That we may live to see this time again: a book of treasured memories

Beyond the Breakwater: Memories of Home has been thrilling though bittersweet as my parents are not here to celebrate with me but they are central to this book

Catherine and her sisters: I’m in the middle in a green fair isle while Miriam to my left is wearing a red striped one and RoseAnn is in navy

Catherine and her sisters: I’m in the middle in a green fair isle while Miriam to my left is wearing a red striped one and RoseAnn is in navy

 

When I started out as a full-time writer in early 2009, I was determined to become a fully-fledged novelist. I’d spent 25 years working as a journalist in Dublin but when the chance to apply for a redundancy package from The Irish Times presented itself, I was ready to make a break for it in order to write. I wanted to produce a work of fiction.

When I woke up that first morning, free to write, I was like those working girls in the Dolly Parton song: pouring myself a cup of ambition and trying to “come to life”. Every morning afterwards I’d “tumble outta bed” and be at my desk first thing, working 9 to 5 each day. I wrote two novels, as yet unpublished, in this fashion. It was not always easy and on the days when my discipline failed me or when I lost the focus, confidence or belief in what I was writing, I’d take a break and write something shorter – musings, a story or a memoir-type piece for the radio.

Catherine Foley with her new book
Catherine Foley with her new book

Writing those pieces always gave me a thrill. There was great satisfaction in recapturing a memory. Committing a vague wisp-like mental image to words, trying to go back to a forgotten time, was deeply engrossing. As I’d start to pin down the details and weave lines together, paragraphs would take on a significance and become like living links to my past. I loved crafting and perfecting each line, shaping a story until I was happy with it. The day at my desk would fly and I’d often leave my laptop reluctantly, on a high after remembering and retelling an episode from an earlier time. There was a sense of euphoria in writing those pieces. On completion I’d sometimes ring my mother and tell her about what I’d written. I remember seeing Declan Meade, co-founder of The Stinging Fly, on Exchequer Street in Dublin’s city centre one day, and it took me all my strength to stop myself from running up to him to tell him about what I had just written.

I’d always been writing. I began to write in earnest in my twenties when I was a teacher with Co Tipperary’s Vocational Education Committee – South Riding. But it wasn’t until I was working as a journalist that my first short story about the summer I spent fishing for lobsters with my father was published. It was accepted by Maura O’Kiely, who was then acting editor of U magazine. She commissioned an illustration from Shane Johnson and to my delight renamed it as The Helvick Summer. It was a great boost to my confidence and so I continued to jot down thoughts and ideas and my pile of writings, like Topsy, “just growed”. When Clíodhna Ní Anluain, then series producer of the RTÉ Sunday Miscellany programme, asked if I had anything I’d like to read on the programme I was ready. The first piece I read was a poem about Passage East, which is where my mother grew up and where we spent many summer holidays during the 1960s.

As a reporter in Dublin when I was covering the arts and social scene for this newspaper’s On the Town column, I’d often have a cup of coffee before an event if I had time to kill and when a snippet of something would occur to me I’d jot down a line or two at the back of my notebook knowing that it was a detail, a line or the seed of a memory that I could develop later, such as my grandmother at her sewing machine; me pretending to say Mass in the attic in Waterford, using my father’s rowing cup as the chalice and the silky bedspread as the priest’s chasuble; our glimpse of Jackie Kennedy from Woodstown Strand; or our trip to Corsica.

Catherine Foley dressed as Little Red Riding Hood with her mother at Geneva Barracks
Catherine Foley dressed as Little Red Riding Hood with her mother at Geneva Barracks

As the years passed, I began to write about more recent memories. After a number of years, I realised they might in time add up to a book and I started putting them into chronological order, adding to them and filling in the gaps. Passage East was one of the earliest pieces.

Although I’ve had three novellas published in Irish and I’ve celebrated each one with parties and launches, this publication of my first book in English, a memoir entitled Beyond the Breakwater: Memories of Home, has been a seriously thrilling experience though bittersweet as my parents have passed away and they are not here to celebrate with me. But they are central to this book. Are they smiling down on me? Did my mother orchestrate this from above? It is hard not to believe they’ve had a hand in its publication. Why else did Mercier Press’s book designer, Sarah O’Flaherty, choose a photograph taken by my mother in the early 1970s to grace the cover? When I see the three of us looking out at me, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for those days.

I remember that day clearly. We were out for a Sunday drive and we’d stopped at the layby near Robert’s Cross in Ring, a spot which overlooks Dungarvan Bay with the Comeragh Mountains in the distance. My mother, standing beside my father, holding her Box Brownie to her stomach, told us to lie down in the grass so that she could take a photograph. The grass was mostly dry. We took no notice of the dandelions and weeds underneath us. We didn’t care. Life was a great adventure – especially since we’d moved from the city to live in the Gaeltacht. We laughed as we snuggled in together. We all sported knitted cardigans. I’m in the middle in a green fair isle while Miriam to my left is wearing a red stripped one and RoseAnn is in navy.

A Foley family picnic
A Foley family picnic

My mother pressed the button and we heard the shutter click. She’d captured us as she had on so many other occasions. We have all her photographs today, treasured and alive. Many of her pictures are in the book today. They would have been thrilled, the two of them. As the saying in Irish goes and as my father might say – go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís – that we may live to see this time again.
Beyond the Breakwater: Memories of Home by Catherine Foley is published by Mercier Press and is launched this evening, April 17th, in the Guttter Bookshop, Temple Bar, Dublin, by crime author John Connolly, who used to work with Catherine in The Irish Times’s former Education & Living supplement

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