Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Over the Sea My Interview with Malachy Doyle by Steve Gladwin


My Interview with Malachy Doyle


Hey, Malachy, thanks for agreeing to chat with us at an awfully big blog adventure.

You are one of the first people I thought of, when I decided to talk to writers about landscape and life and home – specifically because you’ve fairly recently moved from Wales back to Ireland. What sort of things were behind your decision to ‘go back?’


Mera peak in the Himalayas. But you done it, Malachy Doyle



Not so recently, Steve. I’ve actually been back in Ireland thirteen years now, but keep up a close connection with Wales, both in my writing life and most importantly my family life. Liz and I brought up our children in Wales and it’s where I became a writer. Wales was very good to us, but when all three children left home, for college and beyond, Liz and I decided to begin a new adventure. We’ve always loved  Donegal – the wildest and most anarchic corner of Ireland, and came across an old farmhouse on a tiny island that we fell in love with. It has a bridge to the mainland so is both connected to the world but sufficiently apart to feel extraordinary. It’s an amazing place to live and I know every square inch of it by now – the beaches, the wildlife, the sky and the sea. But it’s also within reach of some wonderful mountains, so it’s the best of all possible worlds for me.

Donegal instantly felt like home and the people, hereabouts, are like nowhere else on earth!

Ironically though, all our children returned to Wales to settle down, so Liz and I are forever, when possible, hopping across to visit them and our grandchildren. I still work a lot with Welsh publishers, too. So it’s like we have two homes – Ireland and Wales. 





Now from everything that appears on your website and in interviews, landscape is clearly important to you. Would you care to put the reasons into words?


I grew up by the sea, in Whitehead, County Antrim. As the seventh of eight, and eventually eleven children, there were too many of us to keep tabs on so we were free to wander and wander I did, from morning till night. Along the shore, over the clifftops, over the fields, into the woods…

I’ve always been content in my own company, and rarely more happy than walking. It’s also the best place to free the mind from the minutiae of the everyday, to open the heart to imagination, to story. Some of my best lines, my best stories come to me as I walk. Pacing the beach one day I found myself singing ‘ Once upon a mountain stood a Xyderzee…’ Where did it come from? I’ve no idea. But where did it go? Straight down on paper when I got home, to become the first line of one of my favourite picture books (When a Zeeder Met a Xyder, illustrated by the wonderful Joel Stewart).  I walk the coast, the hills, every day and it feeds my soul. I couldn’t live without it.

I crave beauty – in music, in art and in landscape. Throw in a bit of wildness and you’ve got me. Donegal’s got me.  



You once said we’d be most likely to find you sitting at your desk in Aberdyfi, staring out to sea. Where are you now, and how different is the view?


Today I look out from my study to – on the left, the stone barn where Liz paints; across the way our neighbour Cecilia’s thatched cottage; next to that Brendan’s old cottage; next to that a hill of gorse, ablaze most of the year; then the long view past our ducks, over the stone wall, across the fields to the shore, over the water to the village, and then on beyond the rolling hills to my favourite mountain, Errigal, which calls me from my desk in sunshine and snow. 





You’re known for your picture books particularly. To write them is a specific and often highly specialised art which is much harder than it appears to the novice. Is there anything particular in your background, or in your favourite reading that has led to this kind of specialism.


I went to an evening class, over 25 years ago now, in creative writing, in Ysgol Bro Ddyfi, Machynlleth. Zoe, the tutor, asked us to write a memory of childhood. I wrote about my mother’s button box. Zoe liked it, and I realised both that I could write and that I could tap into my early childhood and recreate it with ease and enjoyment. So that’s what I do. When I go teenage I get all angsty, because that’s how I was in those years, so these days I generally stick with my early years, when everything was happy and joyful. Before Belfast, before the ‘troubles’, before my mother getting ill...

When I write of childhood I become that little Malachy, when everything was new and exciting. When everything was good.

Picture books also suit me because I love miniature. I love poetry. And there’s already a poet in our family, my older brother Greg, so I do the picture books.



We first met on the two courses I attended at Ty Newydd Writing Centre on the Lleyn Peninsula, which you co-tutored with Kevin Crossley-Holland. The first thing I noticed about you was just how much fun you clearly had when you read us your books and showed us the pictures. Where did these skills and enthusiasm come from?


I write from joy. I try and live with joy. I’ve been incredibly blessed, for some strange reason, in that I live exactly where I most want to live, with the person I most want to live with, doing what I most want to do – writing stories and making books. What could be better?

And I love to share that joy with children, when I read to them and work with them. I’ve always thought of myself as quite a reserved person but as a performer I’m not like that at all. It’s funny how you can change, once you uncover the gifts you’ve been given, and feel the desire to share them. 

It’s also why I love to try and help other writers find their voice, as Kevin and Valerie Bloom did for me, at Ty Neywydd, all those years ago, when I was only starting. 




Let’s take a pause then, Malachy to ask you the question I ask everyone. Imagine you’re looking out from the front door of the house where you were born, or, if you prefer, out on a familiar walk. Tell us about what you see?


Slippers off. Boots on. Treacle the collie dog comes running, knowing what that means. Clover, the older one follows, just as pleased but somewhat slower.

A nod to the mountain, over the wall, but today it’s the island.

Hello ducks, I’ll feed you and put you to bed when we get back.

I’m in a good mood. I wrote something today. Something I’m pleased with.

Down the lane. Past the veggie garden. Past the willows. Hard to grow trees on an island but never say never – that’s our motto.

Wave at old Mary Alice. Look out for the choughs. Dogs on a lead across the road and past Stephen’s horses. Then off and away, over the water. The brent geese rise, and settle further down. The oystercatchers call. The curlew cries.

Round the islands. Have a look at the old dead fishing boat. Climb up to the monument to the young airman on Coffin Island, where they used to rest as they carried them across to the cemetery on Cruit. 

Look out for top shells. For terns and gannets and rainbows. Look out for stories. Always for stories.      


On the beach with the dogs at home in Donegal 



 I know that you’re very interested in both myth and folk-tale and there’s certainly no shortage of that in either Ireland or Wales. Is there much difference in approach, theme, or characters, and what sort of things draw you to each?


I grew up with folk tale. My eldest brother David used to sit by my bed and tell me the classic Irish folk tales. My favourite childhood books were Andrew Lang’s coloured fairy books (until I was about 15 – my fellow-teenagers thought I was weird!) I clearly remember an old seanchaí (storyteller) in the Donegal Gaeltacht, where we were sent to learn Irish (not far from where I now live, in fact), telling us of his encounters with the little people. And I believed him, because he said it with total conviction. And he was so otherworldly himself that anything seemed possible. 

So folk tale has been part of my life, part of my psyche, forever. When I came to writing, it was the obvious start point. One of my first books, The Children of Nuala, is based on one of my very favourite Irish tales, The Children of Lir. Many of my early picture books take folk tales as their start point or inspiration: The Great Castle of Marshmangle is based on ‘Master of all Masters’; Sleepy Pendoodle comes from a story collected in Fermanagh by Henry Glassie; The Bold Boy from a line in a collection by Padraic Colum…

The Bold Boy is a good example of how I sometimes take a tiny bit of a folk tale and run with it. If a story has been told, and changed in the telling, for hundreds, maybe thousands of years then there’s clearly something in it that speaks to the human spirit. So I have no compunction in being the next in line to play. Respect the story, respect the source, but use your talents to create something new, something strong, something funny, something beautiful…  

Una and the Seacloak, with Alison Jay, is one where I’m using motifs from folk tales (the selkie reappears often in my stories), without drawing on any one specific tale. 

I also, around this time, wrote Tales from Old Ireland, illustrated by Niamh Sharkey – retellings of my favourite Irish folk tales. It’s been my best selling book, and is still in print after over 20 years. 

Wales also, of course, has a very rich resource of folk tale – I retold the beautifully sad tale of Llyn y Fan Fach in my book Lake of Shadows (with Jac Jones) and drew on a mix of Irish and Welsh stories for my other in that series, The Changeling




We can’t avoid the subject of Covid or the three lockdown periods which have resulted. I've talked to some writers and artists and they have almost appreciated the time and space away from the normal hustle and bustle of life. How do you stand on this one? Have you been offered anything new, or do you feel that you’ve lost more?


Covid’s been hard for everyone. If you have to be locked down, then our lovely little island is probably one of the best places in the world to be. And if you have to be locked down, then a writer for children is probably one of the best jobs. But I hardly wrote a word last year because my daughter was ill and I couldn’t get to see her… Because my wife Liz was away and couldn’t get back... Because, for someone who’s not a worrier, there was so much anxiety around that it got inside and wouldn’t come out. I write from joy, as I said, and joy was in short supply.

But it’s lifting now. I’m writing again. Phew!


 Finally, Malachy, you’ve had plenty of chance in your life to explore a variety of different landscapes. Can you take us to some of your favourites?


Three mountains. Cadair Idris, King Arthur’s Chair, dominating the landscape between Machynlleth and Dolgellau. Climbing it with friends, in snow, on New Year’s Day. Past Llyn Cau, and skimming stones across its frozen surface. Sliding down on our bottoms, laughing, chilled to the bone, to home and hot soup.

Errigal, with the dogs, on a spring sunrise. Conor’s there with me, on the singing bowl, calling in the summer. Looking out to sea, to the islands, to home, and to Liz, in bed, still asleep.  

Mera Peak in the Himalayas. 6500 metres. 65 years old. Sunrise again, over the majestic Everest this time. Over the highest peaks in the world. I’m completely exhausted. Completely exhilirated.

But you done it, Malachy Doyle. You sure as heck been and gone and done it.    


Thanks, Malachy for that tour around life and landscape.

 It's been a pleasure, Steve


And Malachy's latest book, Molly and the Lockdown - illustrated by Andrew Whitson is available now

And here is Malachy's website, with amazon links


1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

What a joy! Thanks Malachy, and thanks Steve.