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Authors: Joseph O'Connor

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NOVELS
Cowboys and Indians
Desperadoes
The Salesman
Inishowen
Star of the Sea
Redemption Falls
SHORT STORIES / NOVELLA
True Believers
The Comedian
PLAYS
Red Roses and Petrol
The Weeping of Angels
True Believers
(adaptation)
Handel’s Crossing
FILM SCRIPTS
A Stone of the Heart
The Long Way Home
Ailsa
I grew up about a mile from the old house where John Synge and his mother had endured their last years, a house that appears several times in this novel. As a child, I passed it often, was faintly afraid of it, often wondered about the stories it had seen. I thought of it as a slightly decrepit embassy of literature, a headquarters where brave things had been attempted, some magnificently achieved, but also as a hermitage of ghosts. On a wintry day it could be forbidding as the Bates Motel, or as Wuthering Heights in a rainstorm. But on a summer evening in that coast town of seagulls and steeples, a strange beauty seemed to glitter from its windows. To my parents I owe an acknowledgement for their valuing of books, their unlocking of the doors to that house. I thank my father, Sean, for his loving solidarity and his affection for the written word’s possibilities. It was he who first brought me to a play, in Sallynoggin Parish Hall, an amateur production – I don’t remember the author – but I can still hear the wolf-whistles that arose from the audience when the leading lady was kissed by her suitor. I thank my stepmother, Viola, for her loyalty and care, her wise counsel over many years. And I remember my late mother, Marie O’Connor, née O’Grady, who like my heroine had been a dressmaker in her Dublin girlhood, for bequeathing me a fascination with Molly.
It’s to my parents, too, that I owe an inherited memory of the Edwardian Dublin words spoken by some of the characters
in the book. My father was born in Francis Street, in the oldest part of the city, The Liberties. (His mother, like my leading lady, was an O’Neill.) And I pay tribute to the work of Professor Terence Dolan at University College Dublin, whose
Dictionary of Hiberno-English
is a treasure-chest of glories, an acknowledgement that the common speech of any society is sometimes more nuanced than its art.
Ghost Light
is a work of fiction, frequently taking immense liberties with fact. The experiences and personalities of the real Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in uncountable ways. Chronologies, geographies and portrayals appearing in this novel are not to be relied upon by the researcher. Synge and Molly did not holiday for a month unaccompanied in Wicklow; nor, so far as I know, did he express the wish to live in America. At least one meticulous scholar has contended that they had little or no sexual relationship. Synge’s mother was a more complicated person than my portrayal. Molly’s circumstances, although difficult in her later years, were not as depicted here. Most events in this book never happened at all. Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel. Apologies to Yeatsians for my distortions of the great man and his works, and to scholars of Lady Gregory and Synge and Sean O’Casey. These giants often said they had fanned their fictions from the sparks of real life, renaming the people who had inspired their stories. The practice was sometimes a camouflage, sometimes a claim of authenticity. It was an option I considered carefully but decided against in the end, and so I dare to ask the forgiveness of these noble ghosts of world literature for not changing the names of the innocent.
The letters purporting to be from Synge in chapters 1 and 2, and Molly’s love letter in the Epilogue, are entirely fictional. Other brief quotations from Synge’s letters are authentic and are included in Ann Saddlemyer, ed.,
Letters to Molly: John Millington Synge to Maire O’Neill
, but as with all acts of quotation not made by the original author, context can subtly change
meaning. The reader in search of reliable material is directed to the following works and to the useful notes or bibliographies they contain: Elizabeth Coxhead, ‘Sally and Molly: Sara Allgood and Maire O’Neill’ in
Daughters of Erin
; W.J. McCormack,
Fool of the Family: A Life of J.M. Synge
; Andrew Carpenter, ed.,
My Uncle John: Edward Stephens’s Life of J.M. Synge
; R.F. Foster, ‘Good behaviour: Yeats, Synge and Anglo-Irish etiquette’, Anne Saddlemyer, ‘Synge’s soundscape’, and Declan Kiberd, ‘The making and unmaking of myth: Synge as anthropologist’ in Nicholas Grene, ed.,
Interpreting Synge: Essays from the Synge Summer School, 1991 – 2000
. The song ‘Join the British Army’ is an old Dublin ballad and is taken from the singing of the late Luke Kelly. ‘My Bonnie Mary’ is by Robert Burns. ‘The Heights of Alma’ is a traditional Irish ballad celebrating Sergeant (later Major General) Luke O’Connor, who was born in Elphin, County Roscommon, and was a recipient of the Victoria Cross for his bravery in the Crimea. The author of the poem sung by JMS in chapter 7 is unknown. A version by Lady Gregory, titled ‘The Grief of a Girl’s Heart’, appears in her collection
The Kiltartan Poetry Book
and is used powerfully in John Huston’s film of James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’. Ardent Joyceans will have noticed that Molly’s cat utters the same sound as does Leopold Bloom’s in
Ulysses,
that a certain Dublin butcher may have had relatives in the London book trade, and a couple of other fleeting allusions. I thank the excellent librarians and archivists at the National Library of Ireland, at the New York Public Library, at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Orchard Street, New York, and at Trinity College Dublin.
My thanks also to my editor Geoff Mulligan, to Stuart Williams, Ellie Steel, and all at Harvill Secker and Vintage; to my literary agents Carole Blake and Conrad Williams at Blake Friedmann, London; to Jewerl Keats Ross, Silent R Management, Los Angeles; to my family, the O’Connors and Suiters and Caseys; to my friend Tony Roche for enduring my questions with such gentlemanly patience: he must be absolved from any blame for
my departures from accuracy. It’s because of him that I know a little of what I departed from. Early versions of material in this novel first appeared in his
Synge: A Celebration
, and in my short story
What Might Have Been
, the catalogue for an exhibition at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York. While finishing this novel I spent some time at Hunter’s Hotel, Rathnew, County Wicklow, where one night I had a dream that there was an angel in the garden. If there was, I offer my admiration and gratitude. Ciaran Carty was the first editor to publish my fiction, on the
Sunday Tribune’
s ‘New Irish Writing’ page in 1989. The dedication of this novel to Ciaran, and to his wife, Julia, is utterly inadequate thanks for the affectionate support he has given to my generation of Irish writers. I thank Roslyn Bernstein, James McCarthy and my former students at Baruch College, the City University of New York, where I was Writer in Residence in 2009, and I thank Loretta Brennan-Glucksman, Eileen Reilly, John Waters and their colleagues at Glucksman Ireland House, NYU. Warm and affectionate thanks to Frances Coady and her colleagues at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Picador USA. My deepest loving thanks to Anne-Marie Casey, and to our sons James and Marcus, the best playboys.
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX
18 West 18th Street, New York 10011
Copyright © 2010 by Joseph O’Connor
All rights reserved Originally published in 2010 by Harvill Secker, Great Britain Published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux First American edition, 2011
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the estate of Sylvia Plath for permission to quote from ‘For a Fatherless Son.’
eISBN 9781429992282
First eBook Edition : January 2011
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
O’Connor, Joseph, 1963 –
Ghost light / Joseph O’Connor.—1st ed.
p. cm.
“A Francis Coady Book.”
“Originally published in 2010 by Harvill Secker, Great Britain”—T.p.
verso.
ISBN 978-0-374-16187-3 (alk. paper)
1. O’Neill, Maire, 1887 – 1952—Fiction. 2. Synge, J. M. (John Millington), 1871 – 1909—Fiction. 3. Actresses—Ireland—Fiction. 4. Dramatists, Irish—Fiction. 5. Theater—Fiction. I. Title.
PR6065.C558G56 2011
823’.914—dc22
2010022672
BOOK: Ghost Light
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