Bernadette's latest novel Why Do We Have to Live with Men is out now. Look out for our review coming later this week!
Am I properly Irish? This was a hot topic amongst my cousins while I was growing up. They were, they insisted, 'proper', having been born in Ireland. I was some sort of hybrid, a London-born and raised pretender. I had a mental image of myself in a bowler hat and an Irish Dancing costume.
Now that I'm all grown up, I know I'm the real thing. My genetic material is 100% Irish, and you can't buck those genes. They are rampant, un-ignorable and they force you to see the funny side of everything. And the sad, making me weep uncontrollably at country music, films involving dying animals, old men in the supermarket with ready meals for one in their baskets … the list is endless.
Even when my subject matter isn't Irish, I write with a Celtic eye. I like idiosyncrasies, the little
quirks that mark people out as individuals. Of course, I have to be careful: ladle on too many quirks and you have a character who is unsympathetically irritating. Growing up in a family where everybody was larger than life (even the quiet ones managed to be quieter than other quiet people) means I have a high tolerance for eccentricity, and have to rein my characters in at times.
I find inspiration in my family, but if I was brave enough to write about them in their unexpurgated glory nobody would believe it. So, I iron out their kinks a little.
My grandmother, a typically stoic and terrifying Irish matriarch who brought up eleven hundred* children on tuppence a week in post-civil war Dublin often springs to mind when I'm writing.
Her nickname (the Irish are keen on nicknames – one of my aunts has four and answers to all of them, but not to her real name) was 'Baby', a moniker that endured in to her old age. Baby was the essence of kindness, often going without in order to lend money to some fellow tenement dweller with a sob story, yet had the unyielding fervour of a hanging judge when discussing moral issues. There were many of these. In Baby's eyes it was immoral to sit in a parked car with a man, or wear lipstick, or fart on a sunday: she was a strict woman.
Baby's turn of phrase was memorable. She had a way of making the mundane funny, but her real talent was for insults. The Irish are brilliant at abuse. My Grandmother once told a snooty, queue jumping woman wearing a hat decorated with wax fruit to “go home and eat your hat”. She referred to the woman next door, who was cursed with alopecia, “Nine Hairs”, and a bandy-legged grandchild was christened “Earwig”. We couldn't help laughing, even though we knew she was cruel.
Perhaps that kind of acidity is an urban phenomenon. My Father's family are from the west, where the rain makes the grass a neon emerald, and breeds people of few words. The landscape there is unescapable, looming and wide and crammed with poetry.
When I think of the west of Ireland, I think of soft colours and hazy textures, always damp but always breathing with the ghosts of the past. It's very pagan, despite the country's maniacal Catholicism. You can hear the beat of the old music in the trees.
If I'm going all dewy eyed, forgive me! The Irish, along with a love of words and tendency to scrap, are all nostalgic for the auld country, even if they weren't actually born there.