‘Women need to relax - not by watching Loose Women but by relaxing about how far you’ve got’ - Co Down novelist Roisin Maguire

Grandmother Roisin Maguire speaks to Jenny Lee about her ‘give it a go’ attitude to life and her new novel, a charming take on community and connection in a remote coastal village during the Covid lockdown

Novelist Roisin Maguire standing infront of the sea
Novelist Roisin Maguire whose book Night Swimmers is set in a remote fictional village on Northern Ireland's coast

Sorrow, guilt, recovery and, above all, community combine in Co Down author Roisin Maguire’s novel Night Swimmers, set against the backdrop of the Irish Sea.

Although having been a successful short story writer over the years, including winning the Irish News Short Story Award 25 years ago and the John O’Connor Award in 2018, it wasn’t until the Covid lockdown that she was inspired by her then 17-year-old to write her first novel.

“My youngest is quite sensitive and thought the world was ending. Covid figures were rising, the politicians were misbehaving, and yet we were seeing such kindness as people were going above and beyond to help each other. So I wanted to write as an antidote to all the awful news we were hearing,” says the 53-year-old.

Night Swimmers features eccentric and cranky heroine Grace, who lives in the fictional village of Ballybrady, on the east coast of Northern Ireland.

Night Swimmers book cover
Night Swimmers is a moving debut novel by Roisin Maguire, set in a quirky coastal community

She fills her days with swimming, fishing, quilting, and baiting the visitors who arrive from the city. One of these is Evan, taking an enforced holiday from his family and work to deal with the death of his infant daughter and his faltering marriage and career.

Evan has not even been there a week when finds himself trapped by lockdown. Floundering and forlorn, he struggles to focus and fit in amongst the locals.

When Grace saves him from drowning, and Evan’s troubled son Luca arrives to stay, all three are pulled together by currents that draw them to a reckoning with their personal trauma and back into society.

“Menopause and lockdown hit me at the same time, so I started to write about the person I wanted to be. I threw in quilting, because I admire people who can sit down and do that,” laughs the grandmother and mother of four.

However in writing the story, Roisin soon discovered that just as with reality, fictional life that throws curveballs can make you reevaluate who you are and in what direction in life you are travelling.

“Grace was a sort of idealised woman at the start, but as other people came into Grace’s idyllic life and disrupted things, they forced her to move out of her equilibrium, re-evaluate and change,” says Roisin.

“As the novel evolved, I thought that it was quite a nice microcosm of the way the world is. You get to these certain places and you think, that’s me set, I will now relax, but something always comes in the way and gives you a nudge. We are supposed to change. "

Writer Roisin Maguire sitting on a sea wall with her dog
Writer Roisin Maguire, who lives outside Downpatrick, has had many fulfilling careers

This has certainly been true of Roisin’s own life. As a single mother, she supported herself and her young daughter whilst at university by working as a bouncer in the Students’ Union, and by driving the Women’s Bus at the end of the rowdy nights to leave drunken students safely home.

Jobs as a classroom assistant and later a 10-year teaching job in one of north’s first integrated primary schools followed.

But when her toddler son was diagnosed with cancer, it forced her to re-prioritise.

“I had to leave teaching and thought it was the end of the world; but the nudges you get in life aren’t necessarily a bad thing,” reflects Roisin, whose son is now a fit and well 23-year-old.

Women need to relax. I don’t mean just sit back and watch Loose Women. I mean, relax about yourself. Relax about how far you’ve got. Relax about what you’re going to do next

—  Roisin Maguire

When Roisin returned to work, it was in the family construction business – in various roles from marketing and sales to driving a forklift.

Volunteering work with Home-Start, a period teaching toddlers to play football and running a parent and toddler group, Roisin’s desire is to work more with families.

The Ballyhornan woman earned a place on the QUB midwifery programme, but it wasn’t meant to be.

“I lasted a year, in the dry heat of delivery wards strapping frightened women to trolleys and sticking needles in them and in their babies - and then hastily bowed out.”

My experience in life is that you end up where you’re meant to be

—  Roisin Maguire

Instead she qualified as a birth doula (a non-medical birth attendant) and hypnobirthing coach and is currently a trainee hypnotherapist.

“It is a meandering path,” she says of her various careers, “but when I look back all the dots are connected.”

Her interests outside the workplace are equally as diverse – motorbikes, scuba diving, open sea swimming, Celtic shamanism and, of course, writing.

Roisin Maguire standing on a rock holding her scuba diving equipment
Roisin Maguire took up scuba diving on her 40th birthday

As well as some Open University courses, she completed her MA in Creative Writing in 2018.

With a general philosophy of life that says, “sure it’s great craic altogether and wildly interesting so why wouldn’t I give it a go?” Roisin says she has no regrets.

She encourages other women, especially those who have dedicated their lives to caring for others, to step back and give themselves a pat on the back and not be afraid of doing something new.

“My advice to them is relax. I don’t mean just sit back and watch Loose Women. I mean, relax about yourself. Relax about how far you’ve got. Relax about what you’re going to do next,” she says.

“Another word is trust. If you’ve got this far you’ve done well. My experience in life is that you end up where you’re meant to be.

“My main focus in my hypnotherapy is helping clients with depression and anxiety. Everyone is tied up in knots nowadays thinking that they’re not doing enough, when the truth is they are doing too much.”

Roisin Maguire sitting in chair with clipboard
Roisin enjoying working in Rosie's Space Hypnotherapy in Downpatrick

Showing compassion and communicating with one another are two things Roisin hopes readers take away from her novel Night Swimmers.

“There is a basic human need to communicate. Night Swimmers is written about a time when communication was practically forbidden with one another. The deaf child couldn’t communicate with anybody, but when he comes to the village, he manages to help everyone communicate their grief in their own individual and creative ways.”

Roisin says she received the “ultimate compliment” when she spotted her husband reading Night Swimmers.

“He hadn’t read anything since The Twits in P6. Now he says he wants a sequel,” she laughs.

Whilst he won’t get his wish, Roisin has already started her second novel, informed by elements of her various careers.

“Night Swimmers was of its time and that time is over. I’m working on a completely different book about a woman who has rejected contemporary medicine.”

Night Swimmers is published by Serpent’s Tail and is out now