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Marita Conlon McKenna’s Rebel Sisters

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction
rebel sisters
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Marita Conlon McKenna is one of Ireland’s most successful and popular authors of women’s and children’s fiction. Her books are enjoyed by readers across the world. Marita’s first book, Under the Hawthorn Tree is set during the Great Irish Famine – and is an international bestseller, a book that has now become a children’s classic, and was the winner of the ‘International Reading Association Award’ USA and is part of the acclaimed ‘Children of the Famine’ trilogy. It has sold over 250,000 copies.

Historical fiction is an area Marita returns to again and again and in her latest bestseller Rebel Sisters, she stumbled over an incredible story. As she explained, “Over the years I have visited Kilmainham Jail and it always interests and moves me. No matter what the weather, I always get the same feeling standing in The Stone Breakers Yard, a strange sense of chill.

‘The tour guides also bring you to the small chapel where artist Grace Gifford and rebel leader Joseph Plunkett were married by candle light only a few hours before his execution. Visiting Kilmainham I realised that if I ever wanted to try to write a story about 1916, I needed to capture the humanity and emotional element. I was curious to discover more about Grace Gifford and was very surprised to find that she was from a large wealthy Protestant family – not what I had expected at all.

‘I was totally surprised to find then, that her sister Muriel was married to Thomas MacDonagh, another leader of the rebellion. Two bright beautiful sisters married to two leaders of the Rising who would be executed with 24 hours of each other…. I was intrigued.

‘The discovery that their sister Nellie was a member of The Irish Citizen Amy and fought in the College of Surgeon’s Garrison alongside Commandant Michael Mallin and Countess Markievicz, and was actually also in Kilmainham in a cell when Grace got married convinced me to write about them for they were actively involved in so many aspects of the Easter Rising.”

While this stunning tale was obviously biding its time to be discovered by the right author, it is a story that is crucial in the development of the state, and could not be rushed at. I asked Marita how much research was needed. She told me: “This is a very big book and there was a huge amount of research. It would not be possible to write about the period without doing it. Finding out about the Gifford sisters and their mother Isabella, the men they loved, and the friends and people around them were vital but so too was the accurate historical detail.

‘The National Library was essential as it holds the Gifford and the MacDonagh and the Plunkett papers and so many others that I needed, plus photographs of the period. The Bureau of Military History which holds hundreds of witness statements about the 1916 Rising was an invaluable research tool too. The collection is digitised and can be read online.

I read memoirs and first- hand accounts of the time and period, also a massive amount of biographies and a vast array of works by historians and academics about the lead up to the Rising and the Rising itself.

I visited the Slade school of Art in London, College of Surgeons, the GPO, Saint Enda’s which is now the Pearse Museum and tried to track down as much detail about the Gifford sisters as I could as well as Thomas MacDonagh and Joe Plunkett and the other the leaders of the Rising that they mixed with.”

But writing a historical novel is about more than getting the history right, as Marita continued, “This is the first time I have written about real people which makes it far more difficult as there is not the same freedom in terms of writing  as  everything has to be checked. College records and details about the art, theatre and literary world of the time, and the circles they moved were all very important to get right. However I soon realised that Muriel, Grace and Nellie were far better subjects for a book than any character I could have created, for they were involved at the very heart of the Rising.

Doing so much research took much longer than I expected but research gives its own reward as it brought so much new to the story.”

The Gifford sisters were very modern women,  Marita explained what made them so individual: “They were living at the start of the twentieth century which was a hugely exciting time in Ireland filled with change, especially for women with their demands for the right to vote and have a career. The Gifford sisters were part of not only the Celtic Revival but the growing nationalist movement, and were very politically aware. The three sisters all had red hair and were very striking and beautiful and could not help but be noticed. They all kicked against convention and strived to be independent.

Muriel trained to be a nurse, but eventually her health broke down so she had to give up nursing. She then volunteered to work with Maud Gonne’s Daughters of Eiermann serving school dinners to poor children in the city. She was absolutely beautiful and had a great sense of compassion. It was no wonder that Thomas MacDonagh fell madly in love with her. Despite her parents objections they married. They held literary salons in their flat and intelligent and bright she was often his first audience for his poems and plays and writing. As he became deeply involved with The Volunteers, their life changed. Muriel, a mother of two small children by the time of the Rising, displayed an immense courage as the situation became more dangerous.

Grace was the arty one. She studied art in Dublin and then at the Slade in London, where she first was drawn to the suffragette movement. A very talented artist returning to Dublin she began to get commissioned by the theatres and journals and magazines. All Grace cared about was art. Vivacious and witty , and she specialised in caricatures and cartoons and political sketches.  Joe Plunkett commissioned some of her work for the Irish Review and later for his theatre company. She attended the Suffragette meetings in Dublin and with her sisters helped out with the school dinners and in the soup kitchen in Liberty Hall. To outsiders she might seem aloof or distant like many artists but there was a strong sense of self- belief and directness about her. She and Joe Plunkett fell in love to everyone’s surprise and were set on getting married on Easter Sunday 1916 despite objections from their families.

Nellie was the practical one in the family. She loved to cook and trained as domestic cookery teacher. She had a big heart and always railed against injustice and inequality. During the 1913 Lockout she helped to run the soup kitchens in Liberty Hall alongside Countess Markievicz, feeding thousands of hungry workers and their families. After the strike ended she stayed on working in Liberty Hall. She joined the Irish Citizen Army and was trained like the men to use arms and drill and fight. She was appalled by the Great War and the numbers of Irish men going off to fight. Fiercely anti -conscription she set up an employment bureau to find work for young Irish men.

By 1916 Nellie was more than ready to play her part in the Rebellion. She served in the College of Surgeons where she tried to organise feeding the garrison.  She was also despatched to get more ammunition and food supplies. She always seemed level headed and caring and capable. She had immense courage and was very modest.”

With characters as strong as the Gifford sisters to guide the book, but at the same time having to stay true to historical events, I wondered how much of the book had to be plotted. Marita revealed: “There is always an element of plotting and planning a new book. You hope that you have manged to lay down a strong spine. But in the writing so much new and imagined and unexpected will appear that this is what helps to make and shape a book.  This is the fascinating part of the process which always excites and makes me want to keep writing…I never know it all or even a good part of it [when I start writing].”

Marita is a now full time writer and says, “I try to write most days and if I am halfway or coming towards the end of a book am pretty much chained to my desk as I am so involved in telling the story and writing and shaping my work. I am lucky that I have a large bright study with a bay window overlooking my garden with plenty of space for my books and folders and research. I started off writing on my kitchen table and would write in the car waiting for my kids to come out of school!”

I asked Marita to share her top 5 writing tips for anyone working on historical fiction, and here they are:

  1. Pick a time, event or place in history that excites and interest you.
  2. Be open to finding out information you did not expect as you research.
  3. The more you research the richer and more layered your book will be.
  4. Save and copy all your research. Try to keep it together, in case you need to go back and check something.
  5. Put your research to one side and go and write about the people you have come to know and understand or have created.

(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin

About Rebel Sisters

With the threat of the First World War looming, tension simmers under the surface of Ireland.

Growing up in the privileged confines of Dublin’s leafy Rathmines, the bright, beautiful Gifford sisters Grace, Muriel and Nellie kick against the conventions of their wealthy Anglo-Irish background and their mother Isabella’s expectations. Soon, as war erupts across Europe, the spirited sisters find themselves caught up in their country’s struggle for freedom.

Muriel falls deeply in love with writer Thomas MacDonagh, artist Grace meets the enigmatic Joe Plunkett – both leaders of ‘The Rising’ – while Nellie joins the Citizen Army and bravely takes up arms, fighting alongside Countess Constance Markievicz in the rebellion.

On Easter Monday, 1916, the biggest uprising in Ireland for two centuries begins. The world of the Gifford sisters and everyone they hold dear will be torn apart in a fight that is destined for tragedy.

Rebel Sisters is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

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