The Wages of Violence by Jeffrey K. Walker

I’ve had the privilege of reading Jeff Walker’s No Hero’s Welcome, the third in a trilogy featuring Irish men participating in WWI and beyond. It’s a superbly told story of an Irish family’s struggles during and after this dreadful war. Jeff’s brilliant characters reflect the intense emotions of this divided country. 


The Wages of Violence by Jeffrey K. Walker

The third volume in my First World War and 1920s historical fiction trilogy, No Hero’s Welcome, released September 7th. This book, set almost entirely in Ireland from the Easter Rising in 1916 through the end of the Civil War in 1923, completes the story of characters introduced in the first two novels, None of Us the Same and Truly Are the Free. No Hero’s Welcome uses the final push for Irish independence to examine the political upheavals sparked by the First World War—in this case resulting in England (and the UK) losing its oldest colony. 

I wrote of the doomed heroism of the 1916 Easter Rising and the spiraling violence of the War of Independence in posts on my blog. Each sadly tragic in its own way, but to me the horrific atrocities of the Irish Civil War were the crushingly saddest end imaginable to seven centuries of struggle against subjugation of the Irish people. It is within the violence and treachery of these three events—the 1916 Easter Rising, the 1919-1921 War of Independence, and the 1922-1923 Civil War—that I set the final volume of my Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy.

The armed struggle against the British ended in July 1921. The Republican political party, Sinn Fein, had won a landslide victory in Ireland—with the exception of the majority-Protestant Ulster constituencies—in the December 1918 general election that followed on the heels of the November Armistice. The Sinn Fein members of Parliament declined to take their seats in Westminster and convened the first Dáil Éireann in January 1919. The Dáil immediately declared an Irish Republic—the second, after the short-lived Republic declared during the Easter Rising. Uneasy with the increasingly violent tactics adopted by Crown forces to counter the guerrilla campaign of the Republican rebels and concerned with public opinion turning against them (particularly in America), the British Government sought a ceasefire and negotiated settlement. The Irish, straining under the escalating violence and the heavy toll levied on the civilian population, consented.

A treaty that demanded significant compromise from both sides was hammered out in London during the autumn of 1921 and was presented to Parliament and the Dáil for ratification. The Anglo-Irish Treaty granted Ireland dominion status equivalent to Canada and Australia but dissolved the Republic and required members of the new Irish Free State government and military to swear allegiance to the British monarch. The Treaty also separated the six counties of Northern Ireland from the Free State. For many Republican leaders and rebel volunteers, these provisions proved too bitter a pill to swallow, including the President of the Republic, Eamon de Valera.

For those who accepted the compromise, the Treaty was seen, as Michael Collins famously stated, as an opportunity to achieve a Republic in the future and they set about creating a Free State government, police force, and military. Collins, charged with creating the new Free State Army, filled the ranks with pro-Treaty former rebel volunteers. In April 1922, a garrison of 200 anti-Treaty IRA volunteers under the command of the redoubtable Rory O’Connor (who shared a name with a storied medieval High King of Ireland) occupied the Four Courts in Dublin, the legal heart of Ireland. In June, the first elections to the Free State parliament were held, with a majority of seats won by the now pro-Treaty Sinn Fein.

With the British Government threatening to use the remaining British Army forces in Ireland to retake the Four Courts if the Free State Government did not, Michael Collins gave the IRA garrison a deadline to evacuate and, when O’Connor refused, Collins shelled the Four Courts in late June with field artillery borrowed from the British. Subsequently during July and August, the Free State forces took all major cities and towns held by anti-Treaty forces who withdrew to the countryside and launched a guerrilla campaign using tactics developed against the British during the War of Independence. One of the casualties of this initially very effective campaign was Michael Collins himself, killed in an ambush in a remote area of his native Cork.

It may be that the bitterness of the Civil War sprang from the mutual sense of betrayal nursed by both sides. Perhaps the atrocious descent into assassinations, reprisals, and counter-reprisals was a result of the anti-Treaty forces’ desperation coupled with the Free State’s perceived need to prove they had control in order to keep the British from re-occupying Ireland. Or the fratricidal violence may have been a natural result of hard men who had grown inured to inhumanity through years of struggle against colonial occupation and oppression. Regardless, the shocking series of assassinations, bombings, and summary executions couldn’t be sustained for long and, with the loss of their military leader Liam Lynch in 1923, the anti-Treaty forces dumped their arms and gave up the struggle in May 1923. 12,000 anti-Treaty volunteers would remain interned until the summer of 1924.

With so many deaths resulting from extra-judicial killings and the victims’ bodies secretly disposed, the exact number of casualties incurred by both sides has never been definitively determined. Considering the devout Catholicism of the majority of combatants, that they were willing to deny proper burial to so many of their former comrades is poignant testimony to the bitterness of the struggle. However, historians estimate total violent deaths during the Civil War amount to between 1,500 and 2,000. Considering Ireland had a population of less than three million and that the Civil War lasted less than 11 months from the shelling of the Four Courts until the order by IRA leadership to dump weapons, the level of violence and death was quite astounding.

Although there are tales of brothers divided by secession in the American Civil War, many of these are likely apocryphal and the true number rather modest. This was not the case in the Irish Civil War. When the battle lines were drawn over the Treaty, men and women who had shared danger, lived rough for months on end, and imperiled their friends and families throughout the successful fight against the British, turned on each other with shocking intensity. For example, Michael Collins and one of his dearest friends, Harry Boland, found themselves on opposite sides of the fighting. Neither would survive the internecine struggle. (This ill-starred friendship was at the center of the storyline in the excellent 1996 movie, Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson as Collins and Aidan Quinn as Boland.)

As a historical novelist, I was very drawn to the tragedy of this struggle. A main character of No Hero’s Welcome finds himself drawn into the fight as a young teenager during the Easter Rising, coming to manhood during the War of Independence where he is forced to grow up too fast. He also experiences the bitterness of the Civil War on a very personal level. Writing this character and the trajectory of his story from idealistic boy to hardened Volunteer was equally difficult and entrancing for me. I hope my own conflicted emotions, reflecting that of so many directly involved in these events, shows through in the story of Sean Brannigan and his family.

By 1927, the former anti-Treaty men and women entered into non-violent political opposition and stood for election as the newly formed Fianna Fail party. The pro-Treaty party ran as Fine Gael, creating the two major parties who would, one or the other, rule Ireland for the remainder of the 20th century.

As Collins had foreseen, the Free State would prove short-lived. After a referendum in 1937 ratified a new constitution, the Free State was dissolved and the Republic declared for the third and last time on 29 December 1937 by a Fianna Fail-controlled Government led by Eamon de Valera.

The bitter legacy and lingering aggrieved emotions made the Civil War a taboo topic of discussion in Ireland and was only glancingly mentioned in school history texts. This has begun to change over the last decade, likely due to two unavoidable events—the deaths of the last of those involved with the Civil War and the upcoming commemoration of the centenary of the the Civil War. It’s long past time these horrible events are fairly examined, now with the luxury of historical detachment.

Of course, the Treaty’s partition of Ireland into the 26 counties of the Republic and the six counties of Northern Ireland remains, having given rise to another bitter cycle of bombings and assassinations during The Troubles which lasted from 1969 until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. In an ironic modern-day twist, the current Conservative Government of the United Kingdom holds power with a razor-thin parliamentary majority that depends upon the votes of the ten House of Commons members from the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.

It’s with some regret that I’m leaving the remarkable and tragic, entrancing and horrifying epoch of the First World War and its immediate aftermath in the 1920s. The characters I’ve created in my trilogy of novels have become like old acquaintances, although I may know them better than most of my old friends. But they’ve come to a natural end of their stories and it’s time for me to move on. (Although several had children, so…)

Many thanks for explaining the backdrop to your novel, Jeff. Unfortunately, we see echoes of these kinds of divisions in other countries around the world today. If only we could learn from history.

No Hero’s Welcome by Jeffrey K. Walker ~~ The horrors of the First World War devastated many a Dublin family and the Brannigans weren’t spared. Struggling to get past their heartache, the family finds itself divided by both the rebellion against British rule and the wide Atlantic. Devoted matriarch Eda Brannigan witnesses her family unraveling. Sean and Molly make startling choices with potentially lethal consequences. Francis steeps in a drunken angry stupor. Young Brandon is so eerily quiet. Eda desperately wishes her beloved firstborn, Deirdre, wasn’t living so far away. But with a determined resolve, Eda soldiers on in her bustling pub, The Gallant Fusilier, where tragedy, triumph and even love unfold. Can this family endure the violence and intrigue of the Easter Rising, the bloody struggle for independence, and a bitter civil war?


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Finding Authentic Voices by Jeffrey Walker

Jeffrey K. Walker is an award-winning author who came to writing historical fiction from a unique background as a bomber navigator, criminal prosecutor, legal historian, and international attorney. He’s written two novels of his Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy, depicting the epic events and impact of the First World War. As many of you know, I have a soft spot for those who write about WWI. Over to you, Jeff.

Finding Authentic Voices by Jeffrey Walker

My second novel just went on sale, so now with Two Books In A Row I might have something mildly interesting to say. With a big dollop of trepidation considering I’m writing this post for the crazy-talented M.K. Tod’s blog [OK, I’m blushing here – MKT], I’d like to share my struggles to find authentic historical voices.

Like M.K., I write in the period of the First World War. This has distinct advantages compared to writing in Saxon England or Ancient Mesopotamia—there’s a lot of material available. On the other hand, the epoch of the Great War is much more familiar to modern readers than remoter stretches of history. Some might even come preloaded with first-hand accounts from grandparents. This adds a free radical to how readers approach a WWI-era book. Suffice it to say, authors who write Tudor or Regency don’t have quite the same problem.

As historical fiction writers, we’re chasing the bubble of verisimilitude. We’re seeking to lull our readers into a fictive dreamscape set within our chosen period, not pass a blind peer review by a panel of PhDs. Within the superstructure of solid research, we imagine our histories and we therefore have to find voices for the characters we’ve imagined placing there. By this I mean not only their dialogue, but also their patterns of thought, reactions to all manner of situations, and interactions with each other and their world. That’s the challenge in developing richly drawn, three-dimensional characters that engage readers on a deeper level than merely as historical curiosities.

Admittedly, I’m a little neurotic about dialogue. As a result, I spent time researching well beyond what kit soldier’s carried on the Somme or what daytime shoes a woman would’ve worn in 1922 Harlem. In the end, my obsession with authentic voices led me down some interesting rabbit holes.

My biggest and earliest Aha Moment came with Paul Fussell’s 1975 work, The Great War and Modern Memory. Technically a work of literary criticism, this incredible book opened my eyes to the great tectonic shifts the First World War produced in Western culture from top to bottom. The insidious turning of the forces of science and industrial progress to the mass production of death and destruction resulted in a wholesale rejection of a hundred years’ worth of cozy Victorian consensus about the benign progress of modernity. With this personal epiphany, I went off in search of primary sources to find the voices of those who somehow endured 51 months of carnage and privation.

I started by diving headlong into the War Poets. The highly distilled emotion of these poems—some by men like Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen who wouldn’t survive the conflict—established a poignant benchmark for other first-person sources, as well as providing titles for my trilogy and the first book. This propelled me on a free-range survey of other original material.

I was desperate to get the sound, cadence, vocabulary, and idiom of these remarkable men and women into my head. I read all four volumes of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, some Robert Graves, and reread for the umpteenth time Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I bought used copies of war letters, trench diaries, and memoirs. (I caution against relying on memoirs written more than10 years or so after the War. Rose-colored glasses and all that.) One of the more remarkable of these was a recent translation of the notebooks kept by a socialist barrel maker from the Midi, a poilu named Louis Barthas who served from the first day of the War through the Armistice.

I bought a box of reproduction artifacts in the gift shop of the Imperial War Museum—which led me to spending several hours listening to two dozen songs listed in a Red Cross entertainment program from 1917 to literally get the sound of my character’s music in my ears. On a more practical level, this broad survey of original writing gave me a strong grounding in the slang, idiom, word choice, and level of formality used by people of the period. I found one important exception—profanity. Writers self-consciously cleaned things up, even when writing to their diaries. I found one of the more authentic sources for period profanity to be original lyrics of soldiers’ songs. I refer you to the invaluable Punch publication, Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War, collected by Martin Pegler.

Then there was the problem of dialect. In my first book, I drew main characters from Newfoundland and Ireland, as well as supporting characters from New York, Boston, Scotland and England. Without a lot of forethought, I managed to stumble into some of the densest dialects of English outside the Caribbean islands.

The dialect issue was a two-axis challenge. Not only did I have to reckon with the regionality, but I also had to place the dialect within a specific time period. This meant expending a lot of effort researching the etymologies of idiomatic phrases. As an example, I wanted to say of my main character Deirdre Brannigan, a delightfully opinionated nurse from Dublin, “Sure, she’d snogged a few boys before…” There were two problems with that little phrase. I knew snogged was British idiom, but is it Irish? In particular, is it something a Dubliner would say as opposed to a Corkonian? Yes? Good. Now, when did it enter common usage on either side of the Irish Sea? Shoot, not until the 1950s. So that phrase never made it into the book, although to my 21st-century Yankee ear it sounded rather old-timey.

And there’s a deeper problem with dialect. My Newfoundlanders presented a stark example of the tradeoff between authenticity of voice and accessibility of dialogue. Anyone who’s spent more than 15 minutes on Newfoundland or watched the later seasons of Republic of Doyle can attest to the impenetrability of Newfounese. Complicating matters, the historical isolation of the various parts of the island has led to some two dozen sub-dialects within a population of 528,000. Yikes.

It took me a few drafts to figure out how best to skin this dialect cat. Particularly with the Irish and Newfoundlanders—two cultures with strong oral and storytelling traditions—I thought it essential to impart some sense of the sound of their dialects. My early attempts at phonetic punctiliousness yielded something impenetrable to all but linguistic nerds. As is often the case, I ended up with a compromise, trying to impart just a flavor of the rhythms and textures while keeping the dialogue comprehensible to the elusive Average Reader. So my Newfounese is something of a pastiche of old idiom and some unavoidably characteristic phrases. Whadda ya at, b’y.

I went through a lot of effort and angst to capture to the authentic voices I was chasing, but in the end isn’t this sort of challenge why we write historical fiction? I’ll leave it to you to judge if I’ve succeeded.

Many thanks for adding your voice to the discussion of historical fiction, Jeffrey (pun intended). You’ve reminded me of the research I’ve done – although not with the same dialogue challenges. Wishing you great success with your trilogy.

Truly Are the Free by Jeffrey K. Walker – Ned Tobin leaves his Newfoundland comrades to join the American forces in 1917. Chester Dawkins, son of an affluent African-American family, joins a newly formed regiment destined for France. They both confront their long-held assumptions and prejudices when Ned is assigned as a white officer to Chester’s “colored” regiment, the 369th. Meanwhile, sister Lena Dawkins secretly chooses an unsavory path to keep her family’s Harlem home. And Ned’s beloved, the alluring Adèle Chéreaux, carries a secret of her own as she flees the Germans to an uncertain future in Paris. In Truly Are the Free, the second book of the Sweet Wine of Youth Trilogy, these intriguing characters from None of Us the Same and some surprising new ones come vividly to life. How do the soldiers of the 369th endure the unspeakable horror? What new relationships lie ahead in Jazz-Age Harlem and avant-garde Paris? Can Ned and Adèle find happiness together?

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website