tales of hard-working people waiting for their dreams

Con Houlihan

Why do you write? Every man and woman will give you a different answer.

We will begin with Alan Sillitoe. He said that he was inspired by his first sight of the pyramids but he didn't write about the pyramids: he wrote about life in such an industrial city as Nottingham.

His first book, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, brought him a modicum of fame and fortune: his next book, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, brought him even more fame and even more money. It established him.

What did he mean when he said that the pyramids had inspired him? He was saying that he had thoughts which he couldn't express to his workmates or to his friends.

If you asked Patrick Kavanagh that same question, he wouldn't have a simple explanation because he hadn't one. From early manhood he used to keep his thoughts in copybooks upstairs in his bedroom.

They were thoughts that he couldn't express to his acquaintances in the pub or on a fair day. Eventually he began to send essays to the Irish Press: they were good and they were published. That was a great era for the Irish Press: its contributors included Kavanagh himself, Patricia Lynch, Aodh de Blacam (Roddy the Rover), Brendan Behan (pictured) and Joe Sherwood who wrote as JNS.

When Kavanagh unleashed his first book of poetry, A Soul For Sale, he established himself as a poet. It brought him some fame and much hostile criticism, but his big days were still to come until he was almost free from the critics who didn't like him. Even today there are still those who deny him greatness: however, if you read only his poem to his mother, you will have no doubt about it.


Tadgh MacSuibhne will tell you how he began as an artist. One Sunday after dinner at home he decided to paint a picture of his horse. The horse was an ordinary Irish draught with a handsome face. He became so absorbed in his work that when he was called to his supper, he realised that five hours had passed and he was still not finished. That horse is now grazing contentedly in my house in Portobello. Tadgh has gone on to become well known in many parts of the world: he has exhibited in London and in California and he is moderately famous. He lives in Mid Cork and works away on his own.

He is an example of what you can do if you have faith in yourself. He hasn't much time for the places associated with literature and art such as Greenwich Village and Hampstead and the Left Bank. He is better off on his own.

Adrian Kenny's latest work, Porto-bello Notebook, has an evocative name, all the more so since nobody is sure of its meaning. It isn't a parish or an electoral division: it is more a state of mind and a moveable feast. In fact it is an area of hard-working people and of soft-working people and of people waiting for their dreams to come true. Kenny is a fully paid-up member of all three classes but he has lived in Portobello long enough to be a citizen.

His new book is, I suspect, a mighty effort to express himself at his very best as a writer. If this is his ambition, he has certainly succeeded. He is my neighbour but that doesn't inhibit me from saying that it is a great book: everybody interested in language or in literature should read it. It takes the reader far away from Dublin but he is never far away from Portobello.

We are living in an age when the English language is being assaulted daily, especially in the context of punctuation.

We all know that an edict was sent out by the Department of Education about 25 years ago telling the examiner that punctuation no longer counted and that marks weren't to be deducted for errors in this context. There was the same attitude towards spelling and so we have seen a generation of bright young people who are woefully lacking in those two very important elements.


Portobello Notebook is essential reading for this generation of people who are about 30 or less. There is far more to this book than literary correctness: one chapter about the delicate relationship between a man and a woman is worth the price of the book in itself.

It is published by the Lilliput Press: they have done a very good job. You can fit it in your pocket and take it out on the bus or on the train.

Fogra: Congratulations to Maria McCambridge on running an Olympic A standard (2:36:37) in Rome for the Marathon