Fact, Fiction and Family Ties…

I’d like to welcome historical fiction novelist Deborah Lincoln to historywithatwist. Deborah’s novel Agnes Canon’s War was inspired by her own family’s extraordinary ancestors. It also turned out that, in creating other characters for her novel, Deborah unknowingly had closely mirrored actual individuals of the time.

The truth is that when it comes to fiction, hard fact and real lives can play a huge impact on shaping what we write. Here, Deborah reveals the twists and turns that history provided to make her great story…

I once mentioned to my eight-year-old niece that I was writing a story about her several-times great grandma, and she said, emphatically, that she wasn’t at all interested in reading about dead people. She wanted to read about live people, by which I think she meant Harry Potter.

I understand that. Not everyone enjoys historical fiction; it can be an acquired taste. But how can you pass up a story like this?

Pre-Civil War America: A young man leaves his home in Maine and walks to Pennsylvania, hoping to get into a course of medical training, but is turned down. He teaches school, meets a young woman whose father rejects his suit, heads west, crosses the Panama Isthmus to California, joins the army as a doctor during the Mexican War, returns east, marries the girl who waited ten years for him and moves to Missouri.

Meanwhile, a young woman with a horde of sisters (and one brother) joins a group of family members emigrating to the Missouri frontier (how hard is that for a single woman in the 1850s?), where she meets and marries a widowed doctor whose secessionist views land them in all soAgnes Canon Robinsonrts of troubles during the war and result in their exile to the Montana wilderness at its end. Further adventures ensue.

These are the “bit players of history” whom David talks about. And these are the facts of their lives. This is you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up territory: why invent a plot when there it is, needing just a little flesh on its bones, full of enduring lessons about life, love, hate, war, freedom — all those great truths we turn to literature to illuminate.

Agnes Canon’s War grew out of the need to keep the memory of these extraordinary people alive. It’s part of the instinct toward immortality, I think, that most everyone feels at some time or another—what’s the point of enduring trials and triumphs if no one remembers? It’s also a way of realising how fragile is the train of incidents that leads to one’s own existence. One death, one misstep, and everything would be very different.

JabezAnd even if it isn’t great literature, it’s still a darn good story. And molding the characters and personalities of your ancestors – how much fun is that? Agnes and Jabez Robinson (pictured), the protagonists in Agnes Canon’s War, were my great-great grandparents. Family lore is that Agnes’s relatives took advantage of the death of Jabez’s first wife to rid themselves of an unwanted spinster.

No, no, no. The facts don’t bear that out: five years elapsed between the death of wife number one and the marriage of our two heroes. This was true romance, a meeting of soul-mates. And again: what happens if your ancestor owned slaves? It’s easy to think the worst, but fun to think the best: he bought them to free them, and the two couples became friends. The hints buried in historical accounts actually support that conclusion.

Following those hints give depth to the story. Long after I began the novel (itself based on facts laid out in a faded manuscript typed on onionskin by a distant cousin), I read a history of Bozeman, Montana. And I found two of the secondary characters I had been writing about for years, the African American couple purchased by Jabez before the war: “A few other American black families also sought refuge in the West…. Richard and Mary McDonald left their home in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in 1864, and traveled by covered wagon with their three children to the new Montana Territory.”

This confirmed what I’d conjoured up in my imagination: The McDonalds went to Montana at the same time as did the Robinsons, which could only mean (I imagined) that the two couples were on good terms.

By that time, I had developed the McDonalds into characters of my own. I’d named Mrs. McDonald Rose, and it was too late to change her name back to Mary: she was Rose to me. Also, they had no children when they left for Montana, and they went by steamboat (with Agnes). That’s another issue for a historical novelist: how much poetic license does the author wield while honoring the actual happenings? In this case, had I known the facts about the McDonalds earlier, I might have stuck more closely to them.

As it is, I liked them the way I’d created them, so there they stood.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, other than to say the historical novelist has the best of both worlds: wonderful stories ripe for the plucking, along with the novelist’s ability to fashion the stories and the characters with her own imagination. (Diana Gabaldon: “Besides, there is this interesting thing called novelistic license. I have one. Framed.”)

Agnes Canon's WarCollating “interesting snippets from the past” (David’s words) can lead to delicious story-telling, deeper understanding (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – the over-used but true quote from Santayana), self-knowledge, honouring one’s ancestors. Someone else will have to decide whether Agnes Canon’s War meets any of these goals, but simply writing the book brought them home to me.


Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Bridget Cleary – the Irish ‘Changeling’

Are you a witch, or are you a fairy

Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?

So went a popular children’s rhyme in Ireland at the turn of the 20th Century. I can hear the echo of those words spilling from young lips all the way to here. In amongst the childish innocence, however, is a terrible truth that cost the life of a woman and made her name a byword for superstitious beliefs.

Bridget Cleary

Bridget Cleary

In a week when tales of witches and spells are used to entertain our children as they prepare to go trick or treating, it’s worth remembering that there was a time, not too long ago, when such stories could spark very real and dangerous repercussions.

Bridget Boland was working as a dressmakers’ assistant when she first met her husband-to-be, Michael Cleary, who worked as a cooper. They married in 1887 in the townland of Ballyvadlea, in Co Tipperary, when she was just 17 years old. Bridget was an industrious, independent young woman – she kept her own chickens and sold them to neighbours, and she had her own sewing machine with which she made dresses.

The couple, together with Bridget’s elderly father, Patrick, moved into a labourer’s cottage. Despite it being the best house in the village, there was little interest in the property as it was said to have been built on the site of a s fairy ringfort.

Tradition has it that such forts are imbued with mystical powers. For some, they are seen as entrances to another world, and to build upon them is considered by believers to be a very foolhardy thing to do.

Bridget, Michael and Patrick lived quietly there for almost eight years, but everything changed in March of 1895 when she was taken ill. After more than a week, Bridget hadn’t improved and the doctor was summoned.

He prescribed medicines, but things seemed to be going from bad to worse and soon the priest was called to administer last rites.

Friends and family visited the house and attempted to treat Bridget with their own remedies. With nothing seeming to help, and with suggestions that fairy spells may be the cause of Bridget’s malaise, Michael formed his own deadly diagnosis.

This was not actually Bridget they were treating, he concluded, but some form of fairy changeling who had taken her place. Michael wanted his Bridget back and he would do all in his power to get her.

Michael Cleary

Michael Cleary

He tried to force feed his wife, to no effect. Then, urine was thrown on her and she was carried before the fireplace to cast the fairy out. Bridget may have been sick, but she still had enough of her senses to tell her husband that the only person away with the fairies was himself. She begged him to stop.

But Michael wasn’t listening. He threw her to the ground and threatened her with a burning piece of wood. And that’s when  Bridget’s nightdress caught fire.

With her screams of panic ringing in his ears Michael Cleary set about finishing what had been started and decided to destroy this changeling now squirming before him. In his hand he held an oil lamp, the contents of which he then tossed onto his wife’s body.

Those present watched as the flames consumed her. Michael kept them at bay, assuring them all that he would now be able to get his wife back.  And so they gathered around, their faces lit up and their ears closed to the agonised screams as Bridget Cleary burned to a crisp.

In the days that followed rumours spread about Bridget’s disappearance. The police began a search. They questioned Michael, who told them that she had been taken by the fairies. He appeared to be sitting in vigil as though awaiting her return.

On March 22, Bridget’s burnt body was found in a shallow grave. Police arrested nine people, including Michael.

His lawyer must have put up a convincing defence because in the subsequent trial, Michael was only found guilty of manslaughter, and charges against the other defendants were largely dropped, although four were convicted of ‘wounding’.

Michael Cleary was jailed for 15 years. After his release on April 28, 1910, he went to Liverpool and then emigrated to Montreal on June 30 of the same year.

It is a widely held view that those involved in this horrible death genuinely believed they were doing the right thing…such is the power of folklore and myth in some societies.

I love Halloween – it is my birthday after all (which might explain a few things), but at this time when bonfires blaze and tales of spooks and goblins abound, spare a thought for poor Bridget.

Hers was a peculiar kind of fairy tale – that of the Irish changeling who paid with her life for the superstitions of others.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Traitors Finally Brought to Book

I know this is historywithatwist, but in my own small way I’m making a little history of my own. This is a big day for me. My third Liam Mannion novel, A Time of Traitors, is now live on Amazon. It has taken me almost nine months to write. That’s longer than I spent on either Tan or The Golden Grave, but then I didn’t have as many issues with those books.

At first, I was very clear on what course to take. I had a good, strong opening scene. Shortly after that I wrote another strong scene that was a potential opener. And, eh, then I wrote another one. It was like waiting for a bus to come along only for three to arrive together. I was spoiled for choice.

I scratched my head for a while and then realised that the only way I would know which to open the story with was to write them all and rewrite all the subsequent scenes (which also meant slotting in the other two potential openers into the book). I had to do this three times to see which way would work best.  As you might imagine, that took quite a bit of time and quite a lot of hair pulling on my behalf.

But I’m happy with the result – I just hope readers are, too.

The other thing that caused me some delay was the fact that I managed to lose seven thousand words of the story one day while on the train to work. That was a bit of a sickener, no doubt about it.

But here we are, nearly nine months later, and my little baby is in the world. If you ever do get around to reading her, see if you can spot the other two potential openers and let me know.

Here’s the blurb for A Time of Traitors, to see if you’re interested…

It’s 1921, and Liam Mannion is embroiled in the murky world of informers and spies; the IRA has announced a truce, and the British and Irish leaderships are taking their first tentative steps toward signing a treaty.

Liam and his fiancee, Kate, are tasked with finding republican rotten apples, some of whom are intent on foiling the fledgling peace talks. For Kate, the Brigade Intelligence Officer, that means asking awkward questions of trusted allies – questions that reveal a traitor. For Liam, it means travelling to London and collaborating with the British police to find a killer.

As the search unfolds, a devastating revelation from Liam’s past will make the hunt more personal–and deadly–than even he could imagine.


Normal historywithatwist service will resume with my next post.

Posted in Uncategorized | 23 Comments

The child evacuees of World War II

I’m honoured to have Gillian Mawson as a guest blogger on historywithatwist. Gillian’s books are important works of social history that will be invaluable to anyone who wants to understand the impact of the World War II on the children of the time.

Gillian, a history researcher, has collected stories from 100 people who spent the war years as evacuees in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The stories are accompanied by family photographs. She included stories from Northern Ireland because they do not tend to receive as much attention as stories from the UK mainland.

Gillian Mawson

Gillian Mawson

Gillian has been collecting evacuation stories since 2008 when she interviewed 200 evacuees for her first book, ‘Guernsey Evacuees; The Forgotten Evacuees of the Second World War’. Seventeen thousand people fled Guernsey to England in 1940, just before Germany occupied the Channel Islands.

Sadly, many of the people she interviewed have since died. Gillian runs a community group for evacuees in Manchester so they can share their stories with the community. She feels it is vital that the memories of evacuees are recorded and shared now before they are lost for ever.

On 1 September 1939, millions of British children were evacuated with their schools, but there were further waves of evacuation during the war years. The children were accompanied on their journeys by their teachers and sometimes by mothers, and Gillian’s book includes stories from these adults.

Some children stated that they went to school one morning and were evacuated within a few hours, without having had the chance to say ‘goodbye’ to their parents. When their children did not return home at the usual time, mothers gathered at the school where they found short, stark notices pinned to the school gates. Over the next few days they would receive a postcard such as this, showing their new address.

One child's message hom - 'I Have Gone'. (Courtesy of the Emmanuel School at War archive)

One child’s message home – ‘I Have Gone’. (Courtesy of the Emmanuel School at War archive)


However, these postcards had tragic consequences for one little boy. The young evacuee posted a card home from his new billet, then went for a walk, but in the unfamiliar surroundings, he somehow fell into the canal, where he drowned. His family were advised of his death that evening, but the next morning his postcard arrived with its cheerful inscription, ‘Dear Mum & Dad, I am very happy here, don’t worry about me.’


Gerry Mullan was six years old when he was evacuated from Belfast to County Tyrone in 1941.

‘We went to Fintona, where we had lived three or four years earlier. I felt excited and apprehensive, because I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like to live in someone else’s house. My brother Joe and I
were looked after by a woman called Mrs Martin, an old friend of my mother. She was good, but very strict. Mother came with us, but she and my younger brothers were housed four or five miles away.

We saw her once a week but it was a bit heart-rending. I renewed acquaintances with some of the children I had known years earlier, which was good, but although Mrs Martin was very kind I remember never being really sure whether I was happy or not. We
were very hard-up in Tyrone, I remember the jotter I used at school had to be used in every margin, covers, everywhere I could get a scribble I filled it.

Gerry Mullan on the right, as a baby

Gerry Mullan on the right, as a baby

My uncle came to see us once or twice a week and gave us money for a new school book, but of course the money went on ice-cream! We only lasted four months and came back to Belfast in July. It was sad in the end to leave because I was seven by then and beginning to enjoy it, as I had made a lot of friends. But it was great to get home and see my father again and be with mother full time.’


William Crawford was 11 years old when he was evacuated from Belfast to Portrush in 1942.

‘I attended Cabin Hill School, Belfast, and one day I turned on the wireless to hear news of the declaration of war. I was horrified because my father was working in Ceylon so my parents might not be able to return until the end of Dad’s contract. I experienced two air raids at school and on one occasion our Headmaster, ‘Fluffy’ Sutton, read Sherlock Holmes stories to us in the shelters.

There was no latrine, so we were allowed out for a pee, although sometimes we used to pretend, and stay out just a bit too long to watch the bombs and the fires of Belfast. In 1942 our school moved to the safety of Portrush where we were accommodated in hotels and boarding houses. One morning in 1945, I was told to travel to my Uncle Hubert’s house in Belfast to meet my parents who I had not seen for over 7 years.

I entered the living room and saw two people, a man and a woman. The woman, my mother, asked, “Are you William?” I just nodded through teary eyes. Then Mother said to the man, “Matthew, are you going to say hello to William?” Matthew turned towards me and said “Are you my son?” My father and I shook hands. I didn’t want to let go.’

William Crawford (right) cycling with his sisters Jean (left) and Alison (centre) in 1941. A year later William was evacuated to Portrush.

William Crawford (right) cycling with his sisters Jean (left) and Alison (centre) in 1941. A year later William was evacuated to Portrush.

Gillian’s book shows that many evacuees came to love their ‘foster parents’ and stayed in touch with them after the war. Some evacuees, however, were less well treated and a chapter of Gillian’s book is devoted to their memories.

Every evacuee’s story is different and this book, with its combination of 100 stories and family photographs, paints an intimate picture of the different ways in which the British people opened up their homes to evacuees.

Evacuees‘Evacuees: Children’s Lives on the WW2 Home Front’ by Gillian Mawson is published by Pen & Sword.

Link: http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Evacuees-Hardback/p/7392

You can contact Gillian at her evacuation website: http://evacueesofworldwartwo.wordpress.com/

Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments

The Prisoners Who Played for their Lives

The baseball team from Wyoming State Penitentiary

The baseball team from Wyoming State Penitentiary

‘Football isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s much more important than that.’

So said Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool football manager. It’s a great line, but that’s all it is. For some unlucky men, though, sport – baseball – really was a matter of life and death

Wyoming State Penitentiary

Wyoming State Penitentiary

In what promises to be a fascinating book,  The Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption and Murder, Chriss Enss and Howard Kazanjian tell the story of the death-row inmates of Wyoming State Penitentiary, who for one unbeaten season played the best baseball of their lives – and with good reason.

In Rawlins, Wyoming, in 1911, when Babe Ruth  was playing his way into baseball’s history and earning bookies fortunes, other players were on the field for much higher stakes than mere dollars.

Wyoming Penitentiary’s Warden Felix Alston formed the team, making his childhood friend, George Saban, its captain.

Saban, who happened to be serving 20 years for triple murder, was allowed to come and go from the prison as he pleased, to take bets on his team’s games in the local bars – taking a 20pc commission for himself in the process.

It was a lucrative business with the added allure for the locals that many of the men playing on ‘The Cons’ team, as one newspaper described it, would soon be executed.

Death row player Joseph Seng

Death row player Joseph Seng

Saban would provide local gamblers with updates on the team’s players.   Joseph Seng was one of those players. He was on death-row for the murder of his lover’s husband.

Seng, like the rest of the team, was under no illusion as to what they were really playing for. The book reveals a letter he wrote from prison, in which he states:  ‘prisoners who make errors that cost the team a game would have more time added to their sentence. Winning would lead to reduced time and stays of execution’.

The ‘incentive’ seemed to work because the team never lost.

Seng’s own execution was scheduled for August 22, 1911, but he obviously impressed the warden with his playing skills because he was still alive for the team’s fourth victory, on August 23.

Stories were getting out to local politicians about the goings on in Rawlins. Pressure was mounting on the warden to stop the practice. So, after the team’s fourth win, Alston decided to replace baseball with education for inmates.

What was a cruel and exploitative practice was ended – but that didn’t save Joseph Seng. He was executed on May 24, 1912.

Unfortunately, playing as though your life depended on it was not unique to Rawlins.

George Horner, of whom I’ve written before, was 19 years old when he and his family were sent to Terezin concentration camp by the Nazis, in 1942.

The camp was used for propaganda purposes, to show the Red Cross and the world that Jews were being treated well there.  It depicted a model community where people could live comfortably and in a creative and friendly atmosphere.

The reality, however, was that Terezin was a holding camp, whose inmates would later be shipped on to the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

George Horner, Holocaust Survivor

George Horner, Holocaust Survivor

George  played piano and accordion in the Terezin cabarets.  Frank Grunwald was also an accordion player. The Nazis obviously liked him. His life was saved from the gas chambers of Auschwitz by his ability to improvise American Jazz music. A talented sculptor, his story is told in the moving documentary Misa’s Fugue.

Others who performed were Alice Herz-Sommer, a child piano prodigy who was forced to play over 800 recitals while she was there. Alice survived the Nazis and outlived everyone of her era,, too. She died in February, 2014, at the grand old age of 111.

And Helmut Spritzer literally whistled for his life as part of the Theresiendstadt orchestra to entertain SS officers Adolf Eichman, Heinrich Himmler and Dr. Josef Mengele

This appreciation of music amongst the Nazi monsters saved many prisoners’ lives. Talented musicians were given better jobs or enabled them to play with the camp orchestra.

The documentary, They Played For Their Lives, tells the story of those musicians in Auschwitz who were forced to give recitals to their tormentors.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, was the cellist of the Auschwitz women’s orchestra. On the programme, she speaks of how she owed her life to her musical ability: “the cello really saved my life because to be in this orchestra was a way of survival, because as long as they wanted music they would be foolish to put us in the gas chambers”.

The orchestra played marches as the slave labourers left the camp for each day’s work and when they returned later in the day. They also gave concerts for the SS who guarded them.

For those musicians who did survive the camps their relationship with music was more than special.

Last year, at the grand age of 90. George Horner invoked that relationship in a moving performance at Boston Symphony Hall. Alongside renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma he played the music he had performed in Terezin 70 years before.

Horner’s life was dangled before him as an incentive to entertain with his recitals, but he has proved that the the purity of music can outlast the most evil of regimes.

The death row baseball players of Wyoming State Penitentiary may not have been as blameless as those condemned to the concentration camps, but they were pawns in a corrupt system that played cruel games with their lives.

‘Playing as though your life depended on it’ is a phrase that will never feel the same again.


Posted in Uncategorized | 22 Comments

Denmark’s Secret Army

On August 15, 1939, an English passenger plane from British Airways Ltd. crashed in Danish waters between the towns of Nykøbing Falster and Vordingborg. There were five casualties reported and one survivor. Just two weeks before, Hitler invaded Poland.

With the world at the brink of war, the manner in which this incident was investigated left much open to doubt. The jurisdiction battle between the two towns and the newly formed Danish secret police created an atmosphere of intrigue and distrust.

Bridge of DeathsOne of those who died was the maternal grandfather of author MCV Egan, who has used these events to create her novel, The Bridge of Deaths, a love story and mystery all rolled into one. 

The novel is the culmination of 18 years of sifting through conventional and unconventional sources in Denmark, England, Mexico and the United States. Here, Maria Catalina Vergara Egan explains what she unearthed during her research.



Danish resistance fighters

Danish resistance fighters

I was recently approached via Facebook by a Danish gentleman. He was organizing old papers and found a negative of a photograph; it was a picture of a British Airways Ltd Lockheed Electra 10A, call letters G-AESY, after it was salvaged from the water in August of 1939.

The photograph was taken by his grandfather, an amateur photographer. I was so happy and surprised to learn that by simply Googling the call letters of the plane he found me with ease.

Flight G-AESY., which crashed in mysterious circumstances

Flight G-AESY., which crashed in mysterious circumstances

I won’t deny for a moment how hard I have worked on making my cyber footprint as large as can be, but the feeling was still fantastic. The feeling of fun and excitement took me back fourteen years to the turn of the millennium when by word of mouth, snail mail inquiries, and sheer luck I was able to connect with fascinating people who had information about or related in some way to the crash of the G-AESY.

Interviewing and researching Danes in regards to WWII is not as easy as one may think. In a country where philosophies were much divided in that era, the comment “some Danes won’t look good” was uttered more than once in discomfort even by those who were so kind to help me.

Amongst the many who were helpful, one gentleman in particular left a strong impression. Eric, although he was, frankly, too young to fight during WWII, still carried the guilt that he did not find the way or the courage to join the Danish resistance during that time. As a problem solver and not one to wallow in discomfort of the past, he found, in his later years, a way to somehow be a part of the Danish resistance: He chose to seek out and record Resistance members who may have otherwise been forgotten.

He spent decades interviewing and taping hundreds of Danes. Every story was personal and important to him. He had an uncanny recollection of each and every one.

The room housing his library of interviews was not very small at all, and covered wall-to-wall with tapes.

One of the men he interviewed, Viggo, had started his interview discussing the crash of the G-AESY, which I investigate in The Bridge of Deaths: “As I recall, to me WWII began in the summer of 1939 when an airplane crashed near my town and a British Member of Parliament was killed…”

Viggo had joined the resistance as a 17-year-old, and remained active throughout the war. The perceptions of a seventeen-year-old were hardly better information than anything I found in the various archives (especially the Danish ones), but that day gave me an understanding, a window into the Danish Resistance Movement, that to this day makes me ponder about the amazing importance of the unsung heroes, the invisible ones that risk it all with conviction and not conscription.

Although Denmark was occupied by the Germans on April 9, 1940, it was a country with a unique and strange standing during WWII, because it was never “officially” at war with the Germans.

This makes the Danish Resistance Movement all that more interesting and unique. Although it was not officially recognized by the allies, it was easy to see by the exhibits at the Museum of Danish Resistance that the Movement was certainly put to very good use. (Today, the Museum remains closed due to a serious fire, but in my visits in 2000 and 2002 I got to learn and benefit from all their amazing exhibits.)

MCV Egan

MCV Egan

Denmark was a divided country in its loyalties and beliefs during WWII. When I worked with the Danish files at the police station in Vordingborg, I had to understand that some of the men I was researching could well have been shipped off to German work camps and others may well have had to, at least superficially, affiliate themselves with their occupier.

As someone with the privilege and benefit to have always lived in places of peace, far be it for me to imagine how I would react, especially if fighting would endanger my child. The choices made under such duress surely cannot be judged under the same premise as those made under ordinary circumstances. As such I could not, and cannot, understand the ‘embarrassment’ conveyed by the Danish people who were so open and helpful.

I often wonder about other clandestine movements, much like the Danish Resistance, that may have not succeeded even with the best of intentions, and whose heroes we may well know as culprits.


Find M.C.V. Egan and The Bridge of Deaths on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and online.

Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments

The Truth About Traitors…

For quite some time, it appears that I’ve been surrounding myself with treacherous deeds and hardly been aware of it.

Brendan O'Carroll

Brendan O’Carroll

Peter O'Carroll, murdered

Peter O’Carroll, murdered

Last night, I watched a documentary. It followed the highly successful Irish comedian Brendan O’Carroll, who was the subject of an edition of Who Do You Think You Are?. If you don’t already know, the programme is a kind of genealogy detective hunt of a celebrity’s ancestors.

I was interested because I happen to like O’Carroll, but also because his grandfather had

been murdered by persons unknown during the Irish War of Independence. A note had been pinned to his body claiming he had been shot as a traitor by the IRA.

O’Carroll’s hunt revealed that his grandad, Peter O’Carroll, had in fact, been assassinated by a member of British Intelligence because he would not give up his sons, who were active volunteers in the IRA at the time.

Jocelyn Lee Hardy

Jocelyn Lee Hardy

O’Carroll had always suspected that the note on his grandad’s body was bogus. He had it confirmed in the end, and even had the name and picture of the assassin, a one-legged war hero by the name Jocelyn Lee Hardy.

It was a fascinating, true story – involving murder and alleged traitors, and it had all happened in my old neighbourhood, just around the corner from my family home.

My own interest in treachery is evident in the subject matter of my new novel, which tells the story of the hunt to unmask a traitor within the IRA during the War of Independence.

Oddly, though, it’s only dawned on me in the last few days that I have been preoccupied with treachery and foul deeds for a lot longer than that.

My first published book, Tan, had a character who betrayed his own family in order to better himself, and my second book – The Golden Grave – sees friends fall out and do terrible things for the lure of treasure.

Stories of treachery can make for fascinating reading, but they can be uncomfortable, too.  For one thing, they sometimes don’t fit the narrative we have grown to associate with certain subjects. Take the example of the Jews who fought for Hitler during the Second World War.

Yes, that really did happen.

It was a quirk of history that had its origins when the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939.

Finland had been ruled by Russia until its independence in 1917. Under Russian law, Jews had been conscripted into the army at the age of ten and had been forced to enlist for up to 25 years.

Therefore, it was almost without exception that the Jews of Finland were descended from Russian soldiers who had been posted to the region during their military service.

As a result, Finland’s Jews were always viewed with a little suspicion by the rest of the population. So, when Russia invaded Finland in 1939, Jewish citizens took the opportunity to prove their patriotism and joined up to fight the Soviet forces.

Both sides battled each other to an uneasy standstill, until Hitler decided to launch Operation Barbarossa, his invasion of Russia, in 1941. That’s when things became a little complicated for Finland’s Jewish troops.

Finland and Germany soon agreed a pact in which both fought their common enemy. In fact, there were occasions when Finnish Jews and Germans fought side by side against the Russians.

One Jewish Finn was even awarded one of the Nazi’s highest military accolades.

Major Leo Skurnik, a Jewish medical officer (second row, second from right)

Major Leo Skurnik, a Jewish medical officer (second row, second from right)

In September 1941, Major Leo Skurnik, a medical officer,  organised the evacuation of a field hospital on the Finnish-Russian border, saving the lives of over 600 men in the process, including members of the SS.

He did so showing little regard for his own safety, and in the face of heavy Soviet shelling. For his bravery Skurnik received the Iron Cross from the German High Command.

Many of these Jewish soldiers had relatives in Poland. They were certainly aware of the suppression that was going on there and were aware of Hitler’s policies, even if they didn’t know about the gas chambers. Had they considered what their fate would be if the Nazis actually won their war against Stalin’s forces?

Some Jews would be aghast to know that their own people would serve with the very troops who were responsible for the Holocaust.

As far as Finland’s fighting Jews were concerned, though, they were Finns first – engaged in a defensive war against Russia while their ally was fighting an offensive one. For them, it was a case of patriotism above self-preservation.

That is a notion, however, which doesn’t sit well with those African-Americans who betrayed their own communities by spying for white segregationists in Mississippi in the Sixties.

Yes, that also happened.

No logic in the world would make one think such a thing was possible. but in fact, as the documentary Spies of Mississippi outlines, several black Americans preferred the certainty of the old white supremacist system to that being promulgated by the youthful arrogance of a new generation.

In one case information provided by an African-American spy led to the infamous murder of three civil rights activists in June, 1964.

 James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (top to bottom)

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (top to bottom)

The men, Michael Schwerner (24), Andrew Goodman (20), both from New York and James Chaney (22), from Meridian Mississippi, were all members of the Congress of Racial Equality, a group dedicated to non-violent direct action against racial discrimination.

They were part of  the ‘Freedom Summer‘ campaign, which was a bid to register African-Americans to vote. The men’s bodies were discovered a little over 50 years ago, on August 4, 1964.

It later transpired that the spy in question had passed on their car’s license plate to white segregationists, who in turn passed it on to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Their murders created uproar across America and led to a FBI crackdown in the state that went a great way towards achieving the very goals those three young men had given their lives for.

It is worth remembering, though, that traitors can also bring hope.  After all, America’s founding father’s were viewed as such by their colonial rulers.

Treachery is one of the building blocks of history.  It can bring out the very worst in some and the very best in those who fight against it.

Such behaviour is part of the human condition – wreaking havoc and causing heartache as its ripples spread wider. Yet, it is in our DNA and, as galling as it is to say, the world would be a duller place without it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments