Many of us are trying to wrap our heads around the fact it’s Christmas at all, let alone wrap fancy-looking paper around Christmas presents. I was intrigued – and somewhat comforted – to read Anne-Marie Flynn’s An Cailín Rua column last week, in which she explained a surprising reality: research has shown that time doesn’t drag when life becomes more monotonous – it speeds up. And god knows, life has certainly become more monotonous these last two years thanks to the plague that stubbornly stalks our land.
So, with my head still firmly in September, I have left much of my Christmas shopping till the last minute. (Full disclosure: I have always done this, so can’t really blame the pandemic.) This inevitably means a trip to the local bookshops to frantically pillage their shelves.
One of my go-to gifts has always been books. They can be personal, in so far as you choose a book you believe the person you’re giving it to would like; they offer an escape from the world for as long as they take to read (and who doesn’t want that these days?); and they last a lifetime.
There are lots of new books out there that are either by Mayo authors or are based in Mayo. Castlebar author Sally Rooney’s ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ might be top of everyone’s mind, having just been named Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, but there are loads more to choose from that you might not have heard of.
Earlier this year, in these pages, Anton McNulty interviewed Westport native Frank Flanagan about his fiction, ‘Here and Now’. Sadly, Frank passed away last month, but hopefully his family can take some comfort in the way his book will live on in the minds of all who read it.
As Anton explained: “The novel follows the experience of one Francie Gallagher and his rather thoughtless but conventional upbringing in the west of Ireland of the ’50s and ’60s. When his friendships become complicated he makes a discovery that will have consequences right into his adult life … While [Frank] says the storyline is pure fiction, he readily admits that much of the descriptive elements in ‘Here and Now’ are based on his childhood growing up in Westport.”
The book would undoubtedly make a great gift for any fiction lover with a grá for Westport – while Anton’s lovely interview with Frank, ‘Focusing on the here and now’, is available to read online on mayonews.ie.
Another Mayo author, Martin Keaveney, has just released his second novel, ‘The Mackon Country’.
The story revolves around Tommy O’Toole, ‘a talented adolescent from a village at the centre of isolated bog swamps known as the Mackon Country’. “He lives in a mobile home with his father, Joe, who dreams of completing a half-built house in the field outside. Nights are spent with Uncle Midnight, who plays poker while swilling Dutch Gold and recalling hero stories from his time in Lebanon. When Dad gets caught up in a local ATM robbery, Tommy begins a descent into organised crime.”
The book is Keaveney’s second novel after 2020’s Delia Meade, which followed his short story collection, ‘The Rainy Day’ (2018). Keaveney’s short fiction has been published in literary journals in Ireland, the UK and the US. An Associate Lecturer in Irish Literature at NUIG, he has also written for stage and screen, and his writing has been produced and exhibited at many international film festivals, as well as on RTÉ.
Also released this month was ‘Vale of Mist’, a book set in Mayo, written by Michael Kilgallon. The author explains: “Two men walking through the beautiful Mayo countryside become involved in an intriguing mystery. The ancient paths lead to an adventure concerning the ancient past. An expanding cast of local, colourful characters become involved. The two friends slowly realise that they are inadvertently on a mission to help the community. A joking request for help from the town policeman to investigate a sighting of a ghost leads to genuine supernatural encounters.
“Many of their adventures end at the local pub, and their story is full of jokes and witticisms old and new. The overall sense is a gentle, comic, feel-good tale, but there are deeper strands.”
Sounds intriguing, and a great gift for anyone who likes a good mystery.
Another intriguing proposition is a stunning photobook, just published in October, called ‘Peat’. The book is about the peatlands and turf cutting in Ireland’s northwest – with most of the pictures and stories from County Mayo.
The images and text are by Dutch photographer and author Bo Scheeringa, who explains that the book ‘tells the story of the importance and the beauty of Irish peatlands and the transcience of ancient Irish turf-cutting traditions’. “For this project I immersed myself within the Irish rural life for a year, photographing the peatlands and the bogs during the seasons and observing and photographing the processes of peat extraction. I spoke with turf cutters and conservationists and collected their stories to explore the extent to which ancient traditions and conservation can coexist.”
Her beautiful publication would be a lovely present for anyone interested in turf cutting, peatlands, culture, Mayo landscapes and/or documentary, portrait and landscape photography.
For anyone who loves the great outdoors and adventures, but also has an interest in the simple human struggle, Ballintubber man Kieran Lally’s ‘Beyond The Summit’ is a good bet. Lally climbed Mount Everest in 2013 to fulfil a lifelong ambition – but he also hoped it would help to silence the inner critic who constantly belittled his existence.
The blurb reads: “This fascinating account journeys through his young and formative life experiences and, by interweaving this narrative with the immediacy of a step-by-step account of his climb to Everest’s summit in 2013, he brings extra depth and understanding to what motivates and simultaneously sabotages our outlooks in life.”
A charming little book comes from award-winning Louisburgh-based artist Anthony (Anto) O’Brien, whose previous work includes ‘36 Views of Croagh Patrick’, a book of paintings and poetry inspired by The Reek. His latest book, ‘Consider My Cat’, is inspired by something the artist is also very fond of: felines.
‘Consider My Cat’, a poem by 18th-century English poet, playwright, scholar and satirist Christopher Smart, is sweetly brought to life with O’Brien’s endearing images. Mayo poet Geraldine Mitchell writes in the book’s forward:
“It seems we fell into two categories during the tough first year of the Covid pandemic. There were those of us who felt paralysed, unable to think, act or be fully creative as long as time was set to ‘pause’. And then there were the truly inventive spirits, like Anto, or Christopher Smart during his very different confinement for mental illness, whose irrepressible need to make new work found no hindrance in restriction. […] Anto O’Brien and Christopher Smart share the gift, not just of looking, but of truly seeing. Both have the gift of sharing their insights with the wider world. The resulting book is a gift of another nature for us all to enjoy.”
For the little ones
And of course, we can’t forget the little bookworms amongst us. For them, Linda Newman’s new book ‘Rescuing Daisy’ could be just the thing.
Linda, whose previous works include ‘Zinnia, Warrior Princess Pig’, is known to many as the good-humoured proprietor of Leaping Lizard gift shop and Western Homes and Holidays, both in Westport. She also enjoys being an extra and playing small parts in film and television – she spent seven years appearing in and out of Game of Thrones!
Linda has a real soft spot for animals (she has a rescue horse, rescue chickens and two rescue cats) and cherishes each of their different personalities – a trait that really can be seen in her children’s writing. She tells The Mayo News about latest book, ‘Rescuing Daisy’:
“This is the story of a little dog named Daisy … her rescue and life on the little farm in Westport. The book is filled with colourful illustrations, plenty of animals, a QR tag of Daisy talking and an interactive last two pages for kids to write and even submit stories of pictured animals to rescue, or their own real stories.
“Zinnia the Warrior Princess Pig and her brother are in this book too, along with new character Francine Firestorm (the caravan). The next book is all about her adventures and good deeds.”
As Linda points out, ‘there are so many animals needing rescue from pounds and shelters’, and in a nice touch, the photos at the back of the book are real animals in shelters, highlighting their plight.
The books mentioned here are just a small taste of the many publications out there that are either by Mayo authors or feature the county. Your local bookseller will be able to direct you to lots more, and they’ll be only too glad of the business. Support them this Christmas, and consider supporting your county and its authors, artists and creatives with the gifts you choose.