How Hilary Fannin went from mature student to dazzling debutante

The John McGahern Book Prize winner and Irish Times columnist on her long path to writing

Hilary Fannin: left school at 16, finding the 1970s’ Irish educational system a cold house for those, like herself, who wished to explore their creativity or for whom rigid rules proved unbearable. Photograph:  Crispin Rodwell

Hilary Fannin: left school at 16, finding the 1970s’ Irish educational system a cold house for those, like herself, who wished to explore their creativity or for whom rigid rules proved unbearable. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

 

It is not surprising that Hilary Fannin, this year’s winner of the Institute of Irish Studies’ John McGahern Book Prize for debut work of Irish fiction, should ally herself so closely with Fighting Words, the Roddy Doyle-led organisation committed to making creative writing available to all.

Fighting Words’ mission statement tells us that it is “about using the creative practice of writing and storytelling to strengthen our children and teenagers – from a wide range of backgrounds – to be resilient, creative and successful shapers of their own lives”.

And Fannin knows all about such resilience, having left school at 16, finding the 1970s’ Irish educational system a cold house for those, like herself, who wished to explore their creativity or for whom rigid rules proved unbearable. She was brought up in a loving but chaotic home, as she outlines in her 2015 memoir Hopscotch, and announces to me with sly understatement during our Bloomsday conversation that she “was not a particularly compliant person.”

It would be more than four decades until Fannin returned to formal education, when she enrolled on the masters degree programme in creative writing at Trinity College Dublin under the warmly supportive mentorship of Deirdre Madden. The whole experience was, recalls Fannin, “mindblowing”, and, having been away from an academic environment for 40 years, she found it difficult to accept that she “had a right to be there”. It is all the more remarkable, then, that at the age of 58 she last year published her prizewinning first novel, The Weight of Love.

But Fannin – as readers of this newspaper will well know – is no novice of the writer’s art, having supplied a quirky Irish Times column for many years. The column resulted from Fannin’s work as a playwright, begun under the watchful eye of the British dramatist Bernard Kops via a magically affordable City Lit course in London of the early 1990s.

The London of that time is brought vividly to the fore in The Weight of Love where the lives of two young Irish teachers, Ruth and Robin, intersect with that of the basement-dwelling bohemian, Joseph. It is a cityscape that will be familiar to many Irish people of a particular generation: rainy nights in Soho, falling in love in Camden Town, the cold wind of the Euston Road.

Fannin had her first play, Mackerel Sky, produced in London’s Bush Theatre in 1997 before going on to critical plaudits with Doldrum Bay in Dublin’s Peacock in 2003. Impressed by the play’s ability to capture that time’s particular zeitgeist, The Irish Times came with the offer of work, first writing on TV and later expanding into the current popular weekly column.

The Weight of Love is, at its core, a reflection on how we deal with the intensity of youth and our memories of those times as we muddle through middle age and all of its vicissitudes
The Weight of Love is, at its core, a reflection on how we deal with the intensity of youth and our memories of those times as we muddle through middle age and all of its vicissitudes

This talent for isolating the mood of the moment is carried through into the novel, which divides its time between London of 1995 and Dublin of 2018. One of the things that The Weight of Love made me reflect on was the ways in which that period of less than 25 years actually represents something more like an historical aeon than a generation: the dividing line here is no longer the AD and BC of the birth of Christ but the years before and after the coming of the smart phone. As someone who came to adulthood in the years before the march of that ubiquitous device, the London passages left me feeling nostalgic for a past free of surveillance, a world rich with the possibilities of anonymity.

The novel becomes, at its core, a reflection on how we deal with the intensity of youth and our memories of those times as we muddle through middle age and all of its vicissitudes: “courteous, twitchy” marriages, wayward children, bourgeois barbecues.

Ruth, who has never adequately healed herself of the scars of an intense if brief love affair, cannot rid herself of memory’s power, having settled into a functional, if tepid, married life: “Monogamy, Ruth considered, is fatally flawed… You cannot forget the past. You cannot monogamize memory.”

Ultimately, Ruth decides that life, like politics, is a game we cannot win: “we all fail. In the end. I don’t think there’s another option.” But, despite that rather downbeat assessment, it would be inaccurate to pigeonhole this novel as a portrait in misery. It is lively, acutely observed, frequently funny and leaves one wanting to see how things work out for these people at a crossroads some version of which most of us will face in life.

The Dublin of 2018 that is the setting for the majority of the book is a place still scarred by economic collapse and yet now accelerating again at unsustainable speed, leaving behind a whole new generation, as embodied in one neighbourhood pub: “Reborn now in the Republic of hip, it was a place that served craft beers to sleek young Dubliners who paid cruel rents to live so close to the city.” It is a grimly familiar tale. Dublin is now, fears Fannin, becoming hollowed out, denuded of cultural creativity, and Ireland, once again, becomes Joyce’s old sow that eats its farrow.

Fannin, born in 1962, stands as a marvellous example to any budding writer out there keen to bring their fiction into the light for the first time. Her influences are catholic, with Joni Mitchell and David Bowie as important to her artistic sensibility as Anne Enright or Anton Chekhov. And though this is her first novel it will assuredly not be her last. In addition to currently working on her fiction, Fannin is adapting Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun for the Rough Magic theatre group and pulling together a collection of essays based on her newspaper column.

All things considered, one might read this explosion of activity as a remarkable late flowering and yet that does not sound quite right. “New” writing does not have to mean “young” writing and debutantes can emerge whenever and from wherever. Far from being an end, The Weight of Love, must be seen as a beginning, and one awaits with excitement all that is to come.

Frank Shovlin is professor of Irish literature at the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool and editor of Faber & Faber’s Letters of John McGahern, to be published in September

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