The Rock Boy

Author Jan Michael writes about her inspirations for writing The Rock Boy in 2001, the story of a Albanian refugee boy finding shelter in Malta:

I have visited the Mediterranean island of Malta ever since my parents moved there some forty years ago. I love the island’s quirkiness, its rich history and buildings, its country walks, and I love swimming from rocks into the sea. The language is Semitic, so even though the island is Catholic, God is ‘Alla’ (pronounced ‘Allah’). That’s because Malta was first inhabited by Phoenicians, who came from present-day Syria, and later governed by the Arabs. Now Syrians are one of the largest groups of people who come to Malta after fleeing their country because of war. Many other refugees come from Albania. They have been escaping since the 1990s, and even today, Albanian children are still being trafficked into Western Europe.

When I wrote The Rock Boy, many Albanians were fleeing their country, coming across the Mediterranean, and landing in southern Italy and Malta. In the book, I write about one boy called Artan, who is discovered washed up in a rocky cove by young Jo. He is battered and bruised and barely conscious. Jo, along with her friend Andreas, shelters him, feeds him – and hides him from her family, and from the police. Eventually her family does find out, but fortunately, through sponsorship, Artan is allowed to stay.

I didn’t set out to write a book about boat refugees, but that’s how it turned out. As I started the story of Jo and her adventures, I was reading in the local paper about refugees arriving in Malta by boat. I went to see the woman who had opened the refugee centre, and what I heard from her – and what I went on to read about – became the major part of Jo’s story.

Malta is a small island and pretty crowded, but I was impressed by the Maltese kindness and generosity to the desperate people arriving on their shores from Albania, and more recently, from Syria, Libya and Eritrea. I knew, though, that not everyone feels so welcoming, and that’s why Jo shelters Artan in secret.

Around the same time, in a British newspaper, I read about two brothers who escaped from political thugs in Kashmir, India, by stowing away over the wheel casing of an aeroplane. When the plane landed at Cairo Airport, the older boy had frozen to death on top of his brother and had to be peeled off. His protection had saved the life of his younger brother. Their story burrowed its way into my mind, and that younger brother somehow merged into an Albanian boy I called Artan.

Whenever I read or hear of such stories, I think of the hospitality, always warm and generous, that I have witnessed in the many countries I have lived in and visited. I think of the kindness of strangers and hope that I, too, if called upon, would be as warm and welcoming as they.

Born in the Yorkshire Dales, Jan Michael spent an idyllic childhood there and in the Seychelles, also living in Lesotho and Pakistan. Since university, she has worked as an editor and literary agent in London, Amsterdam and Yorkshire. She has written thirteen books which have been published in several languages, including the children’s novels Hill of Darkness, The Rock Boy (also performed as children’s opera in Germany), Just Joshua (winner: Dutch Vlag en Wimpel prize), Leaving Home (winner: Dutch Silver Slate Pencil and the Jenny Smelik-IBBY Prize) and Moorside Boy.

Love in a Time of War

WhiteFeathersDebut novelist Susan Lanigan talks about the inspirations behind White Feathers.

In my diary dated 22nd February 2009, I have a list of short story ideas. One appears at the top, for the first time: “World War I – White Feathers”. Unknown to myself, I had found the story that I would start writing in October 2010 and that would consume me for the next three and a half years. The one that felt different from all the others. The one that would lead me on a tour of the battlefields of France, and would then have me schlepping around war museums in London and Paris. The one that would bring me to: the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair, the attention of an agent and a publisher, and a finished book – whose devastatingly simple cover of a red poppy and background of rough sacking is so redolent of much of the devastated front of World War I.

This cover was designed by the wonderfully talented Emma Byrne, along with input from the marketing folk at O’Brien Press. My involvement at that stage was peripheral; author gets input but not a veto, that’s what my agreement said. But I did have one stipulation which I conveyed to Emma:

White Feathers is about an act of betrayal – a girl gives the man she loves a white feather, effectively publicly stigmatising him. That’s an act of such emotional violence I think it needs to be hinted at on the cover. This I think is important whether the cover be abstract or concrete.

Emotional Violence

I had long been fascinated by the First World War custom of a woman’s giving a man out of uniform a white feather to condemn him as a coward and coerce him to enlist. This government-backed movement carried enormous social pressure along with it. One man, a Mr Brookes who worked at the train station, received a letter from some thundering harridan which is on display in the Imperial War Museum, London: Since you cannot be a man not to [sic] join the army, we offer you an invitation to join our Girl Scouts Membership as a washer-up. Yours sincerely, Bath Girls Scoutmistress.

I wanted to capture what it would be like, this relentless pressure, the cruelty of it. And in the context of the novel, to have a family pushing you to give that abominable thing to someone you truly love. The seething consequences of undeclared sex warfare. As I said to Emma, the emotional violence of it. That is the internal conflict which Eva, our young protagonist, has to deal with when she is catapulted into making a choice “between Scylla and Charybdis”.

Because I learned recently that violence is not just a bayonet in the stomach or a shrapnel injury. There is a second kind, structural, which I only learned about relatively recently and which opened my eyes. This is the kind of violence that can be read in the note to Mr Brookes above, and this is the kind of violence with which White Feathers concerns itself.

When women are treated as subjects, not citizens, that is violence. When the mentally ill are cast in newspapers and books as weak, worthless, second-class folk, because they break down under intolerable pressure and cannot go on – that is violence. When the old and comfortable condemn the young to struggle with old men’s battles, as they sit by a roaring fire with the finest amontillado – that is violence of generations. When powerful interests work with gloved hands, silencing the truth, muzzling its witnesses, so that the fine feelings of the power élite are not affronted – that is entrenched violence.

Lives are destroyed at the issuing of a letter, a whimsical command, the widening of a yawn of deep inertia, the first scornful giggle. Lives are destroyed, and not a drop of blood is shed.

Such things happened through the course of World War I. Such things continue to happen today. And the white feather, itself a traduced symbol of peace, pinned to a man out of uniform in all its fey, false innocence, damning him as a coward – that is the most violent act of all.

But White Feathers is also a love story. Two people who build a slow intimacy and fall in love, fighting to keep the flame alight even under such unbearable pressure. It’s a story older than Shakespeare, but constantly renewed – why? Because, incredibly, love will continue to fight the powers that be. Even in a hostile, belligerent world that cleaves to nothing but blind greed and unearned privilege, that creates nothing but eats its young, almost an entire generation lost in its jaws, love will still fight.

On that finished cover, I see the violence, and the anger – but I also see the love, written on the poppy’s blood-red petals. And there is the heart of the story. Emma could not have fulfilled her brief more effectively.

Susan Lanigan


In 2003, Susan Lanigan graduated from a Masters in Creative Writing in NUI Galway. Since then, she has had short stories published in The Stinging Fly, Southword, The Sunday Tribune, the Irish Independent, Nature, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Mayo News. She has been thrice shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and longlisted and shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Contest, the Bristol Prize, the Raymond Carver Short Story Award and other competitions.

A War Story

Best-selling author Nicola Pierce, talks about her time researching and writing City of Fate.

I am addicted to reading and have spent a lot of money on my book-buying habit, one book always leading on to another. For years, I limited myself to fiction until somewhere along the way, I began to buy and read books about writers: biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, essays, diaries and letters. At one point, I bought a second-hand book about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Anna of all the Russias by Elaine Feinstein. As much as I’d like to admit to a deep appreciation for poetry, it just wouldn’t be true. However, I love to read about poets and their writing, even if I don’t ‘get’ their work.

Halfway through the biography, it struck me that I was revelling in reading about Russia. I was unaware of what the Russians had endured, before, during and after World War II. I’d no idea Stalin behaved as he did, killing more of his own people than anyone else.

Next I discovered A Writer’s War, a biography about Russian journalist and writer Vasily Grossman. This book not only introduced me to Grossman but also to the British historian, Anthony Beevoir, who wrote it. Grossman joined the Red Army to behold the fight against the invading Germans. This is where I first read about the Battle of Stalingrad. After finishing this biography, I read Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate about the battle and civilian life under Stalin. Inevitably, I bought Beevoir’s best-selling Stalingrad and by this stage was hooked on history and war. My library was expanding, as any decent library should.

There were two stories in Beevoir’s book that jumped out at me. Firstly, how a Russian teacher was ordered by the NKVD to enrol his class of thirty sixteen-year-old boys in the army to fight at Stalingrad. By the time he reached the registry office, half the class had vanished. Beevoir could not confirm the teacher’s fate but thought it highly probable that the man paid for this ‘infraction’ with his life. The second story concerned a massacre of a small Jewish village in rural Russia. The parents were shot first and then, following some debate, so were the children, aged seven right down to toddlers … even babies. This second story also appeared in William Craig’s book, Enemy at the Gates (much, much better than the film) and in a documentary I watched on The History Channel. It’s not the sort of thing one can easily forget. I’d absolutely no idea how I would incorporate it into a children’s novel but I was determined to include it somehow, though even now I can’t explain why. Perhaps I will be criticised for this because, well, I won’t make it too easy! In any case, it’s just a small mention but I stand by it.

From the very beginning, I had two boys in mind. I didn’t know who they were but they kept turning up in my mind’s eye, walking through the ruined streets of Stalingrad, mostly oblivious to the two warring armies around them.

I wanted the story of the teacher and the fifteen pupils who stood by him. What is it like to be a schoolboy one minute and then an inexperienced soldier in the midst of a deadly battle? I tried to imagine the fear and confusion, especially when it came to actually having to kill another human being who was trying to kill you.

The story grew thanks to the characters. I don’t plan my books and generally have little or no idea what I will write, from day to day. This can be quite scary but I can’t seem to break the habit.

All I knew was that I wanted to include as much fact as I could, as I did in Spirit of the Titanic. Also, I wanted to show that there could still be beauty in wartime, whether it’s a solo rendition of Beethoven or a charcoal drawing of Mary and baby Jesus. Art might not change your life in such situations but it can help, even momentarily, to lift your spirits.

I wanted to explore what motivates a person to fight and keep fighting when all seems lost. I think I managed to work it out: I think it’s about the importance of “home”.

Just before City of Fate went to the printers, I unexpectedly received the new sixth edition of Spirit of the Titanic. I am writing this essay a month before City of Fate reaches the book shelves and – there’s no denying it – I am nervous. Recent sleepless nights have been spent trying to distract myself from visions of readers finishing the new book and finding it inferior to my Titanic story.

However, I have to remind myself that no matter what the reception is or what anyone else says about City of Fate, I did it. I wrote a second novel. And it’s a book that I would like to read.

I simply have to accept that I have no control over what happens next!

Nicola Pierce

City of Fate is now available at and most good bookshops.

One Book One Community

One Book One Community is a community reading project based on the successful One City One Book project that take place ever year in Dublin and in cities across the world. As part of One Book One Community projects, children and their families are encouraged to read and discuss a particular book, along with supporting activities held in schools, libraries and in the community. Here at O’Brien Press we’re proud to support lots of One Book One Community projects across Ireland, with libraries and schools all working together to promote a love of reading. O’Brien Press books chosen for projects include Spirit of the Titanic, Taking Sides, Faraway Home and Across the Divide.

I had the chance to chat to Mary Collins a Home School Liaison Officer and ask her a few questions about her experiences of the many One Book One Community projects that she has organised. The answers she gave are on behalf of the Dublin North Inner City Cluster of Home School Community Liaison Teachers. The Home School Community Scheme is part of the DEIS programme which is targeted at school which are designated disadvantage. One of the aims of the scheme includes fostering positive relations between the home and school, and between the community and the school. Other aims include promoting parental involvement in their child’s education and promoting literacy in the home.

1. Hi Mary, when and how did you first get involved in a One Book One Community project? And where did you hear about it?

Two years ago, some of our newly appointed HSCL teachers attended induction/training days. On these days, HSCL teachers who have been in the position a number of years usually speak to the new HSCL teacher on best practise and schemes they have run successfully. One of the sessions was given by a HSCL teacher who had run the project successfully. The newly appointed HSCL teachers came back from induction and informed our cluster about the project. They spoke enthusiastically about the project and all the possibilities. We decided that the following September (2010) that we would undertake the project.

2. How did you find the experience of arranging and being involved in these projects?

A lot of hard work went into the arranging. In our cluster there are 12 HSCL teachers. We decided to form a sub-committee of 4 people. Each HSCL teacher had to link with their school principal and staff, inform them about the project and look for their support. We had to decide which agencies in the community we were going to involve. We had to design posters and contact numerous printers to get the best price. We contacted Easons and asked how much of a discount they could give us and they recommended that we contacted O’Brien Press to get the best deal. We had also decided that in order to make the project more appealing to class teachers that we would design some activities that could be done with the class therefore reducing the burden of work for the teacher. As our cluster of schools is made up of primary and second level schools, we realised that we couldn’t choose a book that would suit everyone from ages 4 – 18 years. Therefore we decided to aim the project at the 6th classes in the primary schools and 1st year groups in our second level schools.

3. How do you decide what books to feature in the projects?

Deciding on the book was a long and thought-out process. Firstly, we consulted with teachers in our schools and asked them for suggestions. We brought these suggestions back to the cluster group. We went through the list of 20 books and through a process of elimination ended up with 3 books. We had eliminated books that were classics e.g. I Am David (by Anne Holm) as we thought that classes would have most likely read by them already. We eliminated books that would only be suitable for either primary or post-primary. We eliminated books that we thought would be only suitable for either boys or girls. We were also conscious of trying in so far as possible to pick a book by an Irish publisher. That Halloween midterm each of the HSCL teachers took the 3 books and agreed to read them all over the break. When we returned we judged each of the books using the following criteria:
a) The reading level must be suitable for 6th class pupils, 1st year students and parents who may have reading difficulties
b) The book must appeal equally to boys and girls
c) The book must have friendship as a central theme
d) The topic matter of the book must be of relevance to the lives of the pupils reading the book
e) The topic matter must be suitable for the age group of pupils.
Whichever book fulfilled most of the criteria would be the chosen book.

4. What would you say to schools/communities thinking of setting up their own One Book, One Community projects?

I would say to other groups who are thinking of setting up their own One Book One Community project to definitely do it. It entails a lot of hard work, time and effort, but for the children involved their families and communities it had a great unifying effect. Initially when we undertook the project last year, we envisaged to do it every 2 years. However, by the end of the project last year, teachers and pupils were asking us what book had been chosen for the following year. Because the response to the project was so positive from everyone, we decided to run it again this year. We decided to focus on the same class groups this year. This resulted in the 6th class pupils doing it again in secondary and many of them were excited about doing it.

5. What do you think are the benefits to the schools and communities that participate in the projects?

Firstly, it got people reading. Every child who got a copy of the book was allowed to keep it when the project was finished. Children were encouraged to take the book home and see if anyone at home wanted to read it. Secondly, it gave pupils from different schools something in common. We have found that the pupils who would have been in different primary schools last year and now are first years in the same second level school now have something that unifies them.
The project also creates a buzz around the school. They say it takes 5 years to create a tradition – we the home school liaison teachers would hope that One Book one Community would become a tradition in the schools, that it would get to a stage where teachers and pupils would be approaching the HSCL teacher and ask “what book are we doing this year?” or “when will we be starting the One Book project?”
We included local youth clubs and local adult literacy groups in the project. With the local youth club it was great that the pupils were talking about the book outside of school as well as within school.

6. How have you found the experience of working with O’Brien Press on the projects you have organised?

O’Brien Press have been 110% on board from the first time we contacted them. They were instantly available. They gave us a compeitive price on the books and made this price available to other groups that wished to be part of the project e.g. the youth clubs and adult literacy groups. O’Brien’s provided posters and also permission to use the image on the cover of the book for our own posters and bookmarks etc. More importantly, O’Brien’s put us in contact with the author which for the pupils brought the book to life. The author made himself unselfishly available to us and the schools. We could not have made the project as successful as we did without the help and support of O’Brien Press.

If you are considering runnning a One Book One Community project click here for more information about our books. You can also check out our One Book, One Community Pinterest board here.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the opening ceremony of the One Book One Community project organised by Mary and her colleagues which was held in the school hall of O’Connells CBS on North Richmond Street. Across the Divide by Brian Gallagher was the book of their choice for the project and during the ceremony Brian spoke about his writing and how he came up with idea for the story. There was also lots of activites going on, students were playing music, acting out scenes from the book and everyone received goodie bags!

Remembering the Holocaust – Guest Post by Marilyn Taylor

Author Marilyn Taylor recently spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Evening in Northern Ireland. Marilyn has researched the Holocaust extensively as part of her work as a writer. One of her most popular books, Faraway Home, is about two Jewish children sent from Nazi-occupied Austria to a refugee farm in Northern Ireland. This is based on the true story of the refugee farm in Millisle, County Down.

Here is an excerpt from Marilyn’s moving speech on the night:

Tonight, on the 27th January we are joining other countries round the world that are also marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the day in 1945 when the largest and most notorious Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was finally liberated by Soviet troops.
As well as remembering the Holocaust in Europe, we are also commemorating other violent genocides of recent times in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Appropriately, tonight’s theme: Communities Together, Building a Bridge, reminds us all of the need to reach out to others, and to embrace difference, both far away and close to home.
This theme is also exemplified by the story of the Kindertransports and by the poignantly linked story of Millisle Refugee Farm, both of which have particular historical significance here in Newtownards, which is so close to Millisle.

As we know, the first persecution of the Holocaust, primarily of Jews but also other groups of convenient ‘scapegoats’ began immediately when Hitler and his Fascist Nazi Party were elected to power in Germany in 1933.
It finally ended with the Allied defeat of the Nazis in 1945, after the destruction of six million Jews.
A further five million people, whom the Nazis considered to be “untermenschen”- “undesirable”, were also murdered, including Gypsies – now known as Roma & Sinti – socialists and communists, trade union members, gay and lesbian people, people with disabilities –both mental and physical – Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, Freemasons, and many Slavic people, and of course, all who opposed the Nazis by word or deed.

And these are just the deaths.

After the final Nazi defeat, millions more were left dying or horrifically wounded and tormented in body and spirit.
The mass murder of the Holocaust was carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators on an industrial scale all over Europe. This was ‘killing by assembly line’, with prison camps, forced labour camps and death camps efficiently linked by the Nazi-controlled rail network of Europe.
After his liberation, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote,
“From the depths of the mirror a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.”

All this was of course unknown to me, a ‘war baby’ born in England, to a family evacuated from London.
Yet, I retain vivid memories of the war: the terrifying shriek of air raid sirens, my mother running with me in a buggy to the bomb shelter, and the thousands of V1 and V2 rockets that wreaked random death and destruction, striking fear in all our hearts.
Later, growing up in grey post-war London and learning what was then the recent history of the Second World War and of the Holocaust, I began to realise how lucky I had been, sheltered from the terror in Europe by an accident of geography.
My sister and I could have been among the huge numbers of Jewish children who died at the hands of Nazis and Fascists – of hunger and disease, in the ghettoes, in the boxcars, in the concentration camps, and in the gas chambers.
This realisation has stayed with me, and I think eventually led me much later to try to write about the Holocaust in a way that I hoped would capture the imagination of both young and adult readers, and help keep the memory alive.

In the late 1930s a few British Christians, Jews, and especially Quakers, came together, having witnessed the increasingly vicious treatment of Jews, both young and old, in Nazi Germany– through public humiliation, beatings and round-ups by Nazi thugs & SS men.
Together this group pressed the British government to allow in Jewish children, the most at risk.
After the terrible warning of “Kristallnacht” (the Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938 when Jewish synagogues, homes and businesses were smashed, looted and burned, frantic Jewish parents – themselves refused entry by most countries – made the difficult decision to send their children to Britain on these Kindertransports.
In this way about ten thousand German, Austrian and Czech unaccompanied Jewish children under the age of sixteen, were rescued from the clutches of the Nazis just before the War.
The children, each clutching a small suitcase with a few precious belongings (though nothing of value was permitted) said farewell to their parents, few realising that they might not see each other again.
Former refugees later described those never forgotten heart-breaking scenes at the railway station to me in graphic detail.

They travelled in groups of two or three hundred, each wearing labels with name and destination.
On their arrival in Britain, fearful and bewildered, and of course speaking little or no English, they were sent all over the country, to boarding schools, castles, farms, family homes – wherever people would take them in.
A random group ended up in Northern Ireland, and the small Belfast Jewish community immediately responded.
Some were fostered by local families, both Christian and Jewish. An old farm at Millisle, Co Down – known as Magill’s- was leased, initially housing thirty to forty children, plus older German-Jewish refugees training in agriculture in Northern Ireland.
(Later some of these trainees were involved in setting up early communal farms, “kibbutzim”, in the fledgling country of Israel.)
Adult refugees helped administer the farm.

About three to four hundred, mostly young people, passed through Millisle between 1938 and its closure in 1948.
Funds were raised by the Belfast and Dublin communities, from the Central British Fund in London, and the Northern Ireland Ministry of Agriculture.
Belfast Jewish community leaders set up a Refugee Aid committee; a Committee for German Refugees was also launched in Belfast with funding from the Joint Christian Churches, including Presbyterians, Methodists, Church of Ireland, Quakers and Catholics.
During my research, I tracked down many former refugees, meeting some in person, and sending detailed questionnaires to others. In response, I received phone calls, long descriptive letters, hand drawn maps, photographs and a 14-year-old girl’s moving diary; they all had a story they wanted told.
At Millisle, the young refugees, struggling with homesickness and anxiety about their families far away, had to learn to make a new life.
Neighbours helped to train them in farm work. At the local two-teacher school, (the original Millisle Primary school) each refugee child sat with a local child to help them learn English and perhaps make a friend – which many of them did.
Decades later, some of the former refugees returned to visit Millisle with their own families.
Despite food shortages and air raids on nearby Belfast – and indeed, a raid close by in Newtownards – it was a healthy life, remembered positively by many: going to the beach, fishing, games of Monopoly, football, the small synagogue on the farm, the Belfast rabbi visiting; sometimes concerts in the evenings, often concluding with the traditional Jewish dance, the Hora.
On Saturday evenings, they walked the three miles along the shore to the local cinema in Donaghadee where the owner allowed them in free.

Later, older refugees joined the Air Training Corps, the Red Cross, and the Pioneer Corps of the British Army, to help fight the Nazis.
After the war began, all letters stopped, and the refugees’ only communications with their families were brief Red Cross messages, which ceased after 1943. There were occasional distant rumours about death camps.

However, not until after the war ended in 1945 seven years later, did they learn the horrifying truth. Many had lost every member of their family in the Holocaust. Their parents, by sending them away, had saved their lives. Now most were orphans but in terms of the Holocaust, they were among the lucky ones.

Yet despite everything, many of the former refugees went on to live good and productive lives, never forgetting their families, or Millisle.
And neither they, nor we, will ever forget those people, and those no longer with us, who played such a significant role in this special chapter in the history of Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, there are many lessons that we can learn from the story of Millisle and the devastation of the Holocaust.
Firstly, because there was virtually nowhere Jews facing annihilation could go, a country, Israel, came into being.
The Kindertransport scheme was indeed a shining example of humanity. But put in context, they could only save ten thousand of the one and a half million Jewish children killed because there was no country that would take them in – not Britain, not Ireland, not the United States. When history calls, we all have a responsibility to answer.

Secondly, the Holocaust throws up some of the greatest challenges for us as individuals.
What do you do when a Jew comes knocking on the door at night seeking shelter, when the penalty for taking in a Jew is death, as it was in wartime Europe?
What would any of us do?
And how should we respond when other challenges to our humanity confront us and threaten us?

Thirdly, the Holocaust is not an abstract issue of history – it is about each and every one of us.

As Pastor Niemoller wrote …
“First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak for me”

To find out more about Marilyn’s books click here.