"Acclaimed writer reveals her first stories were letters to her granda in Derry."
As a kid, Roisin O’Donnell says she always looked forward to her visits “home” to Derry. The Sheffield-born, Dublin-based short story writer says the summer sojourns spent in her parents’ home town were anticipated with “great excitement.” “For me, Northern Ireland was a paradise where we would spend summers building castles on Knockalla Strand and being spoiled rotten by relatives who only got to see us once a year,” she says. “Tayto crisps, clove rock, brandy balls and Club Orange were the flavours of my childhood summers and I saw Derry-Londonderry as a magical place woven from family stories.”
Roisin - whose debut collection of stories, ‘Wild Quiet’, has just been published by New Island Books - says her parents grew up on “opposite ends of the same long road” in Derry. “They also came from opposite communities in what was, at that time, a more mixed Protestant and Catholic area. My maternal grandad had had fought at the Battle of Al Alamein while my paternal grandfather remembered being in Dublin at the time of the Easter Rising.”
“At school, my mum learned about the Battle of Hastings while dad learned about the Battle of Clontarft. Growing up a short distance from each other, in some ways, they might as well have come from two different cities.”
“Cupid’s arrow” struck for Roisin’s parents in the 1960s. “It wasn’t easy for a ‘mixed’ couple in the Northern Ireland of that time,” she says. “This, coupled with the lack of job opportunities at that time, was one of the reasons why parents moved to England and got married. Yearning for home, after a few years they moved to live in Sheffield because they’d heard that the surrounding Yorkshire countryside looked ‘a bit like Donegal’.
In their house in Sheffield, Roisin says her family were “simply Irish”. “Although my parents were from different communities in the North, the beauty of growing up in England was that, with the benefit of distance, I was able to feel included in both worlds.”
During holidays in Ireland, she says, the family would spend long summer days on the strand at Portstewart, being treated to ice-cream from Morelli’s, fish and chips in Portrush and a trip to Barry’s Amusements. “The dodgems, the Ferris wheel, the ghost train with its host of illumious-green-and-pink plastic ghouls - all of this was heaven. Sometimes we would rent a house in Inishowen for a fortnight and, once, we stayed in a house on Inch Island. The place was like a time warp, with saints watching us from the walls and a turf fire in the grate, and from the windows we had a view down to the lake and its colony of swans.”
When she was in her mid-20s, Roisin lived in the North for a year while attending university. During her first week in the city, she spent all her free time walking the city, “gradually getting to know the streets where my grandparents and parents had walked.”During her first week in the city, she spent all her free time walking the city, “gradually getting to know the streets where my grandparents and parents had walked.” However, she says, living in the North only reinforced her status both as an outsider and as, somewhat, of an anomaly.
She recalls: “With a name like Roisín, people would generally presume I was Catholic and would then give me funny looks when I casually mentioned calling over to my aunt’s house in the Waterside - a largely Protestant neighbourhood - for dinner. It made me realise that being equally comfortable in the living rooms of both Northern Irelands is not that common in some areas.”
Roisin acknowledges that, while always loving Northern Ireland, for years she avoided writing about it, feeling “crippled by a feeling of inadequacy”. “Not having grown up there, I felt that I didn’t have the right to say anything about it.” Eventually, however - with the urge to articulate something of her connection with her ancestral home pursuing her - she found her voice in a story called Ebebezer's Memories.
Recently Roisín was commissioned to write a story for a new anthology by women from the North of Ireland, which will be published by New Island Books in September. "I think the title of the anthology – The Glass Shore – beautifully articulates the fragility of the invisible boundaries in the North," she says. "For me, Northern Ireland is still one of my favourite places in the world, home of so many beautiful landscapes, warm and friendly people and happy childhood memories. I hope these invisible boundaries will one day fade away. "
“I will always feel a strong connection with the North, and I’ll always yearn for a deeper understanding of my family roots.” Roisín says her first “stories” were letters she used to dictate to her mum who would write them down and send them to her granddad in Derry. “Writing to the North was my first instinct as a writer, and, when I wrote my first novel at the age of fifteen, it was an awful across-the-barricades romance set in the Troubles. Looking back, I see this as my first scrambling attempt to articulate my feelings towards Northern Ireland; something I’ve been trying to do ever since.”
Roisin O’Donnell’s debut story collection, ‘Wild Quiet’, has just been published by New Island Books
This article first appeared in the Derry Journal on Friday June 24th, 2016.