The novelist reflects a bookish childhood, growing up in the Arthurian dreamscapes of the Wicklow mountains
None of my fiction is set in the place where I grew up, at least not recognisably. My first novel was set in a mythologised England, my next in Victorian London. I used to wonder about this. Had my birthplace failed to make a sufficient impression?
The Ireland of the 1980s, in the general view, was a bleak and rain-scoured theocracy whose writers were either plunged into alcoholism or ejected into exile, forever embittered but not, at least, short of good material. But I hardly felt oppressed at all, growing up. I didnt even mind the rain, particularly.
My parents were moderately religious, but werent all that exercised when I announced that I wasnt. My school was run by a religious order, which might seem promising, but when it came to violence and repression these guys were lightweights. A Brother did hit me once, but my parents made some calls and he was forced into retirement within the year. We smoked in the toilets and started bands. I even managed to have an illicit affair with my French teacher. Where was the misery, the guilt? How was I supposed to work with this stuff?
Wicklow borders Dublin to the south, whose lush and stoutly liberal suburbs have long since subsumed its upper reaches. The rest of the county is an absurdly scenic backwater, dominated by the brooding Arthurian dreamscapes of the Wicklow mountains. None of this went unnoticed by the occupying aristocracy, who spent four centuries throwing up country piles and upholstering the place with Italianate parkland.
It has left a peculiar legacy, in the culture as much as the landscape. Wicklow is among the last redoubts of Irelands vestigial ascendancy. Among the somnolent lanes of Delgany and Eniskerry, horses outnumber humans by at least two to one. There are 70 to 80 Agas per square mile, and even the scarecrows wear waxed jackets. But if the villages are discreetly awash with old money, their shabby gentility has attracted cultural capital too.
In Ireland, since the 1960s, creative artists have been largely exempt from income tax. The benevolence of this regime has nurtured a more eclectic wave of colonists, and in Wicklow these worlds intermingle. Within a few miles of my childhood home were both the sumptuous estate of the Earl of Meath (which would appear, albeit transfigured, in my novel The Maker of Swans) and Dragonhold, the secluded fastness of SF novelist Anne McCaffrey.
As a bookish child, my inner life was always elsewhere; in Malory Towers, then Gormenghast or Pemberley. Yet it was easy, growing up in surroundings like these, to feel that the real and imaginary worlds were separated by gauzy and permeable veils, to sense that you could pass between the two at any moment. I never felt the need to escape, perhaps, because I was almost always somewhere else. I wander among those places still, among the hushed woods and the ruined follies. I take photos sometimes and share them online. Which part of Narnia do you live in, exactly? someone once joked in reply.
Im honestly not sure, half the time. But I like it here, wherever it is.
The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic ODonnell is published by W&N (8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.