Back in the Day – Gerald Dawe remembers his first poetry collection

Gerald recalls when his first collection of poetry Sheltering Places was published by The Blackstaff Press, forty years ago this May.

It was April 1978 and I had been living in Galway for the past four years in Abbeygate Street. The Blackstaff Press in Belfast had agreed to publish my first book, and having signed a contract, I was over the moon. I had two little pamphlets of poems previously published in 1976 – Heritages, published in the Isle of Skye by Aquila, and a sequence of poems called after Yeats (who else!) Blood and Moon which came out with the original Lagan Press.  It was from amalgamating these pamphlets and adding some new poems that I had written in Galway, that a manuscript went up to Blackstaff Press.

My girl and I travelled up by train and stayed at Orangefield before heading across to the Upper Newtonards Road and into what was the family home of the publishers, Jim and Diana Gracey’s.  Anne Tannahill had just joined the Blackstaff team and signed the contract we left, all in a bit of a daze. Sheltering Places was duly published in May.

 Sheltering Places, the slimmest of slim volumes wasn’t launched in Belfast so when the opportunity arose to give a reading in Galway I was on tenterhooks. The only other reading I had given was in the Tavern Bar in Eyre Square a year or so earlier when the group of participants in the inaugural National Writers’ Workshop, under the moderatorship of playwright, Thomas Kilroy, had read some of their work to an invited audience. But I was to be on my own this time.

1978 was a rough year. The northern ‘Troubles’ had entered into the tailspin of deadly retribution and there were few signs of optimism. Galway had become my home from home. What had seemed like a temporary move from Belfast was looking increasingly more like a permanent relocation. With this book of poems on the way, published in my native city, but launched in my adopted home, it felt like the two parts of my late 20s life were coming together.


By one of those quirks of fate which I now know to be part and parcel of the writer’s life, production delays left my book becalmed. The cover was in place, a wonderful Robert John Welch photograph of Ballyhooriskey in County Donegal, reproduced from Ireland’s Eye, a collection of Welch’s photographs edited by Estyn Evans and Brian S Turner, and published by Blackstaff. And there was the back cover – a longhaired, bespectacled poet staring across to the Claddagh basin from the lower end of the Long Walk in Galway! Price $1.75 and the succinct blurb about ‘real and imaginative landscapes’, ‘Ireland’s cultural contradictions’ and the paradox of finding ‘in the desolation and exposure of the west of Ireland an emotional sheltering place, and perhaps a new departure, from the violent history of his people’.

The problem was that only the cover arrived; the book itself remained unbound. But in keeping with tradition the show, or in my case, the reading went ahead as planned. Left on the seats in the room, above the bicycle shop in Church Street, next door to St Nicholas Church, was the haunting ice blue front cover of Sheltering Places and its ‘Gothic’ Irish script, with the young face staring out at nothing you could see.  After the introduction, I blurted my way into the missing contents and everyone understood, or so it seemed like, at the time. This is ‘Sheltering Places’ the title poem, written, a lifetime ago in my mother’s small flat in an estate in the hills of east Belfast:

Its been pelting down
all night the kind
of  rain that drenches
to the bone
and a dirt storm
in the car park
The hot wind carries
thunder making girls
scream and old men
count the seconds,
improvising distance
as you shout to
turn the lights out,
pull down the blinds
so that lightning can’t
get in and frazzle us up
in the curtain-dark room,
the rumbles near and
shattering flashes
make everything go numb.

The storm is reaching
home territory, stretching
over the hills down
into our sheltering places.                         

 

Gerald Dawe will be performing ‘Home Thoughts’ with singer-song writer, Eleanor Shanley at this year’s Listowel Writers’ Week .

Tickets can be booked here: https://writersweek.ticketsolve.com/shows/873587220