7 Nov 2023

Unlocking Voices: DCU Library Creative Writing Competition and the Mountjoy Education Centre

This blog post by Grace O'Connor from Dublin City University was highly commended in the CONUL Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Awards 2023.

Since 1999, DCU Library has hosted an annual Creative Writing Competition for participants of adult reading and writing schemes in North Dublin. It aims to reward those who have returned to education to improve their reading and writing skills. Each year we receive entries from more than 12 literacy groups in North Dublin.

Library staff volunteer to participate in the judging and organisation of the competition, and an awards night for all writers and their friends and family is held each year. There is one overall winner announced by a guest judge, and 10 commendations given.

The competition has a real impact on winners, some of whom decided to pursue writing as a full-time career, or complete their Junior Certificate English exam.

Guest Judge Sophie White addresses attendees at the 2023 DCU Library Creative Writing Competition Awards Night in O’ Reilly Library Pic: Eilís O’ Neill

Involving Mountjoy Education Centre

In 2023, we once again emailed all eligible writing groups seeking submissions for this year’s competition. For the first time in the competition’s 24 year history, tutors from Mountjoy Prison Service got in touch to submit entries from members of the City of Dublin ETB Mountjoy group.

The aim of the CDETB service [in Mountjoy] is to help prisoners cope with their sentences and prepare them for release, and particularly to offer them the opportunity to discover and develop new potential within themselves.

“Everyone has a story to tell, and it’s [on] that basis that I run the creative writing classes” says Margaret Hannigan, an English teacher in the Mountjoy education centre. Margaret has taught here for 24 years and is always looking for different competitions and writing festivals for her students to enter. It was through a new colleague, Christine Smith, that she heard about the DCU Library Creative Writing Competition.

Christine Smith has only worked with the Mountjoy Education Centre since October 2022, but prior to this had been a tutor Cabra Adult Education Service, where she tutored many previous entrants and winners of the competition. She was aware of the positive impact it had on her students and their confidence as writers, so she was keen to have her new students in Mountjoy participate.

Anonymous Judging for Fair Evaluation

Judges receive the stories anonymously, with all author and writing group details removed, so they can judge the entries on their own merits. However, entrants' names and details are recorded on entry forms, and any shortlisted writers are asked to attend the awards night to read their story. All stories along with the entrant’s full name are included in a booklet for attendees to take home.

Navigating GDPR and Confidentiality

In a phone discussion about the entries, Christine let us know that because of GDPR/confidentiality reasons, only the first names of the finalists should appear on the booklet, website and on social media. It wasn't difficult to accommodate that, but we had to be careful with aspects like the certificates all shortlisted entrants receive, which were photographed showing the surnames of the finalists. These were removed from the images before posting them on the website and on social media.

Mountjoy Education Centre tutor Clare O’ Connell accepting the Creative Writing Award from author Sophie White, on behalf of her student Dermot Pic: Kyran O’ Brien/DCU

We understood from the start that the finalists from Mountjoy Education Centre wouldn't be able to attend so Outreach librarian Eilís O’ Neill encouraged the tutors to invite their family and friends to register to attend, to represent them on the night. While Christine suggested playing pre-recorded readings, it was decided that live readings would create a more engaging experience for the audience. Thus, the CDETB Mountjoy tutors presented the finalists' entries on the awards night, and recordings of the writers reading their own pieces were made available on the library's website.

 Standout Entries and Performances

Julie, a library assistant who has been judging the competition since its inception, finds that the personal stories resonate deeply with her. She noted that the 2023 entries exhibited a raw quality, providing profound insights into the authors' experiences. Among the exceptional submissions, "Surprise" by Dermot emerged as the clear winner, captivating the judges with its compelling narrative. Library assistant and judge, Alana, praised this story for its ambition and execution. Alana also particularly enjoyed hearing the audio recordings of the authors from Mountjoy Education Centre reading their stories. She said of one (Hardcore by Eric) “...while I read this poem initially as a stand-alone piece of writing, I think this post- competition performance emphasises the art of language and how some stories sing once performed orally.”

The 10 runners up and winner of the Creative Writing Competition 2023. Runners-up from Mountjoy were represented on the night by their tutors. Pic: Kyran O’ Brien/DCU

Fostering Connections

The competition held special significance for Margaret, as one of her learners became a runner-up, receiving a certificate, book voucher and a DCU Library tote bag. Margaret expressed her delight at this achievement and eagerly looks forward to entering the competition again next year. Recognising the value of the creative writing classes at Mountjoy Education Centre, DCU Library seeks to foster a meaningful relationship with the institution. As a gesture of support and appreciation, the library has been invited to attend one of Margaret's creative writing classes in the near future.


Listen to the winning 2023 story via the Youtube link here: Surprise by Dermot



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