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John lays his demons to rest in beautiful, brutal memoirs

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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

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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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Galway have lot to ponder in poor show

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Date Published: 23-Jan-2013

SLIGO 0-9

GALWAY 1-4

FRANK FARRAGHER IN ENNISCRONE

GALWAY’S first serious examination of the 2013 season rather disturbingly ended with a rating well below the 40% pass mark at the idyllic, if rather Siberian, seaside setting of Enniscrone on Sunday last.

The defeat cost Galway a place in the FBD League Final against Leitrim and also put a fair dent on their confidence shield for the bigger tests that lie ahead in February.

There was no fluke element in this success by an understrength Sligo side and by the time Leitrim referee, Frank Flynn, sounded the final whistle, there wasn’t a perished soul in the crowd of about 500 who could question the justice of the outcome.

It is only pre-season and last Sunday’s blast of dry polar winds did remind everyone that this is far from summer football, but make no mistake about it, the match did lay down some very worrying markers for Galway following a couple of victories over below par third level college teams.

Galway did start the game quite positively, leading by four points at the end of a first quarter when they missed as much more, but when Sligo stepped up the tempo of the game in the 10 minutes before half-time, the maroon resistance crumbled with frightening rapidity.

Some of the statistics of the match make for grim perusal. Over the course of the hour, Galway only scored two points from play and they went through a 52 minute period of the match, without raising a white flag – admittedly a late rally did bring them close to a draw but that would have been very rough justice on Sligo.

Sligo were backable at 9/4 coming into this match, the odds being stretched with the ‘missing list’ on Kevin Walsh’s team sheet – Adrian Marren, Stephen Coen, Tony Taylor, Ross Donovan, David Kelly, David Maye, Johnny Davey and Eamon O’Hara, were all marked absent for a variety of reasons.

Walsh has his Sligo side well schooled in the high intensity, close quarters type of football, and the harder Galway tried to go through the short game channels, the more the home side bottled them up.

Galway badly needed to find some variety in their attacking strategy and maybe there is a lot to be said for the traditional Meath style of giving long, quick ball to a full forward line with a big target man on the edge of the square – given Paul Conroy’s prowess close to goal last season, maybe it is time to ‘settle’ on a few basics.

Defensively, Galway were reasonably solid with Gary Sice at centre back probably their best player – he was one of the few men in maroon to deliver decent long ball deep into the attacking zone – while Finian Hanley, Conor Costello and Gary O’Donnell also kept things tight.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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Real Galway flavour to intermediate club hurling battle in Birr

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Date Published: 23-Jan-2013

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