Irish Roots and a Novel

Both 1988 alumnae, mother and daughter Cecelia and Kathy MacDonald forged a special bond while collaborating on a novel set in Ireland.

On a sunny summer day, daylight slowly disappears as you descend the basement steps of Kathy (MacDonald) Schneeman’s home. At the bottom, a brick floor leads to charming, emerald green antique doors with the name of famed Irish king Brian Boru painted in gold letters above the welcoming entrance. Once inside, it feels like you’ve been magically transported from the Schneeman’s Mendota Heights abode into an Irish pub. There’s plenty of room to belly up to the wooden bar, a few nooks perfect for intimate gatherings and mismatched candles emitting their glow on the green walls which sport a plethora of Irish memorabilia.

Behind the bar, Schneeman puts on a kettle for tea as she proudly talks about her Irish roots. (One of the first questions she asks her guests is, “Are you Irish?”) Her mother, Cecelia MacDonald, is perched on a stool listening intently. The two, who both graduated from St. Thomas in 1988, often finish each other’s sentences, which is not surprising considering they recently spent five years working together on Running the Cobblestones, a fictional tale set in Ireland. Schneeman wrote the story, and MacDonald edited the self-published book under the nom de plume C.K. MacDonald.

Inspired by a study abroad trip to Dublin during her undergraduate years, Schneeman created the story of Kate McMahon, the widow of a disgraced man, who decides to leave Stillwater, Minnesota, and start life anew in Ireland as a bed-and breakfast owner.

The book "Running the Cobblestones" on the floor of Kathy Schneeman's basement pub on July 23, 2018 in Mendota Heights. Kathy Schneeman and her mother, Cecelia MacDonald worked together to write and edit "Running the Cobblestones," a mystery fiction book about a Minnesota widow who moves to Ireland for a fresh start.

“We wrote the book we wanted to read ourselves,” MacDonald said. “It has a lot of underpinning humor. It has worthwhile messages throughout and short chapters, so you can pick it up and put it down easily. A lot of readers have said it’s like taking a trip to Ireland.”

Most trips to Ireland, however, don’t include a nasty villain with a penchant for unsavory websites and salty language.

“We tried to make it funny, though,” Schneeman added. “Instead of vulgarity, we took what our villain would say and put a narcissistic twist with an Irish topping on it. People appreciated that.”

St. Thomas inspirations

Unlike most students, Schneeman had to adjust to regularly seeing her mother on campus since both attended St. Thomas at the same time, with Schneeman studying education and MacDonald pursuing a double major in geology, and communication and journalism.

MacDonald was part of the Parents-on-Campus program, where parents of full-time students can attend undergraduate classes for free. She had previous credits from St. Mary’s and finished her studies at St. Thomas.

“We had a table in The Grill in Murray-Herrick Campus Center where the returning adult students all sat together. We had a wonderful time,” MacDonald recalled. “I bonded with that group of women – I think there were 18 of us – and we’ve been getting together since 1984.

“When the kids were first-year students, they wanted us to keep a low profile on campus,” said MacDonald, smiling. “But by the time they were juniors and seniors, they would hang around our table at The Grill. It was a rich experience.”

During Schneeman’s sophomore year, she spotted a sign outside the student lounge that read, “Come see slides of Ireland! Free pizza!”

“Of course, they got me with free pizza,” she laughed. “I had already been to Ireland backpacking with my family, and I fell in love with the country. So, I listened to this lovely girl talk about her wonderful experience studying abroad there. By the end of her presentation, I was hooked.”

Schneeman’s own semester in Dublin set the foundation for Running the Cobblestones. Her Emerald Isle adventure helped her create characters for the book based on people she met there and the mysterious death of a young man in the town where her host family lived. She still keeps in touch with that Irish family, who helped with some of the local lingo in the book.

Accompanying what the duo refers to as “Irishism,” peppered throughout the book are plenty of familiar St. Paul names and references. Just to name a few: The book’s main protagonist is a Tommie named Kate, a widow who studied abroad in Ireland when she was a student (sound familiar?); Father Malone is the name of a minor character; and the Irish bar where everyone gathers is dubbed O’Gara’s. Schneeman even penned some of the book in St. Thomas’ popular Leather Room in O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library.

Mother-daughter collaboration

Schneeman and her husband, Eric, have nine children (two are Tommies – Luke ’17 and Katrina ’19). When her now grade school-aged twins (eighth and ninth in birth order) were toddlers, Schneeman set out to write a book during their nap time.

“I finally had a couple hours of quiet time,” said Schneeman, a former teacher who has written for the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ Bulletin Board, worked at the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and at the St. Thomas bookstore. “I didn’t want to sleep it away, so I thought I could start doing something creative.

“I also found myself in a situation where I was craving adult conversation,” she said. “I thought, well, I can write a scene where I'm sitting in an Irish pub. That’s a perfect adult conversation. At least in my mind, I was having an adult conversation.”

When the twins started preschool, Schneeman and MacDonald’s collaboration really took off. Not only did it eventually produce a book, but it also strengthened their bond.

“We didn't have a lot of one-on-one time when I was younger, because I had a little sister who was often ill and hospitalized,” Schneeman said about her relationship with MacDonald. “And there's a brother in between. My mom and I laughed because later either my extended family was always around or there were little ones in tow. When the twins went to preschool, we had a block of time in the afternoons to get together and work. That was really nice.”

Along the way, they learned a few surprising things about each other.

Memorabilia on the wall of Kathy Schneeman's basement Irish Pub on July 23, 2018 in Mendota Heights. Kathy Schneeman and her mother, Cecelia MacDonald worked together to write and edit "Running the Cobblestones," a mystery fiction book about a Minnesota widow who moves to Ireland for a fresh start.

“She’s good at rejection,” MacDonald said about her daughter. “I was shocked because I would make a suggestion, and she’d just say, ‘OK.’

“She tended to write long, so I needed to make it really concise,” said MacDonald, a freelance editor and retired grant writer. “I loved editing class at St. Thomas. I was a teacher’s assistant for Dr. Tom Connery, so I learned to tighten up [text].”

While elements of the book changed over the years, the core meaning stayed the same: Running the Cobblestones is a faithbased book with underlying themes of forgiveness and new beginnings.

“We wanted some of the characters to go to church regularly – to be present in the pews,” said Schneeman, who noted a chunk of the story takes place over an Easter weekend. “So we have a lot of elements of forgiveness in there. We also wanted to talk about the joys and challenges of having a large family, because that’s something I knew about.”

Advice from Vince Flynn

When it came time to name their book, Schneeman turned to her friend and best-selling author Vince Flynn ’88 for advice. Known for his political thrillers, Flynn advised them to use an action word in the title.

“He told me to go to the library and look up and down the sections that carry a similar genre, study the titles and notice – unless they’re a famous author already – they use an action word in the title,” said Schneeman, who points out a painting by Flynn (“Flynn’s Pub”) hanging over the fireplace in her basement. “We thought about that, and my mom came up with Running the Cobblestones, which is a play on words because the main character is a runner, so she’s running on top of stones, but she’s also running a place called the Cobblestone Inn.”

Flynn, who died of cancer in 2013, wasn’t able to read the duo’s fiction work; however, he did tell them something they’ll never forget: “When you think you’re done with the book, you’re not going to be done.”

“We would go celebrate at O’Gara’s Bar and Grill in St. Paul when we thought we were done,” Schneeman smiled.

“We did that about five times,” MacDonald said.

A perfect ending

Finishing their final sips of tea down in the basement pub, mother and daughter look at each other and smile when asked if they have a sequel up their sleeves. It’s a definite possibility. They have plenty of ideas swirling around in their heads. Right now, though, they’re enjoying telling the story behind Running the Cobblestones.

Something else they weren’t expecting is the precious bond they developed thanks to countless hours of writing, editing and rewriting together.

“I appreciated her editing and her creativity,” Schneeman said. “When we grew up, she was always singing songs to us and telling us stories. Having this time together writing the book made me realize how talented she is.”

“You're going to make me cry,” MacDonald said.

“The time we had alone together writing was really a gift,” Schneeman said.

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