donal mclaughlin

on & off the page


Donal’s first short story collection – an allergic reaction to national anthems & other stories – was longlisted for the 2010 Cork City – Frank O’Connor Short Story Award as well as nominated for the first-ever Readers’ Best First Book Award of the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Allergic COVER 6


“an outstanding first short story collection”

Scottish Review of Books


“funny and tender”

‘peggyb’, on forum of



A young boy, new to Scotland, is attacked by older pupils from the local secondary school as he plays with sticks in a puddle. The same boy – Liam – mistakes the Mona Lisa for the Virgin Mary and prays to avoid being belted. When God Save the Queen is played, he races his brothers and sisters to be the one to switch the TV off. On rare returns to Derry, he witnesses the Troubles from his gran’s livingroom. Goodbyes can’t be said quickly enough at the end of a first such holiday. Soldiers turn up during another – to raid the house. The boy hears stories on these occasions too. A cousin is offended by a course book at school. A hypnotist performs across the border – with tragi-comic consequences. In the final Liam story in this collection, the O’Donnells have visitors from Derry as Jim Watt fights Charlie Nash for a world championship title.

Throughout the book, these Irish-Scottish stories from a 1970s childhood and youth alternate with stories with more recent and/or international settings. A father and son drive to East Germany a month after the Wall comes down. A young German travels alone, north of Inverness. A reticent father spends time alone in his adult son’s new flat. Two friends, returning from holiday, discuss one’s broken relationship. A successful salesman, on business in Austria, hears the tale of a Viennese counterpart. An elderly couple, on holiday on Lanzarote, are not content with the ‘package’. A lapsed Catholic may (or may not) return to Confession as the Vatican announces a Holy Year.

McLaughlin takes his lead from Alfred Andersch, whose Franz Kien stories – a loose sequence, to which each new collection added – reflect life in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich. ‘Deutscher Architekt’, as they say. Throw in McLaughlin’s passion for Scottish and Irish writing of the past thirty years, and the result is captivating.



It feels like you know the [Liam] character intimately. The language he uses / is used for him is consistent and wonderful. You are evoking something I have not yet seen in our literature – the meld of Scottish and northern Irish. It’s both a chasm and a bridge. Fascinating stuff. And you obviously know it very well. I really like the characters – their vibrancy, their obsessions. And it seems to me that the great strength of your pieces — when stepped away from for a while — is their collective impact.

I feel like I have stepped into a secret, although I’m not entirely sure what secrets I should or should not know.

Colum McCann

As a fiction writer myself, I have been captivated and excited by Donal’s short stories, centering round the life of a small boy, Liam, and his Irish/Glaswegian family, that let the reader into a world something like that of the young Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but Donal’s is very much an original voice. I have read these stories with much delight and also enjoyed Donal’s readings from them.

Barbara Trapido



The characters in McLaughlin’s stories who have moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland definitely see their adopted country as some form of punishment, from schoolboy Liam being bullied for being Catholic, to the death of one Dessie Cassidy, father of seven, whose children turned out “nothing at all like he’d hoped”. McLaughlin’s concerns are ordinary people’s lives and their everyday business, told in everyday speech, and it’s a skill to make the mundane as readable as this. McLaughlin doesn’t yet have the depth or the cleverness of Kelman in that everyday depiction – though Liam is appealing, and his mother, Bridget, sympathetic –  but there are hints in this collection of a more complex take on the world still to come. Setting his sights farther, Strange Religions & Suicidal Rabbits conveys a German visitor’s perceptions of Scotland in a story which, like many in this collection, steers clear of cliche and easy assumptions.

Lesley McDowall, The Herald


Donal McLaughlin is a translator who is passionate about the process and the community it engenders across frontiers. It is therefore appropriate that translation is the core theme of An Allergic Reaction to National Anthems. Here, however, it is a physical translation that concerns him, for most of the stories in this debut collection are based on his family’s experience of moving from Derry to Scotland in 1970 to escape “The Troubles”. Issues of identity and belonging and how they are affected by the condition of exile are constantly simmering.
… It’s no surprise given his profession that he has an ear for conversational style. His ability to render the spoken word – both Irish and Scots, according to context – on the page brings attention to the linguistic challenges involved in moving from one vernacular to the other. In fact, it is the rough-and-tumble banter of a large, loving working-class family, rather than individual characterisation, that brings animation and emotional texture to his domestic cameos

Jennie Renton, Scottish Review of Books


The power of An Allergic Reaction To National Anthems by Donal McLaughlin resides in the ability of its characters – flesh, blood and spirit – unobtrusively, gradually, to slip inside the readers’ head and possess them wholly.

Suhayl Saadi, Sunday Herald (Feature on ‘Books of the Year’)


Set primarily in Derry and parts of Scotland, the collection skips between locations easily, seamlessly using the language of both with an ease that allows the reader to feel enveloped in a story as short as a few paragraphs.

The stories knit together to trace the movements and growth of the O’Donnell family, specifically their emigration to Scotland. McLaughlin handles a staggeringly high number of O’Donnells, giving each of them a voice distinct enough to allow them to emerge as individuals. This is particularly important as the collection spans several decades; characters remain recognizable to us even when they appear many years after we last saw them. The O’Donnell children are vividly drawn; their childhood battles, alliances and rituals are spot-on and particularly poignant when set within a grimmer and decidedly more adult context. (…)

McLaughlin’s dialogue is excellent, as are his sense of time and timing. The collection moves swiftly across several decades but is never rushed or jerky. Each story is measured, its length well-considered. Several are under ten pages, even with very generous spacing.; these feel like vivid, complete snapshots that help illuminate the time gaps between stories. The decision to keep this a collection of scenes rather than a single narrative is commendable, especially at a time when short story collections are few and far between. The book works much better as a compilation than it would as a novel.  Readers unfamiliar with the events and time period McLaughlin’s collection focuses on, far from feeling alienated, will likely find themselves doing some amount of research in order to appreciate the book more fully; their efforts will be rewarded.

‘God Save The Queen?’ – Gutter. The magazine of new Scottish writing


[The stories] convey a bemused awareness of the unpredictable slings and arrows – and sometimes generosity – of the adult world. Liam’s voice as a ‘weeboy’ and as he grows up relates some of these tales, while other memorable characters include a divorced father who takes his young son with him on a male-bonding trucking job to Germany, an overburdened but not quite overwhelmed mother trying to make sense of a new country, a middle-aged lapsed Catholic who finds himself back in church hungering for confession on his own terms – these and a cast of others.

Their pungent, Irish-inflected language and sense of humor are big reasons for the charm and thrust of these stories, presenting only an occasional puzzle for the American eye and ear. Many lines of dialogue and narrative break off with ‘but’, an Irishism suggesting life’s small and large uncertainties, a mix of protest and resignation signaling how things might be one way but are just as likely another […]

Americans think of the Irish Diaspora as bringing generations of Irish to North America […] Americans may be less aware of Irish migration within the British Isles […] A short boat ride from Scotland, Northern Ireland for centuries saw an influx of Scots due to British pressure to increase the Protestant presence and assert political control. But migration has also gone in the other direction bringing Irish to Scotland, if in smaller numbers than to England. Donal McLaughlin’s own family left Derry in Northern Ireland for Scotland in 1970 […]

Americans will  find his mixed Irish-Scottish identity an intriguing, even paradoxical, combination of good craic amidst daily coping. McLaughlin’s stand-in, young Liam, goes back and forth between countries, fully comfortable in neither […] The Troubles [in Derry] are the stuff of both games and nightmares, of play parades and mock fights: so long as nothing terrible actually happens, the children’s imaginations work to make sense of the real fact that it always could […]

McLaughlin’s own international connections are impressive. His work has been translated into Spanish, German, Slovene, Hungarian, and Lithuanian. A translator of German, he specializes in Swiss literature. He has been named the first Scottish PEN’s ecrivain sans frontieres and has guest-edited a collection of contemporary Scottish writing for Sampark, an India-based journal of global understanding. An Allergic Reaction to National Anthems provides a contrast to this broader perspective of history and politics with the low-key domesticity of its characters’ lives […]

A particularly satisfying story is ‘A Protestant Catholic’: Jim Kane finds himself in church – ‘Question was: the fuck was he doing here now?’ – with a spiritual thirst and a guilty conscience, but inconveniently, stubbornly skeptical. He is hoping for a secular solution to his needs that the unknown priest at the end of the story might just provide. Kane’s dilemma is a variation on Liam’s, and underlies the entire collection: how to find personal right-mindedness, given one’s own inconsistencies and an unobliging world. Liam and the other characters manage their lives through a talkative blend of humor, exasperation, practicality, and a kind of fatal optimism. ‘Weeboy’ Liam is trying to make sense of things, and around him the adults are still trying to do the same.

Maxine Susman, American Book Review



(21 January 2010)

Comments in response to Donal’s readings both from his own short stories and his translations of Stella Rotenberg and Herta Mueller included the following:

a really good event.

a wonderful variety from the Stella Rotenberg to Donal’s own stories to the Herta Mueller. a great opening for the series of events


a great evening

– Donal spoke very well about translation


a really eye-opening and superb event


a fabulous reading

I look forward to the audio cd of the book


the readings were great and the discussion was fascinating


very well attended, great discussions

– a wonderful outward-looking and stimulating start to the new programme


Writer Carol McKay wrote about the event on her Blog:

Last week, I attended the first of the new monthly events staged by the Scottish Writers’ Centre, this one in the CCA in Glasgow. The spotlight for this inaugural session was on Donal McLaughlin, whose short story collection an allergic reaction to national anthems is published by Argyll. Donal may have lost his childhood’s Irish accent but his voice has lost none of that purring quality.  He draws on his Irish-Scottish childhood experiences for his stories but much else besides. Given what I’ve said, above, about my own reading, I found it interesting that he was able to differentiate clearly between the voices of multiple characters in his stories: that’s a true gift, as all the textbooks unite in warning writers away from using more than two or three characters in a short story (other than mentioning very minor characters, of course).

Particularly interesting in Donal’s session was the variety, given that he works as a literary translator as well as author. So, he read his translations of poems written by one of the Second World War’s many displaced people: Stella Rotenberg, a woman who has lived in England for over seventy years and is now in her nineties but who still writes in her native German. Moving poems, simply expressed and direct, and beautifully translated. We can express so much more truth when we write in our mother tongue, I believe – which is why I encourage my students to experiment with writing in their own dialect, whatever it may be. Writing in our own tongue opens up areas of our experience which we have overlaid and suppressed through adult life. A talented literary translator must enter into that other writer’s experience, adopt it as his own, then express it through the heart. As a displaced person himself, in a sense, Donal seems able to identify with the original writer’s quest for expression. He ended his session with a reading from a novel by the recent Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Herta Muller.


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