Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Housecleaning: bringing historical fiction up to date?

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'A rebel hand' Michael Dwyer

Sometimes you need to take stock, and January is the time for doing it. Income tax prep can wait – it’s time to open the vault. I have been thinking of rejigging a long story, a 4 part screen play called ‘A Rebel Hand.’ Like the saying goes, The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. (Faulkner??)

It’s a common saying about Ireland is that there is too much history and not enough geography there. As though this were a problem for people who want to read and to write stories..? But as keen as I am on Irish history and historical figures, I usually stay away from writing about it. The exception is a long, four-part screenplay I wrote on Michael Dwyer.

Dwyer was the ‘The Wicklow Rebel,’ drawn into legend by a guerrilla campaign he conducted after the 1798 insurrection known as ‘The Rising’ was suppressed. Those who know of Dwyer would until recently have known little enough about him beyond the routine pantheon-of-nationalist-heroes that is – was - a part of growing up and schooling in Ireland. The title ‘A rebel hand’ comes directly from a ballad of the time:

‘… a rebel hand set the heather blazing..’

Inspired by revolutions in America and France, and very notably by Paine’s ‘Rights of Man,’ Irish Catholic and Dissenting Protestants (i.e. Presbyterians) found common cause to rebel against rule from Britain in 1798. Dwyer did his fighting in Wicklow, a county next to Dublin, a place of wild beauty with many redoubts in the mountains. He was sheltered by many sympathisers during his five year campaign. As I was and am I fierce wanderer in the hills there, I knew Dwyer Country since I was old enough to escape Dublin for the wilds of Wicklow.

Dwyer negotiated surrender in 1803, and it resulted in his exile to Australia (‘New South Wales.’) This was forced upon him, even though his agreed condition of surrender was that he and his family be allowed to emigrate to America. Though Dwyer travelled to Australia with his wife Mary, their four children remained behind in Ireland. It is not clear whether the children were kept back in Ireland as hostages to his good behaviour in Australia, or whether Dwyer and his wife feared for their health on a long voyage.

Shortly after landing in Australia, Dwyer was fall foul of the NSW Governor Bligh, the self-same Bligh of HMS Bounty, and was imprisoned on Norfolk Island. Eventually released (Bligh was ejected from his post by furious colonists), Dwyer went on to have three more children with his wife. His life slid however, and aided all too well by booze, he ended up in debtors’ prison, surviving only a short time after his release to die in very straitened circumstances. His ‘Irish’ children began their migration to Australia after his death. All seven were eventually reunited there.

It was an irresistible story: from ‘great Irish rebel’ to broken-down, exiled alcoholic . Here is a man hounded by history, and a family mauled and blooded by it. There are loyalties and weaknesses and failings, betrayals, elemental rages, and then, finally, the irresistible bond between father and daughter. An ambiguous freedom awaits after a journey to the end of the earth, which these travellers must have hoped was to be the end of empire too, a new place in the sun.

The gallant hero account now reveals a painful and pathetic end. It seems that history won, that he did not persevere and endure. The ‘convict stain’ and shame that was part of early Australia follows and contradicts the old life, that of intimate field-bound family pride in a remote part of Ireland. The story turned out to be a commentary on the violence of a so-called civilized Europe in the early 1800s, and an aboriginal world that encounters it.

It felt natural to tell the story from the point of view of Dwyer’s eldest ‘Irish’ child, his daughter Mary. cast it so that, in her own way, she inherits her father’s rebel heart. She fights free of madness and hatred, and recovers a measure of freedom on the far side of the world.

Writing this story was a joy. All it took was some research to set the stage, and the rest followed in short order. I realized later that what guided me was not the stirring historical accounts of those times, and not even the characters themselves – it was the single psychological world of a daughter who struggles to understand why her father betrayed her.

Nothing helped so much as reading memoirs and biographies, and the one that hit me head-on was Germaine Greer’s ‘Daddy we hardly knew you.’ From it I took these few sentences that burned their way through the whole four hundred pages:

In finding him, I lost him. Sleepless nights are long.

“Daddy we hardly knew you “ A memoir, Germaine Greer

There it was, all packed into two stubby sentences, each brimming with terrifying, poignant power: male bravado, the foolishness of politics, the longing for your own, the primal need to find one’s home.

It wasn’t long before I stumbled across another, when Rebecca West ventriloquises through one of her characters:

My father's desertion of me has never ceased to happen.

Rose in “Cousin Rosamund” Rebecca West

This, as much as Greer’s stoicism, framed all that had been floating in my mind. Here was the dimension I had been in but had not put words on it: the absurd male gallantry and self-deception, the deceit and the blind aggression. These men, as fathers, colluded in murderous rebellions and equally murderous counter violence. And this was to become ‘history?’ Yes, behind this violent episode in Irish history, behind the family tragedy of the Dwyers and many like them, was the uniformed European colonist out to ‘civilize’ aboriginals, to make them invisible to history, just as they subdued women.

This mental hopscotch pretty-well hurled me to understanding themes that had crept in under the radar. What, really, is this ‘hero?’ Is it heroic to have your family ruined, exiled, bereft? Is the whole received history fake? Can a person free himself, herself, from the clutches of the past?

I came to rest with Wallace Stevens:

Each false thing ends. The bouquet of summer
Turns blue and on its empty table
It is stale and the water is discoloured.
True Autumn stands then in the doorway.
After the hero, the familiar
Man makes the hero artificial.
But was the summer false? The hero?

“Examination of the hero in time of war” Wallace Stevens

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page