Bella’s French Revolution


The French edition of The Rising of Bella Casey appears today, St Patrick’s Day, with impeccable timing!  The handsome publication comes courtesy of French publishers,  La Table Ronde.

The company was founded in 1944 and its first published title was Antigone by Jean Anouilh; it’s been an  imprint of Gallimard since 1996.  Which means, of course, that it looks lovely. It has the classy simplicity of a trademark  Gallimard edition – a plain cover with clean lines on bond paper – but it comes in a striking Cerulian blue. There’s a gorgeous wraparound flap with a strikingly expressionist illustration (by Aline Zalko) of a piano sitting tilted on the kerb of an imperial-looking street.

This is a scene drawn directly from the novel  – the heroine, Bella Casey, steals a piano she finds on a street in Dublin during the Easter Rising – but with its vivid lines and swirls of hot oranges and vivid reds, the cover manages also to encapsulate the atmosphere of a city in flames.

There were long debates about how to translate the title of the novel.  The Rising in the English title is used ironically, although it is also factual since Bella was caught up in the events of 1916, as were many citizens of Dublin. But the act of stealing the piano – as mentioned above – also resurrects  Bella’s long dormant sense of pride. In French, the novel has become Les Revolutions de Bella Casey which , I think, neatly catches the sense of Bella’s several selves explored in the course of the novel, while also referring to the foment of the turbulent times she lived through..

Alice Deon, daughter of French novelist Michel Deon, is the director of La Table Ronde. She grew up in Ireland and has been a great champion of Irish fiction in translation.  Earlier this month, Michele Forbes’ Ghost Moth appeared in a similar Quai Voltaire edition. Other translated authors in the Table Ronde stable include Norman Mailer, Dacia Maraini and Alice McDermott.



Armed and ready!


Thought I’d get into the revolutionary mode for this week’s reading at UCC for Women and the Rising month at the School of English.

Historical novelist, Lia Mills, author of Fallen, the Two Cities One Book choice for 2016 and poet Nessa O’Mahony, whose latest collection Her Father’s Daughter explores her family history through the lens of 1916, will read with me at the Creative Zone, Boole Library, UCC on March 3 at 6.30pm.

When I went to collect the posters for the event, our poster designer , Kieran O’Connor- see his beautiful handiwork below  – took this snap of me in my suitably green trench coat – and provided the firearm. Not the real thing, I hasten to add, but a theatrical prop.

Later in the month, Prof Lucy McDiarmid, author of At Home in the Revolution: What Women Said and Did in 1916 (Royal Irish Academy) will speak on the Women and the Rising theme, also at the Creative Zone, Boole Library, March 15, 6pm.


women and the rising 01-online



Coupled with Chekhov


Two weeks ahead of publication ahead, the Irish Times is ahead of the posse with novelist and short story writer  Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s dream review of  Prosperity Drive in today’s paper and online, in which she links my name with Chekhov!

It’s a real treat to read a collection of short stories that presents totally engaging characters, genuinely interesting storylines, and subtle emotional insights – in English that is as correct as it is polished. Mary Morrissy’s use of language is exceptionally supple and imaginative. Her images and metaphors are original and apt. She can be hilariously amusing. Still, it’s not all about style, which can sometimes camouflage thin substance, or suggest that the writer lacks faith in her ideas and themes.

Morrissy is much too subtle a writer to feel the need to advertise her mastery of English. Indeed, in some ways she is hardly like an Irish writer at all – more like a Canadian (Alice Munro) or even an English one (Julian Barnes or Penelope Lively, for instance).

Her subject matter in Prosperity Drive is Ireland and the Irish – specifically the suburban middle classes. The 18 stories are mainly about people who live on, or were born on or otherwise connected to, Prosperity Drive, a typical south Dublin road. The cover of the book, showing one of the beautiful old green road signs, with the street name in English and in Irish in the old Cló Gaelach, is an absolute delight.

The device of the “linked collection” has been around for a long time, and enjoyed a recent resurgence (such as in Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.)

But, in a sense, nearly all short story collections that don’t employ the device ostensibly are linked anyway, by the landscape of the author’s imagination and experience: Frank O’Connor’s Cork, Edna O’Brien’s Clare.

It is an almost obvious step from the unity of place that occurs spontaneously to deliberately set all short stories in a collection in one named place: a town, a parish or, as in this instance, a prim and proper road with front and back gardens, cars in the driveways, and secrets in the bedrooms.

This is the sort of place where most Irish writers have lived for 100 years but which has slowly emerged to take its place in the sun, or rain, of Irish fiction.

Street characters

Any suburban road supplies a goodly quantity and variety of characters and dramatic incident, rich pickings for any writer.

Characters who recur frequently in this book belong to the Elworthy family: the opening story, The Scream, introduces us to Edel Elworthy, an elderly woman suffering from memory loss, being nursed on her deathbed by her daughter Norah. “Remember, remember, remember what?” is the last line in this story.

Over the course of Prosperity Drive, much is remembered – the inside stories of the Elworthys and their neighbours. The final story brings us right back to the beginning, and tells us how Edel met Victor, her husband and father of Trish and Norah, who figures in several of the stories.

“Edel has never told anyone how she and Victor had met. She was ashamed of it because it had not been a lucky accident. She had seen him and wanted him; the direct line between wanting and having had never been so clear to her. He had been sitting at the heel bar. It was the latest innovation in Roches Stores, an American idea.”

First love, middle-aged love, illicit love, divorce, bereavement, child- rearing, emigration, holidays. Illness, death. And work – in kitchens, offices, the classroom, the printing works and newspapers. All the “ordinary” things that make up our lives are described here. But there is nothing ordinary about the stories themselves.

Sensationalism not needed

Morrissy never resorts to the sensational to create a strong tale. Murder, incest, serious violence, rape – none of it affects Prosperity Drive very often, although they do occur from time to time. A young woman, the hired help, gases herself in one of the outstanding stories, Miss Ireland.

In one of several stories set abroad (Prosperity Drive folk travel) Anita manages to conceive a child with a man she meets in a cloakroom when the ship stops for a day in Aden. Is it a rape or consensual? The question is not answered.

Morrissy has an acute sense of how attitudes change, and Anita certainly doesn’t consider herself a victim. She unzips her dress herself. Later she feels a sense of triumph. “She had gone beyond [the other girls], left them behind with their useless and florid romantic speculations.” Yesterday’s romance is today’s rape. Morrissy tells us what happened, and allows us to make up our own mind about it.

In refraining from judgment, she is a true heir to Chekhov and the great writers.

In general, extremely interesting things happen in these stories without the intervention of guns, knives or psychopaths.

Apart from her seduction of her husband in the Heel Bar, Edel Elworthy brings another dark secret to her grave, and one which is more original but no less alarming than a murder.

Little dramas happen all time in our suburban lives. And little dramas are the best subject matter for short stories, which must reveal the world in a grain of sand.

In the hands of a master storyteller such as Morrissy, minor incidents are much more entertaining and revealing than sensational events.

Above all, it is the brilliantly acute observation of every sort of detail – of place and time, of the foibles and passions of people – that makes the work so impressive and so thoroughly enjoyable.

Seldom has Irish suburban life – especially the lives of girls and women been so sensitively and wittily, portrayed. Morrissy captures it all: the civil servants on the bus, the children out playing on the road, the mildewed old swimming baths at Sandymount or Blackrock. The office parties and the typing pools. The old taffeta ball gown in the wardrobe and the shiny crocked car on the drive.

Her clear-eyed vision and her deep compassion, along with her lovely sense of the comic and her exceptional literary articulacy, make this an outstanding collection.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest stories appear in The Long Gaze Back and A Kind of Compass

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

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

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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