This day twenty years ago, I boarded a flight for Switzerland. Apart from my suitcase, all I had with me was my bicycle and a fold-up occasional table my grandmother had once given me. I had carried it from flatshare to flatshare and now I was carrying it with me to a new life in a new country.
Travelling light was what I did back then – in work, in love and in material things. A year earlier I had left a permanent job in The Irish Times, and my last short-term job in Dublin was producing a play for a small theatre company.
But I was ready for a steadier life, and that is what Switzerland had in store for me. My Swiss boyfriend became my husband. In our apartment in Fribourg, I finally cooked in my own kitchen with my own pots and pans. I got a job with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. Eventually we had three daughters and built a house together.
I look back over those years and cannot believe how much my life has changed, and how fortunate I have been. Workwise, I reclaimed my freedom after ten years in the same job. I started writing books. This autumn, I’m organising a festival of Irish culture in Fribourg, enjoyable work that reminds me of the theatre job two decades ago.
Even though I’m as integrated as a piece of bread dipped in fondue and I speak the local languages, I haven’t always found it easy to accept my destiny as an emigrant. I didn’t realise how much I would be leaving behind, and for how long.
Acceptance. I got there eventually. I believe I will live in Ireland again – one day. But it doesn’t matter that it’s not now. Right now, this Swiss life is full in the best possible way. Yesterday evening, I went for a beautiful sunset walk with my mother (my most faithful Irish visitor) and daughters. It made me glad, yet again, that I found this place and made it my home.
Above is a photo of me from 2003 in the Gúna Nua Theatre Company office in Dame Street. It was taken a few weeks before I left Dublin for good. If I told her the whole story now, I think she would be more than ready to fold up the table once again.
The first quarter of the year is over and the Irish Festival Fribourg/Freiburg is taking shape. A lot has been accomplished since I last wrote about the festival in October. Even though there is plenty more to do, and it feels as if new tasks are added to the list daily, we are also seeing the first results of the winter’s work.
I’ve attended my fair share of cultural events over the years but only once before actually worked on the organisational side. That was in 2003, the last job I had before I left Ireland for good, when I worked as a producer for Gúna Nua theatre company. I’d forgotten how enjoyable and satisfying it is to make things happen! But, my God, where did that 20 years go?
The most important breakthrough this year was that the Agglomération de Fribourg, the equivalent of the city council, decided to back the festival. Without their support, other potential funders would automatically have said no.
We got the news on March 9th after sending in our 25-page application at the end of November with 13 supporting documents. More supporting documents were requested in January, including a contract with one of the venues. The project was discussed at three meetings before we finally got the good news. A champagne moment.
Having the support of the Irish Embassy, Tourism Ireland, Fribourg Tourism and the Irish Film Institute International helped make our case much stronger. There are still some funding decisions to come in and possibly more applications to send out. In the meantime, we are getting everything else lined up – the programme, the venues, the website, publicity, ticketing, volunteers, insurance, travel … the list goes on.
Now it’s as sure as sure can be: Ireland is coming to Fribourg for the weekend of 6-8 October. Save the date! We’ll be announcing the programme in June, which is suddenly around the corner. Just a note that I’m not using the royal we. I’m joined in the whole enterprise by two brilliant Fribourg women – Julie Hunt and Deirdre Coghlan. Follow the festival Facebook page to hear more about our progress.
In other news, it’s a year since Voting Day was published by Fairlight Books, and two years since the Swiss edition came out. I’m visiting two Swiss schools in the next few weeks to talk to students who’ve studied the novel and I’ve been invited to a university in Poznań in Poland later this month for the same reason. I’m delighted the story is still making waves, and I love meeting readers of all ages.
On my own reading pile, I’ve been working my way through the excellent Wyndham-Banerjee series of crime novels, set in Calcutta in the 1920s. I was lucky enough to interview the author Abir Mukherjee at the Société de Lecture in Geneva last week. We were in the beautiful yellow room you see above. I don’t have photos of the event yet.
More reading tips
My standout read of the year so far is Haven by Emma Donoghue, an extraordinary, captivating story set in seventh-century Ireland, featuring three monks on a quest to found a monastery in the most inhospitable place possible – Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry. It was amazing to be transported back that far in history. Donoghue must be one of the most accomplished writers of historical fiction working today. I can also highly recommend the film adaptation of her 2016 novel, The Wonder.
And there’s a treat in store for fans of Swiss crime fiction with the publication of the second title in the Polizei Bern series by Kim Hays this month. Sons and Brothers centres on the suspicious death of an eminent (but not very likeable) heart surgeon whose body is pulled from the Aare in Bern on a winter’s night. The investigation leads detectives Giuliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli back to the doctor’s childhood home in the Emmenthal region.
Time for me to wrap up and wish the readers of this blog a pleasant Easter break. This is birthday season in our home with three birthdays coming up next week, so my to-do list is taken over by presents, cakes and parties for the next while. A very welcome change.
I did my school-leaving exams in the summer of 1989, what’s known as the Leaving Certificate in Ireland. It was long ago and far away; the world was younger than today etc. Seventeen-year-old me studied like mad in the last couple of months. I always was a crammer.
We felt (and we were repeatedly told) that our whole future depended on how we did in those three weeks of written exams. If you wanted to go to university you had to get enough points overall, counting the six best subjects out of eight. It was intense but you also gained temporary VIP status in the family.
We had to fill in the application form for third level courses in January of exam year. I was good at languages and writing, but clueless about careers. My first choice was a Communications course and my second choice was French and Russian in Trinity College. As it turns out, those two fields have dominated my working life.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the man of the moment. He had been president since 1985 and suddenly everyone knew two new Russian words – glasnost and perestroika. I got into the French and Russian course, and found myself surrounded by enthusiasts for all things Russian. There I made friends for life.
That’s the beauty of higher education, finding other people who tick like you, and diving into the world of your chosen subject. I took a year off between second year and third year, spending the first half working in restaurants in Paris to improve my French and save for Russia. At the beginning of 1992, I was on my way to St. Petersburg for a semester.
The Soviet Union had just ceased to exist, replaced by the Russian Federation and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Baltic States had achieved their independence, Gorbachev had resigned and Yeltsin was waiting in the wings.
In his resignation speech on Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev touched on an important point, saying he was “concerned about the fact that the people in this country are ceasing to become citizens of a great power and the consequences may be very difficult for all of us to deal with”.
What he couldn’t foresee was that the culture of lying and repression that the ruling elite were steeped in would be revived to a terrible degree in the twenty-first century under a new self-serving, amoral and extremely dangerous leader.
The time I spent in St. Petersburg was the peak of my love of Russian culture. This memoir essay I read on Irish radio gives a flavour of the excitement. As students of the city’s state university, we had official student cards and could get tickets for everything in roubles.
We could easily afford long-distance train travel, which we took advantage of, visiting Moscow, the Baltics and Ukraine, all the way down to Odesa. Tickets for museums and the many theatre, ballet and opera productions cost next to nothing.
We were able to get by on ten dollars per week, which converted into increasingly large piles of roubles. Unfortunately, ordinary Russians were suffering economically while their better-placed and more corrupt compatriots were stripping the national assets. Organised crime took off.
I lived in Russia a second time in 1999 and I have spent the ensuing years feeling no desire to return. I have regarded the country with increasing dismay as Putin tightened his stranglehold on Russian life. The worst vainglorious tendencies of Russian people, tendencies often displayed by citizens of former empires, have been pumped up and twisted into something truly nasty, with deadly consequences.
Which brings us to today, and the war in Ukraine. There are decent Russians, who don’t subscribe to Putin’s genocidal project. It takes exceptional critical faculties and exceptional courage to maintain any opposition to such a powerful force inside Russia. I salute those people.
The rest of the population is awash in disinformation and short on options. They have been encouraged to take refuge in a dangerous brand of patriotism, built on grievance and false superiority.
I can’t express strongly enough how much I abhor what Russia is currently doing to Ukraine. We had a Ukrainian family staying with us for a few months this year. They have lost everything – their home, their school, their friends and family left behind, their business, their peace of mind, all their favourite things, all their plans.
Those losses are multiplied by thousands, millions, and the sad thing is that these refugees are the lucky ones. Countless others have lost their lives, or suffered horrific injuries, terror, torture, rape, bereavements.
In normal life, most of us apologise when we bump into someone, or rush to help when a person trips in the street. How can it be that one group of people is willing to inflict such terrible damage on another group? It is a question that has always been asked about humanity, a question that haunts me as 2022 draws to a close.
The people of Ukraine are foremost in my thoughts this festive season. As part of a communications project this year, I worked with several Ukrainian colleagues, and I have nothing but admiration for their dignity and fortitude. Even in that small circle, they have experienced so much disruption and fear.
The Russians like to talk about the Russian soul and how special it is. A cancer has taken hold of that soul, and there is a long and painful road to travel before it can be cured. Repentance will be part of the cure, though that seems very far off right now.
I was originally going to write a post about the novels I’ve read this year. One of them is The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan. It’s a gritty portrayal of Ukrainian citizens caught up in conflict, a difficult read but worth your time if you want to understand better. A gentler but equally affecting story is Grey Bees by my favourite Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov.
Wishing the readers of this blog a peaceful and cheerful Christmas break. I hope that we will have happier things to report at the end of next year. Take care.
(Photo credit: see link to the Ukraine-based content platform Depositphotos ‘Say no to war’)
Fribourg aka Freiburg is one of the most charming places in Switzerland. A university town set in beautiful, rolling countryside, it’s 20 minutes from Bern and equidistant from the three biggest cities – Geneva, Zurich and Basel. It’s also an overlapping point where the country’s two main language groups meet.
What a perfect place to hold a festival of Irish culture, I hear you say. That’s what I thought! The Irish Festival Fribourg / Freiburg is in the calendar for October 2023. It’s going to be a celebration of Irish literature, cinema, theatre and music. I hope it will be enjoyed by the people of Fribourg and by visitors from far and wide.
The inspiration for the festival can be traced back to my visit to Listowel Writers’ Week in Co. Kerry in June. I saw that the organisers had achieved something really special, bringing the whole town to life and attracting the great and the good to a place that – I hope they don’t mind me saying – is relatively small and off the beaten track.
I’ve been similarly impressed by Le livre sur les quais festival in Morges, which I’ve attended every year since 2017. Occasions like this are precious to the artists and audiences and to the community. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my 20 years of life as an Irish person in the town of Fribourg, than by building cultural ties between my two homes.
I will keep you updated on the festival as it takes shape. Some partners have already come on board, details to be announced. The first volunteers have begun working on the festival and we should be able to reveal the logo and unique name soon. It’s going to take a lot of work and we may have ups and downs, but, a year from today, the weekend festival should be in full swing.
The last time I went to Kerry it was for a week-long diving course. I took the train and bus from Dublin to a tiny place on the coast but the diving school/hostel had lost my booking and given their only instructor the week off. The hostel owner phoned around and found me a place in a school two hours’ drive away in Baltimore. He then drove me all the way to Bantry in Co. Cork where I was handed over to my newly hired teacher to complete the journey. So I’ve had unfinished business with Kerry for the past twenty years and now the universe has paid me back handsomely with a different kind of exhilarating Kerry experience – Listowel Writers’ Week.
This legendary festival has been running since 1971 and it was back in person after a three-year hiatus. The whole town was in high spirits. The fact that the Listowel Races June Bank Holiday Meeting overlapped with the literary festival added to the excitement – and the fashion on display.
A lot of the action was centred around the 18th century Listowel Arms Hotel, which overlooks the Town Square and the racecourse. Throw in a few First Communions on the Saturday and I’ve never seen so much finery in one place. All we were missing was a wedding.
Floating serenely through all this activity was the organising team of the Writers’ Week, giving directions, selling tickets, rounding up writers and herding audiences, while manning (mainly wo-manning) and managing the 50+ events on the programme.
There was something happening every minute of the day – workshops, walking tours, author interviews, plays, poetry readings, art exhibitions, and a prize-giving for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year to kick things off on the first evening. The award went to Claire Keegan for her exquisite novel Small Things Like These.
Irish novel of the year
I was lucky enough to see Claire Keegan being interviewed by Rick O’Shea on the Thursday evening. Claire has quite a regal presence and strong ideas; frivolous would be the last word to describe her. We all listened with rapt attention to her carefully chosen words.
She said many things I agreed with – on the importance of structure and how she doesn’t like cryptic books, for example. ‘I want to be moved by the book and I can’t be moved if I don’t understand.’ Hear, hear! She’s also inclined to quiet prose rather than drama and, she says, the subject material never matters. ‘A good book can be about anything.’
Last quote from Claire Keegan: ‘Beautiful sentences make me tired. What I love is a good paragraph.’ Basically, she believes that sentences shouldn’t be competing with each other to display their individual brilliance but should work together to create a pleasing whole (to paraphrase with less perfect words). I like it.
The 12-week challenge
I caught Donal Ryan and Louise Kennedy at a joint event in town’s old dance hall which is now called the Plaza Centre. One thing Donal said that fascinated me is that it takes 12 weeks to get a novel written, at least the first draft. Apparently, a lot of writers feel 12 weeks is a magic amount of time, if you’re writing in an applied way. When I think about it, the first draft of Voting Day took me 14 weeks to write, so not far off.
Both Donal Ryan and Claire Keegan teach creative writing (oh to be in those classes!) and they both mentioned that they can’t really write while teaching. This seems like such a big sacrifice but they still manage to produce great work so maybe it’s a good balance overall. By the way, Louise Kennedy worked as a chef for 30 years before she wrote anything. She was dragged along to a creative writing class by a friend and never looked back.
In between events, there were lovely places to discover in the town – the River Feale walk, Listowel Castle, St. John’s Church, John B. Keane’s pub. Team O’Dea included my mother and two sisters and we enjoyed exploring together.
I had a great chat with Margaret in the Castle. It was the perfect weekend for striking up conversations with anyone and everyone (hello Audrey!). And if you’re looking out for someone in Listowel, you will definitely bump into them (hello Denis!). You can also be brave and introduce yourself to people you admire (hello Martina Devlin and Patrick Gale!).
By the time my event came around on Friday afternoon, I felt totally at home. Sophie Grenham did a brilliant job directing the discussion with John Boyne and myself. We certainly had plenty to talk about but I need someone else to tell me what I said! One thing I do remember is our comments on how to approach writing a character who is quite different to you. In my case, all of them! But as much as there are differences between me and a disenfranchised and uneducated 1950s Swiss farmer’s wife or a young mother from a Yenish background, I believe there are enough things we share that can help me understand and express their frustration, joy and despair. If as writers we can’t tap into that shared humanity, we might as well all pack up and go home.
Slán go fóil
I did eventually have to tear myself away from Listowel and I took the scenic route back – well, there are many – by getting the ferry across the Shannon estuary from nearby Tarbert to Killimer in Co. Clare. It was a happy ending to a joyful festival.
I hope you enjoy my photos of Listowel. I have nothing worth sharing from the events because my phone snaps didn’t come out well. But the hardest working person at the festival was the photographer Ger Holland and you can find all her fantastic pics on the social media accounts at the end of the Writers’ Week page.
And if you still haven’t read Voting Day, it’s available to order in bookshops pretty much anywhere, or through the usual online retailers. For online orders in Ireland, I recommend Kennys.
This year, the Republic of Ireland is celebrating a century of independence. I promised myself last year that I would be in Dublin for the celebrations, but the best laid plans …
Instead, I would like to share two things with you in honour of the occasion. First is a selection of Irish proverbs, taken from my family WhatsApp group chat this morning. Yes, that’s what we’re like!
Second, the video below, produced by the Irish foreign ministry which sums up the feelings of so many of us for the freedom-loving people of Ukraine, who are forced to endure the horror of Russia’s military invasion.
Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin
There’s no place like home (there’s no hearth like your own hearth)
Is fearr an tsláinte ná na táinte
Health is better than wealth (wealth in this case the old word for a herd of cattle)
Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine
People live/survive in the shelter/shade of each other, meaning we can’t do without one another.
And here’s an extra one I found that I hope will be true in the case of Ukraine.
Filleann an feall ar an bhfeallaire
Treachery rebounds on the treacherous (person).
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh go léir! Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all!
This month I’ve had a flurry of book-related activity, some of which required learning new skills. Like video editing! We’ve all come a long way with video communication in the past year and a half, haven’t we?
I remember back at the start of the pandemic when members of my book club suggested holding our next meeting online. That’s not going to work, I thought. Too many people on screen, too addling. How could you possibly have a discussion?
Soon after that I was asked to do a live online interview about my books. I declined because I was pretty overwhelmed at the time with the children off school and a new temporary job. I also didn’t think I could bear to be live on screen for a whole hour.
Now of course, that’s completely routine. I’ve been part of umpteen ‘Team’ and zoom meetings with different organisations. Our book club did well for a year online. My extended family ran a monthly quiz with three generations taking part. And the online launch of Voting Day in February of this year was an amazing experience, almost better than the real thing!
Drink and the Irish
Which brings me to a new date for the diary. I’ve been invited to give an online lecture as part of the ‘Ireland and the World’ series hosted by the University of Zurich and the Swiss Centre of Irish Studies. These are free public lectures, and my topic, on December 1st at 6.15pm (Swiss time), is ‘Conquering the world, one Irish pub at a time’. You can find the link by clicking through on this page. For this lecture I’ll be returning to the chapter in The Naked Irish on the Irish relationship with the demon drink.
The video editing I tried is pretty rudimentary but it’s a start. To make this video for the Youtube platform Translators Aloud with translators Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi, I had to research how to get the record settings right on zoom, and I figured out how to add a title page and photo at the end. So here it is, Corinne, Anna and I reading from the opening of Voting Day.
One last date for the diary for Zurich people. I have a free public event in German coming up on December 5th in a vintage furniture shop on Ankerstrasse called WOW Props. The ambiance will fit nicely with the 1950s storyline of Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten (Voting Day). I’d like to thank Andrea Maurer for hosting and Yolanda Pantli of Ouï-e Communications for organising the event. There are two time slots – 11am & 1pm and coffee and croissants for everyone. Register by email: firstname.lastname@example.org and tell your friends!
Now is a good time to beat the Christmas rush by buying books from your local bookshop or online. The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths is the perfect read to demystify Swiss culture and politics. Available in Swiss bookshops or direct from Bergli Books (French and German translations from Helvetiq).
When I was researching and writing The Naked Irish in 2018 and 2019, I spent every spare minute feverishly gathering information, reading books and articles, listening to the radio, interviewing people, collecting notes and quotes left, right and centre.
This process came after 15 years of living outside the country. Nobody asked me to do it. Finding a publisher was a nail-biting challenge and I’ll always be grateful to Mentor Books (Red Stag) for saying yes.
Now that the book has been out for a year, I have enough distance to look back and wonder what the quest was all about. Why was it so important for me to write that particular book? It has a lot to do with being an emigrant.
When I left Ireland in 2003 to move to Switzerland, I stopped writing about Ireland but I never stopped caring. But if Ireland is a mother figure, she’s a mother who is indifferent to her absent children. She has enough mouths to feed at home!
And yet, I wanted to reclaim and rediscover Ireland, force her to take notice. I think I managed to do that through The Naked Irish, but in the process, I have become less sentimental about the people and the place. Close up, the hills are a bit muddy.
Before I wrote this book, I used to wonder how different my life might have been if I’d stayed in Ireland. At least The Naked Irish answered one aspect of that question. This is the work I would have covered as a journalist. I finally got my chance to write about the Irish economy, politics, social issues and literature.
I got to hold Ireland close and now I feel it drifting away again. The country is not really mine to keep any more. And that’s OK. It will be partly mine from now on, not fully mine, and that makes my life easier.
My next book is completely different. It’s a historical novel set in Switzerland and it could only be written by a Swiss person, the Swiss me. It has shown me how much this country means to me now. I’ll be sharing more news about this project with lots of razzmatazz very soon.
Final note: I took the picture above during a visit to the laténium museum and park on Lake Neuchâtel in June (highly recommended!). These reconstructed lake dwellings are based on a 6,000-year-old village that was discovered on the site. Amazing to see.
Final final note: I might as well stick in a picture from the book launch in Dublin last year because it was such a happy day. Credit, Ger Holland (@GHollandPhoto on Twitter), who did a wonderful job.
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.
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.