What do our photographs say about us?

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This is the only publicly available photograph of Bella Casey, the heroine of my novel, “The Rising of Bella Casey”. It is a close-up of a formal studio photograph taken in Dublin some time in the early 1890s.  From this image, I had to start building the fictional character of Bella Casey.  She seems an enigmatic presence in this photograph; dreamy, distant but with a certain degree of self-possession.

For a novelist writing historical fiction based on real people, as I do, there are often gaps in characters’ histories that have to be filled. The absence of documentary evidence is a nightmare for the biographer but for the writer, it can be a blessing.  It creates narrative openings in between the known facts. . .

Isabella Charlotte Casey was born in 1865, the eldest of the O’Casey clan, 15 years older than her famous playwright brother, Sean O’Casey. Bella was a bright, clever girl, completing her secondary school education – unusual at the time – and going on to train as a primary schoolteacher. She taught for several years – Sean completed his primary education under her tutelage – and helped to support the rest of her family.  In 1889 she married Nicholas Beaver, a soldier in the First Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment. 

O’Casey, who was 12 at the time, was intensely jealous of Beaver and later wrote that his adored sister “had married a man who had destroyed every struggling gift she had when her heart was young and her careless mind was blooming”.  He felt Bella had thrown away the advantages of her superior education “for the romance of a crimson coat”.  As Prof Colbert Kearney has noted in his study of O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy “The Glamour of Grammar”,  Bella must have seemed  “successfully studious and accomplished in ‘high’ culture and the arts” in comparison to her poorly educated brother who’d had to leave school at 14 because of the family’s declining fortunes.  Of all of the five O’Casey siblings, Bella looked set to realize “the upward aspirations of the Caseys”.  But her story turned out to be different – read what happened next in “The Rising of Bella Casey”, Brandon Press, due on September 16.   See http://www.o’brien.ie 

What O’Casey wrote out

Sean-O-Casey

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

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

The Rising of Bella Casey

bella cover

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

Ireland Focused Issue

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