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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

My definition of my nationality, if anyone asks, is ‘Irish blood, Welsh heart.’ Like most British people I’m a hybrid, made from two kinds of Celt & a bit of Warwickshire. My mother was from Northern Ireland, a nurse, singer & classically trained pianist; my father was half-Southern Irish with a streak of English & an ability to play the blues piano by ear. I grew up with love, boundaries, music & stories. Many of the latter were read to me by my mum, some of them I imagined. (I made up stories for my sister & to this day, she still hasn’t forgiven me for failing to finish the saga of The Veiled Lady.)

Lots of the stories my daddy told me were from mythology. I loved them all & still do. Legends & folklore inform more contemporary fiction than we realise. I borrowed Blodeuwedd’s story from the Mabinogion for Ghostbird. I’m conjuring my version of the selkie legend for my third book & for my fourth, writing one based on my favourite folktale, The Red Shoes.

Snow Sisters, my second novel, due out in September, is the only one of my books without an obvious myth running through it. What it does have is a strong link to a different kind of Welsh mythos. (This isn’t even the right word; it’s the best I can come up with.) I’ve lived in Wales long enough to understand the notion of hiraeth: the ineffable longing for home, almost impossible to translate or put into words. It’s a feeling more than a descriptor, an occasional sense of grief; a disconnect surrounding your heart like a whispered poem evoking the emotion of separation, or perhaps the absence of presence. At its most emotive & fundamental, hiraeth is a longing for the unattainable, possibly existing only in one’s imagination.

In Snow Sisters, in lieu of a myth, I invoke my interpretation of hiraeth as experienced by Verity & Meredith Price, two young girls uprooted by their mother & transported to London, but whose sense of themselves is irrevocably connected to their hearts’ home in Wales.

Curled into her sister’s warmth, Meredith dreamed of the blue garden, the moths and the world beyond the veil, and that she was finally taken by the Fae. In her place they left a well-behaved changeling child for her mother to take to London.
When she woke, she pinched her arm and knew her wish hadn’t worked.

The Welsh own hiraeth as part of their identity – like a blood tie or an inherited name. Like dragons, Tom Jones’ green grass of home or a Dylan Thomas poem. And laced with pathos though it is, hiraeth can be droll & joyful too.

If there’s a word for it,’ wrote the poet, Jo Bell, ‘it sounds like laughter.’

I like that. The idea that come what may & however far from heart’s home we travel; we sense a link like a note of laughter, even if we have a tear in our eye & a lump in our throat.

I’ll leave the last words to Dylan Thomas…

Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea
.

~ Fern Hill

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