Best-selling author Kate Kerrigan draws on Achill tragedy for new novel

A tragedy that devastated the island community of Achill almost 80 years ago has moved Killala-based bestselling author Kate Kerrigan to examine love and loss in her newest novel.

On one terrible night in 1937, 10 Achill men perished in a fire in their sleeping quarters while tattie hoking (working as potato pickers ) in the Scottish town of Kirkintilloch, just outside Glasgow.

Kerrigan has now drawn on that tragedy to pen an emotional tale set on a fictional island in the aftermath of World War II.

According to Ms Kerrigan The Lost Garden is a story of love, loss, hope, and miracles.

The former magazine editor and New York Times bestselling author was born in London and grew up there but she always maintained strong ties with her mother’s native town of Ballina. It is this link with Mayo that brought her to live in Killala and be inspired by the Mayo landscape and history.

“I grew up listening to stories about Mayo history and I knew this story,” she recalls. “It was something that was in my consciousness for a long time.”

Following the loss of her only brother in 2009, Ms Kerrigan wanted to examine the theme of grief in her writing and the Kirkintilloch tragedy informed elements of the novel.

“I think I felt ready to tackle that kind of subject matter. The story is inspired by the tragedy in so far as I was struck by the kind of effect losing that many men, such a large part of a community, would have on an island community. The depth of the tragedy was immeasurable.”

Ms Kerrigan said that while researching the tragedy for her book, she remained acutely aware of the sensitive nature of the work.

“I didn’t speak to any of the people who had relatives [at Kirkintillock]. I didn’t want this to be a true story because I would never attempt to try and convey something that sensitive, that runs that deep.”

Doris Day

Ms Kerrigan formerly edited the hugely popular teen magazine Just Seventeen in the UK and went on to found and edit More magazine.

In 1991, she decided to leave her career at the top echelon of the publishing world in London to relaunch Irish Tatler, which she went on to edit for 10 years.

“I naively imagined that I wouldn’t work as hard in Dublin and would write in my spare time - it didn’t quite work out,” she laughs.

That all changed in 1999 when she married Niall Kerrigan, who encouraged and supported her to devote all her energies to her writing ambitions.

“He told me to give up my job and write and that he would look after me. It was all very Doris Day of me. But it worked out and within a year I got a book deal.”

Ms Kerrigan has written four ‘madcap comedies’ under the name Morag Prunty but changed her writing style, and her name, with Recipes for a Perfect Marriage. The novel, set in Mayo and New York, and “very much inspired by the Mayo landscape”, was widely acclaimed and Kerrigan was shortlisted for a Romantic Novelist of the Year award.

Her 2011 novel Ellis Island, which tells the story of a young Irish girl who emigrates to America in the early 1900s, was chosen as a ‘Richard and Judy Summer Read’ and went on to hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Ms Kerrigan’s original dream of retiring to Mayo to become a full-time novelist has been realised. However, she is cautious about celebrating her own success.

“Success? I don’t really think about it,” she says. “You are only as good as your last book. Success as a writer is a very insecure and tenuous thing.”

The novelist certainly got a jolting lesson in all things tenuous last week when she left a laptop, with her only up-to-date copy of her latest novel The Dress, in a Dublin taxi. However, following a social media call for help to track down the missing laptop, it was retrieved and the novel is safe and sound.

“It was a horrible experience,” says Ms Kerrigan. “Thank goodness I got the book back. I’m backing up now I can tell you!”

Kate Kerrigan’s latest novel The Lost Garden is published by Pan Macmillan and is available in bookstores now.

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