An Irish Volunteer
Juliet Cardinal (Salthill Press 2015, Trade Paperback) 287 pages, $16.95 cover price
It is controversial still. With the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin just a year away, anyone picking up a weekend issue of one of the major Irish newspapers will read articles, opinion columns and Letters to the Editor arguing what is the correct amount of attention to be paid to the five day rebellion that forced political momentum towards the establishment of the Republic of Ireland.
The debate falls along almost perfectly symmetrical, balanced lines as though fought by chess grandmasters replaying and arguing over the strategy behind a ninety-nine year old gambit. On the one side, the Rising was doomed to failure: it was formed of a few hundred loosely trained and modestly armed volunteers fighting the British goddam Empire. Then again, the Rising was destined to succeed: the veterans of the campaign (save of course for the dead and the thirty-three who were quickly court-martialed and executed) formed the leadership of the movement that first won the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 and then full independence eleven years later. Opposed: Because of the Rising, the six counties of Ulster would never be part of an independent Irish nation. In Favour: That nation however exists today and besides, Ulster's majority had already declared itself as comfortable within the United Kingdom well before 1916. To ask for another outcome would be like trying to force a clock to recapture its chime.
As for me, one who has lived in both Northern Ireland and the Republic since leaving Canada in late 2012, my opinion of the Rising and its consequence mimics that of the Irish Volunteer leader The O'Rahilly who said to Countess Markievicz (a formidable republican whose portrait hangs today in the halls of Leinster House, seat of the Irish government), 'It's madness, but it's glorious madness.' Those words are well-known to every Irish schoolboy and schoolgirl, yet likely new to you. The Irish battle for independence is breathtaking, scholarly, romantic ...
... and controversial as hell. Therefore I ask you, or at least those of you who might be considering locking your creativity away for months in a small room, typing away at something that might be called a book when all those words are revealed, is this the subject you would choose? Historical fiction, such as An Irish Volunteer opens the author to attack from both the academic historian who sees such works as hopelessly inaccurate folderol, and the literati gentry who think it's all somehow rather easy, a cake mix with directions amidst the patisserie. (Both of course write their own historical novels when seeking a decent paycheque, but of course theirs is the exception, darling.)
I would like to suggest to you that the term historical novel should be binned in favour of a new term: Imagining. Of course we do not know precisely what the republican conspirator Joe Plunkett may have said to his beloved Grace Gifford in the days before the General Post Office was stormed on Easter Monday, but really does it matter? Precise quotation is important in criminal trials and commercial contracts, but not in books about past events. Plausibility is a high enough standard. And even as far as the fine details go, when Plunkett confessed his love for Grace, does it matter at all whether or not that happened over tea at Sibley's, as author Juliet Cardinal places it in An Irish Volunteer, or on the walk to or from there? So long as all the important facts are presented accurately, the figures of the portrait of a personage truly defined, then it matters not at all what shade the lipstick is, so long as author and reader can imagine it correct in its time.
An Irish Volunteer is Juliet Cardinal's first book and she has made several astute choices in its writing. Crafting the story to revolve around the relationship between Plunkett and Gifford is wise in terms of drawing in the casual reader. There is a true 'Will they or won't they?' aspect as to whether or not the two will be married despite the barriers of Plunkett's poor health, the antipathy of Gifford's mother to Catholicism, and of course the actual Rising. Plunkett himself was but one of seven principal leaders of the Rising and Cardinal does not exaggerate his role, although from my understanding of the events inside the GPO he was rather more ill and confined to a litter than the author has it. Still, this is an imagining and as such I have no complaint.
Cardinal also keeps the dialogue to a minimum. The conversations between the two lovers sound largely true, as is the scene where Plunkett, on a scouting mission smack in the middle of the Rising walks into a Dublin pub and has a last pint while discussing events with the publican and a few elderly men seeking the calm of a well-pulled Guinness amidst the roar of war outside. That scene is a perfect little pearl of theatre within Cardinal's novel.
Keeping the dialogue scenes short is also valid as occasionally the lines clunk into declaration rather than conversation. At one point, Grace and her sister Nellie review the events leading to this point, including just how Grace had met Joe Plunkett four years earlier, and it all starts to feel like one of those scenes in a play where the characters have to get a lot of exposition out of the way. One scarcely goes through that many years of a relationship with someone without discussing it over time in bits and pieces with a sibling confidante, not in one glob of conversation. Yet, narrative as well as rain both demand condensation, so this too is a quibble.
My highest praise for An Irish Volunteer and its author lies within its closest comparison. With her unerring eye for detail, particularly in the battle scenes, along with the already-described imaginings, Juliet Cardinal reminds me of the glorious practitioners of New Journalism. Those whose numbers included Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Hunter Thompson used the techniques of fiction to report on living events. An Irish Volunteer reads like truly great newspaper reporting, and if you interpret that as a coded insult, I'll give you a hard sock in the jaw.
Since coming to Ireland, I have been bathing in its culture and history. There is no nation, no land, remotely like it and I love it with a million passions wreathed in flowered garlands. Therefore, I approached An Irish Volunteer with my mind filled with a mix of eagerness and equally a sense of step-fatherly protection. Open a page of my true love's diary, yet do not smirk as you do it. Juliet Cardinal has written a book I treasure and shall re-read. Come and and be intrigued with Ireland. Go get a copy of An Irish Volunteer.
Be seeing you.
Hispanic News Online
Hubert O'Hearn is an Irish-based reviewer, playwright and independent Editor/writing coach. He can be reached at