20 April 2015

Mad Monarchs: Elegabalus

When you think of mad monarchs and Ancient Rome, names like Caligula or Nero probably come to mind. Several emperors were eccentric, and a few were truly odd, but none quite match the short and bizarre reign of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, known to history as Elegabalus. But was this boy-emperor really mad, or one of the most misunderstood figures ever to sit on the Roman throne?

Elegabalus was born Varius Avitus Bassianus in what is now Syria. His family were priests of the sun god El-Gabal, from which Elegabalus took his nickname. He became high priest while still a child, an elevation that played a major role in his identity. Elegabalus' mother Julia was a cousin of Emperor Caracalla; when Caracalla was assassinated in 217, his successor Macrinus exiled the royal family back to Syria, where it only took them a year to plot Macrinus' overthrow. Julia then thrust her son into the spotlight, claiming he was Caracalla's illegitimate son and therefore heir. (The fact that she would push her child onto a throne stained with the blood of two predecessors says a lot about Elegabalus' upbringing.) Macrinus told the Senate the boy was insane, but with the army’s support Elegabalus was given the regal name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus and proclaimed emperor at the age of 14.

His career was doomed from the start. He brought his Syrian entourage to Rome and placed them in positions of power, alienating the Roman elite. He had no intention of giving up his priesthood – instead, he built a temple to El-Gabal on the Palatine and filled it with statues of Roman gods pilfered from their own temples. He forced Senators to take part in these rituals, and commanded Christians and Jews to relocate their worship services to El-Gabal's temple; he then tried to merge his god with the Roman sun god Sol Invictus, elevate him above Jupiter, and marry him to Minerva. Rome was appalled.

But if his religious behavior caused outrage, his sexual proclivities were an even greater scandal. While Roman sexuality was more fluid than many realize, men were expected to conform to an ideal of masculinity, an ideal which Elegabalus flouted at every opportunity. He forced the Senate to watch him dance in women's clothing, performing sexual rites with El-Gabal's priests. He married a Vestal Virgin -- in itself an unthinkable taboo -- but his true love was a male slave named Hierocles whom Elegabalus proclaimed to be his husband. Roman writers claimed he married Hierocles in a public ceremony and referred to himself as "the wife and queen of Hierocles". In any Roman man such behavior would be shocking, but in the emperor it was intolerable. Stories of his worst crimes were most likely embellished; one described an orgy where participants smothered to death under a mountain of rose petals, while Cassius Dio claimed the young emperor set up a brothel in the palace where he prostituted himself to hand-picked "customers". Rumors spread of human sacrifice and sado-masochistic atrocities – such tales were overkill, though, as the emperor's public behavior was enough to ensure a short reign.

Elegabalus was emperor for four years. In 222, when his grandmother realized his downfall was imminent, she threw him to the wolves and hatched a plot to assassinate him, replacing him with his equally inexperienced but much more malleable cousin. Elegabalus and his mother tried to flee back to Syria, but they were captured and murdered, their mutilated bodies put on display before being thrown into the Tiber. Elegabalus was just 18 years old.

The story of Elegabalus embodies the unbridled debauchery historians blamed for Rome's decline. But was he actually insane, or too different and uncontrollable to tolerate? Here is a teenager who grew up in extreme privilege, venerated from childhood, manipulated by his mother, used as a pawn and thrust into a role for which he was neither prepared nor suitable. He was certainly a terrible ruler – he did nothing but spend money and alienate government, army, and populace alike. Add in religious fanaticism and sexual nonconformity, and you have one of the most disastrous emperors in Roman history. But was there more to it than that? Some today think Elegabalus was actually transgender; his legendary offer to give half the Empire to any doctor who could give him female genitalia certainly supports that theory. Being trans, of course, is in no way a mental illness, but in the Roman world it would have been considered so. It’s hard enough being a trans teenager in 2015; being one in Ancient Rome could certainly have exacerbated any other emotional struggles (and in those circumstances, there were probably quite a few). Was Elegabalus an unhinged religious extremist, a spoiled brat unraveling in depravity? Or was she a lonely girl starving for love, desperate to make her life match her identity? No matter the answer, Elegabalus is one of the most tragic of all the Roman emperors, whose tumultuous personality made for a legacy as one of the worst of the mad monarchs of Rome.

Heather Domin is the author of the Valerian's Legion series, set in Augustan Rome, and Allegiance, set in 1922 Dublin. She has been an Unusual Historicals contributor since 2011.

17 April 2015

New & Noteworthy: April 17

Judith Starkston’s novel Hand of Fire has been long-listed for the prestigious M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. The final winner will be announced at the annual Historical Novel Society conference in Denver this June. Hand of Fire returns a voice to the long-silenced Briseis, the captive woman Achilles and Agamemnon fought over in the legendary tradition of the Trojan War. After many years of research, Judith is proud to have brought to life this exotic, long-ago time in a way that has appealed to a wide range of readers. She’s thrilled to be among the distinguished authors on this listCongratulations Judith!

15 April 2015

Mad Monarchs: Divine Justice on Duchess Geilana

Geilana wasn't crazy to order the death of the missionary who had told her husband to separate from her.

The seventh century Thuringian duchess was following a common practice of dispatching enemies. When I researched the history of my novels set in eighth century Francia, again and again, I came across blindings and assassinations, from Rome to Francia to Constantinople.

But Geilana had chosen the wrong victim, and she paid a high price: her sanity and her life.

We know about Geilana through the various legends about Saint Kilian, an Irish-born cleric. After receiving papal permission, Kilian and two companions started their work in 687 in Würzburg.

Thuringian Duke Gozbert was soon baptized and let Kilian preach wherever he wanted. Within two years, much of the populace accepted Christianity. Just one problem: when Gozbert was still a pagan, he had married his brother's widow, Geilana.

In medieval times, marriage was a means to secure alliances between important families and amass wealth, and that might have been the purpose of Gozbert and Geilana’s union. However in the eyes of the Church, Gozbert and Geilana became spiritual siblings when she married his brother. Her second marriage violated canon law.

Kilian waited a while before he broke the news to the duke, but when he did, he framed the separation as proof of Gozbert's commitment to Christianity. Gozbert responded this was the most difficult sacrifice Kilian had asked of him, but he finally agreed to put his wife aside after he returned from war. 

Perhaps, Gozbert’s reluctance stemmed from the risk a feud with her family, who would see the repudiation as an insult, and he wanted to fight only one battle at a time. Another reason: he apparently was satisfied with his marriage. Geilana’s responsibilities were far more bearing her husband an heir. Aristocratic medieval wives controlled access to their husbands, were responsible for the treasury, and impressed important guests with the family’s wealth. In short, she was a chief of staff, treasurer, and diplomat. Kilian never accused Geilana of being a bad or unfaithful wife. 

The legends portray Geilana as an enraged woman defending her status. When she ordered an assassin to behead Kilian and his companions, she might have justified her decision as a way to avoid a feud and keep peace within Thuringia. On July 8, 689, the missionaries became martyrs. Kilian urged them not to resist. At night, they were buried where they were killed, along with sacred vessels, vestments, and books.

At first, Geilana explained the missionaries’ absence as their leaving town. But the executioner, seized with guilt, revealed the murder and said Kilian's God was burning him with an inextinguishable fire. One version has him tearing at his flesh with his teeth before dying miserably.

Geilana met a similar fate. She was tormented by the devil and died crying out that Kilian was haunting her.

Or she was imprisoned after the murder, and the pagans dared Gozbert to release her, saying they would convert only if they witnessed the Christian God avenge the death of His servant. Geilana did not enjoy her freedom. She went mad and tore her flesh with her teeth until she died.

So is this story true? The older Passio about Kilian’s life might date to the veneration of his relics in 752. He probably was martyred, and it is possible a noblewoman desperate to keep peace in her realm and her status in a ruling family would resort to the brutal tactics of her time.

I will leave the veracity of divine justice to the reader, although I doubt Geilana would have been tormented by a guilty conscience. However, her story would have been real to its early medieval audience. The faithful believed the same God who granted an army victory in battle, gave a family a longed-for heir, and healed the sick also punished sinners.

-The Roman Breviary: Reformed by Order of the Holy Oecumenical Council of Trent
-Papers of the Manchester Literary Club
-Foxe's Book of Martyrs
-"St. Kilian" by Friedrich Lauchert, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 8

Kim Rendfeld explores religion, warfare, justice, and love in her novels set in eighth century Francia: The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), in which a young noblewoman contends with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband in battle, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), where a mother will go to great lengths to protect her children. To read an excerpt and the first chapter of either book, visit kimrendfeld.com. You're also welcome to check out her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist, like her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

10 April 2015

Mad Monarchs - Mad Sweeney, Irish: Suibhne Geilt

By J.S. Dunn

Madness has a long and proud history in Ireland, at least as long as Eire's occupation and pillaging by foreigners since prehistory. Jonathan Swift endowed the first mental institution for the Irish in Dublin, and cheerfully observed that his bequest “shewed by one satyric touch / No nation wanted it so much.” Swift does not directly reference Mad Sweeney in his works, but our man Sweeney first pops up in medieval texts and then leaps, irrepressible and disheveled, from James Joyce to Flann O'Brien and on to Seamus Heaney and even Neil Gaiman.

Sweeney's frenzy allegedly began from attacking a clergyman who is sounding a bell to mark out the boundaries for a church and who curses Sweeney for the attack. Said curse results in Sweeney's madness and a series of episodes, seven years of wandering the island naked and eating watercress, which tints his face green. A variant is that he goes mad hearing the din from a great battle, and morphs into a great bird that leaps from tree to tree and mountain to mountain. That version includes much older elements of birds acting as sacred totems.

He is ultimately murdered by a jealous husband in roughly the 7th century AD. In the Christianized version of the ancient bird-man story, Sweeney has been reconciled with the new faith by one Saint Molling at a monastic settlement. Those ruins still exist at St. Mullins on the River Barrow in Ireland.

Like the Arthurian Merlin figure, the solitary and wandering Mad Sweeney is at odds with social changes including the early church. He longs for better (prior) days, and laments his wild, crazed state that has him pitted against the elements. He has a magic touch at times, and Sweeney waxes poetic about nature despite hunger and lack of clothing.

Birds, specifically the black-winged sea eagle, featured in Orkney's prehistoric religion and sea eagle talons were interred with prominent cremations. Another early Gaelic myth, Destruction of Derg's Hostel, has a wild bird-man warn Connery, young warrior-lord at Tara, of things he must not do so that his reign will be a success.

For a look at Mad Sweeney's original tale Buile Suibhne in an English translation, see the website:  http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/T302018.html .  Seamus Heaney's poetic version called Sweeney Astray is particularly fine.

About The Author

J.S. Dunn lived in Ireland during the past decade, on 12 lovely acres fronting a salmon river. The author continues to research and travel the Atlantic coasts and is helping to shift the old paradigm of “Celts” with a second novel set at 1600 BCE.

05 April 2015

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Joan Fallon on HOUSE ON THE BEACH

This week, we're welcoming author Joan Fallon again, whose latest title is HOUSE ON THE BEACHOne lucky visitor will get a free copy of House on the Beach in ebook format - this giveaway is open internationallyBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

This is the story of Rocio and Inma, two girls who first meet as children and despite coming from very different social backgrounds become close friends. Rocio is the daughter of an Andalusian peasant, who makes his living from the land, growing olives and keeping goats; Inma is the daughter of a rich businessman, who lives and works in Madrid.

We follow the lives of these two girls from childhood to maturity, as they share happiness, fears, disappointments, broken hearts and betrayals. Rocio is a shy and trusting girl, who becomes easily seduced by a handsome foreigner, while Inma, confident and manipulative, is the one who saves her from disgrace and the inevitable expulsion from the family home.  But when Inma too becomes pregnant, things take a more sinister turn and her subsequent actions have a devastating affect on Rocio and her husband. 

This social drama of two women trying to take control of their lives, despite living under a harsh dictatorship, offers a glimpse of what life was like in an authoritarian State, with an ever watchful Catholic Church and the close strictures of society.

**Q&A with Joan Fallon**

Why did you decide to write the novel The House on the Beach and where did the inspiration come from?
I have always been interested in social history and when I began to live in Spain I found my interest moving to what had happened to people in Spain, particularly women, during and after the Spanish Civil War. 

When I first arrived in Spain I was impressed by the way the Spanish women I met had embraced the freedom of modern life in the short period since the death of Spain's dictator General Franco in 1975.  The years went by and I began to realise that if I wanted to write about it I had better make a start soon, most of the women I wanted to interview would be dead.  So in 2007 I began to interview as many women as I could; I began with friends, then they introduced me to their mothers, aunts, neighbours and so it grew.  I also read all that I could lay my hands on about the Spanish Civil war and the Franco era and I started to write a non-fiction book called ‘Daughters of Spain’.

The women I interviewed were from all walks of life and spanned a wide range of ages.  The result is a mosaic of their lives, a vivid and unique picture of what life was really like for women in Spain over the past seventy years, of the hardships they endured and their aspirations for a more egalitarian future.

When the book was finished and published I realised that the things I had been told by these women was rich material that I could turn into a novel.  That was when I decided to write ‘The House on the Beach’ about two girls growing up in Franco’s Spain.   All the things that happened to my two main characters had happened to people that I knew.

There must be a lot of research involved in writing a novel like this.  Can you tell us what was involved.
Yes, there is a lot of research but much of it was first hand research that I got from talking to women about their lives: their marriages, their childhood, their education and most importantly of all, what life was like for women at that time.  I also read books about the period and found lots of useful information on the internet.  For example one of the girls gets caught up in the student riots in Madrid in the 1960s; I needed to know exactly when the riots took place and what was involved.

It seems to me that many authors of historical fiction write trilogies.  Have you considered making The House on the Beach part of a trilogy?
No.  I don’t think it would work.  The book is a saga where we follow the stories of two women who meet as children and maintain a troubled friendship throughout their lives.

Were you influenced by any other writers when you planned this novel?
Not really.  As I have said it was inspired by another of my own books, ‘Daughters of Spain’ - a factual account of the lives of Spanish women during the years 1950-1970.  I have since read a book by an Italian author which is very similar in style; it is called “My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante.

What is it about writing historical fiction that you find so interesting?
I have always been interested in history, especially social history.  I am a History graduate and when I was a teacher, my favourite lessons were teaching history to primary-age children.  With young children the knack of making history interesting is to bring it to life and to let the children imagine they are living in a different time.  It is a very similar process when writing a historical novel; you want the reader to feel that they are there, experiencing the same things as your characters.

Have you written any other novels that could be classified as Unusual Historical Fiction?
Yes, ‘The Only Blue Door’.  This is a novel about three young English children who are sent as child evacuees to Australia during World War II; the story traces their experiences in a strange land and their search for their mother. 

Buy House on the Beach at:

Learn more about author Joan Fallon

Joan says of her latest novel, “I was inspired to write this novel after interviewing a number of Spanish women for my book Daughters of Spain. The things they told me about life after the Spanish Civil War was rich material for a novel.”  

03 April 2015

Mad Monarchs: Sultan Mustafa I of the Ottoman Empire

By Lisa J. Yarde

Representation of Mustafa I, painted in 1815
The Ottoman Empire produced some of the brilliant rulers of Turkey. Their names have come down through the centuries; Orhan, Mehmed the Conqueror, Suleiman the Magnificent.  But several of the nation's rulers began precarious lives as young princes, trapped behind the harem's walls, never knowing how fate might alter from one day to the next and if they might survive the turmoil that often followed the death of the reigning monarch. Sultan Mustafa I is a prime example of an Ottoman ruler who likely lived a tortured existence from boyhood.

He was a great-great-grandson of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, born in 1591 to Alime Sultan (Ottoman royal women were designated in this way, rather than Sultana) at the palace in Manisa, western Turkey. For almost two centuries before Mustafa's birth, Manisa had been the place where future crown princes and Sultans of Turkey learned about administration and government, rather than in the capital of their fathers, Istanbul. Mustafa was the second son of Sultan Mehmed III, who upon ascension followed an Ottoman tradition established in the time of Mustafa's grandfather Murad III; the deaths by strangulation of all close male relatives. In this way, the Ottomans eliminated rival claimants to the throne.

The kafes
As a younger brother to the presumed crown prince Ahmed born a year before, Mustafa must have been aware daily of the fate surely awaiting him at the death of their father. After all, Mehmed III had ended the lives of nineteen brothers when he claimed the throne. Why should Ahmed have done any differently when he became the Ottoman Sultan at the age of 13 in 1603? However, a swift end to Mustafa's life did not occur. Defying precedent, Ahmed I did not send the executioner with a bowstring. Instead, Mustafa became a resident of the kafes, or "the cage" -  a section of the imperial harem within the Topkapi palace complex, where the Sultan and his household resided. Why did Ahmed allow this, rather than killing Mustafa? Perhaps because he remained the only viable heir, especially if Ahmed died without producing any sons to inherit.

Another image of Mustafa I
With servants and concubines for company, Mustafa filled his days and nights with alcohol and opium, while Ahmed enjoyed the attentions of his favorite Greek concubine and later wife, Kosem, who was the same age as Ahmed. During his fourteen-year reign, she gave him three sons, except his eldest son Osman, who was born from another earlier union. Again breaking with tradition, Ahmed kept Mustafa alive although there were now at least four legitimate heirs to the Ottoman throne. One wonders at the motivation. Was it genuine brotherly love or pity ensuring Mustafa remained among the living? 

A crisis occurred when Ahmed died at the age of twenty-seven.  As all of his sons were minors, Mustafa became Sultan. Despite the established tradition of murdering potential rivals, Ahmed's sons went to the kafes, like their uncle had done. Even before Mustafa's reign began, his courtiers and servants might have witnessed his strange behavior in the kafes. He had the habit of "scattering the gold and silver coins... to the birds and the fish in the sea...." If anyone acknowledged him as an imbecile openly, perhaps they also hoped that after his long confinement, the reintroduction to court and the world outside the kafes would improve Mustafa's mind.

It did not. As Mustafa I continued to knock the turbans off of his viziers' heads during meetings with his council, they must have realized their folly in having placed him on the throne. In February 1618, they locked Mustafa  back up in the kafes and selected his fourteen-year-old nephew to reign as Osman II. The fickle nature of political life at the Imperial palace did not assure Osman's future; he made the mistake of tangling with the Janissaries, the elite infantry historically comprised of non-Muslim boys enslaved as household troops and bodyguards for the monarchs. Osman ordered severe punishments, including five hundred lashes for any Janissary found in a tavern. Four years after he came to power, they had him strangled and gave their oath of allegiance to Mustafa, who became little more than their puppet.

The throne room at Topkapi palace
His second reign lasted from May 1622 to September 1623, during which Mustafa again displayed the signs of madness. He ran through the palace at all hours of the day and night, crying out for Osman, whom he believed was still alive, to rescue him from the burden of power.  In exasperation, the high judges and ministers sent word to his mother. They intended to test his intelligence, requiring him to answer just two questions; "whose son are you?" and "what is the day of the week?" Perhaps knowing her son's mental state could not encompass a response to even these inquiries, Alime Sultan agreed Mustafa could not remain on the throne and pleaded for his life.

Murad IV became Sultan at the age of eleven. He was the eldest son of Ahmed I and Kosem. He too spared Mustafa a quick death. The mad former ruler returned to the kafes, trapped as much behind its walls as surely as by the ravages of his mind. He died in 1639 at the age of 48. His body is entombed in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia courtyard.

Sources: Harem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier and The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power by Colin Imber. Images are public domain, royalty-free from Wiki Commons. 

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written four novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two Sisters, and Sultana: The Bride Price where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.

02 April 2015

Excerpt Thursday: HOUSE ON THE BEACH by Joan Fallon

This week, we're welcoming author Joan Fallon again, whose latest title is HOUSE ON THE BEACHJoin us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of House on the Beach in ebook format - this giveaway is open internationallyBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

This is the story of Rocio and Inma, two girls who first meet as children and despite coming from very different social backgrounds become close friends. Rocio is the daughter of an Andalusian peasant, who makes his living from the land, growing olives and keeping goats; Inma is the daughter of a rich businessman, who lives and works in Madrid.

We follow the lives of these two girls from childhood to maturity, as they share happiness, fears, disappointments, broken hearts and betrayals. Rocio is a shy and trusting girl, who becomes easily seduced by a handsome foreigner, while Inma, confident and manipulative, is the one who saves her from disgrace and the inevitable expulsion from the family home.  But when Inma too becomes pregnant, things take a more sinister turn and her subsequent actions have a devastating affect on Rocio and her husband. 

This social drama of two women trying to take control of their lives, despite living under a harsh dictatorship, offers a glimpse of what life was like in an authoritarian State, with an ever watchful Catholic Church and the close strictures of society.

**An Excerpt from House on the Beach**

Inma’s knees hurt from the hard floor; she peeped through her fingers to see if anyone else felt as uncomfortable as she did but those she could see without turning her head were all deep in prayer. 
“.....Give us a diligent and obedient spirit, quickness of apprehension, capacity of retaining and the powerful assistance of Thy holy grace that what we hear or learn we may apply to Thy honour and the eternal salvation of our own souls,” the young voices chanted in unison then lifted their voices to heaven as they sang, rather than intoned, a heartfelt “Amen”. 
The Mother Superior stood, still facing the image of the Virgin Mary that dominated the classroom wall, and genuflected before turning to look at the kneeling girls.  She paused to allow the solemnity of the moment to sink in then said:
‘Very well girls, you may rise and take your seats.  Remember no talking.’
Inma rose with the others, brushed her plaid skirt back into place and pulled up her regulation navy socks.  Three of the other nuns came in and, like so many magpies, fluttered around their leader in her long black habit with its stiff white yoke.  The Mother Superior whispered their instructions to them and they passed between the rows handing out the test papers.
Inma felt restless, there was only one more week to the holidays but before that there were the exams.  The first was this morning, arithmetic.  She looked over her shoulder at her best friend, Susana, she seemed on the point of tears.  Inma smiled at her and gave a little wave of her hand.  They had spent all the previous evening together revising for the exam but still Susana could not grasp the concept of long division.  She had gone to bed in tears and nothing Inma could say would console her.  She whispered a short prayer for them both, touching the silver cross that hung beneath her uniform.
  Her father had given her the cross a few months before when she was confirmed.  She had gone home for the confirmation.  Papi had come to collect her in the car because Mama wanted her confirmed in the same church as all the rest of the family, the Iglesia de San Andres.  It had been her best day ever.  Mama had bought her a beautiful dress of white muslin, with a long, full skirt, that swayed when she walked and white satin shoes.  Afterwards they had gone to a restaurant for lunch and all her brothers and sisters were there, but not Adolfo, and all her cousins and aunts and uncles.  Susana had been confirmed in the school chapel with some of the other girls; her mother would not let her go home but she did come and visit her and bring her a present.
  Just five more days, this time next week she would be in her own home again; a wave of longing escaped from her chest like a silent sigh.  She missed her own house, her cat, her rows of now neglected dolls, her mirror with its furbelow of gold and pink wood, the dolls’ house that her eldest brother had sent her from Argentina and most of all her own bedroom with its flouncy, pink curtains and a bedspread that matched, with its white painted wardrobes where all her pretty dresses hung.  She had not been home since the beginning of May.
The Mother Superior rapped on her desk with a ruler.
‘Right girls, you have forty minutes to complete this arithmetic paper.  Remember there is to be no talking and no looking across at your neighbour.  Good luck.  Now turn over your papers and begin.’

Learn more about author Joan Fallon

Joan says of her latest novel, “I was inspired to write this novel after interviewing a number of Spanish women for my book Daughters of Spain. The things they told me about life after the Spanish Civil War was rich material for a novel.”  

29 March 2015

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: M.J. Neary on NEVER BE AT PEACE

This week, we're welcoming author and Unusual Historicals contributor, M.J. Neary, whose latest title is NEVER BE AT PEACEOne lucky visitor will get a free copy of Never Be At PeaceBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb. 

A pugnacious orphan from a bleak Dublin suburb, Helena Molony dreams of liberating Ireland. Her fantasies take shape when the indomitable Maud Gonne informally adopts her and sets her on a path to theatrical stardom - and political martyrdom. Swept up in the Gaelic Revival, Helena succumbs to the romantic advances of Bulmer Hobson, an egotistical Fenian leader with a talent for turning friends into enemies. After their affair ends in a bitter ideological rift, she turns to Sean Connolly, a married fellow-actor from the Abbey Theatre, a man idolised in the nationalist circles. As Ireland prepares to strike against the British rule on Easter Monday, Helena and her comrades find themselves caught in a whirlwind of deceit, violence, broken alliances and questionable sacrifices. In the words of Patrick Pearse, "Ireland unfree shall never be at peace". For the survivors of the Rising, the battle will continue for decades after the last shot had been fired.

**Q&A with M.J. Neary**

How did you come up with the title?
The title was actually pitched to me by my husband, an avid Celtophile and Irish history enthusiast.  It's actually from a graveside speech delivered by Patrick H. Pearse in 1915 on the day of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa's funeral.  "Ireland unfree shall never be at peace." Both Pearse and O'Donovan Rossa were members of the semi-secret Fenian Brotherhood. Pearse was a charismatic speaker, in spite of an eye defect and a speech impediment which he had overcome.  His goal was to galvanize his fellow freedom-seekers. It's worth mentioning that at the turn of the century was a time of apathy in Ireland.  Most people had no sense of national pride, in spite of the Gaelic Revival.  The revival was more of a cultural movement restricted to the intellectual circles. In the first decade of the 20th century significant shifts happen in the arena of political and military nationalism. By 1914-15 England is weakened by WWI.

Even though the title is inspired by a quote by Pearse, the main character in the novel is not Pearse but Helena Molony, an actress, feminist and labor reform activist. In one of your interviews you refer to her as "Irish Cinderella."

I say it half-jokingly, but there are indeed undeniable parallels. Like Cinderella, Helena was an orphan with a wicked stepmother.  She also had a fairy godmother figure, Maud Gonne, W.B. Yeats' immoral muse, who took the young girl under her wing and turned her into a theatrical start and a political martyr.  She also had a Prince Charming in her life - an upper middle class Protestant lad from Belfast, Bulmer Hobson.  They came from different worlds and did not always see eye to eye on many things.  He was from a stable, prosperous family of Anglo-Scottish stock. Still, he was on the side of Irish nationalists who often regarded him with suspicion due to his privileged background.  He was against the rising of 1916 and even tried to stop it, nearly paying for his treason with his life.

Helena Molony is a somewhat obscure figure.  Unless you take an active interest in the history of Irish nationalism, her name is not one that jumps out at you.

There are some delicate nuances around Helena's personal life that the media of the day found disturbing. Helena spent the rest of her days in solitude, living with her "companion" Dr. Evelyn O'Brien, a psychiatrist seventeen years her junior.  The nature of the relationship was subject of many speculations. Some historians insist that it was romantic. Ireland was not ready for a bisexual heroine. Helena was prone to alcoholism and angry outbursts.  In spite of her contributions to the war for independence, she was allowed to fade into obscurity.  Interestingly enough, women fought side by side with men during the War of Independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War, but as soon as freedom was won, the culture shifted in the patriarchal direction, forcing women into domesticity. A new constitution was drafted pointing out that Catholicism had a "special place" in the lives of Irish people. Divorce and contraception were outlawed. Women were literally expelled from the workplace the moment they got married. As a feminist, Helena clearly did not cherish the new laws. On top of that, her orientation was in question. In short, she did not fit the picture of a perfect Irish housewife.

There is a companion novel to "Never Be at Peace"?

Indeed, there is a companion piece "Martyrs & Traitors: a Tale of 1916".  It was written in 2011 and published by another publisher.  The novel chronicles the political and intimate misfortunes of Bulmer Hobson, Helena's former lover and comrade who ended up on the wrong side of the barricades.

Who designed the cover for "Never Be at Peace"?

Interestingly enough, it was a Ukrainian artist. I singled him out after reviewing portfolios of dozens of other artists. It takes a Slavic artist to capture an Irish tragedy. The cover painting was done from scratch using Ulster murals as inspiration. The scene represents the death of Sean Connolly, Helena's fellow actor from the Abbey Theatre and alleged lover.

Never Be at Peace: a Novel of Irish Rebels available now from Fireship Press.

About the author

Marina Julia Neary is an acclaimed historical novelist, award-winning essayist, multilingual journalist, dramatist and poet. Her areas of expertise include Neo-Victorianism, French Romanticism and Irish nationalism. Her literary career to depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the Chernobyl catastrophe. Neary declares that her mission is to tell untold stories, find hidden gems and illuminate the prematurely extinguished stars in history. She explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand. Her debut novel Wynfield's Kingdom: a Tale of London Slums (Fireship Press) appeared on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. Her subsequent novels include Wynfield's War (2010), Brendan Malone: the Last Fenian (2011), Martyrs & Traitors: a Tale of 1916 (2011), Never Be at Peace: a Novel of Irish Rebels (2014) and Saved by the Bang (2015).