During the 1916 Irish Revolution, a star-crossed pair of lovers teamed up to fight the British for an independent Irish Republic. Joe Plunkett was Catholic, the son of a Count, a poet, and one of the leaders of the rebellion; Grace Gifford was a Protestant and a rising artist.
Juliet Cardinal's new novel, An Irish Volunteer, tells the remarkable true story of their love and the risks they took for their country's freedom.
Juliet recently took time from her day job as a criminal investigator to answer some questions for Rose City Reader.
How did you come to write An Irish Volunteer?
My job is pretty stressful sometimes. I’m a private investigator and I work on defense teams in capital murder cases, meaning that my clients are facing the death penalty. The stakes are high, the scrutiny is pretty intense, and there’s a lot of darkness and dysfunction. About three years into this work it started to get to me and I was getting really anxious and stressed out. I kind of hit a wall because I hadn’t really learned how to deal with it—didn’t have a lot of perspective yet. After a couple of weeks in this addled state it occurred to me that I would be fine if I could just get away to Ireland for a little while.
A few weeks later I was in Dublin where I toured a historical prison there called Kilmainham Gaol. I was entranced by the personal stories of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. They were a pretty motley crew of philosophers, poets, professors, and activists who decided to take on the British Empire—they were totally idealistic underdogs. The love story of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford was particularly striking because of its romance and tragedy. He was a Catholic nationalist and she was a unionist Protestant. He was getting ready to lead rebel troops into battle and she was in the midst of being rejected by her family because of her love for him. They were falling for each other in the months leading up to the Rising. It was terrible timing for them but also a beautiful story.
What is your family background? How did it lead you to write your book?
I have a lot of ancestors that came over to the US from Ireland during the Great Hunger in the late 1840s but I didn’t know that when I started writing the book. I’ve always been a little obsessed with Ireland without understanding why. About a year after I started my research for An Irish Volunteer I was home sick for a few days and went on ancestry.com to pass the time. That’s when I learned about my Irish heritage.
How much of your novel is based on true, historical events?
I researched An Irish Volunteer extensively. The parts of the book that are totally fictional are things like personal conversations and interactions or internal dialog about characters’ motivations and doubts—that kind of thing. Even then, I reviewed a lot of personal letters and notebooks to learn as much as I could about them. One of my goals in writing this book—besides to entertain and hopefully inspire—was to teach readers as much as I could about this fascinating historical moment. The political scene in Dublin at the time was complex but also compelling. The revolution itself was difficult and exciting and led to the eventual establishment of the independent Republic of Ireland. I loved the idealism and sacrifice the leaders showed. They were madly in love with their country and their cause.
How did you research the historical information and detail found in your book?
I read everything I could get my hands on about Joe, Grace, and the Rising. I also read a lot of archived personal accounts and hundreds and hundreds of pages of Joe’s personal papers, notebooks, and documents at the National Library of Ireland. I spent all the time I could in Dublin, scouting all of the historical locations that are still standing, and went on several tours of Kilmainham Gaol—the prison is featured in the story. I spoke to all the amateur historians I could find online and at the pubs, and took a ferry ride to Holyhead, Wales and back to Dublin. My book opens on that ferry route. I read old Dublin newspapers. I was also lucky enough to have Shane MacThomais, a well-known Dublin historian and writer, review my manuscript for any historical inaccuracies.
There were some smaller details that I couldn’t find—like what type of guns Joe had with him during the Rising. I knew he had three pistols but I couldn’t find the information on the make or model anywhere. Finally I found a man through social media who had seen a collection of the guns owned by Joe’s family at the time. He remembered the three pistols in the collection so I used those in the book. It was a guess but a fairly educated one.
Can you recommend any other books or resources about the Irish Revolution?
My favorite general book on the Rising is Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion by Charles Townsend. I also really liked Enchanted by Dreams, Joe Good’s personal account of his participation in the fight for Ireland’s independence. He traveled from England to Ireland to fight in the Rising and his insights and observations were invaluable! I love him. He’s actually in my book a couple of times but I didn’t give his name.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I guess the most surprising thing I learned is that I could do it. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that! I was too obsessed with the story to be practical when I decided to write this book but there were so many times I didn’t know how I’d get through that next scene.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read?
I’ve always loved J.D. Salinger and Jane Austin. Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories changed me, I think. It’s all about the characters for me! I also loved Maugham’s, Of Human Bondage and The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway.
The writer I’ve been the most excited about in the last couple of years is the Irish crime writer, Ken Bruen. I’m not into all of his books—many come off a little cold, almost sociopathic—but his Jack Taylor series is great. It’s a PI series set in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. It’s very dark—even darker than most noir stuff—but it’s also very funny and deeply human. Bruen’s writing style is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s like he’s dumped all the rules and is recreating them from scratch—very liberating! Jack Taylor is a huge mess—in constant trouble with addiction, depression, violence, and self-sabotaged relationships—but he’s also incredibly well developed, soulful and irresistible. I’m glad I’m in love with him in the books instead of in real life. Safer that way!
What kind of books do you like to read? Do you have a favorite genre? And guilty pleasures?
When I’m not reading non-fiction for research I mainly like crime writing and historical fiction.
I really like Adrian McKinty, especially his first book, Dead I Well May Be. He’s a Northern Irish crime writer. Although his character development isn’t on a par with Bruen’s Taylor series, his style is taut, edgy and dynamic.
As far as modern historical fiction goes, my favorite right now is Hilary Mantel. I loved her book about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. She creates characters that are as multidimensional, compelling and interesting as any I’ve ever read. When I got within about 75 pages of the end of A Place of Greater Safety I started to panic a little because I didn’t know what I’d do without those fascinating people in my life. I’d love to find more writers that can do that for me!
I’d love to be influenced by any of these writers but I don’t know that I have been. I’ll keep reading them with the hope that I can soak up a little of their brilliance.
What are you reading now?
Right now I’m reading The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. It’s compelling and a lot of fun, and the character development is almost painfully intimate.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
Oh god, I don’t know! I wish I’d asked for more advice before I started!
I guess the most important piece of advice was to stop waiting for the perfect time and to just start writing. I just showed up every morning whether I wanted to or not and wrote as much as I could. Sometimes I was feeling inspired—often I wasn’t—but I got some words on the page. Janet Evonovich’s book, How I Write, had a lot of that kind of very practical advice. I also read a book called The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists by Andrew McAleer which was great because it made the whole thing feel more possible.
Do you have any events coming up to promote An Irish Volunteer?
Yes! I have a reading at 7:30 on Thursday, August 13 at Powell’s on Hawthorne. I’m so excited about that because it’s one of my very favorite places.
YOU CAN BUY AN IRISH VOLUNTEER FROM POWELL'S OR AMAZON (PAPERBACK OR KINDLE) OR ASK YOU LOCAL BOOKSTORE TO ORDER IT!