My grandfather was a quiet, studious man, a retired headmaster who pottered in his garden and went to church on Sundays and, to my knowledge, never left Ireland. How then, did he come to be aboard a sailing ship to the Arctic in search of the lost skeleton of an Irish giant, surviving encounters with wild storms, ravening polar bears and supernatural beings?
When I was a small child, he was already pushing eighty, stooped and bald, with James Joyce spectacles and an antique grey suit, his early years far in the past. My memories of him are faint, but I have photographs of him as a young man and from time to time I glimpse his expression in the features of my teenage daughter, who takes after that side of the family.
Three years ago, as Ireland began gearing up to commemorate 1916, I found myself thinking about him again. Born in 1893 in a small village in County Monaghan, Walter Edwin Crozier was in Dublin studying to become a Presbyterian minister when the Rising broke out. What, I wondered, did he experience as rebels and soldiers clashed in the streets, and mortars and bullets flew around the walls of Trinity College? What had he seen and felt at that moment when, as W.B. Yeats put it, ‘a terrible beauty was born’?
The diaries that he kept meticulously all his life would have shed some light on this, but unfortunately they were destroyed (for reasons known only to herself) by my grandmother when he died. The only fragment of family lore from this time – and it’s a detail that thrilled my seven-year-old heart – was that he slept with a revolver under his pillow.
Other questions also intrigued: why, given his age and that other family members had fought in the First World War, was he not at the Front, and why had he abandoned his religious studies to become instead the headmaster of a quiet rural school in County Fermanagh?
As the national debate around the Decade of Centenaries gathered pace, I found myself imagining the young Walter back in the Dublin of a hundred years ago: walking across the cobbles of Trinity College, sauntering along the quays, supping a pint in a Grafton Street pub… The questions persisted. And I felt a kind of grief for the lost diaries.
So, I took a liberty with the past. I would fill the gap. I began to concoct an alternative life for him, a fictional story that would take him away from both the Rising and the War, and put him – literally – outside history. Inspired by my own obsession with early twentieth-century adventure novels, I sent him to sea on a three-masted barquentine alongside a squeamish Dublin medical student, a minor Anglo-Irish aristocrat and a foul-mouthed Glaswegian sailor, on a bizarre quest to the remotest corner of the world. Other characters would later be added to the mix, including a fiery Suffragette, a very unattractive dog and … an iguana.
I immediately ran into a number of challenges. As I began to write, I realised that I knew surprisingly little about the history of that time, virtually nothing about the Arctic, and absolutely nothing about sailing ships. Nor, crucially, did I know what was going to happen along the way.
My first novel, ‘Jammy Dodger’, was, as most debuts tend to be, quasi-autobiographical. It was set in a place I knew well (Belfast) and an era I had lived through (the 1980s), and much of the raw material merely required shaping. This one called for much more imaginative effort and a great deal of research.
I hit the library. I haunted the Maritime Museum. I sought out gnarly old sailors who had worked on tall ships. I took the tour of the famine ship, the Jeanie Johnston, in Dublin’s Custom House quay, memorising the mingled smells of old timber and varnish and tarry rope. I studied atlases, pored over maps of the Arctic Archipelago, calculated time and distance in nautical miles, acquainted myself with hitherto mysterious seafaring terms. I dug out harrowing accounts of 19th century whaling expeditions that gave me nightmares. At one point I was in a pet shop enquiring about the ideal ambient temperature for iguanas!
With historical fiction it’s vital to get the detail right, to embed the research so that it’s invisible to the naked eye – to make sure your Wiki, as it were, isn’t showing. This is hard work. As is ironing out possible anachronisms. When did Sackville Street become O’Connell Street? When were primus stoves invented? What kind of swear words were popular in 1916? And so on.
My range of sources was wide and varied. The ‘giant’ element was a hangover from childhood holidays near the Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim coast, and the visions implanted then of Finn Mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool) skirmishing with his Scottish rival Benandonner.
As for the story itself, I had only the destination. What would happen along the way and what my motley crew might find when they arrived would only be discovered in the writing, and this was to be an odyssey in itself. I could only weigh anchor and set sail…
It turned out to be quite an adventure.
(c) Kevin Smith
About ‘The Voyage of the Dolphin’:
It is Dublin in the spring of 1916: while war rages across Europe and rebellion threatens the Irish capital, three young College friends embark on a foolhardy seafaring mission to find the lost skeleton of an Irish giant. With mishaps, mischief, and a little romance, their voyage is a comic odyssey round the edges of history and into a curious adventure that will change their lives forever.
Ernest Shackleton meets P.G.Wodehouse in this heart-warming tale of three men in a ship (to say nothing of the dog, a foul-mouthed Scotsman and an iguana…)
The Voyage of the Dolphin is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
About Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith is from County Down in Northern Ireland and now lives in Dublin with his wife and two children. A former journalist, he has worked in newspapers, radio, and newswires, and was for a number of years a foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe. His first novel, Jammy Dodger, was nominated for the 2013 Desmond Elliott Prize for new fiction.