HOW I CAME TO WRITE PEELING ORANGES

In the nineties I wrote a short story called Diaries about Derek Foley, who sifted through the diaries of his late father, a diplomat in Franco’s Spain, and discovered things to question his paternity. I showed the story to Bernard Farrell, the playwright, who praised it and found what he called a mystical quality in it.

I left the story at that for a number of years, became academic and did an MA. But eventually I went back to the story. Something like an itch or an ache was irritating me. T.S. Eliot described non-creativity in a creative artist as a type of constipation, so maybe it was something like that, something incomplete in the character of Derek Foley who carried uncertainty around with him as he says like a ‘wound’. I had got into the habit of researching by this stage, having just completed a thesis on poetry as communication. I found myself in the newly opened national archive in Dublin researching about Spain and early Irish diplomacy, stuff which had been covered up in the past, particularly about Spain and Ireland’s involvement in the Spanish civil war. Slowly, a bigger story began to unfold, and this character Patrick Foley, the diplomat, the dead guy in my short story, began to resurrect.

While many Irish novels have dealt with many aspects of Irish history, to my knowledge this was the first time that Irish diplomacy in Spain figured as a motif. I kept seeing parallels between two emergent nations— Ireland and Spain, on their respective turbulent journeys towards democracy: the civil wars, the poverty, the role of religion, the artistic blossoming: Yeats with his theatre, Federico García Lorca travelling throughout the country with his standup players, with fatal consequences it should be added. Just as things were covered up in Ireland, Franco covered things up too—he always denied any involvement in Guernica or in the killing of Lorca.

Martha, the protagonist’s mother, was a woman from the Liberties and she knew what poverty was from her social work and she shared that empathy with the Spanish poor. But if this novel is about anything, it is about ideology: how it drives people to behave in certain ways. What holds up their part of the sky, as Patrick Foley wonders about Gearóid MacSuibhne when he visits him in his squalid cell in Burgos prison. And Patrick himself, with his religious/sexual contradictions, is even more complex than Gearóid with his to-the-death republican convictions.

In contrast to all of this, the protagonist Derek Foley is apolitical, affording him an outsider’s view of things until he is drawn in of course by his love for the supreme ideologue, Sinéad Ní Shúilleabháin.

The original title of the novel, before it was changed for what was considered simplification, was Perceiving Oranges. This was prompted by Ortega y Gasset’s intriguing line ‘No one has ever seen an orange’. An orange after all is a sphere. So what I was trying to express was that we all have only partial perception of the world; no one has the whole truth—as professed by some religions or ideologies rendering them inflammatory, something Derek observes on his journey north. The hubris of the all seeing eye is really the limited vision of súil amháin.

Derek got more and more apolitical the more Europeanised he was becoming, reflecting a modern Ireland perhaps moving away from its insularity towards the joining of the EEC in 1973, the significant year when the novel ends

What would Pearse have made of you, Derek? Sinéad says, berating him on his return from Spain when he is critical of her narrow nationalism. It was not of Pearse, Derek was thinking, to look ahead with monovision as the 1916 leader had instructed on the ‘ród seo romhainn’, but of Picasso and his woman with eyes seeing in many directions simultaneously.

However despite my nostalgia for the old title, the symbol of the orange remains: His peeling of the oranges to ease his mother’s emphysema also marked Derek’s attempt to peel away the layers of secrecy to get to the truth of his origin. We are covered in seven veils, his mother said, and no one sheds them all.

Oranges were the inducement given to the children to counter the ideology of British imperialism when Queen Victoria visited Dublin in 1900.

Oranges were the only food available to keep Gearóid alive in the trenches during the civil war in Spain.

Oranges became a self-fulfilling prophecy in Yeats’ words, indeed as euphemisms for the IRA bombs that blew up the medieval city of Coventry in 1939.

All the symbols, oranges, lilies, poppies, badges, flags or symbolic actions were, as Martha relates to Derek in a rare revealing moment, the provenance of future directions in life.

And what of the old Liberties, alas decimated now, with motorways ploughing through what were once lanes redolent with their labyrinthine mysteries? Brendan Behan considered anyone who lived beyond Dolphin’s Barn a culchie. Martha’s mother, who sojourned temporarily in Aughavanagh Road, couldn’t wait to get back to the Liberties because of loneliness

Liberties folk were in the main people who Martha claims, contradictorily to Derek’s chagrin (because of her own reticence), wore their hearts on their sleeves; they were not afraid to express emotions—the humour and the sadness of life, which in our more sophisticated age are perhaps more nuanced now. Such open qualities were exemplified in Martha’s Huguenot friend, Mrs Chaigneau.

The suburb is represented by Rathfarnham in the novel, perhaps unfairly represented as a cold place to Martha and Derek, but that had more to do with her circumstances than the place itself. The flight to the suburbs, the phenomenon of the fifties where the suburb was seen as the panacea of all ills, a subject in itself and which is the central preoccupation of a later novel The Avenue. But to Martha and to Derek, Rathfarnham represented a place of great trauma and a place that could not be called home to them.

Of course the jolt for Martha was triggered not merely by an internal migration but by a very real emigration—exile to Madrid away from the smell of the Guinness hops and the bakery smells from Jacobs. Exile: a form of dismemberment, according to Patrick, quoting Colmcille. Martha, however, witnessed the same poverty as she did in the Dublin tenements and heard the universal cry of want in the Madrid streets.

But what of Patrick Foley and the world of diplomacy? What was hidden in those archives that de Valera for so many years did not want us to see? He censored the media coverage of the War years to ensure our neutrality, another policy he shared with Franco, despite overtures from Hitler. Things were covered up to keep emotions down.

What is a diplomat? Derek tried to find out through Patrick’s diaries? From the Greek diplomas, the keeping of documents. Patrick, when seeking refuge in the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War, had time to reflect on his role. Early Irish diplomacy was seen on the European stage as simply an adjunct to British colonial policy. But by recognising the Franco regime before Britain—and this was crucial—it meant Ireland was now perceived as an independent state. This had huge national and international significance: In 1939 Patrick Foley was instructed to return to Madrid to attend Franco’s victory march. This was taken to mean in diplomatic circles that Ireland recognised the dictatorship, something which Britain had not done. The outcome of such action was that Ireland was now seen as an autonomous state on the international stage.

However the hub of the novel is the discovery of Patrick’s impotence. Hence the quest for paternity which brings Derek on his own adventure to Spain and to Northern Ireland through all the variations of orange to discover in the thick web of history and religion and ideology, who his real father was.

And of course along the way there was Love.

I like to think of Peeling Oranges as a love story first and foremost, and the quest is not so much for paternity but rather for maternal love initially, which coloured the way Derek looked upon love later as an adult, and his confusion with Sinéad was compounded, as we have already said, by her ideology. The bullying incident in boarding school clarifies what Derek felt all along: the lack of love; that his mother did not love him is evident as he seems to be unable to stand up for himself when she packed him away rather mercilessly to boarding school because his prying into her past was appearing to get out of hand.

Sinéad, the love of Derek’s life, the childhood sweetheart, the remembrance of her as the little breastless kid on the Dublin beach, and now suddenly before his eyes transformed from that chrysalis to the university student endowed, as Derek suddenly realises, with all the curves and bumps of womanhood.

But how could he crack that nationalist shell that cocooned Sinéad so tightly in her single-minded purpose? It is the core dilemma of the novel: Is ideology stronger than love? And it is only towards the end of the story that we get some clue to the answer.

Myth and mythmaking are essential parts of storytelling. Someone said the artist should never lose out on a good story for the sake of truth. Perhaps the word accuracy or fact should have been the word used, for the artist is always true or at least striving for a higher truth, a poetic truth, a verisimilitude which strips away the bare facts which sometime can overpower us and blind us in our vision like Dickens’ character Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times. ‘Now what I want is facts… Facts alone are wanted in life.’ Or Shakespeare’s Shylock in the Merchant of Venice demanding the letter of the law but failing to show mercy.

Myth of course has two meanings: the myth of old stories, the old legends which Martha relates to Derek as a minatory tale in the story of Labhras Loingseach and the king who had horse’s ears. However, to the annoyance of the mother it didn’t have the desired effect as we shall see.

But then there is the other kind of myth: the dangerous modern myths that we try to convince ourselves are true. The myth of history. The way we paint the world with our own colours so that Derek, when he becomes a history lecturer, actually delivers a lecture entitled ‘The function of myth in history’. He poses the question: What happens when myth is broken down?

The Irish language, which features strongly in the novel, could perhaps be saved if it had been stripped of its ideological baggage, as Derek observed while he spoke it freely on a Spanish beach. But it was all tied up with Sinéad and the nationalist cause of Pearse’s vision of ‘Éire ghaelach, Éire saor’.

One is made to wonder sometimes if Sinéad saw Derek as a human being at all. Did she notice the love light in his eyes, or was he for her just a concept, a comma in a theory? And so the recurring question: did love win out, or ideology? As Derek listened to the sound of Sunday church bells, he concluded that even bells had their rhetoric. So one is left to speculate on the outcome, until at the eleventh hour a new player entered the fray.

‘A book to lose oneself in. I highly recommend it.’
Gabriel Byrne

‘In the vast sea of fiction Peeling Oranges is a true hidden gem.’ Contemporary Books.

First Chapter of Peeling Oranges

As a kid I kept thinking the insurance man was my father. Not that I knew him mind (I only met him the once), but I heard him often enough. I can remember my mother’s voice pleading with him. Was it over money? We weren’t poor, although my father – my real father that is – was dead. He had been a diplomat, so he didn’t exactly leave us destitute. But I got it into my head that my mother hadn’t the money to pay the insurance man and he sought payment in other ways. I should say at this stage that my mother was an uncommonly beautiful woman. Everyone’s mother is beautiful I know in the eyes of her offspring, but Mam’s beauty was universally acknowledged. When in her prime, her bright blue eyes and svelte figure attracted many suitors which, apart from the insurance man, included medical students, members of the corps diplomatique and even an IRA man. The last mentioned was a friend of her older brother, Tomás.

She found out that Uncle Tomás was a member of the IRA one day when, as a young girl, she was tidying the house for Muddy (my grandmother) and discovered his revolver in a hollowed-out book. It’s in my late father’s study now among real books, like a sort of heirloom.

She tried to deny or at least play down any republican involvement later in her life. However, she always had a soft spot for Michael Collins and frequently spoke of the waste of such a ‘fine strap of a man’. All this of course happened before she settled down and married the diplomat, Patrick Foley. Well, not that she really did settle down.

With the insurance man there was shouting and arguing and a familiarity not common for mere commercial transactions – that’s probably why I thought he was my father; well, I had no role model to go by. My real father died when I was two, or so I’m told.

I should point out that the shouting was on the man’s part, for my mother was gentle and rarely raised her voice. I was very close to her, at least I thought I was. As the only male member in the family I felt my role was to protect her. I went into the room once when the insurance man was berating her and she was in tears. I saw a giant before me. I remember big black boots, very shiny. And when I looked up I saw this bushy red beard which frightened me. Beards were for hiding behind. Santa only wore a beard so that children wouldn’t recognise him, but he took it off with his boots and his outfit when he went home. Every kid knew that. Beards were for big occasions. Beards were not for ordinary things like insurance collecting.

He fell silent when I came into the room. He was taken aback. Then he smiled at me, but when he tried to pat me on the head, I lifted a poker from the fireplace and lunged at him.

‘What have you done to my mother?’ I shouted.

He fended off the blows and held both my arms tightly, rendering them impotent, left hanging like the words in the gunbook, and the poker fell to the ground.

‘Someday when I’m bigger I’ll kill you, you bastard.’

‘Now now bastard Derek, what a word coming from an buachaill beag.’

At least I think he said that.

All this is so far back in time that it seems a fabrication. But my attempted assault of him is vivid. Mam refused to talk to me about the incident; she tried to pass it off as nothing. She said that I had too fertile an imagination. She said she was not well that day and Mr Counihan was simply trying to console her. When I said he had a loud way of consoling people, she gave me one of her withering looks which ended the matter.

Ever since then I realised that my mother and I were really not close at all, and soon after that incident I was sent off to boarding school in the country.

The cloistered world of boarding schools engenders a strained socialisation in students (and I suppose in staff as well). One is often forced into the company of people with whom one has little or nothing in common. The loudest ethos (often the voice of a bully) predominates. I never subscribed to the notion of having to get on with everyone, because man is a social being etc. To me it implied that everyone was the same, that there was no such thing as individuality, difference or freedom of choice in a person. Such qualities were suppressed (often viciously by ‘social man’) on the grounds that they constituted anti-social behaviour. But in my solitary studies I discovered that accomplishments in human endeavour were achieved by individuals, often against collective, social pressure.

The mundane reality, however, was that I carried a feeling of insecurity with me wherever I went: in my satchel, in my hurley stick, in my voice when I had to speak or read aloud. Trust is bred in an environment of love and stability. I missed out somewhere on the skill of trusting people. My pen was the only instrument that flowed freely, as if doubts themselves sought outlets through ink. I did quite well academically, particularly at history, for which I won the school gold medal.

Some of my scholastic peers were also diplomats’ children, but I didn’t feel at one with them. I tried many times to tell my mother that I wasn’t really a diplomat’s child at all. I mean Patrick was dead, and both she and I were in Ireland all the time since. It seemed a cruel form of justice to me that I should see my mother less frequently than other boys whose parents were stationed abroad. I did not mix well. I frequently took off to the library rather than have to engage even in mere phatic communication.

We queued for sweets on Friday evenings. And on Sundays I got a double supply because I was not one of those pupils who went home at weekends. Sweets were good. Sweets could mollify that heartsinking gloom that suffused empty dormitories on damp Sunday evenings where every sound had its echo.

I remember my first year boarding, the school hired a projector. It rented the films, Mise Éire and The Mark of Zorro. It was always two films in those days; that’s why Zorro was allowed, even though it was a foreign film. Raffle tickets were used for admission. I got the number eleven.

In my class there was a small, skinny fellow with a snub nose which accounted for his nickname of Pug. He resented me because I kept to myself, because I refused to bow down to him or join his gang, and also perhaps because I had got first in the class in the history examination.

He came strutting along the corridor one day flanked by a couple of his cronies. I greeted them in Irish as was the custom.

‘Here’s the historian.’ They taunted in English.

‘The piss-in-the-bed.’

‘What have you got for us, swot?’

They pushed me against the wall and forced me to turn out my pockets. A brown paper bag and my ticket fell to the ground. One of the cronies opened the bag.

‘Jelly Babies. He’s got Jelly Babies.’

These were not the school sweets but sweets my mother had sent from Muddy’s shop.

‘Don’t you know English sweets are not allowed?’ Pug said. ‘We’ll do the historian a favour. We’ll swallow the evidence so he wont be found out.’

They twisted my arm behind my back. ‘Say thank you,’ said Pug with a Jelly Baby dangling from his mouth. He saw the ticket on the ground. ‘Legs 11.’ He tore the ticket in two. ‘Just one leg now.’

‘I’ll get you for this,’ I said.

Pug smiled. ‘After school in the football field.’

I wanted to run away. But there is nowhere to run in a boarding school except into a field. All power left my body as Pug knocked me down and held me in a half nelson until I submitted. And it’s only now in hindsight that I know why I submitted. It wasn’t that he was stronger than me. I knew the fear was there all along but I could never pinpoint the cause of it. And there it was staring me in the face all the time. It’s what happens when you don’t feel loved. You feel you’re standing on one leg.

I also learned that day why I liked history. It provided a cover. It let you off the hook. You could project your personal fears into the national psyche. You could blame other races for your own shortcomings. And nobody need ever know.

I never got to see the films. I was told by a teacher to go away and be more careful with my ticket in future. I saw re-enactments of Zorro all right, on classroom desks with rulers as swords, and for a while some pupils went around marking Z on copy books and walls. Some of them even made cardboard masks.

Pug met me again. He wore a mask, but it was easy to see it was him. He wanted to fill me in on what the film was about. It was a shame I wasn’t able to go. He had a blade. The cronies opened my shirt and held my mouth, and Pug cut the letter Z on my chest.

I didn’t cry. There wasn’t really any pain. It was just a superficial cut. I kept my handkerchief pressed against it to save my shirt. It would stop bleeding if I stayed long enough in the library.

I looked up my first Spanish word, zorro for ‘fox’ at the back of a dictionary. It was a funny way to start learning a language, from back to front. It reminded me of our history teacher saying to us that we should learn history backwards because we leave school before we get to the present.
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Peeling Oranges is also available as an ebook and has been translated into Spanish, German, Italian and Swedish and can be purchased as an audiobook with Audible, Amazon and iTunes https://adbl.co/308LadW

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Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

2 thoughts

  1. A wonderful introduction to your novel, James. I too have a great interest in history, especially Irish and Spanish. A fascinating story.

    1. Thanks, Marion. I appreciate your kind words. The book has been made into audio with ACX, so I hope it can gain more recognition. I trust your own writing is going well. Kind regards, James.

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