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.

True to the spirit of Joyce


I’m really thrilled with this review by John Boland  in the Irish Independent of Dubliners 100, which gives special mention to  An Encounter, my take on Joyce’s story of the same name. The book, from newcomers Tramp Press – run by the indefatigable Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff –  showcases the work of 15 contemporary Irish writers who recast Joyce’s stories a hundred years after they first appeared in 1914.

‘It is not my fault,” James Joyce told his London publisher, Grant Richards, “that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”

Less vehemently, he also told Richards that his intention was “to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life”.

He wrote those words more than a 100 years ago and now, on the centenary of the first publication of Dubliners, we are offered 15 new stories bearing the same titles that Joyce used, each of them written by a contemporary irish author, and each of them purporting to offer modern ‘cover versions’ of the original.

That, at any rate, is the phrase used by Thomas Morris, who has edited the book for Tramp Press, which was founded in the past year by Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen, both of whom met when when they worked at Antony Farrell’s Lilliput Press – where the former discovered Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, which was previously rejected by more than 40 publishers.

It’s unclear, though, what Morris (who recently took up editorship of The Stinging Fly magazine) means by “cover versions” – indeed, his blithely offhand introduction, which is more about himself than the project in hand, suggests not only that he’s unsure himself, but also that he’s not really too bothered about it anyway.

This may explain why he includes a story by Paul Murray that was originally published in 2011 under the name Saint Silence and that’s here been retitled A Painful Case, even though its account of the strange relationship that evolves between a contemptuous (and implausible) restaurant critic and a contemplative monk bears only the most tenuous connection, whether in scenario or tone, to Joyce’s tale about Mr James Duffy.

Nor can it easily be discerned how Patrick McCabe’s raucously fanciful The Sisters bears any relation to Joyce’s opening story, or Peter Murphy’s laboriously contrived The Dead to its majestic antecedent.

And a few other stories are simply too poorly conceived and executed to have merited inclusion in any serious collection. But there are some intriguing – and, indeed, a few outstanding – stories here by writers who have sought to imagine current correspondences to their assigned originals – even if very obliquely in the case of Donal Ryan’s take on Eveline and Eimear McBride’s on Ivy Day in the Committee Room.

Yet while Ryan and McBride have been the two greatest recent discoveries in Irish fiction, the finest stories here – and also the truest to the spirit of the enterprise – are by less acclaimed writers, though mention should also be made of John Boyne’s Araby, in which a boy’s crush on a rugby-playing older boy evokes some of the desolation to be found in Joyce’s original beautiful story. John Kelly’s A Little Cloud, which recasts the condescending Ignatius Gallaher as a New York-based novelist and has him meeting the hapless Little Chandler (here Inky Chandler) in the Merrion Hotel, is also persuasive, as is Andrew Fox’s After the Race, set in Manhattan and involving boasting businessmen as the embodiments of paralytic malaise. Joyce would have known them for what they are.

And he would have appreciated Michelle Forbes’s affecting version of Clay, in which Maria has become the overweight and innocent Conor making his way home to the bleak domestic outpost of Cherrywood, where he’s mocked by a group of trick-or-treating teenage girls.

He would have recognised, too, the hollowness of housewife Kathleen’s existence in Elske Rahill’s A Mother. The story falters towards the end, but the desperation of the loveless Kathleen as she contrives a ghastly social evening is poignantly captured.

Finest of all, though, is Mary Morrissy’s reimagining of that great story, An Encounter, with mitching schoolboy Joe Dillon now becoming schoolgirl Jo Dillon as she and the narrator embark on a mundane though ultimately life-changing jaunt through the middle-class peacefulness of Churchtown and Dartry. The story stands on its own but it’s also true to the spirit of Joyce, who would have applauded its lovingly detailed evocation of place.

Germany calling

 audrey cover 2

Audrey Magee is a name you might not have heard of,  but you will. Her debut novel, The Undertaking, is coming out with Atlantic Books early in February. It’s a novel set in Germany and Russia during the Second World War about an arranged marriage between a soldier on the front and a woman who wants to secure a financially independent future with a war widow’s pension. It features harrowing accounts of the Eastern Front, and Stalingrad in particular, as well as the dire privations on the home front in Berlin.

I had the treat of getting a sneak preview of this novel over a year ago in MS form and I was blown away. Watching the German TV series, Generation War, shown on RTE recently, set in the same locations and covering the same territory, I was reminded of how much more powerful Audrey’s book was in terms of concentrated emotional heft.  And while her focus is narrow – Peter Faber and his wife, Katherina – the philisophical scope of the novel is enormous, touching on themes of betrayal, patriotism, denial, survival guilt and retribution.

This is a fierce and fearsome novel and doesn’t read at all like historical fiction.  First of all, much of it is in dialogue. Audrey banishes the retrospective view, and makes the siege of Stalingrad sound like it’s happening right now and you’re in it. She takes her reader by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go. The writing is elegant, spare and lean and carries a powerful emotional clout you won’t forget.  I haven’t.

Audrey talks about the inspiration for the novel in this interview:

Sister in the shadows

Caroline Kennedy Photograph:
Caroline Kennedy Photograph:

Christina Hunt Mahoney reviewed The Rising of Bella Casey in last week’s Irish Times.  Here’s her take on the novel complete with Caroline Kennedy reference!

O’Brien Press continues its impressive revival of the Brandon imprint with Mary Morrissy’s first novel in more than a decade. The Rising of Bella Casey is the imaginative afterlife of an historical person, not the first time Morrissy has constructed such a fiction. The Pretender is the postmodern tale of a Polish factory worker who claimed to have been the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Morrissy’s new book partakes of a related tradition: a fictive life of a family member who was a satellite to a great writer. We’ve had Rameau’s Niece, by Cathleen Schine, and several incarnations of Shakespeare’s sister, so why not an Irish entry into the genre?

Morrissy’s oeuvre is small but fine, also including the metafictional Mother of Pearl and a disturbing collection of short stories, A Lazy Eye (the protagonist of the title story, in a timely detail, envies Caroline Kennedy’s good fortune to have had a father worthy of assassination). Morrissy’s work has been recognised with a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library and a prestigious Lannan Literary Award. She is truly a writer’s writer, but one with an avid following.

Isabella Casey was Seán O’Casey’s sister, a minor figure in his multivolume autobiography. Fifteen years her brother Jack’s senior, Bella was a second mother to the boy who would “rise” to fame years later. The real Bella married beneath her and seems to have fallen out of the family narrative. Morrissy recreates for her a life that fills the gaps in her story.

Dodging bullets

As the novel opens, on Easter Monday, 1916, we see an obsessed, middle-aged Bella risking her life, and that of her young son, dodging bullets on Dublin’s streets to drag an abandoned piano back to their house. (This is a book in which keyboard instruments come and go, indicating changes in the family’s fortunes.) Bella’s rescue of the piano is a symbolic act, restitution for years of deprivation with an abusive English soldier. The novel then returns to Bella’s early days as the promising scholarship girl, the proud new teacher in Dominick Street, and finally the victim of the violent act that brought an end to her dreams.

The geography shifts twice to England – signalled by a change in font – and the reader encounters a blocked Seán, working on his life’s story, first in Battersea and later in Totnes. Here the novel becomes more complex, also more akin to the writer’s earlier style. Not only is she creating Bella’s lost years, she is simultaneously crafting a fiction to explain Seán’s reluctance to deal with Bella’s life in print, told from his perspective. O’Casey, in Morrissy’s rendering, is a complex portrait, part socialist activist, part judgmental Edwardian brother.

His character is also hampered by being in possession of only some of the “facts” of Bella’s downfall, facts that are totally of Morrissy’s devising. There is thus something of a Chinese puzzle here, suitably couched in the melodramatic rhetoric of the period. The tone mimics some of O’Casey’s own writerly language, influenced as it was by his early exposure to the music hall and popular theatre. His characters also appear regularly, and he is given to thinking of his sister’s life as theatre.

Bella’s predicament is Dickensian, down to Morrissy’s decision to name the villain of the piece Reverend Leeper. Dickens or no, the crime committed within her pages is so brutal the nearly comical name and representation of Leeper seems to undercut the author’s intent. Similarly, with so many women in the novel who seem perfectly capable of defending themselves, one wonders at Bella’s continued naivete, pretension and timidity.

But The Rising of Bella Casey is a welcome volume, especially as we commemorate a formative stage in Ireland’s history and those who helped to make that history.

The house that Joe built

Photograph courtesy of
Photograph courtesy of

Did you know that Leeson Street, Dublin, was once called Suesey Street?  Or that it was renamed in the mid-1700s after Joseph Leeson, a powerful scion, brewery owner and property magnate?   Leeson, who went on to become the first Earl of Milltown (the Dublin suburb was also named for him for his entrepreneurial activities there) , commissioned the building of Russborough House, Co Wicklow, in the 1740s.  And  he it was who originally packed the house full of art treasures gathered on his several grand tours of Europe in the late 18th century.

In The Story of Russborough House, Valerie Ryan charts the history of the Palladian mansion that Leeson built which looked out on the Poulaphuca Falls (later to be subsumed by the Blessington Reservoir). But it’s much more than a history of bricks and mortar.  Ryan’s book is full of strange facts and odd connections.

Almost everyone associates Russborough with Sir Alfred Beit who took the house over in 1951.  His art collection (including masterpieces by Goya, Velasquez and Vermeer) was the target of two high-profile thefts – the first in 1976 by an IRA gang which included Rose Dugdale, and then again by the notorious criminal Martin Cahill (“The General”) in 1986. The Beit collection was eventually bequeathed to the State and now hangs in the National Gallery.

But what I didn’t know was that Joseph Leeson’s original art collection was  also handed over to the State in 1904, courtesy of Geraldine, Lady Milltown.  So extensive was Leeson’s bequest of paintings, sculptures, furniture, silverware and books that the gallery’s Milltown Wing had to be built specially to accommodate it.

This is the kind of book I love – impeccably researched, packed with quirky detail and for a historical novelist like me, full of magpie facts and narrative openings. . .

In its time, Russborough has attracted its share of celebrities, including Jackie Onassis, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful.  But for more celebrity secrets associated with the house, we’re going to have to wait for Sir Alfred Beit’s diaries due to be opened in 2075, or 21 years after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, whichever comes first.

The Story of Russborough House is available in selected bookshops or from


Fiction wins out

yvonne nolan

Literary journalist Yvonne Nolan (above) reviewed The Rising of Bella Casey on  the Arena arts programme, RTE Radio, Monday, October 22.  She was generously enthusiastic  about the language of the novel and the historical research, though she admitted being disappointed to learn that the “creepy” Rev Archibald Leeper was a wholly fictional creation.  A really good “bad” character.  She missed him when he disappeared from the narrative.  Just goes to show you, fiction always wins out. You can listen to a podcast of the show on

A bookseller’s view

History is full of lies and secret betrayals and never more so than in this new novel by Mary Morrissy. In his memoirs, Sean O’Casey killed off his beloved sister Bella a full ten years before her actual death, while Morrissy summons Bella from the dark margins of history. Fifteen years older than her famous brother, Bella is bright, beautiful and talented and wins a scholarship to train as a teacher. Her story unfolds against a backdrop of growing nationalism. The hopes of the Casey family rest on her success and Bella is determined to improve their lot through virtue and hard work. However, her promising future is compromised and, trapped by poverty and shame, Bella must become an expert in lies and deceit in order to survive. Beautifully written, compelling and meticulously researched; one of the best Irish novels of recent years.

– Josie Van Embden, Dubray Books, Dun Laoghaire

A telling eye for incongruous detail

cropped-plough-and-the-stars-1280x720.jpgHere’s what The Guardian had to say about The Rising of Bella Casey – short but definitely sweet: –

The playwright Sean O Casey composed six volumes of autobiography but didn’t reserve much space for his sister, Bella, whom he killed off at least a decade earlier than her actual demise during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Fifteen years older, and practically a second mother to him, her principal sin was that of marrying a common soldier, thus throwing away the advantages of an above-average education “for the romance of a crimson coat”.

Morrissy’s novel restores the missing years and invents some fairly convincing extenuating circumstances – though Bella marries an obnoxious corporal with unseemly haste it is only to hide the fact that the unwelcome attention of her employer, an even more obnoxious clergyman, has left her pregnant. Morrissy reconstructs Bella’s story with a telling eye for incongruous detail: an upright piano abandoned in the street during the Easter rising opens a portal to more affluent times; while her fortitude against poverty and the influence of feckless and abusive men sets a template for the heroines of her younger brother’s plays: “Characters already born and ready made, roaming their foetid rooms in search of a writer.”

Alfred Hickling – The Guardian, Friday 4 October 2013

Brilliant language and blueprints


Look, if you love historical fiction or just a great story, if you’re a writer looking for brilliant language and blueprints, hey, if you’re of Irish descent, if you know the work of Sean O’Casey, if, if, if … well then you should know Mary Morrissy, one of my favorite novelists, has a new novel out, The Rising of Bella Casey. She’s the author of one of my favorite novels, Mother of Pearl (not the Oprah pick of the same title, but this gorgeous stunning Morrissy novel, now out of print — but, by God, someone get it back into readers’ hands!) as well as two other books. She’s finally being recognized — one blurb calls her the Irish Hilary Mantel. She’s a brilliant writer, deserving of a much broader audience. Dave found Mother of Pearl while he was roaming a publishing house in London and I was doing an interview — and I’m so thankful for the find, so writes Julianna Baggott (above).

Julianna is an indefatigable cross-genre writer – as herself and under the pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode. She has published nineteen books over the last twelve years. Film rights for her novel Pure, the first of a sci-fi trilogy, was  a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and ALA Alex Award-winner, have been acquired by Fox 2000. The second book in the trilogy, Fuse was released last year: The Guardian raved about her “scalpel-sharp prose”.  I can rave about Julianna’s even rarer gift – the selfless championing of other writers’ work in the true spirit of literary comradeship.   See www. and


Perfectly timed

jim larkin

James Larkin during the 1913 Lock-out

Apparently, Sean O’Casey, the great Irish playwright, killed off his sister Bella in his autobiography a good ten years before she actually died — hmm. What was that about? Mary Morrissy wrote her new novel while she was fuelled by the same question. I’ve been reading drafts of this novel for some time, and I remember saying to myself at the very first, “This is going to be a good one!” I was right. Mary’s novel is beautifully written and, almost accidentally, perfectly timed for the string of historical anniversaries Ireland is commemorating in this decade, including the 1913 Lock-out, the 1916 Rising and the outcome in the 1920s. Brandon did well to pick this up. I’m almost sorry for those that didn’t (not really!).

Photograph: Cashman Collection, RTE Stills Library