Short story: The Obituary

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This short story of mine was highly commended in the 2019 An Post Irish Books Awards in the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year category but the journal that originally published it, The Nottingham Review, is no longer online. I’m posting it here for posterity. 

The Obituary

By Clare O’Dea

Death was not all bad. Not if you liked the business side, as Nuala did. Everyone had complimented her on the Mass. A good Mass doesn’t come together by itself and it was gratifying that people appreciated that. The hotel was a good choice too, a lovely function room all to themselves with acres of carpet, and the bathroom fittings done in gold like something from a palace.  No one could say she hadn’t done Auntie Nim proud.

A week later, everything had returned to its proper order, minus the Tuesday visit to Auntie Nim in St. Catherine’s, and Nuala was ready to deal with Marty. She arranged the kitchen table in such a way that her brother would have to take her seriously.  The laptop was open and beside it lay a spiral notebook and a single pen. A small stack of photo albums with frayed cardboard covers was placed to her right, out of his reach.

At the sound of wheels crunching gravel, Nuala clicked on the kettle and went into the hall to check her hair. ‘A woman’s hair is her glory,’ Auntie Nim used to say, clearly implying that her own hair was in some way remarkable. Too many compliments as a young woman no doubt. Not that Auntie Nim wasn’t generous in doling out the praise herself, especially to Nuala when she was growing up. Any excuse to look for a hug.

Marty’s bulky shape blocked the light from coming through the glass panels of the door. Why did he have to stand so close? She had a porch for goodness sake. Nuala let him in and accepted a duty kiss on the cheek. Not that awful tweed jacket again. The disheveled look went with the job in the university, apparently.

Nuala took care of serving the tea quickly, the secret being pre-boiling of the kettle, and within minutes they were ready to get to work.

“Let’s start with the dates,” Nuala began, “and you correct me if I’m wrong. Born 1919, father a merchant sailor, mother just a mother I suppose.”

“Ah,” Marty said, leaning back in his chair, “she always spoke fondly of her mother. From Cavan originally, you know, she ran a shop out of the house in Carlingford, a small affair in the front room. Nim and the girls helped out. She used to tell us about the weighing scales and the paper bags for the flour and the sugar, remember? There were barrels lined up against the wall, people always dropping in for a chat.”

“We can leave out the mother. She died young, didn’t she?”

Marty nodded. “When Nim was eleven. She stepped into her mother’s shoes. I think we should mention that.”

Nuala paused and wrote ‘1930: mother’s shoes’.

“Then she got the scholarship for secondary school. Put that down.” Marty pointed to the page, but Nuala held the pen steady.

“But she didn’t go.”

“She wasn’t free to go, but she got distinction in the exam. Go on, scholarship, write it down.”

Nuala patted the back of her hair. “This is going to get very boring if we include all the paths not taken. Did you ever read an obituary that mentioned things people didn’t do in their lives?”

“She got the scholarship.” Marty set his cup down a little too roughly on the saucer, splashing tea. Pressing her lips into a disapproving line, Nuala wrote ‘scholarship’.

“Then what?” Nuala asked, keeping her voice even.

“She looked after her sisters, kept house.”

“I’m looking for milestones.” A swirling pattern of interlocking rectangles appeared on the laptop screen, and Nuala tapped the space bar to stop the movement.

Marty was squinting, and it didn’t suit him. “Right, let me see. They would have moved to Dublin in the mid-thirties, and then she got the job doing the wages at the docks.”

“I’m surprised they employed a girl without a proper education.”

Marty straightened in his chair. “She was bright. Started filling the pay packets, soon enough she was calculating from the time sheets. They called her Miss Murtagh.”

“She must have got a lot of unwelcome attention handing out the envelopes to all those men. I’m surprised her father … ”

“Her father was half a world away on some ship most of the time. Nim was very independent, and capable.”

That aggressive tone again.

“Nuala, everything you’ve done. It’s wonderful. People appreciate it. I appreciate it. But this obituary, I mean, I’m the writer in the family. Wouldn’t it be best …”

Nuala straightened her long back. “No, no Marty. I was the one they approached at the afters, remember? I have the woman’s phone number and the email address. You don’t even live in the parish and you’ve never read a newsletter in your life. I know what to write.” She sat back, hands clasped on the table, the pen still lodged in her fingers.

Marty crossed his arms and fixed his gaze on the lamp hanging above the table. He stayed like that while Nuala got up and put a hot drop in the teapot.

“Where were we?” Nuala asked after refilling the cups. “Oh yes. The job in the shipping office, the house in East Wall. The younger sisters grew up, the father died, and then she came to us.”

“When she was thirty-five.”

“Nice for her to move to a better area.”

“Can you pass me one of those albums?” Marty asked, cutting her off. While Marty leafed through the pages, Nuala started to type the first few lines of the obituary. She had just three hundred words, and she had to mention Nim’s duties in the church, and all the trouble after the stroke. Marty really had no idea. Nuala could see the black pages of the photo album turning out of the corner of her eye. There were glimpses of picnic scenes, beaches, people standing in front of castles. As if life were one long Sunday jaunt.

The day Nim came to live with them the house was in a terrible mess. Their mother had been gone for almost a week, and their father, who had started coming home later and later, had taken to spending the evenings in his chair staring at the wall, too furious to speak. Nuala had taken the five shillings her mother had left on the table and was using it to buy bread and cheese for sandwiches. The big pot of beef stew had run out.

Every day that week when she arrived home from school, she hoped Mammy had changed her mind and come back. She would keep her eyes almost closed when she came in the back door, praying that the house had returned to its neat and ordered state. But through her fluttering eyelashes, she saw the breakfast things still sitting by the sink exactly as she had left them, and she had to send more uncried tears down into the centre of herself. The kitchen was cold and gloomy from a day without activity. Marty would push past her and check all the rooms before returning to sit at the table, waiting for her to take charge. On the sixth day, there was no money left and no telling when their father would be home. Nuala crouched down to light the gas fire, and the doorbell rang just as she clicked the pilot light, making her jump. It was Auntie Nim.

That was the end of the struggle to keep them both fed and washed and dressed. But it was also the end of the hope that it had all been a horrible mistake, and the real beginning of their new life without Mammy.

“Nim’s fiancé.” Marty was holding up the album, pointing to a studio photograph of a young man with pale eyes who was smiling tightly, as if to cover bad teeth.

“Well, yes. Another path not taken.” Nuala knew the image well from her regular searches of Auntie Nim’s bedside table in their old house. It was natural for a child to be curious. The photograph was never on display but there it was face-up in the drawer whenever Nuala checked.  She hadn’t seen the portrait for years until it turned up in the small box of personal possessions handed over by the nursing home.

“She used to take us to the memorial service for the lost seamen, don’t you remember? That church down on the quays. We should mention him.” Marty’s eyes shone.

Nuala stopped typing and rubbed her temples. “Whatever makes you think we should drag up ancient history? We don’t know anything about that person. So she did a line with a sailor once upon a time. That was long forgotten.”

“But surely?”

Nuala liked to see Marty unsure, his mouth hanging open and eyes blinking. It reminded her of the time when she knew better than him, about everything. When he was small he accepted her word without question. She told him Mammy would not like him sitting on Auntie Nim’s lap so he stopped accepting hugs and kisses from her. Auntie Nim was too jolly for them, that was the problem. She even made their father laugh. She made him do more than that. Nuala was a child, but she was not blind. The two of them waiting for her to go to bed so they could have the front room to themselves. That atmosphere.

Marty closed the album and brought his hands together as if in prayer. “There’s something you should know about Nim, Nuala. Not for the obituary but for yourself.”

Nuala sat back and crossed her arms.

“I know about her and Daddy.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about, though why it still bothers you that they were close is a mystery to me.”

“Close,” Nuala snorted. “That’s a good one.”

“As I said, that’s not what this is about. After Dad died, Nim and I spent a lot of time together. I’d come home late from my restaurant jobs and she used to wait up for me. You were in London.”

“Ah, London.”

“Nuala, listen please. We talked about you a lot, and the past, all the people who were gone. She made me promise not to tell.”

Nuala did not show Marty out. She sat in the kitchen without raising her eyes from his treacherous teacup until the last of the evening light stole out of the room. By concentrating on that small thing, she was able to find the invisible way back to the kitchen of her childhood, and begin her search. Once again, she roamed the house from room to room, and found it empty. Once again, she did not cry.

Later, when everything was back in its place, Nuala went upstairs with the box from the nursing home. She sat down heavily on her bed and took a hard look at Auntie Nim’s last few possessions. The photograph slipped free and she placed it on her lap. She moved the other objects around – the rosary beads, brooches, a compact mirror – until she found what she was looking for.

It was a Russian lacquer box, familiar to Nuala from her childhood home. On the lid was a hand-painted image of two swans flying high above a village where tiny figures and houses could be made out below. Anywhere Auntie Nim had ever lived, this black box had been on her bedside table. It was a present from the famous fiancée, Michael; Nuala remembered her saying he bought it in Archangelsk many years ago. Nuala had even made up some adventure stories about him when she was small, impressed by Auntie Nim’s tales of high seas and strange ports in the north.  She peered closely at the photograph. His eyes were so pale. They must have been the lightest blue. Gently, she set the picture aside.

Nuala lifted the lid of the lacquer box she had last opened with the hands of a child. Inside, something she hadn’t seen in more than fifty years. She had taken it for Michael’s hair then, a thought that had vaguely disgusted her. Willing her hands not to tremble, Nuala took the lock of fine blonde hair tied with a faded ribbon and held it closer to the light. A baby curl for sure, her own.

Calling out racism close to home

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It’s been a horrific week of American racism showing its ugly face to the world – again. Nobody could watch the sickening video of George Floyd being crushed and choked to death without concluding that the society is broken. Law enforcement in a normal, functioning democracy does not look like this.

We’ve seen it again and again in these videos of police killings over the years. A black man who does not immediately obey sparks a dangerous white rage. It’s an old rage, hatred of the oppressor for the oppressed.

In the midst of all the grief and anger being expressed, I try to listen and learn, and interpret what’s happening behind the headlines. I hear George Floyd’s brother Terrence appeal for peace and justice. ‘Let’s stop thinking that our voice don’t matter, and vote!’

I hear young black women begging white protesters to stop spraying slogans. I hear black Irish women speak about their experience of racism. I hear three generations of black American men pouring out their pain to each other on the street.

And I hear Human Rights Watch with the statistics. In recent years, US police have killed around 1,000 people per year. This is NOT normal. A quarter of those killed are black, although black people make up only 13 per cent of the population. But it’s even worse in killings of unarmed people. In those cases, 36.8 per cent of victims are black. This is NOT normal.

I listen to Musa Okongwa, a black British writer living in Berlin who would like to talk about his speciality, football, but ends up having to comment on race all the time.  In his latest podcast, Musa asks white people to speak out. ‘Try and talk about this in your most intimate settings, the dinner table, your family WhatsApp group. Just start it.’

I usually have no trouble starting this conversation because I feel very strongly about racism. I remember hearing jokes about the Ethiopian famine as a schoolgirl and calling people out. I challenged a Swiss man sitting in front of me in a football stadium who made monkey noises when a black Irish player touched the ball.

But I did, to my shame, once find myself in a social situation where I did not speak out. It was at a gathering in someone else’s house where I was a bit of an outsider. There was a family there with a boy of about 13 and at some point in the evening, his parents asked him to tell everyone the joke he had told them recently.

He was clearly reluctant but the parents encouraged him and he told the joke. It was a man-walks-into-a-bar joke, in this case a black man with a parrot on his shoulder. The punchline of the joke is that the man belongs to the parrot, not the other way around. In other words, a slavery joke, in Switzerland in the 21st century.

My disgust showed on my face and I looked around in vain for an ally. But I did not speak out and neither did anyone else. There was enough laughter for the moment to pass without incident. I’m no longer in contact with that family, thankfully, but I regret my cowardice on that day, which really amounted to complicity.

Anti-black racism is alive and deep-rooted in Europe too, make no mistake about that. I’ve heard it from black people in all the countries I’ve lived in: Russia, France, Switzerland and Ireland. I’ve seen and heard it displayed by white people too.

I covered the topic in The Naked Irish, including an interview with an Irish citizen of Zimbabwean origin who nearly had her spirit broken by the racism she has endured in Ireland. And, as I say in the book, hers is not a triumph-over-adversity story. The adversity is not over; it may never be. Now she worries about her children’s future.

I have no words of hope or consolation. America looks more and more like a failed state under the worst leadership imaginable. Trump can wave around the bible as a prop but America does not protect its innocents from guns, not does it care for the sick or love black neighbours.

These are dark days. May some good come out of this pain.

Black lives matter.

An emigrant writer: neither one thing nor the other

Camino
The Camino de Santiago passes through the region where I live. So many ways to get to the same destination.

With my two non-fiction books I have experienced wonderful support and good fortune but I’ve also come up against barriers that are particular to the emigrant writer. The problem mainly boils down to being far away from the market and the writing community, either geographically or culturally. Living in a non-English-speaking country brings additional challenges.

If I may have a little grumble …

I recently discovered that my second book, The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés, had not been longlisted for an Irish non-fiction prize, the only dedicated non-fiction prize for Irish books.

The prize is for books published in Ireland that contribute to knowledge and/or the public debate. The judging panel is also looking for originality and quality of writing. The long list cast a very wide net over Irish interest books published in the last two years, so much so that my publisher Red Stag Books queried why The Naked Irish had been overlooked.

The reason was very simple. The prize is only open to authors resident in Ireland. Being a Swiss resident, I was simply not eligible and my book was not considered.

Obviously the mistake was ours for not noticing the residency requirement in the rules but it was another reminder of how difficult it is to stake a claim in the Irish writing scene when you are not on the ground.

When I was submitting The Naked Irish, two of the publishers I looked at did not accept submissions from writers based outside Ireland. At this stage of the game, there are ‘keep out’ signs everywhere you look, so I just crossed them off the (rather short) list of Irish interest publishers and moved on.

But it’s also an issue I come up against when I look into grants and writing residencies in Ireland. I understand that Irish-based writers come first and I don’t expect the situation to change. The Irish diaspora is so huge, and we have our own countries to support us. Or do we?

I’m a member of the Swiss Society of Authors and I receive their quarterly publication. Apart from that link, I have no real connection to the community. The competitions and grants listed in the publication are for authors writing in the national languages. The festivals and events are for authors who can perform well in those languages.

Whenever I search online for grants I might be eligible for, I lose hours and find nothing.

Could do better

I have done a limited number of events in French and German promoting the translations of The Naked Swiss: La Suisse mise à nu & Die wahre Schweiz. These included talks and interviews in front of an audience and once even reading to train passengers in a flash-mob style event, the most draining thing I’ve ever done.

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But I’ve hit a ceiling in fluency in both French and German and I feel I can only offer a limited part of my personality and intellect when communicating in those languages. In any case, this year is an exception. All the author events I had lined up for the first half of 2020 have been cancelled, including a library talk, school talk, university lecture and a job accompanying a tourist group.

A big part of a writer’s job is promoting their work. If a writer complains to themselves about lack of recognition, and we do, the little voice inside says, you could be doing more, hustling better. More articles, more social media, more applications to festivals, more entrepreneurship – setting up workshops, courses, organising talks.

I’ve been really lucky to have a connection with two Swiss literary festivals that have part of their programme in English, Le livre sur les quais and Bibliotopia. Once I was invited as a featured author and twice as a moderator. For every other festival I don’t take part in, whether in Switzerland or Ireland, the little voice of doubt reminds me I have not tried hard enough or not tried at all.

I’ve been a Swiss citizen since 2015 so I am a Swiss writer, just not like the others. My current work in progress is a novel set in Switzerland. It’s a story that would have a lot of resonance for Swiss readers and should really be published by a Swiss publisher. But it is in the wrong language. Still, I will do my best to find a home for it.

I’m an Irish citizen so I am an Irish writer, but, again, not like the others. I am separated from my country, more than ever in these times of grounded flights and quarantine.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you have gained a little insight into the tensions of being an emigrant writer. Instead of telling myself, ‘could do better’, I will try to remember that having my voice and perspective included to some extent is already a gift.

So many people are removed from their natural community for different reasons. And the challenges of self-promotion are not unique to writers or to emigrants. Does this post resonate with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Coronavirus, a crisis full of contradictions

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What will we remember of our daily reality and emotions during ‘these strange times’? It’s been less than six weeks since the lockdown was imposed in Switzerland and many other countries. Six weeks of very uneven and intense feelings. For me, it went something like this:

Week 1: Disaster movie

A phase of high alert and anxiety combined with excitement. There had been a build-up before the big announcement on March 13 and we knew life was about to change. You couldn’t help but be unsettled by the disaster-movie style government announcements, the danger (literally) in the air, and the sheer size of this global emergency. During this week I wrote two news stories, one for Marketwatch.com and one for The Irish Times.

I also went out in my creaking car with my daughter to record a video of Fribourg town and describe the situation. Looking at it now, I can see how serious it all felt. The concept of social and economic shutdown is normal now but it felt quite dramatic then. I reckon the video is worth posting for posterity, plus you get to see what the town looks like.

Week 2: Coronamania

At this stage I was thinking, OK, that’s enough now. Still some residue of disbelief that it was really happening. How had we come so far so quickly? The numbers of cases and deaths were climbing at an alarming rate and everyone was obsessively following the news and the science. I began writing a round-up of the efforts being made by Swiss scientists to tackle the virus. I was talking about nothing else, dreaming about coronavirus, feeling trapped. Most of all, I remember finding it very difficult to concentrate on other topics, including my main work which had nothing to do with the crisis.

Week 3: Reality bites

Around this time, the dominant feeling was frustration as I struggled to manage the new work-life-family balance. There was worry about older family members, disappointment at all the cancelled plans and concern about lost income. Still addicted to coronavirus-fuelled conversations, a flavour of which I think I captured in this slightly hysterical essay – Everyone’s an epidemiologist.

Week 4: Getting there

Everyone had coronavirus fatigue but at least we’d finally got used to the restrictions. Those trips to the supermarket were less fraught. The routine at home settled down. We had reconciled ourselves to many of the lost things and learned to enjoy the moment and appreciate the renewed closeness with friends and family, even though we were miles apart.

Week 5: Waiting game

If you were keeping a diary, this was the point when there was nothing new to say. Another walk in the neighbourhood, another home-cooked meal, another Zoom call. And yet, a feeling of being strangely relaxed. Having nowhere to be and knowing you’re not missing anything turns out to be quite liberating. Who knew?

Week 6: Light at the end of the tunnel

The present day. In Switzerland at least, the number of fatalities and new cases is mercifully low. Plans for the gradual easing of the lockdown were laid out on April 16. Children are allowed to meet and play together again. Not knowing when the lockdown would end made the time go slowly. Now everything feels easier to handle.

It’s not a question of returning to the rush and action of our lives before. It won’t be like that for a long time yet. The return to normal will be slow and partial; mass gatherings and travel are still a long way off.

One thing I am conscious of is that there is no common badge of suffering to be claimed. The crisis will not leave the same mark on everyone. In Switzerland, for example, more than 1,400 people have lost their lives to the virus. Most of the bereaved were not able to hold a proper funeral for their loved ones (this restriction will be lifted from April 27, thankfully).

We have entered a once-in-a-lifetime recession. Nobody knows the best path out of this pandemic. It’s one step at a time. This article by Simon Mair of University of Surrey presented four scenarios of what life might be like after coronavirus. Lessons learned from the disruption could lead to a better world – or not.

Imagine we all have to fill in a form when this is over recording our losses and gains. What boxes will you tick? Will it be a list of temporary inconveniences or a more devastating record? It’s probably too early to say.

What makes this crisis strange is the contradictions it throws up. If ever you had the thought, stop the world I want to get off, this time has potentially been a gift. A time when many of us developed a fresh appreciation for the simple things in life, strengthened relationships and got to know ourselves a bit better.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the balance sheet of coronavirus. How do you think you will look back on this extraordinary time? Wishing everyone a safe transition to life after lockdown.

The Naked Irish by Clare O’Dea plus giveaway! #readingirelandmonth20

The Naked Irish by Clare O’Dea plus giveaway! #readingirelandmonth20

This interview with Cathy of 746Books was published today as part of #ReadingIrelandMonth20. They are the best questions I’ve been asked so far about the book. If you comment on the original post, you enter a draw to win a free copy of The Naked Irish. Enjoy!

Today on 746 Books I have an interview with Clare O’Dea, author of the book The NakedIrish.

The Naked Irish is a smart and entertaining anaysis of what it means to be Irish in the 21st century. Clare takes some of the commin clichés and assumptions about what it means to be Irish and explores their origins and how many of them are just no longer true for a changing, modern society.

Do the Irish really have a drink problem? Are we really a big gang of friendly, poetic, God-fearing emigrants who love their mammies? Clare’s clear-eyed, thoroughly researched but highly readable response to these clichés makes for a great introduciton to what it actually means to be Irish today.

I was delighted to chat to Clare about her book.

nakediHow did the idea come about to write The Naked Irish?

There has always been a tendency…

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Irish historical fiction picks for St. Patrick’s Day

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We may not be able to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as usual this year with parades and parties but we can enjoy another form of escapism, reading Irish historical fiction. It also happens to be the middle of #ReadingIrelandMonth, the fifth annual social media festival organised by the indefatigable Cathy Brown of 746Books.com. No better time to talk about Irish books and share reading recommendations.

I’ve found that reading these books has been a wonderful way to immerse myself in Irish history, which is all the more interesting when seen through the eyes of marginalised or formerly forgotten characters.

In chronological order, the list includes Her Kind by Niamh Boyce, a fictionalised account of a real ‘witch trial’ that took place in Kilkenny in 1324. The next novel is The Rising of Bella Casey by Mary Morissy, set in Dublin at the beginning of the 20th century. It gives us the life story the sister of the famous playwright Seán O’Casey. This is the one that made the deepest impression on me.

And finally, The Branchman by Nessa O’Mahony, is entirely imagined, though based on real social and historical context. Set in the 1920s in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, it is a police detective story that unfolds in the unstable early days of the Free State.

Before we jump in, I have some good news to share about The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés, almost six months after publication. The book has been chosen by IrishCentral.com as their book of the month for March. The website has a big following in North America so I’m hoping this explainer of modern Ireland will catch the eye of some American readers. If you’ve already read the book, I’d really appreciate a comment or two at the end of the IrishCentral post to get the ball rolling.

Where were we? I’ll begin with my favourite, The Rising of Bella Casey. This beautifully-written book tells a grim story. Through Bella’s life we get a fascinating depiction of turn-of-the-century Dublin which captures the grinding poverty, the vulnerability of women before marriage and within marriage at that time, twisted family dynamics, and the Catholic-Protestant divide. The Casey’s were poor Protestants and Bella suffers most from the agony of losing respectability.

The novel is a really interesting study of how a person can be trapped by their perception of who they are meant to be. It is also fascinating to see Seán O’Casey’s less than rosy relationship with his family and his egotism, which must have contributed to his success.

I really enjoyed Nessa O’Mahony’s The Branchman, set in 1920s rural Ireland. It was a time of great upheaval as the Free State took its first shaky steps after independence. The action of the book takes place in the long shadow cast by the Civil War amid a wave of violent crime in Ballinasloe.

In The Branchman we have a solid and sympathetic hero, Michael Mackey of the newly-formed Garda Síochána (Irish police force), whose dogged detective work leads him where others fear to tread. Everyone in this story has something to hide and Mackey’s secret is that he served in the British Army in the First World War. The strain of having to deny his traumatic past is very well conveyed. The sarcasm-loaded dialogue rings true as does the amoral behaviour of many of the characters.

During the recent debate about whether the state should commemorate the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (the issues are very well covered here by UCD historian Mary McAuliffe), I was not happy to see people claim ownership of what they see as the one, true version of Irishness.

I would say that the Republic of Ireland had a messy and divisive start. It’s fair to say no-one got to live in the country they wanted after independence and everyone had to make do with whatever side of the border or the argument they found themselves on.

There were plenty of Irish people pre and post 1916-1922 who had no aspirations of independence and thought it was a bad idea. Some felt unsafe and unwanted in the Free State because of their family history, military service or religion. They had to suck it up post 1922. O’Mahony’s novel may help to understand some of that context.

Moving to the far distant past, Niamh Boyce leads us through the alleyways and intrigues of 14th century Kilkenny in her second novel, Her Kind. The book is written from the point of view of a number of characters, mainly Petronelle and her daughter Basilia, in the lead up to Petronelle’s trial for witchcraft.

Petronelle is an Irish woman living under an assumed name as a servant in the household of Flemish moneylender Alice Kytler, one of the town’s richest and most prominent citizens. Boyce has taken the scant details known about Alice and Petronelle and other notable figures of the time (1324) and woven a gripping tale of misogyny and treachery.

The villain of the piece is the Bishop of Ossory, who was obsessed with heresy and witchcraft and madly jealous of Alice Kytler, a woman altogether too proud – and rich – for his liking.

The medieval city comes to life, full of atmosphere, industry and gritty detail. The phrase ‘richly imagined’ is overused but this novel earns it royally. It’s worth reading for the descriptions of daily life alone but there is also great tension and drama in the clash of powerful personalities, the twisted religious fanaticism and the complex ties between Alice, Petronelle and Basilia.

I’d like to squeeze in two more recommendations of novels I’ve read recently. Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor is another biographical story which mainly takes place in 1880s London and follows the fortunes of the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker. It’s a virtuoso work.

Finally, Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey, is a short heart-breaking book that I read in one sitting. Just on the borderline of historical fiction, it is set in Dublin in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Written in the first person, the story is told through the voice of Caroline (Tatty) from the age of three to 13, growing up in a troubled household with alcoholic parents. There are lovely moments of humour but its achingly sad too. I discovered Dwyer Hickey late, just last year, when I read The Narrow Land. She is a marvellous writer.

I hope you find something to enjoy from this list. With all the anxiety about Coronavirus, it may be hard to concentrate on reading but I think it is good for us to keep doing the normal things that are still within our reach. I’ve written an article about the situation in Switzerland and I will add the link here as soon as it’s online for those who are interested.

In these worrying times, I wish you all comfort and protection from harm. I hope our solidarity will get us through this and that we will have many more celebrations together in the future.

A spoonful of duckweed helps Brexit go down

Duckweed

In a slight change of direction, I’ve been commissioned to write some science stories over the next few months and that means my inbox is now flooded with Swiss science newsletters. Actually, it’s a great way to start the day, finding out about scientists’ wild and wonderful ideas. The creativity is infectious!

Today brought a press release from Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology about duckweed, aka Wolffia. Two researchers, Cyrill Hess and Melanie Bingelli, want to take this common water plant beloved of ducks, and make it widely available as a superfood for humans. Duckweed contains lots of high-​quality plant proteins and fibre, as well as valuable unsaturated fatty acids. They think it could become a staple for vegetarians, perfect in smoothies or salads, apparently.

Apart from the various challenges the scientists have to overcome in the production process, there is one important administrative hurdle to get over, and it involves the European Union. Hess and Binggeli have to apply for EU approval for Wolffia to be listed as a novel food before it can be sold as a foodstuff. This approval might eventually make the production and sale of the plant economically viable.

If you want to read more about their work, check out the press release here.

So what’s the Brexit connection? I’m getting there. Reading about this exciting research, it struck me, not for the first time, how central the EU is to everything that happens in the European region, scientific research and food production being just two of countless examples.

Switzerland had a free trade agreement with the EEC from 1972, but when the EU single market came along, new arrangements were needed. The plan was for Switzerland (along with fellow neutrals Sweden and Austria) to join the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, which would have offered the advantages of EU integration without compromising on sovereignty. But when voters rejected this option, the government had to go back to the drawing board, a bit like the position the British are in now. Membership of the EEA might have made sense for the UK which is obviously much more integrated in the EU economy than Switzerland ever was but, thanks to Teresa May’s red lines, this was ruled out at an early stage after the Brexit vote.

Since 1992, the Swiss have negotiated some 120 bilateral agreements with the EU, a slow and painstaking process. These agreements, along with membership of Schengen, have brought Switzerland very close to full integration. Thanks to the 1999 Agreement on Trade in Agricultural Products, for example, approximately 58% of Swiss agricultural exports went to EU member states in 2018, while about 75% of its agricultural imports came from the EU. Maybe one day duckweed will feature among those exports.

The UK officially leaves to the EU on January 31st and the (in)famous Withdrawal Agreement will be in place until the end of this year. The idea that Boris Johnson’s government wants to negotiate a raft of new agreements governing every aspect of the UK’s future relationship with the EU in 11 months is for the birds. Yet another unnecessary self-imposed deadline that could only be met at great cost to the smaller negotiating partner.

Seeing the distasteful triumphalism of the flag-waving Brexit Party MPs in the European parliament yesterday was yet more evidence of the national delusion at the heart of Brexit. I still can’t understand the appeal of this behaviour although it clearly pleases many British people. Which is why the Johnson regime is running video ads this week in the same style which would have been dismissed as a parody of patriotism just a few short years ago.

As I wrote in The Naked Irish, the long-term effects of Brexit are impossible to predict. Walking away from the world’s largest trading block and all the preferential trading deals it has in place with the rest of the world seems bonkers to any sane observer. I certainly don’t see the UK, one of Europe’s most unequal societies thanks to home-grown policies, becoming a better place for the majority to live in the wake of this decision. No-one wants the population of the UK to go through unnecessary suffering and instability. What’s bad for them is bad for the rest of Europe too, particularly Ireland. It’s a crying shame.

Look, it’s too late for the duckweed lesson. The UK isn’t listening anyway. As the country sails off into the sunset /over the cliff of Brexit, the people I feel sorry for are the other half of the population who have been press-ganged into a future they did not choose.

On a different note, you may be interested in two votes taking place in Switzerland next week. I wrote a piece for The Irish Times about the affordable housing initiative, which shows that housing is an issue everywhere. And fellow Bergli Books author Diccon Bewes wrote a great piece on his blog about the second vote on extending racism law to include homophobia.

Remember the song ‘Be Back Soon’ from the Oliver! musical? That’s stuck in my head now so I hope you don’t mind me passing it on to you 😊

(Photograph: ETH Foundation / Das Bild)

What’s another year? Shifting goalposts in 2019

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I didn’t write a round-up of 2018. Looking back, this was probably because not much went according to plan. It was a year of near misses professionally. The only big project I managed to salvage was the book that became The Naked Irish. I signed with Mentor Books / Red Stag in November 2018 and the book was published in September 2019.

Other plans that went by the wayside last year after a lot of work and anticipation included a book translation project, an application to do a Master’s, a possible job in Basel, submission of a middle grade novel and a memoir writing business. But just when I was beginning to think everything I touched turned to ashes, I got that much-needed yes from Mentor Books.

So there was a point in time when all I wanted was for a publisher to accept the book about Ireland and publish it. But as soon as that became a reality, the goalposts shifted. It wasn’t enough just for the book to be published any more, I wanted it to be a critical success. I wanted reviews to confirm that I had done a good job.

From my point of view, the book has been a critical success, with positive reviews appearing in the Irish Independent, the Business Post and The Irish Times. It is on sale all over Ireland and was hopefully under many Christmas trees this year.

Now, I notice that my greedy writer goalposts have shifted again. Suddenly, Ireland is not enough. I want the book to be a commercial success and that means looking beyond the small Irish market. After all, The Irish Times review said the book would appeal to readers outside Ireland who have reasons for peering in. People like Irish Americans. They should obviously read The Naked Irish too, ideally in great numbers. God, it’s exhausting.

No, instead of obsessing about US publishers, I would like to savour the moment. That’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? I want to be thankful for everything I’ve achieved so far and all the good things that have happened in 2019. I already have more than I could have hoped for a year ago. It is enough, as these photos remind me.

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In January, I went to Ireland on a short research trip for the book. I had so much work ahead of me but this was the best part, the last bit of real-life research. I had meetings set up in Belfast and Ballyjamesduff and I interviewed the veteran women’s rights campaigner, Ailbhe Smyth, in Dublin. I also recorded two radio essays for RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, and enjoyed time with family and friends.

This is a photo from the drive to Co. Cavan. I chose Ballyjamesduff as a case-study because it perfectly represents the two sides of the Irish emigration story. On the one hand, the town is associated with emigration thanks to Percy French’s 1912 song, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff. On the other hand, it has the fourth highest immigrant population of all Irish towns with 30 per cent non-national residents. I got a warm welcome at the local school, St Clare’s College. My mother came with me as co-driver and she visited the local emigration museum (coincidence!) while I was at the school. We had a lovely lunch on the way back in this village, Virginia, and plenty of time to chat on the journey.

In March, I finally got to visit James Joyce’s grave in Zurich at the instigation of my cousin Jennifer, who was visiting from Ireland. We spent a wonderful day together in the city with time to talk and had a memorable conversation about life and death at the graveyard. There were murmurings this year about moving Joyce’s body back to Dublin. Such nonsense, he’s fine where he is, really.

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Also in March, I had a writing weekend away in Wilderswil in the Berner Oberland. It’s the second time I’ve gone away with this small group of writers. The village is quiet off-season and we stay in a nice little hotel and meet for meals in between writing sessions. The perfect mix of solitude and good company. This was the view from my room.

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The big event in June was the Women’s Strike in Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over Switzerland on the 14th. I went along to my local demonstration in Fribourg with two friends. We wanted to draw attention to all the unresolved equality issues in Switzerland and elsewhere. The energy and feeling of unity in the crowd was amazing. As the white sign here says: ‘If you’re here it means you get it’. I don’t always feel like I’m fully connected to Swiss society. This was one of the good days.

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In July, one day that stands out is when I took a hike with my daughter and the dog. She had a few days home alone while the other two were at camps. It was a very hot day and we took the train to the neighbouring town of Düdingen to walk back home. I know the area well but I’d never walked it so it was a journey of discovery and we had a lovely relaxing, fun time together.

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We had a family version of this adventure when we took the train to Grenchen with our bikes one day in the summer and cycled along the Aare river to Solothurn. A week spent in Portugal with the extended family was another delightful escape from normal life.

September brought the launch of The Naked Irish in Dublin, a very happy occasion. Both my godparents were there, three generations of my family, my husband, friends from school, college, writing and work. It was a reunion really, a great reason to get together and celebrate. I had the pleasure of seeing my book on Irish shelves at last (photo by Ger Holland).

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A Swiss launch of The Naked Irish followed in November in Book Books Books in Lausanne, and, in December, I was asked to moderate a panel discussion on Brexit in the University of St. Gallen, organised by swissinfo.ch. It was my third time moderating this year – the first two were literary events: the Bibliotopia festival in May and Le Livre sur les quais in September. This is something I definitely want to do more of.

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It seems like most of my highlights this year involved spending time connecting with people and doing interesting work. There were plenty of humdrum days too but the year was also made richer by the books I read. Thanks to Goodreads, I know I read 50 books this year. You can view the list on that link, including some reviews. My favourite novels were Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, and Hidden Latitudes by Alison Anderson.

I really enjoyed answering questions about my favourite non-fiction books for the website Smartthinkingbooks. You can read the interview here. Actually, I think a separate blog post is needed to talk about the books of 2019.

I hope you are fortunate enough, like me, to have a few more quiet days of freedom left before returning to the normal routine. If you scroll back through your photos of the year, may you find many good times to recall with a smile. Wishing everyone good health, harmony and goodwill in 2020.

Plastic forks and breadcrumbs in non-fiction

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The biggest challenge when writing non-fiction on a serious subject is to keep the reader engaged. You have mountains of information but how to package it? My approach is to give the reader enough entertaining breadcrumbs to follow so that they don’t get bogged down in the statistics and analysis.

While researching the book I was constantly on the look-out for these breadcrumbs/nuggets. This quote, for example, from the Archbishop of Dublin talking about his diocese: “there are more members of the current cabinet under the age of 45 than there are priests of that age in the diocese.”

Apart from killer quotes, I also used photographs, anecdotes, memoir, reportage and, in one chapter of The Naked Irish, a piece of micro fiction. I also tried to keep a conversational style to avoid straying into textbook territory.

Another way the reader keeps his or her sense of direction is from the structure of the book. If it is strong enough, the reader should never wonder what a particular passage is doing there. It should always make sense.

When I was writing the chapter about whether the Irish want a united Ireland, I wanted to come up with a suitable allegory for the three-way relationship between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. It was no easy task.

At first I was leaning towards the broken home comparison, which works up to a point. The UK is the somewhat reluctant father who has custody of the troublesome child, and Ireland is the mother who lost custody but has been trying for years to get her baby back.

There was also the option of bringing romance into it. Ireland is the rejected suitor who is still holding a candle for the North, an incurable optimist who cannot and will not move on. Meanwhile the North is smitten with the dashing prince next door who is staring at the ceiling, wishing he was somewhere else instead. A double dose of unrequited love.

For an unreconstructed Irish nationalist interpretation, you cannot beat Tommy Makem’s best-known folk song, Four Green Fields, written in 1967. Ireland is the field-owning old woman lamenting that one of her four ‘jewels’ is ‘in bondage in stranger’s hands’, despite her sons’ best efforts.

‘But my sons had sons, as brave as were their fathers

My fourth green field will bloom once again said she.’

This old lady wouldn’t be into any new-fangled ideas such as agreed solutions, or the principle of consent or respecting different identities. A battle is what she is envisaging, one she expects her sons to win.

What none of these set pieces takes into account is that Northern Ireland is not a single entity that can be represented by a single role.

In the end I imagined something that combined economics and identity: Northern Ireland as a company. This is an excerpt from the opening of the chapter:

Imagine a small company that makes plastic forks. It has always lost money but has survived because it belongs to a big company that produces stainless steel forks. The big company has said more than once that it has no strategic or economic interest in holding onto the plastic fork company.

A few miles away, a medium-sized company that makes plastic knives is keeping a close eye. This company is looking to grow and believes a merger with the plastic fork company would be the best way forward. It hires a plane to fly over the plastic fork company pulling a banner that reads, ‘YOU COMPLETE ME’.

But the staff and management of the plastic fork company are split. A narrow majority of the board are firm believers in the fork business. Their fathers and grandfathers made forks and were part of a great fork tradition best represented by the big fork company. They don’t like change and they don’t trust knife-makers. The rest of the board, well disposed towards plastic knives, argue in vain for a brighter future of plastic forks and knives together under one roof. We’re all plastic at the end of the day, they say. No surrender, say the forkmen.

The plastic knife company settles down for a long wait.

The Naked Irish is two months old today! As good a time as any to give an update on the book and other work I’ve been doing.

There have been several highlights since I last wrote about the book. The first is the review that was published by the Irish Independent newspaper on November 16. I had no idea who had been commissioned to read the book or what they would make of it so of course I imagined the worst. But the review, by Darragh McManus, was very favourable, and fair in my opinion. Here’s a taste:

O’Dea is ideally placed to cast an eye – not cold, as per Yeats, but with the necessary coolness of the investigative journalist and/or social scientist – over our foibles and delusions. She brings the perspective of an outsider, leavened with a genuine grá [love] for, and understanding of, her homeland: a potent mix.

Another big day was October 28 when I went into the Radio Centre in RTE to be interviewed by Ella McSweeney on the Tubridy Show. The podcast of the 20-minute interview is available here.

Back in Switzerland, I was invited to Lausanne-based Books Books Books to have an author event at the shop. It became a sort of Swiss launch and there was a great atmosphere on the day. This was the first time my children got to see me in my public role as an author. Makes a nice change from seeing me hunched over the laptop, scowling at the screen.

On the journalism side, I’ve had two articles published on swissinfo.ch recently that might be of interest. One is about a group of tenants in Zurich who are being evicted from their apartments – owned by Credit Suisse Pension Fund. This is a story with lots of layers which reveals the tension between tenants’ needs and the investor’s prerogative, which is to make money.

The second article is a profile of Irish right-to-die campaigner Tom Curran, who comes to Switzerland often in the course of his work. Tom Curran is well known in Ireland as the partner of Marie Fleming whose 2013 case seeking the right to assisted suicide ended up in the Supreme Court in Ireland.

The last bit of work-related news is that I will be moderating a panel discussion on Brexit and direct democracy on Monday 2 December in St. Gallen University. More information on the event here. It’s free and open to the public but you do have to register.

Just one more thing. If you have read and enjoyed The Naked Irish, don’t forget to rate and review the book online. The book is listed on amazon.co.uk and on Goodreads. The more reviews, the merrier!

 

The Naked Irish, in all good bookshops!

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Even though The Naked Irish is my second book, it feels a bit like a debut because it’s the first book of mine to be published in Ireland. It has been a very happy experience launching the book in Dublin and getting the word out about it.

There was a great turnout for the launch in Hodges Figgis book shop in Dublin, a lovely reminder that I still have an Irish community. I’m very grateful to friends and family who came along and to other supporters who were curious to hear about the book. Ger Holland took some fantastic photos on the night and I can’t resist sharing a few of them here.

One highlight of the launch day was having an extract from the book published in The Irish Times online edition. Also that week I took part in interviews with various local radio stations. This interview with Deirdre Walsh of Radio Kerry will give you an idea of the reaction to the book. In this piece, I explain why I wrote The Naked Irish.

After such a long time spent in solitary concentration it is wonderful to be out in the world with my book and to be able to talk about it. The subjects that are attracting the most interest are drink, Irish writers, religion and the prospect of a united Ireland.

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Before I left Dublin I did an in-depth interview on the Motherfoclóir podcast with Darach ó Séaghdha. An author and Irish language activist, Darach is a relaxed and skilful interviewer and the time flew by as we discussed everything from the dubious origins of our national stereotypes to language learning to Swiss referendum fatigue.

I have a big interview coming up on national radio at the end of month. I’ll reveal more about that as soon as I can.

One of my pet hates is the stereotype of the foolish old Irish Mammy and I touch on this in the chapter about women. I decided to expand on the issue in an article for the Irish Independent Weekend Review and you can read that for free after a straightforward log in. The trope is more popular than ever and I see it as an erasure of the achievements of a generation of women who went through so much to give us a better life.

It’s been pleasure working with the friendly team at Mentor Books / Red Stag. Early Christmas shoppers take note, The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés is available directly from their website or from book shops all over Ireland. The book is also available for international delivery from bookdepository.com and amazon.co.uk.

With so many books coming out every week, even in a small market like Ireland, The Naked Irish needs as much support as possible to get some momentum going. Online customer reviews are hugely important. If you do read the book and enjoy it, don’t forget to rate it somewhere and write a review, even if it’s just one line. You’ll find the book listed on these links on Goodreads and Amazon.

I think that’s everything, apart from one more photo from Ger Holland. Have a great weekend and I’ll be back soon with more news and links to some interesting features I’ve been working on about Switzerland.

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