The Memory of Music

Olive Collins article posted 29th August 2016

Looking Into the Past by Olive Collins:

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.

Irish Times article published 13th September 2016

‘I thought I was a feminist, then I got a job on a building site and became one’:

Most children born pre-1980s developed similar notions about the male and female role. It was as clear as the sex we were born with. Men worked on building sites, they were stronger, they earned more money, and they were bosses and doctors and managers. Up until the 1980s, generally Mammy stayed home and minded us. Most women didn’t question the unfairness of unequal pay and discrimination. What woman would dare to question women’s roles when it was so deeply ingrained in our history? 100 years have passed since Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell accompanied Padraig Pearse when he surrendered after the 1916 Rising. Later she was airbrushed from the iconic picture. Not only that but O’Farrell’s heroic act of taking a white rag onto Moore Street, the epicentre of the battlefield, was removed. It was one of many manipulations to put us women in our box. During Ireland’s most perilous hours Ireland’s women did more than serve men and wash the corpses of their dead. The wives, mothers, sisters and daughters fought silently, gallantly, their subversive roles were as extreme as their men’s. In the 1920s, the women did not consider equality or feminism, and when the men depended on women as a vital cog in their struggle, they too did not consider equality. When the English left Ireland, and the Civil War ended, only then did our leaders consciously consider the future for women. Looking back we see that the oppressive British were replaced with another tyrannical form of oppression. A combination of political and religious leaders constructed a wall of inequality that is being dismantled slowly since the ’30s. As recently as the ’70s there was very little difference from the 1930s when Ireland was blacklisted by the International Labour Organisation in Geneva. In 1935, Ireland’s Minister for Industry prohibited women working in industry as a way of reducing male unemployment. Two years later when the Irish Constitution was written it prioritised a woman’s domestic role over work outside the home. It reads: “The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” Thus began the controlling hand of our leaders to place women in the home as her natural environment. Letters of objection fell on deaf ears. The Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship and the Six Point Group in London wrote “these clauses are based on a fascist and slave conception of woman as being a non-adult person who is very weak and whose place is in the home. Ireland’s fight for freedom would not have been so successful if Irish women had obeyed these clauses.” Our political and Catholic misogynists were a law unto themselves. We’ve all seen the Facebook post on “What women could not do in the 70s”. For those who haven’t, it’s glaringly obvious that a woman was a mixture of second-class citizen and a half-wit incapable of managing her own affairs. There have been vast changes that came after much furore, a lot of it from men, but also from women who continue to appoint themselves our moral guardians. There are women still alive who believe that men work on construction sites and married women can divide their time between home and work. It has taken decades to make progress, thanks to brave women who are not content to remain cornered in their kitchens and who would struggle with the inequality gap until it is no longer an issue. In my early twenties I lived in Israel for a year. After much trekking and partying in every crevice of the country, I found myself penniless in Tel Aviv. My Scottish friend, who had worked in Israel for years, suggested I work on the building sites. That old conditioned thinking resurfaced. Men work on buildings, women work in nice comfortable environments. I was appalled at his suggestion yet I couldn’t express it.
In the 1990s Irish women were only beginning to be heard. I thought of myself as a feminist. I was brought up to believe that women could do as much as men, but in theory it was a different ball game. My young feminist rants had not been put to the test. To work on a construction site I would need to see the difference between men and women utterly dissolve. I’d never met a woman who worked on a building site, in fact in the ’90s, gender issues in Ireland were still in their infancy. My Scottish friend couldn’t understand my reluctance. In the hostels in Tel Aviv, men and women sat around the phone waiting for calls for work that day. My friend manned the phone. I told her to tell the next caller there were no available men but there was a strong woman.
I began my first job as a construction worker that morning. A man took me to a two-roomed flat up a flights of stairs. The flat had not been inhabited for years, there were clumps of missing plaster from the walls and the paint was peeling. My boss began by mixing cement and stone, “This is how we do it in Israel,” he said. Then he scooped up the mix and flung it at the holes in the wall. Some of it bounced off and stuck in my hair. I took the trowel from him. “This is also how we do it in Ireland,” I said and did the same linging-at-the-wall action. He gave me the job. For two weeks I filled in the holes, sanded them and painted. The world was my oyster; my sex no longer limited me.

Beach House book review published 12th September 2016

Book Review - 'The Memory of Music' by Olive Collins.

Ireland 2016 and Isabel is approaching her 100th Birthday. Born during the Easter Rising, she has lived through some of the country's most turbulent times. The daughter of a spirited woman and gifted violin-maker, the memories come to life when she hears the music of her past. Dublin 1916 and Betty is about to give birth, alone. Irish rebels are taking over the city and she fears for her husband's safety. Huddled in a tenement building, close to the GPO, she vows to improve her circumstances, with or without her husband's consent. Ireland's battle for Independence has been the subject of many novels in recent months. The brave men and women of our nation have been re-worked into some fine narratives and every child in the country celebrated this years centenary. Olive Collins has added on something extra by bringing the story forward. From the Rebellion, subsequent executions and treaty negotiations through to the end of civil war and its bitter aftermath. She uses Betty, Isabel and their extended family to show how determination can sometimes lead to despair. Betty's husband Seamus is a gifted man, full of musical talent and is an unparalleled creator of exquisite violins. However, his Republican values outweigh his love of his personal life and he becomes increasingly distant from his family. Late night visits, hidden arms and secret societies become the norm and Betty fears for her future. Her hardened determination results in her own secrets. As the years slip by, the female descendants of Betty are unaware of the murky details of their matriarch's early years, until the discovery of some hidden letters... Historical fiction can sometimes be weighed down by the authors research and the characters can become victims of their historical relevance. This is not so with The Memory of Music. While it is obvious that the author has an intensive knowledge of 20thC Irish History, especially the years surrounding our desire to break from English rule, she does not drown the reader with facts. Rather, she gives enough detail to relate the characters to their situations and leaves the reader with a taster that may result in further research, if desired. A teaser, if you like. The writing is fluid and clear, with the novel split into three parts; the first part centered around the events of 1916, the second on Treaty negotiations and the War of Independence, whilst the final part leads the novel towards current times. There are a gaggle of female, cross-generational characters in part three and I found myself struggling to retain their relevance to Seamus and Betty's story. The idea of discovered letters is nothing new, but add in some torn photos and antique violins and furniture and it ups the game. This is a great read, ideal for fans of Marita Conlon-McKenna's Rebel Sisters or RTÉ's recent TV drama, Rebellion. A very worthy debut, ideally timed for the 1916 centenary celebrations and the upcoming anniversary of the War of Independence.

© Laurence Lee