Belfast organiser launches first Shared Reading Space outside England – in a place designed for building a ‘peaceful, tolerant and inclusive society’

Marnie Kennedy tells us about the launch of a new Shared Reading Space in Belfast at the Duncairn Centre

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Reading Rooms – a Reading Revolution in Northern Ireland

reading roomsThe Reading Revolution is taking off in Northern Ireland, with the appearance of Reading Rooms across the city of Derry-Londonderry. The Reader Organisation teamed up with Verbal Arts Centre (VAC) in May last year, when they commissioned us to assist in bringing shared reading to the city in the form of the Reading Rooms project. The project has proved to be a real success with people of all ages enjoying shared reading  around the city in a variety of settings, from schools to residential care facilities, coffee shops to community centres. As part of the project, TRO-approved training has been offered for local volunteers to lead their own shared reading groups, establishing and embedding a culture of reading in the city with a legacy that lasts beyond the City of Culture 2013 celebrations.

Our Quality Practice Manager Kate McDonnell has been working closely with VAC on the project, and gives us an insight into what’s happening in Northern Ireland:

“We’ve trained a Verbal member of staff – Catherine McGrotty – as a Reader-In-Residence, and 34 volunteers have attended Read To Lead training. Between them they run shared reading sessions in a wide variety of settings, including care homes, community centres, day centres, prisons and schools. I have been over to Northern Ireland six times so far and Catherine and I have also been meeting weekly by Skype for mentoring sessions and it’s been fantastic to see how the project has developed and blossomed. So far, 357 people have participated in the groups in Derry and VAC expect that figure to have reached 400 by the end of the project’s first year, with activity spreading to Belfast very soon.”

Here is an update from Catherine herself:

“Magiligan Prison held its first Reading Room on January 14th with six participants. The second meeting on the 21st had almost doubled to ten participants on sheer word of mouth alone. Feedback from the participants has been (typically) heartening already – with one participant asking me if I’d ‘…ever heard of a story by Anton Chekhov called The Bet? It would be very good for lads in prison…’ Needless to say I know what I’m bringing next week.

I will also be travelling to Belfast once a week starting mid-February to look at the creation of a new Reading Room there in partnership with the 174 Trust. There is more training in the pipeline (for some new Belfast volunteers and for more care home volunteers) in March – so we’ll be bringing The Reader Organisation’s excellent trainers back over again for that.

We’re also excited to welcome Kate back in February for a top up Masterclass with some of the volunteers she trained last year. So keen were they to see her again, the Masterclass was half full before we even sent out the letters advertising it! Kate will also be visiting seven of the groups for Quality purposes.

I’m delighted at how glad our regular groups are to have us back. ‘As if Christmas wasn’t bad enough,’ said Jack, one of my care home group members. It’s strange how the short break has allowed us to come back and stop feeling quite so ‘new’ and a little bit more like our reading group has become embedded – something they look forward to once a week. It’s lovely to watch them settle down with a cup of tea and get their reading glasses on and get ready to get stuck in – they know how it works now and they’re ready for it.

When we’re not taking groups we’re busy promoting and evangelising about TRO’s shared reading model. I’ve been busy holding taster sessions for the staff of the Public Health Agency, some movers and shakers from Age NI and anyone who’ll sit still long enough for me to read to them! I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t immediately respond to the simplicity, power and beauty of the idea – especially when they get the chance to experience it first-hand.”

You can see Catherine, some of her volunteers and the people they read with here:


For more information about our partnership with Verbal Arts Centre and the Reading Rooms project, visit our website:

To learn about how you can get involved with Reading Rooms in Derry-Londonderry, please contact Catherine McGrotty at Verbal Arts Centre: or call 028 71 272507

I Love Reading: Lemn Sissay in Derry

lemn derry eventLemn Sissay: Talk and Poetry Reading, as part of Disobey Gravity
Thursday 18th April, 12.30-1.30pm
Verbal Arts Centre, Derry/Londonderry, BT48 6PU

Those in Northern Ireland or anyone heading over to sample what’s on offer as part of Derry’s Capital of Culture year in 2013 can catch poet, playwright and The Reader Organisation’s patron Lemn Sissay at this free event at the Verbal Arts Centre next week.

Fresh from his inspiring RISE events in Wigan earlier this week, Lemn will be reading some of his work and talking about why he loves reading as part of the Disobey Gravity programme. A year long project, Disobey Gravity imagines a world where people love to read, where a culture of sharing literature and stories can be created in the city of Derry and acts to  transform its surroundings.

If you missed out seeing Lemn in Wigan, here’s your opportunity to witness the power of his poetry in action, all for free.

For information about the event and how to book, contact Verbal Arts Centre on 02871 266946 or e-mail

Spotlight on Northern Ireland: Reaching Out

We return to our Spotlight on Northern Ireland series, by Project Worker Patricia Canning. In this final instalment, she discusses the impact that Get Into Reading can have in completely different environments, as well as looking forward to potential future developments.

Queen’s University, Belfast

Every Thursday since November 2011 at Queen’s University, 12 postgraduate students from within a range of different disciplines from the School of English, come together to read the same thing at our open Get Into Reading group. My own experiences of university recall an almost religiously observed segregation policy in terms of ‘genres of literature’. Victorian literature was studied apart from medieval literature; renaissance literature was considered a different discipline to American literature, and so on. Not so every Thursday – we read Shakespeare alongside Charles Dickens, Brontë alongside Carol-Ann Duffy. What’s more, everybody ‘gets it’.

I taught students at Queen’s for a few years and one student in my class, a creative, diligent learner and writer, attended for the entire course. This student, B, came to the shared reading group. At the second week of our Get Into Reading sessions, B bravely shared a very personal experience, impelled by the story we were reading at the time – a painful struggle with debilitating depression, for which B had to take over a year off to facilitate recovery. I taught B.  As close as I am (or think I am) to my students, I never knew of any of what B had been (and at the time, still was) going through. I was saddened by my own blindness to the human experience, which had been swallowed up by the academic one. Yet, here B was, in the company of relative strangers, speaking eloquently and emotionally about those experiences. ‘I can understand this poem’, says B,

 ‘it’s a way of understanding what depression is for me… a way of putting it into words. I like that’.

Literature, Fernando Pessoa would argue, gives us a means of ‘getting it’. As he says, to express something is to conserve its virtue and take away the terror’. B, inspired by the text to share his own experiences, helped us ‘get it’.

Belfast Healthcare Trust

After our Lisburn showcase in February 2011, we established a partnership with the Health Improvement Team at the Belfast Trust, who were interested in developing Get Into Reading as a staff wellbeing initiative. After many meetings with Team members, as well as potential funders, we secured a 6-week pilot project, funded by the ‘Here4U’ wellbeing group at the hospital. We have secured funding from the Health Consortium for a 24-week project to run after the pilot. As one group member put it,

‘I never read – my husband constantly winds me up about my reluctance to read – but this is just brilliant!’

One of the group members comes in every week buzzing with anticipatory pleasure, telling us she now reads the literature we read with a few of the elderly people she visits as part of her work role, and they – like her – love it. I have been asked by a few of the group if we can offer GIR in their respective workplaces (under the Trust umbrella, but geographically disparate). We have also been approached by a member of the Trust inquiring about the possibility of running groups in psychiatric inpatient units. The wonderful thing about this new request is that our reformed ‘non-reader’ made the recommendation.

Reading with Children: All Children’s Integrated Primary School, Co. Down.

I ran a few taster sessions at this local primary school with the Primary 7 children who were preparing for the transition to follow-on schools. 28 children took part over a few weeks and all of them wanted more. The ‘wow’ moments from this group were often from deeply engaged children offering intuitive readings in the sessions, but who, outside the sessions, were disinterested or under-confident readers. We are working towards establishing a 2012-13 project in this primary and its feeder secondary school in Newcastle.

Looking ahead

We are embarking on a very exciting stage of development in Northern Ireland, making some wonderful connections with individuals, organisations and funders, as well as establishing partnerships within a range of sectors (health, criminal justice, education, community). At the heart of this work, and the cornerstone of its success thus far, are the people with whom we read. Every week, the grass roots reading experiences offer the greatest evidence for the necessity of literature in all our lives. As J has said, ‘those words may not be mine, but they sure as hell tell my story’. Finding ‘those words’ offers J, and others, a way of making sense. Sharing them means doing it. Together.

Spotlight on Northern Ireland: H’s Story

This is the second in our Spotlight on Northern Ireland series, highlighting The Reader Organisation’s varied activity  in the area. This week, Patricia Canning, our Northern Ireland Project Worker, shares a moment of recognition with one of her readers: 

Recently, I read ‘Who Shall Dwell’, by H.C. Neal with a group of ex-prisoners in Belfast. Mostly men, they worked through the difficulties of the limited options open to the couple in the bomb shelter, who were subjected to heartbreaking cries for entry from outside. Not having any room for anyone else, and notwithstanding the potential drain on the limited resources inside, the couple were faced with a life or death situation. ‘I would protect my family at all costs’, said H, ‘stuff them – they should have built their own shelters instead of mocking this family for taking precautions’. D thought of the practicalities of letting others inside. ‘There’ll be a fight in such close quarters down the line, and what if you were to run out of food because your neighbours ate it?’

We read on, and the guys had a change of heart when we read of the woman who pleaded for her child to be allowed in, while she perished. ‘That changes everything’, said H, who admitted to not knowing what to do then. He sat quietly, as if pondering the reality of the situation, and looked pained to be contemplating his previously rigid view on saving himself and his family. I know this was hard for him because he served 26 years in prison for, as he puts it,’getting the bastard who hurt my child’. For H to even consider helping anyone other than his family when it put them at risk was a huge deal. I think he was surprised at his own compassion.

He read the poem, Charlotte Mew’s ‘The Call’, afterwards and was really moved by it. ‘It makes you realise you have to deal with things and just find a way’, he said, referring to the lines:

But suddenly it snapped the chain
Unbarred, flung wide the door
Which will not shut again;
And so we cannot sit here any more.

Whatever that call was, we’ve all had it. That something that makes us realise that we ‘cannot sit here anymore’, but must face whatever is in front of us – or indeed, behind us.

Next week: The final part of the series showcases the full range of the Northern Ireland project, including  groups for healthcare staff and postgraduate students.

Spotlight on Northern Ireland: Criminal Justice Settings

This is the first in our ‘Spotlight on Northern Ireland’, a series of reports and stories from Patricia Canning, our Northern Ireland Project Worker. This week, she discusses the impact of her original project at HMP Hydebank.

Since July 2010, I have been reading with a group of women in prison at Hydebank, Belfast. There are approximately 44 women in prison, a lot of them high profile, all of them wishing they were somewhere else. For two hours every week they inhabit all sorts of places; Dickens’s London streets, Constantine’s Italian mountains, Carver’s American diner, to name a few. Other times, we sit quietly contemplating the creative genius of Plath’s poetry. We have read together consistently for almost two years and the women have learnt much about themselves, each other, and the reading experiences they have collectively shared over time. The benefits of shared reading are best expressed in the words of the women for whom the reading sessions have made a profound difference. J says:

 “When we go back to our cell, we take [the] stories and poems with us, as thoughts, not paper. We get locked when we go back, and those stories get locked with us. Last week, that story (David Constantine’s ‘Under The Dam’) was about me. It was my life. I could identify with that woman who has lived a lifetime of feeling second-best in her husband’s eyes. I thought about it for days, that story, I mean. I thought about my own life, how I have dealt with those feelings. The story helped me to see it from someone else’s point of view and I was able – finally – to make my peace with it.”

Reading helps us, in the most basic sense, to realise that it’s OK to feel what we do, however alienating those feelings can be – sometimes, just reading about an experience expressed in language that we have never been able to master (because the emotion swamps or blocks our objective ability to find the ‘right’ words) is enough to grant us that peace that comes from knowing that those feelings are legitimate, that we are not the only ones living this life, having this experience. In short, through reading we learn, in J’s words, “to make our peace with it”.

Get Into Reading is different because it is preventative, building genuine support networks and raising the confidence and aspiration of some of Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable and marginalised community members.

Hydebank is our first pilot project in NI. We have just completed a short pilot project with the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC), Belfast, which supports male ex-prisoners. We have applied for funding to run a year-long project in the ESC which welcomes people who have experienced (or are at risk of entering) the criminal justice system as well as offering a transitional medium through which male and female offenders who have become familiar with the project inside prison can continue with their participation in the community on their release.

Next week: Part 2 of the series features H’s story, one of the ex-offenders who attended the ESC project.

The Reader Organisation at The LAI CILIP Ireland Annual Joint Conference 2012

The Reader Organisation recently made an appearance at The Library Association of Ireland and CILIP Ireland’s Annual Joint Conference 2012, letting attendees know about how lives are being transformed through our shared reading projects in Belfast.

Dr Patricia Canning, Project Worker for Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, presented a workshop on how Get Into Reading works for people across the country and specifically in Northern Ireland, where she currently runs a group in Hydebank Prison. As with our other projects in Criminal Justice settings, outcomes have been outstanding, with members reporting benefits such as:

  • increased empathy
  • personalisation and dignity
  • better communication
  • solidarity and a sense of community
  • greater understanding and appreciation of their own ‘life stories’

Patricia’s presentation – Transforming Lives through Shared Reading – is available to download from The Library Association of Ireland’s website.

The Reading Revolution in Northern Ireland

We’ll be taking Read To Lead to Northern Ireland very soon, as part of a new schedule of Open Courses for 2012 (if you’re in Northern Ireland and are interested in training to become a shared reading facilitator, read on…) but The Reader Organisation already has a growing presence in the country, with very successful Get Into Reading groups operating in Queen’s University and within the Criminal Justice system.

Our Northern Ireland project worker Patricia Canning fills us in the ongoing progress of Get Into Reading Northern Ireland, highlighting the powerful impact words and literature have amongst a wide range of people:

Every Wednesday afternoon I read with a group of women who tell me that being a part of this Get Into Reading group makes them feel relaxed, ‘chilled’, less stressed, and on the whole, liberated. The irony is, that this GIR group is in Hydebank Prison, Belfast. Reading an extract from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol a few weeks back, the women talked about how his depiction of the biting cold had made them all feel very chilly: ‘he really knows how to describes things, doesn’t he? I’m freezing here!’

Being able to ‘feel’ what the writer is describing – even if it is the cold – is a testament to the power of words, and of the benefits of reading good literature. These women, like everyone else who benefits from attending Get Into Reading groups across the mainland, enjoy that liberating feeling of being able to identify with other characters, with events and with feelings and emotions that they might otherwise struggle to understand, articulate, or even acknowledge. Words can do that – as Ferdinand Pessoa puts it:

To express something is to conserve its virtue and take away its terror. Fields are greener in their description than in their actual greenness. Flowers, if described with phrases that define them in the air of the imagination, will have colours with a durability not found in cellular life.

Reading a difficult Shakespearean sonnet recently, one of the women read the line, ‘I all alone beweep my outcast state’, and proclaimed, ‘it’s about depression, isn’t it?’ In our group, Shakespeare has helped us understand that depression is a timeless phenomenon and can chance upon the best of us.

Thankfully, these benefits are reaching further afield because people are attending to the positive effects of shared reading here, as Health In Mind’s recent poetry and prose event at Coleraine library so wonderfully demonstrated. We now have a fantastic Get Into Reading group in Queen’s University, Belfast, every Thursday afternoon, which is well attended by a spirited bunch of people who read, chat, drink tea, chat, read, and marvel at the ways in which reading together enriches both the reading experience and our day in equal measure.

The Reading Revolution has begun in Northern Ireland, but we need passionate people who believe in the power of reading to help take it even further. We are hosting an open Read To Lead training course at Holywood Library over three weeks: Friday 3rd, 10th and 17th February 2012. If you want to share the joys of shared reading in your community, there are a few places left on the course. For further details and to book your place, please contact Jessica Reeves for more information: