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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Number Read: 154

Number Remaining: 592

100 Books by Irish Women Writers

I found a big groove ready waiting for me when I grew up, and in that I was expected to live whether it suited me or not. It did not suit me. It was deep and narrow, and gave me no room to move.

Sarah Grand, 1893

When I started Reading Ireland Month three years ago, I pulled together a list of 100 Books by Irish authors. Since then, through reading and researching and particularly influenced by the publications of The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore, I have discovered a vast wealth of Irish women writers, many of whom have been entirely overlooked in the canon of Irish literature.

My original list contained around 40 women writers, but I had a feeling I could do better.

In celebration of International Women’s Day,  here is a list of 100 Irish women writers each of whom are fascinating and inspiring. Spanning three centuries and a range of genres, this list is by no means exhaustive and I’m aware that there are many writers I have left out. From Una Troy, whose feminist books were banned in Ireland, to Lady Caroline Blackwood, who is often better known as the wife of Lucien Freud and Robert Powell, these are memoirists, travel writers, children’s authors and journalists.

Many are writers who would undoubtedly be more widely read had they been male and all are worthy to be in any list of great Irish writers. If there is anyone you feel should have been included, please do let me know in the comments.

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Click on the book titles to go to the Goodreads, or other links and I do hope you find something or someone on this list who sparks your interest in terms of their writings and their lives.

  1. Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph by Frances Sheridan (1761)
  2. The Sorrows of Edith by Anne Burke (1796)
  3. Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth (1800)
  4. The Missionary: An Indian Tale by Lady Sydney Morgan (1811)
  5. Leolin Abbey by Alicia LeFanu (1819)
  6. St. Etienne, a romance by Mary Letita Martin (1845)
  7. Fashionable Life under the Regency by Barbara Hemphill (1846)
  8. Marmaduke Herbert; or, The Fatal Error by Margeurite Gardiner (1847)
  9. Fanny the Flowergirl, or Honesty Rewarded by Selina Bunbury (1856)
  10. Granny’s Wonderful Chair by Frances Browne (1857)
  11. Queenie by May Cromellin (1874)
  12. The Uninhabited House by Charlotte Riddell (1875)
  13. The Nun of Kenmare by Margaret Anna Cusack (1889)
  14. Grania by Emily Lawless (1892)
  15. The Heavenly Twins by Sarah Grand (1893)
  16. Strangers at Lisconnel by Jane Barlow (1895)
  17. An Isle in the Water by Katharine Tynan (1896)
  18. The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich (1897)
  19. The Girls of Banshee Castle by Rosa Mulholland (1900)
  20. The Passionate Hearts by Ethna Carberry (1903)
  21. The Trackless Way by Erminda Rentoul Esler (1904)
  22. John Chilcote M.P by Katherine Thurston (1905)
  23. Hero Lays by Alice Milligan (1908)
  24. Coral Queen by Beatrice Grimshaw (1919)
  25. The Wonder Smith and his Son by Ella Young (1927)
  26. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen (1929)
  27. The Ante-Room by Kate O’Brien (1936)
  28. An Old Woman’s Reflections by Peig Sayers (1936)
  29. My Cousin Justin by Margaret Barrington (1939)
  30. The Visitor by Maeve Brennan (194?)
  31. Farewell, Leicester Square by Betty Miller (1941)
  32. The Uninvited by Dorothy McArdle (1942)
  33. There Were No Windows by Norah Hoult (1944)
  34. White Satin by Jessie Louisa Rickard (1945)
  35. The Green Orchard by Maura Laverty (1949)
  36. Mary O’Grady by Mary Lavin (1950)
  37. We Are Seven by Una Troy (1955)
  38. The Rebel’s Wife by Rosamund Jacob (1957)
  39. The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien (1960)
  40. The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)
  41. The Irish RM by Somerville and Ross (1968)
  42. For All That I Found There by Caroline Blackwood (1971)
  43. Across the Bitter Sea by Eilis Dillon (1973)
  44. Shadows on Our Skin by Jennifer Johnston (1977)
  45. In Ethiopia with a Mule by Dervla Murphy (1978)
  46. The Sandcastle by Irish Murdoch (1979)
  47. A Belfast Woman by Mary Beckett (1980)
  48. Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (1981)
  49. All of Us There by Polly Devlin (1983)
  50. The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill (1984)
  51. The House by Leland Bardwell (1984)
  52. Necessary Treasons by Maeve Kelly (1985)
  53. Very Like a Whale by Val Mulkerns (1986)
  54. No Country for Young Men by Julia O’Faolain (1987)
  55. My Head is Opening by Evelyn Conlon (1987)
  56. To School Through The Fields by Alice Taylor (1988)
  57. Dangerous Fictions by Ita Daly (1989)
  58. Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy (1990)
  59. Acts of Subversion by Liz McManus (1991)
  60. Damage by Josephine Hart (1991)
  61. The Light-Makers by Mary O’Donnell (1992)
  62. Titanic Town by Mary Costello (1993)
  63. Falling for a Dancer by Deirdre Purcell (1993)
  64. Watermelon by Marian Keyes (1995)
  65. Dancer by Christine Dwyer Hickey (1995)
  66. Fields of Home by Marita Conlon-McKenna (1996)
  67. Solomon’s Seal by Molly McCloskey (1997)
  68. One Day as a Tiger by Anne Haverty (1997)
  69. By Salt Water by Angela Bourke (1997)
  70. Pelleossa by Bridget O’Connor (1998)
  71. The Dancers Dancing by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne (1999)
  72. Publish and Be Murdered by Ruth Dudley Edwards (1999)
  73. The Walled Garden by Catherine Dunne (2000)
  74. An Grá Riabhach by Biddy Jenkinson (2000)
  75. My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain (2001)
  76. Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden (2003)
  77. Emma Brown by Claire Boylan (2003)
  78. P.S. I Love You by Cecilia Ahern (2003)
  79. Last to Know by Liz Allen (2004)
  80. The Alphabet Sisters by Monica McInerney (2004)
  81. This Human Season by Louise Dean (2005)
  82. The Gathering by Anne Enright (2007)
  83. The Sealed Letter by Emma O’Donoghue (2007)
  84. All Names Have Been Changed by Claire Kilroy (2009)
  85. The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell (2009)
  86. The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill (2010)
  87. The Burning by Jane Casey (2010)
  88. Foster by Claire Keegan (2010)
  89. The Meeting Point by Lucy Caldwell (2011)
  90. Malarky by Anakana Schofield (2012)
  91. Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent (2013)
  92. A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (2013)
  93. Malcolm Orange Disappears by Jan Carson (2014)
  94. Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill (2014)
  95. Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (2015)
  96. Tender by Belinda McKeon (2015)
  97. Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor (2015)
  98. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney (2015)
  99. The Trespasser by Tana French (2016)
  100. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (2017)


If I were a corncrake I would feel no obligation to have my skin cured, my tarsi injected with formalin so that I could fill a museum shelf in a world that saw no need for my kind.

Biddy Jenkinson