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John lays his demons to rest in beautiful, brutal memoirs



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



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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Real Galway flavour to intermediate club hurling battle in Birr



Date Published: 23-Jan-2013


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Athenry fail to take chances as they bow out of Junior Cup



Date Published: 29-Jan-2013

Athenry FC 1

Kilbarrack United 2

(After extra time)

For the second year in succession Athenry were done in extra time in the FAI Junior Cup as last season’s beaten finalist’s came from behind to snatch an excellent game in Moanbawn on Sunday afternoon.

On a heavy pitch that was only playable following extensive groundwork by club officials all morning, the home side were by far the better side in the opening half, but failed to take advantage of a number of opportunities that came their way.

An Alan O’Donovan penalty gave them a merited advantage just after the restart, but thereafter were on the back foot as Kilbarrack took over, but for all their pressing, the home rearguard were dealing comfortably with their forays.

However they were struck a body blow just six minutes from time, as big striker Keith Kirwan was left all alone at the far post to head the equaliser and from that point on the Dubliners were the better side.

They started off the extra time in the ascendancy and enjoying all the momentum before striking for a good winning goal on 104 minutes. A strong bench allowed them to make some necessary changes and it was not a facility that was available to Athenry manager Gabriel Glavin.

With Gary Forde and Gary Delaney out through suspension following their sending off against OLBC in the previous round, and Seamie Crowe injured, it left their bench rather threadbare with just a number of young squad players available.

Playing with the aid of the slight incline and any wind advantage going, the home side had a Connor Cannon effort on target in the opening minute, while John Meleady was just over with a flick at the other end.

Meleady then tested Andrew Walsh who saved comfortably, before the goalkeeper pulled off a brilliant double save on 14 minutes.

Firstly he went full length to push away a Meleady shot and was then back on his feet to parry David Jackson’s close-range rebound.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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