I am happy to welcome fellow Fireship Press author M.J. Neary to Outtakes. In her excellent book, Never Be at Peace, Marina features Irish revolutionary Helena Molony. I called Helena independent in my review because she didn’t rely on a man to solve her problems. Here, Marina explains there is more to true independence. – Kim
By M.J. Neary
“No man has the right to risk the fortunes of the country to carve for himself a niche in history.”
With those words Bulmer Hobson (1883-1969) issued a cryptic warning to his fellow Irish Volunteers several days before the Easter Rising of 1916. His appeal was addressed to a clique of revolutionaries who were planning an insurrection. At the time, there was a division among the Irish nationalists. Some were in favor of an armed rebellion, even though it did not stand a chance of being a military success, and others, like Hobson, considered it a frivolous waste of human life.
Helena Molony (1884-1967), Hobson’s former comrade and love interest, was in that first camp of dreamers who believed in the symbolic and redemptive power of blood sacrifice. Over the course of her long and troubled life, Molony had worn several hats. In addition to being a radical revolutionary, she was a trade unionist and an actress. To this day, she is venerated in certain IRA circles as an emblem of self-destructive martyrdom.
How often does this seemingly noble desire “to be a part of something bigger” have selfish origins? Sometimes these self-proclaimed champions of greater good are merely seeking attention, fame, and validation. The noble cause is merely a vehicle to the pedestal. Where is the line between a legitimate freedom fighter and a terrorist? Can one person shift between the two roles?
The ambiguity of intention has been the topic of my last three historical novels, all of which deal with the Irish nationalistic movement of the early 20th century. Helena Molony appears in all three, but in the last one, Never Be at Peace, she is the central figure. I find it peculiar that many of my readers define her as “independent.” And on the surface it seems like an appropriate way to define a freedom fighter, right? Not necessarily. Let’s take a closer look at the word “independent” and how it is used in the context of historical fiction.
No costume drama, be it set during the Regency, Victorian, or Edwardian era, is complete without a bodiced torso on the cover and a heroine who is described as “witty, thoroughly unconventional, and fiercely independent.” Having read countless blurbs in my life, I have developed severe allergies to the word “independent.” It’s a very dirty, misleading commercial word that publishers use.
To me, that word evokes a certain stock image: a fidgety duchess (or a shipping heiress, etc.) who “does not want to settle into the stifling conventional roles designated to them by society” and “dreams of a life outside _____ (the palace, the shipping yard)” and “explores her burgeoning sensuality in the arms of the _____ (starving artist, ruddy-faced gardener, French tutor).” Once you read the blurb, you don’t need to read the novel. I understand, there is a robust audience for such literature, and publishers have to keep the lights on, so they keep pasting these generic blurbs on the covers, even if the content is serious. Simply put, in every novel there needs to be a chain to be broken.
One must remember, that in order to declare independence, you need to have a starting point, something to break away from, something to rebel against, something to lose. When we meet Helena for the first time, she is an orphaned teenager roaming the suburbs of Dublin, a truant without direction or any strong family attachments except for her morose brother, Frank. She just happens to meet the legendary Maud Gonne, who informally adopts her and turns her into a fervent nationalist to the point of obsession.
A child who is deprived of love and discipline is a prime candidate for becoming a fanatic in the hands of the right mentor, and fanatics by definition are not psychologically independent. They are slaves to their idea. So while Helena is fighting for Ireland’s independence, she herself is not independent. Rather, she is a weapon in the hands of another being.
Interestingly enough, Maud Gonne herself abhorred violence. Perhaps, she was a little terrified of her pupil’s enthusiasm for physical combat. By 1916, Maud was not the dominant authority figure for Helena. By that time Helena, already in her early 30s, was under the spell of James Connolly, a passionate champion for the working class, whose dream was to have a republic of free workers. It was his ideology that propelled Helena to participate in the Easter Rising. She basically moved from one idol to another.
When the Ireland she had envisioned and fought for did not materialize, Helena turned to drink. It was the devotion of another woman, Dr. Evelyn O’Brien, a much younger psychiatrist, that had saved her from stepping over the edge.
Patriotically-minded historians tended to brush Helena’s alcoholism, depression, and bisexuality under the rug. Such vices did not seem to fit with the image of the spunky and heroic tomboy in a country where morality was still dominated by the Catholic Church. Many facts did not emerge until recent decades. Now, in the 21st century, we have the freedom and the privilege to examine various historical figures as human beings with all their psychological intricacies, not mere emblems.
Born, nurtured, and warped in the radioactive swamps of Eastern Europe, M.J. Neary is a living proof that even an ugly girl can win a beauty pageant and seduce a handsome Irishman if she does her makeup right. Her literary career revolves around various disasters in Anglo-Irish history such as the Famine, the Land Wars, and the Easter Rising of 1916. Her mission is to bust stubborn ethnic myths, tell the untold stories and illuminate obscure figures through her irreverent iconoclastic style. If you are interested in Irish history and have already read everything by Morgan Llewellyn, try something different and pick up one of Neary’s novels: Brendan Malone: the Last Fenian, Martyrs & Traitors: a Tale of 1916 (both 2011, All Things That Matter Press) and Never Be at Peace: a Novel of Irish Rebels (Fireship Press, 2013).