Nessa O’Mahony on Historical Material & Irish Writing (An Interview)

Nessa O'M imageLM: Can you describe your experience of working with historical material?  

NOM: I first began exploring history through the lens of family history. I’d studied history at university – my degree was English and History – and absolutely loved it, particularly the period leading up to independence and the early years of the new Free State. I had some amazing teachers – Ronan Fanning, Michael Laffan and Donal McCartney – and they really brought along the deep ambivalence of the period; how, when independence was nearly won, the whole thing came crashing down because different people had different priorities and visions. I wasn’t very aware at that point of the role my grandparents played in the War of Independence and Civil War, but thought that from a narrative point of view, all those conflicting agendas were fascinating. And I hadn’t even begun to think of myself as a writer then.

My first poems were largely reflexive – the musings of a single white female in her late 20s wondering about life – but as time went on they became increasingly narrative-based and I began to turn to some of the family history my mother had told me throughout my childhood. Her father had fought in the War of Independence, and during the Civil War was stationed as a Commandant in Castlebar on the Free State army side. My grandmother, meanwhile, was in Kiltimagh, daughter of a family with more Republican sympathies, and she was friendly with a prominent member of the anti-treaty side. The story my mother told me was that Granny was due to meet this man (his name was Martin Lavin – he later became a prominent Irish-American lawyer) one night and he stood her up because he’d been involved in a shoot-out at another bar, in which a leading Free State supporter was shot dead, and Martin had had to go on the run. My grandfather was sent to interrogate my grandmother – he refused to search her house – and four years later they were married. What writer could turn up their nose at such a great romance, so in my second collection of poems, Trapping a Ghost, I included a sequence that imagined my grandmother had left behind a writing slope full of journal entries and letters that told that story. In fact she had left behind a writing slope, which I still have in my possession, but it was totally empty, which is probably just as well as it gave me free reign to imagine anything I liked.t_insightofhome

That gave me the taste for further historical research as a way of fuelling poetic narrative – in fact my Creative Writing PhD (in Bangor, North Wales) became a creative and critical study of the verse novel, with a historic subject at its heart. A friend who works in the National Library, Colette O’Flaherty, had come across an archive of letters from a Kilkenny woman who emigrated to Australia in the 1850s with her nine brothers and sisters. Margaret Butler spent the next 50 years writing home to relatives in the Kilkenny/Waterford area, and even though the archive consisted only of her letters, and a few other fragments, they suggested a very rich narrative indeed. That became the basis of my verse novel, In Sight of Home. This time I did have actual letters to use as a framework, but I gave myself the permission to adapt, modify and invent where it felt necessary to the plot that I was inventing. There were so many lengthy hiatuses – for example about 15 years between one letter announcing her father’s death and another announcing a brother’s marriage – so I needed to fill the gaps somehow.

And then I returned to family history for my latest collection, Her Father’s Daughter, which contains poems that focus on my maternal grandfather again, and make use of information I had recently uncovered from family research I’d carried out.

LM: What drew you to the subjects of In Sight of Home & Her Father’s Daughter?


NOM: I think the writer always needs to find some resonance in source material, otherwise why would you bother? In Sight of Home was written at a time when I myself was living away from home, admittedly only 66 nautical miles from Dublin, but still in another country (Wales) and another culture. It was the first time I’d lived abroad, so although it was a very different experience of emigration to the one Margaret Butler must have experienced in 19th Century Australia, I somehow felt connected with her. And of course because I was in creative control of the source material, I could emphasise elements that chimed with my own artistic preoccupations. For example, in one letter, Margaret describes the animals she is keeping on her new ranch in New South Wales. Because I was getting increasingly interested in wildlife and in particular the extraordinary birds of prey they have in North Wales, I decided that Margaret (and Lizzie, another character I created) would become equally fascinated by birdlife of a very different kind. But although the periods of history were different, the preoccupation with home and cultural identity is a fairly universal one, so the reach wasn’t that extended.


In Her Father’s Daughter, I wanted to do justice to two men: my own father, who had died in 2010, and my grandfather, who had died in 1970 and of whom I have only distant memories. My father was a wonderful man, but he lived in peaceful times; my grandfather was of an extraordinary generation. Those who lived through the first quarter of the 20th century saw no fewer than three armed conflicts in quick succession and my grandfather had direct experience of all three. He actually enlisted in the First World War and fought with the Royal Munster Fusiliers, before being invalided out in 1917 and promptly joining up with the IRA in the North of England, where he proceeded to fight against the very King he’d been fighting for in France. He was captured during a raid for munitions in 1920 and sent to Parkhurst but was released with the general amnesty that followed the Treaty in 1921. He then joined the Free State Army, and was active during the Civil War in Counties Mayo and Sligo. He was injured in an ambush just outside Kiltimagh and was involved in many other skirmishes. But the remarkable thing is that he, like many of his generation, refused to speak about those experiences afterwards. The stories that came down to me from my mother had been told to her by her mother; Granddad never expressed any of the anguish, trauma or disappointment that must surely have been his lot as a survivor of so many bloody conflicts. So part of my intention was to recover those lost stories, and to make sure that our generation, and those that follow us, don’t forget about the extraordinary courage of the men and women who founded our State.

LM: Can you explain the appeal of history/historical material?  For a writer AND for a reader. (Do you think it’s different, in each case?)

NOM: I suppose it depends on which historical period one is writing about. I think that the fascination of recent Irish history is that it tells us a lot about the forces that formed us as a people; it might show us how far we’ve progressed beyond, or drifted from, the original ideals of our grandparents’ generation. We might recognise ourselves in these earlier stories, or else be fascinated by the difference or strangeness of it all. It very much lies in the eye of the beholder, I think. But the great appeal lies in the nature of the narrative itself – story is powerful, whether it’s a 2,000 year old story of warring Roman generals or a 100 year old story of rival brothers. As writers, we’re obsessed with telling stories, and as readers, we want to consume as many as possible. And as Arnold Toynbee may or may not have said, ‘history is just one damn thing after another’ which means there’s no shortage of incident to use in story-telling.


LM: What about that old accusation that Irish writers are too preoccupied with the past – do you think it’s fair? Relevant? Did it influence you at all?    

I don’t think it is a fair statement. Indeed it does strike me that there’s not that much actual fiction written about the first quarter of the 20th century in Ireland at all ; it’s almost as if the previous generation had to skirt over it because there were still so many unspoken traumas they didn’t want to disturb. So writers of that generation might have written about their own childhoods in the 30s and 40s onwards, but didn’t investigate what their own parents might have been experiencing. So it’s only now, with a space of 100 years between us and many of these events, that we have the space and objectivity to reassess things through the fictive lens.

(You can find Nessa at:

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1 Response to Nessa O’Mahony on Historical Material & Irish Writing (An Interview)

  1. Fantastic stuff, ladies. I am writing a presentation on hist fic at the mo and loving your take on it, both of you. You will be quoted! Nuala x x

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