by Sheila Connolly
As you might guess from my surname (which was my father’s), I’m half-Irish. My mother, on the other hand, had New England ancestors back to the boat (yes, that one). It was not a marriage made in heaven, and it didn’t last.
Out of deference to my mother, in my younger years I spent time wandering amongst the castles of French chateaux and English castles, and I even took her to France once so she could see them for herself (she and her mother were avid royalists). So it was relatively late in my life that I first visited Ireland. I’d grown up with all the popular mythologies and next to no personal knowledge: my father’s siblings would say things like, “uh, Cork, maybe?” and that was it—they had no idea where they had come from, and little interest in finding out. From what I could glean, nobody on that side of the family talked about Ireland at all. They were in America, and they were going to be Americans, end of story.
So in a way I arrived in Ireland with a blank slate, with my husband and daughter in tow. And you all know what happened after that: The County Cork Mysteries, a decade later.
About those popular opinions:
—Ireland is very green: Yes! Even in winter.
—There are leprechauns: Well, maybe. On that first trip we were driving along a typical small road and came to a stretch between a stone wall and a hedge. I looked toward the hedge, and there was a man nestled in a little alcove carved into the hedge, and he beaming happily at us—not just smiling, but a full-out grin. We happened to stop a few yards farther down the road, so I looked for him—and he had disappeared completely. I still say he’s a leprechaun.
—Rainbows: Oh, yeah. On that first trip, by the end I was telling the rainbows, “okay, you can stop now—I’m sold.” But that was before the trip my husband and I took in 2012, when we rented a cottage. There were rainbows that appeared like clockwork every morning about eight-thirty. The windows in the kitchen faced north-west, so I could sit at the table with my coffee and enjoy the show. Some were doubles, and I swear I saw one triple.
—The food is terrible: Maybe it used to be, but now it’s great!
—The people are friendly: Definitely. Almost everyone will talk with you, and if you encourage them, they may tell you their life story and give you their opinions on the state of the national economy. This is wonderful if you’re doing research (and there was that one night in a Dublin pub where I got a comprehensive survey of Irish whiskey from a liquor distributor who doubled as the evening’s entertainment—and he dedicated “Whiskey in the Jar” to me). I ran into one stranger in a cemetery who turned out to know my second cousin (the only relative I’ve met in Ireland), who hadn’t lived in the area since 1956. Small world, eh? The only downside is, I have a suspicion that people will tell you what they think you want to hear, because they love to spin stories and entertain. I’ve heard Dennis Lehane say that his Boston Irish family loved to tell stories, but the stories changed with each telling.
It’s peaceful: No question. Time seems to slow, just a bit. Crime is low, particularly in West Cork, where I’ve spent the most time (that makes it kind of difficult to write murder mysteries set anywhere but Dublin or Cork or Limerick—because there are very few murders). The nights are dark and quiet, great for sleeping—unless you’re a star-gazer, in which case it’s hard to tear yourself away from the sky.
—Family is important: It seems that everyone is somehow related to everyone else, because for centuries nobody strayed far from where they were born. Or else they left forever, to find fortune (or at least a living wage) in America or Australia. So kinship was something precious. Sometimes people can’t even define how they are related, so everyone kind of settles on “cousin.” Close enough.
The County Cork series is set in Leap, a tiny village on the south coast. It’s a real place, and the main east-west road passes through it. My grandfather was born a couple of miles from there, in an even smaller place. In 1890 the population was 185; in the 2000 census, it was 210 (I know because we stayed in a B&B whose hostess was a census taker). The village has four pubs, and one of them was named Connolly’s. Any relation? Maybe—I’m still working on that. But I won’t say no.
A decade or two ago, Connolly’s was known as the hub of contemporary music in County Cork, even though the building held no more than 200 people at best, and they drew a lot of big names. Last time I was there, I asked the 23-year-old son of the owner, who’s hoping to bring back the music, how on earth the place managed to get the word out about who was playing and when, in those distant days before the internet, and there was no budget for promotion, and events just kind of happened and people appeared. And he said, quite sincerely, “magic.”
And that’s Ireland. And that’s why I called an early version of that first book Home of the Heart.
Oh, right–I should mention the book that’s out tomorrow: Scandal in Skibbereen.