The Irish Quarter
Last year during Irish Short Story Week Year Two, I was lucky enough to read and post on an excellent short story by Kate Dempsey, "Saturday's Kiss"
. I am delighted to be able to present her answers to some of my questions.
Kate Dempsey writes fiction and poetry and lives in Ireland. She has been collecting jobs for her author biography since she could read. She has worked as a coffee grinder, a terrible waitress in Woolworths, a Harrods shop assistant, a computer programmer, a technical writer, a writer in schools and a mother. She's lived in England, Scotland, The Netherlands, South West USA and now in Ireland.
These diverse jobs and homes are reflected in her witty, observational writing, which is widely published in Ireland and the UK. Her short stories have been broadcast on RTE Radio and published in the Poolbeg Anthology 'Do The Write Thing.' She was shortlisted for the Hennessey New Irish Writing award three times and her poetry in many magazines and anthologies. She runs the Poetry Divas Collective, a glittering group of women who blur the wobbly boundaries between page and stage at cool events all over Ireland
Her first novel, The Story of Plan B, was shortlisted for the London Book Fair. You can purchase it as an E book here
She has also published a collection of poems, Some Poems.
Her blog, Emerging Writer, is a very good source of information about literary happenings in Ireland and a great place to find lots of reading ideas. It is also about her personal life as an emerging writer. She is very perceptive and funny and I will be following her blog and writing career from now on.
1. Please tell us who some
short story writers you find yourself often returning to are? Do you have
anything like a favorite short story? Who are some contemporary short story
writers you admire?
In no particular order, I love Kevin Barry ‘There are Little Kingdoms,’
Canadian genius, Alice Munro, Madcap US writer Miranda July, Raymond Carver
is taut perfection, Katharine Mansfield who manages to be relevant today,
Angela Carter wrote amazing magical realism and pro-women stories and US
writer Andrew Kaufman who has the best titles. I’d better stop now.
I do enjoy the short stories recorded and then analysed by The New Yorker
magazine, Check out Bullet in the Brain and also The Lottery. Classic and
2. I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One
City One Book Selection). It presents a culture whose very life blood seems
to be whiskey. Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than
Indian, Japanese or even American. There are rude sayings like “God Created
Whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world” and “Without Guinness the
birth rate in Ireland would be near zero”. What do you think are some of
the causes of this or is it just a myth?. It seems to me from my reading
of Irish short stories that few important conversations or events happen
without drinking. Is anything like this a factor in your work?
Coming from outside, alcohol abuse is noticeable in Ireland. Drinking in
moderation is less noticeable. Many (most?) social occasions here do involve
alcohol and some people do not seem to be able to enjoy them without
over-indulging, to the extent that they plan to be plastered and hungover
before they even start. Why would you plan to get sick? However, plenty of
people can and do have conversations with little or no alcohol involved.
Both types are in Irish literature.
Alcohol abuse is by no means restricted to Ireland. Much literature from all
over the west include it as part of the social landscape. Irvin Walsh, Jack
Kerouac, Evelyn Waugh, Helen Fielding, Tennessee Williams to select a
Is it a factor in my work? Not much in my fiction. The odd episode. I have a
poem called Stupid Things Done When Drunk, many tales of which I have stolen
from other people.
3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is
that of the weak or missing father? Do you think he is right? How does
this manifest itself in your work? In your wonderful short story
“Saturday’s Kiss” the woman in the story refers to her husband (they have
sons) as her “biggest boy”, when she goes out on her own on a Saturday, he
calls her three times with questions like “where is my wallet?”-is he being
depicted as basically a nice but weak father with the wife gradually being
moved into a motherly role toward him as he becomes increasingly helpless
I don’t think he’s right. Maybe he reads different modern Irish literature
to me. With the increase of marriage breakups, the single parent family is
becoming more commonplace. There is a generation of children in some sectors
of society, most noticeably in the US, who are growing up with no father
figures, sometimes for the second generation, and that has to affect the
In my short story, Saturday’s Kiss, the husband character is only just
touched on. Certainly there must be something lacking in their relationship
that his wife develops such a yen for a kiss. Equally though, he could have
an inkling that she needs him to need her.
4. Who are some contemporary poets you admire? If you could hear three
dead poets read their work who would you pick?
That’s hard to answer and get everyone in. I know a lot of poets and I’d be
hesitant mentioning some and not others. Of poets I don’t know, I’d
highlight Simon Armitage and Wendy Cope as huge influences. Kate Tempest is
amazing. Other poets I’d like to know more include Mark Grist, Kathryn
Simmonds, Jane Clarke, Ian McMillan, David Mohan, Anne Sexton, Pat Boran and
Billy Collins. I am also taken with the Dutch poet Vrouwkje Tuinman and I’ve
worked with her on some translations, which is very cool.
Dead Poets? Well, Dylan Thomas but preferably with Richard Burton doing the
actual reading. If I can’t have that, how about Adrian Mitchell or, no,
Edwin Morgan the Scottish poet. Then I have to insist on William
Shakespeare. Wouldn’t that be fantastic. Stratford is only down the road
from Coventry where I grew up so I feel an affinity. I’d like to say Philip
Larkin as he was born there but I have read that he’s not the most exciting
reader so how about e e cummings?
5. The Fall of Celtic Tiger, the Irish Economy,has caused a lot of pain
and misery. Is there a positive side to this? what lessons for the future
can writers take to their work? has it in any sense brought people closer
to values other than consumerism? Is it just another day in the life of the
I am a glass half full kind of person. There's a positive side to most
things, unless you're slap bang on the receiving end. What lessons can
writers take? Well, poetry doesn't pay. But it never has. Unless you win the
Noble Prize. People are more selective about which poetry publications they
buy and some magazines have gone to the wall. Established publishers are
more selective, less adventurous on taking on untried, untested writers. But
there are always new publishers springing up, although some of questionable
quality, both content and printing. More poetry is now published online now,
another recession friendly option. But quantity and quality do not
necessarily go hand in hand here either.
Has the recession brought people closer to values other than consumerism?
Was consumerism ever a value? i suppose some people who used to be
materialistic are now less so. You do see evidence of people trying harder
to buy local goods in local businesses which has to be good for the
I’ve been through recessions before. Though each recession and each recovery
is different. Some people and some communities never really recover.
6. A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart
Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many know of his life style as
one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy
older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide
by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and
wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if he Hart had done this
and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be
even much thought about let alone read? One of the most references poets is
Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life. Does a poet need
or naturally tend to a chaotic life? why so much seeming admiration for
writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol
abuse. (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)
There is a school of thought that you have to be slightly off kilter if not
out and out crazy to be an artist. There are many examples (Dylan Thomas,
Sylvia Plath, Van Gogh, Lord Byron) but some are steady as she goes (Jane
Austen, Philip Larkin, Chekov). To be an artist though, it’s better to be
open to new things, chaotic or otherwise. I am a strong believer in putting
myself outside my comfort zone every now and then. It doesn’t always work
out, it’s sometimes a disaster but it enlivens. Imagine what other work
those who died too young could have produced if they’d survived longer.
7. Tell us about your educational background?
I went to a huge mixed, multi-cultural city comprehensive school in
Coventry. Most students were groomed to apprentice at the car factories (the
boys) or as service workers like secretaries and hairdressers. But the
industry was collapsing around the city and it was a depressed time with
high unemployment. My year was very academic and four of us won places at
Oxbridge, unheard of in those parts. I loved my Physics degree and my time
at Oxford but I couldn’t see myself going into research or teaching so I
went into IT.
8. What are some of your favorite movies? What was the last movie you
saw, the last novel you read? Do you watch much TV or have favorite
Choosing a favourite movie is like choosing your favourite biscuit. It’s a
game we sometimes play in the car and the list is different every time. For
now let’s say Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Singing In The Rain,
Pulp Fiction for Tarantino, Down By Law, Moon, The Blues Brothers, Lost in
Translation, Subway (for my foreign film) and O Brother Where Art Thou for
my Cohen Brothers film.
We have only just got Sky at home and a Sky box. It’s like magic. You don’t
ever have to watch an advert again. I watch Doctor Who (especially good when
written by Stephen Moffat), Sherlock (Russell Davies) Mad Men (Characters
and fashion), Game of Thrones (Dialogue is fantastic) also any Scandinavian
noir on BBC4 Saturday 9pm. I love Star Trek too, all series. Someone lent me
the boxset of The Wire which was gobsmackingly good. HBO. I enjoy genealogy
of Who Do You Think You Are, anything with Professor Brian Cox and/or Dara O’Briain
and guiltily The Great British BakeOff.
9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population
number of great writers? Or is this a myth?
10. (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe
in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking
" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the
rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this
it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel
Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College
Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American
anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied
with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."
I’d say no but not out loud. And then I remember that I have actually seen a
leprechaun. At the Cliffs of Moher.
11. You, according to your bio, were born in Coventry England, you have
lived before Ireland in England, Scotland, the Southwest USA (please tell us
where) and in the Netherlands. How did you wind up in Ireland? What place
do you think of as home?
I grew up in England and Scotland. I was living and working in The
Netherlands and met my Irish husband there. We lived for a couple of years
in Albuquerque, New Mexico. An amazing state, huge, mountains, deserts,
snakes, spiders, sunshine, snow, cacti with arms sticking out, roadrunners,
cowboys with pickup trucks and real native American Indians. Then we moved
to Ireland where everything is green and ...moist.
12. Tell us something about the poetry group for women you belong to,
Poetry Divas, please? What some of common themes do you see among the
poets in the group? Do you support each other emotionally as well as in
terms of work? If you were to read 100 short poems, and half were by men
and half women, do you think you could pick the sex of the author above 60
percent of the time?
The Poetry Divas are well published poets in our own right. We perform our
own poetry but it is not enough for us that a poem works well out loud, it
has to also work well on the page. We craft and recraft to get it right. We
learn a lot from performing, I think. A poem can get a good reaction one
night with one audience and another night, the atmosphere is completely
different. We have learnt to read the room.
We wear tiaras and feather boas. The idea being to read in places and to
people who wouldn’t hear much poetry, who would be resistant. The idea being
that it they are looking at our sparkly outfits, maybe they’ll listen too.
We have had people come up to us after events saying they hadn’t heard any
poetry since school and that they’d been surprised how much they enjoyed it.
Also, there is a tendency for spoken word events to be biased towards men
and we like to redress the balance somewhat.
Identifying the gender of a poet is hit and miss. I suspect that less
experienced poets who be more identifiable by their subject matter but as a
trained scientist, I’d need to see some statistically significant studies to
know for sure.
13. It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, as you do
from UCD, some with PhDs. Education is a great thing but is there a
negative side to this, will it produce in few years a literary culture
where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published. Will the day
of the amateur writer without any formal literary training be a thing of the
past soon, if it is not already so? Often I see reviews, especially of
American short story writers saying the writers work is standard University
of Iowa writing-I don’t know what this means but it sounds like writers are
being forced into standards acceptable to professors of creative writing.
I don’t have any writing qualifications. I would love to do an MA but I don’t
have the money and I work full time with a family and mortgage to support so
it’s out of the question for me. I have done various workshops and courses
and I definitely recommend them for writers when they are starting out.
After some time though, I wonder what they can offer that you haven’t heard
before. There is a danger that students write to please their tutors or
their fellow workshop students and that is a recipe for everyone writing the
same. No one wants that. You have to find your own voice, not ventriloquise
other writers. I think that’s what they mean by standard University of Iowa
writing. I wonder is it more prevalent in the US than in Europe?
But teaching keeps many full times writers in employment and writers have to
eat. They in turn inevitably can end up promoting upcoming writers who write
they way they do. It’s like interviewers picking the interviewee who is most
I have to believe though that original voices from writers without formal
training still cut through the slushpiles and gatekeepers. And will continue
to do so. You have to be an optimist to edit magazines and organise
competitions and readings and that passion for writing is what keeps us all
reading, writing and submitting.
14. What is your reaction to these lines from Susan Cahill about the
beauty of Ireland-”There is a hopelessness that a glut of natural beauty can
create when there is a cultural and intellectual morass”. Is the beauty of
Ireland is two edged comes from nowhere and changes everything be over
because of this?
All I have read about Ireland and all the images I have seen on the net
present a country of amazing beauty. How much does this saturation in
natural beauty impact the writing of the country Does it inspire and
defeat at the same time?
I’m not sure I follow what she means. Too much natural beauty stunts
creativity? I don’t think so. Ireland is made up of lots of sorts of spaces,
some beautiful, some not so much but if you look hard enough, there is
beauty in everything. Why would that defeat anyone or anything?
15. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular
poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of
Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”. I see a similarity of
this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors,
they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the
Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the
Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too,
assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature. It is interesting to me
that the American short story writers most admired by Irish writers, like
Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter all came from the
American south, the only part of American to be crushed in a war. Does
defeat bring wisdom more than victory?
Save me from another popular song about emigrating because of the famine and
leaving mammy behind. And enough of the gloomy, wretched Irish family
stories with weak fathers (see above) gritty, sexually repressed mammies,
loads of snot-ridden downtrodden children, whiskey, abusive, meglomaniac
priests and taking the boat. Certainly there are stories of defeats
throughout Irish history but there’s a lot to celebrate now. Get over it and
16. Aosdana? to many it seems a mystery? Is it the best use of Ireland’s
funds to promote literature? is it closed in Elitism? Some of the members
are super big name writers, do they get a subsidy from the government? Of
course if they decide one day to admit book bloggers based in the
Philippines to membership I will say it is the greatest thing in the world
but is it really also a way for the government to buy the silence of
writers? Samuel Johnson said a pension was pay for a traitor from his
government for committing treason, but when offered one he took it. On the
other hand are those who repudiate it just jealous?
Aosdana appears from the outside at least to be an old boys’ club, biased
towards establishment figures and an unbalanced representation of Ireland’s
artistic communities. Last week the members voted in 3 more men. Plus ca
change. The 250 members get a stipend to continue doing what they do. There
are some who believe that as it is a government handout, the members do play
politic somewhat but I’m not so sure this is the case. It’s more to do with
the human factor that people tend to hire or vote in people who are like
Of course I am jealous. I would love for someone to pay me to be a full time
writer. I received a grant from the Arts Council and another from South
Dublin County Council a couple of years ago which was so useful for me.
Unless you have a patron, time for writing is so precious.
17. Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or
are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers. I sometimes
think poets can be seen as like the canaries in the coal mines of society,
they feel the dangers first. Are poets kind of like your early warning
A social role? That’s a tough one. Probably no. I think poets and other
artists should not feel they have to cover social issues, should not have to
tick the politic boxes. Having said that though, poets don't and shouldn't
live in a bubble. The effects of social change will filter out in their
work. Even unintentionally. Also the readers will read it through their own
filters and see parallels even when there are none.
But if poets were early warning systems, financial analysts would buy racks
of contemporary poetry. I wish they did but I don’t think they do.
18. "To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no
historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard
the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other,
poetic and magical."-is this right? Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing
Ireland (p. 646). It is interesting to me in that not to long ago many
white Americans viewed African Americans as very skilled at music and
dancing but otherwise inferior and barbaric.
History is written by the winners, in the case of Elizabethan history, that
would be the English. I'm not sure the Elizabethans regarded any Irish as
poetic and magical. Maybe the Victorians did. Actually the magical part is
more likely to be the Irish diaspora who spread the tales to America and
other destinations. All emigrants romanticise and elegise the places and the
history or their origin. At least to outsiders. Maybe within their own
families, within their own communities they are more likely to recognise the
negative side of the places and people they left behind.
19. Tell us a bit about your non-literary work experience please. What
does your diverse work experience bring to your work?
I am a total tech-head. Love numbers, computers etc. I worked in IT for years, in silicon chip plants, biopharma and insurance.
Now I work in the techy side of reinsurance. Reinsurance, you may not know,
is the sexy version insurance. I often work with words too. In fabs, for example, if you don't use precise and clear wording,
people can get hurt. Sometimes I make my emails rhyme so it's a two way
I have also taught creative writing in primary and secondary schools as well as to adults. I get a huge kick out of this and can't do it now as often as
I would like because of time pressure. I always learn something new from my students, especially the kids. Their brains work differently. Anything is still possible.
20. In his book The Commitments Roddy Doyle has a main character say,
as if it were something commonly seen as true, “The Irish are the niggers of
Europe and Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland”. There is a lot of self
loathing expressed in Irish literary works from Joyce on down to Doyle. Is
this just a family fight where one might say something terrible about a
father, mother or brother or wife and kill an outsider who says the same
thing or is it really how people feel? I do not see this level of self hate
in other literatures. There is nothing like it, for example, in the
literature of the Philippines. Talk a bit about how you feel or think about
The Commitments was set in 1980. Ireland was a different country then. Dublin
was a very different city and Barrytown (Kilbarrack) was run down, full of
unemployment and not surprising self loathing but always mixed in with gobs
of self belief and lashings of humour. Is there self loathing in other
literature? What about The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan
Sillitoe or American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis? I don't think it's an
Irish thing. Maybe a middle aged man thing?
21. Please tell us how your time as a technical writer and your scientific
education informs your writing. In one of your readings you spoke of the
perceived tensions between the sensibilities of a scientist and a poet-can
these be combined or does society need both?
Science and especially physics I find amazing. Physicists are always looking
for the most elegant solution to problems, which means beauty and
simplicity. I love that the biggest stuff, astronomy, nebulas, galaxies,
neutron stars, black holes, event horizons, reflect the smallest teeniest
stuff, quarks, spins, leptons, photons, fields.
There is definitely more room for poetry in science and vice versa.
And technical writing just means using the right words in the right place.
Concise, correct and unambiguous. Which is poetry. Except maybe the
ambiguity. Poets love dual/treble/quadruple meanings for words.
22. Have you attended literary workshops? if so please share your
experiences with us a bit.
I have attended quite a few workshops and courses over the years. I think I got more out of them earlier on. At this stage, I feel I have heard most things before.
Show don't tell. Lose the first stanza. Titles should add something. There should be layers of meaning. Reading out loud is crucial.
The quality of the teaching is crucial. I have been to workshops with a Work in PRogress poems and come out with no suggestions to improve it. Bit of a waste of my time.
I am a member of two writing groups, which are great for feedback and for support. I recommend this to everyone.
They are both more focused on fiction though so it anyone can point me to a Dublin based poetry one, let me know!
24. My brother and I will be making our first ever trip to Ireland in May
so I am seeking a bit of advice-
a. best place near Trinity University for fish and chips
b. best place for a fairly priced pint
Probably a student bar in Trinity? But I'd recommend Keoghs on South Anne St for Guinness.
c. best two museums
Totally depends what interests you. My favourites would be The Science Gallery (in Trinity) and the National Gallery.
d. best non-chain book store
Gutterbook shop in Cows Lane, Temple Bar, BOoks Upstairs by Trinity and The Winding Stair on the quays by Hapenny Bridge..
e. best place for good old fashioned Irish food?
Stumped. The 'Oirish food' restaurants are usually aimed at tourists and generally aren't much good.
Near Trinity hotel there's the Science Gallery cafe and The Grand Social on the quays does a good stew.
The Winding Stair is supposed to be good.
f. best place to hear traditional Irish music?
There can be good bands in O'Donoghue's pub and the one across the street. Foleys is it? But if you're visiting Co Clare,
there's a greater choice.
24. When you are outside of Ireland, besides friends or family, what do
you miss the most? what are you frankly glad to be away from for a while?
Outside of Ireland and the UK, has to be a good cup of tea, made in a teapot with boiling water.
Glad to be away from? Manky pub wine. Whinging and moaning about the state of the country, especially on RTE.
26. If someone from outside of Ireland were to ask you what are the top 5
or so contemporary Irish novels one should read to get a feel for the
country, what would you advise them?
Kevin Barry short stories. Maybe the comedy novels Ross O'Carroll Kelly are close enough to the bone!
Marian Keyes covers quite a lot of ground. Don't let the frothy book covers put you off.
27. an experiment for this question-, make up a question and answer it
What are your hopes for 2013?
I hope to get a publisher to take on my poetry collection. And I'd like to finish my novel.
28. I want to get much more into contemporary Irish poetry, I have read
nearly nothing beyond Yeats, where do I start? who are five essential
Essential Modern Irish Poets? I wouldn't be an expert. Probably those on the school Leaving Cert,
Famous Seamus (Heaney)
Michael Hartnett and Patrick Kavanagh if you count poets who are dead.
Or more modern
Rita Ann Higgins, Dennis O'Driscoll, Paul Durcan,
Paul Muldoon, Paula Meehan
29. Quick Pick Questions
a. tablets or laptops?
b. dogs or cats
Cats - It's the self centreness.
c. best way for you personally to relax when stressed?
Lie down with a G&T
d. favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner?
All of the above. Someone else cooks and clears up?
e. RTE or BBC
f. Yeats or Whitman
g. Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American
Other than the coffee, never go in.
h. night or day
i Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights?
Neither. Ruined by a bad English teacher.
j-best way to experience a new poem-hear the author read it or read it in a
quiet undisturbed place?
Both, Read it with the poet reading it.
k. favorite singer?
Bjork (today, tomorrow it would be a different answer)
l. Opera, country music, slow love songs, rock or does it depend on what
kind of mood you are in?
Rock usually though I'm going to the Opera tonight.
I offer my great thanks to Kate Dempsey for taking the time to provide us with such interesting answers. I hope to follow her writing career as best I can.