Léan Cullinan comes from a line of writers; her paternal grandmother was the prolific author Eilís Dillon, her aunt is the poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanain and her father is a crime novelist. Picture: Nick Bradshaw
LOTS of authors say they knew from childhood they wanted to be a writer but few have proof as convincing as Léan Cullinan has. “I remember writing a story for the new baby before my sister was born. I think I was five,” she recalls of her first major literary venture 34 years ago. “It was about my teddy bear. It didn’t have much of a storyline.”
That Cullinan showed proclivity towards the pen — or crayon as it probably was — at such a tender age is no surprise given her gene pool.
Her grandmother on her father’s side was the prolific author Eilís Dillon who wrote 50 books for adults and children, and her father is Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, Professor of Italian at Trinity College, otherwise known as Cormac Millar, crime novelist.
One of her aunts is the poet, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanain, who happens to be married to the poet Macdara Woods; and other close family members, including her mother, Dr Phyllis Gaffney of the UCD School of Language and Literature, have been published in their academic fields.
And yet if there was a weight of expectation bearing down on her young shoulders, she insists she placed it there herself. “I wrote all the way through school. I just was always doing it and I knew that eventually I would bring it out into the world.
“It’s a high bar set for you as you’re growing up but a child grows up in normality — whatever a child grows up in, that’s normal. So there is a bit of a recalibration as you come out into the world and realise what the broader norms are.”
Those thoughts on recalibration carry into Cullinan’s debut novel, The Living, which puts recent graduate Cate Houlihan on the path to realisation that aspects of her own upbringing have left her slightly outside the broader norms of contemporary society. Cate, from Co Louth, takes a job set up by her uncle in a small Dublin publishing house that begins attracting unwelcome attention after it emerges it has acquired the memoirs of a leading republican.
Formerly head of a fictional republican splinter group, this shady character sends his scripts from a secret location and security forces on both sides of the Irish Sea are eager to know his whereabouts and what claims he may be making about collusion within their ranks.
At first Cate takes little notice of the growing fuss, more preoccupied as she is with her latest romance involving the handsome English postgraduate student and fellow chorister Matthew, but gradually she realises she too is under a spotlight.
Did her uncle get her the job as a kindness to her or a convenience to himself? Is the mysterious Matthew just reticent about his past or is he concealing something about his present?
And could she have, almost unnoticed by herself, absorbed views growing up in a border county that make her own loyalties questionable?
The Living is part romance, part suspense novel and part family drama but it’s this question of how the ideas we’re immersed in during childhood fare when we take them out into the world as grown-ups that underpins the story.
“I think that’s probably a universal experience and not just about politics. Growing up in a family you start by taking on everything and you gradually divest yourself of chunks of it.
“As you grow up you learn more history and you meet more people and you get to realise that other people’s perspectives are valid.
“I think it’s undeniable that everybody acts from what they believe to be a reasonable position and I suppose I enjoyed shifting my head around to those different perspectives when I was writing.”
Cullinan’s first step, however, was to actually get a perspective on the North. She was born in Britain in November 1974 with the Birmingham pub bombings as a backdrop, and her great grand-uncle was Joseph Mary Plunkett, signatory to the 1916 Proclamation and executed afterwards.
But politics was not a conversation topic at the dinner table growing up and Cullinan developed no particular insight into the republican mindset so she surprised herself by wanting to explore it.
“I had this relationship between the Irish woman and the English man and it’s inevitable that you start thinking about the relationship between the two countries.
“The North is kind of the fulcrum of that relationship. You can’t really talk about Irish-UK relations without dealing with the North.
“It is a bit cheeky for someone in my position who grew up without any kind of direct experience of the Troubles to write into that and to purport to have something to say about it, but it was important for me to write about the experience of this generation that has grown up in peacetime and how that’s different from the generations that went before.
“The generation gap is a huge theme in the book and how ideas don’t get cleanly transferred between generations. What our parents and grandparents believed, we can’t replicate, because the circumstances are different.
“So it’s about what happens after the conflict has died down and the reasons for the conflict are no longer so immediate and what the next generation does with those beliefs. That’s why it’s called The Living because it’s about those who are left after the conflict.”
The Living has been a long time in the writing. “It was supposed to be finished before the nine-year-old was born,” laughs Cullinan, who has two boys, aged nine and six.
But she has always worked with words — as a technical writer and as a copy editor — and she is creative in other ways. Musical genes also run in the family and Cullinan sings with Dublin chamber choir, the Mornington Singers, currently Ireland’s Choir of the Year after their success at the Cork International Choral Festival, and she loved putting Cate and Matthew into a similar setting.
She’s also passionate about quilt-making and, not surprisingly, that kind of trait is also a family tradition, one that brings back childhood memories of which she certainly won’t seek to divest herself.
“Eilís used to sit there at her typewriter with her knitting in her lap and she’d knit a row, type a line, knit a row, type a line. She made all our school jumpers and cardigans.
“She was doing it for her pleasure and I find it’s a very good counterpoint to the word stuff because it’s completely non-verbal. I love making quilts because it exercises the visual part of my brain. I can move from one to the other and I don’t run out of energy because it’s a different form of mental exercise.”