Life

Thursday 18 September 2014

Bondings: Like mother, like daughter for Muriel Bolger and daughter

They may have some opposing views, but writer Muriel Bolger and daughter Jillian agree on what really matters

Published 17/08/2014 | 00:00

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Muriel Bolger was horrified when her daugher had dreadlocks and wore fishnet tights and Doc Martens. Photo: David Conachy.

'There is a lovely openness about Mum, and she gives great advice, which I don't always take, but I always value her opinion," says Jillian Bolger. "We have different opinions on style, and Mum's opinion isn't always contemporary, but we are both high-energy, opinionated chatterboxes. Throw my two brothers in the mix, and Sunday dinners are never boring, as we all have far too much to say."

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Jillian's mum is author and journalist, Muriel Bolger, and the pair are very funny together. Praising one minute, criticising the next, with lots of teasing and eye-rolling going on in between. Much like most mothers and daughters really, although it's clear that this pair have a close bond, partly because they work in the same industry.

Jillian comes in the middle of Muriel's three children, and her mum admits to being far more conservative than her daughter when growing up on Dublin's South Circular Road. She came in the middle of Kevin and Elizabeth Flanagan's three children, and she picked up skills from her dad's home decorating business that enabled her to do her own decorating later on. Her mum was a very talented dressmaker, who made all of their clothes and loved painting with the children.

"I was a very happy child," she says. "I wasn't reaching for the moon and took life as it came. I was a very safe teenager, like most of my generation, and only went to my first dance the year of my Leaving Cert. I was very reserved and prim, and was a pioneer and didn't drink until I was 41 - although I've been making up for it ever since!"

Muriel went to France after leaving school, and worked at the American Embassy when she came home. She met her former husband Tom at a funeral, and was married by her early twenties. They moved to Leopardstown and had three children in three years, Glenn, Jillian and Graham, and Muriel loved being a full-time mum.

"I believe that women should have the same rights as men, and should work if they want to, but I can't see it working," she says.

"Every woman I know is trying to juggle life, kids and work, and there is no time for painting with the children, going to the beach on a sunny day, or a social life. We were all at home, so we had picnics and coffee mornings, listened to Gay Byrne and criticised everything he had to say, and we discussed the topics of the day while the kids all played together."

Muriel was delighted to have a little girl, and loved making clothes for her, although Jillian developed her own ideas as a teenager, and they didn't always please her mama.

"She only wore black and had fishnet tights with holes in them and black make up," she sighs, disgustedly. "Glenn had a Mohican and the three of them only wore black and Doc Martens - it was the shame of my life."

"We still clash over clothes," admits Jillian. "I had dreadlocks for eight years, and all Mum wanted was for me to have beautiful curls. My school friends were all close to her and still talk about the cakes she used to make, and when one friend got pregnant at 19, the first person she told was Mum and asked her what she should do? I think becoming a mum myself has shown me how incredible she was."

While Muriel describes herself as very conservative back then, she changed after her marriage broke up.

"I was very happily married for 17 years," she says. "You don't know how strong you are until you are tested. It took at least five years to recover, but you have to just get on with it. My life had never prepared me for marriage break-up. I didn't know anyone who was separated and I never expected it. The first few years were very difficult, because I had three children aged 15, 14 and 12, going through their own problems and break-ups. We were all at different levels, but I think it brought us together. We bonded and are really close now."

Jillian says that while she was heartbroken for a long time about the break-up, she never really thought of it from her mum's perspective. Her parents got on really well when they were together, and she grew up in a very happy home until things fell apart. "Our dad moved to England and it was very hard, although he did visit a lot," she says. "I have a good relationship with him now, and achieving that took a long time. I was full of angst and was self-obsessed as a teenager, so our home was stressful for a while. It was really tough, but having hit 41 in April, the age Mum was when her marriage ended, I realise how brave she was and how strong. She lost the love of her life and I never offered her comfort or support. I didn't even ask how she was doing, because teenagers don't reach out to parents like that."

As Muriel picked up the pieces of her life, she fell into journalism by accident aged 41, having done a FAS course for women interested in writing. She got work experience in the Irish Press, and was sent on her first press trip abroad, which was the start of her travel writing career. She won the 'travel writer of the year' award in 2006, and then wrote a few guide books on Dublin for Ashfield Press. She never thought she would become a writer of fiction, and used to marvel at authors who wrote books when she was interviewing them.

Muriel has been part of a writing group for thirty years, and they meet every fortnight. She wrote a short story, and when she read it to the group, someone suggested she could make a book out of it, which got her thinking. She only wrote the book on press trips, and approached Hachette Ireland in 2010.

She got a two-book deal with them, and was also commissioned to write a non-fiction book on the Dublin City of Literature for the O'Brien Press on the very same day.

"I am Mum's hardest critic, and when she asked me to proof-read her first book, I was petrified because I haven't always been a fan of her travel writing," says Jillian. "She gave me the manuscript and I couldn't put it down. I zoomed through it and I thought it was so good, I knew it had to be published. I am extremely proud of her."

Muriel's fabulous new book, her fourth novel, is called The Pink Pepper Tree, and it is set in Portugal, where the pink pepper trees grow. The idea came about on a press trip, and her heroine, June, is in the wine importation business.

"All my books have an element of travel in them," she says. "I have set previous books in Cyprus, India, Jerusalem and Dubai. I am writing a book now that has no element of travel in it so far, so I will have to try and sneak some in. I am enjoying life thoroughly, and have been very lucky as my family are so supportive. It must be awful not to have a close family, as what we have is just lovely."

After a spell of au pairing in Germany, Jillian moved Leeside and did a degree in German and geography at UCC. She travelled to the US, Canada and South East Asia, and when she came back, started working with her mum on a magazine. This led to her career in journalism and editing, and she now works as a freelance journalist. She is the editor of Irish Brides magazine, has a Herald column, and is editor of Arnotts' interior magazine, Arnotts Inside. Like her mum, she also won the travel writer of the year award.

"Mum and I are very close, and we talk every day," says Jillian. "She's a nice lady and people liked her, so it was easier as her child to climb up ladders in journalism. She opened so many doors for me."

Jillian is married to Brendan Nolan, whom she has been with for 16 years, after a mutual friend introduced them. It was love at first sight, and they got engaged in India. Camels are her favourite animals, and they were on a three-night camel trek across the desert in India, when Brendan proposed.

"Our bums were killing us from being on the camels, so I got off to go to our camp in the dunes," recalls Jillian. "Brendan asked me to get back on for a picture, but I refused as I was going to be on a camel for the next two days. I didn't realise he was trying to propose, so he had to drag me to the top of the dunes to find another romantic spot."

They were married in 2006, and now, also like her mum, Jillian has two boys, Cal, 8, and Ely, 5, while daughter Ivy is four." My mum is still bitter that we didn't name Ivy after her," she laughs. "Mum is very different to my kids' other grandmother. They're both fantastic, but while their other granny would spoil them with sweets, Mum isn't overly indulgent. She sits with them and paints, just as she did with us when we were kids. We don't get her to babysit often - we save her for big things like weddings or festivals."

Muriel's eldest son Glenn has two sons, who are fourteen and twelve. Her youngest son Graham was injured in a motorcycle accident ten years ago, and is now sadly paralysed from the waist down. He is very independent, and enjoys going to music festivals, and his mum and sister say it hasn't stopped him in his tracks at all.

"He has a real fighting spirit and he didn't lick that off a stone," says Jillian, referring to her very strong mum.

"I have had a difficult year health-wise, which I am coming out the end of now," says Muriel. "I had two eye surgeries so haven't been travelling as much in the past year, but they were a great success. I am enjoying life and raring to go again now."

The Pink Pepper Tree by Muriel Bolger is out now, Hachette Ireland, €8.99

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