Selling out the saint

Image: Christian Bowen / Unsplash


Here come the crowds for Patrick’s parade,

ignorant of sermons and prayers he prayed,

now cartoon character, cheesy charade. 

Marching majorette uniforms glint with braid,

drums and flutes, cliche-tunes played,

after-dark ballads, drunkenly conveyed.

Folklore leprechauns and glib good luck,

tropes for tourists, sentiment struck,

his message now meme, cheap picture book. 

Patrick would look aghast and agape

at Ireland’s misuse of shamrock shapes, 

selling out the saint for mammon’s sake. 

Siren Sounding Lifeboats

I pity selfless sailors, plying seven stormy seas:

tankers tossed like toys, Neptune hard to please;

prows plough salt water, climbing walls of waves, 

hard rain and tempest terror, mariners so brave.

God bless all the captains, scanning banks of screens,

confidence required when vessels list and lean;

engines down, boats battered, navigation upset,

circling birds are omens, whales place canny bets.

Siren-sounding lifeboats, saviours sail at speed,

heroes in hi-tech helmets race to ships in need:

radars, ropes and rafts, required such rescue kit,

valiant volunteers to wind and waves submit.

Driven by a vision, stranded crewmen saved

medals are awarded for selfless service brave:

died in active duty, six hundred lives enshrined,

mercy was their mission for maritime mankind.

Woman of faith and fable

Visiting a dying pagan chief, Brigid saw

dirt-floor cloaked with river rushes gold;

prayer-provoked an unusual image:

crux-shaped symbol came to mind,

she hoped it evoked evangelical empathy

more than any holy, hopeful homily.

Brigid wove weird-angled, four-cornered cross

to arrest the chief’s attention, giving opportunity

to mention God’s saving grace, bringing ease

to his death-pained face, opening up 

the opportunity of eternal life before last breath.

Woman of faith and fable, papal-beatified,

patron saint and crafter, years after

she died, Brigid’s unique design hung

from many cottage rafters, nailed to door

frames, to ward off evil spirits and the devil.

Ireland’s iconic emblem proclaims Christ’s

crucifixion, He who stands before God

with up-raised hands, nail pierce holes long-healed: 

Christ forgives all, just as Isaiah prophesied, 

death defeated, salvation revealed.

Christmas crowds surge seasonal streets

Photo: Marcel Heil / Unsplash

Christmas crowds surge seasonal streets,

snow tinged songs, storylines sweet,

shopping bags bulge with special treats.

Wondrous shop windows, a feast for the eyes,

eager people hunt for that special surprise,

the God-guided star leads astronomers wise.

Far-away war news of missiles and tanks,

here at home, long queues at many food banks;

O hallow our hopes carol-choirs – sing thanks!

Some families struggle with overdue bills,

shopkeepers worry about unfilled tills;

unexpected angels appear, peace and goodwill.

Turkey dinner, plum pudding, scent of pine,

pulled crackers snap, heady mulled wine;

all hint at heaven, long-desired design. 

Soon new year comes with firework flare,

Drunken shouts, cathedral bells, fog horn blare

  • but will we thank God for his lifelong care?

Changing Schools: from Newtown Boarding School to Newpark Comprehensive Day School

I finally left co-ed boarding school in 1972, after three years and due to existential circumstances: a girlfriend’s attempted OD, being beaten up by a teacher, my running-away, and being told by the headmaster that daddy hadn’t been paying the bills…all that teen calamity within the space of two spring months, back in 1972.

That summer term was my last boarding. I was elected class captain, a role usually reserved for the brighter, sporty people. I was neither bright nor sporty! I reckon I was voted in on the sympathy ticket.

As class captain, I had to make sure that the class room was tidy, the bins got emptied, the blackboard cleaned after every class and…to guide any visitors around the school.

That May in 1972, as class captain, I had to guide an old, blind man around the school. Mr. Cox had come from The Marriage Guidance Council to talk to the lads about sex, drugs and relationships in the Junior Boys Common Room. (The girls were separately facilitated in their Common Room).

I led him to the Common Room, mindful of steps and doors, guiding him by holding his elbow. As we slowly walked, he planted one or two questions, engineering a confessional conversation later. It was like he was a Staretz = an elder of an Eastern Orthodox monastery who functions as venerated adviser and teacher.

During our private session, he discovered that my parents were fractiously separated but still working in the same textile company that they started, two decades before. After our conversation, I became an unwitting messenger to help sort out my parents’ very messy marriage.

I’m sure I also told Mr. Cox confidential things about Anneli. She had been my third year girlfriend. Our relationship was based on seemingly mutual sexual attraction, shared illicitly smoked cigarettes, and divorced parents.

There was one very eccentric peculiarity soldering us together: both sets of paternal grand-parents had committed suicide. My grandparents felo-de-se was a decade apart; hers apparently jumped jointly. No-one else in our class had so dubious a dystopian heritage, as far as we knew.

Relationships in co-ed boarding school were like mini-marriages. Every class, with the exception of piano lessons, was spent in her company. Every meal, every prep we were within sight of each other. Most post-prep times were spent snogging, smoking and listening to Bach & Black Sabbath. Every half day and Sunday afternoon we wandered the school grounds, joking and talking together.

We both often dashed daringly into the dark corners as student crocodile queues snaked slowly into the Lecture Hall. We had better things to do than listen to the headmaster’s excruciatingly-lame Sunday evening sermon. On one such mitching event I worked up the courage to declare a “sensible” sundering of our bonds.

Anneli’s emotional reactions in response to that, was to run away from school, and later attempt an overdose. Both those visceral events kick-started my first attempt at poetry. That teenage trauma verse was discovered by my muse. I had torn it to shreds, and hidden it deep in the bottom of the classroom bin!

In late summer 1972, I informed Anneli of my change of plans for schooling. Reluctantly, I had decided to leave the mayhem of my last few months boarding and start schooling afresh, elsewhere.

She started crying, saying that she had no friends left, now that I was leaving. Oh dear, here we go again. Surely her outburst would lead to trouble. I duly listed her friends at Newtown. She’d get over me soon enough.

After I left Newtown School, I was to transfer to the first comprehensive school in Ireland, Newpark School, in Blackrock. It was local to where I lived and, more importantly, an answer for my poorly paid working mother. It was free.

Newpark wasn’t a happy move. There were no caring teachers or strict house-masters, instead, lassize-faire teachers. My American piano teacher would have been happier teaching Cage or Stravinsky instead of Bach. My geography teacher not only swore at me in class, but compared this academic dullard to his much brighter brother.

On the plus side, I informed the school administration of the “few subjects” previously studied. This sly approach offered me a half day nearly every day, without mitching. No woodwork, gym, sports etc.

One day two weeks into my first term my muse was to reappear in my life in an unexpected way. Anneli appeared. I was walking out the school gates to the local tuck shop when in she walked in. Her victorious smile declared “Check mate”! She informed me that she had just joined Newpark School. We inevitably re-united, even though I knew, yet again, that this relationship had no viable future.

My integration in a four-year established peer group at Newpark didn’t work. There were no educational mentors present. I had zero academic ambition. All this lead to a failed Fourth Year Intermediate Certificate Exam. I realised that staying in school would be futile. I had to leave and get a job.

However, another important person was also to re-enter my life then. Mr Cox, the blind counsellor invited me to visit him in Greystones. He and his wife lived in a caravan park; they were not rich enough to buy a house.

In his cramped caravan we chatted over a cup of tea. He urged me to not touch any drugs. To keep him happy, I lied that I would do just that. He could see straight through my lies even though he was blind.

Before leaving, en route to a weed smoking session with some posh Shankill lads, he asked could he pray with me. I wanted to keep him happy and didn’t object. I vaguely remember him saying something along the lines of wanting to kneel while he prayed. I was pretty embarrassed seeing him kneel and didn’t follow suit.

Whatever prayer he prayed, it worked. I went on to share the joint with those lads and then went home slightly stoned. As the bus travelled the journey from Shankill to Blackrock, I vowed to to quit smoking dope. Even though that would be leaving yet another peer group behind.

A Weaving Week in Donegal, February 2022

My father wove mother’s sunlit hues,
spun wool fibres, country colours infused…

As I grew up vibrant colour and imaginative design surrounded me. I became fascinated by my family’s pioneering weaving story. My English-born, aspiring, working-class parents met a priest on their hitch hike honeymoon to Donegal. His offer of an interest free large loan caused them to move there from London to set up a craft enterprise.  

There was a useful corrugated shed beside the cottage, but no electricity or running water. For a number of weeks they had no bed and other necessary crockery or furniture. The packing case containing loom, yarn, and all household sundry arrived many weeks later than intended. It had travelled to Kerry by mistake, a two hundred miles and month-long accidental detour. 

My father had studied for London City and Guilds textile diploma certificates, so did the dying and weaving. My mother had no certification but her commercial dress-making skills helped her design hats, scarves, and colour ways. Two babies were born during their time in Donegal, therefore my mother had to juggle children along with her designing and finishing the fabrics. When an assortment of accessories was ready, my father cycled long distances to sell their bright, colourful fluffy separates to Donegal clothes shops.

With much practical help and collaboration from McNutts and Magees, they built up an excellent reputation. Local teenage boys and girls got part-time employment. In 1955, their cottage industry, Donegal Design, needed to get on a bigger stage, so outside investors based in Dublin initiated the move of the business to the metropolis.

In the mid-1960s, my family went back to those rural roots on holidays. Once, my two older brothers and I attended an Irish language summer camp in Loch Anure, Donegal. That location was near where my parents lived and worked in their mountainside cottage, at Croveigh. From an early age, their stories of struggle against setbacks and successes against all odds hypnotised me.

While there, I took it on myself to lead the three of us on an attempted (and doomed) adventure.  The idea was to cross the bog and walk to the iconic cottage afar off. I really thought I could see that beatified beacon in the distance. It started to rain.

Through the unremitting downpour, socks slipped off in our wellington boots, but the primary coloured plastic capes and hats kept our uppermost bodies dry. We paused under the eaves of a barn beside a farm. As he looked out his kitchen window, the farmer saw we three boys sheltering. He had us stand by the Aga range, proffered mugs of tea and plain biscuits. After a quick chat, he then drove us back to Loch Anure.

As a child, I used to haunt the deafening weaving mill in Dublin. The working mens’ vests half-covered hairy chests. Their muscular male arms pulled strung handles, propelling bullet-nosed weft shuttles whose perns unwound yarn across the lifted warp threads. After a ten minutes work the weavers paused their singing and cease pushing the plank treadle pedals. The rhythmic tambourine-sounding rattle of heddles was temporarily quietened. The men dismounted the trouser polished benches and wind on the woven material to the loud sound of metallic cog ratchets clicking.

After watching that factory process, I wandered across the cobbled courtyard, walk up a concrete ramp into the dim stockroom, greeted by a waft of sweet lanolin perfume. My pudgy pubescent fingers felt the sensuous fluffy fabric: hundreds of hats, scarves, stoles, capes and divan rugs. This storehouse of fabrics dampened the sound of the factory machinery and office staff behind a partition, taking orders on telephones. 

When I dropped out of school, studying weaving was considered. The thought of following in my mother’s footsteps and learn how to create clothes held appeal. In the end neither course of studies got pursued, but I later joined Donegal Design for a time. Sales reps needed swatch samples which I made. I climbed a ladder into the attic, walk by the stacked long elephantine rolls of fabric and enter a small room. 

I’d sit at a table by a small window, cutting samples and apply double-sided tape. Then, I’d stick these behind cut-out cardboard panels of the display catalogues. I also worked with the dispatch team packing international orders, laughing along with their impressive camp renditions of Freddie Mercury songs. After a year I left that company to try my hand at other trades, offset printing and bookselling.

The “Donegal dream” continued to dazzle me over decades. I wrote poems and prose narratives about my mother’s colour ways and the soft fluffy mohair my father once wove. I also encouraged both parents to write their own accounts of those early hand weaving days, and published them. For reasons unknown, their challenging weaving vision had been little celebrated.

My parents divorced in the mid 70s; my father left the company they founded and moved to Wales. He went to art college as a mature student in his fifties, then  bought a redundant church. He repurposed that building into a weaving shed and craft shop and was joined by weaver, Jane Harris. My mother stayed at Donegal Design creating couture-worthy clothes.

When my father retired, we worked on his memoir. His empirical account was called ’The Friendliness of Total Strangers, a Donegal weaving adventure’. I inveigled my mother to write her shorter account which she finished after a few years, Her memoir was titled ’From Derby to Donegal by Design’.

Regardless of my lifelong reverence for their unusual careers, I had never tried out the complex craft of weaving. In late 2019, I asked Brenda Hewitt, a long-established Donegal weaver, if she would give me a crash-course in weaving. We agreed on a week in mid-February 2020, mere weeks before the covid lockdowns… 

This project needed documenting. So, I invited long-standing collaborator, Dora Kazmeirak, to join me on this symbolic journey. She agreed without hesitation. Dora took over a hundred video shorts and a similar amount of stills of the complete weaving process. It just wouldn’t have been the same without her empathetic presence.

Dora later wrote: “When Louis asked me to spend a week with him in Donegal to photograph his project about weaving, it didn’t surprise me. He often has brave ideas and puts them into practice. He understands fashion and isn’t afraid of expressing himself through colour and pattern. 

Louis also likes to travel into his family past in search of significant stories with the help of photos, family keepsakes and letters. Was his weaving project another way of looking for a connection with his father? Or maybe it was to escape routine and to experience something unknown? 

Before our journey to North West Ireland, I prepared for my crash-course in weaving by doing some background reading, using Judith Hoag’s book, ‘This Is Donegal Tweed’. Amongst the interviews of weavers in this book I found an unusual and heartening reference to the startup of McNutt’s Handweaving. 

Haunted by poverty seen as a child, Bill McNutt prayed to be shown a way to ease that situation. One day, he “saw” a handloom in a vision. Believing that this was God’s  assurance, despite his lack of ability, he started a tweed-making factory…” 

On February 13th, 2020, we set off to Donegal for my week of weaving. On our arrival at Brenda Hewitt’s house, we ate some food and had some chat. Then the pre-weaving process began. Colours needed choosing from a vast prismatic palette. Rows of cones stood waiting, sitting on shelves that ran the length of one wall in the main weaving room. 

Which hues and tints should I choose from the few hundred spools of yarn? “Use me” – shouted the summery yellows, my assigned childhood colour. “But don’t forget us” – chorused the burnt oranges and vivid sea blues. “We don’t shout for attention but we still count” – said the more muted; stone greys, earthen browns, and fern greens. 

The atmosphere in Brenda’s cottage was an abundant artistic environment, a cornucopia of colour and textures. Shuttles stood on windowsills, baskets held wound perns, bags of scrap thread ends awaited plundering. On shelves was her woven work: many tweed hats, scarves and throws, purses, handbags, water bottle covers of iridescent hues. What objects couldn’t be made from tweed? 

Over the course of the week, I took on the challenge of learning (and trying to remember) many aspects of weaving. After colours got chosen, lift-patterns needed deciding upon. Should I try for herringbone or perhaps twill style? A mathematical head is required for all this process. Better keep it simple, I said to myself. As I don’t possess good numeracy skill, I leant on Brenda for best choices.   

Then I frame warped the designated yarns. Next came the feeding of yarn lengths through the many heddles, their slim plastic rods with needle heads. I sat on the wooden bench after starter’s instructions and wondered was I up to this challenging task. What if I failed?

Pedal sequences had to be remembered and weave tensions needed handling correctly. I experimented with test “throws”, using different yarn colours and types. Then the ultimate challenge, which was to weave a two metre scarf over three days. 

Dora later wrote: “The mechanics of the loom, making a warp and weft seemed to be complicated. After Louis’ first day of training, weaving on a set-up loom, he had doubts whether he could meet this exacting challenge. Brenda loaned him three books for inspiration and research… but I’m not sure if he even opened them!” 

Much encouragement came from Brenda and Dora. By week’s end three experimental placemats and a long tweed scarf got woven.

It was very rewarding to work with my hands. Crafting colours and experimenting with differing wool types made a welcome change to typing poetic rhymes and newspaper article refutations on my laptop. The cloying smell of lanolin and the feeling of yarn as it passed through my fingers brought me back. All this learning happened a few miles from where my parents started their unusual weaving life seventy years before. Time did not allow a visit to that iconic family shrine, the cottage in Croveigh.  

Brenda writes: “Weaving is a very solitary craft, and I was unsure if I could explain the process. It was an enjoyable challenge for me, as someone who always works on their own. It was great to pass on my knowledge of weaving, an old traditional craft that needs to be shared.” 

Some weeks after my Donegal weaving project, Dora informed me that her maternal granny, Antonina Korowicka, had been a weaver! Her granny’s carpets and bedspreads decorated many cottages in Polish country villages, sold in national craft co-op shops, and even in America. I was gob smacked. Why hadn’t Dora told me this before? 

A week after the weaving, I paid a visit to my 94-year-old, muddle-minded father, at his Welsh nursing home. I tried to convey what I had done in his honour, but it was difficult penetrating through the fog of his dementia. It would have been an apt closing of a broken circle – but perhaps that wasn’t to be. 

After one of my “throw” mistakes, Brenda corrected it and said: “weaving is very forgiving, there is no fault that cannot get fixed…” 

I guess that idiom captured the somewhat complicated relationship I have with my self-exiled father. It was probably too late in the day for fixing any faults that we had, though I think we got more forgiving attitude over time…

Lift patterns, like life, create their mark, 

I thrust the wooden shuttle through yarn arcs

of upraised, flecked woollen threads:

Gorse Yellow, Storm Grey and Berry Red.

Plank pedals pushed in an uncertain beat.

Heddle tambourine jangling sounds sweet.

This apprentice weaver wove very slowly

Breathing in lanolin scent, wool almost holy.

This traditional craft needs to be shared

by knowledgeable weavers, grey haired

tweed teachers – all faults easily rectified

by the selvedge saviour, patient guide.

Loom learning gave deep satisfaction,

subtle camera shutter captures craft in action:

a two metre tweed scarf finally got created,

heritage got homage, my craft curiosity sated. 

The Adventures of an Apprentice Printer.

One of the offset print machines that was used in Blackrock Printers.


Rotary drums beat rhythms out,
offset engine racket-shouts,
rubber rollers turn in formation,
duct nodes twisted: calibration.

Sheet-fed separation: air hiss,
chrome claws suck, proffer kiss,
paper lifted, registration pause,
image transfer: pressure caused.

End-stacked reams: printed paper,
print-room perfumed: chemical vapour;
paper-cut stings, ink-tattooed palms:
this failed-trainee printer sings offset psalms.


I never set out to be a printer, but for a while I was one. I became a kitchen porter in the summer of 1973, but quit after a few months. That exit related to a minor disagreement over “sick time” – taken to buy Stevie Wonder’s latest album release, Innervisions. I listened to it all day on repeat play.

I left the second job, working in a textile factory when they refused to issue dockets, breaking down my pay packet. Living at home as a seventeen-year-old gave this casual attitude to a serious working life and career minded attitude. My mother had a conversation with me while she sat me down.

“What do you want to work at?” She asked.

I said that I wanted to be a printer.

Being an emerging poet, I wanted to know how to print. Why wait to have your writing rejected when you could just publish it yourself? As a cultural dissident, I identified with the underground Baptist printers in Soviet countries who secretly printed bibles and forbidden Christian books.

With all that in mind, I looked through the Yellow Pages (commercial phone book) and wrote to three princompanies, close to where I lived, in south-Dublin. Blackrock Printers asked me to come for an interview on a Sunday evening, after the two other companies replied negatively.

A whole family (five siblings) were my interviewers in the crowded bookshop. They jointly owned both the printers and the second-hand bookshop, Carraig Books. I told them a little about myself and showed them the very-undeveloped abstract art in my portfolio. Then they went off to convene in another room for a few minutes. 

After I was told they accepted me as an apprentice printer, I learned that my letter had arrived just as they were about to place an advert for a trainee printer, in the classifieds of the Evening Press. One of the many fortuitous timings in my eccentric career trajectory.


To be a good printer, you need to be part engineer, part mathematician; I was neither. Calculations were required for offset printing: how much ink, versus how much water. Over-useage of ink, released from the trough by a series of rubber rollers, could cause “scum”; too much water made images faint and washed out looking. 

The paper feed needed good judgement, precision balance between the blowers separating sheets and suckers lifting the paper onto the rollers and into the machine. Then there were other adjustments needed, getting the register right. Also, correct pressure between the rotary blanket and another drum was required, according to the weight of the paper, so that the image imprinted correctly on the paper. 

Blackrock Printers had three modern offset print machines, also a table top Adana, an old letterpress, a folding machine, and an electric paper guillotine. I became involved in the layout a bit, using Letraset and “golf-ball” electrically typed text. Text blocks were stuck into place with Cowgum , a petrol-based glue that, in poorly ventilated small rooms, could induce a slightly unintended “high”. 

I also learned how to make the print plates in the darkroom, creating A3 sized negatives, that were placed on blank aluminium sheets.  Next, chemicals were used to fix the image for the print job.

Blackrock Printers produced many letter-heads, wedding invitations, invoices, stock sheets, magazines and brochures. Also, chapbooks and catalogues for Carraig Books. At weekends, with a nod towards the Soviet underground Baptist printers, I printed an eight page event / review guide called ‘The Good News Sheet.’

The proprietors were very patient with this solipsistic trainee. Many were my technical mistakes and blunders. I had been struggling with my lack of printing competence. It was with relief, after a year plus, that this poorly skilled printer discovered that the male bookshop employee wanted to work in the printers. So, we just switched jobs, no interviews required. My career in bookselling began: sorting, cataloguing, packing and selling used books.

My slight obsession with the world of printing got enhanced one day. I came across a Victorian Christian book on the bookshop shelves. It featured prose vignettes of lesser known innovators and missionaries. In it, I read about Laurens Koster, a verger in the cathedral at Harlaam, Holland. In the year 1400 that young man discovered primitive printing through his love of a woman.

Lawrence Koster, the Apostle of Printing.

You broke a willow branch

and circumcised bark with blade:

it cut easily, like a barge prow

splitting those Dutch canal waters.

Slowly the shapes made sense:

a plaited pattern of canticles initials.

The branch bore “good fruit”

symbolic cyphers carved on wood,

written in the Book of Life.

You wrapped this engagement gift,

this small sculpted present

in a pouch of parchment,

leaving it in your coat pocket’s

snug womb darkness overnight.

You could not sleep;

excited, you uttered random

whispered praises to God

for the wife-promise fulfilled.

As you thankfully prayed,

the hidden wood welled:

life-giving sticky sap oozed

through heartwood pores,

a predestined imprint stamped

on the virgin parchment:

pressed, offset, sealed 

by the hand of God.

On October 24th, 1980, I started the first draft of that poem about printing. I was quite happy with it. Then, four days later, Poetry Ireland competition entry forms unexpectedly got left into Carraig Books. The large cash prize of £250 was equivalent to three month’s wages. I dithered whether or not to enter the competition. There was only one snag: the last day of submissions would be accepted was on the October Bank Holiday Monday, when there would be no post. Neither would there be any weekend post. Regardless of those significant logistical issues, I decided to give it a go and enter my Lawrence Coster poem.

After closing up the book shop, I cycled quick, up Carysfort Avenue, to Ardagh Park, where I lived. After making a cup of tea, and briefly praying, I retyped a second draft of the entry poem on my antique Underwood typewriter. Then I delivered it down to Blackrock Printers. Lena Day (now Keegan) offered post it in the General Post Office, on O’Connell Street, on her way home. Would my post make it down to county Meath by Friday evening?? So far, so rushed. 

In my haste, I had forgotten to type that the story was historical and not a figment of my (overactive) imagination. Even though the rules cautioned to “not enter into correspondence with the judges” – I did just that. The reason I wrote them a late note about the backstory to the events of the poem was that I wanted to be a witness to the predestined aspect of my poem. That being, the first book ever printed in the West, Gutenberg’s Bible. Koster’s amazing discovery preceded that historic printing event.

I didn’t care if my correspondence ruled me out of the competition. God’s intervention in history was far more important than this mere mortal winning any poetry prize.

That December, I saw posters in the display cases, outside the Peacock Theatre. They announced an evening of traditional Irish music and recitations by Seamus Heaney and others, to celebrate the winner of the Poetry Ireland competition.

In my naivety, I thought that competition participants went along and the winner would announced from the stage. I decided I would not attend. After all, I was little published and had also broken clearly stated competition rules. What chance had I at winning?

The day before that, I was writing a poem about the privelege of attending a short creative writing module in America. My celebratory verse emphasised the goodness of God for the series of serendipitous events that lead to that summer writing school. As I typed, a teenager rang the doorbell. When I opened the front door, the young lad presented me with a telegram. I wondered who it was from and what it was about.

I unfolded the pink paper and read the astonishing words:

‘Winner of (Poetry Ireland) Competition. Be at the Peacock Theatre 7pm. – John Deane.

Much to my amazement, I came first out of 152 entries from 52 poets, some of whom were well known. It was an invigorating and celebratory evening. A few friends sat in the audience and cheered me on, as I recited in such a large public gathering for the first time. Afterwards I mingled with the great and good of Ireland’s elite literati, one of whom bought me a Guinness. I attempted small talk with Ireland’s unofficial poet laureate, Seamus Heaney.

And with my prize money, I published a booklet of poems and creative prose, entitled ‘The Homecoming’. In the 1981 Spring edition of Poetry Ireland, John Jordan, then editor, mentioned that self-published booklet, alongside noting my winning entry:

The poems this reader finds refreshing, coming as they deform an Irish source: they are the voice of a poet unafraid to proclaim his commitment to evangelism, wherever it manifests itself… all so refreshing in a country where so many poets good, bad and indifferent, have been stuck on the horns of the private faith / institutional church dilemma. Should Mr. Hemmings keep his faith, he will become either an important Irish religious poet… or, just as likely, a manic ranter.” 

I often wondered why I won. Going from the above, it seems my work had some literary merit. But, perhaps my award win also had to do with the adjudicator. He was Liam Miller, master printer and proprietor of well-regarded literary publisher, The Dolmen Press. 

As for Blackrock Printers, I interacted with Lena’s ever patient and thoughtful print design work. A handful of poetry booklets, pamphlets and cards got printed there over the past four decades. The pamphlets were photo illustrated poems about old bookshops, old rescue dogs, old boarding schools and old Georgian houses. The poetic cards concerned ancient saints, country prayer meetings and my stillborn child. My last printed project, executed by Blackrock Printers, were three interlinked bildungsroman novellas. The latest called ‘A Boarding School Boy’s Regrets’.

I thank God from the depths of my heart, for the important part that printing company played, in the long and winding road of my curious literary pilgrimage.

Opening pages of ‘A Boarding School Boy’s Regrets.’

” Any story in a restricted setting – especially when everybody sleeps on site – (like boarding school) has the opportunity for enhanced drama and tension… from midnight feasts to… smuggling, to bullying, all these make for great drama.” 

– Anna Smith, film critic & broadcaster.

“… Loneliness is not a disease from which one can be cured… rather, it is an inescapable fact of human existence… When the dialogue ends, he has experienced himself in the new dimensions, evoked by the other person, and he has learned of the personal world of another. He is enlarged and changed.”

– Sidney M. Jourard  ‘The Psychotherapist as Psychedelic Man.’

Photographs are relics of the past, traces of what has happened. If the living take that past upon themselves, if the past becomes an integral part of the process of people making their own history, then all photos would reacquire a living context, they would continue to exist in time, instead of being arrested moments.  – 

– John Berger ‘About Looking.’


Ben, a retired used bookseller and poet, inherits a large sum of money and a big house in the country. His new-found wealth offer much free time, he decides to enrol on a creative writing diploma course. 

During his studies, Ben discovers he can write credible fiction. In class Alma, a female college graduate and memoir author, becomes his nurturing ally, collaboratively editing his poetry. She encourages Ben to enter a literary competition, which he does and subsequently wins.


Ben didn’t tell anyone other than Alma, his favourite classmate, and Martha, his wife, that he had entered the poetry competition. When his winning poem, The Clandestine Cilliní, got published in Poetry Ireland, the editor described Ben’s writing style thus: “Bodkin may well become an important poet with a biblical perspective. Or, just as likely, he could become a fundamentalist, manic ranter…”

That slapstick commendation made Ben smile. Alma asked Ben if he was going to tell the class about his literary breakthrough. He felt embarrassed to mention it, but she felt proud of his accomplishments. On the first evening after term break, Alma seized the opportunity. Her belief in him was a healing balm.

“I want to announce that Ben won a major literary prize over the Christmas holidays,” she said, smiling at Ben, who sat beside her. 

The class buzzed with excitement at one of their number achieving such success. This celebratory tide lifted all their boats with literary possibilities. Even the once-skeptical teacher chimed in.

“Well done, Ben. Please read your poem for us.”

Ben read it with confidence, as he did on the theatre stage. 

Blank baby stare from abstract, lifeless eyes, 

maternal uterus empty, groaned last goodbyes; 

creation heaves, the heavenly Father cries. 

Stillborn baby stiff, gently laid to rest, 

hammered coffin nails, faith put to test, 

milk-dampens the maternal full-sailed vest. 

When Ben finished reading, the class clapped. Their validation was an affirmation for him.

The following week, the teacher gave the college porter a copy of Ben’s competition winning poem. She asked for it to be tacked onto the notice-board in the common room. It was photocopied on bright yellow paper that made it stand out among the many other notices. Ben wondered who might read it and what responses from other class students might occur? 

Being a peer among younger, brighter students, studying in such a dynamic academic environment, invigorated Ben’s imagination. For much of his life, he harboured literary doubts due to lack of self-esteem. His overactive alter ego was a harsh critic.

Who am I? Just an autodidact with a penchant for poetry? Can I bring something unique to the Irish literary scene? I could never manage writing a novel. I wouldn’t have the patience or stamina for such a project. However, a novella might be manageable.

Drifting into sleep one night, Ben came up with an unusual title for his novella. He would call it ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’. Soon, he came up with a series of autobiographical and imagined events to create the plot line. It would feature a middle-aged bookseller who inherits money, then retires early and enters college. The hero would exult in the interactions with younger students, revel in the academic atmosphere,  then enter and win a national poetry competition.

That storyline intrigued his classmates, and their subsequent positive responses propelled him onwards. Ben couldn’t stop thinking, planning and plotting, writing day and night. He became a monomaniac in his approach. It thrilled him to discover late in his literary life that he could write credible fiction.

His prodigious productivity caught classmates off guard. Most of them struggled with perfectionist aspirations, paralysing their output. Ben just raced on with carefree abandon. He was making up for decades of lost time and the missed college dynamic.

#boarding #school #coed

Hated hijab, many women spurn.

(in memory of Mahsa Amini, murdered Kurdish Iranian woman who wasn’t “properly” dressed)

Brandishing scissors, cutting long hair,

women demonstrate to show they care

for Mahsa, murdered by a policeman’s hand:

few freedoms allowed, much sharia-banned.

Repressed voices on streets shout loud,

soldiers randomly shoot unarmed crowds,

empathy-enraged, eyes with anger burn:

cursed, hated hijab, many women spurn.

“Guidance” police-patrol, prissily precise,

demanding obedience from menacing “advice” –

such writ not stated in Quaranic sayings:

where is hair declared as sinful straying?

Dictatorial men, hollowed-out their piety,

their elephantine egos crush Iranian society;

young hearts and minds long since lost:

some find true peace through Pentecost…

No longer feared mythic beast.

Flare of firework rockets frighten

Confined bulls, senses heightened;

gates flung open, loud crowd goads

Stampeding bulls on cobble-stone roads:

Primal animal anger explodes.

Macho males, testosterone reckless,

Run with bulls, fearless and feckless;

Cloven footed hooves slip and slide,

Horns bloody mens white shirt sides:

Hundreds get injured, some have died.

Festival trumpets jocularly mock,

Slow pendulum, death ticking clock;

Stick swords penetrate your spine

Blood seeps out, sweat-like shine:

Your body broken by sadistic design.

O titanic toro, there’s no escape,

Matador teases with blood red cape,

Spectators celebrate while you die,

Speechless beast you cannot cry.

Who will shout stop – not I.

Wounded and weary now you kneel,

Matador ignores impassive appeal:

Now no longer feared mythic beast,

Sword plunge causes breathe to cease.

No last rites, no summoned priest.

Such cruelty should be banned,

blood graffiti shouts to God from sand.

Why are sentient creatures so oppressed

In such an unequal, barbaric contest?

Let your shrivelled soul be distressed…