Irish-American writer Rose Mahoney on her Fenian Irish roots and finding herself on the Dingle Penisula

I’ve led a very charmed life. I have always loved writers and have been blessed to have known such great Irish-American writers as Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, John Gregory Dunne, Joe Flaherty and Frank McCourt. There’s one more I’d like to add to that iconic group—Rosemary Mahoney.

I first “discovered” Mahoney when I was an editor for Publishers Weekly magazine in 1993. Often books of Irish interest were tossed my way to review. A book called "Whoredom in Kimmage" came across my desk and my reaction to the exceptional writing was a simple: “Who the #%@* is this Rosemary Mahoney?” We soon met and have been friends ever since.

On June 15, Mahoney will headline the Lismore Festival of Travel Writing in County Waterford. I caught up with Mahoney at her home in Greece and she was gracious enough to answer a few questions about her books and the Lismore Festival.

Read more: Irish authors and writers you should know from James Joyce to Oscar Wilde

Image: Rosemary Mahoney.

Image: Rosemary Mahoney.

“They’ve grown fearless”

My first question had to be about the recent landslide abortion vote in Ireland. “I’m very pleased about it,” Mahoney said. “Nobody likes abortion, and I think it’s a rare woman who goes cheerfully to have one. But we know well that there are circumstances in which abortion is necessary. And simply as a matter of human rights, a woman must have authority over her own body. That’s one of the most basic requirements of human dignity. The notion that someone else should decide a woman’s physical destiny is primitive. It simply doesn’t fit in 21st-century society.

“The vote to repeal the ban on abortion was also a ringing rejection of the authority the Church has had for centuries over the Irish people. The ways in which the Irish Catholic Church has lost its credibility and de-humanized the very people it purported to guide are appalling and criminal. And the attempts by church authorities to cover it all up have been shameful. They’ve squandered their privilege of trust from the faithful. The Irish church doesn’t have a monopoly on abuse, by the way. We’ve seen it in many countries.

“I think what makes me most happy about the vote to repeal the 8th amendment is the level of self-confidence and self-determination the Irish people demonstrated. They’ve grown fearless. They’re not going to be bullied and cowed anymore by any paternalistic authority.”

When I suggested to Mahoney that Mná na Éireann—the Women of Ireland—had saved the country again, she wasn’t as sure as I was. “You are hopelessly in love with Irish women, Dermot!” she teased. “Let’s say they helped save the country, and in ways that for a long time weren’t properly appreciated. I don’t know whether this vote on abortion will ‘save’ the country, and at this point I don’t think Ireland needs saving, but women who assert their freedom and independence can’t help but be good for any country. Mary Robinson stated it very well: ‘In a society where the rights of women are constrained, no man can be truly free. He may have power, but he will not have freedom.’ ” 

"Whoredom in Kimmage" brings out the haters

In Dublin in 1991. Image: Rosemary Mahoney.

In Dublin in 1991. Image: Rosemary Mahoney.

Mahoney’s "Whoredom in Kimmage" was really the first book about the rise of Irish feminism with the election of President Robinson. I wanted to know how she felt that book has held up over the years since its publication in 1993?

“I’m delighted that Irish society has changed enough over the past 25 years that my investigation into Irish society in the early ’90s is not so pressingly relevant,” she opined.

“But the work for gender equality isn’t entirely over, and the book still has relevance in a historical sense and as a background to everything that’s happened in the course of one generation. The humor and verve and linguistic brilliance of the people who appear in that book is certainly not outdated. It never will be. The journalist Christopher Caldwell said in The American Spectator: ‘Whoredom in Kimmage is an exquisitely funny book—and it is the only funny feminist book. . .’ I can’t say whether it was the only funny one, but I can say that the humor in the book is due far more to the people I wrote about than it is to me. The Irish are enviably witty and imaginative. They’re just plain brilliant with language. They’ve got a conversational cleverness and verve that absolutely nobody else has.”

Read moreHundreds of books and magazines remain banned in Ireland

There’s a very funny story where the title "Whoredom in Kimmage" came from and I asked Mahoney if she could tell it.

“Oh, God, help me,” she replied with typical Mahoney impatience, “if I got a dollar for every time I’ve had to explain the title of that book over the past 25 years, I’d be rich by now. 'Whoredom in Kimmage' came from something that was said to the Irish journalist Nell McCafferty. In 1985, at the instigation of the very conservative Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), the Irish Supreme Court issued an injunction against two pregnancy counseling services, The Well Woman Center and Open Door Counseling, both of whom were providing non-directive information on abortion services legally available in Britain. The Court ordered them to stop disseminating abortion information on the grounds that it was against the law in Ireland. In response, the two organizations filed a complaint with the European Commission on Human Rights, arguing that the injunction breached their basic legal right to impart information as well as others’ right to receive it.

“During that litigation, the journalist Nell McCafferty was present at the High Court proceedings. Also present were supporters of SPUC and supporters of Well Woman and Open Door, two camps very clearly divided along generational lines. At one point a scandalized SPUC supporter leaned over and said to McCafferty about the women providing abortion information, ‘Oh, those women! Those women encourage whoredom in Kimmage!’ Kimmage was a working-class neighborhood where the Dublin Corporation was depositing ‘problem’ families. The notion that abortion information would cause sudden mayhem and debauchery there was amusing, but it shows the deeply ingrained fear of social change that was prevalent in Ireland then. In the end, the High court ruled in favor of Open Door and the Well Woman Center.”

Mahoney took a lot of grief in Ireland for Whoredom when it was first published and I asked her if she was still ducking, or felt she had been vindicated?

“When Whoredom was first published,” Mahoney recounted, “there was indeed a lot of controversy about it. A friend of mine in Dublin said to me, ‘God, you’ve really let the cat out amidst the pigeons with that book.’ Then I saw a photograph of myself in some Irish newspaper with a big headline that read, ‘WHY IS THIS WOMAN HATED IN IRELAND?’ and I realized my friend was right.

"I think the people who objected to the book had an interest in clinging to a romanticized fairy tale image of an idyllic Ireland and were disappointed that I didn’t invest in that image. I struck a nerve I think because I made a full picture of Irish society, a picture that included some of the social problems prevalent there at that time. Even in the U.S. when I did public speaking engagements about the book, audiences members sometimes jumped out of their seats to verbally attack me and each other, some arguing in favor of the book and some against it, usually along generational lines. It was consoling to learn that I was hated maybe only by half the people in Ireland and America. Along with the criticism I did receive many letters of gratitude as well.”

Mahoney then turned philosophical: “I think the most important thing you can do as a writer is to reconstruct real life with all its color, hardship, joy, and intrigue. If you’re interested in people, you honor them best by making the fullest possible picture of them. Your subjects may—and from my experience probably will— object to your portrait of them. People want you to see them the way they see themselves. You have no choice, though, but to see them as you see them.

“So much of what I was writing about in that book—contraception, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, sexual repression and other controversial and taboo social issues—has been opened up and dealt with in a mature way by the Irish people. It’s been a transformation of mores and attitudes in Ireland toward the humane and away from shame, secrecy, and punitiveness. I hope I’m vindicated in some way, but it doesn’t occur to me to crow about being ‘right.’ And I didn’t set out to create a furor; I was simply writing about things that were important to me personally.”

Read more: The top twenty books every Irish American should read

Immrama at Lismore Travel Writing Festival

In Aswan, Eygpt. Image: Rosemary Mahoney.

In Aswan, Eygpt. Image: Rosemary Mahoney.

Mahoney will be appearing at the Lismore Festival of Travel Writing, “Immrama” (an old Irish word for “rowing about”), in Lismore, County Waterford, on June 15 at 8 p.m. (admission €15). It’s ironic that Immrama means “rowing about” because Mahoney will be discussing her book on Egypt, "Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff."

“Immrama at Lismore is a travel writing festival,” she said. “All but one of my books contain travel of some sort, but Down the Nile is the only one that really is a travel book. And because of its history, Egypt is a place that most people know something about and remain curious about, even if they’ve never been there.

"Audiences do seem to like hearing about my journey on the Nile. I rowed 125 miles, from Aswan to Qena. It was, and still is, illegal for foreigners to travel alone by boat on the Nile. I did it anyway. It was a true adventure. A big part of the adventure was just persuading an Egyptian fisherman to sell me a rowboat. They were baffled as to why I would want one. I realized immediately that I shouldn’t tell them I wanted to row it on the Nile by myself, because they would tell me that a woman just couldn’t possibly do that, and they’d either try to stop me or tell me that they would row the boat for me for a small fee. They could not understand me. But I managed to get a boat and by slightly disguising the fact that I was a woman, I managed to do the trip. And I’m still alive to tell the story to anyone who comes to Lismore.”

Another “travel” book Mahoney has authored is "The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground." It is a book about traveling to religious sites all over the world—Lourdes, The Holy Land, El Camino de Santiago and St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Ireland. I asked Mahoney what is the lasting impression this book leaves with her since its publication in 2003?

“I think The Singular Pilgrim remains entirely relevant fifteen years after its publication because religious faith, and the lengths people go to express it, really doesn’t change. It’s an exploration of religious pilgrimages around the world. I did some of these pilgrimages myself hoping to understand what drives people to such extremes. Among the pilgrimages I did were the Camino de Santiago, walking the five-hundred miles from Southern France across northern Spain to Compostela, and the Pilgrimage at Station Island, Lough Derg in Donegal, also known as Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. That was three days of shuffling around barefoot with no sleep and very little food and constantly saying the Rosary. It was excruciating. But weirdly inspiring. I recommend it. And I enjoyed writing about it. I think the chapter in that book about Varanasi, in India, contains some of my best writing.”

Mahoney is inevitably billed as a “travel writer.” I’ve always taken exception to that moniker because I think she is one of the best writers we have produced over the years in America. So, I asked her if she considered herself a travel writer, a journalist, or just a damn good writer?

“I’m often categorized as a travel writer,” she admitted, “though I never think of myself that way. I simply come more alive when I’m outside of the U.S., more alert. I like living in foreign places, but really I’m just writing about my experiences of life and other people, like any other writer. The only book I’ve written that could really be considered strictly a travel book is Down the Nile.

“By the way, I don’t see travel writing as a lesser genre. Some of the greatest writers wrote travel books, among them Graham Greene, Lawrence Durrell, Elizabeth Bowen, Mark Twain, Freya Stark, Herodotus, Rebecca West, Xenonophon of Athens. J.M. Synge wrote beautifully about his time in the Aran Islands, and Maeve Brennan wrote beautifully about New York.”

The Lillian Hellman-Rosemary Mahoney Standoff

"Whoredom in Kimmage" wasn’t Mahoney’s only controversial book. "A Likely Story" is her memoir of what it was like working a summer for Lillian Hellman. Hellman referred to Mahoney as the “little Irish girl” and things went downhill from there. Mahoney took a lot of grief for that book and I asked her if she has gotten over it?

“Well,” recalls Mahoney, “that book was less controversial than Whoredom in Kimmage, and it was much more personal. I wrote the book very much from the point of view of myself as a 17-year-old. Lillian Hellman was brilliant and witty and a wonderful writer. Reading her books in high school I had admired her so much. Then I went to live with her and found out who she really was and became terribly disillusioned. She was an extremely difficult person. Irascible. Unreasonably demanding. Volatile and unhappy and untruthful. Could be downright nasty. She was frightening. Also frightening in her appearance by then.

"So I wrote it exactly as I had seen it and felt it. I wanted to convey the emotions I felt when I was seventeen, untempered by what I may feel now about that time in my life. I wanted to bring the reader into that fraught experience. Some unserious reviewers felt that my portrait of her was ‘not nice.’ Lillian Hellman was infamously not nice. She was powerful in the literary world and made things very difficult for people she didn’t like or felt threatened by.

“Lillian Hellman was 73 when I went to work for her. In addition to all the negative things I felt about her I also couldn’t help feeling some sympathy for her. She was so unhappy. I believe one reviewer of that book wrote that Lillian Hellman’s better qualities came through, that she had obvious moments of grace, but that Rosemary Mahoney didn’t want the reader to see that. I laughed out loud when I read this. Did that reviewer think some occult hand slipped those parts of the book in there while I wasn’t looking? I wrote it!

"What’s there, I put there for a reason. There’s a lot of subtle emotion in the book, and I think it went over some people’s heads. As a teenager, I felt two ways about almost everything. Lillian Hellman was no exception. For every angry or wicked thought, I had I also had a generous one. Adolescent confusion is really what the book is about.  And it’s about my mother and me as much as anything else. Have I gotten over the criticism? Long ago!”

Irish to the core with Fenian Roots

Although she was born in Boston in January 1961—I like to kid her that she was one of the “first Kennedy babies”—her roots in Ireland go back generations.

“All of my grandparents were Irish,” she says. “They emigrated to Boston, but they didn’t really leave Ireland; they just carried it with them. My mother’s father, Michael Rohan, who grew up speaking Irish at home in West Kerry, started an Irish language school in Boston around 1915. You might think, What a stupid idea! But it wasn’t. The new Irish immigrants were bashing the door down to get into his classes because they were homesick and it was a way to connect to home and to other Irish people. My grandmother, who was a member of the Gaelic League, enrolled in his Irish classes out of nationalist feeling; that’s how their romance began. Michael was a natural teacher, well-educated at the seminary at Maynooth, and both of his parents had been National School Teachers.

“My grandmother and her five sisters were avid campaigners for Irish independence. My grandmother gave the Irish Volunteer Army money so they could buy arms and she housed exiled Irish rebels after the Easter uprising—Margaret Skinnider, Liam Mellows (who became romantically interested in her), James Connolly’s daughter Nora, and others. I have the letters they wrote to her. [Read them here.] There’s an interesting censored letter from Diarmuid Lynch, who was James Connolly’s Staff-Captain at the GPO during the Easter Rising and was the last person to leave the building; it’s written from his cell at Pentonville Prison in England.

Getting to know Ireland

Boland's Flour Mill in Dublin. Image: Rosemary Mahoney.

Boland's Flour Mill in Dublin. Image: Rosemary Mahoney.

“When my mother founded a Montessori School in the town we grew up in,” she recalls, “she brought a woman from Dublin to be the head teacher of the school. That woman was my only teacher for the first seven years of my schooling. She taught me how to write. She taught me words in Irish and Irish songs. So, that’s my long-winded way of telling you that I grew up with a huge consciousness of and love for Ireland.

"When I was fifteen, I learned that I could formally become a citizen of Ireland if I could prove I had grandparents born there. I begged my mother to help me do it. The next year we went to Ireland, and I became a citizen. That made me incredibly happy. I was 16. And then, on that same trip, we went out to West Kerry, and as we drove around the bend at Slea Head I saw Coumeenoule and the Blasket Islands and couldn’t believe my eyes. The place was mysterious, almost frightening in its beauty. I turned to my mother and said, 'I want to live here.' It wasn’t just a desire, it felt like a need. I was so determined that a little over a year later, with encouragement from my mother and advice from the MacEntee family, I was living in Dunquin in a little cottage I rented from a beautiful old woman named Liza Mitchell. I went there to study Irish.

“It’s difficult to convey how important that year in Ireland was to my formation as a person and as a writer. I was 17 and all on my own. I learned I could be self-reliant and free. I loved being alone. I bought a little motorbike and ran all around the Dingle Peninsula on it with my long hair flying out behind me. It was the first time I realized how exciting and enriching it could be to live amongst people of a culture different from mine. I fell in love with the people there. That opened my curiosity and started me exploring other parts of the world.”

I asked Mahoney if she still spoke Irish: “Yes, I did study Irish, both in Ireland and also when I was a student at Harvard. Do I speak it? Not a bit! I’ve forgotten it all. These days one of the few things I remember in Irish is: 'An bhfuil céad agam dul amach go dtí an leithreas más é do thoil é,' [“May I have permission to go out to the toilet, please?”] All Irish school kids know that by heart. I can also quote one or two passages from the Irish version of Peig, Peig Sayers’s book about her life on Great Blasket Island. They stick in my head for some reason.”

In Dunquin, Co. Kerry, in 1977. Image: Rosemary Mahoney.

In Dunquin, Co. Kerry, in 1977. Image: Rosemary Mahoney.

Exploring the world of the blind

Mahoney’s last book, "For the Benefit of Those Who Can See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind," is about Braille Without Borders, Tibet’s first school for the blind. "Benefit" is at once heartbreaking and also very optimistic. I asked Mahoney how the book was received and what lessons did she learn from it?

“Readers and reviewers have been very enthusiastic,” she says.

“I first became interested in the subject when O, The Oprah Magazine, sent me to Tibet to write about, Sabriye Tenberken, the blind German woman who started Braille Without Borders, the first school for the blind in Tibet. I became so fascinated by the subject that I asked Sabriye if she would let me teach at her international training center for blind adults in Southern India so that I could learn more and write a book about blindness. I spent four or five months at that center.

“The world of the blind is a big mystery to most of us,” Mahoney continues, “and the notions we have about how blind people live tend to scare us. Tibetans, for example, are terrified of the blind. They believe that blindness is a punishment for some terrible thing committed in one’s past life. They think the blind have the power to cast spells on people. They’re afraid to touch blind people. Parents reject their blind children. People spit on the blind in the streets and throw stones at them.

"This animus has existed since the beginning of time and exists even now in many developing countries. For me, it was a lovely, edifying surprise to find out how happy, independent, effective, and fulfilled so many blind people are, and how powerful they can be. If you want to know how a blind person can identify you just by the sound of your footsteps, read the book. As Mark Twain, who was a friend of Helen Keller, said ‘Blindness is an exciting business. If you don’t believe it, get up some dark night on the wrong side of your bed when the house is on fire and try to find the door.’ ”

Mahoney is close-lipped about what she’s working on now. “I’m writing now about Greece,” she says succinctly, “Sort of a memoir.” 

The one thing you can say about Rosemary Mahoney is that she’ll make you sit up and pay attention. She will pique you as she explores what makes the Irish tick, how to row a skiff in forbidden waters in Egypt, exploring the world of the blind, or just dueling for a summer with Lillian Hellman. The only word missing in this gifted writer’s vocabulary is but one—boredom.

For more on Rosemary Mahoney go to https://www.rosemarymahoney.net/.

Dermot McEvoy is the author of the "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of Michael Collins and the Irish Uprising" and "Our Lady of Greenwich Village," both now available in paperback, Kindle and Audio from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at dermotmcevoy50@gmail.com. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow "The 13th Apostle" on Facebook

In the Nile Delta in 1997. Rosemary Mahoney