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Thursday, April 9, 2015

In Search of My Irish Past: Part 3

Last week, I wrote about the introduction of the first Irish character in my writing - Dylan Maguire, who made his appearance in Vicki's Key and the Black Swamp Mysteries Series. A little known fact about the book is the original plot called for Vicki to kill Dylan in self-defense; the intent was for him to start out as someone she would fall hard and fast for, but who ultimately would turn out to be someone else - and someone very dangerous to her.

However, in my effort to make him the kind of man she would fall in love with, I must have done the job exceptionally well because the initial editors and reviewers sent the manuscript back to me and said there was no way he was going to die. He was the most likable character I'd ever created, and he had to remain in the entire series. I rewrote portions of the book and to my relief as well as everyone else's, he became Vicki's permanent love interest.

In Dylan's Song, the fourth book in the series, Vicki and Dylan arrive in Ireland for two purposes: his grandmother is dying and they have been given a CIA assignment: to locate an operative who had gone missing in Dublin, rescue him and return him to the States.

When I developed the village in which Dylan grew up, it was based on a village in which someone close to me once lived. Ireland is dotted with small villages, many of them with only a few hundred inhabitants. Ballygawley, the village my ancestors once owned, today has fewer than 1,000 residents.

There are only 4.6 million residents in the Republic of Ireland today and yet more than 34 million Americans are of Irish descent. The population of Dublin is almost 600,000, which means that nearly 14% of Ireland's population lives in the capital. The second largest city, Galway, has more than 250,000 residents. Between Galway on the west coast and Dublin on the east coast are tiny villages that are sometimes comprised of not much more than a main street and a few farms and businesses.

In Northern Ireland, the population is 1.8 million, of which 280,000 live in Belfast.

In the village where Dylan grew up, the Catholic Church appears almost to loom over the village from a nearby hill; it symbolizes both the culture of Ireland, its ties to the past, the role it plays in its present, and perhaps its link to the future. (Shown here: St Vincent's Catholic Church in Kerry, Ireland.)

Dylan, Vicki and her sister Brenda (who joins them in the book), walk from their rented cottage to the church, to his grandmother's home, and into the main street of the town. In America, we are accustomed to driving everywhere, even if where we're going is just a mile from where we started. However, in Ireland most people walk everywhere.

When my sister was in Dublin, she was struck by how fast everyone walked. She was taken by the beautiful architecture and was moving more slowly so she could see the sights when a man walking by himself strode past her at a fast clip. As he passed, he said into the air, "And there's a lost one."

It seems tourists are easy to spot.

Dylan's village lies near the Bog of Allen, which stretches for nearly 400 square miles in the center of Ireland between the River Shannon and the River Liffey. The bogs are topped with peat, which is harvested in much the same way as sod farms in the States. Among other uses, peat is used to make fireplace "bricks" which are burned in lieu of wood.

The bogs go back into ancient Irish history. Because of the unique composition of the bogs themselves, skeletons and artifacts which would normally have deteriorated are surprisingly well-kept. In the Bog of Allen Nature Center's Museum, a 2,000 year old oak boat is on display, which was excavated from the bog.

Also found was a jar of butter, which has surprising details about the lives and customs of people who lived in or near the bogs a thousand years ago. It was a custom for people to bury food as a gift to the Gods and as a way of asking them to provide a bountiful year. Butter was an expensive and rare commodity and yet someone buried a jar of it in the bogs as a gift to the gods. A thousand years later, it is surprisingly well preserved.

Over the years, many tools, jewelry, clothing and even bodies have been found throughout the bogs. The findings inspired the scenes in which Dylan Maguire finds gold artifacts. In a twist of fate, the ground caves in, burying the priceless items - but Dylan has not forgotten them, and readers will find him in future books planning to secretly excavate them.

I was captivated by the moors of England when I was growing up. One particularly suspenseful book is Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, which takes place in the rural English countryside. Heading into the climax, we find our heroine trying to escape a killer as she flees over the moors. The soft earth and the way her feet sank into the ground intrigued me. The vision remained with me for years and when I moved to southeast North Carolina, which has similar swampland, I knew I had to write books that included this unforgiving terrain - a terrain that becomes as much of an antagonist as a character of flesh-and-blood.

Setting the backdrop of Dylan's Song near the Bog of Allen allowed me to use that unique terrain, to set a midnight scene there as Dylan escapes with one man wounded by a gunshot while another clings to life from months in an underground dungeon.


Next week: come with me while I discuss the most severe storm in Ireland's history: The Night of the Big Wind, which swept the Atlantic Ocean across the island from west to east in January of 1839, which inspired the backdrop of The Tempest Murders.

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