The Emerald Spy by Nicola Cassidy is published with Poolbeg Press and is described as a book that ‘explores Ireland’s complicated refugee past’. Set over a couple of weeks in the summer of 1939, The Emerald Spy was inspired by true events that took place in Termonfeckin, County Louth, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
When Nicola Cassidy was stuck at home, due to Covid restrictions, she had to rethink her plans for her next book. An expected discovery of the history behind An Grianán, the now home of the ICA (Irish Countrywomen’s Association), revealed a story that Nicola felt obliged to tell. Undertaking a vast amount of research Nicola was able to connect with some of the relatives of the Lentaigne family who lived there from the 1920s, as well as others.
At the time it was a private residence, known locally as Newtown House. Mrs Lentaigne, the owner of this stately home, was English but had made the decision to settle in Termonfeckin following the early, and very tragic, death of her husband. She set about helping the local Irish people who were then struggling to make ends meet. She was a philanthropic sort and, in 1939, she welcomed, with open arms, a group of converted Jewish refugees seeking sanctuary from the terrors in Vienna. Nicola Cassidy changed the names of all the main characters, for the privacy of the relatives still alive today, but the essence of the story remains the same.
Vienna was a frightening place for the Jewish community in the 1930s as the hatred fuelled by Nazism escalated. Gisela Müller was unable to complete her university degree and soon found herself on a train out of Vienna, leaving her parents and everything she knew behind. She was one of the lucky ones to get passage to Ireland but the fear of the unknown and the possibility of never seeing her parents again was ofttimes very overwhelming.
Gisela had been offered a position as a companion to Nola de Freyne, the daughter of Newtown House, a rural estate in County Louth. Gisela was used to the hum of traffic and the noises of city life, and initially found it very hard to settle in the countryside. Nola, the young girl in her charge, was on the cusp of her debutante moment and was a daring and feisty individual. Gisela was shocked at much of Nola’s behaviour but it was a distraction from the shocking news from home.
When Gisela arrived to Newtown House she was delighted to meet other refugees, all seeking a safe-place to shelter. Hans Schmitt was a quiet introspective sort who went about his work with little complaint but had his own personal story to tell. There was also a family of four who were hoping to make a new life in Ireland, a place where they could have a future.
Ireland in 1939 had its own political troubles, with the IRA having an active role in many communities. Issues of trust and secrecy were aplenty but, for the most part, Gisela and her fellow refugees, remained untouched by the goings on. An unexpected appearance of a German agent brought great change and with it enormous repercussions to Newtown House. Gisela and Nola get caught up in something much bigger than themselves and soon the upcoming war in Europe arrived to Termonfeckin in the most unexpected fashion.
The Emerald Spy is an engaging and gently-paced read about events in Irish history that really are not that familiar to many of us. When Nicola Cassidy chose the arc of her story, little was she to know about the events in Ukraine that were to unfold. Now, with a stream of Ukrainian refugees crossing our borders, the similarities are striking.
Nicola Cassidy poignantly depicts the fear, the sadness, the loneliness and the horror of leaving everything you have loved behind. With vivid descriptions, The Emerald Spy highlights the harrowing aspect of war for people forced to flee from their homeland. Tragedy, betrayal, grief and sorrow are all very much evident throughout The Emerald Spy, a book that I highly recommend to all with a passion for historical fiction but also with an interest in reading more about ‘how a tiny Louth village became a WW2 sanctuary’
(c) Mairéad Hearne (Swirl and Thread)
Order your copy online here.