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'Girl on the Leeside': Capturing Ireland Through Poetry & Place

Penguin Random House

The country of Ireland has inspired countless songs, poems, books, and many other creative reflections. For author Kathleen Anne Kenney, her affinity for Ireland grew stronger after visiting the lands that inspired her novel – Girl on the Leeside.

Girl on the Leeside tells the story of Siobhan, an extremely introverted woman who was raised by her Uncle Kee after her mother was killed in an IRA bombing.  Growing up, she lived an overprotected life in an isolated environment. It's poetry that becomes her possible ticket to a new life, away from rural Ireland.

"Ireland is a very evocative place and Irish poetry is very special to me. I felt I needed the room and sort of the prose aspect of a novel to tell the story," explains Kenney.

She notes that this book had been 15 years in the making - ever since her family traveled around Ireland. Being Irish-American and raised in a large Irish Catholic family right here in Milwaukee, Kenney felt an inherent connection to the country of her ancestors.


"I feel personally that we're defined by our relationship with place and I feel that we all have a spiritual home somewhere," she says. "For some of us, we're lucky enough to live where our spiritual home might be, but for others (it) may be elsewhere."

It is this idea of one's relationship with place that heavily influences Kenney's late coming of age story. Siobhan struggles with the concept of an outside world infiltrating her home and routine, often finding solace in ancient and modern words of Irish poetry.

For Kenney, including both poetry and a narrative allowed her to have the best of both worlds while writing the story. The poetry itself became a natural element in the story just as much as the physical hills and beaches. "When you go to Ireland, there's this connectivity between ancient literature and its natural beauty, so I think it grew out of that," she explains.

While Kenney admits she is not a poet, she says poetry has a kind of power to "land in your brain" when you least expect it.

While she has not lived in Ireland, Kenney hopes that she has captured some of its true essence in her story.

"(Ireland) has a real hold on imagination in a way that I think, especially for Irish Americans, is hard to ignore...There's something about Ireland that gives a real emotional intensity when you visit. For me, part of it is that incredible history of the quality of literature that just comes out of that island for hundreds and hundreds of years."

Kathleen Anne Kenney is a freelance writer, playwright, and author who currently lives in Minnesota where she is an arts administrator at Winona State University. Kenney will talk with festival goers at Irish Fest this weekend in the Literary tent in the cultural village. 

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