Tuesday 16 November 2010


My boarding school group picture 1958. Say the Hungarian for Cheese. He's talking shoyt, that O'Driscoll fellow. I'm telling you now. Free copy of my latest poetry collection, 'Life Monitor' (signed and numbered limited edition) to the first person who can name the college.
A clue: it no longer exists, but was in the southern half of Ireland.
'My Greek Teacher' (see Blog of same name) is in second row from bottom, fifth from the left. The Maths Teacher (see subsequent blog) is tenth from the left in same row. I am in second row from top, seventh from left (the one with the rumpled tie).

Monday 15 November 2010


Harriet makes her way fearfully through the throng of people in the bar. Her instructions are playing over in her mind as she edges towards the counter. Make eye-contact. Show your money.
    In her heart she knows the task is impossible. This basic transaction, like society in general, is the preserve of normal people. Up to now, someone else has ordered her drinks.
    Eye-contact is difficult for Harriet even in well-structured one-to-one situations, like her weekly meeting with her psychologist in the privacy of a small room. But in a crowded pub! The barman's eyes are darting all over the place. There are eyes everywhere, intent, demanding, competitive.
    The barman looks at her for a split second, then turns away. Harriet thinks that he didn't really look at her; it was just an accident. The whole business is impossible.
    She is about to give up and return to her seat, when she remembers her psychologist’s other instruction: 'Show your money.' Harriet searches in her coat pocket and takes out a five pound note. She holds it up and faces the barman again. He nods vaguely towards her. Or was it towards the man beside her? For what seems forever, he finishes pulling the pint he has in hand. Harriet keeps looking in his direction. The raised fiver is shaking like a leaf. The barman comes over to her.
    'A glass of orange, please.'  
    'Yes please.'
    Harriet perseveres in the complicated procedure. There's a heart-stopping moment when the barman is distracted from her orange by a huge red-faced customer bellowing for two pints of beer and two vodkas with lime. But at last she returns, elated, to her seat. She has even remembered to wait for her change.  
    She still doesn't understand why this has happened; she only knows that it has. She has pressed a button and the world has swung towards her. A secret door has opened.

Originally broadcast on 'Sunday Reflections', RTE Lyric FM

Saturday 13 November 2010


I have to interrupt this tour of my personal Madame Tussaud's to talk about a very important subject - food. As  anybody can imagine, food or the lack of it, and the quality of the food when not lacking, is a major preoccupation with boys in a boarding school. There were two aspects: food itself, and the thought of food, and unfortunately these two did not always coincide, firstly in the sense that there was a huge gap between the food you thought about and the food you got, and secondly in the sense that you spent a lot more time thinking about food than eating it, because the food you got wasn't able to stop you thinking about food between one meal and the next. On the other hand, I have to admit that no one actually starved. This story is not One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or anything like it. It's just about hunger never being quite satisfied. 
Breakfast was rubbery porridge, two pats of butter on a plate and all the dry bread you could eat once the butter was used up. A very large tin teapot, like a squat watering can, stood at the head of each table in the refectory. Big enamel jugs of milk were placed at regular intervals along the tables.
Silence always had to be observed at breakfast. The clinking of spoons against porridge bowls. Shadow-sounds of shiftings and slurpings. The occasional cough or forbidden whisper.  The dean pacing up and down, reciting matins and lauds from his breviary, his lips moving soundlessly. A sentry with a prayer book.
Dinner was some kind of boiled carcass of unpleasant meat, but hunger bypassed the look and the smell: the taste wasn't too bad, once you managed to get it inside your mouth. It was served with steamed potatoes, many of which had gone black inside, and watery vegetables. And there was semolina for dessert. Every day semolina, a supply of it that stretched to infinity, interrupted every now and then by a bowl of rice pudding. The priests sat at a table at the top of the refectory, literally a step above the boarders on a slight platform, at right angles to them, and several times a week they ate roast beef. The joint was carried out ceremoniously by the brother cook, to be carved by the monk whose turn it was on the roast-carving roster, and the mouth-watering smell of it reached my nostrils. During the soup, which was thick and crudded, a senior boy read a passage from the gospels, and the rector knocked on the table with the butt of his knife when and if the reading was to stop. Then the boys could talk, as they ate their carcass and semolina.
Supper was two more pats of butter, and bread and tea. On feast days or on some occasion worthy of celebration, such as a win by one of the college's football or hurling teams, or sometimes quite unexpectedly (the rector was prone to fits of condescension), there were three pats of butter. It's probably hard for a person who hasn't attended an old-style boarding school to understand the excitement of the students at the unexpected appearance of three pats of butter on their rows of plates as they streamed into the refectory from the study hall, the whispers of delight:
'Three pats of butter!'
'Good on the rector!' 
'And there's fresh bread tonight!'
The week's supply of bread came on Wednesday afternoon. Fresh bread was a heavenly taste, and the butter went further on it: you didn't need to use so much to moisten the bread, because it was already moist; you could eat it almost without butter. Fresh bread and three pats of butter was not only heavenly; it was heaven itself. But by Tuesday the bread was so stale that it devoured the butter.
To get a new loaf of bread for his table, an appointed student had to go up to the dean carrying the breadboard, hand raised. The dean, pacing his way through lauds or vespers, nodded permission, and the boy went through a door to the cupboard where the bread was stored. He felt around speedily in the dark cupboard for a fresh loaf, because if there were any stale ones left, they were put in front by the brother quartermaster. But the student couldn't spend much time groping for fresh bread without arousing the dean's suspicion.
Sometimes a triangle of cheese appeared on the plates at supper, beside the pats of butter. Spreadable cheese acted as a third pat of butter, though it wasn't as nice. In my first year in the college two Hungarians, refugees from the Uprising, joined the class. There was huge hilarity in the refectory one evening when little Galtee triangles appeared on our plates, and someone asked the refugees what was the Hungarian for cheese. It sounded amazingly like shite. In fact, there was no difference; the Hungarian, sajt, seemed to be just a posh, rounded, Montenotte-type of way of saying the English excrement-word: He's full of shoyt, that fellow. I'm telling you now.
Between these three meals, there was nothing except the hope of a parcel from home, or of bumming a sweet or a piece of chocolate from one of the fellows who received a lot of parcels, like the undertaker's son. The son of the dealer-in-death was never hungry. The many parcels were the result of his father's wealth. It was a good trade, you could be sure that people were going to die. The undertaker's son received a parcel from home every week. When he went to his locker with the parcel, the other boys from his class crowded round him.
'Give us a sweet, Fitzy. Give us a sweet!'
The undertaker's son turned from rummaging in his parcel, and threw a single sweet into the air. 
'Up for a Baa!' he yelled.
On wet afternoons, when outside games were cancelled, the so-called shop was opened. The dean's office, at the bottom of the study hall, was converted into a place for selling Cleeve's slab toffee - and nothing but Cleeve's slab toffee. Push-penny was played on window ledges in the recreation hall, table-tennis balls ponked to and fro, a few of the seniors played billiards. There was 'free reading' in the study hall, while the strains of My Fair Lady blared from the speaker there. Our cheeks bulged with Cleeve's slab toffee, our jaws were exercised in difficult chewing.

From memoir in progress, The Hungarian for Cheese, © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2010

Monday 8 November 2010


The following poem, written by Slovenian poet Iztok Osojnik as Part 4 of a sequence entitled 'Waiting for Rain', incorporates the story of how a notebook of poems by the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti was discovered in a mass grave. The poems were written on a forced march westwards from a labour camp in Serbia, in 1944. The line in italics towards the end of Osojnik's poem is quoted from the last-dated poem in Radnóti's notebook, written a couple of days before the poet was executed for being too sick to continue.

a year after the killings near the village of Abda,  
in the year nineteen forty-five in a mass grave
in the greatcoat pocket of the corpse of Miklós Radnóti 
one of the forced labourers who was shot
they discovered a small notebook of poems with the title Razglednicák
I was woken by the prowling of wolves around the house
I turned on the light and reached for the slim edition  – Forced March
translated into English 
by Clive Wilmer & George Gömöri
the men stooping to urinate pass blood
the wolves howled in the rain
nocturnal anxiety, the stillness of the bathroom in yellow light
from the energy-saving light bulb
the slow methodic clipping of nails

(Translated from the Slovene by Špela Drnovšek Zork and Ciaran O'Driscoll)

Monday 1 November 2010


For the past few years, one of the features of Cuisle, Limerick City’s International Poetry Festival, has been a Saturday trip to the Burren for those of the visiting poets who would like to see the remarkable landscape. This year Veronika Dintinjana (Slovenia), Allan Peterson (USA), James Brookes (UK), his partner Charlotte Newman (UK) and Ondrej, a young film student from the Czech Republic, opted for the trip. I went with them as representative of the festival committee. We were driven in two cars through the heart of the Burren by the festival chauffeur and his assistant, whose main job is to collect and deliver poets from and to Shannon. We had lunch in Linnane’s Oyster Bar, New Quay, and drove back along the Atlantic Drive, stopping for a while at a spot on the famous ‘Flaggy Shore’, where Ondrej filmed some of the poets reciting against a background of Burren flagstones, grykes, boulders, and the Atlantic.
It was 16 October. Once more, Cuisle was lucky with the weather: it was a beautiful day, all day.

 Allan Peterson, Charlotte Newman, James Brookes and self

Veronika Dintinjana tries her first oysters at Linnane's

(Photos from Allan Peterson)