Born in Cork city, Ireland and raised in the more rural West Cork towns of Bantry and Bandon where her father was the area Social Welfare officer, Gaye Shortland has taught English literature at University College Cork, the University of Leeds, Ahmadu Bello University Nigeria, and the Université de Niamey Niger.
She lived for fifteen years in Africa. While in northern Nigeria she fell in love with the Tuareg people, many of whom had been forced to migrate south from the Sahara in search of work as night-watchmen after the droughts of the 70s wiped out the flocks of camels and goats which were their livelihood. She eventually had three children by two Tuareg men, eventually reluctantly entering into a legal marriage as expatriates were under threat of deportation at the time. “I have come to recognise that I have an instinctive fear of giving away my autonomy,” she says. “But, of course, there are also solid reasons for hanging on to it in Africa. I’ve known expatriate women who were trapped in desperately unhappy marriages, unable to go home because they would be forced to leave their children behind them. Mine was an odd position. It was a Muslim marriage so I was supposed to be subservient. And I was, in a way. Yet I was the breadwinner. I worked in the university on local salary and, perceived to be rich, looked after my husband's family and other migrant Tuaregs. So, in another way, I was the boss. However, the Tuareg, unlike their neighbours the Arabs, are well used to strong women as their culture traditionally is matriarchal."
The family returned to Ireland in 1989. "It was a difficult decision. I thought I'd stay in Africa for the rest of my life, but my health was bad and the country was in free fall economically. By that time I was managing a restaurant and recreation centre for the American Embassy in Niamey but was still on a modest ‘local salary’. Life was tough and I feared for my children’s future. My husband came back to Cork city with me, but one Irish winter put paid to him. He went back to Niger, the Tuareg began their decade-long rebellion against the government of Niger and I lost touch with him, only again making contact with him in 2011, before his untimely death in 2012."
Life was tough in Cork too, on a Lone Parent’s Allowance with three young children and in a strange way she found herself a foreigner in her own city. She eventually got a part-time job at the Department of English at University College Cork teaching English as a Foreign Language.
Inspired by the energy and humour of Cork city life, she was suddenly possessed of the urge to write. She wrote her first novel in 1994 at the kitchen table on an old Brother typewriter. She also reviewed books for the then Cork Examiner and wrote reports of music events and celebrity interviews for Hot Press music monthly, an interesting diversion from day-to-day motherhood. Moving from Brian Kennedy in the sitting room to frying fish fingers in the kitchen was somewhat surreal. She is now author of five critically acclaimed books and two plays, both staged by the Meridian Theatre Company in Cork.
Gaye became the Editor of Poolbeg Press in 1998, in which state she continues to date. In 2000 she bought a cottage with an acre in the wilds of north County Cork and two German Shepherd dogs soon joined her there. After ten years she heard the call of the sea from her native West Cork and now lives in a coastal village with Maddie a toy poodle inherited from her mother. Thanks to the progress in technology and connectivity she does 'the day job' for Poolbeg while watching the waves and gulls sweep over the estuary beyond.
A final note: she is now having a delightful time with her fabulous grandchildren.