My Weekend: Enter places you don’t think are for you be it a gallery, a university, an opera - and see what happens

Sarah Byrne, Writer and Artistic Director of The Well Review takes part in the West Cork Literary Festival this month
My Weekend: Enter places you don’t think are for you be it a gallery, a university, an opera - and see what happens

Sarah Byrne, Writer and Artistic Director of The Well Review

Tell us a little bit about yourself 

My first brush with fame was when I entered the world in May 1984, and midwifes flocked to see The Frowning Baby, according to my mother. I was the first member of my family to go to university and my world exploded, in a largely positive way, when that happened. One summer, Trinity sent students on an international school to debate politics, economics, and the Iraq war for a week in Prague. I met people there from the United States, Israel, Palestine, Australia, Africa. 

On a boat tour in Prague, a woman told me she was a PhD student in criminology at Cambridge and I just thought, that’s the perfect sentence. It was exactly what I wanted to do.

So I restructured a lot of my coursework and focus in Trinity (I was studying Sociology and German) towards topics like imprisonment, social justice and psychology and managed to get a place on the Masters in Criminology course in Cambridge in 2007.

That marked the beginning of working for nine years in prisons, community mental health and restorative justice. I wanted to understand how people destroy their lives, and how their lives are destroyed, and reconstructed.

Around 2017, I urgently felt the need to create something, so I set up The Well Review magazine, and began editing and publishing writers and curating literary events. I’ve recently given workshops in prisons, but would like to do that more frequently. 

People can be cynical about doing poetry in prison but to make yourself understood verbally and in the written word is so priceless. 

Poetry can facilitate this given the right conditions. So much conflict in these spaces and within the criminal justice system are rooted in dysfunctional and destructive modes of communication from all sides.

What is your ideal way to spend a Friday night? 

My favourite way to spend a Friday night in Cork City is to meet my friend, the artist, Padraig Spillane (currently showing in the Cork Midsummer), for a glass of wine and to hatch our creative masterplans.

Lie ins or up with the lark.. which is it for you?

Scientists have studied sleeping patterns and assigned chronotypes. I adhere to the ‘dolphin’ type. Dolphins sleep with one half of their brain awake. I tend to be awake for 17 hours per day and then grab the sleep whenever it comes. Thankfully, it often arrives at night, but I sometimes nap during the day.

Does work creep into your weekend at all?

See previous! Yes. I have a very fluid relationship to time. I work most weekends, sometimes I’ll randomly take a Thursday off but I’m not a workaholic, and I detest the glorification of being busy. I’ve literally spent two hours looking at a spider in my bathroom and loved every minute of it. I now actively listen to my body. I’ve worked since I’m 15 and I work every day when I can, I rest when I need to.

If money was no object where would you head to on a weekend city break? And who would you bring with you?

I’m not a holiday person at all. I much prefer to live in a foreign place for a period. Obviously that gets trickier as you age. I once went on a writing retreat, and at the end of the week I asked the workshop leader whether he’d be taking a holiday afterwards, and he said ‘oh I don’t take holidays, there’s nothing to take a holiday from’. This was from one of the hardest-working writers and educators I ever met and that just blew me away. I now live between Paris and Cork, so if I were in Paris, I’d fly home to take my dad on a picnic to Drake’s Pool, and if I were in Cork, I’d fly him to Paris to try the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower because we both love food, talk about it non-stop and we could compare the sandwiches in each location.

Sarah loves to visit Glenbeg Lough in Ardgroom, Beara.
Sarah loves to visit Glenbeg Lough in Ardgroom, Beara.

Closer to home, is there some place you like to head to recharge the batteries?

I think my favourite place in recent times is Glenbeg Lough in Ardgroom, Beara. In the city, I love walking the Lee Fields.

Do you like to catch up with family/friends at the weekend?

I try to take every second weekend off work to catch up with people, clean the house, run errands otherwise it’s a cascading entropy.

Do you get to indulge any hobbies? Even as a spectator?

I did a forensic entomology course a few years ago, and that got me really into insects, so I love identifying them and reading about them, especially fruit flies and moths. I also love to cycle in a pair or group. There’s nothing better than cycling through mountains shouting at your mates.

Entertain or be entertained? If it's the latter do you have a signature dish?

I try to get pistachio, lemon and parmesan into everything.

We have so many places to eat out in Cork - where are your go to spots for coffee/ lunch/ special meal?

Hotel bars for coffee are so underrated. My favourite is at The Imperial. They’re fascinating spots for writers because the customers are often guests so are on a totally different tempo and mood to passersby. And it’s so beautiful. My Aunt taught me that at a young age that beauty does not belong to any class of people. It doesn’t matter how much money you have; you walk into a gorgeous hotel and ask for a coffee like anyone else. It’s a very profound thing to normalise beauty and elegance to a child. 

I’ve brought homeless individuals for coffee in five-star establishments, and it has an impact on them. 

I’m passionate about breaking the mindset that people with less money should have miserable lives. I don’t have money and live an incredibly beautiful life. There are obviously states of poverty that are completely unacceptable, but I always encourage people to take up more space, enter places you don’t think are for you be it a gallery, a university, an opera- and see what happens. The fashion designer, Virgil Abloh, plays with this a lot. He just opened a store in Paris with a neon sign inside that reads “You’re Obviously in the Wrong Place”. What I’m advocating for is not original or new, but I hope I enact some of these ideas through the magazine and my own writing.

Sunday night comes around too fast.. how do you normally spend it?

Watching Glenroe and doing my homework. In that order.

What time does your alarm clock go off on Monday morning?

I don’t use an alarm clock what with the whole dolphin brain thing. Currently, I wake when the pigeons nesting outside my window start duelling, which is around 5.45am.

UPCOMING EVENT

Sarah Byrne, writer and artistic director of The Well Review will be in conversation with poets Ellen Bass and Tom Moore for an online event as part of the West Cork Literary Festival on Thursday July 15. For further details see www.westcorkmusic.ie/literary-festival/

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