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Rural Writing


Making A Difference at Christmas

It’s always good to hear about people who are going out of their way to help others – especially at Christmas.

I was delighted to interview these three farmers – Francis, Clive and Victor who are making a difference in their localities in Donegal, Wicklow and Tipperary. 

The article is in the Irish Farmers Journal – the Irish Country Living supplement – now. 

I hope you enjoy reading it. 

Happy Christmas




Last Friday night, December 7th, was a big night for me – and possibly for someone who died 45 years ago – my grand-aunt Ess, short for Esther.

She was remembered in style, at least, when a radio essay that tells her story was included in the collection of 50 audio clips chosen to represent 50 years of the RTE Radio 1’s music and musings programme, Sunday Miscellany.

The special radio festival, programme-recording and Listening Lounge event was held in the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar from December 7-9 where the public could attend a recording of one of five special Sunday Miscellany50 programmes or simply drop in to see scripts, letters and memorabilia from the programme’s past half-century and sit on benches to listen to the recorded voices of the 50 selected writers, some like Maeve Binchy, Seamus Heaney and Nuala O’Faolain now deceased, reading their 3-minute scripts. The topics varied from St Patrick’s Day in Abu Dhabi to schooldays to the forty foot to a baby buffalo in London to inland waterways and hurler’s seats.  

It was a huge delight to have Aunt Ess’s story included in that list because her story represented those of many Irish single women, I believe, who spent their time on the circumference of relatives’ lives, working hard as carers in a home that was never theirs, perhaps never having a job in the big wide world and who never had their own fireside, so to speak.  

The essay was first broadcast in August 2009 and while the audio clip is no longer available online the text is below if you’d like to read it.

It was also published in the Sunday Miscellany 2008-2011 Anthology.

She didn’t look like a woman who needed a corset.

Stick thin and almost ninety she wrapped the salmon coloured foundation garment round her body, fastening the hooks and eyes with great difficulty because of her arthritic hands.

Was it more out of habit than need that she wore it at that stage, the steel stays providing some kind of definition and restriction that she was comfortable with?

Whatever the reason, she wore it into old age.

Dressing was quite a ritual – interlock underwear then corset and slip and one by one, the thick lisle stockings held up with bands of elastic, then the pink blouse and the gun-barrel grey skirt with the concertina pleats that was hitched high under her chest. 

Next the navy cardigan and then it was the turn of her hair – long and fine and white and twisted into some kind of bun with what looked like a pipe cleaner then a black velvet hair band added as a final touch. 

With shoes and glasses on and stick in hand she was finally ready, at around eleven a.m., to make the six yard trek to the kitchen in search of liveliness and heat.

We called her Aunt Ess, that’s E double ‘s’, never Essie as visitors did and definitely not Esther, the name she was baptized in Kilpipe church in 1881. Somehow names didn’t stay stretched out in those days of land wars and civil war and world wars on the double.

She became Ess, one of six tall, angular and sallow-skinned sisters – Elizabeth, Mary Ann, Suzanna, Sarah Jane, Esther and Matilda who, over time, became Lizzie, Mynie, Anna, Jane, Ess and Tilly.

She was a grand-aunt, of course, but life was also too short for that kind of appendage.

Aunt Ess was seventy-nine when I was born and I was thirteen when she died on the 10th of April, 1973 and it was early morning and the cows were being milked and I had to do a maths test and I didn’t care what answer ‘pie r squared’ gave me that day.

She was the sister who stayed at home.  The 1911 census shows her living in the house in Loggan, near Gorey, County Wexford, aged 29, with her father then aged 80 and her younger brother Thomas, my grandfather, who was then 20.

One of thirteen children, she’d been the one to mind him after their mother died when he was only nine.

The second youngest girl, I wonder exactly why she was the one who remained behind to keep the brown bread made.

Why didn’t she fly the coop and make a home for herself in somewhere like New Zealand or Canada or Dublin like her sisters did?

Did she make that decision because she was a natural born homemaker or were fear of change and a sense of duty the psychological stays that kept her within the radius of home and gave her life the definition that she needed?

In later years, she went to live with my grandparents where she helped out in the house and saw their children and some of their grandchildren grow.

My childhood memories of Aunt Ess are mostly of a silent, background presence. 

In her old age and deafness she didn’t move or talk a lot but mostly sat on the bench beside the fire, on frosty days jigging her leg up and down as if to shake the pain out of it or, on better days, dandling the baby in the house on her good knee and singing in her now creaky voice:

          Jobby, jobby, little horse, how many miles to Dublin?

          Three score and ten, sir, to bring me back again, sir.

Thirty years she’d been crippled with arthritis and I can see her hands still, knuckles knobbled by the joint damage and the skin mottled with age.

Thinking of her, and all the other elderly aunts who lived in our locality, I don’t think their lives could have been that easy – single sisters living on the circumference of relatives’ lives, women who probably knew no regular income until they got the pension but who, in their day, were major picker uppers of domestic slack in homes around the country.

Rumour has it that Aunt Ess’s tongue wasn’t always quiet but even if it was sharp on occasion was that sharpness born of disappointment at the straw she’d drawn in life, not to mention the frustration of immobility and pain from an early age?

I wonder, too, if she ever dreamed of marrying and rocking her own children to sleep. 

There are no stories of romance for Aunt Ess that I know of but she was young once and human and could have harboured such desires.

There aren’t that many photographs of her but in those we have she often looks a bit sad or downcast or slightly startled in the light of the lens.

There’s one photograph that’s different, though. She is in her 40s and wearing a check-patterned apron over a dress and standing in front of the whitewashed house in the Milland. 

It’s a warm working day and wisps of hair have escaped from her bun and she is smiling broadly, her eyes crinkled up and her teeth joyfully on show.

I don’t know who made her laugh that day or who took the photograph but I’m glad that someone did for, in that one photograph, my aunt Ess’s face is a face transformed.



Death can knock you sideways. One minute life is going on as normal and you’re getting on with work and play and your head is full of stuff that seems important – what to cook for dinner, what article to tackle next, the car tax needing to be paid, a pet due a vaccination, how long it is since you blogged or tweeted or Facebooked or what to do about a dodgy filling or what to get as a wedding present for someone in two months’ time and the next such everyday things are hurled into insignificance when utter tragedy strikes. Someone you love has died. Suddenly. Incomprehensibly.
And now no Sunday morning will ever be the same again because it’s the time you got the news that your nephew lost his life in an accident the night before. It’s a beyond grief experience. Looking back now it’s hard to understand how everyone has managed since, facing the stonewall finality of it – wake, funeral, aftermath still ongoing…
Here, it’s like losing a child, by one remove, your heart going out to your sibling and sister-in-law and their older child and you can’t find the right words to take away the pain nor make sense of it all yourself. You’re so grateful, though, for the friends and neighbours who braved the wall of grief then, and since, to extend a hand or hug. “It could happen to any of us,” they said.
And it could. And does. You know that now… And as days run into weeks and months, there’s some kind of thankfulness, too, for the daily, mundane tasks that erect scaffolding within collapse and take your mind away, even briefly, from what’s impossible to believe. Until another reminder comes… And now my prayer is that Wayne, only 23, will rest in peace and that understanding – and acceptance – will somehow come. Eventually.


I’m a notebook lover – no, not the film, the items that you write in.

I have a stack of them, collected since I was fourteen years old, so it’s a long-time addiction.

I love the feel of them and the look of them, even the smell of them, but above all I pay homage to their raising-agent qualities. Raising ideas into stories, that is.

Yes, for me, it’s a case of notebook leaven as well as notebook heaven. Read more


Traumatic – that’s what it was – the day the animals dropped off the face of our coinage.  No more bull, no more horse, no more deer standing regally over my purchases.  After January 1, 2002 they were side-lined, ditched, destined never to see the light of mint again.  Coming across an old penny between attic floorboards the other day set me off thinking about old coins and how much I miss them. Read more



I don’t normally spend a lot of time thinking about serviettes but every February, come Valentine’s Day, those colourful crumb-catchers and paper lip-dabbers always trigger a smile.

That’s because once upon a 14th of February, ten years ago, something happened that, let’s say, imprinted them on my memory…

Prior to that serviettes or table napkins of any description hadn’t really hit my radar much. Read more


Small box margaret hawkinsStories taking over my head – that’s the way my two books started.

In both cases it was visceral – an in-the-gut awareness that I couldn’t not get these stories down on paper. And there’s nothing to beat those magic moments of realization – they’re utterly life changing.

Restless Spirit:The Story of Rose Quinn, was about a voice from the grave seeking justice.

My latest book – my first novel – Deny Me Not, is about a woman, Hannah Casey, seeking justice too, but in the form of recognition from a father she has never known.

As writers it’s often life events that trigger books – overhearing something, experiencing something then adding to it and putting your own creative spin on it.

Imagine discovering that you had a cousin you never knew existed. That the aunt you loved – and thought you knew – had given birth to a daughter in 1940s Ireland, and had carried that secret for into her 80s.

That happened in our family – and to hundreds of thousands of families around the world, I’m sure.

Deny Me Not is not my cousin’s story but the novel would never have been written if I hadn’t experienced the joy, shock and anger that surrounded such a discovery.

Years lost, wishing that my aunt had felt able to tell… Anger about cover-up, about my cousin being kept hidden from us… Read more


Eavesdropping – most of us don’t want to think of ourselves as people who do that but it can be an unavoidable experience.

All you have to do is cross a car park, browse in a shop, sup in a café, travel on a bus, attend a meeting or get your hair done and life’s richness gets thrown into your path in the form of conversation snippets.

For anyone who likes to write or is just plain curious about human nature such overheard snippets are gold dust, fascinating, not to mention learning opportunities so here’s to dialogue – the nerve end of feeling and the verbal tip of the emotional iceberg in each of us.

Yes, you never know what you’ll hear where, even when you’re minding your own business. Here are a few examples of what I’ve heard already this month out and about in my home town: Read more


If you have any questions or queries please do not hesitate to contact me