Big Sister is watching you


If her first-born child failed to be a man-child, an Irish matriarch wasn’t too desolated, whatever the patriarchs were saying about it. As soon as she was on her feet, this eldest daughter would be her mother’s little helper, well placed in due, cruel course, to take over the job of mothering her younger siblings. Until recently, maternal big sisters were central figures in Irish family life, making regular appearances in the autobiographies of their famous little brothers, Dr Noel Browne and Bob Geldof being two that come to mind. But this big sister character, omnipresent in “true life”, is absent from the realms of poetry, prose and song.

Our collective imagination harbours every variety of shemale – mothers, grandmothers, lovers, goddesses, queens, saints, hags, fairies, banshees – and no big sisters, apart from Fionnuala, eldest of the mythical children of Lir.  So it’s fair to say that in taking a creative interest in Bella Casey, big sister of the famous Sean O’Casey, (pictured above with her daughter), Mary Morrissy is, once again, breaking new fictive ground (The Rising of Bella Casey, Brandon Press, Dublin 2013).

Until Morrissy re-imagined her, Bella Casey only existed in O’Casey’s autobiographical words, including the texts archived in the New York Public Library. Bella was fifteen when the great dramatist was born, old enough to assist at his delivery on a washing day – among “the suds left by her mother’s smalls” – and to inspire one of this novel’s most mesmerising scenes. O’Casey freely acknowledged his debt to Bella, the caring, accomplished and confident older sister of his troubled boyhood, when he was plain Jack Casey. His father, John Casey, had converted to an evangelical, low church brand of Victorian Protestantism – in direct opposition to the high church “smells and bells” of the Anglo-Catholic revival – and the family had a foothold on the lower middle-class rung of the Irish social ladder.

When John Casey died, his widow and children were still shabby genteel, a status symbolised by the family’s silverware which, in another of Morrissy’s set pieces, the mother peevishly polishes. George Bernard Shaw once referred to his similarly anomalous Dublin childhood as “rich only in dreams, frightful and loveless in realities” and his marriage to a dull Anglo-Irish heiress probably had more to do with a lingering caste anxiety than money.

As a Protestant God-fearing, piano-playing, trained elementary schoolteacher, Miss Bella Casey had every chance to sustaining her family’s status. Instead, she fell off the social ladder as Mrs Beaver, hapless wife of a hard-drinking British Army bandsman turned railway porter. But even as she moved from bad to worse addresses, increasingly desperate and déclassée, Bella refused to connect with her working-class Catholic neighbours. She retained the faith of her father, never lost her identification with an imperial and Protestant Britain. And while she raged alone against the zeitgeist, brother Jack was raging with it.

The cities of early 20th-century Europe were teeming with idealistic young joiners: socialists, feminists, trades unionists, scouts, cyclists, vegetarians, teetotallers, secessionists, folklorists, Zionists, pan-Slavists, anarchists, theosophists, et cetera. When he gaelicised his name, and was born again as Sean O’Casey, Jack Casey was aligning himself with the Gaelic-flavoured counter-cultural dream of a socialist new age. But he couldn’t forget Bella’s alienation, any more than Joyce could forget his mother’s reproaches, and some of the classic O’Casey female characters – Minnie Powell, Juno Boyle – must owe something to his big sister’s fierce dissent.

Bella Casey is hard to like, impossible to ignore. As a virtuosa translator of rude female experience into powerful, immersive prose fiction, Morrissy is well able for her story. She never condescends to her anti-heroine, and although she endows Bella with a persuasive back-story – putting an entirely new complexion on the little brother’s understanding of all things Irish, republican and religious – she herself remains an awkward customer. Bella’s Rising is not Jack’s Rising. She has her “rush of the sublime” when, on a strife-torn Dublin street, she comes upon a Broadwood piano, a gorgeous instrument for which she risks her life and saves what is left of her soul. For Bella’s readers there are more rushes of the sublime. I can’t think of another novel like it, but it did make me think about Brecht’s great anti-war play Mother Courage.

Brecht was disappointed when, instead of thinking combatively about the issues, audiences sympathised with his ignoble, profiteering Mother Courage character. For the punters, no matter what the righteous playwright made her do or say, Mother Courage was an uncomplicatedly heart-rending maternal creature. Bella is another Mother Courage but I mean nothing ironic by that designation because, in having the courage of her unfriendly convictions, she makes life even more difficult for herself.  The “issues” are there all right. You cannot read The Rising of Bella Casey without thinking about what became of Romantic Ireland – of which, more anon – but we are allowed to get involved, emotionally as well as intellectually, because this is a novel of terrible beauty.

Margaret Mulvihill’s review of The Rising of Bella Casey appears on her site

The Irish Hilary Mantel?

bella cover

Advance praise for  The Rising of Bella Casey, due from the Brandon imprint of O’Brien Press on September 16,2013:

“One of the most intelligent, well-written and well-researched historical novels I have read.  Mary Morrissy is the Irish Hilary Mantel” – Eilis Ni Dhuibhne

“Compelling and beautiful, no mere tale of historical restoration but a story full of strange resonances for our time” – Joseph O’Connor

“. . . elegant and unadorned at the same time. . . an intimate portrait of a woman and a depiction of Irish history at its most extreme. . . a wonderful book from one of our finest writers” – Colum McCann

“Mary Morrissy has a genius for lifting characters out of the dim backgrounds of history and brilliantly illuminating them.  In The Rising of Bella Casey  she evokes the rich Dublin world of the plays of Sean O’Casey and creates a moving drama that O’Casey himself would have acknowledged.” – John Banville

As is Morrissy’s trademarks, she offers us not just a glimpse of a person, but full, vivid lives set against a richly imagined time and place in history.” – Julianna Baggott

Returning to first loves


When I was a student journalist in the 1970s, we were given a list of 20 books, which, it was suggested gently, everyone should have read by the age of 20.  Shamefully, I had read only a handful, so I determined, with the zeal of the auto-didact, to get through every recommended work on the list.  I started with Joyce’s Dubliners and the first story I read was Araby. (The exotic title attracted me).  It was love at first read, a fitting response since Araby is about first love. But not simply first love, first unrequited love.

It’s a simple story – it dares to be simple.  The narrator, a young boy, nurses a crush on the older sister of his friend Mangan, but is too tongue-tied to declare it.   He decides he will demonstrate his love with a gift.  There’s a visiting bazaar in the city  – from which the story gets its title –  which Mangan’s sister wants to go to but can’t.  The boy decides he will go for her and buy her a trinket that will make his feelings clear. But first he has to get a promised florin from his uncle.  The well-oiled uncle does not come home till late and by the time our hero gets on the train, florin in hand, it is after 8 pm, and the reader (the older, wiser reader) already knows the expedition is doomed. When he gets to the bazaar, the place is virtually closed, the stalls mostly empty and those few that are still trading have nothing that he wants to buy.  His disappointment is palpable.

The story ends with one of Joyce’s classic epiphanies. (Joyce described an epiphany as a delicate and evanescent moment, a revelation. But it could also be an error or gesture “by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal”.) “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” The voice that finishes the story is an older one, viewing the child through the long lens of time. Or is it that clear-cut?  Do we not all know even in the feverish grip of infatuation how ridiculous it makes us? In Araby, Joyce places the reader above the boy in the middle of the deserted bazaar – perhaps gazing down from the gallery described earlier that “girdled” the big hall, but not looking down on him.

Araby is a story popular with the young.  When I first read it, it was the pain and exaltation of infatuation that I identified with, perhaps because I was a fellow sufferer.  Most teenagers are experts in the pangs of unreturned affection and Araby authenticates the experience and its associated mortifications.

Unrequited love is love at its most noble.  It’s untested, certainly, but it allows us to bestow passionate goodwill on someone who may only be barely aware of us.  It expects no reward.  It is both gloriously selfless and, paradoxically, totally taken up with self.
“Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand.  My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour myself out into my bosom.  I thought little of the future.  I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I would tell her of my confused adoration.”

Joyce captured the delicious pain, the secret shame and cruel paradoxes of unrequited love – how the sufferer longs to declare herself, while also desperately wanting to hide her affliction, to hug it to herself because it is a tender feeling, too fine for the grubby world.

The other discovery I made reading Araby was to see my own city being mirrored back at me.  “We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street singers. . .” In my mind’s eye I pictured Moore Street of my own time, or imagined Henry Street the week before Christmas, and realised how close our Dublins were.  The traces of the Edwardian city were much closer to the surface in the 1970s, but even if they hadn’t been, the city Joyce spent his whole writing life trying to recreate in exile, was right there in Araby – the dismal streets, the brown houses, the dark dripping gardens, the empty gloomy rooms, the shuttered lives.  When I came to write about Dublin in that era  in  “The Rising of Bella Casey”, my novel due out with Brandon Press later this month, it was to those memories I returned – as well, of course, as drawing on the atmosphere Joyce rendered so beautifully in “Dubliners”.

What do our photographs say about us?


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’ 

What O’Casey wrote out


The Rising of Bella Casey, my latest novel, with the re-vitalized Brandon imprint – from O’Brien Press – will be published on September 16.  The book will be launched two days later along with playwright Frank McGuinness’s first novel, Arimathea.  It’ll be a great occasion, not just for Frank and me, but also to see the Brandon name on the bookshelves again with new Irish literary fiction. The Rising of Bella Casey is a novel about Sean O’Casey’s sister, Bella.  Dublin playwright O’Casey (above) wrote six volumes of autobiographies in later life, but chose to kill off his sister 10 years before her time in his memoirs.

This literary slaying piqued my interest in her and the relationship between her and her famous brother. Bella lived well beyond 1910/11 when she disappears from O’Casey’s account; in fact, she witnessed the 1913 Lockout, the outbreak of World War 1 and the Easter Rising, before succumbing at the age of 52 in 1918 at the start of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic.  In my novel, those lost years are fictionally restored to her. O’Casey (1880-1964) is best known for his Dublin trilogy of plays – Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.

The Rising of Bella Casey

bella cover

Here is the cover of my latest novel due out with O’Brien Press under the Brandon imprint in September.  The wonderful photograph, by Mark Douet, is from the Abbey Theatre Dublin’s most recent production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and features Sinead Cusack.  The novel, set in the years before the Easter Rising, is based on the life of O’Casey’s sister, Bella. See

Ireland Focused Issue

The Chattahoochee Review‘s Fall/Winter 2012 has a special focus: Ireland. Editor Anna Schachner introduces the issue by saying that, “It was through John Fairleigh of the Stewart Parker Trust that we were able to highlight contemporary Irish drama, for he found us quite a few excellent plays, leaving us to choose the two whose powerful, raw language most pulled us in as readers. Meanwhile, The Stinging Fly, an Irish journal after our own literary heart, graciously helped spread the word . . . The Munster Literature Centre and the Irish Writers’ Centre referred us to writers and rallied our efforts . . . Such collaboration was, and is, a beautiful thing–I like to think in keeping with this issue.”The issue includes work from Fióna Bolger, Cróna Gallagher, Nancy Harris, Kevin Higgins, Gavin Lavelle, Ed Madden, Orla McAliden, John McManus, David Mohan, Mary Morrissy, Gregory Kirk Murray, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Val Nolan, Márie T. Robinson, Anakana Schofield, Andrew Stephens, Matthew Sweeney, Patrick Toland, Eoghan Walls, Barrett Warner, and Jesse Weaver.