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Siobhan MacGowan on the real life incidents that inspired The Graces

Siobhan MacGowan on the real life incidents that inspired The Graces

The Graces, set at the turn of a 20th century Ireland, tells the story of a young woman, Rosaleen Moore, who is born with the sight. A seer.

Although mainly set in Dublin, the story begins in rural Ireland, Rosaleen’s birthplace in Co. Clare, where her ability to foresee events and read people, quickly leads to trouble in the tightly-knit community and embroils her in a scandal. However, while Rosaleen’s gift is seen by many in the village to be a curse, they once held Rosaleen’s grandmother in awe for the very same gift: she who was said to have been ‘touched by the Graces.’

An early display of Rosaleen’s grandmother’s gift is taken from a true story: my own maternal great-grandmother, Maggie, was said to have had the sight. Maggie lived with her husband and eleven children in a Tipperary farm cottage and, passed down through the generations, is the tale of how she woke screaming in the night, fearing for her seventeen-year-old son, Tommy. The year was around 1911, the era in which the novel is set. She went running to Tommy’s bed and held him, begging him to be careful, for she had the most terrible terror that something dreadful was going to befall him.

Tommy, being young, laughed it off and went about his business with his brothers, travelling with the family’s thresher to neighbouring farms to carry out the last of the summer threshing. It was not long after my great-grandmother’s sleepless night that it happened. No one knows exactly how, but could only guess that Tommy had somehow tripped before the thrashing machine’s monstrous blades and become entangled in them. The men roared, the engine screeching to a halt as the men lifted Tommy’s limp and maimed body and laid him down on the field but nothing could be done. It was said that my great-grandmother fled to the fields and wailed into the night and could not be coaxed back in. This tale I tell faithfully in the book but give the name of Joey to my great-uncle.

Also in the novel is the tale of the ‘face at the window’, again attributed to Rosaleen’s grandmother and also taken from a real-life incident, this time experienced by my mother in her teenage years during the second world war. My mother was raised in the same cottage, Maggie’s Tipperary cottage, and as a youngster she would eagerly anticipate the visits of a family friend from the USA, a middle-aged man named Bill.  He was great fun and would bring her all manner of presents and she was very fond of him.

The second world war did not touch Eire in the same way as the United Kingdom, but the USA, of course, was an active participant and Bill served in the Air Force.

One summer evening as the light was fading, my mother glanced out the small kitchen window as she was passing and called out to her own mother, taken aback by what she saw there. She knew it was hardly possible, for who she had seen was far away, on the other side of the Atlantic, yet she had seen him. His hefty frame in his fur-collared Air Force jacket, his face lit in a smile. Bill. She went running out into the yard but could see no one. Confused, she went back into the house and told her mother what she had seen but, both knowing it was impossible, they put it aside.

I am not sure how long it took the news to come, but come it did. Bill had been killed in battle. At the time my mother saw him at the window he was already dead. My mother was very much affected by this experience. Again, this story is recounted faithfully in The Graces, with only names changed.

Truths witnessed, or handed down to me from the era run throughout the book. The scandal in Clare sees Rosaleen flee to Dublin where she becomes famed as The Rose, sought after by fashionable society, her last extraordinary prophecy only ensuring her legend. Many of the characters Rosaleen encounters, and events she witnesses, are based on real Dublin characters and events of the time; stories handed down to me by my own paternal grandparents and great-aunts.

The Eccles Street setting is born of a time I spent much time there, and is where Rosaleen comes to meet the mysterious Mesmerists: a group of spiritualists who  revere Rosaleen and her gifts.

But is where she will ultimately meet her nemesis.

The Graces by Siobhan MacGowan (Welbeck, £12.99)

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