Giving voice to the emigrant experience

Giving voice to the emigrant experience
Timothy O’Grady is at the Masters of Tradition festival in Bantry. Picture: Iris Renata Lardner

By Don O'Mahony

Timothy Grady is in Bantry this week to host a concert, and read from his classic book about the Irish in London, writes Don O’Mahony.

A second-generation Irish-American born in Chicago with no huge affinity to the Old Country, Timothy O’Grady can be credited as creating one of the definitive works describing the Irish emigrant experience in London in his second novel I Could Read the Sky.

“I was obviously aware of my Irish background,” says the writer who’s currently in Bantry, Co Cork, for the Masters of Tradition festival, “but it wasn’t a St Patrick’s Day step-dancing sort of Irish background.”

The life of a writer held greater importance for O’Grady and while attending university at the beginning of the 1970s he became intoxicated by the idea while working at a literary magazine. A chance encounter with an Irish-American contributor who was passing through the city raised the possibility of visiting Ireland.

“He had bought for £400 an abandoned house on Gola Island in Donegal… and he told me if I was ever in Ireland I could go and stay in this house. So as soon as I graduated that’s what I did,” says O’Grady who, imagining a cosy abode on a leafy island, was shocked to find a derelict building with no plumbing or electricity. Nevertheless, he stuck it out there for a few months before moving to Dublin, eventually settling in London in 1973.

His time in Ireland had sparked in him a curiosity about Irish culture as well as making him politically aware of what was happening in the North, so once he arrived in London he became involved in an Irish theatre, attended marches and immersed himself the pubs and bars that were central to the Irish experience.

A lot of the things that went into I Could Read the Sky came from being in pubs where music was played and the age mix was very broad.

"There were a lot of people working in building sites. It was very mixed. Whatever your background there was a sort of classlessness and agelessness about those Irish pubs that I really liked,” he says.

With a filmmaker called Kenneth Griffith he wrote Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution. That paved the way for his first novel, Motherland. Someone at the publisher suggested he should write text to accompany an album of photographs on Ireland by acclaimed English photographer Steve Pyke.

Through a lengthy gestation period O’Grady saw the potential of it becoming a novel. Connecting the act of photography with the act of memory, O’Grady alighted on the emigrant experience as a source for remembering and connected it immediately to the Irish people he was encountering. This had been occupying him for a couple of years when one winter night a sentence came to him as he laid his head down on the pillow.

“I had this voice that I heard that was not my voice. And I kind of caught it on the air. Somehow it landed in me in that bed in the middle of the night and it wasn’t my voice but it seemed real and it was very vivid to me,” he recalls.

The voice contained the opening lines to I Could Read the Sky: “This room is dark, as dark as it ever gets. The hour before dawn in winter something stirs. Then a little wind.”

And it belonged to an old man living alone in a small flat in Kentish Town near the end of his life. Once he heard it O’Grady knew he was dealing with someone older, so he began interviewing the elderly Irish in London to build a detailed account of their experiences.

“I got the cadence of the sentences, and it was quite exciting. It was a different kind of writing than what I had done before. I think the photographs liberated it,” he maintains.

This will be one of the many issues O’Grady discusses during his time in Bantry.

Timothy O’Grady appears as part of Masters of Tradition in Bantry. The festival runs from today until Sunday. The I Could Read the Sky concert with Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Steve Cooney, Síle Denvir, Sandy Silva and Timothy O’Grady takes place at the Maritime Hotel tonight (Wednesday). Timothy O’Grady will be in conversation at Ma Murphy’s at 3.30pm tomorrow.

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