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Review: Anthology: Shine On Edited by Pat Boran

As speculation grows over the death of Gary Speed, one of the suggested causes is that the ex-footballer had been secretly suffering from depression.

The burdens of the mentally ill are all the heavier because of the stigma clinging to mental ill-health.

As the former England international Stan Collymore reminded us recently, depression is "an illness, just an illness". People who suffer from it, he said, "are not bad, mad, crazy or weak, just ill".

Shine is the voluntary organisation that combats the shame and frustration associated with mental illness.

Its enlightened director, John Saunders, had the idea that an anthology might raise awareness, not just among sufferers' families and friends, but among the general public. So he invited writer and publisher of Dedalus Press Pat Boran to edit Shine On: Irish Writers for Shine. And what a treasure trove he has produced.

As well as an insightful foreword by Miriam O'Callaghan, Boran packs nearly a hundred great writers between the covers, with everyone there including a poem from our new President. Many share their personal stories: Molly McCluskey recalls the diagnosis of her brother's schizophrenia; Lia Mills's diary documents her battle with mouth cancer and her realisation that "I want to live"; playwright Peter Sheridan shows how his father responded to his son's death by establishing a drama group.

There are short stories too, like Dermot Bolger's poignant tale of a lonely woman and a foot fetishist, a tale that highlights how decency and weirdness can coincide. Jack Harte tells an uplifting story of an illiterate, highly strung lad who realises that he arrived in the world with the wrong manual for making sense of things.

Paul Durcan lays despondency bare: 'I wake in the morning with 60pc depression,' he writes. Joe O'Connor has Pontius Pilate in old age deluding himself that the 'misfit' (Christ) will soon be forgotten. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's speaker in The Battering, terrifyingly rationalises horrific violence.

The honest anguish of Shine On is balanced by hope, humour and the sheer pleasure of being alive: Kerrie Hardie has an upbeat memory of her late mother-in-law who would see in a clear sky "just enough blue/To make a Dutchman his trousers".

James Harpur glimpses angels hidden from view in a harvest field. Colm Tóibín, John O'Donnell, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Rita Ann Higgins are just a few of the many other accomplished writers who tell it as it is, but with exquisite care and sensitivity.

Shine On informs us that while one in four of us will grapple with mental problems at some time, writers and poets are 20 times more likely to "end up in an asylum". Perhaps it goes with the territory.

Maybe that slightly detached or unhinged way of seeing is what makes the writer in the first place.

Brendan Kennelly passes on the advice that "The best way to fight the January/dark and cold .../is to tell stories/that have a touch of sunlight." This lucky bag of writing brightened the last few days for me, and will be perfect for Christmas stockings.

Mary Shine Thompson

Dr Mary Shine Thompson's most recent book is Young Irelands: Studies in Children's Literature (Four Courts Press).

Indo Review