Maeve Higgins: Time out of place — an emigrant’s story of having a foot in both lands

Maeve Higgins talks to writer Carmel McMahon's about the influences that informed her memoir 'In Ordinary Time'
Maeve Higgins: Time out of place — an emigrant’s story of having a foot in both lands

Carmel McMahon's debut book 'In Ordinary Time' was published this week. Picture: Lauren Carroll/Instagram

Carmel McMahon, whose debut book In Ordinary Time was published this week, has a strong sense of where she came from and where she has been. It took leaving and returning to Ireland for her to find that sense of place, and the sense of self that comes naturally with it.

In 1993, McMahon was one of thousands of young people who left Ireland for New York. She was just 20. Now, almost 30 years later, she has returned to live in Mayo and it’s there she completed work on this memoir. Such clarity in writing does not come easily to a writer, but as a reader this book left me with a feeling of peace.

My reaction struck me as unusual, considering some of the subjects of this memoir: tragic deaths of family members, alcoholism, mental illness, the Famine, colonisation, and the way historical abuses of power by the State and the Catholic church show up in our individual lives to this day.

I suspect the peace I discovered reading In Ordinary Time came from the reminder that the cycles we’re all in can be broken, and they can also be repaired.

The book begins at St Brigid’s Church in the East Village in New York City, where an Irish woman named Grace Farrell died an alcoholic death in the church’s portal in 2011 on a freezing February night. As McMahon investigated more about Grace Farrell and her life, she looked deeper into her own life, and the larger social structures that shaped them both.

I spoke to McMahon last week, our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Maeve Higgins: Can you speak about how your own personal story reverberates with all of these bigger forces you’ve learned about through the years?

Carmel McMahon: Around 2012, I had a kind of breakdown in New York and I started analysis at the Jung Center. That process brought up all this stuff that I hadn’t looked at in my life, like my sister’s death, my brother’s death, all of these things that I had numbed with alcohol use. So when I started writing, I had no idea what it was about or where it was going, but I knew it was something. I knew something was pressing itself out of me. I could see that there were so many connections between things. So, I was just trying to put a puzzle together, if you like, to figure out how all these things were connected.

MH: Family is one of these structures that shape us all, and you write about your family. Have they read the book, and if so, how did they react?.

CMcM (laughing) Some have, my older brother said ‘I don’t care what you say. I’ve never read a book in my life. I’m not going to start now.’ But my other brother and sister loved it. My nieces and nephews read it and they said it helped them to understand something more about the family, and that was wonderful. But my mom didn’t read it, she’s not able to and I don’t blame her. My dad did and I changed one thing he spotted that wasn’t accurate. I was so afraid to show it to them, it was one of the big steps in the process, but they were very supportive.

MH: Like many emigrants, you lived with a foot in two worlds for a long time. How did your life in the US form your work?

CMcM: Living in America, you’re exposed to all of these different struggles. I went to school at City College, which is a public university, and often the conversations we had there were around indigenous rights and the fact that the country is built on slavery and genocide.

That is in the fabric of society, and I really studied the history and became more aware of the land I was standing on.

Today, just across the road from where we live in Mayo, there is a little village of abandoned houses. I wonder what happened there? Whatever land you stand on, you think about the people who were there before you, and the kinds of lives they lived in, and the ghosts of that place.

MH: On those connections to the past and the land, it’s interesting that you divide the book into sections according to the Celtic calendar. I was so moved by how you wrote about those connections, and also how you managed to rediscover them. What was that process like?

CMcM: While I was in Jungian analysis, I learned that being cut off from your ancestral past is a kind of wounding.

This is something I always felt but could not access or articulate until writing the book.

We shouldn’t idealise the past or make it something it wasn’t, but there are ideas that can be helpful to us — like the idea of the cycles.

The idea of time moving in cycles rather than in a linear way shows that all things are connected.

Most families experience things like emigration, addiction, mental illness, grief, and loss. And the book is about all these things, but it is primarily about reconnection to the self, to other beings, to nature, to those who came before us and those who will come after.

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