How childhood holidays in Kerry inspired Caroline O'Donoghue's new novel

After her highly-acclaimed debut novel Promising Young Women, all eyes are on the Cork author's new book, Scenes of a Graphic Nature.
How childhood holidays in Kerry inspired Caroline O'Donoghue's new novel
Caroline O'Donoghue

A group of men gathered at the bar are talking about gorse. Specifically, they are talking about the illegal gorse fires that ravaged the Kerry countryside that weekend, killing not only wild animals but thousands of pounds worth of livestock at the height of the lambing season.

“You could hear the sheep for miles around,” says one man, taking a mournful sip of his Guinness. “The poor old things.” “Awful stuff,” says another. And they are all quiet, these Kerrymen, in the terrible loss that this most recent fire has brought about.

“RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE, START YOUR ENGINE!” They all look up, their brows furrowed.

“RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE, LET THE BEST WOMAN WIN!” Their collective Kerry gaze travels to the window seat, where I am sitting with my Macbook, attempting to download an episode of Rupaul’s Drag Race off the pub’s wifi so I can watch it back in the campsite later. The tinny sound of my laptop clashes with the cosy sounds of The Blind Piper: the crackling fire, the soft, muffled thud of a fresh pint lain on a beer mat, RnaG playing lightly on the radio.

“Sorry,” I say, desperately. “I’m trying to mute it.” It becomes clear, as they look at me, that my laptop isn’t the only thing that doesn’t belong in a Kerry pub on a Tuesday afternoon.

It’s 2017 and I have just quit my job in women’s media to go freelance, and to make a “real go” of being a full-time novelist. So I do what ‘real’ novelists do: I make a plan to disappear into the countryside for a month. The mechanics of this, I thought, would be easy. My family co-own a mobile home in Derrynane, a seaside village two hours from Cork and nestled in the bosom of Daniel O’Connell’s stately home.

If you’re from a certain kind of middle-class Cork background, you might be familiar with Derrynane already. Derrynane spends a third of the year chiefly occupied by Cork people who privately consider themselves responsible for Kerry’s continued existence, and don’t understand why Kerry people don’t like that we see their county as our glorified back garden.

I say ‘people’ as if this demographic doesn’t include me: it absolutely does. I rock up to Derrynane a few times a year, usually with my English boyfriend Gavin in tow, and try my best to impress upon people that I am not just any old tourist – why, I’ve been coming here since I was five! I try my best to impress this upon Gavin, too: that, while he may know me as a loud-mouthed city girl who frequently tells Londoners that Cork is a bustling artsy metropolis on a par with, say, Prague, I am actually, in my heart, a Kerry maiden. A woman of the earth, who can identify at least three trees, and knows the shortcut to the old graveyard, and has some really firm opinions on the cafe in Daniel O’Connell’s house.

"I rock up to Derrynane a few times a year, usually with my English boyfriend Gavin in tow, and try my best to impress upon people that I am not just any old tourist – why, I’ve been coming here since I was five!
"I rock up to Derrynane a few times a year, usually with my English boyfriend Gavin in tow, and try my best to impress upon people that I am not just any old tourist – why, I’ve been coming here since I was five!

Neither the Kerry population nor Gavin are convinced by my posturing.

Here’s the funny thing though: while Gavin does not believe me when I try to act as if my heart belongs to Kerry, he is perfectly willing to take part in the con himself. Every time we are served in the pub, he is sure to mention to the barman that this is not our first time being served by him. He will say “last time we were here” as if it were two weeks ago, not a year previous. He is willing to be treated like a foreigner in Cork, but wants to be treated like a local in Kerry. Kerry does this to people. The cosiness, the music, the dramatic landscape.

The brown bread that is so heavy and grainy that it feels more like a vegetable than a carb.

Kerry is so beautiful that it could almost give you brain damage. 

You are tired from the sea air, you are full from bowl after bowl of purple mussels, you are lively from the low stone wall you had to jump in order to get here. You feel at home here. You want this to be what home feels like. I decide that I will write a book set in Kerry, at the very least so I can spend more time here.

I cannot drive. I still can’t drive, three years later, but living in London it’s rarely a problem. In preparing for my 2017 hermitage, I assume it will be fine to spend the month of April alone in a mobile home, a bike my main mode of transportation. I am an idiot for thinking this. I have failed to understand the most fundamental thing about seasonal towns, which is that the businesses are mostly only open seasonally. The shop is closed. The other shop, which is a tiny room inside a pub that is open at random four-hour intervals and sells biscuits, second- hand romance novels and jelly snakes, can’t be relied upon. The only supermarket is a twenty-minute drive away, and unless I have every single meal in the pub, I will most likely starve. Or spend the majority of my trip eating dry crackers and snakes.

The family finds a solution. My dad, mostly retired at this stage, drives down from Kerry every Thursday and leaves on Sunday. I love my dad. I love him for all the normal reasons a daughter loves her father, sure, but I also love him because he is one of the funniest and strangest people I know. This is a person who considers it quite normal to perform If I Were A Rich Man (complete with arm movements, and occasional prop work) in crowded restaurants while other diners watch. The flip side of this great charm is that my father is unable to do anything quietly. The man slices bread and it sounds like he’s felling a tree.

How are we supposed to live in a 12 foot tin box together, with only the mountains and the sea for distraction?

Here is how we spend it: trying to find a cure for the dog’s diarrhoea. My parents' cocker spaniel has decided to get chronic runs while on this Kerry trip, and every morning is spent tiptoeing out to the living room to see whether or not the era of chunky spaniel waste has finally passed. My dad and I develop a system for cleaning up the mess: he spoons the worst of the offences off the carpet, with a dish and spoon expressly put aside for these purposes, while I scrub the stains. On the third day we drive forty minutes to the pharmacist who doubles as an unlicensed vet, and he gives us a pill for the dog. During the second week I have a terrifying encounter with a ram, and we spend several days quivering in expectation for the ram to reappear.

I write everyday, in Kerry. Which is not a surprise, and a big part of my decision to come in the first place: I have always written here. Back in the 1990s, my extensive writing in Kerry was not a method of getting closer to the landscape, but of escaping it. I used to hate it here.

"Kerry taught me – twice – that solitude was possible, that creativity was possible, that independence was possible. You just have to go outside to find it."
"Kerry taught me – twice – that solitude was possible, that creativity was possible, that independence was possible. You just have to go outside to find it."

As the youngest of four kids, I fetishised solitude. And, like many children, channelled my desire to be left alone through a fascination with orphans. Annie and Oliver were a given, but Anastasia was the big one for me and led to many gruesome fantasies about my siblings being murdered by Bolsheviks, allowing me to get some goddamn peace and quiet. Kerry made these fantasies both impossible and more potent. Even now, I find it hard to imagine it: six people, plus the occasional friend, for weeks at a time in a mobile home with one toilet.

There was no shortage of other children around, haring around the campsite, and I hated them all. Despite being one of a big group, I found big groups impossible to mix with. The only friendships I knew how to have were small, intense, one-on-one sisterhoods with other weird girls, and those were impossible to cultivate in the ever-expanding amoeba of the campsite. My brother Rob, 18 months older, was off having Famous Five-style adventures with other kids. I was either reading in one of the bedrooms, or trying to have a conversation with a lamb through a five-bar gate. My mum would have tense conversations with him about bringing me along. Conversations that I was not supposed to overhear, but could not help but overhear, because – hello! – we were all in the same tin box. On one occasion I was forced out with him during a rare Kerry heatwave, and he tried his best to get me to come out of myself. “Why are you behind everyone,” he said, frustrated at having to drag me around like a gangrenous limb. “And why do you have a jumper on?” I grimly rolled up my sleeve, to reveal what I had been doing in the moments before I was shoved outdoors: drawing Egyptian hieroglyphics all over my arms in magic marker.

“Oh, god,” he said, exasperated. “Roll them back down.” When I ran out of Harry Potter books to read and batteries to put in my Gameboy Colour, I wrote. They were almost always stories about girls alone: they were trapped in a research testing facility; they were raised by wolves after their family died in a storm; they were disinherited from their family after falling pregnant by an earl. You see the pattern. On reflection, it was a fairly dramatic response to a loving family who – after all – just wanted to have a nice summer holiday. Like many writers before me, I became one not through any particular talent or vision, but because there was simply nothing better to do. The hours spent trudging through the countryside alone gave me time to plan, and the hours spent in the mobile home at night gave me time to write. It started a habit that never went away, and the habit became a passion, and the passion became my life.

In Scenes of a Graphic Nature – the book I started writing while in Kerry, and is out August 5 – the county breathes life into the narrative, the same way it did for me in 2017. The story begins in a series of tight, hermetically sealed boxes: hospital rooms, cramped rented flats, two-door cars, Ryanair flights. It’s a novel about a person who has become claustrophobic in the confines of their own life, and takes a trip to Kerry in order to ‘find’ herself and the secret to her odd family history. Charlie Regan, our heroine, wakes up at 4am and takes herself for a walk: 

"The grass has given way to earth and branches, and rubbery needles that stick to the balls of my feet… I feel hyperconscious of the small movements around me: of ferns waving, of animals moving, of every microtransaction of energy that is constantly taking place. Around me, above me, through me."

There’s nothing remotely memoir-y about the story’s plot, which mostly focuses on a fictional conspiracy that takes place on a Kerry island that I made up. But this feeling, of moving from the claustrophobia of London living to the wide-open awareness of the country, is the silver thread weaving the whole book together. It’s the lasting legacy of my month in Kerry, and of a lifetime of enforced holidays that I am, in retrospect, incredibly grateful for. Kerry taught me – twice – that solitude was possible, that creativity was possible, that independence was possible. You just have to go outside to find it.

Caroline’s second novel, Scenes of a Graphic Nature, is out in hardback from August 5.

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