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Image / Living / Culture

Author’s Bookshelf: Clodagh Finn on paying homage to the women who have made Ireland what it is alongside Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland


By Sarah Gill
01st Oct 2022

Damien Eagers

Author’s Bookshelf: Clodagh Finn on paying homage to the women who have made Ireland what it is alongside Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland

Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alison Gilliland, journalist and author Clodagh Finn, and Gordon Snell — Image courtesy of Damien Eagers

Irish Examiner columnist, author and collector of stories Clodagh Finn shares her writing inspirations, her favourite Irish authors, and what went into creating Her Keys to the City alongside Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland.

Earlier this week, we featured extracts of just three of the incredible and inspiring women featured between the pages of Her Keys to the City: Honouring the Women Who Made Dublin by Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland and journalist and author Clodagh Finn, and today we’re catching up with Clodagh to hear all about the process.

Clodagh Finn is a journalist and author of Through Her Eyes: A New History of Ireland in 21 Women and A Time to Risk All: The Incredible Untold Story of Mary Elmes, the Irish Woman who Saved Hundreds of Children from Nazi Concentration Camps. She is an Irish Examiner columnist and is particularly interested in writing about overlooked women from history.


Did you always want to become an author?

Yes. I wanted to be an archaeologist too and in writing about women in history, I have found a very happy solution.

What inspired you to start writing?

I found that putting words down on the page really helped me to understand aspects of the world around me.

Tell us about your writing process.

There is nothing more terrifying than the blank page/screen. I find with non-fiction, in particular, it is really heartening to be able to do research first and write notes on whatever event or person you are featuring. The notes take that awful bare look off the page and, as you write, a theme or an incident that captures the essence of a person generally jumps out at you – and then you’re off, though in my case rather slowly.

What did you learn when writing this book?

When compiling a list of women who deserved to be featured in this book, the extent to which women have been written out of history – or just not written in, in the first place – became painfully clear. There is scope for at least ten more volumes of Her Keys to the City, and I wish that were an exaggeration.

Do you have any quirky habits when writing?

Oh yes, but the only one I’m willing to share is that I find the words flow much easier when our Jack Russell Oscar is sitting on the chair behind me!

The first book you remember reading is…

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White wasn’t quite the first book I remember reading, but it was the first that left a lasting impression. I love it to this day.

Your favourite Irish author is…

That is such a hard question. There are so many I admire – Kevin Barry, Louise Kennedy, Sheila Armstrong, Colum McCann, Cathy Kelly, Deirdre Madden, Evelyn Conlon… I could go on, and on. How lucky we are to have so many exceptional writers.

The book you gift everyone is…

I don’t have one as it really depends on the recipient although I’d be inclined to give Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan to anyone interested in powerful writing. It’s a slim volume yet it manages to explain so much of the hypocrisy and fear that allowed mother and baby institutions to flourish for so long.

Her Keys to the City
Clodagh’s to-be-read pile

Three books everyone should read:

Reading is a very individual thing so it’s hard to universally recommend books, but here are three I thought were masterpieces.

Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

You overcome writer’s block by…

Going for a walk and forgetting all about everything for a little while.

Do you listen to music when you write?

No. I like quiet when writing.

The best money you ever spent as a writer was on…

A log cabin in the back garden which has become my writing room.

The three books you’d bring with you to a desert island are…

An anthology of poems; a very big book of essays and Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

A quote you love is…

“Writing is rewriting.”

The book you always return to is…

Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa; also 1599, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro. I find myself returning to the exquisite Fierce Appetites by Elizabeth Boyle again and again too.

Seeing your book in shops is/will be…

It’s a singular privilege. I still have to pinch myself when I see one of my books in the wild.

One book you wish you had written is

Anything by Hilary Mantel — because I don’t know of another writer who can bring the past to life so vividly that you can taste and smell it.

How do you use social media as an author?

I tweet daily about women from history in an effort to raise awareness of all the amazing women who walked this way before us. (@FinnClodagh)

Should books be judged by their covers? How did you pick yours?

Our cover was designed by Mark Dignam who worked night and day to bring these women to life in a beautiful book that does them justice.

Do you find it hard not to procrastinate when writing?

I think that is part of the process. There are days when nothing happens and you think you will never get words down on paper but then you have a good day and realise that it has all been ‘cooking’ while you procrastinate.

The best advice you’ve ever gotten is:

Keep going.

Your work space is…

A sanctuary, even if a messy one.

Your favourite literary character of all time is…

I’m pretty fond of Eleanor Oliphant from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Her Keys to the City: Honouring the Women Who Made Dublin’ by Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland and journalist and author Clodagh Finn is on sale now for €19.99.