The pitfalls of underestimation


A charlatan, the media said, a ranting clown, a demagogue. And who were they talking about?  Not Trump in 2016, as it happens, but Hitler in the early 1930s.

There are always parallels in history, and lessons if we care to look, and these observations from an article in the  Guardian in November 2007 by Sir Ian Kershaw, professor of modern German history at the University of Sheffield, are very apt for right now, in the aftermath of the US presidential election, though it was written almost a decade ago, long before Trump’s political ambition had asserted itself.

Because of that, the point being made in Kershaw’s article is prescient not because it compares Trump to Hitler, but because it considers how Hitler was perceived by mainstream media and how slow British newspapers, in this instance, were to recognize Hitler’s ascent to power.

On September 29,1930, Kershaw writes, the Guardian dismissed Hitler as “the ranting clown who bangs the drum outside the National Socialist circus”. Few things were less likely than that Hitler would gain sole power in Germany, the paper asserted.  But by 1932, as the crisis of German democracy deepened, British newspapers devoted far more attention to Nazism. Even so, Kershaw notes, underestimation of Hitler was commonplace.

On February 21 1932 the Observer described Hitler as no more than a demagogue propped up by financially powerful nationalists, Kershaw writes, but the paper reversed course following his candidacy for the Reich presidency in March, when it wrote (March 20 1932) that it would be wrong to regard him  “as a mere agitator and rank outsider”.

“Here, as in the Guardian (which still implied on March 30 1932 that Hitler was no more than a charlatan) the emerging view was that he was a ‘moderate’, who might possibly develop into a statesman, but could not control his own violent and unruly movement.”

Does of any this sound familiar in the light of the past 18 months?

In a more recent post-mortem, writer Richard Ford (a Clinton voter) struck a contrite note about his own sin of underestimation  in the Guardian today (November 11): –

“A famous American jurist, the tartly named Judge Learned Hand (1872-1961) wrote once that the spirit of liberty . . . is that ‘which is not too sure it’s right’.

“One thing I was wrong about, ” writes Ford, ” – one of several – was to violate Judge Hand’s injunction. By thinking I knew what was best for the other fellow – supposedly all those rural or rust-belt, under-educated, under-employed white guys, or Latinos or blacks who don’t feel sufficiently noticed by their elected officials – I was wrong by feeling so sure I was right.

“I most certainly publicly and unreservedly derided their candidate –  calling him a moron, an incompetent, a liar, a boob, a puerile charlatan, a huckster and a sexual lout, along the way to promising as many readers as I could that this man would never, ever be president. Which, it appears, is the second thing I was wrong about, but never for one moment doubted until sometime late on Tuesday night.”

The full text of Kershaw’s piece can be read here:

And Richard Ford’s here:





The two Es come to UCC


I’m delighted to announce that two of the writers I most admire will read together in the first of University College Cork’s School of English reading series. Between them, they have charted the female – and Irish – experience in five different genres over 40 years.

Ireland Professor of Poetry, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and the 2015 Irish Pen Award-winning writer, Eilís Ní Dhuibhne will read together at the Creative Zone, Boole Library, on Tuesday, November 8, at 6pm. Admission is free and all are welcome. Come and join us for what is going to be a night of literary riches.

Cork-born Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Acts and Monuments (1966), winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award, The Sun-Fish (2010) which was awarded the International Griffin Poetry Award, and The Boys of Blue Hill (2015) which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize.  She is Emerita Professor of English at TCD, the founding editor of the poetry journal Cyphers and this month begins her three-year tenure as Ireland Professor of Poetry.

Eilís Ní Dhuibhne is a bilingual novelist, short story writer and playwright. She is the author of four novels – including the Orange Prize short-listed The Dancers Dancing – six collection of short stories, six novels in Irish and six children’s books. Among her awards are a Bisto Book of the Year for her children’s fiction, the Readers’ Association of Ireland Award and the Stewart Parker Award. She teaches on the MA in Creative Writing at UCD and was awarded the Pen Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature in 2015.



Being 59

elephant-1526695_960_720A survey conducted by the Department for Work and Pensions in the UK found that most people believe that old age starts at 59, while youth ends at 41. Last week – September 27, to be exact – I reached the age my father was when he died – 59 years, 8 months and 2 days.

Although this may seem a precise calibration,  I can’t say it’s something that has haunted me, except perhaps in the last few months as the deadline (and never has a word been so apt) neared. In fact, for many years, what haunted me more was a prediction by an amateur palm-reader  – is there any other kind? – who, upon looking at my lifeline when I was 18,  told me with insouciant certainty, that I would die at 55.

What strikes me having reached my father’s age is that I now have the same volume of life experience as he had.

He was a self-contained, kind of man – probably shy –  a product of his era (born 1910) who had come late, aged 41, to married life and to fatherhood. He was a devout Catholic, a devoted public servant, a stern father who disciplined his children by withdrawing his approval.

When he knew he was dying – and he knew for much longer than we did – he gave his three elder children (my brothers and I, aged 17,16 and 13 respectively; my younger sister was only 4) a valedictory speech.  Speech makes it sound more formal than it was. He told us of his pride in us, his sorrow at what he was going to miss.  He tried to cram a lifetime’s fatherly advice into ten short minutes.

He did this without breaking down, without giving into his own emotions. How dignified and composed he was talking about our life without him in it, particularly for a man, whom I suspect, found it hard to declare his feelings. In retrospect, he seems so damned grown-up whereas I don’t know if I would have the same command facing the ultimate loss.

Having passed this personal landmark, I’m left wondering if perhaps I’ve inherited my mother’s age gene – she’s 92.  If so, how do I prepare for the next three decades? Can I ?

If the general perception is that passing into one’s sixties is a landmark, a shift into the third age, I also have to ask, like an impatient child in the back of the car – am I there yet? Am I now  – officially – old?

A National look at O’Casey


Sean O’Casey is being remembered this weekend at a conference at the National Theatre, London entitled – In-Depth: The Dublin Plays of Sean O’Casey.  I will be joining Prof James Moran of Nottingham University and Dr Nicholas Grene of Trinity College Dublin to discuss O’Casey’s trilogy, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.

The conference – on Saturday September 24 – will examine the circumstances of the original performances of the plays, how they related to O’Casey’s own life, and will place them in the context of Ireland’s revolutionary decade. There will also be staged readings from the plays.

The National Theatre has enjoyed a long association with O’Casey’s work – Laurence Olivier directed Juno and The Paycock at the theatre shortly after O’Casey’s death in 1964. Olivier had seen the Royalty Theatre’s acclaimed production of the play in 1925 – with several Abbey stalwarts, including Sara Allgood and Arthur Sinclair – as an aspiring 18-year-old actor.

Olivier’s response to the play, according to Christopher Murray, one of O’Casey’s biographers, was that Juno was both life-like and tightly constructed.  “It is, in fact, closer to Osborne than to Chekhov.  There is no playing about with it, it is all there and it is as clear as daylight. . .”

My place at the conference is owing to The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press) my 2013 novel which re-imagines the life of Bella Casey, the playwright’s sister and dramatizes the writing of O’Casey’s six volumes of autobiography. Episodes and characters from the Dublin plays are woven into the narrative.The novel was nominated for the Dublin Impac Award in 2014.

For those interested in attending, the conference takes place at the Clore Learning Centre, Cottesloe Room, National Theatre and runs from 10.30 to 4.30pm.

(Poster image courtesy of the Irish Classical Theatre, Buffalo, NY)


Is that all there is?

The late great Peggy Lee

Having had a book published (Prosperity Drive)in the last couple of months I’m at the end of a writing cycle – the come-down, the post-partum anti-climax, the post-post production; call it what you will. You spend several years writing the damn thing, followed by a short burst of attention when the book is reviewed, and then. . .?  As Peggy Lee sang – is that all there is?

Not that I’m complaining.  No siree!

I’ve been through two publishing droughts in my writing career (though I don’t like to use that word because I don’t consider writing as a “career”.  Banking is a career); one at the beginning when I was trying to get into print,  and another, after three books, when I found myself once again in the publishing wilderness.

I was reminded of that time (and, of course, there’s no guarantee that this won’t happen again) at an event, The Lightening Bug, in Cork last Sunday, when someone asked a question about the effects of rejection.

For a period of 13 years (2000 – 2013), I didn’t have a book published. I found myself shut out, first from the publishing world, when my editor rejected not just the next novel I produced, but the next one after that.  Then there was a parting of the ways with my agent of 15 years.  Suddenly, I found myself right back at the beginning again.

And it’s worse second time around.   Because at the beginning you have hope; you have the dream of being published to sustain you.  You haven’t “come out” as a writer. When you have been through the grinder once, your hope is not as robust. Also there’s a kind of suspicion of the writer who’s been published and then dumped – are they damaged goods? Not up to it, in some way.

It wasn’t that in this 13 years I wasn’t writing; no, I just wasn’t published, though these days there often isn’t a distinction made between the two.  In that period I wrote two novels and a collection of short stories. But if your work can’t be seen, it equates to not existing.  And if you’re a writer, it calls into question your existence.  Are you a writer if you’re not published?

Now that’s a question everyone asks before they’re published.  But it wasn’t a question I expected to be asking, having already published three books. I had made the mistake of believing that once you broke through the publishing barrier that you were set, if not for sudden overnight success then, at least, for a steady arc of progress.  I thought I would write and I would be paid a a little bit more for each successive novel, maybe win some big prize as the icing on the cake.  I wasn’t asking for much.

(As it is, the financial rewards for writers who do get published, have been seriously diminished.  The advance for my current book of short stories is a third of what I was paid for my second novel in 1999.)

I don’t mean for this to turn into a self-pity fest. This has happened to lots of writers – good writers. Mike McCormack whose most recent novel, Solar Bones, is – deservedly – getting rave reviews at the moment, described a similar publishing hiatus and its effects on morale.

“I nearly went fucking crazy. . , ” he told The Irish Times, “for those five years I couldn’t give my work away.  It was tough on me and for people around me.  But as my wife, Maeve, said to me, it isn’t my job to get published. . . it’s my job to write.”

In the decline of mainstream publishing, this sort of thing is happening to many mid-list authors, whose work is being judged solely on commercial terms.   But when you’re going through the experience, it feels like it’s just you.

All sorts of questions run through your head.  Was it something you did?  Were you ungenerous in your success? Did you deserve the success in the first place?  Did you not appreciate the success enough?  Did you take it for granted? Has your work suddenly become terrible?  Have you lost the capacity to judge your own work? Is there anybody interested in your kind of writing anymore?  Is your writing relevant?  Is it worth continuing? What good is a writer without readers?

You are taunted by the manifest success of your peers at every hand’s turn.  I think it was Gore Vidal who said whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.  I found myself secretly identifying with those words.

There is not much positive to say about this experience except this: – when you write and you don’t get published, it absolutely clarifies the reasons why you’re writing.  Thirteen years without a book on the shelves returned me to a purer relationship with the work than I’d ever had. First time round there was all that striving to make it, to get published; now it was writing for the sake of it.

During this period when people asked what I was doing (a loaded question – what they really meant was why haven’t we seen a book of yours out?) I would say I’m writing for my posthumous reputation and that was true.  I had given up on the prospect of being published.  This was not easy to do; it was a stage I reached after a lot of striving and self-laceration. I considered trying to write a pot-boiler, to tailor my writing to what the market would find acceptable but I didn’t have the heart for it. I went through despair – which, for me, consisted of considering giving up writing altogether.  But I’m too old to do anything else.

But I did consider declaring I had stopped writing if only to be shut of those persistent questions. In fact, I think I couldn’t give up writing – it’s the way I negotiate with the world.   The world doesn’t make sense to me until I’ve written it down. (Also, I’ve a terrible memory so if I don’t write down experiences, it’s as if they never happened.)

But dealing with not being published meant going back to first principles. I wrote for its own sake, to do it, to have a body of work even if no one wanted to read it.  You could say I was writing for myself.  It didn’t make going to those literary functions where you met more successful peers any easier; it didn’t make answering those questions about what you were working on or when was your next book due any less painful, but it made it possible for me to go on, to justify to myself the worth of what I was doing.

I changed my attitude to publication in those years, looking on it as a by-product of writing, not the be all and end all.  Because once you believe that, you’re at the mercy of all the whims that govern the publishing world – the rule of the men in suits, the insatiable appetite for celebrity publishing, the commercial bottom line.

Here’s what I learned. (Because, of course, you have to learn something from it!) All you can do is your own work, in your own time.  If you don’t believe in it, how can you expect anyone else to?  This is the hardest thing to hold onto in the face of rejection. And I’ve come to realise that publication doesn’t mean anything but itself.  Publication is not transformative.  My life is not going to change because of it. What it means is that someone else has seen the value in the work, that it has struck a chord with its first readers and that my voice is being heard again.




A foreign country

lisbon poster 1

I’m on my way to Lisbon – a city I’ve never visited – for the Embassy of Ireland lecture at the University of Lisbon, which takes place  on Thursday, May 19.My lecture ,entitled “The Past Is a Foreign Country”, will consider the writing of fiction, with particular reference to historical fiction and to the excavation of a personal past. I’m also going to be reading from Prosperity Drive. It will be a bilingual reading as  a short story from  the collection, “The Gender of Cars”, has already been translated into Portuguese and featured in the anthology Contar um Conto (eds. Ana Raquel Fernandes and Mário Semião, 2014).

The Embassy of Ireland Lectures were launched by Ambassador James Brennan after his visit to the Faculty of Letters, University of Lisbon, in May 2008, to address students enrolled in the then recently created curricular unit on Irish Literature and Culture.

The Morrissy dynasty


My niece and I – cue royal plural tone – will be reading together for the first time at an event organised by Poetry Ireland in Dublin on May 17.   Julie is a poet, whose first book, I am Where has just come out with Eyewear Publishing, and has been shortlisted for a Saboteur Award.  (Not too late to vote, by the way!) We’re reading together as part of The Next Generation, an event jointly organised by the Bealtaine Festival and Poetry Ireland.  We’ll be reading with another cross-generation poetic family – Enda Wyley and her nephew, Ciaran O Rourke.(I’ll be outnumbered by poetic types at this gig, reduced to reading mere fiction from my latest collection, Prosperity Drive.)  Ciaran featured along with Julie in Poetry Ireland Review Issue 118: The Rising Generation.

  • Tuesday 17 May, 6.30pm
  • Books Upstairs, D’Olier St, Dublin
  • Tickets: €6/€5


Publication squared

wall inviteprosperity cover

Saturday, April 23, sees the Cork launch of Prosperity Drive along with William Wall’s new short story collection, Hearing Voices, Seeing Things. The publication celebration – as it is billed – will round off a week of international book events in Cork’s World Book Fest and will be introduced by UCC’s Frank O’Connor scholar, Dr Hilary Lennon. William and I will be reading and may be asked a few questions. Wine will be free but books will be sold for ready cash. The event is on at 8pm in Triskel Christchurch, Cork.  All welcome!

Meanwhile, Prosperity Drive has been getting some great reviews.  Clare Kilroy in The Guardian (April 9) compares the collection to Joyce’s Dubliners – I’ll take that!

“Much of the considerable power of Morrissy’s prose lies in her technique of dipping seamlessly in and out of temps perdu,” Kilroy writes. “The compassion, immediacy, humour and delicacy with which Morrissy depicts their [the characters’] predicaments result in moments of profundity.”

Anne Cunningham in the Irish Independent (April 4) describes Prosperity Drive as close to both John Banville and Alice Munro: “Her style, her intense moments of close clinical dissection reminds me a little of John Banville. But she shows more compassion for her cast of characters, perhaps not unlike Alice Munro.  All human life is there on Prosperity Drive. . .It’s not a pretty picture.  But it’s a magnificent read.”

Drowning, not waving

longstory short

This is the eerily apt photograph chosen by editor Jennifer Matthews to go with my story, Love Child, which appears as this month’s story in Long Story, Short, an online literary journal coming out of Cork, devoted to the longer short form.  The story is from my recently published collection, Prosperity Drive –  and without giving too much away – concerns a young woman, Julia Fortune,  who contemplates suicide on the balcony of a hotel in New York on Christmas Eve.  Craig Niederberger  took the photograph, and when you read the story you’ll see how that flimsy pink netting dress blowing in the wind captures the essence of Julia Fortune’s predicament, as well as being a poignant image in its own right.

“She rose and went into the bathroom. She opened the cabinet – she was cut in two by the gashed mirror – and fished out her nail scissors. She went back into the room and picked up her passport. She opened it to the half-way point and began to hack through its pages until only the covers remained. She gathered up the shredded remains, put them in the wastebasket and stepped out once more on to the balcony. Sheltering the flame with her hand, she struck a match and set fire to the contents. Her past flared briefly, singed and then shrivelled into charred blackness. Smudges of it escaped and danced briefly in the frosty air, mingling with the hot clouds of her own breath. If anyone could see her, they would think her crazy – or a jumper. A naked woman on a balcony going up in flames. She didn’t care. . .” 

Prosperity Drive gets its Cork baptism on April 23 during Cork World Book Festival.  See full details of the festival and the launch on: Festival.

In the meantime, the story can be read at LongStory, Short on





Dublin launch for Prosperity Drive

Prosperity Drive invite

Prosperity Drive, my latest collection of stories, gets a Dublin launch this week at one of my “local” bookshops, The Rathgar Bookshop. I grew up in Rathgar and eagle-eyed readers might recognize echoes of the locality in the collection.

The Rathgar Bookshop is that rare thing – a sturdy, independent, suburban bookshop serving a loyal band of readers. Under Liz Meldon’s stewardship, it’s been voted one of the top 10 bookshops in Ireland and I’m delighted to have the  collection launched there. Novelist and director of UCD’s creative writing programme, James Ryan, will do the honours.

There will be another launch of Prosperity Drive in Cork – my second home – on April 23, along with Cork poet, short story writer and novelist William Wall, at the Triskel Arts Centre, during Cork World Book Fest.

Prosperity Drive will be launched at The Rathgar Bookshop, Wednesday, March 23, at 7.30pm.  All welcome but if you’re coming, please RSVP the bookshop at

Meanwhile, here’s a selection of the reviews so far:

Prosperity Drive is . . . is surely one of the best Irish books you will read this year.” – Sara Keating, Sunday Business Post.

“This the most pleasurable book of stories by an Irish writer that I’ve read for many years – perhaps since the 1970s heyday of William Trevor.” ─ John Boland, Irish independent.

“. . .she is a true heir to Chekhov and the great writers. . .Seldom has Irish suburban life – especially the lives of girls and women been so sensitively and wittily, portrayed.” – Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, The Irish Times.

“Mary Morrissy. . . bewitches the reader with an immaculate yet irreverent turn of phrase, her imagination slanted at a rare angle.” – Daily Mail.