Me on Me:
So, it was something of a moving-around-type situation when I was growing up. My father was an Irish diplomat, but I like to say that both my parents were diplomats, since the diplomatic spouse works damn hard too. Both of them worked for Ireland, and for us, their three children. They had made a decision that wherever they were posted, we would go too, because they couldn’t bear to leave us behind in boarding schools, which was lovely, even though it meant I had to make my way in three different secondary schools. It wasn’t easy, always the new girl, a bit on the edge, on the outside, but it did me no harm. On the contrary, it was a rich and varied education, and a privilege.
So I was born in Boston, Mass., in 1958, and remember nothing about my four years there – apart some dreamlike memory of Cohasset, involving a sunchair. The Boston years were very happy ones for my parents – and why wouldn’t they have been, with me joining the crew? From there we decamped back to our home in Dublin, where my father was heavily involved in the Kennedy visit in ’63, my mother was near her family again, and I went off to school every day in my little school smock. Here, aged four, I made my first friend, Bernice, now my oldest, much cherished, pal. The house was cold, money was tight, treats were few, but I was a happy child in a happy place. We moved to Belgium when I was eight, where school was initially terrifying. For one thing, they spoke French, which was awkward of them, but education was also so very formal compared to the Sacred Heart in Monkstown, where I had been writing between blue and red lines with pencils. On my first school day in Brussels, I was asked by the teacher if I knew how to use a fountain pen. She stood over me, profferring a pen, surrounded by a whole bunch of girls, giggling at this new oddity in their midst, waiting for my answer. I looked at the pen, considered my options, and said yes. It was handed to me. I proceeded to use the nib upside down. Hoots of laughter. Depths of shame. We soon moved to another school, where my 5th class teacher found my fledgling French deeply irritating, and besides, I couldn’t even knit. At nine years of age, little Belgian girls could knit newborn baby jackets with a complex pattern; I could just about do plain & purl. That baby jacket tormented me, and my mother, for months, but that school, the FCJs in the city, was wonderful. I made good friends there, and a great friend at home. Fabienne and I had watched one another through the fence at the end of our gardens for quite a time before one of us actually dared speak. From then on, happiness meant running down to her place after school to have ‘le gouter’ – bread and chocolate – with Fabienne and her mother. For almost six years, Brussels was home. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t forever.
Leaving Belgium for Australia in 1971 fairly broke my heart. Leaving Fabienne was the worst of it. I therefore hated Canberra and its brilliant blue skies, and vowed I would return to Brussels to continue my education as soon as my parents allowed it. I was thirteen. My new school was huge. Strict. We had to wear bowler hats and gloves in public, and tights even in the high heat of summer, but one gifted American nun smoothed the way for me, as did meeting my soul mate, Cath. Then, at fifteen, I fell in love (conveniently for my parents, who did not want me to go to school on the other side of the world) and it was as great and as huge and as magnificent as first love should be. He was exceptional. Two years later, I left him, and Cath, and Edda, and Alanah, having understood at last the meaning of the diplomatic childhood. The Airport Life. Australia still runs through my blood.
Shortly after we arrived in Rome, our next posting, my mother died following a long illness. She would have loved Italy. Three weeks later, I found myself in a cold, Irish boarding school – the easiest way to finish off my education. Strange times. The other girls spoke so fast, while I had a slow Aussie drawl, and I would never quite fit in, but St Mary’s was nonetheless a sanctuary. All I had to do was study, and grieve, surrounded by kindness.
Dublin became home. Secretarial college led to jobs, and a job in UCD led me back to college, where I studied English Lit and my new-found love, Arabic. Writing now came to the fore. I had written all my life – long, chatty letters from wherever I found myself to whomever I had left behind, diaries, poems, notes to self, but at college I made a decision: I would write novels and I would base them in the Arab world, which I had yet to see. With my degree in my fist, I went to work in Baghdad in 1982, where I became gravely ill and found myself shipped back to Dublin. Too weakened to return to Iraq, I went instead to work in London, and there met William, my other half these last 33 years. After a lovely spell working in Oxford, we came to Cork, and shortly after our first child was born, my first short story won an Irish Times competition, which meant I must be doing something right. And so I was off: childbearing, childminding and writing: a novel I’d been planning for years; a memoir about those Canberra days; short stories. At some point I decided it was time to stop writing and start looking for an agent. Instead, I wrote another novel – about grief, a subject I knew too well, having lost my father five years after my mother’s death, and my second love in between. With this novel I secured an agent, but it was my earlier novel that first secured a publisher. In 2002, Overnight to Innsbruck was published by the Lilliput Press and The Catalpa Tree was published in 2004 by Penguin Ireland. Suddenly I was two writers – Denyse Woods and Denyse Devlin. Head and heart, some say.
And so I go on, in this writer’s life, here in Ireland, which is where I keep my soul. It’s a peculiar kind of a way to make a living, insofar as most writers don’t actually make a living from their books, but the itch won’t go away even when you scratch it. I also love to organise and administrate, which I’m good at it, and I hugely enjoyed my role as Director of the West Cork Literary Festival (books AND organizing!), but my fingertips tingled, and characters clamoured to be let out of the filing cabinet inside my head, so I returned to full-time writing and my sixth novel, Of Sea and Sand, was published in 2018.
CONTACT DENYSE at: email@example.com
Denyse is represented by the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency, Rosney Mews, Upper Glenageary Road, Co. Dublin Tel: +353 01 2803482