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Jackie De Burca

Today’s guest is Sean Mackel, who writes fiction and poetry as well as being a visual communicator. He won the Kanturk Flash Fiction Prize in 2019 for his story, The Silent Mouth. Sean has been lecturing and working in graphic design for decades in Australia, Germany and Ireland. Sean, you’re very welcome today.

Seán Mackel  

Thanks very much for having me.

Sean Mackel
Sean Mackel

Jackie De Burca

Lovely to have you here, Seán. I think we’ll hop in Sean, straight to the point. You have a wonderful insight into the role of place. Can you tell me and our listeners, Sean, what place means to you?

Seán Mackel

Well, I suppose initially, place is geographical. You know, it’s on the map, you look at a place you say that’s where I’m at, or whatever. But also for me, it’s also grounded in language, particularly in Ireland, where place names are kind of fanatically on maps, but really they are originally Irish place names so they have meaning, they have a certain poetry to them. And on top of that, of course, place for me is embedded in time. A particular place may be very different when you go back 10 years later, or you know, 20 years later. So it’s kind of- those notions kind of all kind of mixed together when it comes to produce work.

Jackie De Burca

Okay, that’s very interesting. And Sean, which places you’ve been obviously- both living and working in a variety of places, which places are important to you and your creativity and why?

Seán Mackel

Well, there are probably quite a few over the years. I did study design, and later- applied arts for a while. And then, later on, I did an MA, so Belfast is important for me in that regard. Donegal of course would be a place where I spent most of my childhood summers. Initially with my parents and then to study the Irish language, but also where I first started teaching design. So Donegal would be important to me. Australia is significant to me in the sense that I emigrated there in 1988 to lecture there, and I also began to publish an exhibit there. When I returned, I returned to Derry. So Derry has an importance to me to some extent too- where I began teaching. And I also established a creative writing cross border group, and continued to exhibit.

Galway beautiful places The Sky Road Clifden

And then Galway is probably nearly as important to me as Australia because to me, Galway’s like a cultural retreat. There are loads of arts’ festivals, I love the energy of the place and the people.

Germany is important because I have family there, my partner’s German. And I was teaching for a while in Augsburg as an Erasmus professor.

And then finally, Portugal and Spain are my kind of the equivalent of Australia, I suppose now I have an annual Camino kind of thing that I do every year, obviously. And to me, it’s like a creative retreat. Nomadic, and the notion of place being transient.

Jackie De Burca

Okay. So of course, we’re recording this early 2021. We didn’t get to do that in 2020, for the obvious reasons. We’re recording right now, we’re in the third lockdown for many places that we’re both aware of. Imagine, of all the places that you’ve mentioned, Sean- if you were told tomorrow, you need to go to your favourite place until the pandemic is under control, which of those places would you choose and why?

Australia Sean Mackel

Seán Mackel

And without a shadow of a doubt, I would choose Australia. I would probably imagine myself on a veranda somewhere, drinking a beer, listening to cicadas or cicadas- I’m not sure which way you pronounce them, but we call them critters in Australia. I love that sound but I also love the quality of light, the scale of the landscape, the vastness of the swathes of gum trees- We all know, we’ve seen in recent times have been badly damaged by forest fires. But, then the size of the skies at night were just stunning, you know? Different stars, constellations.

But probably more importantly is living over, you know, away from where you’re normally from, you have a chance to reinvent yourself, and you’re no longer so and so’s son or so and so’s brother, blah, blah, blah. Or your man from up the road. In a way, you kind of become a different version of yourself. Maybe a better version of yourself, I think to some extent.

Opera House Sydney Autralia
Opera House Sydney Autralia

Jackie De Burca

Yes, I think that’s a really interesting point. Now, just to sort of get the background on your whole life, Sean, up until now- it would be great to kind of take a trip back and explore your formative years, and then just move through your life gradually and experience it from your perspective, Sean. When and where were you actually born?

Seán Mackel

I was born in Belfast. And I lived in a place called Anderson’s Town in West Belfast, which at that time, would have been perceived as kind of a danger zone for many people living in Belfast, but to me, it was just normal life.

My early years in Belfast, pre-Troubles because I was born ’57, so I was 11 or 12 in ’69. So, pre that time, fond memories of my grandmother coming at Christmas time, and she was from North Belfast, and not too far from a place called Wolf Hill in Ligoniel, North Belfast. And she was married to a butcher who had passed on but her three sons were butchers. And she used to make lard and stuff like- I had suet and I put it in the pan and make lard and to put it in packets. But she used to bring her mouth organ with her at Christmastime, take her false teeth out and play. The two tunes she played, strangely enough, one of them is Danny Boy and the other one, despite her being a Catholic was The Sash, for some reason.

Belfast
Belfast

Flickr photo by bessonlee

Jackie De Burca

Oh, okay.

Seán Mackel

That was one of her favourite tunes. My grandfather on my father’s side, he was- his wife had also passed away. But he was a Gaelgoir (Irish speaker), but maybe not in the same category as my father. He was maybe self taught. But he was a house painter. And he was a good one for town stories. Great, interesting- you know, secondhand books at that time, Belfast had a place called Smithfields and it was a massive kind of secondhand book sort of stores in there. And he used to come up with all sorts of books and give them to me. And mainly on art, he encouraged me to draw, my brother was interested in music, he encouraged him to play the mandolin, he’s now quite a proficient musician. But he was a great- but I just remember that- the intimacy of that sort of these older relatives and their houses and my Granny’s house had an outside toilet. I remember that kind of smell of damp. And the outside, I thought it was just a bench with just a hole in it, like with a bucket underneath, you know? And there are papers on a butcher’s hook on the wall, you know? And my grandfather’s house had a certain kind of a fusty smell, but there was lots of paintings, stuff that he had done, and some of his relatives had done framed on the wall.

So I remember that sort of aspect of Belfast, it’s the intimacy of it, the small houses, the tiny spaces, but it was great craic. I mean, Belfast people, I find very creative wisecrackers, you know? Specific to Belfast in particular.

But then when the Troubles broke out, it was- now, I have to say something here, I didn’t, in any way feel frightened by the Troubles even though it seems a strange thing to say, as an 11 year old who was growing up in all the trauma. But I do remember, there was a street burned down called Bombay Street in Belfast, and my father was an architect. And he, along with a bunch of other Gaelgoirs raised money and used to get us to go outside the churches every Sunday, all the masses with little cardboard boxes, collecting money to rebuild these houses. And he actually designed them and they did rebuild them. And they were kind of a cooperative kind of social-led kind of group. And they give them to the people who’d lost their houses. So that was a big event, I remember at the time, but I do remember because that happened, the school I went to- now, there’s an exam in the north you do when you’re going from primary into secondary. And it’s called 11 plus. I didn’t actually pass it. Everybody else in my family did pass it, but I didn’t pass it. But I went to the school, and the school I went to closed down for three months to accommodate the refugees from all the houses that have been burnt down.

Cavehill Belfast
Cavehill Belfast

Flickr photo by Kevin Houston

Jackie De Burca

Oh really?

Seán Mackel

I remember that time, the freedom of that, it was wonderful. But it probably didn’t help the education from my point of view. My father was also kind of a great collector of going out and collect money to raise the Irish language and stuff, to support the Irish language. And he went out on one occasion, and he was shot at by the British Army and he survived it. He didn’t get hit by the bullet but his car was riddled with bullets.

Jackie De Burca

Wow.

Seán Mackel

And I remember trying to take him to court. I remember the photographs of- remember the windscreen? It was quite traumatic, but it just seemed to be routine at the time. But outside the school I went to, there was a massive military fort called Silver City and on a daily basis, there was riots that would have been people throwing bricks at the outside of the corrugated iron and there would have been rubber bullets coming back and people running down the street. But that was kind of almost normal. It didn’t seem traumatic at the time but reflecting on it, you think it was insane.

But also behind the house where I lived, Casement Park was the Gaelic football pitch. It was occupied by the army, so right behind the houses, there’s also this massive fort with big beam lights on your backyard and that kind of thing. You would have occasionally have had a situation where somebody was shooting at them and they were shooting back and you know, all sorts of stuff. So it was extremely kind of an aggressive environment, but it seemed normal. There was lots of barricades and lots of busses burning and shootings and funerals and- but I think at that time,

I then developed this acute sense of- I don’t know what to call- unbelonging or something, dispossession. You did live there, but you didn’t really feel as if you were part of the community. Your identity was kind of not recognised, and I was acutely aware of that. And that would probably be the predominant thing that would have stuck in my mind, you know, about that.

Jackie De Burca

Do you think, Sean- because at the beginning, you were sort of saying that you didn’t really feel fear, you know, when the Troubles broke out?

Seán Mackel

No.

Jackie De Burca

But then, the last comment you made Sean about the not feeling part of the community, do you think that that would be almost like that sort of post-traumatic sense, where it’s almost like an out of body kind of experience? Could it be like that?

Belfast Old Town
Belfast Old Town

Flickr photo by Shawn Harquail

Seán Mackel

It could be, but I think it was- it was also like- I do remember, I mean, my name is Sean, but I would often be called John. Like even when I went to Ulster Polytechnic to do the qualification in art and design, I did a one-year foundation course and then a three-year degree. Staff didn’t call me Sean, they just called me John. Or you would have had security staff who would have maybe not let you in. You know, would have asked for your ID and they would have- it would have been on your identification, you would have had like BT 11 or something on your ID card or something. And that would have almost- you weren’t- you were seen as kind of a pariah, a suspect. You know, there was a TV series on British TV at the time called Citizen Smith, about a guy who pretended to be like a revolutionary. And in many ways, I looked like him, I had long hair, I had a camo jacket, strangely enough. I had Doc Martens, I had long jeans. So I probably did look a bit suspect, but then maybe I really look a lot like them, you know?

But I do remember, I carried all my art design supplies in a briefcase, which seems ridiculous. I was wearing Doc Martens and skinners and a camo jacket lover, but I was carrying all my art supplies in a briefcase, which seems insane. But so maybe I did look, you know- and most of the people at college, I mean they’re lovely people, but they would have come from different sides of the fence and someone would have come from some money who would have talked about yachts and horses and things. Whereas I would have been coming from, you know, beyond the (inaudible – 00:12:41), would be coming down on a taxi. People’s taxis kind of thing. And so it probably was seen a wee bit as strange. Now having said that, there were people from the loyalist committee also in the course, that I wasn’t the only one in a sense from a working-class kind of area. But I was conscious of that. I remember the first time I met people and he was like Wendy, and in all that kind of stuff. It was all a sort of cultural shock. Because most my mates all had, you know, Christian names or kind of Catholic names kind of stuff. Some Irish names like myself. But it was certainly- it was interesting. I don’t really remember being traumatised, but it was only as the years went by, I began to realise how rich an experience it was. More so than a traumatic experience. Even though I did know people who died and they don’t really die tragically. But- and I did- recently, I did write a story, which was shortlisted for the RT short story prize called Everything Will Be Recorded. And that in fact, it was acted on- I’ll send you a link to that, so there’s a recording of that.

Jackie De Burca

Okay.

Seán Mackel

But that looks at the like, more traumatic version of that experience. But yeah, no, I thought it was an interesting experience. So what I can do if you want, I have two poems there. Now this was from a collection that I published with Lapwing some years ago.

Poetry Publications - Seán Mackel
Poetry Publications – Seán Mackel

Jackie De Burca

Okay.

Seán Mackel

Called Strangled Laughter which has a bit of a twist in the end. But anyway, the title of this poem was called 1960 Belfast. And there are two poems. This is the first one I’ll read, which is like, if you like- it’s before the storm if you like, it’s around the time when I was- I had this connection with my grandfather and my granny and all that kind of thing. And that’ll read a sec. This will give you maybe some idea of what it was like to be in the eye of the storm.

Jackie De Burca

Okay, perfect.

Seán Mackel

This is 1960 Belfast, is the title. My granda’s hands, smelt of putty and paint. As though tender and precious, holding a book he’d lift over pages, sifting words with his fingers. Auntie Anniei’s house was dark and silent. She’d give me a tin and playing, I’d open it. Feel the sharp edge and the spangle of buttons in its belly. My granny lived in a terrace. Walls like slabs of lard framed her window to the street. I remember eating plain bread and chips in a room just bigger than the tablecloth. Uncle Joe had a butcher shop that tasted cold and smelled of fat in sprinkled sawdust for the dead chickens hanging in a row.

So that’s 1960 Belfast. And that fact- I did animate that actually, not very well. I did a line drawing, which took me a year and a half. And initially, I had notions that maybe I could become an animator, but I realised that- this year I’ve been working animations, I thought, oh to hell with that, you know? So (inaudible – 00:15:48) pretty quick, but that was animated in the mid ’90s, and shown in various film fests- it was in Galway and Belfast. Now this is the second poem, Invisibly Repaired is the title of the poem, and it’s dedicated to my mother.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Get down, get down on the floor. Sunlight through my ma’s venetian blinds slice the wall like a pan loaf. The top shelf of the china cabinet had a few cut glass goblets. A ceramic nymph playing the flute invisibly repaired. And the black phallus of a rubber bullet. The background was etched mirrors. At a glance, there appeared to be two of everything. O Holy Mother of God, get down, get down on the floor. Outside someone was spitting bullets to my dad’s privet hedge at a passing patrol. And I was sprawled awkwardly, half sitting, half lying against the chair. Peel and chalk, like a trapped bird, she flopped frantically for us all to stay on the floor. I slid my arms, snake-like along the carpet until I reached the grin of buttons and pressed record.

So that’s the second poem.

Jackie De Burca

Yes, that’s an amazing contrast between the two. The first poem is very much like a- extremely well described series of still lifes.

Seán Mackel

Yeah. Yep.

Galway

Jackie De Burca

Whereas the second is obviously full of action.

Seán Mackel

Yeah. And it’s also kind of a play on that notion of- you know, you witnessed these things, but you’re actually recording them in your head. Although at that time I was recording it on an old-fashioned Panasonic recorder. The red-

Jackie De Burca

Okay.

Seán Mackel

You know, but that’s- an old thing.

Jackie De Burca

You were recording at that stage. Now, tell me something going back to your younger days. Did you notice Sean, at what age you might have been when you started to become actively creative yourself either writing, reading, visual arts of any sort?

Seán Mackel

Yeah, I did. I mean, the house- my father was a great- is a great reader. And he still is, in fact, he’s in his late 80s now. And he’s crazy about books. I mean, for many years, he had a- like a diagram on the wall of all the books he would give to people and making sure he didn’t repeat the same book to someone that been given the previous year. So this whole kind of diagram drawn. So the walls are full of books, and nearly every room in the house, and including the bathroom in his house. Now-

Jackie De Burca

Really?

Seán Mackel

Yeah. Even to the point (inaudible – 00:18:20), almost in the same zone. And the books would have been on every subject under the sun like- art, of course, being a subject that he was very fond of being an architect and my grandfather would have given him lots of books. But even things like- you know, wildlife, natural history. You know, history itself, he was just- so I was kind of very aware of literature, of course, poetry, language, and not just Irish and English, but also like Ulster vernacular speech. Books on the rhyming poets like James or the kind of, you know, the guys from the 18th century, also Presbyterians. He was very, very fond of language and meaning of words. And so I do remember being almost saturated with that, almost to the point of thinking, ‘I don’t think I can write’. (inaudible – 00:19:08) you know, what would I even do, you know?

So I began to sort of just sketch one day, I was just sketching. I think I was sketching the foam or something. And my grandfather said to me, ‘thank god you can draw son’. So I kind of then got into drawing. But then I began- I became aware of the visual and I do remember looking at a Walter Macken book cover, and it was- it was The Silent People, part of a trilogy. And it was about the famine. And I wrote a poem called The Famine Funeral. And it did win an award and I thought, oh, so maybe I can. But then I became very conscious of- at that time, there was a new edition of (inaudible – 00:19:46) And it was a beautiful edition with brush drawings by (inaudible – 00:19:53) And they were stunning.

And this- I have a small version of it, but da had the prestige edition which came in a boxed sleeve and everything. And I remember it’s done by this combination of typography and imagery. And also, he had a number of books by Robert Gibbings, one called Sweet Cork of Thee. Beautiful addition with stunning wood cuts and- which were also done by Robert Gibbings. And I remember being blown by those so- I was aware of the lettering, but I was also aware of the kind of the visual and also the object of the book. And that I think tilted me towards- even though at that point, I wouldn’t have been aware that there was such a thing as graphic design, or even a career in graphic design. And my father wouldn’t have been necessarily aware of it. But there would have been members of my family who were sign writers and icon painters way back because I did study my- an intimate family history, or quite recently, I got as far back as, like the 1700s. With my father’s side. And then on my mother’s side, I got to the 1600s because she has some links to England, so I was able to get to 16 whatever. 20 something.

A girl mad as birds - Sean Mackel
A girl mad as birds – Sean Mackel

Jackie De Burca

I didn’t- do you have both sides- obviously, on your dad’s side, from what you’ve mentioned, there was quite a strong artistic, genetic influence. And what about your mom’s side, Sean?

Seán Mackel

Well, my mom’s side would be kind of a straight talker. And I loved it. And she would be- she wouldn’t she wouldn’t be crude in her speech, because she would often tack on me if I was, even though- she would tell me off, you know? But she would have had certain words that my father would have winced at, you know? So she wouldn’t have been afraid of certain language and her mother would have been- had a lot of vernacular and it was- they were- you can particularly see it in the Belfast. Although we do settled a little bit in the northwest and Derry. There’s a wee bit of Ulster Scots in there too, like earthy languages, and words that are punchy and gritty. And so I kind of would have picked up a certain musicality and sort of- certain joy of words that maybe should people- a little bit I kind of like that notion of the words could have been, are you know? And she would have that are, and she tells me I’m a chatterbox, but she’s a bit of a chatterbox herself, you know?

Jackie De Burca

Okay.

Seán Mackel

But I do remember listening to the- being in the house, my mother and her mother and her sister. And hearing the chatting. My mother also had a strange upbringing in the sense that some rich, strange reason, a relative or a friend of her mother’s offered to (inaudible – 00:22:17) my mother for a number of years. And she did live with us, really. So she- I know I had two mothers.

Jackie De Burca

Okay.

Seán Mackel

And this was the aunt Annie that I mentioned, who gave me the tin with the buttons on it to play with, this was a toy that I was given, a tin of buttons, you know? But I do remember thinking this is amazing, this tin of buttons. But- world has changed quite a bit. But yeah, but she had these two ladies. And one of them was quite a reserved lady wore these kind of dark rimmed glasses. And this was me aunt Annie, as she called her. It wasn’t really an aunt. It was my mother’s second mother, if you want to call it that. And then our actual mother, who was this lady who melted suet on the pan and poured it into wax cartons and sold it in the butcher shop. And- but they all had the North Belfast kind of energy about them. And I kind of like that. Also this place called Wolf Hill did feature in one of my bits of writing because I became obsessed with wolves as a result of hearing about this hill called Wolf Hill. Because I realised that oh my goodness, there must be a history as to why it’s called that. So in recent years, I’ve been researching a lot about wolves. In fact, it did feature in a novel I wrote. There’s an excellent book and if you’re fond of Galway, there’s an excellent book by a guy called Kieran Hickey called Wolves in Ireland, for anybody who wants that.

Jackie De Burca

Really?

Seán Mackel

Yeah, history of wolves and the cultural history in the language and the names. The names of fields all around Ireland that have references to wolves in them. It is-

Jackie De Burca

Okay. I saw a wolf, like live on the first of May of last year.

Seán Mackel

Oh, wow. It’s here?

Jackie De Burca

Locally. Yeah, locally. Just in a walk that I do.

Seán Mackel

Well that would be- that would fascinate me because my grandfather told me a story. I lived in (inaudible – 00:23:56), but there was a place near (inaudible – 00:23:58) Town called Trench House, which I think centuries before had been a big private dwelling or something. And his father had been a pretty poor kid, but somehow rather- the guy who owned this house, was a wealthy man. He decided to fund his training and funded him to become like a kind of a decorator and a painter and (inaudible – 00:24:17) and stuff like that. But my grandfather told me a story about him. His father having having gone to this house, which was surrounded by trees and quite a lot of trees, dense wood. And on occasion he was coming back and this dog appeared. A large hound appeared from behind the trees. And it turned out to be an apparition, it wasn’t actually a dog or a wolf at all, but he had thought it was and he’d raised it with this man called Mr. Hummel, he owned the house. And of course, he told him that this- only anybody who sees this has to be in the family and that usually means there’s going to be a death, blah, blah, blah. But this kind of fascinated me, these notions of of old stories. And when I kind of grew up with this, my grandfather telling me these kind of half ghost stories and he would tell me about entering houses and painting the walls of these big grand houses. And he would have done like- kind of decorated reliefs around the edges of the ceilings and all that kind of stuff or he would have created kind of effects on pieces of wood to make them look like severe, sophisticated, temporary rather than plain timbers. But he would have found strange signs on walls and taught me all about these weird Belfast ghost stories. So that kind of- would have informed a lot of my kind of imagination, I suppose.

Fog on the Foyle, Derry - - Sean Mackel
Fog on the Foyle, Derry – – Sean Mackel

Jackie De Burca

Definitely. Definitely would have been great material for your imagination. And you mentioned, Sean, a little while back, you mentioned Walter Macken as one of the authors that you read as a younger person. Were there other ones that made an impact on you? I mean, obviously, it sounded like you were growing up literally in a library from how you’ve described your parent’s house.

Seán Mackel

I was but as a lazy reader, to be honest, I was kind of a- I did have a tendency to kind of- my brother was a fantastic reader, and he still is, and I would like- I have loads of books and I read an awful lot of nonfiction as well as fiction, but I was- I suppose, impressed by people like (inaudible – 00:26:04) or the northern writers would have made an impression, to be frank- well, (inaudible – 00:26:07) But this, you know, certain kind of era that they belong to, so their stories kind of reflected that, but also would have been aware of Frank O’Connor, but- and the poets would have been a big impression, the northern poets in particular. It was a guy, he lived not too far from what’s called (inaudible – 00:26:22). Not very well known poet, wrote quite dark, twisted stuff. But I was intrigued by his stuff. I was aware of early Heaney’s work way back in the early, you know, late ’60s, his early stuff came out. I would have been aware of that in the house and read a bit of it. And at that time, I did get his stuff quite well. Patrick Kavanagh. Maybe John Hewitt- would have been aware of him. Louis MacNeice. But also these these guys called the Rhyming Weavers.

But Ciaran Carson, I don’t know if he published much then but he did live near me and he was actually a professor of poetry since- lately, passed away sadly. But he was the professor of poetry at QUB Seamus Heaney Centre when I was there. Lovely man and his poetry still speaks to me, even today. And also the guy called (inaudible – 00:27:07) who would have been the father of- he’s a (inaudible – 00:27:10), but he lived round the corner from us as well. And there was also another guy who would have been- I can’t rmemeber his name now but he was a theatre guy, and you’d often see him coming down the street, resetting his lines for his plays, like a local theatre group. And long hair, big glasses and a massive bald head. But the hair that came from the back of his head was quite long. But he would recite his stuff as he pounded down the street, you know? So I was aware of writing, but I was aware of that- to me, I was so fascinated by the world, I would often miss school, and I would sneak out of the room at night, climbing down. And father who put an extension on the house with a flat roof garage. So I used to kind of sneak out onto the flat roof and then-

Jackie De Burca

That was right handy, obviously, to get out.

Seán Mackel

(inaudible – 00:27:53) realise it, but I thought I was (inaudible – 00:27:54) here. (inaudible – 00:27:55) was profoundly shocked and disappointed with my behaviour. As well as my mother. But yeah, I was very much taken by life as well as by by books. You know- you know that?

Jackie De Burca

Okay.

Seán Mackel

It fascinated me.

Jackie De Burca

Okay. And yoou’ve described- I mean, a very sort of a colourful childhood background. You know, your own imagination, Sean. Did you ever go anywhere as a family on holiday, you know, outside of Belfast? Were there any other places that you spent time in that had a good impact?

Seán Mackel

Yeah, we- for my father and my grandfather- Donegal would have been perceived as like nirvana because of- it’s Gaelic there. And also, it was- in those days, when you cross the border, you know, it was almost like a sense of relief, you know, you’re in the promised land. Even if it was- you know what it’s like, didn’t you? You know it was- like, oh my God, we’re in Donegal.

So I do remember the first holiday we had in a place called Annagry, which was West Donegal near Ronafast. And I remember sitting with my grandfather, and my father and my mother on this wee table, with a wee kind of shiny PVC tablecloth on it or something, and we were having bread and jam and tea, and we could smell the turf, and to me it was heaven. I do remember that, in particular. Even to this day, if somebody could bottle the smell of turf, I would be more than happy. I just love the smell of burning turf, even though it’s not- I think you’re not supposed to pour in turf anymore.

West Donegal - Sean Mackel
West Donegal – Sean Mackel

Jackie De Burca

No. No. No, but I have the same memories. So I do actually- I’m just- it is a beautiful smell. But I think it’s because- like yourself Sean, you’re linking it to lovely childhood kind of holiday memories, you know?

Seán Mackel

Yeah, it just does something to me, you know? It’s just beautiful. And we would have gone there there for a number of years. And then of course, when I turned 11 or so or 12, I was sent off to the (inaudible – 00:29:45) and I did love that. I just loved that whole adventure of- at that time, I do distinctly remember there was a pair of shoes you get back called Wayfinders, that were made by Tuff, I think, in Vietnam. And they had- on the sole, they had an imprint of six or seven different animals. Pawprints, you know? Like a fox print or an otter print or a rabbit print. And there was a compass in the heel. But I do remember going to Donegal in the first year to (inaudible – 00:30:09) and running through over the bogs to school and losing one of them in a bog. And it was the one with a compass in it, actually. And my mother was- I wrote to her, I sent her a postcard and she was furious. And (inaudible – 00:30:22) somebody has lent me a shoe for the rest of the three weeks, whatever it was. But I do remember that those days of- yeah, the (inaudible – 00:30:32) and you know, the waves that tore into walls in Limerick and some guy up on the stage loved them, or if there was- if the microphone didn’t work or something. But it was brilliant craic, you know. And so for a long time I did see Donegal in that light too, of course. Until you live there, you realise that- in the wintertime or even sometimes the summertime, the weather can be grim.

Jackie De Burca

Yeah, I did.

Seán Mackel

I did- I have another poem. I don’t know if this is the last bit of reading, but just to give you a sense of- for me,

Donegal is um, I love it. But it’s a strange place. It sort of feels- it reminds me a little bit of when I was in Australia too. There’s sort of a haunted quality in some of the landscape. The sense of life that had been there has since gone or has- you know, the history of Irish people living in the wilds, we live in these clans, with these little communities.

And those are kind of largely- you do see these kind of empty, derelict houses and you wonder who lived there. So, this poem is also from the same collection and it’s called Ghost Flower.

Ghost Flower. Long wounds sunk down deep, soft brown slice after soft brown slice are left to be a kind of barren sweep of hollowed flesh. Green, a moist space. Wind, a grinding tongue, sculpts my head to a shoulder of freckled granite. Amongst broken bones of oaks, long in their grave, dislocated from their wet sockets. Cyphers like the egg from cavities of homes rotted to the root and the tiny white flame, a ball of cotton. A ghost flower riding a wave.

So that’s Ghost Flower.

Jackie De Burca

Beautiful. Yeah. Beautiful, Sean. So, going back to Belfast- if you were to regard Belfast as a girlfriend, wife- you know, a romantic partner. How would you describe the relationship that you have now and how it developed ever since your youth?

Belfast City
Belfast City

Seán Mackel

Well, Belfast to me is a second old friend. I’ve never- when I lived there, I was always keen- I mean, when I lived in- we lived in old Vara, which was a street (inaudible – 00:32:55) motorway but there was a slight hill to it on the right hand side. So I used to look up over the hill and see the sun setting. Always fantasised what was beyond the hill, on the summit. So I did- I always had this longing to travel. But I still have a fond spot for Belfast, even though it would- I mean, thankfully, in the ’70s, when I was in my teens and early adulthood, I would have been aware of the ring of steel, the security thing they put around the city to prevent people coming in with weapons or bombs or whatever it was. And you were being searched in a way and that’s all gone, of course. Many, many years. And also, I was very conscious of the territorial kind of patchwork quilt that I grew up with in Belfast, which is particularly strong in Belfast moreso than you would ever see in the Northwest. And Derry, for example, is very different. It’s almost divided by the river, even though there’s an area in the West Bank of Derry, the fountain which would be perceived as a- largely as a Protestant community, and it’s maybe shrinking. But historically, the city wouldn’t have been a patchwork quilt, the way that the (inaudible – 00:33:56) would have been. And that you know, you could cross a road, and cross a footpath and people can almost determine what side of the fence you were on depending on which way you walk in that footpath nearly, you know? And I do remember that but that’s all gone now. I mean, Belfast is much more dynamic and relaxed than it ever was in the past but it suffers like all cities now do with this- the digital economy affecting the footfall and the city centres and sometimes being hollowed out. You can see that in nearly everywhere now. You can see it in Belfast to some extent.

But I did love Bel- and still, when I was doing the M.A. in Queen’s, I loved the energy of Belfast and the people. I do like that it’s refreshing. And even when I first came back from Australia, that hearing a Belfast accent was really quite vivid in my year at that time, you know?

I would regard it as- It also informed a novel called The Bee Orchid, which kind of explored that- the history of- the paradox at the centre of the Irish conflict is that at one point in the 18th century, the Presbyterian radicals saw themselves as Republicans and I was fascinated by that. The History of that. So I did write a book, it kind of explored that and I got a pretty generous grant from the Irish Arts Council for it. So yeah, to me, it has a vivid, rich history, which I like. And also, I’m not all that aware of architecture, despite the fact my brother and my father are both architects. But I was always fascinated by some of the old buildings you would see around Belfast. Some of them, although quite dramatic and monumental, and yeah. So yeah, for various reasons I’m fond of Belfast and also the fact that I grew up in the foothills of the Black Mountain, but Cave Hill wasn’t too far away. You know, what they called Napoleon’s Nose. There’s sort of- there’s an edifice that comes out of Cave Hill called Napoleon’s Nose. And really, it’s like- it does look like the sleeping giant. In fact, it did inform Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, apparently. This idea of the jag was really- he had lived in Belfast at one point. And if you look at the Black Mountain, and you look at Cave Hill, you will see what looks like a person lying on their back, on their head looking up at the sky with their nose. And that’s where that notion came from, apparently. So that’s a little aside there.

Jackie De Burca

That’s interesting. Now you went, Sean, in 1988 I believe it was- you actually went to Australia that time for work. How did that landscape- I mean, what a huge contrast. How did that landscape and also the Aboriginal culture, how did they affect you?

Seán Mackel

Hugely. I mean, I was married at that time. I had- at that point, I had a girl and a boy, which were born in Ireland. My ex-wife worked in a family Community Services working with- working in the community. And she, because of her job, I became aware of what it was called the stolen generation, which I had never heard of before, which was- in the ’60s, the Australian government had a policy where Aboriginal people, if the children looked white, they were taken from. And they were given to families, raised as white. And in many cases, these people did not know until their late 20s or early 20s, or mid teens, that in fact, they weren’t from that family. And in fact, they were from the (inaudible – 00:37:09) tribe or the Wanjiri tribe. And so it was a huge trauma. She was involved a lot in, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, with working with these groups to try and reconnect them with their indigenous tribes. So that was the first thing I learned very quickly when I got there. Also, I was aware of- I hadn’t realised that either that the city I lived in was called Wagga Wagga. (inaudible – 00:37:32) and Aboriginal were (inaudible  -00:37:34) language, there aren’t any plurals. So if you say the word twice, you’re really saying ‘crows’ there. So Wagga Wagga can mean crows but it can also mean- if you look up at the sky, and you see lots of birds and you get dizzy. So it can mean dizzy man. I mean, it depends on the context.

So I was fascinated by by their culture, their language- I became more aware of my own then and also I became more aware- I would hear casual comments. I mean, I was living in inland New South Wales, six hours drive from Sydney, five hours north of Melbourne. So I was aware of- I mean, I didn’t find it a particularly racist culture, I have to say, but people often say it is. But I didn’t find it to be so. But I did come across the odd casual comment about Aboriginal people, and I realised it wasn’t that dissimilar from the comments you would hear in Ireland, of travellers with similar kind of- then I realised, the sort of prejudices that I had grown up with- certain little things, and became conscious of them. So that was the first thing that kind of- I became aware of. I also then joined a writers group, and it was called 4W. Wagga Wagga, Writers Writers. And it was a guy from university, set up the group and then set up a journal. So I became- I mixed in a group of riders there, who were wonderful people like. And you would have had people who were- band, kind of ballad singers. And you would have had, some people maybe struggling with addiction, and you would have had people who were, dabbling at writing, it was a whole mix of different people. So it’s a wonderful, diverse group of people. So I kind of that- I began to take my writing seriously at that point then, and I began to exhibit them.

I loved the- the scale of the landscape, I think, had an impact on the boundaries of my imagination. At least I felt it did. And also the skies- it seemed to lift the top of your head, you just felt- Ireland is gonna be so intimate and so- you’re looking over your shoulder at some- some person behind you. And probably, everybody’s (inaudible – 00:39:30) better ground, whether it’s a job, or whatever it is. Over there it was vast, huge distances. And I thought that was liberating. Absolutely wonderful.

And also the school, like- of visual and performing arts, had so many different activities. There were sculptors and there were theatre people, there film people and there were painters, and there were graphic designers and photographers. So it was really diverse in terms of the influences that I had. So I kind of- I really enjoyed that aspect of it. And then I also- I then joined the Graphic Design Association of Australia.

Small Worlds Logo - Sean Mackel
Small Worlds Logo – Sean Mackel

So I went to lots of conferences and also became aware of certain paint schools, Aboriginal painting schools nd their work. Like it’s very graphic. It’s very abstract. But I love it, this is stunning stuff. And I love the sound of the didgeridoo. And just- I just absolutely loved it. And I do remember on one occasion- it seems really casual now but I do remember one occasion coming back to the university. And the university had a massive campus it was full of trees and outside swimming pools and, you know, the Faculty of Humanities maybe like, (inaudible – 00:40:37) up the road from the Faculty of Sciences. So you will be driving up these wee roads in through this kind of green campus. And I do remember one occasion driving over a red bellied Black Snake, a huge big black snake. When I looked in the mirror, it wasn’t- it wasn’t on the road behind me. And I thought, I wonder, is it inside the bonnet somewhere? So I pulled up in a petrol station and I said to a guy, I think I need to check the oil here. But I think there might be a snake under the bonnet. And sure enough, that’s where it was. So we kind of- we got it out. But I mean, it was kind of-

Jackie De Burca

And was it okay? The snake?

Seán Mackel

It was a snake, okay. And it wasn’t dead either. It was just- it just wrapped itself around the way, went up inside the engine, you know? But I do remember another occasion, my ex-wife’s father came to visit us. And we were sitting on the veranda and he said, ‘you ever seen any spiders’? And I said, ah loads. But nothing poisonous. But just as I said that, I looked on the seat beside him and there was this little red bell- red back spider. And I thought, oh my god. So I had to- and then when we moved into the house,-and remember, we rented this house and I remember thinking the (inaudible – 00:41:47) was the garden and there was a toilet like a dunny. He called it dunny then. Back of the yard, he called it and I went down. That’s pretty handy. Then I realised it was the only toilet there was. So at nighttime, when you went out, you had to basically get a stick and just, you know, go around, you just don’t knock any ways away. So that when you’re in the toilet, nothing fell any, you know? Generally, they’d go somewhere dark and damp, and that’s where they kind of live. But it became routine, you know?

Jackie De Burca

Okay. And then tell me something. You talk about the vastness and how that affected your imagination, and the wonder of the landscape there. And also the Aboriginal culture. Of course, being away from Ireland, did you feel like you were a man in exile or not.

Seán Mackel

I never missed the place once. You know, I do remember this was like, ’88 or ’92 or so. And I do remember, at that time, I was still recording cassette tapes. And I remember, you know, talking to the tape and then send it to my parents. But apart from the occasional lengthy tape that I sent, you know, regular phone calls- I loved it. I just loved the- and I applied for a job I’ve seen in New Zealand, around after three years or so. I didn’t get it but the world was my oyster really. I thought, where are we going to go next kind of thing. But at that point, my marriage was kind of going pear shaped. And I- we had a choice to make. And I was offered a job back in Ireland. So it kind of brought me back but- and we didn’t have to stay of course, the university over there were wonderful. They said, listen, if you want to take a year out, you can go home and think about it. So these were all- and I was thinking- well, you can’t go wrong. That’s not a bad option.

Melbourne Australia
Melbourne Australia

But no, I just love the- and the fact that every state had a major city and every major city had so much diversity and so much culture. Like, I remember particularly going to Melbourne on one occasion, for- I used to play students and design consultancies all over Australia, mainly in Sydney and Melbourne. And, you know, you’d maybe spend two or three weeks going down to visit them. And there were some really dynamic design consultancies and illustrators and photographers and- but there was an amazing sculpture exhibition or festival going on in Melbourne when I was down there. And it was all like- the street people doing all sorts of weird, wonderful things. The literary scene was dynamic, really. It was dynamic. Yeah, I just thought it was a super cultural experience. And when I came back, I didn’t actually think I was coming back for good, I thought maybe I’m gonna come back for a year or so. And I had permanent residency, but I hadn’t gone for citizenship, but probably to do with the fact that I come off from West Belfast. And to become a citizen, you would have had to kind of put a note to the royal family. And I just couldn’t- at that time, I couldn’t have brought myself to do that. So I had just simply went there on the basis of what we call permanent residency, which you could live there, apparently on, but you would have had to renew it every four years or so. And after four years, I was able to come back for a year, but if I hadn’t gone back to renew that, it naturally lapsed. So I wasn’t even able to go back and rebuild a life there which I probably would have liked to have done. But having said that, having seen the way climate change is affecting the world, and particularly Australia- because when I was in Wagga, it was 44 degrees Celsius in the summer.

Jackie De Burca

Wow.

Seán Mackel

And it might be 1 degrees in the winter. And after a while, the first year I thought, my God, this is brutal. But after a while, the 21 degrees began to feel cold, funnily enough. But I’ve heard people saying now that you’re talking temperatures are hitting high 40s in places that would normally have not come near that. So that that would be pretty challenging, I have to say. And I do remember a particular park in the car one day, to go into a shop and leaving something on the dash and when I came out it has melted. I sat there and it just melted. So yeah, and you wouldn’t park your car unless you were parking under the shade of a tree. You wouldn’t just park it in the street, because you’d be burning your legs or yourself, because everybody’s wearing shorts and those days, nearly all the seats were PVC on the cars. You’d be burning your thighs when you open the car again. So But no, I just loved it. And I loved the- and to me, the wild life was a big thing, too. If you went for a stroll, it just seemed to pulse with life. You know, insects and snakes and animals. And I know that can be frightening, but I wasn’t particularly concerned about that. It was just the- if you take a walk through the West Donegal, you would be lucky to see a sheep. It’s just that notion of- there is this indigenous wildlife. It’s just teeming with it in Australia, you know?

Jackie De Burca

Yeah, I can imagine. I mean that that’s something that I would absolutely adore as well. It’s almost like being- not in the jungle, but something that’s so natural, as opposed to- yeah.

Seán Mackel

And it’s- you feel small in it too and you feel insignificant. Which is a good- it’s quite a levelling thing. And I like that, you know? I mean, I would say a typical Australian would probably say that that’s a romantic notion which (inaudible – 00:46:44) I know that some (inaudible – 00:46:46) has suffered terribly as a result of settlement and all that kind of thing. And there are areas of rewilding going on in Australia, just like there’s areas of rewilding going on in Scotland. But still, for me, it had this sense of being a landscape that was alive. And it means strangely enough, despite the heat, there were times when there were floods in Wagga. And there were times when there were bushfires near Wagga. And I do remember, on a few occasions driving, and I had bought- one of the things I did love about it I have to say, when I taught the university there, I would look out on a window and I would see all the students often driving in their cars, but these cars would be 1950s cars. So they’ll be a stunning kind of cars that were immaculate because there’s no rust. So they’d be driving these strangely coloured cars, like often, colours you would never have imagined people would put on a car, but that’s the colour they were. In those days when they were made all these kind of American type. You know, Holden- I had a Holden in Germany, which was pretty sad, (inaudible – 00:47:45) thing, but there were some beautiful cars that had these little spoilers at the back, and things and stuff. On the Batman type cars, you know? But they were stunning things and a typical student would be driving in it because they were dirt cheap, and they never rusted.

Australia Landscape
Australia Landscape

Jackie De Burca

A little bit like the sort of scenes we see- typical scenes of Cuba, no? Those kinds of cars?

Seán Mackel

Yeah, it would have been. Yeah, that’s exactly what it would have been like. And you know, you had the car park full of these cars that students just pulled up in. And also because it was so hot, you were basically wearing- well, I would call them flip flops, but they always just call them thongs, but they’re just for your feet, these flip flops. Shorts and t-shirts that everybody- staff, professors- all dress exactly the same way. Even bank managers dress in these flip flops and shorts and t-shirts, you know? Strange-

Jackie De Burca

Yeah, because- well, I suppose because of the heat., you know? But So listen, did you get a shock to the system, when you returned back over to Ireland, to Derry. Wasn’t that in the sort of early to mid ’90s? Was that a shock to you?

Seán Mackel

It was. I think what excited me about it, to some extent was- I was going through a difficult- from a family point of view. But leaving that aside, I think what was exciting about it was the history of Derry. I don’t know if you know the history of Derry University. I mean, you know, John Hume, who sadly passed away, would have been- a university in Derry in the ’60s, late ’60s. So what happened was the (inaudible – 00:49:08) college, which I think historically had been a training college for teachers, I’m not sure, but I think it was way back. But it became a sub branch of the Belfast College of Art. Or some of it, a certain section did. So I was coming back in a way to establish- to help not O’Neill of course, but to help establish courses which at that point in time were what they’re called HNDs, which are like diploma type level courses.

And I thought, well, here’s a chance to do something. So a group of us got together. And it was dynamic. We were able to kind of- it took a while because there was a little bit of- how would you say. I thought there was some prejudice in- from the mothership, shall we say and not allowing the thing to happen naturally in Derry. It still is being suffocated a little bit and I was pushing along with another guy from Dublin. We were pushing very strongly to get degree courses, which we did eventually get, and then they get the first Masters in Design and Bachelors of Design in the north never made in the university. And so we got that go on. And but it took years of hard slog, and we got a new school of creative and performing arts there. And at that point, we had a very dynamic professor who has passed away, Robert Welch, he was quite an established Irish poet and novelist, but also kind of a- he had produced and edited Derry’s Oxford Guide of literature and stuff. And he was the professor of Humanities. And he supported us in developing and he relocated music to Derry and also theatre. So we had a lot of things happening there, and then also establish a new department in dance.

So it was really dynamic. But-

and at that time also, then I joined a writers group in Derry, when the Werbal Art Centre was set up. And it was a writers group set set up there. And I got involved in a cross border group then, and I called it Shy Wolf because I was crazy about wolves.

And I like the (inaudible – 00:51:08) wild and intangible about writing. When it really does speak to you, it can lift the hackles in the back of your neck. So I like that notion of something primal in writing. So we establish this group called Shy Wolf, and it ran for a couple of years. And it was a mixture of the visual and the literary. And it was funded by the Arts Council in the north. And then I got interested in at that point, animation, and then I- and then the animation I suppose got me interested in (inaudible – 00:51:36) so that went beyond the poetry and decided that probably I should look at prose. And because I lived on the border, I liked that notion of- in some ways, I think it’s kind of almost defines me this notion of living here and living there, kind of the sort of- I am a Gemini, I’m not sure if that’s relevant or not, but this sort of- on either side of the fence sort of thing. It seems to appear as a motif generally, in a lot of my kind of thinking. But yeah, so I- that did inform a piece that I wrote, and a year or so ago, the group I was with in Australia, and the journal they wrote to me and they said, look, it’s our 30th anniversary. Would you like to submit something? So I did submit a piece called Borderlands, which was really all about that. A story that was set on the border and an old character who was- he was losing his mobility, but his family was living on the other side. He had to make a choice, what does he want to do. But then I have another story, which also explored that and it was called Iceland, which was about a little boy being bullied at school. And I can send you a link to that because that was also on public broadcast BRT. But so the border and the living along the border is something that- there are complications or advantages, you know, the joy of say, living on the Donegal side is it’s to me, it’s more relaxed, broader, multicultural experience. The benefits of doing it on the Derry side would be that you have access to free health, you have access to a bus station and an airport. So that you know, there are pluses and minuses, and there’s- I kind of liked that notion of dividing my time between Derry and Donegal. Yeah, so-

Jackie De Burca

Yeah, I can really understand that. I mean, in a very quick and simplistic way, I could say, for me, Spain has maybe a little bit of what Australia had for you. The space, the likes, the expansiveness, experiences with nature that maybe I wouldn’t have had in Ireland. Yet, when I am able to go back to Ireland, obviously rough at the moment. And what I find each time I go back there is a combination of the actual culture, which is completely ingrained in me. The sense of view, and the earthiness, there’s an earthiness there.

Seán Mackel

Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely, yeah. I mean, it’s nice that in a way, that Spain isn’t too far from Ireland, that was the only drawback I think I had with Australia. It’s a huge distance, like we’re talking 36 hours flying time. 24 hours from London to Sydney, but then you had a flight to get to London and a flight from London to Sydney to Wagga. So that was an ordeal. But at the same time now it’s becoming easier, I think. It used to be two stops and I think there’s just now one stop.

Jackie De Burca

Okay. So going back to that sort of- if you like a blurring of the places, the boundaries going over from origin to another, from one culture to another. Do you feel that that sort of has affected your creative output?

Seán Mackel

I think it does. I mean, I think if I were to say, I’m only gonna be a writer, I probably would have a lot more stuff to show for my name. But because I kind of- I’m always jumping around and it’s been a kind of a plus and a minus in my life, but I do love both equally. So I did- it kind of combined probably- the best combination was probably when I was doing the M. A. at Queen’s in creative writing. There was an artist called Sylvia Grace Porter, who I think is now living in Canada. And she was very into (inaudible – 00:55:01) and I had never heard of this before. Although I had been conscious of concrete poetry way back in the arts days, but I hadn’t looked at it in any depth. But she was exploring this idea and discussing it with us as a guest lecturer in UQC with Sinead Morris, who’s also quite an established poet. And I thought, this is interesting. So I then came across a book on trees, an excellent book, he’s written quite a few books on Irish natural history. And his name is Niall McCotter, and he’s big on Irish trees, myths and legends and folklore. And I came across the history of (inaudible – 00:55:36) script and he had made this reference at this- this had drawn its kind of meaning from the origins of tree- elements of trees. So I thought, oh- and Ireland has very, very few trees. And when I lived in Australia, it was full of trees. So I thought- and often when I walk through the landscape, I mean, a part of it, I would see the landscape is beautiful in Ireland. I would see it as devoid of trees. I would be thinking, where are the trees? You look at Connemara, you look at Donegal. Oh yeah, wow. But to me it’s bald, it doesn’t look- to me, the more trees there are, the more- vibrancy of life there’ll be. The ecosystem will be healthier. I mean, if you read any books on the history of Ireland, you’ll find that a squirrel could literally travel from Mullan Head to (inaudible – 00:56:15) without touching the ground at one point. And that is no longer the case. In fact, I would say Ireland has probably the least number of trees in Europe. So I was trying to- in a sense, saying- produce a body of work that sort of saying a lament about that. So I use this (inaudible – 00:56:30) script, and I decided to map it along the colour spectrum. So each character had a colour and then I just spelled out the names of all the trees that historically would be Irish. And I discovered that- in ancient Ireland there were 13 months and not 12. And so I created this kind of circular exhibition of very minimalist- iconographic and (inaudible – 00:56:55) scripts, of the names of trees spelled out in (inaudible – 00:56:58) and underneath in English and Irish. And anybody who came to the exhibition got a little tub with a tree, an oak, a growing oak inside a little cup. Take home with them, you know?

Artist in Gallery - Sean Mackel
Artist in Gallery – Sean Mackel

Jackie De Burca

So lovely.

Seán Mackel

Yeah, so it kind of was, to me- the trees are so important to me, the environment to me is my kind of religion almost. So yeah, for me that that was a significant thing. So I kind of enjoyed that. And I was bonded by that to this disability arts organisation. And then I became a member of their board. And I sat there for a number of years. And I realised how often artists with disabilities struggle to be even taken seriously. So I was very strong and supporting up for quite a few years.

Jackie De Burca

Okay. Let me interject on that one, because you’ve mentioned with disabilities. Does that relate to the fact that you had obviously a significant health change in your life around that time?

Seán Mackel

Yes, it did. Yeah, I mean,

I had suffered from Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome symptoms for a long, long time. But I just thought this was just stress, hyperactive, type a personality. Spinning too many plates and all that. But you know, at the same time, loving it. Graphic design is a lot of quick reward, you do stuff very quickly.

It’s not- in advertisement, there is obviously a big client or a big budget there and graphic design itself is a smaller budget, and you’re just drawing something out within a day or two or maybe a week. So it’s deadline driven by I love that. So in some respects, I think- I don’t know. But yeah, I developed this severe, like- inability to eat food and drink water. Around Christmas 2005, I think it was? I was taken into hospital immediately until I had a toxic megacolon which meant I had to get my bowel removed and I was told that if I didn’t, I would die within the day and I thought, what? So I decided, yeah, I’ll go with that.

Jackie De Burca

Obviously.

Seán Mackel

Yeah, I’ll take that option. And so they initially- they gave me an implant, which I wore, and for a year in a bit, it was fine. And I went back to work. But I have a high output system, so it just- it means you dehydrate, means you have to be careful that you have enough water in your system. It also means you can sort of like lose focus or concentration. But I find it’s very challenging when I was teaching, I went back to teaching for a year and a bit and it just- I was getting worse. And I had to have a second surgery to make it permanent. And I just thought, at this point, I’m going to leave. So at that point I recalibrated and thought, well, okay. What could I do this to make this a positive? So I decided to do the M.A. in Creative Writing at Queen’s and that’s- and took early retirement and got a very low pension. Because I hadn’t- I had worked in various places, but I’ve never really focused in any length of time on a proper pension investment. But as it turned out in the end, because of the nature of my condition, they did eventually gave me the (inaudible – 00:59:47) of the years that I would have had, had I still worked full time. So I have a respectful enough income, shall we say, from a pension, which  the university which- you know, wonderful. I’m not sure you get those pensions anymore, but that has made it easy for me to kind of like, get by. So yeah, but so that may me conscious. And it led me to slow down, and then it led me to kind of-

I think when you have surgery that, in a sense, is life saving, you do weigh up what your life should be about. You start thinking, well. What is important here ?What is trivial?

So, that that was kind of sobering and- but it was actually, it wasn’t a sad experience. It was if anything, it was liberating. And I often forget that I have a disability. Except there’ll be times when you’re thinking, oh my God, can I kind of do the next 25 kilometres without a glass of water? So if you’re trying to juggle the amount of fluid you take in by the fluid you lose, it can be tricky. And there can be some embarrassing and hilariously funny sort of aspects to that experience. But it certainly turned my life around. I don’t really have any serious inflammatory conditions anymore. I just have the monitor device. That’s all there is to it.

Jackie De Burca

Obviously a good result. And also the fact that you’re lucky enough to actually be able to get an income that makes your life quite manageable, which is great, because if you have a health issue, you don’t want the extra stress of money problems, you know?

Seán Mackel

Exactly, you know. So yeah.

Camino - Sean Mackel
Camino – Sean Mackel

Jackie De Burca

Tell us a little bit about just before we were going to talk about The River and Other Stories, tell us a little bit about the Camino and its importance to you and how it affects your creativity.

Seán Mackel

Well, it’s it’s one of those things I was- Susanne has a brother who had a little girl some years ago, and we went to this christening ceremony. And I met someone there. He said to me, they were talking about the Jakobsweg. I hadn’t a clue what they’re talking about. What’s the Jakobsweg? And it’s the- Jacob’s way, and I didn’t know what it was. And then they said, Santiago de Compostela. And of course, I didn’t know what Santiago, I didn’t know Compostela meant. So I realised, oh it means St. James and the field of stars. And I looked it up and I thought, alright. So there is this path you can do blah, blah, blah. And then I came across a book by a guy called John Mcrearly, or is it John Berardi, not sure if McBirley or Birley. But he has a guidebook which is excellent on the- you can stop at different legs of the journey. He produces maps of the elevations and the plan views of all the different paths and the telephone numbers of all the places you can stay and it’s updated regularly. And so I headed off in 2013 for the first time just to see, could I do this now? Of course, I was told by everybody, you will not be able to do it with your condition, blah, blah, blah. And I just wanted to know, well, okay. I know I can’t, there is a problem when you have abdominal surgery twice, which I did have. Your core muscles are completely affected, your balance can be a bit weird. And I remember the first time I had- well, years after the second surgery, I thought I’ll just go to the gym and I’ll try to tune up the abs. Which was the worst thing I could have done because you can- you can really seriously affect your- you can give yourself a hernia and stuff. So I didn’t realise this and I was trying to try to build the abs and it turns out it was a disaster. And the guy said, you should not be doing this. Oh, right. So I then thought, okay, what can I do that can keep me fit? And I thought walking was the thing. So the Jakobsweg, Santiago de Compostela seemed a logical thing, the Camino.

Camino - Ponte de Lima - Seán Mackel
Camino – Ponte de Lima – Seán Mackel

So I went and did it. And I did it for about as far as Burgos, which I think is about maybe a third of the way and there was when I met two Irish guys. One guy in the 70s, one guy in the 60s who had also just retired. And we get on like a house on fire. But I was getting wounds, I sometimes get wounds as a result of too much stress. I’ll get wounds around my body and I got this wound around where I had to put the plans out, I really couldn’t continue. I had to go home. But I got emails from the guys saying, listen, we really miss you. Come back. Come back. So actually, after a week or so recovery, I came back and finished the last leg. And then on the last day, I bumped into a guy, strangely enough from Derry. Do the Portuguese one, it’s less onerous. And I have done the Portuguese one. I don’t go to Lisbon, I go to Porto. So I do about a 300k walk. And the beauty of it is it’s half in Portugal and half in Spain. And I love that mix. And you can do it in 10 days, I did it in 12 days. So you’re doing 20 kilometres a day. So you’re walking between four hours and six hours a day depending on the terrain. Generally speaking, I’ve had one year where it rained every day which was miserable but it was good when it stopped, as they say. But generally, what I do is I then would take the bus down to Porto or Lisbon and spend three three days just chilling out. Susanne doesn’t do it at this point because she- I generally do it end of May, beginning of June. To me that’s like preparation for the summer. It seems to dovetail with- the summer stretching ahead of you, you’ve done a wee bit of a challenge, you’re all set. You maybe lost a few kilos. And you’re feeling energised, you’ve had your vitamin D injection from the sun. And it’s wonderful, and you’re charged. And that, unfortunately for her, is the time when she would sometimes do some exam work for some of the- for the exam boards. Assessing film work and that kind of thing. So I generally do it on my own. But in some respects, it’s even better because in a way you’re forced to meet people. If you go as a couple or a group of people, you tend to stay in a sort of a bubble. Whereas if you’re on your own, you have no choice but to reach out. So I’ve met people from all over the world, I’ve gotten friends from- you know, every corner of the earth really. And I just love it. And so I use Facebook to keep in touch or you know, Twitter or whatever it is. But you do keep until you do. You still have friends you can go back to after years and have a beer or a coffee with, that you haven’t seen in 30 years, and listen and talk. And it is wonderful. And it’s cheap as chips as they say. You might spend five years or six years for a dormitory. Or if you wish, and you want to stay in a pension, you spend 20. But you may spend no more than 20 euros a day on food, and a glass of beer or a glass of wine or whatever it is. So over 10 or 12 days, it’s not expensive. And it’s it’s a wonderful experience, you know?

Camino Pontevedra - Sean Mackel
Camino Pontevedra – Sean Mackel

Jackie De Burca

Okay, okay. So something that hopefully- let’s see what the year has for all of us this year. Obviously, we’re the early stages and all hopeful that at least maybe by the summertime, things might have calmed down, you know? Just to go to The River and Other Stories. In 2011, Sean, that was long listed for the Frank O’Connor awards. The stories explore the notion of a river of people flowing through a particular place over various decades. In this particular case, it’s the river Foyle. I find the whole concept of water and creativity absolutely fascinating. What are your own thoughts?

The River Book Cover - Seán Macke
The River Book Cover – Seán Macke

Seán Mackel

Well, they would be- and also what attracts me to that is this sort of notion of- it was a- I think there’s a little quote I put at the start of the book, actually, from Donal McCann. Donal McCann was a- Colin McCaan. Yeah, Colin McCaan. And the (inaudible – 01:07:06) was- look, see the way the water is still moving underneath. It’ll keep on moving, only inches below. Leonie is gone. Even Art. So it’s this notion that you own anything. I think that was the idea that we’re- everything is transitory, and I (inaudible – 01:07:22) more zen, like I’d have the calm or something. But it’s just that notion of, place.

The idea that a river is in the same place, but it isn’t the same water going through it. And it’s just that notion that- when people are born, they die. And other people (inaudible – 01:07:38) their children, follow in their grandchildren. Just that notion and the stories that they carry with them. I mean, it’s just all this mixture of how we have carried- maybe have traits or characteristics that maybe our grandfather had, or grandmother had and we don’t know how we picked that up, but we do have in our DNA.

So it’s this idea that there’s a space that- and also in the book, what I did was I wanted to- I did explore stories from they say, the 40s, to the present.

River Foyle - Seán Mackel
River Foyle – Seán Mackel

One of the stories was an old lady who was in an old people’s home, and she had remained single all her life. But she was reflecting back and working in a shirt factory and how she had at the time, they used to put little- little romantic notes into the pocket of the shirts, particularly during the Second World War when they made shirts for the army, British Army or something. And they put wee notes in, you know, ‘please contact me if you find this’ note sort of thing. And this woman talked about this. And she was on a radio programme and being interviewed. But it turns out that someone had actually intended to follow up on this note but had been injured and gone to Canada. But in fact, does contact her and it’s called The Day Room. So that was the first story that was just exploring this notion of time, and how things can sometimes come later in your life when you least expect them.

But also, I wanted to kind of explore the history of the Troubles and how Derry is is also a kind of divided city in a sense that- nigh as it is, the river Foyle divides the city. Not entirely but you could generally say- it’s a generalisation of course, that by and large, the city side of this- the city is broadly speaking, (inaudible – 01:09:15) or something. And you could say that the other side of the watershed, as they call it- is broadly speaking, or maybe you know, that’s where the people who would see themselves (inaudible – 01:09:24) would live. That’s a very simplistic description, but that- so I thought I wanted to explore a story that would explore the trauma of the Troubles. So there’s a story about- about an incident on a river, where someone is killed and dies. And I also want to place the story in the centre of the book. So that this notion of- of the geography of the stories is also kind of a construct in the book. So the river itself, which is one of the main stories, is right bang in the middle. So there’s a series of stories before it, and a series of stories after and I wanted also to explore the notion of different art forms like music and writing and painting and dance. These are all kind of little elements that are explored in different stories in the book.

So for me, this was- the collection came out of the M.A., the M.A. dissertation thankfully was nothing heavy, it was just- do a body of creative work. And I wanted to create a series of stories. There was also another story which I was intrigued by, which was- there had been a railway disaster in a certain stretch of Donegal, where the train had blown off the track, and from this huge viaducts. And I had kind of- one of the one of the challenges that we’ve been asked to do as students on the M.A. was to pick a real incident and create a story around it. So that’s what I had done. And that kind of sparked this notion of a collection of stories along the river Foyle. So as a result of that, I had a body of work. I went to the Guildhall Press, and they said to me, it needs some serious editing here. And thankfully, I got a good editor in Marlene McLoughlin, who is also a writer. And she wrote a book I think, probably 20 years ago called A Dream Woke Me, which was published by Black Star Press, her collection of stories. And she’s a superb writer, and now I think she’s focusing on poetry, but she edited it and she helped me quite a bit. And the nice thing was that Guildhall Press allowed me to design the cover. So at a sense, I had kind of a directorial control with the- over the aesthetics of the book, which I kind of like. So that was a lovely feeling, you know?

Guildhall Press - The River Book Cover - Seán Mackel
Guildhall Press – The River Book Cover – Seán Mackel

But yeah, it was a huge boost, even though I think- I’m not sure, maybe I’m wrong. I doubt that everybody who submits to that competition gets long listed, but maybe they do. I don’t know. So I tell myself, no, that can’t be true, but you never know. But it was still nice, it was still nice to be long listed. And that did help me get a grant for the novel that I wrote. Believe it or not, just after that, I actually got an agent- I briefly had an agent in London, who was Emma Donoghue’s agent. And I thought, whoa. Probably out next year kind of thing. But it petered out. And so at first six or seven years, and I have been struggling to get an agent, but I think it’s a mixture of- there are so many voices out there, and there’s so many unrepresented- if you want to call it aspects of society or groups within society, and that’s where the focus is going, perhaps rightly. In terms of, you know, the history of authors and writers being published, have largely been male, white and in their 60s. So in some respects, I fall under the wrong category. But you know, I still live in hope, you know? But I still write and they still, put stuff out there. But that was- basically after the M.A. and everything was going gloriously at that point, I thought it’s only a matter of time now to like be snapped up. But so, yeah. So that was a nice moment in my writing, to have had that collection.

Jackie De Burca

Yeah, and also the 2019- I know, it was a flat- flat. Let’s try that again. Flash Fiction Prize. But that was judged, I saw that that was judged by Nuala O’Connor. So I think the fact that you won that with her being a judge, that was a big compliment, I believe.

Seán Mackel

Oh, it was. I have huge respect for her. I mean, Nuala is prolific. I would be in awe of her because I have a particular interest in historical fiction. Most of my work, the larger body of work that I’ve written would be looking at historical issues and trying to explore them from what I would call blind spots and trying to- in some way look at those through literature. And Nuala has a huge body of work now and every other year, she’s producing another novel. And she is an expert at making connections to put it out there and that’s a whole expertise in itself and she’s got that- she’s a black belt in that. What I could see, you know?

Jackie De Burca

She is.

Seán Mackel

So yeah, a huge admiration. I mean, I’m in awe of all the books that are coming out. There’s so many writers in Ireland particularly, particularly dynamic now. It’s definitely a golden period. Although it’s a strange time too, because you wonder to what extent are people reading. I hope they are but you do wonder, with the digital revolution to what extent people are so embedding when it comes to reading? Are they reading- cleearly, they are when it comes to the other people reading our books, but you do wonder down the line is, are people looking at- the flash fiction thing, you wonder, is that an aspect of the trend, the way things are going, where people are looking for sound bites, rather than big, witty tomes, you know? But then you have, like, the Wolf Hall and all that kind of stuff, which is massive. These huge, chunky books as big as doorsteps, being read. So there’s hope hopefully there.

The River book launch - Sean Mackel
The River book launch – Sean Mackel

Jackie De Burca

I think I think we’re probably going through- I mean, some people may disagree or agree with this, but I think we’re probably going through kind of a bit of a rebirth in terms of people’s lifestyles because they have no choice but to reinvent how they’re going to live their lives right now, you know?

Seán Mackel

Yeah, exactly.

Jackie De Burca

I believe, Sean, for many people that would include reading proper books. That they may (inaudible – 01:15:20) previously, you know?

Seán Mackel

Yeah, exactly. I mean, there’s so much- like I grew up with my mother watching a lot of movies. I used to watch movies with my mother. And I kind of missed a lot of the old black and whites I used to watch. But it’s funny when you go to Netflix, and these things, you try to find films of those kind of quality, you don’t get them. There’s a lot of these kind of, like- you know, pretty lightweight scripts and stuff. And whereas- or you maybe look at a film and then you go to the book, you find the book was much more rich than the film was, you know?

Jackie De Burca

Often the case. Often the case. Listen, going to one or two of the other places that are- have been important in your life, Sean, one of them happens to be where we mentioned Nuala O’Connor, obviously. Where Nuala’s based these days, that’s Galway. A place that’s really special to me as well. Why is it important to you, Sean, as a place?

Seán Mackel

Well, I think it was actually- a student of mine came over from Australia to visit me way back when I first came back. And he’s not leaving, still lives here. But he had, you know, headed off with a camera and started touring around Ireland and they actually went to Galway and he said, ‘Sean, this is an amazing place’. Now I had been there in the ’80s, and I had no recollection of the dynamics- the dynamic kind of cultural thing that was there. I ended up being there at that time, he rang me. So I went down and had a look and I couldn’t believe it. I was- I think there was there during the Week of the Arts Festival. And (inaudible – 01:16:36) was pretty big and dynamic at that point. And they were doing all these kind of street performances and there were people who had puppets in the street, people flame throwing in the street. There was lots of you know, people gigging in the street, nearly every pub you went to had a different musical genre. You’d have pop music, rock music, blues music, traditional music, it was amazing. I just loved it. And there was lots of Spanish and Italian and you know, all sorts of people floating around. And I thought, my God, this feels like Australia to some extent. So I mean- that’s- I love that for that reason. Also, the intimacy of the place. You can walk from A to B fairly quickly, no matter where you’re on. So it’s that intimacy. And it’s the fact you can stand in a pub and talk to a stranger. I just love it. And you know, you’ll hear (inaudible – 01:17:21) singing and dancing and stuff. And it’s just, it’s dynamic. It’s really- it’s part of the air that you breathe in the place. And like, there’s a little woman I went to see, it must have been 20 years ago. And it was Father Griffin’s Road that I stayed in and I think she still rents out a room, but she doesn’t charge any more than she charged me 20 years ago. Like she may charge me 15 or 20 euros a night. You know, it was buttons like. And it’s very, very basic brekky. I don’t really eat much breakfast but I would occasionally go down. Well, I have been going for 25 years of the Cuirt Festival, with my professor in literature. And I went there 25 years ago, for the first time. Couldn’t believe how exciting it was. In fact, I think it was even more dynamic then than maybe it is now. And there was lots of poetry and lots of prose and lots of nonfiction. I remember hearing John Poser, the Aussie journalist reading from some of the stuff there. And it was so dynamic and I started to kind of attend workshops and then I started to write- you know, bring some poetry along. Went to a workshop with Max Hoffler, who was a theatre performer telling people how to read their poetry or how to read it better. And I was there with Susanne. It’s actually where I met Susanne, in the theatre there in (inaudible – 01:18:35) island. And it was a little workshop. We were both reading other stuff. And then we went and had a beer afterwards and I’m not sure, was it- was it a hotel that’s across the street from (inaudible – 01:18:45). But myself and Susanne, and another guy called Jerry Henry. And he was also a poet. In fact he’s a guy who I would recommend if you wanted somebody who’s- who writes books. He’s written a number of books on the Irish ballad, and he’s written a book on Oscar Wilde, he’s written a number of books of poetry, and he’s a brilliant musician. He lives in Galway, he would be a fantastic person for your podcast. Wonderful.

Irish Writers Centre Workshop - Sean Mackel
Irish Writers Centre Workshop – Sean Mackel

Jackie De Burca

Okay, that’s- (inaudible – 01:19:13)

Seán Mackel

Yeah, it was wonderful, I just love the- I just love it. I just love the- when I go there, I always feel refreshed. Just energised, you know?

Jackie De Burca

Okay. I have pretty much the same, I adore Galway and really can’t wait to get back over there at some stage. The final place that we’re going to mention- you mentioned Susanne, who is number 11- episode number 11 on this first season. Of course she hails from Germany and that also plays a bit of a special role in your life. Sean, do you want to talk a bit about Germany?

Seán Mackel

Yeah, I mean- we met in 1998, so I had never really been to Germany before that and went over to see her a number of times and of course, she (inaudible – 01:19:58) a partner but I didn’t know anything really much about the history of Germany. And when I went, I do remember it distinctly sitting in her mother’s living room and her mother gave me a book of photographs of Nuremberg post the Second World War and it was literally in ruins. But if you walk around that city now, you would honestly think what you’re walking amongst- all these little streets with a beautiful kind of frescos on the walls and the high pitched roofs and the architecture and the cobblestone- you would think it was the original city. But they rebuilt it, as it was. And they must have had plans, but they built it exactly as it was. So it does feel like it’s not a pastiche, like it feels like a genuine authentic city centre that you would have seen probably pre-war. But I love all that. I’m fond of German beer, of course, and some of those sausages are quite nice. But I just adore their biergarten, but not not swinging back loads and loads. But just you know, one or two and sitting with people and you know, they have these cultural things, whether you have the blue night where they go out and people step in parks and classical music is played with huge concerts and everybody sits with their (inaudible – 01:21:00) and have (inaudible – 01:21:01) It’s such a lovely place, you know? I talked briefly in Augsburg, I find the people really interesting. I remember one guy who was teaching 3d software, and I thought, you know, there’s- you tend to think, oh, he’s one of these IT geeks, you know? And he was a lecturer there, and I was visiting professor, whatever it was in typography. And we were sitting chatting, and he said, you want to see my studio? And I said, okay. So we went in to see the studio, and he had been carving some of these old statues from the cathedrals that were, you know, falling apart and needed repaired. He was literally capable of re-carving a version of what the original look like. Even though he was an IT guy. So they had these incredible craft skills that, you know, I don’t think you would see them too much in Ireland these days. But I just couldn’t believe the- that sort of- the intensity of the craftsmanship, you know? But I love that sort of- I remember the first Christmas market I went to, I thought it was in a fairytale. And snow was falling and we were drinking (inaudible – 01:22:04) and we’re standing around but there was- they had this thing called the (inaudible – 01:22:10) it appears this young lady comes out dressed up as an angel standing on a balcony, and she’s singing and it was really like something out of film. It’s just stunning.

Jackie De Burca

Yeah, I can imagine. I can imagine Now, going back to your own area, Sean, if you were- obviously, once lockdown has ended and it’s safe to travel, if you are receiving somebody from Germany or you know, a friend somewhere abroad, where would you actually recommend for them to stay? Where would be a favourite place in that area that you’re in?

Seán Mackel

Well, I would say first of all, there would be certain number of places and obviously in Derry that you could stay and also Donegal. I mean, the typical ones in Derry would probably be Potters Pub. There’s also another pub in Derry that’s called Sandinos, which is kind of like a lefty kind of pub, we get lots of images of Che Guevara and stuff on the wall. But a lot of writers, a lot of writers and musicians in theatre hang out there. And it’s in a funny little spot, it’s right behind the railway station. It’s quite a narrow little pub. But it would be a good spot. Potters would be very good for the traditional music. I mean, I would often go in there, they’d go in there with a writer who’s not passed on and there’ll be lots of people coming in from Germany and France. Clearly, it must be on the list of places that they’re supposed to go to. And you would get guys playing in their beautiful traditional music, but also guys with electric fiddles, like these things that look like skeletons of little bits, maybe it’s the fretboard and a little bit of metal, but they play beautiful, stunning stuff. And they sing ballads of course as well. But in Donegal, even West Donegal, like- the places I would have gone to in the ’70s would still have a fair bit of musical sort of activity like (inaudible – 01:23:46) would be really worth going to. And also Leo’s Tavern. I mean, Leo’s Tavern I would have gone to way back in the ’70s but Leo’s Tavern would have been- he would have been the father of Enya and you know, the Clannad people. So he would have been playing a squeezebox, but he’s passed on but you would still get good musical sessions in there. And that would be-

Leo’s Tavern
Leo’s Tavern

Flickr photo by Jørn Aune

Jackie De Burca

With that place, that would be like- again, I’m talking about different days when tourism is possible again. That wouldn’t be overrun with tourists because of- because of the (inaudible – 01:24:17)?

Seán Mackel

Not particularly because it’s a little bit remote. I mean West Donegal is kind of like- it’s a bit of a spin to get there, you know? But it’s it’s got a nice- Crawley is where Leo’s Tavern would be so it’s a wee bit off the beaten track. And you know, it wouldn’t necessarily be on everybody’s kind of list of places to go, but it would definitely be worth going to. I don’t know Inishowen all that well, but there is- is it- it called Daff? There’s a pub up there which is quite dynamic. Trying to come up with the name but- Culdaff would be a good spot for traditional music as well. And also kind of readings of poetry and I think the McGill Summer School is up around there, as far as I remember. Yeah, what’s nice about Inishowen as a- I didn’t realise until quite recently- Donegal, I didn’t realise includes Inishowen and (inaudible – 01:25:18) I remember as a kid, they always called Donegal (inaudible – 01:25:21) in Irish. But (inaudible – 01:25:22) refers to the bit west of Inishowen and Donegal includes

inishowen and (inaudible – 01:25:30). But Inishowen is a place- it’s a lovely kind of- there’s so many beaches in it but it’s not a very big area. It’s only 100 miles around the whole sort of coastline. So it’s quite intimate and there’s lots of little nooks and crannies that would be well worth visiting. With you know, intimate little pubs and restaurants.

Jackie De Burca

Okay. Sounds like a gorgeous area to go to, you know, when we got a bit of decent Irish weather?

Seán Mackel

Yeah. The good part is that I think if you’ve got Lough Foyle on one side, you’ve got Lough Swilly on the other. And what I didn’t realise- I remember reading a story by Kevin Barry called The Keyword of (inaudible – 01:26:11) or something. And I think I didn’t realise that there are too few words in Ireland, one of them is (inaudible – 001:26:16) and the other one is swilly. It’s a word which means it’s a very deep lough. It’s not your typical shallow lough. And you would occasionally get orcas in the north opening of- the mouth of it near Mullan Head. Around Swilly, you will get orcas and you know, killer whales kind of floating around there. So I would say don’t wear a wetsuit when you’re there.

Jackie De Burca

also see the Northern Lights, can’t you? From around Mullan Head.

Seán Mackel

You can. I mean, I’ve seen photographs of some people who’ve taken some stunning shots, and I thought- is that really true? But it must be. I’ve never witnessed it, but I’m sure- I mean, I’ve certainly seen some stunning evening lights. In fact, in recent weeks and months, there’s been absolutely beautiful light, winter light. But I haven’t so far seen that. But I have seen him on photograph. So it’s true.

Jackie De Burca

Yeah. Okay. Okay. So you got to send us some links you mentioned, you know, during our chat today, you have some really good links to send through to us. But what are you currently working on, Sean? Are you working on any particular project?

Seán Mackel

Yeah, I’ve always had this hankering- I said it before about this visual under textile, and I thought I’ve always fantasised about doing a children’s picture book. And I recently started reviewing for the Children’s Book Ireland, the picture book section. And I’ve got a fairly good selection of children’s picture books from all over the world, some of them are absolutely stunning. And so I’m kind of working on a piece for that at the minute, which would be illustrated and written by myself. But I’m also working on a third novel, which is inspired by the early days of settlement in New South Australia, in Melbourne. They were (inaudible – 01:28:00) tribe. I read a few books on the history of photography in Australia. And the archives of early indigenous photographs are now owned by the (inaudible – 01:28:11) community, (inaudible – 01:28:13) tribe, and I read a book, saying they now take custody of those and own them and celebrate them even though you would see them as colonial eye, colonial vision of aboriginality. They have claimed ownership of that. So I’m trying to look at a novel that explores that in a way that reveals their culture rather than, than sort of- that takes it seriously and honours it in some way. So I’m trying to explore that. But that’s a delicate topic. And I’ve been writing to and been in touch with the (inaudible – 01:28:44) community to try and get their blessing, if you want to call it or their guidance on how to approach that in a way that is culturally sensitive and appropriate. So I’m working on that at the minute. So that’s quite a dense kind of piece, but a fair bit of it done. So that’s what I’m doing at the moment.

Illustrated Children's Book - Sean Mackel
Illustrated Children’s Book – Sean Mackel

Jackie De Burca

Okay, so that’s- there are two very different type of projects; a children’s book, obviously, with the illustrations, and this, obviously, huge responsibility that you’re taking on yourself to write the book that you’ve mentioned.

Seán Mackel

Yeah. I mean, the children’s picture book has always been something I’ve fantasised about 10 years ago or so. My cousin had a daughter who passed away of spina bifida, complications of spina bifida. But prior to her death, she wrote a story or narrated a story to her hospice nurse and my cousin. Shortly after she passed on, my cousin said to me, would you mind illustrating this? So I did illustrate it and I managed to get a printer and a publisher who did it for free. And you know, we put it out there. So the money was used to kind of invest and research into spina bifida. And that kind of gave me the notion of thinking, well, maybe I could look at this. So that was something that came out of that. And I’m quite excited about the fact that could maybe come to fruition, that it could do me own a particular piece. But I did enjoy doing that. And I wanted to try and do justice to her story. And it was a sweet little story. So I’m interested in trying to explore issues to do with the environment for children, but these would be picture books. But you know, that it encouraged children to look at the environment and celebrate it. So that would be the themes I’d be looking at probably, I would say.

Dampness in Your Home - Sean Mackel
Dampness in Your Home – Sean Mackel

Jackie De Burca

That sounds wonderful. So do you have any sort of hopeful dates of publication at this stage or is it too early to say?

Seán Mackel

It’s probably a bit early to say, I mean, it’s pretty different. I would say that, again, I’m not sure how easy it would be to find a publisher for it. But if it doesn’t happen, I’ll self-publish it. But I was going to the Offset Festival in Dublin every year for a number of years, which is a fantastic festival of visual culture and photographers and illustrators, and typographers, and playwrights and filmmakers all come to the show the work. And every art, there’s a different speaker for three days. And the broadcast theatre, it was an amazing experience. I’ve been going- I didn’t go last year because it was called off because of the COVID. But it was so wonderful. So I’ll be going there probably, you know, to get advice off a few illustrators that are in there as well.

Jackie De Burca

Okay. Well listen, the best of luck, Sean. Obviously, the two projects sound- both of them very, very exciting. The best of luck with the two of those. Thank you so much for taking your time to be with us here on Creative Paces and Faces today. And so for you to look out for as well yourself, because like myself, I know you have a lot of respect for her. Nuala O’Connor will be coming on with us early this year as well.

Seán Mackel

Fantastic.

Jackie De Burca

So I thought I just mentioned that to you. And listen, I really enjoyed our chat today, Sean. Thank you so much.

Seán Mackel

Thank you, Jackie. I enjoyed it very much myself. Thanks very much for having me.

Jackie De Burca

Okay, you take care Sean. Thank you.

Seán Mackel

All the best. Thank you.

Jackie De Burca

Thank you.

Seán Mackel

Bye.

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Nicolas Raherinjatovo

Thinking of visiting Madagascar? Be sure to check out our articles by Nicolas. Born in Madagascar, Nicolas knows his homeland like the back of his hand. But not only that, he is a tourism graduate and expert. Nicolas it the Travel Inspires' Madagascar specialist! He is passionate about writing and travelling.

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      From Belfast to Australia and Northwest Ireland with author, Seán Mackel

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