Roisin Ní Neachtain: On writing, submitting, and illness

Writer and poet Roisin Ní Neachtain looks at the camera. She is wearing big tortoiseshell glasses, has long dark hair, and her expression is sincere and warm.
Roisin Ní Neachtain

I started writing poetry relatively young but stopped in my early twenties after a trauma. I didn’t put pen to paper again until I was 36.

I was prompted to write poetry again because I was suffering from cognitive impairment due to serious illness and I wasn’t getting the help and support I needed from doctors. I had been very sick since the age of 27. I couldn’t think as clearly as I used to, I couldn’t have the sort of conversations that I used to. I struggled, constantly searching for words on the tip of my tongue. I felt trapped inside a body that wasn’t working and I just wanted to scream and cry with frustration. I knew people would mistake my disability as stupidity and simply write me off.

I had begun to pursue art professionally and very quickly realised, that despite the interest in my work and my social media following, that I might never make it – this added to the frustration I felt at the time because I felt I had no way of moving forward in my life. My pursuit of art was adding to my financial distress and I couldn’t continue working at the pace that I had been, it simply wasn’t feasible or practical.

As a teenager, I had been encouraged to write poetry by my English teacher, the poet Patricia McCarthy, and in my first year at Trinity College Dublin - where I was failing abysmally due to untreated depression - I responded to an Irish Times competition to win a place in a workshop run by Dermot Bolger at the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing. I succeeded in gaining a place and this further encouraged me, although Dermot was very surprised at my young age and thought my prose was better than my poetry. Now at the age of 36, I clung to what I had learned from them and decided that I would heal myself.

My first attempts were extremely poor. My poetry was disjointed and indecipherable to a third party. I could only write very short poems. Nevertheless, I threw myself into the world of writing and literature and spent several hours a day working and writing (or trying to write!). I decided despite the poor quality of my work to start submitting in the hopes of receiving feedback.

I had no idea at all about the smaller magazines where emerging first-time writers usually send their work, and spent a year only submitting to Poetry Ireland, Granta etc… I still cringe thinking about it but I was genuinely clueless and knew nobody in the writing world! I was still too sick to go back to college to pursue creative writing, and couldn’t afford to pay for any workshops.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin was the first editor to give me feedback after a failed submission, and it was critical to the development of my work. After about six months of relentless and intense study, I suddenly realised that there had been a drastic improvement in the clarity of my expression and that words were now flowing with greater ease. My doctor couldn’t believe that poetry had helped me so much.

I am autistic so my style of poetry is never going to be mainstream, and I have always known that my poems were never going to be an easy sell. My life experiences have often been traumatic and I wasn’t sure I could convey this without a stark, dramatic intensity. I worried about frightening other people, or that it might have an unintended comic effect. I was wondering if there were any editors out there who would understand what I was trying to do or would even care about it.

My first publication was with Poethead, edited by the truly brilliant Chris Murray. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Those first acceptances are critical to the self-esteem of a writer and the progression of their work. I redoubled my efforts and wrote twice as much after that. My poetry developed very quickly. Naturally, I scrapped 98 per cent of everything I wrote.

At high-risk due to Covid and worried about dying without achieving anything, I cobbled together a first full collection and sent it off to four publishers. It was rejected by all of them but I received a lot of wonderful encouragement and positive feedback. I was grateful, especially after I was vaccinated, for the rejections, as I realised that I wasn’t ready and that I needed more time. My work keeps making these dramatic leaps forward and I am so excited to see where it will all lead. I am giving myself a five year deadline before I submit a collection again.

Writing has completely changed my life. I no longer suffer from cognitive impairment. I am as I was before all illness had taken hold and ravaged my life. I now run an online poetry and art journal and am also writing my first novel. I write all of this so that other disabled writers may take hope and know that writing can truly heal and transform their lives for the better. It can give them the future that they have “dared” dream of.


Roisin Ní Neachtain is an emerging disabled poet and artist based in County Kildare, Ireland. She is the editor of Crow of Minerva and is currently working on her first collection of poetry. You can find her on Twitter.