Writer Gerard Smith, with his memoir Secrets and Styes. Photo: Damian McCarney

The Secret to a happy ending

MEMOIR Writer Gerard Smith enjoys acclaim with book recalling a childhood holiday in Cavan

“I was unhappy,” begins Gerard Smith, recalling a trip home to visit his father, Sean on the outskirts of Cavan town. His dad had been ill, but was recovering as far as Gerard knew.

“I had come home to see him for a weekend and we were at the door of the house and I was aware he was steeling himself to say something. My cab arrived and Dad just said to me, ‘I hope you find happiness son.’

“I was like, woh! What was that all about? I thought I’d phone him up and ask him. I got home, and London, life, work and everything, and I didn’t phone him. Sadly he passed away a few days later, so they were his last words for me.”

Brexit had delivered, if not a fatal blow to the advertising agency of which he was a director, it was certainly a bruising one. There were disputes with colleagues, and just as he had decided to move home to Ireland, structural troubles emerged with his London abode. Burden on top of burden.

“I kept all this hidden from my father, ‘No, everything’s fine’. But parents, they know their kids.”

Some time later Gerard shared this fragile moment in a Twitter thread, not imagining anything would come of it.

“It was a little ode to my dad - how accepting he was and how lovely he was. He was this big GAA loving builder, and I was this creative boy who wasn’t interested in sport. We had nothing with which we could bond – and yet, we did.”

The thread resonated, went viral, and Gerard soon had the Joe Duffy Show onto him. Even author Patricia Scanlan was amongst the very many thousands to read the Twitter thread, and suggested Gerard write a memoir.

He flinched at the idea initially, but yet, today Gerard’s sitting across the table in a Cavan Town cafe with his memoir ‘Secrets and Styes’. To say it has been well received is an understatement – there was a queue out the door of Candlelight Bookshop of people looking to buy it. It sold out on Amazon, and they had to print a second run. Gerard says he’s “overwhelmed” by the response.

“You would associate memoirs with sportspeople, celebrities – I’m none of those things,” says Gerard who feared it would be “self indulgent”. However he came home to Cavan “to ramble and reconnect with my youth” and stayed in the house his father had left him on the outskirts of town, just past Cullies. During this time an idea of how a book could work gradually emerged – focussing on the summer of 1972.

The notion of a Cavan memoir sits jarringly with the inner-city Manchester accent with which Gerard discusses it. His mother Kathleen Smith from the Half Acre, went to Manchester to train as a nurse, and his father, Sean, followed her over. There they had three children who in 1972 were still young, Maria (14), Dermot (12) and the baby of the house, Gerard (7). Economic necessity saw the Smith parents, Sean working on the building sites, and Kathleen now working as a barmaid, remain in Manchester to work while the trio of kids were literally shipped back to spend the summer in Cavan.

“We were put in the taxi to the boat and we had to do that overnight boat journey on our own.”

They were picked up and stayed with “country granny”, Mainey Smith and their uncles, in Drumalee.

“Cavan was incredibly different place then,” he says. “The town started at Singer Sewing Machine and ended at Pat McGovern’s at the top of the town. Drumalee was my wonderland, it was woodland and countryside. The road now, which is really busy, was just a narrow lane. For us kids it was just paradise”

He recalls spending his days, “rambling, dreaming, talking to crows”.

“I was a wee loner, a creative kid making up stories.”

“Dad used to tell me about a ghost called ‘The Tall Man’. Dad said he used to see him when he was a kid my age up in St Pat’s College farmyard. I was absolutely fascinated by this ghost.”

His Uncle Tommy tasked young Gerard with uncovering the mystery of the Tall Man.

“‘There’s a job for you Gerard, you can find out who the Tall Man is. Many people want to know’,” he recalls laughing. “So I was thinking, my God, my Uncle Tommy has entrusted me with a job, he thinks I’m good at something.

“I’m not good at football. I don’t like all boys things, but Uncle Tommy believes I can do something. That whole summer I set out looking for this ghost called the Tall Man so when Dad came back at the end of the summer I could say ‘I found him, I know who he is!’”

The book is dedicated to his sister Maria, with whom he was very close, and she sadly passed away six years ago. Maria is crucial to the story.

“She was 14, coming of age. We were very close, she was moving away from me and getting interested in boys. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I completely misinterpreted her growing up and growing away from me as something quite sinister,” says Gerard, who subsequently moved permanently to Cavan Town’s Jubilee Street, along with his parents when he was 11.

Brought to print by Drogheda based ‘Choice Publishing’, the book has received countless positive reviews from readers across the globe. Gerard marvels that he doesn’t know anyone in many of the far flung destinations to which it has been shipped.

Although ‘Secrets and Styes’ is Gerard’s debut book published in the traditional format, for the last seven years he has been sharpening his digital quill by writing horror stories. He posts them, chapter at a time on reader-writer apps such as Wattpad which are hugely popular with younger generations. Gerard’s latest novel ‘The Surgeon’ has clocked up almost 7million reads.

“It’s like Youtube for books, so the more popular it becomes, the more you get paid,” he explains.

He shows the Celt that he has 1.4k notifications, just random people from around the globe asking him about his story, and confides that companies in China and India are regularly trying to lure him into contracts to provide content for their reader writer apps.

The story that has garnered this reaction, ‘The Surgeon’ is a ‘body horror’ story narrated by an 18 year old trans gender girl.

“This is where I indulge my love of horror,” he says of Wattpad. “They are all horror stories with a lot of heart. I’m very mindful that because it has a young adult audience I try to keep them ethical – no drink, drugs certainly no sex or anything like that.”

While The Surgeon is generating a much greater stir globally, Gerard is more invested in his memoir.

“I would have been delighted if just one or two people had read it,” he says of  Secrets and Styes, “but then oh my word, people just seem to want it.”

He mulls over why the story resonates with so many people and decides that it’s the “evocation of childhood”.

“I think it makes people reflect on the seven-year-old they were, and you know that kid never leaves us, they are always in there. Those fears, those anxieties – we learn how to handle them or hide them, navigate them as adults, but the kid never leaves us. I think it resonates with child in all of us still there,” he says with a smile that assures his father’s wish for Gerard has come true.