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Winter Papers 7 review: Anthology of intimate work from ‘scene’ artists

Mix of creative contributors lends niche and rarefied book element of immediacy

Winter Papers Volume 7
Winter Papers Volume 7
Author: Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith (eds.)
ISBN-13: 9780993302961
Publisher: Curlew Editions
Guideline Price: €40

Now on its seventh volume, Winter Papers is a luxurious, cloth-bound annual arts anthology. It is edited with great care each year by author Kevin Barry and academic Olivia Smith (who happen to be married to one another).

The contributor page is a who’s who of the Irish “scene”. Contributors are head-hunted and lined up neatly like an honour roll. Who got in this year, you were wondering, thirstily. There’s a mix of established names – Billy O’Callaghan, Mary Costello, Bernard MacLaverty; emerging cool kids – Niamh Campbell, Wendy Erskine, Victoria Kennefick; up-and-comers – Jess Raymon, Stephen Lynch; and many other notable writers, producers, photographers, musicians and actors, some of whom I hadn’t heard of but will pretend to know from here on in.

It’s a book for the in-crowd. It’s niche and rarefied. It smells good. It’s not cheap. Merry Christmas. You shouldn’t have.

If that sounds a bit glib, I should temper it by saying I enjoyed it. I’m likely the target audience for a book like this. I don’t know what that says about me.


The highlight of Volume 7 is the essays. Costello’s These Are My Asphodels, in which a self-led classical education brings deep reflections on writing, death and “the continuation of existence”, is expertly wrought and intensely moving.

Campbell’s My Own Private Tiger: Notes on Ireland’s Generation X is at once playful, erudite and affecting. Made up of a series of interconnected images and memories, it captures the feeling of crumbling illusion that marks life as a Gen-Xer, even though Campbell, born in 1988, says she “missed out on being a member of this generation”.

Barge trip

Erin Fornoff’s travelogue about an impromptu five-month barge trip gets under the skin of these “strange times”, while also being unusual and surprising. “Seven people unemployed at exactly the same time” find themselves “uniquely suited to the new apocalypse” as they traverse the main inland water systems of the country. “What does a 5km movement restriction mean when your house itself moves?” Fornoff ponders, quite reasonably.

I was also taken by Susanne Stich’s Squirrel, Conscience, Thermometer, in which the German-born Irish resident chronicles her experience of learning to speak, and eventually write, in English. She captures the Irish relationship to language – “how they made do with one language while there was another one in the wings” – with sweet precision. And her experience of deeper understandings opening up “like layers of meaning in classic paintings” mirrored how I felt while reading Winter Papers. I went off on tangents, looking up Clare Langan’s beautiful black and white films, playing Rhiannon Giddens’ folky banjo music on repeat. (Both are interviewed within.) The book awakened in me a need to grow more fluent in its dialect; to discover, in Stich’s words “things others found long before me”.

There are through lines in this volume about the pandemic, the environment, death, craft. The photographs, which most readers will flick through before taking on the text, pull these together. A man in a trilby smokes a cigarette by a doorway (Deirdre O’Callaghan). Actor Aaron Monaghan sits in a shopping trolley in a car park (Hugh O’Connor). Two cows stare down from behind a wire (Donal Dineen). I think of waiting. Nasarin Golden’s trippy set of photographs, taken inside buildings under construction and replicating images of the past, complement the “psychic depth charge” Costello speaks of in her essay, or the melancholic flux Campbell captures in hers.

Psychoactives and dogs

There is a loose, experimental feel throughout. Interviewees are generally quite open. I enjoyed O’Callaghan’s reservations about online media: “I know that it can change people’s lives, but I just can’t do it, I don’t like what people become on it, it’s b******s”; David Holmes’ forthrightness about the psychedelic psychoactive, psilocybin “which [has] had a profound effect on my mental health, and for the better”; and Erskine’s forthrightness about dogs: “We’ve got a dog, Charlie, that I haven’t touched in 10 years, I haven’t stroked it, I’ve done nothing.”

It feels intimate, though this intimacy can also feel alienating in places where you don’t “get it” (I sometimes didn’t). Some of the stories were a little too unorthodox for my taste. Sometimes it took me until a few paragraphs in to understand whether I was reading fiction or non-fiction.

Overall, there were more highlights than lowlights. Worth a mention: Kennefick’s striking poem, Ram; Peter Murphy’s reported piece on music in the streaming age, Songs from a Dystopia; Aaron Monaghan’s log of life as a performer during lockdown, An Actor’s Diary; and Alan McMonagle’s essay on writing and insomnia, How I Fall into My Own Private Abyss.

A book like this works because of its immediacy and longevity. It’s alive now, but it’s also something to come back to after a year or 10, having followed these artists, knowing you found them here first; you’re in with the in-crowd.

Niamh Donnelly

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