The novel is set in the troubled years between 1920 and 1930, and written from the viewpoint of an extended Anglo-Irish family. It opens dramatically with the burning by the IRA of Butler’s Hill, a substantial country house. The event is seen from the viewpoint of nine-year-old Caroline who is staying with her uncle and aunt at the time.
Safely back in Dublin, heading for her Fitzwilliam Square home in a cab, she questions her aunt persistently about the IRA’s motives, prompting the first of several historical summaries that make this novel such a valuable record of Anglo-Irish attitudes to Irish independence. When Aunt Moira explains that years of conquest, war and oppression have made the IRA hate the English, Caroline replies ‘Yes, but we aren’t English: why did they have to come and burn Butler’s Hill?’
Moira’s response is so fair that Caroline concludes: “Well, I think the Sinn Féiners are quite right. If I was grown-up, I’d fight against the British.”
In contrast, Moira’s sister, Caroline’s mother Helen, like many Anglo-Irish, remained loyal to the crown, and was unable to accept the legitimacy of the new government. Caroline and her sister Isabel grow up under orders not to play with their Catholic neighbours, and when Isabel proposes inviting a Catholic to her coming-out dance, there is a major family row.
Many of the attitudes portrayed in the novel will shock today’s readers, who have grown up in a world that advocates co-existence. Catholic servants speak in a thick brogue, and are treated condescendingly.
But the novel is also enlightening, showing the way people, like Caroline’s father, Guy, and her uncle Archie, more open to change than Helen, come to terms with the seismic shift that has taken place in society. Instead of being the ruling class, the Anglo-Irish, who were Irish, not British, had to find a place for themselves in the new Republic, or leave, as Archie declares in 1930: people must accept that the British have gone for good, and that the Government represents the will of the people, and they can do so without being disloyal to their traditional principles. If they cannot accept the new order, they should leave, and never come back. Caroline and her new husband, as representatives of the younger generation, commit themselves to staying, giving the story an optimistic, upbeat ending.
The novel was warmly reviewed on publication, and became a Book Society Recommendation. Today’s publishers, Andrew and Jane Russell of the Somerville Press, a small, Bantry-based publishing house, found it on the recommendation of Stephen Stokes, a Dublin antiquarian book dealer. Andrew recalls “Our first problem was trying to get a second-hand copy of the book, which is extremely rare. Then as the book was still in copyright, we had to track down the author’s heirs, which took ages.”
The Russells were helped in this by Tom Somerville of Drishane House, Castletownshend, the home of Edith Somerville, of Somerville and Ross. (The publishing house was named for this local connection). Barbara Fitzgerald’s children, Julian, a doctor, and Christina, who is married to an Anglican priest, live in Yorkshire, and will be coming to Dublin for the book’s launch at the Royal Irish Academy on Tuesday
Barbara Fitzgerald Somerville, née Gregg (1911-1982) was the daughter of John Gregg, a theologian and historian who became Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, then Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
Barbara’s first cousin, Canon Owen Madden, was Rector at Castletownshend, and this striking young woman, 5’11 tall, spent her holidays in West Cork, where she met her husband, Michael Somerville, an oil company executive, son of Vice Admiral Boyle Somerville. They were married in Dublin in August 1935 amidst strict security, due to Boyle’s high rank in the British Navy. Boyle was shot dead on the doorstep of his house in Castletownshend by the IRA in 1937.
Julian Somerville explains his mother’s pen name from his home in Halifax, Yorkshire: “She couldn’t abide pomposity or self-aggrandisement, and she wrote under the name of Barbara Fitzgerald, so as not to seek benefit by using her maiden name, Gregg, in case people bought her book because she was the Archbishop’s daughter, or her married name Somerville, in case people thought she was related to Somerville and Ross — which she was by marriage. She wanted the book to be bought on its own merits.” Barbara and Michael Somerville spent the early years of their marriage in West Africa. In 1942 Barbara returned to Ireland with her daughter Christina, and lived with her parents at the Archbishop’s Palace in Armagh. Christina and Julian believe that she wrote We Are Besieged during the two years in Armagh before Michael joined her again. Barbara, who was diabetic died in 1982, at the relatively young age of 70.
Inevitably comparisons have been made to two other chroniclers of the decline of the Anglo-Irish, Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane. These are misleading: Barbara Fitzgerald does not have their literary talent or flair. The novel is more valuable as a social record than as literature, and for the level-headed account of the developing political situation which accompanies the story. Above all the strong impression is of a novel whose head and heart are in the right place, written to inform and enlighten, at a time when such understanding was a rare commodity.