The Genesis of Limbo by Maureen Gallagher | Magazine | Crime | Interviews

By Maureen Gallagher

There is a myth about novel-writing, that it is somehow mysterious, only something the very gifted can do it. There are hundreds of people out there who set out to write a novel, but never actually complete it because they lose heart, convince themselves it’s not good enough, that it will never work.  What they fail to realise is that you must just keep pushing forward until you come to the finish. No one ever said it would be easy. The truth is, writing a novel – or indeed any writing – is a solitary hard graft. It’s work. You sit at your desk, you face the blank page, you write so many words a day. Some will set a target of 2000 words a day. Others write less. Taking my cue from Graham Greene – a writer I admire – I adopted as a goal 500 words after which I would give myself the rest of the day off. (Greene used to reward himself with going to the pub once he’d written his 500 words!)

There are some who believe every sentence you write, must – from the very start – be beautiful. Even if you only get to write three such sentences in a day, they will argue, that’s job well done. I don’t hold that view. I believe that for the first draft, you just let the words flow. Make no attempt to edit or judge. That comes later. I always think of a finished first draft as like having a big slab of marble – rough and unformed – that has to be worked on and turned into a piece of art. This is where the real writing begins. It’s in the editing process you become a novelist.

I’m really an accidental crime writer. My main interest had always been in writing short stories and poetry, which I loved, and I saw myself as firmly belonging to the literary genre. When I impulsively attended a fiction workshop and was challenged with writing a 300-word pitch for a full length crime story, I found, to my surprise, that three years later I had completed a crime novel.

It all started with an image.

Profile photo of author Maureen Gallagher

The writer, John Fowles, once said that he usually started with a powerful image, and then tried to work out what the story behind it was and how it developed, The French Lieutenant’s Woman being the most obvious example. The image of the mysterious woman at the coast staring out to sea is not so far away from the image of a baby found on the beach. 

So my novel opens with the most awful crime imaginable.

The image of a baby found murdered on a beach in Kerry in the early eighties had a powerful effect on me. It lingered and haunted me for years. Although probably not the wisest choice, this image was the one that powerfully and compellingly suggested itself to me when I set out to write that pitch at the workshop.  It’s important for me to say, that while there is an echo of the Kerry Babies story in my novel Limbo, this isn’t that story. After an initial similarity the underlying themes are about what we were like as a nation back in the eighties and ultimately what that led to: women vilified for no greater crime than becoming pregnant. The protagonist Kate Francis aka Frankie asks in the novel:  ‘Do we not value pregnancy and birth in this country?’

I wanted to set my work in the past rather than the present, so that I could explore how Ireland was in that period, which I remember well. So the action takes place in 1989, ten years after the pope’s visit. An era when people’s mindset had not changed much at all from the 50’s and 60’s. (My plan is to set the Kate Francis series at ten-year intervals, so that some idea emerges of the way Ireland has changed in the past 35 years. 

I spent most summers as a child in Gweedore in Donegal, where my parents grew up. Summer seemed to go on forever back then and we spent much of it in one or other of the three glorious beaches there, including Port Arthur, which features prominently in the novel. I was fascinated with juxtaposing a horrible crime like the murder of a baby against a backdrop of such exquisite beauty. Just as south eastern Sicily is like a character in Andrea Camilleri’s Montelbano thrillers, Gweedore itself features almost as a character in the story, with the mountain Errigal a touchstone for everything.

At a heart of Limbo is a whodunit. What was an eye-opener to me when I started to write Limbo, was that the structure of the crime novel – you could say its limitation – allowed me to explore social issues, told slant as the late great John McGahern would say. The bottom line is, it has to be entertaining. We want to know what happens next.

I started out writing short stories and was trying to get them published. I hoped eventually to follow in the footsteps of Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munroe and Margaret Atwood. Instead I find myself in the territory of Patricia Cornwall, Val McDermid and Gene Kerrigan. Nothing wrong with that kind of company.

(c) Maureen Gallagher

About Limbo:

Limbo, a book by Maureen Gallagher. Features a beach scene on a dark and overcast day


A baby boy is found beaten to death, in the sand dunes in Gweedore, in the summer of 1989. The murder weapon is a ball-peen hammer.

Sarah Joyce, recently heavily pregnant and with no baby to show, becomes the prime suspect and is arrested.

Working in a male-dominated workplace in nineteen-eighties Ireland has its problems for Detective Kate Francis a.k.a. Frankie. From the outset, she encounters the hostility of the local sergeant, the curmudgeon Liam Patsy Brannigan. Her boyfriend, fed up with her long working hours, keeps breaking up with her. Her married boss, Anton Moran, hits on her.

Frankie – conscious of the ticking clock – longs for a child.

Lines of enquiry lead Frankie to Umfin Island, where she encounters the strange rituals of the followers of Brigid, the Goddess of Fertility.

The investigation leads her to bomb-planting on the border and across the border into Derry, where she finds herself operating under the watchful eyes of both the IRA and the British army.

The crashing waves, the wild rugged landscape and Errigal Mountain all form a background to Frankie’s relentless search for the killer of the Strand Baby.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Maureen Gallagher was born in Monaghan, Her stories, poetry and literary criticism have been published widely in magazines and journals and she has won prizes many times for her work. Her first poetry collection, Calling the Tune, was published by Wordsonthestreet Press in December 2008. Maureen Gallagher lives in Galway. Her website can be viewed at

Subscribe to our newsletter

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

Featured books