Five years ago, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s husband died after a short illness. An internationally renowned folklorist, Bo Almqvist, who was 20 years Éilís’s senior, had been, simply, the love of her life. His death left her reeling.
Unable to write fiction in the wake of his death, Éilís wrote a diary, setting out her feelings, then going back, to the start of her relationship with Bo. The resulting memoir, Twelve Thousand Days is an emotive, lyrically written account of the highs- and lows – of a long love affair, and of Bo’s confusing, and probably unnecessary, death.
It’s highly personal – disclosing as much about the author as her man. What inspired her to write it?
“I was compelled to write it, and for entirely personal reasons,” she says. “It was one of those magical things. I was writing this to stay with Bo even though he was dead.
She then states that my question should have been, why did she publish the memoir.
“I did so because I derived a lot of solace from other grief books that I read; those by Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, and Julian Barnes. Also, I wanted to put on the record something about Bo. I loved him and admired him, and he was an eminent person. You have to write about the person or they won’t live on except in their own written word. I was very aware of that.”
The couple met at University College Dublin. A professor of Folklore, Bo was supervising Éilís in her PhD. Recently divorced, he was going through something of an emotional crisis, whilst Éilís was newly engaged to her college boyfriend, Oliver. The two became close when, a year or so on, Éilís’s engagement ended, leaving her heartbroken.
The attraction, and meeting of minds made them both feel that they were right for each other. As Éilís writes, ‘We were members of the club of the X-ray eyes, the club of people who can see into the human heart.’
Back then, though, in the seventies, when feminism was watery, and Éilís, living with the baggage of a conservative catholic background cared deeply what other people thought, the twenty-year age gap between her and Bo seemed an impossible impediment.
A key scene describes Éilís walking up and down Booterstown Avenue in an agony of indecision. Dare she keep her dinner appointment with her professor, when she’s aware that this is the moment the relationship is destined to blossom?
With Éilís’s track record of productising highly acclaimed literary novels and short stories, both in Irish and English, its no surprise that this memoir, to this reader at least, is pitch perfect. The structure – moving between the start of the relationship, and the end, including those last horrifying days, lends a powerfully page turning element to the chronicle. But it’s the portrait of Bo – and indeed the one of herself, and of the relationship, that make this such a satisfying read.
Being Swedish, Bo was always something of a feminist.
“He wouldn’t have described himself as one, but in Sweden, equality was already normal in the seventies. He didn’t make the kind of distinction between male and female which most Irish academics did at the time, where they would assume boys were better.”
He thought Éilís wasn’t feminist enough.
“Well, he found me too eager to please! He gave me books showing the achievements of Irish women because he thought I could do with getting a bit more ambition.” It wasn’t until after their marriage, she explains, that her consciousness was raised when she joined Aoibhe Smith’s women’s studies forum in UCD.
I first came across Éilís back in 1998, when I attended one of her creative writing classes in the Irish Writer’s Centre. An excellent teacher, who believed writers should learn to read as a writer, she went on to help found the Creative Writing MA programme in UCD, teaching there for some twenty years.
“Most of Ireland’s new young writer’s have come through MA programmes,” she says. “They have been talented to begin with, and probably would have published anyway, but they learn a lot from the courses. It probably fast tracks them.”
It was different for her, starting out as a seventeen-year-old, sending short stories out to David Marcus at New Irish Writing.
“I wrote a story every year or so. Sometimes he would publish them, sometimes he wouldn’t. If he didn’t I’d just throw them away.”
After six years or so, she became more conscious of how she was writing, learning about shape and form. And particularly so after discovering the Alice Munro, the Canadian writer who has influenced her greatly – and with whom she is often compared.
Hugely adaptive, Éilís has written poetry, children’s fiction, plays in Irish, as well as the short stories and novels.
“It’s because I say yes to commissions,” she says. “Making a living as a writer is very hard, and barely anyone gets by being focused and writing only novels. You have to have, as one of my students said, a patchwork, doing a bit of this and a bit of that. But the short story is my default. That’s the strand that has gone continually through my life.”
Éilís has always had a day job – for years she worked at the national library, and though she has always complained that she therefore doesn’t have enough time to write, she is aware that having a regular income has given her the financial freedom to write what she wants to. And besides, she says, now that she has all the time in the world to write, she doesn’t produce more than she did in her former life.
Having said that, she is still highly active in the literary scene. Since Bo’s death her contributions to short story collections – notably The Long Gaze Back – the prize-winning collection edited by Sinead Gleeson has had her travelling the country.
She’s no stranger to awards and bursaries – and has won them for different genres over the years. In 2000, her novel, The Dancers Dancing was shortlisted for the Orange Prize; she’s won a Hennessy lifetime achievement award, and she’s a member of Aosdána. And though she was especially thrilled to receive the PEN Award in 2015, for an outstanding contribution to Irish Literature, she is characteristically modest, and says it was given to her to comfort her after Bo’s death.
“They wanted to bolster me up and bit and it did,” she says, but admits it is really special getting recognition from your peers.
In five years’, time, she would like to have written another very good novel.
“I’ve published about 6 or 7 collections of short stories, and although they are well received, novels always make more of a splash.”
Recently Éilís read a section from Twelve Thousand Days, and was horrified when a young member of the audience said the reading had made her terrified of how she would feel when her husband dies. And though the book does bring grief painfully alive, the memoir is of interest to anyone anxious to know what life was like for women in Dublin back in the seventies.
“I see myself as a chronicler of life. I think one of the things fiction is for is for depicting life. What it felt like to be alive at this time and at this stage. Prose does this in a way that really nothing else can. It can show what people are thinking and feeling.
“If I want to find out what it felt like to live in Yorkshire in the early 1800’s I would always go to the Bronte’s. Not to a historian, or to any other source.”
Twelve Thousand Days. A Memoir of Love and Loss. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. Blackstaff Press: €12.99.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 8th December.
© Sue Leonard. 2018.