Breaking down borders

John Walsh grew up in Dunmore Gardens in Creggan but left Derry decades ago, eventually settling in Connemara in the late 1980s where he eventually co-founded the publishing company Doire Press in 2007 alongside his partner Lisa Frank, publishing poetry and literary fiction.

Writing has always been a passion, and to date John has published three books of poetry, the first being ‘Johnny Tell Them’ (Guildhall Press, 2006), followed by ‘Love’s Enterprise Zone’ (Doire Press, 2007) and ‘Chopping Wood with T.S. Eliot’ (Salmon Poetry, 2010).

“I suppose I began writing from a young age and wrote my first poem around the age of 13,” John tells the ‘Journal’. “I’ve been writing both poetry and short stories since then.”

In 1968, John Walsh left the city to study English and German at UCD in Dublin, returning briefly to teach at his former school, St Columb’s College, between 1972-73. From there, he took his classroom skills to Germany, where he remained for 16 years. Despite living away from the city for decades, his ties to his home-town are still evident in much of his work. Indeed, many of the tales in the collection feel like glimpses into the author’s past experiences, with several set in the city itself.

“I think Derry will always be a part of me and so naturally forms a backdrop when writing of that period and those times,” John Walsh reflects.

“But the Derry of today is a very, very different place to the Derry I grew up in so I’ve never felt a strong nostalgia for home. In fact, I’ve now spent more of my life living away from Derry than I ever spent living there!”

“There are things I write about that definitely have their roots in Derry. Growing up, I often went walking down by the docks so images of that often still come to me, or heading to Phillips Music Shop in Shipquay Street every Saturday to look up the latest LPs. All these elements come from memory so I would say the stories are a mingling of both fiction and autobiography.”

The North’s ongoing conflict also creeps into several stories, with one story ‘A Beautiful Day’ indirectly influenced by Bloody Sunday – a massacre which had claimed the life of John’s young neighbour in Creggan, 17-year-old Michael Kelly.

While the story tells of a day’s adventure out fishing, its ending serves to shock the reader. It is clear that the events of Bloody Sunday had a profound effect on the 62-year-old Derry native.

“I was in Dublin at the time of Bloody Sunday and as I had no phone, I had to listen to the names being read out one by one, worrying in case the next was someone of mine,” John recalls.

“My own brother and sister were on that march and it could have been any of them. They were very, very bad times.”

After 16 years living in Germany, John decided to return to Ireland, settling in Connemara in 1989. He found himself invigorated and began to take his writing more seriously with hopes of getting published.

“I was 39 by then and had come back from Germany with the intention of writing for a living but with no job or money it soon dawned on me, ‘what am I going to live off?’ My then-wife had an idea that we should start up a language school here in our own house and so that’s what we did! We hosted mostly Germans for two-week courses, even teaching them one day of Irish, which was real fun,” he laughed.

“However, all that put paid to my writing for a long time...”

A late-bloomer to the world of publishing, John was over the moon to publish his first book of poetry with Guildhall Press in 2006, aged 56. He still remembers the thrill of seeing his own work finally in print.

“I can only say that it was magic, it really was,” he says.

“I had been in negotiations with a very small publisher in Galway beforehand and while visiting my sister in Derry I had come across a copy of the ‘Eve’ book by Jenni Doherty and thought it absolutely magnificent. That got me wondering if Guildhall Press would ever consider doing my poems.”

John subsequently contacted Paul Hippsley, managing editor of Guildhall Press, who put his manuscript forward for Arts Council funding.

“I was waiting and waiting to hear back and when I heard we were getting funding and it was actually going to happen, that was brilliant!”

The author was in Germany when a large parcel arrived from Guildhall Press – filled with copies of his very own poetry collection, hot off the press.

“I couldn’t even open it and just looked at it for ages,” John remembers.

“Of course, when I did open it, the book was absolutely gorgeous! I loved it! Guildhall Press did, and still do, a wonderful job.”

Back home in Connemara, John revelled in his newfound literary success and was delighted to secure funding from Galway County Council for his second poetry collection, ‘Love’s Enterprise Zone’. It was at this point that he and partner Lisa Frank decided to establish their new literary press in the West of Ireland, publishing poetry and literary fiction.

“My partner Lisa is an American and had all these fantastic publishing skills and a great eye for detail, design, layout and all that side of things, so we decided that as she had the skills and I had the money, we should do the book ourselves, and so together we set up Doire Press. We just wanted to publish the work of writers we admired and it has just gone on from there.”

John also organises the hugely popular North Beach Poetry Nights in Galway, an event that has been going for seven years now.

Throughout ‘Border Lines’, the author deals in the everyday and the idiosyncrasy, exploring the human relationship in all its forms. Drawn into the complexities of the various characters, it’s easy to feel attached to strong, likeable characters like Mike and Lyn in ‘Border Lines’ and Uncle Roy in ‘A Day Like Today’. This affinity with the book’s characters only serves to heighten the sense of surprise when few stories end as you’d imagine.

While the subject matter differs wildly between stories, Walsh has skill in painting pictures of each characters’ personality, with depth and warmth.

One character, Ian, appears several times throughout the collection immersed in a variety of situations with a variety of women. The character seems very realistic, to which the author admits: “Yes, there are probably quite a few autobiographical elements in Ian but I’d like to think he is still a distinct character throughout.”

One of the stories in which Ian features is ‘New Year’s Day’, a strangely compelling story and one of the collection’s strongest pieces.

Family, and in particular, uncles, recur throughout Walsh’s stories. In the opening story ‘A Day Like Today’ an uncle called Roy quickly endears himself to the reader and when he resurfaces towards the end of the story, it evokes a sense of pride and bewilderment when Ian sees him from afar doing what he does best - entertaining. We are left wondering what happens and whether the two relatives will eventually collide.

When Uncle Roy returns in the book’s final pages during ‘My Perfect Uncle’ it creates a fitting and satisfying ending to Walsh’s collection.

“It was entirely by accident that Roy appeared again at the end, but I’m very happy with that myself,” the author says. “While the uncle stories feel so real to me, they are actually the most fictional in the book.”

All in all, ‘Border Lines’ is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read and will be of interest to anyone with an appreciation for the well-crafted art of storytelling.

John Walsh’s ‘Border Lines’ is available to buy now from: www.doirepress.com and also from Little Acorns Bookstore at Bedlam in Pump Street.