Beyond the Breakwater: Memories of Home
by Catherine Foley (Mercier Press, €14.99)
In these essays and short stories Catherine Foley reveals a great deal about herself and her social environment. This collection is a delightful gathering, and its content is every bit as authentic as Alice Taylor’s To School Through the Fields.
Catherine spent her early years in Waterford City. Later she resided in the Waterford Gaeltacht, An Rinn, to which she later returned. In Waterford she attended the St John of God Convent National School. Subsequently she was a boarder in Ardfoyle in Cork and ended her secondary school education in Dungarvan.
After graduating from UCC she worked as a teacher, but after four years. she retrained as a journalist and did stints at Anois, RTÉ, the Irish Times and TG4.
Catherine describes in an appreciative way her time at the various schools. In so doing she provides an insightful account of the sights, sounds and even the smells of the nuns! While studying at Dungarvan she was a member of the school’s debating team. In the All-Ireland competition to determine the best secondary-school debating team they out-matched their neighbours from the Ursuline College in Waterford to become the Munster champions!
In the semi-final they met ‘the boys from Bagenalstown’. Catherine’s wonderfully perceptive description of that debate, which she and her team lost, relived for me an occasion when I participated in such an event. Mary Harney, Dick Spring and I were the adjudicating panel in the year when the final was held at UCD. On that occasion also the immaculately-turned-out convent school girls were also second best.
Catherine records her life as a journalist in the capital. At the Irish Times she wrote the social column. It involved attending events across Dublin from 5pm onwards every evening. Her copy appeared on the back page of the newspaper’s weekend supplement. During her nine-year stint as a social columnist she met many famous and colourful people. Among those she liked most were Angelina Jolie, John McGahern, John B. Keane, Yoko Ono, Jonathan Miller and Edna O’Brien.
In Catherine’s essays, her attachment to her extended family and her local community is unmistakeable. There are numerous affectionate references to her parents and her sisters. Her Catholic faith emerges in a number of the essays.
She recalls going with the other teenagers in the parish and under the care of the local curate to John Paul II’s Mass for the youth of Ireland at Galway.
She retained a vivid memory of the ‘warm-up’, conducted by Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary. While on a visit to Prague she prayerfully remembered relatives, who had a life-long devotion to the ‘Infant Jesus of Prague’. Then there is Christmas. She joyfully takes her place in the choir for the Midnight Mass and is with the rest of the family as they visit their parents grave on Christmas Day.
Catherine remains very much a girl from the Waterford Gaeltacht. She intersperses her writing with phrases in Irish. With the rest of the parish she is an avid follower of the Waterford senior hurling team. Dan Shanahan and other members of the team have no more enthusiastic fans than Catherine and her sisters. Catherine recalls how she revived in An Rinn the tradition of ‘Following the Wren’ on St Stephens Day. Her book reveals a writer in touch with smallest pleasures of Irish life.