Martyrs and Traitors – A New Look at 1916

Marina Neery is with me today to answer some questions about her recently released Irish historical novel, Martyrs and Traitors, a book which looks at the Easter Rising from a new angle.

Here’s how the publisher describes the book:

“Dublin. Good Friday. 1916.

Kidnapped and held at gunpoint by his former IRB comrades, Bulmer Hobson, the misunderstood antihero of 1916 denounces the ill-fated Easter Rising he had tried to prevent.  While his captors joke about shooting him and dumping his body on the railroad tracks, his terrified fiancée roams the chaos-ravaged city in search of him. Fifteen years of political rivalry, international conspiracy, botched love affairs, and taunting promises of glory culminate in a bloody showdown. Once branded ‘the most dangerous man inIreland’ by the police, Hobson is about to be deleted from history.

Based on historical accounts, Martyrs and Traitors, is an intimate glance into the conflicted and shattered heart ofIreland’s discredited patriot.”

I’m always interested in novels that present well known slices of history in a new light. So, I’d like to hear more about Martyrs and Traitors, Marina.  If I may,  I’ll ask you a few questions about the novel.

Firstly, would you tell us about your novel.

MN: One of the critics described “Martyrs & Traitors” as “Easter Rising noir”.  It is a sequel to a short folkloric satire “Brendan Malone: the Last Fenian”. “Martyrs” was written in 4 months and is about 450-pages long. I wrote it on one breath, at a very trying time in my life, when I was extremely stressed out. It explores the political and intimate travesties ofIreland’s discredited patriot Bulmer Hobson.  I found that the subject matter bewildered many people.  They would frown and ask me: “Why him?  He’s so … obscure!”  And that is where I raise my index finger and correct them smugly: “He’s not obscure.  He was forced into obscurity due to his unpopular decision to oppose the Easter Rising.  He is one of the greatest Fenians to come out of the North.”

What prompted you to write about this historical event?

MN: Shortly after I got my short novel “Brendan Malone: the Last Fenian” accepted for publication, Bulmer Hobson came to me in a dream and reproached me for having given him so little “screen time”.  He said that without him there would’ve been no IRB revival and expressed hope that I would explore him and his contributions more extensively in my next book. Of course, I woke up with heart palpitations and started writing.  I devoted an entire novel to him. You can tell I am completely infatuated with the man.

 How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?

MN: I stuck to the historical facts quite accurately.  With 1916 there is no need to embellish too much.  The facts are mind-boggling enough.  The emotional element is where I took liberties.  In reviewing witness statements from various survivors, I had to read between the lines and try to imagine what the mental state of a particular individual was.  Those statements were mostly terse.  The speakers stuck to the facts and did not elaborate on the emotional aspect.  And of course, time plays tricks on our memory.  The way we remember events 10 years after they happened and the way we remember them 50 years later can be very different. 

What research did you do for this book?
I talked to professors, authors and history enthusiasts. I have acknowledged all those people who contributed to my research.  I cannot say enough about their generosity with their time and information. 

You use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
Even if you are writing about a historical figure, you are reinventing him/her.  My goal was to avoid giving any historical character a purely encyclopedic portrayal.  In “Martyrs & Traitors” the vast majority of characters are real historical figures.  There are two heroines who are composite characters, meaning they were based on several historical figures.  For instance, Isabel McCormack, a fictitious love-child of Countess Markiewicz, was based on Eveleen Nicholl (Pearse’s alleged love) and Iseult Gonne Stuart. 

In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place in a bygone era. How did you bring this place you are writing about to life?

MN: A historical novelist has to be careful not to sound like an apt history pupil who’s done his/her homework diligently.  Yes, it’s important to incoporate various elements that mark the era you’re right about, but it’s important to do so seamlessly.  You don’t want certain passages to stick out like blocks copied straight out of Wikipedia.  You have to think of your characters are normal people, who have the same feelings, fears, needs and instincts as your contemporaries, even though their manner of expression or their conflict resolution tactics might be different.  I also find it helpful to read literature from that era.  I confess, I did not revisit Joyce.  But I did read Eimar O’Duffy’s “The Wasted Island”.  That novel was written in 1919, just three years after the Rising.  It was a totally subjective account, but it was authentic. It gave me tremendous insight into the morals and manners of the era. 
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
I have always been fascinated by the dynamics in a predominantly male society.  Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” and Jack London’s “The Sea-Wolf” are among my favorite novels.  When men are cut off from women and the rest of the world, whether within monastery walls or on board of a ship, all sorts of intellectual and physical conflicts emerge. This is why I wanted to study the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  The reality is, in the previous centuries/decades men had enjoyed more freedom and therefore had more opportunities to get into trouble.  The theme of a woman disguising herself as a man to penetrate an exclusively male world is very common in historical fiction.  It is important for me as a writer to create female characters who are not just romantic interests or distractions for the male protagonists.  The early 20th century was a truly exciting time for girls.  The Irish revolutionary women were rebels on more than one front.  They fought simultaneously for women’s rights, for Irish freedom and, in Helena Molony’s case, for the rights of workers.  When you get in that avenger state of mind, it’s hard to pick and choose your battles. 

Thanks for telling us a little about Martyrs and Traitors, Marina.  Readers can learn more about the novel and Marina at

About the author: Marina Julia Neary is an award-winning historical essayist, multilingual arts & entertainment journalist, novelist, dramatist and poet.  Her areas of expertise include British steampunk, French Romanticism and Irish nationalism.

Neary currently serves as an editorial reviewer and steady contributor for Bewildering Stories magazine.


About Dianne Ascroft

I'm a Canadian writer and author, living in Britain. My first novel, 'Hitler and Mars Bars' was released in March 2008. More information abo
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