Saturday 20 July 2019

An author's return to her home lays the ghosts to rest

She spent much of her childhood in London, but always felt Irish in spirit recalls Wexford-based author Carmel Harrington

Writer Carmel Harrington in her beloved Wexford
Writer Carmel Harrington in her beloved Wexford

As my new classmates jumped up in unison, scraping their metal chairs against the concrete floor, they began to chant. It was my first day of school in Wexford, in 1980 and I was nine years old. I felt like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole into a strange world. My teacher's frown prompted me to jump to my feet too and my face burned as classmates giggled at my confusion. What were they saying?

'Do you not know your Angelus?'

I shook my head in dismay at the teacher's question.

She beckoned me to the front and asked me to recite the Our Father. This I knew. But first day nerves resulted in a poor performance, not helped by the jeering from the class, at my English accent.

I was born in London you see, to an Irish father, who left Wexford for a better life when he was 16. He settled in quick, making firm friends with fellow emigrants in the Irish centres. He played hurling for the Fr Murphy's and soon met my mother, a pretty North West Londoner, over the garden fence at a friend's house. They fell in love, married young and by the time they were in their early 20s, had four children.

Daddy prospered in London, through hard work and the support and love from my mother. My early childhood in London was happy and like most children who are born to Irish parents outside of Ireland, we always felt Irish. Identity and culture is dictated by those who raise you, I suppose. We learnt to Irish dance and attended a predominantly Irish Catholic school. If only The Angelus had been practised at noon in the UK schools!

Once a year, we holidayed in Wexford. The five-hour journey from London to Fishguard was broken up with games patiently orchestrated by my mother. Even so, the car was filled with moans of 'she's touching me!' that four siblings squashed together in the back of a car will go on with.

Driving up into the belly of the ferry with the cocktail of oil and salty sea air filling our noses, it felt strange and wonderful. As we approached Rosslare Harbour, we would stand side by side on the windy deck, while the harbour lights twinkled onto the dark water.

And I would watch my father's face soften, as he whispered into the wind, home.

Ghosts of my father's early life in Wexford were never far away. When he spoke about his family and home town, a look would steal over his face and his eyes would glisten with memories of a different world. He longed for home.

The ghosts cheered in 1980, when I was nine years old and home we went, this time for good.

The homecoming was laced with the pain of adjustment though. Ireland and Britain have a complex relationship and my mother encountered varying degrees of racism, just as my father did in the UK. Thankfully these incidents were in the minority. Overall, both felt welcomed and happy in each other's countries.

Actually it was my English mother who settled into Irish life the quickest, while my father struggled to adjust, taking a few years to find his place again. The Ireland he left as a young boy had moved on and so had he.

School was difficult for my siblings and me for a time. Kids can be cruel and taunts like 'go home British bastard' and 'plastic paddy' were thrown at us. These insults confused me. For me, whichever side of the sea I lived on, I always felt Irish in spirit. That's just who I am, regardless of the geography of my birth.

I'm not really sure when the turning point came, but it did. We made friends and settled into our new routine in school. We all fell in love with beautiful Wexford and the lifestyle it gave us.

And our cousins, Lydia, Priscilla and Rebecca, who we loved playing with during previous holidays, were now part of our everyday lives. Our new normal, a rural Irish one, was idyllic and fun.

One afternoon, we helped Daddy to plant a Willow tree in the front garden.

'We're putting down roots here, just like this tree,' he said.

We all took turns, digging that large hole, then we threw the soil back in, packing the tree in tight. Today, that tree stands strong, at least 20 feet tall. Grandchildren climb it and a swing hangs resplendently from the thick branches.

Its roots, like ours, are deep, forever part of our home in Wexford.

When I was 18, I moved to Dublin, to work for Aer Lingus. I fell in love with my life there quickly, adjusted to city life with ease. I made a very good life there. But like my father before me, I longed to return to the place from which I came, a place where my history is and will be. Home.

It took 20 years, but the ghosts are happy once more. Because return home I did, this time with a family of my own. But that's a story for another day …

Carmel Harrington lives in Co. Wexford. Her novels - Every Time A Bell Rings, The Life You Left and Beyond Grace's Rainbow have been translated into eight different languages and are regular chart toppers. She is a panelist on TV3's Midday Show and is Chair of Wexford Literary Festival.

Exclusive extract...

'We are in no-man's-land as we wait for news of  Evie'

Our lives are just a series of moments. From the small, mundane occasions that we let pass us by without notice, to the big showstoppers that make us pause and take note. Then, when you least expect it, a moment so powerful and defining happens that changes everything in a split second.

The thing about change is, it's not always good.

Today was a day of insignificant moments, until Jamie's scream bounced off the walls in our house and time slowed down. Relief at seeing him in one piece was fleeting as I followed his eyes and saw what he saw. Evie, my 13-year-old daughter, lying unmoving, vomit splattered on her face and chest, dripping into a noxious puddle on the dark floorboards.

Time then sped up as we made our frantic dash to the hospital. And now we are in no-man's-land as we wait for more news on Evie.

A kind nurse has just left our cramped hospital waiting room and the musky, woody scent of her fragrance lingers in the air. Vanilla, apples, sandalwood. It's Burberry perfume, I'd recognise it anywhere.

I look to my right and am unsurprised that the smell has sent Pops right back to 1981 too.

A time when it was the norm in the Guinness house to spray that scent into the air every morning, in an effort to bring someone back. Until one day the bottle was empty and Pops said, 'that's enough now lad.' I watch him as his grey eyes water up and he turns to hold my gaze, nodding.

A silent acknowledgement of mutual pain triggered by the scent of a nurse's perfume. For maybe the one-millionth time in my life, and I daresay in my father's, I yearn for my mother.

From The Things I Should Have Told You, published by Harper Collins, €16.99 and on sale now.

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