Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you hoped they would. Ah, such is life, and such is my life. My grand plan to move to Ireland for a year or two – to write this book that’s been in my head for so long – came to naught. The fellow at the Irish Embassy who had assured me I would have no trouble getting permission to remain was, like many an Irishman, only half right. It was the other half that gave me grief, and the short of it is, my dream of two years in this country that feels like home turned into a different reality: three months, like any other tourist.
Talk about putting a crimp in my game plan. But if Plan A wasn’t going to work, I’d have to come up with Plan B. In order to work, it was going to require a serious work ethic on my part … if three months is all I was going to get, then I had better apply myself and get every stitch of research I could get done in that allotted time. So that’s how I spent my summer vacation – at the library, with my nose in one book or another. With a few days off to explore various settings in my book.
I must have taken about eleventy hundred photos, but unfortunately, the bulk of them were taken inside libraries, so not a lot of the green, green grass of home type pictures that capture the beauty of Ireland. But let me show you a bit of where I was …
… and how it all fits in.
1848. County Clare, in western Ireland. It was the third year of what history now calls The Great Famine, and the story of Clare during that time is one of misery – poverty, starvation, destitution, sickness and death. But that is not really the story I am about to write. But it is the story of that time, so there is no glossing over. The plantation system, instituted by Cromwell during the 1600s, was in effect, with the English or Anglo-Irish aristocracy owning most of the land in the country. They were the landed gentry, and those who chose to live on their estates, lived in the Big House and rented out most of their land to farmers, who in turn worked for the landlord. And this is where my story begins – in the Big House.
So naturally, visits to the Big House (three of them, actually) were the order of the day. It was my great fortune to meet a local historian, Dr. Joseph Power, who graciously showed me around and got us into those three homes. Two of them are currently under renovation, and the third is a veritable castle that today is a five-star hotel complete with its own golf course. Dromoland it’s called.
The fellow on the plaque in the center photo (who just happened to be born at Dromoland) played a pivotal role in Ireland’s historic uprising during 1848. The group he belonged to, Young Ireland, have become somewhat of a footnote in Ireland’s long battle for independence from British rule, and its their cry for freedom that has inspired me to write their story …
… from the point of view of a young servant girl who is also searching for her own freedom from within the confines of the Big House she serves somewhere out in eastern County Clare. It’s dicey writing historical fiction – the blending of fact and fiction. But here’s one fact: there is a little village that sits on the Fergus Estuary, which in turn flows into the Shannon River, whose location and history have sparked my imagination. Much of that spark is thanks to Joe Power’s “A History of Clare Castle and Its Environs,” which leaves no stone unturned about this tiny dot on the map. It’s become my dot, for better or worse. It wasn’t called Clare Castle in 1848, but you’ll just have to wait for the book to find that out.
Here are a few pictures of what it looks like today, with a little history thrown in …
But as I mentioned, most of my time was spent at the library – either at the Clare County Library or the Local Studies Centre – in Ennis. Research is a lot like weeding a garden – just when you think you’ve got ‘em all, there’s another … and another … and another that needs tackling. Peter Beirne and Brian Doyle at the Local Studies Centre went far beyond the call of duty and were forever finding me another and still another every time they headed up the stairs to find me yet one more book I simply had to read. I was in good hands. And if you hang out at the Local Studies Centre long enough, other history buffs are bound to show up. Lucky for me, Ciarán O Murchadha, a local historian with a wealth of knowledge and plenty of books to his credit, shared his time with me and pointed me in the right direction more than once or twice.
I was very sorry to leave – but my time was up, and I had to get to Dublin for a round of research at the National Library, with the prospect of weeks of sitting at the microfilm reader, scouring the newspapers of the time. But first, a stop in Ballingarry, another little village, this one in the heart of Tipperary, where the fellow in the plaque up above led an uprising on the last Saturday of July 1848. For the past ten years, the Ballingarry 1848 Society has led a walk that retraces the steps that our Young Ireland rebels took that fateful day. I couldn’t miss that, right? Talk about history.
From Tipp it was off to Dublin. And while my time there was mostly work, there was a bit of play. An afternoon spent in Parnell Square, poking my head in at the Irish Writers Centre and the Irish Writers Museum, and a visit to the Hugh Lane Gallery, with much to cheer about the country’s artists, including Seán Keating and Jack B Yeats, both of whom painted in a romantic-realist style during the Irish Independence period and capture it all with great beauty and style. There’s also a room devoted to the Impressionists, and any day I see a new Pissaro is a good day. It was a very good day, indeed.
But undoubtedly the highlight of my play time was the night John Collins and I caught Richie Buckley playing sax with the Ronnie Greer trio in the upstairs room at JJ Smyth’s. Richie lent such credence to Van’s band during the ’90s and was there for Van’s Astral Weeks Live tour in 2008/2009. His call and response on “Summertime in England” is forever etched in our minds, one of those musical pinnacles. That’s me asking Richie about the call and response during the “Common One” segment at those two Hollywood Bowl shows in ’08. He said Van just threw it at him at the last minute – no advance warning. Sounds like Van – you just never know. Fantastic to catch Richie here in Dublin. As John said, “Just one of those great nights.”
Let me leave you with just a taste of the good stuff …