It’s the most wonderful time of the year: leaves are falling, the air is crisp and cool, salted caramel mocha is back at Starbucks and NaNoWriMo – that crazy challenge where participants attempt to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November – is less than a week away.
I’m participating, of course. Since I caught the NaNo bug in 2011, I’ve only missed it twice: in 2012, when I was too overwhelmed taking care of then four-month-old Lillian, and last year, when I was writing my undergraduate thesis. NaNo is my favourite time of year. It’s one month when I’m ‘allowed’ to put writing first; one month where I can put aside perfection and focus on just getting words onto a page.
Getting words onto a page is something that, lately, I’ve been struggling with. In truth, I haven’t written in a long time. Being in Seattle inspired me, and I was able to tackle some tricky scenes and flesh out my fictional city with real-life detail, but since then… Nada. The writing bug hasn’t completely gone, but it’s sleeping. Dormant, even. I prod and poke at it and can’t get it to wake.
After struggling with writer’s block for months, I decided to put aside 90s Seattle, temporarily, and return to “my Irish novel”, The Fenian’s Daughter. The thesis I wrote last year explored the relationship between the British Army and the Catholic community of Northern Ireland: how an initial welcome and cautious friendship deteriorated into hatred and thirty years of war. Through my research I learned so much about the conflict and the complex Army-Catholic relationship, I’ve been itching to work this new understanding into my novel. More than that, I wanted an authentic ‘Irish voice’. With more free time now I’ve graduated, I’ve been reading books set in Northern Ireland or written by Northern Irish writers. I found a delightful memoir series and devoured it, highlighting distinctly Northern Irish expressions and quirky turns of phrase, going back and forth between reading and editing. The writing bug awoke. Entire passages of The Fenian’s Daughter haven’t been ‘edited’ so much as completely re-written. As I kept editing, kept writing, ideas for a sequel began to form. I was content to let these ideas slowly brew, to ease slowly back into writing, and I completely lost track of time.
Then I realised – oh, feck. NaNoWriMo is… SOON.
So here we are. NaNo is six days away, and I have nothing resembling a plot for my project and sequel. It’s not unusual for me to wing it as I go, but not to this extent: I’m starting without even the bare bones; nothing more than a vague direction I want the novel to go in. Add longstanding writer’s block to the mix, and I’m worried this year NaNo will be a disaster. Before the madness begins, I wanted to share something I’ve been working on: The Fenian’s Daughter. version 3.0, edited, and hopefully improved. For this long-overdue Fiction Friday, you get the whole first chapter.
I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed (no, really, I have!) poring over it with a the Red Pen of Doom and a fine-toothed comb.
9th August, 1969
I ran a comb through my hair, desperately trying to fix the mess I’d made. On Brigitte Bardot a beehive looked effortless and classy; on me, it looked more like I’d fought a hedge and lost. I’d used half a can of Harmony hair spray to hold it in place, so whether I liked it or not, I was stuck with my lopsided, crunchy hair. I tamed the flyaway blonde strands as best I could and forced them into submission with another coat of sticky hair spray. At least my hair wouldn’t come undone if I chose to dance. In fact, I doubted it could move at all.
The fumes from the hairspray were overwhelming in my small bedroom, so I went into the sitting room to do my makeup in the spotted old mirror above the fireplace. To my delight, Dad was upstairs and Mam was in the kitchen cooking dinner – I had the room, and the record player, to myself.
But the moment Ringo Starr sang ‘In the town where I was born’ Dad stomped on the floor of their bedroom above me, shouting at me to “turn off that bloody racket”.
I scowled and turned the music down, so only I could hear Yellow Submarine as I smothered my lashes with mascara. It wasn’t fair. I loved The Beatles, so I did, but Dad called them “wee hippie English bastards” and griped every time I put them on. Never mind that when Help Yourself came out he played it non-stop for weeks, and Tom Jones wasn’t Irish either.
Mam poked her head through the door between the kitchen and sitting room.
“Tea’s ready anyway, love,” she said gently. “Call yer Da.”
I shouted for Dad from the downstairs landing, and took my seat at the table. It was spread with potatoes fresh from the garden, tinned peas, and yesterday’s leftover ham. I tried to sneak a slice but Mam slapped my hand away.
“Wait for yer father.”
Dad came down the stairs grumbling and stomping, in an awful mood since this morning. It was the third day in a row he’d gone down to the docks at the scrake of dawn, carrying with him a tin lunch box containing two cheese sandwiches and a Thermos of tea, only to return home immediately with a full lunch box and empty pockets. Money was tight; we needed good days, when the foreman picked him out of the queue of desperate men and he came home with a wage.
He sank into his chair with an angry frown deepening the furrows in his face. Mam filled everyone’s plates, Dad brought his hands together in prayer, and we followed suit.
“Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen,” he said – the traditional prayer he spoke before every meal. Mam and I said amen in unison, and we tucked into our meal without speaking. Mam often said that silence at the dinner table was a sign of good food, or hungry people: in our house, it meant both.
After a while, Mam playfully jabbed me with her fork. “Look like Marilyn Monroe with that big blonde thatch, so you do,” she said, smiling.
“Mam!” I blushed something fierce. With my dishwater blonde hair and scrawny physique, I was nothing at all like Marilyn; to pretend otherwise was just embarrassing. Besides, Marilyn’s big Old Hollywood curls were falling out of style now, and not the look I was going for.
My parents had an old wind-up clock, inherited from Mam’s parents, which chimed a little tune four times an hour. It struck quarter to seven and I scoffed my food faster.
“Slow down and enjoy yer food while yeh can get it,” Dad barked.
“Och, Mick, leave her be, Mary’ll be along any minute.”
I was grateful to my mother, and not just because my best friend might indeed arrive any minute so we could walk to the disco together. Mam had cut Dad off before he launched into one of his customary rants about all the children of out-of-work Catholics who were starving in slums, while inside the city walls, Protestant children grew fat. Recent events had made him more volatile than ever: the recent death of one of our fellow Catholics at the hands of the exclusively Protestant police was fresh on his mind, fanning the coals of his hatred for the police, the British government, and all things English.
The knock at the door came before I’d finished eating.
“Finish yer food,” Dad said, “I’ll get it.”
I heard muffled greetings and “how’s your mam and da?” in the hall.
Mam leaned in conspiratorially close and whispered in my ear, “Is she still with that Ruairi from on down the road?”
“Aye, for the now.” Poor Ruairi from on down the road. Mam had to ask, because Mary had broken up and reunited with him so many times over the past year that we’d all lost count.
Mam smiled, pleased with this news. “Mary’s a lovely lass, so she is, but got a bit of wild about her. Maybe a wee good-livin’ boy like Ruairi is just what she needs to settle down.”
“Mmmm,” I said, and took a sip of Ribena to hide the growing smile on my face. The very idea that a ‘wee good-livin’ boy’ could tame ‘wild’ Mary… I bit back laughter. She’d get a kick out of that one.
Mary came in from the hall wearing a maroon jumper dress that finished halfway up her thigh. This sort of thing was the ‘bit of wild in her’, I supposed. Her glamour made me feel incredibly scruffy in my jeans and mustard yellow blouse.
“Evenin’, Mrs Heaney,” she said, smiling at my mother.
“Evenin’, Mary. How’s your mam and da?”
“Aye, they’s well, ta.”
“Moira’s just finishin’ her tea. Will you have a plate?”
“Naw, thanks, Mrs Heaney, we just had our pastie supper.” Mary patted her stomach and looked my way. She stared at my hair.
“What?” I said, defensive.
“You look like you got a bird’s nest on yer head.”
I put down my knife and fork with a dramatic clatter to show her my indignation – also because I’d finished my food, but mostly because I was right irritated by that remark, I was. My hurt feelings recovered once we got halfway down the road and Mary opened her palm to reveal two sixpence.
“Here, Da gave me one fer you. Says times is hard.”
I pocketed it gratefully, my mind immediately turning to the tuck shop’s sweetie mice. “Tell him ta from me.”
“Will do.” She glanced again at my hair and sighed. “C’mon, if we hurry we might have time fer me to fix that thatch before Eamon sees you.”
My face reddened again, this time at the thought of seeing Eamon Leary. I’d first taken a fancy to him a year ago, when we were only thirteen. He was tall, with dimples and icy blue eyes and his blond hair shone butter-yellow in the sun. He played proper Gaelic Football and was named after Eamon de Valera – he was about as Irish as a person could be, which I knew would please my parents when one day I introduced him as my very own boyfriend. It was true love, it was; he just didn’t know it yet.
No one really danced at the youth club discos, except some of the wee ones who were too young to care that the music was all oldies from the 50s or that the DJ was usually one of our teachers from school. The appeal of the disco was that Catholic boys and girls, who attended separate schools, could come together under one roof, packed like sardines into a club room that reeked of Brut, Harmony hair spray, and sweat. Sometimes you could even sneak off to the bogs to swig lukewarm gin or vodka that someone had smuggled in disguised as squash. Mary dragged me in there immediately and sure enough, already a wee lass was hurling into the toilet while a friend held her hair back. Mary tutted with disapproval, as if she’d never boked at a youth club disco.
“C’mere,” she said, pulling me towards the mirror and standing me in front of it like I was at the hairdresser’s. She tutted again at my crooked beehive, laying her hands on it to adjust it. “Christ, it’s rock hard, so it is.”
This sort of language was another ‘bit of wild’ in Mary.
She forcefully tugged at the hair near my temples, pulling some of it from its beehive prison. The loose strands were rigid and crunchy and stuck out to the side of my head instead of elegantly falling, but I had to admit it still softened the overall look. Mary was just attempting to curl the strands with wet fingers when some older girls barged into the toilets and we were shoved aside.
“C’mere till I tell ye,” said one of the girls, as they all crowded around the mirror to apply their lipstick. “D’ya hear about Susan Murray? She’s pregnant, she is.”
“No!” said one of her friends.
“Ain’t her mammy pregnant and all?” asked another.
Mary’s ears pricked up. It didn’t matter one bit that we didn’t know Susan Murray or her pregnant mammy – a love for gossip was another thing that made Mary a ‘bit wild’.
“Aye,” said the first girl. “Eight weans at home already, and now two more on the way.”
“Where’ll they put them all?”
“Aye, they’ve only got the two rooms!”
“Come on, let’s go find the boys,” I said, grabbing my best friend by the elbow. There was nothing remarkable about a family of ten, soon to be twelve, sharing a two-bedroom house. That was the norm in Catholic Derry – if anything it was the one-child families like mine or Mary’s which were rare and gossip-worthy. In the hall, the DJ was playing a slow one. The dance floor was empty and the boys and girls of the youth club stood up against the wall on opposite sides of the room, as they always did for sappy love songs. I scanned the crowd of boys but couldn’t see Ruairi or Eamon anywhere.
“There!” said Mary, pointing towards the tuck shop. Ruairi was munching on a packet of crisps. Eamon had his back to us, but I already knew he looked handsome as all get out in his corduroys and striped brown jumper. We crossed the empty dance floor to greet the boys.
Seeing his beloved, Ruairi hastily scoffed the last of his crisps and wiped his fingers on his jeans.
“Bout ye?” he said, leaning in towards her for a kiss.
Mary grimaced. “Back off, ya reek of cheese and onion.” She extended a cheek for him to kiss instead. “Bout ye, Eamon?”
“Bout ye, Mary? Moira?”
I was so preoccupied thinking that I’d let Eamon kiss me even if he smelled of Tayto cheese and onion crisps that it took me a moment to realise he’d said my name.
“Aye, grand,” I said. “Bout ye?”
The slow song faded into another crooning ballad. Not one of Derry’s Catholic youth was dancing, even the little ones or the loved-up Mary and Ruairi.
“Music’s shite tonight,” said Ruairi.
“Aye,” we said in unison.
I said, “Wish he’d play something like Twist and Shout.”
“Beatles’re shite,” said Ruairi, who thought a lot of things were ‘shite’, “Like everything else from England.”
Eamon shrugged. “I dunno, I like the Stones.”
Unsurprisingly, Ruairi’s opinion of The Rolling Stones was that they were shite, too. He and Mary began to bicker about things which were and weren’t shite, while the song changed to Johnny Cash. I wondered if I should admit I liked some of his music just to give them something to agree on – they’d tease me mercilessly and forget all about their little squabble. But just as I was about to speak up, Eamon turned to me like he was going to ask me something. It hadn’t slipped my notice that some of the youth club were dancing now. He held out his hand and I looked deep into his eyes.
“D’you want an Opal Fruit?”
“Oh!” I hit a reddener and knew it showed, what with me being so pale and all. Even though he could surely see me blushing, Eamon smiled when I took a sweetie from his extended palm.
It was true love, so it was.
10th August, 1969
I woke at seven a.m., as tired as if my head had just hit the pillow moments before. In the kitchen, Mam was humming to herself as she pressed Dad’s shirt with her rusty old iron. Her brown hair was as she’d slept in it: in rollers, wrapped in a silk kerchief – even though she covered her head for mass, Mam hadn’t had straight hair a day of her life. Dad was polishing his shoes, his hands just as leathery as his brogues. His only church shoes had been patched and repaired so many times that there was more new material than old; the hands, missing a few fingers, he could not fix.
“Morning,” he said in my direction.
I yawned, stretching out my arms. “Morning.”
“Tea, love?” Mam asked, just as the kettle began to whistle on the stove.
On the wireless, a monotonous voice read the news from the US, where Afro-Americans were campaigning for civil rights. Dad listened intently. In Martin Luther King, Dad and many others saw a fellow Christian fighting a peaceful war against oppression; while in two-up-two-down houses crammed full with a dozen or more, pictures of President Kennedy hung on the walls as a reminder that Irish Catholics could hold the highest office of the land in some parts of the world, even if here on our own soil we couldn’t even get jobs or housing. There were many tears throughout Northern Ireland when Kennedy was shot. When they killed Dr King, even Dad shed a tear.
My stomach growling, I set about slicing Veda bread, wishing for bacon and eggs, but a full breakfast before Mass would have been improper. We were supposed to receive Communion on empty stomachs – our meagre breakfast of sweet bread and tea was just enough to stave off the hunger pangs and loud protests from our stomachs until we were back home. I bowed my head over my loaded plate in silent grace as Mam placed a mug of tea before me. “Ta.”
“I starched yer dress and it’s ready, hanging up in our room,” she said. She glanced furtively at the clock on the wall behind her. “Mick, shine my shoes, will ye?”
Dad grunted his response. A lifetime of waking early every day for work or for church had not turned him into a morning person – it was probably the one thing we had in common. Mam finished the ironing and went upstairs to do her makeup: just a bit of mascara on her long lashes, and a dot of pomade on her brows. She would pinch her cheeks to make them flush; said she didn’t like to wear rouge in church.
Twenty minutes later, the Heaney family made its way to Saint Columba’s Church, Long Tower, me falling a step behind as I faffed with the stiff collar of my dress, and held my hat down against the wind.
Small acts of reverence came to us as naturally as breathing. We dipped our fingers in Holy Water, crossed ourselves; we genuflected in the direction of the massive altar; in the pew, we dropped to our knees in prayer before Mass began. Ritual defined us. Yet even though I’d attended the same church all my life, the beauty of Saint Columba’s took my breath away every week.
It was an enormous chapel, resplendent with colour. Hundreds of candles flickered softly in gold candelabra; high above parishioners’ heads, the gold ceiling was intricately carved. Oil paintings and marble statues decorated the walls; stained glass windows lit up in a blaze of colour when the sun hit them. There were two floors of wooden pews, a ground floor and a grand balcony above, all facing the altar, which itself was simple and covered with a white cloth – but behind it, four massive columns framed enormous murals of Christ’s ascension; above that, the words “GLORY BE TO GOD ON HIGH” shone in gold lettering. Further above, reaching all the way to the ceiling, was a replica of The Last Supper. I loved our church. It brought me tremendous comfort to be here among the congregation, and to hear Father Doherty’s sermons every week.
There is nothing quite like the sight of hundreds of Catholics, starched and pressed in their finest clothes, filling the cavernous church at Long Tower. Most families took up entire pews. The Learys, in a pew near the front, were ten in number: had I been able to do so discreetly I’d have craned my neck to catch a glimpse of Eamon. The Duggans were one fewer now that their eldest daughter had married and moved in with her in-laws, but still numbered six. My own family of three looked lonely by comparison.
Dad went to the votive rack to pray for his departed parents and Mary slid in beside me.
“Got some news,” she whispered.
Mary always had news.
“Ruairi and I broke up last night.”
“Is it because of last night? Because he thinks everything’s…?” I trailed off. I wouldn’t dare say “shite” in church.
“Naw, he’s been doing my head in since Theresa got married.”
I cautioned a glance at the Duggans, as if I might see Ruairi branded with the word ‘DUMPED’.
“He’s bloody miserable. All he does is moan about not having a job, about sharing a room.”
“Maybe he’s dropping hints. Maybe he wants to get married and move in with you.”
Mary giggled; setting me off, too. It earned me a soft rap on the back of the head from Dad, returning to our pew.
“Moira Heaney. Mary Flanagan,” he said, “Catch yerselves on, church is no place fer gossip. Mary, g’wan back to your Mam, now.”
“Yes, sir,” Mary said, and no sooner had she sat down in her own pew she was up again, as organ music swelled around the chapel and everyone rose to their feet with their hymn books open.
Though we’d laughed at his expense, I couldn’t fault Ruairi for his sudden melancholy state. The majesty of our church and the finery worn by its parishioners suggested wealth and prosperity that we would never attain: look carefully at Derry Catholics in their Sunday best, and you might find skirts that had been re-hemmed more than once; hand-me-down trousers carefully patched; shoes with holes in the sole. We spent every Sunday morning in God’s house, an enormous temple bedecked with crimson and shining gold; splendid enough to rival any great church in Rome. Then once Mass was over, we returned to our slum houses where the contents of your neighbour’s toilet might back up into your own; where children lay three in a bed, six in a room; where pantries were empty and pockets emptier still.
There was another church in Derry dedicated to Saint Columba. I’d been to Saint Columb’s Cathedral, the great bastion of Protestant worship nestled within the city walls. I thought it far less welcoming than our church – all cold grey stone and British insignia – but above its altar stood the same God as ours.
Yet the Protestants returned from Sunday service to homes that they owned, where no one shared a room. The adults woke on weekday mornings and went to work; the children to school. When they applied for jobs, they weren’t rejected on the basis of a name that was too Papal; a school named after a Saint.
One God; two faiths.
One half of us walled out.