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A Graphic Life: Daniel O’Connell in Pictures by Jody Moylan

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Article by Writing IE Admin © 23 June 2016 .
Posted in the Magazine ( · General Interest · Non-Fiction ).

While this, my first book, has not been my life’s work so to speak, the whole project has spanned about four years from the germ of an idea, to publication.

I’d been doing some freelance work in sports journalism, and also a regular job where I worked mostly nights. During the day I’d be at the National Library working on different things and it was from here that I began to explore the history of my own community in county Roscommon, with a particular interest in the period covering the latter stages of the 19th century.

I got so caught up in it that I took an extramural course at Trinity College (Ireland under the Union: 1801-1922) to get a greater grasp of the national world that surrounded rural life at that time.

It was then, really, that Daniel O’Connell came out of the shadows and into my world. And truthfully, he’s probably been the one person that’s been in my mind more than any other, ever since.

Anyone with a brief familiarity with O’Connell tends to think of Catholic Emancipation. It’s like the box that he goes into. And it’s great, and fitting, that he should be remembered for his finest achievement.

jody moylanBut Dan’s life was so much more than just that alone. I think his life is almost perfect for biographical treatment. It was epic in itself, from O’Connell’s birth to his death. And yet there was so much going on in the world around him too. Such richness of incident: the Penal Laws, the French Revolution, the 1798 Rebellion, the Act of Union, the Napoleonic Wars. Dan also witnessed the Irish typhus epidemic of 1817-19 (which killed 65,000), the era of Captain Rock and mass agrarian violence, the tithe wars of the 1830’s, and the Great Famine. It was from the Trinity College lectures that I began to visualise everything I was hearing. And what I found most interesting, when you get to the nuts and bolts of O’Connell, is that his life was not overly complex, and it could be told in a simple way. And that’s how my own book happened. While reading one of Dan’s biographies I thought to myself that while I didn’t have the money to make a film, I could make a book. And the work ‘make’ is key, because although I would write it, I felt the use of original images could elevate it into something fresh and exciting. The images would be used to draw the reader some distance in to the text. And because the text would not be saturated with images I felt it could all be done in a subtle way. The original Sherlock Holmes books by Arthur Conan Doyle sprung immediately to mind, with Holmes or Watson, or some protagonist, occupying a space in the corner of the page, and capturing the reader’s imagination.

The general reader could learn about Daniel O’Connell – omnipresent in Irish life by way of street names, his Dublin statue and bridge, Irish pub names the world over – without having to spend a few months working through a two volume tome. You could read a chapter over breakfast, be done in a few weeks, and the images might make something stick in the mind. That was the idea. What I’d noticed really was that biographies of historical figures seemed to be in two distinct brackets; either totemic academic works that are (in truth) inaccessible to most people, or childish works for the very young. What I wanted to do was something in between, something that told you everything you needed to know – a full biography – but do it in a highly accessible way.  So after a bit of research I found the artist to work with, Mateusz Nowakowski, with help from the art faculty at IADT. I had written up an email to be circulated amongst art students who would be interested in working on a book submission.

I must say I got great feedback from a number of artists but it was the work of Mateusz that stood out a mile for me. I loved the style and detail in his portfolio and in the end it was a simple decision to ask Mat to collaborate.

For such a non-fiction book, Irish publishers in general request three to four chapters for a submission. So myself and Mat met up at a café in Dublin and decided on our route forward. It was really quite simple; I’d write the chapters for submission, decide where an image would work, sketch out the image in text form, and send the ideas to Mat to draw up. Often during the submission work, as with the finished book, Mat’s ideas on things like perspective and angle would change an image in to something way more beautiful. One of the best things about our collaboration was that we were not coming from opposing artistic sides. More often than not it was a case of ‘Yes, I love that image. It works.’ We both had great belief that we would get a publisher. Quite simply, we both thought the idea was strong. It was just a matter of our own work of writing and art being good enough. It was that belief that kept us going for the good part of a year. We were both leading other lives and the submission was a slow burn, to be honest, but it was always there in the background.

I have to say we were lucky with this, our first book, as we didn’t have to experience much rejection. All of the publishers we submitted to got back to us very quickly, with The Collins Press accepting it. After that we didn’t wait around. It was a case of ‘Right, we’ve got a publisher, now let’s get to work’. And that’s when the book started proper.

While it was a huge amount of work it was also a brilliant journey into the life of Daniel O’Connell and his time. Along the way I visited the ‘Kerry country’ of Dan’s youth: Cahersiveen and Derrynane. I also made it to Westminster, and took a brilliant tour of Parliament buildings there; the site of O’Connell’s great beginning as the political chief of Catholic Ireland. I took a trip, too, to Rome last November to visit the sites associated with Dan’s funeral procession in 1847. The book had been finished at that stage and the eternal city was a fitting place to round off a great voyage into the life of one of Ireland’s great men.

(c) Jody Moylan

About Daniel O’Connell, A Graphic Life

Daniel O’Connell – ‘The Liberator’ – lived a big, great and graphic life. Born in Kerry in 1775, he witnessed some of the most pivotal events in Irish and European history: the Penal Laws, the French Revolution, the 1798 Rebellion and the Great Famine. In his struggle for Catholic emancipation, O’Connell achieved the first and most important step towards Irish freedom. He stormed into the House of Commons against the wishes of the Government and the King, smashing down the door that had denied Catholics a place in Parliament. One of the greatest legal men in Europe, he put fear into opponents, judges and the British establishment alike. He shot and killed a man in a deadly duel, fought against slavery and spent time in jail. He also struggled with his weight and his debts, and was sometimes very vain. Simply told for a young adult audience, with lively text and striking illustrations, this book brings Daniel O’Connell and his world to life.

Daniel O’Connell: A Graphic Life is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!