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New Irish Voices
Poetry chapbooks by
Roisin Kelly & Paul McMahon



Liberty Walks Naked
by Maram al-Masri, trans. Theo Dorgan



Chapbooks by Fool for Poetry
Competition Winners 2018

Not in Heaven by Molly Minturn
Bog Arabic by Bernadette McCarthy




Richesses: Francophone Songwriter Poets
Edited and translated by Aidan Hayes





Munster Literature Centre

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Nathan O'Donnell is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and co-editor of the journal of contemporary art criticism Paper Visual Art Journal. He has published in The Dublin Review, New Irish Writing, The Manchester Review, gorse journal, The Irish Times, Apollo, and Architecture Ireland, amongst others. In 2015 he was nominated for a Hennessy Award and he has been awarded bursaries from the Arts Council of Ireland and Dublin City Council. He is currently finishing a novel, and working on a public art commission from South Dublin County Council, focused upon print culture and protest. He teaches part-time on the MA Art in the Contemporary World programme at NCAD.







I come down Poulnamucka Hill, to where her house is on the corner. She is not there. I can see that much from over the way, waiting so I can cross. No sign of her car in the drive. No hassle. It won’t be the first time. Even way back, in the early days, when we were on the straight and narrow, she’d tell me one thing and do another, out of sheer neglectfulness of mind. For all her brains these things just slip out of her head – times, like, and the things you’re meant to do at them.  I don’t mind. The night she finally said she’d go out for a bit of food with me, at the Chinese, Jade Dragon, she didn’t show up, and when I rang her up she said she’d forgotten all about it but in she came anyway, two hours late, and you know what they say, better late than never. We had some night, that night, the two of us.


            So she’s not home when she said she’d be. There’s worse sins. I should know. If this is all I can complain of, I count myself lucky.  I’ve worse things against me, I can tell you.  I’m lucky.  I count myself lucky.


            I’d call but I don’t want her thinking I’m hassling her.  She’s in town, I’d say.  I’ll give it half an hour.  Maybe then if she’s in Fogarty’s or Una Pole’s I might even join her, you never know.  For now I’m going to put my feet up.  I’m worn out after the walk. It’s a long way across that hill and there’s no shade, just the road stretching and the ditch alongside it.  I make my way up the drive. I’m parched.  And Billy’s inside, I can hear the telly.  She’s always wanting me to spend time with him.  That’s what I’ll do. I’ll join him.  I’ll see what’s on.


            The blinds are pulled in the sitting room.  He is there in his pyjamas, blue cotton pyjamas with little sheep dancing over them, in the middle of the afternoon. He doesn’t move from the seat, like it’s no surprise to him who walks in the door or what they want.


            ‘Where’s the baba?’


            ‘Upstairs,’ he says.




‘Obviously.  She’d be crying otherwise.’


‘No need to get smart.  You’re minding her?  Is your mam out?’


‘Did you see her car?’


He’d never give you a straight answer, Billy.  He’s thirteen.  I don’t know what I must have been like at thirteen. I’d say I was a little cunt as well.


‘I’ll sit so.’


He says nothing.  I move the magazines off the couch and sit down, put my plastic bag on the ground. Sandra’s bottle is sitting on the table, going yellow.  Is a bottle like normal milk?  Are you supposed to put it in the fridge? 


I’ve to squint at the telly. The room is dark and quiet. It’s hard to take it in after a long walk and a few cans.


‘What are we watching?  Cartoons?’


‘It’s animé.’


I couldn’t tell you what that means, but I’m not about to ask any more questions. He’s already like he’s going to have a blue fit. It’s all in Japanese.  There’s a fish counter, and school kids in uniforms, and a lot of wailing and kicking.  Billy’s cackling at it though.  I’d say he’s forcing it.  He probably knows I haven’t a clue.  I’d reckon he loves that.


‘Any idea when she’ll be home?’


‘I dunno.’


‘She said to come over around two.’


‘Did she?’ He turns from the telly and gives me the first look since I set foot in the place. He squints at me like I’m stupid.


‘You know she only wants you around to babysit for her?’


‘Hasn’t she you for that?’ I’m not about to play that game. I take out my pouch of Golden Virginia, unfold a skin, get it in shape. My trouble is getting the tobacco to sit in the groove. I’ve never been delicate with my fingers at the best of times, and these days they’re shaking too. So I just let the coarse strings flutter over it and hope for the best.


On TV one of the schoolchildren is bawling crying.  The music is upbeat – like the tinny electronic music you used to get on those old console games, Super Mario Brothers, Tetris – but the child is surrounded by all these dead bodies.  


‘There’s this secret club,’ says Billy.  He wants to explain.  That’s a new one.  ‘He just wants some sushi, you see.’


‘O yeah?’  I sit up like I’m paying very close attention all of a sudden. I don’t want him thinking I’m jarred.


‘But every time he does, the secret gang attack. No one gets past them. They transform, you see. They won’t let anyone near the sushi. That’s why it’s called Ben-To.’  He’s laughing as he tells me.  This must be right funny if you can follow it.  I’m squinting at the screen trying to get a grip.  But Billy knows I’m faking.  He gives up trying to fill me in.  He was offering me a chance and I fucked it up.


‘Why don’t you just call her,’ he says.  ‘I’d say she’s in the pub.’


‘I don’t wanna bother her.’


He looks at me again, another one of those looks that says, are you having me on or are you fucking thick? Let him.


‘I don’t think that’ll bother her,’ he says.


‘Whether it does or it doesn’t. I’m easy.  I don’t mind if she forgets a thing now and again.  She’s her own woman.’


‘Why do you call her that?’


‘Call her what?’


‘A woman.’


‘Cos that’s what she is.'


‘She’s my mam.’


‘Well. She’s that too.’


This isn’t going well.  I’ve another few cans in the bag so I take one out, like saying, I’m done with talking, let’s just watch the telly in peace.  I open it and take a slug, sit back in the chair. But Billy’s not done. After a minute he’s off again.


‘What’s the difference?’


‘Between what?’


‘Between her being a woman and her being my mam.’


‘There’s no difference.’


‘Well why do you say it like that, then? You say it like you mean something different, when you say “woman.”’


‘Look, Billy. That’s just a way of talking. When you say that someone is a woman, it’s like saying, you appreciate her, you respect her, you want her.’


‘You want her?’


‘Ah fuck’s sake, Billy, would you stop?’


‘Cos I want her too.’


‘It’s not the same thing.’


‘What’s the difference?’


I’m lobbing the beer into me now.


‘Can we watch the fucking telly?’


‘Is it because I don’t get up on top of her?’


I nearly choke.


‘Billy, would you watch the fucking cartoons.’


‘It’s animé!  Fuck’s sake.’


We don’t talk after that. It’s quiet but it’s tense. I wish she’d just come home now. I’ve skulled the can too quick and have to crack another one, even though I’m parched. I shouldn’t have had any on the walk over, in the hot sun. Now I’m dizzy. Billy is watching me drink.


‘Can I have some?’ he asks.


‘You’re thirteen.’


‘Like you weren’t drinking when you were thirteen.’


He has me there.


‘Cmere so.’ 


He slides over. I hold the can and let him take a sip. I don’t know is it him or is it me but too much comes out, spills down his pyjamas.


‘That’s enough,’ I say.  Is it to him or to myself I’m talking?  I’ve had too much booze too quick. I hate this feeling, like I’m being overpowered.


Billy’s just sitting there now, close up against me, looking at me.


‘Ah, you know what, you’re a good boy really. Looking after your mammy. You know that? There’s not many as’d do the same. You know that? Without your dad on the scene. There’s many a boy who’d take advantage of the situation, acting up. Not you though. You’ll be good to your mammy, won’t you?’


Billy has nothing to say to that. I’m babbling away, getting soppy with the drink and not even caring.


‘And you know what? You’re probably better off. God forgive me, there’s times I think we’d have been better off without my daddy. The stories I could tell you. My poor mother. Putting up with it all. It’d break your heart.’


Billy looks on at me crying. I feel the room yawning around me. I wipe the wet from my face.


 ‘Jesus Christ,’ I say, laying my head back on the headrest, ‘I am thirsty.’


‘Wait and I’ll get you a drink.’


‘Good boy. Good boy. You’re some lad.’


He’s gone for a moment – I squint at the telly, the cartoon schoolkids jumping, kicking, their faces distorted with Xs and weird erratic effects – and then Billy is standing over me again, calm, watchful. I feel a glass at my lips. He is pouring it into my mouth, and I drink. It tastes acrid. It tastes like poison. It doesn’t taste like water.


‘Fuck!’ I spit it out.  But my head is lolling.  ‘What are you doing to me?’


‘It’s mam’s. It’s whiskey. Is this not what you want?’


One of the cartoon schoolboys is strapped to a stretcher, mangled, about to be operated on. He is screaming but the music is still Nintendo music. It’s making my head hurt. In my ear Billy is whispering. ‘…tell my mam,’ he’s saying. About the drink? ‘Ah, don’t,’ I say. I reach out my hand, try to swat him off. But I miss – where is he? My eyes are too heavy to open. I pat my hand around a bit but all I feel is the back of the couch, the wet grit between the cushions, all sticky. There are no more words being whispered. At least, I say to myself, feeling the can slip, feeling the beer pool in my lap, I’ll get some sleep.




Next thing I know it’s so bright I have to cover my eyes.  They’re searing.  Everything’s searing.  The curtains are flung back and she’s standing in the middle of the room.  She’s not with it.  She’s keyed up from the booze at Una Poles. She’s had too many.


‘Are you alright, love?’ I ask.


She’s just staring at me.  I open my eyes a little more, though it makes my brain throb.  She’s just standing there, stiff as a plank.  The telly is off. There is broken glass on the ground.  Blankets are thrown over the floor.  She’s swaying, but her eyes are fixed like as if with rivets. There is no sound in the house. No Ben-To. No Billy.


‘What’s happened?’


I go to stand, but the pain bursts around my temples. I’ve to hold myself up by the arm of the chair. My clothes are wet. My trousers are open.


She can hardly breathe, looking at me. I can feel the rage off her, like it’s a difficulty to her. She talks low and quietly to keep some handle on things.


‘You’re a pig.’


I drop back into the chair. I am not able for this. I put my hands to my head, feel things giving way underneath me.


‘With your filthy hands,’ she says. Already she’s losing control of it. She’s pitching headlong into me. ‘You’re a fucking swine, laying your fingers on him – the same fingers. The same fucking fingers.’


‘I didn’t do nothing,’ I say. It’s like I’m made of salt and I’m bubbling all the way through. ‘I didn’t touch him. Did he say I touched him?  Did he? Where is he? Let him come and say it when I’m sitting here!’


‘I won’t be letting you anywhere near him,’ she says. She’s nearly spitting. The room is wobbling around her. I need her to stop attacking me. I need just a minute’s more peace.


‘He’s a liar, love. I didn’t touch him. I wouldn’t.’


‘The same fucking fingers,’ she says again, like that’s the bit she can’t believe.


‘Come on, love. He’s making it up. You know he’s a puff, don’t you? I’ve caught him looking.’ Am I telling the truth? I’d say anything now – to make this stop. ‘Listen, love. He’s a liar. I came in here, I fell asleep. If something happened, it’s him who interfered with me.’


I shake my head, try to get things clear. The back of the sofa, the feel of cotton and grit in my fingers. The taste of whiskey. How long have I been out? It’s like sparks keep igniting in my head and my throat so that acid goes spraying. She’s not responding. She’s waiting. I don’t know for what.


‘He’s a puff. We both know that. So what do you expect?’ Still she says nothing. She just stares, like a blooded animal. ‘I don’t know what else you want from me. I didn’t fucking do anything. And I tell you what, you’ve no right saying I did.’


And I mean it. She’s no right, throwing accusations? She’s no fucking saint. You leave your kids in the wild, bad things will happen. That’s life. You’ve no right complaining about it after. But what’s the point in saying it. It’ll do no good. You’d hardly know it, the way she carries on, but she is his mother, after all. And they always listen to the child.


‘Look,’ I say. Suddenly I’m sharp as a tack. The danger reaches me through the fog of booze. I sit up. I lower my voice, talk slow, take the only route left open to me. ‘You’re out of your head, love. Do you hear me? You’re nothing but a drunk. Yeah? And you’re in no state to be saying any of this.’


That does it: she starts to wail. She comes at me, hitting at me, but she doesn’t have the conviction. And I realise I’m in the clear. No guard will listen to her. Sure they all know her. They’re just waiting for a chance to scoop, take the kids. She won’t go near it. She’s right up against me now. I’ve to stand to hold her off. She’s wild, babbling away, but she’ll tire out. She’s feeble from the drink; already I can feel her easing off. She takes a big gulp of breath, all bile now, not believing. She won’t even meet my eye. But she calms down, she stops fighting. She stands there in my grip like a limp animal, like a deer somebody’s shot.


I go to step past her, the shake gone from me. I know now she hasn’t a hope. She makes one last grab, takes my arm. Like she honestly thinks she could stop me. Like she believes I wouldn’t floor her if I had to. But I’ll go softly first. I’ll give her a chance. I’ll be generous with her, seeing as how I’m out. I lift her pinching fingers, one by one, off my wrist.


‘I didn’t go near him,’ I say.


She looks me straight in the eye, like she’s asking me something she can’t say. I can see her wanting to believe me. Christ. I want to believe it too. But what can either of the two of us believe? We’re nothing better than reprobates and ruins. We can’t trust ourselves, never mind each other? We’re past all that; we’re not made that way anymore. We know all the brutal details, how only your appetite survives. We’ve let down people dearer to us than each other. We know each other, her and me.


I push past her. I stagger out onto the drive. It’s the middle of the evening already, a bit of light left, I only hope it’s enough to see me to the off licence and home. I push through the gate, ragged with relief. I take the turn up Poulnamucka Hill. The sun fills the gaps in the hedgerow. I have the road to myself, no cars, no biddies out walking, just the noise of the cows in the field and the bluebottles flying and the midges, the savage quiet of the fields. I can still feel the clamp of her fingers on my wrist, the panicked grip of her. Like she wanted to say something but couldn’t. I rub at the little red welts on my skin. A cow stands watching me, releasing behind him a steady liquid shit. I’ve stopped walking. The giddiness is gone off me now. I feel like I could sleep – for days and days. I close my eyes, imagining it. I imagine, if I could lay my head in the crook of that tree in the last of the sun, how deep I’d sleep. I imagine, if I could transform, like the cartoon schoolkids, if I could turn into a blackbird now or a crow, how I would fly to the concrete cross on the hill, by the Graves of the Leinster Men, looking out over Lough Derg, the peace I’d feel.


Or maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I’d just go circling around and around that house down below, at the bottom of the hill. Maybe I’d never leave. Because you know what, now I think of it, rubbing the sting into my wrist, I’d swear she was asking me to stay.

©2017 Nathan O'Donnell



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About Nathan's project The Mill

Editor of Paper Visual Art Journal

Home in The Irish Independent (shortlisted for Hennessy New Irish Writing Award)






©2009 Southword Editions
Munster Literature Centre

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