What started out as a post for this blog sprouted wings and took flight. In fact it’s only getting its’ outing here now despite being written some time ago. It is a story but by it’s dissemination a whole other story needs to be written too. So what follows here is the lot. There’s my recent story (which my blog charts), the ‘original story’, The Irish Time’s spell-checked and subbed version of that story (spot what didn’t make the final cut) and the reaction to its publication including the aftermath for me.
So pop on the kettle and make yourself a cup of tea. Best make it a pot.
12 Months ago
I could take you back to London in the eighties but we’d be here all day and anyhow the original story does that succinctly. Twelve months ago I was still pretty lost. I knew what I didn’t want to do, but my lens to the world was ‘obscured’. That’s the term window fitters use for bathroom panes. Obscured perspectives have their place (in toilets etc) but I was finding it difficult to navigate around my world with that outlook. I now wonder if through getting no satisfaction from looking out, I was forced to look inward and that’s where many of my answers lay all along.
I knew that the answers lay with me. Oh, the pressure. What was I doing keeping them to myself and at the same time keeping them from myself. I didn’t know how to access them until I started to trust my intuition, my gut. Like a dowsing rod I was led to an adult education college where I enrolled on a certificate in counselling. I wasn’t clear what I was going to get from the course or the qualification but enrolling sat easy with my gut.
Another seismic event was the arrival of a humble brown envelope. From my sister in Ireland. In it, a photocopy of an article from The British Journal of General Practice (BJGP) entitled ‘Therapeutic writing – a tool for general practice’ with a yellow post-it on top. “MT, I really think this is something for you”.
I say seismic because my obscured window pane shattered. I made an appointment with an expert cited in the study. I invested in a two hour mentoring talk with her, which warrants a blog post all to itself. She was wonderfully encouraging, at one point comparing me to an antique cracked Chinese tea bowl. She explained that they are more sought after (and more valuable to collectors) than their perfect pristine counterparts.
Being a diarist and blogger therapeutic writing/writing for well being would be a good fit. However I was encouraged to do more of the pen and paper writing. Something special happens when nib contacts paper that a keyboard can’t replicate. And I have been doing that since.
My original emigrant story
These forays into counselling and therapeutic writing spawned essays like the one on my emigration story. This is the ‘original story’ I refer to earlier and the catalyst for all that followed.
Home and Away – now more home than away
The tipping point happened a few years back when I had lived in the UK for more years than I’d lived in the country of my birth, Ireland. Acknowledging that was a big deal for me. I’d been playing with the figures and putting it off. I took into account the two years I reckoned I wasn’t in England – made up of a year backpacking around Africa in 1990 and countless trips I’d taken overseas when I worked with the airlines. But there’s no getting away from it now.
I came to London at 21 as a recent graduate from NIHE. Even that dates me – the college is now DCU. Same campus, same course, even a few same faculty members. I know this because my nephew left this year with the same qualification. My degree (Communication Studies) was a leap of faith for my parents back in ‘84 when we first saw the CAO offer published in the newspaper and they agreed to fund my studies. My heart soared. It couldn’t have been easy for them. As well as their own, they were already supporting two households as older sisters studied in UCG and UCD. I was 17 and not familiar with the ways of the city. I packed a torch in the suitcase I took to Dublin forgetting about street lamps. How we’ve laughed about that since.
On graduation my options were to sign on the dole which was a definite no-no in my father’s eyes or leave for England and beyond. I won’t call it a choice because it didn’t feel like that then and in this retelling it still doesn’t. We had no family in London so I arranged accommodation in a women’s hostel in Victoria. Run by nuns.
There was a pay phone on each floor – our link with home and employment agencies as we waited for bookings. Job offers came flooding in. I worked for a Canadian bank by day and as an usherette at a West End theatre by night. Because of our central location I got to know London city by foot very well – knowledge I still call on today.
There was a communal TV room in the basement. Posters stuck on the walls appealed for prayers and funds for those less fortunate. Trays of M & S sandwiches and cakes on the turn (edible though unsellable) were left along the corridors. Corporate donations for charity cases….and maybe we were.
The nuns enforced a no-male-guests policy and we had a curfew. Those restrictions ensured a quick turnover and so a vacant bed for the next Irish departee.
It wasn’t a good time for me though in that first year in London I fell in love. With an Irish boy He wasn’t the man I would marry though we remain friends since. Who knows it mightn’t have been any easier had I spent my early adulthood in Dublin. Getting comfortable in my skin.
In the spring that would mark 6 months away, my mother posted over a cutting from the Irish Press. Aer Lingus were expanding in Heathrow and eager to employ their own. I made an application and after an interview where I had to show my knees – to see what I’d look like in a uniform skirt – I got offered a job. For many years I straddled both countries. This was in an era before departure tax when it was cheaper to hop on a 737 and pop across to Dublin than to board the piccadilly line for Leicester Square. It was almost as fast.
Maybe because 25 years have passed and that’s a milestone of sorts I’ve been thinking back on those early days. Though a recent encounter I had in the city could have been a trigger. Led by my six year old son to a toy store in a shopping arcade this young guy comes bounding over to serve us waving a wand and trailing bubbles that miraculously don’t pop. ‘Touch bubbles’ he tells me. ‘Kids love dem’. I’m cheered on hearing his strong Irish accent. He’s been in London seven months and loving every minute of his stay. I don’t want to burst his bubble but surely he was reared for greater things than this. He tells me he graduated last September from UL with a degree in music technology. He’s in a band. He gigs by night and plays with toys during the day. ‘I’m living the dream’ he enthuses – only half tongue in cheek.
The celtic tiger has spurned her cubs but there’s no denying their DNA, formed during those years when anything was possible. He has a confidence and ease lacking in waves of bygone emigrants. I’m sure it will carry him far, and home again if he so wishes.
Decades on, people have stopped asking me if I plan on moving home. I’ve even stopped tormenting myself with the question. Though I still feel a physical ache when I’m in Ireland and driving to the airport bound for my home in London. My husband is English and in a minority – the ones who are not charmed by all things Irish. I guess that means he loves me for myself. We were wed in a castle near my birthplace. While on a holiday home I’d my children baptised in the church where I had my first confession and other sacraments. On equal ops forms I tick the box ‘White Irish’ for the three of us. Though I can’t imagine they’ll define themselves in that way when their time comes. Recently I got them Irish passports. When I flipped open the cover and saw ‘Irish citizen’ by their photos it looked all wrong. For I know that they are not. Though their mother will always be. And that will do for me.
While I wrote it one night, it was years in the making. I sent it on spec the The Irish Times online forum called generation emigration. They asked if they could publish it in their print paper and even offered to pay me. I was thrilled. Turns out the sub editor working on it was in university a year ahead of me. I remembered him as very lovely and very talented. He wrote me a wonderful generous email, commented on my “existential unease” (that’s me in two words) and offered some great advice.
When the article appeared in the newspaper I noticed that they’d ditched my title. Instead they’d pulled a line from the text and made it the heading – “London 1988: I had to show my knees in an interview”. Oh, dear. I suppose it catches the eye. With a different heading again on the online version.
All weekend I received emails and texts and FB messages from friends and acquaintances – recent, old, mislaid and forgotten. It’s still happening. The paper was happy with the article’s reception. Many FB likes and a lot of online comments and discussion.
The Irish Times came back to me a couple of weeks ago and asked for 200 words on the concept of Home. These appear in their Weekend Review section of Saturday’s paper which has a huge readership, especially today, 4 days shy of Christmas. This time they use some of the biography they’d asked me to supply with my first approach. ‘Marie Therese Keegan, 45, runs creative writing workshops for children’. Those who know me will say she’s demonstrated her first bit of creative writing right there with those figures. That was the I.T being creative, trying to work out my age from references or maybe from an old acquaintance, the sub editor.
Having something recently published has bolstered me with current writing projects. Because my writing has appeared in The Irish Times me writing and continuing to write has earned me a certain degree of credibility previously lacking. Yesterday I happened to be in the toy store I refer to in the article. Our recent and eager emigrant is still there and remembers me and the dormant volcano he sold us (a disappointing toy that didn’t deliver). I told him about the article and his place in it. He was chuffed and would be googling it later.
I googled myself this morning to get to the weekend review. I now have quite a presence. I’m even quoted on a technology website where they talk about RTE announcing The Late Late toy show being available as a live broadcast on RTE player ( my account of our annual Toy Show party is published on The Irish Time’s website) I can’t dine out on one story forever. With that in mind I’ll bring this to a finish. Now there’s an area of writing craft I need to work on – endings. And the one for this blog post…. three little words…Watch this space.