The inspiration behind Mother Tongue
It’s only when a novel is written, and left to cool for a while, that I understand what inspired it. While I am writing it, I am just telling a story, following a trail of breadcrumbs, with no idea where they will lead.
Inspiration, I find, comes from experience. It bubbles up from a lasagne of conversations had, emotions felt, stories enjoyed and news events witnessed, layer upon layer, over all the years of your life. Where did the inspiration come from for Mother Tongue?
I grew up speaking two languages, English and Irish. English was my mother tongue but I went to a total immersion Irish language school at the age of four and soon became fluent in my second language. Irish is a minority language even if it is the first official language of Ireland. I live on the edge of Connemara where the Irish language is still a living language, albeit a struggling one. In Galway, the capital city of the west, you can hear Irish spoken every day on the streets. I have friends with whom I only speak Irish. I write in Irish and I often dream in Irish. But the list of words that we use as Irish speakers is getting shorter. Year in and year out, people proclaim that the language is dying or dead which always reminds me of Mark Twain when he said:
The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.
It is true that the majority language, English, cannibalises our sentences with a vigorous appetite, but the old tongue battles on and there are green shoots with more and more parents sending their children to total immersion schools.
Nonetheless, I became aware at an early age that this language that I love was on the endangered list. I started to wonder how it would end. How many words would we need to survive? Looking back, that was probably when the idea for The Wordsmith was conceived.
In The Wordsmith, and in its companion novel Mother Tongue, words are controlled. The story is set in a place called Ark. In Ark, music is banned, art is banned and the language of Ark is List – a list of five hundred approved words. The idea of a list of words, of words being taken away, definitely came from my experience with the Irish language.
Where I live also influenced the story from an environmental point of view. Writers are often advised to put their seat in the chair if they want to make good work, but sometimes I think you have to get up, and have a look around, to keep yourself inspired.
We live ten kilometres north-west of Galway city, with Connemara to the west of us, and the Burren in Co. Clare to the south. Both are exquisitely beautiful places, and both very fragile environmentally. Connemara is a unique and very special part of County Galway. It is situated on the edge of Europe, and features breath-taking scenery, a rugged wild coastline, dramatic mountains, volatile lakes and rivers, peaceful woodlands, and a National Park. Its coastline has been trounced by the Atlantic for millions of years and it bears the scars with rugged dignity.
The Burren in Co. Clare is a totally different proposition and no less beautiful.
If you have never been to The Burren, you have to imagine a desert of limestone, but in that desert, rare living things and echoes of times long gone abound. The Burren is home to 70% of Ireland’s 900 native plant species including Gentian, Cranesbill, Rock Rose, Mountain Aven and Orchids. In Spring, wildflowers create splashes of vivid colour on the grey limestone palette.
It’s also an outdoor museum with over 80 tombs scattered across it’s moon-like face, dating from the Mesolithic era right through the Iron Age. It’s a magical place and a fragile one. I am no scientist but I’ve been reading about threats to the Burren. If I understand correctly, if temperatures continue to rise, there is a fear that the rate of limestone dissolution will increase, and that may sound the death knell for the life that clings to it. I do know that we are seeing more severe storms and flooding in this part of the world of late and that can’t be good news for the delicate spring flowers that cling to the limestone rocks.
I love to visit the Burren, not just for its physical beauty, but for its silence and its haunting atmosphere. There’s something about being there that reminds you about all the other people who have walked on the rocks, looked out at the sea, crouched down to see a tiny blue flower nestled in a cradle of grey rock and passed it all on to us.
The novels I wrote are set in a place where all of that had been destroyed, swallowed by the sea. When I am writing, I’m always trying to tap into emotion, and I used images from the Burren to remind me of what Letta and her cohorts had lost. The thought filled me with loneliness and I tried to put that into the sentences.
Inspiration comes from lots of different sources but mostly it comes from the things that effect you most. Creativity needs input. Sometimes to be inspired, you have to get your seat out of the chair and let yourself be amazed.