Mam died shortly after the October 2015 launch of Caherlistrane, which took place in our eponymously named village in north County Galway. A few days later, the writer and actor, Eilish O’Carroll, who launched the book, rang and told me I should count myself lucky. “You were with her when she died, Mary. Not everybody is that lucky. I wasn’t. She held your book in her hands and hung on long enough for you to finish it. Remember that.” O’Carroll, the older sister of Brendan O Carroll, plays the character of Winnie in Mrs Brown’s Boys.
She is also the daughter of the late Maureen O’Carroll, the former TD and the first woman to take a seat in Dáil Eireann for the Labour Party. Maureen’s father, Michael McHugh, a journalist, Gaelic Leaguer, IRB member, Volunteer and documented combatant in the Rising in Dublin (North King Street), was born in Caherlistrane in 1874. That’s the link here. That’s why Eilish O’Carroll collaborated on the project, and it’s why she wrote the foreword to my book. Throughout her childhood, her mother had told O’Carroll about this quasi-mythical placed, Caherlistrane, where McHugh was born and where she had spent her holidays in the 1920s. A learned, extraordinary man who instilled in his daughter the importance of education and of independent thinking, McHugh was the biggest influence by far in the life of that dynamic, fiercely determined politician and mother of ten.
O’Carroll, blessed with the same blazing intelligence and high energy levels as her mother, is one of the three legs upon which rests the tripod of this Caherlistrane exploration. The place has an astounding richness of myth and legend buried deep within the bowels of the faery hill of Knockma, and an abundance too, an almost bottomless well, of musical, literary and artistic creativity.
Mam had heard me speak of my fancy to write a book about the place for years but life kept getting in the way until one glory-day when Eilish O’Carroll got in touch a few years ago. She met Mam in our house subsequently, some months after Mam had absorbed the fact that cancerous cells had established base camp in her left lung. They got on like a house on fire, the two of them.
O’Carroll, you see, had captured one of my emails that had been flung out of space only to land in her inbox, perky as you like and tagged Caherlistrane. On purpose. There are no accidents. It was mere serendipity that that message coincided precisely with her avowed determination, her mission, to finally explore the mysterious Shangri-La of her childhood, Caherlistrane. We met, we hit it off, and the book is the result.
O’Carroll, an actor and a deliciously sultry singer, who can out-Eartha Eartha Kitt any day, has written her own solo show, Live, Love, Laugh, and will star in John Murphy’s Elvis Is My Daddy musical in the Olympia in May 2016. The other two tripod ‘legs’ involved in this saga, Sean Keane and Vivian Nesbitt, have also written their own solo performances.
Keane (brother of singer Dolores) penned Granny’s Suitcase, based on the song collection memorabilia of his grandmother, May Keane. They called her ‘MaMa’. Nesbitt is an American writer, actor (Breaking Bad) and NPR presenter, whose New York award-winning play, The Bark and The Tree, revolves around the life of her poet great great grandmother, Eva of The Nation. Born plain old Mary Anne Kelly, that fiery muse of the Young Irelanders, who wrote for The Nation along with Speranza, Oscar Wilde’s mother, lived in Caherlistrane in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Bark and The Tree was performed to jubilant acclaim by Nesbitt in Los Angeles on March 26, 2016, as part of the LA Theatre Women’s Festival. Like O'Carroll and Keane, Nesbitt is a singer too, and a mighty singer at that. Based in Albuquerque, where she lives with her husband, John Dillon, they play in the El Dorito Rythym Section together, and they also run the Sol Acting Academy there. Dillon was in the crowd at Woodstock, a month after the moon landing in July 1969. He co-presents The Art of The Song on NPR with Nesbitt, and he also makes and repairs guitars for startlingly famous people. So. Three famous people, all three of them artists, all three writers, and all three creators of solo shows, and one small parish — what are the odds?
The contents of Caherlistrane, a beloved mish-mash of flotsam and jetsam with only the tenuous link of parish to bind such an incongruous concoction together, were hoarded with affection, and serious intent, for more than two decades. Seamus Heaney makes an appearance, through the auspices of his dear friend, the poet, writer and our local parish priest, Fr Pat O'Brien, as do, briefly and tangentially, Mary Costello, Emily Lawless, Anne Enright and Michael Harding.
Of the Caherlistrane book, Pat (for that is what we have called him, our friend too, for thirty years and more) says: “The chapters about the Keanes succeed utterly in living out the words of Seamus Heaney, which I quoted at Rita Keane’s funeral: ‘Sing yourself back to where the singing comes from’, and it happens to be Caherlistrane, for which we must all be eternally grateful. All of the people in the web the Keanes created are mentioned here by Mary J and so this book now takes its rightful place in that group, and that’s saying something very high indeed.”
And it gets better. Lordy, but how Mam would love this next bit. Costello, the only Irish writer nominated for this year’s International Dublin Literary Award, our friend, and the author of the shudderingly sad Academy Street, says that Caherlistrane has “a touch of magic about it”. She asserts that it is the “confluence of extraordinary coincidences and events and Mary J’s gift of sensing the serendipity of it all that gives the book its grace and hypnotic charm. Through her eyes” – and this is the bull’s eye – “we see that all things lofty really do reside in the local”. A response as replete with acuity as that (for that is precisely what the book attempts, to show that the lofty is the local) is what makes years of research, and the drudgery of endless editing, worthwhile. And Costello, bless her perspicacity, unwittingly nailed those years of work to the wall, hitting the sweet spot that Nesbitt describes as the place where the rubber meets the road.
Enter next, stage left, Anne Enright, who when reviewing The China Factory short-story collection, remarked that Costello’s writing in it was wary of what Enright described as the “landscape solution” in Irish fiction. Enright, who finally bowed to the lure of the (Burren) landscape herself in the majestic The Green Road, is included in the lofty/local mix specifically because of the works of the Anglo-Irish poet, Emily Lawless, quoted in it. As recently as this March, Enright again mentioned Lawless as a muse when she spoke at the Imagining Home 1916 event in Dublin’s National Concert Hall. And guess what?
Just guess? Lawless’s mother was a Kirwan from Castlehackett House – in the parish of Caherlistrane. The poet, lauded by Yeats, Lady Gregory and William Gladstone, slipped off the map (or was she pushed?) in the headless rush to beatify Irish-Ireland writers at the turn of the 19th century. Lawless’s output was a more indigestible swallow than the works of Standish O’Grady or Douglas Hyde, more ‘Anglo’ than ‘Irish’, and her writing just didn’t chime with a cultural zeitgeist that eventually herded all before it up and onto the steps of Dublin’s GPO. Yeats suggested that she had “an imperfect sympathy with the Celtic nature”. Indeed. I love much of his work but he did go on a bit. Long before Lawless ever wrote a word, she spent chunks of her childhood in Caherlistrane in the post-Famine scavenged landscape of the Castlehackett Kirwan estate of the 1850s and 1860s, and much of the doom-laden fallout of those starvation years pervaded her work.
Knockma hill, that mysterious tree-covered 500 feet of lumpen earth and harbourer of clay-scented secrets, mere yards from Lawless’s childhood holiday home, is mentioned in her 1896 book, The Story of Ireland. Just recently, in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop in Galway, I managed to get my hands on a first edition of Lawless’s 1899 The Garden Diary, and it is obvious that she was a beautiful writer. Direct, intelligent, insightful, thoughtful. And amused, so very amused by human folly. Certainly there’s no hint of too-ra-lie-ay there, which is why she was not Gaelic League material, and all the more’s the pity, because she was on the Aran Islands before JM Synge. Her book, Grania, was set there.
And what of Michael Harding? Well, this is tremendously cheeky, but nevertheless there is a genuine, if wispy Caherlistrane connection there too, via Fr Pat O'Brien. He conducted Harding’s marriage ceremony fadó fadó you see, when he was a priest in Skehana in east Galway. Skehana is the half parish of Menlough, where I was born and reared, as was Mary Costello.
Over the years, work on this modest little book, Caherlistrane, has stolen my heart and it has consumed stolen minutes and hours too, snatched from under the noses of our three small children and all that goes with that. In hindsight, it took me away from Mam as well, in mind and in body, more than it should have, but it is too late now for regrets.
She always gave me a clear run at things, revelled in the fun of life and loved to meet everyone we knew and loved in Caherlistrane and beyond. Nobody ever knocked her off her stride. Not a one. She was never over-awed and took everyone precisely at face value. When Eilish O’Carroll was in our house, Mam half-jokingly took her to task about the bad language in Mrs Brown’s Boys, and I thought I was hearing things. Would there be handbags at dawn? Would Mam and O'Carroll have a to-do right there in our kitchen? The children’s eyes were popping right out of their heads at the glorious horror of No-No (their name for Mam) having a go at somebody from the telly. But, of course, it was all perfectly fine.
Perhaps I forgot to mention that Mam could charm the birds out of the trees? O’Carroll, a woman of considerable substance, had met her match. She and Mam held their ground, enjoying themselves hugely. I’d imagine O’Carroll gets fed up being fawned over and Mam, by God, was never a fawner. They dug in, made their points, neither moving an inch from their starting positions, and had a cuppa when the cloud had passed, honours even.
As a retired nurse, who knew the where the bodies were buried, literally and metaphorically, in the Regional Hospital in Galway (she was in charge on the night in 1958 when the Dutch airplane crashed off Galway Bay), Mam was never phased by whipper-snapper medics, especially newbies who didn’t know her form and were daft enough to attempt to be condescending to a 'little old dear'. Over the twenty-five years she was in and out of there and the Galway Clinic, minding my father like a lioness, I saw professors and consultants scurrying towards, and away, from her. This small, mild-mannered, modest, elegant, ladylike woman, who wouldn’t usually say boo to a goose, gave no quarter when it came to looking after those she loved. If she’d been raised in the deep south of the United States, she would have been the epitome of what they like to call a Steel Magnolia.
Towards the end, the balance tipped in my direction, angling slightly away from our three children, whom I’d always quietly thought she over-indulged but had the wit to keep my mouth shut. It moved from “You-and-your-books-did-you-give-those-poor- children-anything-to-eat-at-all-today?” to telling the boys to “Take-your-hands-out-of-your-pockets-and-give-your-mother-five-minutes-peace for goodness-sake”. They were startled at that turn of events but I found it uproarious. Everything comes full circle.
Mam and myself walked a happy road together for thirty years, from when I stopped being a stroppy moody teen to the last time I tried to giver her her morphine a few hours before she died on that Halloween Saturday evening. She couldn’t swallow it. It dribbled out at the side of her mouth in a rusty trickle and dripped down onto her left shoulder, staining the pink pyjamas I still haven’t washed six months later. As she tried her best to get it down, I saw the soggy remnants of the orange tablet (diuretic) on her tongue that I thought she’d taken that morning. The game was up. All of the stories she’d told me about the canny oldies she’d nursed herself over the years, and how they’d pulled the same trick to avoid swallowing their own meds as death crept closer came back in a tsunami of memory and made my knees buckle. That really happens. Knees buckle.
When the first copy of Caherlistrane arrived into our house, shortly before she died, Mam got out of bed for the first time in days. She put on her newest clothes, a beautiful red suit that my sister had just bought her, piled on the lipstick (mad red too, “like a letterbox”, as she used to say), and sat posing for a photo. Patiently. And that told its own tale too. Mam, you see, hated having her picture taken. She could never sit still for one, twitching and threatening to bin them. And yet here she was. Sitting. Smiling. Posing. Dying. Holding the book. My book. Knowingly. She didn’t have to say: “I made it, I held on for the book. I told you I would.” Knees buckled then too.
Writing Caherlistrane created an arch that spanned a wedge of time under which we buried a tiny little baby boy, then my father and now my mother. But the beauty of it is that all three live on forever. I don’t know where they are now, I haven’t a clue, but I feel the three of them dancing in between every page and every line. They’re there all the time and mostly they are dancing in between the spaces where there is simply nothing at all.