Interview with Linda Thompson of The Authors Show
Radio Interview with Francesca Rheannon for Writer’s Voice
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Interview with The Book Whisperer
You say in your introduction that you wanted to write a memoir about the way of life you had abandoned but that had never abandoned you. What does it mean to be Irish, to you?
To have a strong sense of Celtic identity, resonate with the music, poetry, myth and martyrs of our colorful history. Have a deep love of literature, of storytelling in all its forms, of the power of narrative and its artistic construction, and a deep sense of compassion for the underdog, wherever you may find them. Finally, given our colonial history and our centuries old struggle for freedom that still goes on, to be Irish is to have a deep and abiding appreciation and commitment to social justice and democracy and democratic movements around the globe .
Which parts of your character (formed in your childhood, growing up on a remote farm in Ireland) do you still embrace and thank for where you are today, and which (if there are any) do you not?
All of it: the importance of having big dreams; the liberating effect of hard work and tenacity in pursuit of your dreams; the imperative of facing hard truths, and the importance of giving credit to the ancestors whose shoulders you stand on every day in every iota of success that you achieve. I won’t disown a thing; it was all invaluable and a part of who I am.
For me, reading this memoir about a childhood in a remote farm with no electricity and real hardship, your childhood sounded almost idyllic. Do you see it this way, or do you think this has perhaps just come across this way to me (a reader) because you still have obvious warmth and passion for this place despite the hardships when really it wasn’t at all idyllic?
No, it was not idyllic, but it was very, very good. In terms of place, there could be no place on earth more beautiful. In terms of people, they were surely the kindest, most trustworthy, compassionate imaginable. But I had a very difficult situation at the bottom of the family pecking order, only male and way younger than my siblings. The fact of not having a father was , in retrospect, a blessing that I had no way of seeing at the time—but I’m pretty sure I would have spent a good deal of my life overcoming his deeply flawed personality, which would surely not have ended well for his only son.Still, not having a father is never, ever idyllic. I only knew what I missed later, as I became a father myself and knew the joy of that give and take.
My favourite parts in the book where all centred around your animals; some stories had me laughing out loud. When you left Ireland and had to sell your two dogs it broke my heart. Do you know anything about what happened to any of your dogs or horses after you left Ireland?
Not a word. It ended with the auction; Tess was right to be so upset with me.
I never really got over that; it will always be a source of sadness(and guilt) for me.
My favourite character in the book was your Mother, Maggie O’Toole. She is such a fascinating woman to read about and I just loved her story (right from her childhood) and want to know more about this amazing woman. What happened to Maggie once she returned to New York?
She became a successful Practical Nurse, specialized in terminally ill cancer patients who drew strength and solace from her strong, compassionate personality in their final days.
You talk briefly about, what most of us know as, the Irish Potato Famine but which you know as the Irish Holocaust. You still sound bitter about what happened to your ancestors and your fellow-countrymen and the death and displacement of so many people. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t know the true story behind what happened either. Do you find this of most people and why do you think this is?
Yes, most people are ignorant about the events of 1845-1851—the so-called Famine. Small wonder; they scarcely know what happened last year. But the real explanation rests in the highly successful propaganda effort orchestrated by the British spin machine, then and now. For a contemporary example, witness the news that comes out of Northern Ireland and how little we know about the IRA other than that they are all “terrorists.”
As for being bitter, I find it very interesting that no one ever asks an American Jew if they are still bitter over their holocaust. Bitter is the wrong adjective; it implies a kind of sore loser image that one should probably get over and move on. For me, the horror of that event, the deliberate starvation of between 3 and 5 million men, women and children—clearly an attempted genocide—is so widely misrepresented as a Famine that it remains for me an ongoing outrage. It’s a bit like a constant refrain of Holocaust Deniers here in the US. In the Jewish case, they have made”never again” their mission and that involves a sophisticated and relentless educational and political campaign across the globe. Where is the Irish equivalent? A chapter in Far from the Land , referencing Cecil Woodham-Smith’s Great Hunger? That’s one of the few antidotes to one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever perpetrated where the killer escapes scot free. And I, for one, will tell my truth on that as long as I have a pulse.
When you left Ireland to go to Sheffield, I felt a sense of loss also. I had enjoyed watching you and your sisters grow up and now you were transplanted to grey, smoggy Sheffield and I had a feeling of misery through those few chapters. Was there any point when you seriously regretted leaving Ireland?
No, I never had any regrets on that decision. I never engage in shoulda, couldas.
Being from Yorkshire myself (not Sheffield though – and I definitely don’t talk like Mrs Higgins!) I was actually surprised and saddened by the racism that you encountered there. Has your impression of Sheffield or Yorkshire changed at all over the years or do you still regard that place as an unwelcome but necessary blip in your life?
I have no idea where Mrs. ‘iggins was from. All I recall was her horrible use of the English language and her “our knuck” taunts. Her boarding house was in Birmingham, and while she was clearly a coarse and uneducated person, I’ve come to feel some compassion for her over the years. She was duped, like the rest of us, by my Da.
As for Sheffield and that experience, I consider it a necessary and valuable part of my socialization. I would never have any appreciation of prejudice or discrimination without that time and I had lots of fun there. After all, that’s where I discovered Hollywood, romance and all the loves of my life. ‘Sank heaven for little gorls.’ And I have long-since overcome my own prejudice–which was palpable and completely unattractive at the time—toward the British.
And, as you know, Sheffield is now one of the most beautiful cities in the UK .
Did you write your memoirs as some sort of cathartic exercise or is there a message that you wanted to get out to people? What would you most like readers to take away from your book?
- See Ireland through a new lens, as a place of rich cultural heritage(poetry, music, literature, storytelling) vs. alcoholics, shamrocks, leprechauns and green beer stereotypes.
- Learn how our colonial history shaped our identity as a people.
- Get a different interpretation of “The Famine”—more a deliberate starvation of a despised people and a nearly successful genocide that needs to be properly labelled.
- Spend a night at our “Rambling House” enjoying the ghost stories, poems, step-dancing, Irish step-dancing and communal rosary at the end of the evening.
- Experience the excitement of going inside a pub and participating in the real conversation; of going to a school house and witnessing the rote education; of going to a market fair and joining in the bargaining; of going to a football game and learning our national Gaelic passion; of going to a village dance and engaging in the mating rituals of the day.
- Know what is was like to pull up stakes, auction our life’s possessions and emigrate to a hostile, urban lunar-scape.
- Know what is was like to work with Arabian horses and brilliant Border collies, then leave them behind.
- Run away from home with me (at 11) in defiance of my strong-willed mother.
- Go inside Kilmainham Gaol with a group of teenage rebel girls and go on hunger-strike.
And finally, the quick fire round:
Favourite colour: Blue
Favourite animal: Arabian horse
Favourite holiday destination: West Cork, Ireland
Favourite author: John Steinbeck
Favourite song: Wild Mountain Thyme
Favourite movie: Casablanca
Favourite childhood memory: Riding that unbroken Arabian horse barebacked and staying on.