Mary Russell was born in Dublin, the last of four children.
She was educated first by nuns of the Dominican order and
then, for eight years, by the La Sainte Union nuns at Our
Lady's Bower, Athlone - a town which straddles the provinces
of Leinster and Connaught and which lies more or less in
the middle of the Bog of Allen. The education provided at
The Bower was gender-specific: French, Art, History, Latin,
Music, Domestic Science, Needlework, Hockey. There was no
science laboratory and the one girl who chose to study science
had to do so at the local boys' school - much to everyone's
envy. The ethos was standard Catholic boarding school of
its day: girls wore white veils and white gloves to Mass
every morning and, because it was a French order, addressed
the nuns as Madam.
The only males to cross the threshold of the convent were
the chaplain, the doctor and Herr Rasfeldt, who taught singing.
After leaving the Bower, she went to University College,
Dublin and took an Arts Degree. During the holidays, she
went to London and became a number of different things including
ward orderly, garage forecourt attendant, teacher. She was
also an au pair for a time in Italy but has blanked out that
On her way back from Italy to Dublin - where her father
was hoping she would get a good steady job - she stopped
off in London to earn enough to buy a winter coat having
earlier blown the money given to her for that purpose.
London took hold and she stayed there until she met a writer
called Ian Graham Rodger. They fell in love, married and
had three children who are all now grown up. During this
time, she started writing for The Irish Times and for Irish
In 1980, she woke from the long dream of domesticity, plunged
into an MA course at the School of Peace Studies at Bradford
University and started writing regularly for The Guardian.
The following year, she travelled to Lesotho, the first of
many such journeys. That year also, she wrote a four-part
series on solo women travellers for the Guardian Women's
page. As a result of this, a literary agent invited her to
edit a book about two women wild-life photographers caught
up in the Malvinas or Falklands War. When Survival South
Atlantic came out, she was asked by the publisher if there
was anything else she would like to write which is how The
Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt came about. This was an exciting
time but it was also a terrible time. The 80s saw the worst
of the Thatcher years and during the miners' strike of 1984
Ian, a staunch socialist, died of motor neurone disease.
The following summer, Mary Russell spent a month travelling
through France from Le Havre to Marseille with
her tent on the back of her bike. From Marseille, she caught
a ship to Algiers and continued down into the Sahara where
she spent some time with the Saharawi, a desert people displaced
by the invasion of their country by Morocco.
One day, watching a TV programme about the then Soviet republic
of Georgia and learning it was the place where Medea was
born, she decided to go there. Her first visit - a week-long
stay - was financed by the sale of a play to BBC radio. She
returned the next Easter for three months. Her book Please
Don't Call it Soviet Georgia is about her time there.
Other journeys followed - to the Arctic, South Africa, Hungary,
Russia and the Eastern Caribbean. In 1998, she was invited
to contribute to Penguin's Amazonian, a collection of new
travel writing, by women. She chose to write about Sarajevo
and her journey around Bosnia immediately after the war there.
At this time, she was starting to write short stories,
often drawing on her travel experiences. Some of the stories
have been published in different editions of the London Magazine
as well as in collections including Nocturnal Emissions (1997)
The Phoenix Book of Irish Short Stories (1998) and Signals
In 1999, she was commissioned by the Irish publishing company
Town House to write a travel book in which she looks not
only at the places she has so far visited but also at her
reasons for going to these places. This was a revealing project
as often the reasons for going to certain destinations did
not make themselves evident until after the journey was completed,
and sometimes even not until four or five years later.
Journeys of a Lifetime was published in Ireland by Town
House Books and in the UK by Simon and Schuster in June 2002.
Most recently, her travels have taken her to Israel, Syria
and to Iraq (see Print, for her pieces in The Irish
Times and The Guardian on Baghdad and Damascus respectively.)
My Own Version
I was nine when I was sent away to boarding school and it
was there that I learned the true meaning of loneliness.
I missed my mother singing as she dried the dishes, the sound
of my father rattling the pages of The Irish Times, the smell
of toast in the kitchen. But of course my parents sent me
away for my own good and I got over the loneliness eventually
and settled down to boarding school life: playing hockey,
falling in love with the gym teacher and developing a love
of words. (The French word crepuscule was a favourite though
never its cumbersome English version crepuscular.)
Convent life was hothouse life. Love and desire hid on every
landing waiting to jump out at you. Girls got crushes on
each other and to my horror, I fell in love with the most
forbidden fruit of all: the school chaplain.
Life was full of puzzles. You always, it seemed, had to
be one thing or the other. You had to favour the Romantics
- Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth. Or Milton. You had to like
Debussy and Chopin. Or Beethoven.
If you liked them all, as I did, you were frivolous and
shallow. To this day, I remain frivolous and shallow.
University was fun. There was male company, racy Dublin
girls, the beginnings of sex. There was also the chance to
read and I spent the whole of my second year sitting in the
National Library reading - though what I now forget.
When I arrived in London, I was what they called, in Soho,
a mystery - a naive young woman from out of town who was
up for anything. London was parties and a bedsit in Earls
Court - thirteen in all and thrown out of two. It was learning
how to back-dial in order to call home for nothing – illegal,
of course, but who cared about that? London was getting free
tickets for whatever was on at the Royal Court or the Arts
Theatre because you knew, in the biblical sense, one of the
Then I met Ian and my life took an unexpected turn. He was
a writer who knew only how to write – nothing else.
We were poor but didn't know it. Ian's writing career progressed.
He wrote a number of stage plays – Cromwell at
Drogheda was one – as well as a vast number of radio
plays for the BBC. The Elizabeth R series of TV plays concluded
with his Sweet England’s Pride in which Glenda
Jackson, now an admirable Member of Parliament, played
the dying Queen Elizabeth. Occasionally Ian managed to have something
of a regular income from his work as radio critic for The
Listener and later the Guardian.
It was not in the plan that he should die when he did. When
I find myself doing the things he used to do - obsessively
watching the post for a letter from a publisher, down on
my hands and knees sorting through the bills and receipts
which I must make sense of before sending to my accountant
- I sometimes think that I have taken up where he left off.
It's a strange feeling.
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