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Weekend interview: Aideen D'arcy

By Chrissie Russell

Prize-winning author Aideen D'Arcy has just launched her second book of memoirs on life growing up in mid-Ulster.

Here she talks to Chrissie Russell about writing a book for 'non readers', being a grumpy old woman, and why her mum is as important as Kerry Katona

What made you decide to write the book?

After my first book I had lots of people, mostly from Dungannon, coming up to me and saying: "I enjoyed it but you left the best bits out!" I'd also included very little about my dad so I felt there was unfinished business there. The book shops are full of biographies of people like Chantelle or Kerry Katona, but there's no one celebrating the sort of people I grew up with. I don't think you need to climb Everest or win Big Brother to make your story worth celebrating.

But surely because these aren't famous people was there not a worry that no one would want to read about them?

Initially, I wrote the first book for myself and didn't even intend to get it published. But then I started to see that it had an appeal that went beyond me and celebrated the universality of humour and life in Ulster in the 1940s and 1950s. We all love a good yarn and a laugh. Until recently, I worked in the library in Portadown and I had a lot of people coming in to say how much they had enjoyed the book and how it made them reflect on their own stories.

Did you want to preserve a bygone way of life?

I did want there to be a permanent record of a life that is disappearing. I look at young people and they are not exposed to the same things as I was when growing up. I know life has to move on and progress but, in a way, losing our folk heritage is a bit like the natural species which are disappearing.

When looking back on the past, isn't there a danger of seeing it through rose-tinted spectacles?

I think when anyone starts remembering then there's a danger of rose-tinted glasses, but I haven't put anything critical in, because it's not that type of book. Not many books set out to celebrate good things and perhaps there is more mileage in bad things. If I'd had a terrible childhood and had been abused, then my story would make the headlines. But the simple truth is that my memoirs are good memoirs.

There's a great colloquial style in the book. Was that important for you?

Yes. I wanted a conversational style in the book because I didn't want it to be literary or high- brow. I'd like it to be read by non-readers and people who wouldn't normally go to the biography department.

I wanted to capture the stories as I heard them and to pass them on in the way they had been received, and I also wanted it to be the sort of book people could dip in and out of.

You include a lot of your mother's great phrases. Have you a favourite?

I love Northern Irish sayings and I was brought up with poetry. I love it when people's conversations are peppered with quotations and my mother used to come out with many. One of my favourite was: "Who's like me since Leather Ass died, and Tin Ass went to America on a motor bike, except Glass Ass, and he's cracked?"

A lot of the book is dedicated to recalling old customs - are these still relevant today?

I still would do some of the ones around Halloween and at Christmas I would put the decorations up on December 8, like my mother used to. I'm conscious of how old traditions need to be preserved as they are part of our heritage. Little things like skipping rhythms may not seem important to remember but they are all part of our wider folk heritage. Although none of us can save the world we all can save a little tiny bit of it.

By harking back to the past are you worried people might see you as a 'grumpy old woman'?

I think maybe I am a bit of a grumpy old woman so it doesn't worry me if people think that! Sometimes I want to go and live in a cave somewhere because I do think values are going up the shoot. But at the same time I am happy to embrace some aspects of technology - I wouldn't want to do without central heating. I'd like it if we could mix the best bits from both worlds.

The book is very family orientated. Are your parents still alive and what do they make of it?

Mummy died in 1994 from cancer but I know she would have been delighted with it. She would have been critical but she would have loved having a tiny slice of immortality. Daddy is still alive, he's 83. Up until five years ago he was hale and hearty - we thought maybe he was getting a wee bit dotty but it turned out to be Alzheimer's. But I know he would be happy with whatever makes me happy.

There's so much about your family and other characters but I don't feel the reader learns much about you

I was very conscious about not putting too much of myself in. As an only child, I spent a lot of my time with adults, curled on the couch reading or observing others. I've always been an observer. I don't think there's anything very interesting about me so it was never going to be a book about me but I passionately believe the people in the book are worth recording.

You were born in Birmingham. How did you end up in Dungannon?

My mother's brother Charlie went to Birmingham after a bit of a family dispute and married a woman from Fermanagh. My mother used to go and visit them and on one visit she met Charlie's best friend Patrick D'Arcy from Waterford. They got married, had me and decided they didn't want their little girl to grow up in Birmingham. They came back to Dungannon because that's where my mother's family were. I was only in Birmingham until a few weeks old so I definitely think of myself as Northern Irish.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I'm actually a librarian by profession but gave up work a year ago because of ill health. I was suffering from fibromyalgia, which is a bit like arthritis. It attacks the muscles and is very tiring so I can't drive or stand for a long time. I still hope to get back to work but at least with writing, then if I'm tired I don't have to do anything.

What made you want to be a librarian?

It was always a job that appealed to me so I'm a vocational librarian. I love books and people and I'm very passionate about the library's potential to fill a huge social role. I came back to Dungannon after finishing my degree at Trinity and decided to take a year out to learn how to drive and type. I had intended afterwards to do a doctorate in medieval English and I'd been offered a place at Cambridge. But I started wondering, 'do I really want to spend five years reading medieval poetry and end up specialised in a subject that not many people want to know about?' Instead I went to Queen's and did a diploma in library and information studies. I started working as a librarian in Craigavon in 1981 and stayed there for nine years before moving to Portadown.

Did you find writing the book easy?

I was surprised at how many things came back to me once I sat down to think. I suppose I already had the stories in my head and in writing them I was just putting flesh on the bones. With a degree in English and working as a librarian, I've been writing all the time, whether it's essays, press releases or children's stories for visiting school groups.

How long did it take you to write it?

It's hard to say with this one because it was done in bits and pieces but the first one took 12 days. When I was working, I had alternate Mondays off so I would write then. I imagine it took about the same length of time for Produce The Chocolate First.

Have you another project in the pipeline?

I'm writing a biography of singer Sarah Makem, mother of the folk singer Tommy Makem. She was born in Keady, South Armagh and died in 1983. There's no biography of her and very little has been written about her. She had an extraordinary musical gift and her folk songs are known all over the world. It's estimated that she had 1,000 songs but she didn't write any of them down. Because she's still within living memory a lot of the research is by word of mouth, which I love.

Is it only factual writing that interests you or would you like to try your hand at fiction?

I love factual stuff because you can really get a handle on it - you know where to start and you know when you've finished. I have actually written a novel - it's a love story set in the west of Ireland called The She Devil Of Connaght. But I don't know if I'll ever do anything with it. I've also written a story about my border collie Meg, a fantasy novel and some poetry but it's very difficult to get published.

You must have been delighted to have been the Eason/Downtown Radio Short Story winner.

Yes, the prize was for Milkbottles - a short story about an argument between a couple that begins over something very small. Olivia Nash (Ma from Give My Head Peace) read it on the radio which I was delighted with. I also got £250, £100 worth of Easons vouchers and two trophies, one I get to hang onto and the other that I have to give back.

What made you choose the title Produce The Chocolate First?

I don't know why I decided on the title, it just seemed right. I know from working in the library that we all judge books from their covers and titles and if it's got a catchy name then people are more likely to pick it up. I also wanted it to be associated with my family, their sayings and humour.

Produce The Chocolate First, Ballyhay Books, £9.99

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