The 2024 All Ireland Scholarships ‘Fresh Pages, New Stories’ Creative Writing Award winners have been announced in the public category. A range of superb fiction, non-fiction and op-ed entries were received and reviewed by judges Donal Ryan, Marian Keyes & Roddy Doyle.


HOUDINI – Sadhbh Moriarty
THE BIG KEY – Neil Tully
THE EGG THAT SPLIT – Jessica Grene
THE FALL – Ailín O’Dea

Winning entries can be read below. Competition chair, Prof. Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, wishes to sincerely thank all who entered.

On behalf of this year’s judging panel for the AIS Alumni Association’s award for Creative Writing, I’m absolutely delighted to announce that ‘Beautiful Like Her’ by Jennifer McMahon has been selected as the overall winner. A really accomplished piece of writing makes this the winning story. Beautifully written and skillfully executed.” – Prof. Sarah Moore Fitzgerald.

Here is what the judges said of the winning entry, BEAUTIFUL LIKE HER.

Moving natural, well-crafted dialogue with writing that is simple and striking. There are some beautiful turns of phrase here and a restrained, spare and effective portrayal.” (Donal Ryan)

An excellent story, great use of language, well-paced, chilling” (Roddy Doyle)

Winner & Runners Up



CONTENT ADVISORY: Adult themes, suggestions of the sexual abuse of a minor.

Boys became worthless under her gaze, girls grew murderous. A scald to the eyes, Mossy Byrne once called her, like her beauty could melt the soul right out of you, or like an onion, and any fella who dared to peel her would be left in tears. Everyone had something to say about my sister, about Caoimhe Brady. She belonged to sherbet bursts of summer, they said, to soft melt of tarmac and bicycle spokes swishing in their breathless way. She belonged to yachts and trails of gulls, their crystal shrieks too poor a song to ever fall upon her ear. She belonged to sky and sea and feckless clouds, she belonged to endless love. She belonged to everything and anyone, but she never belonged to me.

In the mornings, I sing to Caoimhe. Bonnie Rait, I Can’t Make You Love Me, her favourite. ‘You should be on the tele,’ she says, pausing between spoonfuls of muesli. I offer her another but she compresses her lips and shakes her head. ‘Eh-eh.’
I set the bowl aside, take her bib away, and pick up her lipstick, amethyst shine. ‘Want?’
‘Then pucker those lips.’
‘Do you love me, Laura?’
‘Who couldn’t love you, Caoimhe Brady?’

Thursday morning and we’re away to the People’s Park in Gorey, me to lump her around in her wheelchair, her to complain about the chill. She likes the frenetic rhythm of the skateboarding kids the most, but I’ve never lost my fear of teenagers, their sniggering whispers, hands covering their mouths as if they think I can read their lips. Today, their eyes are on Caoimhe, distain etching cruel lines around their mouths. She waves to them and they slink away, muttering loud enough for us to hear.
‘State of her. Did you see her face?’
Caoimhe crushes my hand. ‘What happened to me, Laura?’
‘An accident.’
‘Was I hurt?’
‘You were, love.’
She strains her neck to see me. ‘But I look okay?’
‘How could you not look okay? Do you want to go around one more time?’
‘Want to go home,’ she says.
We return to the car. It’s one of those special ones for wheelchairs. A special car for a special girl, and a sister to drive her out of Gorey and towards the coast, along a fringe of naked trees, ancient and shivering under a frosty sun. Caoimhe mumbles nonsense words, snatches of old songs, a line from a poem she loved when we were young. It’s all still inside her head, jumbled up and fragmented. ‘Where’s Mam?’ she says, as we pass the dark and timeless demesne of Courtown Woods.
‘She went to God, a long time ago.’
‘Oh. Where’s Dad?’
‘He’s away at the moment.’
‘Is he coming back?’
I don’t answer, and in a few moments, she forgets that she asked.

These are my staccato days, heels tapping through the hours. Feed Caoimhe, clean her, brush her hair, sing to her. When the carer comes, I can breathe a little. They told me it would be hard, but I insisted. She has no one else, I said, there is only me. Exhausted, frustrated, wishing she’d died in the accident like her leathery boyfriend had the decency to do. Forty years old and all the risks she ever took converged on a singularity of motorcycle versus truck. Partial paralysis, acquired brain injury, Caoimhe is here and gone, and there is only me.


There were boys, long ago, a useless slouch of wastrels, thick and raw with youth and summer. Most brazen of all were the lads who came from Dublin to prowl Courtown Harbour with carnal intent. Caoimhe wouldn’t look at a local, but the city boys had no fear of beauty. She skipped through them like chalk on a downbeat pavement, one after another, the wilder the better. Smoked a fag, a bit of weed. Guzzled flagons of cider in the pubescent privacy of the old cricket field, and laid herself bare. Dad was out of his mind, and me stuck at home with him, taking the blame.

‘She’s your sister,’ he’d say. ‘You should be looking after her. So what if she’s older than you? My special girl needs minding.’
A harsh word might be spoken to her the next morning when she turned up tousled and shameless, straw in her hair and wearing the same clothes she’d on the day before. ‘Chill out, Dad,’ she’d say. ‘Didn’t you have your wild days, too?’ and they’d laugh together, with a nod to me. ‘We can’t all be stay-at-home Janes.’

I whisper to her some nights, when she’s sleeping. I did it for you, Caoimhe, I say. To protect you, to save you from Dad. He never touched you because I took it all on myself. He never touched his special girl, no matter how coy you were or how much you teased, but he would have if I hadn’t been there. I was ugly enough to hold his shame, and stupid enough to make him bold. Do you want to know what he called me, Caoimhe? His weasel. Can you believe that?

‘Don’t tell anyone, Weasel,’ he’d say. ‘This is our little secret.’

She doesn’t remember the court case, just as she can’t remember anything else. She stood in the witness box and proclaimed Dad to be a loving father. In her eyes, all he’d ever done was care for us, and it couldn’t have been easy for him after Mam died. I was jealous of her, she said, and I was angry with Dad because I knew she was his favourite. I watched her eyes as she spoke, and saw no lie. When the guilty verdict came back and the judge passed sentence, she moved away from Courtown and didn’t speak to me again until she came out of her coma in the hospital after the accident. She clung to me and begged me not to leave her there. I wanted her to suffer for what she’d done, but the Caoimhe I knew was gone, and the broken one before me was a child.


Friday means grocery shopping, me pushing Caoimhe around in her chair while she grabs things from the shelves. One of these. Two of those, please. No, we don’t need them, Caoimhe, so you can put them back. She holds up a pack of custard creams to show me. ‘I think I used to like these.’
‘It wasn’t you, it was Dad.’
She looks up at the high ceiling, her mouth hanging open. ‘That’s right. I remember.’ I snatch them from her hand, put them back on the shelf, and move her forward before she can grab them again. ‘Why’d you do that?’ she says. ‘I wanted them.’
‘Too expensive.’
‘They can’t be—’
‘No, Caoimhe, we’re not getting them, not today, not ever.’
She balls up her hands and slams them into her armrests. ‘Want,’ she snaps, loud enough to draw stares from the people around us.
‘Can’t have,’ I say, pushing her on and around to the next aisle.
‘No, and that’s final.’
She keeps it up all the way to the checkout, until I buy a pack of mints to distract her. We’re all-but invisible to the young girl who serves us, and she doesn’t even look at us when she gives me my change. Caoimhe stays quiet in the car on the way home. I park her in front of the television in the sitting room, and put on cartoons for her to watch. She laughs at them sometimes, but today is one of those days when they make her sad.
‘They’re always hitting each other,’ she says. ‘Were we like that?’
‘Sometimes,’ I say. ‘But you were mostly out.’
I head for the kitchen to put away the groceries, but she calls after me. ‘Why do you hate me, Laura?’
I return to her, shivering with uneasiness. ‘Are you still upset over the biscuits?’
‘No, it’s not that.’
‘Don’t I look after you?’
‘You do, but—’
‘But what?’ I say.
She gazes at her hands, tosses her head from side to side. ‘You never tell me you love me.’
‘Fuck’s sake, Caoimhe, watch the cartoons.’

I stalk into the kitchen, slam cupboard doors and drawers as I stow things away, crush the bags, cursing under my breath for being caught by... What? A child? I strain my ears past the merry cartoon music. Caoimhe is sobbing, but I don’t have time to deal with it. Someone has to clean the place, cook the dinner, do the laundry. Someone has to feed her and clean her, help her use the toilet, be her mother, be her carer, be her everything. There is only me, weak and hateful, unforgiving, carrying a lifetime of resentment in every aching muscle and every line on my plain face. Who would I have been, if I’d been born beautiful like her? Maybe just like her, mean and self-obsessed, caring only for her own wants and not giving a damn about her little sister.
She’s dozed off by the time I return to her. I wheel her into her room and wake her just enough to get her into her bed. Before I leave her, she asks, ‘Am I still beautiful?’
‘No, Caoimhe. You’re an ugly weasel like me.’
I’m expecting a downpour, but she brushes my cheek with her fingers. ‘But you’ve always been so beautiful to me, Laura.’
‘Go to sleep.’

For the remainder of the day, I can hardly catch my breath between waves of nausea and memories. Caoimhe screams in the night. It’s a regular thing. She calls out for me but I don’t go to her, I just let her cry while I remember steps creaking on the stairs and light spilling in as my bedroom door opened, Dad’s breath hot on my cheek and the sweet scent of his perspiration as his hands roved. If Caoimhe was home at the time, she was asleep in the next room, innocent of the sacrifice being made in her name. In the end, there was probably no one who could’ve saved either of us. Her boyfriend’s motorcycle was always going to hit the truck, Dad was always going to do what he did. In my mind, they’ve been doing so over and over ever since.


In the morning, I sing to Caoimhe, I Can’t Make You Love Me, her favourite. ‘That’s a great song,’ she says. ‘Did you write it?’
‘No, it was someone else. Want some more muesli?’
‘Lippy?’ When she puckers up, I draw it along the broken line of her lips.
‘I had an awful dream,’ she says.
‘But the night is over, and a new day is here.’
She seizes my hand. ‘Do you love me, Laura?’
‘Who couldn’t—’
‘Do you?’ she says.

I study her face with its deep valleys and ridged scars. The surgeons did their best to put her back together, but there wasn’t much to work with after the accident. Unburdened of her beauty, she’s more beautiful than ever. ‘Yes, Caoimhe,’ I say at last. ‘I love you very much indeed.’

I lie down beside her, rest my head against hers, and sing her song again. On the chorus, she joins in, and it doesn’t matter that she gets most of the words wrong, and it doesn’t matter that I giggle when she does. Caoimhe Brady belonged to sherbet bursts of summer, to sky and sea and endless love, but in this brief respite between remembrance and forgetting, my sister belongs to no one else but me.


I drove home on Saturday for Jim Lyttleton’s funeral. It was not, as they say in Moyhaven, a “sad” funeral. There were no tears. Jim had died in his sleep at the age of eighty-six, widowed, childless, and without companions, except for the sausage dog he lived with in his little blue house on Saint Ita’s Terrace. Not many showed up; each mourner had nearly a full pew to themselves. The priest, who’d had been shuttled in specially from a larger parish, spent the first few minutes calling the deceased “Tim” until a member of the congregation – I think it was Pat Cullen the butcher – indignantly corrected him. “I’ve never heard of a Tim Lyttleton in all my years and it’s certainly not the name of the man in that coffin there,” said Pat, trembling with rage.

I remember Jim as a slow, heavyset man in a tweed cap who seemed ill-fitted for the twenty-first century, like an obsolete Edwardian law waiting quietly to be erased from the books. He smoked a reed pipe that he emptied into a biscuit tin and had a great fondness for greyhounds. You would see him in Lonergan’s on a Saturday afternoon drinking a pint of Beamish. He wouldn’t read or make conversation but simply stare at an indistinct point between the fireplace and the door to the billiards room. Regularly he’d come out of his trance or daydream or whatever it was to ask Mick the barman for the time. This happened so often that Mick had to be precise in his answers. “Seventeen minutes after three it is now, Jim”, Mick would reply, with only the smallest hint of irritation in his voice, and Jim would nod his head and return to brooding.

One memory of Jim stands out. This was the evening he invited the entire Carroll family – that is, my parents, my younger sister Roisin, my older sister Gale, and myself – over for dinner. It was strange enough that an elderly widower with limited culinary or social resources should take it upon himself to wine and dine five people; stranger still that my family was selected for this exclusive honour. Jim was our neighbour in name only. Passing him on the road you might receive, by way of greeting, a barely perceptible bow of the head, or if his spirits were high, an affable grunt. Whenever my mother succeeded in drawing a few words out of him – even a bland comment about the rains or the tides – it was considered enough of a rarity to count as news.

So it was with great disbelief that my father announced one September afternoon that we had all been invited to Jim Lyttleton’s house for “pork chops and custard pie.” My sisters and I, who were sitting around the kitchen table doing our homework, looked at each other in onerous silence for a minute, and then exploded into laughter. My father laughed, too. And when, later on, he told my mother who would be cooking her dinner that night, she laughed the loudest of anyone.

A few hours later all five Carrolls were standing in the little front garden of 14 Saint Ita’s Terrace, a few doors down from our own home. The door scraped open and Jim’s confused squarish face took shape in the gloom. The moment we laid eyes on him there was a collective squirm of self-restraint as the urge to laugh flared up again. He had the look of someone for whom a knock on the door was a rare and anxiety-inducing event. We managed to hold it in, and my mother, leading the pack, gave him a stilted hug, thanked him for the kind invitation, and asked how he was keeping. In a soft, measured voice, quiet enough to get everyone leaning forward, he replied: “I’m keeping fine, sure. No complaints. Come in, ‘tis chilly.”

As far as dinner parties go this was an odd one. For one thing, our food was already waiting for us on the table when we arrived. Jim had even poured a helping of gravy onto each plate ahead of time. Without another word he fell into his chair and began eating. Slowly we followed his lead.

With some people, conversation is a simple thing. Subjects can be picked from the trees. With Jim, you had to go digging for them. My father asked about Jim’s retirement. The man had worked for a private transportation service in Fivemilepark, first as a coach driver, and later, in the office, as some sort of co-ordinator. He said it was treating him fine, and ate a carrot.

“You must have some stories to tell from your days as a bus driver,” my mother tried.

“Stories?” He looked deep into his steamed vegetables. “No, I wouldn’t have any ‘stories’ for you now, I’m afraid.”

While my parents racked their brains for something to talk about, I was completely engrossed in the food itself. The potatoes and veg were just about edible, but the pork was blander than a glass of water and took an age to chew. I don’t know what grudge Jim held against salt and pepper but not a grain of either had been employed in its making.

My eating in those days was on the sloppy side. Apparently a smear of gravy had stuck itself to my chin, because at one point Jim rose from his seat and moved ominously towards me while everyone else followed him with their eyes. He began to wipe the gravy off my face with his napkin.

This was too much for my father.

“That’s fine, Jim,” he said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. “He’s eleven years old. He can do that himself.”

“Excuse me,” Jim said. “I didn’t mean… I just thought the lad could use a bit of help.”

“He can wipe his own face, Jim.”

The host, practically swollen with embarrassment, returned to his seat and focused all attention on his pork chops.

For a while after that the only sounds were cutlery scraping on plates, food being chewed and swallowed, two dogs barking at each other many gardens away.

As always, it was my mother who came to the rescue. She asked brightly about dessert. She said a little birdie had told her that custard pie was on the menu.

Jim’s eyes lit up at the invocation of the custard pie. He said it was a special recipe; he was certain it would be a hit with the Caroll family, adults and children alike.

A few minutes later the pie was produced on a large tinfoil platter. It was a beautiful object, textured and fragrant, with rich golden crusts and a spiral of cream in the centre. Gratefully we each took a piece.

“This is very nice,” my mother said. Everyone hummed in agreement, though in fact the pie was disappointing. It had a stale, acerbic flavour. Something was off about it.

“I’m glad,” said Jim. “Marie baked it herself.”

A flurry of alarmed glances were exchanged across the table. All chewing came to a halt. Jim’s wife Marie had died over two years ago.

“She made it just before she passed,” Jim explained. “It’s been sitting in the freezer ever since. I was saving it for an occasion like tonight. It’s not every day I have little ones in the house. Marie would have wanted it to be enjoyed by children. That was a great dream of hers, to bake nice things for little ones.” An immense sadness fell across his features.

Over the following days and weeks the story of our dinner at Jim’s hardened into a kind of family myth. It was a story we told each other when we needed a laugh. We were still telling it, even now, and still relishing the details: the indigestible pork chops, the pre-poured gravy, the pie baked by a dead woman.

Other aspects of that evening, subtle and elusive enough to fall through the mesh of reminiscence, came back to me now as I sat in the Church of the Assumption. The way Jim looked at me and Roisin and Gale, with intense, gleaming, vulnerable eyes that affirmed everything we said no matter how mundane; how he kept pressing tea and fizzy drinks on us while our parents’ glasses stood empty; and yes, the unspeakable look of sorrow that filled his face when he recalled Marie’s desire to bake nice things for little ones. Later I discovered that poor Marie had been infertile. There had been attempts at adopting a child but the process exhausted them and had always led to disappointment. In the end they settled for dogs. There are some people whose hearts just break at the mere sight of children and I think Jim was one of them.

After dinner, Jim had insisted on walking us out to the road. He kept asking me and my sisters about school, homework, sports. He seemed reluctant to let us go. After we said our goodbyes – my mother had downgraded the greeting from a hug to a polite wave – he stood there for a while watching us walk away.

“Safe travels home,” he called out to us.

The invocation of “travels” made the children titter quietly. We lived six doors away. My father found it amusing, too.

“Safe travels home yourself, Jim,” he said grandly, as if from the stern of a transatlantic steamer. “We’ll be seeing you.”

I remember turning back to get a look at Jim as we returned to our house. Even at that age I could tell the dinner party had not shifted my parent’s opinion in his favour, and very soon our relationship with him would revert to what it had always been: a series of neighbourly nods and grunts, and the occasional bit of small talk. A mere silhouette against the night sky, Jim appeared to let out a long deep breath before moving slowly back up the driveway to tackle the ruins of the dinner we’d left for him to clean.

The funeral was short and to-the-point. They got one of Jim’s old colleagues to give the eulogy. It was clear he hadn’t known the man too well. He had no stories. He said Jim Lyttleton had been solid, decent, well organised, rarely late, sometimes a bit quiet, but above all, good. A good man. He would be missed, the colleague said, though he didn’t specify who exactly would be doing the missing.

In the graveyard I stood with my family as Jim’s coffin was lowered into the plot next to Marie. My parents were about the same age now that Jim had been all those years ago, and showing similar signs of slowness.

“Isn’t it a great pity,” my mother said. It wasn’t clear whether she meant Jim’s death or death in general. Probably she didn’t mean anything. It was just one of those things you say.

As soon as the ceremony was over, people hurried to get on with the rest of their day. Our respects had been paid and now there were things to be done. My father needed to go to the garden centre to buy seeds. I had to fill up the car with petrol. My mother wanted to buy us brunch in town. Would we get a table at The Fig Tree, she wondered?

I walked back towards the car, arm in arm with my mother, in the cool, blustery, end-of-autumn light. As I did, I held in the front of my mind that final image of Jim, big, clumsy, ailing, sorrowful, waving at me from outside his house, lingering in the darkness, not quite willing to say goodbye. I had no parting words for this shadow except the ones my father had offered all those years before, not in mockery this time, but in pity, in pity: We’ll be seeing you, Jim. Safe travels home.


“Tell me a story,” sang the sparrow on the washing line, as it took a rest to watch the wind blow the clothes wide and free.
So the dressing gown said:
“Hello Bear,” she whispered.
And there I was. That was the first day. I lifted my sudden head to look at her blue eyes and knew three things about myself. Who I was. Where I had come from and why I was here.

“Oh good,” said the sparrow. “I like this already.”
“My head hurts,” Helena said, and I knew that it must, for she kept it very still on the pillow. Her skin was pale, her skull shaved, its scar a dividing fjord. Around her bed, machines bleated arrhythmic patterns. This was a place a person runs full tilt into, a full stop of a room.
I can help. I told her.
“You can?” She studied me. I felt myself grow fat under her gaze. My fur sleekened, flanks expanding.
I will dance for you. I told her.
“You will?” She sounded surprised.
She thought about what I said. While she did, I studied her. Her left hand was curled into a claw above the sheets. Her right tugged at it. I wondered if Helena knew her hands were trying to talk.

“Yes, please, Bear.” She finally said, her voice so quiet. “Dance for me.”

“Did you know how to dance?” Said the sparrow.
“Hush,” said the dressing gown. “Let me tell my story.”
“Apologies,” said the sparrow. “I just get so involved.”

I gave myself a little shake. To feel this new body of mine. I unhooked myself from the door and began to glide across the room, skirting Helena’s bed with all the dignity my largeness allowed. I warmed up and started to find some shapes that were all of me and all of what I seemed to be and soon I knew there was grace in my girth. She watches me, head still, blue eyes following and I start to feel braver and slope myself round in a circle, dipping and spreading my arms wide, casting shadows over the bed whose shapes are closer to birds, and hoist my large belly in a tiptoeing sidestep that makes her giggle, inclining my tufted ears to the left, and to the right as my body follows, steps becoming faster and faster and I sneak a peek at her as I twist and turn and her smile, it pulls at somewhere deep in my gut, powering me on so that I pull back hard to launch myself skyward and laughter spills out of her as I sail right over the bed while below me the door opens suddenly and I land neatly on the softest of paws to reclaim my place, swinging on the back of the door.

“Wonderful! What are we laughing at?” said the orderly, bustling in with a tray.

“Rude.” says the sparrow.
“Hush,” said the dressing gown, “I haven’t finished.”
“Terribly sorry,” said the sparrow. “Do go on.”

The second day when she woke, Helena looked for me right away.
“My head hurts, Bear,” she said.
I can help.
“You can?”
Yes, I say. I will sing for you.
“You can?” She sounds surprised, but less so than before.

I clear my throat in response, tugging back from the pull of the hook to smooth my tufted ears neat. It’s a new throat and I’m not quite sure what’s going to come out of it. I hum a little to get started and immediately feel something deep in my wide white belly raise itself up. I close my eyes to give it purchase, opening my mouth with its sharp teeth wide and fall right into the current of a wordless hymn coaxing into weight a cradle of sound around her bed. My voice smooths over the metallic sounds of the machines and Helena watches my face as I build her this song brick by brick so that she can be safe inside its slow heartbeat. Helena’s eyes begin to close as I hum to her the thrum of bees and the heft of a baobab tree and I sing the ceaseless pivot of the earth and the slow, slow tick of blood and the knitting of cells and the arms of mothers for the smallest of babes, and the weight of years that have gone before and I sing love and love and love and Helena sleeps and still I sing on from my place on the door.

“Well, that was lovely.” Says the sparrow.
“Hush,” said the dressing gown, “There’s more.”
“I beg your pardon,” said the sparrow. “Do go on.”

On the third day, her voice is stronger.
“Take me out of this room, Bear,” she says.
I cannot do that, but I can tell you a story.
“You can?” She no longer sounds surprised.
I begin:
Once there was a chimney pot who looked out over his world.

“Oh excellent. A story inside a story,” says the sparrow. “I wasn’t expecting this.”
Day after day, the chimney pot stood tall and brave to the wind and rain and allowed the smoke to climb from his open mouth to the sky. The chimney pot watched the smoke rise up and one day he asked it, “Where do you go?”
“I go to the sea and on until there is no more.” The smoke replied.
“No more sea?”
“No more of me,” said the smoke.
And so, the chimney pot yearned to be like the smoke. “I don’t want to be here,” he thought, “fixed to this place with my mouth wide open. I see all around and yet I see nothing.” The chimney pot grew restless, until one bright spring a stork came to make her nest in his mouth. The chimney pot held himself taller than ever, all the better to coax her eggs to hatch. When the storklings were born, the chimney pot sheltered them from the wind and willed the smoke away from their wings. He was happy as he watched the storklings hold their mouths wide just like him. Then one day they left, one after the other till there was only the littlest storkling, but then she too left and her mother with her and neither looked back and the chimney pot would have cried had he had eyes for he had thought they loved him. But he was a chimney pot, and his place was here.

“What happened afterwards?” Helena asked.
There is no afterwards, I told her.
“There’s always an afterwards. What happened to the chimney pot?”
I do not know. I suppose he is still there.
“I don’t like that. There is always an afterwards.”
Not always.
At that, Helena turns her face away from me and looks out of the window. This is the first time I have seen her move her head. She does not look back at me, not even as the day closes itself up and crows trace lines homeward across its darkening sky.

“Ugh, crows,” said the sparrow. “And storks. They eat sparrows, you know.”
“Hush,” said the dressing gown, “I’m nearly done.”
“It’s not over yet?”
“This better have a happy ending,” said the sparrow.

The next day the door opens early, swinging me out of sight. When I swing back into place, I see a girl with a bag on her back and rain fresh on her curling hair. Helena speaks to her immediately. Her voice is firm.
“Tell him to leave.”
“Hello Mum. Tell who to what? Aren’t you going to say hello to me? God, the train was cold. I’m sorry I had to be gone for so long.” The girl speaks quickly, kissing the side of Helena’s face, shirking off her bag as she does. The girl’s hair is tied back, the tail of it swinging as she unpacks apples and a photograph frame from the bag. “How are you feeling today?”
She lines the apples up on the table beside Helena. I can’t see what Helena would want with apples. The girl seems to be keeping herself busy, avoiding looking directly at Helena.
“I want you to tell him to leave.”
“Tell who to what?” says the girl, as she, magician-like, hefts a soft and bright blanket from of the bottom of the bag and billows it over the bed, smoothing it across Helena’s shape, pausing to momentarily tuck one hand inside the curl of her mother’s stilled fingers.
“I want him out.” Helena shouts and the room startles with all of us in it. The girl lets go of her mother’s hand. She turns to look at the photo she has brought and stands very still. In the photo, her mother is smiling with all of her face.
“Who, Mum?” She finally says.
“That polar bear. Him. Tell him this is my room and there is always an afterwards.”
She points. The girl follows her arm to where a downy white dressing gown hangs on a hook at the back of the door. The girl stares at it, one hand absently tugging at a strand of her hair. There’s a small stain on her sleeve. Her thumbs are bitten at the tops. She turns back to study her mother’s face. Helena is staring at the dressing gown. There is a light in her eyes the girl has not seen in a while.
“Mum.” The girls starts to say. She stops.
Instead, she walks up to the door.
“Hello Mr. Bear?” she says, looking right at me. “You’ll have to leave, I’m afraid. This is my mother’s room.” She adds, as an afterthought, “Thank you.”
She reaches up and gently unhooks me from the door. Holding me flush against her belly, I can smell the rain as she folds me in two and two again, carefully pushing the dressing gown into her bag, pausing to tuck the sash back from where it has spooled out over the side.
“There,” she says.

“Ah no,” said the sparrow. “I told you I don’t like sad endings.”
“Hush,” said the dressing gown. “There’s an epilogue.”
“Thank goodness for that,” said the sparrow.

One day, about a year from now, Helena will be sorting through her old clothes. She’ll find a white dressing gown smelling faintly of antiseptic and something else and she’ll lose a few moments of the day trying to catch the end of a thought, burying her nose in the fabric to chase down the tail of a dream she had of a place where glaciers melt into a blue-grey sea and the water licks your bones fiery warm, a place where bears sing and women sleep as the waves rock their blue eyes shut.

“That’s it?”
“That’s it.” said the dressing gown.
“I see,” said the sparrow. And that’s all he said, for just then his wife called to him and off he flew. He had much to do before nightfall and no time left to sit on a washing line and watch the wind blow a dressing gown wide and free.

Judging Panel


Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald is an award-winning teacher, researcher, novelist, writer and author, who chairs the All Ireland Scholarships Alumni Creative Writing Competition. Sarah is a Professor of Teaching and Learning at the University of Limerick, with a particular interest in creativity. She has published several novels, with her fiction being adapted for the stage at the Edinburgh Festival and the Arts Theatre in London’s West End. Sarah has been shortlisted for the Waterstones Prize and the CBI Book of the Year Award. In 2015 she received a Kirkus Star for her second novel, 'The Apple Tart of Hope', and in 2016 won the Irish Writers’ Centre’s Jack Harte Award.


Donal Ryan is a multi-award-winning author and lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. His 2013 novel The Spinning Heart won the Guardian First Book Award, the EU Prize for Literature (Ireland), Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, and was voted 'Irish Book of the Decade'. In 2021, Donal became the first Irish writer to win the Prix Jean Monnet for European Literature for his work ‘From a Low and Quiet Sea’.

On the competition, Donal said: “The written word is one of the greatest ways we have of sharing human experience with one another. Whether fact or fiction, creative writing shines a light on something that might otherwise go unnoticed. I can’t wait to read the range of writing and new stories that this competition will generate.”


Roddy Doyle is an internationally acclaimed and Booker Prize-winning novelist, dramatist and screenwriter. He is one of Ireland's most prolific and best-loved writers, and creator of some of our most unforgettable fictional characters.

He is the author of eleven novels for adults, eight books for children, seven plays and screenplays, and dozens of short stories. Several of his books have been made into films, beginning with The Commitments in 1991. Doyle's work is set primarily in Ireland, especially working-class Dublin, and is notable for its heavy use of dialogue written in slang and Irish English dialect.


Marian Keyes is the multimillion copy, internationally bestselling author of some of the most widely loved, genre-defying novels of the past thirty years – including Rachel’s Holiday, The Break and Grown Ups. Readers are irresistibly drawn by her warmth and wit, fearless honesty, relatable characters and relationships, and sheer storytelling magic. Not only has Marian inspired and entertained countless readers, but also the next generation of writers too.

Both critically acclaimed and commercially unstoppable, Marian’s fifteenth novel Again, Rachel – the sequel to the groundbreaking Rachel’s Holiday – was an instant Sunday Times and No. 1 bestseller. In 2022, Marian was named the British Book Awards Author of the Year.