Writing My Book Gave Me a Deeper Sense of Identity.
Everyone has a true dream. Do you remember yours? Do you remember who you were before the world got a hold of you?
I was born a storyteller. My earliest, truest dream was to be an author. And it never went away. Happily, the dream came true when just a few months ago I published my novel — a modern Gothic mystery called Cailleach~Witch.
Once I thought this was a journey of five years, from idea to publication, but in fact it was the journey of a lifetime, of ten lifetimes. That so easily might not have happened. This is my story. It’s a story of hope for the rebel, the creative. About how one such child growing up in small-town Ireland was saved. By books, by family and legacy, by nature and a rebel code. An inability to bend, or hear any voice but her own.
But it wasn’t until I wrote the book that all these things came home. A quest narrative, born of a true quest narrative. Inspired by the wild nature of Northwest Ireland, by the outsider life, and even, a Brontean link. That in turn explores the life of sibling outsiders, with a deep connection to the landscape, surviving in a tough environment. Just like we did.
It all started the night I was born, though in truth it had started many years before that. When neighbors gathered at my grandfather’s house in Corraleehan to hear the storyteller. Or earlier still, in the house of his cousins. The three brothers who lived in the one-room shack. They were of the class known as the landless laborers who were all but wiped out in the famine.
By day the brothers worked for others, but by night, the people waited in turn for a chance to hear their stories.
One of those brothers emigrated to America, where his son became a high court judge. To society, this was the important part of the story. Still would be today. But to me, it was the other two brothers, telling their stories in Aughnasheelin, who were the real heroes. And those who went before them. If the wind and the stones could only tell us about them. But maybe they do. Maybe they do.
On the night I was born, like a spell cast by a good fairy, to give hope to the curse, my mother, in a genius stroke, called me Jane.
I like to think that she knew I was not going to fit in this world. And there was nothing she or anyone could do about it. Least of all me. Except root me to something better. And that’s what she did.
She had read Jane Eyre when she was 12, and I was destined for the name, from many years before my birth. In this way, I was bonded to the Brontes. The connection buffered me from the loneliness of my own childhood as a sensitive, creative outsider. I identified with Jane the child, of course.
Later, reading Wuthering Heights, I found another bond, another peace. The peace of wildness, of passion too large for this world, reflected in nature. The wilder the better, the stormier the better. I loved books and nature, but I was unaware just how much they were helping and guiding me even then.
I grew up in a loving working-class family in a small border town, during the worst of the troubles in Northern Ireland. When I was very young, Dad drove a lorry, but for most of our lives he worked in the forestry. Coming home every night smelling like tree sap, sunburned and windburned. He was somewhat of a tree himself.
My mother raised five children, of which I was the eldest. Until I was eight, we lived in a two-up, two-down house beside the canal, on the edge of town. Then we moved to a larger house, still beside the canal, still on the edge of town.
I was the child who kept my siblings up late telling stories. When we were told to go to sleep now, we’d wait, then continue in whispers.
My mother, like her father before her, was a master storyteller. She told stories of her childhood, of Ireland and Irish history. But everything she said had a magical quality, a little something that would stay with you long after. Dad told stories too, mostly with his eyes. Like his love of the mountain. Just one of the things he gave me.
And every Christmas we’d listen, as our uncles and mother recited, poems, songs, and stories, as told by their father, in the little house in Corraleehan, when they were small. And we thought this was normal. And I absorbed it all.
We children were encouraged to think, to read, and to express ourselves. And we always felt safe.
Every Friday we went to the library. I’d borrow seven books, because that was the limit. At night I carried them up to bed, and in the morning I carried them down again.
My parents read, we read, and we talked. Under the shadow of the mountain, by the still waters of the canal, where once I saved my sister from drowning. Through the troubles in the north, that came too close to our door. And the misery of school life, and small-town life. Through it all.
I had a happy home life. I hadn’t a sense of belonging, and that never interested me. I was out enough not to crave popularity or approval. I had the connection to the family, the solace in books that was the promise of a different world. A world I felt I belonged in, but didn’t know how to get to.
I left home at 19, and came back aged 27 with my own daughter. “You should be writing,” Dad said. It was the dream that still eluded me. 39 years it took, and two snowy winters of hard isolation, to finally get me there. I started with blogging, but very soon I moved on to the novel.
Writing the book, I immersed myself physically, mentally, on a soul level, in the natural world around me. Without meaning to, I found connection there too, a deeper understanding of the place and of myself.
Invoking the spirit of the Brontes that so helped me growing up, mine is an atmospheric novel. A kind of dark fairy tale. Concerned with identity in nature, freedom and the bonds of family. Somehow, my love of houses, family and wildness, combined in my imagination to create these haunting characters, the women, the house, and even the landscape.
While writing it, I lived there completely.
All the years before and after, living here, in one place, in this place, was always something I found difficult. I had my own voice, my own connections, and other voices, of the ancestors behind me. I just hadn’t known how strong these were before I started writing. And then the writing made them stronger. Clearer.
In the end, it turned out that even the darkest times offered golden opportunities. for they led me to pursue the creative life of my imagination. Ultimately, more deeply, in the novel.
I wrote it at a time when I was both cast out and retreated. I wrote it in on the margins, in a marginal place, in the full force of aloneness. I created it from solitude, and from genuine unedited creative impulses.
I wrote it in a trance, a fever, freely and intensely, in my own voice, without care or attachments. Without thought for, or protection for myself, without understanding, without my analytical mind. I wrote it as if I’d lived it once, fully, deeply, passionately. I wrote it as if I were dying.
Then I became concerned with beauty, the music of the words. This was my priority, higher than sense or clear meaning. Atmosphere, mystery, music, beauty, depth of feeling. And since then I haven’t stopped writing.
The world said you can’t have this, you can’t do this, you can’t be you. But there were other voices that said different. My own voice, and the voice of legacy, literature, and wilderness. And in this case, these were the voices that won. These were the voices I listened to.
Jane Gilheaney Barry is an author, art therapist, and creative enabler. She lives with her husband and children in rural Ireland. Her first novel, Cailleach~Witch, a modern gothic mystery, is available on Amazon. She is currently working on the next in series, ‘Banshee’ and ‘Changeling’. You can follow Jane on Instagram or Facebook.