Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Interview With Ellen O'Casey

Today I am talking to Author Jean Fullerton’s character, Ellen O’Casey, from her new novel ‘No Cure For Love’, released by Orion last month. This book has also been long-listed for the Romantic Novel of the Year 09 prize. An amazing achievement for a first novel, so our So congratulations to Jean for that.

Thank you for taking time to talk to me, Ellen. I know you will have to perform any moment, but I hoped you’d spare me a minute.

Well, my friend Kitty’s doing her turn at the moment so we should be all right. But I can’t be too long or Danny’ll be after us.

What is your happiest memory from your childhood in Ireland, and was life always as hard as it is for you now?

I remember one day, it must have been spring because I can still see the swallows in my mind’s eye as I think of it. A rare day it was, with the sun warming you and the smell the dew still fresh on the grass. Pa piled us all into the old rickety cart and took us all to the county fair.

We were so excited me and my brother Pat and Mike hadn’t slept all night with the thought of it. Me and Pat argued all the way like a couple of cats in a sack, and if Ma threatened to make us walk once, she did it a dozen times.

When we got to Wexford, sure, I’d never seen so many people. I didn’t think there were that many in the world let alone Ireland. There were dancers and travellers in their brightly painted wagons and the men distilled potchine in kettles and tin baths or what ever was at hand.

The fiddles played and the young girls whirled in their new clothes laughing and smiling. The young men in their rough working clothes and heavy boots danced like feather in the breeze and catching their lasses as they passed.

Ha! Pat and Brian O’Malley sneaked off and drank some homebrew and were as sick as dogs but instead of a whacking, Pa laughed and bundled us all back in the cart to take us home.

I don’t remember getting into bed that night but I’ll never forget it. It was less than a month later we all piled into the cart again and left our old home forever and came here. But that day sometime comes back to me in that moment between sleeping and waking and I can smell the new spring grass once again.

As a widow, how difficult is it for you to remain independent?

It’s almost impossible and with out my Ma I’d have been in the poor house before now. We both up before dawn to fetch water from the pump at the bottom of the street . Then I go and collect the washing from the big houses while Ma heats the copper. All morning we scrub our knuckles raw on the washing board before drying and ironing it and then taking it all back at the end of the day.

At night we sit by candle light and sew collars from Miller factor. We get thrupence for two dozen. It barely keep us, what with the rent and food being so dear. That’s why I have to sing in this place and sometimes down at the White Swan or Paddy’s Goose, Danny’s other pub. And if you think it’s grim in here, you should see that hole down on the Highway.

Your husband was a difficult man, I believe. But he died ten years ago, leaving you with a small daughter. That’s a long time to survive alone. Were there other opportunities for you to marry again?

That’s a bit of a question and I’m not saying now, that I haven’t had the odd offer or two but there’s been no man who’s taken my fancy enough for me to want to make it permanent. But I wouldn’t say no to the right man. But he’d have to be the right one because I’ve been married to the wrong one before and don’t want to repeat the experience.

The docks of the East End are hardly a hospitable environment for a woman alone. Don’t you find it frightening living there with just your mother and with a child to care for?

I live in the Knockfurgus part of the dock where most of us Irish are settled. It’s in walking distance of the riverside where there’s work to be had when the ships are in. Our street can be a bit rough, I grant you, but we all look out for each other. We share what little we have and that’s not much. There’s none of us who would let a child go hungry even if we had to skip supper ourselves.

It’s the drink that makes it hard on a women. I mean, no one would argue that a man entitled to a drink at the end of the day, to clear the dust from his throat but some, well; they don’t know when to stop and its his wife and children who feel the force of it, as often as not.

As to the danger. The Italian and Irish gangs are after each other not us so when they are cutting each other up in the streets and alleyway we shut ourselves in. Our house is very small, two room on top of each other really, but there is only me, Ma and Josie so we’re snug enough. Some houses have three or four family living in and then there can be trouble.

Of course, I’m often scared out of me life when I have to walk home after singing here. But I keep to the main roads and go as fast as me legs will carry me. Some time the beat officer will walk a way with me and I can relax then. But I have to work here so there’s no point wailing about it.

Many single women around you seem to take the line of least resistance and do what is expected of them? Does this make you more determined to remain separate from it all, or were you ever tempted?

It’s true. If you peek though curtains you can see them sitting at the back of the room now. They are easy to spot with their bright dresses and red lips. Sad souls. And I for one, don’t condemn them for what they do. I mean, most of them have a child or two to feed and sometimes it the streets or the workhouse. And it can looks easier that scrubbing sheets all day but there’s always a man lurking around who takes their money, not to mention the danger of being found by the peelers in the gutter with you throat cut. And if you live long enough you’ve got the pox ward at the hospital to look forward to.

It seems an easy way but when I see what poor Kitty has to do to keep Danny sweet I think I’m better off on my own.

Although, if I were honest with you now, I do miss the arms of a strong man around me when I snuggle under the quilt.

Doctor Munroe keeps looking this way, he’s obviously attracted to you. Could he be your future do you suppose?

Oh, go away with you! Whatever are you thinking? A man like that, you know, fierce handsome enough to tempt the angel themselves, isn’t for the likes of me.

There’s a lot of toffs who come down East slumming. I avoid them ‘cause all their after is a quick night’s fun for a few shilling and I’m not interested.

Mind, I’ll not have you thinking Doctor Munroe’s is one of those because he’s not. He’s a proper gentleman and not just because of the way he dresses and speaks.

But no. He’ll marry some pretty lady with money and who speak right. Not a pub singer with an ageing mother and gangling daughter. In a better world perhaps his smiles and kind eyes might become more but not in East London, not in 1832.

He’s quite a controversial figure, I hear. He’s making all sorts of health reforms in this neighbourhood and he’s annoyed Mr Donovan too by treading on some of his nefarious schemes. Do you admire him, or feel he’s too reckless and should be more careful?

Ho! Doctor Munroe’s ruffled Danny’s feathers and no mistake. Good job too. Danny’s got his fat finger in every sticky pie around here. On the Parish Committee and the Board of Governors at the Workhouse. It a disgrace how he runs the neighbourhood. Letting the water pump break and you can smell the workhouse before you see it. I pity the poor souls forced to live in there.

I do admire Robert….I… I mean Doctor Munroe.

Ellen you’re blushing.

I’m not. It’s just a little warm in here that’s all. Anyway, it’s a brave thing that Doctor Munroe’s doing and his surgery in Chapman Street where he charges only what he has to. But your right, he need to be careful. Danny’s been top dog around here for years and he doesn’t stay there by being nice to people who cross him. So for his own sake, I wish Doctor Munroe would watch out for himself. It would fair break my heart if anything should happen to him.

Your independence is admirable, but what future do you envisage for your young daughter, Josephine? You seem determined to keep her in school, but what else can she expect but a life in service or as a docker’s wife?

Josie as bright as a button and with her brains she could teach school or work in a shop. I don’t mind her going into service because she would learn things I could never teach her, but it would mean her going away as there are no big houses around here. But to do any of those thing she need her letters and figuring. My Pa knew that which is why he taught us all to read and do arithmetic.

I don’t suppose I want any more for Josie than any mother. I want her to find a good man who’ll treat her right be he a docker or sailor or anything

She had a beau, Patrick Nolan. He’s the son of my friend Sarah Nolan and he’s a good lad. dependable and hard working but I’ve told him I’ll be after him if he takes advantage. I don’t want Josie to make the same mistake I made. So I’m keeping a close eye on them just to be sure.

You speak of your late husband without bitterness. Being the child of a very happy marriage, don’t you feel cheated that he wasn’t the man you deserved?

Michel O’Casey had grand curly hair and a smile to warm you on a frosty day but he thought he could solve his problems at the bottom of a glass. I was only fourteen when I met him and too young to see him for what he really was.

I don’t know if cheated is the right word but I’m sad that me and Michael went sour so quickly. I realise now that a love like Ma and Pa’s only comes once in life time. I thought Michael was that love but it didn’t take me long to find out my mistake. I hope that someday such a love might happen to me. but I’m getting older now and so it might be too late.

Did you ever consider you and your Mother could have returned to Ireland when you were widowed?

No. It’s worst there than when we left. People dying in empty field and eating grass to keep the hunger from their bellies. There’s no future for us there especially Josie.

Beside, most of our family are over here in Liverpool and Bristol and my brother, Pat’s in America. He’s doing grand, so he is.

What would you do if Josephine got involved with one of Donovan’s henchmen?

Holy Mother, don’t even say such a thing. Sure it would be the death of me Ma if she were to get caught up in anything to do with Danny Donavan. She wouldn’t. She too smart, is our Josie.

I don’t think I have to tell you that it’s a foolish woman who lets herself be sweet-talked by one of Danny’s men. She as likely to find herself with a blackeye for her troubles and walking the streets to keep him in brandy.

If you manage to save enough passage money to get to America, what kind of life do you hope awaits you there?

I don’t think it’ll be easy but my brother Pat got his own business in New York. He told me in his last letter that he would be looking to buy himself a bit of farm land north of the city in the Bronx.

He also wrote that in the wild territory the government give away land just to have someone on it. Can you imagine that? He’s says he’d saddle up his ole mule and dash for it.

I’m not afraid of hard work either, so I’ll just do as I’ve done when I get there and do whatever I have to do to keep my family.

This isn’t a nice environment for a gentle person like you, is it? [Danny Donovan’s pub] Have you ever considered making more of your lovely singing voice? Approaching an opera house or a more reputable music hall?

You’re a very kind lady to say such things and I do hate singing here. But I’m Irish and catholic so a respectable place like an opera house would turn me away at the door even if I could read music and the like.

I’ve heard there’s a place up west in the Stand that’s the papers call a ‘Music Hall’, but there’s no such thing around here. Just pubs like the Angel with a small stage thrown up in the corner.

Perhaps one day I’ll sing in somewhere better and where I don’t have to dodge Danny’s straying hands while I earn a few coppers, but until then I’m afraid I’ll have to sing for all the O’Caseys’ suppers in the Angel and Crown.

How may readers contact you?

I have a contact page on my website at:

I would love to hear from them.

Thank you so much for talking to me, Ellen. I hope you do get to America, if that’s what you decide you finally want. Now I see Mr Donovan glaring at us. He doesn’t look pleased, perhaps it’s time for you to sing now.

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