The Settlement: Family history and writing a historical novel.

Gavin Clarke Family, history, Troubles

By RUTH KIRBY-SMITH

How ironic it is that I ended up writing a historical novel as history was my least favourite school subject. As an insouciant fourteen-year-old I was cheeky to the toughest history master at Methodist College Belfast; he gave me such a roasting that it was still remembered at our 50-year reunion in 2017. I never turned a hair, as the saying goes; but I had enough sense to drop the subject.

‘He went home to his real parents in Co Armagh to get and education at the age of ten and was ‘kidnapped’ by his foster sisters…’

I had wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember but university, travel, career and children got in the way. When my father died, I began to question his unusual childhood and the stories he had told us. He was born in Rostrevor in 1919 and fostered at three days old to a family at the Spa, Ballynahinch. He went home to his real parents in Co Armagh to get an education at the age of ten, was ‘kidnapped’ by his foster sisters who drove fifty miles across country to secretly take him back, and then had no further contact with his biological parents until he was nineteen. This presented an interesting family history but when I investigated what was happening in Ireland during those years, I found a fascinating story which I knew little about. This was the time of political action for Irish independence, the anti-home rule movement and WW1. The history of Ireland and my family gave me the basis for my book.

The main characters in the book, Sarah and John, are based on my grandparents although the story is totally fictional. My grandfather was a lot like John – go getting, shrewd and successful, his fortune was made with hard work. He lived until I was in my twenties and I remember him as a kind, well informed and interesting man. My grandmother was quite different from the character in the book. I did not know her well as she died when I was nine, but I do remember a rather cold and reserved character who showed me little affection. As a child I did not enjoy the monthly Sunday visits to see her, because we had to sit quietly on her prickly horsehair dining chairs to have afternoon tea and I remember stuffing my dresses under my legs to protect them. My cousin George tells the story of his mother taking him as a young baby to visit her. They travelled all the way from Belfast to County Armagh so grandmother could meet her new grandson, but they were turned away at the door as they did not have an appointment and my grandmother was ‘not receiving’. This was odd behaviour and I suspect she had some mental health problems.

This gave me carte blanche for the character of Sarah in the book. The social setting is Protestant anti-home rule Northern Ireland, I needed my main character to challenge this position and present another point of view. The independent free-thinking feisty Sarah came into being and she was a joy to write. In retrospect there is a lot of myself in the main character – her questioning and preparedness to go against the grain, her being outspoken and rebellious at times. As a teenager in the 1960’s I was the first person to attend the Sunday morning church service without a hat and it caused quite a ruction. Our minister, Reverend Lavery, listened to the complaints from members of the congregation and said that it was better that I come to church without a hat than not come at all. I loved him for that, and he finds a place in the book as the local minister in Lindara, taking the news of war casualties to his flock. 

I used friend and family names for my characters. Sarah’s cousin is called Lizzie and is an amalgamation of my two oldest friends, both called Lizzie. Violet was a kind and funny aunt; Miss Henderson was one of my favourite teachers in primary school and Miss Blakeley is a tribute to David Blakeley who taught me social studies in 6th form at Methodist College and finally awoke my intellectual interests. The colonel is based on my aunt’s old gardener and there are many stories of his comic character. In the book the colonel is rude to the church ladies having tea, which is a true story except that it was a local titled Lady who was the target. The book is truly a mixture of fact and fiction, and the grain of my family runs all the way through it.

As a debut novelist whose writing experience largely comprised the writing of city planning technical reports, I needed to learn the storytelling craft as I progressed with the novel. It was the early 1990’s when I first attempted to write The Settlement and submitted it to publishers, the responses were cool. Perhaps the Troubles had been in the headlines too long. I laid the novel aside and then lost the Word file in a computer failure. In 2017 I was clearing out my office and came across the last printed-out draft and my passion for the book was reignited. I discovered the MS Word function that translates dictation of the text into a digital document. Sounds simple but the programme’s ear wasn’t tuned to my Irish accent (even after almost 50 years living in England) and made some peculiar interpretations; chapter by chapter with careful editing the novel found a new life.

The book is listed as a historical novel, but it also has romance, history, murder and mystery. Its publication in the centenary year of partition and at a time of renewed tension in Northern Ireland due to Brexit reminds of the perennial currency of the history of these islands. The background concerns of my story and of our not so distant families 100 years ago – sovereignty, trade and international links – still resonate today.

The Settlement by Ruth Kirby-Smith is published by 2QT Publishing and widely available. Get your copy here.

Ruth Kirby-Smith grew up in Northern Ireland and studied politics at Queen’s University, Belfast during the civil rights era. She completed a Masters in City Planning and worked in Stormont and London. In 1978 she joined a team at Cambridge University undertaking research into the regeneration of the inner city. When her children were born, she took time out and set up a business, designing and selling baby products, which she ran successfully for the next thirty years. Now retired, she lives in Leeds.