Niamh finds her voice
Helen O’Callaghan meets a young prizewinning poet
Niamh McCarthy, 13, from Clonakilty, Co Cork, has won second place in the 12th Betjeman Poetry Prize. Set up in 2006, on the centenary of poet John Betjeman’s birth, the prize attracts 3,000 entries annually from across the UK and Ireland.
Niamh is in first year at the Sacred Heart Secondary School, Clonakilty. She wrote her poem, Nana’s House, early last year. “It’s a really nice house. I always spent a lot of time there. I spent Christmas there and everything. Even the smell of the house I love. It’s really different to our house, it’s smaller and cosier,” says the teenager, who loves to read compilations of poetry.
Sadly, Niamh’s grandmother, Hannah, passed away just a few months before her grand-daughter’s achievement. It was her third time entering the competition for which she was also shortlisted in 2017. Open to 10- to 13-year-olds, entrants were invited to write a poem in any style, of any length, on the theme of place.
“We chose ‘place’ because [Betjeman’s] poetry is embedded in a connection to a sense of place,” says Imogen Lycett Green, prize director and the poet’s granddaughter. “We chose the age range as it covers a key transition period in a young person’s life, when their imagination is still connected to the fantasy of childhood but not yet inhibited by the self consciousness that tends to cripple teen poets when they get to 15 or 16.”
In a world where exams seem to matter more than education in its true sense Imogen believes that a child can express their identity and investigate their potential through all of the creative arts.
“We get a lot of nature poems, serious crusading poems, related to climate change. We get many fantasy poems about magical dreamlands. Older children write about what’s going on in their head — bullying, feelings of inadequacy. There are always some about disaster. We got quite a few about Grenfell Towers. There is a lot about grandparents, about the child’s relationships with them, about grandparents dying.
“At that age, it’s their first time encountering strong emotions around death.”
Judges look for a voice. “With Nana’s House, Niamh’s voice shone through. It’s a very honest voice. She’s not copying any style. Somebody could be writing about something simple — like flying along a road on a bike — and there’s a voice, a vision,” says Imogen,
FINDING HER MUSE: Niamh McCarthy wrote about her grandmother and memories of Christmas.