Category: Irish women

Embroidering the truth, fact and fiction in As Long as it Takes

Read individually, these stories might seem modest: each cuts its small piece of cloth and lays it out with truthfulness, understanding and warmth. But characters recur and situations illuminate one another, so that when we read them together we find ourselves inside the story of a whole community of Irish immigrants, suddenly faced, as the protagonists are, with the tellingly displaced expectations and longings of a generation of women and their legacy to the generations that succeeded them.

Susan Wicks on As Long as it Takes by Maria C. McCarthy

This week, I would have been a guest writer at the 25th Irish Writers in London Summer School. My invitation has been postponed by a year, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Who knows how long it will be until we can join with others for such literary events? It will take ‘As long as it takes’, as in the title story of my collection.

During lockdown, I have taken up an old habit – patchwork, and have been learning some embroidery stitches to patch together pieces of fabric from the scrap bag, pieces too small to make anything substantial, but too nice to throw away. It has put me in mind of a phrase my mother used to use, ‘Embroidering the truth,’ used in reference to those who exaggerate or add embellishments to a true story.

I am a daughter of Irish migrants, the middle child of five, who lived in a community of Irish people in Epsom. The central family in As Long as it Takes has five children, too, and live in Epsom. This fictional family is not my real family, the stories are not true; except for patches and fragments, half-remembered conversations, items of clothing, pieces of furniture, mirrors and mantelpieces. Stitching those in was like finding just the right slip of fabric to enhance a patchwork cloth, embroidering it into the bigger work, adding in details for colour and texture.

In the story ‘A Long as it Takes’, Joan takes centre stage; she is a peripheral character in some of the other stories. Her story is of multiple late miscarriages, of despairing of ever carrying a baby to full term. Alongside this is the impending loss of her mother, back home in Ireland. The story begins with the smashing of a fireplace by Joan’s husband, Bill. The opening sentence is, ‘The dust took months to settle.’ Bill cannot express in words what the loss of a child means to him, so he takes a sledgehammer to ‘the brown-tiled surround’ and builds a York stone fireplace. He also makes a bonfire of the cot, a symbolic act to mark that the couple have decided that they cannot put themselves through another pregnancy.

The story is set in the 1960s, when few working class households had a phone – certainly no one on the estate where I grew up had one. News to and from Ireland arrives by letter. There is a late delivery by post – a christening gown arrives from Ireland, for a baby that has not survived, and then there is a letter telling Joan that her mother is in poor health. She sets off on the boat train from Euston to Holyhead, telling her husband that she doesn’t know when she will be back: ‘A dying woman takes as long as she takes.’ The plot relies on this, people taking off for as long as they need to, and not being traceable, if they decide to disappear.

When writing the story, I got to a certain point and abandoned it. Joan suffers a breakdown after her mother’s death, gets as far as Limerick, where she is due to catch a boat train to Dun Laoghaire to return to England, and gets stuck. She can go neither forwards nor backwards. She cannot go home and face up to her loss, neither can she go back to the town where she was raised. So she stays, working in a cafe in Limerick, sleeping in a small rented room with a narrow bed and a crucifix on the wall.

Poor Joan; I didn’t know what to do with her. I worried about her from time to time, but did not know where to take the story. Like Joan, I was stuck. I waited longer than Joan did to resolve things, a full year I left it, before writing the ending. Joan, as it transpired, spent only a summer in her liminal state. Shaken out of it by a woman she met on the crossing to Ireland, now returning with her young family in time for the Autumn term. In the last scene, Joan boards the boat back to England, and drops the christening gown, which she had earlier tried to return to her mother, into the sea.

So, where do fact and fiction intertwine? Joan was the name of my mother’s best friend. She lived on the same council estate as our family, in a house with an identical layout to ours. All the houses looked like this, though some of the interiors were mirror images of their neighbour’s. All the houses had brown-tiled fireplaces to begin with, though some tenants took sledgehammers to theirs and enhanced their rooms with York stone fireplaces. When writing Joan’s story, I saw the woman I called ‘Auntie Joan’ as her physical embodiment. Fictional Joan looked like real Joan. Fictional Joan’s house was Auntie Joan’s real house. But the real Auntie Joan’s story was not one of multiple late miscarriages, of childlessness. The fact was in the physical details, the embroidering in of remembered conversations, of the fireplace in Auntie Joan’s house, of the mirror that hung in my own house. And the opening line of the story, ‘The dust took months to settle’, came from the experience of knocking out a similar fireplace in a house I came to own, in my adult life. ‘Every time I polished the furniture, it was covered again within a couple of hours, like salt sprinkled on an icy path.’

Joan’s bus journey to Limerick after her mother’s death was drawn from a bus journey I took as a child, with one of my sisters, as there was not enough room in the taxi that took the rest of the family on from Limerick to my mother’s home town in County Clare. The night crossing from Holyhead is from memories of crowded decks each summer of my childhood, ‘mothers with four, five, six children, luggage, coats and cardigans, and no men around to help.’ I remember a lone traveller, like Joan, helping my mother out on one such crossing. A stranger. I woke with my head on this woman’s lap, as she held me as I slept. The room that Joan rents in Limerick comes from a photo of a young Muriel Spark, draped across a narrow bed with a crucifix on the wall above it. Spark looks like Joan, the real Joan as I remember her in the 60s, with black hair, smoking a cigarette, an open handbag and a gaping cigarette packet on the bed.

Susan Wicks, who wrote the above endorsement for As Long as it Takes, was my tutor on the creative writing MA at the University of Kent. She looked over an early draft of the title story, and asked why Joan was so desperate to have a child? I needed to let the reader know. I thought it was obvious; it was to me. Joan was an Irish Catholic working class woman. Women like her were expected to have children, lots of them. But what was obvious to someone of my background would not be to all readers. How would I weave this in? I recalled a conversation with my mother-in-law (not Irish, but rather old-fashioned in her views). She could not understand why a woman would choose not to have children. She, like Joan, had suffered miscarriages, and her longed-for babies where very precious to her. I put my mother-in-law’s words from that conversation into the mouth of Joan’s dying mother, as Joan tries to return the christening gown, tries to tell her mother that there will be no more pregnancies.

‘I’ve brought the gown back,’ I said.

‘Ah, you’ll be needing it soon enough.’

‘No mother, I won’t.’ […]

‘Don’t be talking like that,’ she said. ‘You’ll keep trying’

‘No, Mother. Bill and I just have to accept… We can’t go through all that again.’ […]

‘You can and you will.’ […]

‘It’s a woman’s life. What else will you do if you don’t have children?’

The last line of dialogue is my mother-in-law’s paraphrased words, and perhaps the worst thing that Joan’s mother could say to her daughter, to a woman grieving for her lost babies, and about to lose her mother.

I thought that my Auntie Joan had a life that was very different from the fictional Joan’s story. She had two children and never took a leave of absence from her life in England. At Auntie Joan’s funeral in 2018, I learned that she, too, had problems with pregnancies. After her son was born, she was warned not to become pregnant again, that it would be too dangerous, to settle for the one child. But she went ahead with a second pregnancy, a girl, who became my childhood best friend. I wonder now whether I overheard something about this as a child. I had a habit of sitting with the women in the kitchen as they talked, I thought I could make myself invisible if I sat on a certain stool in the corner and stayed quiet, so the women would chat as though I wasn’t there. Like the unnamed narrator in another of my stories.

In ‘A Tea Party,’ a young child tries to make sense of things that she sees, or overhears, including seeing the character Joan burying her face in a pair of child’s shorts while helping the child’s mother with the ironing.

‘Some people have lots of babies and some have none at all, even though they like them a lot. I don’t know why God won’t let Auntie Joan have a baby. She holds Brendan really tight sometimes, and she likes to cuddle the new baby. Mum doesn’t look very happy if she holds them for too long.’

Perhaps my fiction was closer to fact than I realised.

As Long as it Takes by Maria C. McCarthy is available from Cultured Llama Publishing all the usual online stockists. It is also available as an ebook

Invicted – a guest post by SM Jenkin

I invited SM Jenkin to share her poem ‘Invicted’, as it lends itself to the theme of Little Big Steps. I know SM as Sarah – we were sister Medway Mermaids, part of a women’s writing group, and also share the experiences of being second-generation Irish women and living in the Medway Towns.

‘Invicted’ appears in her debut poetry collection Fire in the Head, published last year by Wordsmithery. It was also published in the anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, edited by Isabelle Kenyon, a fundraiser for the UK mental health charity Mind, and runner up for Best Anthology at the Saboteur Awards, 2018.

Invicted

Victory
is getting out of bed, even though
it is past noon and everyone walking past
has seen that your curtains are
still closed

Victory
is having curtains in the first place,
and a net behind them, and
space to put them up and
keeping them there

Victory
is those sharp clean teeth and that cereal
that you swallow down and keep down
and the milk that is still OK to drink,
today

Victory
is remembering that above those sharp
teeth are lips that kiss, that shape
soft words:
you are allowed

Victory
is those clothes that keep you warm,
and those matching yellow socks
that remind you of
summer beaches

Victory
is making it beyond the chipped
front door today, and staying put
when they walk past, and see
right through you

Victory
is not telling them to go
fuck themselves, because really.
Who knows what their victory looks like;
is it anything like yours?

Victory
is going to bed and staying there,
not knowing if tomorrow is going to
be a victory day and
doing it anyway

____________

Over to Sarah, to tell us how she came to write ‘Invicted’:

‘Invicted’ was written as I reached one of the lowest points of my life, a culmination of what felt like a relentless conga-line of hurt and humiliations, large and small, and a couple of major health scares. It became difficult to get out of bed, to have any kind of energy at all; I didn’t want to do anything or go anywhere. It became hard to find anything to celebrate when it seemed like everyone else was surging ahead in their lives, and posting such happy pictures online. I was isolated and not meeting anyone. My life seemed small and grey in comparison. So, to compensate, I wrote myself a checklist for myself of the things I was able to do and why this was important. It started off more as a way of reassuring myself that I was managing to do something, to remind myself that I was doing something. That, yes, getting out of bed was an achievement. Yes, staying in the outside world once you managed to get there was an achievement. Yes, now that you’ve seen this you can celebrate and recognise that this is, after all, a common and shared life experience. That we do not know what other people’s victories look like.

I wrote that poem because shaping the words helped me to shape my understanding, and how important it is to recognise those small steps of achievement. Writing that poem became an achievement for me, and sometimes, when the bad days return, I can say to myself, Victory is getting out of bed. There’s still a hangover that any talk about weakness is not the done thing. I’m a poet. I’m not always going to stick to the done thing, especially now.

It was important to me to make a reference to HMS Victory, the ship built at Chatham dockyard, where my dad worked.

It feels to me that there is still a macho hangover in some parts of Medway. An idea that a victory is something that has a very narrow definition,  only applying to “wins” such as a conflict (large or small), a business win, a football match.  I wanted to explore and expand that definition for myself. That winning mindset is hard to shake off.

SM Jenkin is a second-generation Irish writer, a lover of science fiction and an editorial advisor for Confluence magazine. A former chair of the Medway Mermaids writing group, chair and founder member of the Medway St Patrick’s day committee, SM Jenkin is a regular performer on the Kent Live Lit scene. She has performed internationally, and has been published in numerous literary anthologies and magazines. Her debut poetry collection Fire in the Head was published by Wordsmithery in 2018.

Social media: @sajenks42  https://www.facebook.com/SMJenkinWriter

Leaving and going back

 

9780992648510-Perfect-MH-cropped-FRONT-COVER-with-outer-edgeLeave-taking was not dealt with well, when my mother left Ireland for England, carrying a suitcase bearing two of everything. When one of many leaves, are they missed? Or was it one less soul to worry about when she, the eldest of fourteen, left?

My own leave-taking was dealt with badly. I remember my bags piled in the hall, awaiting an uncle to drive me to the halls of residence. My mum and dad were not there, and I don’t recall any of my siblings saying goodbye in a way any different to if I was going out for an evening.

I think my mother couldn’t cope with me leaving, so avoided it. Every time I came home for a weekend, I would leave on a Sunday evening, and she would be sitting in her chair, watching telly, unable to see me leave or wish me well with my life away from home. She did not know how to say goodbye, nor did she know how to grieve, or to teach any of us how to do so. Funerals back home in Ireland were not attended, even that of her own mother, and the pain was held within.

For the Irish that made that brave journey from their homeland to England, in the 1940s, 50s and beyond, their travelling often ended where they landed. For my parents, they landed in Epsom, where jobs awaited, and stayed there. So did many of their fellow countrymen and women. So, many of the Irish friends and neighbours I knew as a child are yet living in the same houses as they were  50 or 60 years ago. Now they leave in wooden boxes, set for their last Mass at St Joseph’s church, and on to be buried, as is not the fashion these days, but that is what Irish Catholics of that generation did and do. They bury and are buried, the mourners wear black, and the coffin is borne on the shoulders of the men of the next generation, or the generation below them.

So it was with my Auntie Joan a few days ago – come to Epsom from Valencia in Co. Kerry in the early 1950s, she met and married a man from Sligo, Jack, who knew my dad. In turn, Joan and my mother became friends, and we always thought of Joan and Jack as relatives.

Joan arrived in church last Friday, carried by men that included one of my brothers,  to the sound of my other brother playing ‘Danny Boy’ on the violin – a song of leave-taking.

I saw a group of Irish women in a pub in Margate two years ago. I tuned in to their voices, watched their eighty-plus-year-old heads, dyed black and red. The conversation never lagged. They spoke of parish priests, of sick friends, of those that came on the outing last year, but had taken their leave in the past twelve months. They were from an Irish club somewhere in London. They said the younger Irish don’t come along to their club, to their annual trip, where they lunch at the same pub each year. I could see that their outing would not happen in five or six years time. They would all have taken their leave.

And so it is with that generation of Irish parents, uncles, aunts and neighbours. Taking their leave, depleting the ranks of the Irish that arrived in the middle of the last century. Soon, we will be the older generation, that second generation of children born in England to Irish parents. Left to tell the stories that were told to us, or to write them down in books, as I have done.

I lived in Epsom for the first third of my life, and returned regularly for the second third. The past third has been a time of illness, for me, and a rift with some of my family. For reasons too intimate to go into here, I vowed not to return to that ‘home’, where my mother and eldest brother still live. But never isn’t always forever, and I returned to the town, if not the house I grew up in, for Joan’s funeral a few days ago. Things seemed smaller than I remembered; the town had changed. Yet I was recognised immediately as I entered the church, as ‘a McCarthy’, and was soon caught up in childhood memories at the wake, and in meeting some old friends that I hadn’t seen since I left home at nineteen.

My mother is frail now, and showing signs of dementia. Her time on this earth is not long. Many of her younger siblings have gone, and now her best friend, Joan.

It took me a long time to leave home in my head, in my being – many years after my physical leave-taking. For my mother and Joan, for my father and Jack, they settled in a foreign country, yet always remained Irish. I don’t where I really belong; I never have. But I have been back and settled a place in my mind that has loomed large for all my life.

My story collection, As Long as it Takes, is about Irish women and their daughters living in England. I asked Maggie Drury to draw me an image of two women linking arms for the book cover. These women could be Mary, my mother, and Joan, her best friend.

Footnote: My mother died a few weeks after her friend, Joan. Mary Catherine O’Halloran McCarthy, born 29 June 1931 in Ennistymon Co Clare, Died 2 March 2018 at a hospital near her home in Epsom.

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