She may have countless articles written and a memoir in her back catalogue, but holding her debut novel in her hands is an experience author Norma MacMaster is clearly cherishing.
“Absolutely shocking! Literally shocking!
“It's like a dream and I could wake up at any minute. It's just unreal that this has happened to me because I had no idea of ever publishing anything.”
Born in Bailieborough in 1936, Norma has writing credits in Ireland's Own, Irish magazine 'Image', and RTÉ 1's ever popular Sunday Miscellany. She recalls her very early start in her writing life:
“I wrote my first short story when I was eight and sent it to Radio Eireann. It was about a mermaid. They sent it back and said there was a flaw in the plot,” she says with a chuckle.
However, finding a home for her novel 'Silence Under A Stone' wasn't easy. Now living in Skerries, she is eternally grateful for the encouragement she received from her pals in the 10-strong Ardgillan Writers Group to persevere.
“If they hadn't pushed me, I wouldn't [have got it published]. So I sent it to 50 agents and they didn't want it, and then I thought “well heck, I've nothing to lose, I'll just try Penguin”, but I was sure they wouldn't want it and then they did. I'm stunned, really and truly.”
A combination of her exceptional writing style and a plot which delves into an overlooked part of our history, probably swayed the biggest publishers on these shores to take a punt. At the heart of the book it follows the recollections of Harriet, a Presbyterian from somewhere south of the Border and living from the turn of the 20th Century to the early 1980s, and the grim fall-out when a loved one marries a Catholic.
“It was a great experience for me to write it because I've grown up hearing of this issue of mixed marriages – Catholics marrying Protestants – It was whispered about. People were afraid to talk about it out loud, and there was an awful lot of talk about 'turning'.
“It was whispered about in the way 20 years ago we whispered about homosexuality. It was really not to be talked about out loud, so I felt it was time that this story actually was told. Somebody said it was all about politics, but I said no, it's really a human, emotional story – there's a lot of pain in it which has never been expressed, and so I thought I'd tell the story that I'd heard whispered.”
While none of the characters are based on real people, Norma insists it offers the reader “a bit of social history”.
“It was 'ne temere' decree that actually was the cause of so much suffering,” she says of the rule which required Protestants marrying Catholics to renounce their own faith and become Catholic.
“In this book I tried to show the way institutions drive a wedge between families. The book shows the worst of both sides of the two churches, it shows the worst of the Presbyterian and the worst of the Catholic Church.”
The Celt notes that while Norma flags difference as the source of problems, the marriage between Harriet and her husband – both Presbyterian, is decidedly cold. Despite it being based in south Ulster, it felt like an alien world.
“That's the way it was. For example, when my father died, women, we weren't allowed to go to his funeral – my mother and my three sisters weren't allowed. We watched from an upstairs window in Bailieborough as my father's hearse was driven off to the church.”
How did you feel about that?
“Oh pretty terrible but you know that was the way things were.”
“That wouldn't happen now. That story – I grew up with that, what's in the book – I knew it first hand.”
However Norma, who attended the Royal School in her youth, is eager to stress she had a loving family and “very, very happy childhood.”
“I mean we observed the Sabbath and we read our Bibles and we feared the Roman Catholics and we did all the other stuff, but our family was a lovely family.”
You feared Catholics?
“Absolutely we feared them, that was very real for us, we feared – it's going back to Home Rule's Rome Rule. First of all we felt that the Catholic Church was in sin, it was erring, and at the same time it was so big, so powerful and if it's got a verve to convert, where would we be? There'd be none of us left, we'd all be sucked into it. So there was great defensiveness about it.
“Yeah, we were afraid, yet in Bailieborough growing up there was never any overt hostility at all – we all got on so well.
“Our fears were hidden, and any triumphalism that the Catholics had was hidden, we all seemed to be friends.”
But yet there was difference, best left silent.
“There was an undercurrent, like I say, it was whispered.”
Then aged 68, she was ordained a minister of the Church of Ireland in 2004, however she explains that she only changed denomination as there's no Presbyterian Church in her adopted home of Skerries.
“I love Presbyterianism, as strange as that might sound – it nurtured me, it gave me a foothold into life, it gave me good strong values, so there's an awful lot of good in Presbyterianism which I cherish, I feel very strongly about that. I still have a lot of Presbyterianism in me.”
She notes that in the last century, families – both Catholic and Protestant - encouraged romances between people of the same faith through organising dances through churches.
“We had our own dances where Catholics didn't come – mind you Catholics had their own dances in the AOH hall where we didn't go, so we were segregated like that. It was an unspoken way to get Protestants to marry eachother.”
Does that encouragement still exists in the Protestant community?
“No I don't think so, I think the more educated people have let all that go. I don't know anyone who thinks like that anymore. I think people have grown up and moved on, and evolved in our thinking. We're not stuck back there anymore.”