This much I know: Rita Ann Higgins

My idea of misery is to be stuck in a house without a book. When I was a child, being a writer never entered my consciousness.

I often wake at 6am. My brain is very active in the morning and afternoon. I’m inclined towards the rubbishy television series and the red wine at night.

Growing up in Ballybrit, Galway, I was one of 11 children but I don’t recall a big struggle for attention. I felt very loved. I didn’t enjoy school. School was overcrowded and cold and fearful and miserable, like something out of Dickens.

After school I went straight into working in the factories on the nearby industrial estate. When you got fed up with one, you moved to another, and another and another. Shirt factories, buckle factories, nut and washer factories, computer factories.

And then a consciousness crept in. Why is there no union? Why is nobody fighting for the workers?

When your employer gives you gifts of turkeys for Christmas that are too big to fit into your oven - and yet you have no union - it’s a sign of vacuous generosity.

I was aware that workers needed something to fall back on. We needed the help of someone who knew more than us.

Then, after a while, factories took work out of the country. The realisation that I could find out more about this type of thing, that I could expand my limited knowledge of how things work, strengthened me and contributed to my voice, which was then only a whisper. Much later, I would write poems about that period.

Things really changed for me when I got TB, after the birth of my first child, forcing me to spend a long time recuperating.

I began reading and writing and joined the Galway Writers’ Workship where Jessie Lendennie, editor of Salmon Publishing, encouraged me greatly. I started with short stories but moved on to poetry as I thought it had to be easier.

I have two daughters. My husband Christy is funny and kind. I met him in the Oslo in Salthill at a dance when I was 17. He is not a writer and has no real interest in it. He is interested in horses, and in the Galway Races. That works for us. It doesn’t mean he loves me any less.

Christy has always been an amazing father. That made things so much easier whenever I had to travel for work in the early days.

I knew the kids were safe with him. Getting Arts Council grants and then becoming a member of Aosdána changed my life utterly. On the most basic level, it meant the difference between having to head home directly after a reading far from home, and being able to stay overnight.

My idea of bliss is swimming with my grandson. He is six.

If I could change one thing in our society it would be our appalling health system. One of my daughters is expecting twins. The anxiety I’m feeling over their safe delivery would nearly send me back to prayer.

One of my worst faults is that I’m always butting in. I don’t let people finish their sentences because I have an overactive imagination. I have a busy mind. I need to be quieter because you can learn a lot from those silences.

When it comes to performing in public, all my anxiety happens half an hour before I go on stage. Once I’m out there I’m fine and I’m just doing a job, knowing that it will all be over in 40 minutes.

I don’t have to have a special place to write, but I do: the box room in the house on the estate where I live. I have a great library there. I spend a lot of my time and money buying books in Charlie Byrne’s in Galway. I often read a chapter from something challenging like Ulysses and then go for a walk on the beach to think about what I have just read.

Reading has to be part of writing. If you are lucky enough to create a poem, great - if not, read. I have a Kindle for travelling. I’m reading Don Quixote on it. I can’t read poetry on the Kindle. Poetry is more precious to me.

One of my biggest challenges was when my husband Christy got cancer in 2009. He had to undergo intense chemotherapy and endless weeks of radiation. But, everything is manageable, depending on your attitude.

Rita Ann Higgins will be reading on Friday August 14 at midday. as part of the Merriman Summer School, which runs from Aug 12 to 15 in Glór, Ennis. Entrance is free of charge.

In conversation with Hilary Fennell



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