Book: The House Where it Happened

Martina Devlin has changed as a novelist and as a newspaper columnist. She spoke to Sue Leonard about her new book which is “a cracking good story”.

Martina Devlin

Ward River Press, €16.99;

Kindle, €4.36

IN 2009, glancing through a newspaper, Martina Devlin came across an interesting snippet in the column, ‘It happened this day.’ She read, ‘On this day in 1711 in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, eight women were convicted of witchcraft.’

“I can still taste the surprise,” says Martina, who was brought up in Omagh. “I thought, this was a mass trial. How come I have never heard of it?”

Fascinated, she did some research, and discovered it had been the only mass trial for witchcraft in Ireland, and had been the last witchcraft trial; because 25 years afterwards the law was removed from the statute books. She couldn’t get the story out of her head. And the resulting novel is an enthralling glance into that eighteenth century world.

The novel centres on the Ulster-Scots community in Islandmagee. It’s narrated by Ellen, a servant at Knowehead House, where there have been strange goings on. The Master’s mother died in torment, and there are whispers that she was haunted during her last days.

Into all this steps a relative, young Mary Dunbar. Fascinated by the history of the area — 100 years earlier there had been a massacre, with women and children forced over the cliffs — she soaks up stories of the aftermath, and of ghostly goings on. She is especially interested in the grisly tales of Hamilton Lock.

Suffering ferocious fits, she says she’s under the spell of a witches coven, and accuses one woman after another of torturing her. Her malady seems genuine; the ministers respond with alacrity, and nobody listens to the women’s cries of innocence.

It’s a mesmerising, spooky tale, evoking an atmosphere reminiscent of Wuthering Heights, but did the author stick close to the facts? “The novel is inspired by a true story, but I took some liberties with the facts. I imagined the haunting of Knowehead House and I invented the ghostly character, Hamilton Lock. When you research, there is only a certain amount you can find out; you can learn who, what, where and when, but not why. That’s where the novelist in you takes over. To learn the motivation you have to get inside the character’s head. Times change, but people don’t really.

“My journalism was useful,” she says. “You read a story. You look at the facts and you think about them. With my newspaper columns I do think, very hard, and I question the perceived assumptions of an issue, before I adopt a position. That is a useful skill when you’re handling historical material.”

The book is written with an Ulster Scots dialect, and this is so expertly carried out, that it never jars.

“Growing up in the indigenous Irish community in the North, we never integrated with the Ulster Scots community because they kept themselves other, but I think my ear picked up the vernacular. I think, also that dialect permeates more than we imagine. I didn’t find it hard.”

The House Where it Happened is much more than a historical ghost story. It struck me as a feminist book; and one where anger about the treatment of women screams through the pages. At the opening, Ellen is in love with her master. He taught her to read and write, but takes advantage, and she fears she is pregnant. By the end, she sees the light, realising that as a ‘Gentleman’, there is no way he would ever stand by her.

“I’m convinced that I come from a long line of servant girls,” says Martina. “There was never any money in my family and anything I have read about how servants were treated incenses me. You see it in all sorts of writing including Pepys. He was always feeling up servant girls and they had very little defence. If they complained to their mistress she would think they were tempting the master, so she’d be in trouble on both counts.”

Martina says that she never writes books for money. That if she did she would write a book a year, and not work so hard at writing the best book possible. And, just as her journalism has grown from more lightweight columns to the political heavyweight ones she writes now, so have her novels grown.

“I see my career more as shaking off restrictions,” says Martina.

Training in England, she started out with the Press Association; then, returning to Trinity to take a MPhil in Anglo Irish Literature, she stayed in Ireland, getting back to journalism.

“When I was first given a column nine years ago, I was pigeon holed, and told to write for women. The perception was that they wanted to read about domestic crises with a humorous touch.

“I didn’t want to write for women — I wanted to write for people. So gradually, I started to pick subjects that didn’t necessarily affect women’s lives. I wanted to contribute to debates, or kick start a debate, so I wrote about politics, or economics, though in a humble way — because those are the things that affect all our lives.”

She’s grown hugely as a novelist, too. “You are learning with each book,” she says. “I would like my earlier ones to have been better, but they were marketed as commercial, and I was obliged by contract to write them. When I’d finished, I stopped and said, ‘what do I actually want to write, as opposed to what the market wants?’” Ship of Dreams, Martina’s novel about the Titanic, based on a family story proved a huge step up. After that, whilst researching The House Where it Happened, she got diverted, and co-wrote Banksters, a factual account of the banking collapse, with her then boyfriend, now husband, RTÉ’s business editor David Murphy.

“I had encountered the key players at corporate events as David’s plus one. People were deferring to the money men, treating them like royalty. After the collapse, strangers kept approaching David asking him where all the money had gone, and who were these people? That’s how we got the idea.

Writing a ghost story, though, has been a long held dream “I grew up reading and hearing ghost stories; my parents were big into the oral tradition, and I always wanted to write a haunted house novel. In writing about the witch trial, I was thinking of all sorts of demonised groups in society. In 1711 it was women who were lame or deformed; or who didn’t fit the template of chaste, pious and beautiful, but through every age there are groups who don’t fit. In the modern day, I think it’s asylum seekers.

“I was thinking of the disappeared too. Neighbours must have been aware of the massacre at the heart of my novel. They must’ve bolted their doors as women and children were run over the cliff, and they must have looked away. They chose not to know. That’s like so much in our history. Look at the way unmarried mothers were treated, and the families just went along with it. I felt very moved by the fate of those eight women. They were voiceless at their trial.

“They weren’t paid attention to. They kept insisting they were innocent and were ignored or disbelieved. I felt they had been made voiceless a second time because history had more or less forgotten them. All that emerged as I wrote it; but the initial attraction was that it was a cracking good story.”

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