No 593 The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill


The Butterfly Cabinet was one of my books for Reading Ireland Month and I am delighted to have Bernie on the blog today answering questions about this beautiful book and her writing in general.


The Butterfly Cabinet is based on a true story set in Portstewart, Northern  Ireland and it tells the story of the death of 4 year old Charlotte in 1892 from the point of view of the child’s wealthy, aristocratic mother Harriet, who has been jailed for the child’s death and from the point of view of Maddie, a housemaid working for Harriet, who carries her own guilt about what happened that fateful day.

Harriet Ormonde is a cold, cruel mother. As a punishment for wetting herself, she locks her daughter in a wardrobe with her hands tied. Several hours later, Charlotte is dead. The story moves forward in time as Harriet’s grand-daughter Annie is visiting Maddie, one of the servants in a nursing home. Maddie is near death and decides it is time for the family to know the truth. She gives Annie a prison diary belonging to Harriet and tells her the secrets that she has been carrying all these years. Secrets that change the family beyond what anyone thought it was.

The Butterfly Cabinet is a beautiful novel charting the lives of women in Northern Ireland against a backdrop of history and changing socio-economic times. It is also a fascinating exploration of the nature of motherhood, the yearning for personal freedom and the decisions that can have consequences for any number of lives.

Life is fluid. We are the ghosts of all the people we might become, peering forward to catch a glimpse of what could be, our future selves staring back at us, at who we might have been, never were.

The Butterfly Cabinet is a hauntingly beautiful book and I am delighted to welcome Bernie to 746 Books!


Bernie McGill author pic

The Butterfly Cabinet is based on a true story. How did you discover the story of the Montagu family and what was it that drew you to it?

I came across the story in a local parish magazine and was immediately intrigued by it. Cromore House, where the young Montagu child died, is only a mile or so from where I was living at the time. I didn’t know anything about the family or the circumstances of the child’s death, so I started to do some newspaper research with a view to writing a short story. The details of the mother, Annie Montagu’s, arrest and trial were very well documented in the Coleraine Chronicle of 1892. The more I read about those events, the more drawn in I became. Not much was written about Annie Montagu herself. She came across as an enigmatic figure, rather cold, somewhat severe, so of course I wanted to explore her story through fiction.

The book spans over 70 years and a lot of Northern Irish history. Do you approach the process of writing differently when historical research is involved?

For both of the novels I’ve written, I’ve done a lot of research. It’s partly to do with equipping myself to write with confidence, I think, but for me it’s an opening into the fiction as well. I tend to make reams of handwritten notes, in the margins and on the reverse of copies of primary sources. There’s something about defacing the printed page that I find very satisfactory. It must be the hidden vandal in me. To anyone trying to decipher it, it would probably look like a tangled mess. To me, it looks and feels like potential beginnings.

Short stories require a degree of research but with mine the settings are all contemporary or near-contemporary and, crucially, they’re short. If you’re half way through writing a two thousand word story and you think it’s not working, it doesn’t feel like such a dreadful waste of time to leave it and start over with something else. But because I write slowly, and rewrite a lot, to give up on an historical novel when you’ve done so much reading around the period and the events, feels like a massive potential failure. It’s a big investment of time. I’m quite fearful about doing it, but then I do it anyway.

The key themes of the book appear to be motherhood and freedom and how these two concepts are inextricably linked. Did the themes arise from the story, or did you particularly want to explore the changing nature of motherhood over time?

 The themes arose from the story but I wouldn’t have been interested in writing that story if I hadn’t been interested in those themes. I found out that at the time of the child’s death at Cromore House, her mother Annie Montagu had given birth to eight children and was pregnant with her ninth. The child who died was the only girl in the family. I’m the youngest of ten children myself. I didn’t really think about that at the time, but looking back on it, that must have had a part to play in my interest. I have a certain degree of empathy for Annie Montagu. Although she was financially well-off and in a privileged position in society, I wonder if she felt that her choices were restricted? The limited amount of information I had about her seemed to point to a woman who was unconventional among her peers: she was a renowned horsewoman; she ‘broke’ her own horses; she bartered over prices in the market place; she rode to the hunt while pregnant. There was a sense of unfiltered disapproval regarding her activities which, if it had been expressed, would have amounted to this: she didn’t behave as a woman ought to; she strayed into the realms of the men.

What part does Ireland play in your writing? Do you consider yourself an ‘Irish’ writer or part of an Irish tradition?

I do consider myself an Irish writer by identity, but I’m not sure that I see myself as part of any writing tradition. It wasn’t something I thought about when I started writing. I studied English and Italian at Queen’s and afterwards completed my Masters in Irish Writing. By the time I’d graduated, I’d read a lot of work by dead white men. Afterwards, I discovered writers like Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and I was blown away by their work, by my personal response to what they were writing, so I stayed away from Irish writing for a while because I didn’t feel that emotional connection. I’ve come back, of course. I read lots of contemporary Irish writing now. I name the women writers below but among my favourite male writers are Donal Ryan, Niall Williams, Colum McCann, Sebastian Barry and Eoin McNamee.


You write short stories and novels. Is there a form that you prefer, or do stories fit more with one genre than the other?

 I think there are some stories that demand the scope of a novel. When I began to write about Annie Montagu, I thought that would be a short story, but it soon became clear that the short form wouldn’t contain her story. I do prefer to write short stories for the simple fact of finishing something sooner: the length is so much more manageable. But there is a sense of achievement with finishing the marathon run of the novel too. I wish there was a stronger market for the short story. There’s always talk of how healthy the form is, how we’re on the cusp of a revival, but ask any publisher what they want from a writer and not one of them will answer: ‘A short story collection.’ They’re a hard sell.

Your short stories have been included in the recent anthologies The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore. Do you feel that those collections are helping to shine a spotlight on women writers from Ireland? Who are your favourite women writers from Ireland?

 I think they absolutely shine a light on women writers from Ireland, past and present. Those are wonderful collections, but I have to confess to a bias towards The Glass Shore which contains stories by women writers from the North of Ireland. Of those stories I loved Margaret Barrington’s ‘Village Without Men’ and Caroline Blackwood’s ‘Taft’s Wife’. Despite having been written some time ago, they both had a very contemporary feel to me. Of the women who are writing today, I love the work of Claire Keegan and Lisa McInerney, also Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Sara Baume. And I’m reading Jan Carson’s Children’s Children at the moment and loving the stories. They’re little jewels, every one.

You are working on a new book. Is there anything you can tell us about it?

Yes, it’s called The Watch House and I’m on the final proof read. It will be published by Tinder Press in August 2017. It’s set on Rathlin Island in 1898 at the time of the Marconi experiments. It centres around a fictional island woman called Nuala Byrne who becomes an assistant wireless operator. I love Rathlin. I went there first on a Writers’ Weekend organised by Ballycastle Writers years ago and I’ve always wanted to write something about the place. I wanted to write a story about the impact the visit of Marconi’s engineers might have made on the islanders at the time. My interest was in exploring the phenomenon that radio was in the late nineteenth century: the extraordinary idea that your words could travel beyond you, specifically in the context of a community that knew all too well what it was to be cut off from the rest of the world. The story’s about the power of words as well as the dangers of suspicion. That’s all I can tell you for now.

My thanks to Bernie for taking the time to share her thoughts with me. If you’d like to find out more about her work (and I urge you to!) check out her website or follow her on Twitter @berniemcgill

Bernie’s first collection of short stories, was published in May 2013 by Whittrick Press and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2014. The title story was first prizewinner in the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest (US) and the collection includes ‘Home’, a supplementary prizewinner in the 2010 Bridport Short Story Prize and ‘No Angel’, Second Prizewinner in the Seán Ó Faoláin and the Michael McLaverty Short Story Prizes. Her work has been anthologised in The Long Gaze Back and in the forthcoming The Glass Shore. She is the recipient of a number of Arts Council Awards including an ACES Award in association with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast and an award from the Society of Authors.

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The Wolf Trial by Neil Mackay

A character in Neil Mackay’s new novel The Wolf Trial is reminded that

You are in the land of the mad here

And at times that is exactly what this brutal yet intriguing historical novel feels like, with a relentless parade of murder, rape and violence told in graphic detail, presenting 16th century Europe as a hopeless vista of superstition, cruelty and religious fanaticism.


The Wolf Trial tells the real life story of Peter Stumpf who was executed in 1563 for the murder of more than 70 people over a number of decades in the town of Bideburg. Not only was he a prolific and violent serial killer. Stumpf was believed to be an actual werewolf, possibly to try and quash the belief that anyone human could have carried out such horrific crimes. The story of Stumpf’s trial is told in meticulous detail through the eyes of William Lessinger who assisted the lawyer Paulus Melchior on the case.

Paulus does not believe in the supernatural and wants to try Stumpf as a man. Fromme, the Church representative believes otherwise and the secular and religious clash in an age when revenge and superstition were the currency of the land. The Church have another reason for wishing Stumpf to be tried as a werewolf, they would inherit his wealth and land.

‘Perhaps it is being rich, which makes you lie’, said Fromme, wiping a dab of grease from his chin, clean-shaven and cool. ‘An executed rich man will still be rich in death. An executed creature, which has consorted with the Devil, though – why, the Church will have your holdings, sir, and all you have’

As Paulus and Willie come into conflict with the Church and the local community who have long resented Stumpf his standing, their situation becomes precarious as they try to bring some form of justice to Stumpf’s family at the risk of being killed as heretics.


The fascinating story of Stumpf’s trial is narrated by Willie, now an old man who is haunted by his experiences in Germany and is interspersed with vast historical detail about the beliefs of the time and the impact of the religious warfare and the Reformation that had gone before. Mackey is insightful in his exploration of the superstitions of the time and his research must have been exhaustive. Through pamphlets we learn of the local belief in revenants (people returning from the dead) and golems both of which are fantastical tales told to excuse or obfuscate accidental burials alive, or the work of an abortionist.

The writer had taken the fabric of the real story and turned it into something spun on a different loom.

Through Willie’s reconstructions of Paulus’ time fighting in the 1535 Siege of Munster, we also hear of state and Church sanctioned violence that is as shocking as anything committed by Stumpf.

I killed many more back when I was wearing a military badge….I skinned a man once – back when I was in uniform. On the orders of my commander. And that does not count as a crime in the eyes of your masters.

It’s a clever juxtaposition and Mackay allows Stumpf and his crimes to become a symbol of the terrible horror of the Reformation and asks us to question what is worse. Church sanctioned violence, or the violence of a man who wears no mask – religious or military – a man who is following his basest desires and has become a manifestation of the dark cruelty at the heart of humanity. The Church uses religious righteousness as a reason for murder and in ignoring their own culpability, also want to ignore Stumpf’s by branding him a wolf.


‘Hinrichtung Peter Stump’ (The Execution of Peter Stumpf by Lukas Mayer, 1589

This is a Europe where violence and brutality have become routine, where casual cruelty is shocking, common place and ignored. Travellers coming into Bideburg are hired as ‘dummies’ – human scarecrows – and are raped and mistreated at will. A young boy is used as bait in a failed attempt to catch the werewolf. Stumpf’s sons are murdered, simply for being his sons. This is a picture of a society unmoored and rotten and while Peter Stumpf may be one of the worst of them, he is not trying to hide his true self and this is what is frightening to those in power. This is not a simple tale of good and evil, state versus church or reason versus superstition – it’s an exploration of human nature and the notions of justice and revenge.

Paulus felt his soul empty and all sense of good and hope leave him, filled up in their place by fear – not fear and hate, he said, but just cold fear. Fear for himself, but fear most of all for what he could not do, and what he would be made to be a part of, to witness and agree to, as if the sins of others were his own work, his own will, when they were now – and that made fear a dark, black bath that swallowed the self.

Mackay’s prose has captured the style and tone of the times, but the swathes of historical and philosophical musings can at times slow the pace and take away from the main thrust of the story. The often heavy handed and incessant descriptions of violence and death can also wear thin, but admittedly, such detail is needed to convey the horrifying reality of what life was like in that place at that time and to remind us what human beings have been and still are capable of, both on a personal and state level if they succumb to their basest desires.

All in all, this is a bloody and brutal piece of historical fiction about a fascinating case.

I was given a copy of The Wolf Trial by the publishers through Netgalley in return for an honest review.

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor – review & giveaway!

While we are trying for others, power of life comes back, very faint at first, life the new bird, but by and by it has wings.

Emily Dickinson, Letters of Emily Dickinson

I was lucky enough to attend the launch of Nuala O’Connor’s new book Miss Emily at the Gutter Book Shop in Dublin last month.

With the lovely Nuala O'Connor!

With the lovely Nuala O’Connor!

Miss Emily is her third novel, following on from You and The Closet of Savage Mementoes and depicts the fictional relationship between the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid Ada Concannon in 1860s. During this time, Dickinson famously rarely left her house in Amherst, dressed all in white and wrote most of the poetry that would be published after her death. Told in dual voices, the relationship between the reclusive poet and her bright, talkative maid is teased out as they bond over baking and domestic chores with an attention to small detail that feels appropriate for a book set almost entirely in one house.


In alternating chapters we explore the forging of a female friendship across class and background. Despite her family’s disdain for their closeness, Emily sees something of herself in Ada. Both are strong and independent in their choices, yet both are bound by the expectations of society and their place within it. Emily is at liberty to write all day while Ada is in service, but likewise, Ada is free to go to the circus when it comes to town, while Emily could not do something so inappropriate, as much as she would like. Yet both these women have also made life choices on their own terms. Feeling constrained in Ireland, Ada emigrates on her own, barely out of her teens. Emily, feeling constrained by polite society and the expectation upon her to marry and have a family, retreats from that society to write her beloved poems.

I do not wish for travel or brave new lands, only a house surrounded by a sprawling orchard that holds orioles and bluebirds that trill for my ears alone; a cosy home with a kitchen uncluttered by others. I do not desire a man or babes; a husband would demand too much, I fear, of my time, or my very self.

While the chapters alternate between Ada and Emily, experiences and thoughts overlap giving a depth and understanding to both their characters. By showing us Emily through Ada’s eyes and through her own thoughts, O’Connor questions the myth of Emily as the mad woman in the attic, shutting out the world to nothing but words.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

The woman behind the words comes to the fore, a woman who loved literature and baking, loved her family, had a sweet tooth and was a devout friend. The depth of her empathy emerges as Ada faces a trauma that threatens her new life in America and what becomes clear is that both these women transcend the norms expected of them in an honest and true manner.

But convention never has been, and never will be, my first choice. I have chosen not to live as woman is supposed to live. The choice is mine…

There is an attention to detail of the customs and language of the time and the book contains some beautiful, lyrical prose. Dried pears are ‘silenced yellow tongues’ while a good man has ‘kindness…as rich as yolk in him’ while the descriptions of cooking and baking are rich and vivid. Like Emily, we see the poetry in the everyday. The passages about the process of writing are also intriguing as O’Connor deftly captures Emily’s overwhelming need to write and to write often.

Words lie in me like water in a riddle’s well. They tempt me, like nothing else. Not man, not God….Yes, words tempt and tease me and they send me teetering forward.

Both Ada and Emily are vividly conveyed, their voices alive and true. This tale may be fictional, but it still adds something to the history of Emily and her ‘vital, immortal words’. Her famous choice to not leave her home and to wear white are given context and understanding and appear more logical than unusual as Emily pares down her life to what she deems essential. O’Connor beautifully captures this decision by Emily in a passage echoing her poetic use of the dash;

From now on I shall be candle-white. Dove-, bread-, swan-, shroud-, ice-, extraordinarily-white. I shall be blanched, bleached and bloodless to look at; my very whiteness will be my mark. But inside, of course, I will roar and soar and flash with colour.

O’Connor success here is to show the reader the flashes of colour beneath the white, to capture the spirit of Emily Dickinson, without relying heavily on her poems or letters, rather by using their essence and spirit. Although it is undoubtedly an historical novel, it reads more as an ode to an unlikely friendship between two very different women, women who know their own mind and understand where home is for them and what strength they need to attain it.

Nuala O'Connor

Nuala O’Connor

I will be in conversation with Nuala O’Connor about this wonderful novel at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on 25th November 2015 which I am very much looking forward to and you can book tickets here.

I am also giving away a signed copy of Miss Emily to readers of my blog. To be in with a chance to win, simply comment below or share this post on Twitter. Competition is open world-wide and will close on Saturday 19th September at 6pm when I will draw a winner with Random Picker. Good luck!

Naomi at Consumed by Ink has reviewed Miss Emily here, as has EJ at ebookclassics here. Check out their views!