Writing advice from Colum McCann to you

From Letters to a Young Writer, Bloomsbury (2017)

I came across a quick review of McCann’s advice to young writers in Totally Dublin recently. I hope you find some pearls below. Or perhaps you already have pearls of your own.

Be subversive of ease

Read aloud

Risk yourself

Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality

Be ready to get ripped to pieces: it happens

Permit yourself anger


Take pause

Accept the rejections

Be vivified by collapse

Practice resuscitation

Have wonder…

Do not allow your heart to harden

Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories

Enjoy difficulty

Embrace mystery

Find the universal in the loca

Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there

At the same time, entertain


Visting Inishbofin – Part Four The West Quarter Loop


Sunday arrived. The last day of my Inishbofin adventures. The rain was intermittent. I layered on my clothing before I left the hostel and four minutes down the road, before the sheep and its hungry lamb appeared, I pealed it all off again. The sheep weren’t interested in my rolled up water proof protectors. Looking briefly before resuming their interrogation of a clump of grass, I set off again, towards the western side of the island. My last day and my last loop walk.

I passed the double decker bus, but the shutter was down. Birds perched on the roof, flitting off to chase insects. The grass around the wheels shuddered in the breeze. In the distance sheep bleated messages to each other. Life started later on a Sunday. I followed the coastline passed whitewashed cottages and a hotel, and a triumvirate of cows on what looked like a regular stroll down the quiet Sunday road. Representing all colours, sandy, then red, then brown, they neatly stuck to the left hand side, allowing for passing traffic. They’d obviously taken this route before.

Further up, passed the ram’s head skull, I came upon the gate into the loop path, guarded by a sheep mother and infant. Horned and purple streaked, like gate keepers from a sci-fi movie, I cowered. I stood and went through all possible outcomes of this standoff. The sheep gazed back and eventually moved off, through a very convenient hole in the wire. I breathed a sigh of relief. I scrambled over the ladder and followed. The track was accidental, created by farmers’ vehicles as they rounded up their livestock I imagined. I was bracketed on one side by the grassy mountain itself, dotted with sheep of every colour. On the other, the wild Atlantic ocean, made wilder on this day by unforgiving winds that lashed the ruins of abandoned houses on Inishark. Bring binoculars to see them more clearly, for they are a strange sight. Abandoned in 1960, the ruins are a reminder of the cost of progress.


I kept going, following the track passed Inishark, grazing sheep and napping lambs to Dún Mor cliffs, all the way to the sea stags and the island’s seal colony, where two seals frolicked among the rocks. I sat for a while, watching the other visitors as they took in this breathtaking landscape. This was by far my favourite walk. It even included bog in the process of being cut. Mounds of turf were protected under tarp, awaiting their owners return, and soft white bog cotton held onto their roots as the wind whipped them around. Bikes were strewn here and there as cyclists abandoned their horses for escapes up hills and out onto cliffs.


I could have stayed there forever, just watching the water, feeling the wind wrap itself around me. I saw a vision of Ireland I thought was long gone. Stone houses, wooden gates, wandering sheep and colonies of seagulls, all existing effortlessly beside each other. It seemed to have sprung straight from a Paul Henry canvas. I trudged back to the hostel three hours after I took off that morning with a heavy heart. I was leaving the following day. I was leaving behind this landscape, soft and resilient.



Visiting Inishbofin – Part Three Cloonamore Loop on a Bike

I need a short bike, so I can hop off at a moment’s notice and not feel like I’ve jumped from a height. Not the black mountain bike for men, but the ones behind: blue, smaller, for short women like me. I test the seat and the brakes and then I’m off. Today, the East End of the island to uncover the treasures of the East.


The dunes are lined with old boats, some left to decay, others rescued from the salty air. A currach bobs gently on the water below. Children laugh and run back in to see if there are any more crab shells floating around. The seagulls only venture ankle deep, pecking seaweed and hoping for a delicious surprise. Mothers cheer their offspring’s latest accomplishment with a bucket and spade.

It’s 13 degrees and partly cloudy in Ardnagreevagh according to the weather app. I put my phone away as the pings announce another work situation. It can wait until Monday. The lapping of the water calls me and I silence the interruptions.


A black and white collie teases its owner, bounding back into the warm Atlantic water each time the middle-aged hopeful comes close to catching the dog. Cries of ‘come back’ reverberate across the beach. Never in mankind’s history has animal or child obeyed the instruction and today is no different. Children continue their construction of complex castles with motes and land agreements, and the world is slow for just an afternoon on the East End beach on Inishbofin.

I have parked my bike against a green wooden bench and watch two industrious bumble bees gather enough pollen for the rest of the hive. They hover and hop. Eventually they move off to a bunch of honeysuckle at the next bench. Visitors gather outside whitewashed cottages at the edge of the beach, soaking in the calm.


The sun dips a little, but the currach keeps its rhythm, bobbing up and down to the sea’s cadence. Conversations continue, dogs run, children build more and more elaborate structures, making the castle a complex of dwellings. Quickly a town appears, lined with shells and protected at the gate by two mismatched crab claws.

The water ripples blue to green and back again. The wind picks up a little but the mountains in shadow across the bay stand firm. Mother Nature has worked hard here, carving out for her rocky fortress a sandy paradise for people, animals and her hard working bees.

Gorse bushes and brambles, honeysuckle and wild daisies, the roadside is a jungle of plants. Stepping in to take a photo, I tread carefully, in this eco-friendly place, a flattened plant is an affront to lamb calling down from high to passing walkers, the corncrakes flitting from bush to briar, the cows who sit idly as chickens peck the earth around them.

I gather my bike and bag and keep going along the Cloonamore Loop walk, straining to get up slopes and jumping off in time to allow cars to pass. I catch a sun shower on the way back to the hostel. It comes quickly and leaves promptly. It’s warm. Like a thief, I wait for the rainbow to complete the postcard of rural island life. I return the bike with droplets gathering on the frame. People move towards evening as the light changes. My feet ache; my hands are sunburned. I’ll be doing it all again tomorrow.

Visiting Inishbofin – Part Two


Clouds hang low over speckled hills. Stone walls run like arteries over grassy slopes, and boulders break through the earth like an announcement. The evening beckons on Inishbofin.

The hostel is well worn. It’s a basic room that fits six. Windows on either side of the first floor room protect me from the howling wind as mothers cry out for their lost lambs. A long thread of Spanish flows in the next room as a mother instructs her child in neverending sentences or so it seems. The child is quiet. He stomps down the stairs, unhappy with the outcome of their conversation.

The smell of grilled shrimp weaves a path to my dorm room. The shared kitchen is a hive of activity as campers and hostellers co-ordinate a dance of chopping, dicing, stirring across the narrow stainless steel room.

The narrow roads of Inishbofin take me down the highways of childhood memories.

The air is clean. The moon is clear in the sky already and children can be heard playing outside on the campsite. It feels like my childhood, with the clock striking ten and everyone still outside taking in the last rays of the sun. Somewhere a lawnmower is working hard to shave the grass of its spring shadow. The smell takes me back to summer holidays spent idly playing in fields, catching tadpoles and hunting for the cat’s kittens. The narrow roads of Inishbofin take me down the highways of childhood memories.

Roads are quiet now, narrow and windy, interrupted by gates and houses and sharp turns. Hedgerows reach out to meet each other but for the occasional car that swiftly removes outstretched branches.


A rainbow disappears, taking away the promise of its treasure. The sky has turned from a burning red to a dark and cloudy grey. It’s time to go inside, peel off shoes and socks and find a cosy nook somewhere before turning in. It’s been a long day of sea air, walking, cycling and jogging one’s memory. It’s time to turn in until tomorrow’s excursion to the East End of the island.


Visiting Inishbofin – Part One

Island of the white cow

Like a painting, distant mountains in shadow, shy to reveal themselves. Blue skies interrupted by white clouds spun straight from a candy floss machine. Even whiter sheep grazing in the fields below, one stumbling to keep up with his injured leg. All marked electric pink like a teenager at a concert.

The music is the howling wind, tossing birds about like paper planes. Smaller birds dart in and out of hedgerows, dive bombing in front of me as I amble down narrow roads.

Inishbofin, the island of the white cow, is a soothing haven from a noisy, chaotic Dublin. ‘Haven’ is the word banded about on travel sites, and the island does not disappoint. There is something calming about its landscape.


Getting There

If you are planning to get there, and don’t have the luxury of driving, there is the patience-testing public transport option. Buses from Dublin to Galway are frequent, with City Link there are seventeen buses daily. From Galway’s new bus terminal, you can then catch the Cliften bus to Cleggan Pier for the ferry to Inishbofin. The Cliften bus only goes five times a day, so timing your connection is crucial. Winding through breathtaking Connemara, the bus takes almost two hours, delivering passengers right to the harbour as the ferry starts to depart. If you’re organised, you can just jump off the bus and onto the boat with seconds to spare. Sailing three times a day over the summer period, the ferry takes just over 30 minutes to cross, revealing some of the most beautiful coastline and preparing you for a feast for the eyes on your Inishbofin adventure.

I sit on the deck, hoping to get a glimpse of dolphins or other sealife, but sadly none appear. In no time, a boatful of tourists are hopping off onto Inishbofin pier. Even the air is different. I immediately feel recharged.

Little boats of blue and red bob gently on the water, as seaweed gather by the barriers. Three geese are picking lunch from among the plantlife that floats near the pier. I walk to the end of the pier and read every sign, not that there are many, looking for an illuminating arrow pointing me towards the hostel. None appear, so I follow the crowd of luggage draggers towards the church spire. Some divert off towards flags, others take the slope towards ‘The Galley’ and ‘Bike Hire’. I scroll through my emails to see if in the correspondence I’ve received directions. I haven’t, but it can’t be far. I follow some people with backpacks, stereotyping the whole way. Who has a backpack and doesn’t stay in a hostel. It works. 700m up the road from the harbour is Inishbofin Hostel & Campsite. A yellow painted old house, converted into low cost accommodation for city visitors looking for that elusive sense of quiet.

Houses nestle on hillsides. Some from the past; some from the future.

The walk to the hostel takes me past lush green fields. I peer in to watch lambs follow their multicoloured mothers around. Undulating hills are broken up by stone walls. Houses nestle on hillsides, some from the past, some from the future. I pass the bike hire place and make a mental note to come back tomorrow to rent a bike to see the outer parts of the island, not knowing that I would spend more time walking the bike around than cycling. But I’m here, on Inishbofin, and it is enough for today.

Japan Calling #tbt

From Tokyo to Kyoto and back


It was about this time two years ago that I headed back to Japan.

It had been an easy destination during my years in South Korea. Twice on a visa run, other times to soak in the organised chaos. I headed back in April 2015 after 10 years away.

It was a whistle stop tour – first to Tokyo to see had anything changed. The neon was still alive and well. The transport as organised and efficient as ever. The sights and smells were just as I had left them. No longer was riff raff accepted in Roppongi. It had grown up to be a very serious art district. Over the last decade, I suspect this was something we were all expected to do.

Then on to Osaka, Kyoto and Nara as the cherry blossoms beckoned picnickers for hanami. And finally back to Tokyo to go home.

I don’t know when I’ll be back again. Perhaps in another 10 years. Maybe the riff raff will be back by then.


Africa Day 2017 Dublin

I danced to east African music and then Galway Girl

The shuttle bus was packed. It was free after all and the alternative was a 25 minute trek through the Phoenix Park to Farmleigh House. I was excited for Africa Day, but not twenty-five minutes excited.

I was late, rolling up to the lakeside cafe fifteen minutes after everyone else had clearly arrived. Some not so subtly checked their watches. Amateur photographers can be so impatient. There was still lingering to be done, as a few more latecomers stumbled upon the group, made easy to identify with all brands of camera swinging from our necks. Of the 62 who RSVP’d, a decent 12 showed up, with more to wade through the throngs later.

As with all ‘Days’ at Farmleigh, we headed for the main area, today the ‘Malaika’ stage, behind the colonial house. And suddenly the group had dissolved. All that waiting, only to disappear into the air with the notes escaping from the strumming guitar of Ines Khai. It would be another forty-five minutes before I found some semblance of the group gathered beneath a crowded tree as the clouds emptied their contents for the first time that day. The group had new faces, replacing those who had wandered off to the ‘Kwassa Kwassa’ stage. Sadly, those unlucky few had tripped right into the middle of the Minister’s speech. Was it too late to slipd quietly away back to the bazaar. There was a colourful rug I was looking at that would have matched the blanket on the couch.

Head wraps were offered at a reasonable rate. Ladies chose from prints of red, black and green fish-like patterns, burnt orange leaves, diamonds on yellow fabric and blue and red lined strips of white. The smell of beef stew and chapati carried across the car park to campers who had staked their claim on a patch of flattened grass before the skies reminded them where they were. Some ventured over to the join an already long queue. Some glanced and weighed up their chances of losing their spot or cradling a warm belly, smiling at the mere thought of spicy rice and chicken.

If you ever held an image of Africa in your mind’s eye, it could be found here. Tall men in white robes swatted away the ant-like diligence of photographers intent on capturing the image of the day, showing their wares from Senegal and Lesotho. Under grey skies, colourful dresses, head wraps and tunics could be seen.

Drumming workshops, a language exchange, even a debating session was on the agenda. But my favourite part of Africa Day was the ‘Atilogwu’ stage and the energetic DJ Spaqz and his crew. And it was here that I danced to Galway Girl, after dancing to music from Kenya, Ghana and Egypt.

I’ll be back next year, for the tastes, sounds and sights of a little bit of Africa in the middle of the Phoenix Park.