Belinda Cooke reviews The Hollow Woman on the Island for issue 66 of The North

Nessa O’Mahony’s, The Hollow Woman on the Island is a beautifully rich collection from a mature poet, where the Grim Reaper’s ugly presence is compensated for with celebratory elegies for friends and relatives, as well as a highly nuanced journeying through her own cancer treatment. The contemporary relevance of the Easter Rising’s centenary is also very much in evidence. Throughout, her technically adept poems call on her readers – in E M Forster’s words – ‘only to connect’ as she juxtaposes physical and psychological states, both to share her intimate, sensuous engagement with the landscape, and make clear how Ireland’s tragic past still impacts on the present.

Thus, she opens: ‘Each decade found its own vortex / of imps straddling chests, white mares snorting’ (‘Bogeyman’) with seemingly disparate moments taking us from childhood to darker adult fears. Roger Casement’s reinterment in 1965 telescopes down to the cancer ward’s waiting room painted with an oh-so familiar shock of recognition: ‘a dead celebrity waving from the cover of an old Hello, / a raised bump beneath skin, a white-draped man / scanning penumbras on illuminated screens’. The temporospatial shifts in the 1916 reenactment of ‘O’Leary’s Grave’ is both playful and dark, noting how, ‘They’ll get it in higher definition / this time’, given the public’s initial disdain for the event, followed by a dig at de Valera’s less than glorious role during the week itself: ‘photoshop Dev in / if the direc- tor requires’, concluding with an echoing of Yeats’ ‘1913’:

‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone / it’s with O’Leary in the grave’ as a shift from 1916’s Irish Catholics to 2016’s Dublin drug addicts as the new dispossessed: ‘Zoom in to Romantic Ireland / blue-inked on his wrist’. She also takes us into the vexed issue of Irish World War One veterans who were at worst vilified and at best ignored,

Throughout, her technically adept poems call on her readers – in E M Forster’s words –

‘only to connect’ as she juxtaposes physical and psychological states ...

delicately touched upon by juxtaposing her visit to the 1916’s leader Pádraig Pearse’s old experimental school of St Enda’s with her mother’s one to the French war grave of a relative who died in the final months of the war: ‘We shall not forget, how could we? / Shared genes give the same nose, / domed head, the pale blue eyes

...’ (‘Age Shall Not Weary Them’).
She draws on her meticulous passion for landscape

and wildlife to celebrate and lament. Ireland’s tragic past – its famine, poverty, repression, stagnation and necessary emigration – haunts the collection. Unmarked graves are the living reminder of all that past as in this lovely spare poem taking us into the bleakness of that blank terrain:

The grass grows the same here: the odd blown-in
pollinated by cloven hooves. We keep our mouths shut, look the other way

(‘Folk Memory’)

The land is also remote and unforgiving: ‘... memories of going Winter-mad // ... Black dog, black moods, black God’ (‘“In Ainm Croim”’), yet also a source of simple pleasure as we see her debunking the recent emphasis on STEM subjects by noting the poetry within science:

‘Dreamers gave us mother of pearl / and you know what trouble / dreams got us into’ (‘From a Beachcomber’s Manual’). Certainly she, herself, observes that natural world with the scientist’s eye, along with environmen- tal concerns: ‘like the names of things / we knew only yesterday’ (‘Absence’); her microscopic observation, ‘one downpour / would tear those skirts / trample the soil / with petals’ (‘A Poppy for Aiofe’), always the patient nature watcher: ‘I stand and watch droplets lined up as if waiting for something ... They outstare the watcher: I move on’ (‘April Hawthorn’).

And all the while, death walks the collection. Elegies come thick and fast: ‘we’ve stalked death’, ‘Another bell: / and I know / for whom it tolled, old friend’ (‘Do not Ask’) along with her sequence on her own brush

with cancer. Here, with its mild echoes of Plath’s water imagery in ‘Tulips’ (Ariel) – she really blows us away with an extended stone and water metaphor (the gravestone reference, perhaps, a step too far) to unpick the impact of a life-threatening illness versus writing as a gift against that dark:

Edges rounded off
by the water’s oscillation
till she’s smooth, buffed
into ovoid shape,
tide-tossed onto damp sand, to be plucked up,
pocketed, placed with care on a mantle-piece, a grave-top.

(‘The Hollow Woman on the Island’)

Trace your truth
with a thumb, a tongue, an index finger,
a thought,

a scratch on paper.

(‘The Hollow Woman at Bohea’)



Billy Mills reviews The Hollow Woman on the Island

(from Elliptical Movements May 2020 -

Nessa O’Mahony’s most recent book is determinedly Irish in conception and construction, drawing as it does on figures and events from Irish history, particularly the early 20th century and the period of the Troubles and highlighting the intersections of family and national history and geography and the influence of religion on both. The influence of Irish poets of the canon, especially Yeats, Kavanagh, Heaney, Mahon, Kinsella and Boland, is also evident in the writing.

Unlikely looking gift, this five-barred
metal gate, rusting, crossed,
tethered in its lock by blue nylon strings.
The signs unwelcoming: dogs beware,
walkers climb at their peril
in this kingdom of scrub and rock.

O’Mahony is a very literate writer who uses the tropes of the tradition with considerable skill, extending them by the inclusion of female experience that has often been marginalised. This is particularly the case in the fine sequence of poems that give the collection its title. This set of four Hollow Woman poems deal with the poet’s experience of ovarian cancer in an idiom that seems to owe much to middle-period Kinsella, an idiom that O’Mahony does much to make her own.

What matter
if the eye of faith betrays?
Trace your truth
with a thumb, a tongue,
an index finger,
a thought

a scratch
on paper.

Ultimately, however, this writing is best read as an extension of the tradition, not an expansion of it. It is poetry that is comfortable within its clearly defined limits.

The question arises .... whether or not poetry written out of a supposed shared unproblematic sense of self which is in itself problematic do justice to the world we inhabit? On the whole, and not, I think, unrepresentatively of most contemporary verse, the voices we hear reflect a Wordsworthian ‘man speaking to men’, more inclusive, admittedly, not narrowly gendered, but still fundamentally wedded to the basic assumptions of the ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’ and its associated Romantic sensibilities and expectations. ... Which is not to take from the undoubted skill of the other poets under review; they all do what it is they set out to do with a great deal of ability, but it would be interesting to see them take more formal risk in their writing, to expand the idea of what poetry is, and is for.

Fred Johnston reviews The Hollow Woman on the Island

Whoever penned the jacket blurb unfortunately employed Pentagon-speak with the phrase 'existential threat' to describe O'Mahony's latest collection. I've never been sure what the phrase means, politically or otherwise. The threat here arises from O'Mahony's brush with ovarian cancer and how this experience raised questions about womanhood and 'female identity'. I suppose for those of us who've had prostate cancer, similar male issues ought arise. Do they? Perhaps not quite to the same extent. But one must concede that the 'hollow woman' of the title might diagnose a psychological point of view relevant to women, which men do not experience.

Unsurprisingly, the second section, which treats of the medical experience, reflects some of what I tackle in my own collection, Rogue States. I do not mention my collection gratuitously, but to emphasise the conditional unity of such experiences. Images of imprisonment, a cell-like mental environment, couple with the 'prisoner's' fear of a door opening to admit a torturer. This is the nature of illness - to trap, to intimidate, to hint at further misfortune. In such a condition, language assumes sinister import; terms once foreign become familiar. The word 'rogue' creeps in, not as in 'loveable rogue' but the rogue of treacherous cells. O'Mahony manages to capture in four poems a world of personal metamorphoses. Outside of these, she utilises the language of woman-ness in resonant and often startling ways.

For my money she  - with her precise and musical sense of language and her concern to, well, get it right - is one of our better poets. I think it is fair to say that her vigilance interrogates subjects that are genderless and equal. Oh that more male poets would, or could, speak honestly of their vulnerabilities.

(Fred Johnsont, In: Verse, Books Ireland, November/December 2019)

First review for The Hollow Woman

Many thanks to John McAuliffe and the Irish Times for including my latest poetry collection, The Hollow Woman on the Island, in the latest reviews round-up. Here's the link and text:

New works by Nessa O’Mahony, Catherine Phil MacCarthy and Patrick Deeley

Nessa O’Mahony: her work has a  confident grasp on family and inheritance. Photograph: Frank Miller

Nessa O’Mahony: her work has a confident grasp on family and inheritance. Photograph: Frank Miller

Creation and inheritance are at the heart of Nessa O’Mahony’s The Hollow Woman on the Island (Salmon, €12). Although O’Mahony’s style generally aspires to plainspokenness, the book includes a pattern poem or calligram, Simple Arithmetic of the Human Egg, which takes the shape of an egg and counts down from human generations, “Born/with two/ million but the/ maths are insane,” to the different matter of artistic creation, “pebbles washed up,/ edge wavepolished/ into Henry/ Moore.”

The central, title sequence recounts the experience of ovarian cancer – “The soon to be hollow woman waits/ in a room with four doors, all closed”, documenting recognisable scenes (“She looks at the piles of glossies/ from two years ago and picks one up;/old news is better/ than new news”) but still protectively noticing the outside world, “two parent wrens / cordoning a fledge / as it careered / from hedge to vine / and back again, / settling on the slant / of the garden shed.”

O’Mahony’s strongest poems are those in which her confident grasp on family and inheritance are placed in relation to an object and image (like that “wavepolished pebble”) which sets her world in relation to something else, a new idea or frame of reference. The book remember neighbours, a watchful “Mrs Pass If You Can”, and north Cork relatives, while a memorable elegy, The Hare on the Chest, makes “the zigzag chase of a breathless hare” become its subject’s resting place. The book’s more occasional poems lack such specific images and forceful metaphors as they recount debates about Stem, or encounters with Joyce, poetry at UCD or Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mayo's Marlowe: The Branchman reviewed in Dublin Review of Books

A Marlowe from Mayo

Pauline Hall

The Branchman, by Nessa O’Mahony, Arlen House, 362 pp, £26.95, ISBN: 978-1851321896

In her new novel, The Branchman, Nessa O’Mahony turns to recent Irish history with a fast- moving yarn set in the jittery period shortly after the Civil War. It is an inventive touch to focus on the Civic Guards, whose title echoes the recent troubles. In the town of Ballinasloe, as throughout Ireland, the Garda Síochána are an important group. They stand in many ways at the forefront of efforts to calm and normalise life for a society still traumatised. Yet they too ‑ as individuals and as a force – are divided and damaged. As Superintendent Hennessy, an old RIC man, says: “It’s hard to convince the GAA that we’re not still the bloody peelers.” And “we try not to stir up too much recent history”. Like most books set in the past, The Branchmanhas resonance with the present moment.

The originality of this novel lies in O’Mahony’s treating of dirty work in Co Galway in 1925 within many of the conventions of American private eye fiction. I suspect that Nessa is, like myself, a fan of the peerless Raymond Chandler. Her hero, Michael Mackey – the Branchman – has to go down mean streets, without being mean himself. Like Philip Marlowe, he can exchange blows and shots when required, but he resembles Marlowe also in his stubborn principles and his romantic attachment to a tough broad.

The device allows O’Mahony to enliven the dialogue with wisecracks, especially from Sergeant Joe Costello, a fan of American pulp novels. Costello remarks of the station files, “I do like a bit of fiction now and then,” and, as the body count rises, “there are only so many suspects to go around”. In his role as desk sergeant, Costello epitomises a self-serving institutionalised policeman who could easily belong to Chandler’s Bay City police district. We see him as preoccupied with his tea and sandwiches, controlling communications inside and outside the barracks. Many scenes end with him “lifting the phone”. Or “replacing the receiver”. Her use of tough banter is a clever vehicle for O’Mahony’s major theme: how cynicism has supplanted idealism among the servants of the newly established Free State.

One classic fiction plot is built on the arrival of a newcomer into a tight-knit society, whereby long-dormant quarrels revive. Here Mackey is an unknown quantity, inevitably mistrusted by all the local gardaí as the guy from headquarters with fancy ideas. “Nobody told anything straight, it seemed.” Like Marlowe, an outsider but sufficiently in the know to upend a society where everyone has something to hide, everyone is tainted by a time of violence and treachery which, as Mackey discovers, has not ended. His quest is, overtly, to uncover an informer within the guards, but also to come to terms with his own burden of memory and guilt. He is a wounded and imperfect hero, with a leg injury from his service in the First World War, service of which he – in common with many other Mayo men and indeed Irish men – dare not speak. He is troubled also by memories of, and unfinished business from, dark deeds done during the War of Independence and the Civil War. Nor is his concealment of his service on the Western Front the only amnesia: many episodes from past struggles hover on the margins of conversation, as characters rationalise the choices they made and endure the consequences.

In his reflective self-awareness, Mackey contrasts with his opposite number, who has also just returned to the scene of many killings. He is a kind of shadow to Mackey – the guy who got the girl that Mackey fancied. Richie Latham appears initially as a tall figure in the long coat that is shorthand for a senior republican leader – as for instance in the recently screened RTÉ TV series Resistance. There, once the fictional hero Jimmy Mahon becomes a lieutenant of Michael Collins, he adopts a respectable formal wardrobe, including a long coat. Richie Latham has changed from diehard freedom fighter into gangster. He is still charismatic and sexy, but a bad egg, driven only by cruelty and pursuit of personal gain.

The reader is struck by idioms that belong to later periods than the 1920s, including some from our current discourse: (“back in the day”, “hospitality industry”, “be our guest”, “check it out”, “any time soon”, “give us a bell”, “get-out clause”, even “scarce garda resources”). Initially, I found this irritating, but I came to appreciate how it avoids the difficulty of stilted “historical” speech, and also conveys a sense of continuity with twenty-first century cliché – again, the resonance with today. The use of “Ms” in a couple of instances did strike me as too much of an anachronism: part of the credibility of the character of Annie Kelly stems from her image as a respectable young single woman, who has to be a “Miss”.

Whilst there are many, men and women, who are no better off as a result of independence, this is emphatically a man’s world. Neither in the barracks nor the bar (The Mount), where important conversations happen, are women taken seriously. Annie Kelly is lightly sketched, but emerges as a key actor: resilient and resourceful. She contrasts with the few other female characters, usually discounted or downtrodden.

In another resemblance to Chandler, the plot is busy, with a high body count, the consequence of “too many guns and too few brains”. The attentive reader may at times feel slightly more in the know than Mackey. The threads of the story come together, with some sudden twists. Amongst the set pieces: the big shootout at one of several bleak farmhouses, a deathbed confession and an official visit by Kevin O’Higgins – real-life minister for justice – work particularly well. Again, resonant in the light of later events.


Pauline Hall is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books. Her most recent novel is Eoin Doherty and The Fixers (2016).

Splendid review of The Branchman in The Irish Times

Declan Burke reviewed The Branchman in Saturday's Irish Times (1st December 2018) and offered this wonderful appraisal o the novel:

The Branchman

Poet Nessa O’Mahony publishes her debut crime novel with The Branchman (Arlen House, €15), which opens in 1925 with Michael Mackey, a detective officer in the newly formed Garda Special Branch, sent to the Garda barracks in Ballinasloe “to root out subversion”. Mackey, a veteran of numerous conflicts, isn’t fooled by the beauty of rural Galway: “It all looked innocent enough, but who knew what old animosities were lurking in those green fields?” There’s enough animosity to deliver a murder, certainly, and Mackey quickly discovers himself investigating the theft of a cache of stolen arms. O’Mahony is particularly strong on the everyday detail of a stranger negotiating a hazardous landscape – the character of Mackey is loosely based on her own grandfather, Michael McCann – and delivers a series of brief, intense chapters which generate a ferocious pace. Most fascinating, perhaps, is O’Mahony’s evocation of the wider political backdrop, that fragile, imperfect peace that took hold in the wake of the War of Independence and the Civil War.


First print review in for The Branchman - and it's a corker

Murder and subversion in Ballinasloe

NESSA O'MAHONY is primarily a poet, the author of three well received collections, and a verse novel. Much of her previous writing has interrogated the subjects of family and history, often dealing in quite innovative ways with how the two intersect.

In her 2014 poetry collection, Her Father’s Daughter, she published a parallel sequence of poems - one relating to her relationship with her own father, whose decline and passing she charted with sometimes aching candour, the second exploring the life of her grandfather, whose story emerges through her mother’s memories and O’Mahony’s own research.

Her latest work, The Branchman, published by Arlen House, is O’Mahony’s first foray into the historic crime thriller genre. Her above mentioned real life grandfather, Michael McCann, returns in fictional form as Michael Mackey, detective officer in the Garda Special Branch which has just been invented by the first Garda Commissioner, and future Adolf Hitler fanboy, General Eoin O’Duffy, and my own near namesake, Minister for Justice, Kevin O’Higgins.

The year is 1925 and O’Mahony’s protagonist is sent to the Garda barracks at Ballinasloe, his main task being “to root out subversion”, of which there was plenty in the aftermath of the Civil War. In this context the word “subversion” was most often a word used by the winners – Cumann na nGaedheal and their allies – to describe those they had recently defeated – the anti-Treatyites – but failed to actually kill or drive out of the country. The novel begins with a quite horrible murder, the investigation of which is first item on the agenda for Mackey upon his arrival in Ballinasloe.

One of the best things about this novel is O’Mahony’s masterful bringing back to life of places like Ballinasloe in the middle bit of the 20th century. An early part of Mackey’s settling into everyday life there is his struggle to find a place to have a quiet drink; no easy task for a Special Branch man, then or now. His superintendant recommends a suitable establishment, though warns that there must be “no shop talk” while imbibing: “The barman knew how to pull a pint, thank god. And the whiskey was Gold Label, even better. One-horse towns had their compensations.”

O’Mahony makes real the settling political sands of the time. Mackey’s own personal history illustrates this well. In 1915 he enlisted in the Royal Munster Fusiliers to fight for Britain in the World War I. In 1917, after the last of the executions of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, he joined the Volunteers (soon to become the IRA ) and was sent to Stockon-On-Tees where his task was to engage in “Arson and arms raids, mostly. The job was to distract rather than defeat...”

Come the Civil War, Mackey took the Pro-Treaty side and was stationed at Castlebar under the colourful, some would say notorious, General Sean McKeown whose job was to “pacify” the west of Ireland for the new Irish Free State. When he meets his ex almost girlfriend Annie on his arrival in Ballinasloe she quips, as is her way, “Detective...They let anyone into the Guards these days. As long as you were on the winning side, or at least claimed to be.” This is a big story expertly told.

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.

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.

Review of Her Father's Daughter (Salmon Poetry 2014)



Extract from “Past Masters: elegies and the reconstruction of lost worlds”, John McAuliffe, The Irish Times, 22nd November 2014

In Her Father’s Daughter (Salmon, €12) Nessa O’Mahony describes a family history set off by her talent for finishing poems with a surprising turn. The domestic scene of ‘After Noon’ moves from concrete description to a more suggestive note:
And I watch the sky
cloudless for once
in this Irish summer,
and think that
for the first time in a while,
I know how this could be
even more
O’Mahony is sure-footed too in a longer narrative sequence about her grandfather, even if its closing motif, of a walking stick being handed down from one generation to another, seems to elide some of the more difficult aspects of family inheritances.
Like [Kerry] Hardie, she can be suspicious of her own facility, and ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Father’ is usefully self-conscious: ‘My words were cool, disapproving: / those tidy coal-strokes of the dead. // Now what else can I do / as I sit and watch you sleep / one of your countless / dress rehearsals?”