‘Children are meaning-making machines’: Irish writers on Father’s Day

Rónán Hession, Kevin Power, Donal Ryan, Joseph O’Connor reflect on what it means to be a writer and a father in conversation with Arnold Thomas Fanning, who offers his own observations

Rónán Hession

“I try to live my life in an integrated way, meaning that instead of compartmentalising myself, my life as an artist is integrated with my life as a father, which in turn is integrated into my life as an artist. I hope that means I engage in both parenting and writing with a spirit of openness and spontaneity. I have lots of fathers in my books, of all kinds. As a reader I find that fathers are often stereotyped, so that leaves scope to do something interesting. I think my favourite father in literature is Marcus Conway in Solar Bones by Mike McCormack. I lost my own father when I was seven – he was 47, the age I am now. However, there came a time in my life when I had to put that particular biographical detail behind me. I wonder whether in relinquishing certain stories like that, I tore a little hole in my sense of self that has helped make my creativity possible.”

Rónán Hession is an Irish writer and musician. His third novel, Ghost Mountain, is out in 2024, published by Bluemoose Books

Kevin Power

“Before I became a father, I used to swear that I wouldn’t become one of those writers who constantly wrote about having children; and of course, now that I have children, I write about them all the time. I think it’s because writers are fascinated by meaning, and children are meaning-making machines. I used to think that writing and children were competing sources of meaning – rivals, of a sort; now I try to think of them as complementary sources of meaning. Which doesn’t stop me from wishing I had more time to write.”

Kevin Power is assistant professor of literary practice at the Oscar Wilde Centre in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. His most recent books are the novel White City (Scribner) and The Written World: Essays & Reviews (Lilliput Press)


Donal Ryan

“Being a father and a writer means that I have more flexibility than most of my kids’ friends’ dads when it comes to time but also that I’m slightly more embarrassing – no teenager really wants their dad seen, heard or read in public.”

Donal Ryan is lecturer in English and creative writing in the School of English, Irish and Communication, University of Limerick. His most recent novel is The Queen of Dirt Island (Doubleday)

Joseph O’Connor

“I think many writers, whether they know it or not, are writing for an ideal reader who is often a composite of several people, some of them real. I’ve become aware over the years that my beloved sons are an important part of that.”

Joseph O’Connor holds the Frank McCourt Chair of Creative Writing in the University of Limerick. His latest book is My Father’s House, published by Vintage

Arnold Thomas Fanning

It’s a creche day, and I have no teaching or mentoring obligations to take up my time, so today I can write. It’s not something I take for granted, in a way I used to before.

But then, now I am a father, so all is different from before.

I can recall, with a certain wistfulness, what it was like before I had my daughter in terms of my writing practice:

I could write when I wanted, every day.

I had more set times without unpredictable interruptions.

I could plan to go to writing residencies.

I had a schedule built around work commitments into which my writing could fit.

I felt more productive and speedier.

But this is all just nostalgia speaking, because having a child is incredibly fulfilling in its own right, and suddenly that wistfulness has to be reconsidered. Because when I consider the question, “What does it actually mean to be a writer and a father?” the answer comes back to me, blindingly obvious and immutable:

It means being a father.

All else falls away, and this takes precedence over everything.

Many years ago, there came a time when I made the decision that I wanted to make writing the most important part of my life.

But, years later, life has changed, circumstances have changed, I have changed, and I adapted to these changes, life-altering as they are.

Now, writing takes second place in my life: being a father, even with all the logistics and demands that entails, comes first.

Of course, at a certain point in every week, there comes a time when I reach a snapping point of being overwhelmed as a father, when the repetitive nature of bringing up a child comes crashing down upon my head, and, despairing of actually being capable of doing this any more, I face the sheer drudgery and strain of it all.

The endless sameness of all the routine tasks, the unvarying rhythm of it, the monotony of chores, the unrelenting demands of childcare – and this is with all the support structure of my wife, plus in-laws and others to help me – all this takes its toll, and I feel the strain of exhaustion set in, both mental and physical.

But then I manage to pick myself up and do it all over again the next day, and on again until the next inevitable crash.

And yet: I do reflect at such times (when recovered) that this steady, regular predictability and stability of routine is, for me, a central part of being a writer, of doing writing, and as such brings its own security, comfort and, indeed, opportunity to write.

This is of course when things go well and according to plan. There are inevitably disruptions to the routine, such as illness or a bad night’s sleep.

But the routine, ultimately, when it’s ticking over, is not loathed or resented for its sameness; rather it is valued for that very quality, for its comfort and ensuing productivity.

The creche days begin with the rush to get breakfast made and finished so my wife can catch the train to the office on time, and I can get the toddler to day care early enough for me to begin a good day’s work myself.

This also involves a change in my approach to my writing practice: effort is required to get into the right frame of mind to write, to find the necessary head space.

Where before I could drift without disruption or distraction to my desk, now there are responsibilities to be fulfilled that take me away from any kind of focused space in which writing can begin, because I find myself scattered and unable to concentrate.

Fatherhood seems to have fulfilled me or justified my place and role in the world in ways that the practice of writing can only aspire to

But I have managed to change my expectations and routines around my practice, and this is now absorbed into how I work.

This involves going for a short walk once I am back from the creche run so as to clear my head and bring my focus to a place of calm, the kind of settled space needed for the day’s writing work.

From the chaos of the breakfast to the calm of the desk is a short enough duration of time, but an essential one to traverse to create a space within which to begin.

Does writing ever impinge upon my role as a father, to my being (or “doing”) this?

Writing (and all its related commitments) is my work, and as such must be given a priority over much I’d rather be doing – reading, walking, lying on the sofa listening to my LPs – but being a father is now my main responsibility in life, so that trumps all.

I would say too that the type of meaning I have found in being a father, the sense of purpose, is more profound than anything I have experienced as a writer. By which I mean fatherhood explains or even manifests me in a way that writing never has or can, giving me a joy which is energising and meaningful in itself.

Fatherhood seems to have fulfilled me or justified my place and role in the world in ways that the practice of writing can only aspire to; the latter is vocation or work, after all – the former is life itself.

Arnold Thomas Fanning’s first book, Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery (Penguin Ireland) was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019