Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan

By Ruth Gilligan

Ruth Gilligan’s story about Jewish life in Ireland is as beautiful and haunting as a watercolor.

She tells three tales that intersect as gently as a good-bye kiss.

Ruth Greenberg’s family saved for 10 years to go to America, shlepped their belongings across the border from Lithuania to Latvia to Riga, boarded a former cattle ship and set off for Lady Liberty and the city of skyscrapers: New York.

After a rough passage, the boat docks in the middle of the night. The passengers stumble off the boat. It’s dark. There are no officials around. A woman offers to rent them an empty warehouse for the night. The next morning, the ship is gone and they discover they are not in New York; they are in Cork, Ireland.

We meet mute Shem Sweeney when he is 18, in the mid-1950s, when his parents, Joseph and Maire (pronounced Moira), drop him off at an asylum run by nuns. As Jewish parents, they aren’t happy about leaving their boy there, but they feel it’s better than a state-run institution. Shem suddenly stopped speaking in the middle of his bar mitzvah and hasn’t spoken since.

The final story is that of Aisling Creedon, a nice Irish Catholic girl who has fallen in love with Noah Geller, a British Jew who works as a banker by day and a magician in his spare time. They met on a subway, and he folded a paper swan and put it in her pocket. They’ve been dating for two years.

Returning home from a Chanukah dinner with the extended Geller family, Aisling feels the evening has been a success, but Noah is oddly silent as they drive back to her apartment, a wrapped gift from the Gellers resting in her lap.

In the silence, she asks if she can open it. Noah keeps suggesting that they wait until the next day. Finally, frustrated, she tears away the wrappings and finds a book written by an Irish rabbi about converting to Judaism. Between two people who have not discussed the future of their relationship, much less an issue like conversion, this sparks a fight.

Aisling runs back home to Dublin to spend Christmas with her family. But she brings the book. As she reads the second-hand book, she discovers handwritten notes by its previous owner, a convert to Judaism, in the margins and becomes obsessed with learning how her decision turned out.

Gilligan’s book runs from 1901, when Ruth’s family arrived in Cork, to contemporary times when Aisling is faced with converting and becoming part of the Geller family. Ruth’s story jumps forward in years; Shem’s in months; and Aisling’s in days.

This is a book of living with being loved second best; of finding — and losing — love on the threshold of too late; of making life-changing decisions for the sake of love while holding on to the love of the family you grew up with. Fittingly, origami swans are often associated with weddings and anniversaries because swans mate for life. They are also associated with life passages, grace and beauty which are reflected throughout this book.

This is an Ireland where most people look westward to America, but Irish Jews look east to Israel. A country where a Lithuanian-born Jewish solicitor, Michael Noyk, became famous for defending captured Irish Republicans such as Sean MacEoin during the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921. A nation that in the Irish Constitution of 1937 gave specific constitutional protection to Jews. But also a nation that engaged in anti-Semitism such as the Limerick Boycott called in 1904 against Jewish businesses. A place where bullying and name-calling are alive and well in the schools.

Gilligan has created a bittersweet trio of stories that will keep you thinking for a long time.

About the Author: Ruth Gilligan (1988 – )

Ruth Gilligan is not Jewish. After writing three novels that reflected her own life — FORGET, SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN and CAN YOU SEE ME? — she was inspired by writer Colum McCann to write about something she wanted to know about.

In an interview with the Irish Times, Gilligan said McCann advised writers to “write towards what you want to know . . . The only true way to expand your world is to think about others.”

She spent years “reading and interviewing and traveling and learning. I spent time all around Cork and Dublin, meeting with countless members of the depleting Jewish population. I went to Israel and hung out with the Irish population there, listening to their stories; immersing myself in their unfamiliar narratives.”

Recognizing the difficulties of telling a story that is not the author’s own, the character Aisling, an Irish Catholic, became her doppelganger, an outsider looking in.

In the course of her research, she was struck by the parallels between the Jewish and Irish peoples: both have large diasporas, have been persecuted, a huge literary tradition and enjoy self-deprecating humor.

She wrote her first novel,FORGET, as a secondary school project. After reading and editing by novelist Patricia Scanlan and extensive rewriting it was published in 2006.  It reached the top of the Irish Bestsellers’ List, making her the youngest person in Ireland to have ever achieved that.

She wrote and published her second novel, SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN, while a student at Cambridge University.

Her latest novel, THE BUTCHERS, was published in 2020.

Gilligan earned a double first Class Honours degree in English literature from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and then went on to earn a master’s degree in English literature from Yale University, and in 2014, a doctorate from the University of Exeter.

She is married to lawyer and former Olympic fencer on the Great Britain team, Alex O’Connell. They live in Highbury, London. She is involved with McCann’s international storytelling charity, Narrative 4 (N4), which brings writers and young people together to use storytelling to break down barriers, shatter stereotypes and foster empathy.


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