Orna Ross is an Irish novelist, a poet, non-fiction writer, and creative coach. Today, we’re talking about how Ireland features in her writing.
You can listen above or on iTunes or your favorite podcast app, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- Writing about a country you’re from vs. writing as an outsider
- Why Orna writes about Ireland
- Common misconceptions about the country
- Writing from memories of a childhood in a small Irish village
- Poetry and writing about W.B.Yeats
- Modern practices that rose out of Celtic myths
- Food and drink recommendations when visiting Ireland
- What travel brings to Orna’s writing and the importance of travel for writers
You can find Orna Ross at OrnaRoss.com and on Twitter @OrnaRoss
Transcript of Interview with Orna Ross
Joanna: Orna Ross is an Irish novelist, a poet, non-fiction writer, and creative coach. And today, we’re talking about how Ireland features in her writing. Welcome, Orna.
Orna: Hi, Joanna.
Joanna: It’s great to have you on the show.
First up, where are you in the world right now, and what’s outside your window?
Orna: Right now, I’m in London. And what’s outside my window is a typical London street. I’m in a part of London, though, that has a real connection to Ireland. Though I didn’t know it when I bought the house here, it is actually where a lot of people started off their London life.
And, of course, there are more Irish people in London than there are in Dublin. So, that was interesting, and I got very interested in the history of the Irish community here in London, as well.
I think that’s one of the things about Ireland, is it’s everywhere. Ireland isn’t just that little island in the middle of the Atlantic or off Western Europe. It’s actually a diaspora of people that are just all over the world. I love that. That’s my Ireland.
Joanna: Which is fantastic. We’re going to come back to the idea of home in a bit. But, obviously, you’re Irish. So, just want to point out your accent to everyone. And I did want to ask about this because a lot of people write about places that they are not from.
What are the differences in writing about a country that you’re from versus writing as an outsider?
Orna: I’ve only ever written about other countries and places in non-fiction. So, as a journalist for a while before I had my children, I traveled a lot, and I wrote a lot about places that I had visited. And I think it’s a completely different thing for me.
It was all about the surfaces, as you would expect. It’s like when you meet a person for the first time. And it’s also all about the positives, generally speaking. You notice the things that are different from where you’re from yourself, and you notice the things that you love, and it’s very sensual. It’s about tastes and sounds and smells.
When I write about Ireland, it begins in a completely different place. It begins on the inside, and it’s very much an internal sort of relationship. And it’s coloured by childhood. So, always, when I’m writing about Ireland, I feel small looking out.
Whereas, when I write about other places, I feel kind of big, and I’m looking into a funnel that narrows. So, that would be the difference, for me.
Joanna: That makes sense. But it’s interesting because, of course, you live in London, and you are part of the diaspora, as such. You left Ireland. So, your Irish trilogy, beginning with After the Rising set across four generations in Ireland.
Why did you want to write about a place that you left? What is it that draws you back to writing about Ireland?
Orna: The trilogy actually writes about being Irish in Ireland, but it also writes about being Irish in San Francisco and being Irish in London, briefly. More San Francisco than London.
I wanted to write, really, about intimate war. The book is based around the Irish Civil War of 1923, which was an internal strife that happened after a peace treaty was signed with Britain, which is very common in countries that have a freedom revolution. Afterwards, the freedom fighters all fall out. That’s what happened in Ireland.
It was very personal because my great uncle was killed in that. And it was only an 18-month war. It was a scuffle, but it was awful, and people really lost their sense of what they were fighting for. And it became very, very bitter.
Husbands turned against wives, brothers and sisters, friends, and so on. My great uncle was shot by a former friend. But everybody was deeply ashamed of it, so I grew up in an atmosphere where nobody talked about this aspect of our history.
So, that’s where I started; what’s the secret under this silence? And then, that bled out to all kinds of intimate war. It led onto looking at the AIDS crisis in the ’80s in San Francisco, which to my mind operates from a similar sort of place.
Joanna: I love this idea of intimate war because I think that the word ‘struggle’ would be associated a lot with what people assume Ireland is. So, that would be my next question.
What are some of the assumptions about Ireland that drive you crazy? Or misconceptions that people have?
Orna: I think people either have a very romanticized view of Ireland or a very old-fashioned view of Ireland. And sometimes, those two things are the same.
There is this assumption that it’s all very rural, and it’s a very idyllic sort of mystical land of fairies and all that Celtic mythology that sprung up, really, at the end of the 19th century and most of which is bogus. But there are a lot of people who still buy into that.
And in certain moods and modes, I can buy into it myself. It’s very attractive, but when it’s taken to extremes, which it so often is particularly in the U.S., it has to be said, there can be a highly romanticized view and a frozen in time view.
I have literally had American cousins come to the house and be disappointed that there was a washing machine and a dishwasher.
Ireland now is one of the oldest countries in Europe. It’s one of the most liberal countries in Europe. It is one of the few countries in the world to have legalized gay marriage by popular vote. These kinds of things are not associated with Ireland in most people’s minds.
People still think of us as a poor country, a backward country, and so on. And that is no longer strictly true.
Of course, it is true that Ireland’s prosperity is bought on by everybody leaving. Huge amounts of people still emigrate from Ireland all the time, and it wouldn’t be prosperous without that, but so much comes back from that as well. That’s not the terrible fate it used to be.
Since we have the internet and cheap travel and so on, I think a lot of people live out of Ireland out of choice. And it’s a good choice for a lot of people. And I would include myself in that.
Joanna: You talk there about modern Ireland. But of course, people do go to Ireland looking for that historical side. They go wander around the beautiful buildings of Dublin. Ruined churches and things like that.
What are some of the beautiful places that inspire many people to write about Ireland?
Orna: Well, the West of Ireland is the place that is most mythologized, and I think that draws people. It definitely has that mystical, spiritual sense.
There are lots of old monasteries and sites of pilgrimage from the time when Ireland was called “the isle of saints and scholars” and essentially kept writing alive and kept culture alive in Western Europe, in what’s known as the Dark Ages.
Between 800 to 1200, it was Irish monks writing down stuff that kept a lot of culture alive, and that happened in monasteries like Glendalough. A lot of people really feel that very keenly, and if I need a dose of that kind of thing, I go for that. I absolutely love it.
But the East side of Ireland, where I’m from, I’m going to plug now because it is under-visited and underappreciated, and it really is also stunningly beautiful.
On the South coast, you’ve got that Atlantic wildness that you get on the West coast of Ireland. So, you’ve got that. But it was the first part of Ireland to be colonized, and it was managed by the Normans very well. And that their way of managing farming and everything lived on in the corner of Wexford that I’m from right into the 19th century, with its own language.
There are still old English words and pronunciations there, to this day. And it’s a microcosm of everything because it was very cut off. A mountain range and a river cut it off twice. First, around the county. And then, down in the bottom corner where I grew up.
I really did grow up in a village where, I think, things haven’t changed for something like, it felt like 600 years, apart from the odd car and the odd tractor. And you could literally see how life was lived 600 years prior. People were still fishing the same way. They were still farming in the same way.
Our village was tiny. There were 10 houses in it and one pub. One church and that was it. And that has changed beyond all recognition, now. So, I feel I have one foot in that time.
I would recommend everybody to visit Wexford in Ireland because it really is a unique and hugely interesting place.
Joanna: Wow. I’m totally convinced, now. I know the listeners will be, too.
What are some of the cultural aspects of Ireland?
Catholicism is one obvious thing, and I want to ask you about the pub as well. You said, a church and a pub? What are those aspects of Ireland that you think of?
Orna: Oh, well, the sacred and the profane right there in your village. Sometimes, the one that you thought was sacred was actually the one that was profane.
That’s the thing for a writer. In that small village, in those first years of my life, I have enough to write more books than I will write in my lifetime. I don’t want to write about anywhere else. Everything was there, and all of human life was caught there, at every level.
Pub culture is huge, in Ireland, obviously. Both good and bad around that. I grew up, again, in a culture where storytelling and singing were absolutely essential. Everybody had to have their part to this.
You would be sitting just chatting in a gathering of people, and suddenly one of the oldies would just start singing a song out of nowhere. And the next thing there would be a singsong. And if you can’t sing, which I can’t, you had to recite something or tell a story. That’s great training for a writer, I think.
Everybody around me and the older people in my family and the men in the pub, they were all storytellers. And it’s one of the differences between Irish culture and, say, English culture, which is hugely interesting and obviously a huge and rich and fabulous culture in and of itself.In Ireland, everybody takes responsibility for everybody else's enjoyment.Click To Tweet
Everybody turns up to have what we call ‘the crack,’ and everybody’s responsible for upholding that. So, everybody joins in. Everybody takes having fun seriously, and you’re expected to turn up and do your bit.
It was very unusual for me, when I first moved to England, to realize that that’s a cultural difference that I didn’t even notice that was a thing. And now, I really notice it when I go back home, and I love it. I absolutely love that you can step back into that.
But in England, at first, I would be doing that and then realizing nobody else is doing it. You feel like you’re on stage, almost. So, you stop doing it.
Joanna: I can imagine you sitting in a pub in London starting to sing. To me, that just feels very uncomfortable.
If people are listening, and they want to go to Ireland, and they go to a pub, you’re not expected to sing if you’re a foreigner, right? You can join in if you want to, though.
Orna: No, you have to join in. But we won’t expect you to perform, unless you’re that way inclined. But you absolutely have to join in 🙂 You would, at a minimum, have to tap your foot and clap your hands.
Joanna: Oh, that’s all right. I can tap my foot with the best of them.
Talking about performance, you’re also a poet. And I came to one of your events where you launched, Her Secret Rose, which was a book that also honoured W.B. Yeats. I think you showed a video of a reading of the poem, The Stolen Child, which evokes the fairy folk.
You write about some of that mythology and the occult in those books.
What are some of the unusual myths or stories that are fascinating? Why do you still write about Yeats in particular?
Orna: Well, Yeats is one of my masters. He, to me, is one of the greats of all time, poetry-wise. And he had these two completely different phases in his life. And that event that you came to was around the early part of his life.
He almost single-handedly for a while, popularized what was then an academic interest in folklore and folktales. What he did was turn it into this amazingly readable poetry for the Victorians at the time. Victorians loved the fairies, and all the Celtic mythology went down really, really well.
There is that sense of escapism. “Come away, O human child. To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
That is something that we all have. That longing to escape and to go to a purer place and to get away from the world that’s always full of weeping about something. Our own lives can be difficult. He captured that sense of escapism through those myths.
Some of it has dated, terribly. It’s really cheesy and corny now, but some of it is timeless and will never fade. The best of that work is still, to my mind, amazing.
Not everybody knows that, for example, Halloween, as we celebrate it now, arises completely out of the Celtic myth of Samhain. The little bit we understand about what really went on, there’s so much mythology there and so little actually in historical sources. But certainly, they were very close to the seasons, and they were not prissy about death.
For a writer, there’s a truth in a lot of these old myths that are like all fairy tales. They capture dark parts of the psyche that we don’t express in everyday living, that we repress and suppress. I think they’re really important.There's a truth in these old myths ... They capture dark parts of the psyche that we don't express in everyday living, that we repress and suppress.Click To Tweet
Things like the banshee, who wails when somebody dies in the house and the Halloween thing, which is autumn, and similar to the Mexican Feast of the Dead. All Souls, the idea that the barrier between this world and the people who have died or the people who are from the past or the undead or whatever way you want to talk about it, where that barrier kind of is thinnest, they say, at that time of the year.
That gives rise to a whole string of story and culture. Dracula comes out of that and many other Irish stories. So, I think it’s a really, really rich stream of culture that is only still barely intact.
Joanna: It reminds me, one of the other kind of things that always gets portrayed in films featuring Ireland is some kind of wake. I was just thinking of the stereotypes of Ireland that they put in movies. The wake, with the body lying there and the people drinking, and also the wailing, as you say.
I seem to remember that I promised if you died first, I would come and wail at your wake, which is not very English.
Orna: No, it’s not. And I have people who will check that you have done that. And if you don’t do that, at Samhain, I will back to haunt you.
Joanna: Everyone can picture a wake scene in their minds, from the movies.
Is that a stereotype? Or is there truth to that?
Orna: That happens. Totally.
My father’s cousin died two or three years ago, and she was an old lady, but she was waked, and so people are. But not everybody is. You can choose to be. And the wake, it is pretty much as you see it in movies.
The body does lie there in the middle, and everybody drinks and a song may start, and it’s that whole thing. The Irish have a very different attitude to death to the English again, say, or to other cultures.
I used to say, the Irish do death well, and then an English person said to me, ‘Well, they do death well if you’re Irish. But they don’t do death well if you’re English.’ So, I guess it’s whatever culture you grow up in. That’s what you like.
But I always feel we’re very comfortable with death. It is very much a part of life. In the wake, you do carry on. You talk about the person. But you have a good time. A funeral is as good a day out as a wedding, in Ireland.
Joanna: I think I’m gonna have to become Irish, at some point, so I get a decent funeral.
Orna: A decent send off.
Joanna: I do want to ask you about pronunciation. I know I have fallen foul of this many times with Irish names, and even with your own name. Orna Ross is a pseudonym.
Give us a couple of phrases that people can say that will help people in Ireland not feel so silly about pronouncing things wrong. I feel silly.
Orna: Well, the thing is, I think, because Irish people speak English, and English is spoken widely in Ireland, there’s a sort of a perception that Irish is not quite its own language, but of course it’s a completely different language. And so, you can’t teach somebody how to pronounce Irish names unless they learn Irish and how Irish is pronounced because it just isn’t phonetic in English.
It’s a completely different language with a completely different root, and so on.
But the few words that can make a difference when you travel, like being able to say, hello. ‘Hello,’ in Irish is ‘Dia dhuit.’ And the actual translation of that is ‘God be with you.’ [Pronunciation on YouTube here.]
One of the things about the Irish language is that it’s absolutely saturated with God and blessings, and it’s a very spiritual sort of language. So, yeah. ‘Dia dhuit,’ is how you say hello.
And ‘Go raibh maith agat,’ is how you say thank you. [Pronunciation on YouTube here.]
But probably the easiest for everybody to remember is our equivalent to cheers, which is ‘Sláinte’ which means, ‘your good health,’ which it does in lots of countries. I suppose it’s like ‘salud.’ If you say, ‘Sláinte,’ and you raise your glass or your cup of tea, and everybody will love you. [Pronunciation on YouTube here.]
Joanna: Excellent. Well, that’s what we need in the pub when we are not singing in the corner.
Joanna: So, eating and drinking are really important parts of any culture. And again, the stereotype, I think, of Ireland is a pint of Guinness.
Any recommended eating or drinking things for Ireland that you would recommend?
Orna: A pint of Guinness. Definitely. You have to have Guinness. It’s an acquired taste. So, you may not love the first one, but you’ll definitely love number three.
Guinness goes really well with what we call brown bread, which is a soda bread that’s very commonly served in Ireland, really delicious. Can’t get it outside of Ireland. Don’t know why some enterprising Irish person hasn’t set that up and sold proper brown bread.
Brown bread and Guinness go really well with oysters or different kinds of seafood. And again, that’s very commonly served. Or brown bread, Guinness, and a seafood chowder is really delicious.
Ireland’s like everywhere else, now, in that it’s taking in lots of different kinds of cuisine. Traditional Irish main course was meat and two veg. Very often pig meat, a bacon or ham or something like that. But those kinds of dishes are now being fused with other cultures in really interesting ways.
The thing that’s very noticeable about food in Ireland is that the ingredients are fantastic. Really fresh. It’s a tiny island, so the seafood is excellent if people like seafood.
Now, I’m talking here as vegetarian, so I’m being very good in terms of recommending all of that. Vegetarians and vegans, as of yet, do not have a great time in Ireland, it has to be said. There are a few places, but really only a handful. So, yeah, but brown bread and Guinness, and you don’t really need anything else. It’s a meal in itself.
Joanna: That’s fantastic. Okay, so, just a broader question about travel.
Why do you travel? And what does travel bring to your writing going away from Ireland?
Orna: Travel is, I think, something that writers are just automatically attracted to, and it’s that whole thing of the cleansing of the normal perception. It shakes you out of your everyday mind. Your routine, your way of doing things.Travel enables the cleansing of normal perception. It shakes you out of your everyday mind.Click To Tweet
You wake up when you travel. Don’t you? All your senses come alive, new foods, new sights, new sounds, new smells, new tastes. And obviously, I love that.
What I think of as travel, which to my mind includes adventure and somewhere very different from where you’re from. I don’t travel in that way as much as I did when I was younger. I tend to now take breaks in places that I know and love and have the things that I know and love.
Again, being vegetarian and vegan affects travel, where you go. And there are certain places I always loved. Italy. But it’s cheese on cheese on cheese in Italy. So, it tends to be shorter visits there than I would have before.
I think travel is just so important for writers. It’s really important to get outside our own mindset and see how other cultures do things, see the things that we take for granted as important or given are actually neither important nor given there. They’re just cultural. And I think it has all sorts of effects that are positive. I can’t think of a single reason why a writer wouldn’t travel.
Talking about books, are there any other books you’d recommend to give people a taste of Ireland?
Orna: I think you do have to read Yeats to understand Ireland. And the early poetry is a great accompaniment to an Irish visit. Not the later stuff where it gets all political and different, a much more sophisticated kind of poetry in his later life. But that early stuff will sweep you away into that kind of feeling of Ireland without being Irishy. On the poetry front, I would recommend Yeats.
I would really recommend some of the new Irish women writers who are winning a lot of prizes for their writing, like Eimear McBride and Sally Rooney. They draw on a tradition in Ireland of stream-of-consciousness writing, which was made most famous by Joyce in Ulysses, but is a consistent string of writing in Ireland that is very interesting, very unusual, and taps into an Irish voice that is unique, I think, and gives you a sense of Ireland in a way that other books don’t.
And then Roddy Doyle would be my other big recommendation for urban Ireland, because we do forget that Ireland does have an urban side. It’s not all green fields and grazes. Roddy Doyle has written about every aspect of urban Ireland, from domestic violence to deprivation, and made it all extremely funny and entertaining as well as extremely moving and touching. He is a really great writer.
And then, I will give a shout out to two other Wexford writers who are fantastic writers. Colm Tóibín who was known for a long time as a gay writer but broke out of that completely about 10 years ago and has written the books that films like ‘Brooklyn’ were based on. He’s a fantastic writer. And John Banville, who also writes crime as Benjamin Black.
His thrillers set in 1950s Dublin are really atmospheric. But he’s also written literary fiction, which is well worth reading. Including, if you are coming to Wexford, The Sea, which was Booker winner and is set in Rosslare, where my mom lives.
Joanna: Tell us about your books set in Ireland.
Orna: All of my fiction has some foot in Ireland. Usually one foot in Ireland, one foot out. So, there’s a standalone book, Blue Mercy, which is set in Ireland and California. There’s the Irish Trilogy, which you mentioned. The third book of that, not out yet. But After the Rising and Before the Fall, which is set around the Irish civil war. And then, the third one brings in the New York Irish into that story and takes it into the 21st century.
And then there is ‘The Yeats Trilogy‘ which is about the very unusual triangular relationship between Yeats and his muse, Maud Gonne, and her daughter, Iseult, who was also a muse, and to whom he also proposed marriage. So, they had a crazy summer in 1917, 1918. Those books capture that. But also, because they’re told through the voice of an Irish domestic servant, capture that whole thing of intimate war again. It’s set around the first World War and the Irish Revolution.
I don’t think I’ll ever get away from writing about Ireland, but I also like to bring other places in and have that kind of dual perspective. And the Irish diaspora allows for that because so many people leave and have this love-hate relationship with Ireland that I very often explore.
Joanna: Fantastic. Where can people find you and your books online?
Orna: OrnaRoss.com And if you like fiction, it’s ornaross.com/novels. If you like poetry, it’s ornaross.com/poetry.
Joanna: Fantastic. So, thank you so much for your time, Orna. That was great.
Orna: Great, Jo. Thank you. Really enjoyed talking to you about Ireland.