Lisa Burkitt and the birth of a novel idea

Paddy Walsh


Paddy Walsh

Conceived in the United States, set in Paris, and launched in Rathmullan - for American born Lisa Burkitt’s debut novel ‘The Memory of Scent’ there is something of her life’s journey to date running through these geographical themes.

Conceived in the United States, set in Paris, and launched in Rathmullan - for American born Lisa Burkitt’s debut novel ‘The Memory of Scent’ there is something of her life’s journey to date running through these geographical themes.

It was in the land of her birth that the idea of a book first took root and it was the city where she spent a period of her life in that was almost inevitably going to form the backdrop for her historical story. And this Friday evening in the scenic surrounds of Rathmullan House her novel will take its first steps into the public domain in a county she now firmly calls home.

It has been home for some time now - was home when her family relocated to Letterkenny from an America that had reeled from the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy to arrive in an Ireland that had shared in the shock of those slayings. The McGills came back in the year of Bloody Sunday - from the racial tensions they’d left behind in Cleveland, Ohio, to the sectarian divisions of the Troubles here. But life for all of them would move on. Or so they thought.

Lisa’s mother, Eileen (a member of the well known McGlinchey family) had taken her four children back to Letterkenny while her husband, Basil, remained on in the States for a further year. The couple had initially met at the Covehill home of Lisa’s aunt. Jo, Cork born, Basil having arrived in the town as a raw 16-year-old to take up employment in the Post Office. “It was like a foreign posting in the army!,” laughs Lisa.

They married in Dublin in the early fifties and set off to live in the States, setting up home in Cleveland where he started a job as a stockbroker. Lisa and her three siblings, Denise, Anne and Paul, were all born in the U.S. but after moving to New Jersey the family finally took the decision to return.

Two years after that return, in 1972, personal tragedy hit the McGills in the most devastating of circumstances. They had spent their first Christmas together in Letterkenny when 41-year-old Eileen was killed in a car crash in the vicinity of the Port Bridge, shattering the dream of a new life and fresh beginnings.

To this day, Lisa doesn’t know, and has deliberately never made it her business to know, the precise location of the fatal accident. “I pass by it frequently but where exactly my mum’s car spun off the road, I don’t know and don’t want to.

“I was eleven years of age when it happened and for five years after the accident, I never uttered the word ‘Mummy’.”

Not that her mother wasn’t forever a presence. “The house we were living in at Lower Main Street became physically colder. The life went out of it.”

But time, even in the face of tragedy, won’t stand still and for the young Lisa the world opened up to creativity and thoughts of travel. “The first time I got a poem published was in my fourth year at the Loreto Convent. It was called ‘Lament of a Delinquent’,” she grins at the memory of the title.

“I always wanted to travel and I suppose I saw myself following a journalistic career in a war zone.”

It was to Jerusalem that she ultimately headed. “I was there for one and a half years and absolutely adored it.” Her first rejection slips came from the old ‘Irish Press’ who weren’t interested in summaries of daily life in Israel.

But there were other places to see and other writings that would be accepted by publishers. “I lived in Paris for a while and it stayed with me.” Stayed with her when she took herself off to the United States and the idea of a novel sewed itself into her consciousness and the City of Lights emerged as the setting point for it.

The seed grew but in the meantime, after her return to Donegal, so too Lisa’s involvement in journalism. initial prime mover behind the ‘Finn Valley Voice’ and producer on Highland Radio among other achievements. The intensive research into ‘The Memory of Scent’, which centres on the story of a woman in Paris in 1883, began in 2009 and finally the book will take its place on the bookshelves after this weekend.

Lisa has just returned from the French city where she attended the launch of an anthology of best Parisian stories which includes a story of her own, ‘A Pinch of Tarragaon’, which she had reshaped into the genre from the drafts of her novel.

Somehow Paris was always destined to play a significant role in Lisa Burkitt’s writing career. And she never had any doubts that Donegal would be the launching pad for her debut work of fiction.

“People would have said why not Dublin but I always wanted to launch the book in the county where I live.”

And in Rathmullan this Friday evening. ‘The Memory of Scent’ will be launched by County Arts Officer, Traolach O’Fionnain. Highland Radio’s Shaun Doherty will also read an extract from the work which is being published by ‘The History Press’.

A significant chapter in Lisa’s writing career. And more to follow. “I’m writing another book. It took me so long to finally get this one out that I don’t want to waste any more time.”

From the United States to Donegal via Paris and other points. The journey continues.