In Memory of Siobhan Dowd

It is with great sadness that we announce the death on Tuesday 21 August of Siobhan Dowd. Siobhan was an integral part of PEN for many years. She worked for it selflessly and tirelessly and left barely a part of it untouched. She was, among other things, a founder and guiding light of the Readers & Writers Programme, and worked intimately with the Writers in Prison Committee and International PEN. She was also a great friend. We will miss her enormously.

Rachel Billington who, as President of Engilsh PEN, worked closely with Siobhan for many years, recalls her remarkable spirit and her recent successes as a children’s author. Below, Diana Reich, who also worked alongside Siobhan, pays tribute to her contribution to PEN over the years. Tributes from fellow PEN members Louise Doughty, Josephine Feene, James Duckworth and Wendy Birman also follow.

We would welcome other tributes to Siobhan. If you would like to share your memories please email them to

Rachel Billington:

‘My friend Siobhan Dowd was an exceptional woman: wise, clever, original, keen to have a laugh, strong-minded, modest, efficient, and loving. Her death from cancer on August 21st at the early age of 47 will have shocked and saddened many PEN members. For twenty years, from 1984 to 2004, she was at the heart of many of PEN’s most important programmes. Since then she has written four children’s novels, two of which have been already published to great acclaim. It was a late and happy flowering for someone who had always wanted to be a writer herself but chose to spend most of her life looking after the freedoms of writers round the world.

In 1996 Siobhan edited a PEN anthology of imprisoned writers called This Prison Where I live (available from Amazon). This morning I reread Siobhan’s introduction; it is a masterpiece of clarity and understanding. By the time of publication Siobhan had moved to American PEN after spending six years in the London office of International PEN where she had established the Writers in Prison programme on a professional basis. In New York she led the US Salman Rushdie defence committee and travelled to Indonesia and Guatemala to investigate writers’ conditions there. Despite her struggles with loneliness, she made enough of an impression to be voted one of the ‘top Irish-Americans’ by Irish-America and Aer Lingus, for her global anti-censorship work. Her free Irish spirit was not dulled by an upbringing in London.

After seven years she returned to England. She spent her first two years doing postgraduate work at Greenwich University in gender and ethnic studies. At the centre of the work were the Roma people who had always held a fascination for her. In 1998 she co-edited The Roads of the Roma: A PEN Anthology of Gypsy Writers. At this time she’d already started writing short stories and it was good luck for PEN that she was still available to join me to set up, and then run, a new programme for English PEN: the Readers and Writers Programme.

I was President of English PEN at the time and chairman of the Readers & Writers committee. It was only then that I understood the reality of Siobhan’s talents. It seemed that overnight (and many thanks to the Royal Literary Fund who gave money for a pilot year and then a further three) authors were organised to follow their books into schools in socially deprived areas, prisons, young offenders and community projects. Nothing seemed difficult to Siobhan. At meetings, she was, in the most charming of ways, absolutely on top of the project, although ready to listen to any suggestions from her committee.

Now, I feel, slightly guiltily, that PEN deprived her of four years when she might have been writing her own novels. Typically, Siobhan, childless herself, assured me not long before she died that her work with children for the R & W programme was an important inspiration towards writing children’s books.  In 2004 Siobhan moved to Oxford with her librarian husband, Geoff Morgan. Their happiness together, in a late marriage, couldn’t be spoilt even by Siobhan’s discovery around this time that she had cancer.

Amazingly, it was now that Siobhan began to write full time – for every moment that she felt well enough to do so. A Swift Pure Cry, (David Fickling Books) a novel for teenagers, goes back to Siobhan’s Irish roots and tells, with a great sense of beauty and sadness, the story of Shell, a young girl who escaped the miseries of home in the arms of the local rich boy. She becomes pregnant and yet the tragedy that follows is never without hope. The novel was published in 2006 and has won or been short-listed for many major awards, including the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Award.

In June 2007 The London Eye Mystery, a clever and touching thriller for younger readers, was published. It was immediately chosen as Book of the Week by The Sunday Times. The month before, in a sad irony, Waterstone’s named Siobhan as one of their 25 Authors of the Future. She was also signed up by The British Council to visit Russia to promote a European book of stories for teenagers this autumn (a story of hers was included) and to give workshops. Yet Siobhan does have a real future. At her death she had already completed two further novels: Bog Child and Solace of the Road which will come out in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Furthermore, in her last few weeks she set up a trust so that proceeds from her writing could be used to help bring books to children in deprived circumstances.

The launch of the London Eye Mystery took place, with a typically Siobhan sense of fun, on the London Eye itself. Cancer, the sword of Damocles over Siobhan’s head, was banished. Twirling ever so slowly above the great city, Siobhan quaffed champagne with her beloved husband, sisters, nephews, nieces, publishers, colleagues and friends. Afterwards we walked across Waterloo Bridge, a motley troupe of fans following their piper.

Despite the brevity of Siobhan’s life, she has achieved far more than most people. I wonder if, at the end, she thought of the writers she had helped over the years, round the world. Now she had become one of the band. Perhaps the sufferings she endured reminded her of their sufferings. In her introduction to This Prison Where I Live she wrote a description that could properly apply to herself: “In these pages the reader will find men and women of great resourcefulness, stretched to the limits of their endurance, but still able to display virtues such as good humour, dignity and philosophical detachment.”

Siobhan Dowd was a great inspiration and is a great loss but there is also very much to celebrate.’

Diana Reich:

‘From my point of view, Siobhan’s most notable characteristics were an unusual degree of wisdom for one so young (she was in her 30s when we first met), together with a relish for life and a complete lack of malice or bitterness, despite her recent circumstances. Her talent for friendship and ability to engage in other people’s experiences never wavered, however dire her own circumstances. Her flair for writing was apparent even in the most mundane reports that she had to submit at PEN: they were never dry and they were always lucid as well as perfectly balanced and expressed. In an organisation that was, at that time, riven by factions, she stood out as an independent thinker with a strong mind, who was always above pettiness and focused on her tasks and responsibilities. Her social conscience was an intrinsic part of her character, but was not a straitjacket: she had a wicked sense of humour and an ability to see the absurd in situations. Her late and excellent writing for children was a perfect vehicle for her creativity and her wish to make a difference in the lives of young people. This desire had taken root when she launched and steered the PEN Readers and Writers programme in the UK, together with PEN’s President, Rachel Billington. Typically, in an email a mere fortnight or so before her death, she described herself as “cheerful and upbeat”. She leaves a rich legacy which is a reflection of a life fulfilled as well as one so cruelly curtailed.’

Josephine Feeney:

‘Siobhan was one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. I’ll never forget meeting her for the very first time at Manchester Piccadilly Station. She had a beaming smile and a great welcome and on the way to St. Bernard’s School in Burnage, we swapped details about our Irish childhoods in London and Leicester. Siobhan had a lovely way with the children at St. Bernard’s – she was so unassuming and charming and she addressed them by their names and they loved that because they recognised that she respected and valued them.

Other school visits with Siobhan were a treat and I always looked forward to the long taxi, tube or bus journeys with her because she was great crack, as they say! 

May she rest in eternal peace. Deepest sympathies to Geoff.’

Louise Doughty:

‘My path first crossed with Siobhan’s at a book launch.  I was deep into the research for my fourth novel, about the fate of the Roma people during the Second World War.  Siobhan had edited a collection of Roma writing, and I soon realised that it was typical of her to put her energies and talents into facilitating other writers’ work.  We talked a bit about how my next novel was going to be about my own English Romanichal ancestry and she said ‘Oh, you must read…’ rattling off a comprehensive list of all sorts of sources I had not yet considered.  She asked for my address and although she hardly knew me, sent me her own copy of a book she thought might be useful to me.  I kept the book for years – it still sits on my shelf – and every time I saw it I thought, ‘I must return that to Siobhan.’  Some time after she had discovered she was ill, we bumped into each other at another Romany-related event.  She told me about her children’s writing and the pleasure it was giving her was all over her face.  ‘I’m so sorry I’ve still got your book,’  I said.  ‘No hurry,’ she replied, before adding casually, ‘I’ve been ill anyway.  Breast cancer.’  She was perfectly matter-of-fact about it, and we went straight back to discussing writing.  I didn’t know Siobhan well and I didn’t know about the extent of her work for PEN until I read the lovely tributes to her on the website, but I will always remember my encounters with her warmth and affection, and think of her as a fellow writer who managed to do what we should all do – make the world a bit better for other writers too.’

James Duckworth:

‘I remember Siobhan as a very fine and much loved friend, who over the years gave more than most and still had so much to give! I knew her very well in her Lady Margaret Hall days as a Classics undergraduate, and we often talked about literature, and the latest books she was reading, for hours, days, whenever the chance came. Over the years the same pattern followed, since reading was the main well spring of our friendship.

We met again locally years later, during her PEN and Roma time, as she was living near me at the time in Kent, which I know she greatly enjoyed visiting and being in, especially Knole Park. Her friendship was based on a very wonderful integrity and she was kindness personified, and I was so saddened, as I know are many, when she told me herself – in that very matter of fact way – of her illness. Literature was her main passion in life and she very sweetly added one of my own poems to one of PEN’s very fine anthologies – one of many wonderful and charming gestures I will never forget!

She was lately starting out on a great career as an author and it is wonderful news that her next two novels, Bog Child and Solace of the Road, are out next year. It will be time for us all to cherish her yet again. Siobhan, I salute you. Rest in peace.’

Wendy Birman:

‘I am deeply saddened to learn of Siobhan Dowd’s untimely death.  I remember her with much esteem and affection. Already well aware of her selfless work for PEN it was a privilege to meet her at the wonderful WiPC West Dean conference in 2000.In addition to her exceptional literary career, Siobhan’s creative contribution To PEN was outstanding, particularly her work with Sarah Whyatt for imprisoned writers and with Jane Spender for P.E.N International and This Prison Where I Live.’

A trust has been set up to manage all the proceeds from Siobhan’s literary work. The aim of the trust will be to help disadvantaged children impove their reading skills and experience the joy of reading. It  will offer financial support to public libraries, state school libraries (especially in economically challenged areas), children in care, asylum seekers, young offenders and children with special needs. For more information please see

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