You can find out more about Cynthia and her novels on her website:
Or visit Amazon or BookDepository
What made you focus on the Irish in America?
I had been roused to read all things Irish because heretofore I hadn’t been privy to the knowledge of my Irish heritage. As a writer, The Great Hunger period of Irish history grabbed me by the heart and wouldn’t let go. I came to believe this event had greatly affected and altered Ireland, as well as the Irish psyche. And that there was a message, a gift, that had been given to the rest of the world through music, literature, dance, and spirit. There have been horrid “ethnic cleansing” periods in world history, and this event (the worst disaster of the 19th century) was indeed the same.
Norah contains an extensive amount of research covering not only the experience of the Irish in America in the mid 19th century, but also many other issues of the time such as women’s rights, abolition and New York City gangs. How did you approach your research?
I love to research. I go on a treasure hunt that is challenging and rewarding when I research. However, after reading numerous books and writing out copious notes on legal pads, continued research can become a form of procrastination fueled by fear. Once an epiphany happens followed by an unfolding of an outline in my mind, I find it necessary to immerse myself in the period I am writing in. Oftentimes, I begin by reading historical fiction of the period far enough in advance so as not to have undue influence by another writer’s voice. At this point, I feel at ease with my own voice for historical fiction and the only things I’d gather would be interesting historical detail. I purchase many books and google like crazy, as well as ask questions of people I know who are knowledgeable about the time period I’m writing in.
If one reads most history books and watches old movies, it would be believed that nearly all young Irish girls were stupefied maids tied up in apron strings, spoiling the soup, and mouthing off to their employers. However, rarely was it written how Irish immigrant women played a vital role in the transplantation of Irish culture in America. Most of what we have learned about the leaving of ancestral homes and the ways of adaptation has been through the eyes of the male. And yet in the decades after the Famine, more Irish women than Irish men immigrated to the United States and they worked at jobs most other women turned down. Their rate of social and economic progress far exceeded the woman of other ethnic groups. They worked toward the goal of Irish independence and became involved in the Fenian Sisterhood and other organizations. One year alone in New York, $30,000 was raised by the Emmett Memorial Foundation. Certainly Irish women in New York fell prey to poverty, hopelessness, violence, and depravity. But many did not! And what a welcome they did NOT receive if one reads the newspapers of the day. A very prominent diarist of the day wrote in the Sun newspaper in the 1850s, “America would be a great nation if every Irishman killed a Negro and was hung for it.” This is the world Norah McCabe is finding her way around in during 1857 and beyond.
You set Norah in Five Points in New York. Was that the center of the Irish community in the city?
It is interesting that Norah runs a second hand dress store in the beginning. Was that a realistic avenue for women to pursue as a business opportunity?
In my research, I learned that old men donned used clothing, layering themselves with pants, suit jackets, and hats. They would stand on street corners hawking the clothes crying out, “Old Clos…old clos…old clos!” Eventually, they opened up their own used clothing shops and because I learned that many Irish women saved their money to purchase used clothing to spruce up to look as good as new, it made sense that they, too, would open up used clothing stores. In fact, it has been written that the Irish women who worked as domestic maids during the day walked down Fifth Avenue on the weekends wearing gowns and looking just as rich and cultured as the aristocratic ladies they worked for. Their female employees were incensed that their Irish maids looked like them or even better than them!
What are you working on now?
I have researched for five years a novel about a Native American woman. I’ve already started it but have put it aside to now write another Norah novel with the working title, The Irish Milliner. The period Norah is set in is pre-Civil War New York City, post massive immigration where there was a hotbed of abolitionist, women’s rights, and nativist activity. There is gang violence, xenophobia, and the struggle for survival for Norah McCabe, a child of Famine Ireland.
Are any of the characters based on your own family’s immigrant experience?
I believe that these ancestral women are with me and help me to write my stories. I acknowledge them throughout my day as I work. But even more amazing is the fact that after some research and the writing of the first two books, I learned there was a real Norah McCabe who left Ireland in 1847 and settled in New York City. I do feel that Norah was a real woman who once lived and she also enables me to write her stories. Once I was going to give up trying to find a publisher for my first book and I received an order of books in the mail through Kenney’s Book Store in Galway. One of them, titled, Surplus People, is about an entire estate from County Wicklow of 10,000 people were given passage to North America in the midst of the Famine by Lord Fitzwilliam. One of the ships was called The Star and this was the name of the ship I had chosen for my fictional ship that Norah travels on to America. On the ship, there is a family with the name of Neale and there is a young girl my protagonist’s age! Who knew! All of these things have guided me to persevere and not give up telling these stories.
What books do you have on your bedside table now?
I just got up to get all the books by my bedside and can’t carry them, so here are a few I am currently reading (for research, for travel, and for pleasure): Fodor’s Italy 2014; The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan (again); The Famine Plot by Tim Pat Coogan; The Irish in The American Civil War by Damian Shiels; A People’s History of The Civil War by David Williams; The Cave and the Light (Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization); and Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland.