Kate Holmquist obituary: ‘Luminous’ writer who became a voice of the voiceless

Holmquist ‘brought a freshness of voice as well as a degree of edginess’ to the pages of The Irish Times

Kate Holmquist grew up in a Baltimore neighbourhood which she described as “red-brick, working-class, one-murder-a-day”. photograph: Alan Betson

Kate Holmquist grew up in a Baltimore neighbourhood which she described as “red-brick, working-class, one-murder-a-day”. photograph: Alan Betson

 

Kate Holmquist 
Born: January 2nd, 1957 
Died: August 5th, 2019

US-born journalist and author Kate Holmquist made her presence known in her adopted homeland through three decades of perceptive and provocative writing in The Irish Times, until her death at the age of 62.

The eldest child of a Lutheran pastor and a school teacher, she was born in Rutland, Vermont, but at the age of four they moved to what she described as “red-brick, working-class, one-murder-a-day Baltimore” in Maryland. Her ticket out was a scholarship in her late teens to study music in Paris, Vienna and Salzburg, and a possible career as a concert pianist beckoned.

Memories of Chatham undoubtedly influenced Holmquist’s choice of Sandycove in Co Dublin as home for raising her own children

Realising she didn’t want to devote herself to a one-track life, Holmquist returned to the United States to study piano and creative writing for an Arts degree at Oberlin Conservatory and College, Ohio. During her first year there, aged 19, she found out her mother, Ardis Granquist, had cancer. Caring for her mother, who died four years later in 1980 at the age of 52, was the basis of a searing short memoir, A Good Daughter, that Holmquist wrote for publication by Dermot Bolger’s Raven Arts Press in 1991.

In it she explained how her mother left her beloved Beach Cottage in Chatham, Cape Cod, as “a legacy that would keep her presence with me and my two brothers for the rest of our lives”. In future summers that her mother could only imagine, grandchildren would come to play in the water and “the cottage would be our grandmother, embracing us”.

Memories of Chatham undoubtedly influenced Holmquist’s choice of Sandycove in Co Dublin as home for raising her own children. Their back garden was her special place, championing “eco diversity” before it was a thing. And, just as her mother envisaged, they made regular family pilgrimages to the Cape Cod cottage.

It was a visiting Irish writer-in-residence at Oberlin, married and much older, who had enticed Holmquist to go to live with him, first in Paris and then on to Dublin in the early 1980s. She moved in theatrical circles and revelled in the Bohemian life. Writer Michèle Forbes, who was a fellow masters student with Holmquist in Trinity College at the time, remembers a commanding beauty and her being “forthright but really, really warm” in discussions both serious and skittish.

Holmquist met her future husband, Ferdia MacAnna, in May 1984, after he had moved on from his Rocky de Valera band to edit In Dublin magazine. Their first encounter started with her going into his office to pitch ideas for articles and ended with him inviting her to the Trinity Ball. Three months later her father, Ivar Holmquist, performed their marriage ceremony in Cape Cod.

But within a year of this whirlwind courtship, MacAnna collapsed with a brain haemorrhage. Not long over that, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1986, with treatment and recovery shadowing another two years of their lives.

Meanwhile, the flair of Holmquist’s writing for In Dublin attracted interest from two national newspapers almost simultaneously. She responded to the approach by the late Caroline Walsh, then editor of this paper’s Our Times page, which focused on women’s rights and changing role in society. Holmquist joined the paper in 1986, initially as a features writer/sub-editor.

“Luminous” is the word former Irish Times managing editor Gerry Smyth chose to encapsulate her. He said “when her talent spilled on to the features pages in the sour and stale Ireland of the 1980s”, she “brought a freshness of voice as well as a degree of edginess, a refreshing candour”.

She was to prove as adept at tackling topics in depth, as she was at social and arts commentary and dashing off a crafted piece of whimsy. Her appointment as health correspondent in 1989 gave her freedom to pursue her own stories in a speciality at which she excelled.

Although the chances of her and MacAnna having children were deemed “remote” after his cancer treatment, their first of three arrived in October 1991. Holmquist recalibrated her work to be the kind of mother she had dreamed of being.

This new phase of writing from home started soon after the appointment of her mentor, Walsh, as features editor and their collaborations were mutually enriching. A standout series on adoption in the autumn of 1992, casting light on the hidden world of adult adoptees longing to trace their birth mothers, was indicative of Holmquist’s driving determination to be a voice of the voiceless.

Holmquist’s versatility as a journalist was evident not only in the range of her writing but also through various editing roles she was asked to cover temporarily in The Irish Times

She knew how both to talk and to listen to gain the trust of interviewees. Readers connected with her because she wrote from the heart and lived experience.

Fearless and articulate, she was much in demand for live radio, through which she had the added claim to fame, as her eldest daughter Sienna pointed out in her eulogy, of becoming probably the first woman in Ireland to breastfeed, audibly, on air.

On the home front, chaotic fun with a mother who encouraged her children to ride their mattresses down the stairs at midnight and who pretended not to notice when they climbed on the shed roof to look at the stars, soon gained them the reputation of “the best house for sleepovers”. The presence of four dogs, four cats, a gecko and a red-kneed tarantula added to the gaiety.

A constant reader across many genres, Holmquist was encouraged by Smyth in 2002 to try her hand at writing fiction. Her novel, The Glass Room, clearly drawing on her life, was published by Penguin Ireland four years later.

Holmquist’s versatility as a journalist was evident not only in the range of her writing but also through various editing roles she was asked to cover temporarily in The Irish Times, from the Saturday Magazine, arts and features pages, to a travel section and the award-winning annual Fighting Words supplement.

In the later years, her clear thinking and ability to write at speed suited the demands of the newspaper’s website, while articles on prostitution and a 2015 series on divorce showed her continuing feel for unspoken parts of human nature. It was her empathy that qualified her to launch the Tell Me About It column in 2013.

Holmquist’s last article was published in August 2015 and she remained an employee of The Irish Times while on extended leave until her death.

She is survived by her husband Ferdia, children Sienna, Bessa and Finn, father Ivar, and her brothers Steve and Mark.