Letters: Dear Cathy... Love, Mary - nostalgic collection of pen pal letters between friends in Ireland 1983
Letters: Dear Cathy... Love, Mary, Catherine Conlon and Mary Phelan, Penguin, hbk, 256 pages, €19.50
Our reviewer is charmed by a nostalgic collection of pen pal letters that shed light on friendship in the 1980s against the backdrop of a nation in flux letters
Ireland, 1983 - a time when leg warmers were worn without a trace of irony, Ceefax was as digital as things got and Angel Delight was considered a major food group. It was also the age of the pen pal, when friendships were maintained or new ones forged via the now near-defunct action of putting pen to paper. In a world devoid of email, Skype, mobile phones and text messages, Irish teenagers wrote letters.
Two such scribblers were Catherine Conlon and Mary Phelan, whose back-and-forth correspondence over the course of one 12-month period is brought together in the heart-warming Dear Cathy… Love, Mary.
Childhood friends from Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, the pair reached the maturity milestone of 18 that year, finishing up at the local convent before taking their first cagey steps towards independence and adulthood.
But Ireland in 1983 was not just blighted by a penchant for shell suits and big hair, it was a country in the suffocating grip of a recession. Choices were limited for school-leavers like Catherine and Mary. In the prologue, which sets the scene for the girls' missives, Mary recalls that jobs in their local area at the time were "like hen's teeth".
In September, Mary somewhat reluctantly signs up to study accountancy in Waterford after securing an apprenticeship at a local firm in the town, while Catherine takes up an au pairing job in the tiny Brittany village that Carrick-on-Suir is twinned with. The best friends vow to write to each other while they are separated and Dear Cathy… Love, Mary represents "most of what we wrote that year, and all of what we felt".
The 27 letters, often written over the course of a few days with various interruptions stalling their flow, offer a nostalgic snapshot of life in small-town Ireland in the 1980s. Reprints of the actual letters, often penned on fancy paper or even toilet paper, are dropped in throughout the book. Mary's letters are full of the local gossip and news from the girls' former classmates, which a homesick Catherine, isolated in her new role in France, laps up with glee, even asking for "the local notes from The Munster (Express) or The (Carrick) Opinion" to be included in Mary's next letter.
They write about all the things that, to some extent, occupy the minds of teenagers through the generations: new TV shows (Dynasty and Glenroe) and the latest chart-toppers (Chris de Burgh and Kajagoogoo), their sartorial choices (bat-wing jumpers), the object(s) of their affections (all innocent crushes).
Other hot topics of conversation include the latest Macra na Feirme get-together back in Carrick, the installation of a landline in Catherine's granny's house, as well as Catherine's rapidly developing tan and newly acquired taste for snails.
But national events of 1983 interrupt the narrow focus of the girls' letter, as the big-ticket news items of the day impinge on their gossipy banter.
It was the year of the first abortion referendum and Mary writes to Catherine in her second letter: "Today is the Abortion referendum day. Every now and then a car goes past and a loudspeaker hollers, 'VOTE YES, VOTE YES, VOTE YES'... who should come along yesterday as Mam was gardening... only a friend - a sort of friend - of Martin's. She was campaigning for abortion!"
Mary also writes to Catherine about Ann Lovett, the 15-year-old Longford girl who died giving birth in a grotto in January of 1984.
The ensuing media storm and State investigation, she writes to Catherine, is "little consolation to the 15-year-old or her little son, or indeed to the next unmarried mother".
The social unrest of the early 1980s also makes its presence felt in the letters after student Mary goes on strike over medical card assessment requirements. Binding together this blend of local and national events is the girls' heart-warming friendship, a charming bond at the book's core that ensures the letters brim with the kind of humour and honest reflection that only best friends exchange. And it is a friendship that has endured to present day.
Following her year au pairing in Brittany, Catherine took a similar position in an Alpine ski resort. She never returned to live in Ireland, settling eventually on the west coast of America. The initially reluctant accountant Mary forged ahead with her career and is now head of finance at the Irish Stock Exchange in Dublin.
The pair turn 50 this year and remain the best of friends. The publication of the book, prompted by the resurfacing of the correspondence in the belongings of Mary's late mother, brought the two women back together for its recent launch - and, no doubt, a celebration of their most recent maturity milestone.