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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Oven Bottom Cakes. Family Secrets, My Irish Nana and Me


The Irish Famine by George Frederick Watts
I recently spent some time rewriting the blurb for Bird of Passage before a forthcoming free promotion (16th, 17th and 18th August). It's one of the big advantages of Kindle publishing that you can go back and refine something in the light of reviews, reader feedback, or just general intuition. The novel is set in Scotland, but it's probably the most Irish thing I've ever written, with the exception of a sad little story called Civil Rights, first published in the Edinburgh Review some years ago, and scheduled for another airing during the Edinburgh eBook Festival. 

I was born in Leeds, and my nana was Irish. Her name was Honora Flynn. Anne Honora, to be precise, although everyone called her Nora. Her father, James Flynn, was registered in Liverpool although later records mention Ireland as the place of his birth - maybe he was just off the ferry! - in 1856 or thereabouts which means that the migration of the family was probably related to the after effects of the Irish famine. 

Family tradition puts their place of origin as Ballyhaunis in Mayo and Flynn is certainly a Mayo name. By 1887, though, James was living in Leeds. He was a 'paviour' as the records state - which means he built roads. At the age of thirty, he married one Mary Terran or Terens who was a widow with children. His father Timothy was dead by then, but the marriage was witnessed by Charles and Mary Flynn, (his brother and sister?) who couldn't write, so marked their names with an 'X'. My nana, Anne Honora was born the year before their marriage, but it's a fairly safe assumption that she was Mary Terran and James Flynn's child. They went on to have more children, Timothy, Michael and Thomas. 

Later, my nana met my auburn haired grandad, Joe Sunter, in Holbeck, in Leeds, but at some point, she went to Canada looking for work and a new life. She didn't find it and sailed back again, to find that Joe was home from a trip to Singapore with the Merchant Navy. They were married not long after and had five children of whom my mother, Kathleen Irene, was the youngest. 

My grandad's family had been dalesmen - of Norse descent in all probability - from the upper reaches of Swaledale, lead miners turned coal dealers and farriers, and they were staunch Methodists. My nana's family were Irish Catholics and there was always a certain Irish element to my upbringing. I think the Catholic Church is a bit like Hotel California in the song - you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. I went to a small Catholic school, although we weren't what you might call 'red hot' in our religious observance. But when, at the age of 16, I first went to Ireland, working for a family in West Cork, looking after their children for the summer, it felt strangely familiar. 

The extended family, two sisters, with their husbands and assorted children, were renting an apartment in a big, beautiful, tumbledown house. It was a farmhouse but it must once have belonged to some minor Anglo Irish gentry before the 'troubles' changed everything. There was a dusty ballroom, an overgrown fountain in the garden, and a fearsome sow who would come galloping through the undergrowth in pursuit of strangers. The big holiday apartment had once been the servants quarters and the mice partied in the attics all night long. I was one of two nannies, temporary nursemaids, mother's helps, whatever we were. I looked after eighteen month old triplets and three older children by day,but at night, when they were mercifully in bed, the other nanny and myself went dancing in the nearby villages escorted by various local boys. I fell in love, just a little bit, and walked back down the long drive in the moonlight with a good looking boy called Paddy (what else?) who kissed me beneath the damp buddleias. I can never smell that honey scent now without remembering it. 

Later, I worked in Dublin too and everything about that time and place fed into the fiction which would come after. But much as I loved Ireland - much as I still love the place and its people - I didn't realise until years later that the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries and the cruelty of the Industrial Schools was still going on, even while I had been innocently holding hands with Paddy on that moonlit lane. Which is a chilling thought, even now.


Tattie Howkers
Tied up with all that is the story of what happened to my beloved nana, and how we - my elderly aunt and I, because my own mother was dead by that time - came to find out something about Nora which she had kept secret her whole life - which she had taken with her to her grave. Nobody knew, until much later when somebody, ferreting through official records, found it out. Later still, I wondered if that had been why Anne Honora had decided to leave for Canada. Maybe she felt that she had no more to lose. But she had come back and married my grandfather anyway. 

I wrote about it when those most closely concerned with it were dead even my dear aunt, who had been deeply upset by it. I wrote the poem below, Oven Bottom Cakes, before ever I wrote Bird of Passage. But although it's quite different, and Anne Honora's story is nothing like Finn and Kirsty's story - I still feel those little connections and inspirations, nipping away at me like midges on a summer night. For Bird of Passage is a story about secrets and lies, about concealment and shame as well. 

And I think the inspiration for these two quite different pieces of work must come from the same beloved place. 


 OVEN BOTTOM CAKES

My Irish nana made oven bottom cakes
with the last of the dough,
furiously working the elastic on
cold marble, her hair thrust back
like a schoolgirl’s with a clip.
I see her print pinafore and her body
flex as she presses her thumb into
the middle of each cake then
leans across the rag rug to throw
deft flour into the oven to judge
if the temperature is right.

On a February morning in smoky Leeds
in 1910 my nana, a shirt maker,
gave birth to twin girls Gladys and Ethel.
She named no father and they died within days.
Later, she told nobody.
They were erased from our story
as surely as if they had never lived
until years after her death when
some  remote cousin gleefully
excavating the family tree,
sniffed them out and spilt the beans.

Toddling, I would nap with her
in the afternoons and she would
push me out of her bed for
fidgetting, my soft breasted nan.
Did she see in me those
babies she had buried?
My nana baked bread for me.
How she loved to feed me good things,
made oven bottom cakes and we’d
eat them with the best butter
and blackberry jam that
nipped your teeth with seeds.

Catherine Czerkawska.

Magdalenes

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