Friday, April 25, 2014

Brendan Malone: The Darker Side of Paternal Love, a guest essay by Marina Julia Neary

I'm pleased to welcome Marina Julia Neary to the blog today.  Marina is a multi-published novelist specializing in Irish history, and in the following essay, she looks beyond traditional motifs from Irish popular culture to reveal a more sobering view of the country's historically patriarchal society.  I was also fascinated to see how she worked with her publisher to present her novel's characters and themes within the cover photo.  Her most recent books center on the Easter Rising of 1916:  Brendan Malone: The Last Fenian; Martyrs & Traitors: A Novel of 1916; and Never Be At Peace, the latter published by Fireship Press in March.


Brendan Malone: The Darker Side of Paternal Love
Marina Julia Neary

I wrote the first draft of Brendan Malone: The Last Fenian (All Things That Matter Press, 2011) as a sophomore in college. At the time I was working as a research assistant for an Irish history professor, at the height of Celtic Revival. Remember the Riverdance craze of the late 1990s, when it became glamorous to have Irish roots? Riverdance is just a highly stylicized and distilled expression of Celtic pride. The overall tone is celebratory. Even the segments that reference mass emigration are veiled in heroism and optimism. The tragedy, the negativity, the darkness have been removed, to make the show more marketable.

I understand that the producers did not want to have an Irish equivalent of Schindler's List on stage. Needless to say, Riverdance is not a comprehensive guide to Irish culture. I recall my professor, an incurable purist, being rather annoyed by the explosion of Riverdance. In his opinion, this show was distorting and oversimplifying the conflicted and turbulent heritage of his people. His mission was to educate his students about the painful, tragic, shameful elements of Irish culture. Forget the lame drunk jokes that permeate popular culture. The most horrid things do not happen in a pub. They happen in the privacy of a home. Everyone talks about how abominably the Irish had been treated by the English. Not many are willing to talk about how horrible the Irish can be to each other, the violence and abuse that happened behind the closed doors of seemingly respectable households. And I, with my penchant for morbidity, became his most hungry pupil. My ears tend to perk up at the sound of subdued wailing.

One day my professor shared a blood-chilling story about a landlord in Roscommon who, in a fit of rage, killed his youngest son during a routine hunting expedition and then made his oldest son cover up for him. Apparently, severe physical punishment was used extensively by Irish fathers, even on adult children, and there were several cases of filicide veiled as accidents. That story, told in a most casual tone, made such a profound impact on me that I developed it into a novel by adding a few twists to the plot and a back story. I worked in the myth of Cuchulainn, the mythological Irish hero from the Ulster cycle with whom the title character of Brendan Malone identifies.

In literature there are many stories featuring a conservative, traditional parent, and a rebellious child. In my novel the roles are reversed. You have a revolutionary-minded father and a counter-revolutionary son. Paradoxically, rebels, who allegedly worship freedom, can be rather oppressive towards those in their immediate surrounding, especially their family members who are somewhat in a dependent position. Brendan Malone is both a dreamer and a tyrant. To liberate his country, he is willing to enslave his family. Having established physical dominance over his timid wife and two young sons, he strives to establish ideological dominance as well and convert them to what he perceives to be his Noble Cause, that very thing that gives his life meaning. The protagonist is delusional in a sense that he believes that that a country can run on faith, camaraderie and folklore alone. His oldest son Dylan, a handsome, sturdy, obedient simpleton, echoes the same slogans, but his youngest son, Hugh, sickly and withdraw bookworm, holds a more cynical view of Ireland's prospects of gaining independence. In Hugh's mind, England is a necessary evil, and the only way an ambitious, intellectual young Irishman can succeed in life is by siding with the enemy and embracing the English ethos. Hugh does not vocalize his beliefs around his father, because he knows too well that he won't live to hear the end of the conversation.

Throughout the novel it is implied that Brendan had used violence extensively, especially on his oldest son. Most people have heard of the Stockholm Syndrome. One of my psychologist acquaintances told me that when violence from an authority figure is alternated with praise, it can become an extremely powerful attachment tool. Eventually the battered child can start perceiving physical pain as a rite of initiation into some grandiose cause. He starts believing that Daddy is beating him to make him into an epic warrior. Disturbingly, Daddy believes the same thing, which creates this beautiful tight-knit co-dependence. For this father-son pair, violence is therapeutic and redemptive. In order to maintain a healthy relationship, they must engage in periodic fist fights.

Since my goal was to write a novel that was authentic both historically and psychologically, I consulted as many mental health professionals as I did historians. Within the context of patriarchal culture of rural Ireland, Brendan's behavior is consistent with the norm of the day: beat your sons in public but terrorize your wife behind the closed doors. It's all for the benefit of the country, isn't it? Problem arises when Brendan's youngest son removes himself from the equation. He refuses to participate in these father-son bonding rituals or join the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In fact, Hugh feels rather at home in the scrawny arms of a haughty neurotic Englishwoman.

I remember daydreaming about the characters, envisioning their faces, replaying their dialogues in my head. After a thirteen-year hiatus, I finally mustered the courage to present the manuscript to a few publishers. To my pleasant surprise, I got an offer from a small press in Maine that specialized in transformative fiction with a strong philosophical and political slant. One of the benefits of working with a small publisher is the amount of artistic input the author has over the cover. So when the editor-in-chief gave me the green light to proceed, I was rubbing my hands with excitement. So when the time came to design the cover, I made it my goal to recreate the dysfunctional family in the throes of an ideological rift. Since there were no suitable photographs in the public domain, we decided to artificially create one with some costumes and Photoshop. The poses and the facial expressions of the characters would convey the nature of the conflict.

Having worked in independent theater and film, I have built a network of actors of various ages. I love studying interesting faces and envisioning people in various roles. I picked a local film actor, Joel Vetsch, to portray Brendan. Tall and broad-shouldered, Joel has a terrific presence. His seemingly jovial smile has a sinister undertone. Dylan is portrayed by a traditionally handsome Alex Mair, who has a very open, innocent face. For Hugh, I deliberately picked a child who looked different, who had heavier features and a darker complexion. In the novel, Hugh is an outsider, physically and ideologically. He is standing with his back turned to his father, clutching a book. Last but not least, one of the props is a 19th-century rifle that has been in my husband's family for generations. To paraphrase Anton Chekov, "If there's a hanging rifle on the wall, it better go off at some point." Rest assured, the rifle does go off, and the first man to fall is not an English enemy.


A Chernobyl survivor adopted into the world of Anglo-Irish politics, Marina Julia Neary has dedicated her literary career to depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Easter Rising in Dublin. Her mission is to tell untold stories, find hidden gems and illuminate the prematurely extinguished stars in history. She explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.

Her debut novel Wynfield's Kingdom: a Tale of London Slums appeared on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. With the centennial of the Easter Rising approaching, she has written a series of novels exploring the hidden conflicts within the revolutionary ranks. Never Be at Peace: A Novel of Irish Rebels is a companion piece to Martyrs & Traitors: A Tale of 1916.


  1. That's not what people who adore the fantasy of Ireland and Celt culture want to hear about, that's for sure. :)

    Brava! for your courage in researching and then the emotional follow-through you had to do to turn this into fiction.

    Love, C.

    1. Foxy, fantasy is poisonous and dangerous. It falls under the false idols category.