Rebecca O’Connor and Will Govan run The Moth magazine and an international poetry prize from the unlikely setting of a Cavan farmhouse, but wouldn’t have it any other way, they tell Eithne Shortall
Rebecca O’Connor and Will Govan could as easily be the subject of a Style feature as a Culture one. The couple, who will both be 41 by the end of this month, met when O’Connor was attending a life-drawing class in London organised by Govan. They married within a year, and six months later they swapped hectic London for a life in the Irish countryside.
Lifestyle envy is solidified when you visit the renovated farmhouse near Milltown in Cavan that the couple share with their three children, aged two to eight. The large, cosy home is surrounded by hens, which provide the family with seven eggs each morning, and a rooster that doesn’t restrict his cock-a-doodle-doo to daybreak. There is no television, but there are vegetable patches, two dogs and plans for ducks, and a converted barn with freshly painted walls, shelves made by Govan, and a woodstove burning in the corner.
What puts the couple in this section of The Sunday Times is the business venture that allowed the Englishman and Irishwoman to swap the rat race for the rural retreat. The pair founded The Moth, a literary magazine they have run since 2010. O’Connor had been an editor at a small London publishing house, and Govan, who was studying art when they met, had experience of the commercial and advertising side.
“It seemed like an ideal partnership. It started off with this idea that we wanted to produce something we would like to read ourselves,” says Govan.
“We were romantic about living in the countryside,” says O’Connor, who grew up in Cavan, although there is no trace of an accent. “I’ve been giving her elocution lessons the last few years,” quips Govan, in his polite London brogue.
“We wanted to bring up children in the countryside – we were certain about that,” explains his wife. “And I hankered after moving back to Ireland. I’d been in the UK for about 10 years at that time. It was Will’s idea to move to Cavan – his first experience of it was the literary festival at Farnham Estate. We had a wonderful weekend and it opened my eyes to the place; you see it through someone else’s eyes.”
“I was up for the adventure, but once we settled into it, I did find it tough,” she says of moving home. “It was like a step backwards in many ways, and obviously work-wise. As you get older you become defined by your work. So suddenly we were in rural Ireland and we had our little boy and we were scrambling around thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’ I was doing a bit of freelancing, so it was only really when we started The Moth that I settled a bit.”
O’Connor is in charge of the quarterly publication. She reads all the submissions, selects the poems, short stories and artworks, and handles the design. Govan does the two interviews in each issue – he talked to John Boyne and John Kelly for the current one – and has been looking after childcare.
The Moth is in shops, but that is more about marketing. Most sales are from online subscriptions, with America accounting for a good chunk.
Contributors receive a free copy but are not paid. “If you go to an agent’s or a publisher’s website, they’ll be advising young writers: get your work published, get it in good journals, newspapers,” says O’Connor. “So, yeah, it’s for their CVs, I suppose. People just like being in it because their poems look pretty next to a painting. The layout is appealing.”
How do you make a living from a literary magazine? The answer is you don’t. “It took a few years,” says O’Connor. “And then we started to set up various prizes, which are revenue streams. They help to support the magazine as the subscriptions build up.” There are five competitions, covering short stories, visual art and poetry, but the most important is the Ballymaloe poetry prize. The winner gets €10,000, making it the world’s most valuable award for a single poem. Darina Allen’s cookery school is the sponsor, and a few thousand people enter at €12 a go. The competition is judged by an established poet, and three runners-up get €1,000 each.
“The magazine endorsed the other projects,” explains Govan. “It gave us credibility. We were always attempting to run it as a business. So we thought we could be selling mobile phones or double glazing; unfortunately we’re not, but we had to utilise the same principles.”
The business is small so there is room to try out ideas. The couple have an art studio in Cavan town and Govan runs classes on Tuesday evenings. There is also The Caterpillar, a literary magazine for children, and a few years ago Govan started a theatre company that travelled around Ireland in an old Royal Mail van, performing at GAA clubs. This was a great way of keeping costs down, as the cost of petrol and insurance (thanks to cheap van insurance for over 25 year olds) was much lower than renting a theatre space. The van is outside the couple’s house. One unsuccessful production sent the theatre company – and almost The Moth – under, however.
“And then we had a tough old time,” says O’Connor. “We just had to reassess everything. Also, I became pregnant with our third child and I was very sick. We decided, ‘Right, get rid of the office, cut back’, and laid low for a while.”
Less of a risk is the newly renovated barn, with a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, writing desk, piano and an easel. The barn is booked up for artist residencies throughout the summer; whatever the medium, at €300 a week it’s a good place for a solitary retreat.
We’re not really in the loop at all. It’s a good, healthy thing for us to just stay out of it
The pair also have their own artistic interests: Govan would like to do more painting, and O’Connor is a poet who has just revisited a novel she wrote 10 years ago. They are honest about their limitations, too. Govan cannot remember the last time he read a book, and O’Connor rarely gets time to read anything but submissions.
The Moth exists largely outside the literary scene. “It would be incredibly hard living in Dublin, feeling under pressure to go to book launches and things, and to not be influenced by that; to not think, ‘Oh God, so-and-so has given us some poems, we better publish them’,” says O’Connor. “We wouldn’t have the time to be out there having readings.”
“What tends to happen,” adds Govan, “is when you do a reading you get all the writing people come along. It’s all the people who already know about The Moth. It’s not really useful.”
“We’re not really in the loop at all,” says O’Connor. “And you know what? I think it’s a good, healthy thing for us to just stay out of it.”