Book review: The Rising of Bella Casey - Mary Morrissy
Weaving a story of Sean O'Casey's other Juno
Fiction The Rising of Bella Casey Mary Morrissy Brandon Books, €11.99, pbk, 352 pages. Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
The playwright Sean O'Casey wrote a full six volumes of autobiography, but for reasons no one can fathom, he killed off his only sister, Bella, 10 years before her actual death in 1918.
Bella was 15 years older than Sean and had been something of a second mother to him. A clever girl, she'd trained as a schoolteacher and influenced his own love of books, but when she married a soldier in the British army and went on to a life of increasing poverty, O'Casey appears to have turned against her, disappointed that her once-bright prospects had amounted to little.
Little else is known of Bella's life, except for the fact that she died at the outbreak of the Spanish flu epidemic. So what was she really like?
In her third novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, Mary Morrissy sets about filling in the blanks, blending fact and fiction to reimagine Bella's story.
The book opens in 1916: the Rising is in full swing and Bella and her son Valentine are creeping down a ruined Abbey Street with gunfire ringing in their ears.
Mother and son steal an abandoned piano, and as Bella plays Beethoven, while her children wail with hunger, a door is opened to the memories of the past.
Travelling back in time, Morrissy returns us to Bella's relatively comfortable Protestant childhood.
The O'Caseys' financial difficulties only begin with the death of Bella's father, after which she considers herself blessed to find work at a city school, overseen by the sinister Rev Leeper.
But his sexual obsession with the young schoolmistress triggers a chain of events that casts a long shadow. Escape comes in the form of marriage to army bugler Nick Beaver.
Nick and Bella go on to have five children, but sickness, madness, war and poverty conspire to dent her once-lofty aspirations, one knock at a time.
Morrissy deftly employs the colourful language of the era, and her beautifully observed historical detail and almost religious insistence on placenames – Dominick Street, Rutland Place, Brady's Lane – brings the city vividly to life.
But the big problem is that Bella is not very likable. She's cowardly in her dealings with Leeper and she's a snob and a liar even before events have made her bitter.
Her fortunes career so relentlessly downhill that even the reader feels suffocated by her bleak prospects.
There's little in the way of light relief – even Bella's love of classical music and the ease with which she quotes Shakespeare in the midst of tenement squalor only serve to reiterate the extent of her social and economic downfall.
Nonetheless, the story is assuredly told and remains an absorbing portrait of the shattered city O'Casey immortalised in his plays.