Rutherfurd on Rutherfurd


Q. Yet the next project turned into the longest and most difficult you had ever undertaken. The two novels on Ireland, which between them cover a span of history from the time of St. Patrick to the twentieth century.

A. I had a home in Ireland and I'd wanted to tackle the subject for years, but hesitated. I wasn't sure that, not being Irish myself, I could do it, or that my efforts would be welcomed.

Q. What decided you to take it on?

A. Some of my Irish friends in Dublin. They thought I could do it, and as for my fear of the reception from Irish writers and reviewers, they just laughed. "You're better off coming from outside," they told me. "At least you haven't any enemies."

Q. Irish history is a subject full of controversy and highly-charged emotions; Irish against English, Catholic against Protestant, the memory of Cromwell and the Famine, and much more besides. How did you handle all that?

A. The problem is even more complex than you have stated, because over the last generation historians in Ireland have reevaluated so much of their history, and much of what any Irish student would learn in school and university nowadays has yet to work its way into popular literature. That complexity, however, was also an opportunity to tell the story in a new way and produce an up-to-date and balanced book for the general market.

Q. You needed more than usual guidance when you did the research, then.

A. I was fortunate. A good friend of mine from Cambridge days, James McGuire, not only has tenure at University College Dublin's history department, but was also the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Thanks to his kindness, I was able to work with some of Ireland's leading historians in every period covered. They advised me, made suggestions for plot and incident, read and corrected my chapters. I was able to read an important new thesis and some other articles still in preparation. I think it quite amused the historians to see some of the latest research being popularised before it even got off the academic presses. I had wonderful local sources also. For the Famine, for instance, the local history society in Ennis, County Clare, had put together a detailed, almost day-by-day account of what really happened there during the Famine years. My characters and their stories are closely based on real people.

Q. The project took six years and produced two books. But that wasn't the original plan.

A. Originally we planned one book. But the story just kept running away with me, so that finally I had to ask my publishers to let me deliver two separate novels. My British publishers were hesitant, but wonderfully supportive. Doubleday in America said: "Go for it."

Q. And both books went onto the New York Times bestseller list. Which parts of Irish history did you most engage with?

A. The period around the mission of Saint Patrick is highly interesting. From his own writings and other sources he emerges, it seems to me, as a surprisingly modern man. A saint, but a politically cunning and aristocratic one. This is how Irish historians would see him now.

Q. You also put a human sacrifice in that chapter.

A. It was a part of the Celtic, druidic culture that would still have been, at the least, a memory at that date.

Q. Another period, from the first book?

A. The time of the making of the Book of Kells, for two reasons. The process of medieval manuscript illumination is beautiful, powerful and moving. It was also appropriate to set part of the story in the lakeside monastery of Glendalough, up in the Wicklow Mountains, one of the loveliest places in Ireland. I go there whenever I can.

Q. The second novel is a tale that takes us from the days of Cromwell and the English Ascendancy over Ireland, through the Famine to Irish Independence in the twentieth century. These were some of Ireland's most turbulent and desperate times. How did it affect you, writing about them?

A. The tragedies of Cromwell's conquest of Ireland and of the Famine are intensely moving. And there were day by day accounts - even minute by minute in the case of tragedies like Cromwell's siege of Drogheda - that I could use. Modern research has also highlighted all sorts of information which broadens the human story of great events - the huge role of women as couriers, nurses and sharp-shooters in the 1916 Easter Rising - for instance. Scores of these women left vivid daily accounts of their lives. But the two great lessons of modern Irish history, which have hugely affected my outlook on life, are lessons in political culture.

Q. Lessons in religious oppression, I imagine.

A. Subtler. And I believe even more important. The first is about the power of propaganda and dogma. For centuries people in England and Scotland, often of the same stock as the Irish, and whose ancestors of course had been Catholic, genuinely believed the Irish Catholics were like wild beasts. Dehumanised them. These prejudices lasted into the twentieth century. Similarly, people all over the Irish diaspora have often in the past been given a view of Irish history so propagandised that it obscured the richness and complexity of their own culture and history. Cromwell's regime in Ireland, for instance, turns out to have been confused, corrupt and disorganised. The great tragedy of the Famine was the result not of an English desire to destroy the Irish - and the English were guilty of much in the Famine - but of an economic free-market dogma, shared by some Irish people too, that, misunderstood and misapplied, blinded people in London and Dublin to the human reality of the catastrophe as it took place. Our beliefs can make us blind.

Q. But the greatest problems of Ireland have been religious. Are you saying that people would be better off without religious beliefs as well?

A. Absolutely not. But the story of Europe in general and Ireland in particular makes me admire more and more the wisdom of the American Founding Fathers when, for the first time in human history, they insisted upon the separation of Church and State. It's the only way to protect all religions, and to end religious persecution. It was perhaps America's greatest gift to the world and it should be cherished.

Q. The two novels were well-received in Ireland.

A. They were. We had some good reviews, including a lovely one from Maeve Binchy, whose wonderful Irish novels I admire so much.

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