On Thursday, 10th June, at 7.30 pm. I’ll be chatting – virtually! – with wonderful Irish book blogger, Mairéad Hearne, of Swirl and Thread about my new book ‘Emmet and Me’ which is set is 1960s Ireland
The evening will be hosted by fabulous indie bookshop, Palas Print, of Caernarfon, in conjunction with Honno Welsh Women’s Press
Mairéad and I will be discussing the setting of ‘Emmet and Me’ in 1960s Connemara – a beautifully bleak part of Ireland – the cruelty of life in Irish industrial schools and that system’s lasting legacy. We’ll be talking about what inspired the novel, about creating fiction from real life, and seeing the world through the eyes of child narrators.
Thank you for reading and hope to see you – virtually! – on Thursday, 10th June!
More details about the online event:
Running time: 60 minutes. A recording will be made available for a limited time afterwards.
Books will be dispatched from 20 May 2021 onwards. However, please note that in the current circumstances, some books may be delayed. Postage will be applied at checkout.
I’m absolutely delighted to share today a review of ‘Emmet and Me’ by novelist, Judith Barrow
You may know Judith from her hugely popular and gripping historical fiction, including her Howarth family saga series, and The Heart Stone, her most recent novel. And last year Judith published The Memory, set in modern times, which reviewer Terry Tyler describes as “a poignant tale of love and hate” and which other reviews have called “compelling” and “unputdownable”.
I was very excited to find Judith has reviewed my new novel, ‘Emmet and Me’, on Net Galley and on her own blog too.
I knew I wanted to write about Emmet, but I was also certain I wouldn’t write the story from his point of view. There are memoirs that recount life in Ireland’s institutions, and these convey survivors’ first-hand experiences so movingly and with heart-breaking honesty. I would never assume I knew even a fraction of what it would be like to actually endure such trauma.
So I decided that if I wrote about Emmet, it would be through someone else’s eyes. He’d need a friend who didn’t live in his orphanage, someone he could confide in. But how would he meet a character from outside his tightly controlled institution? It was a dilemma I couldn’t solve, so I imagined Emmet would simply stay in my head forever.
On a March evening in 2017, I was in Dublin and watching the Late Late Show. Ryan Turbridy’s guest was Catherine Corless, a local historian from County Galway who had discovered an extremely disturbing history at Tuam Mother and Baby Home.Initially, she’d been interested in looking into the Home’s records because she clearly remembered older children from there attending her primary school. Years later, when she took a course in researching local history, she thought of those children again, and decided to research the Home.
What Catherine Corless uncovered shocked not only Ireland but, as the story hit global media, it shocked the world as well
She discovered almost eight hundred death certificates of babies and young children. All of these children had died at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. And what was more, many of them had been ‘buried’ in the disused septic tank in the grounds.
That night, I couldn’t get thoughts of Tuam Home out of my head, and the terrible pain and suffering that had been caused to the women and children there. I also remembered what Catherine had said about the children from the Home – how they’d attended her primary school in the town. I realised that perhaps there was a way to write about Emmet after all, that he could make a friend at school, a friend outside his orphanage.
Watching Catherine Corless on TV that evening is etched on my memory. I’m sure I’m not wrong in suggesting that it’s etched on the memory of very many other viewers too. She came up against resistance from the Church and some members of her community when she tried to reveal the truth, but she persisted. She is a brave and determined woman. There’s much more about her inspiring work, and about Tuam Mother and Baby Home generally, in the Radio 4 podcast by Becky Milligan, The Home Babies. I thoroughly recommend it.
This weekend, I’ll be taking part in the Llandeilo Online Lit Fest
There’s a packed programme and across Saturday 24th April and Sunday 25th, a whole host of writers will be talking about books and writing generally, from fiction and poetry, to politics and writing for media. There are events, too, for children.
On Sunday at 2pm, I’ll be talking live to local publisher Seonaid Francis of Black Bee Books and ThunderPoint Publishing about my novels for adults in a session called ‘Broken Families and Forbidden Friendships’ – themes both my debut novel, ‘Not Thomas’, and soon-to-published ‘Emmet and Me’ have running through them.
In ‘Not Thomas’, Rhiannon is very half-heartedly attempting to keep her son, five-year-old Tomos, living with her, having split up his happy foster home. Although Tomos terribly misses his beloved Nanno and Dat, his foster, parents, he also truly loves his mother. But she seems intent on causing irreparable damage wherever she goes. Tomos’s supply teacher, Lowri, takes him under her wing, but as she gets more involved than she should in his home-life, her own begins to fall apart.
In ‘Emmet and Me’, set in 1960s’ Ireland, ten-year-old Claire’s family implodes when her mother runs away and Claire and her brothers are sent to stay with their formidable Granny Connemara. In her remote cottage, tragic family events are never spoken of, but they have deeply left their mark. With no sign of their Uncle Jack picking them up at the end of the summer holidays, the children are faced with new schools. Claire’s only friend at hers is a boy called Emmet from the orphanage. She shouldn’t be talking to him, and their forbidden friendship will change her life forever.
I’ll be discussing broken families and forbidden friendships, the inspiration behind the characters in my novels, and lots more with Seonaid Francis at the Llandeilo Lit Fest on Sunday at 2pm, and I’ll be taking questions too. If you’re able to join us, it would be wonderful to see you there. If you can’t make it on the day, the session will be available for ticketholders to watch online for a limited time afterwards (instructions on how to watch will be released after the event).
Here’s to a fantastic literary weekend – 24th & 25th April
Yes, it probably should be the second version, because that’s how it feels – the reality of my new novel delivered to my door: proof that I actually reached the end of the process of creating a second book.
Well, the process isn’t quite finished…
but my part is complete. My editor at Honno has just sent off the typeset to the printers. In a few weeks, the final version of ‘Emmet and Me’ will be on its way to bookshops, ready for publication day on 20th May. But for now, I’m making the most of the proof copies.
They’re not for me to keep, no matter how much I’d love to – they’re to send out to reviewers; but when I opened the parcel I couldn’t help taking a moment to hug them and breathe in that beautiful smell of new book.A little bit odd, I grant you.
And when Simon and I went out to the country park, I couldn’t leave them at home.
So here’s ‘Emmet and Me’…
in the woods…
at the beach…
and back home on the lawn…
with a few items that feature large in the story of Claire O’Connell and Emmet.
(I towel-dried the grass to keep the cover clean! Spot the difference between this image and the one at the top of the page.)
Soon, I’ll be packing up the proofs again and sending them off to reviewers, and the next time I’ll hold a copy, it’ll be the final article, complete with a gorgeous cover-quote from a fabulous book-blogger who’s been generous enough to give up her time to read an even earlier version (more about that to come).
I’m extremely grateful to that wonderful book-blogger, and all book-bloggers, reviewers and readers everywhere!
Thank you, too, for reading this post by a very excited writer!
In 1924, as an eight-year-old, he was taken from his destitute parents and sent to live at St Joseph’s Industrial School. It was in a remote part of Ireland, a village called Letterfrack, a name that, for many Irish people, would become synonymous with fear and cruelty.
Tyrrell’s experiences at the school are recorded in ‘Founded on Fear’. I came across a review of the newly published book in an Irish newspaper in 2006, on a ferry from Rosslare to Fishguard, as I travelled home to Wales after a stay in Dublin. What first caught my attention was a paragraph in the review that told how Tyrrell’s burnt body was discovered on Hampstead Heath in 1967. I was puzzled. How had Peter Tyrrell published a memoir 40 years after his own death?
The story of how ‘Founded on Fear’ came about is as tragic as Tyrrell’s childhood…
And his childhood was very tragic. His first impression of the industrial school in Letterfrack was witnessing a child being viciously beaten by a teacher in the yard. Tyrrell wasn’t beaten himself that day – the Christian Brothers who ran the school prided themselves on not beating children on their first day – but afterwards, there was no protection from the cruelty.At age ten, Tyrrell’s arm was broken when a teacher thrashed him with a stick. Industrial school for him and his fellow inmates was a constant round of beatings, hunger and abuse.
For all his adult life, Tyrrell feared sleep – his dreams were terrifying. One recurring dream was of being chosen for refectory duty. Boys would silently and meticulously scrub the floor on their hands and knees after mealtimes, while a teacher flogged them repeatedly with a piece of rubber cut from a tyre. But this wasn’t simply a nightmare, something conjured up by Tyrrell’s imagination – it was his lived childhood experience.
He left the school in 1932 at 16, but he couldn’t escape the horror of abuse that he’d endured and witnessed there. He fled Ireland and joined the British Army but found it difficult to connect with others. He fell in love with a woman when he was stationed in India, but he sabotaged the blossoming relationship.
Sadly, he realised, the bullied had become the bully
Returning alone to London, he decided he must raise awareness of not only the terrible abuses that had happened to him during his time at industrial school, but of those he believed were still going on decades later. He began contacting anyone he felt could make a change – politicians and powerful people in the Catholic Church – but sadly, no one listened to him.No one, except Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington.
Skeffington was determined to reform the Irish school system and he encouraged Tyrrell to write down his memories of Letterfrack. Tyrrell and the senator began to correspond regularly, and over five months Skeffington received a stack of detailed letters. Peter Tyrrell confided that he hoped one day they would be published and everyone would know the truth.
Tragically, he didn’t see that day
In April 1967, under the weight of mental health problems and believing he could do nothing to stop the suffering of children in the industrial school system, Peter Tyrrell took himself to a quiet corner of Hampstead Heath and ended his life by setting fire to himself. When his body was found, there was no way to identify it. Only a corner of a postcard was retrieved, badly charred, but with part of a name and address still visible – Dr Sheehy-Sk Trinity College, Dublin.
Eventually, the London police tracked down the senator and finally put a name to the burned body. Sheehy-Skeffington died himself two years later of a heart attack, and his correspondence with Tyrrell was archived. Forty years on, lecturer Diarmuid Whelan discovered it in the National Library of Ireland. He read about Tyrrell’s desire for the letters to be published, and in 2006, Whelan collated ‘Founded on Fear’. Very sadly, he died himself four years later of cancer, at the age of 37.
‘Founded on Fear’ is now regarded as an important record of life in a boys’ industrial school
Reading the review of ‘Founded on Fear’ on that ferry to Wales, I formed a vivid impression of a young boy, damaged by years of abuse and cruelty. A trapped, terrified child who never escaped that terror, even as an adult. The picture lodged at the back of my mind, until a few years later when I came across the memoir again, this time in Chapters Bookstore in Dublin. It was tucked away on a shelf in the second hand section, and I knew I had to buy it.
Back home, as I read Peter Tyrrell’s harrowing experiences, my imagination began creating Emmet, the ten-year-old that would become the title character of my novel, ‘Emmet and Me’. I decided he would be a child growing up in an industrial school in the late ’50s and ’60s, the sort of child Tyrrell worried about. If I was going to write the story of Emmet, then I’d need to research what happened to children at that time in industrial schools. I would need to check Tyrrell’s very sad theory that terrible things were still going on in the 1960s.
That research will be the subject of another blogpost.
This one is about thanking Peter Tyrrell, Senator Sheehy-Skeffington and Diarmuid Whelan
Thank you, too, for reading,
PS. On Sunday, 25th April, I’ll be talking about ‘Broken Families and Forbidden Friendships’ with Seonaid Francis of ThunderPoint Publishing at the online Llandeilo LitFest. It would be lovely to see you there! View tickets
So, the editing is done, the typeset is being prepared…
a beautiful and atmospheric cover has been designed by the wonderful lettering artist, Ruth Rowland, and my new novel ‘Emmet and Me’ will be published on 20th May.
It’s a story set in the landscape of 1960s rural Ireland. Ten-year-old Claire has moved to Connemara from Cardiff and is a misfit at her new school. Emmet is an inmate at an industrial school ‒ a place where life is harsh and often cruel. They share a love of books and horses, and become secret friends at primary school, but their forbidden friendship has a devastating effect on both of them.
In the weeks between now and publication day, I’ll blog about the inspiration behind ‘Emmet and Me’, about my research and the real lives that I aim to reflect in the novel.
I’ll talk about my writing process, and how one of my characters might reflect me in some ways, and the themes that seem to somehow find their way into all my stories ‒ hunger and identity.
The next post will tell the story of how I stumbled upon a truly heart-breaking real-life tale that gave rise to the character of Emmet.
Until then, I’m delighted to be able to share a few early reviews of ‘Emmet and Me’
“…beautiful, perfectly set in time and place. A story of friendship, loyalty and trust… sweet but beneath that sweetness was a darkness that was heart breaking.”Sandy Taylor, author of ‘The Orphan’s Daughter’, shortlisted for the RNA Saga Award for best novel in 2021
“Sara Gethin has written something very special, very powerful, capturing the innocence of a beautiful friendship. With characters that are wonderfully portrayed, it is very easy to imagine the joy, the pain, the sorrow and the pure heartache of the lives lived and lost…Emmet and Me is a remarkable tale, a captivating novel that will leave its mark on every reader.”Mairéad Hearne, Swirl and Thread book blog
“The unspeakable cruelty of the Irish Industrial Schools and their devastating effect on children and families is laid bare in this profoundly moving, evocative story of a special friendship told through the eyes of a ten-year-old narrator. I loved it.”Laura Wilkinson, author of ‘Skin Deep’
Summer 1966: When her father comes home with lipstick on his collar, ten-year-old Claire’s life is turned upside down. Her furious mother leaves the family and heads to London, and Claire and her brothers are packed off to Ireland, to their reclusive grandmother at her tiny cottage on the beautifully bleak coast of Connemara.
A misfit among her new classmates, Claire finds it hard to make friends until she happens across a boy her own age from the school next door. He lives at the local orphanage, a notoriously harsh place. Amidst half-truths, lies and haunting family secrets, Claire forms a forbidden friendship with Emmet ‒ a bond that will change both their lives forever.