Friday, 20 January 2012

BIRD OF PASSAGE, The Genesis of a Story


When I was twelve years old, we moved from Leeds to South West Scotland where my scientist father had taken a position in a research institute. Dad had come to England with the army at the end of the war and stayed on as a refugee, marrying my half English, half Irish mother. My early schooling had been at a small Roman Catholic primary where we sang ‘Hail glorious Saint Patrick, dear saint of our isle’, never realising that it wasn’t our isle we were singing about.

It was when we moved to Scotland that I first came across the tattie howkers – the Irish workers who came over, mostly from Donegal, to help with the potato harvest. They were welcomed as hard workers, but – like the Polish refugees in Leeds – otherwise viewed with suspicion. Back then, their living conditions were not good, although they were certainly better than when Patrick McGill wrote Children of the Dead End, a piece of autobiographical fiction which depicts, among other things, the treatment of the tattie howkers in early 1900s Scotland.

As an adult, I wanted to write about the tattie howkers myself and tinkered with the idea in plays and stories, but it wasn’t until I wrote my recent novel, Bird of Passage, that I really tackled the subject. The central character is a young Irish agricultural worker called Finn O’Malley, sent to work in Scotland, but throughout my early drafts I realised that I had created a character about whom I knew very little. Finn was clearly a damaged individual but however many revisions I did, he remained obstinately silent. Writers don’t always know the whole story. Sometimes we know the beginning and end, and we write to find out what happens in between. But in this case, it was as though the character himself couldn’t remember either

I set the novel to one side and concentrated on other things. But it nagged at me, and I came back to it a couple of years ago. About that time, I also came across related issues about which I knew shamefully little. I had always been aware that a small minority of Irish people living in the UK had problems. Unlike the members of my own family, people who had migrated, settled, integrated, they often seemed to be single men with alcohol and behavioural problems. They had gravitated to cities and there they stayed, living in lodging houses, working casually. Nobody ever seemed to question who they were and what had turned them into the damaged individuals they had become.

In the past few years, there have been acres of newsprint about sexual abuse within the Catholic church, but very little seems to have been written about the scandal of the Industrial Schools of Ireland, and a group of people whose lives were blighted by state sanctioned cruelty. These schools were Victorian institutions which persisted in Ireland long after other countries had closed them down. There have been a number of excellent books and documentaries about the Industrial School system and you should certainly read the words of those who experienced them. I can especially recommend The Irish Gulag by Bruce Arnold and Suffer the Little Children by Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan

Essentially, these schools were set up in the mid 1800s to care for the ‘neglected, orphaned and abandoned.’ They were institutions to which children could be committed if they were deemed to be beyond parental care and control or otherwise at risk. They were committed by the courts against whom there was no appeal, and the schools were run by religious (although I use the term loosely) orders. Children could be committed for ‘crimes’ as minor as stealing apples or for no crime at all, but because a parent was deemed neglectful. Once within the system, they had few rights. These schools ran in parallel with the notorious Magdalene Laundries. The inspection system was inadequate. Corporal punishment was commonplace, extreme physical abuse was rife and there is plenty of evidence that sexual abuse occurred too. As one ex-inmate pointed out, a prisoner in gaol had far more rights than these children. The state paid a ‘capitation’ sum in support of each child, so it was clearly in the interests of those running the schools to cram in as many as possible and living conditions were reputedly appalling.

Once a child reached the age of sixteen, they would be out of the door as quickly as possible since no more state payments would be forthcoming, although even then, the young people might not really be given their freedom, but might be sent to work on farms, for low pay, unaware that they didn’t need to stay. As they grew older, these individuals might eventually escape to the UK where at least some of them – poorly educated and traumatised as they were – found work as navvies, but also found it difficult to integrate into society.

The fact that this system was still in existence in the 1960s and 70s came as a shock to me. I had visited Ireland in the early 70s, and loved the country and its people (as I still do, very much) and had worked there over several student vacations. The Commission to enquire into child abuse in Ireland was only set up in 2000. The conclusion of the report, issued in May 2009, was that over a period going back at least to the 1940s, many children in Industrial Schools in the Republic had been subjected to ‘sustained physical, sexual and emotional abuse.’

Bird of Passage - cover
It was this information which allowed me to fill in some of the blanks, both for myself and for my main character, Finn O’Malley. What had started out as quite a gentle love story, turned into Bird of Passage ( which makes some attempt to explore these extremes of cruelty, and how the resulting trauma affects not just the victim, but everyone who comes into contact with him or her for a whole lifetime.

Catherine Czerkawska
Catherine Czerkawska

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Look, no Borders!

Strasbourg, evening light

La piste des forts is the name of the bicycle path that goes from Strasbourg, in France, over the Rhine and into Germany. It's well named. If you were not strong before you started you will be less so once you've done it. Huge trucks barrel along the main road and while the cycle path is off to one side, I still get showered with murky moisture from the puddles that sprayed out from the truck wheels. But it's only a few kilometers, to the border, over the Pont de l'Europe, and I reach Kehl, the small town on the German side.

The first time I went to Kehl I stopped for a coffee in the town centre, where there's a near empty square, with dried leaves scuttling across it, caught up in snatches of wind like fitful half-remembered prayers. Bright lights on one side of the square announce a Euro shop. There's a café bar in the middle, with outside tables underneath large awnings. Only one client sitting outside, an elderly man drinking coffee and looking out over the empty square. Next to him is one of these admirable heaters for outside clientèle, but it's not on. When the friendly waitress brings me my coffee she also places in front of the man a large dish of ice cream, layered in white, cream and caramel colours.

The next time I visit Kehl, in the heart of the holiday season, the town square is totally deserted - even the euro shop is closed. No more garish yellow blinking lights with signs saying Jedes Teil €1 against the bright red background paint. The tourist information office is closed as is the café-bar where the elderly man sat, eating his dish of ice cream.

The chill wind cuts icily into my face as I cycle along. Only one person in sight, a man leaning out of a window, smoking, above a large sign that says Kehler Zeitung. Perhaps he's the editor gazing out across the empty streets, looking for signs of any life at all, anything to write about in his paper. But he saw nothing - apart perhaps from a woman on a bicycle, heading for the piste des forts, which has turned into fahhradweg den forten, now that we're in Germany. The cycle path goes beside a canal and then slips under a bridge past a marshy pond where a group of white herons with black tails have gathered. Mountains in the distance, streaked with snow on the peaks. One or two joggers, a few people on bikes, along the way.

Passerelle over the Rhine, joining France and Germany

And coming back through Kehl an hour or so later, I find there is one hub of activity - the Döner Merguez, with three tourists buying doner kebabs. I go up to it and ask if they have any coffee. They do. Later, one of the tourists takes a photo of the Doner Merguez. I'm glad when my drink is served, though it can barely be called coffee. I idly wonder how they could make something that tastes so little of what it claims to be. But I don't really mind for at least it's hot.

And when I leave, cycling past the Euro shop to head for the passerelle, the pedestrian and cycle bridge over the Rhine, I pass another shop, closed of course, an ice cream shop displaying a sign, Lust auf Eis. Remembering the elderly gentleman's heaped dish, I have a sudden longing for ice cream.

Morelle Smith