Voice of the Emigrant: Michael Gallagher on Roads he has Taken

Michael Gallagher, a native of Achill Island, will launch his book Stick on Stone on Friday 31 May 2013 at 1.30pm at The Plaza Centre. Sue Hubbard will also launch her book the forgetting and remembering of air at this event, which is Free of Charge.

Michael worked in London for forty years, before retiring to Listowel in 1999. His prose, poetry, haiku and songs  haveMichael Gallagher been published in Ireland and throughout Europe, America, Australia, Nepal, India, Thailand, Japan and Canada and translated into Croatian, Japanese, Dutch, German and Chinese.

Michael has won many awards for his poetry and he was short listed for the Hennessy Award in 2011. He edits the online literary journal http://issuu.com/thefirstcut and is a founder member of Listowel’s Seanchai Writers’ Group.

Michael (pictured right) talks about his life and his writing below:

Roads Taken

I was born on Achill Island in 1941, at a time when emigration from Achill, and indeed, the whole western seaboard of Ireland, was the norm. It was no surprise then, that in 1960 I found myself digging holes in London, a city that was to be my home for the next 40 years.

In the course of those 40 years, I gradually worked my way up to the position of construction manager. I married a Kerry woman, had four kids and worked hard, often seven days a week. Then, out of the blue, I was offered a job as resident engineer at Castlebar Hospital. For the next ten years, I travelled all over Ireland in that capacity, basically being paid to enjoy the scenery. We eventually settled in Renagown, a townland about ten miles from Listowel.

Life in Renagown was good after living in London. There were mountains, forests, rivers and a local pub, which was the hub of the community.  I was more or less my own boss in so far as I could choose which part of Ireland I would head off for each morning, and much of my early poetry was about the landscape and nature.

If something attracted my attention, I would pull in and take some notes or a photograph then work on it as I drove along. Or I might turn in to a forest track or drive up a mountain side, have some lunch, and just absorb the wonder of the surroundings.

Paddy Bushe facilitated a poetry workshop in Listowel in the Autumn of 2003 and from that  workshop emerged the Seanchai Writers’ Group, which has been very important to all of us in terms of encouragement, camaraderie and constructive criticism. 

Stick On StoneI retired in 2009 and I am grateful that writing has filled the inevitable gap that ensued. Throughout my working life, I had seen many friends fade away after retiring. Also, it was about this time that the politicians decided to throttle the life out of rural communities. First, they introduced the smoking ban, then tightened up on the drink driving laws.

 All of a sudden, rural pubs were emptied and a vital source of coherence in the community was sundered. I am fortunate in having an outlet, but many others in my age group are not so lucky, being condemned to lonely lives at the end of hushed boreens.

During my 40 years in London, I scarcely opened a book, although I was an avid reader of the ‘quality’ newspapers.  I do remember coming across a poem  called Canticle. It impressed me so much at the time that I cut it out and it remained in my wallet for many years. It was the first time I realised that poetry did not have to rhyme, could use ugly words and even words that were not in a dictionary.

Many years later, I met the author of Canticle at Listowel Writers’ Week and only then realised that I used see him at Mass in Achill fifty years earlier. It was John F Deane and he was equally amazed when I recited Canticle there and then. The two Islanders enjoyed a few  friendly pints in the Listowel Arms Hotel that night.

After retirement, my poetry began to change and become more introspective. Rather than describing nature, I wrote about Man and his Wars, his wanton destruction of the environment, his selfishness. I wrote a series of poems comparing man’s behaviour to that of other creatures, especially birds. Not all that strange, really, once we accept that we all came from the same blob of jelly at some stage in the distant past. Other recurring themes in my poetry are politics, social justice, society’s disrespect for women, religion, the Achill of my youth and the Renagown of today.

The one thing that I found difficult to write about was my time in England.  Then I discovered the wonderful Bernard O’Donoghue. His pen pictures of life there helped unlock that particular door.  I have always felt that emigration was (and is) a form of betrayal visited on us by an establishment that was quiet happy to see us go. The poets who have written the blurbs for Stick on Stone, all of whom have been important in my validation as a poet, have indicated that they see me as the ‘voice of the emigrant’, and I feel honoured that  such distinguished writers would think of me as such.

Would I be a writer if I had stayed in Ireland? I do not know. I do know that I would not be writing had I remained in England – it just would not have fitted in with my lifestyle. I also know that my poetry would be much poorer without the richness of my experience as an emigrant.