Upfront: Writer and historian Turtle Bunbury on grilling his grandfather
Turtle Bunbury (49) is an Irish writer and historian. He lives on the family estate in Carlow with his novelist wife Ally and daughters, Jemima (13) and Bay (12).
What were you like as a boy growing up in Carlow?
I was a bit of a wimp. I was terrified of water and of heights and then, in later life, I ended up hang-gliding and bungee jumping. From a young age, I loved watching Bible and history epics on telly. My parents said that I always asked why.
Choose three words that describe you.
History-addict, curious and knowledge-spreader.
Are you a glass half-full person?
I’m an optimist because we’ve been through quite a lot in the past and we keep moving forward.
What drives you?
Obviously there are the official levels of trying to sustain your family and all those things which are pretty damn crucial. Trying to make sense of the past is probably some form of attempt to grapple with Irish identity. From a personal point of view, it’s 2021 and I’m a white Anglo-Norman Protestant full of planter’s blood and colonial sh**e going on. None of that is very positive in the 21st century. So I’m probably trying to figure out what was that all about.
Why are you attracted to history?
I love working with something that existed before. It’s like a jigsaw. I grew up in an historic house and I realised that I had quite a well-documented family history, so I wanted to flesh that out. That brought me into a history of Ireland and the world. It’s endlessly exciting because there are always twists and turns and astonishing people to get to know.
Did you quiz your grandparents?
I lived with my grandfather for a couple of years and I interviewed the poor man every day. I was 24 and I tried to imagine what life was like when he was my age. Looking at life through the perspective of a young grandfather was a very useful exercise.
Who are your role models?
My wife Ally because she is so optimistic. Another uplifting person is my brother-in-law Tom Sykes. He’s very calm. It’s very important to have calming friends in this world. They can reset you very quickly.
Best advice you were ever given?
Get it writ and then get it right. I like this especially when I’m procrastinating. The other line I like came from my conversation with Gary Batton, the Choctaw Chief. They are the Indians who raised money for the Irish during the famine. He was talking about the Trail of Tears, that awful period in American history when Indians were forced out of their homes. He said we must learn to forgive the past.
How did Covid-19 affect you?
I’m quite a social creature, so I’ve definitely missed physical contact with people. Although I’m not a massive huggy-kissy guy, they are important and I miss them. On the other hand, I’m one of the luckiest people alive because I live in the beautiful Irish countryside. Being a writer and an historian is a solitary life, so there’s not much difference in that sense.
Tell us about your new book, The Irish Diaspora.
It’s an overview of some of the characters who have headed from this island to other parts of the world. It includes the Irish men who were involved in laying the transatlantic railroad across America. Then there is Hercules Mulligan from Derry. He ended up being a tailor in Washington DC but he was an undercover spy for George Washington. There are some unsavoury characters too.
What are you reading?
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann.
What are you listening to?
Dan Snow’s podcast, History Hit and Daft Punk and JJ Cale.
What do you do for laughs?
Company is big for me but that’s not possible right now. Luckily I have daughters who make me laugh all the time.
The Irish Diaspora: Tales of Emigration, Exile and Imperialism by Turtle Bunbury is published by Thames & Hudson turtlebunbury.com