What do our photographs say about us?

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This is the only publicly available photograph of Bella Casey, the heroine of my novel, “The Rising of Bella Casey”. It is a close-up of a formal studio photograph taken in Dublin some time in the early 1890s.  From this image, I had to start building the fictional character of Bella Casey.  She seems an enigmatic presence in this photograph; dreamy, distant but with a certain degree of self-possession.

For a novelist writing historical fiction based on real people, as I do, there are often gaps in characters’ histories that have to be filled. The absence of documentary evidence is a nightmare for the biographer but for the writer, it can be a blessing.  It creates narrative openings in between the known facts. . .

Isabella Charlotte Casey was born in 1865, the eldest of the O’Casey clan, 15 years older than her famous playwright brother, Sean O’Casey. Bella was a bright, clever girl, completing her secondary school education – unusual at the time – and going on to train as a primary schoolteacher. She taught for several years – Sean completed his primary education under her tutelage – and helped to support the rest of her family.  In 1889 she married Nicholas Beaver, a soldier in the First Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment. 

O’Casey, who was 12 at the time, was intensely jealous of Beaver and later wrote that his adored sister “had married a man who had destroyed every struggling gift she had when her heart was young and her careless mind was blooming”.  He felt Bella had thrown away the advantages of her superior education “for the romance of a crimson coat”.  As Prof Colbert Kearney has noted in his study of O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy “The Glamour of Grammar”,  Bella must have seemed  “successfully studious and accomplished in ‘high’ culture and the arts” in comparison to her poorly educated brother who’d had to leave school at 14 because of the family’s declining fortunes.  Of all of the five O’Casey siblings, Bella looked set to realize “the upward aspirations of the Caseys”.  But her story turned out to be different – read what happened next in “The Rising of Bella Casey”, Brandon Press, due on September 16.   See http://www.o’brien.ie 

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