Sinéad Gleeson: ‘If I go too long without writing I feel a bit off. I can’t imagine not doing it’

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Twelve years ago the critic, memoirist and broadcaster began crafting what would become her debut novel. It’s been a tough process but she has embraced the writing life

It all started with the sound. About 12 years ago, a strange phenomenon began to worm its way into Sinéad Gleeson’s consciousness.

“I had this obsession with the story of ‘the hum’,” she says. “You’ve probably read about it. It’s a sound that not everyone can hear. Some people compare it to a generator, or a car stereo, or a mosquito hiss. It depends. There’s lots of reports of it all over the world.”

I hadn’t heard of it but a quick online search uncovers years’ worth of news stories, from various places around the world, about an elusive noise. Some people claim to be tormented by it, though no one seems to know what it is or why it occurs in only certain places, to only certain people.

“There’s reported instances of it in Kerry,” says Gleeson. “I remember on one holiday, when our children were tiny, making my husband drive a 100km round trip to try and find the spot. I didn’t find it.”


She had found something, however: the starting point for her debut novel, Hagstone.

Set on a fictional island, hours from any mainland, the book centres upon an artist called Nell and a commune of women (“Inions”) living a reclusive life on the island’s west coast. A mysterious sound – a “thrum”; a “drone” – haunts the place, though not everyone can hear it.

“I never say what [the sound] is. It’s whatever you want it to be,” says Gleeson. “It could be imaginary. It could be a mass-hysteria thing. It could be something really, kind of, folkloric. It could be something that comes from the land. But it’s the idea that only some people can hear it. And why is that? Why are some of us more attuned to some things – and intuition, and spooky stuff – than others?”

The book, with its cliff face saturated in bright fuchsia on the cover, sits between us as we drink tea in Dublin’s Brooks Hotel. Yesterday finished hardback copies arrived at Gleeson’s home. But the idea – the hum – sat with Gleeson for years before any novel began to take form.

“I’ve probably been the most unproductive person in the world in the way I wrote it,” she says. “Because I had little time, rather than sitting there waiting to work out what the next bit was, I’d jump ahead. And I’m never going to do that again. But it was better than not writing. Writing slowly is better than not writing.”

Besides, Gleeson was writing. She was producing criticism, journalism and a series of essays that would eventually become her first book, Constellations (Picador, 2019). A deep and wide-ranging study on the body, the mind, the health system, artists, art, caregiving, mothering, death, the ethereal, the book also chronicled many details of Gleeson’s extraordinary life.

There was her youth spent in and out of hospital, having been diagnosed at age 13 with monoarticular arthritis. There was the death of a dear friend, far too young, in a freak accident. There was her shock leukaemia diagnosis, just six months after marrying her husband, composer and music producer Stephen Shannon. (In an oft-quoted passage, she describes her terror at being diagnosed, and her promise to her mother: “I’m not going to die, I’m going to write a book.”)

But what was it like, I wonder, for a book like Constellations to become successful? Did it feel exposing, unnerving?

“The thing about it is, I didn’t think I was writing a book,” says Gleeson. “That’s the great thing about essays – you can write them one at a time. I have a friend who also has a hip problem and I remember when she read a proof of it she said to me, oh, God, you’re so public in your work life, and this is so private. And I went, oh, God, what have I done? Because I didn’t think of it as being private. And when I look at it now, I can see that it’s private. I don’t know if I’d write that kind of book now. But I needed to write it at the time.”

As the book took off, Gleeson did countless events. She met people from all walks of life who related to her writing.

“Especially a lot of people around patients, people with disabilities, people with illness,” she says. “A lot of people feel very voiceless, you know? Not listened to. They feel ignored. People would join the back of the queue at the signings, and I would always talk to everybody, and I found it really humbling. I found it often very moving. I often had a bit of a sob with some people. And it’s [astonishing] to think that a book that you wrote on your own, that you didn’t know what was going to happen with it, had an impact on people.”

Novels do require a lot of focus. Even when you’re not writing them, they’re sort of tormenting you. You’re thinking, and things are turning around in your head

—  Sinéad Gleeson

Born in 1974 and raised in Tallaght, then Kimmage, Gleeson was the middle child of three and the only girl.

Books and music were always a part of her life growing up. Her mother was a keen reader. And her godmother, Terry, would often bring her to the Hector Grey shops in Dublin and buy her abridged versions of the classics.

“So, The Count of Monte Cristo, Huckleberry Finn. There was a drawing on every page. And I kind of got obsessed with them.”

A love of music was encouraged by her father, who moonlighted as a bass player and who liked to introduce his children to new music.

It was a school art teacher who introduced her to galleries and nurtured her love for visual art.

“I spent a lot of my teens going to galleries and buying postcards – everyone’s got the postcards,” she laughs.

The first in her extended family to go to university, Gleeson studied English and History at University College Dublin, and later managed what she calls “the best, sneakiest thing in life”, turning her passion for the arts into a career. She wears many hats: writer, editor, curator, broadcaster. She was a host of the now defunct Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1 and she’s covered music, art, books and more, for a range of publications, including this one.

“Talking to writers and musicians and writing about art and music and books is the dream for me. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. “And it’s not always easy to do. Freelance life is . . . you know, you’re not minted. But you don’t do it [for money].”

Inevitably, over the years, Gleeson has built up a long contacts list of writers and artists, which she put to good use in November, when she helped to organise Irish Writers for Palestine in aid of Medical Aid for Palestinians. The situation in Gaza has grown worse and worse. Is there anything, as she sees it, that writers and artists can do in the face of such horror?

“One of the writers who took part, Ahmed [Masoud], who’s a wonderful poet, he said to all of us: don’t stop talking about it. His one line is: don’t stop talking about it. Terrible things happen and people will post for a while and then they get busy and sidetracked and then another terrible thing happens, and people forget. But this is getting catastrophically worse. It’s a genocide in plain sight. I don’t see any way to defend it.

“And we know what happened, obviously, on October 7th is horrifying. But the sheer number of women and children and the act of famine – I don’t know where the justification for that is. So, what Ahmed says is: don’t stop talking about it, don’t stop posting about it, keep it visible, keep it in people’s minds.”

Anyone who’s had even the most passing encounter with Gleeson will speak of her generosity. She’s a relentless champion of other artists, both living and dead. (“I don’t think it’s hard to type out a two-word sentence and put it on the internet and say something about someone’s work,” she says.)

Even in groups that are meant to be democratic there’s always one person who really likes being in charge. Your desire for it can kill the thing that you created

—  Sinéad Gleeson

She’s been instrumental in reviving the work of writers such as Maeve Brennan, the Irish short story writer and journalist who wrote for the New Yorker, but who, until recently, had all but been forgotten.

“I certainly wasn’t the first person to resurrect Maeve,” she says. “That’s the brilliant Angela Bourke whose book is amazing and who single-handedly resurrected Maeve. But I’m fascinated by how you can be a staff writer at The New Yorker, how you can publish all of that beautiful work, and how, in your home country, there’s no obituary when you die. When the work is as good as, and in my opinion better than, lots of her contemporaries. People like Frank O’Connor would have known who she was. He was writing about the short story, he was compiling anthologies of short stories, and he never included her.”

Gleeson has edited several anthologies of Irish writing, including the 100-strong collection of Irish short stories, The Art of the Glimpse (Apollo, 2020), and two collections aimed at redressing the lack of female representation in Irish and Northern Irish anthologies: The Long Gaze Back (New Island, 2015) and The Glass Shore (New Island, 2016). In 2022 she co-edited a collection of essays on music, This Woman’s Work (White Rabbit), with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon.

Among the many writers, musicians and artists Gleeson has interviewed over the course of her career are Margaret Atwood, Kate Bush, Marina Abramovic and Hanif Kureishi, who had some choice words about novel writing.

“He said, and I’m quoting him in his language, he said: I just can’t face pushing that f**king boulder up that f**king hill one more time.”

Having completed Hagstone, Gleeson can see where he was coming from.

“[Novels] do require a lot of focus. Even when you’re not writing them, they’re sort of tormenting you. You’re thinking, and things are turning around in your head.”

Over the 12 years it took to complete Hagstone, “it would be in the corner of my eye while I was doing other projects”, she says.

“I tried to ditch it. But I was like: it’s not going to let me go. It kept kind of haunting me and coming back to me.”

One day, when she was hanging out washing on the line, an unusual image came to her.

“You know when you’re doing something really mindless? I had this image of these women with their arms linked, walking into the sea. And I just said: who the hell are they?”

These women, the artist, the remote island, the sound, began to weave together into a haunting and brilliant book that turns over ideas around community and autonomy, impermanence and legacy, isolation and connection.

Although Gleeson is a city dweller (she lives in Dublin), she has something of an island obsession, she says, and will take any chance she can get to retire to an island.

“I think isolated communities, or why people withdraw from the world, is really fascinating. And whereas it might have been looked at before as something strange or weird, I think more and more, the times we live in, why wouldn’t you want to get away from everything and create your own idyll, not deal with the pressures of society, or the world, or the horrors of war? A little part of all of us probably longs for that.”

In the Inions, she has created a group with utopian ideals (she is careful never to use the word “cult”), whose aim is to provide a self-sufficient safe haven for women who want to escape their past lives. Of course, as with all utopian projects, cracks eventually begin to appear.

“One of the big themes, especially around the Inions, is probably autocracy. The idea that if you’re in a neighbourhood watch or a bowls group or, you know, local politics – even in groups that are meant to be democratic – there’s always one person who really likes being in charge. It’s that absolute power thing. Your desire for it can kill the thing that you created.”

The creation of art and the conditions necessary for the creation of art are also a central focus in the book. Anyone who’s ever attempted to create something will warm to Nell, an independent soul whose time is spent making artworks, seeking out commissions and doing the necessary odd jobs to fund her creative life.

“It’s really important that she’s an artist but the book is not about how to be an artist, so to speak; it’s actually about, how do you live the kind of life you want to live?” says Gleeson. “You only get one shot.”

In the book’s afterword Gleeson lists a great many artists and works of art that influenced her as she wrote (Maggi Hambling, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Louise Bourgeois, Dorothy Cross, Amanda Coogan, Marina Abramovic – the list goes on).

The book seems to acknowledge the intersectional and communal nature of artmaking – the sense that all art speaks to other art. Daragh Lynch of the Irish contemporary folk group Lankum wrote a song for the Inions, featured in the book. And Gleeson dedicates Hagstone to “the fearless, unique and much-missed” Sinéad O’Connor.

“She was just on my mind so much. I had met her a couple of times and I thought about talking to her about doing something. And I never did. And then I wrote loads about her when she died.”

For the second time in our conversation, Gleeson invokes the saying “give people their flowers now”.

“I did meet her at the last gig in Vicar Street,” she says. “I was brought back in to chat and I just got to say thank you for your work. And it’s not just the music, it’s the activism. We all have to remember that it wouldn’t have been easy for Sinéad to say the things she said at the time. [It came] at great cost emotionally, financially in America. So, she’s a kind of a guiding light for a lot of people. She’s the ultimate artist who lived on her own terms.”

What does it mean to Gleeson to live a life centred upon art?

“Anybody who gets to make art or write, or do anything creative for a living, it’s an absolute privilege. It’s not something I take for granted. If I go too long without writing I feel a bit off. It’s who I am now and I can’t imagine not doing it. And if that means never being rich and always being head-wrecked by books – they are quite head-wrecking to write – then so be it.”

Hagstone by Sinéad Gleeson is published by 4th Estate.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic