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'It's lovely to be invited, my mum was so proud of her connection to Seamus Heaney and his career'

Ahead of a reading tonight at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace centre in Bellaghy, NI novelist Bernie McGill tells Una Brankin of her family's link to one of the late poet's best-known works.

In Seamus Heaney’s country house in Wicklow, there’s an old ‘settle bed’ bequeathed to him by a relative, Biddy Carmichael from Lavey, near his hometown of Bellaghy. A wooden-framed extendable couch that looks like a cross between a long chest and a church pew, it doesn’t make the most comfortable bed. But Heaney (below) thought so much of it, he wrote a poem entitled The Settle Bed and sent  a signed copy to Biddy’s home-help, Sarah McGill.

Mrs McGill died in 2014, the year after Seamus, and the signed poem is now in the possession of the youngest in her family of 10, the writer Bernie McGill. Acclaimed for her debut novel, The Butterfly Cabinet, and her short stories, Bernie vividly remembers the afternoons perched on the settle bed with her brothers and sisters, as they waited after school for their mother to finish minding Biddy.

The siblings continued to visit the old lady into their teenage years and Bernie will recall from those memories when she reads from her latest short story — from the award-winning Glass Shore anthology — at a special event at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace centre in Bellaghy on Saturday.

“It’s so lovely to be invited to take part; my grandparents are buried in the graveyard in Bellaghy, not far from where Seamus Heaney is buried himself and we knew that settle bed well,” says Bernie (49).

“Biddy was a sort of granny figure for us. Her house was overrun with cats. Mum only worked with her for a short while but we continued to visit her into our teenage years, and being the writer of the family, I got the signed copy of the poem Seamus sent to Mum.

“He described it exactly as I’d remembered it in Biddy’s house. Mum was very proud of the connection with Seamus and his career.”

The Portstewart-based writer also has a signed copy of one of Heaney’s poetry collections, autographed by him in her presence at a writing festival before The Butterfly Cabinet was published. I think it’s safe to say the poet would have admired Bernie’s writing. The intimacy she depicts in a moment shared by a mother and daughter, in her short story, The Cure For Too Much Caring, brings to mind Heaney’s famous poem, When All The Others Were Away At Mass.

In Bernie’s story, the protagonist is touched by a painting of a weary middle-aged women washing her frail mother’s hair, over the edge of a sink, pouring water from a plastic mixing jug.

“The hair was plastered to the old lady’s scalp, the bones of her neck and of her small skull showing through under pink skin,” Bernie writes. “A yellow towel lay over her shoulders, over the white of the full slip she was wearing, the skin on her upper arms crinkled as tissue paper, the veins on her legs and on her slippered feet, raised and wormed and blue. With one hand, she had gathered the corners of the towel under her chin like a shawl; the other hand gripped the wash hand basin, like she feared she was in danger of falling.

“There was something about the composition that held Rita, something ritual in the scene, in the triangulation of the two figures over the bathroom sink, their physical closeness in the cramped room, the daughter’s right hand, pouring water, her left hand outstretched, like a benediction, something easy between the two of them that said, ‘We know who we are to one another and this is what we do.’”

The beautifully observed scene is based partly on a portrait Bernie saw in the Ulster Museum and partly on personal experience.

“Art has that ability to bring big emotions to the fore,” she remarks. “It’s not an autobiographical story but the painting I saw did make me think about mum and washing her hair. I cherish the intimacy of that and of being able to help look after her at home, after her stroke.

“It was a real privilege to do so. It was a big challenge but there are 10 of us. She was 89 and hadn’t much mobility. In the story, Rita won’t get the chance to have that intimacy — she doesn’t say so but the reader gets it.”

Bernie grew up in a house of readers. Her father, the late John McGill, borrowed books from the local library, while her mother preferred the newspapers. She studied English Literature and Italian at Queen’s University and went on to write for theatre, before having The Butterfly Cabinet published by Headline in 2010.

She’d been encouraged to write a novel by her husband, Kevin McClelland, an architect she met at Queen’s and father of her two teenage daughters, Mary and Rosie. He bought her a writing desk for the task, which took her five years to complete.

Described by Marie Claire magazine as an “utterly compelling tale of hidden secrets and culture clashes played out against the backdrop of a large country house in Northern Ireland”, The Butterfly Cabinet won wide critical acclaim. Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, wrote in The Guardian: “McGill has the ability to enter into the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor.”

The author was suitably flattered by the praise from Fellowes, the master of Big House dramas, who has Irish relatives in Co Meath.

“It came completely out of the blue; it was extraordinary that he’d read it,” she says. “I didn’t realise he had any Irish connections. I loved Downton and his film, Gosford Park. There was such a wonderful sense of the huge machine it took to run a big house, so many working to look after so few. 

“There hasn’t been any talk of a dramatisation of my novel but a film would be great.”

 The Butterfly Cabinet is about to be reissued with a contemporary cover, after four editions with covers reflecting the historical setting of the story. Bernie hated the first one proffered by the publishers but approved of the alternatives, and loves the new modern one. The novel’s extended shelf-life is a just reward for the time and effort she poured into it.

As she says: “I took me five years to write so I was a shaken, a bit, by someone saying they’d read it in one sitting! My husband read an early draft and signed off without criticism. He reads mostly non-fiction; he’s also an artist and he likes biographies. My daughters were positive and supportive, too.”

Bernie turns 50 in January. Her daughters, Mary and Rosie, are 19 and 16, respectively, and growing up in a much different world to hers as a teenager in Lavey.

In The Cure For Caring Too Much, she depicts a scenario of sexual abuse, (when her protagonist Rita is give a lift home by an older family friend), of the type that was all too commonly kept secret, back then.

She writes: “She remembered very clearly the walnut-trimmed dashboard, the bucket seats, his freckled fingers on her leg, working the threads of her laddered tights apart into a hole big enough to slide his hand and then his arm through, ‘round the back of her thigh, up inside her underwear. She didn’t remember agreeing to anything, but she hadn’t wanted to appear ungrateful.”

She agrees that the scene she portrays so acutely is one in which many naïve girls would have found themselves, and could still do.

“I’m sure many didn’t know the parameters — these things weren’t explained to you — and they didn’t come out and say what had happened to them,” she says. “And then, if they became pregnant, they’d vanish out of sight until the baby was born and given away. It’s such a different world now (for my teenage daughters). At least they are informed.”

Bernie recently finished her second novel, which is set on Rathlin Island in the late 1880s, when Marconi was setting up an experimental wireless link between the island and Ballycastle. The publishers have changed Bernie’s working title, The Tailor’s Room, to The Watch House, after the ships look-out on the north-eastern side of the island, which is crucial to the narrative.

It’s due for publication in August 2017. In the meantime, Bernie is working on more short stories and has an idea for a third novel “kicking around” in her head.

“Everyone has a story in them; I don’t know about a book. It’s hard enough to get one out of me!” she concludes. “I’m often asked at workshops I do about getting inspiration to write, but you don’t need inspiration, as such.

“I people-watch when I’m having a cappuccino and make up stories about them. If nothing else, it’s a great way to spend an afternoon.”

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