Donegal author Caitriona Coyle has released her debut novel 'College Girls', which tracks the lives of three women living in Dublin during the 1970s.
Having left Donegal and convent boarding school behind, the protagonist Cathy Logue begins a new adventure in the capital. She moves into a shabby apartment on the outskirts of Dublin, where she meets Ethna and Meave.
This coming-of-age novel, due to hit shelves next Thursday, is humorous but also has poignant undertones.
“Cathy is nineteen and is crazy for action, she compares leaving boarding school with the feeling of leaving prison! Cathy is flawed and insecure, but she can be a right little vixen – yet I feel you warm to her,” says Caitriona.
“Cathy suffers terribly from anxiety and panic attacks. Back in the 1970s, no one even knew the word anxiety. Cathy’s life is blighted by it, and she suffers alone like so many people did during that time. People just battled on. But I think that’s what makes Cathy loveable, people can identify with her. She’s not a goody-goody by any means but she likes to think she’s a badass!”
“The novel is set during The Troubles, and the characters are very aware of the situation in Long Kesh and the Dirty Protests. The impending hunger strike is also at the fore of Cathy’s mind.”
Cathy is heavily influenced by the nationalist narrative that prevailed in Republican areas of Donegal at the time. Although Cathy’s hometown is not revealed, Caitriona hints that Cathy was raised somewhere along the Donegal side of the Derry border.
Drawing from her own experience living in Dublin in the 1970s and 1980s whilst attending the Mater Dei Institute of Education, Caitriona recalls attending a demonstration on O’Connell Street against the inhumane treatment of the Hunger Strikers in 1981. Thousands from across the country attended the protest, each county carrying their flag. Marching proudly behind the Donegal flag alongside the late Fanad TD Neil Blaney, Caitriona says the atmosphere in the city centre was electric.
“I wasn’t writing with any political motivations in mind, I’d like the readers to make up their own minds, but this was reality through Cathy’s eyes. She was of her time.”
However, set against the backdrop of the political and social tumult during The Troubles, another vibrant movement was growing in Dublin.
Caitriona beams; “The hippy era didn’t come to Dublin until the 1970s, I remember the Dandelion Market by Stephen’s Green. A large door painted in psychedelic colours, it was Dublin’s premier venue for all things bohemian. You could get everything in there; colourful clothing (including flared jeans of course), vinyl records, jewellery, ponchos, and so much more. This venue was actually where U2 started out!”
Recalling the Dublin she knew in the 1970s was at the heart of the writing process when she first put pen to paper four years ago.
Caitriona, who has taught English at a secondary school in Dublin for over thirty years, explained that every time she would do a new novel with the class, she would feel a sense of ambition and determination wash over her to get her story on paper.
“It’s been in my head for about thirty years, I tried to write it in a short story format, but I soon realised that a story like this needed to be a novel.”
“It’s so different when you’re correcting essays, it’s easy to help other people improve their writing but when it comes to taking my own advice it’s a different story. It’s like how dance coaches may be able to choreograph a routine but may find difficulty completing it themselves.”
Taking early retirement in 2012, Caitriona took a creative writing course in Dublin City Centre.
“It was a tremendous help, we workshopped each other’s writing and when I began writing the story, the support of the others in the group gave me the impetus to finish the book.”
The biggest obstacle is the technological aspect of publishing, she explained. As most publishers conduct their business over the internet, Caitriona relied on her daughters Kate (27) and Holly (25) to show her the virtual ropes.
The number one piece of advice Caitriona would give to an aspiring author is to join a writing class.
“You may think you know where to start with a novel, but you don’t. And read like hell! Stop thinking about it, and stop talking about it. Just go for it!”
The best advice she received during her journey was from an instructor at her writing group, who said “don’t tell it, write it.”
Recalling her own experience and utilising her own personal taste, 70s music features heavily. Artists such as Neil Young, Rod Stewart, Bob Segers, and Bob Dylan are very important to the story, Caitriona hinted.
“I’ll always write what I know, my work will always be grounded in reality.”
Originally from Glen Village, Caitriona now lives in Smithfield, Dublin.
“Donegal will always be home, but Dublin is my second home. When I’m walking around the city centre, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I love going out early in the morning, watching the city come awake.”
Caitriona’s favourite Irish authors include Anne Enright, Donal Ryan, and Belinda McKeon – and she hopes traces of Marian Keyes’ wit are evident in the novel. Her favourite books are F. Scott Fizgerald’s masterpiece ‘The Great Gatsby’, and Emily Bronte’s tragic ‘Wuthering Heights’.
Caitriona is hoping to launch her book in mid-September in Donegal and Dublin.
Donegal Woman has got their mitts on a copy of the book – so watch this space for our review!
‘College Girls’ will be available on Amazon from the 31st of August.
You can follow Caitriona on Instagram to keep up with her work.