1798 – Tomorrow The Barrow We’ll Cross is a mighty read. It’s what I’d call a big fat novel or to use that well worn cliché, an epic tale. It has all the elements needed to qualify as such – war, love, heroism, divided loyalties and tragedy. But as a novel it is more than just a mighty read – it is also, often, a very beautiful read, lyrical and poetic particularly in the descriptions of Wexford during that fateful and catastrophic summer of 1798.
I recently caught up with its author, Joe Murphy and began by asking him to explain the rather cryptic note at the very beginning of this, his first novel.
Joe the very first question I have to ask you is to explain your biographical note on the front of your book which says ‘Joe Murphy was born in 1979 in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford where he lived for nineteen years before dying. Then he got better.’
The note’s kind of a wry, half-mocking glance back at the incident that sparked off the idea for this book. My first, and most enduring love was goal-keeping. I was handy enough too. During a pre-season friendly in August 1998 I collected a booming, miss-hit cross and got clattered in mid-air by an oncoming forward. I picked myself up and kept playing, unaware that I’d ruptured my spleen and was bleeding to death. Two or three days later I collapsed and was rushed to hospital. On the way my heart stopped but they managed to resuscitate me. Whilst recuperating, it being the bicentenary of the 1798 Rising, I read a lot of history books on the subject but was amazed to discover that nobody had written the epic novel that the Rising deserved. I vowed that if ever I had the time I’d make an attempt at doing just that. Since the accident I’ve become increasingly resigned to the fact that the chances of being called up to play in goal for Ireland are pretty slim and I might as well make a go at the writing instead.
Congratulations on the publication of this your first novel, which is set in your beloved Wexford during the infamous 1798 bloody rebellion. Congratulations also on what, I think, is a very beautiful opening to your book. The description of night falling on the countryside of your birth is breathtaking and poetic and that you link it then to night falling in 1798 is a stroke of genius. Did you have this opening in your head from the very conception of your story or was it more spontaneous?
Thank you very much for the compliment! I wish I could say it was planned! I wanted to write something atmospheric and sweeping that could suggest either peace and tranquillity or an undercurrent of menace. The ‘barking of dogs on lone farms’ is a reference to ‘The Sniper’ by Liam O’Flaherty – a story of brother killing brother. In short, I knew what I wanted to do with the opening but the style and ‘poetry’ of it was spontaneous. The shift to nightfall in 1798 was a conscious decision to give it a ‘cinematic’ feel.
Your love of your home county sings from every page. Do you think the echoes of Wexford’s bloody past still mark the county and the people in any way?
Definitely. Growing up in the shadow of Vinegar Hill makes you acutely aware of the ghosts that we live with every day. Wexford people are conscious of the mistakes and heroism of their ancestors in an extraordinarily vital way. We still hold the absence of the Kilkenny United Irishmen against Kilkenny people. This is a negative thing in that there’s often a sense of isolationism and cynicism that springs from the murky waters of 1798. The scars that Wexford people carry are still livid after 200 years. Whether this is good or bad depends on what use you put that pain and that genetic memory to.
From my hazy knowledge of the 1798 rebellion I know of course about the Battle of Vinegar Hill and of Father Murphy of Boolavogue but how much of the other events you write about are real – Oulart and the cattle stampede in particular?
Every ‘stand-out’ event in the book actually happened and the details of those events are as accurate as I could make them. I spent two and a half years rooting through manuscripts and muster rolls, maps and memoirs to get a proper picture of events from as many angles as possible. 25,000 people died throughout the country in the summer of 1798, to take liberties with actual events would be to do a disservice to those who lost their lives. The challenge was to create a gripping narrative around these actual happenings and without making it read like the dry ink and paper of academic history.
You manage to portray very well the complicated nature of life in Ireland at the time – with many Protestants siding with the United Irishmen and Irish men in the Yeomanry etc. Do you feel that it is important that new generations of Irish understand these subtleties in our history?
Thank you! That was one of the main aims in writing the book the way I did. I was very conscious that what I was dealing with was a very ideologically important period of history but one that has been easily hijacked over the years and used for propaganda by both ‘traditions’ on this island. The reality of the time is exactly as I have portrayed it. It was impossible to draw easy divisions along sectarian lines or any other demarcation either. I think we are starting to get to grips with the subtleties again. Until the Good Friday agreement I think it was quite difficult for us to explore the fault-lines of our national character with any kind of honesty.
Did you have inspiration for the characters of Tom and Dan Banville or are they completely fictional characters?
Dan and Tom are composites of various people I came across in my research. They’re personalities are amalgamations of the personalities I found in diary entries and memoirs of the time. Tom, in particular, embodies a lot of the misgivings and hindsight that were voiced by surviving United Irishmen in the years after the Rising.
The brutality of the time was harrowing. Some of the episodes you write about were difficult to read. Were they difficult to write?
What made them difficult was the knowledge that they really occurred. I think as a writer of fiction, when you try to animate the face of a real evil you sometimes don’t like what you see. I tried not to fall into the trap of exaggerating things. Hopefully the atrocities, and they were atrocities, have as much pathos as they do horror.
As a teacher do you find you write all year around or do write during the summer and school holidays? And have you any particular tips to pass on to writing.ie readers who might be struggling with their writing at the moment?
I tend to plan during the year and write during the holidays. If there’s one tip I can pass on it’s that – planning. Set goals, maybe a thousand or two thousand words a day and stick to them for dear life. I finished ‘Tomorrow the Barrow We’ll Cross’ in under five months. I had set myself a target of ten pages a day and, come hell or high water, that’s what I wrote. My wife was not overly happy at the time, let me tell you.
Finally, what is next for you Joe? Have you another book in the works? And if so is it another work of historical fiction?
I have another book in the works, yeah. It’s completely different to the first. It’s a modern day exploration of friendship and alienation. It’s about two meddling kids who witness something they shouldn’t. Think Scooby Doo for adults. In saying that however, I think I’d like to return to the past at some stage. I think Dublin around the time of the Act of Union is an interesting place. Watch this space……