It’s cold out there … but there’s still plenty to see

Juanita Browne, author of the wonderful The Great Big Book of Irish Wildlife, chats about her inspiration for the book and how we can help wildlife in our garden this Christmas.

I have loved nature, for as long as I can remember. My family always had at least one pet dog. There was Brandy when I was a toddler, then Fozzie, Sooty, Lady, and then Teddy, most of them mongrels, and each one a truly loved member of the family. I think it was probably these dogs that began my love of animals and nature.

I was always amazed that you could build this relationship with another species, that you found a way of overcoming barriers of speech, never mind language. That they understood your ways, your moods, and you learned their traits and their individual personalities. These four-legged hairy beasts opened up another world for me and led me out into it, following their wagging tails.

One of my earliest memories is lying in the long grass in the field behind our house with Fozzie, and hearing the buzzing of insects in the grass. That field was my playground and was full of wildflowers and grasses. I would lie hidden in the long grass, while Fozzie bounced up and down, trying to find me. I would pull my fingernail up along a grass stem, scattering its seeds to the wind. We made daisy chains, and made wishes as we blew hard on dandelion clocks and and watch the seeds float off into the sky. We held buttercups under our chins to see if we liked butter. Simple games, which even in the 1980s were still played.

There was a small, wet ditch at the bottom of the field that was home to frogspawn. Every spring I duly collected it and kept it in the bucket of my builder Dad’s old broken dump-truck, which was full of rainwater, to watch it grow. Little did I know back then that feeding the tadpoles plants only kept them happy for a while. When their legs develop, tadpoles became carnivorous — I don’t want to think too much about what happened when they were forced to start looking at each other in a new light in the bucket of that dump-truck! The Hunger Games comes to mind.

I was well-intentioned, though, and their safe captivity inside building machinery probably kept them safe from other predators so perhaps it all evened out in the end.

I was intrigued by everything in nature. Yes, you might say I’m a nerd. But aren’t all children nerds in a way — open to fascination and excitement and to soaking up knowledge about the world — especially if it’s shown to them in an interesting way.

OUR NATURAL HERITAGE

For many years I visited schools to talk about nature through the wonderful Heritage in Schools Scheme, and it always struck me how excited the children would get over a new fact or photograph, video or animal sound I played for them. I spoke to them about my time working on natural history documentaries — about how I worked with camera crews filming deer, bats puffins, or fin whales around Ireland. I told simple stories of my treasured interactions with wild animals.

They loved telling their own stories too — whether they were all true or not I can’t comment. ‘I swam with Humpback whales once at the beach in Dublin,’ said one little boy. ‘A hedgehog killed one of my chickens. It dragged the chicken to the back door in its mouth.’

Okay…

But one poignant aspect of these school visits was seeing how little the children knew about our Irish wildlife. Without fail there was always someone in the group who would shout out ‘Skunk!’ to a picture of a good old-fashioned Irish badger.

They had never heard of a pine marten, couldn’t identify common garden birds, or name a tree, and were nervous of touching any of the insects we looked at in the schoolyard.

Kids today often know lots about Antarctica, or African wildlife or dinosaurs.  But they don’t seem to know what’s on their doorstep, or how amazing Irish wildlife is, too. It was this experience that led to The Great Big Book of Irish Wildlife. I wanted to write a very accessible book, to introduce young children to our diversity of wonderful wildlife — in a fun way — and to explain some of the changes in nature across the Irish seasons.

Our children are bombarded by negative stories about the environment, with scary statistics about climate change, plastic pollution and endangered species. I wanted my book to be positive. I wanted to provide an insight into the life stories, and amazing abilities of some of Ireland’s beautiful birds, mammals and insects, and hopefully whet the readers’ appetite to want to get out and explore for themselves.

As well as explaining some of the most dramatic wildlife events of each season, such as the red deer rut in autumn, a starling murmuration in winter or giant basking sharks cruising Irish waters in summer, I also wanted to show children what common wildlife sights they could experience easily for themselves in their own back yard or in their local park.

You often hear of our ‘disconnect with nature’ nowadays. I regularly meet people who want to develop a stronger connection with nature, but don’t know where to start. So in the book, I make lots of suggestions. We have some amazing wildlife NGOs in this country, such as BirdWatch Ireland, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group or Bat Conservation Ireland, who offer free events from bat walks to whalewatching. By following the lead of an expert guide, you have a mentor on hand to show you how and where to look and there is no better way to learn.

THINGS TO TRY THIS WINTER:

Feeding the birds is a great way of welcoming wildlife to your garden and a great way to learn to identify our common garden birds.  Winter can be a tough time of year for small birds, as food is scarce and they must use a lot of energy just to stay warm. You often hear people talk about the ‘fat robin’, but in winter robins are far from fat. They are actually puffing out their feathers to try to stay warm!

Different birds like different foods, so vary what you offer and where you place it in the garden. Robins and blackbirds like to feed from a bird table or the ground, while the tits and finches will gladly hang like acrobats on wire feeders. Remember to hang feeders out of reach of cats. Leave out a shallow dish of water too, especially during frost or snow. BirdWatch Ireland runs a Garden Bird Survey and if you take part, you will learn to identify most common garden birds and some more unusual visitors. See www.birdwatchireland.ie

Winter can also be a good time to spot old nests in trees and hedgerows, without the leaves to hide them. You can spot the large stick nests of rooks and you might even be able to spot a squirrel drey – a sphere of twigs up high in a woodland tree. If you can visit a rookery (the colonial winter roost of rooks and jackdaws), the sound and experience may surprise you, as hundreds of birds roost together at night to help stay warm and safe. If you hear of a local winter site for a starling murmuration, make the trip and watch the skies from an hour or two before dark. It will be well worth it. The swirling, pulsating cloud of birds that is a murmuration is one of the most amazing winter sights! Keep an eye on BirdWatch Ireland’s Facebook page for updates.

Wader Watching at an estuary or on mudflats, such as at North Bull Island in Dublin, is also a great activity to try out over winter. Here, you will see large numbers of waders carefully probing for worms and shellfish in the mud at low tide. Different waders have different bill designs and lengths to allow them to reach a variety of prey under the mud. The curlew is our largest wader with the longest bill to reach lugworms and ragworms that tunnel deep into the mud, while turnstones turn over stones, clumps of seaweed and pebbles to catch invertebrates hiding underneath. Some of these birds have come to Ireland to spend the winter, from continental Europe and as far away as Greenland and the High Arctic.

Some tips for watching waders and wildfowl:

  • Wear waterproof, warm clothes.
  • Bring binoculars if you can and a good bird book.
  • Check the tide times online. Find a good spot an hour before high tide and you’ll see the birds as they come closer with the tide, and then spread out over the mudflats as the tide goes out.
  • Leave dogs at home when you go wildlife watching!

 

WILDLIFE IS GOOD FOR YOU

In the UK, doctors are now writing ‘green prescriptions’, encouraging time spent in nature to help your mental health as well as physical fitness. In Japan, it’s called ‘forest-bathing’ and is recognised to restore health. This link between nature and wellbeing is becoming more recognised globally, and in fact the more biodiverse an area, the more benefits are seen. I know myself when I get out into a ‘wild place’ or even a green space in an urban setting, I immediately feel better.

I saw a lovely slogan on a poster recently:

‘And into the forest I go,

to lose my mind,

and to find my soul.’

An introduction to the outdoors and wildlife is one of the greatest gifts we could give to our children. I really hope the Great Big Book of Irish Wildlife opens that door for some young readers. They may not start growing tadpoles in cannibalistic settings, but they may just start to see the wonder of nature and the joy to be had in the outdoors.

 

 

 

Juanita Browne, December 2018

The Great Big Book of Irish Wildlife is available to buy here and in all good bookshops

Our Favourite Inspiring Women from Blazing a Trail

Lauren O’Neill and Sarah Webb accepting their Irish Book Award
Shona Shirley Macdonald (author and illustrator of The Pooka Party), Sarah Webb and Lauren O’Neill at the Irish Book Awards 2018

This week Blazing a Trail won the Children’s Book of the Year (senior) Award at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. This is a wonderful award and we, at the O’Brien Press, are very proud of this book and the remarkable women who created it. Blazing a Trail – Irish Women Who Changed the World was written by Sarah Webb and illustrated by Lauren O’Neill. Sarah and Lauren have chosen their favourite woman from Blazing a Trail with a disclaimer that this is very difficult to choose because they are all amazing in their own right!

 

 

Sarah Webb

I’ve spent the last two years in the company of some of Ireland’s most remarkable women and it’s hard to select one as my ‘favourite’. As I read about the women in turn, I discovered the truth about each individual journey – the obstacles they had to overcome, their tenacity, their determination, their hope that Ireland might be a different place for women in the future – and my admiration for all of them grew and grew.

However I discovered that one woman in particular had direct links to my family and also changed the course of my own education and that is Sarah Purser.

Sarah was an artist, patron and businesswoman who was born in Dún Laoghaire in 1848, the town where I live. She studied art in Paris as women were not allowed to study at the Royal Irish Academy (RHA) in Dublin at the time. Later, Sarah became the first woman to be given full membership of the organisation at the age of seventy-five.

She became well known for her portraits and painted some of the most famous Irish people of the time from Maud Gonne to Douglas Hyde.

In 1903, she set up An Túr Gloine (the Tower of Glass) and, thanks to her excellent business skills, it became a world-wide success, exporting glass to churches around the globe. It makes me smile to think that the stained glass windows in churches in Canada and New York and many other places were shipped over (and in many cases created) by Irish women at a time when women’s art was not widely appreciated or celebrated. Stained-glass artists Evie Hone and Wilhelmina Geddes and Harry Clarke all made glass for Sarah’s company.

Every Tuesday, Sarah held salons in her house for artists, writers and academics. My grandfather, WB Stanford, was a classics professor at TCD and wrote widely on the Greek language. He attended these salons with my grandmother.

Sarah also helped establish History of Art courses in both Trinity College Dublin and UCD. I studied History of Art in TCD; a course I loved. It is responsible for my abiding love of art, illustration and picturebooks.

And finally we share a first name.

Sarah Purser, I salute you!

Lauren O’Neill

It’s obviously very tough to choose a favourite among the Blazing a Trail women – they’re all very unique individuals. In terms of the artwork, Eileen Grey was probably my favourite to draw, or the aviators, Lilian Bland and Lady Heath. I love how those images turned out! I think the woman who made the biggest impression on me though was Margaret Bulkley, who lived her whole adult life as a man, Dr. James Barry. Her, or I should say his, academic achievements alone were amazing. But he was also the one who made the biggest leap in terms of how he wanted to present himself to the world. You have to admire that level of self conviction! Also he was a big animal lover, which deserves a big thumbs up. He was a very interesting character both to research and to draw.

The artwork for Blazing a Trail was actually a bit of a departure from my usual style in kids’ books. Generally I’m more focused on linework but for Blazing a Trail I combined line drawings with figures that felt a bit more painterly, which seemed to work well with some of the more historical subject matter. I mostly work digitally but I always use scanned textures in my work on some level. For Blazing a Trail I sketched out lots of small composition thumbnails in pencil for each image, and chose the one that I felt would work best full size. I would then take a photo of it on my phone, send it to my computer and paint over it in photoshop. At the end, I added in scanned paint textures to give everything a more organic and traditional feel.

Sarah Webb and Lauren O’Neill, November 2018

Blazing a Trail is available to buy here and in all good bookshops

 

Finding the bold, brilliant and bad women in Irish History – an Interview with Marian Broderick

This week we had a chat with the brilliant Marian Broderick, author of Wild Irish Women and Bold, Brilliant and Bad.

Photograph by City Headshots Dublin

Could you tell us about your experience researching extraordinary women from Irish history for both Wild Irish Women and Bold, Brilliant and Bad?

Researching history is an absorbing experience – but getting lost in the research is a risk known to every writer. To research Bold, Brilliant and Bad I mined reputable internet resources, walked around graveyards, galleries and museums, lived in libraries and read everything I could. Quite often I would start the day by pursuing a woman’s history – for example the legend of the murderer Darkey Kelly – become lured down a fascinating side road to gruesome executions in the seventeenth century, and spend the whole day reading about that instead!

What surprised and/or impressed you about these women?

My women are all multi-layered individuals. Many of them took their courage in their hands and flouted the conventions of their society one way or another during the course of their lives. This is true of women throughout history, but doubly so for Irishwomen, and trebly so for Irishwomen from less well-off backgrounds, such as Rosie Hackett and Kay McNulty. I was also interested to note just how many of these formidable women had had the disadvantage of losing a parent through death or desertion at an early age. These include Lizzie Le Blond, Dr Emily Winifred Dickson, Dr Dorothy Stopford Price, Sheila Tinney, Nellie Cashman, Carmel Snow and Eileen Gray.

Who are your favourite women in Irish history and why?

I have a particular fondness for the feisty working- and lower-middle-class women, such as Margaret Skinnider, Rosie Hackett, Margaret Hassan, Nellie Cashman, Winifred Carney, Kay Mills and Anne O’Brien. These people overcame obstacles to achieve prominence in their chosen fields.

Continue reading “Finding the bold, brilliant and bad women in Irish History – an Interview with Marian Broderick”

The Making of The Making of Mollie!

Anna Carey tells us about the compelling research process for her latest novel The Making of Mollie!

When I started writing my book The Making of Mollie, the story of a would-be teenage suffragette in 1912 Dublin, I didn’t have to think long about where to set it. When it was founded back in 1883, my old school, Dominican College, was at the forefront of girls’ education in Ireland, and it was known for its progressive ethos – its old girls include the famous suffragette leader Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. Since 1984, the school has been on Griffith Avenue in Drumcondra, but for just over 100 years it was in Eccles Street in Dublin (when I was there, from 1988 to 1993, lots of people still referred to the school simply as ‘Eccles Street’). As my fictional heroine, Mollie, was a middle-class girl living in Drumcondra, it made sense that she would have gone to Eccles Street – which was handy for me, because I live down the road from the school’s current location.

And so a rainy day in February, I went back to school, thanks to Sr Catherine Gibson, the nun (and former teacher at the school) who looks after the archive. In a cosy room in the convent next to the school building (I’d walked past it every day for five years but never entered it before), I ate biscuits, drank a particularly delicious pot of tea, and immersed myself in the past. Dominican College began producing a yearbook called The Lanthorn in 1913, and there was a complete collection in the archive. I was able to pore through the pages for several hours, taking copious notes and photographs and finally photographing entire pages.

The Lanthorn was an incredible source of information. It told me what subjects the girls studied at school, some of which were mystifying over a century later (historical geography?). It showed me that the girls called their lay teachers “professor” (the historian Dr Senia Paseta later told me this wasn’t unusual). In the school class lists, it gave me dozens of authentic girls’ names of the period which inspired the names of many characters in the book (there were several Mollies, a LOT of Noras – and yes, at least one Grace and Stella and a few Gerties). There were accounts of “a year in Eccles Street” which told me when the girls had exams and when they put on plays (which they seemed to do surprisingly often). Best of all were the short stories about school life by the girls themselves, which were often very funny and which provided me with a lot of authentic contemporary slang. They were the parts I enjoyed the most.

The Making of Mollie is my first historical novel, and I cared a lot about making it as authentic as possible while still being entertaining. So it’s a good thing that I turned out to love the research. In fact, in an ideal world I’d have spent even longer on it. And no part of the research was more fun than throwing myself into the world of the girls who’d gone to my school 75 years before I did – and seeing they weren’t always so different from me and my friends after all.

Anna Carey, December 2016

The Making of Mollie is available here and in all good bookshops!

The Deer’s Cry by Eithne Massey

This month sees the publication of  Irish Legends: Newgrange, Tara & the Boyne Valley by acclaimed author Eithne Massey. To celebrate the launch of this beautiful hardback for children, Eithne has retold the ‘The Deer’s Cry’ – a bite-sized Boyne Valley legend – just for the O’Brien Press Blog!

The Deer’s Cry

St Patrick was a holy man. He brought Christianity to Ireland. There are many stories about him.

But did you know the story of why his most famous prayer is called ‘The Deer’s Cry’?

It happened like this.

When Patrick first came to Ireland, he landed at the mouth of the Boyne and made his way towards Tara. He wanted to see the high king, Laoghaire. He was going to ask permission to tell everyone in Ireland about the new religion. But King Laoghaire’s druids were angry. They didn’t want any other religions in their country.

‘Send an ambush to kill this trouble-maker!’ said the chief druid. ‘He must be stopped before he reaches the king. No one can harm him once he is inside Tara. We are not allowed to harm a visitor. We must hunt him down before he gets here, while he travels through the great forest.’

Patrick and his friends started their journey to Tara. They began to make their way through the great forest. It was springtime. Birds followed where Patrick walked. Foxes and rabbits peered from their burrows, and small red squirrels jumped from branch to branch, keeping him company. Patrick had the gift of bringing animals to him, and even a shy deer came and drank from his hands as he rested by a stream.

‘Why do you waste time with a creature like that, when we are on the way to see a great king?’ asked Conall, one of his followers.

‘God is in every creature,’ said Patrick mildly.

They continued on through the shadows of the wood, and suddenly Patrick stopped dead.

‘I think we might have someone waiting for us,’ he said.

‘You mean someone who means us harm?’ said Conall.

‘Are we in danger? What will we do?’ asked Benignus, the stable boy, looking around him nervously.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Patrick, and he closed his eyes and prayed.

The chief druid’s men could never understand how Patrick and his companions got past them. They lay in wait for hours, their swords drawn. The sun set. The moon rose. The moon set, and then the sun rose again. The soldiers saw nothing but the birds and beasts of the forest. A flock of doves flew into the starry sky; a herd of shy deer passed them in the moonlight.

Patrick reached Tara, and there he defeated the druids in a contest of magic. King Laoghaire allowed Patrick and his monks to travel throughout the land, spreading their good news.

And that is why, ever since then, Patrick’s prayer has been called. ‘The Deer’s Cry’.

Eithne Massey, March 2016

Irish Legends: Newgrange, Tara & the Boyne Valley is available here and in all good bookshops.

View From a Debut…

Debut author Maureen White talks about what inspired her to write The Butterfly Shell.

My first novel The Butterfly Shell was recently published by The O’Brien Press and the first time I held the actual book was an exciting and strange experience.

Exciting – because it was actually finished and existed outside of me.

And strange – because I felt like I was holding in my hands a kind of transformation. An idea somewhere had taken hold and that idea evolved into a story and then along the way other people become involved and here it was. And, of course, the beautiful cover by artist Emma Byrne heightened the feeling that this was bigger than just my story.

The experience of writing a novel was a new one for me. Theatre is my background. Theatre I understand. I have written plays, but that always feels like a communal act. The play changes once the actors get a hold of it, then there follows intense, collaborative rehearsals leading up to Opening Night and a real, live audience.

Books are different.

With books the intense writing period is followed by collaboration with the editor and publisher leading up to – Publication Day! But the difference here is the audience is invisible. Writing is an act of faith and while you are writing you make an invisible pact with the future reader – you will give them your all and, in turn, this as-yet-only-imagined reader, will give their all in reading. But you will never know if that is the case or, indeed, if there will be any readers.

I didn’t set out to write a book for young audiences, though right from the start I was interested in telling a young girl’s story. Armed with a germ of a story and a memory of being 12, I started. I have worked for years as a Dramaturg, helping playwrights develop new plays. Whenever I am asked, ‘What do you look for in a script?’ I have one answer – one that makes me want to turn the page.

And so I tried to remember that and write something that might make someone want to turn the page. As it turned out with The Butterfly Shell, that someone was a young reader, probably someone who could relate to Marie’s age, if not her experiences. People have asked me where the idea for The Butterfly Shell came from – was it based on my experiences? Was it about my daughter? ‘No’ to the last two questions and to the first all I can say is, ‘I don’t know where ideas come from or what gives them their pull.’ Perhaps the stories we hear as children stay with us. Or maybe unexpected gifts are the key. A few years ago my sister gave me a gift for no reason at all (definitely the best kind of present). It was a butterfly made of abalone and I was fascinated- by the shell, by the shape, by the gift. And when I started writing I was confident that it would find its way in some form into the story.

I am delighted that what I was writing turned out to be for young readers. Kids’ books matter. I thought that long before I wrote one. And it is important we feed our kids a varied diet – adventurous, comic, serious, worthy, not so worthy, long, short and the whole range of books that defy definition. The young reader (and indeed the adult reader as well) needs to be exposed to a variety of experiences and imaginations because literature helps us make sense of the world around us.

As I approach the launch date for The Butterfly Shell I realise I have learned a lot about this book business on the way.

Patience was the biggest lesson – It is so easy to be intimidated by the sheer number of books out there (why on earth did I start this book??) and very intimidating to read articles about how someone or other wrote their debut novel on a bus in one month while she baked bread and raised 9 children and held down 2 jobs. (My advice is if you are a writer never ever read inspirational articles on very successful writers).

The Butterfly Shell took a very long time to write. Many walks on the beach which of course in retrospect I say were a necessary part of the process but in fact probably had more to do with procrastination. Many times I put it away -probably because I didn’t know where it was going but again, in retrospect is no bad thing to do every now and then- you sometimes come back to it with fresh eyes and energy which is all you need to keep going. Once I left it for a year as my house was flooded and we had to move and family events made writing very low on my agenda. I think each story takes whatever time it takes to write. I had to be patient that mine was taking this long but its timing also meant I ran into the right people on the way. People who would make a difference.

I am still amazed at the difference an editor can make. The collaboration with Liz Hudson and its energetic examination of details resulted in the kind of shifts I couldn’t have imagined on my own. And so the book transformed and I am convinced a kind of alchemy oversees the entire process so when I look at The Butterfly Shell I see more than just my story. I see the imprint of everyone who helped and the possibility of everyone who might read.

A debut is exciting. By very definition it can only happen once. But it is that excitement that fuels you on to the next book. I look forward to the lessons I will learn with that one …

Maureen White is a playwright, teacher at the Gaiety School of Acting and dramaturg for Rough Magic Theatre Company. This is her first novel for young adults.

SOS Lusitania: How it got put into words

Author Kevin Kiely talks about his inspirations for SOS Lusitania on the eve of the centenary of the ship’s tragic sinking.

Lest We ForgetIn 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.