Last October I stepped off a bus in Wicklow town on the east coast of Ireland into hard driving rain. I made a run for the old town jail, a place I’d been meaning to visit for a while. On the tour of the building, which dates from 1702, visitors are transported back to crueller times, just as the inmates of the prison were once transported to Australia. You learn about the inhumane conditions the prisoners, including children, were kept in, the miserable rations they were given on the ocean voyage and the petty crimes, borne of poverty, which sealed their fate.
Under the Banishment Act, Irish convicts from Wicklow Gaol were sentenced to transportation up to 1856, around the time the infamous outlaw Ned Kelly, son of an Irish convict, was born in Victoria.
Kelly, whose remains were only given a proper burial in January this year, is a hero to many (though not all) in Australia but whatever your political colours, Peter Carey’s truly original novel True History of the Kelly Gang is captivating. Narrated in Kelly’s voice, the words come tumbling onto the page charged with passion and pain. It is such a convincing account, the period details and nineteenth century Irish-Australian idiom so fresh and vivid that within a few lines, you are there in the hot, dusty township walking in the footsteps of the little boy Kelly.
Carey’s novel is a story of a pride, prejudice and the abuse of power. It is also the story of a son’s love for his mother and the human capacity for endurance. When you read True History of the Kelly Gang you wear the clothes of the downtrodden colonials, eat their food and feel their burning sense of injustice. It must be one of the most accomplished fictional representations of the life of an historical figure. You believe Ned Kelly is speaking, you want it to be him – and you don’t want it to end.
Every writer starts out as a reader. If I cast my mind back to my childhood, books were a central feature of our lives. The greatest influence came from my paternal grandmother who lived with us growing up. She was a remarkable woman. Born in her father’s brewery in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1911, she had a small but fantastic library of books. Nanny, as we called her, trained as a Montessori teacher in London in the 1930s and later worked as a governess. She had a wonderful way with children. She introduced us to her favourite authors over the years and one of my sweetest memories is of sitting wedged into the armchair beside her as she read aloud.
There was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome about a family of kids living in the English Lake District and My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell describing his years living on the island of Corfu. Nanny was crazy about Dickens and read through Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Dombey & Son, Nicholas Nickleby and A Christmas Carol for us. She had a beautifully illustrated edition of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen.
The more girl-oriented stories included The Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables were in there too as was the fantasy novel The Midnight Folk by John Masefield.
Stories featuring animals began with the Beatrix Potter series, moving on to Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
My own favourite children’s book of all time is The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann, the story of a group of animals forced to flee when their forest is destroyed. Tom McCaughren’s Run Swift, Run Free series also featured foxes’ adventures. The list goes on and the great thing is I now have the pleasure of starting all over again with my own children.