An Irishwoman's Diary


Since it was founded in 1999, the poetry magazine The SHOp has published work by the biggest names in Irish poetry, as well as many from further afield.

Fans include Bernard O’Donoghue, who called it “unquestionably the most beautiful poetry magazine now in existence”, Seamus Heaney, who describes himself as a “confirmed SHOp-lifter”, and Francis Humphreys of West Cork Music, who simply says “bloody brilliant”.

The whole SHOp operation, as you might imagine, is done on a shoestring. But in your wildest dreams, you’d never imagine it being done from the tiny stone cottage on the slopes of Mount Gabriel, between Schull and Durrus, which is home to The SHOp’s creators, John and Hilary Wakeman. “I thought it would be exciting to start a poetry magazine out of the wilds of west Cork,” recalls John, who’s now 83. He considered 250 possible names, but in the end it was that line from Yeats about “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” which did the trick.

The first issue was by invitation only. “I was looking at it the other day – and I was amazed by the people who gave me poems for a magazine that didn’t even exist,” he says. Among those contributors were Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, John F Deane, Brendan Kennelly, Paddy Bushe, John Montague and Derek Mahon – several of whom also have poems in the current issue, which celebrates the magazine’s 40th birthday.

These days the Wakemans receive about 6,000 poems a year. “We publish 150. So all the rest are chucked out,” John declares cheerfully. They don’t accept online submissions. It’s important, they explain, to see the shape of the poem. Part of the “feel” of the magazine comes from its distinctive use of both typography and illustrations. They’ve used visuals by such luminaries as Basil Blackshaw and John Minihan – as well as by their own son, Harry Wakeman. “And our grandson did one when he was five,” says John. “Yes. He called it a – something – monster and a drunken man with wobbly legs,” Hilary puts in. “We’re big on nepotism, as you can see,” John concludes with a grin.

As we adjourn to the big wooden table for a bowl of soup – rustled up by John, it features passata, lentils and leaves freshly picked from the purple sprouting broccoli in the garden – the conversation scoots across a wide range of topics. The public library service in Brooklyn, where they both worked years ago; Hilary’s interest in progressive Christianity – she is a retired Church of Ireland minister; the fence their son is currently assembling around the property in order to accommodate the retired greyhound they’re about to adopt.

Life on the slopes of Mount Gabriel is, clearly, a rich and varied one. But it’s also dominated by the Wakemans’ dedication to The SHOp. Apart from the actual printing they do all the work on the magazine themselves. They get financial support from the Arts Council, Foras na Gaeilge and Cork Co Council, and the threat of funding cuts recently saw them start a friends’ programme which has proved very successful.

The wolf – as John puts it – is never very far from their hugely atmospheric door. That they manage to keep The SHOp going at all, let alone maintain the high standard for which the magazine is rightly renowned, is deeply impressive.

As an editor – and a published poet himself – does John Wakeman have a favourite kind of poem? “I think I like poems in which something happens,” he says. “Not just a description of a pretty scene, but a poem in which the observer – the poet – is changed by something.

“Poems tend to come in clusters. You’ll get a poem about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia – and then, two weeks later, you’ll get another poem about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. There’s always loads of poems about love, and loads of poems about death. You can count on that.” You can also count on finding poems in Irish in every edition of The SHOp, alongside many other languages – including Chinese. Apart from that you might find pieces by the Paris-based US poet Richard Halperin, or by Leanne O’Sullivan, who grew up on a farm on the nearby Beara Peninsula. The Skibbereen Eagle newspaper once famously declared that it was keeping an eye on the Czar of Russia. Mount Gabriel clearly still has its finger on the poetic pulse of the world.

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