Writer’s Block with Patricia O’Reilly

Sophie Grenham speaks to author PATRICIA O’REILLY about early reading, an Irish Cinderella and the Rose of Tralee …

 

Dubliner Patricia O’Reilly is a writer of historical fiction with six novels published so far, as well as five books of non-fiction. She is also a teacher of writing with posts in University College Dublin, the Irish Writers’ Centre, literary festivals and beyond. O’Reilly’s forté is her evocative depictions of real women who led remarkable lives. She is an expert on Irish designer Eileen Gray, on whom two of her books are based. Time & Destiny (2003) brings us from 1970s New York to 1920s Paris, after antiques specialist Jack Devine discovers that Yves Saint Laurent paid a record sum for Gray’s Le Destin lacquer screen. The Interview (2014) is an imagining of her meeting with Fleet Street star Bruce Chatwin in 1972.

A Type of Beauty: the story of Kathleen Newton (2010) follows her subject’s love affair with French artist James Tissot, and was longlisted for the Historical Novel Society Award. Her other novels are Once Upon a Summer (2000) and Felicity’s Wedding (2001). Her non-fiction titles include Earning Your Living from Home (1996), Working Mothers (1997) and Writing for Success (2006). She has worked as a freelance feature writer, and has created radio documentaries, plays and broadcast scores of pieces for RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies.

O’Reilly’s latest novel, The First Rose of Tralee, is the story of Mary O’Connor, a servant girl who stole the heart of William Pembroke Mulchinock. He was the young master of West Villa and she is the inspiration behind the annual Rose of Tralee International Festival. As the daughter of a shoemaker who grew up observing her parents’ hard existences, Mary becomes witness to a different world when she begins work in the Pembroke Mulchinock household. Meanwhile, The Great Famine is imminent. Daniel O’Connell is holding phenomenal rallies, inspiring the masses, and pushing for the Repeal of the 1801 Union between Britain and Ireland. O’Reilly’s nimble storytelling places you into the shoes of her characters with admirable subtlety and before you know it, you’re swept up in an unforgettable period in Irish history.

Patricia O’Reilly lives in Goatstown, Dublin with her husband. She is currently writing her next book. Early bird tickets for Historical Fiction with Patricia O’Reilly can be purchased here: www.irishwriterscentre.ie

The First Rose of Tralee (€15.99) is published by Poolbeg Press and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in Goatstown with my husband – the area is steeped in history. During the 19th century goats bred here were big business – people with consumption took a charabanc from the city to take the cure of goats’ milk; the Goat Pub was a well-known shebeen, still is a landmark; “big houses” abounded. The Airfield estate was donated to the State by the Overend sisters – Letitia was regularly seen driving her open-topped Rolls Royce, hat held firmly in place with a chiffon scarf tied under her chin. Goatstown has a thriving community spirit, several schools, restaurants and local businesses.

On roots

I grew up in Roslyn on Roebuck Road, around the corner from where I live now. It was a house of pale parquet floors and beautiful gardens with a rockery snaking alongside the front path and a greenhouse in the back; pot plants and vases of flowers; the taste of my mother’s coffee cake; meals centred on my father’s comings and going to his mysterious office in the city; parties in the garden when we played Red Rover, Blind man’s Buff and skipping; banana sandwiches oozing strawberry jam for “running around” tea on Sundays; weekly Irish dance lessons with Miss Boylan despairing over my lack of rhythm.

On early reading

My recollection is of my mother sitting by the fire reading bedtime stories from a book of Irish fairy tales – The Salmon of Knowledge particularly appealed. Grimm’s Fairy Tales with harrowing stories about The Children of Lir and Rapunzel were terrifying, but my appetite for stories was whetted. Taught by my mother, I read at an early age, asked for books from Santa Claus, and was happiest tucked into a corner reading. I devoured the Katy series and the Chalet School books. When I was about eleven my father ordered The Complete Works of Shakespeare from London – it is well-thumbed, with pencil notes in the margins and today it has pride of place on my bookshelves.

On creating

I’ve turned the tiniest room in the house into my office/study. Its decor is red – as is Edna O’Brien’s – red velvet armchair, red carpet and red wall hung with framed covers of my books. Another wall has shelves of reference books and box files, an L-shaped built-in desk in mahogany and a swivel chair. Underneath the big window looking out to the Goatstown Road is the bookcase I brought with me from Roslyn – holding copies of my books. There’s a cartoon of me in conversation with God, lucky charms from South America and China, cards from my daughter erroneously extolling my maternal virtues, a carving from my son’s travels in Africa, drawings by my grandsons, a photo of my husband bottle-feeding a lamb. It’s my favourite room, but when the sun is out my laptop and I wander from room to room in search of its warming rays.

On independent bookshops

Dubray in Stillorgan is my local bookshop and the one that charts my life in books. I drop in to merely browse, but end up with an armful of highly recommended reads that never disappoint. It is where I introduced my children the magic of book buying and sewed the seeds of their adult reading. Squatting on the floor my grandchildren introduced me to the Mr Men series – Mr Greedy reducing them to gales of giggles, before progressing onto the diaries of that Wimpy Kid. Like a bee to honey I’m drawn to bookshops wherever I happen to be: Woulfe’s in Listowel is a treat of old and new, Bridge Street Books in Wicklow is friendly and stylish, O’Mahony’s in Limerick, Ennis and Tralee is long-established, and Charlie Byrne’s in Galway oozes atmosphere.

On her “To Be Read” pile

Knowing the angst and long hours that go into writing and editing a book to publication standard, I feel all books that make it into a bookshop or have a presence online deserve to have a place on my “To Be Read” list, but of course that’s not possible. I am an eclectic reader, jumping from one genre to another, but currently favouring the Art Deco era: reading Michael Dean’s The White Crucifixion, the story of Marc Chagall, and Painted Ladies by Lynn Bushell, about the ladies loved by Pierre Bonnard. I enjoy racy thrillers, such as Jane Ryan’s 47 Seconds, Maria Hoey’s On Bone Bridge. I am interested in Irish writers – John Boyne, Laura Elliot (June Considine), Donal Ryan, Louise Phillips, Liz Nugent and Kevin Barry.

On escapes

How does that poem go? “The sea, oh the sea is the gradh geal mo chroide.” The sea is my go-to place. I wouldn’t be the most peaceful of people but the sea soothes. As children we holidayed in Brittas Bay where every day the sun shone from a cloudless sky. Nowadays we return to walk the beach and the sands are as golden as I remember. I get a quick fix from walking the east pier in Dun Laoghaire and having an ice cream in Teddy’s. But we have discovered a beach in Lanzarote, a mile long stretch of golden sands, and have been visiting the hotel perched on it during the winter for many years.

On The First Rose of Tralee

I first heard of Mary O’Connor as a child on holidays in Tralee. I was fascinated at the idea of the master of the big house falling in love with a servant girl – an Irish Cinderella. The seeds didn’t blossom until four years ago when I checked out what had been written about her and who had done the writing. On discovering her story had not been written in novel form, I began researching. For me the most rewarding part of the exercise was researching facts of Ireland pre-Famine and the influence of Daniel O’Connell, as well breathing life into Mary O’Connor and William Mulchinock. I was taken aback by the lack of enthusiasm for the project from some of the Rose of Tralee committee members, but I’ve come to understand the importance of the branding of the Roses and the Festival.

On the Rose of Tralee International Festival

The Festival may have started primarily as a beauty pageant, but over the years it has evolved, kept a-pace with changing times. This year the Festival celebrates 60 years. It draws contestants from the Irish Diaspora worldwide who are vocal, well educated young women with a penchant for good works, as well as being pleasing on the eye. The Festival has its detractors with mutters of exploitation, etc, but it has put Tralee on the international map, bringing economic and commercial growth to the town, given pride to its people. The Rose Hotel refurbished by the Henggelers is in memory of their daughter Dott, the 2011 Washington DC Rose, who died of a brain tumour.

On what’s next

Teaching a course titled Writing Fiction in UCD, a workshop on writing historical fiction in the Irish Writers’ Centre and a master class at Bray Literary Festival. I am well started on my next book – researching and writing the story of Irish artist William Orpen (1878-1931) who grew up in Stillorgan, Co Dublin. I am concentrating on his time as official British War Artist during the First World War and the women he loved. I’ve assistance from the National Gallery and National Library as well as the Imperial War Museum in London and am deep into reading war diaries which have me in awe of the courage and bravery of the ordinary soldier.

@SophieGrenham

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