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1916 Rising: Not the usual Grandfather story

The-Rajah-Portrait-3 inchesThe Irish 1916 Rising, with its centenary coming up next year, is all over the place today, Easter Monday, anniversary of the rebellion in Easter, 1916 the consequences of which (to cut a long story short) resulted in the end of British Colonial rule in the majority of the country, and the establishment of the Republic of Ireland. I’ll be heading into the centre of town,where they have re-created Dublin in 1915 for the day – should prove interesting.

My own family’s Rebellion hero – although not a great national hero like many – is an interesting man by all accounts – one JJ or Jimmie Mulkerns.  He was a strolling player and aspiring actor at the time of the rising, and who also worked on the Great Western Railway.  Family lore has it that he stopped the train he was driving from the West  in the middle of Athlone bridge in order to stop troops being transported to Dublin to quash the event, subsequently hopping in a vehicle that was going to Dublin so he could participate in the rebellion.

Echo Article Full-BLOGThat may well be third-generation family legend, perhaps, so I’m standing by for various family members – or anybody else – to correct me on this, if you have facts.  But there is one fantastic story you won’t read anywhere else, originally published in 1997 in “The Irish Echo” – around the time that Neil Jordan’s film, “Michael Collins” was released. Family lore or not, a lot of it seems to add up – it solves an old Hollywood mystery, and it certainly makes a great yarn.

To read, What Did you do in the War, Grandpa?  which first appeared in New York’s Irish Echo newspaper, click on the image at the right, or here.  A downloadable PDF of the piece’s full text, for easier reading, will be available later today.

Today is not Father’s Day …


Jim Mulkerns

Today is not Father’s Day, but I always think of my father at Easter. He hated Father’s Day with a particularly venomous passion anyway, just like he hated any crap Hallmark holiday manufactured to make people buy stupid cards and pretend we’re all happy as Larry. My father was not Larry. He was an artist, and a flawed romantic. He could make really excellent case for being a witty, boozy, happy go lucky raconteur, and a lot of the time that’s what he was, too.

He was a deeply sentimental man at times as well, who loved dogs and cats and old movies – and he was madly and utterly in love with my mother all his life. But it was the spaces in between, sometimes pretty dark, that made him both interesting, heart breaking and a man who ended up that figure that Joni Mitchell described so well when she wrote, “all romantics meet the same fate … “

I think of him at Easter because potentially, it’s an opportunity to have one of those “Happy Family” occasions, although in our house certainly not much to do with Jesus, whom my father had interesting respect for, despite hating the Catholic church. Easter 2003 I was studying in NUIG, and instead of joining my parents for Sunday dinner, I chose to stay down in Galway and study. Whatever. Eight days later my father was dead, and so while we probably wouldn’t have had a Hallmark Easter holiday, we might have shared a drink for the road …    (more…)

For Mother’s Day: from “Motherland”


In 1998, I was invited to contribute to an anthology of writings about mothers and daughters, edited by Caledonia Kearns and published by William Morrow, New York.

It was a stunning collection of reflections from a writers ranging from Margaret Sanger to Susan Minot and more, and I saw it as an amazing opportunity to interview my mother and ask her a lot of questions I’d always wanted to ask, and so when she visited New York that Spring, where I was living at the time, we sat over several hours and she talked about growing up in Ireland during the war, the fifties, having kids and being an artist.

In honour of Helen Quinn Mulkerns this mother’s day, I’d like to post it now – with illustrations.  Click on the image or here to download the full PDF.

She has her own website at:, if you’d like to see more of her art work.

Happy Mother’s day, Mam!

Considering the times: an anniversary remembered

He pulls me out of the cabin near the beach, and tells me the tide is alive. He says that out in the blue night a million tiny vessels are flowing along the current off to somewhere else, and he wants us to go with them. I say no. The hut near the beach is all we have, where we can rest in relative safety, considering the times.
from Famine Fever, a short story


In November 1995, prompted by a significant historical anniversary, I wrote a short fiction piece on a big emotional issue:  the Great Famine.  This morning, I woke up and realised that this year was another anniversary, albeit not one people have tended to note.  I’ve decided to re-post Famine Fever before the year is out, considering the times.

 since there are still people in crisis in our community and very close by, I thought I’d post these too:

Simon Community   Concern   ALONE    De Paul Ireland   Oxfam   Focus Ireland


My first book to be published by Doire Press

My great news this week is that the literary publishing house based in Galway, Doire Press, is to publish my first collection of short stories, Ferenji, in 2016.


DOIRE PRESS was founded in 2007 in Connemara by Lisa Frank and John Walsh, also both writers, who seek to publish new and emerging writers who give voice to what it means to be Irish in a changing Ireland.

Since then Doire Press has continued to blossom,  publishing writers as diverse as  Susan Millar DuMars, Miceál Kearney, Aileen Armstrong, Celeste Augé, Jim Mullarkey and Madeleine D’Arcy, whose collection Waiting for the Bullet won the Edge Hill Readers’ prize; and poets Kimberly Campanello, Kevin O’Shea, Paul O’Reilly, Susan Lindsay, Jo Hemmant, Dimitra Xidous and Adam White, whose book, Accurate Measurements was the only Irish publication to be shortlised for the prestigious Forward Prize in 2013.

Their anthologies include 30 under 30, chosen as a Top Ten Title of 2012 by Joseph O’Connor in The Irish Times, and Galway Stories, a collection of short stories set in neighbourhoods throughout the city and county of Galway by many of Ireland’s top writers, including Kevin Barry, Mary Costello, Mike McCormack, Nuala Ní Chonchuír, Olaf Tyaransen and Julian Gough.

deirdre-unforgiven-coverI first met John and Lisa in December of 2013, when I was assigned to write a review for Hot Press of Eamon Carr’s first published play, Deirdre Unforgiven: A Journal of Sorrows  (you can read that review here, BTW).

Eamonn’s book was beautifully produced, and featured a compelling cover with ink line drawing by John Devlin. The play itself is a fascinating exploration of the old Deirdre of the Sorrows legend. Since original drama is rarely given such handsome treatment, I looked up the Doire Press website and found more excellent new Irish writing there.

While – like every other contemporary writer of short stories and poetry – I had initially toyed with the idea of self-publishing, I made a submission of my work to Doire Press the following year when their annual open call for submissions came out, and while my 2014 proposal – a collection of stories on the theme of Irish emigrants abroad – wasn’t selected, my 2015 one – short stories set among peacekeepers, aid workers and press working in conflict and post-conflict zones – was. Happily, it will now be published as one of their 2016 titles.

The other titles writers to be published in the coming year by Doire Press are:

The Woman on the Other Side by Stephanie Conn
Jewtown by Simon Lewis
Hearing Voices / Seeing Things by William Wall
Peacekeeper by Michael J. Whelan
Proof of a Great Restlessness by Adam White

I’m very proud to be part of this great group of artists, and look forward to working with John and Lisa at Doire Press in 2016 for my debut collection of short stories, Ferenji.

So, now – back to the writing, but more anon!


published in Motherland, edited by Caledonia Kearns, William Morrow, 1997


HELENA:  I had a dream of matriarchs. The cottage was small and dark, and in one corner, an elderly woman with mischievous eyes sat beside a fire, on which rested a small, bright copper kettle. She was indistinct in the shadows, but the steam off the kettle rose steady, and the whole room reflected rosily in the round copper surface.

In the center of the room, a woman, in her mid-thirties, with a gentle face and capable manner, was working at a wooden table. Several other women were bustling around another fireplace to her right. There was a sideboard on her left that had upon it, among other things, a dead rabbit and a laptop computer.

When the woman at the table looked up at me, I realized it was my grandmother, Ellen D’Arcy Quinn. The other women were my mother and aunts: Dolores, Eve, Ursula, Helen, and Madeleine. The elderly lady was, most likely, my great-great-grandmother Eliza, born in 184o.

My grandmother didn’t speak, but she looked at me quite directly, with striking dark eyes. As I woke up, in my gray New York studio, I realized that her eyes had been communicating a very distinct imperative, that I should talk to my mother, Helen.

I remember E-mailing Mam about this dream, and noting that we should get together for a real chat, but it wasn’t until Caledonia called me up requesting a piece for her new anthology that I actually had the perfect opportunity to do this.

I called my cousin Jackie Quinn, in Birmingham, England, who, for the last twelve years, has been researching the maternal side of the family. She sent me a thick pile of collated information detailing the family back as far as 1789. My second cousin, Gerardine Loughman in San Francisco, sent me a beautiful photo of our great-grandmother’s gravestone, which I forwarded by E-mail to Helen, mentioning that Motherland had room for the story of a daughter who left and a mother who stayed – the experience of several generations of women in the family already.

Jackie’s research revealed a fascinating mosaic of lives, both tragic and joyous. Take Ellen Delaney, born in 1848 and who, at around age nineteen, fell deeply in love with one John Armstrong, a young Protestant student from the North of England, over on vacation in Kildare. When the two announced their engagement (a Catholic Irishwoman and a Protestant Englishman), both families disowned them. They ran away to Dublin to live together until she was twenty-one and no longer needed her father’s consent to be married. Four months after the wedding, our great-grandmother Mary Jane was born.

Then there was Eliza McGrath, our other great-great-grandmother, who married John D’Arcy on September 28, 1818. They had a baby which died at birth, while in the nearby manor house, Lord Carew’s wife had also had a baby the same day, but the mother herself had not survived the birth. Lord Carew asked if Eliza would wet-nurse the motherless baby, and although she refused at first, she realized the baby would die otherwise, twice a day, she would travel in the lord’s carriage up to the manor house. As the child grew up, he looked upon her family as his own, until Lord Carew sent him away to boarding school. Eliza used to like’ a little drop of whiskey or poteen in later years and owned a small copper kettle in which she distilled the latter. It is now in New York City, the only “family heirloom” in my possession.

I left home for the first time when I was sixteen, to go and teach English in Spain. Since then, I have been “away” more than at home. At first, you don’t stop to analyze your situation, because everything is so exciting and new. The sense that you may be missing the world that you uprooted yourself from doesn’t develop for some time.

Communication with “home” can be deceiving.  You try to be positive, so do those at home, dealing with the immediate, keeping up with the local gossip. No one likes to send bad news, and bringing up old ghosts can always be left until the next time. The visit home at Christmas becomes the annual, obligatory “catching up” stint, reserved for fa1nily and old friends. It’s usually spent rushing around, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and not spending enough time with anybody, least of all family.

When you then head back to Australia, London, New York, Munich, or Tokyo on one of those subdued, packed flights around the eighth or ninth of January, you’re left regretting all the things you didn’t say, all the questions unasked, the dreams unexpressed. You’ll be lucky if you just about had time to meet everybody and “say hello.”

Gradually, as the years go by, you become increasingly distanced, more emotionally than geographically. Home is just a plane ride away, but a million miles in terms of the reality of what you’ve missed out on “at home,” whether it be important changes in your parents’ and friends’ lives or just the very necessary bond that makes a loved one real to you.

My mother, Helen, did not emigrate, choosing to stay in Ireland when it was experiencing an upturn in its economic fortunes in the sixties. She has remained there, with my father, and we have communicated down the years by letter, phone, and more recently via E-mail. I think I know her, and try to spend as much time with her as possible when I go home, but then again, when I leave, I always feel that it hasn’t been enough.

I’ve always wanted to ask her what it was like for her, growing up in Ireland through the war and the fifties, experiencing the sixties (which she once described to me, late one night after one of her openings, as “the high point of the universe”). Occasional memories and half-forgotten stories are often not enough. We ended up having extended interviews, where I learned a lot about both her and where I come from, an exercise both enjoyable and fascinating.

My earliest memory of Helen is of her on a bright summer afternoon, in a turquoise dress, with her blond hair up in a funny chignon and smiling. Another involves a waft of Chanel No. 5, with her wearing a pale pink, embossed satin ball gown, leaning over my crib to kiss me good-bye when leaving to go out one night. I still hate the smell of that perfume, presumably since it meant “Mother leaving.”

I went through a period of rejecting my mother in my teens, so perfectly described in Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia that I gave her a copy of it to read, in a belated attempt at explanation. But since my late twenties, she has really become my best friend, and certainly the person with whom I’m in most regular contact, despite the distance.

Still, that funny look from my grandmother in the dream voiced what I “kept meaning to do” – that is, get a chance to sit down and speak with her. I know my mother, and yet I don’t. She has always been a very kind and compassionate person but at the same time seemed to me to be often quite reserved, and conservative. As I’ve (or we’ve) grown older, however, I see her increasingly as tolerant and open-minded, with a certain innate charm that touches most people and an understated lust for life that keeps her spirit much younger than her age in chronological years. She has always encouraged anything I chose to do and never turned against me for mistakes I have made.

She refuses to acknowledge herself as a “feminist,” which disappoints me, but then, all things considered, including our interview, I realize that she has basically lived her life, albeit in her own quiet, private way, as a feminist. She has gone against the grain in a number of ways and is now achieving one of her early aspirations, working as an artist, in watercolors and oils. We are in frequent contact on the Internet.

Absence: does the term sound less desolate as the world becomes smaller with our ever information-drenched, communication complex society? Or is its vocabulary still, by default, a forced repartee, stemming from the fact that we often try to deny the distance is even there? We carry on regardless, as if the ache of missing someone is just not an issue.

I’ve been absent for a long time and have only recently begun to reflect on this. Somewhere between my grandmother’s dream look and Helen and me sitting down to talk in spring 1998 in New York and Connecticut, it occurred to me that this was a chance to decode our tenuous vocabulary of absence-or at least make a beginning at doing so.    

For the full text of this piece, you can purchase the book online from various sellers, or contact me directly.