To celebrate St Patrick’s Day we have asked two Prime Writers with strong connections to that beautiful country to write about how those connections have influenced them and their writing. First up is Fionnuala Kearney whose second novel, The Day I Lost You has just been published in e-book and in trade paperback in Ireland and will be available in the UK later this year.
Way, way, back in Irish history, before books or any printed works, there was a class of people called ‘Seanachaí’ which is the Gaelic for ‘storyteller’. The Seanachaí would travel from village to village making their living by telling their tales, usually at night in the pubs, to a captive audience. They would spin yarns from anything; local gossip from their travels, or tales from traditional folklore and mythology but the point is, their role was to tell stories – something that I think remains woven into the deepest layers of Irish DNA.
We, all of us, have rich fodder to plunder as writers. All we need to do is to look around us; take in the wonder of the world on an early morning walk; be moved by a song lyric; listen to that couple arguing through their teeth on the train. But for me, being Irish, does I think provide me with some weird additional layers of ‘stuff’ to pillage, plus a yearning that I’ve never been able to ignore – to be a story-teller.
I’m an almost middle child of seven children, raised in a conflicted Catholic household. No point in my childhood was ever quiet. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good childhood. It was, but one I think is perhaps best understood by other members of other big Irish families. It’s difficult to explain the madness, without it sounding exactly that – mad! Mealtimes we had our own SOS mantra: ‘Stretch or Starve.’ Perhaps not that conducive to ‘Palace’ table manners, but it worked for us. Religious routines were force-fed both at school and at home yet, despite good behaviour and prayers, crises were commonplace. Seven children, two struggling adults – there was always someone needing to be heard amongst the noise. So yes, silence was something that was absent from my childhood.
But what was present, there amongst the clamour, were emotions galore – love, happiness, sadness, fear, rage, joy, anxiety, acceptance, guilt – all seeds of stories. Without my Irish craziness, I’m not sure I’d write what I do today, character driven, and emotion packed family dramas. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel the need to poke beneath the layers of what looks like normality to find out what’s really going on…
I no longer live in Ireland and though I’ve lived in the UK for most of my adult life – and loved it – if you split me in half, I’d have ‘Irish’ written through me like a stick of rock. There’s no escaping the early roots, nor would I want to. So, this St. Patrick’s day, like most other ones, I’ll be immersed in memories of freezing cold, wet, days spent standing in a crowd watching a parade of ‘floats’ pass by (back then a float was a themed lorry covered in damp, green, crepe paper). I’ll remember the days off school spent with the mad ones eating ham and cabbage. I’ll not be indulging in a pint of the black stuff, though my other half will. I will remember the simple patriotic pride I felt in the day.
But unlike those ‘back home’, I won’t be taking the day off. I’ll be working and being grateful, that I, like the Seanachaí of old, am lucky enough to tell stories for a living.
And I’ll phone the mad siblings and wish them a good one.
Our second contribution comes from Christine Breen who traces her strong literary links back to Ireland extending over more than forty years. Christine’s latest novel Her Name is Rose has just been translated into Turkish and Polish. O Come Ye Back to Ireland – the first of a series of non-fiction memoirs set in her adopted homeland, written with her husband Niall Williams, – is now available as an e-book.
It was inevitable that I would end up living and writing in Ireland. It was kismet. I’ve had a handful of literary awakenings throughout my life — all of them involving Ireland. My first awakening was as a ‘Junior Year Abroad’ student from Boston studying at The School of Irish Studies in Dublin. This was in 1975. Who among those 20-odd, 21-year-old Americans will forget Professor Jim Mayes’s final exam question on Joyce? “Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.” Discuss! Somewhat mutely, I passed. My second awakening came 5 years later when I returned to Dublin to do a Master’s in Anglo-Irish literature. From Molly Keane to Samuel Beckett. From Elizabeth Bowen to George Moore. From Maria Edgeworth to James Joyce. I did my master’s thesis on an Irish writer not well known at the time, John Banville, who went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 2005. My third awakening followed soon after when I fell in love with a writer, a Dubliner. Between the jigs and the reels, and as luck would have it, we eventually moved into a rustic and vacant cottage in the west of Ireland where my grandfather had been born. The last Breen had left 5 years before we moved in.
In this quiet, rural place in west Clare I have lived for 30 years. Raised my children, and untangled a garden. I’ve learned about cows and hens and horses, and muck and rushes and couch grass, and rain and wind that steals your breath. This quiet place has demanded a survival of self-exploration and examination and expression, and, finally, after making a family, and a garden, and co authoring four non-fiction books, this expression eventually evolved into a novel. My debut, Her Name is Rose, was accepted for publication in the US during the same year that my husband, Niall Williams, was long-listed for his novel History of the Rain for the Man Booker Prize. Luck of the Irish cuts both ways and this time we were lucky. For luck is surely involved, it catapults the hard work above the parapet.
In Kiltumper, where we live, there are no cafes where we might meet a fellow writer. There are no launches or bookstore readings. Very few invitations arrive in the post-box at the bottom of the garden and when they do the invitations are for events in Dublin or London, a world away from here. It’s like we’re an island on an island. An island marked off by crossroads and townlands with names like Kiltumper and Clongiulane and Greygrove and Cahermurphy. So in our green quiet we continue to write and garden. My husband is writing screenplays and working on his tenth novel. My second novel is in the works and although the year of my debut, 2015, was challenged with cancer from which I am recovering, my next novel continues to evolve, albeit slowly. The first quarter of 2016 has dropped into the post-box at the bottom of the crooked path a Polish edition and a Turkish edition of Her Name is Rose and in a few weeks I will take up a two-week writing residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annamaghkerrig, County Monaghan to continue writing the new novel, Two Blue Moons.
In this leap year, there’s a half moon rising on St. Patrick’s Eve. May the luck of Irish may well be upon us…all.