Seán Mac Mathúna was born in Tralee, Co. Kerry. He attended St. Brendan’s, Killarney, and later University College Cork.
Short stories by Mac Mathúna were regularly published in English in The Irish Times, The Irish Press, and in Irish in Comhar. His collection of stories Ding (An Comhlacht Oideachais, 1983) established Mac Mathúna as a gifted writer, remarkable for his anarchic imagination and humour.
The Abbey Theatre produced The Winter Thief/Gadaí Géar na Geamhoíche in 1992, with four nights in English and two in Irish each week with the same cast - a new departure for theatre in Ireland, or in any other country.
In 1999, Banana (Cois Life), his second collection of Irish short stories, appeared. Banana won Gradam Uí Shúilleabháin/Irish Book of the Year 1999. An Taibhdhearc (Theatre) in Galway produced his play Hula Hul in that same year. His novel Scéal Eitleáin was published by Coiscéim in 2005. When Ding and Banana were both out of print, Cois Life published his selected short stories under the title Úlla (Cois Life, 2005), which was subsequently reprinted.
Hula Hul was published in 2007. His best work features on the audiobook Niall Tóibín ag léamh gearrscéalta le Seán Mac Mathúna (Cois Life, 2009).
Congratulations on the audio book Niall Tóibín ag léamh Gearrscéalta le Seán Mac Mathúna. Those stories were already well known but Niall’s distinctive voice gives them a totally new twist. How did you come up with that idea?
It was the publishers, Cois Life, who made the arrangements with Niall Tóibín, not me; but I was really happy when I heard that he was going to read the stories. Niall is a really famous actor, and he has often proved that, but in addition to that he has a lovely voice. To read a story aloud properly for an audience one must have those two traits and Niall has them to an excellent extent.
When I heard him reading the story “Leaca” for the first time I got a shock because I felt that I hadn’t written the story at all, that is, the story had a new magic that I hadn’t previously noticed. It was the same in respect of all the other stories.
He’s undoubtedly a great artist.
Although all the stories from the CDs are now available in the collection Úlla, five of them were first published in the collection Ding (1983) and the other three in the collection Banana (1999). Since there was such a lengthy period between the two collections, do you think that the stories in Banana are very different?
I don’t think so. All the stories grow from some aspect of my life and from some spiritual aspect – I hope my answer isn’t too pompous if I say that I’m not in the habit of comparing my stories to each other.
In the interesting introductory essay which accompanies the CDs, the critic Eoghan Ó hAnluain says, in reference to short story writers, that “the best of them have left the distinctive mark of their reading of life and of people on that form”. Are your own stories based on your attitude towards people and life? Where do you get your inspiration for those stories?
Inspiration! We’re back in that sphere, the spiritual sphere, and although we love to often use that word no one understands it. And the stores definitely come to us from somewhere and in my opinion inspiration is something which is closely tied to our humanity; it’s nearly like a well with those who have the knack drawing from it at their leisure. But writers are reluctant to talk about inspiration because it’s an acknowledgment, perhaps, that they didn’t write the story themselves but that it came into existence because of the will of a source which is higher than us. Yes, we don’t have the answers because we don’t ask the correct questions.
As regards the other question, the characters, I don’t think there’s a single character in my stories who ever lived. If you take a character from this world, you’re stuck with him, the storytelling is limited and you no longer have the freedom to create – it’s there, created, he’s beyond your ability. But if the character is newly created you can do anything you like with him – you have total freedom.
You’ve written stories in English and Irish. Did you deliberately decide to do that or did it occur naturally?
“Págánaigh”, “Gadaithe”, “Ding” agus “Ciot”: four stories which are important, in my opinion, I prefer to read them in Irish. There’s something extra in the Irish language versions, and I’ve never quite managed to put my finger on what it is – but it’s there.
“Ciot” is the best story I’ve written. It’s a satire on art or the artist in the community. It came into existence one night long ago, in ’69. A while after that I sent it to An tOireachtas – ’70 or ’71 – I don’t remember. It failed. I sent an English language version (with the title “Crackpot”) to David Marcus in The Irish Press. He sent it back to me (although he accepted another ten for the Press after that). He said that he couldn’t accept “Ciot” if it was a satire, instead of a short story. I don’t agree with him.
But I’ve never met anyone who read it and I’ve never seen a reference to it anywhere in Irish. English speakers, Irish speakers – they’re of the opinion that it doesn’t exist. Maybe I just dreamt it.
Something historic happened in theatre in 1992 when the play Gadaí Géar na Geamhoíche/The Winter Thief was staged in the Abbey Theatre in Irish and English every second night. Why did you decide to stage the play in the two languages with the same cast of actors?
That play was on stage in both languages because it won The Bank of Ireland Drama Prize in Listowel in 1991 (Fintan O’Toole was the judge). And, at the same time, Duais Amharclann na Mainistreach [the Abbey Theatre Prize] in An tOireachtas (Máire Ní Ghráinne and Donal Farmer were the judges). Garry Hynes decided that the play would be in Irish every Tuesday and Thursday and in English on the other nights. That’s what really bugged all the punters: “Which language tonight?”
The main parts were played by Bosco Hogan, Mick Lally, Aisling O’Sullivan and Don Wycherley and there were twelve reviews of the play in the English language media. There wasn’t a single review in Irish. But some Irish language crowd protested outside the theatre a few nights, complaining that the play was insulting to those who took part in 1916. They didn’t understand that it was a noir play – they took it too seriously.
You’ve written different genres, including plays, short stories and novels. Which do you prefer to write?
I see myself as a storyteller, engaged in all sorts of storytelling: a fireside storyteller / stage / film / short stories / novels / the pub / poems. What they all have in common is a story.
I’d prefer drama, if that were possible. But there are problems there. It's hard to explain but there’s something against drama in Irish. The thing about drama is that it renews itself every night. It’s a new story because the actors’ new chemistry and the audience’s new chemistry gives the old structure a bit of a twist.
Do you have any particular writing habits? Do you, for example, make out a working schedule for yourself, do you always work in the same place?
I’m excellent at putting together and laying out a schedule for myself. I mark it with a red pen, a green pen and, when there’s a rush, with a pink pen. And then I throw it in the fire.
I really liked the story “Gadaithe”, which focuses on the death of traditional Irish language storytelling and on the decline of the language. Do you think things have improved somewhat in recent years and that there’s a revival happening in Irish language literature and in the language in general?
I’m really happy that you like “Gadaithe”. There’s no note of optimism in the story itself but the drive of the story is demanding it.
Are things improving? I’m writing in Irish only now and I understand that hundreds of others are doing the same. There was an attempt to save the language. That’s an improvement – that’s evidence that optimism makes sense.
Your books have had great reviews. Writing about the novel Hula Hul, Pól Ó Muirí said:
“Mac Mathúna hasn’t a single note out of place here and you come across excerpts which are so sensitive that they leave the reader weak with wonder at the text”.
The collection Banana won Gradam Uí Shúilleabháin and the Arts Council sent the collection The Atheist forward for The European Prize in Literature in 1988. How important to you are these reviews, prizes and recognition?
Writing – it’s a lonely path and prizes, praise, recognition, reviews, give you a lot of encouragement. If it wasn’t for them, there would be no writing.
Are you working on any new books at the moment?
I’ve been writing a novel – Ego Patricius – for some time, which is a story based on the life of St Patrick. But it’s not history! People can’t understand that. It’s a novel like any other, that is, it’s all composition, although we know a few facts about his life and I’ve put those in. I’ve taken five excerpts from it already and I’ve serialised them in journals such as Bliainiris and Aimsir Óg but I haven't had much feedback as a result of that. Writers love that feedback and they’re always waiting for it but, alas, it seldom happens.
The audio book Niall Tóibín ag léamh Gearrscéalta le Seán Mac Mathúna is for sale on siopa.ie for €18. The book Úlla, which contains all the stories from the CDs, is for sale on the same site for €16. The two products, the CDs and the book, can be bought together as well at the reduced price of €30.