Fairies lure expat

STEPHANIE PEGLER
Irish author Ellie O’Neill takes readers away with the fairies

It would be fair to say Ellie O'Neill has been away with the fairies. Fascinated by her grandmother's belief in this facet of Irish folklore, O'Neill researched the topic and, after falling in love with the "other romantic world", she quit her life in London to return home to Dublin and plug away at writing a novel in her parents' front room.

The result is her debut Reluctantly Charmed, about an advertising copywriter called Kate McDaid who discovers one of her ancestors — a self-proclaimed witch — has left her a mysterious bequest aimed at encouraging people to reconnect with the fairies.

"My granny was a formidable woman who shed her rural upbringing with delight and made a very modern life for herself in Dublin," O'Neill says.

"But there were traditions from her upbringing that she was never able to shake, and one of them was her belief in fairies.

"Her childhood was coloured with stories of the nasty tricks that the little people had performed. She believed that life was easier if you kept them happy, so she would leave them a little bit of food, a drop of milk at the end of her glass, wash the steps at the front of her house so they would have somewhere to rest."

The debutante author, who now lives in Victoria's Geelong area, says there is still plenty of superstition about fairies in her homeland and many consider fairy forts to be sacrosanct.

O'Neill hopes readers will get caught up in Kate's journey and fall for a bit of the wonder. "I hope they finish the book with a smile on their face and then look over their shoulder just in case there's someone there," she says.

"There is an ecological message in the book too, that everything is interconnected. Ultimately that's what the fairies represent; their presence is a reminder to respect nature."

The fairies in O'Neill's fairytale of sorts are certainly not cute, adorable Tinker Bells.

Instead they are more malevolent spirits and, as Kate discovers on her quest to publish her ancestor's seven letters, the fairy world soon exerts a forbidding presence on her life.

This darker side, however, is balanced by all the elements you expect in a chick-lit novel.

Kate has a dry, cynical sense of humour and is a typical unlucky-in- love character who finds herself at the centre of a media circus, with her own fan club.

"She manages to keep her sanity and wit in spite of becoming an overnight national obsession and being chased by stalkers and paparazzi," O'Neill says.

"The climax in the book, and what Kate is ultimately being asked to do, is devastating. Her journey to that point sees her mature, fall in love and find strength in herself to accept herself."

O'Neill worked in advertising and says her lead character incorporates a lot of herself.

"I borrowed a lot from my younger self in developing her character," she says. "Particularly with her romantic mistakes, which I think everyone has made at one stage or another."

Sometime between starting and finishing the book, O'Neill met an Australian-based Irishman called Joe who was back home briefly for a family wedding. In a story that seems to have been plucked from a romance novel, within weeks they had set off on an 800km trek across northern Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago on "an adventurous whim".

"We were stripped bare of all pretences, we were exhausted, we walked and talked day in, day out for a month," she says.

"I was exposed to my very core, as was he. And we liked what we saw. And by the end of the Camino and a beautiful Christmas in snowy Dublin, I was in. I had packed my bags and made the biggest but still the easiest decision of my life to move to Australia."

Now engaged with a son, O'Neill says she is happily settled in Australia and working on a second novel about a remote island off the west coast of Ireland that harbours a giant secret.

Her Irish knack for telling a good story is still firmly ingrained, though.

"Have you ever walked away from an Irish person and thought well, they really didn't have much to say for themselves," she says. "You see? It doesn't happen. The ability to chat is in our DNA, and somewhere along the way we learnt that a beginning, middle and end, with maybe a few jokes and some bad language might get a pint bought for you in the pub and win you a few friends."

Reluctantly Charmed is published today by Simon & Schuster Australia ($30, ebook $14). To read the first chapter of Ellie O’Neill’s book, visit her website ellieoneill.com.au or to keep track of Ellie, visit her new author page on Facebook