From the Author
Growing up in Dublin the 1980s, the prints of James Malton were everywhere. Most Irish people will probably recognize them (and experience similar pangs of nostalgia). They were hanging on living room walls, or above the fireplace in pubs, or were printed on dinner mats and coasters used in homes all over the country.
The end of the 18th century/start of the 19th century is sometimes referred to as Dublin's golden age, and I think the ubiquity of Malton's prints probably plays a part in that perception. We see wide, open streets. We see grand buildings and fine carriages and gentlemen wearing buckskin breeches. And we don't see very many poor people. In fact, we don't see many people at all - the streets are curiously empty.
Now, Malton wasn't some kind of ideologue, airbrushing the poor from history. He simply knew who his customers were and what they wanted to hang in their homes (and there are some amusing acts of defiance hidden away - prostitutes leaning out of windows, beggars in the shadows, and so on). But these streets weren't empty, and the poor were everywhere in Dublin. And while the city hadn't reached the desperate levels of inequality of London at the time, it wasn't too far off.
Even before the Famine, the ordinary people of Ireland had to endure much misery and suffering. The 1798 Rebellion triggered a vicious crackdown by the authorities, and some of the worst atrocities in all of Irish history were committed during this period when martial law was introduced and roving gangs of troops were permitted to act as judge, jury, and executioner.
Figures like Lieutenant Hepenstall of the Wicklow Militia - better known as The Walking Gallows - seem cartoonish now in the levels of sadism they displayed. You have to remind yourself that you are reading history, rather than the flights of fancy of an excitable novelist.
My previous two historical novels have focused on real people, figures that are (or were) famous to varying extents. I decided on a different approach this time.
We often get the story of the victorious general whose cunning plan wins the day, or the plucky sergeant who shows courage in the face of adversity, or the charming rebel who lives off the land and by his wits. But in any rebellion, such people - those doing the shooting, that is - are very much in the minority. Most are just trying to get through the day. They might have strong sympathies with the rebels (or dearly want to preserve the status quo), they may even be involved in the struggle to a certain extent, or they may be more ambivalent about the whole thing.
I wanted to focus on one of the latter: an ordinary person trying to live through extraordinary times. A market trader from Thomas Street. Someone who just wants to work, until the English build a gallows on his patch.
Because, while people often choose their path - and we certainly like heroes who take a hold of their fate and charge headlong into events - that's certainly not everyone, and that's not the only kind of heroism. Sometimes the path chooses you. Sometimes events have their own kind of gravitational field and pull people in - no matter how hard they fight against it.