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Irish Independent “top book picks” 2016 – Ferenji

The Irish Independent newspaper asked Irish Writers for their “top book picks” of 2016 for the Christmas Eve issue, and it was great to see Dermot Bolger giving the heads up to Ferenji in his input.  Click here or on the image below for details.

He notes:  “It is also lovely when a writer whose stories you have read with pleasure for years finally collects them in an overdue debut, and I was very taken with Helena Mulkerns’ Ferenji (Doire Press) where she mines her experiences as someone working in remote, dangerous regions with the United Nations to create short fictions which are finely written and astutely observed, in terms of the human heart and of the physical terrain they skilfully traverse.” 

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In Ireland, the Celtic Salmon Stirs

first published in The New York Times (Intelligence Column), April 2012.

 

Despite encouraging signs of a slow but steady return to a healthier economy, the recession still haunts Ireland.  It slouches with Yeatsian dread around our ghost estates like a nasty emission left by the so-called Celtic Tiger.  The boomtime branding – borrowed from an Asian buzzword – was never an accurate or lasting symbol for Ireland.
 
A more appropriate one might be the Salmon of Knowledge, or an breadán feasa.  In the ancient Celtic sagas, Fionn MacCumhaill became a great warrior by acquiring the pure knowledge of the salmon, which gave him the skill and wisdom to defeat his enemies. 
 
Today, Ireland faces the challenge of emerging from its slump in a fickle global economy that is more competitive than ever.  How can a salmon compete with a tiger?

Young, entrepreneurial Irish are picking up fast on the potential of new online opportunities.  The cost-effective tools offered by cloud computing, marketing fuelled by social media and accurate analytics can all help small business grow. 
 
With this in mind, Innovate Wexford and FUSE, two local organisations in a relatively small business community, set up ‘Techovate’, a conference that took place last month at the Wexford Opera House, in the southeast of Ireland.
 
To add star power, Techovate brought in senior executives from the Irish diaspora who now work at Microsoft, Google, IBM, Facebook, Cisco and LinkedIn to advise local entrepreneurs.
 
“The Techovate Conference is not so much about the technology itself,” said Brendan Ennis, its main organiser, “but how small and medium-sized businesses in Ireland use that technology to drive business growth and to expand the outlook abroad.”
 
Mr. Ennis pointed out that they have little choice in the matter.  “Let’s face it,” he added.  “If they don’t – they’re going to be left behind.”
 
One goal is to transcend the heady buzz of the conference chambers and reach Ireland’s more traditional mom-and-pop concerns, which are often surprised to find themselves in a world transformed by technology.
 
Wallaces’ general store in Wexford has been in business for more than 70 years, located on a rural river bend at a junction between three major towns.  Its family-run drapery, food and hardware departments have thus far thrived on local shoppers, and a traditional marketing policy heavy on regional radio and print media. 
 
“These days, your competitor is no longer the shop in the next town,” notes Chrissie Wallace, a family member running the store, “but the Website two continents over.” The family invested in a consultant to develop a comprehensive online strategy for the store, which will include a more social-media-focused website, cross-platform campaigns, a community focus section and Facebook and Twitter presences.
 
Lorna Sixsmith has embraced the new media with IrishFarmerette.com, her popular blog that brings the business of Irish agriculture to life online. 
 
“All business people should be blogging, no matter what their industry.  We should be showcasing to potential buyers abroad the fact that our animals are mostly grass-fed, that they are outside for much of the year,” Ms Sixsmith said.
 
“It would do so much for the sale of Irish food abroad if readers could identify with the real story behind the food they are buying and see the pictures,” she added.
 
Seán Kiely, a farmer, uses social media to combat the isolation of his work.  “I’ve rigged up my iPhone to my tractor, in order to stay in touch on Facebook or Twitter through the day,” he said.  Elsewhere on the farm, cloud technology helps him keep track of animal births, deaths and movements, and a small virtual weather station provides crucial facts about the soil and the weather so that he knows when to fertilise or plant.
 
The lessons that Irish companies, shopkeepers and farmers are learning about navigating and taking advantage of the world of technology can be applied by their struggling counterparts in Greece and Spain, Portugal and Italy, and beyond.
 
If the boom’s fallout has left countries across Europe flailing in murky economic turbulence, Ireland’s ancient salmon of knowledge may provide inspiration yet.  A symbol of wisdom, skill and determination, the salmon rarely fails in its journey upstream. 

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A Gentle Anarchy

A Gentle Anarchy

Literary Revew run by the University Of Missouri, USA

 

 

 

Motherland

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. 

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“Open the pod bay doors, Hal…”

quiet sunny beach

So, spending some quiet time in a coastal haven courtesy of friends (currently abroad), is an amazing gift. Here, I can look at the beautiful sea at any time of the day or evening. The song of the waves down on the shore makes its way up the hill and through the upstairs window where I read, or the downstairs conservatory where I work.  

Having this space, breathing out and into clear air with an open sky above and clear  sea water to dive into and swim through is a rare privilege, and one I’m very grateful for. Conversely, my intention this month is not solely to “retreat” but to attempt a re-boot, and to re-connect. I confess to deliberately backing out, during and post-Covid, from the digital world. Some used it as a chance to digi-up and Zoom into new screens we never even imagined before, others read Matt Haig’s Notes On A Nervous Planet and decided it made sense.  But as one friend (thanks, Des), said, “yeah, people did that, but you really disappeared!”    

Thus, while we all know the warnings about screen time, cybersecurity and how the Masterverse has actually brought down small nations, to  deny this new digital existence is a different kind of cop out, like it or not. I hate it.  I still write actual letters, make greeting cards and send them in the post. But unplugged, not only do we cut ourselves off from news and current developments, lose work opportunities and are unable to even call a damn taxi – let alone balance our current account – more importantly we lose contact with friends, family, artists and colleagues that we love and have spent time with. It just happens by default.  I mean, who decided that to phone people and actually talk to them is rude (among other things).  But while we are all still human, if friendship has been forced to adapt in this way, then at some point we have to adapt or lose out.

So getting back with the proverbial programme is my Spring 2023 experiment. So far, it’s pretty funny. I can’t even work out the new Facebook interface and why it’s not letting me see my messages.  In my defense, I’m not a Luddite. In 1997, I co-created a website in raw code (Banshee.info) when the Internet and its nit-picky, painfully slow hand-typed HTML commands were pure magic and not terrifying; an algorithm was an obscure mathematical term and a cloud was a fucking cloud.  In my freelance work down the years, I’ve created over two dozen websites, two indie publishing imprints and sigh a BLOG (and yes, this is my first new blog post: feck the begrudgers!)  

Yet, navigating my way into my brand new MacBook Pro, Apple ID, iCloud interface, Adobe Creative Cloud Suite and even the Office 365 apps, I feel like Basil Fawlty attacking his 1967 Austin 1100 with a tree branch.   

Starting with a photo or video per day, for now, I’m just going to take this calmly, step by step.

But, HELLO, HAL – do you read me?  Can I just ask WHY humans have apparently lost all fear of the machines? I mean, Jesus, lads, did nobody see ‘The Matrix’?  

Eh – no wait – sorry.  Ahem.  I am calmly and systematically going to embrace and enhance my digital and virtual challenges.  Step by step.  If you’d like to ease this project by re-connecting with me and “liking” or “sharing” or whatever, all feedback, advice and old fashioned emails (or even, shock horror – phonecalls) are very welcome.