Rachael English ensured the 70-year-old woman in her novel on mother and baby homes is a strong and resilient character, writes Marjorie Brennan.
Rachael English is well accustomed to grilling politicians and public figures in her role as a presenter on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland but when it comes to being on the other side of a dictaphone, she admits to feeling a little less in control.
“In some ways, I don’t enjoy it, I feel quite awkward because I am so used to being on the other side, guiding things. I was doing a radio interview recently and I felt like those people who come into the studio for Morning Ireland and literally the first thing they say is ‘You’ll go easy on me now, won’t you’. For the first time, I totally understood what it was like. I get very fidgety.”
There are no signs of nerves on show when I speak to the Clare native, who is an informative and engaging interviewee, not surprising considering the knowledge and expertise she has acquired in her long and distinguished career as a journalist.
This is something she has mined in her second career as an author; at the centre of her latest book, The Paper Bracelet, is the story of a former nurse in a mother and baby home who decides to turn detective in an effort to help people track down their birth mothers. It’s a topic that hasn’t been far from the news in the last 20 years or so, and one with which English is very familiar, having also touched on it in a previous book, The American Girl.
"As a journalist, you do build up a little store of knowledge about all sorts of things.
English points out that the report of the commission looking mother and baby homes has been delayed again until the summer.
“As Conall Ó Fátharta in your own paper has pointed out, most of the focus elsewhere in the media has been on Tuam and the grave there. But there is still the huge unanswered question of why so many women were sent to these homes, the way they were treated there and the fact that they were essentially imprisoned, when they had committed no crime. In fact, in some cases, they were probably the victims of a crime.”
English actually visited the Bessborough mother and baby home in Blackrock, Cork, as a reporter many years ago, an unsettling experience which has stuck with her more than two decades later.
“Bessborough didn’t close until 1996 — I was there in 1996 believe it or not, interviewing one of the nuns. I don’t think at the time I fully appreciated the significance of it. There was a group of women at the time in Cork who had formed a support group and I had interviewed them, they were very critical of everything that was happening.
“At that stage, the religious orders were still very much involved in the whole tracing process. At the time, I don’t think I really appreciated it, or even thought to ask, ‘By any chance are there still women here?’, because I assumed there weren’t but there must have been.”
Events at Bessborough also came to the fore when English was researching The American Girl, when she read a book by a woman about her experience as a midwife working in the home.
“I remember when I wrote The American Girl, I found it hard to find many personal accounts but I did come across a book about Bessborough, called The Light in the Window by June Goulding who had worked there in the ’50s. In those days, the conditions were really awful. There is a part in it where she talks about her boyfriend coming to see her and there were a group of expectant women tarmacking the drive. She had been there a while at that stage and it was almost as if she had become accustomed to the behaviour, and he said, ‘No this is not acceptable’.”
In The Paper Bracelet, English says she was conscious of balancing the darkness of this institutional cruelty with portraying the resilience and spirit of the girls and women in the home, which is beautifully captured in a scene where they all begin to sing together as they work, in a gesture of defiance.
“It needs some kind of uplift in it. Some of it is really dark whereas that piece shows their ability to rise above it all and because people can be funny in dark situations. Of course, there was kindness and all sorts of complicated stories in those homes but all these girls and women were real and they were entitled to their own personalities, not to be seen as some kind of statistic or misfortunate case.”
The protagonist of the novel, Katie, is also a strong character, a widow who is an antidote to the portrayal of older women in fiction, that is if they appear at all. It was a deliberate choice on English’s part.
“Very much so… I had read several pieces where people had complained about the portrayal of older women in fiction. An awful lot has changed and a 70-year-old woman is perfectly capable of travelling around the country asking questions, and being online and firing out emails to people."
While the virus crisis will create a a whole new set of issues for English in her personal and professional life, when we meet, she is enjoying the chance to catch her breath after the busy election period. It also means she doesn’t have to get up quite as early in the morning.
“I rang to book a taxi to the station last night because I was getting the train down here to Cork, and the guy who answered said to me, ‘that’s a long lie-in you’re getting’ because it was for 8am rather than 5.15am,” she laughs.
For now, English has achieved the perfect balance between her job as a presenter and a writer and says she won’t be giving up the day job any time soon.
“Your books can do really well in Ireland but… I heard a statistic recently that there are 26 full-time writers, and I was even surprised it was as many as that. Once you get through a handful of big names, it is very hard to find someone who doesn’t have to do something else.”
Book number six is now beckoning for English.“There are plenty of books in the world so if you are not enjoying it, why would you do it? But gosh, yeah, I’m still surprised by how much I enjoy writing. I’ve had a couple of months now between the election and the book coming out where I haven’t had time to write, and I’m pawing the ground almost, waiting to get back to it.”
The Paper Bracelet, published by Hachette Books Ireland, is out now.