I have come to a sense of place in my writing very slowly. When I started to write – back in the 1970s – I was intent on removing all traces of the “local” from my work. I was afraid of being parochial and I was out of sympathy with the brand of Irish fiction that maundered on about the landscape, the bogs and the mountains. I had grown up in a Dublin suburb and felt there was nothing specifically “Irish” about it – as far as I was concerned, it was like any other suburb in the Western world; a place of quiet desperation where nothing happened.
My debut collection of stories, A Lazy Eye, was shorn of place-names, or where there were names, they were neutralized, generic-sounding. The real names of Irish places didn’t seem “real” to me then; they seemed inauthentic, too Oirishy. Perhaps that was some kind of post-colonial cultural cringe on my behalf. Who knows?
Mother of Pearl, my first novel, continued the trend. Based on a real-life kidnapping in Dublin in the 1950s, I set the action in a made-up city divided by a sectarian conflict – I envisaged the north of the city being Belfast and the south being Dublin. Because the story had a mythic quality I didn’t want it to be grounded too closely in political realities; hence the disguise.
But, I discovered, historical fiction is merciless in its demands about place. With my second novel, The Pretender, set during the First World War and based on the story of Anna Anderson who claimed, falsely, to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, the chickens came home to roost, if I can mix my metaphors. Now I was duty-bound to real places – Berlin, Posnan, Charlottesville, Virginia – albeit not home territory, and places altered by time and war. But real places, nonetheless, and demanding faithful re-creation.
Now I’ve come full circle. The Rising of Bella Casey – just published − which dramatizes the life of the sister of playwright Sean O’Casey, placed me firmly back on home turf. My own city, Dublin, immortalized by the city’s stage laureate O’Casey in the early 20th century during one of the most turbulent periods in Ireland’s history. There could be no reaching for disguise this time. The novel is littered with place names – Dorset Street, Dominick Street, Mary Street, East Wall, Mountjoy Square, Fitzgibbon Street, Rutland Place and many more locations with strong O’Casey associations. These names no longer sound fake to me – have I changed, or have they?
I will be reading from The Rising of Bella Casey and discussing a sense of place in fiction as part of the Dublin Books Festival during a Reader’s Day event with Alison Jameson and Jennifer Johnston at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, on Saturday, November 16, at 10 a.m. See http://www.dublinbookfestival.com