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 joiningProf 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)
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.
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.
I’m just back from the Trieste Joyce School (June 30 – July 4) where I had the thrill of reading in the beautiful Art Deco Caffe San Marco, above, one of James Joyce’s many hang-outs in the city. Founded in 1914, when Trieste was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the café was a meeting place for the city’s writers, radicals, and intellectuals. During Joyce’s ten years in the city beginning in 1904, he was a regular at the San Marco along with Triestine poet Umberto Saba and novelist Italo Svevo (often thought to be the model for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses).
It still attracts a literary crowd; in 2013 when the cafe was under threat of closure, writer and academic Claudio Magris, who regularly writes at a table there, made an impassioned plea to save the San Marco, describing it as “a place where you’re at peace, you read, you write, you chat. . . a heart of the city; a strong heart that beats calmly”.
The café has survived and hosted several events at the Trieste Joyce School. Now in its 19th year, the school is led by the calm and genial Irish scholar John McCourt, author of The Years of Bloom, about Joyce’s years in Trieste. He could be said to be following in Joyce’s footsteps as he has lived in Trieste since 1990. His local knowledge came to the fore during his immensely informative – and entertaining – walking tour where he brought to vivid life Joyce’s Triestine years.
During his research, McCourt recalled tracking down one of Joyce’s English language students in Trieste (Joyce worked for the Berlitz School), who was then aged 99. She remembered Joyce’s instruction – he apparently stuck to the manual – and wondered whatever became of Signore Joyce. (She hadn’t kept track of her erstwhile tutor.)
It seemed a little bit like coals to Newcastle reading from Dubliners 100 – Tramp Press’s centenary publication of new versions of Joyce’s stories ─ to Joycean scholars in a regular haunt in Joyce’s adopted city. (I rewrote An Encounter – see elsewhere on this blog.) But they were a great audience – despite the fact that it was a very hot night.
I also read from The Rising of Bella Casey, my novel about the sister of Sean O’Casey. Although O’Casey and Joyce were contemporaries, they never met – by the time O’Casey became prominent in Dublin, Joyce had already left, and even if he hadn’t, class and religion might have kept them apart. (Joyce was from a middle-class Catholic background; O’Casey working-class Protestant, though both shucked off their religion at an early age.)
But there were other echoes in the Joyce story that chimed with the experience of Bella Casey. When John McCourt talked about the relationship between James and his brother, Stanislaus, who came to Trieste on James’s urgings, the tensions he described seemed very familiar.
Stannie was a steady provider and a loyal – and very practical ─ supporter of his brother’s genius. He regularly saved Joyce and his family from penury, found them accommodation or shared his own with them. He was a fixer, debt-payer and first reader for his brother, but his was often a thankless role. After they became estranged – Stannie was less than enthusiastic about Ulysses and dismissed Finnegan’s Wake entirely – Joyce is said to have dismissed the loss of a brother as no more serious than mislaying a pair of gloves.
In the Casey family, Bella was often the one with her hand out. After her husband died, she was destitute, left with five children to raise alone, and she was forced to return to the family home, where O’Casey still lived. It was a situation that O’Casey deeply resented.
In his autobiographies (in which he referred to himself in the third person) he wrote: “So they struggled on, his mother always aiming at sparing as much as she could from her own dish as she dared, and paring a little from her own share of bread to faintly feed Ella (Bella) and her kids; and she went on darning night and day to prevent their rags from floating off their backs. It wasn’t a pleasant job for him (Sean) to be eating a dinner with a little army of hungry eyes watching him. . . At times, a surge of hatred swept through him against those scarecrow figures asleep at his feet for they were in his way, and hampered all he strove to do, and a venomous dislike of Ella charged his heart.”
Perhaps all this proves is that both Joyce and O’Casey were utterly single-minded in the pursuit of their art and that nothing – least of all the circumstances or the finer feelings of their siblings – was allowed to interfere with the work in progress.
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.
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.
Last Monday was a red-letter day for my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, published under the Brandon imprint of O’Brien Press. It was one of five Irish novels nominated by libraries for the lucrative International Impac Dublin Literary Award 2015 – and I mean lucrative, €100,000! – along with Donal Ryan’s The Thing about December, The Guts, Roddy Doyle, Transatlantic by Colum McCann and The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce.
Apart from being in such good company – 142 Irish and international writers – the long-listing is also a vindication of O’Brien Press’s sturdy individualism as a small independent Irish publisher. The Rising of Bella Casey was roundly and generally rejected by many prestigious publishing houses, both in the UK and the US, before Michael O’Brien took a gamble and published it.
What made the Impac announcement a bitter-sweet occasion, however, was that O’Brien Press, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, has just had its publishing grant slashed by the Irish Arts Council – from €63,000 last year to €10,000 for 2015. This despite O’Brien’s unchallenged contribution to Irish children’s publishing for several decades, and its re-establishment of the Brandon imprint, which is committed to publishing serious Irish literary fiction.
The Rising of Bella Casey and Frank McGuinness’s Arimathea were the debut novels published by Brandon last year. If either of these two novels were to be submitted to Brandon in 2015, there’s a good chance that neither of them would see the light of day. The Impac long-listing means that there’s a world stage for a courageous Irish publisher being starved of funding at home. For me, it means vindication for The Rising of Bella Casey, a novel that without O’Brien Press, might never have been.
The death of maverick Irish writer, Brendan Behan, (above) 50 years ago, has been much remarked upon. But Behan shares this anniversary year with another major Irish literary figure, playwright Sean O’Casey, who appears as a character in my latest novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, which tells the story of his sister Bella.
The bare biographical details of Behan and O’Casey’s lives tell their own story. Behan died aged 41 on March 20, 1964, from alcohol-related diabetes. Six months later, O’Casey passed away aged 84. The age gap between them belies how much they had in common, although their lives did not cross.
Behan was certainly influenced by O’Casey’s work, particularly his Dublin trilogy – Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. Although a Protestant, O’Casey was brought up in straitened circumstances in northside Dublin and combined his literary career with a political radicalism, although he was a late bloomer as a writer. He was in his forties before his first play was staged.
Born 43 years after O’Casey in the same neighbourhood, Behan, a Catholic, was a precocious talent. He began writing in his teens contributing to Irish Republican magazines. His work was heavily influenced by his political commitment. In Behan’s case, that commitment included active involvement in the IRA, which resulted in two spells in prison.
Borstal Boy – a play based on his novel of the same name is now running at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in a new production directed by Conall Morrison – describes Behan’s first sentence in England for IRA activities. The Quare Fella tells of an execution at Mountjoy Jail when Behan was imprisoned there, and The Hostage deals with an IRA kidnapping of a British soldier.
Through very different routes, both came to roughly similar conclusions in their writings about the fight for Irish freedom – “that while the issues involved were nationalism and imperialism, the ordinary poor had nothing to gain and a great deal to suffer in the cross-fire” as Colbert Kearney notes in The Writings of Brendan Behan.
But perhaps the most telling difference between them was one of temperament and habits. Unlike Behan, O’Casey was a tea-totaller. In his biography of O’Casey, Christopher Murray remarks:”It is a sobering thought, if the pun will pass, that had O’Casey taken Behan’s path, he would have been dead before a single play had been staged. . .”
Conversely, Behan described himself as a drinker with a writing problem.
O’Casey’s view of Behan’s work is not recorded, but he was almost paternal in his concern for the younger writer. In an interview in the Irish Press on May 9, 1961, he remarked: “It’s sad to see this man abusing himself like he is. If he does not mind his talent it will fade.” On Behan’s death, he told the Evening Press: “One thing Brendan Behan never did was to exploit his own talents. . . He died too quickly.”
Behan was reverent in his admiration of O’Casey. In a BBC television interview on November 29, 1962 he declared “. . .any playwright, certainly any Irishman writing plays in the past forty years that denies that O’Casey influenced them is a fool – a liar. Yes, of course, he influenced us all.” In Brendan Behan’s Island, he went further: “I come from the same area as Sean O’Casey about whom I don’t intend to say anything for the simple reason that it would be like praising the Lakes of Killarney – a piece of impertinence. A far as I’m concerned, all I can say is that O’Casey’s like champagne, one’s wedding night, or the Aurora Borealis, or whatever you call them – all them lights.”
I’ve just done one of those quickie questionnaires on the Irish Times website. I love reading these things but it’s a strange sensation to read your own! And, of course, you get troubled by esprit d’escalier – all the cool and impressive answers you should have given… But the spirit of the exercise is not to think too much about the questions, I think, and not to brood too much about your answers. And , above all, to remember that it’s newspapers, folks; it’ll soon be wrapping up someone’s virtual fish. Or lurking behind a pay wall.
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. It was one of many classics read to me when I was very young.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Too hard to be definitive about this as favourites keep on changing, don’t they? But I would count Alice Munro as one of my favourite writers and I happily revisit her dozen or so volumes of short stories regularly.
What is your favourite quotation?
“Fail again, fail better” – Samuel Beckett
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Can I say Jane Eyre again?
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Eilis Ní Dhuibhne. Her range is amazing. She writes in Irish and English, across several different genres. Her short fiction, in particular, is formally inventive and often wryly funny. The Dancers Dancing, her novel about the Irish college experience, should be a classic.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
I read both. I prefer traditional print, as I love the book as object, but am attracted by the ease and lightness of ebooks.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
Paintings in Proust by Erik Karpeles – this is a companion book to Proust’s A La Recherche de Temps Perdu with reproductions of all the art Proust mentions in his text. It’s a beautiful to hold, the reproductions are exquisite, and it’s a fascinating sidelong view of Proust’s masterpiece.
Where and how do you write?
I write at home in a small study that used to be the spare bedroom until I jettisoned the bed and forced guests to sleep on a sofabed in the living room. I do a first draft in long-hand – an old habit which I’m too superstitious to depart from now.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
The Broken Estate by James Wood. Or anything by James Wood – he’s a literary critic who constantly forces me to re-evaluate reactions to books I’ve read. I don’t always agree with him, but he always makes me think twice.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
Probably for my most recent novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, about Sean O’Casey’s sister. I was awarded a research fellowship at the New York Public Library as I was starting the novel so I was in residence in one of the most extensive libraries in the world. Usually, I write the novel first, then do the research afterwards – but for this novel, the procedure was reversed. I researched Sean O’Casey’s papers (housed in the NYPL), read his letters and the various biographies of him, as well as foraging through testimonies of tenement life, the effects of syphilis, the first World War and the social history of the early 20th century. All of this was at hand and I ended up with more material than I knew what to do with – for that novel and for others yet to be written.
What book influenced you the most?
Again, it’s hard to answer this. As a writer, the books that have influenced me most – though probably subliminally – are the novels I read in my mid-teens, an age when you’re wide open to being carried away. Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor both had that effect on me at that age. I felt I had stumbled on a great secret finding them and I think they hover still around my writing somehow.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
Oh God, I’d probably give them a book token and let them choose. Otherwise I’d give them Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell which I read at 18. I was mesmerised by it because it was about Paris, where I’d never been, and because it was so dark, raw and edgy and a million miles from my own very sheltered existence.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Ulysses by James Joyce
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Write – a little and often. Read a lot.
What weight do you give reviews?
Enormous if they’re good.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
If I knew the answer to that. . .
What writing trends have struck you lately?
The predominance of present-tense narratives in short fiction and the large number of polyphonic novels.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
I don’t look to reading to teach me about life; I use it to escape life.
What has being a writer taught you?
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I would like to invite the residents of The February House, a literary commune set up in Brooklyn in the early 40s, which counted among its many members Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, W H Auden, George Davis, Paul and Jane Bowles, Gypsy Rose Lee, Klaus and Erika Mann, along with a host of famous visitors, including Anais Nin and Louis Mc Neice. Rather than be the host of the dinner party, I’d like to be a fly on the wall during one of their gatherings.
The Rising of Bella Casey is to be RTE Radio’s Book on One next week, January 20 – 24. The night-time slot consists of 15-minute excerpts broadcast, Monday to Friday. One of the challenges of the programme is to edit down a 300-page novel to roughly 25 pages so that the listener gets a flavour of the book. That’s producer’s Aoife Nic Cormaic’s job.
Sometimes the books are read by actors; sometimes by the authors. I chose to read mine. It’s a strange experience. On the one hand, who could be more familiar with the text than the writer? On the other, editing and reading for radio requires you to look at the book almost as if you’d never seen it before.Unlike a public reading,where you can make eye contact with your listeners and judge the reaction, the broadcast is a dramatised interpretation aimed at a faceless audience.
Having done the recordings, now the challenge is to listen back to them. And to hear your voice as other people hear it! RTE Book On One is on nightly, 11.10pm