Book Launch Speech given by Conor Kelleher
The Mills Inn, Ballyvourney
One day, a year or more ago, a slim American lady walked into Gadaí Dubh Books looking for some books on Ireland. I initially thought to myself, okay, here’s another Irish/American who’s only just arrived via Shannon and is in search of a bit of background on the Emerald Isle, Blarney Stone, Lakes of Killarney and, of course, anything at all I might have on leprechauns and shillelaghs! So I took a couple of titles from the shelves: ‘The Travel Guide to Ireland’ and ‘Irish Slang for Yanks’. “No, no, no,” said this soft-spoken American, smiling at the proffered books (taking obvious pity on this village idiot!), “Books on Irish history, literature and folklore: I’m looking for the ‘Annals of Ulster’, Meehan’s ‘The Fate and Fortunes of Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell, the Earls of Tyrconnel’, Dineen’s Dictionary and ‘The Poems of Joseph Mary Plunkett’, published by Talbot Press in 1919”.
Surprised, I queried her about the immense weight these tomes would add to her checked-in or carry-on luggage for her return trip to the States and it was then that Ashley O’Neal informed me that she wasn’t going anywhere! She was a permanent resident. Well that was something different! We got to talking and Ashley outlined her meandering past, Stateside, then how she had decided to leave the U.S. to live in Ireland – a brave move, especially for a woman on her own – and how, over the course of 20 years, she had continued her wanderings, like Aengus, on this island of ours until, like St. Gobnait before her, she discovered Bhaile Mhúirne and realised she had finally found her true home.
Over the last year, as a regular visitor to the bookshop, Ashley told me that she was working on a book of poetry, her first, and that she hoped to publish it in 2019. It was obviously a labour of love but, at times, the process also proved difficult. The late Dan Cronin, of ‘In the Shadow of the Paps’ fame, Ashley’s close friend and muse, to whom the book is dedicated, encouraged her to work on and complete the project while Sliabh Luachra and Mhuscraoí acted as this quiet American’s oracles, inspiring her at every step. As a blow-in, Ashley knew she was treading a dangerous path and walking on hallowed ground as musicians and bards have held sway in these ancient baronies for centuries and her poetry acknowledges the debt owed to these wise and highly knowledgeable artists. Closer still, the Filí an tSulane are renowned for their contributions to Irish literature especially as Gaeilge and, although, as can be expected, Ashley is not conversant in the Irish language – yet – the inclusion in her book of some focail as Gaeilge, serves both to link the publication to the history of Irish literature and, more importantly, to ground the book in this immediate locality.
The title of the book: ‘The Wren is Near’, is explained within the covers and it harps back to old legends of this tiny bird with the big voice! Known as the ‘King of all Birds’, an dreoilín’s scientific name in Latin is ‘Troglodytes’ meaning ‘cave-dweller’ as, prior to the development of modern buildings, in the past, the species nested in caves and other such dark sites, often in the company of humans. The wren would have co-habited with human troglodytes as they painted primitive scenes on cave walls, with scribes as they copied texts in beehive huts, with monks in stone abbeys as they illuminated manuscripts and with poets and musicians in medieval towerhouses and castles. Over millennia, as a constant human companion, this little bird has borne witness to the production of Irish art, literature, poetry, music and song so it is fitting that the bird is recognised in Irish folklore and literature down all the years to this very day.
But an dreoilín is not the only character that appears within the pages of this handy, pocket-sized, reasonably-priced, book of modern verse, there are others. An Bean Feasa, the Wise Woman, makes an appearance; as does the mysterious ‘Lily’, in white attire amongst the ruins, who’s a recurring theme throughout the work much like the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets; Adam and Eve, Manannan, Finn and Sétanta, kings, queens, soldiers and warriors, a beggar, fisherman and a ferryman, other birds: crow, heron, blackbird, nightingale, raven, kingfisher, pigeon, swallow, hummingbird, swan, gull, magpie, hawk, falcon, dove and robin; animals like the wolf, dog, deer, cat, horse, lion, fox, cattle; salmon, eel and crab but there isn’t a single bat! I sometimes wonder why I get out of bed in the morning! That aside, like Lily, some of these people and creatures also recur as themes through the volume as the work serves to cast the small, shiny eyes of the wren over Irish centuries past while, perhaps controversially, this little bird also looks to the future.
Finally, there is an old, and, unfortunately, very negative, adage that says: ‘Publishing a book of poetry is like throwing a rose petal over a high cliff and waiting to hear the sound of it hitting the ground below!’ However, since opening Gadaí Dubh Books (three years ago now – thanks for all the support!), I can attest that nothing could be further from the truth! The interest in poetry in this country has never been as high and, although not many people talk about such things on a daily basis, poetry books are extremely popular. So I’m delighted to get the privilege of introducing a new and really very fine body of work and to add the book to my own bookshop shelves. I’d like to congratulate the author and, despite not including any bats, I wish her the very best of success as her book ‘The Wren is Near’ by Ashley O’Neal joins and takes its rightful place as part of the incredible pantheon of published Irish literature.
Owner of Gadaí Dubh Bookstore