An evocative account of a teacher’s fall from grace

The Rising of Bella Casey
Mary Morrissy
Brandon, €9.59;Kindle, €7.14

When the playwright Seán O’Casey wrote his memoirs, he chose to ‘kill off’ his sister ten years before she died.

Yet Seán adored Bella, who was 15 years his senior. He used her as inspiration in his writing; Nora Clitheroe, in Plough and the Stars, and Mary Boyle, in Juno and the Paycock, are believed to have been loosely based on her.

In The Rising of Bella Casey, Mary Morrissy imagines the gaps Seán left in Bella’s biography. And she does more. In fictionalising the account, she invents a reason for Bella’s fall from grace.

Seán admired his clever sister. She finished her secondary education, and became a primary school teacher. Having risen socially, and gained respect and respectability, she threw away her career and married a soldier. Seán wasn’t the only member of his family to be bemused by her actions.

The plausible reason is Bella’s school principal, Reverend Leeper. This wonderfully drawn character is so slimy and cunning in his bullying, that he can rival Anthony Trollope’s Mr Slope.

When Bella first becomes principal infant teacher at St Mary’s School, Dominick Street, the Reverend is sympathetic.

But soon his admonitions and sarcasm start to grate, and he is constantly wrong-footing her.

Leeper is full of compliments, but each one is laced with arsenic, and soon his presence, or the likelihood of it, starts to haunt Bella.

And then, in an act of savagery, Leeper changes the course of Bella’s life.

To save her reputation, she tempts her admirer, the bugler, Nick Beagler, into a relationship, and, ultimately, into marriage.

But in doing so, she plunders all her aspirations.

The O’Casey family were struggling protestants in a time of profound change. Before her death in 1918, at just 52, Bella saw the Lockout, the First World War and the Easter Rising. It was a time when family loyalties were split, and when being protestant was no longer enough to get a job. Bella’s mother was horrified when two of her sons married Catholic girls.

This is a wonderful evocation of an era, and gives us tantalising glimpses into the early life of the famous playwright. Morrissy imbues her characters with warmth and strength, making the reader sympathetic towards them, even when their actions are based on pride or folly.

I’m not sure how much of the novel is fact, because the forays into fiction are seamless, and it’s impossible to tell. Whatever, this is a stunning novel with some interesting plot twists.

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