Percy Bysse Shelley once famously declared that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. While he may have been boosting his own profession with the remark, history furnishes quite a few examples of authors who were actual legislators.
Irish playwright and poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan was an MP for more than 30 years, Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia, and a youthful Benito Mussolini even regaled the world with a novel before abandoning fiction to become Italian dictator and drag his country into WWII. Westminster has turned out a number of novelists, including former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, Edward Bulwer Lytton (who gave us the expression ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ ) and, in more recent times, Jeffrey Archer, Edwina Currie, and Anne Widdicombe.
Former TD Liz McManus thus finds herself in some colourful company with the publication of her absorbing new novel, A Shadow In The Yard. She comes to Galway on Friday February 27, where she will read from and talk about her book at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop at 6pm.
Writing the second novel
A Shadow In The Yard relates the stories of two women, Rosaleen McAvady and her daughter Aoife, and the action unfolds in the summer of 1969 and Dublin in 1998. When a swan lands in the yard of Rosaleen’s home on Lough Swilly, it is trapped by its narrow confines and cannot escape. She asks her elderly neighbour, Tom Mundy, for help, and unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will have far-reaching repercussions.
After a brief career as an architect, Rosaleen has settled for marriage and children. Life is secure but she now finds herself longing to stretch her wings. Dramatic political upheaval in Northern Ireland soon casts its shadow and Rosaleen realises that, beneath the placid surface of her world, violence threatens all she holds dear. Like the swan in the yard, can she hope for escape or must she be trapped forever?
McManus herself worked as an architect and lived in Derry in 1969 so draws on her personal familiarity with the location and era in the novel. Interestingly, she and her former husband, John, a GP, then moved to Galway. “We left Derry and lived in Galway for a couple of years,” she tells me. “John got a job in Galway Regional Hospital as it then was. We lived in No 5 New Docks. We were young and there were lots of students around and it was a great time. It was before Galway became trendy but it was still a very lively town.”
A Shadow In The Yard is actually McManus’s second novel. Her first novel, Acts Of Subversion was published in 1992 and was shortlisted for the Aer Lingus/Irish Times Award. That same year McManus was elected as a Democratic Left TD for Wicklow and held her seat continuously until 2011, and during that time she served as deputy leader of the Labour Party and Minister of State for Housing and Urban Renewal.
“I escaped into the political career because I found writing very stressful and I thought politics would be much more relaxing!” she says with a wry laugh. “Of course it didn’t turn out that way. I was writing a newspaper column at the time and was struggling to write a second novel and getting absolutely nowhere. I was being encouraged to stand in the 1992 general election which I did.
“I believe then, and still believe, it is very important that women are in positions of power. In a way, my life took a turn that led me away from writing another novel until now. Being a TD was a wonderful job although it was tough, but I always had the plan in the back of my mind that when I reached a certain age I would go back to writing if I was still able. The one thing I swore to myself is that I would never be a TD with a free travel pass!”
It is interesting to compare the lives of Rosaleen and her daughter Aoife in the book. Rosaleen lives in a time when women were still largely defined by the domestic roles of wife and mother and she hankers for more freedom. Aoife has the kind of freedoms her mother would have cherished yet her life also has its frustrations.
“A couple of themes were fascinating to me,” McManus notes. “Coming back to writing after 24 years you really see how things have changed in Ireland, not just for women but for men as well. There has been a tremendous transformation over that period in the way that we relate to each other, to the world of work, and so on. There are also things that can be just as transformative - such as having a baby - as they would have been to my grandmother. There are still fundamental things that happen that can change your life.”
‘There is great freedom to being retired’
After retiring from politics McManus completed an MPhil in Creative Writing in Trinity in 2012 and found it a great help in writing the novel. “That was very important to me,” she declares. “I knew once I retired my I would need help with my writing. These creative writing courses are quite common now but there was no such thing when I wrote my first book. Part of the reason I never got going with the book until now was that there weren’t the supports there. It’s kind of funny, there were four older people like myself on the MPhil and the rest were young. It was us four older ‘wrinklies’ who were asking all the questions. Halfway through the year we said we are going to have to stop this and give the others a chance.”
If she had the confidence to write her first book, why was writing the second one so difficult? “I think anyone writing a novel feels uncertainty, it goes with the territory,” she replies. “Also, I had made no progress with my first attempts at writing the second novel.
“With the first novel you don’t really know what you are doing, you are full of enthusiasm, no-one is expecting you to complete it so it is kind of a shot in the dark. With a second novel you are in a different situation, most writers say the second novel is much more difficult to write. I suppose I ran away from the challenge. When I did the course in Trinity I had to write, there are workshops and you have to produce work, the discipline is there. I was quietly pleased I could still do it and not only could I still do it, but I could see I was a much better writer 24 years on.”
Having endured the hurly burly of politics does that give McManus greater strength in exposing her writing to reviewers?
“Generally the book has received very good reviews which I am very pleased, and a little amazed, at,” she says, “but yes. It is also a factor of age, you get to the age where you accept your own limitations and if other people have problems with them that’s their problem. When I was young I was much more sensitive to criticism, I think it is perfectly natural for a young writer to feel they are under pressure to prove themselves, whereas when you are in your sixties you have made your contribution, done your work, and are now retired, and there is great freedom to being retired, I recommend it!”
1798 and all that
McManus is already starting work on her next novel which looks at the Dissenter tradition in Ireland.
“My mother’s family were northern Presbyterians and became Unitarians in the early twentieth century,” she explains. “They came from a dissenting tradition, and there’s a collection of papers, bits of letters, deeds and so on, that I’ve been exploring. The book starts in 1798 as one of my relations was a rebel. Presbyterians were the backbone of the rebellion in the North yet that dissenting tradition has been sidelined since. I am very curious about it.
“It is also a personal journey for me. When my mother married my father he was a Catholic. Her family opposed the marriage, not because they were narrow minded, but the ne temere decree, which ordained that children of the union would be raised as Catholics, drove them wild. It caused a terrible rupture in the family, my mother and the rest wouldn’t talk to each other. It is a break that I regret and I am interested in finding what parts of my own make up are drawn from them.
“Obviously there are physical characteristics that are carried down the generations but there is also a memory which is inherited. I don’t know where I got my politics from for example. My father was a civil servant and completely apolitical, he had a healthy contempt for all politicians! We didn’t talk politics in the house, so why did I have very strong connections to the idea of radical politics and the idea of equality for women? Where did it all come from? So the book is a personal exploration as well.”