Sandstone Press

'My mother left Ireland with only a hat-box after poisoning her mother’s geese.'

This was the place. Across the field and into the graveyard beside the ruined chapel under the white hawthorn, where my grandparents were buried in an unmarked grave in Tipperary. Had there been a gravestone, the least it might have recorded would have been that John and Kate Kavanagh were born in the 1870s and died in the mid-1940s. I didn’t know much more than that myself.

I was born and lived my adult life in England, only child of an English father and an Irish mother. Much of my life as a writer had been spent in television and many of my screenplays were adaptations of 19th-century classic novels – Austen, Eliot, Wharton – work based on massive amounts of someone else’s fictional material. It was work I’d enjoyed, but television drama had changed and so had I. Now I was after something different, something entirely my own. I was determined to write about my mother and about Ireland.

I was to deal in facts. But, ironically, I had so little to go on. I knew she had travelled from Ireland alone on a ferry boat carrying only a hat-box, having left home in a hurry after poisoning her mother’s geese. A few such vivid images were all she’d given me. Not until my mother was already an old woman did we at last take the opportunity to spend time alone together and, slowly, she began to tell me more. Then, unexpectedly, she died. I felt robbed, not just of her, but of her story. The past, come tantalisingly close, vanished. Not just my mother’s past but part of my own: when I was 19, and unmarried, my mother discovered I had ended an unwanted pregnancy. A rift, never entirely healed, opened up between us. So, after her death, I went back to Tipperary, to where my mother was born and my grandparents were buried, to begin a journey of discovery. A journey without a map.

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I had no written records: no letters, no diaries, no photographs, only the faint trail left by my mother’s memory. I used nothing from the internet.

I wanted to walk the same earth, look at the same views, hear the same voices as the young Agnes Kavanagh. I began the long process of checking local public records, researching in local libraries and tracing those who had known the family; amongst others, I found the little girl (now a woman in her 80s) my mother had described taking to school in the donkey-cart with her and her sisters. I was after more than just the “bare facts” – I wanted my book to tell a true story whilst having the qualities of fiction

But there were “bare facts” to be discovered. In Nenagh Registrar’s Office I was given a copy of my mother’s birth certificate, “signed” with my grandfather’s mark, an “X”. He was illiterate. And Agnes’s place of birth was somewhere she’d never spoken of : a tiny workman’s cottage in Clashnevin. Three rooms for a family of 11. At this point I began to wake from the charm of my mother’s childhood narrative to see, not through it – she’d told me no lies – but behind it, to the many things she hadn’t told me.

As a fiction writer I might have hesitated to use such cliches, but the truth has absolute authority and these were the facts of my family history: poverty, an arranged marriage, an alcoholic brother, the birth and fostering of an illegitimate child. Just as compelling were the facts of Irish history which formed the backdrop to their lives. And for me the journey of discovery was thrilling. Ireland filled my eyes and my heart. But how to shape all this into a satisfying, living whole?

It was when I was first shown the Borrisokane Parish records and saw the date of my great-grandmother’s birth, July 1845, the height of the Great Famine, I knew I had my starting point. How had the Kavanaghs come through catastrophe and gone on to flourish?

What I found was that they had exploited every possible small advantage, including, I’m afraid, taking advantage of less fortunate neighbours. The next generation – my grandparents – went on to live with the tribulations of life as poor itinerant labourers and the birth of nine children. Better times did come, when they settled in the house my mother had recalled and which they gradually filled with the signs of relative prosperity – but so too did the war with England, Ireland’s ambiguous independence, the bitter Civil War, depression and, finally, the emigration to England of all the Kavanaghs’ children save one, my Uncle Pat.

Agnes was the last to leave. She travelled, with her hat-box – though it contained no hats – to Sussex where she worked as cook in a “Big House” and on the eve of the second World War she married a young English soldier. My life was to be a world away from her own: after the war our small family moved to Egypt, to Cyprus, to Malaya, and as we did so – as if following Ireland’s example – the British Empire fell about our ears.

I was educated privately and, as a young woman in the ’60s, I went to London University, married an actor, lived a privileged and exciting life. It was in many ways – if not all! – the life my mother had wanted for me. She went back to Ireland only once, in the late ’80s. A whole world of hidden things lay between us and I guessed that somewhere in that world lay the key to why she had left home, and to her explosive reaction to my youthful pregnancy. I was right.

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In recreating my mother’s youth I grabbed hold of every fact I could find. Where there were none, I gathered every nuance of probability and tested it again and again, against my mother’s voice, against the experience of her contemporaries and against my own. A down-to-earth example: when my grandparents died, Pat had no right in the house or the land where he’d lived and worked for so long. A neighbour told me she believed Pat had auctioned off the contents. In the memoir I describe the scene and list the things I imagined my uncle might have set out for sale. Just a few weeks ago I found confirmation in the Nenagh Guardian, July 7th, 1945.

An act of imagination had found its mark.

In a time of information overload, acts of imagination on the part of both writers and readers are needed to keep the past and even the present fully alive. Meaning comes from connection, from the community of bodies and minds. This is the place. Under the white hawthorn. Now when I stand here I see so much more than a missing gravestone where the bare facts of birth and death might have been recorded. I see a whole world.


Originally posted in The Irish Times, 17th August 2016