John Walsh on a life of writing and crossing borders
By Charlie Mcbride
THIS SATURDAY at 1pm, the Galway City Museum hosts the launch of Border Lines, the debut collection of short stories by poet, publisher, and singer/songwriter John Walsh.
Born in Derry in 1950, Walsh has been based in Connemara since 1989 where, in 2007, he co-founded Doire Press, the publishers of Border Lines, with his partner Lisa Frank. Walsh has previously published three volumes of poetry and is the organiser of the successful North Beach Poetry Nights in The Crane Bar.
While it may have taken him more than 60 years to get around to publishing a collection of stories, writing has been a part of Walsh’s life since childhood.
“When I was 10 or 11 my father, who was a watchmaker from The Creggan, ran little writing competitions for myself and my two older sisters,” he recalls. “The winner got a sixpence for the best story or composition. Maybe this fired up my imagination back then. I started out writing poetry at about the age of 13. Then when I was 21, I burnt everything I had written in those years, except one poem I still have. Reading it makes me think it was a good idea that I burnt the rest!”
Walsh goes on to describe the first book of short stories that made an impact on him.
“That was Brian Friel’s The Saucer of Larks. I think I was about 15 and I found it in the local library. It was an almost magical discovery, though I didn’t start writing short fiction myself ‘till I was almost 30. When I did put my first collection together – one that never saw the printers - I sent the stories to Brian Friel.
“He was kind enough to write back. He gave me lots of advice about focusing on what is really essential to the story and then he told me to ignore his advice and write in my own style. He said a writer giving advice to another is only wanting him to write like him! So actually I did ignore the advice he gave me.”
The stories in Border Lines introduce us to a cast of characters who are vivid yet understated. They are frequently in motion between places or relationships, perhaps fleeing one or seeking out another. The push and pull of exile and home are recurrent motifs. Many of the stories are linked by the central character of Ian who we encounter in at various points throughout the collection as he tries to fashion a path toward understanding and growth.
While the stories are marked by concision and economy, they also carry a sense of space and emotional possibility as the reader envisages the ongoing ripples in the characters’ lives beyond the initial impact of the events each story portrays.
“In my style what is left unsaid is as important as what is said,” Walsh notes. “Some writers go to the extent of telling the reader what they are saying, some even explain, analyse what they are saying for the reader. The reader is then left with no input into the process. I prefer to leave the reader asking him/herself at the end of a story ‘What is this really all about?’ so that the story lingers with the reader, it’s not an open and closed case. In fact very often this is the way it is for myself at the end of a story: I’m left asking myself what actually am I saying, what is this all about.”
Walsh illustrates his point with a reference to the story Trumpet In The Towel, one of several in the book to revolve around music and musicians.
“This story is based very closely on actual events,” he reveals. “It’s one of the oldest stories in the collection in that I had the idea for it at a very early stage and went through the process of writing and rewriting it many times. For a long time I kept asking myself ‘What am I saying in this story, what am I telling myself?’ Like Ian in the story Such A Good Invention, where at the end he is left wondering what it was he was trying to tell himself. Through the writing and the rewriting of Trumpet I think I discovered what I was saying.”
Walsh has travelled widely and spent many years teaching in Germany, experiences that have left their stamp on his writing as he readily admits.
“Travel has shaped my writing. I think everyone should get outside their own country if possible and view life from a different perspective. I lived for 16 years in Germany and I learned an awful lot from that. I always loved meeting people and hearing their stories. I hitchhiked all around Europe and it was a great opening up of my own mind because we came from a very narrow working class background on The Creggan so it was fascinating to get out into the wider world.”
Having explored the wider world what was it brought Walsh to put down roots in Indreabhán?
“Back in the mid-1970s I started doing an MA in Galway - which I never finished! - and while I was studying I rented a house in Indreabhán,” he explains. “I just fell in love with the place, with Connemara’s ruggedness, wildness, and beauty. So when I came back to Ireland permanently in 1989 I decided this is where I wanted to live and I’ve been here ever since.”
The Northern Troubles are also touched upon in several of the stories, either through sudden eruptions of violence or as a sense of background ‘static’ against which people struggle to make normal lives. Walsh himself first left Derry just as the Troubles were escalating.
“I come from a family of eight and our parents were dead scared that we’d get involved,” he recalls. “Our next door neighbour was one of the people killed on Bloody Sunday and it could easily have been one of us.
“In 1968, when it was all starting, I left to go to university in Dublin; I’d wanted to go to Queens in Belfast but my A-levels weren’t good enough so I came to UCD and that was a big crossing of the border for me, from North to South and I fell in love immediately with Dublin, I felt that for the first time I was discovering myself and my Irishness.”
Walsh concludes by reflecting wryly on the experience of being a writerly ‘late bloomer’.
“My first poem was published when I was 43 and my first collection by Guildhall Press in Derry when I was 56. So I am certainly a late-comer to the publishing field,” he says. “I guess the way it happened was the way John Lennon put it: ‘Life is what happens when you are making other plans.’
“Or I took the scenic route. Something inside me always wanted to be a writer but something else kept telling me I had to earn a decent living, do something sensible. It was part of my upbringing, which was of its time: security was written in very big letters and hammered into me from a very early age.
“I’ve never really got away from inner conflict: doing what is expected of me versus doing what I want to do. So when I read for the first time in some newspaper or magazine ‘John Walsh, poet’ it was a thrilling moment.”
Walsh can now take great satisfaction from the stories in Border Lines. The collection may have been a few years in the making but the wait has been worthwhile. The book will be launched at the City Museum at 1pm on Saturday. The launch will be performed by Vinny Browne from Charlie Byrne’s Booskhop. Border Lines is available at €12 from select bookshops and www.doirepress.com