Writing at the crossroads

 

IMPROVING any road network system imposes temporary complications such as diversions but it also consolidates the lasting nightmare world of that most virulent form of modem fungi, the traffic roundabout. These increasingly complex tests of nerve and intelligence render negotiating a route: "through or around any major city potentially challenging, never mind less than scenic. Cork is currently no exception. Even on a busy Saturday, Innishannon's cluttered main street, leading in one direction to Cork city, in the other to Bandon, provides welcome sanctuary to the roundabout weary motorist.

A group of young boys standing in the sunshine are exchanging taunts about the respective virtues of Liverpool and Manchester United. Kick off is approaching, but not fast enough. The girl passing with a small child announces: "I couldn't bothered watching it." She knows Man United are going to win - her daddy told her so that very morning.

Unlike her sons, Alice Taylor, author of international bestsellers, To School Through The Fields (1988), Quench The Lamp (1990), The Village (1992) and Country Days (1993), is not in the grip of FA Cup fever. A hedgehog brooch sits on her cherry red sweater. Wearing an old style, high collared silk blouse with decorated cuffs and a straight black skirt, she has an elegant, almost formal appearance which contrasts with her commonsensical wit, just as Taylor's youthful face appears at odds with her iron grey hair. She has spent her life in Cork.

On marrying Gabriel O Murchu in 1961, she moved 50 miles away from the farm she was born on, yet her accent in person is strongly Kerry, far less Cork than she sounds on the phone.

A kind, engaging woman, she is also a shrewd observer and consummate realist. Taylor manages the calm as well as lively. Her writing career was born of her concern "not to lose the story of a way of life". Although conversational, atmospheric, episodic memoirs written out of personal experiences, her books are, more importantly, vivid social histories detailing the rituals of life as lived in the relatively recent, but quickly forgotten, past. She is surprised at the international impact of her books, all published here by Brandon Press, with German, Polish and Japanese translations and a forthcoming French one. Pointing to the Japanese edition of To School Through The Fields, she says: "Look at the way it's printed, sideways and read from back to front, it looks like geometry". Published by St Martin's Press in New York, the American editions have sold well - particularly To School Through The Fields and The Night Before Christmas (1994).

One of the last children of the 1940s, she says: "I wanted to record a way of life. But to be honest with you, I didn't expect, there to be any interest until about 50 years time in Ireland, never mind the rest of the world. In Ireland you know, I think we are still uncomfortable with our past, it's too soon. At the moment, we're interested in being sophisticated." In the preface to Quench The Lamp, she writes: "... this is also the story of a changing time, a time when rural Ireland quenched the oil lamp, removed the po from under the bed and threw the black pots and iron kettles under the hedge ... rural electrification flooded our homes with light, clearing away old ghosts and beliefs and sending fairies scurrying underground. Modern plumbing replaced the bucket of spring water from the well and the timber rain barrel at the gable end . . . the flush toilet replaced the chamber pot."

Central to her writings is her awareness of standing at a historical crossroads of sorts: "We became the young parents of the 1960s and 1970s and brought children into a world totally different from the one of our own childhoods."

Aware that some observers in Ireland dismiss her as being "nostalgic", "sentimental" or "too folksy", she says: "I'm always surprised when I hear people saying that I seem to have lived a charmed life and that I've never suffered or that I look at life through rose coloured spectacles'. There's a lot of sadness in what I write." Writing about a time in which people were born and died at home, she says: "Death was accepted as part of the cycle of nature," and she often writes about the death rituals such as the formal laying out and the traditional wake, observed in the country. Of her Aunt Peg's preparations for death, she writes in The Village: "One night she [Aunt Peg] instructed me to open the tall press in the bedroom. `Take out the parcel on the top shelf', she told me ... Inside was a pair of white linen sheets, pillow cases edged with lace, and a heavy crochet bedspread. `You know what they are for?' she asked."

LIVING on a farm gives a child an early introduction to life and death. She saw animals being born, but her memories of the ones who died are stronger. "The animals were part of the family, we loved them and grieved for them." In To School Through The Fields she writes: "We children were very attached to the farm animals. Some of them were older than ourselves and very much part of our home life; not alone were some of our animals born and reared on the farm but so also were some of their mothers and grandmothers, and a lot of them died of old age and were buried there. Our burial ground was at the bottom of the orchard and here the jennet, when he decided he had enough and lay down and died, was laid to rest."

At the age of 10 she witnessed the distressing death of Paddy, a hardworking red bay and family pet, "older than I was myself". One morning the horse was missing and a search led Taylor's father to the deep hollow which Paddy had fallen down into. When the vet arrived he saw that Paddy had broken his back.

"It was like a death in the family. We all knew that my father would do the needful; a shot would be quick and merciful but it would be `so terrible' fir ray father who had worked with Paddy for years and loved him dearly." She climbed down to say goodbye to the dying horse: "He neighed softly and looking up I saw my father silhouetted against the darkening sky. He had his shotgun with him. It was time to go.

Up on a height, above the main street, the vicar from Bandon is hurrying from St Mary's Church. Perhaps he is going to watch the final? On the steep hill just behind the houses, St Mary's Catholic Church overlooks Innishannon. There is a fine view of Droomkeen Woods and the village. In winter when the trees are bare, the River Bandon is also visible from the church grounds. When Taylor moved here, she not only exchanged farm life for that of a village, she also entered a community of mixed religions. "Although my father had Protestant connections, Newmarket was mainly Catholic."

Her house is on the corner. Opinions differ as to whether it is turquoise, blue or green. Whatever about that debate, the red front door is definitely orange. Inside, the house seems an interesting maze of long corridors. It is actually two houses joined together. In 1965, when Alice and Gabriel decided to run a guest house, they bought the adjoining building. The preparations frequently developed a comic dimension with burst pipes etc. A constant supply of eccentric visitors such as Penelope Ann Carter Page, an Englishwoman with a posh accent who arrived at the Taylors door with a wheelbarrow of belongings, atop which a dog named Junky sat, mingled with more conventional tourists. Somehow both the guest house and Alice survived until the late 1970s.

"When we started out we had the first, two boys and then the other two were born during it." By 1977, when Gabriel's Uncle, Jackie died, Gabriel and Alice took over running the shop and post office which had been run by four generations of his family. They decided to close the guest house and extend the shop. Gabriel and Alice still run the shop which has since joined the Centra chain.

"Tourism had closed down because of the Troubles in the North." In 1979, she had a pleasant surprise - the birth of Lena, her only daughter. "It was great having a girl after four boys. There had been a babyfree gap of eight years. So I was mature enough to appreciate her. With the four boys, I had been young and a bit harrassed."

The rooms are dominated by collections of fascinating old photographs; stone and clay birds; Victorian dolls and magnificent pieces of driftwood. The large old Eight Day clock Taylor inherited from Gabriel's Aunt Peg, Uncle Jack's wife, hangs over the fireplace: "I love the sound of a clock ticking, it's very relaxing. That clock was covered in layers of paint; every colour - white, blue, green, yellow. Every time the house was clock had been painted as well. It's funny how we were hell bent on getting rid of the old and now there is a complete turnaround and everyone wanting to bring back the old furniture. I remember seeing a" sign over an antique shop in Cork a few years ago, saying come in and buy what: `your grandmother threw out'. You can `bring the furniture back, but you can't restore a way of life." All of her remarks are casually made, there is nothing didactic or campaigning about her comments; Alice Taylor abides by a "live and let live" philosophy.

Born in 1938, at Newmarket, north Cork, she was the sixth child in a family of seven, but as her little brother Connie died when he was five and she was just over a year older, she has been the youngest for most of her life. With four older sisters she tended to look towards the eldest child, her brother, Kim, who encouraged her to write. "I think I was always a loner. I liked being on my own. Growing up on a farm meant that there was always some place to go to be on your own. And also I made my own little den in the attic, we called the attic the black loft." Her memories are vividly described but far from romanticised. Oliver Twist was the first hardback she read as a child. "It was an old book with a green cover with soft brown pages. I also read the Brontes, Maurice Walsh and Biggles." She enjoys the work of John McGahern, "I know the characters he is writing about", and admits Jennifer Johnston for the exactness of her prose, "it's very precise, as if it is cut from stone".

Taylor's parents emerge as opposites: "My mother was very easy going and tended to think the best of people, but she was quick to tell you if you were doing something wrong. My father was not the most patient of men. He had a quick temper, he'd blow up. But he was unintentionally funny."

Mr Taylor appears to have had a natural flair for dramatic statements born of exasperation such as "if ever a man suffered". His youngest daughter smiles at the memory of some of his favourite sayings. "It was only afterwards that I appreciated my father. He'd say things like `I'll be dead for years before you realise what a sound man I was'. He was right. I always loved my father's hands. He wasn't a big man, he was tall but thinly built. He had these long fingered, strong hands. Beautiful hands. He was never very tolerant, but he was basically kind."

Her mother Lena was practical, extremely tolerant and very religious. "To her the essence of life was when people were appreciated. She was very keen on Mass and saying the rosary, no excuse was acceptable for not joining in. But where she saw her God in the rosary, my father saw his in the fields. I think his work on the farm and his closeness to nature gave him a strong sense of God and of death." As he neared the end, of his life, although remaining in good health, on being asked how he was, Mr. Taylor acquired the habit of merely replying with Beckettian brevity, "waiting".

Both of her parents lived into their 90s. "My father never seemed to be that old. He was always busy up until the day he died." On the day of his death in February 1980, she had planned to visit him. "It all happened very quickly, he died in about 10 minutes." She regrets that he didn't live to "read her books, "I think they would have amused him." Lena, short for Helena, always believed in the importance of writing things down and read the first two books. She died in 1993, two years after suffering a stroke.

The street noises continue outside and the sunlight at the windows makes the house seem dark. The clock ticks on and she comments on the fact that life is now lived at such a pace. "I remember as a child if I saw my father just sitting, I'd ask him `what are you doing Dad?' and he'd say `I'm thinking'. He always said it was very important to use your head and to take time to think, to have time on your own for doing nothing." Everyone seems too busy to live nowadays.

"We've more appliances but far less time. That must be the great question of today's world, `where did time go?' People used to talk more. They'd listen. Nowadays people have therapists. Before, if you had a problem, your friends would talk to you about it. Now no one knows anyone that well. They don't talk to each other every day. We've lost the habit. You can't very, well suddenly arrive in someone's house and say `here I am, talk to me about you problems', if you haven't seen them for a while".

Writing for her has always been a way of putting things in perspective. "It makes' things clearer, although I think if you are very upset about something poetry is better than prose for making your thoughts' clearer." On leaving school, where she says, "I was okay, but I was good at English", she spent a year at Drishane Convent, now closed, learning domestic science before training as a telephonist in Killarney, later moving to work in Bandon.

GARDENING has become an interest only within the past five or six years, although she has always kept brown bees. There, are nine hives at the back of the garden which has a woodland feel to it. Taylor points to the plants which have borne the brunt of the two collie pups, Toff and Cara. "I've had to put wire around some of the more delicate shrubs to protect them from these two, the place is beginning to look like, Long Kesh." Two weeks ago, Toff was hit by a car and is only now returning to her former lively self, however, Cara, is intent on jumping on everyone's lap, regardless if the person is still standing.

Unlike the dark loft of her childhood, the attic study where she writes and paints, is bright. She wrote her first two books with a pencil and a pad. "Then Gabriel and the boys gave me the present of a word processor. But I was a bit scared of it. So it was only when I was writing the last chapter of The Village, I decided it was time to have a go at it.

Of all her books, The Village is her favourite "because it is the one which records the lives of the wonderful people who have lived and died here. It's also the book which is the least about me." Describing herself as a spasmodic performer she writes in fits and starts. "I think I'm a winter writer, I like being up there on a wet day. There is something about being up high. I sit up here and keep my eye on the village."