Sunday, March 24, 2013

Waterford Writers Weekend

Just on the train my way back home to see my three boys after a fantastic trip to Waterford staying at the GORGEOUS Granville Hotel on the waterfront. First proper trip to this historic city (apart from it simply being a traffic glut on the way to/from Cork) and I loved it. The Book Centre - a buzzing bookshop in a converted cinema, where I read and was interviewed by internet sensation historical novelist Hazel Gaynor (The Girl Who Came Home - a wonderfully drawn and researched novel about The Tiatanic) was a great experience. A great crowd showed up and I got to read from Land of Dreams - which was really nice and its first public outing. Highlight was meeting the Book Centre's famous, discerning bookish manager Nellie (pictured with her here). In the morning I went to the Central Library - another great spot with sofas and a lovely social, welcoming vibe where my fab Auntie Sheila Smyth read along with other local writers. Loved every minute of my stay in what I am coming to believe might be the book-capital of Ireland? making me want to hit the road this Summer and check out a few more of Ireland's cities. All invites and suggestions welcome! And Waterford -  I'll be back.
Unique venues like the Book Centre need our support to keep them going.

Auntie Sheila's blog. She sold loads of books at the library after her reading because she totally rocks hilarious Irish nostalgia anecdote. Check her out.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

An Irish Identity

Growing up Irish in London, England in the 1970’s was a cultural identity minefield.
My parents were both school teachers, educated and bookish with Irish republican sensibilities. I remember my sister coming home from school one day and innocently asking my mother; “Mum – are we posh or are we common?”
My mother replied; “If anyone should be rude enough to ask - you can tell them we are ‘Educated Irish.’”
Looking back now, it was equally as snobbish a distinction, but even as a young child I grabbed onto the notion. I was already confused about my true national identity.
Because my parents were teachers we enjoyed two-month holidays in Ireland every year. In my mother’s home-town of Ballina, County Mayo we stayed with our grandmother and hung out with the neighbours children. We went to discos’ and ceilidhs – I had my first kiss on the bridge crossing the Rover Moy with a heartbreakingly handsome young man called Eammon Rooney. But still, we were “the English kids” with our hee-haw accents and our strangely fashionable clothes. We hung out with the local kids, but were never quite accepted as local ourselves. My parents and grandparents were Irish born and bred, their brogue was intact – their history, but we, their children, bore the stigma of their having abandoned ship. They left Ireland – not for the glamour and affluence of our friends in America – but for the traitorous advantages on offer from our oppressors, the English.
The 70’s and 80’s was a bad time to be Irish in Britain with republican paramilitary groups – the IRA and terrorist offshoots – blowing up nightclubs and department stores. “If an Irish person who seems to have a lot of cash moves into your area,” signs on the London underground warned, “call this number,” with a hotline to the special police unit set up for people to report on their Irish neighbours.
My politically motivated teenage years were spent keeping my mouth shut about my strong opinions on what I saw as the continued occupation of my parents’ homeland by the English. I did not agree on the planting of bombs in London. As a young woman I narrowly missed being inside Harrods of Knightsbridge when it was attacked and the blast blew in the windows of the hairdressing salon where I was working, but at the same time I knew more about the history and ongoing social injustice and politics that were leading this illegal call to arms.
Eventually, I moved to Ireland. Other people went abroad on holidays – we always went ‘home’. As a young adult, I spent all of my vacation time in my mother’s home in Ballina, County Mayo.   I always said I moved to Ireland so I could start holidaying abroad!
The truth was far more complicated. I always felt more Irish than English and had always harboured a desire to live in the place my parents left. One of my sisters feels the same and followed me over here with her family, the other sister and our brother (who died, in London two years ago) were Londoners through and through, and mystified by my desire to live here. They see themselves as English, with Irish parents – which, in effect, is what we all were bought up to be. But it was never enough for me. I wanted to be properly Irish – somehow the English angle never computed in my soul.
I have been living in Ireland for twenty years now. I married a Dubliner, and we have two Irish boys with soft, sing-song accents. We live a few miles from my mother’s native Ballina in a fishing village called Killala in a house overlooking the sea. We burn bog-turf and bake soda-bread and have the radio tuned to R.T.E. For all that, I still speak with the North London accent I grew up with and am still, for all my family history in this area – if not a ‘blow-in’ (the name given to foreign residents) at least a “Plastic Paddy”.
However, I am generally considered a wholly Irish writer and I won’t bend on that point.  My latest offering, City of Hope is the second of a trilogy and deals with the question of identity and moral values that I find myself constantly drawn to as a writer.
So for all my efforts to fit in do I feel truly Irish now?
The answer is – yes and no and either way it doesn’t matter to me any more.
The greatest thing my emigrant identity has given me is enough interest to question and explore the influences of my parent’s background on my life and, in turn, the political and social circumstances that influenced their lives. 
Had they stayed in Ireland, and I had been born and educated here, perhaps I would not have had the questioning spirit that led me to become a writer? Would I have had the ‘outsiders’ view of the savage beauty of the landscape – the fresh ear for the unique, the curiosity to ask questions? Maybe. More importantly through living and writing in Ireland as the “pretender” to an Irish identity – I have learned that the personal path of the second generation emigrant carves it’s own peculiar place in a country’s history that is no less important that the people who were born there.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Getting away from it all...

Work has taken me over. Between Land of Dreams going through its final polish, beginning work on my new novel, honoring newspaper and blog commitments – I seem to be on the computer or phone more 24/7.
“Mu-huum!” my eleven year old son Leo sobs, as he stands in front of me stamping his feet, “ I've already asked you – A THOUSAND TIMES!”
“I’m on the PHONE!” I roar at him in a stage whisper – ashamed to sound like an angry parent to the editor on the line.
Writing was supposed to be a family-friendly career choice.
Except it’s not a choice – or even a career – writing novels in a vocation. Some call it an addiction – it’s certainly a slight sign of madness.
But then, so is motherhood – and sometimes, often, the two roles compete and collide.
My husband Niall looks permanently irritated as what remains of our already meagre family time is interrupted by yet another phone call. Because we both work from home, I fool myself into thinking that we have more quality family time than most families because we are always together in the house. But I have come to realize of late that the opposite is true. While all four of us are physically present in the same place, it’s probably for that very reason that we give each other scant attention.
I actually found myself boasting to a friend of mine that Tom already considers the talking pig Olivia who comes on Baby TV every morning at half eight, his favorite program.
She was suitably horrified and I thought it’s time for some family time out.
So I booked a hotel for a weekend away.
One of the reasons we never go on holiday is that we live in such a beautiful place. Honestly, we have a sea view – and there is no hotel I have ever been to that has as impressive a vista or is as well equipped with what we need than our own house. I always scan the web for some beautifully placed, family hotel that won’t cost the price of three weeks in the Caribbean, but while I see myself as a Historic Country retreat or quirky Boutique Hotel type person, we always end up in a Radisson.  Radisson hotels have a peculiarly suburban atmosphere. The d├ęcor is always beige with a splash of something predictable, the furniture functional and solid – they are clean but there are no surprises, no artwork collections or outstanding cuisine to challenge you. They aren’t cheap, but they aren’t prohibitively expensive – which is a good thing for a person like me who hates spending money on somebody else’s roof over my head when I have a perfectly good roof of my own. I always have to curb the constant temptation to insist that everybody smiles all weekend because “Mummy is spending a lot of money” on this. As mother of a toddler I figure it’s worth paying good money for the Tomminator to get sick on somebody else’s carpet and dribble on somebody else’s upholstery for a change.
Tom is zooming around like a rocket 24/7 and we’ve have done nothing to prepare for the carnage of a toddler. Our main living area is still strewn with cables, and piles of important papers stacked on the floor, and drifts of dog hair and all sorts of small, sharp non-edibles that a small child might – and does - want to shove in their mouths. The Executive Suite at the Radisson had no such complications. Tommo leapt out of my arms, wriggled out of his trousers and ran around at high speed, falling over on more than one occasion and developing carpet burn on his knees within an hour. I unpacked our “emergency” snacks and put them in the mini-bar issuing the usual warning that nobody was to touch the overpriced minerals or be tempted into packet of chilled chocolates under any circumstance. Then I surveyed my 48-hour domain. Huge bed, widescreen, tea and coffee making facilities and a Nespresso machine (impressive.) Leo, who loves hotels – precisely because he gets to stay in them so seldom - excitedly pointed out we had our own “special slippers! In a packet!”
Once I had decanted the contents of the bathroom into my case and unpacked the two enormous bags of blankets and bottles and baby accoutrements – my fingers started twitching to get the laptop out and check my e-mails. I wasn't going to bring the computer with me but well? I did.
“Let’s go for a swim Mum,” Leo cried, “when can we go for a swim? Can we go for a swim now – plee-ease?”
“In a minute babe, I’ll just check my….”
One weekend of my life - what was I thinking?
We went for a swim, and Leo complained because I used the Jacuzzi, ignoring a big sign he pointed out that said; “All children under 16 must be accompanied by adults at all times.” “I nearly DROWNED,” he said tearfully as we padded back up to our room, tripping over our special slippers.
We ate in the bar and too frugal to pay for pudding I made Niall drive to the village to get us ice creams to eat in our room.
I was in bed by ten and slept for ten hours straight for the first time in over a year.

Back to Blogger!

Last year my intern and I took it upon ourselves to move this blog to tumblr. After a lengthy 12 months on the new site, I've decided that it's not for me. So, that means I'm back!

Expect some new posts soon and a few updates on everything over the past year. I can't wait to get it all running again!

Kate x

Here’s an article I wrote about my gorgeous Mammy for Mothers Day.

I OFTEN (but not too often) joke that if I ever left my husband it would not be for another man, but for my mother. I fell in love with my mother again in my early 30s and we are markedly close.

Through my 30s and 40s my mother has become a companion and friend as well as a supportive and nurturing parent. One of the things that surprises me about our relationship is how coveted it is among my friends. Not just our relationship, but my mother herself.

“I wish my mum was more like your mum.” “I wish I could talk to my mother the way you talk to yours.” “Your mum is so much fun … I wish my mum was as open-minded as yours.” And bizarrely, “I want to get your mum around so that some of her will ‘rub off ’ on my mum.”

And yet I think this says more about the attitude we have towards our mothers than it does about the mothers themselves.

My mother, while she does have exceptional qualities, is not so different from her peers as my friends perceive. It is the fact that I have made an effort to treat her as a woman and not just a mother that has allowed our, in the past, often fraught mother-daughter relationship to flourish into a deep friendship.

Throughout my teens and right up to the end of my 20s I held my mother responsible for everything that went wrong in my life: my inability to form a satisfactory relationship with a man, my bad teeth/feet/legs and fluctuating weight. I once lost my passport the night before an important business trip and rang her in the middle of my panic to blame her for being a hoarder herself and not training me to be more organised.

The biggest thing I blamed my mother for was the gap inside me that craves love. That hole which is just part of the human condition but which we try to fill with drink, or food, or sex or therapy … seeking the satisfaction of complete fulfillment which we will never find. The only love that is big enough to fill that gap is surely a mother’s love. However it’s not until you become a mother yourself that you realise the hard truth which is that no matter how big your love is for your child, ultimately they will have to make it on their own.

My turning point with my mother came when I was 31. I was staying in my mother’s house in London. I was unemployed, single and childless and my youngest sister had just become pregnant by her boyfriend. I would like to say I had conflicted feelings, but that would be too kind. I was furious and bitterly, bitterly jealous. My mother came into my room early one morning and found me howling, pounding the wall shouting, “It should have been me!”

She gathered me into her arms and comforted me. I realised then that there was no other human being on earth who would ever love me enough to sympathise with such ugly feelings. And crucially, I realised I still needed her as a mother. I made a conscious decision to let all of the past go and form a new relationship with this person. This woman who had all this love towards me: how would it be if I didn't dismiss her love as a given but took it on afresh? What would happen if, instead of the immature expectation I had always had of this cure-all love, that my mother should be able to intuit my every need otherwise she had failed, I started to ask for her love, ask for her advice? And crazier still, actually listen to it and perhaps even, from time to time, take it on board. I have traced the most successful, the happiest and the most secure days of my adult life back to the moment I started to do that.

One such occasion was in Yamamori on George’s Street in 1997. I asked her what she thought of my relatively new live-in boyfriend.

“I think you should marry him.”

I was taken aback … this was the woman who told me never to get married. Why this one? I asked.

She took me back to an incident that had occurred a few weeks before. A friend of mine from London was staying in our apartment in Dublin along with Niall and my mother. My mother and my friend were both en route to somewhere else, and I got called away for work. I was nervous about how Niall would deal with these relative strangers as none of them knew the other very well. Tragedy struck during the night when my friend got a phone call from London to say his mother, whom he lived with, had died. It was a terrible shock.

My mother described to me how Niall had handled the situation calmly, with strength, sensitivity and great compassion.

“He stayed up all night talking to the poor man, ” she said. “Now that’s the sort of person you want to be married to. And oh, ” she added, “he’s a hard worker.”

My mother had always actively discouraged her daughters from getting married, saying the institution was outdated and designed to tie women down.

What was this turnaround all about?

“I’ve changed my mind, ” she said. “I know I have always said the opposite but now I would like to see you married with a child. I can see that’s what you desperately want and I think it would make you happy so I want it for you too.”

An English journalist, slightly older than me, recently interviewed my mother and I and was astonished at the cultural differences in our respective lives.

The journalist had grown up at the same time as me, in London, but her British baby-boomer parents were living the ’60s dream. Doing the whole dope-smoking, nudie flower power pop songs thing while my mother, and her emigrant peers, were still held in the cloying, guilty grip of the Catholic church.

They wore the long flowery skirts and the platform shoes but they left the free-love principles behind. They eschewed contraception but remained loyal to wedding vows, even through being battered by alcoholic husbands, and stayed at home cooking and cleaning and minding their children because they didn’t have the confidence to avail of the education and the work opportunities now available to them. While the world around them partied, the majority of my mother’s generation of Irish emigrants spent the ’60s and ’70s picking rusk crumbs out of their Draylon-covered sofas in the London suburbs, cooking big dinners for tired husbands, feeding babies and taking their daughters to Irish dancing classes in chilly church halls.

Joan Baez was singing on their kitchen transistor about revolution. Erica Jong, The Female Eunuch, Gloria Steinem, free thinking, free love …

it seemed like everyone was free except them. The revolution was happening on their doorsteps but not in their homes, they could smell the freedom but they couldn't taste it. So they drummed into their daughters these messages of independence. “See the world, have your own money, don’t worry about getting married and having children. Any fool can get married; don’t sell yourself short.”

They bred a generation of independent career women with aching ovaries. Like Bridget Jones, it seemed finding a good husband and having children later in life was not as easy as our mothers told us it would be. For those of us who managed to squeeze it in, “having it all” became “doing it all”. As Germaine Greer recently said, “When we said we ‘wanted it all’ … it seems what we got ‘all’ of was the work.”

I think our mothers’ generation has straddled the widest gap in the culture of women’s personal and working lives than any other.

The gap between my life and my grandmother’s life is culturally colossal, yet I hope my generation does as good a job of bridging the gap between our children’s lives and our parents.

I also think my generation of women are particularly hard on our mothers. We urge them to be more liberal, more like us. And yet they have witnessed and weathered the almost complete disintegration of their value system whilst still managing to fling their daughters forward into a new era, fueling us with their dreams as well as their disappointments.

What I have discovered through my mother and her friends in the past 15 years is that these women, with a tremendous amount to offer, often lack the confidence to achieve their potential. What makes them more hard-done by than the generations before them is that liberation was within their grasp … but their arms were not long enough to reach it.

My mother could have been a novelist and the confidence she lacked to do it herself, she made sure she gave to me. That has been her gift to me as a writer: not just her encouragement and support, but her unfulfilled writer’s permission to mine her life for the stories she could have told if she had grown up in a more modern time.

The man my mother ‘chose’ for me was also sexy and funny and I was in love with him. But ultimately the foundation of the happiness I have experienced being married to him has been down to the qualities she saw in him straight away, strength of character, kindness and a powerful work ethic.

My mother isn't always right, but then, neither am I. However, she is always older and often, very often, much wiser than I am. And she loves me. Surely they are the best qualifications a good friend and mentor could have.