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Galway Independent


The beat never leaves you - Mary O’Malley

Wednesday, 19th April, 2017 1:00am

One of Galway’s premiere festivals, the 32nd Cúirt International Festival of Literature, begins this Sunday. For a full week, lovers of literary artforms will get to savour what’s on offer.

This year sees a performance by Connemara born poet Mary O’Malley, who for many opened the door to exploring struggles between modernity and tradition in Irish culture.

Mary’s reading at Cúirt marks her eighth collection of poetry, titled ‘Playing the Octopus’. The collection is “as exhilarating a read as the title promises”, according to fellow poet Paula Meehan, describing Mary as “one of Ireland’s most respected and radical poets”.

Mary is humble though about her achievements and admits that she never made a decision to become a writer. “I ended up writing poetry because I did everything in my power not to do it. And that just didn’t work. I did all sorts of things while I was not writing. I never wanted to be a writer but I always loved poetry.”

She is an avid reader of poetry in Irish and English and adds, “I guess writing found me.”

Mary began her career directing plays in college and the spoken word is something she is hugely passionate about. She continues to write plays for RTE Radio and is also highly regarded as a teacher. She held the Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University in 2013, and has held residencies in Paris, Tarragona, New York, NUI Galway, as well as in Derry and Belfast. She has won numerous awards for her poetry, including the 2016 Arts Council University of Limerick Writer’s Fellowship.

Mary recognises the difficulties faced by many writers who seek to make a living from writing. “I would never seek to make a living from writing and specifically not from poetry. If you are a novelist or playwright you have a chance of making half a living. But there is an exaggeration of what novelists make. Any of them will tell you they find it hard to make ends meet.”

She adds, “I’ve always worked. I was very fortunate to be in [artist association] Aosdána during the recession. That was very important for me to survive.”

While the difficulty posed by making a living from writing faces most writers, it is a passion for writing that is the one common thread and motivator. The passion for her work remains a constant in Mary’s life.

She cites the landscape of Connemara as a huge influence. “The landscape is a primary influence for me.” Mary introduced the poet Derek Walcott, one of her own personal favourites, some years ago when he read at Cúirt and recalls him saying that “the sea is always there.” She explains, “That beat never leaves you. The beat is there from when you are born. It is like background music.”

Galway’s renowned Cúirt International Festival of Literature began as a poetry festival before adding other artforms. Mary, who was on the Cúirt committee for eight years, explains that poetry is always influenced by trends quite like other artforms, with ‘Instapoets’ posting their verses on social media site Instagram being one that has emerged in more recent times.

“Anything that gets people reading more poetry and hearing more poetry is fine by me. I have seen so many trends over the years, there isn’t a trend that didn’t exist. In the US, one such trend was writing poetry on pizza bases. That is all fine by me. It can do no harm at worst and at best can do some good...At the end of the day, we are all faced with a blank page,” she adds.

At the moment, Mary is working on new poetry and prose, and an essay on the subject of place. “What happens when all the emigrants have left, I’m very interested in that,” she adds. This essay, alongside others, will form part of a new collection in the future.

At this year’s Cúirt festival, Mary will read alongside fellow poets Martina Evans and Vona Groarke, and she is “really looking forward to” it. “I prepare a list for a reading but I often tear it up but keep a few key pieces. I sit on my own for quite a while beforehand,” she says.

Poet Mary O’Malley will read on Wednesday 26 April at 8.30pm in the Town Hall Theatre, as part of Cúirt International Festival of Literature. Tickets, €13 - €16, are available from or by calling 091-569777. See full details on this year’s Cúirt programme at Mary’s latest collection ‘Playing the Octopus’ will be available at the reading, from Galway bookshops and online on

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