Ni­amh finds her voice

He­len O’Cal­laghan meets a young prizewin­ning poet

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Parenting -

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.

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