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From her stunning debut in Reading the Sunflowers in September (1990) through her several volumes building to a sustained and formidable career, O’Donnell’s has always been one of the fierce voices of poetry: in all her themes, whether intimate, public, reflective or mythic, there is a common fearlessness of vision coupled with profound and sometimes unexpected and humane understanding. The poems here consider history, legend, painting, science, geography, love, disappearance and recovery – “measuring the distance to/a world that tilted savagery from its cup” – with an extraordinary and persistent delicacy of phrasing, at all times drawing newness out of the routine and the taken-for-granted, whether in physical or psychic location, but nonetheless exposing complacency in often chilling terms. From “the murder of infants in temperate suburbs” to a familiar, beautiful world flooded by climate disaster and accessed only by sea life, O’Donnell articulates a mature, vital, angry, political consciousness entirely fitting as the nation reaches the centenary of its most disruptive and revolutionary moment. What an imagination this is for our day.
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Dr Mary O’Donnell was raised in Monaghan and lives in Kildare. She attended Maynooth University to study German and Philosophy, and from 1982 onwards began to publish both poetry and prose. Thirty years ago her first poetry collection, Reading the Sunflowers in September appeared from Salmon. Since then she has published six more poetry collections, four novels, including The Elysium Testament and The Light Makers, and three collections of short stories. Her eighth poetry collection, Massacre of the Birds, will be published in October this year.
She writes essays and cultural commentary and contributes to both academic journals and popular reading matter. An essay, “My Mother in Drumlin Country”, published in New Hibernia Review during 2017, was listed among the Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2017 in Best American Essays (Mariner). Adjudication panels she has served on include the Strokestown International Poetry Festival, the Irish Times Poetry Award, and the New Irish Writing Award, as well as on the Board of the Irish Writers Centre. Currently a member of the Toscaireacht with Aosdana, (to which she was elected in 2001), she holds a PhD in Creative Writing from UCC and teaches writing and literature in Ireland and internationally.
A collection of essays on O’Donnell’s work appeared during 2018: Giving Shape to the Moment: the Art of Mary O’Donnell, Poet, Novelist, Short-story Writer (Peter Lang), ed Prof Elena Jaime de Pabos, with contributions from Irish and Spanish academics and writers.
Damian Smyth was born in Downpatrick, Co Down, in 1962. His stage play Soldiers of the Queen, a family saga with a backdrop of the Boer War, premiered at the Belfast Festival in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Stewart Parker Prize. His six collections of verse are Downpatrick Races (2000), The Down Recorder (2004), Lamentations (2010), Market Street(2010), Mesopotamia (Templar 2014) and English Street (Templar 2018). Irish Street is due in 2021. He is Head of Literature and Drama with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in Belfast.
© Mary O’Donnell/Damian Smyth