Debra Daley’s Turning the Stones is a romance blending Georgian high society with wild Irish magic. Daley talks about what inspired the Connemara scenes in her novel:
When I was a young woman I put a lot of energy into resisting Ireland. That’s because I was raised in an Irish family in New Zealand and, as everyone knows, there can be no one more suffocatingly full of blarney and paddywhackery than the emigrant. We even had our own version of the troubles: my mother’s family the Protestant Kellys from County Lough versus my father’s family the Catholic Daleys from Galway. The victor in this battle was my intense paternal grandmother, Hildred Geraldine née Lydon, a tall woman and an Irish-speaker from Maree at Oranmore, who dominated us all like a mountain does a plain.
Under her mighty influence, I and my huge crowd of cousins (Maureen-Kathleen-Patrick-Sean-Alannah-Michael etc etc) got the full shamrock treatment. Education at the hands of the Sisters of Mercy. More priests than you could poke a stick at. Competitive Irish dancing. Exposure to complicated genealogies and tall tales. The recitation of grievances. The default consumption of pigs and potatoes. A sensibility that braced itself against inevitable, impending catastrophe. We were pretty stereotypical.
By the time I fled New Zealand I thought I had heard enough about the Emerald Isle in general and Galway in particular to last me a lifetime. I settled down in London and as an act of rebellion never went to Ireland. But when I was pregnant with my first child, my (then) husband accepted an invitation from an acquaintance to stay at his cottage in Connemara and I found myself against my will in the land of my ancestors.
Sentimentality is a trait I try to fight against, but I was completely taken aback by the emotions that washed over me as I spent time in that part of the west of Ireland. First of all, there were the voices. It wasn’t only the accent that was so familiar to me, but the speech patterns. All of my childhood came rushing back to me when I heard people talking in Galway. They looked like the members of my family, too, especially the men. I saw my uncles and my grandfather in their craggy faces and big shoulders and hands and blue eyes. And the landscape itself spoke to me. Connemara’s bogs and stones are nothing like the remnants of rainforest where I grew up on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, but there was an atmosphere about the place, a beautiful bleakness that reminded me of the feeling I had, when I was young, of living on the edge of the world. As if one inhabited the very margins of somewhere mysterious and magical.
And there was the sea. Our family are sea people. Despite being born definitively in Ballinasloe, my grandfather always maintained the fiction that he was from the Aran Islands. Certainly he loved the sea –– and went on to join the merchant navy. My father loved the sea, too, and so did I and my brothers. We grew up near a wild coast. There was always fishing and gathering shellfish and seaweed and mucking about in boats. In the long summer holidays we measured our days according to the tides. When I first went to Connemara, especially down south among the islands, I felt a tremendous affinity with the area, and it was a feeling that was amplified whenever I returned. Being there helped me to understand my grandparents better. Economic forces compelled them to leave a place they loved and travel to the other side of the world just in order to make a living. My teenage self had scoffed at them and their superstitions, but now that I am older, I understand what loss feels like. I understand the need to hold the place you came from in your heart –– and I feel proud of my Irish heritage. It has been literally inspirational to me.
When I started writing my novel, Turning the Stones, I put my own feelings and sensations of going to Ireland into the character of Em Smith. Em is a young foundling who is raised by a wealthy family in Cheshire. When she is in her teens, she goes to London where she is embroiled in a terrible crime and is forced to flee. She feels herself pulled westwards by an imaginary force and ends up on the wild west coast of Ireland – Connemara. Here she can confront the truth of her heritage, just like I myself confronted my past, and my family’s past, on my journeys to Galway.
(c) Deborah Daley
About Turning the Stones
As a foundling the young Em Smith is brought to the Cheshire country home of the ambitious Waterland family, where she serves as a companion to their daughter, Eliza. But as they grow up, Em’s position becomes uncertain and she is increasingly troubled by the mystery of her birth. When Eliza goes in pursuit of a husband and a fortune in London, Em finds herself implicated in a horrific crime and must flee for her life.
Her frantic escape takes her across country and onto the high seas, where she is at the mercy of the enigmatic smuggler, Captain McDonagh. But there is a more potent force drawing Emily on: a spirit whose presence she has felt all her life, and whose irresistible design – be it malicious or benevolent – will force her onwards to a distant shore. There she will confront the astonishing secret of her origins.
Turning the Stones is in all good bookshops, or pick up your copy online here.