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John lays his demons to rest in beautiful, brutal memoirs

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta

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Date Published: {J}

For better or worse we all have parents,” observes writer John Burnside, whose memoir about his childhood, A Lie About My Father, seems to indicate that, in his case, it was for worse.

That might seem like a severe conclusion, but John’s childhood was blighted by his father’s black humours, his bitterness, his drinking and his violence towards his family. A Lie About My Father, the first in a series of three memoirs, is John’s attempt to lay his father’s ghost to rest and to find some human quality in the man he feared and, ultimately, despised.

It is a gripping read, with fantastic detail and imagery, no surprise perhaps, given that John is one of Scotland’s finest poets. His poetry collections have won him a slew of awards, including the Faber Memorial Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award and he has also been shortlisted for the Forward Award and The T S Eliot Prize on two occasions.

One of the participants in this year’s Cúirt Festival of Literature , John is also an accomplished short story writer and novelist, so, it’s no wonder that he’s taking part in a couple of Cúirt events. One is a poetry reading with Irish poet Gerard Smyth and the other is a discussion on memoir, in which the other participants include Rupert Thomson and Mary Gaitskill.

Although he has received huge acclaim for A Lie About My Father and subsequent volume, Waking Up In Toytown, John joined the league of memoir writers by accident.

“My wife was expecting our first child when I embarked on the project. I didn’t become a father until I was 45 because I always thought I’d be like my own father.”

And as he prepared to become a parent, he found himself mulling over his own childhood, trying to make sense of his troubled relationship with his father.

“It was building up,” he explains.Once he wrote the first book, he realised he had to carry on.

“It’s grungy stuff, a bit seedy in places. People say things to me like ‘I love your book, why did you write it?’!”

John didn’t set out to write a ‘misery memoir’ but in both the first and second books, he’s in “a mess, all the way through, more or less”.

That’s no exaggeration. His father was a harsh, unfulfilled man, who did not know who he was – literally. He had been dumped on the doorstep of a house in West Fife as a baby in 1926 and as a child was passed on from family to family, never knowing a proper home. It was an inauspicious beginning and the adult he became was not a happy one. He was the stereotypical Scottish hard man, highly regarded among his drinking buddies, but with a dark edge and a bitter quality. Even on the rare occasions when he tried to do something decent, he usually botched it up.

John’s mother tried to care, but, after a life of hardship she eventually stopped, dying prematurely of cancer. His sister Margaret continued to look after her father while rearing her own family, but John went on another trajectory entirely. His descriptions of drinking and drug taking make you wonder how he survived that period. He describes himself as being on a quest to disappear and he almost did.

From a young age he seemed to be on a path to self-destruction that reflected the one taken by his father.

For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past

Judy Murphy

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A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.

 

For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Archive News

Ruby ready to rock again and Bob is worth a big flutter in Gold Cup

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta

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Date Published: 06-Mar-2013

New edge to Galway hurling championship title pursuit

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A battle of talent and the ability to pull in public votes

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta

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Date Published: 11-Mar-2013

Here is a question. And there is no holiday or grand prize for getting the answer. But can anyone name the people who have won The Voice of Ireland and what has become of them?

Over across the water in the UK they have The X Factor and while I hate the concept of it, it has produced a few stars even though they don’t last long in the whole scheme of things.

But The Voice of Ireland seems to generate false excitement with the winner ending up become more anonymous than they already were. And it is costing families a fortune in the process.

While the programme is a ratings winner, strangely, it has resulted in those getting through to the final stages investing huge amounts of money in the hope that they will receive enough votes to get through to the next stages.

So, suddenly, it is not about the voice or the talent involved, it is all about votes and who the participants can convince to pledge their support for them. So it is obvious that talent goes out the window.

It means that someone with half a talent could realistically win the whole thing if they generated enough support behind them. From now on, the judges will be taken out of the equation and it will be left to the public to generate income for some phone operator.

Those who get through to the live performances have to engage in a massive publicity campaign in an effort to win votes which makes this whole effort a pure sham. It is no longer about their ability and just an effort to win appeal.

While the initial process does involve some vetting of the acts, now it becomes a general election type exercise in which the most popular will win the competition and the judges will have no say whatsoever.

It is a bit like the recent Eurosong in which the judging panel across the country voted for their favourite song, which incidentally was the best of a very bad lot, but then this was overturned by the public who chose a relatively crap song to represent us.

But again, this was all down to convincing the public about who to vote for rather than having any bearing on the quality on offer. There are times that genuine talent becomes overlooked because of the need to extract money from the voting public.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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