During the 1980s and 1990s Kinsale was the sort of place, writer Alannah Hopkin says, where people met by chance at the post office and by default headed for the pub. The genteel air of earlier days, when Anglo-Irish writers Molly Keane and Elizabeth Bowen took tea at Acton’s Hotel, had been replaced by beery romanticism and, in the words of writer Matthew Geden, “a constant sense of a party just around the corner”.
Alannah’s book, A Very Strange Man, is a great many things. Primarily, a memoir of her late husband, the writer Aidan Higgins, it also serves as an illuminating account of the creative and literary scene that blossomed in the area in those pre-Celtic Tiger decades.
When she moved there first from the UK, “there really wasn’t much going on”.
“A lot of people came here and worked in Hedli MacNeice’s restaurant [The Spinnaker], and people came occasionally just to escape everything and be quiet.” The writers soon started to come, beginning with poets Desmond O’Grady and Robert Nye.
Working as a well-regarded journalist in London, she decided to move to Cork with a view to living by the sea, sailing, and writing fiction (in her late 20s, she also discovered a passion for horse-riding).
“That was another big factor in trying to move out of London and live in rural Ireland,” she says. “I think I was a bit before my time; lots of people are doing it now.
“I thought I could walk away from journalism but, as it turned out, the fiction didn’t sell that well and there was no money in it so back to journalism I went.”
In A Very Strange Man, her recollections of Kinsale’s literary and creative scene are peppered with names familiar to any culture follower: Stan Gebler Davies, David Marcus, Edna O’Brien, John Banville, Seamus Heaney, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Philomena Rafferty, John McGahern, William Trevor, Vincent Dowling, Eileen Battersby… and Samuel Beckett. It was, she says, a particularly vibrant time and place to be a writer.
“The sort of Kinsale thing that exists nowadays didn’t exist then at all,” she says. “I guess a lot of the time we talked about books and writing all the time, and we ran an arts week – that was fun.”
The locals and the creative blow-ins rubbed along well together.
“We all liked each other, particularly Desmond O’Grady,” Alannah says. “He was lovely and sociable and told a good story. He was kind of a showman whereas some others could be a little less sociable.”
Why Kinsale? “It’s probably to do with sailing and it being a port town. You have people living on boats who sailed across the Atlantic who you didn’t know but would eventually meet at the bar. Just a year ago I met a man at a bus stop who needed a lift – it turned out that he was a retired ophthalmologist who was sailing around the country.”
Very famous people were given the space to just be themselves; something that was a huge draw.
“When Ray Davies [of The Kinks] lived here, he would come and have his Guinness in a bar and no-one would bother him,” she explains. “I think that’s very much appreciated by the very famous. Michael Jackson came and stayed at Ballinacurra House, and part of the deal was that his stay would be kept very private.”
Camaraderie, rather than rivalry, writ large within the coterie of Kinsale creatives. Hopkin’s book is full of delicious details of languid, boozy evenings, book events and salon-style lunches.
“We all celebrated each other’s books,” she says. “You could live on almost nothing and have a great time, because the rents were ridiculously low. It was a bit of a miracle.
“I think you could divide writers into Dublin writers and ‘outside Dublin’ ones. There’s a lot to be said for anonymity, and also the fact that no-one makes a fuss of anyone else.”
There was something about the nascent creative energy in Kinsale that served her well.
As she began working on a book about St Patrick in 1986, a friend, the poet Derek Mahon, suggested that she meet the writer Aidan Higgins, who was visiting Kinsale at the time with a view to moving out of Wicklow.
As many great stories do, it all began with a coup de foudre – a thunderbolt. Yet on meeting Higgins, expectations were so low that she went to their first meeting with wet hair after a swim.
“Suppose, I thought idly, he turns out to be someone significant in my life and his first view of me is of an otter-like wet head,” she writes. “I dismissed this uncharacteristic romantic thought from my thoroughly rational mind and headed for the bar.”
The attraction was intense, and immediate; so much so that after a passionate weekend, the two moved in together almost immediately. Hopkin was 36 and Higgins 59, although could have easily passed for 39.
Though they met in 1986, they didn’t marry until 1997, and remained together until Higgins’ death just after Christmas 2015. By then, Higgins has been living with vascular dementia for years, with Alannah his primary carer until he moved into a care home three years before his death.
Their relationship was the stuff of great books; by turns intense, rich, romantic, rocky and complex. Little wonder that she sought to commit it to print.
When she talks to me from the same house in Kinsale that she and Aidan bought many years ago, Alannah says that she wrote the book for a number of reasons. First, she wanted to bring Higgins’s considerable body of work to a new, wider audience. A non-conventional, elliptical writer, he was often referred to as a stylistic bedfellow of stream-of-consciousness writers like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien.
“Aidan’s writing has always been seen as kind of dry and difficult, but in fact it’s very funny and very warm,” she says. “It was definitely a major concern of mine to give a good account of his work in the hope that people return to it.”
His life certainly deserves to be committed to print. Born in Celbridge, Co Kildare, Aidan had grown up in Springfield House, an impoverished Big House but the money soon ran out. The family later moved to Greystones, next door to John Beckett, a cousin of Samuel.
Higgins wrote about a family similar to his own in his debut novel, Langrishe, Go Down (later adapted for the BBC by Harold Pinter, in a drama starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons). The novel would also go on to win the Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Irish Academy of Letters Award.
Alannah recalls his encounters with Sam Beckett; the future Nobel prizewinner not only persuaded John Calder to publish Felo de Se, a collection of Higgins’s short stories, in 1956, he also helped the broke young writer with gifts of money. He offered advice to the young Higgins in a letter in barely decipherable writing: “Despair young and never look back.”
Alannah, meanwhile, was born in Singapore and grew up in London. Her father was a doctor in the British colonial service, and her mother was from Summercove, near Kinsale, and bought a house there when Alannah was studying English in London.
She went on to became a prolific and in-demand journalist, despite harbouring plans to write creatively.
In one instance in the book, she writes about travelling to Dublin, all expenses paid (including a stay in the Clarence Hotel in its pre-U2 incarnation) to interview a film illustrator. Although the interview was eventually cancelled she got to enjoy a few days in Dublin (and was paid a £200 kill fee for the piece anyway – a tidy sum back then).
Part of her journalism beat was to interview celebrities for publications like the Sunday Times and Financial Times: “It meant you met a lot of really famous people in a hotel and you had tea and you wrote a profile and it was a stupid exercise,” she says now. “It was pure PR. You get used to it very quickly, and then you get tired of it.”
During her romance with Aidan she instinctively gravitated towards the sort of writing work that would pay the bills, leaving him relatively free to work on his own, more unconventional writing.
“What I did was I worked, flat out when I could and then I would try to take two months off to write fiction because I found that see-sawing between the two was just counterproductive,” she says. “It was frustrating – you didn’t have enough time to do the thing you wanted to write and so it was just better to face up to the world and earn yourself time off.”
Occasionally she would take a stab at completing more creative work, first applying in vain to become a member of Aosdána, the Irish artists’ association that would pay a regular stipend to its artist and writer members (Higgins was a founding member).
Nor did David Marcus, editor of the Phoenix Irish Short Stories collection – back then the only show in town for short story writers – publish her work, going so far at one stage as to write to her telling her to stop submitting stories.
“I just didn’t let it affect me,” she admits. “Perhaps I should have tried harder to get stories published in London, I don’t know. But, you know, it would have been wonderful to have an income and not to have to do all the journalism.”
Even so, she published two novels, A Joke Goes A Long Way In The Country in 1982 and The Out-Haul in 1985. Her first collection of stories, The Dogs of Inishere, appeared in 2017.
Within their marriage, Aidan was sometimes less than effusive about her writing. It was, naturally, a source of friction.
“That was a surprise, mainly because I’d been totally spoiled and received nothing but praise from everyone,” she smiles. “He was just being honest – it just didn’t occur to him to put it gently.
“And when someone else reported [that criticism] to me I did get annoyed because I thought it was a bit disloyal. It took me years to discover that while he was supportive he was actually very jealous when I wrote fiction. I didn’t think that was possible because he’d already published four major novels and some really extraordinary radio plays.”
While their romance bounded out of the traps with great passion and promise, she says they had rocky moments. Eight years in, she wrote in her diary that “the honeymoon was over”. Later his gift for a cutting remark began to take its toll on their relationship.
She recalls instances throughout the book in which he didn’t treat her particularly well.
“In relationships, things are always shifting,” she reflects. “It’s just life. I think any long relationship has its rough patches. We could go for weeks without really talking to each other – you eat the meal and read the book and go for the walk on your own. You can live quite closely to someone without relating to them.
“I wrote about the ‘thunderbolt’ from memory but then wanted to go back and see what was in my old notebooks.
“In one instance [early on in the romance] I wrote in my diary that I was angry that my work was being interrupted by this great romance. I realised on reading old notebooks and diaries that unless I tell the truth the book wasn’t going to be any good. You have to face up to the fact that you’ll have to reveal stuff you’d rather keep private, and I’m normally a very private person.
“It’s important to put [these details] in – if I didn’t it would be fake.”
More than anything she wanted to commemorate all facets of the couple’s romance in the book.
“I couldn’t write anything else until I’d written this one book,” she says. “Since Aidan went into care, I had the time and freedom to think, and all of a sudden I started seeing his troubles from a very different point of view.”
As it happens she has delivered much more than just a love story. In detailing his final years after his diagnosis, the book also becomes a moving account of caring for someone with dementia and bearing witness to that heart-breaking, terrible decline.
“[Aidan’s carers] made space for me and were sort of carrying me along, you know, making sure I understood how things were going with Aidan and how things worked, and it struck me as something I’d never read about,” she says. “In some ways I wanted for my own sake to sort out what had happened. Those 29 years went by in a flash.”
Aidan’s dementia went undiagnosed for some years: doctors initially attributed his behaviours to underlying mental health conditions. In 2002 he had a sort of psychotic episode, exacerbated by taking steroids for an eye condition.
“[A psychiatrist] made the point that with vascular dementia, your consciousness comes and goes – it’s a physical thing because blood is not getting to the brain,” she says. “I never really understood that while [Aidan] was alive – for a long time I thought it was just moods but it was more that.”
Seeing his decline at short range “was hard to see. You know, you live with something so closely that you don’t realise what is going on”.
Amazingly, and despite having a stroke in April 2015, Higgins continued to write his book March Hares.
All the while, Alannah kept a record of her own experiences and feelings: “To get a good perspective on it, and I suppose I thought, maybe one day I might look back at it and make something of it.”
Aidan’s peaceful death in 2015, she admits, was something of a “relief”. “It seemed to come at the right moment,” she explains. “He was fading in every way, physically as well as mentally. It just seemed to be very gentle and right to me.”
She writes of their final moments together with a shimmering, beautiful fragility, detailing the moment where Aidan whispered “Zin” (his nickname for her) and how his hand lost its grip on hers. She went home and wrote about it immediately: “How strange is time when it comes to death. And how beautiful death can be when it comes with peace and gives a gentle release.”
In addition to being a keeper of Aidan Higgins’s flame – his own memoir, Donkey’s Years, is being released by New Island alongside A Very Strange Man – Alannah has immersed herself in her own writing now she has finally committed their extraordinary life to print.
“I have three stories or short novels – they’re a bit autobiographical – but those will probably become fiction,” she says. “They were what I was working on when Aidan was still alive. Right now, all they need is a little push to get finished.”
‘A Very Strange Man’ is out on Friday. ‘Donkey’s Years’ is due out next month