Author Kevin Kiely talks about his inspirations for SOS Lusitania on the eve of the centenary of the ship’s tragic sinking.
In school I knew the bare facts about the Lusitania based on our history book that had a poster from that era ‘Lest We Forget‘. The poster was explained in class and we learned that the Lusitania had been torpedoed and sunk. It was an effective stirring colour poster showing the ship about to keel over. The liner was engulfed in fire and smoke and the passengers were falling. Some were in the water waving their hands. Others sat shivering in lifeboats. There were Americans among the passengers. Many of them drowned and because of this President Wilson in America declared war on Germany and the Kaiser. There were photographs of Wilson in an open-top limousine and the Kaiser in a uniform wearing a helmet with a spike on it. This was basic history with the facts as mere headlines.
Of course, in school I heard the teacher tell and retell the Titanic legend. I began to read a novel entitled A Night to Remember with its minute-by-minute depiction of the tragedy and vivid accounts of survivors who calculated how and when to leap from the sinking ship in order to have a change of saving themselves. I particularly remember the cook or kitchen porter who drank a bottle of liquor and scrambled along the flagpole wearing his life-jacket as the Titanic collapsed below him and sank under the waves. The book was on a shelf beside others such as The Longest Day documenting the D-Day Landings on the Normandy beaches.
The real history of the Lusitania never entered my consciousness fully until the summer of 2006. I had been in Cill Rialaig, the Famine village, and visited a childhood haunt, Ballinskelligs. My adventures took me out to the Big Skellig one day using the cheap-fare boat. But I was restless in Kerry and one Sunday morning travelled east. I have relatives outside Cork city and although we have lost contact, it seemed an idea to take that route. I reached Cobh in a sort of minor torpor and nostalgic mood. I decided to break the journey, and found a B&B high up in the town near Park Terrace. I wandered around. To anyone who does not know Cobh it is full of rising and falling pathways, and footpaths giving different views of the giant harbour. It is a labyrinthine meandering harbour with lakes and islands linking Cork to Cobh and the Celtic sea. At sunset, I saw different aspects of the harbour with sailing vessels and one giant cruise liner.
I sat in a pub along Westbourne Place. The spirit of the Lusitania haunts Cobh. Its story emerged as if some being had transfixed my attention and taken me hostage until the bare outline of the plot was written down: Finbar Kennedy runs away from home. His father is staff captain on the Lusitania. Finbar arrives in New York having escaped with his life. Like many others, he boards the ship on its return voyage into disaster amidst spies, gun-runners, world history and romance. He miraculously survives against so many dangers. In every way the story was implicitly true. It was the real-life story of the survivors.
In 2009, I was lecturing at the University of Idaho, and had abandoned my original excitement and enthusiasm for the Lusitania. I was absorbed by poetry, and an academic text demanded a treasury of research. It seemed that my tale of a runaway would remain as a manuscript. One night, towards the close of the year, I was invited to a faculty dinner. Across from me was Richard Spence, a history professor and author of books on international espionage. His wife led us in a triangular discussion to which he vaguely contributed. I, out of politeness added about as much as he. I wanted the subject to return to literature and away from history. However, when the name Aleister Crowley came up, I agreed that I had heard of him and made a few comments to keep the conversation going. Professor Spence, according to his wife, had just published a book on Crowley, entitled Secret Agent 666 where it mentions the plot to sink the Lusitania. Our discussion opened out about the inquests into the disaster, and how Captain Turner in command of the Lusitania seemed frightened to speak about it during his lifetime. Professor Spence had read international intelligence documents to inform his book. I mentioned that I had begun a story but remained uncertain as to how it could ever get finished. Professor Spence promised to have a copy of his book sent to Brink Hall at the university where I worked in the English Department.
Secret Agent 666 led me back to the Lusitania as the story came alive filled with real characters and real history. Crowley is a common Cork name, and was perfect as a real passenger which slightly altered his actual role in 1915. I kept my plot line deliberately vague in places where history has no actual documentation. However, the actual events required little detective work based on the full research. Back in Ireland, I went to Cobh on a day trip to walk the town and its hilly streets. I was enacting my young hero’s return home. What you write about actually happens in part to yourself, which is true of SOS Lusitania for me. Soon, I had a very emotional and historically accurate narrative, hammering it all together into a clear prose style.
At the editorial stage, Íde ní Laoghaire literally came on board, and creatively suggested the Historical Note. The fact that The O’Brien Press considered publishing political history and conspiracy wrapped up in fiction is in keeping with their tough-edged principles. Already they had published A Horse Called El Dorado where the central character escapes from Colombian drug dealers and endures a series of dangerous journeys arriving in Ireland. Life in Ireland proves difficult for the hero who, through the Travellers, finds a vocational career in horse racing. The novel won a Bisto Merit Award in 2006.
I am currently re-visiting SOS Lusitania in order to bring the story into 1916 using additional real-life characters from real history. The story has suggested a trilogy to lay bare this crucial historical period. The sinking of the Lusitania unleashed events which still resonate into the twenty-first century.
Kevin Kiely has had several collections of poetry published, plays broadcast on RTE and is engaged in literary journalism and editing. He has received Literature Bursary Awards from the Irish Arts Council, and is Honorary Fellow in Writing with the University of Iowa. SOS Lusitania is his first book for young readers.