Breakdown: What happens when a middle-class Dublin wife and mother-of-two walks out of her comfortable, suburban life?

Debut author Cathy Sweeney speaks to The Women’s Podcast about her acclaimed debut novel Breakdown

Listen | 53:35

In 2020, Cathy Sweeney released Modern Times, a collection of “wacky, bold and form-bending” short stories. Now, the writer is back with her debut novel Breakdown telling the story of a disillusioned mother, living in a leafy suburb in Dublin, who leaves her house one morning and never returns.

It’s the kind of story likely to cause ripples and reflections in the minds of female readers who may have harboured fantasies about leaving mundanity and domesticity behind in pursuit of a more authentic adventure.

In Breakdown, the nameless narrator leaves her home and instead of going to the secondary school where she works travels first by car and then by train to Rosslare, from where she takes a ferry to Fishguard in Wales.

Along the way, ignoring her phone that pings with messages from her children and husband, she finds herself in service stations, shopping centres and train stations reflecting on her life. The author discusses the inspiration for a novel that is about “the rage and reckoning of a middle aged, educated woman who has lived her life in accordance with the expectations of society.”


In a wide ranging conversation, Sweeney also talks about the events that shaped her as a young woman and as a writer. She was just 18 years old and only two weeks into her second year studying English at Trinity College in Dublin, when she gave birth to her first child.

The year was 1989, a time when societal attitudes towards young, unmarried mothers were slowly beginning to shift. “I think I rode the tide of perhaps the first woman of that age in this country, where I got away with it,” she tells Róisín Ingle on the latest episode of The Women’s Podcast.

“I think I got so lucky, a couple of years earlier, it was a very different landscape. I just hit it where it was just about ok…I had a pretty easy ride of it,” she adds.

With “100%” backing from her family, and the support of a student parent group set up by Trinity College, Sweeney continued her studies before eventually qualifying as an English teacher; a profession that she devoted almost three decades of her life to, before giving it up to pursue writing full time.

In the podcast, Sweeney discusses how she came to write Breakdown and reflects on the stories women still don’t openly tell about themselves even in modern liberal Ireland. “It wasn’t always easy to write,” she says of passages where the main character expresses bitter disappointment with her life, her partner and her children.

We also hear how Sweeney’s childhood spent moving from place to place, including a three year stint in Zambia, honed her “voracious” curiosity about society and people and how she’s turning her attention to Oscar Wilde for her next writing project.

You can listen back in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.

Breakdown by Cathy Sweeney is available now.