Category Archives: Women
Lisa Harding is a writer I truly admire. She nails *voice* like no-one else I know both in her short stories and in her newly-penned novels. This month (October) she signed with New Island Books for a controversial novel about trafficked teenagers (published next Spring) and she’s also Writer in Residence with Pavee Point in association with the Irish Writer’s Centre. I meet with Lisa fortnightly at our writer’s group in Brooks Hotel on Drury Street, so am familiar with her work and also with her struggle to stay earning while pursuing a life as a writer. I wanted to ask her some relevant questions that may be of use to other writers starting out on a similar track.
Let’s start with where things are at for you at the moment and that includes being on the radio recently to talk about your current accommodation difficulties. You made a very valid point that one in four people in Ireland rent and these numbers are growing, yet nothing solid has been done about the appalling conditions and escalating prices. You have your first novel coming out in 2017 with New Island Books; you are trying hard to contribute to society but as a freelance teacher, actress and writer, you feel that your own basic needs are being violated over. It’s a side to the writer’s life that’s maybe not talked about a lot. Can you elaborate?
This tension is a biggie for me: How to continue with my creative work while keeping a roof over my head? My balance isn’t what it used to be, and I don’t think I like teetering on that high-wire anymore…I moved back to Dublin almost seven years ago after thirteen years living out of a suitcase as an actress in London. That was all fine, then. But the time came when I wanted to move home to create some stability and focus more on writing. Since moving back I’ve had six moves in six years because of landlord’s vagaries: rent increases, taking back property for family members, selling under my feet and sometimes impossible living conditions such as no heat and damp.
How do artists live in a city where the average cost of renting a studio/one bedroom sub-standard dwelling is €1,000 a month? As Martin Doyle wrote in the Irish Times on the 7 Oct, the median income of professional authors is €12,000, but the typical median income of all writers is less than €4,000. So boohoo, some people say, grow up, get a ‘proper job’, or marry a rich man (yes, I’ve heard that one a few times!) or move out of Dublin, or share with a bunch of twenty-somethings. I love my hometown and happen to believe that the arts are an important, integral part of any society. Also, having spent over a decade in London, I don’t want to uproot again and be in a place where I know no one. Dublin has a rich tradition of producing writers, actors, theatre-makers. We pride ourselves on our culture, yet some prominent arts practitioners that I know live on less than the minimum wage.
I wish I knew the answer to this conundrum, but I know for sure that if I weren’t running around stressing and doing all my other jobs, which still don’t bring in enough for me to create a stable home I’d have much more time to spend on creating new work.
Tell us about your first novel, the genesis of the idea, how you decided to go about it?
When I was acting in Fair City, I was approached by a representative for The Body Shop to read some monologues written by girls who had been trafficked into this country. This was part of a campaign run in conjunction with the Immigrant Council of Ireland to stop the trafficking of children. I had no idea of the extent of the industry; how so many of these girls were so young and were being visited by men from all sectors of society, some of whom had daughters at home. I found the experience of reading the statements traumatic and wondered how their young bodies and minds could survive and assimilate this abuse. Or could they?
The testimonies I read aloud were true stories of girls who were now in safety, but I could feel their splintered psyches even in the simple language they used to relate the facts of their captivity. I really didn’t want to think any more on it, but I was haunted by their stories and couldn’t push these girls out of my mind. I tried. I wrote a series of unrelated short stories, but something was gestating and Iliterally felt compelled to write it. Some kind of a testament to these girls, to try to give ‘voice’ in some way. There was always the worry for me of ‘trespassing’ on other people’s misery, and not writing about something I’ve had no first-hand experience of, but once I became convinced that my motivation was coming from a pure place, I gave myself permission to write Harvesting. The novel has subsequently been read and approved of by a number of NGO’s who believe that the immersive accounts of two girls trapped in this world may raise awareness in a way that no amount of journalistic reports could.
You are currently the IWC Writer in residence with Pavee Point, what does this involve, what have you learnt so far?
My group is very varied in age and writing ability, so the sessions are mainly being mediated through discussion and aural storytelling. We are exploring the concepts of identity and purpose through the prism of inter-generational change. Some of the older women in the group are in their seventies and have lived through the enforced settlement and assimilation program of the 1960s. Others in the group are in their twenties and were born in houses and have never experienced life on the road. High levels of unemployment and suicide, are, the older generation believe, a direct result of loss of identity and purpose that the traditional traveller embodied in their roles as tinsmith, palmist, storyteller, voyager. They also cite a loss of connection with nature as instrumental in a growing depression. We are in the process of documenting these changes for each individual in the group. I want to record a series of podcasts addressing these issues, with personal resonances.
Your career before now was mainly acting, do you find that this has helped with ‘voice’ and ‘character’ in your fiction?
It’s definitely my strength in writing fiction, but also one of my limitations. I wrote a series of plays before attempting prose, and tend to approach all my fiction with that same dramatic intent. I always write in ‘voice’, even in a third person narrative, which is instinctive, but also highlights (for me) my lack of ability to write a long-lens third person, past tense narrative. I find the traditional form of the novel highly intimidating and have long put off attempting one, but now I just let what happens happen. It’s all story-telling at the end of the day, even if much more clever writers than me attest otherwise! I respond to character-driven work, where things happen on the page. I love beautiful prose too, but never at the expense of the truth of the psychology of the character or the sensibility of the world.
You write both short stories and novels. How do you manage the switch between genres?
I think everything I write is mediated through a dramatic lens, so my first short stories were really long monologues and mini-plays. Likewise my attempts at novels. I love short stories and find the process of writing them really freeing, especially with writers as diverse as Amy Hempel, George Saunders and Lydia Davis out there creating fresh forms. I enjoy writing scenes, where some conflict occurs, some tension in the central character is laid bare. Sometimes I write a series of disconnected scenes with the same characters and then lay them out on the floor like a patchwork quilt. My approach really is that lacking in technique! If the scenes about the same character keep coming then it’s more likely going to be bigger than a short story. I’m beginning to trust and luxuriate in the immersive process of living with characters for a longer period of time and fully inhabiting their psyches. I tend to step inside their skins, in much the same way I used to approach my acting roles. I don’t think I’m any good at ‘genre’ though. I just write in the way that comes naturally to me.
Do you have a writing routine?
My days are too varied, too caught up with making rent to allow a same-time-every-day approach. However, and I’ve only recently implemented this, I do try to write every day, at whatever time that particular day allows. As I’m in the process of first-drafting my second novel, I’m attempting to adapt the Stephen King approach of pushing out a set number of words a day. If I didn’t do this with the longer form, I’d lose momentum and energy. I’m also about to start into the editorial process with New Island on Harvesting and will happily carve out the time and space to do this.
You and I are both involved in Brooks Writer’s Group that meets fortnightly on a Monday afternoon. Have you found being part of a writer’s group useful? What are the pros/cons?
I have mixed feelings about writing groups as I believe sometimes remarks that come about because of another person’s need to sound knowledgeable or intelligent can be damaging, particularly at the beginning stages of a process. It’s important to be able to listen to other people’s opinions and yet not lose your instinctive flavour. I have attended groups where the tutor tried to corral writers into writing how they themselves would write. This is bad practice, and not one I would actively seek out. I have also participated in groups where the opposite was happening: where the individuality of each participant’s voice was nurtured. I believe that we are, in the main, highly critical of our own work anyway and don’t need further slamming, or excuses not to do it.
The pros of belonging to our particular group far outweigh any negatives for me, as we have a good deal of trust in each other’s motivations when critiquing. Everybody’s work is of a standard that means we can only get better by listening to each other. Also, as writing is a lonely undertaking, it’s great to be part of a group of like-minded passionate people. May I also say that I’m delighted to be debut-ing alongside yourself, my fellow Brooks Writer’s Group member, with New Island in 2017!
What keeps you awake at night?
Financial worries (and its attendant shame), family concerns, cruelty to animals, exploitation of vulnerable people… I could go on, but these are to the fore at the moment.
What [further] resources would you like to see for writers aside from workshops, retreats, etc?
In an ideal world I’d magic up more funding opportunities, particularly for writers who really are stressed financially. At the moment none of our funding bodies take the financial situation of the applicant into consideration. Perhaps some sort of a means-tested application would be helpful, alongside a foregrounding of the quality of the work of the applicant? Obviously, I wish publishing houses in Ireland were properly supported and resourced too.
Give me a few examples of fiction that really blew you away/had an emotional impact?
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Road to the Deep Northby Richard Flanagan, Eyrie by Tim Winton, Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. At the moment I’m in a manic novel-reading phase hoping to unlock the secret code! I’m currently obsessed by Tim Winton: his storytelling voice, the beauty, brutality, grace, muscularity, humour, idiosyncrasies of his prose, his flair for writing exciting storylines, for creating colourful characters. He makes me want to read on and then read back again. Gorgeous stylist and masterful storyteller. Maybe some of it will leak through by osmosis. Sigh.
Lisa Harding graduated from the M Phil in Creative Writing, Trinity College Dublin. Three plays: Starving, And All Because, and Playground were performed at Theatre503, Battersea Arts Centre, and the Project Theatre Dublin respectively. Doghouse was work-shopped at The National Theatre Studio. She was awarded an Irish Arts Council Bursary and a Peggy Ramsay Grant for Playwriting. Short stories have been published in The Dublin Review, The Bath Short Story Award Collection 2014, and online on the Irish Writer’s Centre website. Her story ‘Counting Down’ was a winner in the inaugural Doolin Writer’s Weekend Competition. Other work has been short-listed for the Bath, Fish, Listowel, Cúirt, Over the Edge, and Penguin Ireland/RTE Guide short story awards. She has just completed her first novel.
This year, the Irish literary scene has seen a nimble rise of female-crafted fiction. Women are rejecting tradition and giving much-needed voice to untold stories.
In 2010 I returned from Belfast to Dublin at the height of a miserable recession and it seemed everyone I knew was retreating back into the garret to write. The cocktails and carousing were finito. Friends who had thrived in high gloss work environments (architects, project managers, journalists, big wigs in PR, etc.) were sidling up to social welfare windows like dehydrated cats. Next came the volunteer slots and ‘internships’ to stay sane. The men I knew had more of a problem dealing with ego-collapse. They got awful angry awful quick. No-one knew what to do.
Themes began to emerge both in the writing workshops I sat in on as an employee of the Irish Writers’ Centre. Men were writing about disaffection, not being taken seriously, Camuesque displacement, lack of sex, intimacy or belonging. The writing was good, sometimes great, but it was startlingly similar. Women who had, during the Tiger years, concentrated on romantic relationships and the pearls of materialism, diluted neurosis, etc., were turning to more serious issues: violence, misogyny, rape culture, crime, retribution. Chick-lit fell off the carnival float and was replaced with edgy young adult (YA) and high-end literary fiction.
Sarah Griff began writing around this time. Her novel Spare & Found Parts is published next year with Greenwillow (Harper Collins); a story about a girl who builds herself a robotic companion. It takes the creation myth out of Victor Frankenstein’s hands and puts it back in the hands of a teenage girl.
“Women who are writing for Young Adults are, in some ways, writing the work they wish they had access to when they were growing up,” she says. “They’re composing their own cautionary tales, assembling tool kits for the ongoing madness of being an adult woman. I think these novels are equipping the next generation with more than we had – like a new mythology, a different compass for the road ahead.”
Justine Delaney Wilson whose novel An Ordinary Face is published next Spring by Hachette Ireland says that women are writing about what it means to live and cope in a fractured modernity, especially since recession. “The truth of human relationships, loss of self, coping with emotional turbulence – certainly these themes are prevalent now,” she says. “I wanted to write a tale about a family, about what’s left when the structures we’re used to collapse.”
New writers are emerging focussing on the darker themes of women’s experience.
“I chose to write a novel about two young prostitutes and their experiences could only happen to, and be felt by, a female body as a receptacle of the male gaze and desire,” explains Lisa Harding, whose novel is currently being sent to agents and publishers.
“The book came about because I was involved in a campaign run by the Body Shop and the Children’s rights alliance to stop sex trafficking of children. I heard firsthand accounts of the girls’ stories I wanted to give a voice to these invisible women and to try to inhabit their skin as closely as possible.”
Selina Guinness who is writer in residence at DLR Lexicon for 2015/16 maintains that Ireland has always had a tradition of strong women writers of literary fiction: Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston, Deirdre Madden, and that list is expanding and warping all the time. “I think society’s loss of faith in the authority of institutions generally, many of which were strongly patriarchal – banking as well as the church – means we now invest more hope in the informal communities which women have always sustained. And women tend to be supportive of other women writing,” she says.
There are some signs that contemporary fiction by Irish women may be consciously moving beyond female narrators, according to Guinness.
“Sara Baume’s choice of a lonely old curmudgeon as the narrator for her debut, Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, is brave for a young woman; Anne Enright is a straight woman who inhabits the voice of a young gay Irishman with effortless conviction in The Green Road; Belinda McKeon focuses on male gay sexuality again in Tender.”
Belinda McKeon says: “My first novel is a novel I’m still proud of, but it wasn’t until a year or so after I’d published it that I realised how firmly and obediently it sat with and with respect to a male literary tradition. That wasn’t a conscious decision. Pushing myself in a different direction, with a female protagonist and a female consciousness fully and unapologetically on the page, was a conscious decision and one about which I felt nervous.
“Social media, the support network, the sense of people talking about the process and the accompanying anxiety and challenges of trying to be a writer, has made a huge difference to me, and I think to other writers who are women as well. When I started out, I felt like a woman in one of those old-fashioned Gentlemen’s clubs on St Stephen’s Green. Now it feels more like a decent party in someone’s house. A house with a view.”
**This article of mine was published in The Gloss Magazine, 1st October, 2015.
It is hardly worth telling, this story of mine, or at least in a modern context, because so many people go through the same these days and feel it too dull and inconsequential to mention. We have to take our modern horrors on the chin in the same way sewage is turned back into drinking water, axiomatically. Some small trace evidence of evil was always there, hanging on a hammock off his organs, in the grubby suitcase inside his head: laughing at a rape on the television, laughing at the old woman up the road dying of cancer (in the most excruciating way). Laughing at a crushed dog out on the main road, a cut knee, house repossessions, floods, poverty, puberty, forest fires, riots, stock collapse and all else sitting mean and keen in-between. It’s funny to think of the exact relay now, as I have not been able to leave the house since. And I have not been right in the heart since! Both of them dead now, lost to me, lost to the ignorant beauty of everything.
There are days when I crumple on the couch giving in to endless interlude, boom-box of Jeremy Kyle, mini flask of vodka, crows crying their lamps out in the chest-hair back garden. Slow Joe next door moving his furniture around to nothing but his own sound. Eventually I’ll squirm up to bed when I know I’ve successfully folded enough hours of the day into the next so that neither is in much of a shape to be useful. Even then I cannot escape the watching. That his eyes are stuck on me and me alone, I am completely sure. That she is unable or unwelcome to come through at all, I am also completely sure.
From his hospital bed he seemingly figured it all out. ‘Here ye go Frank, have some nice yoghurt, c’mon now, try to eat a little something’. The mind is a peculiar thing, the manager told us. He seemed to know we were doing up some of the rooms, I told her, he said so. He said he could see it in his mind’s eye. ‘That’s impossible,’ she replied. ‘He might’ve heard one of the staff talking about renovating a house or something along those lines. If you think of it a bit like the way magpies work, on clear days when the blood flows normally, they can snatch bits and bobs of other people’s reality, processing it as their own.’
I always had a strange relationship with this house. When I left for University in London twenty five years ago, I was plagued with memories of levitating in the sitting room as a small child. When I returned to Dublin on holidays my mother wrote it off, sniggering ‘oh my daft daughter!’ but he didn’t. ‘I used to do that in digs years ago, down the quays,’ he told me. Levitate after concentrating like mad. Best done standing upright with your fists clenched by your side, head up, breathing deep. Think your way through the weight of human rubbish, out the lid on the other side, slowly ascending. Think yourself into lightfooted, sheer, unsubstantial. ‘If you lose confidence even for a second, that’s you,’ he explained. ‘You’d be right back on dry land again. Sometimes it might only be an inch or two you’d go but what of it. Other times you could rise high into a dusty corner of the room no bother.’ One night after his room-mate caught him the old bag who ran the boarding house called in a priest to ceremoniously bash and threaten with stern words. The priest, when he realised my father was a moss back atheist, called in a mutton-faced guard and the guard called in a doctor of psychology after he demanded to know what the exact charge was. In 1950s Ireland it was put down to a physical malaise caused by communist blathering. They backed off with a polite warning. He was a public servant by then: that particular type tended to get away with a lot.
My brother Arnold, six years older than me, remembers Top of the Pops posters falling from the four walls in the back bedroom when he stared into the old gritty dressing table mirror. The same dressing table that recently got a chalk paint up-cycle by Annie Sloan. Myself and a teenage pal used to sit drinking cider and smoking dope in that mirror until she eventually got the creeps sufficient and wouldn’t come to our house any more. Another brother went clear mad in that room. Ran off to the army and got stranded on Carcass Island during a far-off war – not actually fighting – but overseeing penguins and derelict buildings when everyone else scarpered. He put a £90,000 bet on a horse and flung himself out a B&B window in Warwick after they paid to get rid of him. My mother invited him home to rest it out but he stayed five years and turned mustard in the room. He eventually died giving himself over to numerous drug trials to feed his gambling habit. He always said he saw faces and not just in the dead leg of night. Mean wizened women’s faces, out of holy nowhere.
There were so many rumours about the clump of houses (not just ours) not far from the old walls of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. In Irish: Glas Naíon, meaning ‘stream of the infants’. A stream infected with famine-time cholera from sinking bodies in the nearby crater of graveyard. That was one theory for some residents going a bit plinky plonky. Ley lines, lead pipes, electrical brain teasers from mobile phone masts. Nothing was ever proven. Point is, he was never going to leave the house willingly. And the house was never going to spew him up willingly either. In reality he had this vulgar indwelling of power despite the brandy having pinched his mind, his heart, his intellectual abilities, his ambition, his bowels, his bank, his false teeth, his legs.
When they first married my mother was his Word War II coal queen for sure. The newly-built 1950s semi had four fireplaces, including one in a double bedroom upstairs for any wife to squeeze babies out in comfort to lay snug in a chest of drawers. No one bought cots in advance then. A mantelpiece adorned with a Padre Pio genuflection, ceramic Holy Mary, broken fireguard, a photograph of her dead father dancing at a dinner party and Dusty Bin won in a Blackpool bingo hall. I was born in this room.
Back in the days of Pat-a-cake, of hand-jive, when asked that first time she curbed a smile and ran like mad, in her A-line skirt & bobbysocks. My father ran after her. All of what you’d expect, naturally. It may have been the dead baby; lifeless in a Clark’s’ shoe box on the bedroom floor, that had the final say. Or it may have been nothing peculiar at all. Missed promotion in work, boredom, a stray urge. But sometime in his forties, he left himself and us behind. Yet we continued to love him despite the emotional violence, the daily drudge, the drinking, the incessant arguing, the drab awful iron-clad impossibility of it all. As you’d expect towards a father or a husband by a certain societal proxy. A hangover from Victorian times, maybe. We loved him because it was required of us. We battled hard to understand why he was always in such pain, why he needed to pass on some of that pain to us.
For the last three years, with everyone else gone, he’d wandered into the smelly elderly and utterly struggling pit. Manning the walls all day like a wood-turner. Agonising over what we now know were mites of madness softening at the base of his brain-stem. He cried out in the Murano glass corridors of sleep and at least a few times a night would clamber into our bedroom, where my mother and I slept after he became incontinent. He’d enquire as to where he was, looking for an explanation for the clatter trap in his head. Kept saying “sorry” for something he was never able to remember having done. ‘I can’t cope with him any more,’ my mum said. He had dementia. We were exhausted. It seemed no one else out there cared. Our local GP said he no longer made house calls because the HSE wouldn’t pay doctors for such variants of care since the recession. He had to make it to the surgery or rot. Towards the end of two summers ago, maybe in 2009 or thereabouts (it’s hard to recall exactly) I rang social workers attached to the local health board, put a plan in place and that was that. We were not to know what would happen. We had no experience of this kind of thing. Even in retelling the story, I find I’m just as upset and confused as when I lived through it. I cannot be absolutely sure of what occurred, of the timeline, except for the following:
The day came. We both said, ‘Be strong, this is it, the only way forward!’ Even as he sat in his wheelchair facing out at the eggy sun for the first time in four years, the house showed signs of a problem. A water tank in the attic only replaced the previous year decided to manifest a swollen belly on the toilet ceiling, bursting through its own guts before the lift arrived. A mirror smashed with no window open or air circulating anywhere. The fridge gasped itself to a halt. I looked right at her and said, ‘Don’t even say it! Don’t be ridiculous! Don’t be reductive! We’re doing the right thing.’ The whole point of being here, of being human, was to take responsibility. That’s what we were doing, surely? God knows he couldn’t do it! He was incapable of doing anything. ‘Try to remember that much,’ I said to mum. She suffered hugely through all of this. She had made her bed. She would ‘till Doomsday’ lie on it.
Four days in a row he rang pleading for his life. We told him ‘NO!’ He could stay there for a month and give us time to clean up the house. It smelt like a Berlin urinal. It would have to be fumigated for starters. We would have to organise a new bed. Possibly a downstairs toilet with washing facilities. There might even be a grant available to convert the garage as elections were only around the corner. ‘I cant cope with this awful place, you’re my wife, please take me home!’ My mother never stood up to him, ever. She tried to poison his stew once, but that was a long time ago. ‘You’re in there for a rest, I need a rest too,’ she told him, slamming the phone down. On day three he had a stroke. On day seven we were summoned. ‘He has deteriorated significantly, especially emotionally,’ the nurse said. ‘I’m so sorry, but it could’ve happened at any time, anywhere.’ We didn’t quite know what she meant by that but when we saw him, by Jove we got a shock for sure. We’d traipsed the wards three times before we accepted the sack of crumpled grey maudlin was the same feisty person we left off for ‘respite’ just the week before. It took three more days and threats of legal action to get him moved from the stinking old TB sanatorium in the park to a proper hospital for the specialist treatment he needed.
Do Not Resuscitate, the sign above the bed read. Young slip of a thing from Killiney or somewhere affluent like that said with his age, with his expected quality of life, with the general prognosis (of which they were still not fully certain) there was no point in doing much at all. Just sit it out, wait it out. His life was now a junk-shop egg timer. Throat broken. Stomach empty. His head, well, basically, it had begun to thoroughly scoff itself. Middle cerebral artery: considerable shrinkage. Clots, many. Brain bleeds, more to be expected. Aspiration pneumonia. Muscle damage. He screamed. Roared. Pegged at us as if he were grabbing on to a half-inflated lifeboat. We should go home and take it handy, try to get on with things. Especially her, his wife, the overseer of his decline. She needed to push ahead, look after herself. Try to put things in perspective. Everyone will get to this point. There’s really little to do when it happens.
That night I woke at 2.22am. I will never forget the exact time because I saw in the pitiful light of the green alarm clock my father crawling around the wall, a crazed lizard. His body partially flattened with his old office clothes flipping and sagging. A much smaller head, but his eyes: a ferocious sickly yellow. His neck bent as if it had been snapped and yanked back into place with a heap of loose skin sewn back on roughly. Flipping and flopping around on top of the Billy bookcases, side to side, like you’d expect to see in House of Reptiles at Dublin Zoo. The most revolting noise as well. A kind of clacking sound that didn’t befit his human form. His smaller body thumped along the furniture as if he/it wanted to attack, priming itself for incursion.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Flicked on the bedside lamp. Checked for my mother in the other bed to see if she was at ease. Her small frame slowly rising and falling back into the salmon sheets. I was stuck in the forecourt of some outlandish car wash with the engine on and no idea where to head to next. I stayed like that for a good hour and the vision of absolute repugnance didn’t falter or fade or go away. I could barely breathe or move, my limbs became sore with fright. I could hear the mechanism in my chest chug out and suck in stale air, but I carried on watching him flip and hurtle and scoot with no sign of diminishing.
‘I heard him calling all through the night, Liz! Liz! Liz!, I’m not the better for it,’ she declared, the next morning. I was up at the crack of dawn trying to steady myself, doing things around the house that had been abandoned for some time. ‘It’s understandable!’ I assured her. ‘It’s a kind of guilt, you know, you’re feeling all out of sorts with the way he is, what he’s going through.’ No, she was utterly convinced it was really his voice she heard. ‘At one point I even heard him knocking on the window trying to get in.’ I thought of their window, the front double bedroom window, climbing out when we had the silly séance with a matchbox as a planchette back in the day. We all legged it from the house in unison, a herd of 11 year olds. ‘Move if there’s anyone here! Move if you can hear us!’ Then it flew off the bed, hitting the radiator all the way over at the far wall. It seemed an impossible manoeuvre for one of us with our small fingers and no experience yet of the trickery out there in the vast sickly world. Vickie Cawley laughing as ten crows. Me in pure fright mode. Billie Dunne jumping out that bloody window twenty feet up and running for dear life.
It was only two weeks after she found the baby in the plastic bag down the lane-way backing onto the Sisters of Our Divine Lady of Endless Charity. Same location where they later found twenty two babies and sixty skeletons of women whose deaths were never registered. Billie stumbled across the bag in 1981, opening it up without really understanding what she was looking at. Though a tiny bloodless hand was enough to send her rocketing. I guess this was how young women got rid of unwanted evidence then. It wouldn’t happen now with advances in DNA, with advances in social conscience. The laundries continued on into the mid 1990s unabated.
On the day of our séance my mother was working at the RDS Horse Fair on the Rowntree’s chocolate stall: Munchies, Caramac, Mars Bar. All the leftovers were piled into a large shopping bag and dragged across the city home to us. It was the first time I was allowed look after the house without Arnold or my sister Maedbh in situ. When my mother got home, she slapped me clear across the chops. She may have already met one of the mothers on her way – Billy Dunne’s was particularly hysterical – but if not her trademark intuition told her I had got involved with something unenlightened. Something mischievous and corrupt. She could feel it. The cold throughout the house was cavelike, wet and heavy as culm.
The next visit wasn’t even in the deferential cubbyhole of night. I was sitting on the toilet with the door wide open, staring out into the landing, thinking. It was mid afternoon. Thinking of how to make her life better in the time she had left (she was already eighty three years old). Thinking about how to access funds to do essential repairs to the house, especially the kitchen and bathroom which were, after years of neglect, in a dreadful state. Everything was in his name. She was Mistress of Nothing. What I saw next makes me feel like I may have already been a composed and submissive inmate of the asylum. He thundered up the stairs, his head intact as I had remembered it but a spider’s absurd blackened body, eight legs quivering on the carpet in front of me. Darted about turning to stare me right in the face. In a moment’s stampede of panic he was gone again.
She better shut right up about him. All this harping on about how the stroke happened was not our fault. We didn’t give it to him! And if he had just allowed a bit more for our help at home, we would not have insisted he be removed in the way that he was. Obviously he had a problem with it too. What we needed to know was if he was doing this deliberately. Was he wilfully, determinedly, trying to teach us a lesson for what we had done, when in reality, we were left with no choice by then. ‘Dealing with this is like dealing with a forest fire,’ nurse Cáit said. ‘Even people with the height of expertise cannot deal with this at home sufficiently. There comes a time when you have to let the person go.’ He is talking about old relations long dead I told her. ‘Could he really be seeing them?’ It is a ‘thing’ with people who are sick, apparently. He will not be aware that they have already passed. Is he caught in some foyer between? I wondered. ‘It doesn’t make sense that he would ask about Stan,’ my mother said, ‘God knows he couldn’t stand him when he was alive. Him or his ugly West Cork wife’. We have to stop this, I told her, we have to accept that he’s getting the proper care and we have a right to live in the house now, the best we can.
The kitchen had been fixed up coffee colour shaker with high quality Italian orange stone tiles, a new water tank with titanium coating, floorboards in the front bedroom replaced entirely (as the urine had burnt right through). ‘For a second I thought he was there in the porch late one night,’ she said. No! that was the milkman I told her. At this stage it helped to be stern about the whole ordeal. Such was her slave mentality towards him for so long that she found it almost impossible to disentangle in any form. We painted the bedroom at the back where we both slept a genial grey, with some of the furniture a Provence green to ward off the evil eye. The garage was cleared of his things and the garden tidied up to such an extent that you could now sit on a small stone chantry down the end and draw in the air in long protracted puffs.
At evening time I thought it best to summon him in the mirror to stop any of the nonsense that would no doubt occur later on. She was already so scared of going to bed that I moved her into the spare single room where he wouldn’t think to go. All the years growing up he never bothered any of us in there. I gave her some ambien along with a few panadol to aid sleep into the night and sprinkled some valerian and chamomile on her pillow. Tucked away in there from early evening until well into the following day, I began to feel that she was not part of this any more, that I had chaperoned her away from potential suffering or fright.
His presence in the dressing table mirror was amorphous and vague, as if to show his full self to me was not part of the greater plan, that I was somehow not worthy. He would not have been like this with any of my brothers, had they been still alive, but men of his generation were sodden in misogyny whether they cared to admit to it or not. Though I didn’t doubt for a second that he was there, looking back at me, sneering, informing me that no men would come to do the door in a rush to take me out. That my skin wasn’t the best, that really I wasn’t the cleverest of them, a few forks short of a picnic basket.
His seething hatred began to make me laugh, as if any empathy I had left for him and his lousy condition was hidden away in a beanpole storage facility, the type people use for bundles of clothes they hope will come back into fashion some day. ‘Do you think I don’t remember what happened on Bingo Nights all those years ago?’ I told him. ‘When I pissed the bed and you rolled me out like a sausage roll and said I had to wait in the hall until she got home.’ What a lousy father you were but still you made us feel sorry for you. It was always about you! And what the hell did you do for your parents after they left Ireland? You barely bothered your arse ever seeing them again! When you did you were pissed out of your mind. They rang us here to complain, across the Irish sea, you with no respect, turning up for funerals two days late. You who demands so much of us now! What a bloody joke! Do your worst, go on, do your worst! Do whatever you think will work at this stage and do it with your sick brain in all its shrinking glory! Oh but if you think it stopped him slinking into those horrible animal forms and darting around furniture at night, my grousing in the mirror only made him worse and brought him nearer to me, instead of up on top of the bookshelves or the wardrobes or the wall. A ferret slinking in and out of the bed bars at the end of my feet, leaving drops of sweat and other depositions for me to see in the mornings.
When she passed in the single room I didn’t have her removed straight away because that’s exactly what he would’ve expected to happen. He’d expect her to be lying there, in state, in Fanagans Funeral Parlour on the Old Finglas Road, a twin-set and her navy skirt (always in navy, like a sailor’s wife on a first trip abroad, hoping to appear smart no matter where they went). I didn’t mention to him either that she was gone as I wanted to see if he’d tell me about it, if he really had the upper hand when it came to using his intuition, his greedy appetite for a good hunch. But he hadn’t a breeze! He did however begin to appear more frequently, more sonorously if you like, in the mirror. I am not sure if this was a kind of latent protest, but the house joined in by breaking even more of itself up. The heating system gave out and the plumbing at the back of the shower fell to pieces completely…twice I had to get a local hood in to bash things back into place or replace the piping entirely. Black mould broke out on the walls of both bedrooms. Dreadful shapes in butterfly splats and distant familiar patterns (the one of the Eiffel Tower was amusing, but I made sure not to laugh out loud), which I’d rouge over with chalk paint within hours of appearing.
I miss her terribly but part of me is glad she is resting up accordingly. No more, ‘Oh God, do you think we should go back out to him today? Does he have enough dark chocolate? Is there still a problem with his swallow? Are there enough clothes out there, I don’t want them to think we’re not making enough of an effort’. She had herself tortured to the point where she gave Catholic martyr wives a dreadful name! I miss her dressing gown shuffle and the barrage of tea that clicked into our day the same way felt tacks do on school board maps. Sad too that she would never get to go on a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship that I had promised we’d do. Those ships are something else! Ascend 300ft above sea level in a North Star capsule! Fine dining extravaganza that holds more than two thousands revellers at a time! He hardly took her anywhere truth be told, not for a long time. Hadn’t the energy, or the self governance.
The year he retired may have been the exception. He took her to Nerja in Spain. She knew by then he’d been with her friend very early on too. It was her first sun holiday and she’d never seen anything like it. Three bedrooms in the apartment even though it was just the two of them. She thought it might be a mistake at first. Only two minutes from the beach and twelve minutes from the marina. Bakery on the ground floor. Fish in all the restaurants cooked any which way you wanted it. Sun as hot as an Aga. Of course he didn’t like that bit but she took to it like gravy on a turkey leg. Every morning bang on 8.30, she was down at the beach while he had a good lie-on.
Now that it’s just the two of us I feel I have an opportunity to understand him a bit more. I hope that if he sees that I know how he feels, how hurt he is, he might stop his games around the house and reach some sort of compromise. The dressing table was made for them when they first got married by a very talented carpenter, with the promise that no other identical piece existed in the whole of Glasnevin. The mirror carved in a classic baroque style. It’s good to concentrate on the positive aspect of where we now, and to forget all the things that didn’t work in the past. He wanted to be a writer, for instance, but couldn’t quite stick at it, not like I am now. ‘There is a lot more to life than jumping at every silly ambition that lands on your mat,’ I told him. He thinks this is a sound observation and one that will ward off disappointment from expectations that are perhaps a bit too high. ‘That’s the problem these days, people want so bloody much!’ he says. Isn’t it so true! We are able to agree, which I feel is genuine progress. I find it funny to think we were so scared of him years ago when he was the one who was clearly so terrified of us! That I would hide up here under the blankets with my fingers so deep in my ears they would be sticky and sore when my sister would burst into the room and pull them out again. ‘He’s gone to bed,’ she’d say, ‘The coast is clear for now and mum has shortbread in the oven.’
This story was a prizewinner in The Moth International Short Story Prize 2014, and is published in the Autumn 2014 edition of the magazine.
‘Charged language and a ferocious imagination; mad as a bag of spiders and genuine talent.’ – judge Mike McCormack
Writer Sean O’Reilly is hosting an erotic writing course this autumn – a bit of an experiment for the Irish Writers’ Centre – at a time when sexy stories are being sucked up by the global publishing industry. How can we write about sex in a tasteful effective way, causing a stir in the reader, while giving enough insight into the character’s psychology to make the story believable, intriguing, real..? Irish writing seems to shy away from any attempt to represent the reality and complexity of our erotic lives. Sex is a secret. Desire is merely a plot-device. The story of a character’s erotic life or the growth of a character’s erotic taste seems to have no bearing on a convincing psychological portrait of a literary character.
This 10-week course looks at the history of the genre of erotic writing, examining classic texts in both prose and poetry, and concentrating on student’s writing in this field. Using both poetry and prose, participants will learn that the ‘erotic’ is more than the description of sexual acts but the context in which they take place, about power and phantasy, and in particular, about the representation of desire itself. O’Reilly has a unique approach – forensic even – to analysing words. He is deeply interested in people who are serious about writing, and will do to your writer’s block what Polish builders did to concrete here during the boom. A story I wrote on one of Sean’s previous courses made it to the ‘Top Ten’ in the 2012 RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition and is published on the RTÉ TEN website. A second one [a Dystopian tale about Dublin junkies] is being edited for inclusion in a literary magazine and has developed into a novel-in-progress.
Below is a Q&A I did with Sean for the IWC blog on the erotic writing topic. His published work includes Curfew and Other Stories, the novels Love and Sleep, The Swing of Things and an experimental erotic novella: Watermark. [Click the book cover above to buy Sean’s book]. The Writing Desire: Flesh Made Word course runs from 25th September, on Tuesdays for ten weeks – 6.30pm to 8.30pm – and costs €280 or €260 for members. Places are limited so if you’re interested…See you there!
“Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, or outright lunatics,” the physician and journalist Max Nordau cautioned in 1893, “they are often writers and artists”…is there any truth in this statement!? In the current situation in Ireland, where the arts seem to be a branch of tourism, of green jersey consensus, yes, it’s important to remember that the artist may be an outsider, an angry voice, a twisted voice, a moral outlaw, jailed and loathed, or a voice that doesn’t give a damn.
What empowered you to want to teach a ‘writing desire’ course at the Irish Writers’ Centre…was there a literary gap that needed to be filled (no pun intended)? Not sure what ’empowered’ means. I’m interested in desire as a literary theme. As a subject. A premise. As the basic predicament for story. The question of pleasure for example. Anybody doing a deal with the devil will have erotic pleasure high on their list of demands. Or seduction. The magic of seduction. What is it to seduce, to cast a spell, to invade the fantasy life of another person? The story of a character’s desire-life is as interesting as the story of their intellectual or spiritual development. Or emotional. As morally interesting. In this course, I’d like us to look at how desire is represented in fiction, at how erotic tension is created, at descriptions of sexual fulfillment and disenchantment, at the body and its tastes but all of this with the aim of inspiring, reading and talking to inspire writing around these themes. People are there to write at the end of the day.
What is the core difference between ‘romantica’ and ‘erotica’ in fiction, given that our romantic and sexual lives are so inherently fused in real life? Are they? All I can say is good erotic writing is an investigation of the character’s world. The foundations and the Iimits of the self. Power. Society. The Law, the inner legislator. Bernard Schlink’s, The Reader, for example. Or Kundera’s hedonists in occupied Prague . Or Edna O Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation. Books exploring a culture, a time, through the story of desire. Or Angela Carter’s work; the sense we are backstage with the dramatis personae of desire, the bored divas, the villains with their false moustaches, the acrobats, the broken-hearted, all our dreams dripping with greasepaint. Or those poets interested in the physicality of the line, the tactility of the spoken.
Is there a long-strong tradition of good erotic writing that we’re not particularly aware of? There’s been writing about sex and sensuality for as long as there’s been storytelling. For as long as we’ve wondered about what the meaning of life is or been curious about other people. Long before there was even a notion of the individual self. We have some erotically charged early Irish poetry. Chinese literature has some very early examples. Boccaccio’s Decameron, published in the 1400’s, the source for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a good starting point for the European stuff. Or you can go right back to the some of the stories in the Old Testament. What was happening in Sodom that had to be stopped? Aside from the Marquis de Sade, and his forensic encyclopedias of pleasure, and censorship, I’d say the most powerful effect on the development of erotic writing in the West has been psycho-analytic theory. I’d point to Philip Roth, and books like Sabbath’s Theatre, as an example of a modern writer using desire as the driving force of his characters.
The ‘Writing Desire: Flesh to Word’ course will be taught by both you and poet Kimberly Campanello, how will this work in practice? Will participants have to be au fait at both prose and poetry or can they simply write in one genre if they prefer? The basic idea is to use the reading of both prose and poetry to inspire writing. Participants can write in whatever form they want but shouldn’t be afraid to read across a whole range of sources. For example I would encourage anyone to read Jean Genet’s play The Balcony. The course will suit anyone who is already working on/thinking about a piece of work with desire as the main issue. Each week there’ll be a loose theme, we’ll try to identify some of the different currents in erotic writing, the celebratory approach, the big Yes, as opposed to the more conflicted erotic text. Kimberly and I will take alternate weeks, using extracts from prose and poetry for discussion before we look at participant’s own work. Like I said, people should be there to write.
What do you think of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon? I think we’ll have to make it the starting point of the course. “This is wrong,” Anastasia says early in the first book during a romp with Mr Grey, “but holy hell is it erotic”. We’ll have a look to see if the writing actually manages to get above clichés and create any erotic tension, what makes a bad sex scene. And we’ll look at this notion of wrongness, of transgression, a common ingredient of erotic writing. But then again it’s interesting to think about reading and pleasure. Reading is sexy again. That can’t be bad. The book has now become a fetish object; it means much more than the words inside the covers.
There was a story recently in the papers about a court case involving a couple who had a row about the book, the man annoyed at the woman for reading the book again, for talking about it too much. The woman went round to her mothers. After a while, there was a knock at the door and when she opened it there was her boyfriend who, she told the judge attacked her with a bottle of brown sauce, pouring it over her head. Saucy? the man was shouting, You like saucy? I’ll show you what saucy means.
How do you delineate between the erotic and the downright pornographic? Or are we being unfair to porn….discuss? Does some porn contain literary value? I don’t think there’s any need to delineate anymore when artists in every medium play freely with them. Filmmakers, writers, cabaret, hip-hop, painters. Porn, like erotic art, wants to arouse. To stimulate. To turn the reader on. That used to be seen as not a fit ambition for literary art. A half-decent sex-scene should cause a bit of a stir in the reader. But when it’s a very good scene, I’d say, it should also be telling us something about the characters involved, about the meaning of the sex between them, and about the context in which it’s happening.
Is the widespread availability of internet pornography ruining natural erotic thinking/feeling, i.e., expectations of what a sex life should/could involve, the pull/drive that gets people together, how this is then expressed in literature & art? I’ve heard it said the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon is a reaction against men and online porn. Against the infidelity of men on their machines. A rebellion. I’ve also heard it argued porn helps men NOT do certain things, a palliative so to speak. It keeps them off the streets. But the same was said about the use of prostitutes. And about sport! It could be entertaining to wonder what the 50 shades of Grey trilogy will help women NOT to do? Hopefully the internet is educating as much as it is ruining appetite. The sexual appetite, like any other appetite, can be sated and overindulged. It’s an old parable. The parable of excess. Think of Casanova. Those who have searched for wisdom in sensual experience. Enlightenment. Ecstasy. Think of Yeats poem, The Pilgrim. The sensualist, after years of erotic wandering, turns to fasting on Lough Derg, tired of “…passing around the bottle with girls in rags or silk/ in country shawl or Paris cloak” but by the end of it all, after excess and austerity, he concludes on his life’s journey, “I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say / Is fol de rol de rolly O.“
What is your favourite piece of erotic writing and why? It would have to be JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Published in Paris in 1955, it’s part of the uninhibited big Yes style of erotic writing. It was banned for obscenity. The central character is an American in Dublin, he’s got a wife and a kid, and money troubles. And when it comes to women, he just can’t stop himself. That’s his crime and his innocence. He can’t control himself. He is comically beyond any moral judgement or censor. His lust is all he has and leads him round in circles and deeper into the world of Dublin at the time, giving us a very real picture of the place, and even the predicament of women at the time. It’s the Dublin of Behan, Kavanagh, etc., and Cronin’s Dead as Doornails. He’s got a bigger appetite than any of them, free, guiltless. The writing, moving from sparse, short imagist sentences to rampant flows of interior randy monologues, will make you laugh from your guts as you savour and feel – and admire – his hunger: a powerful concoction. The flesh made word. I wish I’d been around to see Richard Harris in the stage version. Three nights it lasted in Dublin in 1959 before it was shut down!
Nuala O’Faolain terrified me. I met her in May 1997 at her home in Ranelagh for a student interview. “You’re ‘too sensitive’ to make a go at journalism, too wide-eyed for shitheads in a newsroom,” she concluded, after just half an hour. Her family history had parallels with my own and despite the fact that she was completely intimidating, we somehow clicked. She scoffed a sausage sambo and laughed at me for being vegetarian. I was obliged to throw sticks at Molly the Collie and admire the ‘Victorian blue’ paint on the sitting room walls (sourced by her lodger Luke from a stately home in UK). Her grand plan was to live out latter days “writing about other people’s cats & dogs” in a cottage in Clare. Three hours later she drove me home in a battered car that could’ve belonged to a learner driver in Wexford and not a woman whose book Are You Somebody? was topping the best seller lists worldwide.
When I sent her the typed interview she thanked me by dumping a cat in a basket on my doorstep with a £20 note & strict instructions where to buy ‘Sandra’ a hysterectomy. ‘Anyone who wants to be fully human should own a cat,’ the note said. I zipped around to Tesco on Baggot Street, turning the nice crisp hysterectomy dosh into a bottle of bacardi, fresh pasta & some scented candles. Sandra got duffed by the lesbians-in-the-basement’s ‘Felix’ and three years later, while Editor of a revenue magazine, I emailed her to come clean. She called me ‘despicable’, saying I was the worst type of person there was. Nuala’s emails were hilarious, often sad, always sickeningly candid. I was forever chuffed to hear from her, even when she told me not to have kids, that I’d make a lousy mother (and various other insults): ‘You can’t even look after yourself or a cat, imagine what you’d actually do to another human being!’ Another email read: ‘Perhaps an interesting job isn’t your destiny June, so boredom and sexual frustration will force you to write fiction.’ Every few months she’d write to ask me how I was, without fail. Her messages were always packed with funny little nuggets of advice: ‘Don’t go to male shrinks, they’re even worse than ordinary males.’
In 2002, she agreed to be my ‘referee’ for a Foundation Course in Psychotherapy at the Tivoli Institute, Galway. ‘After you’re done there, there’s a place in north Belfast that does great training at weekends, you’d be a brilliant counsellor, I’d go to you, just don’t ever ask me for a writing reference’. It transpired I was way too neurotic for counselling training and Nuala changed her mind about a writing appraisal when she read a feature I wrote for the Sunday Business Post. Once again she ended up as rent-a-judge, this time for an MA in Creative Writing at Queens’ University Belfast in 2007. ‘You will soar, eventually, but the effort will probably kill you,’ she said. After she died I wrote an article in The Guardian which I think would’ve surprised her. Last night when RTÉ aired Nuala, a profile by a cherished friend, Marian Finucane, I dug out the original interview I wrote 15 years ago, which I’m pasting below. Bear in mind it was my first attempt at a journalistic profile (it’s written in the present tense of 1997), so some of the language is manuka-sticky, but a few worthwhile insights survive.
Relations between men and women are in an awful state. The old world is dead, but there’s no new world yet, we don’t know what to do or which way to go. There’s young-ones with money taking over Temple Bar and old Dublin, Joyce’s Dublin, is dissolved into paltriness. The whole point to Dublin was that it was accessible, shabby, alive. People wandered around it all day. Now they go from A to B, spiritually impaired. The wandering has stopped and mass exodus towards apostasy has begun.
This is what Nuala O’Faolain feels today, 11 months after her book Are You Somebody? was released. This arresting memoir, by a dedicated controversialist, presented itself by pure accident and topped the best seller list for 20 weeks in 1996/7. The book indwells itself in the public and private life of Ireland, so much so, that Nuala herself is stunned at the emotional episode it has created. People wrote to her from Trinidad, Australia, China, Chicago, and even from a trekker’s hut in Nepal, to offer her images of themselves in response to hers. In an unpublished extract called ‘Afterwords’, she writes:
‘I never envisaged such cherishing. When I called my memoir Are You Somebody? it was largely to pre-empt the hostile people who’d say, at my writing anything about myself at all, ‘who does she think she is?’ I never imagined awakening something a bit like love.’
She was asked by New Island Books to write an introduction to a decade’s collection of journalism articles. She felt it was impossible without chronicling some fundamental aspects of her life. She had no intention of ‘writing a book’, rather the lengthy introduction was an unavoidable resolution to a complex and lacerated childhood.
‘Trying to live and push as much life into myself,’ is Nuala’s motto. “Sensation and feeling, that’s how I want to live. I want to really live. On the other hand I can hardly live because I am missing all kinds of skins that enable other people to live fully. I’m 57, but it’s as if I’m 17, trying to learn how to be happy. Yet sometimes I feel it’s not happening, because I’m the only person who knows about me.”
Her cat Hodge is so like Patrick Kavanagh it’s not funny! He has the same cynical pissed off expression and he’s a begrudger. I imagine PK’s eyes were as strikingly gold on occasion, when he woke half dead from alcohol. But Hodge doesn’t indulge in the ‘wrong’ kind of drink or write poetry. He’s a misanthropic feline, with attitude, Nuala adores him, despite his mucky personality. “I bought him off a sinister man for £150,” she explains. “They’re both the same, they don’t have very good personalities…ah sure Patrick had his good days too, like when he’d win on a horse and want to share everything with you!”
In her UCD years, Nuala shared a flat briefly with Patrick Kavanagh, who used to piss and groan out the doorway in the mornings. Dublin was dark and dramatic then…Noël Browne’s Socialist Party met regularly in Moran’s Hotel to discuss the future of Ireland. Students sat around Bewleys, scoffing potato pancakes, discussing ideas for short stories. Nuala spent many a night drinking bottles of Vintara in Leland Bardwell’s flat in Leeson Street, writing bits of scripts for Radio Éireann. There was an unselfconscious scattering of ideas all over the literary Dublin of the time. You were assessed in terms of yourself, and warmly welcomed if you fitted in.
In 1958, while studying English at UCD, things did not always run smoothly for Nuala. At one stage she had to drop out of University and work in a hospital kitchen in London. When she returned to Ireland, Mary Lavin gave her an allowance for six weeks so she could resit exams and finish her degree. Shortly afterwards she read ‘medieval romance’ at University of Hull and eventually secured a scholarship for a B.Phil in Literature at Oxford. After she graduated she taught English Literature (briefly) in Dublin, before moving on to the BBC in 1970.
She produced outlandish and stimulating programmes: protesting pornography with the Queen’s gynaecologist, querying religious sects that buried their prayers inside batteries at the San Andreas Fault, chronicling personal problems of Yorkshire transsexuals and a documentary on the Bogside Community Association. Yet she was never au fait with any aspect of her emigrant life. She became increasingly desolate and disaffected in the UK, to the point where she had not choice but to return home. The year was 1977. The same vigour that hauled her through those early years, was bulldozing her towards inescapable crisis. She signed herself into St. Patrick’s Hospital as a full-time alcoholic, addicted to tranquilizers, desperate for help. It became apparent that she had to go right back to the beginning of her life, and start again.
Nuala O’Faolain was born in 1940, in an era of art deco, when Cat Woman first appeared in comics, when faulty condoms were made out of sheep’s intestines and UFO sightings were reported on a world-wide basis for the first time. It was the same year John Lennon and Frank Zappa were born, and Scott Fitzgerald and Emma Goldman died. Irish ‘O’Faolain’ is a diminutive of ‘wolf’ and is among the fifth most numerous names in Ireland.
In 1939, Tomás O’Faolain joined the Irish Defence Forces, spending most of his spare time writing to his ‘chroidhe dhil’ (Nuala’s mother) with details of moving his young family to Donegal. The following year he cycled up to Dublin from Dunree on the Inishowen Peninsula to greet Nuala at the Rotunda hospital. Her mother and father were desperately in love. By the early 1940s, Tomás had metamorphosed into the auspicious Terry O’Sullivan. He began his journalism career by taking the ‘Radio Train’ to Killarney for Radio Éireann, and his ‘Dubliner’s Diary’ column for the Evening Press. His ostentatious career and social life, took him further and further away from home. Mrs O’Faolain, glorified wife and onlooker to numerous extra-marital affairs, began to feel totally cast aside. Increasingly, she sat in her armchair in the kitchen to drink and read. “This is how she chose to eventually die”.
Nuala attended seven schools in total, during these early years, when she lived in a farm-labourer’s cottage in North County Dublin. She was hauled off to boarding school in Monaghan in 1954, when puberty became ‘a problem’. There she nurtured her love of reading, and fostered an urge to learn. ‘My life only began when I learnt to read,’ Nuala once wrote. And she read everything she could get her hands on. Saul Bellow, Alice Munrow, Chekhov, Keats, Dacia Maraini, Dermot Healy, Joyce, Eoin MacNamee, Montherland, Richard Ford, Kaftka, Racine, Jane Eyre, Robert Lowell, T.S. Elliot, Shakespeare, Kawabata. For too many years novels were all Nuala cared about. She has read a book every few days of her life without fail. In later life, she sees the characters of decades, gathered around her, to keep her company.
“When I get on in age, I’ll have to write novels,” she insists. “Sure what else can I do here? I’m here on my own all the time: you can hardly call that living. I will go and live in Clare full-time and write my books, crammed with characters, men and women & other people’s cats and dogs.”
Her input in broadcasting has been sedulous and when she returned from England in the late 1970s, she took a job at RTÉ, producing the Open Door and Booklines programmes. Journalist Jonathan Philbin Bowman debated many issues with Nuala over the years, but states quite clearly that his various opinions of her don’t always fuse: “Nuala is a very fine writer, equally capable of great sensitivity and occasional near sanity. There are times when she is not sure herself, how to bridge that gap between intellect and passion. But overall, she is consistent in the amount of human compassion she shows people.”
Nuala joined the Irish Times in late 1980, following a conversation she had on radio with Gay Byrne, about elderly Irish women. Today, she is a highly respected columnist, who writes about all miens of Ireland in a unique, manifold way. Angela Bourke, writer and lecturer summed up her journalism in the following way: “They are essays that have urged us over the years, to pay attention to the weave of the society we live in, weft as well as warp. She notices always the threads that run always: the lives of women, of children, of quiet men, the hurts inflicted and forgotten or suffered and remembered. Class politics, gender politics, power relations. These are her particular themes.”
Some find her writing uncomfortable because she insists on adjusting to a certain understanding of how things really are. A certain amount of people recoil when truth flails around so unselfconcsiously, other embrace her honesty as if it were a long-awaited benefaction.
On Poverty: ‘If you live one of those local authority estates on the edge of small towns – the ones whose name appears predictably in the court reports of the local paper – who will care about you?’
On Drugs: ‘Hard drugs are the worst thing to happen to Ireland since the famine. But we forget, we lose interest, we fortunate ones can afford to.’
On Female Sterilisation: ‘Women are in no position to be airy-fairy about their bodies, they bleed, their wombs swell, they labour just like animals to bring forth children, then they feed them, wipe the waste from their bodies, shovel grunge into their mouths…to bring them through to independence.’
She writes her articles, pen avec paper, on a rough wood table in her kitchen, where we sit now. Molly the half Collie, runs in from the back garden with a stick for me. We fabricated a friendship in the isolated minutes after Luke, Nuala’s lodger, showed me in and handed me a cup of cha. Nuala trundled down the stairs, hair soaked, wearing a blue flowery dress and a big, amiable smile. There is an extraordinary expression in her eyes, as she talks unhindered, with a sausage sandwich hanging halfway out her gob.
“My lodger Luke is the dearest man in the world, but I am terrified of him coming in drunk, my whole life I’ve been watching people come in drunk.”
What comes across most fixedly about Nuala’s life is that she is dreadfully hurt by what she calls “one of those hugely damaged, big Irish families.” It is this unresolved ache that propels her to discover truths that would otherwise be unreachable. She has undoubtedly survived all the things that have entranced, beguiled, sickened and outraged her. Yet at this stage in her life, she feels she has no immediate or momentous purpose, and is very alone.
Sean MacConnell, Agricultural Correspondent in the Irish Times is probably Nuala’s closest confidant. He has known her well for ten years, and worked with her father in the Evening Press many years before. To sum up Nuala in a sentence he told me, “She is an amazingly bright, remarkably strong woman, with great integrity and great vulnerability.” His first impression of Nuala was that she was unbearably shy but had a suave charm. “Just like her father, the one thing that really stands out about Nuala is that life is a huge learning process, and because she is so open to new interpretation, she can be very unpredictable.”
Going back to the book where the explication of her life and success ultimately lies, I ask her why she began and ended with poignant accounts of her parent’s ill-fated marriage? “I hadn’t realised that I’d go back to them, I think out of some mixture of loyalty and being imprinted by pattern, I was trying to oblige them by ruining myself. I was tempted to join my mother in her despair all my life. I was actually very close to her, even though I didn’t like touching her or being with her. I pitied her so utterly that I copied her. I am very lucky they both died when I was about 40, it gave me a chance to live. I have been very lucky too, that there must’ve been some instinct for life in me, that I was lucky enough to get off with Nell, who insisted on life.”
She spent nearly two life-giving decades with Nell McCafferty until they split up last year  when their many differences became insufferable. “Back to whole relationship/family thing: take my brother Don, who just died recently in London. He had a family of his own, but couldn’t let go of the past. He sat in his room and drank and starved himself and drank again, until he could die. He was just following out the logic of it.”
She tells a story about ‘Michael’ and ‘Rob’, her two tremendous loves featured in the book. They haven’t even bothered to drop her a line, or pick up the phone in response to her story being published. Her whole life it seems has been flooded by moments of unimaginable intensity, followed by long spells of desert, and all-consuming work in between. Her mother had been the same in this respect; nothing matters except passion, mythos is something to covet, something to adore…
On the way out the door, Nuala points to the rocking chair in the kitchen and says: “You know I sit there and drink red wine and read and read and read, just like Mammy.” When the car chugs off up the road, almost of its own accord, I ask her if she travels around the countryside a lot. “I do,” she says, “just like Dad did.” So at 57, writing, reading, drinking wine and contemplating how to live, she is a synthesis of her mother and father. How could she be anything else?
In yesterday’s Irish Independent rambo-catholic David Quinn sought to portray himself as a martyr for free speech. Whilst he demonised women for seeking the morning after pill in Boots (preferring restraint or chastity!) Quinn also whined to high heaven about being the victim of repressive feminazis on Twitter. Poor Dave! Apparently some had the cheek to define his views on women’s control over their own bodies as ‘medieval’. He also claimed he’d been insulted and called a cunt. He scrambled about in the dark for 40 dazed seconds wondering ‘how we ever got to a point where there’s even a demand for a product like this’. The word demand here of course meaning a desire for sex outside of a committed relationship, such as a deluxe married one. There are no offers of stats accompanying this ancillary demand. Rather, he seems to have taken the product name: ‘Morning After Pill’ to heart, like Head & Shoulders shampoo could mean decapitation to a psycho. Availability of such a product will simply encourage the easily swayed fairer sex to indulge in quick-fix hot rampant park-n-ride humping at a moment’s notice.
The type of woman Dave sees wanting this pill: ‘Young, single women who were out on the tear over the weekend.’ Why don’t you just call them ‘slags’ and be done with it, someone snapped back on Twitter. Women scrambling for this €45 ‘abortifacient’ offering − in David’s comely eyes a kind of preemptive breakfast muffin termination − doesn’t seem to include 30 or 40-something women like me dealing with a burst condom scenario. Sorry Dave, but I do tend to like it a bit frantic and it’s happened twice, or a married woman worried her ordinary pill may not work after a bout of sickness/diarrhoea. And a myriad of other situations where emergency contraception is needed, including in cases of sexual assault. Imagine in the dark old days if such a service was available to women, especially young women who fell pregnant through incest, rape and abuse. And don’t say those scenarios were rare! If there was a morning after pill in 1983, for instance, maybe the young woman who died giving birth in that dreadful desolate place at Granard might never have been put in such a lethal position.
Instead, P for Pill in the Quinn context seems to spell PROMISCUITY to a congregation of tunnel visioners. He refers to pro-contraception folk as ‘moralising anti-moralisers’. It’s an inversion of the truth to portray those on the liberal side of the sexuality debate as the newfound ‘old right’. Such a dishonest move turns all logic and meaning on its head. ‘The problem with your thesis is that you want to legislate for an aspirational society that doesn’t, and may never, exist,’ another twitterer responded. Nor does he mention anywhere in his quickie-porridge-oats analysis, health concerns or issues surrounding the actual taking of the morning after pill. Even that would be a type of progress or perceptibility. He prefers to finger-wag at the female sexual gambol, citing that ‘demand can only be high where there is a high level of self-defeating, self-destructive behaviour’.
I seem to recall similar fears about the potential for mass-hysteria triggered divorces back in 1997 too. And God forbid if we should ever have abortion available in Ireland, we’ll be dashing out to get preggers just for the Nilfisk novelty of it all. While I’m all for the I Believe In Talking Snakes lobby having their divine say, it’s worth remembering that concrete church & state roadblocks obstructing liberalism began to crumble back in the late-1980s, when contraception became more freely available here in all its ambrosial forms. So the marauding tart tanked up on cheap booze and gagging for it without any prior contraception sorted, is tired nugatory nonsense. Coincidentally this change in our society arrived around the same time news broke in the international press of rampantly repressed Irish clergy brutally raping children on an industrial scale. Here’s hoping Boots launch a 2011 Here Cum The Girls campaign, with two for the price of one thrown in for good measure. In the meantime you can read Dave’s latest sermon here − I’m off out to buy some lube and jump on the first cock I see.
Summer 1995 and London was fast draining of charm. In my last year at Middlesex University, a young psycho was sauntering about North London slashing women’s throats. Anthony Peter Roach, age 24, from Hornsey, had stabbed a woman to death as she walked home from Turnpike Lane Tube station. Hours later he attempted to murder a woman a couple of miles away and over the weeks before he was caught, there’d been several attempted attacks on students. We were advised to go nowhere alone. I’d just moved from Stamford Hill back to Tottenham, the same week a woman was abducted in broad daylight from a bus-stop near Seven Sisters and gangraped for six hours, as they drove around taking turns. No-one at the bus stop rang for help, even though the woman was kicking and screaming as the 4-man gang dragged her by the hair and sped off. Newspaper reports later said the people at the bus-stop assumed the woman must’ve known the men…that it seemed like a bit of a ‘game’. After seven years in London, I packed up and left.
Back in Dublin there an was air of what I can only describe as immaculateness. At least that’s how it seemed to me during the first few months. Students linking each other through the archway at Trinity College eating apples, jugglers and quirky musicians on Grafton Street, market stall women bellowing their wares on Moore Street, a welly of new cafes splattered in colourful art with latte machines fizzling away. I took in the turrety architecture all over town in a way I’d clear forgotten to do before. I visited museums, took up a language class, went on a a guided tour of the State Apartments and Viking ruins of Dublin Castle for a snitch at £1.75 (Irish pounds). The place was thriving and I was home! Four months later that feeling of inviolability vanished when 21-year-old JoJo Dullard was plucked from the streets of Moone in Kildare, never to be seen alive again. She was abducted, abused, murdered, buried, silenced: both her family and Gardaí believe so.
I obsessed about JoJo’s terribly sad tale from the off. Dublin was so expensive and she’d dropped out of her beautician’s course to take up a job in a pub back home in Callan, Co. Kilkenny. I remember reading that her sister Mary was ‘delighted’ with the decision as she’d always worried sick about her in the mean grip of the unpredictable capital. The awful crawly coincidence of ordering that last drink in Bruxelles (a pub I drank in with my mates) and missing the bus home. Hitching on roads that perhaps we all hitched along in the 1980s/90s at some stage (I know I did, and often late at night too, coming back from parties in Kildare or as far away as Galway). JoJo was used to hitching in this manner: most rural teenagers and young adults were. But it was late, she was in a hurry, probably terribly panicked about just getting home. She’d travelled to Dublin that day to pick up her last dole payment and sign off for good. According to her family, she wasn’t even going to bother. That small detail really got me.
I later wrote a short story about that dark cold November night, trying to imagine the moment when JoJo ’knew’ something was wrong. I described the landscape as ‘….dark countryside, potted with grubby fields and grimy ditches, mucky mountains that would hardly be classed as mountains compared to the Jura or the Pyrenees. Lonely out-of-the-way places good for trapping animals and smashing up stones.’ I thought of all the missing women who had been struck down in their prime ‘with lump hammers, with plastic bags over their heads, with hard shattering punches, choked by the grasping hands of mad men’. That the moments in which the missing women met their deaths were really and truly the stuff of every woman’s harshest nightmare. And I thought of JoJo, spotting something peculiar in his car, the awful foreboding when his tone may have changed, when she knew, undoubtedly, what he was going to attempt next. ‘Even in the closing seconds when your brain is fizzing, popping, fading, you know not to bother making sense of it,’ I wrote in my short story. But in reality it’s completely impossible to imagine and only the sick can ever really get there.
Despite the medieval braying from the tabloid press that he’ll strike again and soon, I personally don’t believe for a nanosecond that Larry Murphy is going to put a foot wrong for a very long time. He can wait. He can play with the authorities and the public. Memories will sustain him. This day is a very special one for him after all. Even just the God of small things: he hasn’t seen any of our modern capital’s hallmarks for a start: the Luas, the spire, etc. There’s a lot to take in. Especially the reams of happy young women pacing along the city streets, tired women too, stomping home from work. Women who will have no idea who he is or what he’s done. It’s been an age since he was able to glance sideways at strangers, with every ounce of his civil rights protected. The fact remains that there are dozens of Larry Murphys out there, a lot of whom we’ve handily forgotten. The likes of Paddy O Driscoll from Fermoy in Cork, released from prison in 2004 after serving a sentence for raping a young mother: six months later he bludgeoned another woman over the head with a brick, knocked her unconscious and raped her for over an hour. There are literally too many of these incurable psychopathic rapist and murderer types to recount here, in one blog.
For the time being the public is concentrating on Larry and the obscenely Draconian laws that allow for an affirmed ’critically dangerous’ person to roam our streets with freedom honoured and upheld and intact.By contrast the families of the missing women have felt very unsupported; not just with the formal investigsations but also with funding and resources. I wrote an aritcle in the middle of the boom about the Missing Persons’ Helpline being shut down due to ‘lack of funds’ (31st March 2005). On the same day it was reported in the media that ‘one million euro mortgages’ in the nation’s capital were the new-fangled norm. While the property pages boasted that the boom was bigger and better and louder than ever, families of Ireland’s disappeared slumped back in bankrupt silence.
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Where are they? Who are they? You know; the women bankers, auditors, property developers, stockbrokers, industry regulators, etc., responsible for pricking the Oirish bubble with a sharpened golf club. The ruthless go-getting millionairesses who cleared the way for spiralling unemployment, a kaput banking system, demolished property sector, an albatross of debt and all the rest of the yack you’ve been hearing all over the telly for the last year. It’s not a facetious question, I’m genuinely curious. I asked a male journo friend a while ago, who makes a living writing ‘business’ articles: “How come we haven’t witnessed the usual media ‘witch-hunt’ of women (semi)responsible for the bust?” *pause* “Eh, they were probably caught up writing memos or getting their nails done at the time,” he quipped. [He considers himself awfully gas altogether].
From the off it was big-boy names being flung on the turbo charged execution cart: Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, Brian Lenihan, Pat Neary, Lehman Brothers, Liam Carroll, Seanie Fitzpatrick, Brian Goggin, Padraig Walshe, Sean Quinn, John Hurley, Sean Dunne, Dermot Gleeson and so on. Newspapers were keen to pinpoint the perpetrators in articles throughout this OMG awakening. With the exception of hearing Mary Harney dubbed a deregulation fetishist or the likes of Anne Heraty, former bank director and stock broker, I cannot locate the ’wimmin’ in this sordid tale. Even when it came to the Yellow Brick Road venture of NAMA, the cock-stock was made up of high-ranking banking officials, men in the pinstriped wink, nod and know: Frank Daly, public interest director at Anglo Irish Bank, the bank that likes to say a multi-orgasmic “yes yes yes yes yes yes!”, until there’s nothing left; along with colleagues Michael Connolly, Peter Stewart, Brian McEnery, Willie Soffe and some other guys…Aside from Eilish Finan − an independent Consultant and Director in various Financial Services Industry sectors − appointees to the board of NAMA are men.
I’m not an economist (if I was I’d have nice clothes, a car, a holiday home and an Irish wolfhound) or even a business journalist (if I was I’d have nice clothes, a car, a holiday home and a Yorkshire Terrier), but to my mind the entire environment in which the Celtic Tiger blackguards operated was exceptionally macho. There was a testosterone-fuelled air to the whole enfant terrible. Even the media language deployed: ‘Celtic Tiger Man’ or ‘Breakfast Roll Man’ etc. was ever so vigorous and potent. There was a real sense of aggression in the urban professional Irish male, particularly in Dublin. Places like Baggot Street were full of young geezers guffawing over caramelised scallops in the Unicorn during ‘very important’ business lunches. Down at the financial services district there was a real swagger in the way the men used to walk, talk, and conduct themselves. I remember Googling: ‘why do men wear ties?’ because there seemed to be a pandemic of scorching power-colour ties, more than usual. Red: excitement, desire, speed, strength, power, aggression, danger, war, a sprawling economy. Purple: flamboyant, wise, arrogant. The ritual wearing of ties, by the way, dates back to 17th Century wars. It’s not just a cloth arrow pointing to his wotsit. I found it all very unpleasant at the time.
It chimed too with a sense of national smugness…that we were the new masters of the universe and the Brits were down at heel, and that soon we would be so rich that even the stupid unionists would give up the ghost and accept a united Ireland. The gorilla chest-beating was strewn across all jungle paths of Irish life: politics, economics, the retail sector. At the height of boom (2005-2006) Ireland had proportionately the highest number of sports cars (yes, penis extensions) in Europe and the highest number of year-in registrations. I lived in Smithfield then and almost all of the top-quality penthouses were rented by young single business men who snorted cocaine and watched Fashion TV in-between making Ireland great. “Hi my name’s Paedar, I work in the IFSC, I rent the glass penthouse over there…” Penthouses riddled with Bang & Olufsen and every wall-hanging gadget imaginable. I knew quite a few sassy career women too, but for some reason they didn’t have the same chutzpah or cockiness towards themselves or their jobs.
The fiscal cauldron was brimming over with ‘fabulous’ men who couldn’t shut up about our endless wealth and the part they were playing in rainbow-nabbing it. Our GDP per capita rose from 60% of the EU average to 120%. Women with similar Tigerish jobs were just too busy to brag, it seems. But they were definitely out there: we were told over and over of uptakes of women on third level business courses throughout the boom, women studying economics, a sharp rise in female entrepeneurs, organisations like WITS began to appear…equal opportunities at the highest levels of power in the land, even in the civil service for God’s sake! There must’ve been women property developers who squandered millions in rice-paper transactions? Women who took part in dirty deals, secured multi-million euro loans over the phone in the dead of night from beaches in Donegal, sanctioned nonsensical far-off investments, who later took part in hiding it all with the help of politically connected mates, who now owe more than they’ll ever be able to pay back in several lifetimes.
What part did Irish women play in the catastrophic decision making, at business level, that flung us into financial decay for decades? I’m wondering why these women didn’t appear on Late Late slots like Harry Crosbie or Mick Wallace did. I’m wondering why I hear of ‘developer’s wives’ in the abstract, and not women who surely snapped up glass towers in Dubai or beach villas in Cape Verde when it was trendy and apt to do so. Boy journalists are spinning out reams of books on the bust, so perhaps I’ll start my research there. Maybe even a Diarmaid Ferriter of the future will answer my question: where are the women who helped ruin Ireland? I promise to have my nails done and I’ll listen intently…I might even write a memo on it if I can put my cocktail down for long enough.
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