This piece appears in the Chicago ‘Irish American News’ for January of 2017.


Belfast has a tradition of murals celebrating victories and losses, and its political struggles on both the Nationalist and Loyalist side of the divide.  Some of them take up complete streets.  Some honour the dead, and others make martyrs of local people.  Emblems and slogans proclaim frequently provocative claims.

“These murals are an example of the historical divides between the Nationalists and Unionists.  Whilst the murals may be colourful and historically relevant, they are also very insular in their narrow outlook.  Neither side can move on until they respect each other’s traditions, cultures, and values.”

Neither side can move on… In the dramatic week that saw Gerry Adams thrust once more into a harsh limelight for all the wrong reasons, these words from Mary Lane Heneghan’s short piece ‘Pictures on the Wall’ resonated with me.

I’m not going to go into the latest trouble that Adams has gotten himself embroiled in.  My views on him have gotten me more than the occasional chunk of abusive mail over the years (and keep them coming – I love it!); and sure, I wouldn’t exactly be his biggest fan.

Still, whilst totally understanding why a family would need answers to the murder of their father, this has quickly descended into a particularly loathsome case of political point-scoring, courtesy of that repellent duo, Misters Kenny and Martin.  Well, them and every other supposedly squeaky-clean, living-in-an-intact-glass-house politician that this little island ever threw up.  ‘Threw up’ being the operative words, here.

They are STUNNED – STUNNED, I telz ye! — to hear of blacked-out vans and clandestine meetings with terrorist figures.  Why, they never heard the like!

Dear Lord, do they ever tire of plumbing the depths of their own vile cynicism?  If any two chancers can make Mr. Adams look good to me, it’s these two.

Some of the younger members of Sinn Fein have a lot of sensible things to say and decent work to do, and they strike a chord with many younger voters; but for older codgers such as myself the likes of Adams and a handful of others will always carry with them that sharp stench of brimstone.  And that won’t go away any time soon, especially as our lot use SF’s past as a handy deflection and distraction every damned time something comes up that paints THEM in a bad light.  Which, needless to say, is quite often.

So coming across Mary Lane Heneghan’s quiet piece of reflection served to remind me of the very long way that we have come.  Yes, we may despair at times and gloomily mull over the fact that little seems to change; but when it comes to Northern Ireland things are a damned sight better than they were.

‘Pictures on the Wall’ is part of a short story collection from a creative writing group that has been operating out of the area of the County Galway village of Loughrea for the past twelve years, producing an impressive collection titled ‘Razzle Dazzle’ every December.  In a world where the short story isn’t exactly as revered as it once was, this is fair going indeed.

And those who shun the form are missing out.  As the late, great J. G. Ballard put it:

“Short stories are the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside the wealth of novels available, an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit.  At its best, in Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe, the short story is coined from precious metal, a glint of gold that will glow for ever in the deep purse of the imagination.”

Perfectly put; although I would add to that the name of Ballard himself.

Here in ‘Razzle Dazzle 2016’ are snapshots of the world around us:  fascinating glimpses of things we see every day but which are here given new shapes and meanings from the observations of a talented group of people who appear to be kept on top of their game by the Master of Ceremonies Liam Nolan, author and ex-TV anchor, who edits and encourages them.

Some of these are just plain solid stories, such as Veronica Creavin-Newill’s ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ which gives us an unexpected twist on a depressingly familiar scenario; and yet somehow manages to walk a very tricky tightrope that stretches between child abuse and – dare I say it? – something that is ultimately uplifting.

With others we get shaken out of our complacency and come away thinking that we’ve actually learned something.  Were some of these minor historical figures – mostly forgotten by that same history – actually real?  Did the robust figure of ‘Mary Anne Malone’ of Pat Lawless’s yarn of the same name really tog out with the Kilconicny parish hurling team; really live that life of stoic endurance; finally find herself at rest in 1973 beneath a headstone that read:

‘Here lies a fine lump of an agricultural Irish girl who achieved a lot.’

The charm of these stories for me – as it has been in years past – is in all of a sudden recognizing people and places that in our busy, pseudo-important lives we dismiss as nothing out of the ordinary.  Yet dress them in the words of some of these writers and they come to life in the most remarkable manner.

There’s a scene in one of my favourite movies – ‘Smoke’ – where tobacco shop owner Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) is explaining why he hasn’t taken a vacation in four years.  And that reason is because he has to be outside the shop at exactly eight o’clock each morning in order to take a single photograph of the street.  The same thing every morning, but different every time.

“It’s just a little part of the world,” he explains; “but things happen here too.”

There is the quietly harrowing story of a man asked to make an impossible decision in Liam Nolan’s moving ‘Ghost on Climbing Rose’ alongside the nostalgic charm of Lane’s ‘The Telly’.  Elsewhere Noreen Garrihy gives us a shocking look at an unwelcome slice of modern-day Ireland with ‘The Story of Precious McKenzie’, which rubs shoulders with Eamonn McNally’s ‘The Brothers’ – a tale from a lost time when young fellas could swim, box and cycle instead of having to be forcibly peeled from their iPhone or afraid to climb a tree for fear that the Health and Safety Gestapo will land on top of them.

As is unavoidable with any anthology there are some tales here that I didn’t care for and some where I even failed to get the point of their existence.  On the whole, though, they come across like that comment from Auggie Wren:  they are simply observing a small and often unremarkable part of the word.

Yet things happen there, too.

‘Razzle Dazzle 2016’ is published by the LOUGHREA CREATIVE WRITING GROUP, Loughrea, Co. Galway.