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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C
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Opinion No one told me that childcare is the true engine of creative work

Erin Fornoff on how she wrote a play while living on a sinking barge with a toddler – and no childcare.

I WROTE MY Dublin Fringe show, We Are An Archipelago, while living on a sinking boat with an 18-month-old, COVID, an injured hand, and no childcare. I’m thrilled with how the show has turned out, but I feel a bit like a soldier at the end of one of those war movies where the cello music swells as survivors limp out of the mist.

No one told me that childcare is the true engine of creative work. As a new parent I wondered why no book, play or film reviews mentioned that the author wrote the piece while scraping porridge out of a carpet, or why there isn’t recognition for people who managed to create something artistically compelling in the few precious hours after bedtimes and during naps. This also applies to anyone with these extra layers of responsibility.

There is always lots of press about young ingenues publishing books or starting up tech companies in their twenties. I was always very impressed by this sort of thing. After having a baby, I still admire these achievements but also think – there is a person with almost unlimited free time.

What was I even doing when I had that, the glorious hours stretching before me? How many times did I actually need to rewatch the full series of US version of The Office? (The answer, apparently, is five.) There are many bursaries in Ireland to fund writers to spend glorious weeks in writers retreats, but I’d settle for a bursary which covered a few hours of babysitting so I could sit in a cafe and write.

My home is a 110-year-old, 55-tonne Dutch barge. We couldn’t afford to buy – or likely, rent – a house, but we were able to buy a boat. It allows us to live rent-free in a grinding housing market and for our toddler to have his own room. We have sidestepped Dublin house and rental prices but have also sidestepped things like endless electricity, a double bed, having a refrigerator, or no threat of drowning.

Living on a boat without a (precious, rare) spot in a marina means we spend our days moving from place to place. This precludes finding a childminder, securing a spot in a creche, or establishing a local community of friends to help look after our young one. The exorbitant cost of creche in Ireland – pushing €800 a month – would’ve made it untenable even if we were moored in one spot. With no family around and available, we have been on our own in the childcare department.

This summer, shortly after we moved onto it, the riveted iron hull of our boat sprung a leak hours after we finished crossing Lough Derg. I came into the sitting room and saw spot of dampness where the carpet met the wall. I got a towel to sop it up, only to find the carpet was floating on three inches of water.

This was not ideal.

We realized the engine room was fully flooded. Expert boaters Gerry and Ronnie helped us temporarily to patch the hole with bin bags and quick-dry concrete, telling their own stories of sinking boats. The first night, the baby and I slept in a neighbour’s boat while my partner slept by the engine, waking every two hours to pump water out. I said, not quite helpfully, “It’s like you’re breastfeeding.’

Getting our home dry was an effort of weeks – my partner took on the lion’s share of cleaning diesel Lough Derg water from our sitting room while I entertained the baby. I’d steal away during naptime to tap on my laptop, trying to finish sections of the play by deadline.

It would be nice if this boat would stop helping us build quite so much character. But it’s floating again, and our baby is thriving. And my play got finished during naps and after bedtime.

We Are An Archipelago tells the true story of my neighbour, 99-year-old Bill, who moves back to Ocracoke– the small, strange island of his birth off the coast of North Carolina. It’s a bit like a Southern US Inis Oirr. The island the play is based on was so isolated, older people still speak in a unique Shakespearean slang. Blackbeard used the island as a pirate hideout. A whole colony of original settlers disappeared.

Bill lived happily back home on the island, fighting his son’s attempts to put him in a nursing home. The son finally came to get him. On the drive off the island, Bill died.

We Are An Archipelago, is a story of a unique life in a unique place – of people taking care of each other. The show is set to a live score. I hope you can find a babysitter and come along.

Erin Fornoff’s play We Are An Archipelago premieres at Dublin Fringe Festival. Produced by Grace Kelly, it will run from 19-24 September in the Boys’ School at Smock Alley Theatre. Tickets available on the Dublin Fringe Festival website.

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