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Winter Papers: a potent antidote to the season’s blues

Anthology review: Eclectic collection of work evokes comforting sense of ongoingness and shared humanity

Winter Papers contains 32 varied contributions - essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and photography
Winter Papers 5
Winter Papers 5
Author: Edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith
ISBN-13: 978-0-9933029-4-7
Publisher: Curlew Editions
Guideline Price: €40

Paraic O’Donnell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002. In a personal essay entitled The Last Garden, he describes the debilitating impact of the disease: “The nature of this thing is simple – it is meticulously destroying me. I am being unmade.” Though weakened by illness he embarked on an ambitious and physically demanding gardening project; it was “a pitiful bourgeois hero quest, a futile paroxysm of denial”.

O’Donnell is keen to distance himself from “redemption porn, in which catastrophic diagnoses . . . are reduced to ‘life experiences’ and mined for fatuous koans of acceptance and serenity.” He tells his story in a brisk, earthy register garnished with casual profanity, which generates a feeling of intimacy more authentic and affecting than any studious solemnising. In an insightful aside, he suggests his sardonicism isn’t a matter of deflection but a kind of radical candour: gallows humour “isn’t humour at all, more a stylised form of existential rage.”

O’Donnell’s is one of 32 varied contributions - essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and photography featured in this year’s edition of Winter Papers. Now in its fifth year, Winter Papers is a beautifully produced arts journal published annually by Curlew Editions in Ballinafad, Co Sligo, and edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith. It is so called because it comes out around November time each year – there is no explicit hibernal theme per se. It is nonetheless fitting, given that winter has traditionally been symbolically associated with death, that questions of morbidity and mortality feature prominently in several of the pieces here. Caoilin Hughes’s The Reach engages with illness and end-of-life care on overtly political terms. Set in an old people’s home, it tells of a terse exchange between a woman and her elderly mother, who has landed herself in trouble for stockpiling medicines and selling them off. The story is a pointed commentary on the under-resourcing of healthcare under the neoliberal economic model.

Jennifer Walshe’s Quality Nudes provides a more lighthearted take on mortality through a pastiche of online ‘life hacks’: the reader is advised to begin grieving for their loved ones while they’re still alive, to soften the blow when they do eventually pass on. Walshe’s tripartite contribution features a droll vignette about an Irish-American billionaire who buys up the rights to some bizarre ‘deep fake’ pornography involving important historical figures. (“I don’t care if he’s an Irishman made good in the US of A, he shouldn’t be party to Maud Gonne being debased by ten W.B. Yeatses and fifteen Oscar Wildes.”) This is followed by a series of aphorisms generated by training an artificial intelligence on an archive of old seanfhocails, and translated via machine learning. The result is a compellingly weird poetry: “Grow beards over the cats of hatred”; “Let the roses each grit to their own intensity”; “The yurt does not bury the withered dragon.”


In Appearance(s), Nuala O’Connor fondly reminisces over a perennial childhood ritual whereby she and her siblings would sift through bags of hand-me-down garments and decide who would get what. The bags were “a repository of possibility and hope, a place where a girl might discover yet another alternative self.” She suspects this may explain her enduring soft-spot for uniforms: “There’s something about choice being taken away that’s restful . . the sense of, Here’s what you’re wearing, decision made.” A teenage boyfriend briefly got her into shoplifting, but her “very persistent inner good girl” meant she could never quite bring herself to wear the items she had pilfered. In Birds, Watching, the writer and artist Suzanne Walsh ruminates on portrayals of birds in art history and contemporary art. She runs a halfway house for sickly birds, nursing them in her bathtub before forwarding them to a wildlife shelter. Having tended to an injured young gull, she reflects: “I could love a bird like this, for myself. But he too must go on, to the shelter, to be free.”

Eclectic tastes

Kevin Barry ponders the symbiotic relationship between people and places in his contribution, At Ballindoon. Visiting the ruins of a 16th-century a Dominican monastery on the eastern shore of Lough Arrow - the piece is accompanied by several striking photographs of the ruins - Barry experiences “that sense of untethered weirdness we all feel now when we’re offline.” He believes “we transmit our deepest essences into landscape and townscape and seascape.” In its turn the landscape - and the collective memory of religiosity that inheres within it - has left its mark on him: “If any Catholicism still exists within me, actively, it does so in my prose, which leans towards the high style, has a tendency even towards a stained-glass gaudiness, and has no brakes.”

The editors are to be commended for their eclectic tastes. Where else would you find a lengthy interview with the fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh sharing a binding with Wally Cassidy’s energetic photographs of young rappers from Limerick, Tipperary and Tralee? One of the most eye-catching visual contributions here is by the Belfast-based artist Jonathan Brennan, who purchased a mysterious set of negatives from an online auction site - they had been found in the 1950s in a now-defunct chemist in Larne - and had them developed, revealing a series of portraits: of a woman, an older man and two children, posing somewhat bashfully in a rural setting. With the identities of their subjects lost to posterity, the photographs have an arrestingly ethereal aspect.

By collapsing the distance between the past and the present - between traditional and contemporary, rural and urban, religious and secular, analog and digital - the material gathered in this judiciously curated volume evokes a comforting sense of ongoingness and shared humanity. As such it’s not just intellectually edifying but also spiritually salutary - a potent antidote to the winter blues.

Houman Barekat

Houman Barekat, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic and founding editor of the journal Review 31