Wednesday 29 September 2010



You won’t learn much from me
about my mother in the sky
except that she’s up there for certain, 
a star in a singing constellation.
She with a solitary tune
in life (one that she couldn’t turn,
a half-sung lullaby)
is now an aria-ist, a diva.
A change has come over her
utterly. At night I can hear her
from the garden, no longer shy
and tentative, no note too high
for her to hold till the cracking glass
of the universe comes to pass.
And in the singing of that star,
I get a sense of how things are.

© Ciaran O’Driscoll 2010

Monday 27 September 2010


The Classics teacher, Mr Crimmins, wasn't very particular about getting grammar and reality into some kind of alignment. Latin Grammar was a universe of its own where you could make the most unlikely statements, such as 'He was killed by, with, or from a table', and where you often found yourself addressing tables and other unlikely respondents.
Mr Crimmins didn't have much time for explaining things: 'Underline that, laddie,' he'd say, 'and write on the margin ablative absolute.' An ablative absolute was simply an ablative absolute, and I never learned any more from Mr Crimmins than how to recognize the physical presence of one in a text, for the purpose of answering the grammar questions in exams. In Greek, the genitive absolute received as short a shrift. Mr Crimmins was retentive about grammar, and told us only what we needed to know, as if telling us any extra would put us in danger of spilling the beans to the enemy.
There was another underlineable construction in Greek, the perfect participle passive, which Mr Crimmins made the class abbreviate in a mathematical way as p cubed - p3. The most impressive example of it occurred in The Peloponnesian War, a kind of historical horror story written by an Ancient Greek named Thucydides ('Tucky' for short). I forget the Greek words in this example of p cubed, but there were only two of them, and they managed to compact the whole idea of a community under prolonged siege, which is eventually driven out by starvation and disease to be slaughtered by their enemies. That was the kind of material The Peloponnesian War dealt with; we weren't entirely surprised when Mr Crimmins told us that Tucky committed suicide after writing the book.
The Classics teacher's translations were his own, from his head rather than notes, and painfully literal. I remember one example in particular from Xenophon's Anabasis: 'For the fallen snow was warm to whoever did not move of those lying down'. Mr Crimmins would interrupt his tortuous renderings and tell us to underline something: we'd write p3 or Gen Abs on the margins of our pocket-sized textbooks, and he'd resume the story of the Greeks returning from the service of the Great King (who was simply called 'king' in Greek, without the dignity of a capital or definite article, another unexplained grammatical mystery). The most memorable part of this story was when the soldiers were within sight of the sea that would take them back to their native land, and they all started running up a hill to see it, shouting Thalatta! Thalatta! as they ran.
Mr Crimmins was a bit of an old codger, a squat little man with a moon-face, on top of which stood a wisp of silver hair. And his teaching was also like the moon, shedding just enough light to get you home. But he sometimes digressed from his subjects to make general and oft-repeated observations which revealed that his views, like his translations, were his own:
'Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum was a social charter for the poor and the working classes, laddie. And do you know which country was the first to implement it? Pagan England. Pagan England, laddie.' 
Greek was in competition with history because the students had to choose between them after the Intermediate Certificate exams. Mr Crimmins had a poor view of history: 'Always remember this, laddie: the unemployed read history in the local library.'
He always addressed the class as 'laddie', as if we were all one, which we were to him, I suppose - some kind of noisy animal with a lot of tentacles, and a mouth at the end of each tentacle - because he wasn't very good at keeping order. 
His favourite expression of all, though, was festina lente: 'Hasten slowly, laddie. That's how you'll pass your exams. The old Romans were right, you know. That's how they built up an empire. They hastened slowly. Festina lente. That's what does it, laddie.'
The Greek soldiers in Xenophon's Anabasis who didn't want to get up were like the college boys in the mornings when the dean came into the dormitory and walked to the end of it and back again, clapping his hands. The Greek soldiers were also in warm beds, although their topmost blankets were made of snow, and they didn't want to get up any more than the boys did. Xenophon had to go around like the dean and give a prod to those who were not getting up. Sometimes one of the boys would tell the dean that he had a cold or the flu, and, after careful scrutiny of the boy's face, the dean might or might not allow him to stay in bed. 
Xenophon's men couldn't stay in bed because they had to march on, and anyway they'd catch their death if they remained under the snow. I once told Father Acanthus, who was substituting on the dean's day off, that I had a cold; I thought he might be a soft touch. But Acanthus knew that I was shamming, and he gripped the bed by its frame, turned it over and landed me on the floor. Everyone laughed because Acanthus was a wizened, wiry little priest who performed boyish pranks to correct the pranks of the boys. Sometimes a chap would sham illness simply for a dare, to see what would happen. Anything to make life interesting.
The boys in their iron beds in the dormitories after the lights out probably cuddled into some comforting memory or prospect as they drifted into sleep - of home, of their mothers, of the holidays. No doubt the sucks in the college were mostly boys who missed their mothers a lot. Mammy's boys. But the Spartans were a warlike race, and their children were taught to be warriors from an early age. Christians were expected to put on the armour of light. It was a paradox to say hasten slowly, but it wasn't an example of oxymoron, which is when the adjective contradicts the noun. It was hard to know how you could hasten slowly. Sleep came to me as I tried to figure it out.

(From memoir in progress, The Hungarian for Cheese)

Friday 24 September 2010

Griffon, griffon on the wall
Why are you not St Peter or Paul?
What are you doing there at all?

Thursday 23 September 2010

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Halloa! Below there!

‘Halloa! Below there!’ 
    These are the first words of Dickens’ consummate ghost story, ‘The Signal-Man’. Another consummate ghost story is ‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come to You My Lad’ by M.R. James. And I mustn’t omit to mention here the other James, and his The Turn of the Screw. Nor Stoker’s Dracula, which I read at the age of sixteen. At the same age, I read ‘How Love Came to Professor Guildea’ by Robert Hichens in a big black book of ghost stories while minding my mother’s grocer’s shop on afternoons of few customers. More recently, Sarah Waters’ novel, The Little Stranger, impressed me strongly. 
    ‘The Aleph’ and ‘The Garden of the Forking Paths’ by Borges and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by José Saramago are surreal (or magically real) tales which I much admire.
     There are many other spine-tingling or ‘far out’ reads which I have avidly consumed during my lifetime.  
      No doubt it was partly as a result of this kind of preferred reading diet that I have written a first novel called A Year’s Midnight, which is currently doing the rounds of publishers, through my literary agent. The thought occurred to me recently that if my novel is ever accepted, it might be handy to have a summary ready to hand, to provide an editor with a ‘working blurb’ for the back cover. More and more frequently these days,  authors are asked to write their own blurbs, as I was asked to write one when my memoir A Runner Among Falling Leaves was accepted. (The editor changed what I sent him, but only slightly).
         Below is my working blurb for this novel. 


When dogs are not walked, extensively and regularly, all kinds of evils come upon the world. So says the Alsatian Babs, chairperson of the Committee for Canine Well-Being, in this novel which patrols the border between realism and surrealism.
    George, a writer who has suffered a nervous breakdown, and his partner Barbara, an art teacher, along with Barbara’s child Alan, embark on a year’s sojourn in a farmhouse in rural Italy. Intended as a period of recuperation for George and a break from the rigours of his writing, and for Barbara as a sabbatical to develop her painterly talents, the year deteriorates into a nightmare of recrimination and bitterness during which George, aided by mysterious apparitions and voices, begins to recall an unsavoury period of his childhood. 
    Barbara, worried about her thyroid problem and heartily sick of her partner’s drinking and shiftlessness, goes home to London for Christmas after a final quarrel when George returns to the farmhouse late and sees her in the arms of their landlord, Rogero. 
   George is befriended by a neurotic ex-professor of psychology, who is now venturing into the paranormal, and his ravishing daughter. He endures the company of the landlord’s three neglected dogs. With great difficulty and many detours, he embarks on unravelling the mystery of his visions and voices. Meanwhile Barbara’s health gets the all-clear from her London consultant, and she sets about arranging a modest art exhibition where she will show some new work from her Italian experience.
   Evicted from the farmhouse by Rogero, George returns to London and attends her opening night...

Friday 17 September 2010

About Ciaran

CIARAN O’DRISCOLL was born in Callan, Co. Kilkenny in 1943 and lives in Limerick.  He has published six collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Life Monitor (Three Spires Press, 2009). Liverpool University Press issued his childhood memoir, A Runner Among Falling Leaves, in 2001. He is a former lecturer in art history, and a member of Aosdána.