CLAIRE MCGREAL traces the trajectory of an Irish Australian story.

Oct 25 2010
CLAIRE MCGREAL traces the trajectory of an Irish Australian story.

House swap inspires Dublin novel
Posted on 23 October 2010

Irish inspiration: Graeme and Elsie Johnstone, pictured in Killarney during their Irish adventure that spawned a novel; (Above) the Celine Cawly murder case, which inspired the book, Lover Husband Father Monster: A Novel In Two Voices.

A Melbourne couple’s Dublin house swap has led to a collaborative novel inspired by an infamous Irish crime. Melbourne writers Graeme and Elsie Johnstone last year temporarily swapped the blue skies of Australia for the green foothills of the Dublin Mountains.

The retired couple in their sixties took part in an internet house swap, which saw them move into a house in Firhouse in Tallaght, and a young Irish family move into their home in Beaumaris in the Melbourne Bayside suburbs for nine months in 2009.

The Irish family was looking to migrate to Australia full-time and wanted to get a taste of life Down Under before taking the plunge.

Graeme, a former columnist with the Melbourne Sun Herald and Elsie also a writer and an ex-teacher, wanted to spend some time with their son and new granddaughter, who live in England.

After initially advertising online for a house swap in England, the Johnstones were approached by an Irish couple who offered up their house in the Dublin suburb of Tallaght.

“We thought ‘why not’,” says Elsie, “we both have Irish ancestry (Graeme’s grandfather is from Athlone and Elsie has roots in Tipperary) and we would still be just a short flight or ferry away from the UK.”

The swap was agreed upon and the Johnstones left Melbourne for Dublin in March 2009.

From their adopted home in Firhouse, situated at the bottom of a cul de sac, the couple say they gained “real insight” into suburban life in the capital city, surrounded as they were by “husbands and wives doing their best for their growing families”.

Elsie says they loved getting to know the families and children in their area.

“They were terrific… we knew all the kids on the street as we had a tree in our front yard that they all loved to sit in and climb for most of the summer.” During their stay, the couple travelled across the country, taking in an All-Ireland final, visiting the Lakes of Killarney and spending a week in Achill. They also enjoyed the Irish food and developed a taste for rashers and sausages in particular.

“We loved the people overall and the experience,” says Elsie, “Dublin is a really nice city and so easy to get around. But the only thing we didn’t like was the rain.”
It was the traditional rainy Irish weather that prompted Elsie and Graeme to first put their pens to paper.

“After we’d been there for a couple of weeks it rained every day, so we tried to write for every day it rained,” laughs Elsie. It was also during this time that the high profile Eamonn Lillis murder trial was dominating the Irish airwaves. Like the rest of the country, the Johnstones were intrigued by the case, in which wealthy businesswoman and former Bond girl Celine Cawley died after being beaten with a brick in her plush home in Howth, North Co Dublin.

The mother-of-one’s husband, Eamonn Lillis stood trial for her murder – a charge he denied – and was subsequently found guilty of Ms Cawley’s manslaughter.
This trial and that of another case in Melbourne, in which a father had thrown his child off the Westgate Bridge, inspired the Johnstones to write their first joint novel Lover Husband Father Monster.

Elsie says they were surprised at the variety of views expressed by Irish people at the time in relation to the Lillis case and how some seemed to question whether his wife was in some way to blame.

“The Celine Cawley story was the one that got us talking and discussing what would make a man do such a thing when he seemed to have it all, what goes on in a marriage that outsiders don’t see, and how could a man be so angry that he would do an unspeakable thing. Obviously the cause and effect would be seen differently by the two participating partners.”

The Johnstones based their novel on a picture perfect family living in the leafy South Dublin suburbs of Blackrock, who seemed to have it all. Elsie says they picked Blackrock as they “knew it was upper-middle class”.

“The children [in the novel] went to the best schools and they seemed to be the perfect Celtic Tiger family.”

However behind closed doors it was a different story, one in which a loveless marriage and an affair resulted in the husband taking the ultimate revenge.

The story is written in two voices, taking into account the views of both the husband and wife. Elsie, who takes the female perspective, says it shows that there are “two sides to every story”. To ensure it’s authentic “Irishness” an Irish friend proof checked the book to pick out any foreign sounding words. “For example”, explains Elsie, “don’t call him a bloke call him a lad, don’t say bacon, say rashers, there are no kindergartens, they are pre-schools and Montessori, and a hurl is a stick, not a spew”.

Elsie says the novel couldn’t have been written anywhere else.

“It is unique to the Irish experience and we needed to be in Ireland to research the Irish way of life.”

The Johnstones returned home to Australia shortly before Christmas, while the Irish family are still in Melbourne. Elsie says what she and her husband missed most about Australia was the sunshine and that family and friends aside, they couldn’t put up with the Irish weather long term. But Elsie says the similarities between the two countries mean Ireland doesn’t seem so far away.

“Australia is more Irish than it is English…many of the things that are really quite Australian are inherited from our Irish links, for example the love of sport.
“They love GAA… and the fact that whole families go to the matches, not just the men, its like AFL.”

It was also on their return to Australia that they realised how much their country had escaped the GFC.

“People were still living quite well in Ireland it was just that everything had stopped…when we came back here we really noticed how prosperous it is here…and how depressed things were in Dublin.”

Lover Husband Father Monster is available at good bookstores.
Tags: Graeme and Else Johnstone, House swap, Lover Husband Father Monster
House swap inspires Dublin novel
Posted on 23 October 2010, IRISHecho