Connacht Tribune Galway

Tatiana Tierney was born in the USSR and her first language is Russian. But having left her homeland 19 years ago and spending most of the intervening time in Ireland and England, she decided to write her debut novel in English.

It was inspired by her husband Niall’s family history and is a journey of romance and survival that takes in Ireland, England and India. Tatiana and Niall who now live in Tuam tell JUDY MURPHY about their own extraordinary journey.

“I LIKE challenges,” says Tatiana Tierney.

There’s no denying that, given the approach USSR-born Tatiana adopted for her debut novel, A Thread of Secrets, which she’ll be signing this Saturday, June 22, at Daybreak Books in Tuam from 12 pm to 3pm.

Tatiana, who lives in Tuam with her Irish husband Niall Tierney, wrote the book in English, rather than in her native language.

A Thread of Secrets, a romantic story which moves between Ireland, England and India, is loosely based on her husband’s family history and she felt it was best-served by being written in English.

“In Russian there’s a different way of saying things,” she explains. “The first draft was in Russian and I translated it, but it wasn’t saying what I wanted to say.”

Tatiana who left Russia as a young woman in 2005 and has no desire to return, met Niall in London when they were both living there.

She had grown up in the countryside in what was then the USSR before moving to a small city and eventually to Moscow. Her mother was a teacher and her father was an electrical engineer and while times were tough, it was a happy childhood, says Tatiana, the oldest in a family of three children. However, with her parents and two younger brothers now deceased, those connections are gone and it’s clear she has no truck with Russia’s current carry-on.

Having started her working life as a vendor at street markets, this self-educated woman progressed to a professional career in Moscow, being employed in a recruitment agency and HR, as well as in event management.

She worked for a time in Turkey before emigrating to England, settling in the southern coastal town of Eastbourne initially and going to college in Kent. She continued her studies at university in London when she relocated there. And she met Niall, a lawyer who specialises in intellectual property rights.

He proposed in 2010 and having settled down, they moved to Switzerland for his work, then lived and worked in various places before returning to Ireland, moving to Tuam in 2018.

On his father’s side, Niall is a great-grandson of Eoin MacNeill, a leading light of the Gaelic Revival, the founder and first leader of the Irish Volunteer Force and a TD.

Niall was born in Dublin but his family has strong connections with Galway, a county he has always loved. His grandfather, Michael Tierney, who came from outside Ballymacward, went to UCD, winning a scholarship to study Classics in Europe before going on to become Professor of Greek at UCD, he oversaw a period of great change, including moving the university from the centre of Dublin to its current home in Belfield.

But it was the maternal side of Niall’s family that provided Tatiana with the inspiration for A Thread of Secrets.

Niall’s mother Grania, had spent the first years of her life in India with her parents and sister – her father served in the British army there in the 1940s.

Tatiana has long been fascinated by the stories Niall told her of the British Raj, which ended with Indian Independence in 1947, and was followed by bitter civil war.

“I always felt there was enough there for a book, but for a long time we were living in Switzerland and then between Florida and Ireland,” explains this observant, creative woman who had been jotting down material for years.

When they settled in Galway, Tatiana “began gathering my thoughts and my notes”, with a view to starting her novel.

But then she became ill, which meant everything was put on hold. And while she still has some issues, “writing the book helped my health”, she says.

Chatting to Tatiana and Niall, the strength of their bond is clear as he describes how hard she’s worked on the book – not just while writing it but also all through the editing process and its publication.

It’s the story of young woman, Grace, who was born in Donegal in 1922 and reared on the south-east coast of England by her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth.

Grace’s father, who had been and officer in the British army, died shortly before her birth as a result of injuries received during World War I and her mother died of TB some months after Grace was born.

Her grandmother, Elizabeth is part of high society and, through a series of events, Grace ends up marrying James Clifford, the older son of a British peer. They are stationed in India from 1943-47 but while James is there simply because of duty, Grace falls in love with the country and its people. As the British pull out of India, leaving chaos in their wake, the Cliffords return to England. But Grace has been changed forever by her husband’s cruelty and the unforgettable country he had brought her to. She encounters tragedy in England too, but also joy.

As the years roll on, Grace rebuilds her life but must also face secrets from the past and the consequences they bring.

The novel concludes back in her birthplace of Donegal, a county that Tatiana fell in love with when she and Niall first visited it some years ago.

They had moved back to Ireland in 2014, living on the south Dublin town of Dalkey for a time, but when they found a house outside Tuam in 2018, they decided to settle in Galway. Niall had happy memories of childhood summers spent on the shores of Lough Corrib in his parent’s holiday home.

His parents had met in Dublin after his mother’s family settled in Ireland following their time in India, he explains.

His grandmother, Margaret, had been born in this country while her husband, Henry O’Brien, was born in England. Niall explains that his grandfather’s family had emigrated from Ireland in the 1830s, at a time when so many people left this country.

Like many others, these emigrants found employment in the British army, beginning a family tradition of service. One of Niall’s ancestors became a warder in the Tower of London – a post that requires a person to have served at least two decades in the army or navy.

While Tatiana’s novel about Grace’s life in India with her brutal husband is million miles away from the O’Briens’ story, Niall had heard tales of the Raj, including his grandfather keeping mongoose to prevent rodents in the house. Tatiana has included some of these stories in a novel that focuses on the personal drama, while in the background it’s clear that the colonial world these people had inhabited is changing forever. The characters of Margaret and Brian in the novel are based on the O’Briens, while the little girl Hannah is based on Grania.

Niall’s own grandmother left India with his mother and aunt, who were children, in the late 1940s.

His grandfather, by then a lieutenant colonel, stayed on the country split into India and Pakistan and then served for a short period in Burma (now Myanmar), which was also on the cusp of independence.

The family ultimately settled in Ireland because Niall’s grandmother missed her birthplace. And the childhood stories he heard of their lives in India remained with him into adulthood.

When he was working in London as an intellectual property lawyer, his focus was on international business and that was how he encountered Tatiana.

“I attended a networking event there one evening and we met”, he says. While Niall provided Tatiana with the backdrop for her debut novel, she delved into her own imagination to create Grace and her eventful life.

Her determination to write the book in English, despite it not being her first language meant that Tatiana worked hard, with the support of editors and proofreaders, until she had her final draft.

And Niall was with her all the way, sharing memories, listening to her as she plotted Grace’s life, supplying her with an English dictionary and a thesaurus, helping her with research, and constantly telling her she could do it. He also helped her formulate the title, thanks to a discussion they had one evening about secrets and their impact.

Niall was her first reader and loved the plot, encouraging Tatiana to take the next step with development editors and copy editors. Having initially considered finding a literary agent, she felt the process was too lengthy, so she opted to self-publish, working with designer Claire O’Donovan, who created the striking cover that captures the book’s different strands.

And now, that it’s on the shelves, she’s bringing her marketing skills to bear on getting it to readers – it’s available online and, closer to home, is stocked in independent bookshops of which she’s a big fan.

That’s no mean undertaking but as Niall says “Tatiana has self-confidence in spades”. And she does, but in a way that isn’t pushy.

There’s no doubt Niall is happy about Tatiana’s achievement as she is, and looking forward to her next writing adventure.

She is currently working on three other books and says that while Niall is advising her to focus on one, she’s not ready to do that yet. “They are all like rooms in the house,” she says, explaining that each one has a different appeal as it draws her in. And she’s confident, if she’s patient, one will call to her more than the others.

Article by Judy Murphy of Connacht Tribune Galway