Sunday, September 26, 2021

Messages in the Air: The Watch House by Bernie McGill, set on Rathlin Island in the late 19th century

The enduring struggle between ancient traditions and modern technology is given a Northern Irish flair in Bernie McGill’s The Watch House.

The setting is Rathlin Island, a rugged, picturesque isle just seven miles from the town of Ballycastle on the mainland. Not having heard of it before, I was glad for the opportunity to learn more about the place and its people through historical fiction.

In 1898, as thirty-year-old Nuala Byrne agrees to wed Ned McQuaid, a tailor nearly twice her age, two foreign engineers arrive on Rathlin to test the capabilities of Guglielmo Marconi’s newest marvel – wireless telegraphy. These subplots quickly intersect.

Just a child when her parents and siblings left for a supposedly better life in Canada, Nuala had cared for her aging grandparents until their deaths and hopes for a stable life with her new husband. She doesn’t realize the Tailor and his crabby sister, Ginny, come as a package deal, or that Ginny will treat her as a drudge. Asked to prepare lunches for Marconi’s associates, she develops a rapport with one of them, Gabriel, who teaches her Morse code – and more.

One can guess how their relationship will develop. The novel opens in April 1899 with a scene of Nuala recovering from childbirth, and Ginny planning to take drastic measures to save her brother from raising an illegitimate child. Her traumatic actions almost put me off the rest of the book, but I kept reading and am glad I did.

This evocative novel centers on the mysteries of communication. Introducing Nuala to the notion of electromagnetic waves using layman’s terms, Gabriel, in the island’s watch house, demonstrates how the technological gadgetry can be made to ring a bell. The concept amazes her: “I shake my head and stare at the empty space between the table and a bell. He is asking me to believe in the invisible…

Likewise, Nuala switches easily between Gaelic and English, though never saw herself as a translator before. Plus, there’s a dark-haired girl at the Tailor’s home that no one but Nuala can see. Maybe Nuala is tuned into a special frequency that lets the dead communicate with her, but she isn’t comfortable talking to anyone about it.

The islanders’ dialogue, and Nuala’s lilting narrative voice, complements the small-town Irish locale, and the ending is both satisfying and unsettling. One character’s impressions of Nuala are so different from the quick-minded, brave woman we’ve come to know that it startles. Some communication gaps just seem too deep to bridge.

The Watch House
 was published in 2018 by Tinder Press in the UK. I've been making a point to read and review more of my own books, even if I've had them for a while, and this is one of them.

Rathlin Island
Rathlin Island Harbour
Credit: Brian O'Neill, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


  1. This sounds very good though I guess maybe rather harsh at times. Life in the 19th century would have been harsh anyway for most women.

    1. Yes, the women in this novel don't have it easy.