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'I felt like Peig coming off the Blaskets when I came to Dublin in the Eighties'

Rachael English is known to millions as the voice of Morning Ireland. As her first novel comes out, she tells Anna Coogan of her arrival in the capital.

'We would get a glass of Harp in The Harp Inn and think we were the height of sophistication and if we were in the money we might even finish the night off by going to Abrakebabra," says Morning Ireland presenter Rachael English of her first taste of nocturnal freedom as a 17- year-old studying at DCU, or NIHE as it was known back then.

Up from Shannon in the Big Smoke, the owner of one of RTE's most distinctive voices was, however, a little underwhelmed in the beginning by Dublin.

"I came from a school where there were 1,000 pupils and ended up in a college where there were 1,500 so there was an element of 'it's a bit small, isn't it'?"

Stateside

The 44-year-old's debut novel Going Back tells the story of Elizabeth, who goes on a J-I to Boston in 1988 and how her life changes. Strangely enough, Rachael went on a J-I visa to Boston, too, and for anyone else who went then or has gone since, there's something very real about her descriptions of life Stateside, particularly in how young Irish people pile in on top of each other while living abroad, like a game of Jenga.

"I think we were probably the last generation who weren't brought up on foreign holidays," Rachael says.

"Maybe a couple of us had been to England. So we were totally transfixed by everything we saw in the States. We would walk around supermarkets saying things like, 'Would you look at the size of that apple'," she says.

Rachael is just as evocative while talking about life as a young student in Dublin – once she got over the size back then of DCU – and it's something many Dublin residents will immediately connect with, having also come here for college and having never gone back, just like Rachael.

The Ranelagh resident says of her adopted home: "I think I'd been to Dublin maybe five times before going to college, including for a school tour and to go to a pantomime. In my head I was like Peig coming in off the Blasket Island when I arrived here for college.

"In NIHE, there were many students in the same position and we found digs together and for most of that time I lived on the northside. In fact, to this day if you asked me where Santry or Whitehall is, I can give you exact directions.

"Ask where Stillorgan is, though, and I might struggle even if I've been in the area for 15 years. For a long time my excursions southside went as far as Donnybrook and now I still seem to spend a lot of time there and, of course, Ranelagh where I live with my husband," she says.

Passion

Rachael is married to journalist Eamon Quinn and the couple share a passion for GAA, and whenever time permits they attend hurling matches.

"You know, looking back Dublin was such a homogeneous place in the Eighties and yet in our minds as students from the country it was exotic," Rachael says.

"We would hang out in Temple Bar before it was trendy and when it was under threat of being turned into a bus station. Bands would be playing on the street and there'd be guys selling T-shirts. There was always an excuse to pop in to meet someone in The Palace Bar," Rachael recalls. "You were more limited in where you could eat back then of course. Having pizza out was a big deal. Imagine! It's what I love about bringing visitors out in Dublin these days, the sheer life in the place.

"You walk around on a Tuesday night and restaurants and bars are lively. It's not like that in any other European city from what I can see.

"The one place I'd love to have seen improved when we had the good times was O'Connell Street. I don't know why money wasn't put into it when money was being put into places."

What have her colleagues in Montrose made of her foray into fiction? "I was nervous putting the book out there, and, of course, that hadn't even crossed my mind when I started writing it.

"It was something one of the guys I'd been in Boston with all those years ago said to me, about how to this day in his head he can still make his way around Boston, from where to get off the train to where to walk to where he was staying, which prompted the book.

"When you think of young people going over on J-1s this summer, it's unlikely to have as much of an impact on them. If they haven't already been to the States, then they've seen a lot more of the place on the telly, so they probably think they've been there already," Rachael says.

"Of course, I'd hate anyone at work not to enjoy the book but hopefully if they do then they won't tell me. We've a great camaraderie in RTE so I'm relying on it."

Chat

For now, though, Dublin is her home and she can't see herself upping sticks for anywhere else.

One of her favourite places in Ranelagh is Er Buchetto, also known as the Purple Place, which serves great Italian food and is a place where as Rachael says "everyone knows everyone else and you'll always end up having a chat with someone".

Meaning, of course, that this author has indeed found her village in the metropolis.

Going Back, by Rachael English, published by Orion, price €15.99


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