14th June – Rising to the Challenge, Researching 1916


by Morgan Llywelyn
(Skerries Historical Society Meeting – June 2016)

Rising to the Challenge: Researching 1916

Morgan Llywelyn is in love with Ireland and Irish history. It hangs like an aura about her and was very evident during her recent talk, ‘Rising to the Challenge: Researching 1916’, for Skerries Historical Society when she explained how she planned and plotted her series of five historical novels beginning with ‘1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion’.

Morgan ‘s talk was very different to our usual fare. She gave us an insight into what it is to create a historical world that fictional characters can live, love, suffer and die in. You need patience. You need to read around your subject. And you need to accept that there is no such thing as truth. All history is spin – each witness sees things in a slightly different way and interprets what they have seen according to their own belief system. One person’s act of barbarity is another’s crusade for justice.

Even when the ‘facts’ have been carefully marshalled, an author needs to breathe life into them. Morgan does this by creating believable fictional characters to be the mortar between the bricks of reality. They can interact with the historical figures in ways that shine a light on the motivations behind their actions.

And how does one divine these motivations? Morgan likes to walk in her heroes’ footsteps and learn the history on a physical level by living life as her characters lived it. So, when researching the Battle of Clontarf, she took herself to the site of the battle and walked around it.

Similarly, for her more recent history, she visited The Hermitage in Rathfarnham where St Enda’s school was housed at the time of the Rising and saw artefacts that had been used by Padraig Pearse during his time as teaching principal there. She spent an hour of contemplation in Pearse’s cold, dark cell and absorbed the atmosphere from that grim corner of Kilmainham, reaching out for Pearse’s thoughts as he waited through his last night on Earth. She stepped out into the airless enclosed space that is the stone-breakers’ yard and imagined the British soldiers lining up with their rifles. Only then did she feel ready to write about Pearse’s execution.

Despite her rigorous preparation, detailed bibliography and the meticulous footnoting of ‘1916’, one or two factual errors still crept in. And Morgan ruefully notes that nothing pleases a reader more than to catch an author out in a mistake!

Report by Oona Roycroft