RTE Radio One is seeking submissions for one of Ireland’s longest established, and most prestigious, writing competitions: the Francis McManus Short Story Competition.
I shall not be submitting an entry - for the simple reason that I do not write short stories something I could never quite explain to my late mother who, on hearing the announcement on radio, would ring me up and invariably say: ‘Ger, you should enter one of your stories in that competition.’ ‘But I don’t write short stories, mother.’ ‘Well what are all those bits and bobs you put in the papers and magazines?’ ‘They’re not short stories, mother.’ And we’d leave it at that.
The Francis McManus Short Story Competition was first established in 1986 in honour of the acclaimed novelist, and one time head of RTE’s features; he was born in November 1909 and died of a heart attack in 1965 at the relatively young age of 56.
I have a great affinity with Francs McManus for several reasons: we’re both Kilkenny men; city boys, we both attended the same secondary school, the Christian Brothers in James’s Street and we both became teachers. McManus started out in St Patrick’s Training College in Drumcondra and progressed to UCD while yours truly started out in UCD and progressed to Saint Pat’s.
And, of course, we are both writers. And there the comparison ends especially when it comes to writing.
Francis McManus has written numerous novels, essays, plays, biographies and, of course, short stories while I have one book to my credit, a local history of Kilkenny city and county!
In the 1930s Francis McManus published a trilogy of history novels: Stand and Give Challenge (1934), Candle for the Proud (1936) and Men Withering (1939) the latter winning the Harmsworth Award of the Irish Academy of Letters that same year. The central character in the three novels is the 18th Century Gaelic poet Donncha Rua MacConmara.
McManus’s fellow writer, Benedict Kiely, described the trilogy as ‘the most notable historical novels written by an Irishman in our times.’
I first became aware of Francis McManus when I picked up a copy of his book ‘Flow On, Lovely River’ (published in 1941) in a second hand bookshop. The title caught my eye as it’s a line from Kilkenny’s hurling anthem The Rose of Mooncoin. I was intrigued by the similarity between the plot of the novel and the real life story of Watt Murphy who composed the love song ‘The Rose of Mooncoin.’
In ‘Flow On, Lovely River’ schoolmaster John Lee relates the story of his thwarted love for the daughter of the village drunkard. In real life, aging Catholic schoolmaster Watt Murphy was thwarted in his love for Elizabeth Wills (who was not even half Watt’s age) the daughter of the local vicar.
An impossible relationship, Watt was devastated when Elizabeth’s worried father sent her abroad, thereby sundering the friendship. Broken hearted, Watt composed ‘The Rose of Mooncoin’ in which Elizabeth Wills becomes Molly, the famous Rose of Mooncoin.
Francis McManus taught for 18 years in Synge Street CBS and joined RTÉ in 1948 as Director of Features. In 1953 he initiated the Thomas Davis Lectures, contributors to those programmes included Padraic Colum, Francis Stuart, Ernest Blythe, and Austin Clarke among others.
Francis McManus was a man of many talents. In a talk given in Rothe House in Kilkenny on September 12, 2009 to celebrate the centenary of Francis McManus’s birth his son Patrick said that his father ‘spoke and read Italian very well, and passable French. He had a working grasp of Spanish, and he read some Russian…while his classic cure for his constant insomnia was reading Hebrew at two in the morning, making it difficult for him, Patrick, to sneak in later than promised.’
He also spoke about bus rides with his father to the city during which ‘the Da’, as the family called him, would engage half a dozen passengers or more in conversation, potential characters for his next novel. Or short story.
The Francis McManus Short Story Competition has been a source of encouragement and support for emerging writers as well as established ones. Closing date for entry is Friday, May 8. The winning story, and shortlisted ones, will be produced and broadcast by RTE in the autumn.
With plenty of Covid-time on hand - what are ye waiting for?