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.



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.