Galway author Catherine Doyle: 'Life is often bleak, but there is magic and possibility all around us'

Ahead of the publication of her second Storm Keeper book, Galway author Catherine Doyle tells Gail Bell about the real-life events which helped inspire her magical children's stories set on Arranmore Island

Catherine Doyle, author of the award-winning children's novel, Storm Keeper's Island, and Lost Tide Warriors, published this July
Gail Bell

WHAT began as a "magical love letter" to the real-life Arranmore Island has evolved into Galway author Catherine Doyle's just published second literary adventure, Lost Tide Warriors, again set against the mystical, crashing waves of Donegal's Wild Atlantic Way.

Following on from last year's award-winning The Storm Keeper's Island (short-listed for the Irish Book Awards, winner of the Books are My Bag Middle Grade Award from Young Readers), this second instalment sees 11 year-old hero Fionn Boyle battling with soulstalkers and a sorceress after losing his magic powers barely six months into his new role as keeper of the island.

But while the author may not yet have encountered a 'merrow' (mermaid or merman in Irish folklore) or – like Fionn – heard the wind actually whisper to her, a very special, personal connection with Arranmore Island helped bring Catherine's fantasy fiction vibrantly to life.

The author, who initially studied psychology at university, says a visit to the island homeplace of her maternal grandparents sparked her journey into what is set to be a quartet of stories drawing heavily on Irish seafaring legends and myths – as well as heroic rescues at sea.

"One of the stories I heard while staying on Arranmore Island was that of the rescue of Dutch cargo ship, the SS Stolwijk, in 1940," she says.

"My great grandfather, Phil Boyle, was among the volunteer lifeboat crew on Arranmore who answered the distress call after the ship was wrecked against a jagged rock during a violent storm.

"My grandfather, who was 10 at the time, watched him leave, commenting that 'they went over one wave and disappeared through the next, swallowed up by the storm'.

"But, a gruelling six hours later, the Arranmore crew succeeded in rescuing all 18 members of the SS Stolwijk and were later awarded gallantry medals by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

"My grandfather was so inspired by this that he went on to become a sea captain for 60 years of his life, and my cousin, Philip, still works on the Arranmore Lifeboats today."

So affected was Doyle herself by this tale of extraordinary bravery in the face of almost certain death, that she wrote it into Fionn’s story in The Storm Keeper’s Island, where it became a central part of her character's journey and heritage.

Like most good children's stories, though, a mix of truth and magic is required and the rest she leaves to an ever-buoyant imagination.

"I've always had imaginative tendencies and I think that is why I am drawn so much to children's fiction," Catherine tells me.

"It allows for more escapism. I think it’s so important to hold on to our inner child as we get older – to indulge in whimsy and adventure, as much as we possibly can.

"Life is short and often bleak, but there is magic and possibility all around us. It’s important to reach out for it, every now and then."

These days she is still intellectually energized by the sea and, when not writing, spends as much time as she can running by the promenade in Galway city ("so I don't get too cooped up"), walking by the sea and, "when really stressed", flying a kite a la Mary Poppins.

"Some of my friends find that really unusual, but I maintain it’s impossible not to smile when you’re flying a kite," she asserts with a girly laugh down the line.

Another recent diversion was a laudable involvement with the Make a Wish project when the 29-year-old full-time writer helped a nine year-old girl publish her own children's book.

"Through that process, I got to see, first-hand, the amazing work of the organisation and, specifically, the work of 'wish-maker' Ailbhe, who made the little girl's dream become a reality," she enthuses.

"I think being a 'wish-maker' would be tough, but extraordinarily rewarding. If I wasn't a writer, I would really like to be a granter of wishes."

Although powered by an unstoppable imagination as a child, the proud Galway girl succumbed to the occupational hazard that befalls most teenagers these days – too much phone-gazing and not enough looking upwards and outwards.

"I visited Arranmore once as a teenager and I don't think I really noticed what was around me," she admits.

"In fact, I don't think I even looked up from my phone the entire time I was there. It was only when I went back as an adult that I fully appreciated my surroundings.

"When I was invited by my cousin to go back and spend a week on the island, I got to walk, literally, in the footsteps of my ancestors and visit the pub where my grandfather was born and walk the beaches where by great, great grandmother played as a child. And I breathed it all in, all these powerful stories of the sea.

"Sadly, today, I think social media has created a virtual world that we are all getting lost in. Kids should get out into nature and have their own adventures – and I think adults should too. We all need to look up from our phones every now and then to make sure that life isn't passing us by."

:: The Lost Tide Warriors, published by Bloomsbury Children's Books, is the second in the Storm Keeper quartet and will be available from mid-July.

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