Rachael English: ‘I totally understand why people do writing therapy’

Rachel English: “I remember when my first book was published going on holidays a couple of weeks later, and just being a complete wreck.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

“I didn’t really know anything,” says Rachael English, the acclaimed RTÉ journalist, whose job on Morning Ireland means knowing quite a bit about a great many things. But she’s not talking about her day job as a current affairs broadcaster. English is referring to her other career as the author of five books including her latest, The Paper Bracelet. “I didn’t know anything about writing and I knew even less about publishing. When I think about it now I was really dumb.”

That was back when her writing dream was a secret project and the only people who knew she was trying to write were her husband and fellow journalist Eamon Quinn, and her mother Ruth. In 2012, the newshound made the news herself when it was announced she’d earned a two-book deal with English publisher Orion, joining Kathleen MacMahon and Sinéad Crowley in the RTÉ ranks of broadcasters turned authors.

At the time, reports declared the deal was a “significant six figure sum”, but sitting in the Little Museum of Dublin, she insists that was “completely exaggerated”. It wasn’t enough to give up the day job she says, but it was enough to “concentrate my mind”.

Surprisingly, she has unhappy memories of publishing her first book, an experience which almost turned her off the burgeoning alternative career.

“The amount of people who have said to me lately, oh you are so lucky you have that other thing...

“I hadn’t appreciated what it would be like dealing with people in London that I didn’t know. I found it quite awkward. And then the editor left and another one came and then she was on maternity leave. I didn’t know anybody . . . I think compared to being in my nice, safe workplace where I know everybody and know how journalism works. If I ring somebody on our team they are not going to be saying, sorry who are you?”

She says this last part – “sorry who are you?” – in a London accent, imitating a confused publishing assistant. Even being English by name and English by birth – she was raised in Co Clare but born in “Brexit central” Lincolnshire where her mother is from – she still felt a little alienated by her dealings with England.

“I hated the whole experience so much that I remember when my first book was published going on holidays a couple of weeks later, and just being a complete wreck,” she says.

Her loyal readers of books such as Going Back, Each and Every One and The Night of the Party are thankful she persevered. After Orion, she began working with Irish publisher Hachette, which brought out her book The American Girl and two more including The Paper Bracelet, which also has a British publisher. Her writing success has allowed her to go part-time at RTÉ; for the past three years she has presented Morning Ireland for two days a week.

Broadcasting career

In the wake of news late last year about closures and cutbacks in RTÉ, she feels more fortunate than ever to have her writing. “The amount of people who have said to me lately, oh you are so lucky you have that other thing . . .”

After a 20-year career in broadcasting, last November was the first time she felt a sense of doom about the future of radio. “Before I thought ‘oh the telly people will be gone and everything else will be gone but we will probably still be here. People still listen to the radio.’ But that was the first time I remember it really struck me that actually that may not be the case.”

While acknowledging that radio news is “core” to what RTÉ does, another of her realisations was that among the general public “there’s a very limited pool of goodwill” for the broadcaster. “It’s not like a hospital in danger of closing. . . it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things when it comes down to it, alternatives will be found.”

After a 20-year career in broadcasting, last November was the first time she felt a sense of doom about the future of radio

The announcement of cutbacks felt like a watershed moment. “Something did kind of crack . . . there was a sense that nobody really knew what was happening and everything felt out of control. It was the first time I had that sense, that oh God, this thing that I’ve been doing all these years, it won’t continue.”

So does the writing career feel like ballast against that uncertainty? Does she feel lucky?

“I always think of writing more in terms of luck mental-health wise,” she says. “I totally understand why people do workshops and writing therapy, because it’s so important for people that there is this little thing you have control over and it’s your world, and at least you have control over that much.”

Rachel English: Radio news is “core” to what RTÉ does, but “there’s a very limited pool of goodwill” for the broadcaster. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Rachel English: Radio news is “core” to what RTÉ does, but “there’s a very limited pool of goodwill” for the broadcaster. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Just over 10 years ago, when she had a health issue, control of any kind proved elusive. She discovered there was a growth in her throat due to an overactive thyroid gland, but “when you are told there’s a growth . . . you think, well that’s it now, measure the coffin”.

The condition made her “manic”. She remembers going to the doctor “bordering on hysterical” and not able to speak. “The doctor was fantastic. She made me sit in the corner facing a wall, I was so anxious . . .”

The growth, she says, was functioning “almost as an additional thyroid gland” and impacted her mental health. “So I really thought I was losing my mind, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stop shaking . . . I thought I was going mad.” She had surgery and radiation treatment, and while there have been no lasting effects, “at the time I thought it was the end of the world”.

After our interview, I email English to ask her about the recent death of her colleague Keelin Shanley. "Keelin's death had an enorous impact because she was 'one of us'. She was a working journalist who still had a lot more to do. When her cancer came back, her doctor advised her to leave Morning Ireland because the hours didn't suit someone with such a serious illness. She went to the Six One news. She was brilliant. She was also great fun. She loved a good gossip. She alwas played down her illness, and I think most people had expected to see her back one day. "

The Paper Bracelet

When we meet to discuss her new novel, she’s in fine health despite having been struck down by a bad cold and buried deep in election coverage. The novel was partly inspired by correspondence after her third book, The American Girl. That novel featured a pregnant teenager sent from Boston to a mother and baby home in Ireland to have her baby in secret.

“Whenever anybody contacted me about it, I was always struck by the extent to which almost everybody has a story. It was still so raw for a lot of people, and it is only now that an awful lot of women in particular feel free to talk about this.”

One email she received was from a woman who helped adopted people find their birth parents. The woman stayed in her mind and helped shape the character of newly widowed Katie in The Paper Bracelet, who used to work as a nurse in the fictional west of Ireland mother and baby home Carrigbrack. She kept hold of a box of baby’s paper identity bracelets from the home, and a notebook with details of the young women she met there and their babies. The book is a page turner, as Katie posts a message on an internet forum in the hope of returning the baby bracelets to their original owners, and in the process, untangles decades of secrets.

The book is a page turner, as Katie posts a message on an internet forum in the hope of returning the baby bracelets to their original owners

English mentions the importance of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation’s report and says while the situation wasn’t unique to Ireland, “the scale of it was”. She quotes a statistic cited by Lindsey Earner-Byrne, who wrote a book about Irish motherhood in the 20th century: in 1967, 97 per cent of babies born to unmarried mothers in Ireland were given up for adoption.

Poignant message

The online message boards where adopted men and women try to find out about the circumstances of their birth were also an inspiration for English’s novel, particularly one poignant message she read from a woman: “I don’t want to interfere, I just want to know did you have a good life.”

“I know there are competing rights, and it would be terrible to think of any woman scared that her life is going to be upended . . . but at the same time there is this seam of unhappiness that people can’t find the answers to simple questions,” she says.

She’s nervous about how the book will be received, but clearly much more comfortable now with her place in the publishing world. In her spare time, she watches hurling matches with her husband – “hurling is like going to a play for me, I switch off” – and she’s deep into her next book which involves two women, one in America and one in Ireland, tracing their family trees.

Meanwhile, something her close colleagues might find interesting is that she also has 15,000 words written of a novel set on a morning radio news show. “It’s in the back of the drawer and I keep saying one day I have to write this book”.

Be afraid, Morning Irelanders, be very afraid.

The Paper Bracelet by Rachael English is published by Hachette