Mary Morrissy curates this site. She is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and journalist. She has taught creative writing at university level in the US and Ireland for the past 20 years, and is also an individual literary mentor.
Today I should be basking in the afterglow of having met and introduced one of my literary heroines, Hilary Mantel, who was due to read at University College Cork on May 19, 2020. Like so many literary events, the show could not go on because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when you’re preparing for a public event like this, and it doesn’t happen, the questions still remain.
Some of my queries relate to the time before – the pre-virus world, if you like – and even in the unlikely event of the reading having gone ahead, the pandemic would, of course, have featured in the discussion.
Any interviewer starts off with a list of prepared questions, things she’s curious about, but the nature of a live event means that the course of an interview can never be predicted, much less managed. Because at its best, an author interview is an exchange and the interviewee’s answers often dictate the next question.
But given all that, here are some of the things I might have asked on the night.
How long did it take you to master the history of Tudor England, its politics and its events, before you started to write, or did that happen in the process of writing?
Why so hard on Sir Thomas More?
In the public mind, the Wolf Hall trilogy has probably eclipsed your other work – do you mind that?
My favourite novels of yours are Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and Beyond Black. What’s your favourite from your pre-Wolf Hall work?
What marked your earlier novels out was the fact that no two were the same. They explored very different worlds. After 15 years writing the Wolf Hall trilogy – “working in the crypt” in your own words – do you crave a change from Tudor England?
The Wolf Hall success came after a lifetime of writing to a loyal but limited readership. Apart from the material rewards, are fame and acclaim welcome or intrusive, or both?
The Mirror and the Light came out just as the pandemic took hold. It became for many readers the ultimate early lockdown read, for its totally immersive properties. Apart from its size (over 800 pages, and as we know in pandemics size matters) and the fact that it’s the closure of a trilogy, what else would give it resonance for readers now?
You have written very movingly about how chronic illness has shaped and distorted your life in your memoir, Giving up the Ghost. How did your own relationship with what Susan Sontag calls the “kingdom of the sick” affect your attitude to the COVID-19 crisis in which everyone has been touched by the spectre of disease?
Would you write plague any differently, post COVID-19?
In an interview you mentioned you’d discovered Irish author’s Eugene McCabe’s Death and Nightingales during lockdown. You describe it as “truly one of the best novels I have ever, ever read. . . I wish heartily that I could have written it myself.” What makes it so good?
Una Watters’ niece, Sheila Smith and her daughter Karen, write about the background to one of Una’s large, late-career portraits which demonstrates her unusual textured approach to portraiture.
One of Una Watters’ strengths was portraiture as evidenced by the sheer number of pencil sketches and drawings of family and friends in her portfolio of work. Subjects frequently testify to the great likeness that Una achieved in these works. Late in her career, she also completed several portraits in oil, which featured in the 1966 retrospective exhibition, including one of her husband, E R Watters (1965), another of Tomás O’Muircheartaigh (1962), which we have still not managed to trace, and a portrait of Brian O’Higgins (1963).
The O’Higgins portrait was completed after the subject’s death. There was a family and professional relationship with Una Watters as O’Higgins had commissioned artistic work from her and was also…
For some time now I’ve been championing the work of Dublin artist, Una Watters (1918 – 1965) whose reputation has, sadly, fallen into neglect. I’ve been working with Una’s family, in particular her niece, Sheila Smith, in order to change this. We’ve spent the last year-and-a-half trying to trace Una’s paintings with a view to mounting a retrospective exhibition and bring her work to a new public.
This task has been harder than you might expect because much of Una’s work has been held in private hands since the mid-1960s. Only two paintings of hers, that we know of, have come up for auction in recent times – one in 2007, and another in 2019. There’s a reason for this. After Una’s sudden death in 1965, aged 47, her heart-broken husband, Irish language novelist and poet Eoghan O’Tuarisc (Eugene Watters) gathered together 37 of her oil paintings for a memorial show. Afterwards, he distributed all of Una’s paintings among family and a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.
The catalogue of this 1966 show formed the basis of our searches, but because of the way the work was distributed, there was very little in the way of a paper trail. Given the time that has elapsed, many of the paintings have passed on to the next generation or the one after that in families, and people may not recognize Una’s work or know the story of how her paintings came into their possession. That said, everyone we came across, and there have been many, was very attached to their Una Watters and glad to share images of her work.
Due to their generosity, we have been able to launch today (April 28, 2020) – unawattersartist.wordpress.com – a new website dedicated to Una’s work. This site collates the fruit of our quest with a gallery of some of the work we’ve found along the way. Our plans to host another retrospective show of Una’s work – the first since 1966 – has been thwarted by the COVID-19 crisis but we’re hoping this site will be a virtual substitute for a show and will introduce Una’s work to the wider audience she deserves. We hope unawattersartist.wordpress.com may become a resource for those interested in Una’s work both as scholars and/or art enthusiasts.
So surreal is the current Corona virus pandemic that I’ve found it almost impossible to write about it, even privately. Even if I could formulate some thoughts on it, I doubt that there’s anything new I could say. Being in quarantine seems to enhance the feeling of emotional distance from the experience. A privileged position to be in, I realise.
It’s a strange paradox. Ten years ago, however, without having any first-hand experience of it, I was writing about a time of plague.
The eponymous heroine of my 2013 novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press), the sister of the playwright Sean O’Casey, had the ill-luck of becoming an early Irish victim of the Spanish ‘flu, over a hundred years ago.
The ‘flu epidemic swept through Europe and the US at the end of the First World War, and at its lowest estimate, claimed 21 million victims world-wide, a figure far higher than the war’s death-toll. (By comparison, the COVID-19 virus has, at time of writing, claimed 25,410 lives with over 565,000 cases registered world-wide.)
The ‘flu came in two waves – in early 1918, and then again later in the year. It was known as the Spanish ‘flu because it was only in neutral Spain that newspapers were free to publish accounts of the spread of the disease. (Compare with Donald Trump’s odious “Chinese Virus” name-calling.)
However, it is now understood that the 1918 epidemic may have originated as early as 1916 in a British infantry depot in Etaples, 20 miles south of Boulogne. All newly-arrived British troops were sent for training at the northern French camp so that at any given time over 100,000 men were in residence. Most lived in tents or temporary wooden barracks and conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary – a recipe for the spread of the respiratory virus.
In December 1916, dozens of soldiers at the camp began complaining of aches and pains, coughs and shortness of breath. As many as 40 % of these first victims died of what was described as “purulent bronchitis”. It was a horrible death, where patients literally drowned in their own blood, their faces turning a peculiar lavender colour – indicating cyanosis (where the lungs cannot transfer oxygen into the blood) – a tell-tale trademark of the killer ‘flu.
Other early outbreaks are placed in the US (Camp Funston, Kansas) and, ironically, in China, both in 1917.
In Dublin, eye-witnesses remember it as the Black Flu. “When the 1914 War ceased, pneumonia swept through the country – every country ─ and took families away. . . The Black Flu came in 1918. I was still a child. It was a horrible old thing. Well, my mother had the Black Flu and we only got her back from Heaven. Praying. And I remember sitting at her bedside and she was very, very sick. . . Oh, a dispensary doctor came up, but he had hundreds,” May Hanaphy told the author Kevin Kearns in Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History of the Dublin Slums.
Bella Casey was not so lucky. Her health was already compromised. She had an underlying condition.
She had developed erysipelas, a skin infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria. Known alternatively as “holy fire” or St Anthony’s Fire, the condition can cause high fever, shaking, chills, fevers, headaches and vomiting. The skin lesions enlarge rapidly and are painful and hard to the touch transforming the affected skin so that it has the consistency of orange peel. Nowadays, it can be treated with antibiotics, but these were not available until 1928.
In Bella’s case, the skin rash may have been caused by an allergy to cleaning products of the time. Although an educated woman, she spent the latter days of her life in poverty working as a charwoman. In The Early Life of Sean O’Casey, Martin Marguiles notes that “incongruously she always wore a pair of spotless white gloves and neighbours referred to her admiringly as ‘Lady Beaver’.” (Beaver was Bella’s husband’s name.)
“She suffered from headaches which became progressively more frequent and severe, until she had to stop scrubbing floors. The headaches ─ symptoms of erysipelas – became so painful that she took to wearing a shawl, which made her white gloves appear more incongruous still.”
Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, had died in his early forties suffering from GPI, general paralysis of the insane, an accompanying condition of tertiary syphilis.
In the end, however, the Spanish ‘flu claimed Bella Casey in 1918. Her death certificate notes the cause of death as “Influenza, 10 Days Certified”. She was 52.
And now for the fiction from those facts.
Babsie, coming in at noon, found her mother still abed. That in itself was strange for her mother was an early riser, but since Christmas she’d been poorly, laid low with a purulence of the lungs and a wild fever that had made her overheated one minute and perished the next. Babsie had put her husband’s dinner on – oh how she loved to say that, her husband; Babsie was a new bride – and leaving the door on Clarence Street on the latch she’d run around the corner to check on her mother. She was relieved to find a peaceful scene and not the wracking sounds of coughing that had been going on for days. There was some kind of infection going round. Some people blamed the soldiers for it; others said it was a kind of swine fever. But that couldn’t be what Mam had, Babsie thought, for when would her mother have been mixing with either of those? She had urged her mother to call in the doctor but Mam had set her face against it.
“It’s just my old trouble,” she’d said to Babsie. “It goes quiet, you see, for a long time and then. . . it emerges again.”
The erysipelas was her mother’s old trouble. Soon after she’d taken up charring, her mother’s skin had broken out in a rash. She’d had to wear gloves up to the elbow to hide her contagion. A dress pair with a pearl detail for these were the only gloves her mother owned. But the rash had spread anyway. It found its way to her face and washed up in a high tide close to her hairline. She had to wrap a turban of fabric round her head when going out to keep the condition a secret.
“People will think it a want of hygiene,” her mother had said. “But it’s a surfeit of cleanliness I’m suffering from, up to my oxters in suds all day.”
If you passed her on the street, you’d have given her a penny, Babsie thought, or be calling the clutchers what with the strange headgear and the dress gloves. The neighbours mistook it for another of her mother’s eccentric affectations. My, my, the airs and graces, they would say, look at the Protestant wan, all tricked up as if going to a ball, and only off to do her charring.
Babsie’s brother John was sitting at the scored table reading a book. Just like Uncle Jack he was, always stuck in a book. She poured tea from the cooling pot. The milk when she added it curdled.
“How’s she been?” she asked him.
He shrugged, barely lifting his head from the pages.
“You’ve let the fire go out,” she said. She tried to raise a flame from the embers in the grate. The poker made a grinding sound as she hit the firebricks.
“Shh,” John said, “you’ll only wake her.”
“I wouldn’t have to do it at all, if you kept the place warm for her. Is it too much to ask?”
Babsie was peppering for a fight so sick with worry was she about her mother. But she seemed to be the only one. She wanted only to be immersed in the newly-minted world of her marriage. Everything about this house, like every other house they’d lived in, spoke of struggle.
“Has she eaten anything?” Babsie persisted.
John shook his head. “She hasn’t moved since I got up.”
Only then did Babsie get up to investigate. She tiptoed into the back room and over to the bed. Drawing back the covers she placed a hand on her mother’s forehead. She shook her gently by the shoulder.
“Mam,” she said gently, “wake up.”
She shook again, this time more roughly.
“Mam,” she repeated, panicked.
A tiny smart of irritation came over Babsie; she was forever trying to shake Mam into action. She reached for her mother’s scabbed wrist – peeled back one of the gloves; yes, she even wore them in bed for fear of scratching herself unbeknownst in her sleep – but Babsie knew even before she tried for a pulse.
“John,” she said evenly, “go and get Reverend Brabazon.”
“Ah Babs, I’m in the middle of me book,” he wailed.
Books, she thought, bloody books.
“Go,” she ordered, “this very minute.”
When he was gone, Babsie drew the curtains and stopped the clock. She put the kettle to boil, for whom she did not know. It was just something to do so she would not have to approach the bed again and look on her mother’s closed-in face. She could not take it in; that the end would come like this, so quietly, as if her mother had just suddenly upped and surrendered. Typical, Babsie thought, and inexplicably she felt her ire rising again. It was something she had never understood. It wasn’t that her mother had lacked spirit – hadn’t she raised up five of them as a widow? – but her striving seemed always directed at appearances, the look of things as opposed to how they were. Well, Babsie thought, looking around, something would have to be done here. The scene looked peaceful, though hardly dignified. Her mother’s face had a par-boiled look where previous bouts of the erysipelas had left angry blotches. The gloves and the makeshift turban seemed foolish and pathetic, and Babsie set to, unwinding the scarf from her mother’s head and peeling off the gloves, so that when the clergyman saw her, she would not look like something out of a harlequinade.
She unwound her mother’s hair from the matted mound the scarf had made of it. Babsie lifted her head then while she combed the tangles out of it. When she laid her mother’s head back on the pillow, her hair settled like a tortoiseshell fan. Babsie laid her mottled arms by her side. Then she straightened the bed. Something tinny fell off as she turned down the counterpane. She had to go down on all fours to retrieve it. It was her mother’s little birdcage. It was a useless little thing, she thought, not even brass but brightly painted metal made up to look like silver. No pawn shop in town would look twice at it and so it had survived, a priceless treasure. She weighed it in her hand and then lifted her mother’s and folded the stiffening fingers around it in a fist. Tears came then, but nothing operatic – that was not in Babsie’s nature. She wiped her eyes and steeled herself. She went into the other room to fetch the two-pair candlesticks. There was a large dent in the stem of one, from what Babsie couldn’t recall. A domestic skirmish with her father, no doubt. One of the many. She lit them with a taper from the reawakened fire and set one down on each side of the bed. She bent and kissed her mother on the brow. Then Babsie passed her fingers in swift benediction over her mother’s eyelids and closed them, her lips moving to some silent prayer.
This is the face of Dublin artist, Una Watters (1918-1965).
Who, you might ask?
It’s a face you may well see if you’re passing the GPO this weekend in the hours of darkness. It will be illuminated across the facade of the post office as part of the Herstory Illuminations Festival 2020 to mark St Brigid’s Day.
Her image – created for projection by NCAD art student Rebecca Sodegrad – is there thanks to an RTÉ Junior initiative, Who’s Your Heroine, in which schoolchildren across Ireland were invited to discover lost women’s stories.
The response was so overwhelming that in addition to commissioning a series of six original animations, RTE partnered with NCAD to create additional illustrations showcasing some of the many incredible women nominated by the children.
Alexa Bauer (10) of Dublin 7 Educate Together school, nominated Una Watters for the project and wrote an accompanying essay explaining her choice.
My great aunty Rosie (still alive) and my great-grandmother Molly were both good friends with . . . Una. In our living room, we have a painting by her called “The Ladies Committee” and my great-grandmother is apparently in it, as well as a catalogue of all her [Una’s] paintings. . .
Una Watters should be one of Ireland’s most famous painters, but has sadly faded away.
So why has Una Watters been forgotten?
Partly because she died suddenly, aged 47, when she was at the height of her artistic powers.
After training at the National College of Art under the guidance of Maurice McGonigal, Una had become a versatile and prolific artist. She worked in oils and watercolours, painted portraits and landscapes, and in her latter career developed an angular, almost cubist style. Saturated with colour, her work is social, witty and observant. She sketched, was involved in magazine and book illustration, was an expert calligrapher and had a flair for design. (She won an Irish Arts Council commission to design a symbol to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.)
She was a member of the influential Society of Dublin Painters which featured a strong female membership, among them May Guinness, Grace Henry, Mary Swanzy, Mainie Jellet and Evie Hone, with whom she also showed.
One of her paintings, The Four Masters (1959), still hangs in the small suburban branch library in Phibsboro where she worked as a librarian. Another, The People’s Gardens (1963), is in the collection of the Dublin City Gallery (Hugh Lane).
Yet Una’s reputation has remained in the shadows.
The reason is, perhaps, related to her premature death. In 1966, a year after her untimely death, Una’s grieving husband, Eugene Watters, the Irish language novelist and poet, organized a memorial exhibition of 37 of her oil paintings, after which, heartbroken by her loss, he distributed her work widely among friends and family. This has meant that although she is loved and admired by those who are lucky enough to own an original Watters, her work has not reached a wider public.
For the past two years, I have been trying to change that. With the help of Una’s family and friends, we have managed to track down 23 of the 37 works in her posthumous 1966 show, and are on the lookout for more with a view to mounting a retrospective exhibition.
On a recent visit to Porto – luckily, a winter visit; you’ll see why later – we made our way to Livraria Lello, ranked as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. And so it is. Built in 1906, the shop presents an exquisite art deco, Moorish style exterior and an arabesque interior of mock-gothic shelving, a ceiling with high-church stained glass panels and a Gaudi-esque staircase curling its way up through the store’s three floors like the demented manifestation of a Dali nightmare.
Not only was the shop beautiful, it was thronged.
What’s not to like when a bookshop attracts hordes of customers? Particularly when many of them were making a pilgrimage to honour an author? As a native of Dublin, this is a concept I’m familiar with; after all, Joyce’s imagined characters from Ulysses, and the places they inhabit, get a special day of celebration devoted to them every year on June 16 for Bloomsday.
So what’s the problem? Tourism is what.
Livraria Lello started charging its customer a fee to enter (set against book purchases) in 2015 when it was swamped by so many visitors the shop couldn’t function as a business any longer. The business of selling books, that is. Now when you arrive on Rua des Carmencitas, you’re steered to a shopfront two doors away to buy a ticket. Then you queue on the street outside to gain entry. Since it was December, there were only about five people ahead of us so we got in without a wait. But in summer, the queue stretches for several blocks and people wait for hours on end.
Nevertheless, despite the short queue, the long, high, narrow premises seemed very crowded indeed. There were clusters of stationary people stuck behind displays and frozen in the narrow alleyways arms aloft taking photos with their phones. That staircase, in particular, was jammed with people taking selfies. On the display tables in the middle of the shop-floor, there were beautiful gift editions of English language classics for sale, Dickens, Flaubert, Wilde (Livraria Lello is also a book publisher with a long tradition) but no one was looking at them. Likewise the shelves were packed with fabulous books on the arts, the sciences, along with celebrated Portuguese authors like Pessoia and Saramago, three floors high. But the crowds were not here for any of those either; they were here because of Harry Potter.
The Livraria Lello bookshop is supposedly the inspiration for the Flourish and Blotts bookshop for wizards in the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling spent two years in Porto in the early nineties as an English language teacher and she wrote much of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone while in the city.
Look, I’ve nothing against Harry Potter or the deserved success of J.K. Rowling. (Full disclosure: I’ve never read Harry Potter nor seen any of the films.) Far from it, I see that Rowling managed to enthuse thousands of reluctant child readers to tackle the long narrative, in the same way Enid Blyton did for child readers of my generation. In fact, I’ve often thought that the Potter books are like Blyton’s boarding school series, just with wizards.
I understand completely why the Lello has monetized its premises. It was, apparently, a failing bookshop, which it isn’t anymore. It’s a thriving example of cultural tourism, the same kind of tourism that fuels Bloomsday. But being a crushed sardine in a beautiful cathedral devoted to literature, to be unable to access, let alone browse through the books, because of the ever-pressing, onward urgent movement of the transitory visitors intent on the next photo op, was utterly dispiriting.
This was no longer a bookshop experience; this was closer to a bad airport trip.
The Potter brigade was not interested in the literary history, the architectural flourishes or the function of the shop. They were moved by the merchandising of a tiny, atomized sliver of J K Rowling’s fictional imagination. (I wondered how many of the Potter fans in the Lello shop that day had ever read the books, but just seen the films.)
“Livraria Lello is still a meeting place for thinkers, artists and writers,” the promotional pamphlet for the bookshop that we got with our E5 entry fee, declared, but it was hard to imagine it that rainy December Thursday.
Instead, the shop represented a depressing microcosm of viral tourism, in which volume distorts the very experience it seeks to promote.
T’is the season for exhumations. First it was Franco, now it’s Joyce.
Dublin city councillors agreed last week to approach the Government with a view to repatriating the remains of James Joyce, buried with his wife Nora Barnacle in Fluntern cemetery in Zurich. Labour councillor Dermot Lacey, who proposed the motion, said it would be “honouring someone’s last wishes” – a delightfully vague locution. Does he mean Joyce? Does he know something we don’t?
However, unwittingly, Cllr Lacey is right. Seventy years ago, it was Nora Barnacle’s hope that Joyce’s remains be returned to Ireland. It was a matter of honour for her, perhaps tinged by a touch of funeral envy.
In 1948, still living in Zurich because she wanted to be close to her husband’s grave, Nora observed the official pomp and ceremony with which the body of the poet W. B. Yeats was repatriated to Ireland from the south of France where he’d died in 1939. (Yeats had long expressed a wish to be buried in Drumcliff churchyard in Sligo.)
“The coffin was taken from France to Galway bay by a ship of the Irish navy; there the widow, her children and the poet’s brother were piped aboard. Then a funeral procession escorted them from Galway to Sligo where Yeats was buried with a military guard of honour and representation from the Irish government,” writes Brenda Maddox in her biography of Nora. “Why not the same for Joyce?”
The answer at the time, of course, was that Yeats was in much higher standing in Ireland than Joyce was; he had served as a Free State senator, a “smiling, public man”, whereas Joyce remained in the Irish imagination of the time as “shocking, blasphemous and arrogant”, as Maddox puts it, whose books if not outrightly banned were seized at the borders.
However, unofficial approaches were made. Joyce’s American patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver asked Count Gerald O’Kelly, a former diplomat and art critic and Georgian afficionado, Constantine Curran, a boyhood friend of Joyce’s, to inquire if the Irish Government or the Royal Irish Academy would consider requesting the return of the body.
Miss Weaver believed that if Joyce’s remains were repatriated, then Nora and Joyce’s son, Giorgio, might consider returning themselves. (Nora had told American interviewer, Sandy Campbell, that she’d like to have a “cottage in Ireland, but the Irish don’t like Joyce so there you are”.)
Maria Jolas, another lifelong campaigner for the Joyces, added her support saying that Joyce ‘s body should be be brought back because his widow wished it and because he was a towering figure of Irish literature. With a view to her audience, she also declared that Joyce remained a good Catholic.
But this view was not shared in Dublin. Count O’Kelly’s back-channel inquiries revealed there was little support for Joyce’s repatriation. Ireland had apparently not forgiven him for his scandalous work and the plan came to nothing.
Unlike the 1948 campaign, the present move by Dublin city councillers seems motivated more by gain than honour. The James Joyce “industry” has long been a tourist goldmine for the city.
The Bloomsday celebrations – memorialising June 16, 1904, the day Joyce had his first date with Nora, and the date he chose to set his novel Ulysses on – is a fixture on the tourist calendar, although it started as a spontaneous tribute to the writer by a small group of literati in Dublin.
Comic writer Brian O’Nolan (otherwise known as Flann O’Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen), poet Paddy Kavanagh, writer Anthony Cronin, registrar of Trinity College, A J Leventhal, publican John Ryan and dentist Tom Joyce, a cousin of Joyce’s, made the first Bloomsday pilgrimage on June 16, 1954.
The shambolic expedition, complete with two horse-drawn cabs – echoing the one taken by Bloom and his friends to Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Ulysses – was cut short before all the sites in the novel could be visited, due to the amount of alcohol that was consumed and the fractious mood of the participants. (Fisticuffs threatened between O’Nolan and Kavanagh)
Since then, Bloomsday – still observed and enjoyed by Joyce’s literary admirers – has been all but hijacked for its tourist potential by the Dublin authorities. It’s those same authorities who’ve been leading the charge to dig up Joyce from his burial place in Zurich and bring him home.
The Swiss authorities are thinking the same way. Director of the Joyce Foundation in Zurich, Fritz Senn said there would be “resistance” in Switzerland as Joyce’s grave has become a major tourist attraction there. After all, Senn pointed out, Joyce never accepted Irish citizenship and the Irish Government of the time neglected to send an envoy to his funeral.
The Swiss provided much-needed sanctuary for the Joyces at the the outbreak of World War 2 and Nora continued to live there till her death in 1951.
Both cities clearly have their eye on the next big Joyce anniversary which comes in 2022, marking 100 years since the publication of Ulysses.
In the meantime, is it a case of bring up your bodies? If so, who’s next – Samuel Beckett? Look out, Montparnasse!