We are the only women in the bar, which to be fair, is kind of the point of Farrell’s, the 83-year-old drinking institution on the corner of Prospect Park West and 16th Street. A firemen’s haunt since its founding in 1933, when Windsor Terrace was full of working-class Irish, the neighborhood staple has held on to much of its original character even as the streetscape around it has changed. All glossy waxed wood, dim lights, tin ceilings, and long mirrors, Farrell’s still serves beer in enormous Styrofoam cups (glasses are available too) and has only two varieties on tap: Bud and Bud Light.
I’m there with debut novelist and Brooklyn native Kathleen Donohoe, whose book Ashes of Fiery Weather, makes places like this, in part, its subject. The novel follows the lives of seven Brooklyn women, all bound by blood and family ties, from 1897 to the present day. They’re also connected by a profession: these are the wives, mothers, sisters, nieces, daughters (great, grand, and otherwise) of a single Brooklyn firehouse. One, Eileen, even joins Brenda Berkman’s landmark lawsuit against the FDNY in 1982 and becomes one of the force’s first women firefighters. Their lives are defined by disaster, historical and quotidian. The eldest character, Annie-Rose Devlin Keegan, is raised in the firehouse by parents expelled from Ireland by famine and eventually loses two children to the Spanish flu, but her firefighter husband dies by way of ahistorical anticlimax, a heart attack next to a burning building. The bones of the family’s history—the Devlins, the Keegans, the O’Reillys (with Cullens and Maddoxes and McKennas thrown in for good measure)—is apparent from the beginning: births and death, marriages and divorces are mapped out on an introductory family tree. What the novel accomplishes across its seven sections, each centered around a single woman, is a mixture of embroidery and revision. The essential structure remains stable, but the stories that give it meaning shift with each new pair of eyes. The sheer scope of female experience in the novel reminds me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: planned and unplanned pregnancies; a hysterectomy; giving a child up for adoption; spousal abuse; opportunities fought for, denied, and achieved against the patriarchy’s odds; widowhood; divorce; sex; falling in love with a woman who leaves you for man; falling in love with a man who stays with his wife; even becoming a nun. Also, there are ghosts.
Ashes of Fiery Weather’s dense network of familial and professional relationships, mapped out across more than a century, nods towards the unrecordable complexity of community life and makes poignant the unknowability of the past, the impossibility—even when there are no secrets—of intergenerational memory. No parent can communicate everything to their child, and time takes its inevitable toll. A girl gazes at a picture of her great uncles and sees strangers. Another grabs a famine-era “an paidrin beag,” or little rosary, off a hook and mistakes it for a keychain.
Donohoe’s own family is full of firemen, and her novel hurtles forward to the FDNY’s deadliest day: September 11, 2001. Its cover emphasizes the event’s looming presence: it looks out a Brooklyn window onto lower Manhattan, a windswept curtain obscuring the skyline so that it could depict any day before, during, or after the towers’ collapse. And though it is impossible to read any book about New York City firefighters and not think of the World Trade Center, Ashes of Fiery Weather is not 9/11 novel so much a novel that contains and contextualizes that disaster among many others: Ireland’s Great Famine, the East River sinking of the Slocum in 1904, the 1918 influenza pandemic, World War II and Vietnam, and hundreds of fires in and around Brooklyn, which gradually pick off the men of the Devlin-Keegan-O’Reilly family like famished wolves.
“My first fiction workshop was on September 11th,” Donohoe tells me. We’ve been comparing our silver claddagh rings, jewelry that even the men in our respective families wear, over Budweiser-filled Styrofoam. We’ve also been talking about her book’s journey to publication. In 2001, she had just enrolled in LIU Southampton’s MFA program and was living in a group house there. “I turned on the TV, it’s 9:10, and I see the World Trade Center on fire. And everything just erupted, literally.”
“My dad was still on the job” as a fireman, she says, and then, “I wasn’t worried—it’s so strange in retrospect.”
“No one was answering the phone,” she continues. Her parents, in fact, were at the dentist: her father had accompanied her mother to a root canal. There was no TV on in the waiting room where her dad sat, but there was one in the examination room. As soon as she got out, Donohoe’s mother told him he had to go to work. At the time he we stationed at a firehouse out in Queens, and when he arrived he was frustrated that he couldn’t immediately leave for Ground Zero. FDNY wanted to keep track of who was going downtown, Donohoe explains, “because so many men were missing.” Instead, Donohoe’s dad commandeered an MTA bus and filled it with firefighters as eager to head to the site as he was. “The driver of the bus got reprimanded,” Donohoe tells me, for letting her dad take the wheel. (She adds that, like many firefighters, her dad had a second job: driving school buses. It was a vehicle he knew how to handle.) The bus arrived by one o’clock. “He was down there for 24 hours,” she says. He caught a police horse trailer back to Brooklyn.
“It had been in my mind to write a book about September 11th,” Donohoe says of the years that followed. Though she wrote a book during her undergrad at Marist University and another that lead her to the Southampton MFA program, it wasn’t until she started on what would become Ashes of Fiery Weather, that she felt free from the constraints of audience and market. After failing to find a publisher for her second novel, “I realized, it’s time.” The novel grew from the seed of a story that would eventually become the book’s last chapter, about the youngest of the seven women, Katie, losing a parent in the World Trade Center attacks. That was the moment all the characters were organized around—the branches and trunk and roots of the tree growing backwards from this fixed point. That, and the Slocum: New York City’s twin, if not identical, disaster.
Donohoe grew up in Midwood, but her parents moved to Long Island while she was in college. “I read an article in the mid-nineties: ‘Writers Are Flocking to Park Slope.’” (After some digging, I think I found the article she mentions, a New York Times story from 1995: “A Colony of Writers Is Growing in Park Slope.” It’s dizzying to read more than twenty years later.) “I thought it was a joke,” Donohoe says, laughing. “You mean where Grandma and Pop-Pop live?” But the headline presented an idea, an image: of being a “Brooklyn writer.” She lucked out on a tiny Brooklyn Heights apartment in 2005 and hasn’t left the borough since. “It’s funny,” she says, “I didn’t seek out that community when I got back.” Their version of Brooklyn was one she didn’t quite recognize.
We talk about the geography of her book, so obviously rooted in her home borough. “I made up a neighborhood,” she says, “Cross Hill.” It’s a place that looks much like Windsor Terrace. Her grandparents, in fact, lived right down the road from Farrell’s. “The bar Lehane’s,” she says of her novel’s fireman local, “is basically based on this place.” The Catholic parish that in her novel is called Holy Rosary is, more or less, Holy Name on Prospect Park West. The cloistered convent, St. Maren’s, that one of the women eventually joins is based on a place a little farther afield, the Monastery of the Precious Blood on Fort Hamilton Parkway. Donohoe’s grandmother had once worked there. But when I ask about a war memorial that appears and reappeared throughout the novel, she admits that was invented whole cloth. New York remembers things through plaques, not free-standing monuments, she explains.
Ashes of Fiery Weather is also thoroughly, indisputably Irish. (One character, born in Ireland, even works at a travel agency called “Irish Dreams.”) Like the O’Reillys, one branch of Donohoe’s family descend from refugees fleeing the Great Famine, another from very recent immigrants—her grandparents. “It was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side,” she said, who first moved to Brooklyn. “She came over to Williamsburg in 1900, and before that was in Five Points.” The first relative arrived in Manhattan in 1847. Her dad’s parents came from Galway much later, in the 20th century.
We each trace out our respective family history—it’s hard to resist. “Why are the Irish so invested in their Irishness?” I ask her, I question I certainly don’t have a satisfactory answer to. “I think it’s the famine and the memory of it,” Donohoe answers. “Even if there are no memories of it. It’s the idea that you didn’t want to leave.”
“I’d always planned on doing the research,” she says of her own family. “Then I got this email called ‘hi from Ireland.’ And I’m sure it’s some spam message, but I open it. I’m not going to not open an email called ‘hi from Ireland!’” The message read: “I think I’m your cousin.” It made Donohoe realize, “they were wondering what had happened to us too.”
Each element—Donohoe’s attention to women’s experiences, to the momentous events that become historical markers, to place (Brooklyn) and profession (firefighting), to Irishness in its many variations, to inheritance and loss, to the bleeding out of history—makes a constellated portrait of a place and time and position in the world. To be a woman in a city, to be Irish and American, to be vulnerable and privileged, to be associated with the FDNY but never fully of it—even when you’re drawing a salary. “Every woman’s decisions have an impact down the generations,” Donohoe says. That’s ultimately the story she hopes Ashes of Fiery Weather tells. It’s also a story we’re both living now.
We drop our empty Styrofoam cups on the counter. They’re not legal to buy in New York anymore, but Farrell’s stocked up before the law went into effect. It’s their signature after all—a history they’re loathe to leave behind.