Mini-Farming and Writing Irish Stories

My ancestors hail from the Emerald Isle, but we weren’t your typical Irish-American family. Mom was a lapsed Catholic, Dad’s folks had gone Protestant a couple of generations back, and he was a teetotaler to boot. And not one of us kids took step-dancing lessons. True, I was attuned to the Celtic vibe, but Scotland, not Ireland, was my thing. When I was seven, my dad went to Edinburgh on some kind of fellowship, and brought back a doll for me, resplendent in Highland attire. Really, this lassie made Barbie pale in comparison. Dad also brought home a record of Scottish reels, which had me prancing around the house in my best try at a Highland fling. Then, when I turned twelve, I discovered Sean Connery and his Scottish brogue. For me, it was Scotland Forever!

Around the time I was mooning over Sean, I deserted my repeated readings of the “Little House” books and Little Women for something a bit racier: Gone with the Wind. Scarlett and Rhett, Margaret Mitchell’s unforgettable Irish-American hero and heroine, had given me something new to swoon over. Suddenly, I thought it was totally cool that I was Irish on both sides of the family.

Fast forward twenty years…I started my first piece of creative writing ever, a novel. It was a romance with a tortured hero and a haunted heroine, who happened to be Irish-American. After finishing the book, I continued to write love stories, each one darker and angstier than the last, but I hadn’t quite found my groove. Then came my real Irish revelation.

Not long after I remarried—to a guy who had Irish ancestors too!—I stumbled upon Maeve Binchy’s novels, and couldn’t get enough of her Irish voice. The same year, my daughter and mom visited Ireland, including a brief sojourn in County Monaghan, where Mom’s people are from. They came back with a treasure trove of photos, guidebooks, and Irish knickknacks, and Ireland was back on my radar screen in a big way. Soon after, I went to see Edna O’Brien, the famed Irish writer, at the local bookstore, and she spoke of the “vast, ancestral loneliness” of the Irish. I would have written off the phrase off as writerly affectation, but it actually struck close to home: my dad was a man who craved solitude, the kind who “keeps himself to himself.”

Well, it was a Perfect Storm of Irishness. But the true tipping point was the evening I was listening to “Thistle and Shamrock” on the radio. As an Irish tune came on the air, a mournful ballad about the sorrows of emigration, tears came to my eyes, and I got a shiver up my spine. These were my people in the song. Could there be an Irish voice inside me?

They say you should write what you want to read, and it was getting awfully hard to wait a year between Maeve Binchy’s novels. I decided to write the Irish stories I longed for, about love and family and what it means to be Irish.

By now, I’d written five novels, but my Inner Irish Girl was finally getting kinda tired of dark stuff. Then came Marian…Keyes, that is. This Irish author’s novels about brave, funny young Irish women bumbling their way through relationships and life were just as wonderful as Binchys’. I discovered a new, more lighthearted Irish voice inside me, writing comedy-drama instead of melodrama. For this fiction “reboot,” I created Aislin (pronounced “Ash-lin”), a klutzy single mom heroine, and the little Irish village of Ballydara, in the West of Ireland. It Only Takes Once was born.

A year later, I completed Mother Love, a second Irish novel about love, friendship, and family, when my husband and I upended our lives. Lifelong city-dwellers, we sold our home and moved to a rural acreage to live a slower, more self-sufficient life. Well, if trying to get a homestead started doesn’t interrupt your writing, then you’re doing something wrong. Working Berryridge Farm was my new life, a very absorbing one, and I took an extended time-out from novel-writing.

Immersing myself in food-growing was satisfying…But as much as I enjoyed trying to emulate my beloved Laura Ingalls’ early life, after a year and a half, I was hungry to write fiction again. But out of practice, I developed a near-terminal case of writer’s block. Desperate to write something, anything, I began scribbling about our homesteading experiences, and within a few weeks, I’d written another kind of book, a memoir: Little Farm in the Foothills. After launching Whitethorn Press, I published Little Farm in 2009.

These days, I’m cogitating on another Irish novel, but actively working on short stories, as befitting my short writing attention span. After fifteen years of steeping myself in all things Irish—books and films, travel articles, recipes, slang, politics and culture, of course my stories are Irish. Look for more in 2012 when I release a collection of short fiction and memoir, From Berryridge to Ballydara: Irish Stories.