Home burning books Burning Books Q and A—Cathal Póirtéir

Burning Books Q and A—Cathal Póirtéir

Cathal Póirtéir talks all things bookish for the companion series to our popular podcast, Burning Books

George Hill was a landlord in the Gaoth Dobhair area in Co. Donegal in the 1800s. The hotel that he built there, An Chúirt, is still in business in Gaoth Dobhair. Many competing stories survive about George Hill and it’s difficult to determine what type of landlord he was or indeed, what type of person he was.

In this book, Cathal Póirtéir gathers facts and opinions about Lord George Hill along with their historic and personal contexts to try to give an even assessment of George Hill’s legacy in Gaoth Dobhair.

A book from your early days

The first books I was able to take out on my very own library card (aged nine), as opposed to the family card where an adult had to accompany me, were Animal Farm by George Orwell and Spanish Gold by G.A. Birmingham. I read Animal Farm as a children’s story and had no idea that it was a critique of Stalinism (come on I was nine). The first book I owned was King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (Deans Classics) bought at 2/6 and I still enjoy Arthurian legends, medieval romances and tales of Fionn and the Fianna.

Dog ears or book marks?

Book marks.

A quote you can say by heart?

There’s a line in Samuel Beckett which I always thought as good advice for an aspiring writer. “It’s a good story, God send I don’t make a balls of it.”

Do you lend without expecting a book returned?

I stopped lending books years ago as I gradually learnt my lesson. The only one I lend to now is my daughter, with the expectation that I will only ever see the books again on her bookshelves. 

A book you return to over the years?

I first read The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien in the late 1960s (when I was about eleven) and was delighted to discover I share a birthday with Frodo and Bilbo. I have read and enjoyed it again a few times since.

A book that taught you something important?

Progress in Irish by Mairéad Ní Ghráda was the book that introduced me to Irish in St Columb’s College in Derry. The first steps on a road that has enriched my life in so many ways.

A book that makes you laugh? 

An Béal Bocht by Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen/Brian Ó Nualláin still hits the mark for me.

A book you associate with a particular life event?

Although entirely unromantic I remember reading Robert Ludlum‘s The Bourne Identity on the boat to France for our honeymoon forty odd years ago. Both book and wife are still under the same roof.  

One of your own books you would save?

It has to be the recently published An Tiarna George Hill agus Pobal Ghaoth Dobhair (Cló Iar-Chonnacht), a stark social history of the famine era and a biography of an exceptional landlord. I’m happy that the years of research and rewriting ended with a very readable story which has been rewarded by a lovely production.

A book you are reading now?

My wife got me The Letters of Seamus Heaney for Christmas and I’m dipping into that while finishing Flaitheas, a wonderful historical novel by Proinsias Mac an Bhaird about the formative years of St Columba. I’m also making my way through the short stories in Blindboy Boatclub’s Topographica Hibernica. My big hope is to finish writing a novella I’ve started. 

A book you’d leave behind in your burning house?

I would happily dispose of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, a book I found so dull that it almost stopped the teenage me reading my way through the Dean’s Classic series.

You can save one non-book item: what is it?

My laptop has so much unpublished and unfinished work on it that it would be a complete disaster to lose its contents (It happened once before and I wouldn’t be able for it again!).

Cathal Póirtéir is a prolific writer and broadcaster focusing on Irish-language literature, folklore, and history. His latest publication, An Tiarna George Hill agus Pobal Ghaoth Dobhair, is out now with Cló Iar-Chonnacht.