Another step on Galway’s stairway to heaven

An Irishwoman’s Diary about literary voices old and new

Louis MacNeice on Nimmo's pier head, Moya Cannon on the banks of the Corrib, Mairtín Ó Direáín east of Arainn ... wherever you walk in Galway, a poem punctuates the pace. "News that travels is never late," you might be told on Market Street, where Gerald Dawe's The Tribune encapsulates the life of a provincial newspaper, while if you are Rahoon-bound, you will find James Joyce's ode to Nora Barnacle and her lost loves just inside the cemetery gate. The writings cast in bronze form a trail set into stone across the city, as part of an initiative by Cúirt international literary festival with Galway City Council.

A honeymoon memory of women swimming was theme of the first such plaque back in 2006, inspired by bookman and art gallery curator Tom Kenny, and the words were those of the late Seamus Heaney. "Among schoolchildren, as well as many a writer and poetry fan, Heaney, smiling public man, spoke and read and twinkled," wrote cartoonist Tom Matthews in his account of that sun-soaked Salthill morning, when Girls Bathing, Galway 1965 was unveiled by its author on the promenade.

"They wade ashore with skips and shouts. So Venus comes, matter-of-fact," Heaney read from his verse, before latterday swimsuited Venusians surrounded the Nobel laureate at Ladies Beach. Images of those moments, captured by photographer Joe O'Shaughnessy, formed the backdrop to a night of tributes at NUI Galway (NUIG) in aid of Cancer Care West late last month, when writers and actors and students read from his work, and music was made by harpist Kathleen Loughnane, box-man Mairtín O'Connor, uilleann piper Pádraic Keane and more. "Poetry is a way of talking to your loved ones when it is too late," said British poet laureate Ted Hughes, and retired orthodontist Des Kavanagh concurred when explaining the context for the tribute night at NUIG, which he had put together with poets Lorna Shaughnessy and Gerry Hanberry.

Kavanagh’s bond with Heaney spanned over 60 years, back to a queue of new boarders outside the president’s office at St Columb’s College in Derry, with the alphabet playing a big part in that first encounter, because “he was H and I was K”. “Our mothers talked and we stayed silent,” Kavanagh recalled. “When they had gone into the president’s room my mother said to me ‘That Mrs Heaney is a very respectable woman and her wee boy could be a friend for you.’”


The pair would find themselves in adjoining cubicles in the dormitory, sharing the same table at refectory, the same initial homesickness, and the same extraordinary class .“H” and “K” enjoyed a similar sense of humour, a similar skill with mimicry, a similar rural background in south Derry and Inishowen respectively, and a shared sense of wonder about uniformed schoolgirls and barber shops. Their lives just “kept colliding”, as Kavanagh put it, from then on in, describing a great friend who “exemplified civility and carried a moral gladness with him” and who “had a special gift of making you feel better about yourself when you left him ... as if his was a steadiness that befriended the person you wanted to be ...”

That "moral gladness" and generosity encouraged new writers; and Galway nurtures many, be it through Cúirt, or Over the Edge or the Galway University Hospital Arts Trust. Come Spring and come several seasonal publications, including Galway Writers' Workshop's journal of poetry and stories, Crannóg , and The Years , a second poetry collection by the much-loved philosophy lecturer the late Tom Duddy. Crannog , which is run by Sandra Bunting, Ger Burke, Jarlath Fahy and Tony O'Dwyer, has built an international reach, and its authors have been selected for the Forward Book of Poetry published annually by the British Forward Arts Foundation. From this year, Crannóg contributions will also be submitted for the Pushcart Prize in the US.

Crannóg volume 35, just out, includes work by Ann Egan, Séan Kenny and Giles Newington of this parish, and new young writers like Rachel Brownlow, Luke Morgan and Rebecca Stiffe. Some of its contributors will read at this year's Cúirt festival, opening April 7th, and the work of another accomplished poet, Rita Ann Higgins, will be unveiled at Richardson's Bar on Bohermore, as the latest plaque, or step on the city's literary stairway to heaven .