“I decided to be a proper writer because of Galway. It gave me the power and belief to do things. I hope to move here and spend more time in the city. There is nothing like Galway - I even love when it rains here.”
So declares Ambra Porcedda, the young Italian writer whose debut novel, Róisín Dubh, was both inspired by, and set in Galway. A compliment indeed, but many will ask, why would someone from the clear skies, sunshine, warmth, and dry climate of the Mediterranean become so enraptured with a small city on the fringes of cold, damp, dark Northern Europe?
Ambra, known to her friends and family as Ambrina, comes from Sardinia, which is constitutionally part of the Italian state. The second largest island in the Mediterranean, it has, throughout the centuries, been fought over and occupied by the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Spanish, the Austrians, and the Tunisians, and during WWII endured heavy Allied bombing. In spite of, or because of this, the native Sardinians have developed a strongly distinct and separate identity.
“We don’t feel Italian. We are Sardinian,” declares Ambrina, who was back in Galway recently to visit her sister, who also lives here. “Sardinian is also the name of the language we speak, it’s a mixture of Italian and Spanish. People, when they ask me where I’m from, I don’t say Italy, I say Sardinia!”
Ambrina describes Sardinia as “a yellow, dry island” and calls it a “golden cage” - beautiful to be in, and both hard, yet necessary to leave.
“Sardinia shaped me in so many ways,” she says. “We are just one million people. It’s a poor island, one of the poorest regions in Italy, mostly populated by the elderly as the young people move on as there is no work for them there - but it is beautiful. It’s a touristic place, particularly in the north of the island.”
Yet Sardinia is also where Ambrina first began to write, discovering a passion for telling stories when she was six years old.
“I’m always happiest when I’m telling something about life using my imagination,” she says. “I started to write properly when I was in my teens. They were all very sad poems about death! When I went to university I realised poetry is not for me, so I started writing prose. I’m also very interested in music and got work as a music journalist. For 15 years I did that for webzines and music papers. I also continued my studies, studying in Tuscany.”
Becoming a writer
Upon graduating from university in 2009, Ambrina came to Ireland to learn English at the Galway Cultural Institute in Salthill. She became interested in finding work here, but this was the beginning of the recession and there were no jobs to be had.
“I moved to London and got a job there in a Greek restaurant, pretending to be from Greece - I got away with it - I can pass for Greek,” Ambrina laughs. “Then I won a bursary to Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi in Milan where I completed a Masters in Finance, after which I went to work in PR.
Then the Italian economic crisis hit and I lost my job.”
Ambrina eventually found work in Bologna as a receptionist in a gym. She stuck it out for two years, but it was deeply unfulfilling. It was at that point she decided to follow her dream and Galway was about to play a huge role in that.
“I decided ‘This is not my life! I want to write!’ I left my job and went home to Sardinia,” she says. “While there an editor of a publishing house found my writings on the internet. He asked if I could write a novel - and if I could have a draft of it ready in two months. That is how I wrote my first book.”
Setting herself to complete the task with that tight deadline, Ambrina set to work, drawing on her experiences of Galway city. The result was Róisín Dubh - her editor encouraged her to give the book an Irish title, as a way to catch the attention of the Italian public. The novel was published in March and Ambrina found herself giving public readings and media interviews around Italy to promote it. The novel is currently being translated into English.
Róisín Dubh is a story of conflicted love, the pull of home and fear of embracing change, and yes, it is named after the popular Dominick Street live music venue. “I would spend most of my nights in there when I was in Galway,” Ambrina laughs.
The novel centres on Pádraig who lives in one of the flats across the road from the Róisín. From his window he watches the people going into and out of the pub and those who stand outside smoking.
“Pádraig was born and raised in Galway and feels he will stay here forever,” says Ambrina. “He knows every part of the city and notices every change that happens. He sees the littler thrown into the canal and he knows if a new can has been thrown in there. He is very obsessed with the place.”
Pádraig’s settled, predictable life, however, is thrown off-course when he meets an American woman. After a whirlwind romance they decide to get married. She however wants to go back to the USA and Pádraig now faces a choice between continuing his old life or taking a chance on a new path.
Water is a persistent theme and symbol in the novel and captures the contrast between the dry southern climate of Sardinia and the damp northern climate of Galway. It also “represents the flow of the story”.
“There is water inside the house where Pádraig lives and damp running down the walls. Outside are the canals and the river. He also works in the Atlantaquarium in Salthill,” she says. “I use a lot of water as Sardinia is very dry whereas in Galway it rains almost every day. Water is such a part of daily life around here. There is the river, it is a town by the sea. I can identify with that as I too come from an island and the sea is always close by, but unlike Sardinia, rain is a miracle. Back home it might rain only once a month, and often you can find no water in your sink, so people have to collect water in tanks.”
She loves Galway
Since 2009 Ambrina has become a regular visitor to Galway and the years have only seen her obsession with and love for the city grow.
“Galway is for me like a second home,” she says. “I feel protected here, the only place in the world where I really feel this way. I like the people, they are so polite and nice, old and young. People smile at you for no reason, that is so beautiful. The city is so full of life and full of colour - in every sense of the term. I’m probably totally in love with Galway. I have to move here!” Ambrina is currently working on her second book, a collection of short stories, which centre on the relationships and crises and work among a group of 30-somethings.
“Nothing is fixed in your life,” says Ambrina. “You can change jobs and relationships in just a few months. This all goes towards creating your personality.”
One of the stories will be set in Galway.
“It was inspired by the old lady I see walking the streets, Nora. She’s asked me for money sometimes - she asks everyone - and so I’ve tried to imagine what is her story, and who she is, but I will change her name. It will be fiction - but Galway people will recognise her.”