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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Noelle McCarthy Noelle McCarthy's new book, Grand is out now.

Excerpt 'My mother had the babies before marriage - I understand this was the ultimate taboo'

The author shares snippets of her difficult childhood in Cork in her new book, Grand.

Writer and journalist Noelle McCarthy shares an extract here from her new book, Grand. Noelle grew up in Cork with an alcoholic mother who raged against her life. She could be both vicious and tender with her children and her father was largely absent. Desperate to get away, Noelle left for New Zealand soon after leaving college where she became a very successful journalist and broadcaster. The trauma of her youth followed her though and she too became an alcoholic and in the end, sabotaged her career as a result and was fired. She went into recovery at 30 and has now turned her life around. Her mother became ill in 2020 just before lockdown and Noelle had hoped to lay her demons to rest but it was not to be…

I AM ABOUT six years old when Mammy tells me about Tara and Jonathan, over a pint of Carling and a Coke for me, in a bar by North Gate Bridge, the first in a line of dubious hostelries and early houses along the quay.

You descend rickety stairs and find yourself in the middle of a small dark room below street level, windowless and circular, like a smoke-stained submarine.

It is one of Mammy’s hideaways, she has nooks and crannies all over the city. Wherever we go, she tends to sit where she can watch the door, she hates being surprised by anyone while she’s drinking.

A long bar curves around the back wall presided over by a frenetic woman from up the country. She makes great big heaping plates of ham sandwiches and throws them out at her drinkers, most of whom spend the day in there, emerging into the dank twilight with bellies full of Beamish, lighter pockets and yellow fingers.


‘Feed the men! Feed the men! Sure you have to!’ she yells at my mother, passing around the big metal platters, smiling at her in a misjudged pantomime of sisterly solidarity. Mammy tells us privately that the woman is crazy. Manic is the term she uses.

Mammy is an expert on this because of her psychiatric nursing training. But she is always pleasant enough to her, until one day when she isn’t and then this bar on the quay is no longer an option.

She has knife-edge relationships with several barkeeps around the city. These are purely transactional and prone to disaster: a misbehaving child, a mistimed request for two pint bottles of Carling to take away and I’ll fix you up next week, Patsy. And then it’s out the double doors with Carol and her buggy. But while the going is good, this place is a discreet and convenient location, just across the road from O’Connors funeral home, where my father can collect us after she gets her messages.

We are in town that day buying shoes for my First Holy Communion, white leather Clarks, the ones with a golden key embedded in the heel.

I chose them myself – they have gold buckles, scalloped edges around the ankle strap and tiny little flower designs picked out in holes in the leather. Magic Steps they are called, they were expensive. I had to have my foot properly measured, the woman in the shoe shop laying my soles flat against the green wooden plank with different numbers painted on it at intervals. At the bar afterwards, Mammy carefully sets the box in its plastic bag down on its own chair next to us – ‘A shoe on the table means a fight, be careful!’ – lights a Major and tells me the story of the children she had before me.

Official vs secret

I am either the eldest of four or the third of six, depending on whether you want the official history of our family or the secret one. Tara and Jonathan are my sister and brother. The girl may not be called Tara anymore – she was adopted in Dublin. Jonathan died soon after he was born. He is buried in a graveyard in Blackrock, where the river Lee meets the sea in Cork City.

My mother had Tara and Jonathan before she was married, which makes them illegitimate. From the moment I hear about these children, I consider them an existential threat to our family.

The first child was the product of rape, Mammy says, and do I know what that word means? I pretend I do, so she won’t explain it. But she goes ahead and spells it out anyway. ‘Rape is when a man has sex with you when you don’t want him to,’ she says. She never minces her words about that stuff – she explained the facts of life when I asked, aged around four, using words like sperm and ovum.

It’s the dead child who makes the strongest impression. ‘He’s in a pauper’s grave, down in Blackrock,’ she says, and that makes him even deader, somehow. My mother has spent all her life on the Northside of the city. Everything we do – school, town, relatives – we do along the narrow ribbon that runs from our house in Hollymount, at the top of the Blarney Road, all the way down here to the quay and the bridge on the northern channel of the river. Blackrock is on the Southside, an anathema. Such a foreign place for her to have buried her baby, miles away from anywhere familiar. That’s the point, though: he is out there because he is a secret, like his sister.

9781844886500 (1)

Mammy had Jonathan in the mid to late ’70s, maybe eighteen months before me. She never gives exact dates, I work all this out decades later. In my memory, that day in The Left Bank, she has a pint in front of her but seems quite sober. She never again talks to me about Jonathan or Tara unless she’s been drinking heavily. It is hard to make sense of her when she is like that, even if I wanted to – which I don’t, especially not when she is talking about these children. They are the ultimate taboo, I understood that viscerally.

That the little boy is dead is comforting, at least that means he can’t come back and ruin us. The girl is a different story. I am terrified of the idea of her being out there somewhere.

At the end of the conversation, she raises her glass to me. ‘We’ll drink to them now, to Tara and her brother Jonathan.’ I lift my Coke glass to hers, cracking the ice in my mouth afterwards. I know this information is dangerous, that it must never come out in the open. I know I can never tell Daddy, for example. That’s why I am so outraged on the very bad nights, later on, when I go to my bedroom and she stands at the bottom of the stairs and screams the names of her lost children like a black magic incantation. These might have been around the time of the birthdays, one in March, one in April. ‘Come down here and listen to me, listen about your brother and your sister! Tara and Jonathan, God help us, ye have no idea what I went through for them!’

Into the void

She will scream this at me and at my father (it’s only later I realise he couldn’t possibly not have known about their existence) and as time goes on, she will scream it at my brother and my sister. She does it to make maximum trouble, to demand our attention.

Sober, these names are off limits, as much a forbidden topic for her as for the rest of us. Day to day, she is a mother of three, then four, children, married and decent. But there is nothing she would hold her tongue about when she is drinking.

That is something we have in common, I find out later. I don’t know how old Sarah and John Paul are when she tells them – maybe she takes them to the bar on the quay as well, it’s as good a place as any.

It wouldn’t have been that long after she had them, ten years or so maybe. But it all happened before I was born, so it feels like ancient history. Mammy talks about them both less as she gets older. Robert never even knew about the little boy, until recently.

Noelle McCarthy is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. “Buck Rabbit”, her first foray into non-fiction, won the Short Memoir section of the Fish Publishing International Writing competition in 2020. Since 2017, she and her husband John Daniell have been making critically acclaimed podcasts as Bird of Paradise Productions. In New Zealand, she has written columns, reviews, first-person essays and features for a wide range of media including Metro, the NZ Herald and Newsroom. She is the International Institute of Modern Letters Writer in Residence for 2023. Grand by Noelle McCarthy is published by Penguin Sandycove now at €18.00 It is a stunning memoir which will appeal to readers of Note to Self. 


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