AUTHOR Hilda McHugh draws on harrowing experiences with the Irish adoption system in ‘Jinxed’.
“I was always asked what I was going to do when I retire, and I always said I was going to write a book.” For retired national school inspector, Hilda McHugh, not only did she accomplish her ambition of writing her first novel, she recently published her second.
Hilda started writing full-time when she retired at the age of 60, in 2009, after accepting the offer of early retirement.
“I always wanted to do it but I spent a lot of my time writing reports, which kills the creativity a bit,” she told The Mayo News from her home in Kilkishen in Co Clare.
An avid reader of books – she had only two hours sleep the night before we chatted, as she could not put down a John Boyne novel – she first started to write her own short stories after falling ill with MRSA in 2005, and she found she was good at it.
“[I] was confined for a couple of months, so it was at that time I started writing short stories. I had a couple of them published in Ireland’s Own. It was kind of exciting when they ring you up and they say €50 is in the post and they are putting your story in the anthology,” explained the 69-year-old mother of four.
The first novel ‘Inheritance: Gift or Burden’ was self-published in 2015. The self-publishing route can be a tough one, and Hilda had to ‘do a lot of the donkey work’ herself to get it onto bookshelves. But she had better luck with her latest novel, ‘Jinxed’, when London outfit Austin Macauley Publishers agreed to publish and distribute it. Jinxed by name, but not by nature it seems.
‘Jinxed’ starts on Achill Island, the home of Hilda’s husband, Jackie, during the postwar period. It follows the fortunes of the Gilraine family as they emigrate and start family life in England, Australia and the US.
“Jackie had a relation who did something similar, who moved from Ireland to England and onto Australia and then to America. I was intrigued by the idea of two ordinary people living such an extraordinary lifestyle in those years. I built my story around their journey.”
The novel also explores the issue of adoption and the difficulties surrounding it, a subject that Hilda and Jackie have their own uncomfortable experience with.
“We were married for nine years before our first child was born … but I already had three miscarriages. We had gone down the road of adoption and gone through all the hoops. We had the individual interviews and interviews together, and the visits to the house and the whole shooting gallery done. ‘Don’t ring us, we’ll ring you’, we were told,” she explained.
Hilda and Jackie did not hear a word from the adoption agency, and as the years passed, Hilda was left to wonder why they had not been accepted.
“In my job, I came across somebody who needed me to sign off for adoption leave. Within ten days of applying for a baby, they had a baby. We were five years still … literally waiting for them to contact us. There was a lot of babies born in five years, so I was wondering what the hell was going on.
“When our first child was two and a bit and [we were] almost due with the second one, Jackie, who reads a newspaper from the first page to the last, came across a death notice. Tagged at the bottom of the death notice of Sister ‘so and so’ was, ‘apologies to those families whose files were inadvertently lost during her illness’.
“She was the nun we were dealing with, and that was five years on from the time we started our long wait to hear what was happening. It was a bad show that we were never contacted.
“Of course the whole thing about the adoption story in this book is the hell people go through if they cannot access their medical records.
“I was very conscious that a friend of ours had a child who eventually died in early adulthood from something that was preventable if there a [donor] match had been available. But there was no traceability, and we were particularly good at non-traceability in Ireland.”
Roddy Doyle’s advice
Hilda’s writing style has been compared to Maeve Binchy, and while she says she ‘wouldn’t be near her league’, it is an exciting compliant to get. As a novice writer she says she is not afraid to take advice on board. She religiously attends writers’ week in Listowel and picks up tips from learned writers.
She laughs as she described Roddy Doyle as the least organised of all the writers she has dealt with in the workshop, but she reveals that he gave her invaluable advice.
“He said that when you are on a roll and know how the chapter will end, that is when you stop. You don’t finish it. The following morning you finish the chapter because it is in your head waiting to jump out, and by the time you get to the full stop of that chapter, you know where the next chapter is going.
“If you keep going the night before and start the next chapter the following morning, you will be looking at a blank page for hours the following morning. I have found that myself.”
After getting her second novel published Hilda is already working on her next. Resting on her laurels is not an option.
“I was used to working long days and late into the night, so the hours would never have bothered me. I start writing as soon as I’d wake in the morning at half five or six o’clock. I’d go like the hammers of hell, and my good husband would bring me a cup of tea and toast at some point. I’d quit then when he’d usually say, ‘For God sake will you take a break’,” she laughs.
“It’s the same thing for five days every week until the weather gets good and then I’d go playing golf.”``
Jinxed is published by Austin Macauley Publishers London. The book will be launched in the Amethyst Bar on Achill Island on Thursday, June 28, at 9.30pm.