Cynthia G. Neale is a writer who is drawn to the 19th Century Irish American immigrant experience which serves as a basis for her three novels that she discusses below. A native of the Finger Lakes region of New York, Cynthia now resides in New Hampshire. She writes plays, short stories, and essays, and holds a B.A. in Writing and Literature from Vermont College. She has long possessed a deep interest in the tragedies and triumphs of the Irish during the Great Hunger. She enjoys Irish set dancing, traveling, reading, art classes, baking fanciful desserts, hiking, kayaking, creating events that include food and dance, laughing until it hurts, and dreaming about possibilities. NORAH is her first historical novel for adults and continues the story of Norah McCabe, a young Irish emigrant struggling to survive in the gang ridden neighborhood of 19th Century Five Points, New York.
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What was the inspiration for Norah?I
Norah McCabe, the protagonist in NORAH: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York, came to me as a child of thirteen in my first children’s novel, The Irish Dresser, A Story of Hope During The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor, 1845-1850). In 1997, although working on other stories, I felt compelled and inspired to write a story set in this time period. I was dancing one evening at an Irish pub and looked up at the well-known poster titled, “Irish Dresser,” which is in every pub in Ireland and in a few pubs in this country. The poster is of a photograph taken in the 1960s of an 1800s Irish dresser (comparable to what we know as a china cabinet). On the dresser, there are china cups, a photo of JFK and the Pope, and a red hen scratching on the floor in front of big cupboard doors. As I danced, I imagined a young girl suffering from hunger and tragedy, but dreaming of a better life when she climbed inside this place of refuge, her hiding place, and place of hope. Norah McCabe eventually travels across the sea to America hidden away in this dresser. After I wrote the first book and found a publisher, I thought I was finished telling her story. But I couldn’t leave her on the shores of America, and I also learned through genealogical research that there was a real Norah McCabe who had come from Ireland to NYC in 1847!
I had a few epiphanies that convinced me I was writing about a real person who had lived during this period. And so I wrote Hope in New York City that continued her story of survival in her new country, a country that despised the Irish immigrant. And then once again I assumed her story was over, but my heart was still being clutched and I felt the stirrings of a young woman’s dreams and struggles. And the more I read about New York City and America during the years prior to the Civil War and post massive immigration, the more intrigued I became. It was a time of Abolitionism, the Nativist Movement, and the Women’s Rights Movement was in its heyday. There were uprisings, bank runs and crashes, riots, violence, and xenophobia. I imagined the child, Norah, becoming a vibrant and determined young woman who desires to desperately climb out of her Irish skin as much as she wants to keep it. She doesn’t want the limitations of her race and dreams of success, but still longs to return to Ireland. The two children’s books about Norah McCabe convinced me she still had a story to tell and so I trusted her to continue her story through me. And so she did!
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.
The only knowledge most American students learn is from high school history texts, “Over a million people perished in Ireland from the loss of the potato crop.” John Walters writes, “Surveys, I’m told, indicate that the Irish people do not want to hear about the Famine. But it is also precisely why the subject must be talked about until we remember the things we never knew.” As a writer with a heart beating fast in learning Irish dancing, as well as my history, I knew this was a subject that would become the vehicle for a story. Tom Hayden writes in Irish Hunger, “There are unmarked famine graves in all of us.”
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?
Five Points in New York City was the notorious slum where the Irish immigrants lived in broken down tenement houses. Yes, it was the center of the Irish community of the time, but there were Germans, Chinese, Jews, African Americans, and others endeavoring to find the American Dream. Five Points was a fascinating place where blacks and whites mingled at Pete Williams Dance Hall that was owned by an African American. It is where Norah sneaks off to as a child on and finds her Irish dancing feet again (Hope in New York City, The Continuing Story of The Irish Dresser). Charles Dickens visited Five Points and wrote about it in his book, American Notes. The aristocrats would go on slumming parties to visit with armed guards accompanying them. They had to see this vibrant life of all the races dancing and reveling together in Five Points. Five Points was a desperate and tragic enclave, but there were many beams of light that fell upon the people and rendered them able to climb out and onward to live meaningful and successful lives. I believe that the movie, Gangs of New York, as well as the BBC series, Copper, exaggerate the dark deeds and fail to highlight the inspiration. In fact, I was so taken with Five Points and Pete Williams Dance Hall that I wrote a play/musical called Diamond Juba based on Jack Diamond, the famous jig dancer and Master Juba (Henry William Lane), the famous ham and bone dancer. I hope to have this play produced someday in New York (one of my American dreams).
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 didn’t meet my father until I was eighteen and then he passed away soon after, thus I do not know much about my Irish side. He did tell me that his grandmother, Marion McCabe, was born in Ireland. My mother’s side is English, but there’s a great, great grandmother who was a Nancy Bailey and Irish, but we do not know how she got to Vermont. The little I was told about Marion McCabe has inspired me to use the name McCabe. She was a redhead, feisty, and loved her clothing and wearing hats. She came through New York City and eventually married and settled in Corning, New York and then returned to New York after her husband died. My father was much older than my mother and Marion McCabe was probably born in the late 1800s. I use the McCabe name in my novels and Norah’s mother’s name is Marion. My great grandmother, Grace Matilda, studied art and rode her horse to Mansfield State in PA and was one of the first women to graduate from this college. I have learned also that she designed and made her own hats.
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.
Rena Rosner, an old pal from Authonomy, who is a great writer and now also a literary agent, kindly asked me to share in this blog hop and write about my writing. We connected because we both shared an experience of living in Ireland; Rena spent a year at Trinity College in Dublin and I of course live in Ireland still. Rena’s own blog reveals her fascinating background that has led her from America to Israel and her varying interests which resulted in a recently published cook book, Eating the Bible. Her writing seems to cover a wide range of genres including Fantasy, Jewish Fiction, Literary Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Paranomal Romance and Women's Fiction, but all with a Jewish slant.
She also has a wonderful literary novel, Master of Miracles, her agent is submitting to publishers. Please read her blog at:
Now my view:
What Do I write?
For the most part I write anything historical. Which is probably unsurprising since I studied history and have read so many historical books since I was a child. Something about the ‘story,’ in history captured me early and has never let me go. Maybe it was my mother telling me that Anne Boleyn had a sixth finger or Lady Godiva rode naked through the town with just her hair to cover her. And I have to say it was the people that fascinated me, especially the women. Leave the battles for other types, except if it was to learn that English bowmen captured during Medieval times had their middle finger cut off so they wouldn’t be able to draw a bow again.
It’s both sides of history, fiction and non-fiction that I gobbled up and later studied. I wrote many journal articles and essays and a Ph.D. dissertation before turning my hand to full length works. The first was a novel, because I always had stories running around in my head. In 2012 I published Selkie Dreams, combining my years of experience and research working in an archives with my interest in the mythical tales of the selkies.
It wasn’t just stories that captivated me. I became fascinated by the life of a Canadian First Nations woman, Anahareo, who challenged Indian stereotypes, and along with her companion, Grey Owl, was a pioneer in conservation. She became the subject of the biography I wrote and published in 2012, Anahareo: A Wilderness Spirit.
What am I writing now?
I always have many stories running around in my head and some of them make it to paper. I have just completed a novel set in 6th Century Ireland in West Cork where I live about a woman who loses her memory as a result of a brutal beating and takes refuge in a community of women run by an abbess called Gobnait. Gobnait is the patron saint of bees here in Ireland and also the local saint where I live.
I’m collaborating, too, on a novel from a great friend who laid the rough workings into my hands before she died a few months ago. It’s a cracking topic set in 1441, around the scandal of the Duchess of Gloucester. She was accused of witchcraft along with a scholar, Roger Bolingbroke, a physician and canon of Westminster Palace chapel, Thomas Southwell (also an alchemist) and a woman herbalist, Mistress Jourdemayne, known as the Witch of Eye.
There’s plenty of other stories ticking away in my mind that include a sequel to the one I’m working on, another one bequeathed by my dear friend set during the Wars of the Roses, and one set in Italy based on a poem by Keats and another by Boccacio. History never stops giving up stories.
Why Do I Write?
It’s the stories in my head. A conversation that never stops, really. It amuses me when I wait in line, drive long journeys or sit in boring meetings (luckily I don’t have to do that anymore). I have to share the stories, like I do a funny joke and hope that others find it as entertaining as I do. It gets them out of my system.
I usually write in the morning, when I’m not teaching art classes or running one of my book clubs. I go to the spare room and sit at the computer and enter the world. If I’m lucky I can spend a good solid three hours at it and get at least 1000 words, if not more out of me. But there are some months when it’s not possible and in a way that’s good. It refreshes the well.
Tagging the next three:
I want to tag the next three writers to carry on this blog hop. I hope you go on to read their blogs.
Tim Weed: http://timweed.net
Tim’s essays and articles on travel, the outdoors, and the writing craft have appeared in various national magazines and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, and many other literary journals and anthologies. He is also a lecturer in the Creative Writing Program at Western Connecticut College in the USA. His novel, first novel, Will Poole’s Island, will be published by Stephen Roxburgh at Namelos Editions in August 2014.
Frances Kay: http://franceskaywriter.wordpress.com/
Frances is an Actress, playwright and novelist. Her debut novel, Micka, published by Picador, won much praise for its power. She has just released her second novel, Dollywagglers, published by Tenebris, another dark work, this time set in a dystopian world.
Third person to be announced…
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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