Fred Johnston


Life
1951- ; b.27 Sept., Belfast; ed., St. Thomas Aquinas, Toronto, Canada, St. Joseph’s, Belfast, and St. Malachy’s College, Belfast, where he was taught by Des Wilson; worked in several years in public relations; journalist on Evening Press, Belfast Telegraph, and other papers, 1968-78; winner of Hennessy Literary Award, 1972; with Peter Sheridan and Neil Jordan, co-founded, Irish Writers’ Co-operative; settled in Galway in c.1986, and helped fnd. Cúirt Literature Festival there; contrib. reviews to Southern Humanities Review, The Irish Times, and Harpers’ & Queens; estab. The Western Writers, Centre/Ionad Scríbhneoirí Chaitlín Maude in Galway;
 
served as poetry reviewer for Poetry Ireland and later for Books Ireland; contrib. to Orbis, New Letters, The Southern Review, and The Seneca Review; issued Songs for Harp Accompaniment (1996), poems; issued True North (1997); a collection, Middle (1997), was planned with Salmon for in 1997; Keeping the Night Watch (1999), stories; issued Atalanta: A Novel (2000); lectures at Hewitt Summer School, 2003; frequent poetry reviews in Books Ireland; issued Keeping the Night Watch (q.d.); No Earthly Pole (Punchbag Th., Galway Arts Fest. [1998]) recipient of NI Arts Council and Irish Arts Council bursaries; winner of Prix de l’Ambassade, 2000 to translate Michel Martin;
 
also trans. the Senegalese poet Babacar Sall; has served on the Executive of the Irish Writers’ Union; issued Mapping God (2003), a novel that departs from the discovery of a young girl’s body on the Irish sea-board; recipient of the Ireland Fund of Monaco Literary Bursary at the Princess Grace Irish Library, Sept.-Oct. 2004; fnd.-manager of Western Writers' Centre; issued The Oracle Room (2007), poems often treating of an abusive and secretive Ireland; forthcoming, The Neon Rose (2007), a murder mystery set in Paris; issued Dancing in the Asylum (2011), short stories; directes Western Writers’ Centre, Galway; Sylvia Crawford is his partner.

[ top ]

Works
Poetry
  • Life and Death in The Midlands ([Dublin:] Tansy Books 1979), 50pp.;
  • A Scarce Light (Beaver Row Press 1985);
  • Song At The Edge of The World (Salmon Publishing 1987);
  • Measuring Angles (Cló Iar-Chonnachta 1993) [book & cassette];
  • Browne [rev. edn.] (Belfast: Lapwing Publ. 1993), 25pp.;
  • True North (Keneven: Salmon Publ. 1997), 85pp.;
  • Being Anywhere: New & Selected Poems (Belfast: Lagan Press, 2001), xvi, 92pp.;
  • Measuring Angles [The Artist’s Voice Series] (Cló Iar-Chonnachta 1993), 79pp. [with cassette];
  • Paris Without Maps (Dingwall: Sandstone Press for Northwords 2003), 28pp.;
  • The Oracle Room (Cinnamon Press 2007), 96pp;
Fiction
  • Picture of a Girl in a Spanish Hat ([Dublin:] Tansy Books 1979), stories;
  • Keeping the Night Watch ([London:] Collins Press 1998), 172pp.;
  • Atalanta: A Novel (Collins Press 2000), 216pp.;
  • Mapping God/Le Tracé de Dieu (Wynkin de worde 2003), 262pp. [bilingual on facing pages].
  • Dancing in the Asylum (Parthian 2011).
Contributions [sel.]
  • “Shooting Magpies”, in Poetry Ireland Review, 42 (1994), p.81.;
  • “Shop Street, Winter Morning”, “Bogeymen”, in Honest Ulsterman, 98 (1994), p.35-36;
  • “Pizza”, “Ballyvaughan”, “Night Driving”, in Irish Studies Review (Summer 1994), p.18;
  • “Dancing in the Asylum”, poem in Times Literary Supplement (25 Sept. 1998), p.7;
  • “The Old Colonials, i.m. Frederick Harvey Johnston”, in Irish Studies Review (Autumn 1996), p.23 [full page].
Reviews [sel.]
  • ‘Poetry, Poets and the Power of healing’, in The Irish Times (7 Nov. 1998) [“Poetry Now” column];
  • ‘Guid as Gold’, feature review of Patricia Craig, The Belfast Anthology (Belfast: Blackstaff 1999), in Books Ireland (March 2000), p.61 [see extract];
  • review of Paul Durcan, Cries of an Irish Caveman: New Poems, in Books Ireland (Feb. 2002) [q.pp.];
  • review of Sruth Teangacha/Stream of Tongues, in Books Ireland (Oct. 2002), p.247 [see extract]; review of Crystal Clear: Collected Essays of John Jordan, ed. Hugh McFadden], in The Irish Book Review (Summer 2006), p.7 [see under Jordan, Commentary, infra].

On YouTube ..
Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley
Other links
—Searching ”Fred Johnston” on YouTube - online [accessed 15.05.2014].

[ top ]

Commentary
Derek Hand, reviewing Atalanta (Collins Press), in The Irish Times (4 Nov. 2000), recounts a plot in which young man tells his story of artistic blossoming [in] lush, dreamlike prose as he makes transition from innocence to experience, childhood to adulthood; Atalanta of the title is a recently-widowed woman who opens up a whole new world of feeling and sensation for the narrator, her name - and that of the novel - being taken from a Handel opera.

[ top ]

Maurice Harmon, review of Mapping God, in Books Ireland (Nov. 2003): bilingual publication on facing pages; concerns Fr Dermody a corrupt priest in a brutal climate who kills the malefactor in a case of a murdered girl, found naked on a beach; characters incl. Patsy Joe, story teller; English major, Italian ice-cream vendor; praise for descriptive power; village on the edge of the world; quotes, ‘Innocence has gone out of this place’.

[ top ]

Giles Newington, notice on Dancing in the Asylum, in The Irish Times (14 Jan. 2012), Weekend, p.13: ”The title story that opens Fred Johnston's first collection [sic] sets, the mood, as the alcoholic Pritchard loses everything - marriage, mMarbles and means of support - before finding a hallucinatory kind of refuge down a corridor of the mental hospital where he has ended up. Pritchard's tone, dyspeptic but vulnerable, is typical of Johnston's protagonism, most of whom feet like outsiders in the unnamed Irish towns whose intrigues and atmospheres oppress them. [...] Johnston [...] has a tendency to resolve the situations he sets up with dreamlike poetic flourishes, which can seem, evasive. His material, though, is interestingly varied - from a single mother moving into an empty estate to a would-be novelist paying for friendship to an uneasy gay encounter at a carnival - and, at its best, expressive of a distinctive and dissenting point of view.’

[ top ]

Quotations
Homeric”: ‘When I came out of Louisburg / Under the murmur of the holy mountain / I lost the story I’d heard. // The radio blared a daftness / About taxi-fares in Dublin: there / Was murder in Bethlehem. // It always rained against the window / Of the classroom in Louisburg: abrupt, / Shocking, a bright sun. ?/ Deep bright too the bay folding / Colour over colour of the ocean sky / My blind radio singing the world.’ (Times Literary Supplement, 2 Aug. 2002, p.22.)

Reduction - A New Poem
—In The Irish Times (23 April 2016) - online.
 

Note: The Irish Times version appeared without stanza breaks contrary to the poet’s intentions as notice by the poet on Facebook [23.04.2016].

[ top ]

Kith & Kin: reviewing The Best of Francis Ledwidge, ed., Liam O’Meara, in Books Ireland (Summer 2005), Fred Johnston writes: ‘Every 11 November my late Dublin aunt would haul my cousin and me over to the Garden of Remembrace at Kilmainham and there we’d honour the Irishmen who’d fallen in the Great War. I mostly recalled, even then, my grand-uncle Paddy, a merry dapper Dubliner, so ruinged by shell-shock, even with his medals, that he would often be found cowering out in our Ballybough garden shed, avoiding God knows what horrors. And this fifty years after the Great War ended. […] It is not the least ironic that that, while my Dubliner Catholic grand uncle was being blown out of his gun-carriage on the Western Front, my staunchly Unionist and Protestant Belfast grandfather was being blown out of his Royal Navy destroyer near Scapa Floe.’

[ top ]

PGIL Interview (Autumn 2004): ‘I write about small things, small thoughts, my self-consciousness and anxiety in the world, my anger at unfairness and political double-think, rediscovering family, loves, regrets – the bits and pieces that float up to the shores of the heart and soul regardless of how much we try to hold back the tide or keep the beach clean. Always the hope is that someone may see a poem as a mirror of something they are experiencing themselves and react to it, take it in. You can ask little more. Poets speak and record ordinary life and endow their reworking of the ordinary with another sense, another dimension, if you like. But they – and I, most definitely – are not always successful. That’s why pomposity or the notion of ambition in poetry – rabidly prevalent among, sadly, younger practitioners – is ludicrous. To imagine that your thoughts are holier, more sacred than someone else’s! You do a small job with a poem, but if you do it well and someone likes it, that’s what your whole achievement is.’ (For full interview, see infra.)

[ top ]

Letter to The Irish Times on the Irish Arts Council subventions budget to Irish publishing houses, 2014.

Sir, - I do not represent the O’Brien Press, nor am I attempting to speak for it. Nonetheless, as a writer, I was astounded to learn (December 5th) that the Arts Council had reduced grant aid to this publisher by a whopping 84 per cent. Now correct me if I am wrong, but is this the same council that has had a hand in initiating the very first Irish fiction laureateship? Do they not do irony in Merrion Square?

 For more than four decades, the O’Brien Press has been a leading Irish publisher of poetry, fiction and children’s books. It does not need me to sing its praises or trumpet its achievements. But no doubt the Arts Council would wish to be praised for its own mighty work in highlighting Ireland’s literary profile.

 The council has exercised a “scorched earth” policy concerning literature for quite some time, reducing or killing off even the most modest of grants to literature festivals, scuppering the hopes of small but energetic publishers.

 The grant to the O’Brien Press should be restored to what it was formerly and as soon as possible. The reduction of the grant is as disgraceful as it is inexplicable. One might wonder yet again whether the council is not merely interested in an exportable cultural image rather than the promotion of literature. This latest Merrion Square fiasco makes an utter nonsense of the much-heralded, God help us, Irish fiction laureateship. – Yours, etc,

Fred Johnston,
Galway.

[ top ]

References
Books in Print (1994), Life and Death in The Midlands (Tansy Books 1979); A Scarce Light (Beaver Row Press 1985) [0 94630 835 7]; Song At The Edge of The World (Galway: Salmon Publishing 1988) [0 948339 12 8]; Measuring Angles (Galway: Cló Iar-Chonnachta 1993) [1 874700 11 7]; Browne (Belfast: Lapwing Publ. 1993) [1 898472 06 8].

[ top ]

Notes
Mapping God (2003) centres on the finding of young girl's body in an Irish coastal village. Brian the barman, the priest, Father Dermody, and the disturbing character who was most closely involved with the young girl are all suspected. Other chars. are the Barton family, with set apart from the villagers by their privileged lives; the Major; Guido, the immigrant; Manny, the old woman with a hippy lifestyle; local policeman and the detective drafted in; a young reporter drawn into the dark secrets of the village. The novel has a a gripping story-line and a dénouement of startling complexity; its language is infused with imagery. (See Irish Emigrant, “Book of the Week”, 31 Oct. 2004).

[ top ]

Dancing in the Asylum (2011) - themes and characters incl. : Paying for friendship, angry knicker-flashing at ex-pats, gay cruising at a medieval carnival ... funny, occasionally grotesque, always poignant, these pieces paint a wonderfully unexpected portrait of a place and its people in a time of great change, each page unfolding a delicate or deliciously devious secret. (See Waterstones, online; accessed 23.02.2012.)

 

[ top ]

P. J. Kavanagh? Fred Johnston, ‘Guid as Gold’, review of Patricia Craig, The Belfast Anthology (Blackstaff 2000), in Books Ireland, March 2000, pp.61-62; incls. account of his own purchase of a ,first typewriter for seven quid’ at P. J. Kavanagh’s I Buy Anything store.

[ top ]

Good read: Fred Johnston is a favourite poet of Jack Taylor, the ex-Garda hero of Ken Bruen’s detective novels. (Books Ireland, Summer 2004, p.161.)

[ top ]