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Launching a new poetry collection – The Hollow Woman on the Island

We had great fun launching my fifth poetry collection, The Hollow Woman on the Island, at Poetry Ireland on 28th May. I was in excellent company, as Jo Slade and John Murphy were also launching new volumes with Salmon Poetry, our publisher. I was also incredibly lucky to have the amazing Katie Donovan as my ‘launcher’ – here’s her very generous comment on my new book, which can be ordered online from Salmon’s website at

“Themes of family, mortality, faith and art inform this new collection from Nessa O’Mahony. Although the title, The Hollow Woman on the Island, suggests loss and limbo, the book rings with birdsong, the fluting of an old gate in the wind, family anecdotes from Cork to Vienna, and concludes: “prayer starts in the same place as story”.

Many years ago, Nessa’s bright enthusiastic face and incisive comments lit up my Creative Writing class in the IWC. Her consistent output ever since – from four volumes of poetry to her novel, The Branchman, and her work as an editor of two anthologies – has brought her to the centre of the writing scene in Ireland and abroad. This is her fifth collection of poetry – another book to be proud of. And may I say, as her former “teacher”, how proud I am as well.

There are several powerful poems in The Hollow Woman on the Island that give voice to a fear so many of us have known, as doctors hover with scalpels and jargon, offering  “butcher’s cuts of possibility”.

The unbearable, post-surgery lightness which, for a woman who has lost her fertility, is so cruelly ironic in its ovoid shape, is expressed beautifully and heart-wrenchingly in the title poem. A similar delicate approach is evident in “Alcmene’s Dream”, which ends with an absent cradle, and first appeared in Metamorphic, the anthology of poetic responses to Ovid which Nessa co-edited in 2017.

With the beautiful poem in celebration of her niece’s wedding, Nessa brings this theme to bear on the larger picture of a family and its collective fertility – the significance of the role of each member within that circle.

Nessa’s well-known gravitational pull towards history is evident in many of the poems, one of the most eloquent being “O’Leary’s Grave” where some of Ireland’s shamefully large population of homeless citizens bed down in Croppies Acre while a scene is shot for a movie about The 1916 Rising.

Her capacity to depict landscape with the deft shapes and colours of a painter’s eye is also in evidence, from the Bohea Stone in Mayo to Cill Rialaig in Co Kerry, and our own local river, the Dodder. Wildlife abounds, from fledgling wrens to otters and hares.

Wisdom, lightness of touch, vulnerability, craft and ironic flourishes. Family, travel, friendship and political awareness. There is much to mine in this new work.

Finally, I like how she chooses to end the collection, with a vision of Homer as a woman. For we know that Homer represents a collective circle of narrators, within a large family of storytellers, each with a vital contribution to make to the endeavour as a whole.”

Katie Donovan, at Poetry Ireland, 28th May 2019.



Crimereads features The Branchman

Thanks to Paul French who included The Branchman in a Crimereads feature on Crime-writing about Galway – here’s what he said:

Finally, there’s poet and teacher Nessa O’Mahony’s The Branchman (2018), a political thriller set in Galway in 1925 and featuring Detective Officer Michael Mackey of the newly-created Special Branch. Mackey has been sent to the Garda Barracks in Ballinasloe (a town near Galway) to root out subversives. The book is rich in detail thanks to the fact that O’Mahony, who is a Dubliner rather than a Galwegian, has previously meticulously researched the life of her own grandfather Michael McCann, who was an early member of the young Irish Free State’s Garda Síochána and posted to Galway.

And here’s the link to the full article



Where to buy books

Signed copies of the The Branchman are available direct from the author, at a cost of €22 (including post and package) within Ireland, €27 for other territories – payment to Paypal PayPal.Me/nessaom1964 and emailing details of addressee to

The Branchman can be bought in the following good bookshops:

Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin 2.
Gutter Bookshop, Cow Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin 8.
Gutter Dalkey, Dalkey, Co. Dublin
Books Upstairs, D’Olier Street, Dublin 2.
Chapters Bookshop, Parnell Street, Dublin 1.

The Company of Books, Ranelagh, Dublin 6
Raven Books, Blackrock, County Dublin.
Rathfarnham Bookshop, Rathfarnham Shopping Centre, Dublin 14.
Antonia’s Bookshop, Trim, Co. Meath.
Maynooth Bookshop, Maynooth, Co. Kildare
The Blessington Bookstore, Blessington, Co. Wicklow
The Nenagh Bookshop, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary.
Kerr’s Bookshop, Clonakilty, Co. Cork.
Woodbine Bookshop, Kilcullen, Co. Meath.
Sheela na Gig bookshop, Cloghjordan, Co. Tipperary
The Castle Bookshop, Castlebar, Co. Mayo
The Reading Room, Carrick on Shannon, Co. Leitrim
The Book Centre, Waterford.
The Book Centre, Wexford.
Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, Galway City.
Salmon’s Bookshop, Ballinasloe, County Galway.
P. Commane Books, Tralee. Co. Kerry
No Alibis, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Fitz-Gerald’s Bookshop, Macroom.
Kenmare Bookshop
A Novel Idea, Donegal
Farrell and Nephew, Newbridge, Co. Kildare

O’Mahony Booksellers, Limerick and online at
Kennys Bookshop, Galway City and online at
Alan Hannas Bookshop, Rathmines, Dublin 6 and online at

The Book Depository at


The Branchman gets its Belfast launch

My new novel, The Branchman, got a splendid launch at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast on Friday 16th November, alongside new works of poetry by Natasha Cuddington and Grainne Tobin, also published by Arlen House.

Introducing the novel, Belfast journalist, novelist and memoir-writer Malachi O’Doherty called it ‘a rattling good story’ that ‘more than being just a story … is a profile of Ireland at a dodgy time, a comment on who we are and where we have come from’. The full launch speech follows:

Malachi O’Doherty launches The Branchman

At the launch of three Arlen House titles Grainne Tobin, Damian Smyth, Natasha Cuddington and Nessa O’Mahony



“Imagine a time in a country’s history after it has agonised for years about its place in a Union of nations. Some now feel that their vision of sovereignty has been betrayed, that they have had to settle for a shoddy compromise far short of the noble conception of a free and independent people, taking their place among the nations of the world. And others feel that the deal was the best that could be managed, and anyway, what’s done is done.

So we find the characters in Nessa’s novel in the 1920s not reconciled yet to the new Ireland, struggling to establish a country that functions with viable civic structures and a committed law abiding citizenry. All that seems a long way off. But it’s not just the failure to completely leave the UK that rankles. The previous decade has seen an uprising and three wars. The Easter Rising, the Great War in Europe, the war for Irish independence and the Civil War. One character even recalls the Boer War. And while some of the characters we meet early in this book are jaded and reduced to a maudlin pettiness, others are trying to knock the new country into shape and others still are plotting to fight on.

This is a country in which a former British soldier turned IRA man, now a detective  – Mackey – has some fine skills developed in harsh conditions but also has secrets that can drag him down. One of them is that British Army past, a mark of shame in the new Ireland. Put him in a country Garda station – like the one McGahern described in the Barracks – and see if he can get any bloody work done around here as the crime rate soars. Indeed, he is only going to get the blame for that himself.

In a small Irish town, everyone knows everyone else yet no one knows anything.

Why, who’s asking?

The desk sergeant has all the gossip and no sympathy. His boss spends most of his time in the snug in the Mount and is so friendly with everyone that he can hinder investigations into respected citizens and party donors. He’s up to something.

And there is a beautiful woman, who knew Mackey in his past, up in Mayo, in the trouble times and she’s now in town.

And through all this move the secretive plotters, the killers and robbers, kidnapping and killing those who get in their way, preparing for the big one. But we’ll not give away any more than that for now.

One tends to think that historical crime fiction is a genre that starts with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, that the rattle of cartwheels and clip of shod hooves over cobbles through gaslit mists is the perfect backdrop to crime, forgetting that Holmes was a contemporary of Doyle’s who was reproducing the world of his own day, that it is in retrospect that we are enchanted by city smog and hackney cabs. Yet the past seems the perfect place for a mystery, it is a place in which our cultural bearings don’t quite work.

Nessa is a bit more like Benjamin Black, but he takes us to more recent times in which a man might have more access to a motor car, even own one. Nessa takes us further back and recreates a world in which an investigator limps on foot, takes a train or rides a bicycle, in which calling at a woman’s door at night might bring disgrace upon her but running a police station from the snug of a bar can be indulged as normal.

We have the small town by the docks, the one hotel and bar, the doctor who does both post mortems and house calls, if he’s in the mood, and the weight of a drab culture of taking life at a slow pace and not fretting about very much lest it only lead to you having more work to do, more forms to fill in, more explanations to offer to people above you who are just as venal and lazy.

The gangster are as bad, well capable of staving your head in but sometimes just forgetting to.

So what is this book about?

It’s a rattling good story, with secret machinations, murder and jealousy and love.

But to mind mind it is about the moment in the evolution of a nation after war, and in the first fumblings of independence, before it has learnt responsibility, before it has freed up imagination and started to grow, where the possibility still exists that the independence it fought for is more than it can manage.

This book comes at a time of a great flourishing of Irish fiction.

It is daring at such a time to write genre fiction, a crime novel. To pull that off you need not just clever plotting and plausible situating, you also need to be able to conceptualize human evil and human decency both.

Who knew Nessa had such badness in her?

But more than being just a story, this is a profile of Ireland at a dodgy time, a comment on who we are and where we have come from.”

Malachi O’Doherty

Crescent Arts Centre, 16 November 2018



The Branchman debuts at Dublin’s Brand New Crime Writing Festival

Dublin has a brand new crime writing festival. Murder One takes place over the weekend of 2nd-4th November, at the Smock Alley theatre, and features some of the leading crime writers from Ireland and abroad. Headliners are Michael Connelly (whose show is now sold out), Lynda La Plante and Peter James, but there’s plenty of home-grown talent too. I’m delighted to say I’ll be reading as part of the Speakers Corner sessions that take place throughout the weekend. I’m up first on the Saturday morning, at 11am, and will be reading from The Branchman, my new crime novel.

This is the first time an event like this has ever happened in Dublin and we’d all love your support to make it into an annual festival – do come if you can and tell your friends! Book now at


Blog, Features, Uncategorized

The man behind the Branchman – Michael McCann

(A version of this article first appeared in the Irish Times on 19th September)

Five years ago I began to research the life of my grandfather, Michael McCann, a man who has haunted much of my creative writing since I first heard my mother’s stories about his exploits during the War of Independence and Civil War, not to mention the first World War. I’d written about his war record in two poetry collections, but now I wanted to explore his fictional potential for a piece of crime fiction, and so honed in on his experiences as a policeman in newly independent Ireland.

Granddad left the National Army in 1924 and, like many other ex-soldiers, joined the nascent Garda Síochána. To get further background on that part of his career, I contacted the Garda Archive in Dublin Castle to ask if they had a record of him. By return of email came an A4 document that provided the bare minimum: his badge number, date of birth, date of appointment (March 28th, 1925), the stations and divisions where he served, monetary awards received (for good police duty) and date of discharge (March 29th, 1945).

The final entry related to his total service (some 20 years and two days), and the statement “Exemplary Service”. Never have two words been more frustrating; I wanted to hear the details of that service, the cases he’d investigated, the turmoil he’d witnessed in the early years of the new Free State. But if those records were still held anywhere, I wasn’t getting access to them.

There’s nothing a writer likes more than a vacuum, because that’s what frees up the imagination and allows us to invent. I became convinced that if officialdom couldn’t give me the facts, some imagination backed up by historical research might help fill in the gaps. The more I read, the more it became clear that the new police force Michael McCann joined had been thrown into the deep end of an Irish society still deeply divided and lawless. What a perfect scenario for the fictional hero I was beginning to envisage.

Given the breadth of those divisions, the nature of the force tasked with guarding the peace was hugely important. In 1922, Gen Eoin O’Duffy and Kevin O’Higgins planned to establish a Civic Guard, or Garda Síochána, to replace the Royal Irish Constabulary. This force was to be unarmed and politically neutral, though answerable to the Government Minister responsible for their administration. By the end of 1924 and the beginning of 1925, with the Army scaling back (some 30,000 soldiers were made redundant and few had jobs to go back to), it was clear that this new unarmed police force might need strengthened resources.

As Conor Brady puts it in Guardians of the Peace, his history of the Garda Síochána, “some districts remained peaceful after the military had been withdrawn … huge areas of Cork, Kerry, Tipperary, Clare and the Border country immediately became open territory not only for the remaining active bands of Republicans who could find very good reason to rob banks on behalf of the Republic but also groups of ordinary armed bandits. There was, furthermore, a mushrooming problem of disbanded Free State troops turning to violent crime.”

O’Higgins and O’Duffy decided that a restructuring would be required to provide the sort of policing needed in a still highly unstable situation. So in 1925, the Garda Síochána and the Dublin Metropolitan Police were amalgamated and, as part of this newly unified body, a new entity was created, the ‘Special Branch’. The leader of this new outfit was to be David Neligan, one of Michael Collins’s original secret service agents and now a colonel in the Free State Army.

O’Higgins stipulated that members of the new armed detective team should be recruited from the Civic Guards and from the Free State Army Office corps. There were to be about 200 men in this new unit, divided between Dublin and 20 Garda divisions around the country. They were to be given six months of training in areas such as criminal law, police procedure, ballistic and forensic evidence and the use of firearms and self-defense.

My grandfather was appointed as a member of the Garda Síochána and joined the Special Branch on its formation shortly afterwards. He was stationed first in Letterkenny, before being moved to Ballinasloe in 1929, where he spent the majority of his career.

Although the Civil War had been over for several years, the Galway region was still pretty unsettled when my grandfather was transferred there. Ammunition left over from the conflict could cause security problems. On March 1st, 1930, there was a major blast at the back of Society Street in Ballinasloe, which led to the demolition of some shop fronts and the destruction of the offices of the local newspaper, The East Galway Democrat. As The Irish Times reported, “investigations were made by the Civic Guards, and it is thought that a land mine, which was probably hidden by someone who wanted to get rid of it in an ash pit or somewhere behind Society Street, was accidentally exploded”. Later that year, an Irish Omnibus Company vehicle travelling from Galway to Athlone was fired upon from a field on the Athenry to Ballinasloe road. And in September 1931, the Civic Guard barrack at nearby Kilreekil was blown up.

Nessa O’Mahony: The more I read, the more it became clear that the new police force Michael McCann joined had been thrown into the deep end of an Irish society still deeply divided and lawless
Nessa O’Mahony: The more I read, the more it became clear that the new police force Michael McCann joined had been thrown into the deep end of an Irish society still deeply divided and lawless
Trouble never seemed too far away in Ballinasloe in those days. In April 1935, The Irish Times reported that that three shots had been fired into the house of Michael Killeen, Brackernagh. Mrs Killeen, who had been sitting near the sitting-room window, narrowly avoided injury. At a military tribunal the following month, John Keogh of Deerpark, Ballinalsoe, was tried and sentenced to two years in prison for the attack on Killeen, who had been secretary of the Poolboy and Kellysgrove Peat Development Association. In 1941, my grandfather gave evidence in a court case involving a husband and wife in whose house guards had discovered a cache of ammunition and bank notes. According to press reports, Michael had been part of a group searching the house and had discovered the cache “in a groove cut out of the leg of the table”.

My uncle, Liam McCann, (now deceased) also remembered an event from the early 1930s. There had been a hurling match in Duggan Park in Ballinasloe. It got out of hand and my grandfather arrested a man and brought him down to the barracks. A mob came down to try and storm the barracks and Granddad had to fire a gun over their heads to disperse the crowd.

So there was no shortage of incidents that could fuel the fiction I was planning to write. My novel, titled The Branchman and published this month by Arlen House, incorporates some of them and invents many others. It features a newly appointed Special Branch Detective called Michael Mackey, assigned to the Ballinasloe police barracks with the task of discovering the subversives at work there. Of course he bears more than a passing resemblance to my grandfather but, as with many fictional heroes, has his own characteristics, flaws and plot points, which almost certainly never happened in real life, or at least not in the way I tell them here. But that is the joy of historical fiction; it presents an alternative reality. If the writer can make the reader believe in that reality, at least from the first page to the last, she has succeeded in her task.

As this decade of commemoration advances, more and more stories are being unearthed about the unstable society that the new Free State attempted to pacify in the aftermath of Civil War. It’s a rich subject for fiction; I look forward to reading the many imaginative responses that will undoubtedly follow.

Blog, Reviews, Uncategorized

Ink Pantry review of Her Father’s Daughter

Natalie Denny of Ink Pantry has reviewed Her Father’s Daughter for the Poetry Drawer section of the website.

‘My page has been empty for months. Forgive me for filling it.’

Nessa O’Mahony’s ‘My Father’s Daughter’ explores the nature of the imperishable and pronounced bonds between fathers and daughters. We embark upon a poetical journey, combining the autobiographical with the historical through two father-daughter relationships spanning two different periods of Irish history.

Nessa’s poetry is a raw and at times a painfully honest depiction of her family life, especially those memories surrounding her father and grandfather. The finished article is a commentary on love and loss including the reconstructive and subjective power of memory.

From ‘His Master’s Voice’ that looks at life through the eyes of the family pet to the powerful ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Father’ which is a personal invite to observing a dying man, Nessa holds little back in creating her images and exhuming her past.

The poem I identified most with was ‘Those Of Us Left’ which comments on the turbulent aftermath proceeding the death of a loved one. It resonates as it accurately portrays the confusion and stark anger which is very typical of grief but not as often spoken about. The gritty realism in the words leave you uncomfortable but enlightened.

The collection is split into five sections, each focusing on a different area. There is a whole part which utilises nature, weaving rich imagery and juxtaposition to refresh how we perceive sentient beings. There’s a particular reference used to different birds of prey which compares relationships with nature, providing interesting contrasts.

Nessa explores the idea of her own immortality in ‘Walking Stick’ when she details adopting the walking aid that was previously her father’s.The cyclical process of life is a running theme, particularly the role reversal of child to an adult in a parent’s latter stages of life. This is a experience many people have with their elderly parents which Nessa captures beautifully.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ explores illness in ‘Waiting Room’ and the failing of mind and body while exploring the impact on relationships. It is a body of work that can transcend the ages and has something within that would resonate with many.

Overall the collection is a heartfelt, vivid and moving tribute.

Reviews, Uncategorized

John O’Donnell reviews Her Father’s Daughter

Extract from ‘Postcards from the Edge’ by John O’Donnell, Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 117, December 2015

The heart of Nessa O’Mahony’s collection, Her Father’s Daughter, is a poignant and affecting series of reflections on the death of her own father. The book opens with ‘Giving Me Away’, an uneasy father and daughter road-trip which O’Mahony views initially as a sort of atonement by her father – ‘Because you had never walked me down the aisle / you sit 330 miles in the passenger seat, / watching the speed-dial, / miming brakes’ – as they head towards her ‘new start’ in Britain. However the tell-tale signs O’Mahony observes along the way reveal her father’s decline: ‘I know you’ve already /left me on this trip, / at Holyhead, at Dublin Port / before the ship embarked.’ Later we are shown the agony – for relatives – of the slow death of a loved one: ‘It has been a year / since you left / the hospital whites, / and were swalled up / by your own chair’ (‘The Long Goodbye’). Elsewhere O’Mahony looks further back; in ‘Walking Stick’ the story of her grandfather’s life is told by reference to his stick: ‘An honest thing: / ash shaft, plain, / crook smooth’ which has been ‘Crafted to bear weight, / the tonnage of trench-foot’, before being ‘Decommissioned once again / into night-watchman jobs / in Coventry, in Cricklewood.’ A case is visible on the striking cover of the same grandfather ‘kitted out as the pride / of the Munster Fusiliers’ (‘Casting Lots’), in which poem O’Mahony also hints intriguingly at the choice facing her grandfather and his brother: ‘who’d go, / who’d return / to farm and family.’ At times O’Mahony feels guilty writing about the illnesses and deaths of loved ones. In ‘Her Master’s Voice’, dedicated to the late James Simmons, she considers Simmons’s elderly dog Charlie on the day his master’s coffin is carried out: ‘He can’t know that a stranger / will come soon, tidying, / sweeping up, thieving a poem / like a starving cur grabs a bone / where she finds it.’


‘Portrait of the Artist’s Father’ is really a portrait of the arist writing about her father’s illness: ‘I trawl for metaphors, / imagine corollaries / for the fluid filling your lungs’, before acknowledging the perceived impropriety of so doing:


My page
has been empty
for months.
Forgive me
for filling it.


O’Mahony should not reproach herself: Graham Greene’s famous insight that there is ‘a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer’ came to him in hospital, as he listened to and watched from a nearby bed the tears and cries of a mother whose son had just died, thinking: ‘This is something which one day I might need.’ A writer does need a good editor, howerver, and there are a couple of curious glitches in an otherwise attractive presentation. A more ruthless editor might also have advised against the inclusion of one or two less successful pieces. At its best, though, O’Mahony’s forthright, heartfelt style is affecting, and further exploration of her family hinterland will no doubt yield up other secrets.