Haunting questions of Irishness


AS a red haired Catholic from Leitrim, writer Ita Daly laughingly admits that she would, at face value at least, appear to be the archetypal Irish person. But is she? One of the many themes in her latest novel Unholy Ghosts is the well worn but always thought provoking question of what makes a person "Irish".

The central character is Belle, a middle aged toner who has worked all her adult life as a gardener in the mental asylum in which she was once an inmate. At the prompting of her ex lover, a psychiatrist, she journeys back through her youth as a German Jewish girl growing up in post war Dublin. It was her grandmother, Buba's greatest wish that she should be "a perfect little Irish girl", so Buba converts to Catholicism and the flash point comes when she discovers that Belle's first boyfriend is Jewish. As Belle painfully recalls her teenage years in a series of flashbacks, the complex truth about her apparently loping grandmother emerges and as is common in Daly's books, we are introduced to a huge range of characters and sub plots.

Daly sounds like a detached observer when she talks about the characters in her book. "You start off inventing them, but you can never really get to the bottom of them, to know them completely just as in real life you'll never know another person completely. We all keep secrets, from ourselves and of course from others." Her characters, she hopes, have a life outside the book. "A reader once said to me that a novel is never finished because you're always wondering what happened to the characters after the story ends, and I like that idea.

She started writing in the 1970s while she was still a teacher, and won two Hennessy Literary awards. Then Poolbeg Press published a collection of her short stories. Daly's husband, writer and editor David Marcus was one of Poolbeg's co founders, and wanting to strike out on her own with Ellen, her first novel, Daly got a UK agent and an English publisher. She has been with her editor Liz Calder for over 10 years.

She left teaching in 19,89 to devote more time to writing and rearing her daughter. Two writers living in the one house sounds potentially fraught and in an arrangement that would have less temperamentally in tune people at each other's throats, she reveals that David and herself share a typewriter. Daly's eyes sparkle and she laughs unapologetically, knowing how bizarre this sounds in this techno age.

She remembers a remark make by Sean O'Faolain to her early in her career as a writer. "He said it was important for writers to write but it wasn't important that they publish, which at the time I thought was very odd." Now, having written her fifth novel, she says that she understands the compulsion to write and loves the whole process of writing. It is publication and waiting to see the reaction that is nerve racking.