Saturday 29 August 2015

Ninety-nine years ago by Sheena Wilkinson

Sheena Wilkinson
Welcome to our August guest. Since the publication of the award-winning Taking Flight in 2010, Sheena Wilkinson has been established as one of Ireland’s leading writers for young people. Until now, her novels have all been contemporary, but she has had many short stories published set in the early twentieth century, the most recent being ‘Each Slow Dusk’ in Walker’s The Great War Anthology (2014). Name Upon Name (Little Island) is her first historical novel, set in Belfast 1916

Over to you, Sheena!

I used to be a teacher. Like Mr Chips, I’ve taught thousands of teenagers. Most of them, to be honest, I lost interest in once they left school. But there is one set of former pupils I can’t forget, even though I never actually taught them.

There are about one hundred of them. I know all their names, and as much else about them as I’ve been able to find out – the scholarships they won; the teams they played in; the names of the Belfast streets and country parishes they came from. They have names like Cyril and Fred and Percy. They are all boys. They have all been dead for about a hundred years. Most of them are buried, in mainly unmarked graves, in France and Flanders.

In 2004, I spent months researching this group of boys for an exhibition I put on in the school’s heritage centre. I became obsessed with tracking down the smallest details, in old school magazines, in local history books, on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. Was Sydney Downey, killed on the 7th June 1917, aged 21, in the 20th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, as the school records say, or in the 14th as stated by the CWGC? Did it matter? Did the family of Percy Millar Tees know that he died on exactly the same day as Wilfred Owen? Did they, like Owen’s family, receive word of his death just as the Armistice was announced?

The exhibition was lovely, in a poignant kind of way. As was the trip I made that summer to Flanders, visiting as many of the graves as possible. It awakened in me a love of historical research that I’ve never lost. And it left me with a huge amount of information that I never knew quite what to do with but couldn’t bring myself to throw out: not just the details of the hundred boys, but all sorts of information about the school itself during WW1 – the routines; the girls’ fundraising concerts; the making up of parcels to send to Old Boys at the Front. When I left the school, the files and notebooks came with me, and so, in a sense, did the boys and girls of a hundred years ago.

The short stories I wrote and published between 2006-2013 often had a WW1 theme, but I never drew directly on my school research until, last year, I contributed a story, ‘Each Slow Dusk’, to Walker’s anthology The Great War, when I fictionalised details of the school’s war effort, foregrounding the experience (often overlooked in war literature) of a girl. Sixteen-year-old Edith’s dreams of higher education are shattered when she has to leave school to care for her older brother, invalided out of the army with rheumatism. All the stories in The Great War are inspired by artifacts from the war – I used the school magazines I own, a run of five years, from 1914 to 1919.

I’ve always wanted to write a historical novel. But when I was asked, by my regular publishers, Little Island in Dublin, to write a book set around the 1916 Easter Rising for the forthcoming centenary, I was initially reluctant. Irish history is such a minefield, and I’m always aware, as a northerner of mixed heritage, of standing rather on the outside of things. And yes, 1916 was my period but the war was my Thing, not the Rising. I couldn’t write about 1916 Dublin with anything like the confidence – or, to be honest, the interest – that I had about Belfast.

The truth is, I was scared of the Rising. Scared of being told that it wasn’t for the likes of me. Scared of having nothing new to say. Of being accused of cashing in on the centenary.

But then I remembered a paragraph from one of those school magazines: "The Easter holidays were times of great uneasiness and anxiety, on account of the Sinn Fein rebellion. When the first news of it came, most of us were horrified, and disinclined to believe the wild rumours… The boarders living in Dublin and further south west were unable to return at the appointed time…"

 Later in the magazine: "We are indebted to one of our Old Boys who is now in Trinity College, Dublin, for an account of his adventures during the rebellion." And I realised that I could write an Easter Rising story set in Belfast, and show how events in Dublin had an effect on people who weren’t necessarily politically inclined. In fact, the very fact that had always made me reluctant to engage in Irish politics was what could make the story interesting, for my heroine, Helen, is like me from a mixed Catholic/Protestant background, with a conflicted and insecure sense of identity, and relatives on either side of the political and cultural divide.

And as soon as I started writing – beginning with a scene in which Helen enrages her staunch Presbyterian aunt with a suggestion that she say a wee prayer to St Anthony, an actual memory from my own 1970s childhood, I was on very firm ground indeed. Helen has schoolmates and cousins caught up in the war, and another cousin caught up in the Rising, just as I grew up with relatives with fiercely opposing views. And in the Northern Ireland of the Troubles years those views mattered just as much as they did in 1916. My relatives, like Helen’s, certainly didn’t know each other.

If History tends to be written by the winners, what of the people who don’t really have a side? People like Helen, people like me? Writing Name Upon Name made me realise the extent to which I had allowed myself to be marginalised by the history of my own country. And so, although in some ways Name Upon Name is my most distant book, set ninety-nine years ago, in other ways it is my most autobiographical.

History can be funny that way.

Magazine photos are by Alison Moore



Sue Purkiss said...

Your research sounds fascinating - it's wonderful when it catches your imagination like that, isn't it? I certainly want to read your book after reading this post.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Thanks, Sue! I hope lots of people feel the same way!