Audrey Magee has a confession to make.
When I was in school I was a closet Comb reader. Let’s go,” she said, laughing.
Stop the presses, I say. It’s the one you never hear.
I meet the Wicklow novelist in the lounge of a Dublin hotel. We chat longer than expected – with fewer actual meetings these days, conversations tend to drag on. Audrey speaks passionately about the Irish language, how her time as a foreign correspondent influenced her writing and how she accidentally wrote a novel about Brexit.
Only occasionally does she revert to old journalistic habits, turning questions back to me. But back to Comb.
Like CombAudrey’s latest novel, The colony, also depicts a more traditional Irish way of life on an unnamed island in the Gaeltacht in the summer of 1979. An English artist comes to paint on the island and the islanders worry about how they will appear in his work. A French linguist is also arriving, to complete a thesis on the Irish language – but there is a tension between the reality of the use of the language in this place and what it needs.
It’s a story of power, of colonialism, and how visitors – “the big beasts of colonization” as Audrey calls them – impose themselves on the islanders.
Some dialogue is in Irish (with translation), and Audrey was surprised to see Irish words find “a life of their own” in her novel. She is not Gaeilgeoir, but is a linguist, having studied French and German at university.
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Growing up, Irish was “the language of impoverishment, there was no future in it. There’s this beautiful line in Joyce Etienne Hero that English is the language of the continent. It was me. I had French and German, and I was gone.
After leaving university in 1988, Audrey traveled widely and lived in Australia for a time. “[Ireland] was such a difficult place to live. I was out of here.
It is a need for escape that she impregnates in some of her characters in The colony.
“It was common in the 1980s. You move away from Catholicism, for lack of opportunities. Also, most of us were raised to leave as well, so the language relationship just wasn’t relevant, because you leave anyway. It’s fantastic to see how many of us have come back.
But as an Irish writer writing in English, it was “inevitable to have to tackle your relationship with Irish at some point. It is very difficult to run away from your mother tongue.
The dialect she uses is Carrowteige de Mayo Irish, which only about 160 people still speak. She found out about it through a masters student in UCD’s Irish Department.
“She is studying Irish from a women’s language perspective. The language of men is preserved – how to fish, how to sow a field – but the language of women to raise children, soothings and lullabies, she records it all.
“I said, ‘I can’t wait to read it’ and she said, ‘But it’s in Irish.’ We don’t know the beauty of what’s going on here.
Like the French visitor in her book, Audrey worries about how we’re going to preserve the language – especially these faltering dialects. It refers to the work of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Doireann Ní Ghríofa.
“English is a really practical international language. But there is something about Irish that is so close to the landscape, so close to who we are and what we once were. Are we sure we don’t want to try a little harder before it’s all gone?
She initially toyed with the idea of leaving the Irish dialogue in her book untranslated, but early readers resisted – a difficulty they did not have with French and Latin in the text. She was struck by it.
“Do we feel a little threatened by the Irishman?” She wonders. “When you look at the colonial system, one of the things they want to eradicate is the mother tongue, because they don’t understand what’s going on and they can’t control it. So, has Irish instinctively become something you can’t trust?
She refers to the report on the originally banned Irish language headstone in a cemetery in Coventry.
“It’s really interesting that we can feel threatened by that, and I think we feel threatened by Arabic now. We feel threatened because they are seen as political.
This sense of threat is something she is keen to eliminate.
“There is an excellent quote from Mohamed Benrabah, a Franco-Algerian scholar, where he talks about language as a proxy for conflict. We end the violence and we still have these quarrels over the language and the language law [in Northern Ireland].
“We still haven’t resolved this relationship to language. And it’s not just a union thing, or an English thing. We have to ask ourselves if we still have an uncertain relationship with her.
Before devoting herself to novels, she worked for 12 years as a journalist for the AFP, and The Watcher/Guardian. She covered the Balkan Wars for the irish time before becoming a correspondent in Ireland for the London time.
“While before I was a frequent traveler and always stood outside everyone’s country, here I suddenly found myself outside of my own.”
She spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland around the time of the Good Friday Agreement.
“I remember having dinner with John Hume when I was in the irish time when I was very young, probably in 1992, in Strasbourg, where he defined the whole framework of the Good Friday agreement. He was phenomenal, because he saw the only way forward. And the only thing we could do was put [the peace process] in the European context.
She remembers sitting in people’s homes and talking to them after the Omagh bombing.
“He never leaves you – and why should he? You can’t just land in people’s lives and hear what they say and then walk away.
But after her sixth cover of Drumcree, she called it quits. Fiction was a way for her to approach these moments in a broader way.
“It’s not that I wanted to get away from it. I just wanted to go further with it.
“To some degree, I think I was sitting on the side of a hill, dealing, trying to do more than just the day’s newspaper. Trying to understand what it is to be colonized and what it is to be a colonizer.
“Because we are still living in this situation. Obviously, it’s different from what it was 100 years ago. But in many ways, it’s still a version of the same thing.
Brexit was, she says, “really devastating – in terms of the Good Friday deal, in terms of Hume, in terms of that dinner in Strasbourg, in terms of everything you saw being built.
“I had no intention of writing a Brexit novel. I happen to be a very slow writer, so a lot of things happen while I’m writing.
Violence and conflict erupt on the pages of Audrey’s novels. In his 2014 novel The companya story of “ordinary Germans” during the Second World War, the cruelty is told without flinching.
And while The colony is the story of a summer on a seemingly peaceful island, it is peppered with powerful interruptions. Between scenes of painting and domesticity, Audrey places raw accounts of the violent sectarian incidents that occurred in 1979.
She wanted the reader to “feel the impact of the violence interrupting the day”.
“When things happen first, you just ignore them. Whether it’s violence against women…and then it escalates to that crescendo where you can’t ignore it anymore. We can only talk about it, like today,” she said, referring to the recent murder of Ashling Murphy.
She wrote the story in the past tense, but the violence in the present tense “to show that the legacy is still ongoing within us”.
Audrey was 13 when the IRA bombed Lord Mountbatten’s boat at Mullaghmore, an incident which is included in the novel. “The two boys who died were 15 years old. You realize your vulnerability.”
From then on “it was this living next to violence. Not in the same way as the North, I never claim to have experienced anything like this.
Rather, she examines “the impact on my generation of this context of violence. What is the impact of waking up every morning with the next atrocity, the next interpretation of Irish or English?
Audrey explains that her work to date is about “power and the ordinary person – power structures, first fascism, and with that, colonialism. We don’t quite understand the impact of these isms on us.
“Look at Germany, though. We know how fascism has affected them and we will accept it – but we will not accept that colonialism has impacted us yet.
She turns to other contemporary examples of colonial literature, referring to the “fantastic” writing emerging from Africa.
“They move the lens back to see themselves as colonized. i know we know [that we were colonised], but do we accept it as Nigeria accepts it? Or India? in terms of impact on your psyche, on your language, on your culture and on your self-esteem?
“It’s more difficult because to some extent we all look alike. It’s easier to blend in, if you’re an Irishman who wants to blend into that system. This obviously allows us to move forward much more quickly. But does this prevent us from analyzing what really happened and what was the impact?
“A lot of things are positive, look at some of our tall buildings,” she said, pointing vaguely to the window. “But it’s deeper than that. Now is not the time to think about it. »
Having left “the chains” of “our British colonizer and our Vatican colonizer”, we are now beginning to stand on our feet, she says. “But who are we? What is it to be Irish? It comes down to the question of the North, can we really still determine that?”
The company is a strangely stripped-down novel, the horror erasing any interior monologue, but there is more room for interiority in The colonywith its dew-covered morning walks and twinkling lights over the sea.
“My sister told me after reading The colony that I must have been happier writing this one – and I was like, ‘Was I? Am I? Said Audrey laughing.
At the end of the interview, she checks her phone. She might have news for me. Yes, she can tell me now. The colony has been cast in the film – hopefully a joint English, Irish and French production. Before leaving, we take a few moments to put together a dream cast – another set of characters to tell the story of this island.
‘The Colony’ by Audrey Magee is published by Faber & Faber, €18, on February 3