Thought bubble


Thank you, Tom Paulin

A little while ago, a friend of mine passed a copy of The Butterfly Cabinet to Tom Paulin. Tom Paulin is one of my favourite writers and critics. I was lucky enough to meet him years ago as a student at the John Hewitt Summer School which was then held at Garron Tower in County Antrim. I hazily recall a surreal moment when he was distracted by a squirrel running across the green outside and he stopped what he was saying and went off on a different topic entirely. I used to sit up to watch The Late Review on a Friday night just to hear him. The dream team in those days, as far as I was concerned, was any three of Tom, Germaine Greer, Tony Parsons and Allison Pearson. You could always be sure of a good set-to. They hardly ever agreed and if it looked like consensus was in the offing, you could rely on Tom to put the cat among the pigeons. He famously ‘lost the bap’ with Germaine Greer in 2002 when reviewing two feature films based on the Bloody Sunday shootings when the host Kirsty Wark failed to mediate, but one of my favourite moments is the night he described something (and to my shame I can’t remember if it was a book or a play or a film he was reviewing) as ‘a bag of boke’! His fellow critics stared at him uncomprehending, while every Irish viewer must have been rolling around their sofas laughing at his choice of the vernacular. Classic!

Anyway, Tom read The Butterfly Cabinet and wrote a comment on the flyleaf and gave it back to my friend and she returned it to me and since then, it’s been the copy that I use at every public reading because it’s become my good luck charm. I told my publishers about it and they tried to track Tom down before the paperback release in the UK to ask if they could quote him on the cover, but we couldn’t get a hold of him in time. Then a few days ago, my friend rang to say that she’d met him again and she’d mentioned it to him and he’d said, ‘Absolutely, quote away,’ so here it is. The Butterfly Cabinet is released today in paperback in the US and I’m relieved to say that, according to Tom Paulin, it’s not a bag of boke. Here’s what he wrote: ‘This is a remarkable novel – lively, beautifully written, with a host of powerful, eloquent characters. It is steeped in Irish history, folklore and landscape. It has great humanity and enduring authority. I wish Bernie McGill every success.’ Thank you, Tom, thank you, thank you, thank you!


The Great Northern Novel Debate

I’ll be at the John Hewitt Spring Festival in Carnlough this weekend, doing battle with Heather Richardson and Martin Mooney over who has backed the best book in the great northern novel debate. My choice is Janet McNeill’s The Maiden Dinosaur, Heather’s is David Park’s The Truth Commissioner, and Martin will champion The Road to Ballyshannon by David Martin. I’ve been besotted with Janet McNeill’s book ever since I read it as a student, but I’m not going to say too much about it here: I'm keeping my powder dry for Saturday. The debate takes place at the Londonderry Arms Hotel at 11.15am on Saturday 21st April.

If you fancy trying your hand at a bit of writing, Eoghan Walls is facilitating a writing workshop on the Friday evening (20th April) at 7pm, and he and Martin will be reading on the Saturday afternoon (21st April) along with poet Moya Cannon.  Artist Hector McDonnell will be in conversation with Cahal Dallat (also on Saturday afternoon), and the Festival will close on Saturday evening with readings by writers Mavis Cheek and Kapka Kassabova. The Spring Festival is a wonderfully stimulating and creative weekend and, having been there last year, I can personally vouch for the wheaten bread. Hope to see you. Full programme here


Conversations with a Sat Nav

I’m beginning to wonder if our sat nav has been remotely rigged by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. It’s a real possibility that ahead of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush in June, the NITB has hacked into every sat nav in the country to ensure that all visitors detour via our most scenic routes. Sadie (as the sat nav is known in our house) seems always to want to direct us off-road. She has a penchant for mountains, not so much the coastline. She likes to go inland. Way inland. Far more inland than I want to go. She avoids major towns, well-surfaced roads, is partial to a forest, a trickling burn. A few weeks ago, on the way back from a writing workshop in Enniskillen with the Fermanagh Creative Writing Group, she sent us home via the Sperrins. We travelled over fifty miles from Fintona to Maghera without passing through a town. We saw signs for towns, tantalisingly close: Omagh, Dungannon, Cookstown, Draperstown, but each time we drew near, Sadie’s voice seemed to rise, ‘Turn left down road I can’t pronounce’, she said, and off we went again, over another hill, down another dale. It’s not such a bad thing to see a bit of the countryside. On that occasion, my husband was driving, our girls were in the back of the car. It was a sunny Sunday morning. We were happy enough to wend our way and as it turns out, the journey, though apparently circuitous, took no longer than google map would have us believe it would have taken via the main route. So no bad feelings, Sadie, none whatsoever. Until last night. I was in Ballygally at the Halfway House Hotel, meeting with the local book group. I’d programmed Sadie for the journey there but cunningly switched her off until I’d reached Larne when I reckoned her propensity for the scenic would be fairly well compromised. (I was in Larne the week before with the Writers’ Group there. Sadie had sent me up Slemish. I was on to her.) On the outskirts of the town, she advised me to turn left through a housing estate. I could see on the screen that we were moving away from the coast (you know where you are with the coast, keep following it and you’ll hit a town eventually) but I decided to go with her and it was okay. There were two or three miles of countryside and a hump-back bridge but then the sea was to the right of us and all was well, Ballygally in sight. We had a great chat at the book group about The Butterfly Cabinet, then off I set, alone, around ten o’clock to make my way back. ‘Turn right,’ said Sadie as we left the hotel.

‘Oh no you don’t,’ said I. ‘We’re going straight to Larne on the Coast Road and then directly to Ballymena. None of your oul’ nonsense or I’ll switch you off.’

‘Recalculating,’ said Sadie in a distinctly miffed tone. And so we continued. ‘Turn right,’ repeated Sadie at Drains Bay.

I looked around sceptically, but as there was an actual sign for Larne I thought, ‘Fair enough, that’s what we’ll do,’ and it all looked fine. There were streetlights and houses and even a mini roundabout. There was a white line up the middle of the road. These are all good things, in my book. ‘Not far from Larne now,’ I told Sadie, companionably, just a little while before all of those things, the signs that we were nearing a major town, slowly but very definitely disappeared one by one. ‘So, you’re taking me back more or less the way we came,’ I said, ‘over the hump-back bridge?’ and Sadie said nothing. The houses fell away. In the headlights, I could see trees. It wasn’t long before the gears began to strain. There was no bridge. There were no cars. There was no sign of Larne. The road had become a single track. There was no place to stop and turn the car around. ‘Sadie?’ I said, and Sadie said nothing. On the screen the next turn-off was seven miles away. The terrain, what I could see of it, was unquestionably mountainous. There wasn’t a sign of a living soul in sight. She’d done it again and I’d let her. So I did the only thing I could. I switched on The Late Show and Cherry McIlwaine and I listened to her liquid voice and to Van Morrison and I glanced nervously at the fuel gauge and I told myself it would be okay.

And it was, of course it was. After several tortuous black winding miles the road improved and then there were lights. Never before in the long history of Antrim has a traveller been so glad to see Broughshane. I actually whooped aloud at the traffic island. And the M2? Well, I was in an ecstasy of relief. Here’s a picture of the beautiful card given to me by The Ballygally Book Group and designed by the talented Emma Whitehead of Top Floor Art. It features a butterfly-shaped cut-out from a map of the north coast that pinpoints Portstewart, the setting for The Butterfly Cabinet. It couldn’t be more perfect. Except maybe, Emma (and this is not a criticism you understand, you couldn’t possibly have known) if you’d chosen a section of map further round to the east, it would have been quite useful to have on my way home.


From Larne to Galway

There are a couple of events coming up in the next ten days or so: a free Writing Workshop in Larne (everyone welcome, but only 12 places so book ahead) and a Reading in Galway (also free and, even better, the venue has a wine licence). Details below, including links to publications and prizes that may be of interest. Maybe see you at one or the other?


The John Hewitt Society in association with Larne Borough Council are offering a Free Writing Workshop at Larne Museum & Arts Centre  on Tuesday 6th March from 7-9pm. Whether you've already begun to write and would like some professional feedback on your work, or are putting pen to paper for the first time, you are very welcome to come along to this workshop and find out what all the fuss is about. Bernie McGill (that’s me) will facilitate the session with some 'getting started' exercises, and for those who have brought along pieces to read, there’ll be advice on how to develop work further. Everyone is welcome. For those who are bringing work: please be prepared to read around 500 words of prose or two poems per person, so that we have time to hear everyone's writing. For those who are coming for the first time: bring pen and paper and join in. To book telephone the Museum on 028 28279482 or email Rachael McMaster, Arts & Events Officer at Larne Borough Council at

Over The Edge in association with Poetry Ireland presents the March Over The Edge Writers’ Gathering with readings by poets and fiction writers Kerrie O’Brien, Maureen Boyle, Bernie McGill (me again) & Deirdre Cartmill. (By the way, that’s ‘March’ as in ‘the month of March’, not ‘march’ as in ‘Stride over the edge in military fashion’. We wouldn’t encourage you to do that. Certainly not before you've heard us all read.) The evening will also see the launch of Galway-based writer Eamonn Harrigan’s debut novel, Where The Dead Go. The event will take place at The Kitchen @ The Museum, Spanish Arch, Galway on Friday, March 9th, 8pm. All are welcome. There is no cover charge. The Kitchen @ The Museum has a wine licence. (Huzzah!) For further information contact 087-6431748. Over The Edge acknowledges the ongoing generous financial support of the Arts Council and Galway City Council.

Eamonn Harrigan was shortlisted for new writer of the year in the Over the Edge competition. His first novel Where the Dead Go has just been published by Solstice Publishing. He did a Masters in Screenwriting in the Huston Film School NUIG and the Professional Programme in Screenwriting in UCLA. He has written two feature length screenplays and several short scripts.

Kerrie O' Brien has been published in various Irish and UK literary journals including Southword, Orbis and Crannóg. Her poem Blossoms was chosen as the winning entry in the Emerging Talent category of the 2011 iYeats Poetry Competition. She was also highly commended for the Over the Edge New Writer of The Year Competition 2011. (The 2012 competition is now open, closing August this year.) Her new chapbook Out of the Blueness is now available on her website.

Maureen Boyle grew up in Sion Mills in County Tyrone, now lives in Belfast, and studied at Trinity College Dublin and the universities of East Anglia, London, University of Ulster and Queens. In 2004 she was runner-up in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Prize for an unpublished collection. She was awarded Arts Council bursaries in 2006, 2007 and 2009; and in 2007 she was awarded the Ireland Chair of Poetry Prize and the Strokestown International Poetry Prize. In 2011 she was awarded an ACES – Artist’s Career Enhancement Award - from the Arts Council Northern Ireland. She is completing her first collection of poems.

Deirdre Cartmill’s debut poetry collection Midnight Solo was published in 2004 and her second collection The Return of the Buffalo is forthcoming from Lagan Press. She received an ACES Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2011 and spent a year affiliated with the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s. She’s previously received three Literature Awards from the Arts Council. Her work has been widely anthologised. She holds an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing from Queen’s University. She also writes in other mediums and tutors in creative writing as Deirdre Alexander. She is originally from Tyrone and currently lives in Belfast. Deirdre blogs here.


Brigid's Day

Today is Brigid’s Day, and marks the old Celtic festival of Imbolc,  the first crack in the rugged defences of winter, the first hint that Spring could be on its way. Actually, it’s colder here than it has been for weeks, but since the sun is shining we’ll disregard the temperature for now. Two weeks ago today, I was reading along with writer Damian Gorman and Patricia Canning, Project Worker from the Reader Organisation, at an event in Coleraine Library organised by Libraries NI’s Health in Mind team. Our remit was to select for the assembled audience prose and poetry pieces that we had found personally uplifting or inspiring. We talked about many things during the course of the morning: about images of light and dark, earth and sky, about the difficulties we all face in life, about the joy and the escape that reading can be. One of the participants commented that she had recently resolved to be more mindful when she read, a sentiment that was echoed by one of Patricia’s selections, an extract from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. ‘To read is to dream,’ writes Pessoa, ‘guided by someone else’s hand. To read carelessly and distractedly is to let go of that hand.’ Damian read Maya Angelou’s truly inspirational poem 'And Still I Rise' (here she is, reading it herself) and then had us all laughing at a piece from a late nineteenth century instruction manual: advice for the young bride on her wedding night. ('She should let him grope in the dark. There is always the hope that he will stumble and incur some injury...' You can read more of it here.) We had a seventeenth century sonnet, a book the size of a child, poems by Durcan and Heaney. Among the extracts I read was one from Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I finished with a piece from The Butterfly Cabinet in which Maddie claims that ‘Every day after Brigid’s Day… is longer than the one before by the length of a rooster’s step.’ It doesn't sound like much, but it's heading in the right direction, a little more light in every day that passes. After the event, one participant commented: ‘It reminded me of how powerful reading can be in lifting people’s spirits and connecting over time and space.’ I think we all came away feeling a little lifted and a little more connected over time and space. Many thanks to Coleraine Library, to Libraries NI, to Health in Mind Project Manager Frances Dowds, to Outreach and Information Officer Helen Kielt and to Damian and Patricia for a hugely enjoyable morning. The picture to the right shows (back row from left to right): Patricia Canning, Frances Dowds, Jean Fitzpatrick from Libraries NI and Damian Gorman and (front row), me and Helen Kielt. The rooster (top left hand corner) is called Gilbert.





Get busy.

If, like me, your New Year’s resolutions include writing a bit more and reading a bit more, you might be interested in some of the following bits and pieces. I was putting it together for the members of Flowerfield Writers’ Group - a couple of the events are happening in the Coleraine/Portstewart area - but some of them may be of interest to readers and writers a little further afield, such as the excellent 360° Scriptwriting Festival jointly run by Tinderbox Theatre Company and the BBC (and hosted in Belfast), and the writing competitions and workshops associated with Listowel Writers’ Week in County Kerry.  It's not a comprehensive list, I've just put in everything I've heard of recently. The best part is, unlike some other resolutions, none of it requires you to eat bran or walk very far. Happy reading and writing to you in 2012.


The Health in Mind Project is holding a free morning of ‘Poetry and Prose’ in Coleraine Library on Wednesday 18th January from 11.00am - 1.00pm with readings from: Damian Gorman MBE (Poet & Playwright), Bernie McGill (that’s me] and Patricia Canning (from the Get into Reading Project). Apparently, ‘This event will give the public an opportunity to sit back and relax and listen to speakers who will read to them from poetry and prose they have found personally inspiring or uplifting.’ So come along, be inspired and uplifted. For more information, you can contact Coleraine Library (Tel: 028 7034 2561 or Email: or Health in Mind (Tel: 028 9039 5980 or Email: And for further details of all events and initiatives being held in Northern Ireland libraries to support the Health In Mind programme, go to the Libraries NI website here and search for Health in Mind.


The 360º Script Writing Festival, BBC, Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, Wednesday 25th - Friday 27th January 2012

360º is an annual festival of inspiring (there’s that word again) and professional workshops offering craft skills and industry knowledge across the different mediums: TV, Screen, Radio and Theatre. The festival is one of the best opportunities through the year to meet likeminded and industry people in Belfast. I’ve been to workshops and talks at this event for the past couple of years and they are always informative. I’m hoping to make it to the radio workshop on the Friday afternoon. The workshops are free. There is a limited number of places so book early by contacting Bronagh Taylor on or call on 02890 338 845, stating clearly which workshops you are interested in. Full list of workshops and talks on the Tinderbox website here.


See Your Play on Stage in 2012, Saturday 28th January, 10.30am- 1.30pm at The Arc Theatre, Bloomfield, Galliagh, Derry

This is the first of two ‘Page to Stage’ workshops facilitated by award-winning playwright Felicity McCall. Writers are welcome to attend one or both sessions. Tea, coffee and snacks are provided. Applicants should forward six pages of their play (by e-mail, if possible) to; or bring six copies of the script on the day. Numbers are limited, so do book in advance. For more information or to book a place contact Greater Shantallow Community Arts at (028) 71 357443. There’s further information here on Facebook.


On Saturday 11th February (1pm-5pm) I will be at the Westville Hotel, Enniskillen to facilitate a Short Story Workshop with the Fermanagh Writers’ Group.  This is a practical workshop. We will be looking at aspects of short story writing and tackling writing exercises on the day. The aim is to have all participants leave with at least the outline for a new short story so if you're coming, come prepared to do a bit of work! Please book ahead by emailing There is a small charge of around £3.50 for tea/coffee/scones (yum) but otherwise the workshop is free.


At Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart, on Wednesday February 15th at 8pm, author Jennifer Johnston reads from her new novel Shadowstory in association with Waterstone’s Coleraine. Admission £5 (includes interval refreshments). To book contact Flowerfield on 028 7083 1400. ‘Roddy Doyle called her the best writer in Ireland, and I’m not going to argue. Any novel by the great Johnston is an event,’ says The Times. There’s more information on the novel here  (if you scroll down a bit). I’m really looking forward to this.


And, finally,  some writing opportunities with upcoming deadlines: The Stinging Fly is accepting submissions of poetry and short fiction for its Summer 2012 issue from now until 31st January. Guest editor for this edition is writer Dave Lordan. Submissions received during February and March will be considered for the following two issues (October 2012 and February 2013). More information and Dave’s editorial statement here.  

The annual Accenti Writing Contest for prose works up to 2000 words in length closes on 7th February. Top prize $1000 Canadian dollars. More information here.  

The BBC International Short Story Award closes on Thursday 27th February. For this one, you have to have a record of prior publication in creative writing in the United Kingdom. Something worth thinking about: the first prize is £15,000. The judging panel will be chaired by broadcaster and comedy writer Clive Anderson and the winner announced on BBC Radio 4's Front Row. (Ah, to be announced doing anything by Mark Lawson on Front Row.) Full details here.  

Listowel Writers' Week takes place from 30th May to 3rd June 2012 in County Kerry. I’ve never made it to Listowel, but it’s definitely on my list of festivals I’d love to attend. Information on Writing Competitions (poetry, prose and drama) here.  The closing date for entries is Friday 2nd March - you don't have to attend the Festival to enter the competitions. Information on Workshops (including an Advanced Novel workshop with one of my favourite Irish writers, Eoin McNamee) here.

And finally, finally, Mslexia's Short Story Competition for Women Writers closes on 19th March. Judge Tessa Hadley. First Prize: £2,000 plus a week's writing retreat at Chawton House Library and a day with a Virago editor. More information here.  And that should be enough to keep you out of trouble for a while.


And the winner is...

The name pulled out of the hat on Saturday evening to win a copy of The Butterfly Cabinet is... Sarah Lough from County Donegal. Congratulations Sarah! Sarah is a writer who has written plays and poetry, was a founder member of the Ardara Writers' Group, later joined the Writers' Group in Killybegs, and is currently a member of Team North West Words which is a platform for the arts in the North West of Ireland. She is gifting the book to her Mum who is the inspiration for much of her recent writing, and with whom she has formed a 'book club of two'. Many Congratulations, Sarah. I hope your Mum enjoys the read. 


Let me be your fairy godmother

Here’s the thing. Christmas is coming. The geese may or may not be getting fat, I wouldn't know, but one thing’s for sure: there’s barely a penny in the old man’s hat, or in anybody else’s hat for that matter. (You’ll be lucky if you have a hat.) You may be thinking, I’d love to get my hands on a copy of that Butterfly Cabinet book for Auntie Maud, or for cousin Petunia. But I’d have to buy the book, wrap it, go to the Post Office, post it, (I’m exhausted just thinking about it) all of which will cost me money, as well as a certain amount of organisation, neither of which are in plentiful supply in my world. Enter your fairy godmother. I am offering you the chance to win a copy of The Butterfly Cabinet, and I’ll sign it, and I’ll wrap it up dead nice, and I’ll send it to your lucky friend or relative (as long as they’re in the UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or mainland Europe) with a little card saying it comes from you and for absolutely no money at all. What do you think of that? They’ll love you! Or, if you’re thinking, that’s all very well, but what about me? I’d like a present like that, no one ever does that kind of thing for me... Not a bother: I’ll send it to you instead, all wrapped up and signed and everything. (Although, I have to admit, that does sound a little sad and a bit like sending yourself a Valentine’s card.) Here’s what you need to do. Send me an email via the Contact Form here to say that you'd like to win a copy of the book. I won’t publish your email address but I will need that for when you win so I can get in touch to tell you. At 10pm GMT on Saturday 26th November I will print out the names of all the emailers, separate them out, put them in a big hat (I’ll borrow one), blindfold a child, ask them to pick out a name, and if it’s your name, happy days. One present less to worry about. (Should that be ‘fewer’? It doesn’t sound right.) I’ll get in touch and you can let me know where to send the book. (I've checked the final Christmas posting dates for all those territories - it'll arrive in time.) I’ll print the winner’s name on my blog, and on the Butterfly Cabinet Facebook page (which, by the way, you could go and 'Like' while you're at it. It won't improve your chances of winning, but it will make me happy). None of your personal details will appear. And, if you're wondering if it's the kind of thing Auntie Maud or Cousin Petunia will like (maybe it's more Uncle George's thing?) you'll find a book trailer and reviews here, to help you decide. Finally, Happy Christmas! (Am I the first to say it? Then I’ll say it again: Happy Happy Christmas.) 



Stick with it

When we were little and running wild through the fields, playing dirt-busters and helpfully putting out whin fires that the farmers had started in order to clear the land, we used to come home covered in what we called ‘burrs’: sticky little bead-like seeds that had caught in our clothes, particularly if we were wearing something fleecy or woollen. They were a nightmare to get rid of. They embedded themselves in the fabric. It took ages to pick them out. I remember that removing them from socks was particularly difficult. When I think about the creative process, about where the ideas come from, and about which ideas stick, that’s what I think of. We brush past so many things in life: we can’t possibly write about all of them, some will have more appeal for some minds than do others. But there are certain ideas that snag on our creative thinking: some notions that are very hard to get rid of, that take years of picking at to remove. Those are the best ones, I think, the ones you should take a closer look at. Why have they stuck for so long? Why are they embedded so deeply? Why did they insist on being carried? Is there a story there? That's what I hope to find out.



Things that go bump

I’m not making this up. I was back in the library yesterday, doing some writing (as per previous post). I like working in the library. There are people there, but none of them talk to you unless you talk to them. You can make use of the computers on the ground floor to access the internet but, crucially, there is no wi-fi. This is a blessing. It had been raining off and on all day, but I was suddenly made aware, by a loud rattling on the roof, that conditions outside had dramatically worsened. The rain arrived in sheets, Brontë-style, driving against the windows, bouncing off the tarmac on the road outside. Then just as suddenly, there was a flash of lightning and a loud crack of thunder directly overhead. Amid the gasps and whoops of the assembled library users, upstairs and down, I was aware of another sound, behind me and to the left, the sound of a single book falling on the floor. This time, it was a large hardback that had dropped off the top shelf: Temples of Stone by Carleton Jones, Exploring the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland. I checked the ticket. It had been extensively borrowed. I flicked through it: there were some amazing photographs, particularly of Newgrange, but I put it back. I can’t have my reading choices dictated by a library shelf, or by the weather. It has to stop.