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'In the 1930s boys got the education so when I retired at 59, I did GCSEs and A-levels before going to uni... it was one of the best times of my life'

 

Ballycastle poet Myra Vennard, who turns 88 today, tells Stephanie Bell how the North Coast inspired her new book, Soul Station, which is out now, and how retirement sparked off a lifelong journey of learning.

Esteemed local poet Myra Vennard grew up in an era when the best career a woman could hope for was training to be a secretary.

Now, though, she is an accomplished published writer with a new book, Soul Station, just out.

And her achievements are all the more impressive given that she returned to education later in life.

The desire to learn, though, has been with Myra since childhood growing up in the Thirties. And while she couldn't help feeling pangs of envy watching her two brothers go off to university, she did what was expected of her at that time and went to business school.

Fast forward a few decades and that hunger for study she had as a young girl had never left her and in her 50s, 60s and 70s - when most people are looking forward to retiring - she went back to school to get her GCSEs and A-levels, and then on to university where she studied for several years obtaining an impressive clutch of qualifications.

In the Nineties, she graduated from the University of Ulster with a BA Honours degree in English literature and then went on to get an MA in Anglo-Irish literature, with a dissertation on the poetic vision of Samuel Beckett.

And as a postgraduate she attended the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College, Dublin, where she gained a diploma in Eumenics.

It was around this time that she first began writing poetry, having work published in various magazines including Poetry Ireland and the Honest Ulsterman.

As well as broadcasting on Radio Ulster, Myra attended Queen's University, Belfast's creative writers' group and in 2000 had poems in the group's anthology, Hauling Songs.

She has also written reviews for magazines and had an essay and poems published in Children of the Troubles by Laurel Holliday.

A recipient of an Arts Council of Northern Ireland Individual Artist award, Myra's first book of poetry, Easter Saturday, was published in 2009 by Lagan Press, followed by Blind Angel in 2013.

Among her remarkable achievements, a delighted Myra was also the winner of the arts award at the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards in 2010. However, this accomplished woman has also known heartache in her life when at just 48 years old in 1979 she was devastated by the loss of her husband Norman (57) who tragically died from illness.

Celebrating her 88th birthday today, she has two children - Deirdre (62), who lives in Amsterdam, and Paul (53), who works in Devon - and is also a proud granny to five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

After living most of her life in Belfast and Bangor, Myra retired to Ballycastle seven years ago where the peace and beauty of the north coast has inspired her writing and allowed her to live the quiet life she enjoys.

She describes her new book Soul Station as "a spiritual journey" inspired by her move to the coast.

Writing she says is very much a solitary experience for her and living near the coast has given her the opportunity to find the peace she needs to be creative and unleash her talents.

Her latest book, she admits, has taken several years to create.

"The book is like a mystical experience of nature," explains Myra. "It was written over the time I moved to Ballycastle. I was struck by the beauty of the north coast and I have roots here as some of my ancestors came from Ballycastle.

"I felt an immediate attraction to the place and it just seemed to hold me. The book really is written about Ballycastle, but it is not descriptive. It is more mystical about the process of nature. It is such a beautiful place to live."

Myra was born in 1929 and grew up in north Belfast. She worked in the city most of her life as a secretary and entered higher education when she retired in the Nineties.

She grew up in a house surrounded by literature and always loved to read and write even as a young girl.

Her creativity though was something she put aside as she followed the traditional path for women of her generation, training to be a secretary, marrying and having children.

She says: "I was brought up in a house with lots of books and my elder brother and I would have read a lot.

"Even as a child I loved to write. Back then it was the boys who got the education and that's just the way it was. My two brothers went to university and I went to business school which I didn't particularly like. I then worked as a secretary for all of my working life."

Her husband Norman, who worked as an insurance official, was the love of her life and she says when she lost him her world was shattered.

Myra has been on her own ever since, which she says suits her as a poet as it gives her the chance to write, a process which unusually she describes as painful.

Reaching right into her very soul to create her prose is no doubt why her work is so powerful and well loved.

"I was with Norman for 26 years and we had a very happy marriage. It was quite a shock to be left on my own and it was devastating to lose him. I thought we would grow old together," she says.

"I've always been a bit of a loner and I think to write you have to be completely on your own as it can be a painful process.

"Mine is the sort of poetry where you have to be in a certain place in your mind to write it.

"Because it is mystical I have to reach right into myself and the ordinary, everyday things in my life have to take second place when I'm writing. When you are a writer you can have long periods of nothing and that can be very frustrating, and then suddenly you get to a place where something happens and you can write.

"This is book three and for me it is still unbelievable to have my work published."

Going back after retirement to fulfil her dream of studying and then becoming a writer was, she says, one of the best periods of her life. Myra thrived on learning and for some years in her 60s and into her 70s she couldn't get enough of it.

She recalls: "I was always a reader and always interested in writing.

"So when I retired at 59 I just thought this is my chance now as my children were away, Deirdre was married and Paul was off to college.

"It was one of the best times of my life and I studied for GCSEs and A levels first to get into the University of Ulster to do a BA in English and I went on to get an MA in Anglo Irish literature. My dissertation was on the poetic vision of Samuel Beckett.

"I then went to Trinity College in Dublin to do a post grad in Ecumenics. It is the study of all religions and none, and doing that was just marvellous. I was in my 70s then and I suppose I had got the bug. I loved studying and it just made all the difference to my life."

At 88 she regards herself as very lucky to be living the life she always wanted.

While Myra enjoys being alone and it suits her creativity, she also has a wide circle of friends within the arts community who are very important to her.

She adds: "I've been lucky because I have a lot of young friends who I met through a writing circle we set up in Bangor. Some of them are in their 50s and we would have met in my flat and have stayed together all these years and been very supportive of each other.

"They come and see me a lot in Ballycastle and we've travelled together to Italy - they are very good friends. I am the elder in the group, but they don't treat me as an old person at all.

"I don't feel like I'm in my 80s, although of course I do in my body. I've got grey hair and I'm able to drive and I walk a lot.

"I live in sheltered accommodation, but I have my own flat and my own front door and can mix with people around me if I want to - and if I don't I can be alone.

"I'm very lucky and I know not many people my age are as lucky."

  • Soul Station by Myra Vennard is available at Doirepress.com

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