On June 29th, 1995 a temperature of 31.1 degrees was reported in Athy, Co Kildare – the highest on record since 1976. With no rain since St Patrick’s Day, Ireland was drenched instead in sunshine as a heatwave blanketed the island. Hospitals treated sunburned patients, chemists ran out of sunblock and supermarkets sold out of ice-pops as the nation descended on every inch of coast and became acquainted anew with how great the outdoors could be.
The New York Times reported on the weather phenomenon and declared banana was the least favourite ice-cream flavour in Ireland. We had just hosted the Eurovision for the third consecutive year, but lost out to Norway’s Secret Garden, who, incidentally, included an Irish violinist Fionnuala Sherry. U2 was number one in the charts with Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me, while Britpop exploded across the pond where Father Ted had just aired for the first time on Channel 4.
When I think of that date, however, it’s not the smell of melting tarmacadam on the roads, the sting of flesh newly pink, or the farmers crying out for rain that I most clearly remember. What sticks in my mind is the ironing of almost every item of clothing I owned, the saving of new sandals, and the packing of a red suitcase with a silver clasp.
On June 29th, 1995, I was 13 years old and about to experience independence for the first time – I was off to Coláiste Laichtín, for “the Gaeltacht” as we called it, on the smallest of the Aran Islands: Inis Oírr.
The youngest of six, I’d never really existed in the world without the signifier of another member of my family – the honour of being known as Frank Cullen’s daughter, Margaret Cullen’s baby, or the little sister of the five who came before. I didn’t know who I was outside the context of my family, but that thought had never struck me until I found myself entirely in the company of strangers for the first time. There was no one already a little bit further up the road to extend back a hand and pull me along. I don’t think I knew I had my own two feet until they set foot on the pier of Inis Oírr.
My parents came to visit me about 10 days in to make sure I was settling in okay and wasn’t too homesick. As a little girl, I’d hidden behind my father’s trousers legs when strangers said hello, and I’m not sure any of us expected me to survive the three weeks I was due to spend on the island.
As it happened, the opposite came to pass. My mother said she couldn’t believe it when I bounded up to them, tanned and thriving, as they climbed out of the boat. The experience transformed me, and I wanted to return year after year. I found myself on that island and always feel a little part of me waits there for my return
Most of my new novel, The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually, is set on a little island off the west coast of Ireland – Inis Óg. Of course, it is inspired by Inis Oírr, but I chose the creative freedom of a fictional island rather than setting the book in the real place. I would have become too shackled by an obsession to get every detail perfectly right if I were to place the book there, and I felt that the restrictions would have impeded my ability to let the narrative flow. Instead, I was able to luxuriate in the feeling of the island without stressing about misrepresenting it.
What I realise now is the foundations for this book were laid by my teenage self all those years ago. It was on that island where I first tuned into what I now recognise was a nascent writerly instinct. With its arrival, I rediscovered the lost art of letter-writing, which would become the habit of a lifetime. Over many years of writing dozens of letters to friends from the Gaeltacht, I gradually developed the confidence to express myself on the page and to articulate my thoughts. It would take decades for me to extend that instinct into trying to write fiction, but those letters are definitely where storytelling began for me.
When the time came to write a book set in the motherland, the island was waiting for me. It provided the perfect location for me to unravel the lives of the Moone family and for their individual stories to unfold.
One point of pain for me, however, when writing it was the realisation of how much of the Irish language I have lost. There are the cúpla focal sprinkled throughout, but I was keenly aware that I should have been able to write more of the novel as Gaeilge – yet I could not. That awareness has made me reflect a lot on the importance of maintaining our connection with our native tongue.
As an Irish writer, writing in English, I struggle sometimes to find the bend I need in the English language to capture my meaning. There is a need to play with the form and reclaim it to echo more closely our natural cadence. More than ever, I feel that I want to lean into that curve and resist always placing my prose within what is considered formally correct. My copyeditors in the UK and US both suggested that the Irish language used in the book should be italicised to differentiate it as a foreign language. When I explained that it is really the English that could be considered “foreign” in a book set in a Gaeltacht region, the italics were removed.
This period of reflection has made me determined to revive my Irish language and not let it slip further away from me. Maybe one day I’ll be able to translate it all and wonder at how altered the book would be by the transformation.
Much has been written about the teenage kicks to be found at the Gaeltacht – first kisses and broken hearts at the end of the three weeks. As it says in the book, “the intensity of their time there accelerated the intimacy and connections they felt. A summer on that island was all it took to fall in the sort of heady love that would be remembered for a lifetime.” I too fell in love at Irish college, but not with a person. My heart was won by the island itself.
As an adult, it is still the place I’ve visited more than any other. The Trá Pholl na gCaorach beach is the one by which all other beaches I’ve visited across the world are compared, and found lacking. There is a recognition beyond my understanding that my soul has for that island – every time I visit it is like the first time, and I am surprised anew by how emotional I feel to be back there. My lungs respond to the air as if the apparatus now finally understands what breathing should be, and any anxieties that weighed me down on the mainland are blown away into the Atlantic.
It is magic of a primal sort and, sitting in London as I write this, I long for it more than ever. In the book, an islander explains it as “the three Ss: Sea salt. Soil. Stones. That’s the Holy Trinity right there.”
I’m conscious of the great privilege it was to be able to go gallivanting off to the Gaeltacht every summer. I would love to see a time when that opportunity can be extended to more young people, with increased resources available to fund places for families who need the support. All teenagers should be so lucky as to experience being lost and found on an island off the west coast of Ireland – they too might be amazed to discover who they are in a place that makes you believe in magic. To live even for a little while on an island that helps you believe in yourself.
To Caomhán Ó Conghaile and all at Coláiste Laichtín who give their students so much, I’m grateful to have a chance to finally say: go raith míle maith agaibh.
The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually by Helen Cullen is published by Michael Joseph