Hilary Mantel and me

hilary mantel jpeg

When my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, came out in late 2013, one of the authors approached to blurb it was Irish novelist and short story writer, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne.  She described me as “the Irish Hilary Mantel”.  I was pretty chuffed about being mentioned in the same breath as Mantel, since I’ve been a long-time admirer of her work – long before Wolf Hall sent her into the literary stratosphere.

It’s over 25 years ago since I came across Mantel’s third novel  Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.  I was immediately hooked.

The novel tells the story of  Frances Shore, whose husband Andrew, a civil engineer,  is posted to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on a lucrative building contract. Frances is disturbed by the restrictions the Saudi way of life imposes on her.  She is not allowed to drive; she can’t walk alone in the city without being harassed.  Even in her own apartment there’s a constant reminder of the oppressive burden of the female life in the Middle East.  The front door of the the apartment where she and Andrew live, is walled up – the legacy of the last occupant, a Saudi woman who had to be protected from accidentally encountering a male neighbour on the corridor outside.

Nor is the company of her own kind – the ex-pat community – much comfort to Frances.  “They sat at the back of the plane and got sodden drunk within an hour of takeoff; they squirted each other with duty-free Nina Ricci, and laid hands on the stewardesses, and threw their dinners about, and vomited on the saris of dignified Indian ladies.”

The atmosphere of the novel is perilous, claustrophobic and haunted.  Frances constantly hears footsteps in the apartment overhead that’s supposed to be empty; the motif  has echoes of Bronte’s Mrs Rochester, the madwoman in the attic.  As with the best of novels it’s less about what happens externally as about what happens inside – and in Saudi it’s all inside, if you’re a woman.

ghazzah streetBut what makes Eight Months on Ghazzah Street truly memorable is that it’s as much  about the state of being female – beleaguered, prone to doubt, troubled by shadowy anxieties – as it is about living as a western woman in a Saudi city at a particular time.

I loved this novel  and felt I was the only one who knew about Mantel’s wry and bracing prose, her unflinching eye.  I went on to read many of her books – Beyond Black is one of my favourites, a darkly ambiguous novel about a flakey (or is she?) spiritualist. And there’s Mantel’s  affecting memoir, Giving up the Ghost, which had  particular resonance for me as a fellow sufferer of endometriosis.

When the rest of the world discovered Mantel with Wolf Hall, I have to admit to a tiny sliver of resentment that finally one of my reading secrets was out.

When it came time for my latest collection of linked short stories, Prosperity Drive,  to be promoted (publication date:  February 2016) the publishers asked if there was anyone I’d like to blurb the book. Well, I said, since I’ve been described as the Irish Hilary Mantel, what about the two-time Booker Prize winner?  It was a long shot, but  here’s what came back:

‘Mary Morrissy is a wonderful writer. These stories are entertaining and deft, so skilfully balanced and interwoven that when you begin to pick out the pattern it is a real moment of delight.’

So from one devoted fan of Hilary Mantel – a heartfelt thanks.

I’m with Milton

header booksRecently, I visited a café in south county Dublin and noticed that the walls were decorated with shelves chock-full of books. The shelves were set at such a height as to discourage casual browsing but by craning my neck I could see they were all hardbacks of a certain era – 1940s/50s ─ minus their dust-jackets.  Their underclothes – green and roseate cardboard covers – were on show. I wondered how they had been chosen. Was it for their content? Unlikely. Or was it for the pretty faded covers, their forlorn vintage chic, a perfect complement to the café’s lime-washed New England décor?

I took note of the titles – The Whiteoaks of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche was one. De la Roche was a Canadian writer, who penned a 16-novel family saga over a 30-year span from the 1930s to 1960s about the eponymous Whiteoak family. They were common currency in my convent school library in the 1970s. We discussed their plots with the enthusiasm now reserved for selfies and You Tube clips.

The Jalna novels were what you might call polite bodice-rippers. Lots of heaving bosoms and unrequited love but the bedroom door invariably closed at the opportune time. Georgette Heyer was another staple of our school library. These were solid, middle-brow novels, well-researched and historically accurate with doughty female heroines. Heyer was probably one of the authors that prompted my journey into writing historical fiction, but she was  reduced to  visual tat in this café too. So too were several Reader’s Digest compendiums of abridged books that seemed to cluster in holiday chalets of my childhood. Seaside reads, in other words. But, here’s the difference; we actually read those books when the rain came down and there was nothing else to do but stay indoors.

I’ve revisited this café several times and I’ve never seen anyone take down one of these books. That’s not the deal. They’re for decoration. They’re literally part of the wallpaper. They are job lots of books chosen on a “never-mind-the quality-feel-the-width” basis, displayed for the sole purpose of projecting a brand – we’re bookish, we’re hipster, we’re cool.

A friend instanced another example of book objectification in a pub in Dubai. The interior had the look of a book-lined study but on closer inspection, the books – yes, real genuine books – had been chopped in half vertically so that they would fit on the narrow shelves assigned to them in the pub’s design.

In the hey-day of the reconstituted “Irish pub” – when such establishments sprouted in Beijing, Boston and Baden-Baden – ye olde family photographs were used in the same way, bought in bulk by pub outfitters to give the dewy-eyed exile or the unwary tourist the impression he/she was walking into Granny Grunt’s kitchen from the mists of time. The trouble with colonizing these artefacts is that for someone somewhere they are genuine mementos representing real human relationships. Like the books they have authorship.

Home décor websites are a hotbed of this kind of objectification of books. One such site offers  37 different ways to decorate your home with books. Cut a hole in the middle of a thick volume, put earth inside and plant something in it! Why not pile your books up and make a bedside table of them? Tear out the pages and make a fabulous collage!

But before the interior decorators got their hands on the book, its value among so-called book-lovers was already declining. Some years ago I was a judge on a major literary competition and ended up with over 100 contemporary novels, many of them hardbacks, which I couldn’t accommodate on my shelves. They were span-new publications, hot off the presses, in mint condition, yet I had real difficulty finding a home for them. My first port of call was my local second-hand bookstores.  I felt sure of a welcome there with my handsome, almost new, library. These people were my own kind, weren’t they?  But they turned out to be annoyingly finicky. Some wouldn’t touch hardbacks; others cherry-picked the big names from my crates and rejected the rest. I even tried the local library. The librarian on duty looked at me askance as if I were trying to peddle drugs when I offered them four boxes of brand new books. Where would we put them, she demanded in an almost aggrieved tone. I stopped myself from suggesting the obvious. In the end most of the books ended up in a charity shop, the only place that would accept them no questions asked. Oh, apart from the dump, that is.

But I couldn’t contemplate that. Even though these books represented imposed reading rather than titles I had chosen myself, I had never considered simply throwing them out. But maybe I should have. Isn’t pulping and recycling a more honourable end for the unwanted book than being transformed into a cute planter or deconstructed into a fabulous collage? And there’s always the possibility of a reprieve at the dump. Another acquaintance of mine goes to the dump for all his reading material. He climbs into the large bin reserved for unwanted books and scavenges merrily. I imagine him like a vineyard keeper trampling on grapes at harvest time, high on the literature fumes.

The downgrading of the physical book is inevitably twinned with the digitising of reading. Amazon has been blamed for devaluing the book by merely pricing it down to the cost of a sandwich. Independent publisher Dennis Johnson, proprietor of Melville Books, declared in an interview in the New Yorker last year, that Amazon had “successfully fostered the idea that the book is a thing of minimal value – it’s a widget”.

Time on the physical book was called when e-books first came on the scene. But rumours of tis demise have proved premature. E-book sales have settled at around 30% of the market, so that means that 70% of us are still buying the physical object.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Luddite. I have a Kindle and do a lot of reading on it. But when I like a book, really like it, I go out and buy it in a bookshop because I don’t feel I own it when it’s trapped, incorporeal, in an electronic device. I need to see it on a shelf where I can put my hand on it. That’s probably an indication of my age. The Kindle is efficient, convenient and portable, but for me, even at its slick and well-lit best, it lacks the objecthood and temporality of the physical book. I’m a sucker for the texture of a leather-bound hardback, for the luxury of marbled end papers or the crinkly freshness of a volume with uncut pages. I could go on. . . but I won’t. It sounds too much like breathless porn.

But there’s a difference between my kind of bibliophilic fetish, and an interior decorator pimping out books as deconstructed decorative objets. For me, the cover and binding is only part of the relationship with the book, not the be all and end all. As Milton observed in Areopagitica, his impassioned argument against censorship way back in 1644, books are “not absolutely dead things”. They contain the “potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them”.

Hands off, I want to say to those café owners, interior decorators and pub designers keen to fill up empty visual spaces with literary props, books are for reading.

A version of this post appeared in Headstuff.org

Days to remember

85 Upper Dorset Street where the Casey family lived; it is now demolished
85 Upper Dorset Street where the Casey family lived; it is now demolished

Writing about real people makes you maternal about your characters.  You know things about them that you mightn’t know about fictional creations.  Their birthdays, for example.  Today, 150 years ago, the heroine of my IMPAC Prize nominated novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon) was born on February 6, 1865, at 22 Wellington Street, Dublin.

Christened Isabella Charlotte Casey, she was the eldest of five and the only girl in a family of four brothers, Mick, Tom, Isaac and the baby of the family, John, who would later convert to the Irish version of his name, to become the renowned playwright, Sean O’Casey. Bella’s parents, Michael Casey and Susan Archer, had met on Chambers Street in Dublin, where Susan lived and Michael rented a room.

The Caseys were Protestants in a city where Protestants were outnumbered by Catholics by five to one. Sean O’Casey often depicted himself as a child of the tenements, but the Caseys belonged to the respectable lower middle-class at the time of Bella’s birth. On her birth certificate, Bella’s father, Michael Casey, is registered as a mercantile clerk and by the time Sean was born in 1880, he was leasing a large, three-storey, above basement Georgian house at 85 Upper Dorset Street where the family lived. He was also working as a clerk at the Irish Church Missions on Townsend Street.

At the time Dorset Street was a trading street rather than a top-notch address, but it was respectable nonetheless and it was this background that informed Bella’s early years ─ she played the piano and spoke French.  The family’s relative comfort nurtured her upwardly mobile ambitions, allowing her to finish secondary schooling and to train as a primary school teacher at the teaching college on Marlborough Street. It was only when Bella’s father died – in 1886 – that the Caseys began to slide into more straitened circumstances. Even so, by this stage Bella was a qualified teacher, and was a major contributor to the family’s finances.

As sometimes happens, dates cluster in family history and February 6th became memorable for the Caseys for another reason when in 1914, Bella’s brother Tom died of peritonitis at the age of 44. Tom was one of two Casey brothers who had “married out” – i.e. married Catholics – much to the chagrin of their mother, Susan, who was a staunch Protestant. Tom was Sean O’Casey’s favourite brother, having a gentle nature, but he was hostile towards Tom’s wife, Mary Kelly. Perhaps channelling his mother’s bigotry, he blamed her for Tom’s early demise.

Writing in the 1940s in his autobiographies, Sean O’Casey described Mary Kelly as “an ignorant catholic girl who in some way had influenced him [Tom] towards a new home. . . a yellow-skinned, stout woman, badly built in body and mind-sly in a lot of ways as so many toweringly ignorant persons are”. O’Casey declared the marriage was the death of Tom, though how is not made clear.

O’Casey’s biographer Christopher Murray notes that the publishers of O’Casey’s autobiographies, Macmillan, were worried about his possibly libellous description of Mary Kelly, but O’Casey replied loftily that there was not the slightest chance she would ever read his account. (She had died in 1936).  But Tom and Mary’s children were still alive.

Kit Casey, their son, speaking to Colm Cronin in The World of Sean O’Casey (ed Sean McCann) remembered things differently. “My father seemed to be the most popular of the O’Caseys and every Sunday evening they’d all meet in our house.  A family within a family, very proud and they kept together.  They all met for a social evening and they used to sing and recite and so on.”

Of Sean O’Casey he says: “You know he borrowed twenty sovereigns from my mother and he hadn’t the decency to pay it back. . . I never cared for him or got on with him.”

Tom Casey died on Bella’s 49th birthday and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, as she would be four years later.

Killing your darlings

fuy poster

The death of a fictional character is always difficult for an author. You’ve lovingly created them, you’ve spent several years in their company; then you have to kill them off.  The dilemma is further complicated if you’re writing about real people. And if you’re writing about historical figures, they already have a death assigned to them.

The eponymous heroine of my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon) had the ill-luck of becoming an early victim of the Spanish ‘flu.

The 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 SARS outbreak in 2003 claimed 775 lives, while the avian ‘flu has killed 384 people in the last 10 years, according to the World Health Organization.)

The ‘flu came in two waves – in early 1918, and then again later in the year.  But the first outbreak of the Spanish ‘flu (so-called because in neutral Spain newspapers were publishing accounts of the spread of the disease) is now understood to 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 in China, both in 1917.

In Dublin, eye-witnesses remember it as the Black Flu. “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.

The Spanish ‘flu felled the young and the healthy.  Bella Casey was neither.   Her health had already been compromised by 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 become inflamed. They are painful and hard to the touch transforming the affected skin so that it takes on 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 – predominantly soap and lye.  Although an educated woman, she spent the latter years 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 gloves and neighbours referred to her admiringly as ‘Lady Beaver’.” (Beaver was Bella’s married 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.”

In the end, however, the Spanish ‘flu claimed Bella Casey.  Her death certificate notes the cause of death as “Influenza, 10 Days Certified”. She was 52.  Bella Casey died on this day 97 years ago, New Year’s Day, 1918.

Bella, in happier times, with her daughter, Susan
Bella, in happier times, with her daughter, Susan

Truth and Truce

A still from the Sainsbury Christmas advert
A still from the Sainsbury Christmas advert

The overlap between fiction and history  – where this blog comes in – is perhaps nowhere more clearly seen than in the depiction of an event that happened a hundred years ago tomorrow – the Christmas truce of the First World War. The truce became the stuff of mythology almost as soon as it happened, and in the century since, all sorts of refining and expanding of the facts has gone on; films and plays have dramatized it adding fictional truth to the mix, and this year, even advertisers got in on the act with Sainsburys running a Christmas ad featuring a pot-pourri of elements common to many first-hand accounts of the Christmas Truce.

The truce started, apparently, with a song on a crisp, clear night ─ December 24th, 1914. The weather up till then had been wet, but temperatures dropped on Christmas Eve and a hard frost settled on the trenches of the Western Front. During the afternoon British soldiers noticed miniature Christmas trees with candles and paper lanterns appearing along the German parapets. And then, coming up to seven in the evening, the German soldiers began to sing. “I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune,” Private Albert Moren of the Second Queens’ Regiment recalls.

Stille Nacht – or Silent Night – is the carol most associated in the popular imagination with the first – and only ─ Christmas truce of the First World War. But soldiers’ recollections suggest other carols played a more prominent part in the event. Rifleman Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade admits he’d never heard of Silent Night. This is quite possible since it was not as common a carol then as it has become now. So it was Come All Ye Faithful that stuck in Williams’ mind because it was a tune both sides knew, although the German troops sang the Latin version – Adeste Fideles.

The soldiers found common cause in hymns and carols, anthems and parlour songs. On that Christmas Eve, there were renditions of Home Sweet Home, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, The First Noel, Auld Lang Syne, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks and O Tannenbaum, as well as God Save the King and Die Wacht am Rhein. The music was the precursor of something much more revolutionary, however  – an unofficial and illicit truce.

“When dawn arrived, we started putting our head above the parapet and waved to each other,” Pte Cunningham of the 5th Scottish Rifles, remembers. “On our left was a brewery occupied by the Germans and to our surprise we saw a German come out and hold his hand up, behind him were two rolling a barrel of beer. They came halfway across and signed to us to come for it. Three of us went out, shook hands with them, wished them a merry Christmas, and rolled the barrel to our own trenches. . . after that it was understood that peace was declared for a day.”

In a diary recently come to light, an Irish soldier from Waterford recalls his Christmas Day in Flanders. Pte Laurence Crotty of the Royal Field Artillery  notes that “the Germans came out between the trenches and danced and talked with us giving us cigars. Nobody fired in our front. The North Staffords arranged a truce till evening.”

Scenes like this were repeated all along a 27-mile section of the Western Front between Messines and Neuve Chapelle on Christmas Day. The dead who had lain in No Man’s Land for a week were buried and prayers said over them in English and German. Men from both sides met and talked, exchanged gifts of cigarettes, souvenirs and keepsakes. There were impromptu games of soccer. Ernie Williams of the Sixth Cheshire Territorials remembers the match he was involved in as a disorganized kick-about. “There was no sort of ill-will between us. There was no referee and no score, no tally at all.” (The common myth was that there was just one game which the Germans won, 3-2)

It’s estimated that about 100,000 soldiers participated in the truce. Despite the scale of it, or perhaps because of it, there was a widespread belief that it was a story concocted for propaganda purposes. In some quarters it came to be regarded as a “latrine rumour”. Pat Collard wrote to his parents that the truce was “all lies. The sniping went on just the same; in fact, our captain was wounded, so don’t believe what you see in the papers”. Pte Collard’s experience was also true. The truce was widespread, but it was not total. In some parts of the Western Front, shelling and firing continued and so did the fatalities; a total of 98 British soldiers were killed on Christmas Day 1914.

The first overtures were generally made by German troops, perhaps because Christmas Eve is the focus of festive celebrations in the German tradition. Nevertheless, there was strong resistance within the German ranks to fraternizing with the enemy. One soldier, a certain Corporal Adolf Hitler of the 16th Bavarians, berated his comrades for unmilitary conduct. “Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honour left at all?” he asked.

Others, after the bruising and bloody First Battle of Ypres, just a month before, were too war-weary to contemplate celebrating Christmas at all. A German Hussar officer, Captain Rudolf Binding, wrote to his father from Flanders: “I cannot attain to the lack of imagination necessary to celebrate Christmas in the face of the enemy. . . Enemy, death and a Christmas tree – they cannot live so close together.”

Historians have grappled with the question of what if – what if the truce had held. Stanley Weintraub, author of Silent Night: The Story of the World War 1 Christmas Truce, has suggested that the unsanctioned revolt by thousands of ordinary soldiers had the potential to be one of those “spontaneous movements that topple tyrants and autocrats” but in the end, military discipline reasserted itself. Very soon it was business as usual.

Lance Corporal Henderson of the Royal Engineers recalls that at midnight on St Stephen’s night an alarm went up where he was. “We stood up till daybreak when we found that our pals of the previous two days had tried to rush our position . . . the next morning the ground where we had been so chummy, and where Germans had wished us a merry Christmas, was now covered with their dead.”

A version of this post was broadcast as part of Christmas Miscellany, December 21, on RTE Radio One. I am grateful to the excellent and authoritative site, http://www.christmastruce.co.uk, for certain quotes that appear here.

‘Like champagne. . . or the Aurora Borealis’

Brendan Behan

The death of maverick Irish writer, Brendan Behan, (above)  50 years ago, has been much remarked upon. But Behan shares this anniversary year with another major Irish literary figure, playwright Sean O’Casey, who appears as a character in my latest novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, which tells the story of his sister Bella.

The bare biographical details of Behan and O’Casey’s lives tell their own story. Behan died aged 41 on March 20, 1964, from alcohol-related diabetes. Six months later, O’Casey passed away aged 84. The age gap between them belies how much they had in common, although their lives did not cross.

Behan was certainly influenced by O’Casey’s work, particularly his Dublin trilogy – Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. Although a Protestant, O’Casey was brought up in straitened circumstances in northside Dublin and combined his literary career with a political radicalism, although he was a late bloomer as a writer. He was in his forties before his first play was staged.

Born 43 years after O’Casey in the same neighbourhood, Behan, a Catholic, was a precocious talent. He began writing in his teens contributing to Irish Republican magazines.  His work was heavily influenced by his political commitment.  In Behan’s case, that commitment included active involvement in the IRA, which resulted in two spells in prison.

Borstal Boy – a play based on his novel of the same name is now running at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in a new production directed by Conall Morrison – describes Behan’s first sentence in England for IRA activities. The Quare Fella tells of an execution at Mountjoy Jail when Behan was imprisoned there, and The Hostage deals with an IRA kidnapping of a British soldier.

Through very different routes, both  came to roughly similar conclusions in their writings about the fight for Irish freedom – “that while the issues involved were nationalism and imperialism, the ordinary poor had nothing to gain and a great deal to suffer in the cross-fire” as Colbert Kearney notes in The Writings of Brendan Behan.

But perhaps the most telling difference between them was one of temperament and habits.  Unlike Behan, O’Casey was a tea-totaller. In his biography of O’Casey, Christopher Murray remarks:”It is a sobering thought, if the pun will pass, that had O’Casey taken Behan’s path, he would have been dead before a single play had been staged. . .”

Conversely, Behan described himself as a drinker with a writing problem.

O’Casey’s view of Behan’s work is not recorded, but he was almost paternal in his concern for the younger writer. In an interview in the Irish Press on May 9, 1961, he remarked: “It’s sad to see this man abusing himself like he is.  If he does not mind his talent it will fade.”  On Behan’s death, he told the Evening Press: “One thing Brendan Behan never did was to exploit his own talents. . . He died too quickly.”

Behan was reverent in his admiration of O’Casey.  In a BBC television interview on November 29, 1962 he declared “. . .any playwright, certainly any Irishman writing plays in the past forty years that denies that O’Casey influenced them is a fool –  a liar. Yes, of course, he influenced us all.” In Brendan Behan’s Island, he went further: “I come from the same area as Sean O’Casey about whom I don’t intend to say anything for the simple reason that it would be like praising the Lakes of Killarney – a piece of impertinence.  A far as I’m concerned, all I can say is that O’Casey’s like champagne, one’s wedding night, or the Aurora Borealis, or whatever you call them – all them lights.”     

Sean O’Casey died on September 18,1964

Bella Casey’s War

ww1 poster

On  the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I thought it would be fitting to chart the influence of the war on Bella Casey, the heroine of my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon, 2013).

Bella (b.1865)  was the eldest of the family of five, which included Dublin’s premier playwright Sean O’Casey. The Protestant Caseys, and Bella in particular, were steeped in the tradition of service in the British Army. Two of Bella’s brothers had soldiered with the Army. Tom Casey saw active duty in the Boer War (he died in February 1914 ) and Mick, who had served in the Royal Engineers in the 1890s, re-enlisted in 1915. Bella’s teenage son, James “Sonny” Beaver, also joined the Royal Navy in 1915.

Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, had been a career soldier with the King’s Liverpools regiment in the 1880s. Beaver was struck down with the mental effects of syphilis in 1905, and was committed to Dublin’s Richmond Asylum where he died in 1907. Bella was left destitute with five children to raise alone.

Her brother, Sean O’Casey, being an avowed socialist and staunch nationalist, would not have served in the British Army on principle but he often drew on his background of solid, working-class Protestant loyalism for his work. He might not have had personal sympathy for these beliefs, but there was no doubt he understood them.

Although he was fearless in tackling thorny political issues in his plays – the depiction of the Easter Rising in The Plough and the Stars, for example, caused riots in the Abbey Theatre when it was staged in 1926 –  it was to take O’Casey almost a decade to approach the horrors of the First World War. In 1928 he submitted his play, The Silver Tassie, to the Abbey Theatre.  It constitutes a different kind of war service, an unflinching polemic on the futility of battle.

In the first act we see Harry Heegan, a young Dublin sporting hero who plays on the winning team for a soccer trophy (the silver tassie of the title) on the day he is due to return to the front. The second act of the play is an operatic depiction of Heegan and his war-weary comrades set in the rain-soaked trenches of France. A ruined monastery forms the backdrop; a broken crucifix dominates the scene. Strange liturgical chanting mixed with parlour songs replace conventional dialogue, in a highly stylized rendering of the absurd horrors of war. Nothing in the play up to this prepares the audience for this daring expressionism. Acts Three and Four bring us back down to earth, but all has changed. Heegan, now confined to a wheelchair as a result of a war wound, returns to Dublin, embittered and disillusioned. His girlfriend has gone off with his best friend Barney, who has won the VC for saving Heegan on the battlefield. In the community where he was hailed once as a hero, he meets only bafflement and distaste. No one can understand the trauma he’s been through. This is so common a trope in war narratives now that it is barely remarkable, but at the time, it was a revolutionary perspective.

Director and founder of the Abbey, W.B.Yeats, and O’Casey’s friend, was not convinced, however.  He turned the play down out of hand. In the history of literary rejections, they don’t come more savage than this. Yeats claimed that O’Casey knew nothing about the First World War: “You have no subject,” he wrote, “You are not interested in the Great War, you never stood on its battlefields or walked its hospitals and so write out of your opinions. . . ” He dismissed the bravura second act as an interesting technical experiment; after that, he added, “there is nothing”.

Given O’Casey’s strong and enduring family ties with the British Army, Yeats’s accusation that O’Casey was not familiar with his subject matter could hardly have been more wrong. O’Casey was not a man to take such criticism lying down. He inquired tartly if Shakespeare had been at Actium before he wrote Antony and Cleopatra or visited Philippi in preparation for Julius Caesar. And had Yeats himself travelled to Tir na nÓg as a preparation for his esoteric dramas, O’Casey demanded. The battle lines between the two men were firmly drawn.

Furthermore, as well as having family members fighting in the war, O’Casey had talked to soldiers returned from the Front. In 1915, he was hospitalised with TB in St Vincent’s Hospital. The wards were thronged with wounded soldiers newly arrived from France. While recovering O’Casey recalled listening to accounts of the “slime, the blooded mud, the crater and the shell-hole” that had become “God’s kingdom on earth”. These first-hand accounts must surely have inspired the nightmarish visions of the second act of The Silver Tassie. But Yeats insisted that the play lacked unity of action.

In such criticism he missed O’Casey’s point entirely. The disconnect between Act Two and the rest of the play was absolutely intentional. As one contemporary critic has put it: “The experience of a foot soldier caught up in the madness of battle is impossible to reconcile with the world that exists outside it: it is a personal apocalypse that relates to nothing even as it changes everything.”

After its rejection by the Abbey, The Silver Tassie did find a home.  It was premiered in London at the Apollo Theatre in 1929, starring Charles Laughton and Barry Fitzgerald.  But the war between Yeats and O’Casey was to continue for several more years.  They eventually patched things up and The Silver Tassie was staged at the Abbey in 1935 but the relationship between the two was never quite the same again.

As for Bella, who had seen her husband and brothers serve with the British Army and her son fight in the war, she was the only member of the family who did not survive the First World War. On January 1, 1918, she died of the effects of influenza.  This was the beginning of the Spanish ‘flu  epidemic that was to sweep through Europe that year and claimed more victims than the hostilities did.

An edited version of this post was broadcast as part of  RTE’s Sunday Miscellany World War One Roadshow, August 3.  See http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-miscellany/

Brought to Book

paintings in proust

I’ve just done one of those quickie questionnaires on the Irish Times website.  I love reading these things but it’s a strange sensation to read your own!  And, of course, you get troubled by esprit d’escalier – all the cool and impressive answers you should have given… But the spirit of the exercise is not to think too much about the questions, I think, and  not to brood too much about your answers.  And , above all, to remember that it’s newspapers, folks; it’ll soon be wrapping up someone’s virtual fish.  Or lurking behind a pay wall.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. It was one of many classics read to me when I was very young.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Too hard to be definitive about this as favourites keep on changing, don’t they? But I would count Alice Munro as one of my favourite writers and I happily revisit her dozen or so volumes of short stories regularly.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Fail again, fail better” – Samuel Beckett

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Can I say Jane Eyre again?

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Eilis Ní Dhuibhne. Her range is amazing. She writes in Irish and English, across several different genres. Her short fiction, in particular, is formally inventive and often wryly funny. The Dancers Dancing, her novel about the Irish college experience, should be a classic.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

I read both. I prefer traditional print, as I love the book as object, but am attracted by the ease and lightness of ebooks.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

Paintings in Proust by Erik Karpeles – this is a companion book to Proust’s A La Recherche de Temps Perdu with reproductions of all the art Proust mentions in his text. It’s a beautiful to hold, the reproductions are exquisite, and it’s a fascinating sidelong view of Proust’s masterpiece.

I write at home in a small study that used to be the spare bedroom until I jettisoned the bed and forced guests to sleep on a sofabed in the living room. I do a first draft in long-hand – an old habit which I’m too superstitious to depart from now.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

The Broken Estate by James Wood. Or anything by James Wood – he’s a literary critic who constantly forces me to re-evaluate reactions to books I’ve read. I don’t always agree with him, but he always makes me think twice.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

Probably for my most recent novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, about Sean O’Casey’s sister. I was awarded a research fellowship at the New York Public Library as I was starting the novel so I was in residence in one of the most extensive libraries in the world. Usually, I write the novel first, then do the research afterwards – but for this novel, the procedure was reversed. I researched Sean O’Casey’s papers (housed in the NYPL), read his letters and the various biographies of him, as well as foraging through testimonies of tenement life, the effects of syphilis, the first World War and the social history of the early 20th century. All of this was at hand and I ended up with more material than I knew what to do with – for that novel and for others yet to be written.

What book influenced you the most?

Again, it’s hard to answer this. As a writer, the books that have influenced me most – though probably subliminally – are the novels I read in my mid-teens, an age when you’re wide open to being carried away. Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor both had that effect on me at that age. I felt I had stumbled on a great secret finding them and I think they hover still around my writing somehow.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

Oh God, I’d probably give them a book token and let them choose. Otherwise I’d give them Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell which I read at 18. I was mesmerised by it because it was about Paris, where I’d never been, and because it was so dark, raw and edgy and a million miles from my own very sheltered existence.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Ulysses by James Joyce

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Write – a little and often. Read a lot.

What weight do you give reviews?

Enormous if they’re good.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

If I knew the answer to that. . .

What writing trends have struck you lately?

The predominance of present-tense narratives in short fiction and the large number of polyphonic novels.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

I don’t look to reading to teach me about life; I use it to escape life.

What has being a writer taught you?

Dogged persistence.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I would like to invite the residents of The February House, a literary commune set up in Brooklyn in the early 40s, which counted among its many members Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, W H Auden, George Davis, Paul and Jane Bowles, Gypsy Rose Lee, Klaus and Erika Mann, along with a host of famous visitors, including Anais Nin and Louis Mc Neice. Rather than be the host of the dinner party, I’d like to be a fly on the wall during one of their gatherings.

Brought to Book: Mary Morrissy on Alice Munro, Jane Eyre and James Wood.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

Siblings are often in danger of being traduced in print when there’s a writer in the family. Sometimes they bite back, biographically or fictionally. Others, like Bella Casey, the heroine of The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press, 2013), my novel about the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and his sister, don’t get the chance of a right to reply.  One of the triggers for writing Bella’s story was O’Casey’s decision to kill her off  ten years before her time in his autobiography.

Perhaps the best known set of literary siblings were the Brontës, but they happily shared a literary territory, particularly as teenagers. Later, the sisters’ fictional depiction of one another seems to have been heavily disguised – and, more importantly, was not contested. In the course of my research, I did some trawling through works where literary siblinghood was either hotly debated on the page, or – as in the case of Bella Casey –  a sister or brother was airbrushed out of the family album.

Stannie 1904

1. Stephen Hero: by James Joyce

This early work featured many episodes drawn from Joyce’s family life and, in particular, Stephen’s close relationship with his brother, Maurice (read Joyce’s real-life brother, Stanislaus, pictured above) Joyce subsequently rewrote it as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but he excised much of the material relating to Stanislaus. In later years, Stanislaus wrote a psychologically riveting memoir of Joyce’s early life, My Brother’s Keeper. “It is terrible,” he observed “to have a cleverer older brother. . .I perceive that he regards me as quite commonplace and uninteresting – he makes no attempt at disguise – and though I follow him fully in this opinion I cannot be expected to like it.”

2.Monkeys: by Susan Minot

Susan Minot’s “semi-autobiographical” debut novel caused a family storm when it was published in 1986. It follows the lives of the seven Vincent children, their Catholic mother and alcoholic father in an atmosphere of New England privilege. The novel inspired a veritable symphony of competing sibling creativity. Sister Eliza Minot published The Tiny One in 1999, covering the same events, brother George penned a murder mystery, The Blue Bowl,  about a large family in which one of the sons is accused of killing his father. Sam Minot, who claimed the father-killer character in George’s novel was based on him, replied with a self-published memoir entitled The Strange Poverty of the Rich. There are three other Minot siblings who have yet to contribute to the debate.

A S Byatt

3. The Game : A.S Byatt

A Brontean tale of two sisters who as children share an imagined alternate universe based on the Arthurean tales, but who are divided by the same creativity as adults. When Cassandra, a single Oxford don, sees one of her childhood fantasies portrayed in her sister Julia’s novel, the stage is set for a showdown. Byatt’s sister, Margaret Drabble, described the novel as “a mean-spirited book about sibling rivalry and she sent it to me with a note signed ‘With love,’ saying ‘I think I owe you an apology’.”

4. The Peppered Moth: Margaret Drabble

Drabble’s first novel, The Summer Bird-Cage was also about a pair of rivalrous sisters, one single and the other who opts for a wealthy marriage. But it was not until Drabble’s 2011 novel, The Peppered Moth was published, that Antonia Byatt railed publicly against her sister’s fiction. Byatt was exercised by the character of Bessie Bawtry in the novel which is based on the Drabbles’ mother, Kathleen. She is quoted as saying that she “would rather people didn’t read someone else’s version of my mother”.

5. Little Women: Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott did not have the same problems when she mined sibling territory for her series of novels about the March sisters – maybe because the proceeds were going towards supporting them. Troubled by her family’s genteel poverty, she vowed at age 15 that she would be rich. Little Women was a commissioned work; her publisher wanted “a book for girls”. The novel, based on Louisa and her sisters coming of age in the American Civil War, was published September 30, 1868 and was an instant success.

steve jobs

6. A Regular Guy: Mona Simpson

Tom Owens drops out of college and becomes a Silicon Valley biotech millionaire. He’s a barefoot in the boardroom kind of entrepreneur who eventually gets pushed out of the company he helped create. Sound familiar? Simpson’s brother was Apple founder, Steve Jobs, above, who was adopted days after birth. Simpson’s novel is written from the point of view of Owens’ estranged daughter, Jane. Jobs’ response to the novel is not recorded but Lisa Brennan-Jobs, his daughter by a first marriage, was furious. “In the first few pages, I was confronted with my family, my anecdotes, my things, my thoughts, myself in the character Jane. And sandwiched between the truths was invention—lies to me, made more evident because of their dangerous proximity to the truth.”

7. Hideous Kinky: Esther Freud

Hippie mother Julia leaves the predictability of Tunbridge Wells with her two daughters, aged 4 and 7, for Morocco where they live a low-rent life in Marrakech. The elder girl, Bea, based on Freud’s sister, Bella, insists on a conventional life in the midst of the chaos, going to school etc while the younger sister and child narrator of the novel watches uncomprehendingly as her rackety mother hitches herself up to various men and explores Sufism while the family slides further into impoverishment. When asked what her sister thought of the autobiographical novel, Esther Freud said Bella’s memories of the sojourn in Morocco were not compatible with hers. But she added that her sister had relished the novel.

frank mccourt

8. Angela’s Ashes: Frank McCourt:

Frank McCourt ‘s fictionalised memoir was a fore-runner of the misery lit genre back in 1996. Its depiction of a miserable Irish childhood with a brood of brothers enraged the residents of Limerick where the McCourts grew up. McCourt’s brothers, Malachy and Alphie each subsequently produced memoirs of their own – A Monk Swimming and A Long Stone’s Throw respectively. They didn’t argue with their brother’s account; they merely added their own voices to the family narrative with further adventures, mostly in the US.

9. Big Brother: Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel is inspired by her dangerously overweight brother Greg, who was contemplating gastric surgery when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2009. Shriver has turned the story into a novel in which the brother – now called Edison – takes charge of his obesity with a rigorous diet imposed by his sister, Pandora, with weight issues of her own. Shriver was determined to fictionalise her brother’s story. “It was the inspiration,” she said of his death. But she added that her real brother was very complicated. “I don’t think he would’ve fit in a book.”  And if he were still alive, the novel might never have been written.

dorothy wordsworth

10. Daffodils: William Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud, Wordsworth wrote, but by right he probably should have used the first person plural. He was with his devoted sister Dorothy (in the portrait above) when they saw the long belt of daffodils as she notes in her diary. “. . . they grew among the mossy stones and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind. . . ” Dorothy’s journals were full of observations of nature and the siblings’ life together, some of which found their way into Wordsworth’s verse. Indeed, he consulted her journal when he came to write Daffodils and that, it seems, is how she intended it. It was for William that Dorothy kept the journal.

Marilyn and Sean – fashion icons

Marilyn Monroe posing in her Aran sweater
Marilyn Monroe posing in her Aran sweater

What do Marilyn Monroe and Sean O’Casey have in common? They never met and she never appeared in any productions of the playwright’s work. However, she was a fan. On a visit to England in 1956 with then husband Arthur Miller, she said the person she most wanted to meet was O’Casey and she had read the first volume of his autobiographies. But there is another unlikely connection between them – a Dublin shop.

Cleo is a knitwear and handcrafts shop on Dublin’s Kildare Street, opened by Kitty Joyce in the 1930s, and now run by her daughter.  It’s the subject of a book by Hilary O’Kelly (Cleo: Irish Clothes in a Wider World, Associated Editions). The book tells the story of the shop’s foundation and features photographs from the shop’s back catalogues of celebrity customers wearing its merchandise, including Marilyn Monroe and  O’Casey.

Having spent several years inhabiting the world of Sean O’Casey while writing The Rising of Bella Casey,I thought I was familiar with almost every facet of the playwright’s life.  Except this one – Sean O’Casey as fashion icon!

After O’Casey moved to London in 1926, he rarely returned to Ireland.  He was stung by Yeats’s rejection of his WW1 play, The Silver Tassie, in 1928, a decision which deprived him of a natural repertory of actors to perform his work.  It hardened his attitude towards Dublin and fastened his self-imposed exile in England. However he did visit Dublin at least once afterwards – he came on a holiday with his wife, Eileen, in 1935.  Perhaps it was then he acquired the Aran jumper shown in the Cleo catalogue.  Or perhaps it was later, sent to him as a gift or ordered by mail?

In the photograph featured here, O’Casey also wears a decorated skull cap, another distinctive accessory he favoured in latter years. In her memoir, Sean, O’Casey’s wife Eileen remembers their daughter, Shivaun, bringing home a brightly-coloured felt cap she had made in school. “Trying it on, he found it most comfortable, and this was how his collection of caps began.  Frequently he was photographed in one; people would send him others from many countries, and he would make his choice for the day as the mood took him.”

The cap featured in the title of O’Casey’s last book, Under a Colored Cap,(1963), a collection of articles “merry and mournful with comments and a song” dedicated to his granddaughters, Alison and Oona. O’Casey’s daughter Shivaun used the same title for her film documentary of her father in 2005.

Sean O'Casey with his wife, Eileen, in distinctive coloured cap and Aran sweater
Sean O’Casey with his wife, Eileen, in distinctive coloured cap and Aran sweater