Interview with Caitlín Nic Gabhann

Caitlín Nic Gabhann holding a concertina while smiling at the camera.

UCC's Traditional Artist in Residence for 2022, Caitlín Nic Gabhann is an active musician in the Irish creative industries. In this interview, Isabel Ronan asks Caitlín about her artistic journey, her creative process, and her insights into living life as a musician.

Interview Transcript

Isabel  00:03  

Alrighty, so Caitlín Nic Gabhann, you’re UCC’s Traditional Artist in Residence for 2022. We're here at Sunday's Well Music Department, and we're going to, kind of, talk through a couple of things. But first, let's start with any details about yourself, just a brief overview of you as a person, what you do.

Caitlín 00:27  

Sure, well, okay, where do I start? I actually came to UCC to college, myself back in the day. I am from County Meath, Ashbourne and which is, you know, very close to Dublin. So I knew if I went to college and Dublin, I'd be living at home. So I said, “no, I need to get out now and get out into the big bad world. So I came down here and completely fell in love with the place straight away and just loved my experience here, and then I went away after my undergrad with Riverdance for a couple of years, then I came back to do the masters here after that, and it was always drawing me back, I was definitely wanting to come back at some stage and to do the masters that time. So when this opportunity came up for the residency, I was like, “100%, I would love to do that.” So I'm here now, and, like, I play the concertina, and I dance, and I've, I'm, kind of, a full time at it like a practicing musician, and between gigs and a bit of touring and a bit of teaching and all of that. It's, it's multifaceted, as they say. There's so many different angles and roads and paths that you have to, kind of, you’ve to be very versatile in this sort of an industry and be able to branch out and diversify and do different things because you have to make a living from it. So doing lots of different things over the past 10, 12 years, I've learned a thing or two along the road and taught myself and trained up and learned myself and learned the hard way and learned through experience, because even though I have a music degree and a masters from here, there's an awful lot that can be only learned through experience when you're actually in practice, on the road, doing it yourself and being brave and sending the emails and asking the questions and asking, “can you do this, can you do that?” There are only things that you can learn and get experience in when you're actually out there doing it. You know, you can study so much, but then you have to get out and actually do it. It gave me a great grounding, great training here, great experience and mixing and meeting with other types of musics because my whole life has been traditional music and I don't have any real experience with any other side or genre of music, and the same with dancing.

Isabel 02:44  

What's your creative process like?

Caitlín 02:47  

A little bit of a melody doesn't just come into my head like it does for a lot of other people. I have a very busy mind, aactive mind, and it's, it's constantly on the go, like “monkey brain.” I'm just naturally kind of a busy person. The calendar is always full, you know. I don't really know how to operate any other way. So, for me, to be able to create something from nothing, I need to have a clear mind. I need to have headspace. So how do you get a clear mind and headspace for someone whose mind is never clear? It’s never empty. So I have to focus on that at the time, and I have to prioritize it. Absolutely nothing creative or original will come in a time of stress or pressure. So what I'll do is I'll bring myself off, you know, for a few walks every day, good long walks, and I'll try and just empty my mind. Walks are great for, for clearing the head. You come back with a fresh perspective after. And sometimes it won't happen on the first day or second day, but if I, if I have it in the forefront of my mind that this is what I need to do today, and you, you apply yourself to it, then maybe on the second, third or fourth walk, something will, will come. And another trick for me is I try to not have my phone with me. So I leave the phone in the car. And I just have a pen and paper. So if there is an idea for a melody comes, it mightn’t be the start of the tune. It could be somewhere in the middle of the tune. It could be the start of the second part, or I go home and Ciarán is like, “that sounds like a second part,” you know, so then I have to go and try to make up the first part. And I just write it down on the pen and paper then but I just, it's, that's the focus. That's the priority there. I'm pretty good at applying myself to a task, to a job, if I'm getting it across the line and getting it done. but the pressure that I put on myself then is getting it to a really good standard and that's, that can be stressful then, because often I’ll think it's not good enough so that I try again, or you try to make it better. So that's the pressure I put on myself. That's just naturally- it’s always, it’s always how I've been.

Isabel 05:02  

Do you have different forms of creative process for different activities?

Caitlín 05:08  

That would only apply to the, if I have to write a tune, if I'm coming up with something new. You know, practice is just practice then. That's just about, if I'm practicing for a gig, that's just sitting down and putting in the hours and putting in the time. That's just about the practice and putting it in. Now, if I'm playing with other people, you know, it's about collaborating, and give and take, then and over and back, but again, it's just about the sitting down and going through the motions of practice, the same with the dancing.

Isabel 05:36  

What does creativity mean to you?

Caitlín 05:40  

Well, I get a great kick out of creating something from nothing. So that comes down to the, the dances that I choreograph. So the few, I haven't done too many now, but let's say, “O’Carolan’s Concerto,” “Tico Tico,” “The Shelf,” “The Belfast Hornpipe,” “The American Polka,” and now, “St. Brigid’s Day,” the new one. They are steps that I have made up to those tunes. So that specific choreography that matches along, that goes along with the phrasing of those tunes. So when I put together something that wasn't there before, that, I get a great kick out of that, I get a great buzz out of that. Same with coming up with the new tunes. Do you know that's something that wasn't there before, and now it's there, and it's actually half-alright. You know, even a variation in a tune is hugely creative, getting it right, getting a good variation in the tune. We're constantly sticking variations into tunes left, right and center. We never play them the same way twice. So whether it's the ornamentation you change, whether it's actually the melody that you change, when you stick in a long note instead of a run of notes, if it's chords that you put in, you’re, you’re peppering that, and you're decorating that melody with your own personality, your own character, and you're putting your own stamp on that tune, and it's all different every time depending on your mood, depending on who you're playing with, depending on the speed you're playing at, depending on who you're playing for; all of those elements come into it and you create it differently every time.

Isabel 07:20  

Would you say that there are a lot of benefits to being creative? 

Caitlín 07:25  

You can adapt to a situation because you can turn it around and see it in a different way. I love that saying, “you can change any situation by the energy you bring to it.” So depending on what energy you are bringing, you’re, you might change the dynamic of the conversation that you come into, or something. That's all creative. So it depends on, I suppose, your own mindset. If you're thinking positively, it can only have positive outcomes. Like, even, when I, the days that I spend on the laptop, there has to be creative ways of getting back to people sometimes in emails. You’ve to work your way around them or work your way around the situation to get the desired outcome. Even now, when I'm at home with my small kids, you have to get creative numerous times a day to keep those, to keep them entertained, to keep them occupied. Think of a new idea, distract them over there, over here. Let's play this game now. You know? So thinking up new things.

Isabel 08:30  

And do you think there are any challenges that face young, creative people today?

Caitlín 08:38  

Well, I know for myself that when I have my phone in my hand, that nothing creative really is happening, and it's only when I give myself a proper break from it that my mind is allowed to rest enough and therefore new ideas could potentially come in. That would be a major block, in my opinion, because that's my personal experience. When I was starting to write music or come up with new tunes and when I was starting to gig and play with other people and learning the dynamics of all of that has to go on when you're playing with other people and, and trying to put your own stamp on your own music but trying to do trying to find your way in this, in the industry and, in the, within the community. If I had had my smartphone then, I don't know how much of that I would have actually gained or achieved. Obviously there's all the benefits of having a smartphone, having your phone in your hand and all that but that would definitely be a block for me now, and it is a thing that I have to work at because they are so addictive that I have to make myself put it down, put it away. You know, that it is a block to creativity, I think. for me personally. Yeah, and it's, it's, you don't know how it will affect a generation because you know, they haven't lived without that.

Isabel 10:12  

Do you have any advice for young people starting out right now, in the creative industry?

Cailtín 10:20  

Give yourself as much headspace and quiet time as you can, without going mad. Like, I know you have to, we all need our phones, and we all need the contact. Don't be afraid to listen to the silence or sit in the silence as well. You need to give your head a chance and your mind a chance to create. I'm only here a few weeks yet, so I'm just starting to meet the students now. I put out a call last week, inviting people to engage with me and to contact me, and I gave, kind of, a rundown of what I could potentially help them with, like, what were my experiences. I really love that opportunity to see if I can be of any help to them.

Isabel 11:09  

And is there anything that you're particularly excited about over the coming year, really, with your residency?

Cailtín 11:16

Residency? Yeah, well, mostly, I'm just excited to engage with the students. That's really where I'm at mostly. If I can help them as much as possible and get the word out to as many students as possible that I can, that I'm here, and then we have our FUAIM, we’ve FUAIM concerts on the fourth of March, so I'm excited for that, to be playing in the Aula Maxima again; I love that room. And then that will be, you know, that's the main part of my residents- residency here up till Easter. The second half of my residency then will be my own space here in the music department for my own practice, for my own creative practice, that I have a space that I can engage with the UCC community as much or as little as I want, but my main focus here will be, you know, that focus time to compose and practice. So that'd be great to have that dedicated space, that I can put the time and energy into that because as I said, when you're at home, and life is busy and “monkey brain.” Sometimes you need to just remove yourself from the environment into a fresh space that is only for one purpose, that you need to achieve that.

Isabel 12:29  

When you say monkey brain, what exactly do you mean?

Caitlín 12:33  

Just busy all the time. My head, it’s always ideas, always calendar stuff. My diary is full, full, full, because I just, I have, I think, I've plenty of energy, and I like achieving things, and my challenge is always, is resting. That just, it doesn't come naturally to me. I have to make myself do it, so my habits, it’s bad, is to go, go, go until I crash. So I'm trying to learn to be better at that and to pace myself, but then the challenge with that is that I have these ideas of things that I want to do all the time, and I believe, I also have the belief that I can do them. I’ve great belief in my own ability, which I'm proud of, and my parents have given me plenty of self esteem. So I believe I can do these things, but then there's the challenge of there's not enough time, hours in the day. I have kids now. There's all the other factors. So it's like as if the ideas coming into my head of things that I want to and know I can do, come into my head, then there’s the battle saying, “but you know, when do you think you're going to get this, all this stuff done?” So I run a business online and last year, I was just you know, crumbling with the, with the workload and couldn't manage everything and young toddlers now and everything. So I got help, I got a woman who helps me, kind of, with the admin side of it. So that has taken a bit of the load off because you can't do everything.

Isabel 14:10  

You're not going to stop crumbling by keeping it at all to yourself and continuing the way you're continuing. Something has to change, and that's really, really good advice, to ask for help from people. Do you have any other advice for people that might find themselves in a similar situation, finding themselves with a lot of work, wanting to do it, but?

Caitlín 14:30  

Yeah, you just have to prioritize. Where do you want your energy to go? What's the most important thing to get done here? So if it's composing, if it's playing on stage that you need to practice for, that's where you need to put your time, because if you think about it, if you have spent so many hours of the day cleaning the house or replying to emails, how much actual creative energy do you have left at the end of the day to practice or to compose? And you're not going to do really good practice or really good composing then. Yeah, you might muddle through it, but think about how good practice, like, better doing one hour of really good practice then five hours where you’re so tired. You're just going through the motions. You know, if you can afford it at all, outsource that work and pay someone like the girl who's helping me. You know, we get a cleaner in, we have childcare. There’s lots of different things that I have to really get strict on where my energy goes, because it's not limitless, it's not endless, it's not, you know, you have to, there is a limit to it. My energy is going to my work. My energy is going to my family, and after that, I don't have any more. Like, I just have to say no to other things. So you know, sometimes invites or things will come in, and you have to get really strict: things that might drain your energy or be too far away, or just too much effort to get there. And it's just not going to be worth it for my, you know, obviously your, your family has to come first. So I just prioritize. I’m getting better at prioritizing like that, and it's, it's really good once you get into the habit of that, because then you find that I do have plenty of energy for my kids, because I'm not wasting it on trying to clean the house from top to bottom, because we’ve had help in with that. So I'm of the belief that if you kind of start out, if you set yourself up, “this is the kind of life that they want to live” and you just start living it, it starts to click into place a bit.

Isabel 16:27  

Do you think it's getting any way easier for women in the industry?

Caitlín 16:32  

A hundred percent. Sure my mother, from my mother's generation to where we're, where we're at now, what we're doing, it’s hugely changed, so that's brilliant. I think it is easier in, in that there's, there's definitely more equal opportunity now.

Isabel 16:48  

Is there anything else you'd like to add, that I haven't asked maybe but it’s on your mind that you'd like to say?

Caitlín 16:56  

Keep your eye on the ball, as in what is it that you really want that you want to achieve? And don't let that, don't let it get diluted. Don't let it dwindle and write it out. Write it down on a page and put it beside your bed or hang it on the wall so that you are reminding yourself of what you want, whatever it is. If you want to tour, if you want to play on stage, if you want to have your, your paintings in a certain, specific gallery, an exhibition or whatever your goal is that you would really be so excited about that you would say, “oh geez, if I did that, I'd be delighted. I'd be so proud of myself. That would be great.” Because even if you're not working towards that specific thing every day, that thought is in the back of your head. That desire, what you want, is in the back of your head. If you write it out and read it, like read it to yourself, read it outloud every day if you can, because even if you're not, you’re going to work then or you go to college and you're studying something different, but your decisions on your roads that you go down or the people that you decide to meet for coffee or your little decisions will, will all be influenced by that really strong desire in the back of your head, and eventually it will just set you on the path a little bit further to that goal. Whatever it is decided on what it is that you want and and write it out and yeah.

Isabel 18:31  

Awesome. Thank you very, very much. 

Caitlín 18:34

Thank you, Isabel.


For more information about Caitlín Nic Gabhann, please visit her website,

Interview conducted by Isabel Ronan, MSc Interactive Media UCC. 

Interview with Cathy Sweeney

Portrait of Cathy Sweeney

UCC's Writer in Residence for 2022, Cathy Sweeney talks about her artistic journey, her creative process, and her insights into living life as a writer.

Interview Transcript

Isabel 00:03  

Cathy Sweeney, you are UCC’s Writer in Residence for 2022. First of all, we're just going to get started with a couple of details about yourself. So tell everyone a little bit about yourself.

Cathy 00:15  

Great. Well, I'm just so utterly delighted to be the UCC Writer in Residence for 2022. It's a huge honor, and I come after a lot of extremely well respected names. So if anyone has seen me, I'm the person who's wandering around the campus, staring at everything, taking in the daffodils coming up and the beautiful buildings and sitting on the benches, and really not doing very much except wallowing in the beauty. It's a gorgeous campus. Yeah, it's, it's, it's so far been a wonderful experience and a huge privilege.

Isabel 00:50  

Could you give people an idea of when you started writing?

Cathy 00:54  

Sure. Well, it's really interesting at the moment, because it's all coming back to me as I am sitting in the room with the 16 students that are part of my group on the MA in Creative Writing, and I think once you touch base in any way with an experience that you've had before, it just so brings you right back, it's the, it's the pristine idea. So I feel I'm both outside, the Writer in Residence, but I'm also them, sitting around the table. So it's been, it's been kind of quite great that way, and the students are just really super, and so far, it's been a wonderful experience. I'm enjoying the whole thing of, like, selecting readings and looking at their work and, and thinking about it from, from both sides, both the writer and teacher. I started writing quite late. I did a degree in English, back in the day in Trinity, and I went on to teach English but I was well into my 30s when I thought about writing. I think, I just, I don't know why it didn't occur to me, but it didn't really. But I got hooked quite quickly, and I started writing short stories, mainly the odd essay and submitted them to journals, and it just became integrated very quickly into part of my world. As time went on, I gave it at least a day. We used to call it the Carver day after Raymond Carver, because I'd read that he had this idea that if he wants to write a short story, he needed a day where when he got up in the morning until he went to bed that night, there would be no interruptions, and even if you lay around doing nothing, it was just that was the day and, and I started taking Saturdays that way that I would not have any plans and pretty much not contact people or be contactable, and then stuff that would maybe be brewing during the week, you know, might, might come to the surface, and they were just great days. I know it’s just, selfishness is very much part of being a writer and I wallowed in it . It came quite naturally to me when I, when I got into it, and then, Isabel, time goes on, and I got an email from Declan Meade who, who had published, you know, a good few of my stories by then saying, “will we put a collection together?” And that, it sounds very simple, but that kind of was it, and that's how “Modern Times” came about, and there wasn't a huge amount for Declan to do, but he did give it the title, which I loved, and he did order the stories and select them. Then I had a contract to write a novel and I went off for the, kind of, past two years, 18 months and lived in a very remote village with very little distraction, which kind of suited pandemic anyway, and wrote a novel called breakdown. So I've just kind of come out of that, and here I am in Cork just because after the novel, I did feel that I'd gone into a little bit onto empty in the petrol tank. So I'm really enjoying, I went to the cinema for the first time on the weekend in the Triskel Arts Center, and I went to a concert the week before, and I'm just, I'm just stacking up the creativity and enjoying being around writers, obviously, Danny in the department and Liz, and Matthew Guedan, and meeting different people in Cork. There’s a lot of writers in Cork: Eimear Ryan and Danielle McLaughlin, and my students. And it's really good.

Isabel 04:21  

In terms of creative process, like, I noticed, you said you were stacking up on the activity there? 

Cathy 04:25

Yeah, yeah. 

Isabel 04:27

Could you just describe a little bit of what that means?

Cathy 04:29  

Sure. Yeah. Well, I don't know what it means for other people because I don't know how other people work, but I think I work in dialogue with, with the world. So a lot of my short stories would come from perhaps a visual piece; maybe go to an exhibition or something I'd read or anything. Even, I have a story called “The Birthday Present” about a wife who gives her husband a sex doll for his birthday, and I think I'd seen a documentary about sex dolls, and it just, you know, it just something and so I tend to have, like, the oddest thoughts around quite ordinary things. But I do need to be drifting around in a particular state of mental relaxation. You know, we all have ordinary lives. They’re not all full of drifting around in, in that kind of state, but it's a receptivity to stray thoughts. It's an, it's a kind of openness, and I am cultivating it at the moment. I mean, I have a very, kind of, strong project in mind this year, while I'm here in UCC. It's something I want to write on a particular moment in the life of Oscar Wilde, but it's, it's quite an abstract concept, and I'm building it around canonical hours, you know, vespers, matins, and so on. So a lot of it is mood and atmosphere. So that receptivity to sensation, and not to be tight in my brain, or just working down a sort of to-do list of ideas, or, like, I want to keep wanting to get lost. You know, to go the wrong way, or sit in the wrong seat or, you know, get on the wrong bus, so that I can, I can have some mental adventure, because I suppose with all of us to write a novel, I really don't know that much about it, but I did notice that I seem to find myself developing quite ironclad routines and habits in order to just, like, get, you know, arse onto chair and stay there. Seemed to be the major trick to it, and now I'm trying to get out of that, again.

Isabel 06:34  

It's almost like you're describing a creative process like it goes in cycles. Like, you have a cycle of going at it, and then a cycle of, kind of, getting stuff into you again, so that you can do it again.

Cathy 06:46  

That's kind of exactly it, and I think that's, that's, that's what I'm trying to, kind of, cultivate, but it's also natural to me. It's also natural to me. I am very, kind of, monomaniacal, so if I want to do something, yeah, I was the kid that if I, if I, if I read the book, if I got a book, and I got into a corner, and I was, like, halfway through it, and someone wanted me to go do something mundane, like hang up clothes, I could feel quite violent, and I don’t think I'm a violent person. But if I'm doing something, I really want to just do it. So that you couldn't possibly work like that all the time. So there's, there's, there's cycles that are, that are natural to me, and now I see myself as kind of, you know, grazing it. There's just so much stimulating beauty and interesting, you know, activity around me at the moment. So I'm in that natural cycle of, yeah, trying to just get the little synapses to, to spark back together again.

Isabel 07:47  

With regards to starting out, in terms of creativity, did you find it difficult to actually start being creative?

Cathy 07:57 

That's very interesting. I suppose it's about desire, ultimately, what motivates us, and I think that we can substitute our primitive or primary desires with many things. So I'm sure that my creativity was absolutely and completely being energized in other ways. I was a very passionate teacher, and I had other things going on in my life. So I think it's writing now, but I'm not, I'm not one of, I'm not a writer who thinks that necessarily I’ll always be writing. It's, it's just trying to be, you know, part of the moment in a sense of just fulfilling who the self is now. I mean, now I'm just, you know, I'm in a very luxurious position, because I don't have huge levels of responsibility, right this minute, having had much responsibility. So I'm kind of floating around and really enjoying writing and reading and language, but I could find myself in 10 years, you know, absolutely obsessed with planting a garden. In some ways, I kind of hope that might be the case.

Isabel 09:18  

So would you say that creativity pervades through a lot of your life? Is creativity in more than one place in your life?

Cathy 09:30  

I think it's really interesting, Isabel, and I don't really know because it's such an interesting question, and I haven't really thought about it, but I think creativity to me is a state of being, not so much a production. So the writing for me came out of, like, very powerful, intense desire, not so much to tell stories, but to get out from underneath dominant narratives, that I felt myself to be trapped in almost like a fly in a web, which is why a lot of my stories are quite astray, in terms of the way I think and write. But I think it's a, it's a state of being whereby it could find a channel in another means I'm not, I'm not sure, but I certainly, I'm certainly not done with it. I'm, you know, I'm certainly very absorbed in it, but what do we want from writing? What I want is the state of feeling something creative in me.

Isabel 10:27  

How have you found your interaction with the creative industries in Ireland?

Cathy 10:32  

I think I was, kind of, spoiled, because Ireland is so rich with journals that support new writers, and also new writers outside of, sort of, traditional boxes of being necessarily young: new writers in any, in any shape or form. And, you know, there is a, kind of, like, a place to belong to, or to  feel part of. Whether it's The Stinging Fly, or The Dublin Review, The Tangerine in Belfast, Banshee Magazine, and I mean, they're just, I’ll be leaving some out because there are just so many, and I think, I think, I think we're incredibly lucky, incredibly lucky, because it really isn't like that, you know, even in the UK. They don't have quite as much of an outcrop as that. There's a lot of collegiality and solidarity around that, you know, just meeting other people. I can think of such important moments for me in terms of just confidence building, which is part of it, like, these practical things are also part of it, and I hope I can bring some of that to my students. There's, you know, there's the wonderful, airy-fairy, you know, wafting around creativity. There's also, like, work, discipline, but it's a pretty good landing pad for somebody who wants to write. I remember when I got a communication that Kevin Barry was going to read a story of mine on The Stinging Fly podcast. You know, I couldn't believe it. There are little moments like that, and there are a lot of them within, within the Irish writing scene, and I found that since I've come to Cork, you know, just a lot of, like, goodwill and solidarity and a bit of craic along the way, and it's important. There's that aspect to it, you know, that you, you have somewhere to channel that energy when you start writing. somewhere to submit to and submitting, I always took it that it's very hard to finish stories or essays. So I would pick the deadline, you know, whatever, January the sixth, or July the 17th, and I would see it there as something to aim for, and I would just finish the story and submit it. I saw it very much on my own terms, then, like I had done what I set out to do, and again, I'm very quietly stubborn, because there'll be a lot of rejections along the way, and some of the rejections are because the work’s not good enough, or the work is not finished, or sometimes it's just the wrong magazine at the wrong time. So it's very, very important to keep, like, you have to keep your own, your own sense of what you're at, and, and I think it's the same with the publishing industry in general. I would think that it's a, kind of, like, a big wash of sea, and you better be able to just hold your own in terms of your mental strength, because it's not always easy, but also in terms of, like, why are you writing, and what do you want to write, so that you never find yourself as, this is my worst nightmare, having done something and realizing that it wasn't what you wanted to do.

Isabel 13:35  

And would you have any advice to give young writers today, who are just starting out trying to, like, find their feet and stuff in the creative industry?

Cathy 13:45  

I do think that what I would say is to separate them, in your mind. They're two different things. Writing is very solitary. It's an extreme relationship with yourself, in many ways. It needs a lot of food in terms of, like, reading and, you know, being in the world. Ultimately, you know, you're, you're going to protect very carefully your, your mental state, and the food you give your brain and you're going to protect what it is you want to write. And then there's something totally different called publishing, whereby that is a business model. There's, as I say, a lot of, a lot of supportive, you know, kind of, in-between scenarios in Ireland, a lot of support from the Arts Council for the small magazines and so on, but, but outside of that very protective arena, it's a business. Like for me, it has certainly helped to keep, to keep them very, to keep them very separate.

Isabel 14:49  

Do you have any advice for older writers who might be starting out in their career?

Cathy 14:52  

Oh, get going. Get going. Do what you want to do, and you're also, you're, you're, you're not, you're not waiting in the way that you might wait in your 20s and 30s in a sort of, like, limbo room for life to start happening. It's here, it's now and I think there's a huge freedom in being any, any age, but certainly, yeah, you just, you just go for it.

Isabel 15:20  

Is there anything that you would like to add to this that I haven't asked, but it's on your mind?

Cathy 15:26  

Again, it just comes back to I'm, you know, looking forward and I, kind of, feel I'm just finding my feet with things now, and I'm just really looking forward to all of the time ahead this year: the teaching, the MA, and maybe getting some event and reading. I mean, this is a very beautiful time, but that sense of hope and daffodils coming out, and yeah, I'm just very excited for the rest of 2022 in Cork. 

Isabel 15:54

Well, thank you so, so much. 

Cathy 15:56

Thank you. Thank you.



Interview conducted by Isabel Ronan, MSc Interactive Media UCC. 

Interview with Yvonne McDevitt

Portrait of Yvonne McDevitt

UCC’s Film Artist in Residence, Yvonne McDevitt talks about her influences, her creative process, and her artistic journey.

Interview Transcript

Isabel  00:05  

I am here with Yvonne McDevitt who is the UCC film artist in residence for 2022, and she is also the winner of the Authored Film Work Award which is funded by the Arts Council. First, let's start off with a couple of details about yourself. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you do?

Yvonne  00:30  

Well, I was born in Dublin, and I studied drama at Trinity College Dublin on a course that, in my day, was very, very new. And I was just so clear, as soon as I heard about this course that I, I had to get on that course, and that course really shaped everything that I'm doing today, but I think film was always my first love, my secret love, and I had grown up watching lots of films on the television, and I was a latchkey kid. My parents broke up when I was very young, and I was the youngest child, and the only girl and my brothers went to a different school, so I would get home first, and I would hop into a seat and switch on, at the time, the BBCs, BBC Two, which always had a really incredible selection of afternoon vintage, Hollywood and international films. So I think from a very early age, from the age of four, I was watching films, and I just fell in love with films and filmmaking. 

Isabel  01:40 

Was there any particular moment that gave you the awareness that film was what you wanted to do?

Yvonne  01:48  

There seemed to me as a, as a child, so much falsehood, people saying things they didn't mean and people, you know, behaving in ways that were performative. And to see that the irony of people creating conditions for emotional truth to happen was a revelation to me that you could make things up and they would be more true or reveal more about the truth than the actual things that were happening. So that was the feeling I got from a very young age, but there was one film that I saw, and it's a film by an Armenian filmmaker called Artur Aristakisian and it's called "Palms," Ladoni in Russian. But I saw this film, and it was then, after seeing this film, I knew I had to make films. I just knew because the film was so revelatory, and so truthful, and so simple, and powerful, and so visceral, and when I watched this film, I realized that, like all of the great artists who I encounter, rather than making me feel anything else, they make me feel like I want to do better, or I want to rise up and try to express my own work, in my own way, and that was the film that I would say, changed my life.

Isabel  03:06  

Do you think that your international experiences have informed your work?

Yvonne  03:12 

Totally and I think you're right, which is it's, it's almost an internationalism, which, you know, in a way is very, very natural for Irish people and Irish artists, and Irish creative people, because we've had it. We've been, you know, with Joyce and Beckett, we've seen their international approach to their work, launching out from, from France and from, from Europe. And for me, my understanding of being Irish was always with a, with a dose of internationalism, particularly a sense of being European, and having access to, to that terrain of European art and artists, and for many Irish people a chance to get away. It opened up the possibilities for me. International and European inspirations have deeply affected my work.

Isabel  04:07  

Do you think that film is a global industry, or is it a very national industry?

Yvonne  04:14 

Well, I think what we're seeing with the new digitalism is that we are definitely connected, all of us, throughout the world, and this is, we see it, if we look at what's happening in Ukraine, and we see this moment of, of war, we've never before at any other time, been so connected to something that is actually happening in front of our eyes so tragically. So we are interconnected, but the idea of a global industry, I don't like that word, global industry, because I actually feel that it's local communities that live together and tell stories from the realities of that particular space and from their stories are told. Now, if those stories reach out to others, yes, there's possibilities. There are incredible possibilities for those stories to, to, to journey, journey on around, and that's very exciting, but if we get into ideas of making films specifically for this so-called global audience, I think that's false. That's not true. I think film has to be specific to a place, to a state, to a, not necessarily a concrete place, but just to a moment in time that is situated somewhere specific, that has a story that comes from it, clearly and truthfully, and then is elevated through, through a, maybe a filmmaker or an artist. Particular I to become something else. So I believe in local storytelling, but I also believe that we are now connected very clearly to each other in a global context, but we have to be very careful between these two extremes.

Isabel  06:07  

That's completely understandable, and that's a really good thing, I think, to say for people that would be venturing out into the world of filmmaking. Like, you know, by focusing on one specific thing, you can actually reach an awful lot more people than if you tried to do a very, very broad thing. 

Yvonne  06:27   

One of the best pieces of advice, I remember learning when I was, you know, training as a theatre director at the Royal Court Theatre in London was that they would say that you should treat a classic play like a new play, and treat a new play like a classic play, and it was a wonderful kind of adage as a director to have this to begin that way because sometimes we think of new burgeoning plays and playwrights as we have to, you know, we're a bit scared about how to deal with them, how to stage them, how to, how to consider bringing them to life. Whereas, if you approach it and imagine that it's a classic play, you, you, you start to think differently about how you would imagine bringing it to life, and equally, so many classic plays can be so dull, if they're treated with a classical reverence or a sense of awe, you know, or a datedness. You know, I always remember, you know, I'm talking about film now, but I loved Baz Luhrmann's, Romeo and Juliet, because he managed to use the exact Shakespeare text as written by Shakespeare, but he conceived it in a way that was so contemporary and alive that you, you never, you never felt they were speaking a Shakespearean text. I thought this was a really magical Shakespeare interpretation, and I think it's the same with everything, I suppose. It's trying to bring something to life, and having approaches towards that that are, that are helpful.

Isabel  08:04  

Speaking of approaches, could you describe your creative process?

Yvonne  08:12  

In a way I wish I could, in the sense of that, I'm still discovering it myself. I feel the process is, is fragile. But on the other hand, it's also very simple and clear. I work with a very small team of people, and I work in a very relaxed way. There's no hierarchy, and I don't really involve myself in the traditional hierarchies of filmmaking. And I suppose my approach is drawn from my experience as a theater director, because I was a theater director for, for many years. I mean, I really only began to make films much later on in my, in my life. So in theater, we get together and we take the text, whether it's a new play, or a classic play, and we, we just start to think about the themes of that, and we spend a lot of time rehearsing and those rehearsals aren't about just getting up and repeating the text, but they're really about breaking down the text or trying to understand what it is that we're doing, or what we're saying. And I was very inspired by, I came across this in the theater, which I loved: the idea of Stanislavski's, you know, theories of how to, particularly for actors and directors, to bring, bring a text to life in the theater. His later theories, which are not as well known, were the idea that if you excavated a text or a story correctly, i.e. with depth, so that the actor or the people involved in bringing it to life could just understand what it is they were saying and why they were saying it, you would never even have to really look at the text or they'd never even have to learn the lines. And I thought this was extraordinary. And I did try it out. And it's absolutely true that this process where you would have a text, and you would sit around a table, and you would just talk about what's going on in the scene, and you would try and understand the emotional arc, and then you would go on to the floor, and you would just improvise it. And you would just continue to improvise it until you as a director, and the actors felt they had kind of connected to something that was, that was truthful. And then you would go back to the text and you would read the section again, and suddenly, the outline of the, of the poets or the writers, their particular architecture would mix with the, with the emotional reality that the actors had generated from the ideas within the text. And I find that I mean, mostly in my film work, I don't work with texts in that way, but I certainly work, I try to work with ideas or starting points or, or characters or a character in a situation. And then I, I just really set that up, and then really listen to the, to the actors, they'll come up with things. And then I draw on that and seek their permission to use something, if it's something from their life or a thought they've had that's personal. I say, "that's good and should we blend that in?" And, and it's very collaborative. It's very, it's very intuitive. And it's very much based on the people that I work with. I'm very particular about people I work with. I feel I need to have a very, very, very, an emotional connection with them that is real and true and alive and clear and relaxed. And also without fear or without any ego because these are the two worst things. If there's even a scintilla of fear or ego in any of the relationships, they don't work for me. They're gone. They're, they're blown, and nothing is possible. So I tend to be somebody who, because of my work in the theater, I'm used to improvising. I'm very used to talent spotting. I'm very clear when I encounter people who are talented, and I'm absolutely, it's my greatest joy to, to draw on and see talented people and bring them into my sphere and see if we can work together. And I get on very well with two distinct types of talented people; those who are very, at the beginning, they're just very talented, and it's clear, and they know what they want to do, and they're alive with this, with the instincts towards it, whatever it is sound or cinematography or, or acting, whatever. I can, I spot it early. And then people who are much more experienced who are at the highest level of their work; I get on really well with those people. They're the two factions of people I draw on to collaborate with. So I would say my working process is intuitive, organic, peaceful, a lot of work just every day; day in day out, nibbling away at what we're trying to do, and trying to take the lead of the process in a way that's gentle, but also very clear, and sometimes that, there is an austerity to that clarity, and sometimes I will steer with my direction, and sometimes there's nothing to be said, I don't even need to give any direction. It's happening. It's unfolding naturally.

Isabel  13:07  

Do you think there are any challenges that you face in your creative process that you ought to highlight or you feel a need to highlight?

Yvonne  13:20  

Sometimes people think that people who are at a different level of their work that they've somehow arrived, or they've worked it out, and for me, I don't think there's any arrival. There's no getting anywhere. I think work is, the work in this field is, it's an everyday work. It's, it's, it's extremely hard work, and it requires your, your attention, I would say it's, it's the attention, and that attention leads, leads you to places and opens doors and then you draw people to yourself and to the work, and then you as a director, you're leading an idea or a set of ideas or a starting point, and then you're working with the people and then you're moving towards something. So it's a constant balancing of all of these things. And the sheer act of survival, I would say, I mean, everyone knows that there's no safety net. There's no nine to five about it. There's no backup. You have to fight for every project and you have to fight to keep it going and make it happen and, in my case, making it happen over time, because I have, up to now, made my work on very, very small budgets with very small teams and over time. Usually, if people have time, and then we find a pocket of time here and there. My films are made over time. You have to fight to survive and keep going. Obviously there is a great joy in doing the work. It's a great love. There has to be a love to do it. And you need to try to connect with people in a way that they can feel that they are respected, and they are also loved and part of your work and that their contribution is very unique and it has to be them. Nobody else could give what they, they give to my piece, if they are, as it were, chosen to be part of this piece. It's their particular uniqueness that has drawn me to them, and therefore it's that that I'm looking for unfiltered and without fear or egotism or whatever. Just that purity of themselves, that is very, very precious. So it's the day-to-day survival. It's very hard. It's extremely hard, and you can't, you can't have it all. I think I've always been defined by knowing that I wanted complete freedom, the freedom to make the work I felt I was inclined to make and the freedom to do it in the way I wanted with the people I wanted over the time I wanted, and then maybe even the freedom not even to release the work. I've made films that I haven't released or shown anyone because for me, they didn't feel, at the end of that process, I could share them or wanted to. So that freedom is a luxury, that only people at the highest end or people who are at the lowest end of the industry in terms of monetary considerations. In terms of you could say it's a poverty filmmaking. It bubbles up through scarceness and that poverty of spirit leads you to great riches if you're open to it. And I think that, for me, I'm inspired by the filmmakers who've pursued this road, whether it's voluntary, or it's the only choice, their only way of making work, and I found myself that in the struggle is the nourishment, is the work, is the, is the thing itself.

Isabel  16:49 

I was wondering, do you have any advice to give anyone who's starting out in their career as an artist today?

Yvonne  16:58

If you're looking to do something that is making work as an artist, you should understand that that will require every sacrifice of you. You can't expect anyone to want what you're doing or know about what you're doing or even care about what you're doing. You have to care about it without any understanding that anyone else may see any value in it. That's very, very hard.

Isabel  17:24

Thank you so so much. 


A special thanks to the Arts Council and University College Cork for making the Artist Residencies possible.

Interview conducted by Isabel Ronan, MSc Interactive Media UCC.