Nadine Dorries: My Mersey-Irish trilogy is far from a misery memoir

Without my grandmother, her influence and the time I spent in the west of Ireland, I would never have picked up a pen to write

 

I have always known that my Irish heritage made my childhood special. Born and raised on a Liverpool council estate in the 1960s, my school term times were exciting enough and filled with wonderful characters of Irish extraction, but an occasional win on the bingo for my nana, Nellie Deane, led us straight on the ferry across to Dublin, for a visit to the place she always called home, despite having lived in Liverpool from the age of 18 until the day she died, at 69.

We may have been poor, times may have been tough, but much that was good in my childhood was provided by my nana, and what a legend she was. The happiness on her face, as the boat docked in Dublin, was a joy to behold.

I would often be lying, fast asleep in our Liverpool home, only to be woken, late at night, by my nana, buoyed up by Guinness, singing in my room. She would be trying to open the drawers in the press as quietly as she could, so as not to waken me, while she packed my bag.

Can you imagine my excitement? A bleary-eyed child, being told that I would not be attending school the following day, but was off on the boat to Ireland, for an extended holiday? That for a time, our concrete maisonette, overcrowded school, shops and pubs, would be replaced by a farm, a river to paddle in, a donkey to call my own and nothing but fields in which to roam.

Nellie Deane was born, one of 12, in a one-roomed farm cottage, in a remote part of the west of Ireland. The nearest village boasted a shop, a butcher with a pub to the rear, hidden behind a hessian curtain, a tobacconist, a tailor and a real pub, The Talk of The Town. Except that there was no town.

The village was full of relatives and they were the most warm-hearted, generous and unselfconsciously funny people I have ever encountered. Without my grandmother, her influence and the time I spent in the west of Ireland, I would never have picked up a pen to write. As soon as I did these characters and experiences flowed into my stories – I always knew I wanted to write about this world I was lucky enough to grow up in.

On one occasion, Nellie Deane made me an accidental kidnapping by failing to return me to Liverpool. It was just too easy to stay. This resulted in my uncle (the only relative in Liverpool with a telephone) calling an Irish auntie, who owned the tailor’s shop, who relayed the message, via the pub at the back of the butcher’s shop, who sent a boy on a bike.

“You have to bring Nadine back, she has to go to school,” he said. A short message was scrawled back and returned with the boy on the bike. “She is in school.” My nana lied, but, unable to live with the guilt, she hauled me to the village school and I became the only girl in the class with a Liverpool accent.

When I finally did return to Liverpool, my peers did not believe that I had ridden to school on a donkey, that some of the children had turned up without shoes and that when you got something wrong, you were smacked across the hands with a cane, which, according to my cousin Maura, was actually a splintered piece of wood that had split away from the side of the press.

Nellie Deane read the tea leaves. As I sat by her side, in my auntie’s farm kitchen, I remember her every word. “Put plenty of sugar in now and swill the cup around three times and then tip it upside down, quick, to keep the magic in.” And when she was finished, we all went off to Mass. One of the main characters in my books, Nana Kathleen, is based on Nellie Deane. But although I’m currently writing the third book in the trilogy – I feel that I have only just begun to scratch the surface of her life.

My new book, Hide Her Name, deals with big issues of abuse, poverty, religion and life’s struggles but it is not a misery memoir, far from it. It is an often humorous tale of how people from poor Irish communities, who settled in Liverpool in the 1950s, survived and supported each other in a way born of a unique generosity of spirit. The books also explore the secret powers which enabled the establishment to steal the lives and babies from young Irish women, not all of whom were as lucky as my grandmother. I do understand that this new book may upset some readers, but until we accept the reality of a darkness, which stalked the homes of many poor children, there can be no closure or reform.

My story centres around two young girls, Nellie (I had to name a young character after her) and Kitty, and we follow their heart-wrenching, but touching story – continuing on from my debut novel The Four Streets which was published earlier this year. Hide Her Name is largely set on the windy west coast and in a convent laundry, masquerading as a mother and baby home. Many of the places and scenes are lifted directly from my memories and those of my family.

The trilogy ends in the farmhouse where my nana was born, which still stands today and remains the most special place in my childhood. As I wrote the last chapter, it was difficult to see for the tears. I know that I will return, at some time in the future, to the place and the people who lived a life that is now lost to the modern world, but which I was so lucky to experience, before it was gone.

Hide Her Name by Nadine Dorries (Head of Zeus, €14.50). Dorries is the Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire.

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