The First Rose of Tralee by Patricia O’Reilly

I met Patricia O’Reilly at an Historical Novel Society conference in 2014. As travelling companions on the writing journey, we kept in touch with occasional emails and Facebook comments. Today, Patricia shares a thoughtful post on her latest novel.


Researching and Writing The First Rose of Tralee, the story of Mary O’Connor (182?-1845)

It was while sitting in my aunt’s kitchen in Tralee, Co Kerry during the school holidays that I first heard of Mary O’Connor, the young girl who inspires the annual Rose of Tralee International Festival, now in its 60thyear.

Each morning after 10 o’clock mass, auntie and her relatives had tea and biscuits sitting around the oil-clothed table. The chat was mighty. They talked the Irish history that I learned in school as though it was happening outside in the street – the patriot Daniel O’Connell and his campaigning for Repeal of the Union, the disruptive Whiteboys, the Great Famine, the curse of consumption, and Mary O’Connor featured frequently.

Mary, the daughter of a shoemaker from Brogue Lane, lived more than 150 years ago – it is said, her beauty had heads turning. The handsome William Mulchinock, a poet, campaigner and master of West Villa, fell in love with her and wrote The Ballad of the Rose of Tralee.

The story of Mary O’Connor stayed with me, lurking at the back of my mind until about four years ago when I discovered her story had not been written in novel form. Researching was a minefield of differing bits of evidence. But because I was writing historical fiction I settled on some facts, embellished others and added characters and intrigue, taking creative liberties with set pieces, imagining places, occurrences and dialogue – bearing in mind that the book could not be research-led. As I wrote fact blurred into fiction and vice versa.

The story is set in the 1840s during the time of Daniel O’Connell’s monster rallies for Repeal of the Irish Union of 1801.  The parts of his speeches that I quoted are taken from Richard Aldous’s Great Irish Speeches. The love affair between the master and the servant was doomed from the start – William’s mother was horrified; the schoolmaster grieved for them, and the final straw was when William was wrongly accused of killing a man, having to flee the country, ending up in India for five years.  When William was finally exonerated his return to Tralee and plans to marry died a quick death.

I visited Tralee and met archivists and local historians who furnished me with information maps, drawings and portraits – though there are none of Mary. I stayed in Benners Hotel, a Bianconi coach stop in the mid-19thcentury and imagined William leaving and returning to Tralee by coach.

Google provided information on the shoemaking industry of the mid-nineteenth century; the running of big houses – kitchen to upper floors; the lives of the peasants; education of the time; consumption or the white plague as TB was known.

Poverty in 19th century Ireland

When writing about a particular era I like to read works of fiction by other authors. Compared to what’s been written about Ireland during and after the Famines I didn’t come across much pre-famine, but I re-read Beatrice Coogan’s The Big Wind. Despite it being a contemporary novel, I familiarised myself with sensory India with Gregory David Roberts’s wonderful Shantaram.

‘The Way We Wore Exhibition’ in Dublin’s Collins Barracks Museum provided an insight into the clothing of the time. The National Famine Museum in Co Roscommon and Kerry County Museum proved useful information about  coaches, carriages, kitchen utensils and furniture of the time.

My first draft was a mess. The second daft was little better. I spent what, at the time, I considered to be inefficient days soaking up atmosphere and getting a bit of information here and there. Those ‘inefficient’ days proved invaluable as I ended up with a notebook full of information – such as the way dresses were hung in the wardrobes of the time; the use of tea to restore mahogany furniture; the healing properties of goose fat for chapped hands and the favoured foods for a formal dinner – when trifle was known as an Empire dessert.

As writers we know that the opening paragraphs – or point of entry, as it’s called in publishing circles, is most important. The opening I finally settled on has Mary’s father threatening her with marriage and her flouncing out to the potato market before wandering along to Denny Street that was ‘black with people’ as one of Daniel O’Connell’s rallies was in progress.

Great. I had a rally, Mary O’Connor and Daniel O’Connell. As I felt the story cohese I added falling snow. Why not include William Mulchinock, the hero? Margaret Mulchinock, William’s mother, an important character, was introduced in the second scene. On the death of her husband in the early 1830s she took over the running of the family businesses.

William managed the drapery store on the Mall – known as the Munster Warehouse in the 1960s where the fashion-conscious of Tralee shopped. I had him source jewel coloured silks and taffetas from the Far East – I saw such examples in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Mary started as a kitchen skivvy in West Villa, progressed to the upstairs and finally was promoted to the position of nursery maid where William first met and fell in love with her.

Gradually re-write after re-write – in between illness visited on our family – The First Rose of Tralee was published. And I’m glad to say, as is said in publishing circles, it was well received.


Many thanks, Patricia. Such a mystery the way novels come together. Best wishes for another success.


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

Transported in time and place – with author Susie Murphy

When I saw Susie Murphy’s cover for her novel A Class Apart, I had to invite her to talk about my favourite topic – transporting readers in time and place. She graciously agreed. Over to you, Susie.

My intention with A Class Apart is to transport readers back to the 19thcentury, to the year 1828, and the location of Ireland, specifically a grand manor estate in Co Carlow. I want them to become immersed in an era when the divide between the upper and lower classes was insurmountable, when the minority Protestant Ascendancy ruled the majority Roman Catholic population, and when the spark of uprising could be so easily lit.

Before I talk about my efforts to accomplish that, I should first confess to the gigantic error I made in the very beginning: I initially wrote the novel without any historical research at all…! *winces at the memory* I was only sixteen years old when I started writing it (in 2002, exactly half my life ago), and at that stage I was very much a pantser – caught up in the raw magic of writing, I simply made everything up as I went along. It didn’t even occur to me to check the details. At the time, I was writing for me and no one else.

Many years passed as real life got in the way, but by the end of 2010 I knew I wanted to do my level best to become a published author. So I revisited my book, made plans for a whole series, developed my writing across several drafts, and – in 2016 and thus very belatedly – got stuck into the research. The value of doing proper research before writing the story was very much a lesson I learned the hard way. I ended up changing huge parts of my book because there were so many incorrect things in it. I had to fix wrong usage of noble titles (just because a man is rich does not mean he’s a lord), clear up complex points about inheritance (tricky to navigate – certain parts of the law could have ruined the premise of my book entirely), create new characters because I was missing essential people (such as the butler, a rather crucial individual in a 19thcentury manor house), and remove anachronistic terminology (I couldn’t use the phrase ‘her voice cut like barbed wire’, given that barbed wire wasn’t invented until the 1860s). The surgery I performed on my book during this time was well overdue and comprehensive.

What emerged from my research was a great deal of clarification. While I had always known the book was set in Ireland, in my early drafts I had been very vague about when the story took place. No need to be too specific, silly teenaged me had thought. Of course, with constantly changing fashions, modes of transportation, politics, and so much more, this wasn’t feasible without making the book completely bare of any defining details – and hence losing the tools to transport readers in the first place.

I knew it was around the 1800s. Recalling my study of history at school and exploring the political background of that century, I settled on the year 1828. The longstanding conflict in Ireland that stemmed from English rule on Irish soil would be the backdrop for the story, and 1828 was just thirty years after the failed Irish Rebellion of 1798, so the memory of that uprising would still be strong in the people’s minds. (It also served to align the timeline with important political and social events occurring later in the century that would affect the following five books in my A Matter of Class series, whose plots I continued to develop while refining the first book.)

In addition, the vast social divide which existed at the time was well suited to act as an impediment to the budding romantic attachment between my two main characters, Bridget Muldowney and Cormac McGovern. Bridget is an heiress and upper class; Cormac is a stable hand and lower class. She is Anglo-Irish and of the Church of Ireland religion; he is Irish and Roman Catholic. While they grew up as childhood friends, everything about their situation as adults is designed to keep them apart. The growing unrest in the Irish countryside could only add to the complicated nature of their relationship.

As for location, almost the entire novel takes place in the environs of Oakleigh Manor, Bridget’s ancestral home. Oakleigh is a fictional place so, to know how it truly feels to walk around such a house, I visited Palmerstown House in Co Kildare. While it is from a slightly later time period, the majesty of the place is the same. It was a pleasure and a privilege to wander its halls and rooms, get a sense of how both the family and servants lived in it, and convey a similar impression in my depiction of Oakleigh.

Lower class dwellings also feature in my book, in particular Cormac’s family cottage. Visiting Bunratty Castle & Folk Park in Co Clare gave me a wonderful insight into the various aspects of an Irish village and its humble buildings. However, the best connection I could make to that – and I would not have called it research at the time – was staying at my grandparents’ old Irish cottage when I was a child. Everything about it, from the whitewashed walls to the smell of the turf fire, gave me all the details I needed to recreate it in my book.

Though I came at my research the long way round, I’m glad to say I finally got there in the end! In writing A Class Apart, I have endeavoured to transport readers to a time and place of significant upheaval in Ireland’s history and to show it from the perspectives of both sides of the class divide.

Thanks, Susie. Anyone familiar with Downton Abbey will recognize those servant bells!

A Class Apart by Susie Murphy

It’s 1828, and Ireland is in turmoil as Irish tenants protest against their upper-class English landlords.

Nineteen-year-old Bridget Muldowney is thrilled to return to the estate in Carlow she’ll inherit when she comes of age. But since she left for Dublin seven years earlier, the tomboy has become a refined young lady, engaged to be married to a dashing English gentleman.

Cormac McGovern, now a stable hand on the estate, has missed his childhood friend. He and Bridget had once been thick as thieves, running wild around the countryside together.

When Bridget and Cormac meet again their friendship begins to rekindle, but it’s different now that they are adults. Bridget’s overbearing mother, determined to enforce the employer-servant boundaries, conspires with Bridget’s fiancé to keep the pair apart.

With the odds stacked against them, can Bridget and Cormac’s childhood attachment blossom into something more?


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

The Soldier’s Farewell – a review by Sarah Zama

A few weeks ago, author Sarah Zama whose blog is called The Old Shelter reviewed Maisie Dobbs – and today she’s back with a review of The Soldier’s Farewell, a novel by Alan Monaghan. Many thanks for contributing to the blog, Sarah!

9780230763166The Soldier-s Farewell_4The Soldier’s Farewell by Alan Monaghan

The Easter Rising is a well-known part of Irish history, the apex of Ireland’s fight for her freedom. Not as well-known is the time that came after, which is all but a heroic history. That was a time of a fierce civil war that put brother against brother, bloodied Ireland and destroyed Dublin. It was the time when Ireland lost Ulster and the feeling of betrayal was the constant companion of many Irish.

This is when this book is set, a very intense time in Irish history as seen from within.

Stephen is a interesting character and a good example of the unresolved conflict of that time. A veteran of WWI, a loyal follower of Michael Collins, he is the man in the middle: the man who fought WWI in the British Army, but fought alongside one of the fiercer fighters for Ireland’s independence too. Like many others, Stephen had to decide whose side he wanted to stand on when Collins signed the Treaty with Britain, and by choosing, he ended up on the opposite side from his own brother, who regarded him as a betrayer.

The subject matter is clearly hot and relevant, still I had quite a hard time feeling involved in the story. Although these characters act and react to the historical events, they never seem to have a personal goal to pursue. Mostly, they don’t go after a personal achievement, but merely follow history’s flow, which didn’t truly allow me to care for their predicaments. But even when they pursue for a personal goal, it feels as if those are different stories and never truly connect to the overall matter of the novel.

This is the case of Lillian’s arc. She’s Stephen soon-to-be-wife, a mathematician like him. They pursue the academic life together, before Stephen chooses to answer the Nation’s call for fighting men. As a woman, Lillian has a very hard life inside Trinity College and part of the story follows her struggle to see her merits recognized against a male colleague. Although interesting in itself, this part of story is so detached from the main matter of the civil war that I found it more distracting than enriching. And unfortunately this is only one of quite a few threads that really lead nowhere.

It is a shame, because there is much to love in this novel. Stephen comes in contact with many historical figures and is always in the thick of the action. In a time when nobody trusts their own brother and where fighters execute their comrades of yesterday, Stephen was in the right place as a character to convey the tragedy of a nation.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite happen.

This is a novel I could have loved, but which I just enjoyed.

The Soldier’s Farewell is the third novel in a trilogy, but it stands on its own well enough that I could read it without ever feeling I missed pieces of the story.

Many thanks for the thoughtful review, Sarah. I look forward to reading more.

Sarah Zama was born, raised and still lives near Verona (Italy), though she worked for a time in Dublin. Sarah started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today she’s a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into her own dieselpunk stories.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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