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Looking Into the Past by Olive Collins

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction
memory of music

By Olive Collins

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I was always interested in history, especially Ireland’s recent history, and the link between the past and how it impacts the present. Not only as a nation, but how it affects smaller communities and in turn family units and finally how conflicts were passed down the generation, eventually impacting us as individuals. Every disagreement, small and large has a backstory. To understand the present, we need to go back.

My grandmother was born in 1911. She lived in a small village in North Kerry called Knocknagoshel. Although she was a child when the 1916 Rebellion took place, what impacted her most of all was the War of Independence and Civil War. She was a runner for the IRA and her father was heavily involved in the wars, he was imprisoned and later sided with the Anti-Treaty. During the civil war my great-grandmother was a mid-wife, their house was under siege several times. Although my grandmother shared most of her life with me, she said little about the wars. “Terribly times,” was her quiet response, she was unable to say much more.

I’m always interested in the silence, the little gaps in conversations can be more revealing than a confession. Rather than probing my grandmother I read biographies, the more I read the more passionate I felt about it. I remember being struck with their sacrifices for Irish freedom, it was utterly inconceivable. It gave me a greater understanding of the older generations and the Irish psyche, their selflessness and pride in their country, aspects that we don’t dwell on anymore.

The idea for The Memory of Music occurred after a phone call from a friend. We’ll call her “Lucy”. She was financially very successful and self-made. She drove the best high-powered cars, wore the most exquisite jewellery, holidayed in the most exotic destinations and had the best of everything.  And, she expected nothing but The Best.

She phoned me one day while visiting her mother who had Alzheimer’s.  “Ollie, I’m feeding Mum in the nursing home,” she gushed in her nice accent, “The price of this place and the shit they’re feeding her.”

Olive Collins photo April 2016Her mother came from a time when women had few expectations. She was accepting and generous, humble and always put her children and husband first.

Lucy went on a rant about the food and cost of the nursing home while I thought about the contrast between mother and daughter. I imagined Lucy’s gold and diamond studded bracelet, her Rolex watch, the tan, the cashmere jumper.  Then I thought of her mother who was content with so little. She probably didn’t see anything wrong with the food in the nursing home. It occurred to me “Lucy’s” mother was born when Ireland was in its infancy. I thought about the changes Lucy’s mother saw, what would she think of the glamour of the woman feeding her? Would she envy the jewellery or recoil at the bad language?

The contract between mother and daughter was glaring. I thought about Ireland, my own grandmother who shared a lot of her life with me but could never discuss the war. My book begins with the same scene.

For those who couldn’t discuss the wars, there was music. Ireland has a magnificent catalogue of songs from every period of our history that are so good, they’ve survived centuries. Today songs from battles as far back as 1798 are sang in fashionable hotspots like Templebar. In Ireland, everybody used to have a party piece, a song or recitation.

While writing my novel I was a rep for a radio station, I spent my days in my car, it was an ideal opportunity to listen to Irish music from the 1920’s, ballad songs, traditional and republican music, as the book advanced to the 1930’s and 40’s, so too did my music.  Eventually I appointed a party-piece to each of my characters. Mona is one of my characters from the Dublin tenements, she does not have a good singing voice, however it doesn’t stop her bellowing out the songs she learns on the gramophone. One night at a 70th birthday party in Kerry, my late cousin sang one of the eeriest songs I’ve ever heard. While I listened and watched her singing, I had one of those lightbulb moments, I could see the conclusion to my novel. I remember memorising a few lines of the song and later googling them and playing it on youtube while I wrote furiously on post-its. The music gave me a clearer sense of that time, songs and their lyrics was my window to the past. It relayed every sentiment of the time, their grief or optimism, their loss, desolation and humour. I wanted to find a way to bridge the silences and found that in music. My character Isabel was born in 1916, and similar to my grandmother, she was unable to discuss the events of her childhood yet she could express herself through music.

My path to publication was not straight forward. In 2008 I got an agent and thought that’s it, “I’m made for life.” I’ll be collecting awards and exhausted from running up and down red carpets the length and breadth of the country. The agent couldn’t sell the book so that ended my red-carpet fantasy. In 2011 I got a publishing deal with a boutique publisher. It was a nightmare and within a year I got the rights of the novel back and was released from the contract.

I’d learned a lot from my previous attempts at getting published. I took my time writing The Memory of Music. Each day I’d write or read something related to my period in history.  I read articles and re-drafted my novel several time. I remember reading an article by a writer, she said that writing is like a muscle, you must exercise the muscle to improve it. After several drafts and re-writes of my novel, I gave it to three trusted friends, all avid readers and honest pals who’d tell the truth. Each of them found the same problem with the novel. Initially I had the chapters alternated between past and present. My friends suggested it run chronologically – it was back to the drawing board, again. I deliberated over it and finally in January I submitted it to Poolbeg. Getting the email from Paula Campbell is one of those moments in my life when I will always remember where I was sitting and what I was doing.

(c) Olive Collins

About The Memory of Music

The Memory of Music tells the story of one Irish family spanning 100 turbulent years: 1916 to 2016

Betty O Fogarty is proud and clever. Spurred on by her belief in husband Seamus s talent as a violin-maker and her desire to escape rural life, they elope to Dublin. She expects life to fulfil all her dreams.

To her horror, she discovers that they can only afford to live in the notorious poverty-stricken tenements. Seamus becomes obsessed with republican politics, neglecting his lucrative craft. And, as Dublin is plunged into chaos and turmoil at Easter 1916, Betty gives birth to her first child to the sound of gunfire and shelling.

But Betty vows that she will survive war and want, and move her little family out of the tenements. Nothing will stand in her way.

One hundred years later, secrets churn their way to the surface and Betty s grandchildren and great-grandchildren uncover both Betty s ruthlessness and her unique brand of heroism.

The Memory of Music is in bookshops now, or pick up your copy online here!

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