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Eilis Ni Dhuibhne: Bo's sudden death was very traumatic ... there was no deathbed scene or time for goodbyes

After author Eilis Ni Dhuibhne met her great love, Swedish folklorist Bo Almqvist, at college, they were married for 30 years until his sudden, devastating death. Here, she tells Linda Stewart how she found the strength to write a memoir about their life together

It's one of the things Irish people are renowned for - a talent for the rituals of death. Yet somehow there is still an abiding mystery about the loss of someone very dear and the dark world of bereavement. That anguish is the flipside of a strong relationship - where there is a deep love, it's inevitable that someone will be left behind some day, coping with the pain of loss.

In 2013, award winning Irish writer Eilis Ni Dhuibhne (64) lost her beloved husband, the Swedish folklorist Bo Almqvist in 2013 to a short, sharp illness that came from nowhere and swept him off in a couple of days. In the painful months that followed, she didn't want to write any more.

"Writing fiction seemed like a childish thing to do in the face of this enormous thing, because nothing else serious had happened to me ever before, really," she says.

"Although fiction can be, and frequently is, very sad and about serious things, still the act of writing it ... there's a playful aspect to it. I couldn't play.

"There's a sort of patina, a dark shadow hanging over you and in you - it gets in the way of everything. You're kind of in the dark and you feel heavy, heavy-hearted, like a stone."

The only writing Eilis found herself able to undertake was her first memoir, Twelve Thousand Days, that figure numbering the days of her 30-year marriage.

The result, subtitled A Memoir of Love and Loss, is a compelling account of a lifetime love affair, jumping back and forward over the highs and lows, Bo's death and the dark years that followed.

Eilis Ni Dhuibhne with late husband Bo
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne with late husband Bo

Eilis, who was born in Dublin, met Bo when she was studying English at UCD and he was a professor of folklore. She was brought up in Ranelagh, now an exclusive suburb but then an "ordinary little place". She was the daughter of a carpenter from Donegal and a stay-at-home mum who ensured that all her children went to college.

"I always wanted to be a writer, which is what I did become. I think that was my main ambition," Eilis says. "I studied pure English because I thought that's what you ought to do if you want to become a writer, but after I got very interested in research, I did a PhD combining folklore and medieval literature."

While she was at college, she spent a year in Denmark as a graduate student.

"That was 1978/79, and in those days abroad was much more different - Denmark was very different from Ireland," she says.

"It was exotic - the food was different, the way people thought was different. It was more liberal and advanced politically and in terms of feminism. I kind of discovered feminism there. It was a really good experience in all kinds of ways."

Eilis began publishing short stories at university, and published her first book in the 1980s after completing her PhD while working in the National Library.

Coming to terms with grief: Eilis Ni Dhuibhne pictured on a visit to Belfast
Coming to terms with grief: Eilis Ni Dhuibhne pictured on a visit to Belfast

She had known Bo for some years as her teacher, but it wasn't until 1978 that the pair fell in love, just before she set off to Denmark. They married in 1982 and went on to have two boys, Ragnar and Olaf.

"I remember when I first heard about him," she says. "It was between first year and second year. I was studying English, so I went to talk to the Professor of English about the subjects I would take in second year. He said, 'We're offering a new course on folklore and medieval literature because there's a new Professor of Folklore'.

"He said, 'You'll be interested in this because your name is in Irish', which I thought was kind of stereotyping a little bit, but it was true actually. And he said, 'He's very shy and I don't think he's ever taught before', neither of which was particularly true.

"So, in a way, I wouldn't have met Bo if my name hadn't been in Irish and I wasn't a stereotypical person with an Irish name who would be interested in folklore, of course!"

The couple had a small wedding in the registry office in Uppsala, Sweden, followed by a party back in Ireland.

"Bo was considerably older than me. I think that now that's kind of fine, but I felt there was a certain amount of surprise, disapproval, whatever," Eilis says.

Bo Almqvist
Bo Almqvist

"I don't think I was entirely imagining it. My parents were fine - they would have been a bit worried at first, but they liked Bo very much."

The couple lived for the next 30 years in a house in Shankhill in south Co Dublin with beautiful views over Killiney Bay.

After breakfast, Bo would go to his library to work, while Eilis would write on her laptop in the living room, then they would have lunch together, go for a walk and work until dinner time.

"For 20 or more years, it was all just the usual busy family life. We lived in Shankhill but very much loved Dunquin in Co Kerry on the Dingle peninsula. We had a summer house there, so we spent as much time as we could - the whole summer really if possible - down there.

"His routine there was always the same, actually - writing and working for much of the day in his little library.

"He had double sets of some books, so he would have them in Kerry and in Dublin.

Loving family: Eilis Ni Dhuibhne and husband Bo with sons Olaf (left) and Ragnar at Olaf’s first communion in 1992
Loving family: Eilis Ni Dhuibhne and husband Bo with sons Olaf (left) and Ragnar at Olaf’s first communion in 1992

"I would write in the kitchen, I think because I grew up in an ordinary house where there was no such thing as a library or a study or anything.

"In the old days, there was no central heating, so the only warm room was the big kitchen or living room. I got used to sitting in a corner in an armchair reading while people did other things, and I don't think I quite needed a special space in the same way that some people do in order to concentrate."

In his late 70s, Bo was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and successfully treated with radiotherapy.

However, two years later, what initially appeared to be a small medical problem claimed his life.

"He took a few pills for gout, which he had had for years, and he reacted badly and got dehydrated," Eilis says.

"He went to hospital to be hydrated and he ... somehow, in the end, the post-mortem revealed he had died of sepsis.

Twelve Thousand Days: A Memoir of Love and Loss is published by Blackstaff Press, £9.99
Twelve Thousand Days: A Memoir of Love and Loss is published by Blackstaff Press, £9.99

"It all happened over a few days, so I think that made the whole experience ... it was very traumatic for everyone involved - for him and for me. It was a case of, on Thursday you would be reassured things were going to be okay, and on Saturday he was dead.

"There was no time to think about it, no time to talk about it. There were no sort of deathbed scenes or long goodbyes or anything like that.

"That's how it was for me and for Bo, and how it often is for people.

"You know how when somebody is in hospital, life moves into the hospital and the outside world disappears, then it's over, into the car and the drive home and you're back into ordinary life, which in this situation was completely extraordinary and changed totally for several years.

"It's five years and I'm back to myself now, but it takes a good long time. It's just so awful, the feeling. I knew when I was writing about it that I was going to forget what it was like, and that is true.

"It's a bit like childbirth - you know you went through labour, but you can't really remember exactly what it was like, except it was to say it was bad.

"It's a little bit like that because in this case you gradually forget and go back to the new way of life, but the first period is very difficult."

One of the things Eilis turned to was reading books by authors who explored the process of bereavement, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Julian Barnes and Joan Didion. "I found it quite helpful to just be in the company of people who totally understood the situation," she says.

"It's not that you're constantly in tears or overwhelmed by grief constantly for two to three years. You find out what takes your mind off it. At the beginning you keep reliving the death. I just couldn't stop thinking about it in a kind of obsessive way.

"That stops, and I found out what kind of things would take my mind off it - things like, in my case, walking. I did the Camino with a friend of mine. Only the last 100km, but still!"

For a long time, Bo was constantly on her mind, but now, Eilis says, she thinks about him in a different way.

"I consult him for advice," she explains. "When you lose your partner, you lose the person you would go to talk things over, and there is nobody quite the same.

"I used to do it with my mother, who passed 10 years ago. I used to think, 'Now what would Mum say?' You know they are always going to be on your side!"

Twelve Thousand Days was the first book Eilis wrote after losing Bo.

"I wrote it spontaneously at first, which is the way I always write. But by the time you are going back, shaping it, editing it and so on, you distance yourself from it to an extent. It could almost be about anything in the end," she says.

At the end, I ask Eilis what drew her to Bo in the first place. She lights up as she speaks.

"What attracted me to him was that he had a lovely warm, cheerful, funny personality. He was humorous - he had a wry sense of humour," she stresses.

"He was exotic because, back then in the 1970s, we didn't have that many foreigners in Ireland. (There was also) his Swedishness - the foreigner everyone likes is a Swede! Somehow he had that exotic quality to him.

"He had a beautiful voice. I think I was extremely attracted to it. He had a lovely deep voice with this Swedish accent, which was very appealing.

"Bo was extremely learned and knowledgeable. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of this subject in folklore, literature and history, and he carried his learning very lightly. I could ask him nearly anything.

"He knew nothing about contemporary life and politics, economics... but anything historical he seemed to know the answer - he had a great memory. It was all a part of the package. And he was very kind and nice. And he was handsome!"

  • Twelve Thousand Days: A Memoir of Love and Loss is published by Blackstaff Press, £9.99

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