All short stories submitted to the 2023 AISAA Creative Writing Competition have now been read and assessed and a shortlist of six Scholars has been devised.

Each of the six selected have distinguished themselves in terms of the quality of writing, the structure of story and the originality of voice.

The general standard of the longlist of entries was wonderfully high. The judges were impressed with the diversity of subjects and styles that this third year of the Competition has uncovered.

Once again, we have noted that there are some incredibly talented, creative writers among our All-Ireland Scholarship winners – with stories full of honesty, compassion and intelligence.

Their entries strike at the heart of what it is to be human, they reveal a depth of perception and insight that is simply breath-taking, and a real inventiveness of approach and language that is hugely impressive and exciting.

Below (in alphabetical order) is the shortlist of six Scholars, whose entries will be reviewed by our award-winning judging panel of acclaimed authors, with the overall winner set to be announced on Monday 10th of April.

The Finalists


A Little Bird

He walks down his favourite street.

To the unaware observer, there is nothing about this street that makes it stand out from any other street in any small suburban town. But to him, this street represents his past, present, and, if he can help it, his future. This street is the twine that binds the major and minor events of his life and anchors them onto a mere one-kilometre-long assembly of paved road and path, buildings of various design and function, intermittent but carefully planned hedges, shrubs and trees, unimposing street lamps and litter bins. Certainly, he has traversed many more countless streets than the one on which he now stands, from streets within the same town he has lived since he was born, to streets in nearby towns and further afield cities; cities within his native country and cities abroad, separated by vast swathes of ocean and land. The appearance of these streets varied greatly; they could be uneven cobblestone or smooth, painted asphalt; they could be lined with beautiful classical architecture or imposing skyscrapers; they could be dotted with flourishing deciduous trees or meaningful sculptures. Though they were often beautiful, they were not his own.

This was a street that had been his community since the day his mother carried him across the threshold into the small two-up, two-down red bricked house where his father before him was born. It was the street where he took some of his first steps; where he and his friends would play until the call for supper, before meeting each other the next morning to walk to school. It was at the bus stop on this street he would wait for the bus to take him to his first job in a bigger town, or for a lift to the dance where he would meet his future wife. It was this street he took to the corner shop for bread and milk; the path he walked to mass every Sunday; the road he cycled to a club match at the local GAA pitch. It was a house on this street he decided to buy as a newlywed and make his home, where he raised his children until they were grown, and where he helped to care for his ill wife, before she was carried back to the same church in which they had promised their lives to one another.

Although he now lived on his own, he rarely felt alone. He knew everyone’s name, origin, association; the information they were happy to share. But he knew the secrets of people, too; he was hungry for them – those tales told in faith, until you told the wrong person, or the right person, depending on which side of the secret you were on. And sometimes it was those stories that travelled the fastest, like the rush of blood through a vein. But wasn’t that just a part of it, what was to be expected when you lived in a little place like this? The smallest of places can have the loudest heartbeat, if you only knew how to find its pulse.

There is a breeze, now, as he walks down the street, and he can feel the crisp January air cutting across his face, numbing his toes and fingers. He curses himself for not wearing his thick socks or gloves but forgives himself for thinking to wear a wool hat. The streets are quiet save for the low howl of the wind and the odd rumble of a passing car. He sees a figure jogging towards him, and hears the pounding of the figure’s feet as they hit the pavement. As the figure looms closer he sees it is a neighbour from the other side of town, who he last saw in the pub on Stephen’s night, five pints and two bags of salt and vinegar crisps in, and not the better for it. He was telling a tale, of a doctor who had offered that he should perhaps think about cutting back on alcohol and getting some exercise to help his heart. Says I, doctor, my heart is already broken listening to the missus telling me the same thing. He had his head thrown back in laughter at his own tragedy. Now his head hangs forward as he gasps for air.

Further up the street he sees a woman leaving the newsagents. She is pushing a buggy carrying a small child. The child is wrapped in a blanket and does not appear to be too happy about the fact he is being subjected to the unforgiving winter air. He is wailing and fighting against the straps that are holding him in, whilst the woman tries to soothe him, promising him they are almost home and will be warm soon. The child has flame red hair; it is a lightning strike across an overcast sky. He does not know the woman very well, but he knows from the whispers that she is not this child’s mother, and that his mother is away, fighting her own demons, against the straps that are holding her down, and no one knows when she will return.

He carries on down the street, and it is devoid of anyone else that might cause him to recount the story he knows of them. Instead, he calls to mind all the tales, told and untold, contained within the buildings he passes. There is the newsagent’s run by a widow whose husband had a fondness for the drink and for raising his fists; the pub owned by a man who moved from the city to escape the fists raised at him; the parochial house that stands empty but that no one cares all that much about; the Garda station that is also empty but about which everyone cares a lot; the primary school whose principal regularly darkens the door of a bookie’s two towns over. He knows so much about this street, and he is proud of that fact. No-one knows as much as him. The things the little birds can tell you, and that you can hear, if you only open one ear.

He gets to the end of the street, to the crossroads. Left for the main road to the next town; right to the woods, his usual route. Both directions away from the street. He turns right and sets off down the familiar curved path.

A short while later, in the woods, he sees a small dog on the path between the trees. The dog is looking in to the depths of the overgrowth, and he thinks he recognises the dog from the red collar tied around its neck. It is the terrier belonging to the banker’s wife, who lives outside the town, in a big house surrounded by a tall evergreen hedge. He does not know the story of this woman, only that she has no children, is only seen occasionally on the street when walking her dog, and tends not to mingle with others. The stories that he holds dear do not seem to concern her; she has no care for the narratives of others. It would seem her community is in the confines of her comfortable home. She is in a way a symbol of that which is the opposite of him.

The little dog sees him but does not move from his post, instead turning his head back towards the trees. Following the dog’s line of sight, into the growth, he sees what has captured the dog’s attention. It is the stooped figure of the banker’s wife, wearing a fine wool coat and gloves, with a coal bucket in her left hand. Her right hand is picking up bits of fallen branches from the ground and putting them into the bucket. She must have sensed his presence, because she stands up straight and turns toward him. She addresses him without any hint of surprise or shock at being discovered doing something that is so at odds with what would be assumed of her. He does not ask her she is doing; nevertheless, she explains that she is just gathering some firewood. She says she has been doing this for years. She can usually gather enough to light a fire to warm herself for a few hours in the winter. She used to be more careful about people seeing her, but now she couldn’t care less. She is eager to tell him this, the words tumble from her mouth, anxious to be heard. She surprises him by asking him to confirm her recollection that he lives on main street. The wood and the damp earth absorb the soft vibrations of her voice. He did not know before that she knew who he was. He does not say anything, and she does not lose his gaze. She wants him to respond, to ask her how she came to be in this place, to share her secrets.

It is as though all that he does not know has been presented before him, but through a fogged window. His vision is obscured, and so he cannot full appreciate what he sees, and he cannot understand its meaning. He does not realise that all he must do is take the edge of his sleeve and wipe the condensation away. Then he would see that her fine wool coat is now well worn, a memory of its former luxury, and hangs loosely from her frame. He would see that her once carefully maintained hair is greying at the roots, and that her boots are scuffed. He would see inside her house, and find that the contents of the fridge and cupboards are sparse, the rooms are cold, and that it is a long time since the woman’s husband had sat in his place at the top of the table. All this he would see if he could only open his mouth. But he does not, because he knows he will be the one expected to respond, to empathise, to care, to offer help. And he knows, within him, that he is not capable of doing this; and perhaps, even deeper within him, that he does not want to. He can listen to and recount the story of the hero, but he cannot wear the cape. He can only be a gatekeeper to this woman’s story, and he is choosing to keep the gate closed.

He bids farewell to the woman, and her unspoken words, and turns back towards his street, his sanctuary, leaving her alone with her little dog in the depths of the woods.


On Neurotypicals

A sentence that appeared when researching the term neurotypical: neurotypicals often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one, or the only correct one.

In the neurotypical world, one must instinctively know about unwritten rules. About things not said but which must be assumed. About lying to spare someone’s feelings on an honest opinion that they themselves asked for. About smiling and saying kind words that are dropped the instant a back is turned.

One must know that ‘on the dot’ doesn’t mean look for the dot, that ‘around 7pm’ could mean any time in the hour before or after 7pm. Or that ‘see you later’ could mean they have no intention of seeing you later. They might intend to, you don’t know (but you should).

In a neurotypical’s world, hidden meanings are written between lines, behind texts, under breath. Conflict, arguments, battles are generated from this.

Damaged toes squashed into heels, scratchy jumpers forced on schoolkids, stiff shirts and ties on men in certain professions. Everyone expected to adhere to a start time of 9am and finish time after 4pm, with a half hour for lunch.

One is expected to turn up to work, school, meetings, regardless of energy level, emotional status, or physical capability that day. To sacrifice oneself for appearance. Resulting in unwarranted tempers towards others. A decline in health. Deterioration in relationships. One is supposed to answer phone or house calls without warning, without context, without knowing the person even. Draining the battery and running on auto. Calling in sick or resigning from work without being able to tell the truth as to why, because everyone should be capable of coping with the exact same pressures.

What if neurodivergent’s experiences were the correct ones?

Rules written down are abided by. Isn’t that what rules are for? Words have legitimate meaning. Things are spelled out as they are. Nothing is said behind anyone’s back. Rather, opinions are given directly, honestly and without malice or intent to harm. Neurotypicals have the biggest issue with this, even when they’ve asked for it.

Time can be strictly kept to or wildly defied, depending on the neurodivergence and state of mind in that moment. Often, the anxiety of leaving the house can make us overreach or completely freeze

There is a deep understanding amongst fellow neurodivergents. Not of each other’s exact experiences, as that completely goes against the point of the word divergent. But of each other’s experience trying to exist in the majority’s world. This creates a fellowship of a kind not seen in the neurotypical realm. No, we do not have to stare at each other over a coffee table once a week. Or talk on the phone for hours. Or chat about the weather, kids, or the bad news story of the day to make small talk seem like deep friendship. We can co-exist in silence whilst knowing there is a level of respect and connection there, that someone understands. A little thread to somebody like us, outside the busy skein of our mind.
When overwhelmed with the demands of work, home, lights, noises, people, we would love to collapse under a weighted blanket and shut the world out. Recharge the power and go again when full. This is what some of us do, if we can. Some work places and home companions understand and allow for this. A select few I suspect. Most expect us to trudge along like the neurotypicals do, everyone jammed together on the hamster wheel of life.

We can have intense focus on a topic of our interest. A lot of us create a career around this. Sometimes it might be the only means to getting and keeping a job. Until the burnout comes, that is. We may be extremely successful and productive in our work projects, but lunch times and social gatherings drain our spirit. The intensity of our focus also speeds up the emptying process. Burnout literally feels like a spent body battery, like the juice has poured down to your feet and out the bottom. The energy normally used for getting dressed, brushing teeth, washing hair is gone. Let alone that which is reserved for getting to work, saying hello to colleagues, phone calls, completing tasks. It can lead to a deep melancholy. Devoid of capacity for productivity, joy, even eating.

It is a difficult way to be, neurodivergent, but only because one must live in a neurotypical world. If only we were allowed to express ourselves how we wish, speak to those we want to and when we want, state our truth, rest when we need, spend time with our animals and special things, sleep when our bodies desire. Be accepted for who we are and our needs. Surely neurotypicals desire some of these things too? Neurodivergence is classed as a disability, but disabilities are only so because the world makes them that way. Lack of accessibility, accommodations, and understanding dis-ables people. If we were en-abled to live how we need to, there would be no disability.

I do not wish to be neurotypical. Quite the opposite. I love how I experience pure joy from the simple things. Turning my face up to see candyfloss clouds hang in the sky, being hypnotised by a fire crackling in the stove, having my dog twitch in her sleep beside me and imagining what her dreams are made of. My intense curiosity and focus have allowed me to learn so much about so many things, read hundreds of books, and build a successful career. My strong sense of justice has enabled me to speak up about things that are wrong and given me robust moral values.

What we need more in the world is a profound improvement in the acceptance of difference. Respect towards each and every person, animal, thing, and our environment. I don’t have high hopes that the world at large can change. But if somebody reads this and sees someone struggling in the future, neurodivergent or not, they might have a bit more compassion for their experience. Just because a certain behaviour might be deemed socially inappropriate (by neurotypical standards), that doesn’t need to be judged.

Typing this, autocorrect doesn’t recognise the plural of neurodivergent, but ‘neurotypicals’ is accepted. That red squiggly line seems to follow us around wherever we go. A mark that highlights our un-belonging in the crowd. That pretty much sums it up.


Letters of Complaint

Dear Dad,

I wanted to write to inform you of the ill-will I have been harbouring towards you lately. Indeed, I feel as though I have been shorted a most rudimentary and minimal preparation as to my expectations of the opposite sex. Rather, I have been groomed for a reality that is conspicuously not the one I am grounded in today. Another lonely disappointment yesterday evening during my Skype call with my significant other. On outlining in some detail my journey on the emotional spectrum since I got here, from isolation and fear to intense anxiety and boredom, I gained little comfort to learn that he was uninterested - nay, downright unwilling - to book a flight to try to ease my suffering. You can imagine how this compounded my distress, and I, already on thin emotional ice. I know that if it was you I was calling, video enabled to showcase my growing divergence with sanity, you would have booked the next flight to Seoul. You would go to the moon and back for me, as you have done many times before. Like the time you rang the hair salon to see if they could rescue my dignity after a botched carrot-hue colour job by a trainee the week before the Debs. Or just about any of the nights you would collect us at 3 A.M. outside the chipper after nights out, with never a murmur of complaint. Thus, I am writing to convey my most grave disillusionment tonight with the emotional austerity of my romantic counterpart. It doesn’t seem he is of the same mould. Perhaps though, Dad, you have set me up for bitter disappointment in these stakes.

Lonely in Incheon


Dear Dad,

Sadly, you have left me despairing. I knew that I would need to attend my new office for the first day of my new job despite being ill-equipped to transport myself there. Living in the sticks now, and without having ‘adulted’ sufficiently to acquire a full driving license, I only had a few options. Bussing it did not work out due to Bus Eireann’s lack of vision or ambition. Equally, no offers to drive me there realised. It made me ponder again - I never had to ask you twice for a favour like this. In fact, I never had to ask at all. You always intuited the need before it became one. I remember the day you dropped everything to drive up to Galway to chauffeur me around to various medical outlets to help me collect research questionnaires for some underwhelming summer study. So trivial a chore to travel six hours for, but you knew I was hopeless without you. I feel alone now and as if the whole world ceases to care or want to pre-empt my anxieties like you did. Like sourcing a drive to your anniversary Mass, I came up short again. It had a distinct poignancy about it this time. This predicament applies to many things (did you know it is completely uncommon for a partner to help with suitcases or bringing in the shopping bags without an explicit request for help in these times?). I’m not sure, being in my present state, it was a good idea to shelter me so lovingly from real-world dilemmas.

Stranded in The Back of Beyonds


Dear Dad,

All those years, I was insulated in your walled garden of love and safety and home. Out here, there are no more simple and genuine ‘I love you’s’. All those ‘love you’s’ to the sound of a closing car door, at the end of the phone call, as you turned out the hall light - the sound of pure, unconditional love - they don’t come as easily anymore. It has been awhile since I heard the phrase delivered. I had no conception of the possible scarcity of the emotion and its assertion (at least, it is in dire supply by men native to these shores anyway). All these nutrients you provided so naturally and abundantly are so foreign outside your garden…

Loveless in Dublin


Dear Dad,

You led me to believe that my worthiness was not based on grades, money, beauty, the lot. This, I can confirm, is not a philosophy embraced by the world outside. I have lost respect, friendships and general interest since I did not claim New Fancy Job. People seem much more interested in being associated with me when I had the Big-Job-in-London going on. You always said to pursue something ‘only s’long as you’re happy’. Well, that’s no easy feat in its own right, but it seems others have attached hidden conditions to their love and friendship. I must be losing my ambition because I am rather happy in the ‘steerage’ of life. I have no great desire to climb the corporate ladder to nowhere. Like Top Gun’s ‘Maverick’, ‘I am where I belong’, though others do not vie for the same contentment. Another lesson I am learning to harden me up for this life.

Snubbed in Soho


Dear Dad,

You certainly made this one look easy. Again, can reliably confirm the lack of feasibility to implement in real-life situations. I am still at a loss to understand how you managed to never criticise other people over such a long time period. Perhaps, it was just out of my earshot. I cannot comprehend the restraint it must have involved to see and meet people ‘where they are at’. This is well beyond my capabilities. Your faith must have created some kind of divine weather-clad shield of peace within you…is my current theory. Bully for you, but again, another impossible-to-reproduce item for me, the mere mortal.

Starless in The Gutter


Re: Life Now

Dear Dad,

You can probably deduce by now my advanced anhedonia and exhaustion with the world around me. By contrast, I remain humbled by the memory of your daily actions and words. Grief is my constant plus-one; he does not take a day off and accompanies me to all of life’s invitations, great and small. Friend or foe, he reminds me of the magnitude of my love for you, such is the emptiness your absence has created. I yearn to believe that you are, in fact, next to me, behind some kind of multi-dimensional veil, in the spirit world. But I am not there yet. At the same time, I am trying not to indulge myself in my rather enlarged misery streak, but as ever, I am a work in progress.

They say the greatest gift is that you can say you were beloved in our time here, Earthside. Yes, beloved, a gift. I get it, but it is so very hard. Send me messages through a random kind act from another or a rendition of ‘Sally Gardens’ on Marty In the Morning. But I know you will say, I have it the other way around; I need to be kind to others. I know, I know, you are right and my gut agrees. I will try to carry on as you did - kind, graceful and decent.

I am a mother now, to little Timmy. Myself and himself are managing his induction to the household well although we, at times, hold each other psychological hostage in matters of sleep, nappy changes and dishes. It is a new and vital kind of love that makes me smile from my core even when the tiredness has penetrated my bones. It makes me wonder about you first becoming a father, how you must have beamed and never stopped.

‘’Tis the good that suffer’, I remember you telling a neighbour after Mass whilst in the labyrinths of your illness. You suffered, but I hope you are soaring high now.

You leave us in your dust always.

Chat soon,
New & In Love Baby Momma at Home


Blunders Of A Rambling Commuter

Violent and urgent vibrations rip me from my sleep. My mind flounders, grasping for coherent thoughts like a drowning man flailing for flotation. I wrench myself around, arm reaching through the darkness. The fickle warmth created under the thin duvet through the night abandons me. Tongues of cold air lick my skin, as my fingers stumble across the bedside table.

Cable…table.. — BUZZ — — BUZZ — ..table…glasses-Shit!

I feel the lens and frame flee my groping and fly with a soft clatter onto the laminate floor. The vibrations continue to blare as the soft tinkling of my alarm tone, “Forest Melody”, begins. I swing my legs out of bed and the chill embraces me. I blearily fumble at my phone while “Forest Melody” crescendos wildly. I slice it into silence with a swipe of my finger. A dreary sigh gushes out of me, replacing my usual contented yawn.

Jaysus why can’t I have the alarm without the vibrations?

Now — I’m standing in front of the mirror while my razor whizzes across my chin, dismissing the stubble of the bank holiday weekend. Autopilot is the offspring of routine. The chalking off of Monday the 4th of February has begun. Thankfully St. Brigid got rid of last Friday for me!

I choke down my smoothie while I scroll aimlessly at the kitchen table, looking for anything to ignite my day.

With a jolt, I remember.

I must check in with Philomena first thing.

3 missed calls from the principal on Friday morning. She usually only contacts on a day off if it’s important… To her!

Ah I’m there long enough, a day off is a day off. It's probably only something about my permanent contract and shur it's not as if the department was open over the weekend either.

Missed calls are never a nice thing to wake up to after a few pints.

Is ten a few? A couple is probably closer… God I'm going to bed early tonight, I’m still fair shook. Will I skip the gym? Yeah fuck it, I need the rest more.

After stealthily readying myself in the fragile quiet and pre-dawn gloom, I stand at the door, about to twist the handle.

But first, my mantra.

I’ve had it since I was in primary school, I can’t settle myself to leave before I say it.

Dressed, washed, breakfast, lunch.

I firmly push down the door and slip out quietly. I fire my bag into the boot with the confidence of a man who thinks he knows what he’s doing.

Those first few minutes can be raw, but I love the early starts. Those crisp, clear frosty mornings where I watch the sun come up as I crest the hill coming into Geashill. The pinks and oranges unfolding to push away the blacks, blues and purples. That day’s first rays spinning, running and bouncing their way across fields of glittering white. The windmills of Mount Lucas lazily waving at me across the moor.

But this morning it’s pissing rain and I’m stuck behind some bollox of a Scania spraying muck and shite all over the car.

How come there’s only ever cars coming towards me when the bloody road is straight.

Hmmm there’s no long vehicle sticker on the back of it.

Is that a broken line yet?

I know full well it’s not but I know the road and there are no headlights oncoming. I’m doing 75 in 5th, but I drop it into 4th anyway. I careen out from behind it and put the boot to the headlamp. It’s all over in seconds but my white knuckles suggest it was longer.

Jesus I hate doing that.

The car settles into 100 in 6th but I don’t and won't for another few minutes. Mammy would kill me, but she would’ve done it as well.

Ah, only for her!

The 3 other brood rats are probably getting up now. Eileen off to teach, Ciaran to create and Claire to study. Mammy is off to run the school from the typist’s chair in her secretarial office. It’s been nice having all 5 of us back in the same house again. Then again I am the only child that doesn’t have to share a room.

As my heart rate eventually gets down to normal, the sprawling metropolis of Portarlington opens up before me. I keep an eye out for the speed van. The breakfast smoothie has been churning in my stomach. I remember back to the pub on Saturday night. My throat strangling itself in its haste to get the porter into me. My lips sucking at the end of a dirty cigarette while I cough and shout over the music in The Brewery Tap.

Yeah, this is definitely a 2-day hangover.

I never know which is worse, the emptiness of my limbs while my body tries to deal with the last clinging vestiges of the alcohol. Or the stones rattling around my mind as my brain deals with poisons, real and imagined. I reach out to pause the song and the phone flashes red. 10%remaining. I groan as I realise I’ve left my charger in the bag I so confidently threw into the boot.

Right, I'll need something funny before it dies on me.

Tommy, Hector and Laurita keep me going along the meandering stretches, only to depart, so suddenly, outside Monasterevin.

The steady tapping of my feet and smooth sliding of my hands across the scarred steering wheel lead my mind down winding roads. Metaphorically and physically. My best ideas come when I'm in the car. This morning it’s a rhyme about how I'm feeling. It appears in my mind like a torch exploding with a click in a dark room.

Drip-drip. Stones-clack.

Cracking skull is bubbling black.

Seeking. Leaking, wreaking sludge.

Drowning-drowning. Will not budge.

My imagination is always roiling, like a pot of stew coming to a heaving boil. Ideas and thoughts float to the top to mate and breed, only to be whipped away before completion by the moving current. I spend most of my days chasing down half formed thoughts, only to have them slip away into sleep. It’s the curse of almost being very intelligent. I’m in a constant state of anxiety, knowing I’ve definitely forgotten something important.

There are guilty thoughts there too. Wrongs I’ve done and rights I haven’t. Favours not returned and the constant ghostly presence of the hands that have helped me up since childhood. Most of the thoughts are totally irrational. But a weekend of drink is not conducive to cold or logical thought.

And I begin to fester.

The fermentation of alcohol only really begins in the days after its consumption.

I often forget that the hands that got me to adulthood were mostly my own. Every favour as a young man felt like another brick in my bag. The weight of it made me strong. Its constant presence jades me.

But as I’ve grown, I’ve learned to juggle bricks. The bag has lightened. As long as I can keep 2 in my hands and the rest in the air, I’ll be fine.

Breathe out.


I briefly glide down the tributary of the M7 at Junction 14. The peace of the morning is pierced by flashing indicators, sudden brake lights and wailing horns. Each four-wheeled beast pursuing its prey with fierce intent. More road. I pass through the noble Curragh before the traffic begins to stiffen at Newbridge. The rain is still falling.

Not doing great for time now, I hope this gets going.

I approach two trucks, one trying to overtake another. It's like watching two prop forwards race to the sideline. A contest where the loser is whoever gives up first and the prize is getting to be first to give up. Suddenly behind them, a red mist ascends.


Those tapping feet turn into boots of cement as I ram down on the middle pedal.

Not two trucks overtaking.

Two trucks trying not to crash into each other as they grind to a halt.

Rubbernecking fools!

There's been an accident on the other side of the barrier which has caused the traffic jam of voyeurs on my own side.

I jolt to a deadly stop in the fast lane. My chest heaves like the bellows of a Paolo Soprani and I feel my limbs become light and weak.

Too close.

The ticking and blinking of the automatic hazards confirm I'm still living.

Not worth it. Slower next time.

My knees unlock as the truck in front of me lurches forward and hisses to the left. I lightly press on the accelerator, my left hand trembling as I wrestle the gear stick into submission. As the cars roll forwards, I get my breathing under control and check the time.

Under pressure now.

This has been a rough morning.

The 2 lanes become 3 and I drive like a pinball in a machine until my exit.

Jesus I better not be late this morning after the missed calls.

My palms begin to sweat and my tongue dries as I leave the motorway.

What was she ringing for?

I barely notice how the countryside has begun to prickle with colour again. There are budding ash trees and gently blooming snowdrops in the meadows. All I see are the stone walls suffocated by moss and the greasy grey water on the tarmac.

I cruise around the final bend with 2 sighs. One, of relief that I got here. One, of disappointment that I’ve arrived. Like a steely hand waving at me, I see the gates of the school rise to beckon me in.

Wait… Gates…. Why are they closed?

An uneasy feeling sets in as my car crawls up to the end of the short driveway.
I peer over my dragging wipers and see the car park is empty.

Was my clock wrong?

After a few minutes of losing numerous arguments in my head I decide to take out my charger from the boot.

Jesus did I reset the time on my phone Saturday night?

Ah at least I'll be able to get in early and get a head start on the week.

My phone twinkles to life and I quickly punch in the caretaker’s initials to see his number pop up.

I hesitantly push the call button. Hang up. Then ring again.

"What are you ringing me for at this hour?" Mark huffs.

"Well Mark. Jaysus I'm awful sorry but I must've reset the time on the phone and I'm here mad early. What time will you be in at?" I chuckle to mask my anxiety.

"Man what are you talking about? I thought you were meant to be sick," he barks at me.

Confusion and anxiety knock each other over the head in my brain trying to gain dominance.

"Lad, it's a bank holiday. Don’t ya know it's a day off for caretakers as well!" he sneers down the phone. "You're lucky the good wife had me painting or I'd have reddened ya for waking me. You better not ring Philomena to let you in either. She won't be happy after you not letting her know you weren't coming in Friday!"

My heart sinks down to the headlamps.

My throat constricts. "What do you mean, shur were we not off Friday?" I stammer.

Mark roars with laughter down the line. "Ya durty eegit, I knew ya had it wrong when I seen your Snapchats from the weekend. We have today off, not actual Brigid's Day." He guffaws heartily as I palpitate. "Mark… wait…. Wha… Bu….." I gurgle.

I've never missed a day of work yet.

"Listen, I'm off to paint here. You stew on that and I'll chat you tomorrow."

The line cuts out.

My eyes pinch back tears of frustration.

I swing the car around to stew on the reverse journey home.

Another blunder for the rambling commuter.



Mannachán Marin lived happily below the southern footpath of Union Square, in the city’s first northern district, a short walk from the central promenade and two good stone’s throws from the river. It was not a bad area, certainly primed for improvement, but at present still better suited to the optimist’s eye. His flat, set below the 49th building of Union Square was, in fact, quite nice. It was much nicer than anyone would expect, being a basement, but Mannachán had learned from some years of invitations that people grew weary of being convinced of the place’s redeeming qualities. For in the end, it was, indeed, a basement.

The living quarters were spacious, with ample room for two couches and a 6-seater dining table, and furnished with a colourful, eclectic collection of books, an artificial stove and a knock-off oriental rug that really gave the place some personality. The living room led onto a long, staggered hall, off which sat three generous bedrooms, a closet, and a utilitarian bathroom. The apartment, however, had one inexorable flaw, that being the entrance porch; a small room between the front and living room doors, that served as a visitor’s first impression. This room, being the only part of the flat quite literally under the footpath of Union Square, was cold and damp, and had been left in this naturally decrepit state so long that the plasterboard walls had softened and were in danger of rotting away to the old stone walls beneath, a ruse the building could only entertain for so much longer. The entrance hall, the flat’s introduction to the world outside, being naturally cold and damp, was prone to a persistent black mould, that almost entirely surrounded the front door, and climbed from the skirting boards up the arching walls overhead. The mould’s presence, alive and unwell in the porch, gave a distinctly dishevelled impression of the apartment it guarded, and thereby the same of its inhabitants. Luckily, few visitors ever came to see the apartment, and those that did never mentioned this.

Being in his seventh year in the apartment, Mannachán had often noted the presence of the mould in the porch and had lamented its repulsive effects on his friends and family if they ever saw it. It had been there since the day he first received the keys to the place, and he had noted it then too, but it had received a pass at the time commensurate with the optimism that comes with a change of scenery. It was in this same vein of confidence that he was able to overlook the basement line of the address, and the less than sufficiently secured back door, for there would be ample time to fix these shortcomings; or at least two of them. Yes, his optimism, and his relief in the face of such low rent in the rapidly diminishing housing market, were enough to seal his fate, happily, in the Basement Flat, 49, Union Square South. Not a bad deal, he thought, all things considered.

It is, at this point, worth noting that Mannachán did not live alone. Over the years there had always been a host of flatmates. The basement foray at varying times consisted of strangers, girlfriends, friends, and friends of friends. All had come, usually for a year or so, and all in turn had moved on. Barring the furniture, its origins unknown, Mannachán was the longest standing and most constant fixture of Basement, 49, Union Square; or the longest standing animate fixture, with the exception, only, of the persistent black mould.

As the years passed, Mannachán found himself increasingly discontented with the mould’s presence in the porch. Aesthetically, it disgusted him every time he passed under it through the front door, to climb the steps and face the world. More and more, he couldn’t escape the feeling that it reflected something about himself. Mannachán had grown up with mould in his childhood home, but growing older he had come to learn how unacceptable that is to some. You can tell a lot about a person, he thought, by their relationship with mould. Some people accept it as a fact of life, whereas others may well consider it cause for demolition. He recalled a wealthy friend’s horror as they recounted an apartment viewing where the prospective landlord had glossed over the mould in the top corner of a utility room. “Imagine trying to market a rental with literal mould growing on the ceiling. That’s a health hazard. I think I should report him”. As he disingenuously agreed unreservedly, he was struck by this party’s aversion to such a common thing as mould; doesn’t every home have some such thing to a greater or lesser extent? Pondering this difference of opinion for some time, he decided to enquire into the dangers of his cohabitant. And all he researched seemed to affirm this girl’s disgust with the landlord. Study after study all corroborated the notion that mould was a leading cause of a host of deadly diseases, from pneumonia to lung cancer. How could it be that no one had told him this? It seemed to be the best kept secret among the peasants, as he knew well he was not alone in his ambivalence. His horror turned to resolve, and it became clear to Mannachán that no self-respecting social climber could do with living alongside black mould.

So began the mission to rid the basement of 49, Union Square, of its persistent black mould. The household essentials aisle of all the supermarkets seemed to predict his quest, offering up whole shelves of solutions. After studying the ingredients, he discovered that virtually all brands were using the same ingredients, a 2.5% solution of sodium hypochlorite, and some with 5% non-ionic surfactants. Going against his usual bent for thrift, he opted for the top-shelf product; just to be safe, he thought.

The instructions were clear; ‘Leave for 15 minutes to fully remove stains’. Taking the advice, the next morning he sprayed the porch in its entirety, top to bottom, applying a thick coat of the pungent foam to the porch walls. Erring on the side of caution, he let it soak for an hour before wiping away the residue. And to his amazement, it had worked. The porch walls, once shadowed in a greyish overtone, now gleamed with the original white paint, and though in his scepticism he scoured the surfaces for any remaining black stains, none could he find. Overly contented with his work, he beamed with pride to his girlfriend, Lasairfhíona, that evening, showcasing the pristine walls of the porch. ‘Las’ was duly impressed, and but for the nauseating effects of the lingering bleach odour, she was similarly pleased. Mannachán too noted the odour, but took little heed of it. A small price to pay, he thought, for such a result.

With his health hazard competently mitigated, Mannachán found himself to be more productive in the ensuing weeks. The obstacle that had stood for so long in his beloved apartment was no more, and in some strange way it seemed to bolster his confidence. In fact, the success of the first mission motivated him to remedy the second of the three ailments he had first identified, and brought him to improve the back door locks, affixing a new Yale lock in place of the old simple bolts.

Some weeks later still, coming in the door from work, he noticed a small black spot in the top corner of the doorframe. Keeping his initial discontent curtailed, he surveyed the rest of the porch for any siblings, and sure enough found multiple colonies in each corner of the room. It seemed that he had slipped in his determination to live free of his old flatmate, and hadn’t been checking for any regrowth since the first extermination. Not to worry, he thought, ‘I know the drill’. He once again got out his Mould Killer and generously disinfected the whole porch, but decided to double down on his previous efforts and so performed the operation twice in succession. He reasoned that his initial effort, while seemingly effective, must not have totally destroyed the root cause, and gave respite to a few stubborn colonies deep in the crevices of the walls. Lasairfhíona, this time, found it hard to be in the adjoining living room under the smell of the stuff, but the problem was once again contained.

Months continued to pass, but out of an abundance caution Mannachán chose to perform the disinfection routine weekly as a preventative measure, as he was determined to never again live with the persistent black mould. The maintenance schedule proved fruitful and his inspections always returned a clean bill of porch health. Aside from his girlfriend’s complaints about the near constant smell of bleach, all was well in the basement of 49, Union Square.


The following spring, after a bitterly cold and wet winter, Mannachán fell ill with acute flu symptoms, unlike anything he had suffered before. He and Lasairfhíona treated it in their normal way, with plenty of rest and fluids, but for all of their efforts, things were not improving. After five long bed-ridden days, upon Lasairfhíona’s pleas, it was decided that he must go to the hospital. Lacking both a GP and any form of health insurance, they presented to the A&E late that evening, and endured a seemingly never ending wait. Though the triage nurse had written it off as trivial, Mannachán deteriorated significantly with each passing hour. His breathing became shallower and weaker with each cycle, until Las’s urgent pleas for a doctor were met. Immediately, the doctor became very concerned and ordered that he be brought to ICU. At speed, his trolley was rushed down the halls through the ICU doors. Mannachán was placed on ventilation in ICU, and spent the night in that state, monitored closely by a host of doctors and nurses. Having stabilised by the next morning, he was abruptly awoken.

Through the harsh white lights, he could discern two figures, both handling him aggressively as they painfully removed the long tube from his throat.

“You’re a lucky man, Mr Marin”, proclaimed the doctor, with an air of accusation. “Another couple of hours and it may have been too late”.

“Too late…ehhem…Too late for what?”, said Mannachán weakly, still loosening his vocal chords.

“Too late to save you, sir. You were just about breathing, and your organs weren’t getting enough oxygen, much longer like that and you would have been dead”.

“Dead?! I came in with a flu?”, said Mannachán, his confusion growing.

“We’ve identified that you had a bacterial infection, which is what has had you sick this past week, but it developed into Acute Respiratory Distress syndrome or ARDS. It’s very serious, often fatal”, said the doctor, maintaining his accusatory tone. “Though very unusual in someone so young”. At this point the doctor paused, “I must ask, do you take any drugs?”

“No!”, exclaimed Mannachán.

“Smoker?”, the doctor continued, but Mannachán again refuted.

“Do you work with chemicals at all?”

Mannachán paused. “Well, no, but I do use a lot of bleach at home”.

“That would probably be it. Overexposure even to household bleach is very damaging to the sensitive tissues of the lungs. It’s almost certainly what allowed your infection to develop into ARDS. Anyway, your age is on your side. Your lungs should mostly recover, and we’ll prescribe a course of antibiotics to clear the infection. You should be ok within a week or so. But do stay away from the bleach in future”.

Mannachán felt relieved at the prognosis, but felt an odd sense of guilt, that this must have been his own doing.

“Are you allergic to any medicines? Penicillin?”, asked the doctor, brightly, to which Mannachán replied, “No”.

“Very good, it’s terrific stuff, really. It’s saved countless lives over the years. And first discovered serendipitously, imagine, from as unlikely a thing as mould”.


Searching For A Home

I gave my partner a heavy cast iron tea pot for Christmas five or six years ago. He said he will use it when we have our own place. We have still not used it. There is an alcove at the back of our bedroom stuffed with things we have no space for. Prints and posters we have gifted each other that have yet to hang on a wall. I forget I have them, and then feel sad when I look at them again. One of my best friends gave me an image of a woman blissfully floating in the blue sea. I love it but have nowhere to put it. My collection of shells, pebbles and other curious things found on beaches is wrapped up in tissue paper, inside a box within that pile somewhere. My piano is sitting in my partner’s mom’s shed, right below where the swallows nest.

We first notice the swallows building their nest in late April and we watch them, mesmerized. We try to keep our distance after they have laid their eggs in May. I creep in one day out of hungry curiosity but quickly retreat when the chicks mistake me for the return of their mom and start to cheap loudly. I leave, but not before catching a glimpse of the bright yellow inside of their beaks, eager for food. We excitedly laugh when we see the baby birds learning how to fly. Fledging in August. Then one day in September, we don’t see them, another and another Autumn Day passes by without sight of them. We realise they have left, gone to the other side of the world, where their home will be for the next season.

I wonder if the next season will bring us to our home. It seems very unlikely we will find our own place, at least in Ireland. There is an ongoing housing crisis, and I am hugely grateful for what we do have. Among the population of this country, we are the lucky ones. The Department of Housing reports as of November 2022, the number of people accessing state-funded emergency accommodation is 11,542. This does not include people sleeping rough, homeless people in hospitals and prisons and those in Domestic Violence refuges. As of June 2022, there are a further 11,600 people living in direct provision centres across Ireland. As well as those acute cases, there are thousands who cannot afford to leave home, despite them being ready to and needing to. Families of grown adults living together and imploding through sheer stress and lack of space. But we are lucky we are together, many people are separated from their partners, their children, their lives.

It is not essential to own your own place but, it is essential to have a safe place to live and to feel certain that it is your home. I wonder where that place will be for us. My mom and Dad did not own our house growing up but at least they knew we would not be kicked out, or our rent would not go up year on year. They joined the social housing list and were given a house to rent, to call their own, in which to rear their family. That list is no longer a lifeline for people, illustrated by the fact that in March 2022 the Irish government reported that over 59,000 households were waiting to receive housing support. Many people wait years and years before they are offered housing. Housing is not something you can wait years and years for.

To me, my nana's house in Tipp and Grandad’s house in Kerry were the places I felt most at home. I knew that people in my family owned them and that my family had grown up in them. They had so much space around them, situated as they were in south Tipperary and north Kerry, respectively. And when I stayed at Grandad’s I could even sometimes have my own bedroom. The freedom of being so near to the sea and the fact that it had been Mom’s home too made me feel safe and happy. And in Tipp, Nana’s house was where Dad grew up. I had a strong feeling that I belonged in both places.

That is why now, as an adult searching for earth to root myself in, I keep dreaming of Grandad’s house and Nana’s house. Those people and those places are my roots but there is nowhere on this island that I can find to plant myself. There is no place where my partner and I can call our own, or even temporarily call our own. No place where we can hang our prints and play our instruments.

It makes me anxious where our home will be. What houses will our children dream of, after they are grown? Overcrowded ones, inhospitable and damp ones, imaginary ones, rooms that are built and designed for temporary stays. Will our children have anywhere to dream of where they felt safe and at home? Where they felt rooted and felt they belonged?

It is not about owning a place. It is about stability, and, as a child, as a person having some place you revisit over and over, where your family is, where your friends are. Without that rootedness what can we ask of people?