BARBARA Leahy always wanted to write. But the 39-year-old insurance administrator from Ballinlough in Cork city didn’t know where to start.
Four years ago, she attended a creative writing class at the Cork College of Commerce, and has been winning awards since. She placed third last week in the RTÉ Radio Francis MacManus Short Story Competition and will have her story read on RTÉ Radio 1 tomorrow. Leahy, who received a prize of €1,000, says she is honoured that her story, ‘Whalesong’, will get an airing.
The competition was founded in 1986 in memory of Francis MacManus, the Kilkenny-born writer and former head of talks and features at RTÉ. This year’s competition, which had 800 entries, was won by Bandon-based Beth Tyrell, and Meath man Richard Ball came second.
Leahy’s story was inspired by the mysterious beaching of whales around the Irish coast in recent times. The story is about an elderly Russian writer who comes to live in an Irish seaside village.
“His arrival coincides with the beaching of a whale in the harbour,” explains Leahy. “The story is really about outsiders, people perceived by the community as not really belonging.
“The Russian man is befriended by a woman who is also an outsider. Even though the two characters don’t share a common language, they manage to communicate with each other.
“I was looking at how whales communicate with each other and unusual ways of communication, something that goes beyond the conventional.”
Leahy read about a beached whale in West Cork and the image stayed with her. “It was quite a while before it became part of the first draft of my story. Then, the characters came in. I’m very interested in outsiders and people who are different, and how they find their place in society.”
Leahy says there is something of the outsider in her. “I’m always a little bit on the outside, looking in.”
Leahy, who has previously entered the Francis MacManus short story competition, only began writing seriously four years ago.
“It’s hard work and it’s always a struggle. Obviously, I’m occupied with my job during the day. Some days, I might only write a few words or phrases. It can take weeks before it actually turns into the first draft of a story.
“ I seem to do better when I carry an idea with me for a long time, before trying to construct a story out of it.”
Encouraged to continue writing by her tutor at the Cork College of Commerce, Leahy took part in workshops run by the Munster Literature Centre.
“The workshops were excellent. I met other writers and ended up forming a writers’ group with some of them. The group, which meets every two weeks in a city restaurant, has been my life blood. It has kept me writing.
“There’s four of us in the group and we give each other constructive criticism of our work. It’s great to have objective eyes looking at your work,” she says.
While writing can be isolating, Leahy says there is a good community of writers out there for support, especially in Cork.
Her advice to anyone with ambitions to write is to join a creative writing class and, above anything, just start writing.
“I put it off and off. You just need to start somewhere and figure out your own method and style.”
Leahy describes her own style as lyrical with elements of black humour. “I’m probably writing very much in an Irish tradition, writing characters that come from that landscape.”
‘Whalesong’ will be read by Aonghus Óg McAnally on RTÉ Radio 1 at 11.02pm tomorrow
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