Friday, April 28, 2023

Q&A with Marian O'Shea Wernicke


Photo by Matthew O'Shea



Marian O'Shea Wernicke is the author of the new historical novel Out of Ireland. Her other books include the novel Toward That Which Is Beautiful. She was a professor of English at Pensacola State College, and she lives in Austin, Texas.


Q: Your character Eileen was inspired by the life of your great-grandmother—can you say any more about that and why you decided to write the novel?


A: My mother, Margaret O’Shea, (young Maggie in the Prologue of the novel) died at the age of 99 in 2019. In her later years she began telling us more about her Irish grandmother Ellen, who had lived with their family until her death when my mother was 13.


This grandmother was her best friend as my mother grew up in a house full of five older brothers and a much older sister. On stormy nights my mother, frightened of thunder and lightning, would run into her grandmother’s bedroom and hop in bed with her.


My mother showed me two letters she had saved from her mother Nettie, and her mother’s sister, Alice, in which the sisters shared what little information they had gleaned about their mother’s early life in Ireland and in the States before she had met their father.


They believed, but had no proof, that their mother was born near Cork in Bantry, Ireland, and that she was married off at age 16 or 17 by her mother and oldest brother to an older man she did not know nor love. They had a son, and she and her husband emigrated to America, but while on board ship the baby died and was buried at sea. I was haunted by that story!


Some time later her husband was killed in an accident, and so she came to St. Louis, Missouri, where her younger brother was working. There she worked in a men’s tailoring shop, and met her second husband, Delancey Jewett, the father of my grandmother and her sister.


So reading these letters between my grandmother and her sister set my imagination on fire. What had her life in Ireland been like? How had she endured the forced marriage at age 16, the death of a child? Why had they left Ireland for America? This novel is my attempt to imagine the woman I never knew but who had shaped my grandmother and my mother.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that surprised you?


A: Since the novel begins in Bantry in 1867, my research involved reading Irish history of the second half of the 19th century, using books, maps, and even a three-night stay in Bantry, Ireland, in one of the Big Houses similar to the one where Eileen and her family work in the novel.


I also read the history of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an illegal organization dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland. I studied the timetables, costs, and conditions of the immigrant sailing vessels of the time, the types of diseases the passengers got. Since I had lived in Holyoke, Massachusetts, for three years, I was familiar with that city and its mills where many Irish people worked in the 19th century.


Finally, I studied the history of St. Louis, my hometown, examined its maps, visited the neighborhoods that I portray in the novel, and, finally, read several hair-raising histories of actual Irish gangs that were operating in the city at the time of the novel. The existence and varied activities of these gangs was the part that surprised me the most as I had never heard any of my family talk about these politically and criminally active gangs!


Q: The writer Stacey Swann said of the book, “Out of Ireland is a love letter to the strength of women who came before us, full of beauty, pain, and--most of all--perseverance.” What do you think of that description?


A: Stacey Swann’s comment that “the book is a love letter to the strength of women who came before us, full of beauty, pain, and–most of all—perseverance,” is a perfect expression of what I felt as the novel unraveled on the page.


Above all, writing this immigrant story has made me see all the refugees trying to enter out country with more compassion and empathy than ever. It takes tremendous courage and strength to leave all that is familiar for the sake of a safer and more hope-filled life.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make changes along the way?


A: I knew pretty much how it would end for Eileen, but what surprised me was the emergence of the character of her younger brother Michael as a major character. He became more interesting as I wrote, a frustrated, young, hot-headed Irishman, chafing under the British occupation of his country. His journey with its many false and dangerous detours was a lot of fun to write. Thus the sister-brother relationship grew to be a major theme of the novel, much to my surprise.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Poetry was my first love, from the works of John Donne to Keats and Coleridge, to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Yeats. So now in my mind a series of poems is germinating tracing my own life’s journey not in a memoir, but rather hidden in poems.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I would hope the novel would inspire readers to examine and delve into their own families’ histories, looking at old photographs, hearing old stories, talking to the old ones. What courage it takes to leave all that is familiar for a better life in an alien land! And maybe we could find more compassion in our hearts for those refugees pouring into our country now, just as our own ancestors did so many years ago.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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