Researching An Irish Volunteer
Though An Irish Volunteer is a novel – fiction – it is an extensively researched historical novel. As part of this research, I studied the few available biographies of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford, and everything I could get my hands on about the Rising. I also reviewed several hundred pages of Joseph Plunkett's personal letters, notebooks, and documents, which are archived in the National Library of Ireland.
I read many personal accounts of people who were involved in the Rising – some published in book form, and others archived on Ireland’s Bureau of Military History site. I toured Kilmainham Gaol several times, and pestered many amateur and professional historians – in emails, on walking tours, on Facebook group pages, and in Dublin pubs – with lots and lots of questions.
In the archives of Boston University I found a thesis written by M.A. candidate Sister Josepha Marie in 1934 titled, The Mysticism of Joseph Mary Plunkett: a reflex of the spirit of Saint John of the Cross. I traveled to the Holyhead Maritime Museum in Wales to find out what the Leinster really looked like.
I was beyond grateful when legendary Dublin historian and author Shane MacThomais agreed to read my manuscript and point out any historical inaccuracies. I was relieved and delighted when he very enthusiastically approved of both my research and writing, and I will never forget his kindness and generosity. His knowledge was invaluable, and his death in March of 2014 was a huge loss to the historical community, and to Dublin culture.
Shane did give me one warning. He said that no matter how much you research – no matter how careful you are – there will always be someone who will come up to you to "say that somebody was standing on the left rather than the right." He told me that people still approached him with minor mistakes they found in his books, and that there is simply no way around it.
Even aside from those inevitable mistakes, there are so many inconsistencies and controversies in the Irish history books that a novelist sometimes has to make a choice. Disagreements about the year Joe and Grace met, the legitimacy of the Castle Document, and many other issues abound, and I made choices based on context and the apparent reliability of the various authors.
Responsibly researching An Irish Volunteer was important to me for two main reasons. First, I wanted to do Joe and Grace and their story justice. The more I learned, the more I loved them both. Joe Plunkett is my favorite of the Rising leaders and I feel that he is often not given the status and attention he deserves. I wanted to do my small part to remedy this lack of historical respect, and I wanted to do the best job I could. Secondly, I am a private investigator. I work for the defense in death penalty cases and research is a fundamental part of my job. I love it and I take it very seriously. Writing this book gave me an opportunity to use a skill that I have honed over almost ten years working on these cases.
Having said all of this, An Irish Volunteer is a novel. It is not a historical text or a biography. I chose to tell Joe and Grace's inspirational and tragic story in fiction because I wanted to be able to speculate about their motivations and private conversations. I wanted the luxury of using my imagination and intuition to fill in the personal details which are often left out of the history books. I wanted to be allowed to go beyond the facts to create full characters that others might love as much as I do.
I did not choose to contact and ask to interview Joe and Grace's family members. There is a reason for this. It would have been an honor to receive the the family’s approval and support for my project. Unfortunately, this honor would have burdened me with the pressure to be sure that they were happy with each scene and every page. My great love and respect for Joe and Grace had already created a great deal of pressure to tell their story in a way they might like, and that was all the pressure I was willing to take on. I hope that their family members will be able to see that I wrote about these two great and inspirational people with love and the best of intentions.