Timothy O’Grady on creating I Could Read the Sky, a book for Bealtaine

The award-winning book about emigration, a collaboration with photographer Steve Pyke, was inspired by John Berger, Dermot Healy and Martin Hayes and has inspired a film, a live show and songs by Iarla Ó Lionáird and Mark Knopfler


What I could do.

I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs. Make a basket from reeds. Splint the leg of a cow. Cut turf. Build a wall. Go three rounds with Joe in the ring Da put up in the barn. I could dance sets. Read the sky. Make a barrel for mackerel. Mend roads. Make a boat. Stuff a saddle. Put a wheel on a cart. Strike a deal. Make a field. Work the swarth turner, the float and the thresher. I could read the sea. Shoot straight. Make a shoe. Shear sheep. Remember poems. Set potatoes. Plough and harrow. Read the wind. Tend bees. Bind wyndes. Make a coffin. Take a drink. I could frighten you with stories. I knew the song to sing to a cow when milking. I could play twenty-seven tunes on my accordion.

From I Could Read the Sky

Books, in my experience, start with a sensation, a phrase, a picture in the mind. It might extend as far as a predicament, but usually not. This small germ, if you commit to it and see it through to the end, will be seen to have contained much that fascinated you. But you cannot at first know what this is.

What eventually became I Could Read the Sky derived from a contractual obligation. My London publisher at the time asked me if I’d like to write some prose to go along with photographs taken in Ireland over many years by Steve Pyke. By chance, I’d met him just before that call. He came to my house in a fine suit and two handfuls of rings and with an old camera that looked like it had been taken on some rough rides. The picture-taking felt something like dentistry, but he was immensely engaging. I said Yes, and signed.

I didn’t know what to do. I knew only what I didn’t want to do – write captions, or an essay decorated with pictures or a testimonious preface. Nearly all photographer-writer collaborations I’d seen fell into one of these categories. The exception was what Jean Mohr and John Berger had done in A Fortunate Man, Another Way of Telling and A Seventh Man, among others. John Berger always seemed to think profoundly, authentically and freshly about the form of the vessel in which he was transporting what he wished to say. I looked to him, not for the first time. I wanted to find a way to make a book where neither photograph nor text was subservient to the other, where each did what only it could do but where both seemed to come from the same gesture.

I thought that photographs and Ireland might intersect at memory. Photography is an act of memory, a holding of a moment, and Ireland can be full of remembrance. You see it in shrines, relics and political marches. You hear it in songs. Waves of emigration produce memories both by and of the emigrant. The left place can overwhelm the present location. I thought of writing short pieces on these things and surrounding them with Steve’s photographs, which in themselves seemed to possess something of the ghostliness of memory. I knew something of the terrain.

I’d lived and travelled in the west from Donegal down to Kerry and been for two decades in Irish London – the Galtymore in Cricklewood, sessions in the Holloway Road, petitions for the Birmingham Six, lock-ins, men who dug for Murphy’s and young nurses listening to Bobby Casey play jigs and reels in a hot room in the Fulham Broadway. But there was much I didn’t know. I sought people out. I read the ads in the Irish Post where people petitioned for information about lost brothers and sisters who had disappeared into the maw of England. I went to pensioners’ lunches and tea dances at Irish centres in Archway and Camden Town. I learned of hiring fairs, boxing booths, turkey stealers, pig slaughterers, dancehall romances, trench digging, slab laying and shuttering. A man told me, “It’s very hard to kill a Sunday.” There was a loneliness in that I couldn’t have expressed more acutely if I’d pondered it for years. But the women were the best. They gave you the sensations and the physical material.

Steve Pyke waited for his book.

In Another Way of Telling, John Berger assembles a sequence of photographs into a work of fiction that depicts an old woman from the Alps remembering a life of domestic service in Paris and an eventual return to her village. As I looked at it, my own non-existent book was suddenly liberated into fiction. The formal dilemma was solved. An old man, a labourer from the west of Ireland who played the accordion, would remember from his bed in Kentish Town a life of migration in pictures and words. For style I read the interviews Dermot Healy conducted for his magazine Force Ten. For the sense of playing music I remembered long conversations I’d had in Chicago with Martin Hayes. For the look of the character and some of the events of his life I thought of a man named Michael Sullivan I’d met in Camden Town. Meanwhile, my own father was lying in bed, fading from life, possibly remembering.

Two years had now passed and there was not a word on the page.

A strange thing happened. I came home late on a winter night and got into bed. Words came in – “This room is dark, as dark as it ever gets – the hour before dawn in winter. I have sounds and pictures but they flit and crash before I can get them….Something stirs then, a little wind. It’s very gentle, a lark’s breath, but the thickened air drifts across to clear and I see it – the house set just nicely into the side of the green hill….” I hadn’t been looking for that. I had been looking for sleep. But the words were insistent. There were times in the past I’d got up and written down things in these circumstances and wished I hadn’t when I looked at them in the morning. I didn’t want to be fooled again. But the words went around and around, as if on a tape loop. I couldn’t sleep. I got up and wrote them down and they became the opening sentences of the book.

I wrote it in London and Spain and Chicago. It didn’t take long once the shape of the sentences had been fixed by the words that had arrived that night. Perhaps three months. Steve and I put the pictures and words together with the help of Nichola Bruce, who unlocked a method for this in the way that John Berger’s photography assemblage had sent it into fiction. We gave it to the publisher (Chatto and Windus), who designed it, set it up for printing and made some proofs which they sent out for review.

Unexpected calamities then began to fall. I had a car crash in Paris. I was robbed. The flat I had been renting ceased to be available. I spent a while sleeping in people’s spare rooms. Then Chatto and Windus called to say they were cancelling the publication of the book.

Around a year later, there was another twist in the road. The publisher Harvill took up the book. John Berger blessed it with a preface. It won a prize. We did a live show at the Shepherds Bush Empire with Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Iarla Ó Lionáird and Sinead O’Connor and continued touring it through the years with a variety of musicians. A film was made by Nichola Bruce. Dermot Healy played the lead. In this present Year of the Diaspora, Bealtaine has made it the Book of the Festival and Mark Knopfler has written a song called Mighty Man based on it, which is on his new album Tracker. It was begotten by other works and seems in its own way to be doing the same itself.

The book goes on in a way that other books of mine, at least for now, have not. It has a life particularly in the west, where there is hardly a house that has evaded the wounds brought about by emigration. The book feels to me as if it’s not so much me talking as all those people I spoke with and remembered. Some of them built the roads and buildings of England. They felt glory and loss. People want to know about them, whether from this book or some other source, and when they learn they are touched.

Post-script. When we were doing the show at the Shepherds Bush Empire I brought a poster about it into the pub in Kentish Town where Michael Sullivan used to drink. I asked if he’d been in. The landlord looked from the poster to me in some alarm. “He’s dead,” he said, “since Easter. But he used to come in here with a copy of that book.”


What I couldn’t do.

Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch. Ask a woman to go for a walk. Work with drains or with objects smaller than a nail. Drive a motor car. Eat tomatoes. Remember the routes of buses. Wear a collar in comfort. Win at cards. Acknowledge the Queen. Abide loud voices. Perform the manners of greeting and leaving. Save money. Take pleasure in work carried out in a factory. Drink coffee. Look into a wound. Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from West Kerry. Wear boots or shoes made from rubber. Best PJ in an argument. Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand their jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.

from I Could Read the Sky

Timothy O’Grady will be appearing at the Ballina Arts Centre (with Martin Hayes) at 8 pm on May 21st; at Red Rua in Tallaght at 7pm on May 25th; at the Bailieboro Library in Cavan at 7pm on May 26th; and at The Dock in Carrick-on-Shannon (with Mairead Ní Mhaonlaigh) at 8.30pm on May 28th. Tickets for these events can be booked through the Bealtaine website.

The book can be purchased here. Timothy O’Grady is helping to put together a tribute to Dermot Healy as part of the Dublin International Literature Festival at 8pm on May 24th at the O’Reilly Theatre.

His latest book is Children of Las Vegas, to be published by Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher in London. You can support this book here.

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