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


. . . then we take Berlin


I have come to a sense of place in my writing very slowly.  When I started to write – back in the 1970s – I was intent on removing all traces of the “local” from my work.  I was afraid of being parochial and I was out of sympathy with the brand of Irish fiction that maundered on about the landscape, the bogs and the mountains.  I had grown up in a Dublin suburb and felt there was nothing specifically “Irish” about it – as far as I was concerned, it was like any other suburb in the Western world; a place of quiet desperation where nothing happened.

My debut collection of stories, A Lazy Eye, was shorn of place-names, or where there were names, they were neutralized, generic-sounding. The real names of Irish places didn’t seem “real” to me then; they seemed inauthentic, too Oirishy.  Perhaps that was some kind of post-colonial cultural cringe on my behalf.  Who knows?

Mother of Pearl, my first novel, continued the trend.  Based on a real-life kidnapping in Dublin in the 1950s, I set the action in a made-up city divided by a sectarian conflict – I envisaged the north of the city being Belfast and the south being Dublin.  Because the story had a mythic quality I didn’t want it to be grounded too closely in political realities; hence the disguise.

But, I discovered, historical fiction is merciless in its demands about place. With my second novel, The Pretender, set during the First World War and based on the story of Anna Anderson who claimed, falsely, to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, the chickens came home to roost, if I can mix my metaphors.  Now I was duty-bound to real places – Berlin, Posnan, Charlottesville, Virginia – albeit not home territory, and places altered by time and war.  But real places, nonetheless, and demanding faithful re-creation.

Now I’ve come full circle. The Rising of Bella Casey – just published − which dramatizes the life of the sister of playwright Sean O’Casey, placed me firmly back on home turf.  My own city, Dublin, immortalized by the city’s stage laureate O’Casey in the early 20th century during one of the most turbulent periods in Ireland’s history. There could be no reaching for disguise this time. The novel is littered with place names – Dorset Street, Dominick Street, Mary Street, East Wall, Mountjoy Square, Fitzgibbon Street, Rutland Place and many more locations with strong O’Casey associations. These names no longer sound fake to me – have I changed, or have they?

I will be reading from The Rising of Bella Casey and discussing a sense of place in fiction as part of the Dublin Books Festival during a Reader’s Day event with Alison Jameson and Jennifer Johnston at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, on Saturday, November 16, at 10 a.m. See

Two degrees of separation


In 1918, the year Bella Casey died at the beginning of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic, the poet Louis McNeice (above) was just 11 years old.  Bella was living in the tenements of Dublin; McNeice was growing up as a son of the rectory in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim.  So what’s the connection between them?  The Rising of Bella Casey is.

McNeice happens to be on of my favourite poets but that;s not the reason he has an underground connection to the novel.  He’s there because sometimes when you’re writing historical fiction, people and dates happily collide.

McNeice’s mother, Elizabeth (Lily) Clesham trained as a teacher with the Irish Church Mission in Clonsilla, Dublin, in the 1880s.  At the same time Isabella Casey was studying at the Church of Ireland Model School on Marlborough Street (now site of the Department of Education).  There’s absolutely no evidence that these two young women – devout Anglicans both, trainee teachers and exact contemporaries –  met, let alone knew each other, even though they shared the same historical space (much like James Connolly and Nicholas Beaver – see my post October 22).

However, I like to think that Dublin was a small city then and if there’s no proof that Bella and Lily were acquainted, there’s equally nothing to say they weren’t. So I played God; I got them together at a teachers’ social in October 1889 and, hey presto,  they became fast friends on the page. 

Elizabeth Clesham was born on October 18, 1866 (a year-and-a-half after Bella Casey) and was brought up outside Clifden. Her father, Martin Clesham, had been born a Catholic but had converted to the Church of Ireland. Here was another point of similarity between Bella and Lily. Michael Casey, Bella’s father, was also a convert having been proselytized by the Protestant evangelist Rev Alexander Dallas, founder of the Irish Church Mission, which ran mission  or “ragged” schools in Ireland from the 1850s onwards.

Michael Casey worked as a clerk in the Irish Church Mission (ICM) headquarters on Townsend Street and Lily Clesham taught in ICM ragged schools in Dublin and Galway so that was another ready-made link between the two women. I began to feel they should have met.

Lily met clergyman John McNeice, the father of the poet, around this time. (He also makes a cameo appearance in The Rising of Bella Casey.) They married in 1902. Rev John McNeice served in the North of Ireland from 1899 onwards and in the 1930s was appointed Bishop of Down and Connor and Dromore.

Lily Clesham suffered from severe depression following Louis’ birth in 1907 and in 1913 she was moved to a nursing home in Dublin.  The five-year old Louis never saw her again; she died of TB on December 18, 1914.  Her death had a profound effect on the poet.  In his poem, Autobiography, he writes: –

My mother wore a yellow dress;                               
Gentle, gently, gentleness.
Come back early or never come.
When I was five the black dreams came;
Nothing after was quite the same. 

I tried to imbue “my” Lily Clesham in The Rising of Bella Casey  with that same sense of gentleness.  Certainly, it is that quality in her, that ignites her friendship with Bella Casey. As for Louis McNeice, he never got over the early loss of his mother.  He is buried with her in the churchyard at Carrowdore, Co Down. 

IMG00044-20131025-1114Louis McNeice as an infant pictured with his mother in 1907.

mc neice grave         The Carrowdore graveyard where McNeice is buried with his mother.

Readers’ Day

dublin books fest

With Alison Jameson on the day.

Saturday, November  16, Smock Alley Theatre: 10 a.m.

I’ll be taking part in this event sponsored by Dublin City Public Libraries during the Dublin Books Festival (November 14 – 17). It’s a morning of book talk, hosted by journalist and author Dave Kenny. Emma Walsh of the Bord Gáis Energy Book Club, Bob Johnston, owner of the Gutter Bookshop and Mary Burnham of Dubray Books will advise on how to choose the best book club reads as well as talking about their personal favourite literary choices.

I’ll be reading from The Rising of Bella Casey, along with fellow writers Jennifer Johnston and Alison Jameson. We’ll also be discussing a sense of place in fiction.

For information on all events, go to

One degree of separation

james connolly

When you write in the grey area between biography and fiction, there are sometimes unlikely historical coincidences, often in the shape of real people in the margins of the narrative, who register like ghost images. One of those spectral presences in The Rising of Bella Casey is Labour leader and insurrectionist James Connolly (above). Not surprising, you might say, since part of the novel is set during the September 1913 Lock-out and the 1916 Rising.  Even though the narrative takes a sidelong, feminine look at the political events of a turbulent time in Ireland’s history rather than placing the events centre-stage.

Although Sean O’Casey would have had direct dealings with James Connolly through the Labour movement and the Citizen Army, his sister, Bella, a staunch loyalist, would have been most unlikely to have crossed his path.

But there was a connection between Bella Casey and James Connolly, through her husband, Nicholas Beaver (below).  He was a lance-corporal in the King’s Liverpools regiment from the early 1880s until 1895.  At the same time, James Connolly,a Scot by birth, was also a serving soldier in the British army, a fact that he later kept quiet because it might damage his Republican credentials. According to Donal Nevin’s biography, James Connolly: A Full Life, Connolly also served in the King’s Liverpools although no record of him persists; however, it is likely that when he signed up in 1882 he did so under an assumed name because he was under age.

During the seven years he spent in the army, Connolly may have served in Cork, Castlebar, the Curragh and Dublin.  As Nevin writes: “It is an intriguing thought that Connolly may well have been among the soldiers of the regiment who were dispatched to Belfast in 1886 to quell serious sectarian riots in the city. It is probable too that Connolly was among the troops who took part in the celebration of Queen Victoria’s jubilee in Dublin in 1887.”  Connolly deserted in 1888 or 1889, perhaps because of the threat of being sent to India, according to Nevin.

There’s no evidence that Nicholas Beaver and James Connolly ever met but they could have.  The possibility tantalised.  So in The Rising of Bella Casey, they do meet. And the rest, as the historians might say, is fiction.


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