Emigrant Life

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Jessie Ann Foley’s The Carnival at Bray is an award-winning young-adult novel set in Ireland during 1993, when grunge played on every teenager’s Walkman.

Carnival at Bray

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley

Maggie Lynch is a sixteen-year-old girl in Chicago, growing up working class amid hard-working and hard-partying Irish-American stock. When her mother falls in love with an Irish guy, the family moves to Ireland, to the seaside town of Bray, south of Dublin, where Maggie and her younger sister, Ronnie, try to find their place in a new culture.

Life is not all roses for Maggie, however. The family don’t have much money, she’s beginning to understand that her beloved musician uncle is a drug addict, and her mother falls in an out of love with regularity, so Maggie suspects they’ll be back in Chicago before she can blink. But, against her expectations, Maggie begins to feel at home in Ireland. She soon acquires a boyfriend, a surrogate father figure, and a sense of herself. It’s one of those brief periods in your teens when you start to think you might be figuring life out — before fate dumps on you.

Rock music is Maggie’s crutch, her refuge. She listens to Pearl Jam and Nirvana over and over, and considers her musician uncle, Kevin a wise sage. Kevin takes her to see Smashing Pumpkins, urges her to go see Nirvana live, and generally makes life seem exciting and vital. Kevin however has his demons. Still living with his mother, he drifts from bar band to bar band, never accomplishing much, and not fighting very hard against a serious drug addiction.

Kevin inspires Maggie to embark on a crazy trip to Italy to see Nirvana play on their 1993 world tour, so she basically runs away from home with her boyfriend, Eoin. Naturally, many things do not go according to plan. In a sense, this is a classic quest novel, wherein our heroine must make a journey in which she grows and learns much about herself. In another, it’s a coming-of-age story where the protagonist discovers what she cares about and how she wants to be in the world. And, of course it’s an illuminating fish-out-of-water tale of a big-city girl moving to a small Irish town where everybody knows everybody, and all their relatives back through the generations.

I came across The Carnival at Bray randomly at my local library. Though I work in the book trade, I had not heard of this novel and was intrigued by the premise: an American teen moves to Ireland with her family in 1993, during the heyday of grunge and the birth of generation X. I lived in Ireland during those years — although I was a little older — loved that music, and frequently wonder how my teenagers might handle life in Ireland if we moved back before they’ve grown. I don’t often get the chance to read a novel I genuinely know nothing about, as I’m too close to the hype machine in my work. So, I checked it out, and am very glad I did.

The author, Jessie Ann Foley, is from Chicago, and is married to an Irishman, so she is able to write about Ireland with both an outsider’s perspective and local knowledge. She understands what it was to love music as a teenager, to live and die in your CD collection, and she visceral thrill of seeing your heros perform live. There’s a real authenticity to the writing that I feel contemporary teens would be able to relate to. Of course, I loved the same bands and lived in Dublin during the period the novel is set, so I’m biased. I remember seeing Nirvana live, I remember where I was when I heard Kurt Cobain was dead, and I remember people gathering in the Phoenix Park and elsewhere to mourn him — all of which take place in this novel.

The Carnival at Bray is more than just a coming-of-age story, it’s a hymn to the vital importance of rock music during the teenage years, a poem about the joy of finding your tribe or at least a kindred spirit. It’s about taking chances and learning that a few bad decisions won’t kill you. And, is one of those occasional novels that I feel both young and adult readers will enjoy.

 

Notes

Other powerful young-adult novels (by Irish authors) I’ve read or reviewed recently include Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours (review) and Sarah Bannan’s Weightless.

 

In Ireland or the UK, you can purchase The Carnival at Bray here…

It’s a wonderful thing to wake up, make a cup of tea and devote your morning to an engrossing book without a thought to the dishes in the sink or other household chores. I had such an opportunity over the July 4th weekend, and devoured Nuala O’Connor’s brilliant novel Miss Emily.

Miss Emily by Nuala O'Connor

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor (US cover)

Nuala O‘Connor is one of Ireland’s greatest writers of short stories and flash fiction, but she’s also an excellent poet and novelist. Raised bi-lingual, O’Connor — who publishes under her Irish name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, in Ireland — has a great ear for the playfulness of language, for double meanings, and the layers that get lost in translation. She brings that same perceptiveness to her understanding of her characters and the nuances of their dilemmas, which is especially useful when telling tales of people crossing borders or boundaries from the known to the unknown. Read the rest of this entry »

im-not-perfect-but-im-irish-which-is-way-better-a7ba9I’ve always been proud of Ireland, and keen to pass along a sense of being Irish to my daughters, who were born and are being raised in the US. However, as my eldest has officially entered the “Obnoxious Teenager” phase (Oh, such a barrel of laughs!), she appears to have internalized a lesson I did not intend: that everything is better in Ireland. Read the rest of this entry »

The Blog Awards Ireland is an annual award the recognizes excellence in Irish blogging. I’m happy to announce that ATriptoIreland.com is a finalist!

[Update: It won! Woohoo!]

blog_buttons_FINALISTATriptoIreland.com qualifies for the “Best Blog of the Diaspora” category in the 2014 Blog Awards Ireland. Last year, I made it to the longlist round of the competition; this year, the blog has made it all the way to the finals. I’m honored to receive this recognition and acknowledgement.

This is a good opportunity to outline what ATriptoIreland has become, and where I intend to take it next.  Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve slowed down, nay almost stopped, blogging over the past two weeks. The reason is unusual and unfortunate: a tree fell on my house.

tree 2Yep! We had a 120+ year-old cherry tree behind our home — Grandma Cherry we called her. I’d been concerned about having a tree of this size too close to the house, but held off on doing anything too drastic because our kids loved the rope swing we’d hung from her many years ago. I just pruned deadwood and removed some limbs that overhung the house.

Long story short: we came back from a weekend camping trip to find the tree had split, and half of it had crashed down onto the roof. Read the rest of this entry »

Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the start of Lent. In Ireland, it’s more popularly known as Pancake Day.

Nicely rolled Irish pancakes, and "The Flip" in action. Credits: PHPhoto/Pixabay, karpathi Gabor/Morguefile, StaffsLive/Flickr

Nicely rolled Irish pancakes, and “The Flip” in action. Credits: PHPhoto/Pixabay, Karpathi Gabor/Morguefile, StaffsLive/Flickr

In order to begin Lent in the right frame of mind and with your soul sufficiently pure, many Christians want to be shriven on Shrove Tuesday. They confess their sins, perform an act of contrition, and their soul is cleansed. To prepare the body, they consume the last of the rich foods that they will have to give up for Lent: milk, eggs, and butter. Read the rest of this entry »

Ah, Mother’s Day is a bittersweet holiday for Irish emigrants for several reasons. The bond between a child and their mammy is usually very strong, so this is a time when we think of the family we left behind and get all maudlin and stuff.

What's an emigrant lad to do when Irish Mother's Day is two months before the American one?

What’s an emigrant lad to do when Irish Mother’s Day is two months before the American one?

However, it’s also the single-most problematic holiday for the Irish in the US on a strictly practical basis: American Mother’s Day falls on the second sunday in May, but Mother’s Day in Ireland falls two months earlier! So, if we rely on the festive hoopla in the media and the avalanche of cards in the stores to remind us, it’s too late! (To be fair — and stereotypical — this is mostly a problem for emigrant Irish men, as the Irish women I know seem to have little problem remembering anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays…)  Read the rest of this entry »

Here’s a post for ex-pats and fans of Irish music and literature all over the world. Where do you order Irish books & music when you’re outside the country?

Dublin pillar box (Credit: Anosmia/Flickr)

Dublin pillar box
(Credit: Anosmia/Flickr)

I’ve been living outside Ireland cumulatively for 21 of the last 25 years, not all of them in the same country, so I’ve amassed a bit of experience in keeping up with the news and reviews from home in that time. Pre-internet, I relied on phone calls with the mammy for all the news that was fit to repeat (and some that wasn’t…). When the internet came along, I could get a certain amount of news online, but most often I kept up through week-old copies of the Irish Times in a local bookshop. (When I lived in a large enough city to have a book store that carried European dailies.) Now of course, I get the news as it happens on Twitter, and watch the major papers catch up the next day online. Read the rest of this entry »

I must be the only Irishman in the world to have ever bought stones.

Stone walls in Co. Clare. (credit: mirsasha/Flickr via creative commons license)

Stone walls in Co. Clare.
(credit: mirsasha/Flickr via creative commons license)

It all started when we decided we wanted someplace to sit out and have dinner or a few drinks when friends came over.

(I blame that film “French Kiss,” when Kevin Kline’s family are having sunday dinner at a huge table under a tree in a vineyard on a gorgeous summer’s day, drinking wine and arguing with each other in French. It always sounds so much more romantic when you can’t understand the words. Love that film!)

Right, so!” says I. “I’ll build a patio.Read the rest of this entry »

The classic Renault 4 post office van of my childhood.

The classic Renault 4 post office van of my childhood.
(Photo credit: sludgegulper via Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

The typical Irish emigrant phones home:

“Howerya Da. What’s new?” (Braces herself for 10-minute monologue on the banks, the government, and other bogeymen.)

“Oh, Jaysus… <delivers 10 minute monologue about the bloody banks, the feckers in government, & other bogeymen> …and now we’re getting bleeding postcodes. Another waste of money!”

“Eh?” (Detecting a new bone of contention) “What’s that about postcodes?”

 

In 18 months, Ireland will join the many countries who use a postcode in all mailing addresses. It seems like a small thing, just another piece of data in our ever-more-data-driven world, but it’s also a reminder that Ireland’s population is much larger than it used to be, larger and more complex. The fear is always that the changes necessary to deal with this growing population are causing us to loose much of what made Ireland distinctive in the first place.

The need for these postcodes reflects the post-Celtic Tiger landscape of sprawling housing estates, commuter suburbs, and the pricing out of younger generations from their newly affluent home parishes. This week’s Irish Times report on the plans for new postcodes cites the difficulty of delivering the post in rural parts of the country where “detailed local knowledge” may be required. This made me laugh, because detailed local knowledge was simply considered common knowledge where I grew up. Our townland was rural, a network of unmarked roads and little villages, and we had one local postman who knew everyone. This in itself was nothing remarkable, because everyone knew (or knew of) everyone else. We walked or biked around as kids and knew who lived in every house. With our parents, we called in on many of the old people who lived alone, that was just being neighborly.

I’m sure our postman had a difficult job — after all, most of the families in the area shared the same three or four last names — but he stopped to gossip along his route, and knew everything and everyone: who was getting married, who was having a baby, and where they were going to live.

Our parish escaped the worst of the Tiger building boom, but there are still more new houses and small developments in the area than there used to be. When I’m out for a walk with my mother, she doesn’t always know who lives in some of the new houses, or what their story is. Our current postman doesn’t ever have time to stop or gossip — nor would many of his customers have time to indulge in a chinwag over the gate themselves. The local church is packed on any given Sunday, but most are new to the parish. The scale of life is changing, and postcodes seem to be a necessary way to keep track of it all.

I know the situation is much worse in other parts of the country. I have friends living in some of the huge estates that were built nearer to Dublin (or half-built, if started too close to the end of the boom) and they don’t always know everyone on their street, never mind their neighborhood. In that respect, the need for the new post-codes makes total sense, after all every building will have a unique identifying number, so theoretically there should be no more lost or misdirected mail. But, the odd unfamiliar letter or garbled address used to be a bit of fun for all concerned: the confused postman (and they were always men as far as I can remember) calling to the door and asking if anyone recognized the name would always lead to a discussion of the neighborhood and who’d moved away, and was it to England or America, where might their parents be found, and wasn’t it only shockin’ that the young had to emigrate… That’d never happen in most places now, as most of the residents wouldn’t be able to be of much help to the postie.

Happily, the Tiger hasn’t killed the old neighborliness everywhere. The boom forced my brother to move out of Dublin, as a single person’s salary couldn’t secure a mortgage in those days. He lives in Leitrim now, several miles out from the nearest town, and when I visit him, he can tell me all about his neighbors as we drive along. Leitrim is a colorful part of the country now, as the relatively cheap house prices were a draw for artists and non-conformist types who didn’t need or want to be within commuting distance of Dublin. The relative absence of Tiger-estates seems to have enabled the pace of life to remain steady in Leitrim; the population may be changing due to the increase in blow-ins, but the scale of life remains somewhat similar.

When I see articles decrying the death of the Irish way of life, the death of the pub, or the death of whatever, my experiences in places like Leitrim remind me that although things are changing, there are parts of the country that have not been changed unrecognizably by the arrival of broadband, multinational corporations, dense development, and shifting demographics. The neighborliness and community bonds that are part of the national psyche are not dead, nor have they been changed irretrievably by the Tiger, although in places the congestion and pace of life has certainly made it much harder to get to know the neighbors.

 

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