This interview marks the publication of a new edition of Catherine Dunne’s second novel, A Name for Himself (first published in 1998) as part of the Arlen Classic Literature series. The new edition features a Foreword by Mia Gallagher. Because my first novel, Another Alice, also features in that series (with a Foreword by Paula McGrath), we arranged to swap interviews on each other’s websites. Other titles in the series include Marian Thérèse Keyes (ed) A Life of No Light Toil: An Anna Maria Hall Reader, Kate O’Brien’s Pray for the Wanderer (with an Introduction by Caitriona Clear) and Carmen Cavanagh by Annie Smithson (with an Introduction by Alan Hayes).
Catherine, Thanks for talking to me and congratulations on the re-issue of A Name for Himself. It was your second novel and marks a distinct change from your first. Who were your influences, if any?
As soon as I finished writing In the Beginning, I knew that I wanted to write something that was completely different from that first novel. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed, didn’t want to set up any expectation that ‘more of the same’ was about to follow.
I was lucky, in that the story that became A Name for Himself presented itself to me – chose me, in a way: I didn’t need to go looking for it. It settled itself into some internal space and wouldn’t go away.
I think it’s probably one of the stories that has exerted the strongest, most obsessive, grip on my imagination. Part of that, I think, is that I was terrified by the old adage that ‘everybody has a book in them’. Just one! I wanted to make sure I had at least two.
Was it hard to stay within Farrell’s point-of-view?
That was one of the spooky parts of the writing experience. I felt as though I was looking over his shoulder the whole time. I felt a degree of empathy with him that was, at times, disconcerting. He was with me during the days of writing, and also at night, when I had some very disturbing dreams.
We slowly diverged, of course: and I looked on, sometimes in horror, at the way the story was developing. In many ways, it felt inevitable, right from the beginning. It was – and I know other writers will argue with this – as if Farrell was in charge. Of course I could have made him behave differently: but then the story would not have felt authentic. I followed him, right to the end.
A Name for Himself was first published in 1998. Do you think things have changed much for women in Ireland since then?
In many ways, Ireland has changed so much in the intervening years that it’s unrecognisable. Walls of silence have been breached: the authority of the Catholic church has all but disappeared; we have had the economic highs and lows of the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath; emigration is no longer a central feature of our society, and we have instead become much more multi-cultural.
For women, many things have changed for the better. EU legislation regarding equality has pushed Ireland – sometimes unwillingly – into a new era. Divorce is legal; gay marriage is legal; abortion is legal, albeit in a restrictive form.
However – and it is a very significant ‘however’ – there still exists in this country a ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women. That has not changed in the intervening years. From daily humiliations on the street to threats in person and on social media, to assault and rape, women do not feel safe.
It is important that the conversation is now a public one, and that the veil of secrecy around this kind of violence has at last been lifted.
At what point in your writing career were you able to give up teaching and write full-time? (I’m asking because I have an idea it might have been around the time of publication of this, your second, novel – although I could be wrong?)
I took a career break to finish my first novel, In the Beginning. The moment I finished it in the summer of 1995, I immediately began writing A Name for Himself, because the story had come to me almost fully formed, and it haunted me.
But during those early years of my break, I didn’t think of myself as a writer: I used to describe myself as ‘a teacher on career break’. I knew I was writing on borrowed time. I wanted to use every precious minute, in case I didn’t get the opportunity again.
By 2000, I knew without any doubt that writing was what I wanted to do full time, and with publication and teaching and facilitating – all the extra strings that writers have to their bows – I’m still at my desk, more than a quarter of a century later…what a scary thought!
In her remarkable Foreword, Mia Gallagher links Farrell’s insecurities and possessiveness to the difference in social class between Farrell and Grace and – crucially – Grace’s wealthy father. Gallagher writes that Farrell succeeds ‘in crashing, albeit temporarily, through the unspeakable barriers to entry on this island.’ Was this part of your thinking when you wrote the novel? Could you say a little more about that?
By the time I came to invent the character of Farrell, I’d spent almost twenty years working in a school in a disadvantaged area. Those years were crucial in forming my understanding of class barriers in Ireland.
I’d watched, for example, as students filled out application forms for jobs, or courses, only to be passed over, time and again, because of their home address. When the same students applied, using a different, more ‘respectable’ address, the response was invariable positive.
My students taught me many things, among them how to recognise and acknowledge the bias that is built into so many areas of Irish society.
Farrell is acutely conscious of this, and it is part, but only part, of his insecurities and possessiveness around Grace. His need for control stems also from a complicated past and his reluctance to face his own fears.
Another of your earlier titles, An Unconsidered People (2003) has also been published in a recent new edition (New Island, 2021) Can you say something about how that came about?
As with so many aspects of the publishing industry, the new edition of An Unconsidered People came about in an unexpected way. The publisher contacted me just as we were emerging from the last of the lockdowns, to say that there had been a marked uptick in interest in the title during the pandemic.
I think for so many people, that strange time of isolation and fear also became one of reflection, or revisiting old interests, or developing new ones.
The publisher thought the time was right for a new chapter, exploring the nature of emigration from this country in the decades that followed An Unconsidered People’s first publication. The original edition dealt with the half a million or more people who left this country for Britain in the dismal 1950s.
Diarmaid Ferriter very kindly wrote a new Foreword, and so the new edition was born.
I think stories of emigration/immigration are universal: they are woven into the texture of our lives, particularly in this country. Understanding the challenges and loneliness of immigrants as they seek to make a new life for themselves in another country is something we all need to nurture – even more so today as we try to support and welcome Ukrainian people as they flee the devastation that has been visited on their country.
What are you working on now?
I’m just completing a new novel with the working title of A Good Enough Mother.
Using the voices of several characters, I’m exploring the experience of motherhood in Ireland. From the ‘unmarried mothers’ who fled to London in 1950s to have their babies in secret, to the young girls and women incarcerated in our mother and baby homes, to the challenges of motherhood in the present day: this novel has kept me in its grip for four years now.
During the lockdowns, it was the project that kept me engaged and curious – and writing. I’m very grateful to it.