Behavioural Plasticity

Landing Places has prompted me to give this concept some thought. It was the theme of my PhD. Behavioural plasticity is the ability of organisms to respond behaviourally to a changing environment. The whooper swans of Lough Beg have already shown considerable behavioural plasticity; but that does not mean that they are capable of coping with the latest development.

From a literary point of view, migrating swans and geese have contributed so much to Irish and Celtic legends and mythology that it seems staggering that we are risking undermining that heritage by putting more pressure on these birds. I blogged (on my PhD blog, chasingavianvoices) about related issues after hearing a wonderful talk by David Cabot on our migrating barnacle geese. Before that again, I wrote a poem, The Visitors, about the whooper swans of Landing Places. At that stage, my main concern was the effect of climate change on their summering grounds. Ahead of Saturday’s reading, I am trying to write a follow-up, But on re-reading my first poem, I was struck by how I’d already incorporated many of ideas of behavioural plasticity: while it’s elastic, it has limits.  Chris Murphy is leading (and personally financing, hence Saturday’s fundraiser – if you can’t make it, please consider donating here), the legal challenge on behalf of the whoopers and other rare species. Like him, I greatly fear that the rerouting of the A6 will push the wintering whooper swans beyond the limits of their ability to respond.

So, ahead of Saturday, I’m posting the original poem, The Visitors, as it foregrounds some of the environmental changes that the swans have already coped with so admirably as a way of perhaps highlighting the danger of stealing any more of their resilience. The poem was published New Hibernia Review (vol 12, no.4) in winter 2008.

(NB: the visuals of the poem suffer here because of the refusal of wordpress to allow me to indent. But the content/lineation are as in the previously published version).


The Visitors

Another winter flown by
and I didn’t take the scope, stop at Toome
and welcome the Whoopers with proper fervour.

Weekly, this year, I’ve bussed past, eyes
sharpening to their flecks of purity,
a microscopist’s skill resolving them

from dish-rag smudges of sheep.
How unlikely this territory
is now for their wintering!

Once, I suppose, the lough’s hinterlands
made a marshy refuge: spongy ground tufted with rushes,
shaggy with willows; shallow pools ragged with sedges and reeds;

a damp undramatic country
to counter the sear of polar light, a summer’s
exertions, the long hazardous flight;

misted quietness to dabble and drift winter by.

Now it is farmland, claimed, drained,
to a flat uniformity, the silt of ages
greening its pastures;
and still the swans come,

faithful to the ways of their ancestors,
grazing like miniature aurochs, hazed
by their distance from the road.



They adapt, these birds. I’d thought to write
of their great white wings, the chill of blue light
they bring south; a poem of legend and magic;

but somehow it wouldn’t fit these avian herbivores.
They are almost domestic, urban. What did they make
of the re-engineering of their winter grounds

the autumn the by-pass was finished? – that arc of the new bridge,
its purple neon glowing like some hooped rod
to ground the aurora borealis?

How topography morphs: a country road snakeskins
to dual carriageway; buildings yo-yo;
the land is sliced by new scars.


I could wish for ancient patterns to maintain
long after the drains, the sheughs, collapse; swamps
return; that blebs of wildness still flourish

when the bridge’s brightness has slumped
into a marsh; a humanless world scab over;
and, true, these bustling arctic burghers

lend that hope. Creatures cope;
until they can’t; and it’s not this road, this vehicle
and the like that will break them – changes

related, insidious, will, out of sight,
high on the cap of the planet, rob their nesting
grounds from under them. We are not destroyed

by dangers we can see: it’s the unpredicted,
unlooked-out-for, consequence that steals
resilience, pushes a body beyond its measure.

The swans
look comfortable with their wintering.

It’s their summers I worry for.

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Landing Places


Landing Places is an event not to be missed. Poet, playwright and photographer Maria McManus is spearheading this fundraiser at the Crescent Arts Centre as part of the SAVEHEANEYCOUNTRY campaign ahead of the final hearing on the 11 August 2017 re the routing of the A6 through the wintering grounds (Lough Beg and adjacent territory) of the whooper swans. (For more details, see Maria’s blog post here, and if you can’t make the event, please consider donating here). I am privileged to be among the poets taking part. Come along and be part of Northern Ireland’s Standing Rock. The swans need our voices and our support.

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William Carleton Summer School

I am really looking forward to reading at the 2017 William Carleton Summer School, on Friday 15 September at 3:15pm, in the beautiful Corick House, between Augher and Clogher in Co Tyrone. More details of the Summer School will be found on their website and on William Carleton Facebook page in due course.

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Very pleased to have had new poems (The Reckoning; The White Dove; Action; Healing) published in Poetry NI‘s FourXFour, (Issue 22 Summer 2017, which can be downloaded here). I’m in great company with Maura Johnston, Therese Kearney and Anita Gracey. Thanks to Colin Dardis, editor, for this honour.

Four X Four photo.png

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Lunar Poetry Podcasts: the Belfast edition

The recent Belfast Book festival featured a recording for Lunar Poetry podcasts. I was delighted to be one of the poets recorded, with Anne McMaster, to showcase Women Aloud NI.

The episode also features an interview with the editors of Belfast’s new literary magazine, The Tangerine, and with poet Matthew Rice. Click HERE to hear us all.

I read recently published or soon-to-be published poems: The Road Back; 3 Letterboy Road; The Opposite Birds; and Feral. You can hear them from minute 37.

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Cyphers 83

Delighted to have had my poem Post Mortem published in the latest edition of Cyphers. Another poem, Requiem, has been accepted for a subsequent edition. Cyphers 83 also features a number of poems, articles and moving tributes to the much-missed Leland Bardwell, former editor. Thanks to the Macdara Woods, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (editors), and Joseph Woods, for the honour of being included in this issue.


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The Spark

Always great to get a local boost, especially in my native county, Fermanagh. The Spark, has published five new poems: Keeper of the Flame; Passage; The Trap; Feral; What you need you to do. With thanks to Dermot Maguire, editor.


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Women Aloud for International Women’s Day

I read Rebecca’s Solnit’s Silence and powerlessness go hand in hand – women’s voices must be heard and was moved to tears.

Then I went out and spoke. Two Women Aloud 2017 events in Belfast to celebrate International Women’s Day let me add my voice to others.

First, the flashmob where we strolled around a late-morning city centre like troubadours to read our work, and made some noise. Then a wonderful reading (two stages!) in Easons, Belfast.

The atmosphere at both events was gorgeous. It was a really fun experience, and the reading audiences were so attentive and supportive. And it was brilliant to have so much talent showcased.

But the important thing was that women’s voices were heard.

Thanks to Jane Talbot, Jo Zebedee and all at Women Aloud for organising. All I had to do was show up.


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From mentoring to being mentored

Exciting news! I am very fortunate to be one of five Northern Irish writers who has been awarded subsidised  mentoring through the Irish Writers Centre. My novel-in-progress will benefit so much! While I’m incredibly busy with paid work at the minute, I’m so pleased at the chance to get this level of feedback for my “real” work. Thanks also to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for this support.

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Happy New Year!

2017 is getting off to a good start. I have joined the Irish Writers Centre’s One-to-One Mentoring service for poetry. I’m looking forward to opportunities to work with  beginning and emerging poets in a way that focuses on the directions that they want to take their work.




I also have a number of Creative Writing and Poetry facilitation events coming up very soon. For more details, check out my Calendar pages for Poetry and for Creative Writing.

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