Irish writers and their dreams: ‘I take a lot of naps, and wake up with a missing link’

Louise Nealon, June Caldwell, Olivia Fitzsimons and Kerrí Ní Dochartaigh close their eyes and draw on the images that come to mind and help fuel their work

How much attention do writers pay to their dreams? Is writing 99 per cent “dreamspiration”? As a writer, I feel like I spend a lot of time in a dreamscape from which all my ideas and inspiration come. Is this dreamscape a place where a writer and their soul are truly at one? Where the muse melds with the maverick? I asked some fellow writers about dreams to find out if they had been sources of inspiration.

Louise Nealon, best-selling Irish debut author of Snowflake

Snowflake began with a nightmare. When I was 18, I woke in the middle of the night convinced I had dreamed another person’s dream. At least, that was how I processed the nightmare. I still can’t remember the content of the dream. We process dreams as stories, and I couldn’t make a narrative out of this because nothing in it made sense to me. I didn’t exist in the dream. It was like I had completely dropped out of myself. The nape of my neck was drenched in sweat and I was crying uncontrollably. I felt like running into my parent’s bedroom and crawling in beside them. The experience affected me on an existential level. It didn’t make any sense in my reality, and so I started to explore the idea through fiction. I began writing a novel about a woman who believes she can dream other people’s dreams. That woman is Maeve, Debbie’s mother in Snowflake.

I do have recurring dreams, or rather recurring settings in dreams. I could be in the middle of a dream and recognise the landscape. There’s a weird hybrid church and shopping centre. There’s an adventure park that is remarkably similar to Clara Lara in Glendalough and a huge mountain where you have to carry your heavy sled to the top.


I agree that writers spend a lot of time in a dreamscape. It’s a part of the writing process that’s often overlooked. People are curious about how often I write. I take a lot of naps. I often wake up with a missing link or a new direction. There are other ways I can access a kind of meditative zone that is conducive to daydreaming – I go for walks, wash the dishes, play records. I think that there is a lot of emotional labour in writing. The majority of people don’t write not because they can’t, or because they don’t want to, but because they are afraid to sit down and sit with their subconscious. It’s an uncomfortable thing to confront yourself with.

June Caldwell, author of critically acclaimed book of short stories Room Little Darker

All my writing is dream-inspired, no kidding. I don’t live in the real world at all. To quote Leonora Carrington: “I’ve always had access to other worlds. We all do, because we dream.” Something I’m writing at the moment is inspired by a nightmare that a loved one plants me in a suburban back garden. My head is just above ground, like a bulbous cauliflower. I’m chattering away, staring at the sky, but I can’t turn my neck. At night I’m bereft watching the slinky going-on of cats and foxes doing their strange coexisting. A horrible short story, basically.

I have two recurring dreams: the first is a series of choppy journeys on a canal system in midlands Ireland. Everyone is on makeshift boats, the land is submerged in water, and the smell of must is overpowering. It could be a future film short for a Green Party conference! The other involves horizontal glass elevators zipping sideways at breakneck speed around a government building, as well as suddenly switching to vertical. I’m there to account for something I’ve done. Could be a novella, any takers?

I believe that writers spend a lot of time in a conscious dreamscape. Constant low-attention-span shenanigans. I have zero concentration, was dreadful at school because of it. I think a lot of writers are the same, mixed with a vacuum cleaner bag of irrational fears, dollops of depression and a blatant refusal to join the hamster wheel where other people circle endlessly moaning about their office jobs and mortgages. It feeds the writing but doesn’t feed the bank account. Suffer for your art!

Olivia Fitzsimons, author of The Quiet Whispers Never Stop

I often drift off into my imagination and my kids do too. We have sanctioned dream time in our house; everyone gets to go off and potter or daydream if they need it. My eldest son will say “I’m dreaming” and then no one interrupts him. Of course they interrupt me but after years of fragmented sleep I rarely dream. When I do, my dreams are very vivid, I wake from nightmares in tears, so I prefer daydreaming. My youngest experienced some night terrors when he was little – he appeared completely awake but was locked in a trancelike state – so I’m very aware of the power of dreams and nightmares. I keep a pen/notebook by the bed in case a line idea/image pops into my head just as I fall asleep, which seems to happen more and more. I used to think I’d remember it when I woke up, but I never do.

I remember as a child settling into a dream space during long car journeys. I still find trains very useful spaces for conjuring images and stories, perhaps it’s the motion. I can always write on public transport. The momentum seems to lull me into a kind of other world and ideas just appear to me.

The night before my launch of The Quiet Whispers Never Stop, my debut novel, I had a very vivid dream/nightmare about an am-dram performance of Hamlet. The play was being staged in the grounds of Russborough House in a post-apocalyptic Wicklow – sort of in the vein of Emily John St Mandel’s Station Eleven Travelling Symphony (Theatre Troop) – Sebastian Barry was playing Hamlet covered in a costume of egg boxes – he was very good though, very moving, and Anne Enright was directing. I think the pre-launch anxiety dream game was pretty strong, though.

Kerrí Ní Dochartaigh, author of the Wainwright Prize highly commended Thin Places

What do I dream of? So many things.

The river Foyle (frozen, shallow, bottomless, purple, full of bodies, littered with poetry on scraps of paper). Whales; bells; a xylophone; too many winged creatures to even begin to mention. Skulls; dancing planets; the tall, thin cans of Fanta from the late 1980s. Themoonthemoonthemoon. Trees and drugs; snow and chlorophyll; storms and islands; humans and more than. Babies and lost species; crows holding the world between their beaks; salmon pink skies on other planets; gardens upon gardens upon gardens. The sea. Always, and endlessly, the sea.

I have – on more occasions than I can count – dreamed about a man I have never met. I have begun, finally, to realise he is my muse – this man at a night market – giving away his wares. Things like a fabric snake made of remnants of a variety of old material; tin soldiers that have lost – arms, a head, the tip of a gun, the left foot. Things like buttons & bottle tops; a set of tissue flowers – shocking pink, clementine orange & faded lavender. Things like old cassettes that he cannot guarantee still play; a wool jumper – started but unfinished; various pieces of bone-handled cutlery like we used to have in primary school. Things like a wee yellow pocket-size guide to making shadows on the wall using only your own hands.

“What did I dream last night? I dreamt I was the moon… I was like that: visible, invisible, visible, invisible. There’s no material as variable as moonlight.” (Alice Oswald)

I remember hearing Alice Oswald say that she knew after a certain sleepless night of her childhood, that she would become a poet. That it seemed the only way to give voice to so much of the human experience. One morning last summer I woke up convinced crows were tapping at the window through thick grey fog. There were no crows at the window. There was no fog on that bright August morning. I knew, after that surreal night my dreams became hauntingly beautiful; terrifyingly real, that I would become a mother. That something had changed my own dreamscape. Ever since, the way I write has been changed, in turn.