Sunday 25 March 2018

'It's confusing to everyone who isn't us. To us, it makes sense' - writer Lisa McInerny on adoption by her grandparents

For writer Lisa McInerney, winner of the Bailey's Prize, her grandmother Mary was "the authority figure in my life"

Lisa McInerney's mother was 19 when she was born. She was adopted by her maternal grandparents because of the social stigma at the time surrounding unmarried mothers. Photo: Brian Farrell
Lisa McInerney's mother was 19 when she was born. She was adopted by her maternal grandparents because of the social stigma at the time surrounding unmarried mothers. Photo: Brian Farrell

Emily Hourican

Lisa McInerney says that her grandmother would have been the authority figure in her life. "All the discipline, all the rules, that would have all applied. Now I look at the younger grandchildren, the ones that never lived with her, who are more like 'proper' grandchildren, and now she's all - 'oh, no rules whatsoever, here's some sweets . . . '

Writer Lisa, author of The Glorious Heresies and winner of this year's Bailey's Prize For Women's Fiction - about the most prestigious writing prize there is - and the Desmond Elliot Prize, is talking about her relationship with her grandmother, Mary. The first time we met, she explained it to me: "I was adopted by my grandparents, because my mother became pregnant with me at 19 and my dad wasn't in the picture. This was in the early 1980s and Ireland still had the illegitimacy status. We only got rid of it in 1987. My family figured it may come back to haunt me if I had this [on my birth record] - they didn't know it was going to be rescinded. So from a legal point of view, I am the child of my grandparents; this was just a very practical solution."

This practical solution meant that Lisa was brought up in her grandparents' house in Co Galway, as, essentially, the youngest child of a large family. It was a busy, cheerful house. Her grandfather was a carpenter, there were eight children, and then Lisa. It was also, she says, "a very loving solution. It was never kept from me, it wasn't something I 'discovered'. There was no sense of shame or misery, no uncovering of a 'dark secret.' My mother was always part of my life, we're very close."

Her upbringing seems to have been a wonderfully communal effort. "When I was a tiny, tiny baby," she says now, "the story goes that when I would wake up in the middle of the night crying, my mother's youngest sister would wake up and then she'd wake my mother."

Of her grandmother, Lisa says, "it wouldn't have been easy for her, because she was well into her 50s when I arrived. Her youngest child, my uncle Sean, was 10, so this was probably around the time she was looking forward to relaxing into being a grandmother. She had already had her first grandchild - he's three months older than me - and suddenly, she had to be a mother again. Back into the responsibility and pressure of bringing up a child. Just when you think it's all over, they pull you back in!" she laughs, then adds, "but I never got that sense from her. I guess she was just so good at it at that stage. I never got the feeling that she thought of me as a new challenge. I think she treated me exactly the same as she treated everybody else, but with extra spoiling. It's very lovely. Because I was slotted in at the very end of the family, she would have been a lot more relaxed with me than she would have been with her older children, but still the rules did apply."

Lisa called her grandmother 'Mammy' while she was growing up, but now calls her 'Nana'. "Weirdly, now that I'm an adult and I've moved out and have my own family, I find I refer to her as Nana, so people understand who I'm talking about. When I was small and living with her, she was Mammy, but now that I'm older, she has quite happily embraced the grandmother status more. She has relaxed. She has melted from 'Mammy' into 'Nana' and has become a different person and started playing a different role in my life, which I find really interesting. That's what my family have always been very good at - being very relaxed with roles and changing them as necessary. I think that kind of flexibility is great."

So if her grandmother was 'Mammy,' what did she call her mother? "I called my mother by her first name, Patty, and I still do. She didn't discipline so much. Not at all actually! She's still really easy-going and not a disciplinarian. She's married now and lives in Canada and I have a half-sister, and she's the same with her - quite spoiling, but in a nice way. When she did get cross, you knew you had to run away, because it happened so rarely. My mother is 19 years older than me, so it wasn't like a sibling connection; we didn't grow up together. It was more like a benevolent aunty who bought me things and brought me places, but the disciplining was left to Nana. Nana's influence on me has been massive; she did the rearing, the shaping, the moulding, she gave the support. That's her role." Mary also walked Lisa up the aisle for her wedding to John.

And when Lisa had her own daughter, her grandmother tried to persuade her to move back in. "She said 'you should come home to us, live with us for a while.' I said no, 'I actually want to do this myself! And you're only up the road - if I need you, I'll call you!'"

At the moment, Lisa is temporarily back living in her hometown in Co Galway, "so I would pop down to Nana if I have a free morning or afternoon and have tea and a gossip with her. Now, I think it's developed into a very funny friendship that wasn't there before when she was the authority figure. Now, we gossip, we talk about things happening in the news, she's laughing at jokes she would never have laughed at when I was growing up. I'm seeing this roguish side to her I never would have been allowed to see before. And I see similarities between us, now that the relationship is more relaxed and friendly and I get to see aspects of her character I never saw before - there's the roguish sense of humour, and the capacity for a good rant. When I was growing up, if I swore, she would have been very disapproving, but now, she's a great swearer."

What does Mary make of Lisa's recent anointing with the Bailey's Prize? "She's going round the place like Madonna," Lisa laughs. "She's having a great time! A lot of the people in my hometown aren't exactly sure who I am, so she's saying, 'well that's my granddaughter,' and suddenly, they are congratulating her instead of me. She's having a brilliant time."

Does she know just how important the prize is? "She does realise what a big deal it is. My aunts would have seen how big an impact it had and they'd go back and report to her. And it was on the news! That's the mark, isn't it?"

Has her grandmother read The Glorious Heresies? "She gamely tried but it really wasn't for her, which won't surprise anyone who knows it. But she has both versions, the trade paperback that came out when it was first published and the paperback, and they take pride of place in the house."

It's an upbringing, Lisa says, that sounds "confusing to everyone who isn't us. To us, it makes perfect sense." It is also one she is very proud of. "I've always felt very privileged to be part of that massive, very typical Irish family; the big boisterous Irish family. It meant a lot to me. Technically, because I was so much younger than everyone else, in one way I was like an only child, but in another way I wasn't, I was part of this huge family, I was never lonely. I'd see other people, friends who grew up in much smaller families, who had more fraught relationships, and because of that - and maybe if you're a writer, you're more empathetic to other people's situations - I was always aware of that contrast, of the more negative aspects of Irish family life, compared with what I had. What I had, even though it was awkward and all over the place and very confusing and hard to define, it was still nearly 100pc positive. I've always been very aware that I'm very lucky."

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney is out now, published by John Murray, £8.99

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