How a tiny Louth village became a wartime refugee sanctuary
Drogheda author Nicola Cassidy will have two strings her bow on Sunday September 25th, as not only does she have a starring role in the film about Termonfeckin premiering that night, she is also launching her latest book.
The new book by the historical fiction writer explores Ireland’s response to the refugee crisis in 1939, when thousands of Jews were forced to flee Germany and annexed Austria due to Nazi persecution.
‘Thela Emerald Spy’, set over a three-week period in the summer of 1939, just two months before World War II was officially declared, tells the true story of a small group of converted Jewish refugees who came to stay in the small village of Termonfeckin, Co. Louth.
Author Nicola Cassidy discovered the story when researching for a story to write about during the height of the 2020 pandemic lockdown.
“I had originally planned to work on a different book and needed to go to London for research,” she says, “but when the pandemic hit and we weren’t allowed travel further than 5km I thought – well, what can I find here in the parish?
"I was amazed when I discovered that a small group of converted Jewish refugees were given refuge at Newtown House, now An Grianán and well-known as the headquarters of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) and I wanted to know more.”
Nicola decided to try and trace the living family members of the Austrian refugees and managed to make contact with the daughter of ‘Gisela Müller’ who became one of the main characters in the book.
“It was truly fascinating to speak to Gisela’s daughter and hear what it was like for her mother to arrive into rural Ireland from Vienna. Not only was she met with a complete culture shock, but she faced prejudice due to the political climate at the time,” explains Nicola, a mum of two, who has four other novels under her belt.
“Ireland was so poor and many young people were emigrating to find work in England. There was lots of commentary as to why Ireland was taking in refugees and in fact, we did only take in a handful at the time – we very much had a closed-door policy, so I felt lucky to have been able to make contact with a family member of someone who had come here as a World War II refugee.”
As well as exploring the issues of mass movement of people, Nicola introduces another story line into the book about a secret German agent, leading to the book’s title – The Emerald Spy. This was inspired by the landing of Hermann Görtz, a German spy who parachuted into Ballivor, Co. Meath in 1940. “
Hermann’s story was really fascinating,” says Nicola. “He was one of eight agents we know of that came to Ireland to gather information and form alliances on behalf of Germany during World War II. I’ve only used a sample of his story in the book – it’s certainly not a James Bond type novel, but his landing does have long term consequences for my characters.”
Nicola spent two and half years researching and writing the book and says at times the subject matter was harrowing.
“I was delving deep into the war and there were times when the horrors of what happened became overwhelming, especially when there was a local link and in this case, a personal link as I got to know the people involved,” explains Nicola. “What happened in real life to Gisela and her family was so upsetting. I wanted to finish the book to tell her story, in particular.”
When Nicola started writing the book in 2020, she could not have imagined that by 2022, Ireland would again be taking in refugees fleeing a war in Europe.
“We are over 80 years on but the themes are still the same, the sentiment and the complicated issues around housing families who are fleeing for their lives,” she says. “ I think anyone reading The Emerald Spy will see that for themselves clearly – that history has a way of repeating itself.”
Nicola’s latest book ‘The Emerald Spy’ will be launched in the Droichead Arts Centre at 6.30pm, on Sunday September 25th, prior to the premiere of ‘ Well Termonfeckin’s documentary ‘Termonfeckin: Village Life, Past and Present’ at 7.30pm. Entry is free but tickets should be booked on www.droichead.com.