Journalist Jody Moylan and artist Mateusz Nowakowski used a new approach to focus on the life of the Great Liberator, writes Don O’Mahony

IN this centenary of commemoration, which has seen all the great men and women of 1916 occupy the box seats of our historical consciousness, it’s easy to lose sight of the events and personalities and the role they played in shaping the times that were to follow. The arrival of a new biography of Daniel O’Connell, the Great Liberator who did so much to advance the rights of Irish Catholics in the early half of the 19th century, is therefore not only timely, but for those suffering history fatigue it offers an accessible read of a life rich with incident.

Subtitled A Graphic Life, the biography is the debut book of freelance journalist Jody Moylan. It was while attending a series of lectures delivered by O’Connell’s modern biographer Patrick Geoghegan at Trinity College Dublin that the idea of a book came to life in Moylan’s head.

He explains: “His life was very graphic from the start to the finish and there was many incidences throughout it. And as these lectures were being given I kept thinking about his life; I was visualising it. And it was occurring to me that this would really make a great book if you could add graphics to it. His life was so rich that I felt as a biography it could appeal to everybody.”

The picture of O’Connell that emerges from the book is an accessible one. It’s that of a typical youth trying to balance family demands of duty and obligation with the development of his own sense of self. But it is also one that saw him witness up close the French Revolution, shoot a man in a duel, and become one of the finest legal minds in all the lands and a champion of the oppressed. It was, as the full title suggests, a vivid and indeed graphic life.

Drawing on the life of Daniel O’Connell

Inspired by the illustrator Edward Paget, whose work adorns the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Moylan employed the services of Mateusz Nowakowski, a Polish artist based in Dublin and Warsaw.

“I would be a big fan of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes books. I always thought it would be a great idea to use that for a history book, to come at a history book from a different angle. Because I remember I used to read those Conan Doyle books and you were always taking in the text.

“The text was the main thing but you’d always be drawn to these images in the corner of the page, where text would wrap around it, and it brought you a little bit more into the story. You were imagining a world and it was bringing you into it,” says Moylan.

“Roald Dahl’s books are famously illustrated by Quentin Blake and if you look through his books there’s not that many images actually by Quentin Blake in the book compared to the text. There’s not a huge amount, let’s say in the BFG. There might be, say, thirty images throughout the whole book, which isn’t huge. But you’re thinking of them. The images work. They really work. They make the whole thing work.”

Drawing on the life of Daniel O’Connell

When it came to portraying the great man, Moylan realised he had some freedom, as many of the contemporary portraits have differences.

“Any pictures that come out about O’Connell in all of the history books throughout time, history papers, history magazines, it’s always the same stock images of a monster meeting, it’s always the same images. So I wanted to create something that was really original,” explains Moylan. “What I really wanted to do with this book was to create a new way of looking at an old story and to freshen up an old story. So I wanted to create original images, really original images.”

Daniel O’Connell: A Graphic Life by Jody Moylan, with illustrations by Mateusz Nowakowski, is out on paperback by Collins Press.


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