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Orla Mackey: ‘Irish people are great storytellers. Take a look around any Irish pub and you’ll see people in deep chat’

Author of Mouthing and 2022 Irish Novel Fair winner gives the impression of an accidental writer: ‘A teacher who writes a bit in between watching Real Housewives’


Along the northern border of Kilkenny lies the small village of Gathabawn, population somewhere upwards of 300 people. At the crossroads sits the cheerful Mackey’s pub, the local church and the adjacent parochial house, which is where I meet local writer Orla Mackey.

Mackey was one of the winners of the 2022 Irish Novel Fair. She was subsequently the subject of an agent bidding war, followed by a publishing bidding war, for her debut novel, Mouthing. The book is a polyphonic novel that tells the story of a small rural Irish village called Ballyrowan through the many and varied voices of its inhabitants. It spans from the 1960s to the 2000s, and so its characters include an equally broad range of people, from closeted nuns, unmarried mothers, alcoholic aunts, emigrants and oppressed women, to exploited priests, adulterous women, lonely people and more. In other words, all human life is here.

Mackey is youthful and sprightly, with a down-to-earth manner and impish sense of humour. By day she works as a schoolteacher in Kilkenny, and still has trouble calling herself a writer. She will go so far as to say she is “a teacher who writes a bit in between watching Real Housewives”. Her reluctance makes sense considering her circuitous route to becoming a published author.

“From the time I was small it would have been a dream to have a book with my name on it but it wasn’t a dream that I ever believed in or pursued,” Mackey says. She wrote stories and poems as a child and was singled out as a talented English student and encouraged to study English at Trinity College, which she did. But instead of inspiring her to write, the experience had an inhibiting effect. It wasn’t quite the “Paul Mescal” experience, she laughs.

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“Everyone who was there felt so much more educated and there was an emphasis on articulated and informed discussion, which I wasn’t able for. So the easiest thing was to be silent and then when you’re silent you feel it’s because you’re less intelligent, you’re less cultured and just less than,” Mackey says.

“It was difficult to negotiate that. The thing with Trinity, especially the English course, is it’s mostly populated by international students and so when you hear your voice you sound like such a hick bogger. More than anything it kind of pushed me away.

“When you’re small you’re reading Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl and you love it, but then when you’re studying Jane Austen and Shakespeare it’s not how I speak or anyone around me speaks. That’s why it was a revelation for me when I came across people like Seán O’Casey.”

Mackey’s book is told in the richly descriptive language of the local people, and calls to mind writers like Donal Ryan and Anne Griffin. The novel opens with a quote from Brendan Kennelly, who was one of the lecturers she could relate to during her time at Trinity.

“I felt so lucky to be in his lovely, gentle, normal-to-me presence. He was someone who was walking the halls and the corridors with an accent that was familiar and he talked about football and hurling ... He was like an uncle,” Mackey says.

This value of representation was one of the reasons she wanted to write a book set in a small rural Irish community. “I think representation is really, really important and more than anything else I want the book to be seen as an honest and truthful representation of rural Ireland and tight-knit communities,” Mackey says.

“I think it’s a voice that is not often heard and I think it’s important that it is heard. There’s this idea that the big stuff of life only happens in cities or towns and it’s absolutely not the case. John McGahern said the local is the universal and it’s so true. Wherever you find people you’re going to find a commonality of experience, you’re going to find grief and loss and complicated relationships and I think village life is a perfect microcosm of that.

“I fully believe this place is as significant as anywhere else and more significant to the people who live here. The place where you are is the most important place. Anywhere else is not fully real because it either exists in memory or in thought.”

Mackey grew up the middle of five children in Gathabawn. The bright yellow Mackey’s bar was her father’s home and has been in their family for five generations. Over the mantelpiece there is a framed letter from 1832 complaining to the Royal Irish Constabulary about brawling, debauchery and rebellion in the area, which Mackey jokes is something of the spirit of Gathabawn. It is here she learned the art of storytelling early on over red lemonade and Tayto.

“I think Irish people are great storytellers. Take a look around any Irish pub and you’ll see people are in such deep chat, and such raucous laughter. That’s not because people are all pissed. It’s because people are really good at telling stories and they really enjoy stories and it happens so naturally. All of these ordinary people became extraordinary in their stories. Or maybe they’re extraordinary to begin with because nobody is ordinary,” Mackey says.

She describes her childhood as a magical one of picking hazelnuts, collecting conkers and building rafts by the river before returning home by dusk. “One of the things that stands out to me from childhood is there was always a man for everything. There was the book man, the coal man, the video man ... We also had what we called a Moving Shop, which was this guy with a blue Hiace van who used to come to the bottom of the road and we’d all collect there to buy stuff,” Mackey explains.

Her primary school had two teachers. “We had limited access to books but the mobile library would come to the village and Mrs Campion would go down from the school and she would know your reading tastes. We had the privilege of growing up in the countryside – lots and lots of freedom, very good neighbours, and very close friends.”

It is this kind of community that Mackey writes about in Mouthing. Was she concerned that her own tight-knit rural community might think she was writing about them? “I am concerned that people are going to imagine that they see themselves in it. I have to keep explaining that this is fiction,” she says. “My idea was to write a village that represented every village across Ireland or any tight-knit community across the world, so I think a lot of people are going to find familiar and relatable themes.”

There is a sense of the accidental writer about Mackey. Despite her early inclinations, it feels like had she not crossed paths with certain people who helped and encouraged her along the way, she might have never returned to writing. She herself describes her path as a “series of fortunate events” that began when another local writer, Paula Leyden, came into her classroom to talk to her students. That visit reignited her old dream of writing. “Paula asked, ‘Did you ever think about writing yourself?’ I said, ‘No no no!’, even though I knew it’s something I always did,” Mackey says. The pair became friends and after taking a beginners’ creative writing course run by the Kilkenny Arts Council, Mackey started having regular dinner and writing nights at Leyden’s house. “A lot of the book was written at her dinner table.”

When Covid-19 hit, Mackey continued the writing habit she had developed. “I didn’t even see it as being a continuation of anything only scribbling and messing. I absolutely didn’t see it as a book,” she says. When lockdown lifted, a weeklong retreat at the river Mill in Co Down led to a chance discovery. “Someone mentioned the Novel Fair so I said, feck it, I’ll do that.” She is currently writing a second novel, based on the character of the undertaker in Mouthing.

Mackey is firmly rooted in her home of Gathabawn, but she also has a huge wanderlust and has travelled all over the world, from Ethiopia to Sri Lanka to Myanmar and Tanzania. “I absolutely love travelling but there’s always a draw to home. I feel this strange thing, it’s almost like you’re living in between the people who have gone before you and the people who are going to come after you, this perpetual community. I think I’m really lucky to have that feeling and I don’t think I’ll get it anywhere else.”

Mouthing by Orla Mackey is published by Hamish Hamilton