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Finding a Way Home

Mary Costello on the transformation of fact into fiction

Academy Street by Mary Costello

Mary Costello’s latest novel, Academy Street, follows Tess Lohan from her girlhood in western Ireland through her relocation to America and her life there, concluding with a moving reencounter with her Irish family after forty years of exile. Here, Costello shares a beautiful meditation on her mother’s family home—how its emotional resonances bled into and help inform her novel, and how imagining the lives of her immigrant family gave shape to the life of her protagonist.

Academy Street by Mary Costello

My mother grew up in a big old house in the west of Ireland, and I modeled Easterfield—Tess’s childhood home in Academy Street—on that house and farm. It had two stairs and large reception rooms, a gong in the hall, a coach-house, an orchard, an avenue of old trees. I remember it from my childhood, by which time my uncle had inherited it. At Christmas there were big family get-togethers—country people never call them parties. Fires were lit, tables were laid, adults gathered around. A cousin, home from Dublin with her new fiancé, wore velvet burgundy pants tucked into black, patent high boots, a matching burgundy waistcoat, and a canary-yellow scarf. I ran up the curved staircase with the other cousins, along the dark landing with creaking floorboards, past a dozen doors and rooms with no light bulbs, onto another landing, then down the back stairs. We circled the ground floor, returned to where we’d started and beat the gong in the hall.

The house was built in 1678 but I don’t think anyone in the family ever knew that. Nor did they suspect that the Garden of Eden wallpaper in the drawing room might have been a William Morris design. My mother’s father bought the place in 1911 and farmed the land. He married in 1925. The house was grand, sprawling, difficult to keep. It had three bathrooms, lead tanks in the attic, its own water supply. The large kitchen was on the lower ground floor and, further along the corridor, the washroom, the taproom, the sweet-smelling apple room where, in autumn, apples were laid out on newspaper to ripen, and finally, across the hall from the back stairs, the baby room. My uncle and his wife had a young family then and each Christmas I found another new baby asleep there.

In the late 1840’s the house, which had lain vacant for some years, was opened up as a hospital to relieve overcrowding in the local workhouse during the Great Famine. On the roadsides beyond the estate, people lay dying in the ditches, their mouths stained with grass juice. During that time there were 480 patients in the hospital, of whom 179 died. The unclaimed bodies were buried on the land—in ditches and quarries and under trees. Lime was thrown over them to prevent a stench. In those fields, under those trees, my mother played as a child. It’s where my character Tess would also play.

When my mother was three years old, her mother died. It was October 1942 and in the summer just past my grandmother sat under the laurel tree in the lawn most afternoons sewing, the new baby asleep in the crib beside her. When I was small I was very close to my mother. I would look at her and think: You had no mother, and my heart would almost break for the little girl she was then. Later, as an adult, it struck me how catastrophic the death of a parent is for a child. How the trajectory of a family’s future can suddenly change. And how, too, the effects might be felt for several generations. My mother’s older sisters were taken out of boarding school to help rear the younger children, and they never returned. They might have gone on to university and had professions, as their friends did.

In Academy Street Tess trains as a nurse and immigrates to America, as so many Irish men and women did in the fifties and sixties. My mother never emigrated, but two of her sisters and a brother did. One of her sisters, Carmel, was a nurse in New York in the early sixties and lived in an apartment on Academy Street in Inwood at the northern end of Manhattan. Inwood is a mainly Hispanic neighborhood now but back then it was something of an Irish enclave. Carmel worked in the New York Presbyterian Hospital and nursed Cole Porter and Elizabeth Taylor and Edith Piaf. She stayed in New York for just four years before returning and settling back in Galway. But I keep Tess there permanently where, as a nurse and a mother, she lives a quiet intense life against the backdrop of the major events of the second half of the twentieth century. Though she shares some geographical settings and biographical details with my aunt and my mother, Tess is a fictional creation and her interior life, both as a child and as an adult, is entirely imagined.

I’ve never lived in New York but have visited many times. I was there in the summer of 2011 when Tess was forming in me, and almost every day I took the A train up to Inwood. I found Academy Street and the apartment building my aunt had lived in. I walked around the streets and the park, visited the church, the library, imagining the lives of my aunts, my uncle; hearing the echoes of their footsteps on the streets, the footsteps of so many Irish immigrants who’d started out there. There is something about that generation of young men and women, something I glimpse in photographs and in stories of their lives—their innocence and earnestness, their lack of cynicism too—that moves me. One day I sat on a bench across the street from the school as parents gathered to collect their children. In an upstairs classroom I could see the tops of little heads, and tiny hands being raised and lowered, and something was constellated at that moment and Tess began to take hold.

My mother’s old house no longer exists—due to fate and circumstance it could not be saved. My uncle died a few years ago and on a beautiful June evening his funeral cortege passed the boundary wall of his land. I was there, driving slowly, looking down over the sloping fields, the avenue, the groves of old trees. In the distance the coach-house, the barns, the orchard walls, were all still intact. And then, at the centre, a gap, an absence, where the house had been. Maybe it was the sombre occasion, the glint of sun on hearse, this confluence of death and beauty, but the sight of that gap pierced me. I saw it as a scar and felt the land was mortally wounded. I don’t know if the past folds itself into stone and soil and sapwood, or if fields are marked by memory or trees bow down in sorrow, but I knew then that Tess would see what I was seeing: the tragic landscape of her childhood that had imprinted itself on her soul.

Mary Costello grew up in Galway and now lives in Dublin. Her most recent novel, Academy Street, won the Novel of the Year Prize at the Irish Book Awards and was also shortlisted for a Costa Award. Her 2012 short-story collection, The China Factory, was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award and short-listed for an Irish Book Award. Her stories have been published in various anthologies and broadcast on radio.

Academy Street by Mary Costello
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