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A sense of place by Robert Barrett

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Photo on the right is of west Wicklow and courtesy of Dawn Ovington.

When somebody Irish asks me where I’m from, I usually say, ‘I live just outside Dunlavin in Co. Wicklow.’ At this point, they’ll invariably furrow their brow and reply, ‘Are you sure that’s not in Meath somewhere?’

‘No,’ I’ll say, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s in Wicklow, west Wicklow. 

‘Ahh!’ they say, as the penny drops, ‘west Wicklow, you must be near Bray, so.’

Living in west Wickow is a bit like living in Tír na Nóg, people have heard of it but they’re not sure where it is, or how to get there. Maybe this happens in the borderlands of every county? All I can say with absolute authority is that west Wicklow is real. It is, in fact, a beautiful place, a wild place, of mountains, forests and whiskey coloured streams. It is a place of incredible natural beauty, inhabited by Wicklow-ites with a keen sense of identity and humour, and if you don’t believe us, we’ll cut off your water supply.

I have written since I was a teenager. In the early days, I didn’t think too much about it. I loved telling stories. I loved reading stories. Not writing stories seemed like being a gourmand but never trying to cook anything yourself. I mean it’s possible, but it doesn’t quite seem right. I read everything I could get my hands on. I started reading literature early but it was a slow burner for me. I wasn’t always sure I got it. I wondered if there was some secret sauce I was missing, some wink-wink, nudge-nudge that I wasn’t getting. I can remember feeling a few definite pangs of delight in school, when we read plays like Juno and the Paycock, or any of the Shakespeare’s, but I wasn’t really sure what it was that was so delightful. I discovered Hemingway when I was a teenager; devoured his novels in a summer. I thought, this must be the trick. I started writing all my own stories in a sort of local Hemingway style - ‘I went to the Shop. I bought a packet of Tatyo. The shop was big.’ Then I discovered Joyce’s Dubliners and the real power of the short story hit me, so I started copying that, ‘I went to the smelly old shop on Clonbrassil street…’  - not really, but you get the picture. When I found Chekov, I started to feel that I was getting closer to what I was looking for, but reading Chekov sounded very high-faluting and people seemed to refer to him with a certain knowing reverence, as if you could only truly experience him by learning Russian with a Crimean accent. By reading him, I discovered that he was a perfectly ordinary, funny, Russian guy who wrote brilliant short stories that imprint on your heart forever. (at the same time as being a busy GP, and explorer, but nobody likes a show off!).

From Chekov, I found my way into a world of brilliant Irish short story writers; John MacGahern, William Trevor, Claire Keegan and Kevin Barry, to name but a few, and then I could see my own world appearing. It was the same secret sauce but set in a place more familiar to me.

In my twenties and thirties, writing took a back seat to family life. I kept reading and I dabbled here and there. I stumbled into the banking world, just in time for the boom and, unfortunately, the inevitable bust. As the children grew older, I started to give the writing more of my time. In 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, I was made redundant. It didn’t seem like the end of the world at the time. People were losing far more than jobs. I was at home with my family. My wife was still working full time and we were trapped in that weird suspended world with everyone else. I remember, the company I had been working for, sent a Recovery Truck to pick up my car. The truck driver was the first visitor we had had in months. I waved him off down the road, like a relative leaving after the Christmas holidays, and I felt a similar sense of relief when he was gone. Don’t get me wrong, I liked my job, but it was all encompassing. I drove a hundred thousand kilometres a year. The phone rang off the hook. I was never in the same place twice, constantly meeting new people in new places, on an IV drip of lukewarm coffee. And then boom, my life of perpetual motion had come to a sudden stop. 

I started to look around me. I started to walk the roads and climb the hills and get a sense of the place where I live, let it get into my bloodstream. I started to realise that that thing that I’ve always being looking for in my reading is truth and realism, and a big part of that truth is place, the sense that stories have a place and a time.

Chekov and Joyce and Hemingway, and all the greats, are masters of place. Their magic is that they can make you believe that these flights of their imagination are real. So you don’t just read their stories, you feel them, you experience them. That’s the secret sauce and that’s what the rest of us mere mortals are striving for. 

I think the pandemic for all it took away, gave me back something I was missing, a sense of place, a grounding I never had before. I had finally come to a stop and had started to look around me. Started to listen. Started to see. And now my challenge is, can I get this sense of place into my work, can I make my characters real, so that I’m not just writing about them, I’m experiencing them.

I have recently received an Agility Award from the Arts Council to work on a collection of short stories set in west Wicklow. It is a massive boost to have that support. I feel lucky to have it. It is a privilege and an honour to live the writing life. To get to do it in your own place is extra special.  


Artist's Biography

Robert Barrett lives in west Wicklow, where he writes flash fiction, short stories, and plays. He won first place in the RTE PJ O’Connor Awards in 2017 and 2020. His short stories have been shortlisted for both the Colm Tobin International Short Story Competition 2017 and the Cairdre Word Short Story Competition 2021. His fiction has been published in the Fish Anthology, Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, Flashback Fiction, the Bangor Literary Journal, The Incubator, New Flash Fiction Review, and on RTE Radio 1. He is co-editor of  and a member of Wicklow County Council’s Artist Connect Panel.