Ann Ingle: ‘People don’t think about older people as exciting’

Author talks about her memoir, Openhearted, and defying expectations as she gets older

Ann Ingle has published her first book at the age of 82. That book, Openhearted, tells the story of her life with her late husband, Peter, as they grappled with eight children, insecure finances and his serious mental illness. It's a beautiful book. Each chapter is interwoven with essays on subjects like activism, writing, aging, reading, religion, intergenerational cohabiting and education. This means that the sadness of the core narrative is uplifted by the knowledge that she, and her children, survived it all to be thoughtful, balanced people. "[That structure] was conscious," she says. "A lot of people said to me, 'You made me cry' which means I have touched a nerve somewhere, but I didn't want it to be all misery, 'Ann's Ashes'."

We’re sitting in her bedroom/office in the house she shares with her daughter Katie and Katie’s family, or her “housemates” as she refers to them in her book. I’ve known Ann for a few years through another daughter, Róisín, who writes for this paper. Ann is warm, funny and, like the best writers, a careful listener. When I arrive, she’s been doing the crossword, which is on the large screen she needs because of macular degeneration. Recently she was going to the doctor to get an injection for her “wonky” knee when she fell and broke her wrist, which is in a cast. “It’s hard growing old,” she says.

These challenges aren’t faced by younger writers. “I wish now I had started earlier. It would have been great if I had. I just didn’t have time. I was too busy doing things, getting on with life.”

In a way though, she's been heading towards authorship the whole time. She has always been an avid reader. As a young mother, she took on typing work and worked on manuscripts for Frank McGuinness, Mary Lavin and the son of Agnes Burnell, who brought her reams of science fiction stories to type up. "I wish I had copies of it now."

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As supervisor of Sandymount Community Services, she edited the community newspaper News Four for several years until she retired at 66. ("I would have kept going forever"). She did writing courses at the People's College and the Irish Writers Centre, and is part of an informal writers group called PS Writers. A few years ago, to her surprise, her friend Paul Howard suggested her as a ghost writer for the rally driver Rosemary Smith's memoir, Driven.

Peter was a charismatic young tearaway with a beautiful voice

Yet she would never have published her own book if Róisín hadn't mentioned her memoirs in one of her columns. Patricia Deevy from Penguin Sandycove got in touch, and a book was born. Why was she writing about her life at all? "For my grandchildren, so that they'd know what happened in my life . And I had reams of it but not the kind of thing that you could publish ... I wanted them to know what happened to their grandfather, why they didn't have a grandfather to be with."

It's clear why she got a book deal. She writes beautifully and her story is very moving. Ann, a Londoner, met Peter, a Dubliner, in Cornwall when she was a young beatnik ("I was cool!"). She knew him as Patrick Byrne, only discovering his real name and age on her wedding day. He had, it turned out, adopted the identity of a neighbour to get a job at a brewery. Peter was a charismatic young tearaway with a beautiful voice. They moved to Dublin to start their family.

“It was a complete culture shock,” she says. “I lived in London. I worked in the West End… I was up there every day. And even though [Dublin] was a capital city, it wasn’t anything like London... Everybody knew what everybody else was doing. In London, you’re anonymous ... I stuck out. That’s the way I felt. I looked different. I spoke differently. I was a bit of an anomaly. I’m not saying I didn’t feel welcome. I wouldn’t have stayed here if I didn’t.”

'It was all about me wanting to be something, wanting to be artistic director of the show to express myself.'

Married life was difficult. Peter could never generate a steady income. She took any jobs she could and people were kind to her. Her son Eddie thinks she should have written more about money, she says, because he’s amazed they could survive at all. “My friend Sister Agnes used to come with this big black handbag and the Sacred Heart Messenger would come out and the five pound notes,” she says. “I remember the first five pound note she gave me I actually burst into tears because it was one of those days when things were really bad ... I think she knew in her heart I’d never really embrace the Lord. But she didn’t care really, we became such good friends.”

She always had artistic leanings. There's a picture on her wall of the family with all of the children wearing costumes. "At Christmas time, I had this thing about doing a little play ... I would get Sister Agnes to come and be in the audience and invite other children in and do the plays ... One year Sister Agnes was coming and she brought a priest from Ringsend and then someone said 'the priest was talking about you on the pulpit about your children and the play.' And I said, 'Oh, this is great. He must have thought it was really good.' But no, he was given the sermon about how a mother's love could project all this and think those children were so great!" She laughs. "It was all about me wanting to be something, wanting to be artistic director of the show to express myself."

Peter was increasingly unwell. He went from being paranoid to being frighteningly delusional. He was in and out of hospital. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He received electroconvulsive therapy. He was heavily medicated and depressed. She can see, in retrospect, that the signs of his illness were there very early on. “But I didn’t see them and I hate the fact that I didn’t.”

'The last year of our life was different from the others. It was lovely. And in a way that made it even harder when he went, because I thought we were over the worst'

Throughout it all, Ann felt ignored and patronised by the mental health establishment. “I was badly treated,” she says. “I was angry because I thought I should have been given more information. [Once] he stands up and gives a lecture to all of them and tells them that he is God and he will save them and they let them him walk out of [hospital] and come home to me. It doesn’t make sense ... Mental health is still a taboo but it was horrific at the time. You couldn’t say, ‘Oh, my husband thinks he’s Jesus and it’s all very sad.’ It wasn’t done. We hid those kinds of things. And even today people are not as open as they should be about it. We all suffer in one way or another from things in their heads. It’s such a complicated thing, isn’t it, the mind?”

There are a lot of turns in the story that are very well told in the book. Eventually a kind social welfare officer, Mr Duffy, suggested that Ann take Peter to a more empathic doctor named Dr Mark Hartmann. "The last year of our life was different from the others," she says. "And it was better. It was lovely. And in a way that made it even harder when he went, because I thought we were over the worst."

Peter died by suicide on the September 25th, 1980. He wrote his last words in a small, slightly ragged Ladybird book called Play with Us that was on the kitchen table. He wrote it at the page that says, ‘I like Peter’.”

It’s desperately sad. She believes that for Peter, in his distressed state, this seemed like the right thing to do. Tears come into her eyes as she’s talking about this. “When he went, I was heartbroken. I can tell you that the first couple of years, it was really terrible. And the children as well had to face up with the whole thing. But I would never say anything bad about him or anybody else who takes their own life.” Later she says, “He was a very special person.”

Was it difficult to write about all this? “Writing it down is hard,” says Ann. “But I’ve read it for Audible and that was really hard ... You can’t help it, your feelings come through. I was with Róisín yesterday and she was actually reading some of the book out to me ... And as she was reading it to me, I was getting a bit emotional. I mean, it’s a long, long time ago, for God’s sake, I should be well over it. And I am over it because I got on with my life.”

Have her family read the book yet? “Some of [the children] read it and some of my grandchildren have read it ... I think they were quite amazed. One of my grandchildren read it and got on the phone to me for about half an hour asking me questions. It was wonderful. But she said, ‘I found it very interesting, but I don’t think my friends will, because I know you.’” she laughs. “I said, ‘I hope you’re wrong about that.’”

She is very proud of her family. “They’re the best people in the world, each one of them. The amazing thing is how well they’ve done ... Coming from all that mayhem, the older ones especially could have gone off the rails. But they’re all good, good people.”

'It isn't all over because we've got all these memories. We've got all these things inside us'

Openhearted has a sad story at its core but it’s also about how people aren’t defined by the tragedy in their lives. Ann writes about the Repeal the Eighth campaign and her own experience of abortion and activism. She writes about sex and art and technology. She writes about education and her own growing confidence. In the early 1990s she went to Trinity and got a degree as a mature student. “You’re in awe of people with degrees and think ‘They must be so clever’ and you think ‘If I got a degree, I’d be really clever.’ And I got a degree and I wasn’t any cleverer than I was before.” She laughs. “I wanted to be an intellectual and it didn’t work for me. I loved being there. It was great fun. But did it change me? No. I’m still the eejit I always was.”

She also writes very potently about aging. “People don’t think about older people as exciting,” she says. “They’ve had it, they’re passed it, they’re invisible ... But, of course, that’s not true ... You’ve got a person who has lived a whole lifetime, they’ve done so many things, they’ve experienced so much, and yet, we say to them, ‘Just stay in your house, there’s your walking stick, be quiet now, it’s all over’. But it isn’t all over because we’ve got all these memories. We’ve got all these things inside us. And, unfortunately, not everybody is able to do what I have just done. So I think they should be encouraged.”

She sometimes wishes she was physically able to help people the way she could when she was younger. Isn’t writing a new way she can help people? “That’s a nice way of looking at it,” she says, “that people might get some help from this. I think it’s refreshing for people to hear an old lady saying these things about life and sex and whatever she’s been through, because we don’t get the opportunity to speak out like that.”

I tell her that not everyone would be able to be so direct and honest even if they had the opportunity. She laughs. “It wasn’t like I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to be direct and honest ... I just can’t not be direct and honest.’ And the other thing is, I’m 82. What can anyone do to me?”

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