Author Maggie Wadey was curious about her mother’s Irish past. Her detective work would uncover a family saga of life, love and a devastating secret, writes Jonathan de Burca Butler.
Maggie Wadey grew up knowing very little about her mother’s past, but she always suspected she had a story.
“My mother was born in Puckaun, Tipperary,” says the playwright and author who is married to actor John Castle.
“She was one of nine and I knew most of her brothers and sisters because all of them, bar one, ended up coming over to live in England.
“And that was the curious thing. I knew them but she never really told me anything about Ireland except for these little mythological stories.”
It piqued her interest. This was a detective story that would ultimately become an enthralling family saga of life, love — and a devastating secret.
Her search would become a book, about the search for the truth of her mother’s Irish family, who had lived through famine, poverty, the Easter Rising and Civil War, ultimately discovering the family secret of her mother’s rescue mission to free her sister and her baby from a Protestant home for fallen women.
In the final chapters she writes of her discovery of her long lost cousin Catherine.
“We knew nothing about my mother growing up in Ireland,” says Maggie.
Shortly before she died, Agnes Kavanagh began to open up about her life back home.
“She started to tell me more,” says Maggie.
“But then she passed away and it was like the conversation got cut off.”
The effect of those final conversations with her mother was twofold.
As a writer, Maggie’s professional curiosity had been piqued but the author’s decision to go back and unearth her mother’s past was somewhat cathartic.
“I did want go back to fill in the gaps,” says Maggie, “and find out about her and Ireland.
“I had a feeling there were things she wasn’t telling me.
“So I wanted to find out more but going back was also like continuing the conversation with her.”
It’s a real-life memoir that begins as an exciting detective story, and ends up telling an utterly enthralling family saga.
Initially, Maggie’s journey of discovery was a profoundly personal one.
There was no plan to publish a book and she says that The English Daughter happened “quite by accident”.
She does admit that there was intrigue from day one, however.
“We found out that she wasn’t really born where we thought she had been born,” says Maggie.
“She was actually born in much poorer circumstances. Her father was a herder and I gathered from her birth certificate, which I had to go and find, because she never had a copy of it to hand, that her father was actually illiterate.
“For me that was extraordinary because I’ve been a writer all my life.
“But it did explain why my mother made sure I went to university and got a good education.”
The author went on to discover more; that her great-grandmother had been born at the height of the Famine, how her uncle had been persuaded to stay away from the War of Independence and how her mother got through the Civil War.
As questions were answered more were raised and suddenly, Maggie found herself with a mountain of compelling material.
According to the author, this ever-accumulating material had no shape until she met someone she “didn’t know existed”.
“She was a cousin that I didn’t know I had,” says Maggie.
“She was what we would have called illegitimate and she had been fostered as a baby and left in Ireland. The father, who was my uncle, came over here to England but nothing was ever said.
“This was obviously one of the bigger secrets that came out when I was researching, even though it wasn’t my mother’s secret.
“She found me really and I have met her and I know her. But she was the completion of this story if you like.”
The discovery of her long-lost cousin, Catherine, is one of the most heart-wrenching of the many compelling stories in Maggie’s book, which is really the tale of an ordinary family living through extraordinary times.
Times that Maggie herself was “pretty ignorant of”.
“It was amazing for me to see how damaging recent history has been for the Irish,” she says.
“The effects of the Famine, were still there in my mother’s time and you could feel them.
“It wasn’t taught in schools but it was there, this fear of it.”
A fear, Maggie believes, that resulted in a “longing for security but also status” which ultimately “fed into the [recent] financial boom” and was of course compounded by the two great struggles of the early 20th century.
“I found the whole period surrounding the War of Independence and the Civil War fascinating,” she continues.
“My mother eventually married an Englishman who became a soldier on the eve of the Second World War.
“That itself was quite an irony I think, but anyway, it meant that we spent some time in various places during the war.
“We were in Egypt, and my mother and I had to be evacuated because of the anti-British sentiment there.
“We then went to Cyprus where the Greek Cypriots were looking for independence.
“There was teargas and bottles and the like being thrown into our garden so we had to leave there too.
“So that was during my childhood and there must have been similar things going on in Ireland during my mother’s childhood yet she never spoke about it even though it was a parallel to what was happening to me.”
Both Maggie’s mother and father survived the war.
Indeed, Maggie’s 97-year-old father is the only critic the writer was worried about showing her latest work to.
“When I got my father to read it I was in a dreadful state,” she says, “because I don’t hold back.
“The whole family is there, warts and all.
“It’s very affectionate but it’s not sentimental.
“So I was anxious about how he felt about his being on the page but he was wonderful.
“He corrected me on a few things but he accepted it,” she says.
No doubt the heroine of the book, Agnes Kavanagh would accept it too, if a little reluctantly.
The English Daughter by Maggie Wadey is published by Sandstone Press
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