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.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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