. He found that he was beginning to have some spare time as his children were grown up. ‘…I was always into writing, yet I found that I didn’t have the confidence, I would do it privately and quietly.’ In his professional work, there was always reports and similar paperwork to be written and he enjoyed that work which many others wouldn’t take too, as he explains more ‘…so I got a notion one day, that I would go to UCC and I took myself off out there to do a Diploma in Journalism in 2006.’ I was curious as to how he found taking on such a challenge in his late forties? ‘…not really. I was a small bit daunted in so far as I figured that I would be in with a bunch of young fellas and I was not sure how the studying would fare out and that.’
But Trevor persisted and discovered one of his fellow students was in her 70s and another in his 80s, with plenty of people from across the age ranges. He took to it like a duck to water as he describes to me, with obvious remembrance of happy days ‘…I actually loved it. I couldn’t wait for them to give us an assignment. You’d have four or five weeks to do it, and I would have it done in a day or two. And then I would be looking for more’ When he successfully completed his studies, he took on his first journey into journalism, he interviewed a man who had completed a climb in South America and it was published in ‘The County’, which is a Cork Examiner supplement. This was a great boost to Trevor, yet he fell away from journalism for a while until he went to serve with the United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mission with an Garda Síochána for one year in 2014. While there he took another notion to start a blog, which didn’t go too well, and it was abandoned. Returning home from UN service, Trevor decided to call time on his Garda career and while beginning to enjoy his retirement, he took the blog back up again. He had only created two new online pieces when John Dolan from the Evening Echo got in contact and said that Maurice Gubbins the Editor of the Evening Echo, had spotted his writing and was wondering if he would be able to make his online pieces a little longer, in order that they might be published in print in the Echo.
The Thin Blue Line, Trevor on UN duty with an Garda Siochana
If you, like myself, enjoy Trevor’s work, then you may agree with me that the pieces come across as very honest writing, he has an ability to give his views plainly and truthfully, even on difficult subjects, Trevor says ‘…others have said that as well, the pieces are honest. I kind of don’t get it, I wanted to keep my writing light from the outset, it wasn’t about making people miserable.’ I wanted to know if Trevor was intent on making this a second career for himself? ‘…I have done some work for the Daily Mail and I do some work for the retired Garda magazine ‘SIOCHAIN’ and I have worked for ‘The Journal’. But I am not interested in making a full-time career out of it. I may stop it when the fun goes out of it. But the fun is still there, and I think I stuff written up to the end of July next year.’ Sticking with my prying into their secrets, I asked where did Trevor make the magic happen. ‘…I have a little office at home and I lock myself in there sometimes. But generally, I find that if I get annoyed about something, I grab the laptop and sit down to trash into out, often in minutes! It can help to get worked up about something!’ Eager to get a forecast of the work to come, I pressed Trevor for some details of his forthcoming work ‘A range of subjects are waiting; everything that you could mention, from ageism to personal stories of my own life, to the changing face of Irish life such as modern communications. If I am in bed at night and I get a notion, I’ll even grab the phone and make a note of it.’
Here is where this journey must come to an end for this month, the talented and creative people that have given so generously of their time to take part in the article are to be admired and supported. We have such wonderful writers living on our Great Island, their work enriches our lives as they share the stories they have built from those grains of sand with all of us. It is plain to see that the commitment and effort required by all these writers is massive. They work tirelessly without any firm belief in reward or success. They labour for the love of it. I would urge you all to read some of their work, purchase a copy of it if you can and if you can’t, maybe just give them your verbal support with some positive feedback by leaving a like or a comment online, or maybe even share something from their respective sites or posts on your own social media timelines.
These storytellers are everywhere you look in Cobh and there is definitely something in the water. Come and join us in Cobh from Thursday the 11th of April until Sunday the 12th, you won’t be disappointed!
Cobh Readers and Writers:
The title image is the work of the wonderful Cobh Photographer Colm McDonagh. Please find his work here and here. Please support this kind and generous local man, who allows volunteer community groups such as our Cobh Readers and Writers Festival group to use his hard work in order to support what we do. That is the definition of support for one’s community. Thank you Colm.
The rest of the images are the property of the persons interviewed.