Category Archives: Ireland Reading Challenge

YotH: 1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion

1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion by Morgan Llywelyn. Tor Books, 1998.

This is my first March entry in the 2010 reading challenge Year of the Historical.

This is my second novel for the 2010 Ireland Reading Challenge.

The novel begins in 1914 with fifteen-year-old Ned Halloran from County Clare setting sail across the Atlantic. His sister Kathleen is about to be married and her fiance, a representative of the White Star Line, has bought second-class tickets for Ned and his parents onboard a great ocean liner. As the reader has likely guessed the Hallorans are passengers on the Titanic, and while Ned survives the disaster, his parents do not. Upon Ned’s return to Ireland the family’s Anglo-Irish landlord wants to do something for him in order to make up for what he went through, so Ned is offered the chance to go away to school in Dublin. There he becomes a student of Saint Enda’s, a secondary school for boys, and meets headmaster Pádraic Pearse. Inspired by Pearse’s teachings, Ned becomes a devoted nationalist and his life intertwines with those of prominent Irishmen and women who will play roles in the 1916 Rising, including James Connolly, Tom Clarke, and Countess Markievicz. As events unfold and the characters draw ever closer to the climactic rebellion, Ned grows from schoolboy to soldier and falls in love.

One look at the bibliography speaks volumes about both the amount of research Morgan Llywelyn has done and her dedication to historical accuracy. Events leading up to the rebellion and actions during it occurred largely as they do in her retelling and the only fictional aspects are the original characters that she has so carefully crafted. Llywelyn uses historical figures as major characters including Tom Clarke, who really did own a tobacco store around the corner from the General Post Office, and charismatic leader Pádraic Pearse.

As related in the novel, James Connolly’s ankle was shattered by a sniper shot during the Rising and he lay on a bed of wheels reading detective fiction. Unlike the other leaders of the Rising, Connolly was not held in Richmond Barracks or Kilmainham Gaol following his surrender but in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham across the street. Although unable to stand, Connolly had still been sentenced to execution by firing squad for his role in the Rebellion so he was carried to the prison courtyard by stretcher, tied to a chair, and shot on May 12, 1916.

Llywelyn also accurately documents the evacuation of women from the GPO during the Rising. All women except for two nurses and James Connolly’s secretary were evacuated from the premises before the surrender. Llywelyn adds to this number the fictional Síle Duffy. Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell carried a red cross flag and acted as the go-between while terms of surrender were negotiated. At 3:45 PM on April 29th Pearse signed the document of unconditional surrender, stating:

“In order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens, and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, the members of the Provisional Government present at headquarters have agreed to an unconditional surrender, and the commandants of the various districts in the City and County will order their commands to lay down arms.”

1916 contains a tremendous amount of research, but what could be a dry account of the Easter Rising becomes a fascinating historical but also literary tale in Llywelyn’s capable hands. The familiar names of the Rising leaders are given personality and depth, but her fictional characters are every bit as engaging as the historical ones. Protagonist Ned Halloran has flaws but is someone the reader will root for, and although the fates of many of the main characters are already known to anyone familiar with the period, the lives of Llywelyn’s fictional characters are less predictable.

Obviously I appreciate the tremendous amounts of research that went into this novel, as evidenced by the lengthy bibliography and extensive footnotes, and I don’t think that the history detracts from a passionately told story. In fact the only criticisms I have to offer are that Precious, the orphaned child Ned rescues, never develops beyond the precocious child cliche, and that the storyline involving Ned’s sister Kathleen comes to an abrupt end, although it might be resolved in the next novel of the series. 1916 is the first novel of five in Llywelyn’s “Irish Century” series, which continues with 1921, 1949, 1972, and 1999, and I look forward to devouring the rest of the series and to reading more of her many historical novels.

Verdict: This is the ideal work for historical fiction for me. Passionate, interesting, and accurate, this look at Irish history will delight all. Highly recommended.



Filed under Ireland Reading Challenge, Irish History

Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance

Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth. Touchstone, 2007.

This is my first novel for the 2010 Ireland Reading Challenge.

Narrated by Robert Sherard, Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance is the first of a planned nine book series of mysteries featuring the witty writer as an amateur sleuth. The novel begins in 1889 with Oscar introducing Sherard to his new friend Arthur Conan Doyle, whose A Study in Scarlet is causing a sensation. When Oscar Wilde finds the naked body of his sixteen-year-old friend Billy Wood, an artist’s model, he is inspired by the fictional Sherlock Holmes to take on the case himself. Yet before he can investigate the murder, he must prove that there has been one. When Oscar returns to the crime scene the next day he finds that the body has been removed and the room cleaned, with a single spot of blood the only sign that any foul play has occurred. Not prepared to leave the case solely in the hands of Scotland Yard, Oscar uses deductive reasoning and observation to investigate the case himself. Robert Sherard, an aspiring poet and journalist in the middle of a messy divorce, serves as the Watson to Oscar Wilde’s Holmes.

Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance offers not one historical figure but three. Surprisingly, Wilde and Conan Doyle did actually know one another. Both were invited for dinner by an American literary publication called Lippincott’s Magazine, which was searching for talent. The dinner resulted in commissions for both men; a further Sherlock Holmes story from Conan Doyle (The Sign of Four), and a novel from Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray). In his autobiography Memories and Adventures Conan Doyle wrote that he and Wilde became friendly although it was a distant relationship that grew more distant as Wilde’s reputation became questionable.

Narrator Robert Sherard is also a historical figure. As noted in the novel, he was the great grandson of the poet William Wordsworth and a loyal friend of Oscar’s. He wrote some of the earliest biographies of Wilde, including The Story of an Unhappy Friendship (1902), The Life of Oscar Wilde (1906), and The Real Oscar Wilde (1917). As a historical biographer of Wilde he is the obvious choice for a Watson who can record his friend’s cases.

Part of what makes this story so enjoyable is the author’s use of Wilde’s trademark wit. In a Q&A at the back of the novel Brandreth explains that Oscar did actually try out lines on his friends and if he liked them would go on to use them in his works. Some remarks are instantly recognisable as lines Wilde actually used, such as “work is the curse of the drinking classes.” Brandreth also works in details such as the death of Oscar’s sister Isola in childhood and his tradition of dressing in mourning on his birthdays. In explanation Oscar once said, “this happens to be my birthday, and I am mourning, as I shall henceforth do on each of my anniversaries, the flight of one year into nothingness, the growing blight upon my summer.” Although Wilde was from an Anglo-Irish Protestant family, he had a life-long interest in Catholicism which culminated in a deathbed conversion. This interest is shown in the novel through his knowledge of hagiology.

I approached this novel hesitantly because the task of crafting original dialogue for one of the wittiest men who ever lived seemed nearly impossible to complete. How could any author hope to capture this extraordinary author and turn him into a sleuth? Rarely have I been so glad to be proven wrong. Brandreth so effectively shapes dialogue for Wilde that the reader can’t tell what lines the dramatist actually said and which have been invented for him. Wilde’s friendship with Conan Doyle and admiration for the deductive detective give him the perfect motivation to take on the role of sleuth and the flawed but loyal Sherard is an effective narrator.

I must confess that while I love mysteries, I don’t have the mind either to write or solve them. As a child reading the “Clue” series I often flipped straight to the answer instead of trying to solve the case, but in Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance even I could figure out some of the answers. Plot isn’t the number one reason to read this book though, that slot belongs to the charming and engaging Oscar Wilde. I thoroughly enjoyed his Holmesian deductive style and his easy wit.

Overall this is a fun romp through Victorian England that promises to be the beginning of a great series. There are two others currently published of a planned nine novels and I look forward to diving into the next mystery (which features Dracula novelist Bram Stoker and the introduction of Lord Alfred Douglas) and to spending more time with Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde.

Verdict: The title is a groaner but Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance is absolutely worth reading.


Filed under Ireland Reading Challenge, Irish History, Mystery March

Mystery March at Truth in Fiction

One of the great pleasures of blogging is that you get to share books and thoughts with others. Ideally the blogger not only enjoys writing about a subject that interests them, but others learn from, enjoy, or are inspired by their posts. I haven’t progressed very far in my chosen reading challenges yet, but I have been inspired by other people’s blogs, and by books that I have discovered through these challenges. While scrolling through other January reviews at the Year of the Historical Reading Challenge, I found a series of mysteries featuring playwright Oscar Wilde as a sleuth. Earlier that month I had become intrigued by the Historical Novel Society’s review of an Abigail Adams mystery. Much to my surprise, there are a number of mysteries that recast famous historical figures in the role of amateur detective. Finding it hard to pass up the alliteration, an idea was born for “Mystery March”, a month of mystery and history. Throughout March I’ll be taking a look at some of these historical mysteries and their famous detectives.

Having signed up for the fabulous Ireland Reading Challenge over at Books and Movies, I’ve also decided that March is the perfect month to jump in and explore Irish history. Although I’ve always had an interest in history, it was a wonderful professor and a course on Irish history that really sparked my passion, so Irish history holds a special place in my heart. Over the course of the month I’ll be reading and reviewing some Irish fiction and non-fiction and sharing interesting tidbits on the history of the Emerald Isle. I’ll also be introducing a new feature called “The Historical Tourist”, in which I’ll take a look at the history behind some of the tourist attractions I’ve been fortunate enough to visit.

I look forward to sharing my interest in Irish history with you!


Filed under Biography, Ireland Reading Challenge, The Historical Tourist, Uncategorized

More Challenges for 2010

Although I’ve had the button on my sidebar for awhile, I haven’t formally announced my participation in the Art History Reading Challenge. The challenge asks participants to read at least three books about art in 2010, but the books can be fiction or non-fiction and span many genres. Just how much art the novel must include to count is up to the reader. I have already read, and will soon review, Karen Essex’s “Leonardo’s Swans”, and there are a few other books about art on my list to be read. I’ve decided to start small and aim for the ‘Curious’ level of participation, which requires three books, but may read more if I continue to be interested.

I’m also participating in The Ireland Challenge 2010 hosted by Books and Movies. With St. Patrick’s Day only a few weeks away, I can’t imagine a better time to take a look at Irish History… or to tackle those untouched books on Ireland currently occupying my shelves! The challenge allows re-reads, and counts any book “written by an Irish author, set in Ireland, or involving Irish history or Irish characters”. It also permits fiction and non-fiction reads. I’ve chosen to enter at the ‘Luck o’ the Irish’ level that requires four books.

Hopefully I’ll have some Irish luck on my side as I participate in these additional challenges!


Filed under Ireland Reading Challenge