An Interview with Fionnuala Smith
I met Fionnuala Smith when she joined my master’s course in creative and life writing going to university for the first time in her late sixties. Introduced by her daughter, a close friend, she said she wanted to get some structure for her memoir, which made me terribly curious.
Nuala was born in Drogheda in 1946, worked as an airhostess, ran a vegetarian restaurant and a garden center before moving with her daughter to San Francisco in the early eighties. Returning to Ireland shortly thereafter, she taught office skills in Wicklow where she still lives. She has written for Irish Radio (RTE) and her fiction and non-fiction have been published in newspapers and magazines.
At the end of this interview, Nuala told me that she had abandoned the writing course and her memoir. She had read some story that described a creative writing workshop making it all seem silly. And the memoir? “This interview should be enough,” she said.
I grew up on the north side of Dublin. Both my parents were from Ireland. My mother was a genuine Dubliner. She grew up in the house that James Joyce wrote about in The Dead. We were very proud of her connection to James Joyce, but she wasn’t at all. When she was growing up, he was banned and regarded as a dreadful person. My father was born just outside of Dublin.
I stayed in Dublin until I was in my early twenties. Back then, in the sixties, girls didn’t go to university; only three girls from my final year went to university and we regarded them as extraordinary. There was no such thing as a career for a woman back then. If a girl got a job, it was to fill the time between leaving school and getting married.
The greatest ambition at the time was to get married. That’s something that today’s young women probably can’t grasp at all. Back then, if you didn’t bag a decent husband in your twenties, the future was bleak. I was very keen to get married, but it just didn’t come my way.
I joined AerLingus and went to see the world instead.
During winter, when business was quiet, members of the cabin crew would take six months’ leave and travel on very cheap tickets. I went to many lovely countries. I fell in love in Beirut. Back then, everyone had a boyfriend in Beirut. Whenever AerLingus girls would go to Beirut, they would make friends with the local guys and when they came home, they’d pass their numbers to the next lot.
Beirut was so different then. The boys – Christian and Muslim –were very interested in us—girls from the West. They were very well off and delighted to take us out. Those were the days of nightclubs and gold markets; there were no poor people in Beirut, as far as we knew. We weren’t looking to marry any of them, of course, though I got close. Then I got cold feet and ran away.
I remember this clearly even though I was just twenty-two. I was so homesick for all my country things: the Irish Times, the library up the road, the language I grew up with. In Beirut, I was always explaining myself. The boy had very good English, but the nuances were lost. It wouldn’t have worked over a lifetime.
At home, we spoke English. At the time, we had Irish at school and we all had to learn it. We hated it. We associated it with poverty and famine and the downtrodden Irish. It was part of miserable past. After Ireland broke away from England, everything Irish was drummed into us. If you failed Irish in your final exams, you automatically failed all the other subjects as well. It was horror.
This has changed immensely. We are now very proud of having our own language. We have Irish schools where everything is taught in Irish and there are queues of children waiting to be admitted. Time has healed a lot of pain.
I think we have a certain fun and warmth to the Irish that is rare. We’re so easy to laugh with. We have a richness to us that’s hard to beat. Some people think we’re lazy and crooked as hell, but I’m very proud of being Irish. I meet a lot of goodwill when I tell people I’m Irish; people always want to help me. I’m very proud of Ireland.
I regard the English with a sort of amusement. They’re so earnest and stiff; they just don’t have the kind of fun in them that the Irish do. They almost need a poke in the ribs. They’re great neighbours, we’re very proud to have them; the hatred is long gone. There might be some small pockets of it here and there, but in general, we’re very fond of the English.
When I stopped travelling, I settled in Dublin. I got pregnant by chance. At the time, pregnancies of single women were kept a secret; women were sent away; children were taken for adoption, many were killed. It was normal all the way until 1970s. These days, they’re discovering mass graves of these children. By the time I was pregnant, things had moved on. Things like contraception became acceptable in polite conversation even if they were not available in the shops, but it was still tough.
When my daughter was about three, my brother wanted me to come to America to join him. I did but didn’t last long.
We were illegal and I didn’t want to go through life with a child and constantly hiding, making up aliases and all that. What did it, we had these neighbours in San Francisco and they were in a situation similar to ours. They had a little girl of four or five and I discovered that this little girl was at some point taken by Homeland Security to be questioned about who was living in her house to establish if they were legal or not. I thought, to hell with them!
Even as a legal, it didn’t make any sense to stay there. The standard of life was nowhere near what it is in Ireland. I had a miserable job and had to put my daughter in a crèche every morning around seven and then pick her up in the evening around eight. I felt in constant danger. In the morning, I would look at milk cartons and see photos of missing children. We didn’t have that in Ireland.
My brother couldn’t come back. He had adapted to life in America and leaving was too big a risk. He got a share in a bar. He made friends. He married, but his wife died of an aneurysm within six months of their wedding. Still, he made a life for himself. I couldn’t do it. It’s a pity really. I wish we had those years together.
America is ghastly. It’s way too big for someone like me. It’s noisy and the people there are so intent on making money. A bigger house, a bigger car, I couldn’t take to it at all. I don’t want someone demanding money every time I turn around. Certain things should be free.
I moved to Bray after the house my daughter was born into (a tiny cottage in a fancy area of Dublin) was desperately damaged by the flood in 1984. We eventually managed to repair it and sell it and I used that money to buy the house in Bray, which is about fifteen miles outside of Dublin.
Bray was a shabby sort of town when we moved here in 1986. The Main Street still needs a facelift, but little by little, dear old Bray, who really didn’t try too hard before, is now surfing the rising tide of Ireland’s economy. Our seafront is just the most beautiful in the world, with Bray Head looming out of the sea. The amazing Harbour Bar – where I go for ukulele sessions on Tuesdays – was recently voted “Best Bar in the World” by Lonely Planet.
It’s quirkiness has to be seen to be believed: downstairs, it’s made up of several little “snugs” each with its own log fire burning winter and summer. Overhead there’s a huge lounge that was originally the four bedrooms of the fishermen’s cottages the Harbour Bar grew out of.
Everybody knows each other in Bray, but I know very few people, considering how long I’ve been here. In the last year or so, I made this new friend. This lady was born and raised here and she, literally, knows everyone on every corner. Whenever we walk down the street, we never make it all the way to the café because she’s so busy saying hello to everyone. She knows everyone by name, their entire history, everything.
We have two or three other pals who join us every now and again and they’re like that, too. Their entire family lives down one road. It’s quite incredible. When I’m with them, I’m so envious, they’re all part of a clan and it’s lovely. They’re all married to people who grew up in the same place, they all play tennis together, they all used to run around together as kids.
I’m not a part of it. I’m a blow-in. I’m an outsider. But I do like being self-contained. My friends and family are very scattered about. But home, that’s in Bray. I love turning the key in my own lock. ¤
Zuzanna Fimińska is a writer aiming to fill the world with great conversations and many points of view. Her work was published in Mslexia, eyeforpharma, Time Out Amsterdam, Polish Express, TRANSITION, Cadaverine, Hospital Drive, Prick of the Spindle, Examined Life and others. She’s the founder of Project Neighbours, a web-based interview series where people from around the world talk about what’s important.