Mary O’Donnell


1954- ; grew up in Co. Monaghan, dg. of a Dairy Co-op.; educ. Maynooth, grad. (German & Philosophy); HDip Ed., Maynooth; has taught English, German and Drama; m. Martin Nugent, 1977 (aetat. 23); appt. theatre critic the Sunday Tribune; contrib. poetry in Poetry Ireland, 1984; Honest Ulsterman; Midland Review; issued short fiction, Strong Pagans (1991), and novels, The Light-Makers (1992), named Sunday Tribune Best New Novel of the Year, Virgin and the Boy (1996), and The Elysium Testament (1999); also poetry collections, Reading the Sunflowers in September (1991), Spiderwoman’s Third Avenue Rhapsody (1993), Unlegendary Heroes (1998) and September Elegies (2003); Where They Lie (2014), is a Protestant family's grief at the disappearance of two family members in the Northern Troubles;
winner of William Allingham Award, Listowel Writers’ Week Award, and a Hennessy Award; twice nominated for an Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award for Poetry; issued The Place of Miracles: New and Selected Poems (2006), incorporating 23 years of work; elected to Aosdána, 2001; apresented Crossing the Lines, on European poetry (RTE, 2005, 2006). cted as a poetry mentor with Carlow University Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, 2009; lives nr. Straffan, Co. Kildare.; Giving Shape to the Moment: The Art Of Mary O’Donnell was edited by Maria Elena Jaime de Pablos (Univ. de Almeria); launched Empire, a short-story collection set in Ireland and Burma, 1915-19; regular contributor to RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany; wrote a scathing article comparing the Ryan Tubridy secret payments debâcle at RTÉ with the "golden era" at the national media station (Irish Times, 6 July)

Mary O’Donnell has an internet page at -

[ top ]

  • Reading the Sunflowers in September (Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare: Salmon Poetry 1991).
  • Spiderwoman’s Third Avenue Rhapsody (Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare: Salmon Poetry 1993), [6], 90pp.
  • Unlegendary Heroes (Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare: Salmon Publishing 1998), 75pp.
  • The Place of Miracles: New and Selected Poems (Dublin: New Island Press 2006).
  • The Ark Builders (Todmorden: Arc Publication 2009), 91pp. [see contents].
  • Those April Fevers (Todmorden: Arc Publication 2015), 85pp.
  • Strong Pagans and Other Stories (Dublin: Poolbeg Press 1991), 358pp.
  • The Light-Makers (Dublin: Poolbeg Press 1992), 193pp.; Do. [Kindle Edn.] (2007), 200pp. [see author’ note - infra].
  • Virgin and the Boy (Dublin: Poolbeg Press 1996), [4], 283pp.
  • The Elysium Testament (London: Trident Press 1999), 208pp. [for children].
  • Storm Over Belfast (Dublin: New Island 2008), vi, 245pp. [stories; listed in COPAC for Mary O‘Donnell, 1954- ).
  • Where they Lie (Stillorgan: New Island 2014), 223pp.
  • Empire (Dublin: Arlen Books 2018).
  • ed., Away from the Tribe: Selected Poems [Bealtaine Writers’ Group] ( Bealtaine Writers’ Group 2002), 39pp.
  • contrib. to Sister Caravaggio, ed. Maeve Binchy (Dublin: Liberties Press 2014), 215pp. [detective stories].
  • “My Mother in Drumlin Country”, in New Hibernia Review (2017) - listed among the Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2017 in Best American Essays (Mariner).
  • Contrib. to Southword, 39: New International Writing, ed. Patrick Cotter [Southword Editions, Cork] (Oct. 2020), 156pp. [others incl. Mary O'Malley (elegy for Eavan Boland), Fiona Pitt Kethley, Padraig Rooney Alan McMonagle, Fred Johnston, Helen Mort, Kim Moore, et al.

See poems in Poetry Ireland (Nos. 11, 14, 15, 16: c.1984); Midland Review (special edition of Contemp. Irish Women Poets, ed. Nuala Archer, Oklahoma UP, 1986); Irish Studies Review, No. 18 (Spring 1997), p.22 [full page - “My Father Waving”; “The two-Wheeler”, and “Bees and Saint Colman”]; see also contrib. to Caitriona Moloney & Helen Thompson, eds., Irish Women Writers Speak Out: Voices from the Field, with a foreword by Ann Owen Weekes (Syracuse UP 2003), q.pp.

Bibliographical details
The Ark Builders
(Todmorden: Arc Publication 2009), 91pp. incls. poems: I History of Happen, Dialogue with Madam Alexei, Following Frida, Ageing Girls, Girls of the Nation, Breaking the Border, Cafe Terrace at Night, 1888, Considering Puccini’s Women, Summer, Salsamaggiore, The Sisters of Viareggio II Explroer, Les Francais sont arrives, Die Deutschen Auch, Burren Falcon, The Poulnabrone Dolmen, Heat, An Amnesiac in Dublin, The Mess of Our Lives, Within the Secret State, Rain, That Thief, A Young Fisherman waits for the Weather to change, Rath, Christmas, Lovers can disregard It All, The Ark Builders, III Santiafo de Compostella, Growing into Irish through Galicia, Only on the Edge, Equatorial, The Sea knows, A Need for Devil’s Pokers, Seven Monaco Haiku, Blush Season, Taking the Measure, Garage Events, Letting Down His Hair, After, Dead People’s Clothes, Random Questions, Scenes from Pre-life, The Bread-maker speaks, Star Reading for a Young Poet, Misirlou IV Pentacle, The Bee-keeper’s Son, Lines to an Ancestor before and Operation.

“Unlegendary Heroes” [poem] is included in the Poetry Foundation website - online; accessed 22.02.2023 - being a list of women inhabitants of a South Ulster parish in counterpoint to a 1938 folk survey, given as epigraph, in which the feats of several countrymen are mentioned.

[ top ]

  • Giving Shape to the Moment: the Art Of Mary O’Donnell, Poet, Novelist, Short-story Writer, ed. Maria Elena Jaime de Pablos [Reimagining Ireland, gen. ed. Eamon Maher] (Zurich: Peter Lang [new edn.] 2018), 228pp.; - contribs. incl. Eilis Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Fogarty [interview], Mary Pierse, Giovanna Tallone, Elena Jaime de Pablos, Manuela Palacios-Gonzalez, Eibhear Walshe, and Pilar Villar Argaiz.
  • Rebecca E. Wilson & Gillian Somerville-Arjat, eds., Sleeping with Monsters: conversations with Scottish and Irish women poets (Wolfhound 1990), pp.18-25 [interview].
  • Nessa O’Mahony, review of The Place of Miracles, in The Irish Times (22 July 2006), Weekend [q.pp.].
  • Nuala Ní Chonchúir, review of The Place of Miracles, in The Irish Book Review ( Summer 2006), p.38.
  • Eamon Maher, review of The Light Makers [reiss.], in The Irish Times (19 Aug. 2017) - available online [accessed 22.02.2023].
  • Interview by Caitríona Moloney, in Irish Women Writers Speak Out: Voices from the Field, by Moloney & Helen Thompson (Syracuse UP 2003), pp.119[ff.]
  • Eamon Maher, ‘In praise of Mary O’Donnell [...]’, in The Irish Times (16 March 2015) [sub-heading: ‘Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘Rather than constantly dealing with the same material and the same human dilemmas, she seeks out new horizons’; available online; accessed 07.07.2023; incls. photo-port by Matt Kavanagh].

See also “An Introduction to Mary O’Donnell” - at Poetry International (Rotterdam) - online [accessed 30.08.2018]

[ top ]


Elke D’hoker, review of Giving Shape to the Moment, ed. María Elena Jaime de Pablos, in The Irish Times ([Sat.] 5 Jan. 2019)

The Irish Times (5 Jan. 2019) - available online ; accessed 6 Jan. 2019.

[ Sub-title: ‘Portrait of a daring writer - In this first critical study, Mary O’Donnell emerges as a versatile and audacious chronicler of Irish society.[She] has published seven poetry collections, four novels and three short story collections]

Mary O’Donnell is one of a generation of writers who participated in the great flowering of Irish women’s writing in the 1980s and 1990s and has since amassed an impressive literary oeuvre. If she stands out from contemporaries like Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Deirdre Madden or Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, it is through the versatility of her work. O’Donnell has published seven poetry collections, four novels and three short story collections, all of which have met with large critical and popular acclaim. In recognition of these literary achievements, she was elected to Aosdána in 2001.

Yet, as literary history repeatedly tells us, public esteem and a large readership are not sufficient for a writer to become consolidated as part of a literary tradition. Women writers especially have often fallen by the wayside on the road to canonicity. Although the mechanisms of canon formation are notoriously nebulous, an important factor is academic attention. By tracing precursors and identifying central concerns, critical studies seek to place a body of work within a literary tradition. In this way, they facilitate its inclusion in university syllabi, enable it to speak to new generations of readers, and eventually smooth its entry into the canon.

This first book-length study of O’Donnell’s writing, Giving Shape to the Moment, edited by María Elena Jaime de Pablos, admirably acquits itself of these tasks. Four chapters offer comprehensive overviews of O’Donnell’s achievements in the genres of the essay, poetry, short fiction and novel, while two further chapters trace themes that stand out across her oeuvre. A preface by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne pays tribute to O’Donnell’s poetic vision and “deep concern for truth” and in a wonderfully insightful interview with Anne Fogarty, O’Donnell reflects on her experiences as a writer. The last word is for O’Donnell as the collection ends with her fascinating story, “The Space between Louis and Me”, which won the Fish International Short Story Award in 2010.

O’Donnell’s position within literary traditions is a central concern in Giving Shape to the Moment. In her illuminating survey of O’Donnell’s development as a poet, Pilar Villar-Argaiz aligns O’Donnell’s early collections with the feminist work of poets like Eavan Boland, Paula Meehan and Eithne Strong who sought to rewrite patriarchal myths and to recover the marginalised voices and experiences of Irish women. In the opening chapter, Mary Pierse also places O’Donnell’s work within a specifically female tradition of writing that focuses on the present and the future of Ireland and engages with pressing social concerns. For Eibhear Walshe, in his chapter on O’Donnell’s novels, this response to the present is part of a trend in the contemporary Irish novel more in general as it attempts to chronicle the profound changes in late-twentieth century Ireland. O’Donnell’s particular achievement within this trend, he argues further, is her sustained exploration of the perspective of the outsider.

In addition to this critical pigeon-holing, a writer can of course also lay claim to a literary tradition herself through authorial statements and intertextual references. The genealogy O’Donnell thus constructs is a decidedly international one. Her MA studies in German account for the allusions to Goethe, Heinrich Böll and Elias Canetti in her work, while her belief in the international dimension of literature has her identify writers as diverse as Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and Flannery O’Connor as important inspirations. That the cosmopolitan dimension of her work is matched by its international appeal is readily demonstrated by the international cast of scholars who have contributed to this collection. Although firmly grounded in Irish reality, O’Donnell’s work clearly also speaks to readers and critics outside of Ireland.

An important element of that appeal is O’Donnell’s remarkable audacity as a writer. From the early 1990s, when she made her debut in three genres in quick succession, to her most recent short story collection Empire, O’Donnell has consistently addressed challenging topics in her writing. In the interview with Fogarty, she refers to Hélène Cixous’s claim that “the only book worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write”. This is clearly O’Donnell’s motto as well. Throughout her career, she has tackled such uncomfortable subjects as female sexuality, patriarchal attitudes, infertility, maternal violence, the menopause and transvestism. In Storm over Belfast she was one of the first writers to explore the experiences of immigrants in Ireland and in her most recent poetry collection, Those April Fevers, she raises the urgent if controversial topic of climate change. Moreover, she invariably treats these topics with an honesty and wisdom that allow her work to transcend the topical and to provide insight into the universal human condition.

[ top ]

Anne Haverty, in Irish Arts Review ([Sept.] 2021) - quotes in full “Unlegendary Heroesֲ (with ill. by Geraldine O’Reilly): ‘Women may have a special affinity with boxes, it has been noted - and boxes are the containers chosen for a collaboration between poet and novelist Mary O’Donnell and visual artist Geraldine O’Reilly. In a response to her affinity with O’Donnell’s work, O’Reilly selected ten poems from three different collections and created a watercolour illustration to accompany each of them. Printed using silkscreen, the images rest alongside the poems in specialised solander boxes.

[Cont.] Thematically, the project is concerned with aspects of women’s lives and experiences, contemporary and historical. Titled Unlegendary Heroes, it includes O’Donnell’s well-known, tenderly humorous poetic homage of the same title to the women of her native south Ulster: “Martha McGinn of Emy / who swam Cornamunden Lough in one hour and a quarter ... Miss Harper, Corley, / female problems rarely ceased, pleasant in ill-health’; a poem which was itself a response to the local legendary male heroes: ‘Tom Gallagher, Cornamucklagh, could walk 50 miles in one day’ - recorded in the Irish Folklore Commission survey in 1938. O’Reilly’s accompanying illustration is a pleasing depiction of a mid-century countrywoman in her crossover apron carrying those two buckets iconic to the Irish farmer.

To accompany the poem Wicklow, with its ominous theme of commemoration of the missing and the murdered women buried on its moors, the image is grimmer: a lonely landscape of empty road and bleak mountain. A rather beautiful heron goes with Heron and the Women, while the shame of the woman who has had to sell her hair for “today’s meat” is strikingly evoked in her gaze and half-shaven head.

That these poignant pieces should have such sumptuous resting places conveys a kind of compensatory reverence. Printed on Fabriano paper letterpressed by Mary Plunkett of Belgrave Press, the limited-edition box-sets in grey and silver and purple linen are handmade by bookbinder Éilís Murphy of Folded Leaf.

Unlegendary Heroes can be seen at the Market House in Monaghan until the beginning of December, after which the exhibition will tour. (Available at Irish Arts REview - online; accessed 22.02.2023.)

[ top ]

On The Light Makers - O’Donnell’s remarks on the 2017 reprint of the 1992 novel: ‘I was raised in Ireland, where I still live. Writing has been my work since around 1990. I’d published plenty of short fiction and poetry before that, but 1990 marks my first publication, a very popular collection back then called Reading the Sunflowers in September. It’s not listed among my books on the page but I believe there are a few copies of it still around! It was shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Award back then. As indeed was my second poetry collection, Spiderwoman’s Third Avenue Rhapsody. But I digress. I began to write fiction pretty much at the same time as I began to work and put in the hours on my poetry. I’ve always been a multi-genre writer, moving from poetry, to novel, to short story, as the need struck me. Each genre requires different levels of creative stamina and technical approach. The book that’s just come out again - The Light Makers - was my first novel and I still love this book. Its central character, photojournalist Hanna Troy reflects a lot about the younger woman I once was, something I couldn’t see back then but which I do now. She is actually quite heroic in her way (that’s where the invention of writing kicks in: I am not heroic!), inquisitive, frank, a 1980s feminist who wants to set the world to rights after she’s set her relationship with Sam, her avant garde architect husband, to rights. The thing is, can it be set to rights? The young professional couple want to start a family but things aren’t going to plan ... there are disasters and passions in this novel, and a long look at Hanna’s family background as well ... and in the end? Well, reader, I hope you’ll travel the journey and find that out for yourself. It’s a good read, apparently compelling and ’erotic’. I’d be honoured if you were to read it, because I value readers as the diamond-precious other half of the creative act.’ (Incl. in notice at Amazon Books - online accessed 22.02.2023.)

See Mary O’Donnell - 10 Poems
Unlegendary Heroes
A Girl from the East Alex in the Garden The Final Shrug
Old Roman Towns 60th Auschwitz Anniversary Following Frida
Fairy Rath Antarctica The Haircut
View in separate window - as attached

[ top ]

At a Wedding, the Stranger Waking

her lacy, gloved fingers, the netting
that shivered over her face, but
did not conceal the spark from sheen-lidded
dark, pupils. Uncles, brothers, nephews, fathers
paused, suspended in a dream some remembered,
or thought they did. Believing in Marilyn ... .

It has taken so long to draw you to this cottage,
across the sands. Wake now. Wake to new doing,

to new pauses in new days. I cannot sleep for joy.
Mermaids no longer bathe in moonlight but you are here.

—Both quoted by Thomas McCarthy on Facebook in 2017.

[On her grandmother:] ‘Ambitious for all, yet slow to praise for fear / Of spoiling with Hollywood / notions, child-dreams, / Songs she herself was not allowed.’ (Quoted in Nuala Ní Chonchúir, review of The Place of Miracles, in The Irish Book Review, Summer 2006, p.38.)

Place of poems: ‘When feeling fails in ordinary speech to do the work of being human, sometimes a poem steps into the void.’ (Introduction to The Place of Miracles, quoted in Books Ireland, Sept. 2006, “First Flush”, [p.203].)

[ top ]

The Light Makers (1992): Photo-journalist Hanna Troy is killing time on a summer walkabout in the city. As the afternoon progresses, her reflections unravel a raw, sometimes sensuous story of darkness and light. It explores a failing relationship, the anguish of a professional trying to become a mother and the complexities of a young and outspoken woman in Ireland’s somewhat repressed 1980s. Considering the experiences of her contemporaries and evoking family events long past that still resonate, Hanna is determined that her own resilience will overcome the challenges she faces. (Amazon notice; accessed 22.02.2023.) See, however, O’Donnell’ own statement on the book at the date of its reprint in 2017 - as supra; and also Eamon Maher’ review in The Irish Times (19 Aug. 2017 - available online [accessed 22.02.2023].

Empire (2018) is ‘a story-collection in Ireland and Burma between 1915 and 1919. It’s all about the people who lived within that gradually fraying “Empire” of the title [...] some of them were quite a progressive lot.’ (Author’s notice on Facebook, 29.08.2018.)

Or-: Mary O’Donnell contrib. a scathing article to Irish Times in July 2023 comparing the Ryan Tubridy debâcle with the ‘golden days’ of the 1980s ending with a facetious echo of Tubridy himself: ‘We’re better than that.’. (’I was there for RTÉ’s golden era now it’s just a shabby and morally corrupt bunker.’ (Irish Times, 6 July 2023 - Comment, p.29.) ‘[...] I will always remember the halcyon days when I drove to the radio and television station to work, when the place was vibrant and humming with ideas, and when I had no sense of the depredations that could so reduce the place to its current egregious impasse.’ (Idem.)

Namesake?: Mary O’Donnell, author of The Storm Over Belfast (New Island 2009) - of whom Kevin Myers writes: ‘[...]the secret, unseen star of Irish writing. Now that star will get its chance to shine’ (Quoted in Amazon Books - online; accessed 22.02.2023 - but also called ‘A collection of powerful, striking and sensuous short stories by one of Ireland’.;s finest writers’ and ‘another potent display of Mary O’Donnell’s immense talent.’ by New Island Press (quoted idem.)