Mary Pat Kelly has always been proud of being Irish. But, growing up in Chicago, with a romanticized view of Ireland, she didn’t really know what that meant. She didn’t know where her family came from, and had no particular desire to visit the country. But all that changed in 1969.
“When I was 23, a friend and I went to London. We’d bought a ticket on Icelandic Airways and set off with rail cards, but we didn’t have Ireland on our itinerary. We found out that the cheapest way to stay in London was to rent rooms in somebody’s house, so we called this woman, and she asked us round to her town house.
“When we arrived, she said, ‘Girls, I forgot to ask your names.’ I said, ‘I am Mary Kelly,’ and she said, ‘Irish?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and she slammed the door in my face. She didn’t want to rent to the Irish and I was stunned. I started to think about what makes me Irish.”
The girls had planned to stay in London for a week, then move on to Paris, but now they started to think again.
“At the time there was a special performance of Waiting for Godot at the Abbey Theatre. We had no idea who Beckett was, but off we went, and when we arrived in Dublin I started to fall in love with Ireland and Irish people and realised there was a lot more to being Irish than turning the river green on St Patrick’s day.”
By this time, Mary Pat had become interested in the Civil Rights movement. She’d become a nun in 1962, staying until 1968. That wasn’t so unusual then – of her class of 100, 13 became nuns.
“In the time of John F Kennedy and Pope John XX111 it was a considered a respectable way to change the world and make a difference.”
After five years of training, Mary Pat taught in the international school, and this was right in the middle of the riots. She became active in the Civil Rights movement, and, although the order was tolerant of this, she left religious life, believing that she could do more good outside the convent than in.
BY the time of her Irish visit, Mary Pat had become involved in the media, and, meeting John Hume, she decided to try and get him on American TV. Failing, she set about making her own documentary, and To Live for Ireland came out to critical acclaim.
Now in her seventies, Mary Pat has had an illustrious career. She’s worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter for Paramount and Columbia Pictures; she’s done time on Good Morning America and Saturday Night Live, and written a slew of non-fiction books including one on Martin Scorsese. She’s taken a PhD in Irish Studies; but it’s her fiction that is closest to her heart.
Her first novel, though, did not come easy.
“I was trying to write a novel set in a convent. I’d been writing it for years. It was called Special Intentions, and my problem was that I couldn’t finish it. I met Maeve Binchy when I was in Ireland in 1984 to cover Ronald Reagan’s visit for Rolling Stone magazine. She said, ‘I’ll tell you about being a writer, you finish by sitting in a room. Just finish!’ And she gave me a deadline. It was the end of June.
“I’d get a post-card from her ever now and then saying, ‘How are you doing?’ and I finished that book at 10 minutes to midnight on July 1st”
By the time her second novel, Galway Bay, was published in 2009 Mary Pat had discovered that her great-great grandmother had come from Barna, County Galway.
“When I found the place, a part of me that was missing was born,” she says. “I stood there looking out at Galway Bay and thought, this is beautiful! And it’s part of my family’s story.”
Left a widow with five children, her ancestor was evicted, along with everyone else in the small fishing village, and had made her way to Chicago.
“I’d always wanted to write a book about Ireland, and I thought, I’ll use my family’s story.”
It involved a great deal of research.
“I did a lot of it in libraries in Ireland. I found these really interesting 5 or 6 typed pages of a local person telling their stories that hadn’t made it into local histories.”
The novel took four years to write, but the family’s story was far from finished. So she followed it up with Of Irish Blood, published in 2013, and a third, Irish Above All, which is newly published. And this is the one she’s in Ireland to publicise. The title comes from her father’s cousin, a nun who lived to be 107.
“She said of the family, ‘We are Americans, yes, Chicagoans, of course, but we are Irish most of all.’”
We’re chatting in the bar of Buswell’s Hotel where May Pat is staying with her Tyrone born husband, Martin Sheerin, a photographer, who, for many years, was based in Dublin. Dark haired and vivacious, she vibrates with energy and passion, and has loved catching up with some of her many friends.
Blending fact and fiction, this latest book follows Norah, a photographer who, having lived in Paris for years, returns to Chicago, where her brother is Mayor. It’s the early thirties, and through her connection with politics, she meets such luminaries as the Roosevelts, Al Capone and Mussolini.
Maud Gonne makes an appearance too.
“She fascinates me. Yeats wrote Easter 1916 at her villa in Normandy. I wanted to find her villa and went looking, but it was on Omaha Beach and it was blown up by the Nazis during the D Day invasion.”
This doorstopper takes her through the great depression and World War Two, when Norah flies to Ireland with Eleanor Roosevelt, and seeks out the love of her life. The author’s birth is mentioned, as she ties up all the loose ends to finish on a satisfying note. How does it feel to have completed the trilogy after all these years?
“In a way I miss the people. I write early in the morning and I enjoy getting to know them and listening to them.”
She’s now working on a memoir which shows all the changes that have happened for women in Ireland over the last fifty years.
“I’ve been coming to Ireland since 1969, and I’ve visited, probably more than 200 times. To think that, when I first came, according to the constitution a married woman could not work; and there was no contraception and no divorce is incredible.
“I have watched it all change, and known many of the people who were involved in changing it. I think women have been at the forefront of all these changes. I’ve started to look at Irish women, and the fact that, maybe, they are the archetypal figures embedded in society.
“My dream has always been to be a bridge between Ireland and America because I think there are layers of meaning and connection. There is such a richness on both sides. There is so much more to Ireland than the cliched images we grew up with. I had to grab people by the collar and say, ‘it is better than you think.’
“The world is astounded by Ireland right now,” she says. “It’s the most impressive country in the world. Every other country is backsliding into nationalism and awful stuff. Ireland is like this shining light. You take it for granted and that is the essence – that you can take it for granted.”
Irish Above All by Mary Pat Kelly. Forge: €29.75. Kindle: €10.96
Published in The Irish Examiner, 2019
© Sue J Leonard. 2019.