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The Irish Issue: Jane Austen and the Pirate Queen & Writing Irish
March, the month of St. Patrick’s Day, has always seemed a good time to celebrate being Irish…or Irish at heart! And when I discovered a little nugget about Jane Austen and her novels, one thing led to another…
So what’s Jane Austen got to do with Ireland’s Pirate Queen?
Full disclosure: I’m a Jane Austen junkie.
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I’ve read her novels over and over, and of course I’ve watched and rewatched all the films and mini-series based on her books. So. Many. Times.
At the moment, right after finishing her novel Persuasion (and watching the 1995 film yet again), I’m rereading Sense and Sensibility.
Because, well, I just can’t get enough of Jane A.!
Back to Persuasion. The interesting thing about the edition I read, a tatty 1987 paperback, is that this one also includes A Memoir of Jane Austen, written by her nephew J.E. Austen-Leigh and published in 1870.
It’s a short little biography, less than 140 pages including the notes, but full of Austen’s letters to friends, her publishers and admirers. There’s lots about her family connections, plus other endearing minutiae too, such as her little excursions to see loved ones.
What I enjoyed most about A Memoir were Jane Austen’s feelings about her stories and characters. Writes author Austen-Leigh:
“She certainly took a kind of parental interest in the beings whom she had created, and did not dismiss them from her thoughts when she had finished her last chapter.”
The most ardent fans of Pride and Prejudice will surely love this:
“She would, if asked, tell us many little particulars about the subsequent career of some of her people… We learned that Kitty Bennet was satisfactorily married to a clergyman near Pemberley, while Mary obtained nothing higher than one of her uncle Philips’ clerks and was content to be considered a star in the society of Meriton… ”
For Emma devotees: “…And that Mr Woodhouse survived his daughter’s marriage, and kept her and Mr Knightley from settling at Donwell, about two years…”
J.E. Austen-Leigh goes on to say, “She was very fond of Emma, but did not reckon on her being a general favourite; for, when commencing that work, she said, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’”
Well. Judging from all the many versions of Emma that have made it to the screen, Emma was pretty much adored all around!
Consider the earnest “Emma” film with Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong from the 90s, then soon after, the Gwyneth Paltrow romance with swoony but dignified Jeremy Northam.
A few years passed, then came the BBC mini-series with a more broadly humorous tone, even some modern eye-rolling, starring Romola Garai and Jonny Miller.
Most recently, making a splash was the cheeky, almost mocking Emma production with Anya Taylor Joy and another Jo(h)nny, Johnny Flynn. Flynn’s Mr. Knightly is a bit more rough-around-the-edges than the others, but with more sex appeal!
It remains to be seen what other filmmakers will do for future Emma versions.
But I digress.
This little passage of Jane’s about her heroine Emma—“whom no one but myself will much like”— reminds me of my second novel set in Ireland, Mother Love. Now, I’m not comparing my heroines, my stories or my writing with Jane Austen’s in any way shape or form!
But I think I understand where she’s coming from. In Mother Love, my main character Grainne (pronounced Grawn-ya) is dear to my heart. But as I wrote her story, I was pretty sure everyone else would not feel the same about her. She’s bold and brash, intent on getting her own way, and shoots off her mouth a little too much.
Maybe the kind of girl only a mother could love (though Grainne doubts her own mother’s love).
And though Grainne secretly has a tender heart, she often gives the people she loves a really hard time—her best friend, her oldest sister, and the hero, Renaissance man Rafe Byrne.
She’s not like my other female protagonists at all—but when she walked onto the page she was completely in charge—and a character I couldn’t not write.
Why she’s so different, though, is that this Grainne was actually inspired by another Grainne: Gráinne Ní Mháille, the legendary 16th century Irish Pirate Queen—better known as Grace O’ Malley.
(Note: there are many different spellings and pronunciations of her name both in Irish and English.)
If you consider women’s rights, Grace was ahead of her time. As a girl, she cut off all her hair and dressed as a boy, so she could sneak onto one of her father’s ships and sail the seas.
In fact, the other pirates nicknamed her Granuaile, or “bald Grainne” in Irish. Grace went on to control her own pirate fleet off the coast of western Ireland and mess around with Queen Elizabeth I’s Royal Navy.
Coincidentally, she also amassed great wealth and a number of castles.
Despite my fairly quiet personality, I’ve been an admirer of this gutsy historical figure since I was young. When I got to Ireland some years ago, we visited Westport House in County Mayo, a manor house built by one of her descendants—located right on the foundation of one of those castles!
Naturally, when my husband John and I came upon a cool statue of Grainne, posted above, we couldn’t resist a photo op.
And Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
You may be wondering, what’s up with Susan, a homesteady kind of person living in the Pacific Northwest, writing Irish novels?
Well, here’s the story.
My ancestors hail from the Emerald Isle, but the crew I grew up with weren’t your typical Irish-American family. Mom was a lapsed Catholic, Dad’s folks had gone Protestant a couple of generations back, and he was a teetotaler to boot. And not one of us kids took step-dancing lessons.
Still, I always knew I was Irish.
Although I was attuned to the Celtic vibe, at the time Scotland, not Ireland, was my thing. When I was seven, my dad went to Edinburgh on some kind of academic fellowship, and brought back a doll for me, resplendent in Highland attire.
Really, this pink-cheeked Scottish lassie made Barbie pale in comparison. Dad also brought home a LP record of Scottish reels, which had me prancing around the house in my best try at a Highland fling.
When I turned twelve, I discovered Sean Connery and his Scottish brogue. For me, it was Scotland Forever!
Around the time I was mooning over Sean, I deserted my repeated readings of the “Little House” books and Little Women for something a bit racier: Gone with the Wind. Scarlett and Rhett, Margaret Mitchell’s unforgettable Irish-American hero and heroine, had given me something new to swoon over. Suddenly, I thought it was totally cool that I was Irish on both sides of the family.
Fast forward twenty years…I started my first piece of creative writing ever, a novel. It was a romance with a tortured hero and a haunted heroine, who happened to be Irish-American. After finishing the book, I continued to write love stories, each one darker and angstier than the last. Still, I hadn’t quite found my groove.
But a Perfect Storm of Irishness was just ahead…
Not long after I remarried—to a guy who had Irish ancestors too!—the “Riverdance” TV show was a huge hit. Especially with me. With all this Irish energy going around, I stumbled upon Maeve Binchy’s novels, and couldn’t get enough of her Irish voice.
The same year, my daughter and mother visited Ireland together, including a brief sojourn in County Monaghan, where Mom’s people are from. They returned with a treasure trove of photos, guidebooks, and Irish knickknacks, and Ireland grew even bigger on my radar screen.
Soon after, the local bookstore hosted Edna O’Brien, the famed Irish writer, and of course I had to go see her in person! She had quite the dramatic manner, and spoke of the “vast, ancestral loneliness” of the Irish.
I would have written off the phrase as writerly affectation, but it actually struck close to home: my dad was a man who craved solitude, the kind who “keeps himself to himself.”
But my true Irish tipping point was one unforgettable spring evening. I was listening to the Celtic music radio show “Thistle and Shamrock” in the car. As I pulled into our driveway, an Irish tune came on the air, a mournful ballad about the sorrows of emigration.
Although I’m not much of a crier, tears came to my eyes, and I got a shiver up my spine.
In an emotional daze, I turned off the car, realizing these were my people in the song. Could there be an Irish voice inside me?
They say you should write what you want to read, and it was getting awfully hard to wait a year between Maeve Binchy’s novels. I decided to create the Irish stories I longed for, about love and family and what it means to be Irish.
I’d already written five novels, but my Inner Irish Girl was finally getting kinda tired of dark stuff. Then came Marian…Keyes, that is. This Irish author’s novels about brave, funny young Irish women bumbling their way through relationships and life were, in an entirely different way, as wonderful as Binchys’.
I discovered a new, more lighthearted Irish voice inside me, writing comedy-drama instead of melodrama. For this fiction “reboot,” I created Aislin (pronounced “Ash-lin”), a klutzy single mom heroine, who tries to escape a romantic entanglement in the little village of Ballydara, in the West of Ireland. It Only Takes Once was born.
Engaged in my made-up world in County Galway, I was creating more romantic Irish novels of friendship and family relationships, when my husband and I upended our lives. Lifelong city dwellers, we sold our home and moved to a rural acreage to live a slower, more self-sufficient life.
And if trying to start up a little homestead doesn’t interrupt your writing, then you’re doing something wrong. Working Berryridge Farm was my new life, a very absorbing one, and I took an extended time-out from novel-writing.
Immersing myself in food-growing and rural life was satisfying. But as much as I enjoyed trying to emulate my beloved Laura Ingalls’ youth, after a year and a half, I was hungry to write fiction again.
But out of practice, I developed a near-terminal case of writer’s block. Desperate to write something, anything, I began scribbling about our homesteading experiences, and within a few weeks, I’d written another kind of book, a memoir: Little Farm in the Foothills.
Then I took yet another writerly detour, and wrote a Halloween tale for tweens.
But I love writing Irish stories best, and I can’t get enough of all things Irish—books and films, travel articles, recipes, slang, politics and culture.
And if you’re looking for Irish entertainment for St. Patrick’s Day…
I’m still waiting to see the new Oscar-nominated Irish film, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” but I’ll add it to my list once I do!
Little Farm in the Garden, newly released in print, hit the Amazon bestseller list—at #76, my little food-growing paperback turned up in Amazon’s Top 100 in the Pacific Northwest Gardening category!
Another reason to celebrate March…Spring—and in many places, the best part of gardening season—is on its way!
Many thanks for reading and supporting my Little Farm Writer Newsletter—I appreciate you all!
Thanks for reading Little Farm Writer! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.