The cover of the novel Six Counties Seven Sins features a photograph of the entrance door of Lisbane Church, located on the shores of Strangford Lough at Saltwater Brig. Lisbane Church was the model I used when creating fictional Béalbéar Church, where the final scene (among others) of the novel is set. As in the novel, the actual church is indeed only opened once a year on All Soul’s Day; however, in reality it is not the priest of Dunshane Cross who holds the key, but rather the barman of the adjacent The Saltwater Brig pub and restaurant.
Lisbane Church was featured in the 1991 Irish movie December Bride. Here is the trailer:
The Unwritten Rules vignette begins thus:
“In Chapter 10 of Saga of the Six Counties, Charles Francis Xavier Aloisius Mac Magnanimous, III, Esq. recounts how Sir Lawrence of Coldburg promised fealty to a certain Savage, only to betray him. Sir Lawrence later argued that his intentions were noble; however, what a man says he will do and what a man indeed does are often incongruent.”
The reference to the fictitious Sir Lawrence of Coldburg is a critical allusion to the moral theory of American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.
Every Saturday night, the Bourke Boys hold a sing song session in Brendan’s Byre. They wear butcher-like hats fashioned from birch (birk), thus their name the Bourke or Birk Boys. They are an allusion to Child Ballad #79, The Wife of Usher’s Well. In that ballad, the wife sends her three sons off to sea where they soon perish, only to return to her as apparitions wearing hats of birch bark.
From the ballad:
“It fell about the Martinmass,
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carlin wife’s three sons came hame,
And their hats were o the birk.”
“It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o Paradise,
That birk grew fair eneugh.”
The letter home from the story which was posted some time past is intended to be a humorous play on words, a misunderstanding of the historic “facts” Nick relates to Will in regard to the bull of Pope Adrian IV empowering Henry II to conquer Ireland, due in part to Nick’s flawed grasp of history and further complicated by the fact that Nick and Will have overindulged in alcohol during the course of their discussion. Will is under the impression that the bull is of the bovine variety. In the excerpt from the letter quoted below, I bolded the incorrect names and also added in parentheses their true references.
“Old Nick also mumbled on about Pope Hadrian (Adrian) the Fart (Fourth) from the Temple of the Flatulation (Church of the Flagellation), who donated to Ireland a papist (papal) bull with a ring in its neb (Adrian is said to have also handed Henry II an emerald ring as a symbol of his sovereignty over Ireland) and how John Sorcery (John of Salisbury) passed the ring minus the bull along to Henry the Sickened (Henry the Second) and he to Strongblow (Strongbow) and he in turn to de Corset (John de Courcy)… ”
In many respects the novel is a collage of first and second hand experiences juxtaposed to an historic context. Some of these happened in Ireland; others, in the states. For example, consider the two Ormeau Bridge incidents.
In the opening chapter of the book, the first Ormeau Bridge incident is related to the reader in the past tense by the protagonist, who explains how he stepped out of the hostel and made a wrong turn. This foreshadows the second event, which occurs in real time at the climax of the story. With respect to the former instance, many years ago, while staying near Queens University in the home of a dear friend, I decided to walk down to Lavery’s Gin Palace for a pint. I did not yet know my way around town, but the lady of the house gave me directions, which I reversed. Therefore, when I headed out that night, instead of heading toward Great Victoria Street, I headed in the opposite direction and eventually found myself standing in the middle of Ormeau Bridge. Realizing my mistake, I returned to their flat to call it a night, for by then it was quite late. The lady of the house said I was fortunate not to have befallen some harm, for I had ventured into a loyalist neighborhood. I could only assume that something about my outward appearance would make the locals deduce that I was an Irish Catholic. With respect to the second instance, two nights later there was a riot on the bridge after closing hours, between Protestants and Catholics, and the details I use in the climax are drawn from that incident as reported in the newspaper.
When William meets Gráinne in the airport terminal, she says to him, “Fear not,” before kneeling to retie his wayward shoelace. Near the tale’s end she says to him, “Be not afraid…” The word choice is intentional, meant to convey that Gráinne is no mortal. Six times in the Holy Bible, angels utter those words when appearing before mortals.
Her retying of his shoelace alludes to William’s remark early on in the story that as long as he has unfinished business (he does not know how to tie his laces) he cannot die. In tying his lace, Gráinne finishes that business for him and henceforth he is vulnerable.
The geographical settings of Dunshane Cross and Duncraven closely correspond to those of the tangible towns of Strangford and Portaferry, respectively; however, the two fictitious villages of the novel are in no manner or form analogous to the two tangible towns aforementioned. I chose this setting for several reasons. First, I am familiar with the climate and landscape of the Ards Peninsula. Second, I desired to use The Narrows as a metaphor. Third, the peninsula was the first orange plantation established in Ulster and is also steeped in the history of the Norman invasion. In regard to demographics, I have grossly exaggerated the population distribution in order to create tension and drama. Historically,(according to A history of Ulster by Jonathan Bardon) the loyalist plantation settlers were intermingled with the native Irish in order to effectively police the latter.
As a side note, the area off to the left on the far side of the lough was the filming location for Winterfell in Game of Thrones.
The plot structure follows the reluctant hero model. William is called to adventure multiple times and at first refuses. The unusual circumstances of his birth are (1) his umbilical chord tied in a true knot and (2) being kissed by the angels. When he eventually accepts the call and goes to Northern Ireland, William enters the unknown where he encounters various archetype and supernatural characters, assorted trials, etc. In the end he is rewarded, but with a tragic Irish twisting of the term.
The idea for Father Peadair, the fictional priest in the novel, came to me second hand from a villager in an Irish town where I have often performed. He told me of a former parish priest who refused to walk about town alone at night, being frightened by the invisible deceased villagers whom he claimed were walking the streets. Only the priest could see these apparitions.
Originally the background history about Will’s parents, their meeting and his father’s end, appeared near the start of the novel. Dr. Harrod suggested I move the info to a latter place and dole it out in small bites, and instead begin the tale with the wayward boy dialogue in the hostel. One subsequent plot tweak was the motive of Will’s father’s IRA mission on the 11th Night. Initially, he was to booby trap a bridge with the intent of setting off a bomb on July 12th parade day as the Orangemen crossed. After due consideration, I decided this placed him in an unfavorable light in the role of the aggressor, so I changed his mission to a defender responding to an enemy sniping attack.
Happy New Year!
All writers use literary devices. Teachers of writing are a bit more cogent of their importance. A few examples follow.
When writing Six Counties Seven Sins, I probably neglected verbal irony to a disproportionate extent, for it is quite prevalent amoung the Northern Irish. Also, it is not unusual to find litotes present in a novel set in the British Isles. Dramatic irony is present in many places. I hesitate to elaborate any further, since doing so would reveal spoiler details of the novel. The same holds true for my use of foreshadowing, but one non-spoiler of an example comes to mind– when Éimhear lectures “Liam” on Church & Bank Streets after leaving The Happy Asian. In regard to allusion, many of my allusions are to famous poets, but there are some to folk ballads as well (Little Musgrave, The Wife of Usher’s Well, Raglan Road, etc.), and also to prominent Northern Ireland musical artists, such as James Galway, Paul Brady, and Van Morrison. Two recurring biblical allusions—St. Peter and Cain– are key to the story. I use imagery quite a bit, most notably during the climax scene of the novel where the protagonist is moving from the Ulster Museum to Botanic Gardens and on to Stranmillis Embankment to Ormeau Bridge. Symbolism (some of Celtic origins) is present in the English Ivy references, in the Narrows, the rain, the Titanic, the bear, the trout, in other animate and inanimate objects (the oak, the flowers, and the stones), and in places, such as Ballybrady Island. When setting mood (and there are various moods to be found in the novel) I often relied on assonance and rhythm to give a poetic feel to the passage. The protagonist’s stroll on The Mountain Road was first written as prose, then converted to poetry and then back to prose, a technique I use when teaching poetry to my students. One motif of note is the recurring references to the cardinal directions on the compass, symbolic of a distance between the peoples, and also that wisdom comes from the east. Metaphorical applications include the river as both a fateful and changing force in life. Character archetypes are prevalent as well. Celtic myth is resorted to from time to time. For example, when Nick’s wife deserts him he loses his sword, his sword being a phallic symbol; Croker’s story of the little bird Irish folktale is central to the tale; and the business about the Devil’s Half-Acre is drawn from an Irish myth as well. Flashback is used in a few places, most notably to reveal expository details about the protagonist’s parents and about his own past actions as well. The Belfast setting contributes to the theme of civil discord while the specific setting of Will’s childhood home in Stranmillis alludes to St. Paul for the street names in that section are all of Biblical origins and his street is Damascus. Point of view of narration was discussed in an earlier blog entry. Hyperbole is used in small ways.
I completed the first edition of the novel in mid-December. Today I made it available for purchase.
I began planning the novel during the summer of 2005, after participating in the National Writing Project summer institute at Rider University. However, not until 2012 did I devote myself to the task in earnest, but still part-time. I worked on it while teaching and shared parts with the class. They were very interested and critical at times. Other than grunt work it was difficult to write during the school year or during the decompression time of July. I did a lot of the editing while waiting on benches at DMV, my son’s Irish dance classes, etc. I’m sure everyone thought I was wacko.
Above is a photo of the hard copies. The drafts to the right are the early ones. Each tab is a new draft. The first draft is the thin one on the bottom of the pile that’s the notes from 2005. The final draft is at the bottom of the stack to the left. From 2012 to Jan 2015 there were ten total hard drafts of the book. Besides the mandatory initial working title Work in Progress, the evolving story had a few other titles: Harm’s Way, Buried with My People, and The Story of the Little Bird.
The first draft was hand written. For subsequent drafts, I would print out the draft, revise by hand, then type the changes then print again. That’s how I kept the word count in check. Beginning in 2015 I went to electronic editing. The log of that is here attached: Editing Record for E Version of Novel
Many of the characters in Six Counties Seven Sins are archetypal. Will Stone is a reluctant hero embarked on a journey into the unknown, having twice refused the call before realizing that, like Jonah, he cannot run from his fate. Father Peadair is the wise old man. The Old Woman in the cloak is the Old Woman, The Earth Mother, in Irish myth, the embodiment of Ireland itself. Éimhear, namesake of Cú Chulainn’s love in the Ulster Cycle Irish Epic The Tain, embodies the sensual Ireland. Éimhear has much in common with Judith of the Old Testament/Apocrypha. She is promised to a foreigner — a military officer of the nation which has for centuries oppressed her people. Lady Eleanor, part of the Protestant Ascendancy, is a temptress. Gráinne, as her name implies, embodies grace. Desmond is a blend of mentor and trickster, while Nicholas “Old Nick” Savage is clearly the villain of the novel.
The collective unconscious proper is alluded to by Éimhear, who draws an analogy between the drowned drumlins of Strangford Lough and the human condition. Will Stone’s visionary dreams and mystical insights also point toward a psychic connection to the collective unconscious.
As often as possible, I have used the present tense. My reasoning will become clear when you reach the end of the story. Point of view of narration shifts between the first and the third point of view depending upon what the reader needs to know while keeping the protagonist in the dark and unreliable at best, for reasons that will likewise become clear when you reach the end of the story.
Closed doors are a recurring theme in the novel. The protagonist finds himself unable to open doors with ease. Doors to churches, to houses, and to public places either close in his face or simply refuse to open. Closed doors symbolize Will’s failure to achieve acceptance and fulfillment.