Viral echoes from history

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Bella with her daughter, Susan

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.

 

 

 

The surreality show

diane lockhart

Almost everyone I know is either watching, or denying they watch Love Island.  I belong to the deniers because I’ve been following instead what I think is the most interesting reality (or should that be surreality?) show around at the moment – the American legal drama, The Good Fight.  

Just finished its third season, The Good Fight is a spin-off from a successful parent show,  a notoriously risky venture in the world of TV.  (Remember Joey, starring Matt LeBlanc which followed the actor character from the mega-successful Friends to a new life in LA.  No? I rest my case.)

The Good Fight sprang from The Good Wife,  a long-running, traditional legal procedural,  a celebrity vehicle for Julianna Marguilies (Nurse Carol Hathaway in ER), who played Alicia Florrick, a stay-at-home mother forced to return to the workplace when her Chicago state’s attorney husband Peter (Chris Noth) is jailed over a sex and corruption scandal. 

Christine Baranski was a stalwart in that series.  She played seasoned lawyer Diane Lockhart, a partner in the firm Alicia Florrick joins as a 40-something legal newbie.  But it was essentially a sidekick role, despite the oomph Baranski brought to it.

The Good Wife was solid, dependable drama. Plenty of courtroom action, a rather cloying unrequited love sub-plot, a smattering of dirty politics, and lots of legal horse-trading. So far, so predictable. It ran for seven seasons before dying of exhaustion and the news that there was going to be a spin-off was greeted with some trepidation. Especially by Marguilies’ fans.

That it would be built around the character of Diane Lockhart was encouraging. This was a bold move. Not that Baranski doesn’t have the acting chops to carry a series – she’s an Emmy and Tony-awarded performer (she sings and dances, as well as acts – starring in both Mamma Mias, for example). No, the risk was founding an entire series on a female character in her late 60s.  (Baranski is 67).

Furthermore, Diane Lockhart is a conservative feminist, in a strangely loose marriage with a right-wing Republican (played by Gary Cole) who does not share her political views, and she works at a predominantly African-American law firm where her white privilege is constantly being challenged.

But in its three seasons The Good Fight has grown away from its middle-brow TV roots, and morphed into something else entirely.  I’m not even sure what genre it is now. Quasi-fictional?  Auto-fictional?  Semi-documentary?

The Good Fight has inherited its predecessor’s template of riffing on the headlines for its storylines, featuring #MeToo type sexual predation charges, a Bernie Madoff-style  financial scam and Internet privacy challenges among its cases, along with a good dose of office politics. But that’s where the similarity ends.  The clue’s in the title.  Fighting the good fight is about trying very hard to do the right thing in trying circumstances.

That’s Diane Lockhart’s goal.  And the trying circumstances?  Being a good citizen in the middle of a Trump presidency. Trump is constantly name-checked in this series.  Barely a scene goes by where he’s not present, if only by implication.  One episode suggests First Lady Melania Trump has approached the firm via a proxy looking for a divorce. Another concerns possession of an incriminating video involving Russian prostitutes and urination. Often the president’s name doesn’t even have to be invoked for the viewer to get the drift.

The creators have all but jettisoned the romantic entanglements of their key characters  – is this a reflection on the late middle age of the show’s heroine? – and scaled down much of the courtroom action.  Instead they show us Diane and her colleagues battling the contradictions of living in the Trump era as committed liberals and/or Democrats (these are Chicago lawyers, after all.)

So, for example, in the third season, Diane’s frustration with Trump sees her joining a radical women’s resistance group which sets out, by fair means or foul, to undermine POTUS electoral dominance by filing false SWAT call-outs (one of which gets a White House aide killed) hacking electronic voting machines and engaging in the black arts of false news.

“The difficulty doesn’t come from weaving real life politics in, it comes from not weaving it in,” series creator Michelle King told Variety magazine last month. “Every day the writers’ room gets together and talks about what they’ve been reading and seeing in the news the day before and frankly what they find the most shocking and can’t turn their eyes away from. Given that it’s a group obsession, it’s a very natural flow from that to the show.”

As a result, The Good Fight has dropped all pretence of being a fiction. So closely does it stick to its political inspiration that the viewer is constantly playing who’s who with the cast.  Is Diane’s on-again/off-again marriage with right-wing ballistics expert Kurt McVeigh (now working for the Trump administration) based on White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s relationship with her husband, George T Conway? ( Mr Conway is a distinguished lawyer who was once in the running to be US solicitor general, but is now an outspoken critic of the Trump administration which he has likened to “a shitshow in a dumpster fire”.)  Swap the gender roles and the similarities with Kurt and Diane are inescapable.

Another innovation the show has adopted is the insertion of animated musical shorts into the narrative to underline episode themes.  There have been skits on non-disclosure agreements, Russian troll farms and Chinese media censorship (more of this later).

These memes function as visual thought bubbles. The action and the characters are paused mid-scene while the viewers are given a short dose of agit-prop.  Trouble is, they are often not as witty as the satirical live action scripts. That said, it is refreshing to see a middle-aged, middle-brow TV drama dropping the fourth wall, stretching the visual vernacular and being really playful with form.

Ironically, the shorts have turned out to be more than mere technical gimmickry. One of them recently became a news story itself. Entitled “Banned in China”, the segment  was due to be inserted into an episode about the human cost of Chinese government censors until CBS pulled the plug.  Where the meme should have run, a placard appeared reading ‘CBS Has Censored This Content’. Initially, viewers thought this was part of an in-show  joke until the New Yorker broke the story. 

Responding, show runners, Robert and Michelle King threatened to pull out of the series, then insisted that the placard would have to air for the full 90 seconds that the segment would have taken. In the end they compromised on eight and half seconds.

It’s just one more example of the blurred lines between fact and fiction that the show has engendered. The closer its storylines get to “reality”, the more, it seems, reality bites.

In fact, the “reality” component of The Good Fight is so persuasive that it’s the fictional conceits that seem outlandish. British actor Michael Sheen has been chewing the scenery of late as fantasist attorney Roland Blum who cites Roy Cohn, political fixer and Trump influencer as a role model.  Maverick oddball Blum creates havoc in the plush, politically correct environs of Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart.  But the drama seemed over-egged and Sheen too over-the-top. In its willed eccentricity, his performance seemed to belong to another show altogether – the ridiculous antics of Ally McBeal, the 90s manifestation of the TV legal drama.

It’s as if the producers were trying to distract us from the “reality” The Good Fight is desperately trying to immerse us in  – with some really camp fiction.

Or maybe it’s all of a piece and I just can’t tell the difference anymore?

Or maybe that’s the whole the point?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s one I wrote earlier. . .

jack a dull boy

Remember Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s novel The Shining who tells everyone he’s writing a novel but who keeps on typing the same thing every day on his reams of blank paper. All work and no play etc

You know from the beginning that Jack’s novel is never going to happen, that it will remain a figment of his imagination.

I had a kind of inverse Jack Torrance experience recently.

I was doing a newspaper archive trawl for something else entirely when I came across a review of my last novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon, 2013).  It was the third item down on the list and I could only see the headline which read:  “An evocative account of a teacher’s fall from grace” and for a couple of moments, I didn’t recognize the book from this description.

It’s not that this isn’t an accurate synopsis of the plot, it is.

The main character, Bella Casey, sister of playwright Sean O’Casey, was a teacher whose hopes of happiness and success were dashed by circumstances.

But for a moment I was plunged into a kind of alternate universe, where a failed and much rejected novel of mine, my difficult third album – which I would describe in shorthand as an account of a teacher’s fall from grace – actually had been published.

Not only published, but reviewed!

The novel, entitled The Undiscovered Country  (I love this title and hope to attach it to another novel at some stage) was set in Ireland and Australia in the 1970s, and was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and a real case of child rape.

I envisaged it as a Humbert Humbert story with the genders reversed.

The real story concerned Mary Kay Letourneau,  a 34-year-old  school teacher and mother of four, who in 1997 pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree rape of 12-year-old Vili Fualaau, a pupil at the high school in Washington state where she taught. Letourneau was arrested after a relative of her husband’s contacted the police.

While awaiting sentencing, she gave birth to Fualaau’s child. She spent three months in jail and was banned from any contact with Fualaau  – for life.

But shortly after her three-month stint in jail, police discovered Letourneau in flagrante with Fualaau in a parked car. She was re-sentenced to seven years in prison for the original charges and for breaking the court order.  Back in prison, she gave birth to a second daughter.

When she was released in 2004, Fualaau was over 18 years old and he asked the court to revoke the no-contact order. The couple were married in May 2005 and are still together.

The Undiscovered Country departed quite a bit from this reality – for the very good reason that reality is sometimes just too strange to be believed.  (It was the situation that interested me, the notion of a woman as an abuser of sexual trust, and the different way that is viewed by society.  Less predatory, somehow.)

But for a split-second when I saw the headline, I wondered – had it actually been published?  Had I slipped into some crease in time and awoken, like someone from a coma, having lost a couple of years somewhere?

Then I checked myself – I knew The Undiscovered Country hadn’t been published.  I had the ton of rejections to prove it!

Who knows why some novels never make it into print?

You’re always given reasons when a publisher turns down a work, but they’re usually fairly pat and formulaic – we didn’t fall in love with it, great novel but not for us, too quiet (I’ve got this last one a lot!)  Once in a while you’ll get a truly original one; this is one of my favourites –  “She has a wonderful sense of language and a great ear but this isn’t really a novel, it’s an emanation.”

The manuscript (or, should I say emanation?) was doing the rounds in 2003 when Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal  – a novel with a similar plot line – had just come out, which probably worked against it.

Or maybe it was just a dud!

I’ve always considered The Undiscovered Country as unfinished business, a piece of work  I might return to or recast in some other way in the future.

Now I wonder if I need to. Maybe I have told the story of a teacher’s fall from grace, but in another guise and at such a remove, that until I saw it in black and white, I didn’t recognize it myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The eyes have it

hearn_portrait

Is having bad eyesight a pre-requisite for being a celebrated Irish writer?  Certainly James Joyce had his troubles often having to resort to wearing a patch to spare his eyes.  Throughout his life, he suffered from a catalogue of eye-related conditions –  iritis, conjunctivitis, glaucoma and cataracts. Some suggest his eye troubles were a by-product of syphilis, though this has never been confirmed.

Playwright Sean O’Casey was similarly afflicted, though it’s unlikely he had syphilis.  From the age of five he had continuous crippling bouts of conjunctivitis which in latter years developed into trachoma. In a letter to the American critic Brooks Atkinson in 1964, the year of his death, he wrote heartbreakingly of the plight of a writer going blind:

“I could read an illuminated sign out­doors,” he replied. “But not ordinary newsprint or the letter text in a book. All the hundreds of books around me are dumb. I can write a little, largely by sense of touch. But I cannot read back what I have put down.”

But perhaps the blindest of all was Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904) – an Irish writer who is all but forgotten here now but who was a household name in Japan where he wrote a dozen or so books between 1891 and his death in 1904.

I discovered Hearn during an extended stay in Tokyo in 2010 where to be Irish meant you were automatically connected to the fame of Lafcadio Hearn. We visited Matsue, a city in the western Shimani region – a 16-hour journey by train from Tokyo where Hearn is the cornerstone of the city’s cultural tourism, although he only stayed there a little over a year.  There’s a Hearn memorial museum and his home is open to the public.  The city quarter where he lived in Matsue now bears his name and his stylised logo appears on the street lamps in the cobbled streets.  In souvenir shops you can even buy Lafcadio Hearn tea.

Hearn is considered a laureate in Japan, the single greatest foreign interpreter of the country at a time when the old Japanese ways and traditions were being abandoned.

But 20 years before he made his name in Japan, Hearn was a newly arrived emigrant in America, penniless and down on his luck.  From this lowly start he embarked on a career as a pioneering journalist in Cincinnati and New Orleans, specializing in closely observed depictions of the underbelly of society – grotesque murders, hangings, slaughter houses, dissection rooms, city dumps, and the lives lived in the poor black quarters of the city.  This despite the fact that he was blind in one eye, and the sight in the other was severely compromised as a result of an accident during a tug of war competition when he was a schoolboy.

Hearn was born on the Greek island of Lefkas in 1850.  His mother, Rosa Kassimati, was a native of the island; his father, an Irish surgeon stationed on Lefkas with the British Army. They called their first child after the island, hence Hearn’s exotic-sounding second name.  When he was two, his mother, Rosa, brought him to Dublin to live with the extended Hearn family, while his father was posted abroad.  But after a short period, Rosa, homesick and pregnant with a second child, decided to return to Lefkas, leaving Hearn in the care of his great-aunt, Sarah Brenane, in a house in Rathmines. (There is a plaque commemorating his time in this house on Prince Edward Terrace.) The little boy was never to see either parent again – they divorced when he was six.

Hearn’s education at a boarding school in England was brought to an abrupt end when his great-aunt Sarah’s finances crashed and at the age of 16 he had to start making his own way in the world.  It was the beginning of a peripatetic and picaresque existence that took him first to London, then Ohio, where he emerged aged 24 as a crime reporter and scandal chaser on the Cincinnati Enquirer and Commercial.

Hearn was one of the earliest exponents of the New Journalism, that is the original new journalism – the muck-rakers who dominated the American journalism scene in the late 1890s. (The term was resurrected again for the revolutionary immersive journalism of the 1960s).  Like his successors, Hearn used fictional techniques  – dialogue, literary description and placing himself as a character in the story –  that later exemplified the work of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Hunter S Thompson.

‘Gibbetted’, his eyewitness account of the botched hanging of an Irish youth was included in True Crime: An American Anthology (2008), a collection by the Library of America of the best American crime stories of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hearn’s report contains some eye-watering details (forgive the pun) that must have been more imagined and felt then actually seen given the state of his eyesight. In the New Journalism style Hearn steeps himself in the story. He explores the background of the prisoner, visits the young man before the execution and examines the gallows as they are being constructed. He even gets to feel the pulse of the prisoner when the first hanging fails.

“The poor young criminal had fallen on his back, apparently unconscious with the broken rope around his neck, and the black cap veiling his eyes. The reporter knelt beside him and felt his pulse.  It was beating slowly and regularly.  Probably the miserable boy thought then, if he could think at all, that he was really dead – dead in darkness, for his eyes were veiled – dead and blind to this world but about to open his eyes upon another.  The awful hush immediately following his fall might have strengthened this dim idea.  But then came the gasps, and choked sobs from the spectators; the hurrying of feet, and the horrified voice of the Deputy Freeman calling ‘For God’s sake, get me that other rope, quick!!’  Then a pitiful groan came from beneath the black cap.

‘My god.  Oh my god!’

‘I ain’t dead – I ain’t dead!’

The insistent use of other senses in the piece – hearing and touch – speak of a man determined to compensate for his deficient eyesight. And his feel for atmosphere and his human empathy – essential for any journalist writing colour – is unquestionable.  His appetite for colour writing may have sprung from his personal life which was also extremely bohemian, to say the least, but that’s a story for another day.

Lafcadio Hearn was born on this day, June 27, 167 years ago.

 

A National look at O’Casey

ploughandstars

Sean O’Casey is being remembered this weekend at a conference at the National Theatre, London entitled – In-Depth: The Dublin Plays of Sean O’Casey.  I will be joining Prof James Moran of Nottingham University and Dr Nicholas Grene of Trinity College Dublin to discuss O’Casey’s trilogy, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.

The conference – on Saturday September 24 – will examine the circumstances of the original performances of the plays, how they related to O’Casey’s own life, and will place them in the context of Ireland’s revolutionary decade. There will also be staged readings from the plays.

The National Theatre has enjoyed a long association with O’Casey’s work – Laurence Olivier directed Juno and The Paycock at the theatre shortly after O’Casey’s death in 1964. Olivier had seen the Royalty Theatre’s acclaimed production of the play in 1925 – with several Abbey stalwarts, including Sara Allgood and Arthur Sinclair – as an aspiring 18-year-old actor.

Olivier’s response to the play, according to Christopher Murray, one of O’Casey’s biographers, was that Juno was both life-like and tightly constructed.  “It is, in fact, closer to Osborne than to Chekhov.  There is no playing about with it, it is all there and it is as clear as daylight. . .”

My place at the conference is owing to The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press) my 2013 novel which re-imagines the life of Bella Casey, the playwright’s sister and dramatizes the writing of O’Casey’s six volumes of autobiography. Episodes and characters from the Dublin plays are woven into the narrative.The novel was nominated for the Dublin Impac Award in 2014.

For those interested in attending, the conference takes place at the Clore Learning Centre, Cottesloe Room, National Theatre and runs from 10.30 to 4.30pm.

(Poster image courtesy of the Irish Classical Theatre, Buffalo, NY)

 

On the brink of the absolutely forbidden

sassari-2
The main building of the University of Sassari, Sardinia.

Once in a blue moon, I am asked to do an interview with an academic journal. It’s a treat for a writer, particularly someone like me who’s writing in a minor key, to have her work given close attention by someone in the serious business of reading. Beyond a spurt of reviews on publication – if you’re lucky – there are few outlets in mainstream journalism for thoughtful consideration of creative work. Which is where the academic journal comes in. Sadly, though, most academic journals have tiny readerships which means that intelligent and accessible writing on creative work often languishes unseen.

Dr Loredana Salis of the University of Sassari interviewed me last year when I was visiting Sardinia on an EFACIS (European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies) reading tour of Italy. Dr Salis is a passionate Irish Studies scholar and a most perceptive reader of my work. (The headline above is hers – revealing a canny internal sub-editor trying to get out.)  Her questions made me think and made me question how and why I write.

The following is an edited version of that interview which appeared in Studi Irlandesi earlier this year. The full text can be accessed here: http://www.fupress.com/bsfm-sijis

L: Let us begin from the end, and from your most recent literary effort – a collection of short stories entitled Prosperity Drive – that is where I came across that wonderful line, “on the brink of the absolutely forbidden”, which seems to be a perfect description of where your writing and your characters are.

M: Yes, I’d agree that the territory I’m exploring in Prosperity Drive is close to the transgressive, particularly the sexually transgressive. The characters to whom this line refers – a teenage couple overcome by lust – draw back from the forbidden but many of the characters in these stories go into the area of taboo.

L: Indeed, your characters often and deliberately challenge and break taboos. It has to do with curiosity and courage, and with being true to one’s self too. I wonder whether this also applies to you as a creative writer?

M: I don’t know about that big word, courage. I think the rather downbeat nature of a lot of my fiction is being true to my view of the world, although off the page I’m more cheery. When I look back over my work I see a curiosity about form, about playing with form. The linked short stories in Prosperity Drive are about seeing how you can push the boundaries of the short story form while the novels, inspired by real people and events, play with fictional biography or biographical fiction.

L: The line – “on the brink of the absolutely forbidden” – is taken from a short story entitled “Diaspora”. Would you say something about the genesis of your  collection?

M: Well, the stories started as separate, discrete entities and then as I waswriting them, several of the characters reappeared and so I thought I’d make a short story cycle out of them i.e. a collection where all the stories could stand on their own but that when read together, they would have a cumulative effect. The stories spring from a fictional suburban street in Dublin but,of course, it’s impossible to write about Ireland without coming up against the theme of emigration. And some of the stories are set during the Celtic Tiger,so you have the experience of immigration as well, mostly from Eastern Europe. Not exactly a new phenomenon – in my childhood in the 60s therewere refugees from Hungary, followed by the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s – though people tend to forget that now. So the ‘diaspora’ theme is built into the content, and also reflects the form of the stories which is like a scattering from a fixed point.

L: That is a delicate issue, especially now, across the European continent.And yes, we seem to have forgotten what it used to be like in the past. History repeats itself, but… what strikes me in your description of the new stories is that somehow the architecture of the narrative has changed: in The Rising of Bella Casey the form of the story is cyclical – it ends where it begins. Now the stories ‘scatter’ from the centre. How does this reflect your own experience with writing?

 

 M: After writing three novels, returning to the short story was a great relief. There is the relatively instant gratification of working the short form,though the main difference between the stories in A Lazy Eye and Prosperity Drive is that my stories have got much longer. Also I, suppose with a short story cycle I was trying to stretch the form, see how elastic it could be, how it might mimic the characteristics of the novel in some respects.

L: And the result was?

M: Well, my editor at Jonathan Cape called the result an “exploded novel” – I quite like that. It implies the shattering of both forms.

L: The idea of giving women visibility lies at the heart of your reconstruction of Bella’s life in The Rising of Bella Casey. Your writing about her seems to be an act of just retribution: you rescue her from the murderous hands of her brother Séan, and yet your insight into O’Casey’s troubled conscience makes him, in the eyes of the reader, a disturbing but also a captivating presence in the novel.

M: Sean O’Casey wrote harshly about his sister Bella in his autobiography and then killed her off ten years before her time. This literary sororicide was what prompted me to write The Rising of Bella Casey. I felt his was a failure of the imagination; he couldn’t understand what had prompted her downfall and he hadn’t the capacity to see beyond appearances. That disappointed me but in the writing of the novel I realised that O’Casey was also writing out of disappointment – the disappointment of his very elevated and unrealistic expectations of his bright, clever sister. He’d placed her on a pedestal and couldn’t bear to witness her fall, so he opted for silence.

L: He was also very disappointed at himself, though. I am thinking at that wonderful scene at the end of chapter 10 where he gets very frustrated with his work, but then he starts all over again. Writing must have been extenuating for him, painstaking even, almost as much as being Bella’s brother.

M: The way I depict O’Casey’s writing process is pure fiction. I think, in reality, he probably found writing a great release of pent-up feeling and conviction. Certainly the autobiographies – all six volumes of them – appear on the page as an unstoppable outpouring of exuberant language. The point I was making in the novel was that contrary to the rest of his work, writing about Bella might have been a real difficulty for him.

L: The Rising of Bella Casey is a contemporary historical novel set between fact and fiction. How do you combine the two, what inspires the encounter of real and imaginary worlds?

M: I think of The Rising of Bella Casey – and my other novels, Mother of Pearl and The Pretender – as inhabiting the grey area between biography and fiction. So though I write about real people, there are inevitably gaps in the narrative, and in those gaps, the fiction happens. I often think I must be very unimaginative because in my novel-writing I’m generally working with ready-made plots and a laid-down story. The ‘real’ story is a blueprint from which I depart when one of these gaps in the narrative appears. The trouble with a lot of historical characters – like Bella Casey or Anna Anderson, the fraudulent Anastasia Romanov whom I wrote about in my second novel The Pretender– is that they often appear unknowable. We have external evidence of them, of course, but sometimes it’s hard to imagine their interior lives.

The key word here is imagine. I see that as what I do, imagining myself beyond the official record, and into the interior of these characters’ lives.

With historical figures, particularly those pre-20th century, that requires two willed acts – an imaginative leap into a pre-modern world and a creative kind of forgetting – forgetting about Freud and Jung etc., whose psychology has become part of the mainstream, part of everyday thinking.

On a practical level and to aid that imaginative process, I generally write the story first and then do the research so that the research doesn’t swamp the imaginative process. Also I’m lazy about research; I only do as much as I need to. I’m not one of those authors who gets distracted by the minutiae of history. A lot of the time research is a chore; something in service to the narrative, the story, which is primary for me.

L: I find this particular aspect interesting, Mary. You use gaps – spaces in between, empty areas – creatively. Beaver [Bella Casey’s husband], for instance. His GPI (Joyce again?)causes him a fatal loss of memory and he eventually is “lost, somewhere, in the folds of time”. That line is absolutely marvellous, powerful in its capacity to define Bella’s condition too, before you “rise” her and rescue her from oblivion.

M: One of the things about writing about real people is that I feel I owe it to them to be true to the facts of their lives, as they are known. So, in real life, Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, contracted syphilis and died of GPI,so all of this is true, rather than a novelistic trope. Of course, the novelist can invest emotional and symbolic resonance in the facts. People lost in the folds in time; yes that’s a good description of my creative territory – women caught in the shadow of history.

L: The shadow of History, a place where untold and forgotten stories are found. And The Rising is also about stories located “in the underneath of History”, to use Nancy Cunard’s words. The private and the public intertwine in your novel. “The Easter Rising”, for instance, is seen from the perspective of ordinary Dubliners, and of women belonging to the Protestant minority whose children went fighting in the Great War abroad. Is that past an open wound, too painful to be remembered? And is this part of the reason why it is so prominent in the novel?

M: For many years, this was, not so much a wound as a silence. At the time, Irish soldiers who survived the Great War and came home were often treated as traitors and outcasts in nationalist communities because they were seen as having supported an Empire that was oppressing their countrymen. (It’s important to note, however, that thousands of Irishmen from both sides of the divide – nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant – fought and died together in the trenches). In the past decade there has been huge healing around the Irish contribution to the Great War. In 2011, for example, Queen Elizabeth made an official visit to Ireland – itself an historic occasion – and visited the National War Monument in Islandbridge in Dublin (which for many years, tellingly, was left abandoned and derelict) which commemorates the Irish fallen in the First World War. On the same visit she also paid her respects at the Garden of Remembrance which honours the Republican men and women who fought to end British rule in Ireland.

This was one of the most important public gestures of recent times that recognized the wound of divided loyalties that has lain at the heart of historical Irish identity. So I suppose all of this was in the ether as I was writing the novel.

The depiction of the Rising in the novel from the view of Bella and her family – Protestant, working class, loyal to the Crown – who don’t support the revolution and don’t understand it, is unusual, and deliberate. The Rising was a glorious failure, mismanaged and favoured by only a small minority of the population; what turned it into a success was the fact that the leaders were executed by the British – and it was this act that turned popular opinion. But even at that stage, it’s unlikely that Bella Casey would have changed her loyalties.

For her, the Rising would still have been an illegal challenge to what she would have considered legitimate British rule. (Unlike Sean O’Casey, her brother, who absolutely supported the break with Britain so you could say the Casey family is a microcosm for all the political divisions of the country at that time).

L: You teach Creative Writing to MA students at UCC: are those young writers also prompted to play with and engage with the ‘what ifs’? Does your academic experience somehow contribute to the workings of your imagination? In other words, would you say that your work lies between fact, fiction and the artifice of writing? 

M: Teaching creative writing keeps you in touch with what’s happening now in writing. You get to learn what enthuses young writers and you see new styles and genres opening up. You see students bursting with ideas and some of that energy brushes off on the teacher. As to where my own stories lie – maybe that’s for others to decide. For me they’re a mix of truth and lies. Emotionally true, factually suspect. Isn’t that the alchemy of writing? Unlike my novels, my short fiction often starts with something very small – an image, something witnessed, even a first line. In that sense the short story is much closer to the poem in conception. Then it’s a process of following your nose, so to speak. Seeing where the narrative takes you. In that sense it’s a lot freer as a process than the novels, where the trajectory of the narrative is often laid out. For the most part, my stories are contemporary, rather than historical, although I have been tinkering of late with some historical short stories. But even those concern fictional characters, not real people. I want to maintain that freedom to be absolutely fictional in the short form.

L: Since you mention “what is happening now in writing”, I’ d like to know your view on how Irish literature has changed in recent years from when you started writing fiction.

M: There are many more women writing and being published – exciting and ground-breaking new voices like Eimear McBride, Belinda McKeon, Sara Baume, Danielle McLaughlin. Daring, thoughtful, savage and unashamedly female. The breaking open of this female voice is very exciting to witness as when I started out, you were often singled out as being a ‘woman writer’ as if it was a special category apart from the mainstream. (I’m of the generation of Irish women writers who were famously excluded from the Field Day Anthology in the 1990s, only to be afterwards included in the extra ‘women’s’volume published in 2003). And for women themselves, there was a lot of hand-wringing about what it meant to be a ‘woman writer’ as if it bore special responsibilities because we were so few. So by sheer numbers, those gender distinctions and that identity anxiety has been swept away.

 

Writing fighting in 1916

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One of the great what-ifs of Irish history is what would have happened if the 1916 leaders hadn’t been executed. On this  date, 100 years exactly since the Easter Rising began, it’s worth asking another question, what would the rebels have done with their lives, had they lived?

A quick trawl thought the 1916 Proclamation signatories reveals a disproportionate number of writers. Padraic Pearse was a short story writer, playwright and poet, Thomas Mac Donagh wrote poetry and plays, Joseph Mary Plunkett was a published poet and journalist, James Connolly was a prodigious political commentator.

What this shows, of course, is that before they were armed combatants, the rebel leaders were part of a cultural revolution, and had the political atmosphere of the time been different and the Rising hadn’t happened, (or the leaders hadn’t been executed), these young men might well have pursued literary and artistic careers.

In the end, they chose the sword over the pen and it fell to others to explore the origin myth of the Republic. Ironically, the two writers most identified with creating the Rising on the page – poet W. B.Yeats and playwright Sean O’Casey –  were not directly involved in events at all.

From opposite ends of the Protestant social scale, upper-class Yeats and working-class O’Casey explored the doubts and misgivings of the Rising’s “success” from a distance, both philosophically and geographically.

Most people mistakenly believe that Sean O’Casey – whose Dublin trilogy, Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars charts the political foment of the turbulent decade from the Dublin Lock-out to the Civil War – was a combatant or at least a supporter of the Easter Rising. Given his ardent nationalism and socialism, he should have been.

Although O’Casey had been heavily involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and in 1914 had joined the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), he did not support the Rising and played no part in it. He was distrustful of the move towards violence but in fact, it was a procedural wrangle with Constance Markievizc that put an end to O’Casey’s activism.

O’Casey believed that the countess’s membership of the nationalist Cumann na mBan, the female branch of the Irish Volunteers, should disqualify her from the Irish Citizen Army.  ( The Volunteers had been set up as a response to Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force: the ICA had grown out of the Dublin Lock-out. ) O’Casey suspected Markievizc of spying for the Volunteers and demanded she be expelled. The matter was put to a vote and when O’Casey lost, he walked out.

The irony was that in January 1916 the Volunteers and the Citizen Army joined forces but at that stage O’Casey had cut his links with the Republican movement. As historian Padraig Yeates observed in his book, Lockout, “the upshot of the faction fighting was the Citizen Army lost a clerk and Ireland gained a playwright”.

O’Casey sat out the Rising hunkered down with his elderly mother in East Wall, though Christopher Murray, O’Casey’s biographer notes in Sean O’Casey: Writer at Work that he spent several nights of Easter Week roaming the city despite the fact martial law was in force. Known as a nationalist sympathiser, he was picked up on Thursday, April 27 during a sweep of the area and held by the British Army for two nights.

“The internees were deposited in the cellar of a huge granary nearby, where they remained until Saturday morning, playing cards and chatting with the soldiers and seeing, in the distance, a faint glow as O’Connell Street went up in flames,” according to Martin Marguiles, author of The Early Life of Sean O’Casey.

If O’Casey’s Rising was spent playing cards with the enemy, Yeats, the great poetic chronicler of the nation’s birth-pangs, was reading to them in London, where he was based at the time. Nine days before the Rising on April 15, Yeats had been invited to a charity reading in Piccadilly, chaired by the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Augustine Birrell, whom The New Statesman observed, spent most of the evening “with his head buried in his hands” ─ an attitude many would see as Birrell’s approach to the Rising itself.

Yeats’ first reaction to the news from home was to dismiss the Rising as “a piece of childish madness”.  But he and Lady Gregory, with whom he communicated feverishly in the weeks following the Rising, were shocked to learn that they knew some of the Rising’s leaders personally. Yeats had allowed Pearse to stage free productions of his plays in St Enda’s School and MacDonagh had dedicated a book of his poems to Yeats. He moved in the same circles as Joseph Plunkett’s aristocratic nationalist family and, of course, Constance Markievizc had been a childhood friend in Sligo.

But though Yeats knew Pearse, he had publicly severed any association with Pearse’s politics, claiming that he was “flirting with the gallows-tree”.

As Yeats’ correspondence with Lady Gregory and his sister, Lily – the only member of the extended Yeats family who was in Dublin for the Rising – continued in the weeks following, his attitude to the insurrectionists begins to change. The execution of the Rising’s leaders contributed to the change of heart but distance from events was also a factor. He had received a letter from Maud Gonne (whose estranged husband, Capt John McBride was among those put to death) suggesting that the Irish cause had been elevated by the Rising “to a position of tragic dignity”.

“. . .she saw the ruined houses about O’Connell Street & the wounded & dying lying about the streets, in the first few days of the war. I perfectly remember the vision & my making light of it & saying that if a true vision at all it could only have a symbolical meaning,” Yeats wrote.

But by May 23, he was already beginning to see the late rebels as “the ablest & most fine natured of our young men”. According to Roy Foster (W.B.Yeats: A Life II: The Arch-Poet) Yeats was, by this stage, planning to write about the executed men in a poem that was to become Easter 1916 – “a terrible beauty is born” – perhaps the most quoted poem of the Rising. Though written between May and September of that year, it was not published till 1921.

O’ Casey took 10 years to distil the events of the Rising into dramatic form in The Plough and the Stars. The play premiered at the Abbey Theatre in May 1926. The Rising was a terrible mistake, O’Casey told Lady Gregory, shortly before the play was staged, “. . . and we lost such fine men. We should have won freedom by degrees with them.” It was these sentiments, explored through the characters, and the depiction of the Rising as a failed revolution – as well as perceived demeaning of the Tricolour and scenes of citizen looting – which excited riots in the Abbey. O’Casey had further offended by including an off-stage character, The Figure in the Window, whose oratory is based on Pearse’s speeches.

Republican women, led by Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, and including Pearse’s mother and Mrs Tom Clarke, attempted to storm the stage. While Yeats tried to quell the high feelings by declaring the play as O’Casey’s artistic apotheosis, his words fell on deaf ears and the police had to be called to clear the theatre.

The incendiary effects of The Plough were down to O’Casey’s fearlessness as a dramatist, his distance from the events portrayed and the timing of the staging. As Christopher Murray points out, the 10-year anniversary of the Rising had just passed, but there had been no special public commemoration. “Most people wanted to forget all about the violence of recent years and get on with building and so-called decent life,” Murray observes. The Rising was a “dead issue. O’Casey’s play, by an ironic process of revisionism, made it a live one”.

A version of the post appeared on Headstuff.org:

 http://www.headstuff.org/2016/04/fighters-and-writers-a-literary-view-of-the-1916-rising/