• www.inkwellwriters.ie

Parnell – A Novel and the Narrative Device: Brian Cregan

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews

By Brian Cregan

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

This month Brian Cregan’s Parnell A Novel was launched by The History Press Ireland. Described by RTE’s Myles Dungan as ‘a monumental task tackled with style and aplomb’, Parnell A Novel is ‘a page turner which keeps the reader gripped’, as Diarmaid Ferriter says in the Irish Independent, ‘Cregan has produced a rollicking read that is well researched and faithful to many of the details and happenings of Parnell’s life and public rhetoric’. Parnell A Novel makes history accessible for the many who perhaps struggled with the subject at school, adding the ingredients of great fiction to research that took almost ten years. But how do you tackle a subject like this, and make it accessible? Brian Cregan explained to writing.ie:

“There are various forms of historical fiction.  The most common is one in which fictional  characters play out their story in a particular time and place and the great historical figures of that era  have only walk-on parts.  Another form – becoming more common in recent years – is biographical fiction in which the novel centres on the events or imagined life of a real character.  An interesting example of this was The Master  by Colm Tobin  and Author Author by David Lodge – both novels about Henry James. A third form of historical fiction – which Gabriel Garcia Marquez called “novelised history” – is one in which a novel tells the story of a great historical figure, as Gore Vidal did in Lincoln – A Novel.

But whatever the form of fiction, the first  decision one has to make in writing a novel is to decide what is the narrative device – who is telling the story.

One option, (used in I Claudius by Robert Graves) is to tell the story in the first person – in that case  a memoir of an emperor.  A second device is that of shifting perspectives.  Thus in Lincoln, the story is told through the eyes of numerous different characters, e.g. the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, his personal secretary.  In this way, Lincoln is viewed through the eyes of many protagonists and a rounded picture of the man emerges. This is however, unusual, difficult to achieve and somewhat disconcerting for the reader.

A third option is to use the omniscient author as was done in Napoleon  by Max Gallo.  Here the author can see and hear what every character is doing and even know what they are thinking.  This is a common way to write historical fiction because it allows the author great freedom to tell the story.

A fourth and unusual device– brilliantly used by John Williams in his novel Augustus –  is to use letters, journals and other documents written by various participants to tell  the story of Octavian’s rise to become Emperor of Rome.  There is no single narrator.  The story is started by one person, carried on by another, reflected on by a third and a complicated mosaic of differing views emerge.

However the choice I made in Parnell – A Novel –  was to tell the story of Parnell through the perspective of a fictional character – his secretary James Harrison.  In my view, there is always something compelling about one person telling their story.  Although Harrison is a reliable narrator, he is, of necessity, partisan, even prejudiced.  He is  not and does not claim to be objective.  He has his likes and dislikes and reacts to other characters in the novel as he meets them along the way.

Another advantage of telling a story in  this manner is that readers quickly become familiar with the voice and point of view and can “settle into” the novel.  The disadvantage is that Harrison is not there for the private scenes between Parnell and Katharine O’Shea and is unable to have access to their thoughts, or emotions unless they are  expressed to him.  At an early stage, I sought to write the novel in an omniscient voice.  But for me, with this story, it lacked the immediacy, the colour and the personal reaction to characters which I wanted to evoke.

Parnell A Novel is structured as Harrison’s memoir of Parnell.  Parnell was born in 1846 – the second year of the Great Famine.  But as a wealthy landowning family, the famine would have had little or no effect on the Parnell family. Harrison, by contrast, was also born during the famine: his mother died in that famine and he was found, as a new-born child, beside his dead mother, by a Church of Ireland clergyman and placed for adoption with a wealthy Dublin doctor and his wife.  Thus Harrison is brought up and educated as a young Protestant boy.  After his university education Harrison takes a position as secretary to Parnell, a position which, by virtue of his upbringing and education, he is now able to fulfil.

It is only in the second part of the novel – when  famine threatens the country again and Harrison sees scenes of a starving and destitute people – that he realises that he is of these people.    With an awakening awareness of his background and the tragedy of his mother’s fate, Harrison now becomes personally involved in the struggle for land reform and home rule.

Parnell asks Harrison to become involved in the Land League and also to stand as a Member  of Parliament. Once Harrison is elected an MP, he is now present in the House of Commons sitting beside Parnell and participating in the debates with him.

Moreover Harrison, as befitted men of his upbringing and social class is also in search of a profession and eventually, after encouragement from Justin McCarthy, Harrison is called to the Bar and thus can act for Parnell in the numerous court trials in which Parnell is involved.

Each narrative device has its advantages and drawbacks.   Some stories lend themselves more obviously to one form of narration than another: thus a story with multiple strands or in different periods of time may require an omniscient author whereas a story of one man can be told by an eyewitness.    In the end, it is a matter of choice and of instinct.  How do you want to tell the story and – perhaps as important – how do you want readers to receive the story.  In telling the story of Parnell, I wanted to consider the question: what would it have been like to have walked with Parnell, to have talked with him and to have lived through those times.  The best answer to that question was, in my view, to have an eyewitness account – to have Harrison’s account – of how Parnell achieved greatness despite the overwhelming obstacles.”

(c) Brian Cregan

About Parnell A Novel

Dublin, March 1874. Charles Stewart Parnell, only twenty-six years old, speaks in public for the first time as a candidate for Ireland’s Home Rule Party. Hesitant and nervous, he stumbles through his speech to the sound of booing and leaves the platform humiliated. He vows that in future he will find his voice – and make it heard.

Within three years of this speech, Parnell made the House of Commons unworkable; within six years he had destroyed the landlords in Ireland; and within a decade he controlled the House of Commons and put English Prime Ministers in and out of government at will.

Parnell: A Novel charts the life of this most enigmatic and remarkable of men, as seen through the eyes of his loyal secretary James Harrison. From the Houses of Parliament to the blighted villages of the West of Ireland, from the courtrooms of the Royal Courts of Justice to the cells of Kilmainham Gaol, this is the story of how the character of one man could alter the fate of two nations.


  • www.designforwriters.com
  • allianceindependentauthors.org

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from writing.ie delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books