Philomena Barry

Poet, novelist, and broadcaster: An interview with Philomena Barry

With a published poetry collection, a series of novels in the works, a weekly show on Athlone Community Radio, and a passion for the local arts scene, Philomena Barry is the very definition of a busy bee. But she wouldn't change a thing. 

Ever since she began to write poetry at the age of 19, around the time she moved to Athlone from Leitrim, she has felt a calling to be a writer. 

“The teacher I had for Leaving Cert, Art Ridge, really got me interested in English, and after I left school I started writing poetry,” she recalls. 

“When I was in Australia a few years later a friend read my poems and asked me 'Would you ever think of writing a book?' I dismissed it, but then the idea was there and I started thinking: what would my characters be like, what would their names be?”

The seeds had been sown for Philomena's first foray into novel-writing, and her instinct was to write a murder mystery novel, which has since grown into a series, the 'Koala Beach Mysteries', set in Australia. 

“I didn't have to decide on the genre, it was just automatic. I read a lot of murder mysteries and grew up watching 'Perry Mason', 'Columbo', 'Murder She Wrote', so it was just natural. 

“But my books are quite tame – there's no blood and guts. I describe them as being like 'Murder She Wrote', except Jessica is in her 20s, and instead of a cold town in America, it's a sunny seaside town in Australia.”

Philomena has now completed three novels, as yet unpublished although she is considering self-publishing, and is working on a fourth. The series features several regular characters including her central heroine, an English teacher, two high school students, and two small-town police detectives.

“The third book was set in Italy because I was on holiday in Venice in 2017 and I decided if I was going, my characters could go too. I know some people set books in places they've never been, but if you've never been to Venice you don't know about the fishy smell of the canals! I'd only feel comfortable writing about places I've been myself.”

While the first novel took her eight years to complete, the second and third novels were completed in less than two years. 

“With the the third one I set myself more of a deadline and tried to do a chapter a week. 

“Before I started at the station [Athlone Community Radio] I used to write every morning while my little boy was at school. It was a good routine; some days I'd be struggling to squeeze out 100 words and other days I wouldn't want to leave the computer,” she explains. 

In August 2017, Philomena self-published a book of poetry, titled 'A Fire in the Dark'. 

“Lynda McFarland in Lowe & Co asked if she could read my novel, and then she asked if I'd do a reading. I thought, when people come to a reading it's because they can buy the book but this is just a manuscript. 

“So then I thought I'd print out a few of my poems. I had a whole notebook full from over the years, so I picked out the ones I thought were good and sent them to the printers, and hey presto – I had a book!”

She is now working on material for a second collection which she would like to release next year. 

“I'm hoping to bring out another one when I get enough poems together. Last year for the centenary of the end of the First World War, I wrote a poem about my great grandfather and great grand uncle who were in the war – my great grand uncle was killed at the Somme and they didn't bring the bodies home, they just got buried where they fell, so he's still out there under the poppies. 

“I wrote another poem about Jim Doyle, an Athlone artist who died in October 2017. I shared the poem with his family and they ended up using it on his memorial cards. It's really nice if you can write something that means something to somebody,” she says.

Since April 2018, Philomena has presented and produced 'For Arts Sake' on Athlone Community Radio, which airs on Wednesdays at 6pm. She says working on the station has introduced her to the thriving arts community in Athlone, as well as done wonders for her confidence.

“I had done a couple of radio interviews before that, but the thought of being on radio was still terrifying. But you get more confident. I produce the programme myself so I do all the research; if the Man Booker Prize longlist comes out I'll research all 12 books to talk about them.”

Her favourite authors include Alexander McCall Smith and June Caldwell. “I usually read in the evenings once my four-year-old is asleep,” she says.

“Sometimes my reading counts as work if I have an interview coming up with a writer. At the moment I'm reading the debut novel by Sarah Davis-Goff, 'Last Ones left Alive'. It's kind of like 'The Walking Dead' set in Ireland, which wouldn't normally be my kind of thing but I'm enjoying it. I think you have to read a wide variety of material when you're a writer.”

In addition to her writing and radio work, Philomena is assistant secretary of Athlone's Making Space art collective, and is hopeful that the Athlone Literary Festival will be reinstated in the coming years. She recently added another string to her bow when she was invited to be a guest speaker for AIT's creative writing course run by Mick Donnellan. 

While she sometimes wonders if she is “too busy”, she is passionate about all her work and couldn't imagine giving up any of it. 

“I sometimes feel like I'm juggling and trying not to drop any of the balls. But then I think 'If you could drop something what would you drop?' And I wouldn't really change anything, so I just have to face it: I'm happy!” she laughs. 

“I'd love to earn my living through writing, but if my future self came back from 20 years in the future and said 'You're never going to make money at this' I'd say 'Ah well, I'll still do it.'”
Philomena's poetry book, ‘A Fire in the Dark’, is available to buy from Lowe & Co and John's Bookshop, with copies also in Athlone Library.