In Dermot Bolger’s new novel, An Ark of Light, a teenage poet visits Eva Fitzgerald – a free spirit, who is living out her old age in a caravan in a field in County Mayo. Finding there a sanctuary, the poet feels he has met a soulmate.
Eva is based on Sheila Fitzgerald – a writer who inspired the young Bolger, and the poet is a portrait of himself. Did it feel strange putting himself into this second novel based on the life of the Fitzgerald family?
“It did, and I was resistant to it for a long time,” says Dermot, as we chat in his booklined house in Drumcondra. “But I wrote myself in, not to be about myself, but to illustrate how influential Sheila was to an aspiring writer; not just to me, but to all kinds of people. Other poets and musicians – people that bit different in rural Ireland felt that they could go and talk to her. And there was something extraordinary in that first night when I visited her.
“It was exactly as I describe in the novel. I did wake at one in the morning to hear someone crying and realised it was this cat; it had been run over and was under the caravan, and this was a good distance away from a road. Seeing Sheila gently giving the cat chloroform and seeing it die so peacefully made me lose my fear of death. It was as if I was meant to go there and see this thing.”
Dermot’s mother died when he was ten years old. His father spent most of his time at sea, so it fell to his sisters, June and Deirdre to take up the slack. To get through this time, Dermot invented a kind of parallel existence.
“I was at an age where my mind was not mature enough to take in the enormity of what had occurred, and I began to devise a fantasy world where my mother was still alive, but she hadn’t come home yet. There was this duality of realities existing in my mind. There was the world that made sense, and this other world that didn’t make sense, and years later, I realised, Jesus! That was the time I became a writer.”
At eighteen though, when Dermot met Sheila, his writing career consisted, mostly, of a sheath of rejection slips. And this is why the older woman’s friendship made such an impact.
“Going to this alien place – this caravan in Mayo with 3 or 4 poems, reading them, and having someone take them very seriously, and talk to you seriously about them was hugely important at a time when David Marcus (of New Irish Writing,) was sending back your three poems every month.”
The friendship endured. Dermot, famously, set up Raven Art’s Press in 1979, as an enterprise which acted as a stepping stone for Irish writers on their way to publication with larger presses. By the time he published a volume of Shelia Fitzgerald’s drawings, his first novel Night Shift, had already appeared, with the publisher, Brandon.
Over the years, Dermot visited Sheila often. They would talk through the night, and Dermot recorded her recollections of an eventful life. He promised her that, one day, he would write her family’s story. And in 2005, his ninth novel, The Family on Paradise Pier, was based on the Anglo-Irish family and the magical childhood which preceded their involvement in, variously, events in Russia, Spain and London. It showed Sheila’s early struggles to conform in a world where she simply did not fit. The book took her through her unsatisfactory marriage – leaving her on the verge of leaving her husband to strive for happiness.
The rest of her story, however, proved even more of an undertaking. Telling of her struggles to get by as a separated woman; her setting up of a children’s art school; her sorrow when both her children took their lives; her migration to the caravan, and from there into residential care, makes for harrowing reading.
Dermot has often written about people on the margins, and he feels this term applies to Sheila Fitzgerald just as much as to the more obvious misfits he has portrayed.
“Sheila might not have come from a Finglas estate, but she was on the edge of that Anglo-Irish world,” he says. “She was always on the edge, whether in Dublin, London or Morocco or Tangiers. She wasn’t, quite, an artist, so she was never at home amongst the artists, and being in the gay community of her son’s friends, when she, herself, wasn’t gay must have been quite stressful for her.”
This is why life in the caravan suited her so well.
“So long as she could remain there, in the caravan in Mayo, and later in Wexford, she made sense, because the young people who visited her understood her.”
Fictionalising real lives is far from easy.
“Noel Coward said to live your life was like giving a violin recital in public whilst learning to play the violin. And to write a book like this is like that. There are no guidelines.
“People always say, taxi drivers in particular, that their life would make a good book, but the fictional world only makes sense because of its creator. It’s all about pacing. All the drama in Sheila’s life happened within ten years, and as a novelist, you would never have those things happening so close together.”
There’s the problem of how much of the truth to tell, when you also have to consider a person’s privacy. He’s done a quite wonderful job; inventing some characters; changing others, but always staying true to the emotions and spirit of his feisty heroine. There’s a gorgeous scene involving a young American, who, having tried to seduce Sheila, then turned his attention to her daughter.
“That was based on something Sheila said. She described watching these two young people cycle down the Wicklow mountains like butterflies. It’s a wonderful image, and I built the scene from that.
“I’ve never written a book with such care,” he says. “It lived under the bed for years because, in writing it, I feel judged by the living and the dead. It’s based on real people but as I barely understand myself, I have little chance of understanding anybody else. I’ve made some deliberate distortions of some aspects of their lives. It’s like walking a tightrope.”
The most impressive chapter – a series of letters, started, but not finished from Sheila’s troubled daughter Hazel, was, Dermot says, the hardest of all to write.
“Those letters are invented by me and they took a very long time to work out because in some ways Hazel’s death was inconclusive. Sheila never knew what happened, and maybe never came to terms with it; it sounded so unlike Hazel and her personality.”
An Ark of Light is Dermot’s fifteenth novel. He has also penned nineteen plays and ten volumes of poetry. He’s now working on a play but says the urgency to write has eased.
“In a sense, An Ark of Light was the last book I needed to write. If I was knocked down by a number 19 bus I wouldn’t think, ‘Oh God, there was that big book to finish.’
“I had the responsibility to tell Sheila’s story, and I’ve done it. The Journey Home spoke for my generation and The Lonely Sea and the Sky spoke for my father’s. It’s not that I never will write another book again. There will be another chapter of life. But this closes the chapter of that 18-year-old poet visiting that caravan.”
An Ark of Light by Dermot Bolger. New Island Books: €14.95
Published in The Irish Examiner on 29th September.
© Sue Leonard. 2018.