Writing The Sackville Street Caper

by Alan Nolan

“Here, Alan,” said my Granny, tossing a book in my direction, “you like the scary stuff, don’t yeh?” I made an effort to intercept the fast-moving paperback missile, but like every GAA ball, rugby ball and basketball that had ever been thrown to me, I fumbled the catch and the book hit the floor. I picked it up, looked at the cover, and was immediately sorry that I did.

The cover was an illustration of a white faced, shiny-haired fright of a man, with red rimmed eyes, jet-black hair and a wide open mouth filled with razor sharp teeth. His overall demeanour suggested that he was quite willing to bite the fingers of any hand that dared to pick up the book whose cover he graced. In short, a nice sort of chap. Written over this demon’s head were three words: Dracula, Bram and Stoker.

I was 10 years old when I first read Dracula, and I became almost as infatuated with Bram Stoker as I was with my other literary love at the time, Charles Dickens – the difference being that the works of Charles Dickens didn’t leave me waking up with screaming nightmares at 3am in the morning (Thanks, Granny!).

Bram was a Dubliner and I remember pleading with my long-suffering Dad to bring me to Bram’s childhood homes at Marino Crescent in leafy Clontarf and slightly less leafy Buckingham Street, so I could see where he played and imagine what he had been like as a child. I even inveigled my long-suffering father to bring the family on a summer holiday to Scarborough in England, just so we could visit the pretty harbour town of Whitby, a little further up the coast, and the place where Count Dracula landed in the book, emerging from his Transylvanian-earth-filled coffin to take his first evil steps on British soil.

But I loved Charles Dickens too and over the years I had often wondered what Dublin would have been like in Dickens’ day; I had read so much about Dickensian London, with the Artful Dodger, Ebeneezer Scrooge and Uriah Heep, et al roaming the streets, but I had never read anything about Dickensian Dublin. Until, that is, I came across a book about Dickens in a second-hand bookshop. The book was old, big, full of illustrations, and, best of all, only a fiver. I picked it up and it opened on a spread with had a reproduction of a playbill from when Dickens had visited Dublin in 1858, performing dramatic readings from his books at the Rotunda Round Room.

Dickens had visited Dublin!

I immediately thought again of Bram Stoker. How old would he have been in 1858 when Dickens visited? Only 11 years of age! Was there a chance he would have gone with his family to see Dickens perform? Or maybe he was a bit of a rebel who may have ditched his family and gone with his friends … I could feel a story coming.

Now, what friend or friends could I give Bram in this story? Bram was upper-middle-class, one of the ‘Quality’, well-educated and well cared for, a sporty boy with an unshakeable ambition to be a writer and a thirst for adventure. The friend would have to be the polar opposite: a poverty-stricken orphan, one step away from the workhouse, a girl who lived by her wits, without any adult supervision or help. I already had Bram and Dickens, two well-known characters, why not have Bram’s pal being the best-known Dublin character of all – a person whose name is sung by countless voices, the length and breadth of Temple Bar, on a nightly basis; a fictional character whose name is known far and wide but whose story has never been told? A legendary girl who I might be able to bring to life-alive-oh?

Yup, the one and only Molly Malone.

In my story, Molly would be 11 years old like Bram, a part-time fishmonger (as she is in the song) and a full-time sneak thief. She would meet up with Bram, become best friends, and they would have the most amazing adventures around Dublin, visiting places that the reader can still visit today. To this end I took long exploratory walks around the city, scouting for possible locations – locations that eventually ended up driving the narrative of the book. There was Molly’s tumbledown shack beside the Royal Canal at Newcomen Bridge, where she and her pre-teen gang of young thieves, The Sackville Street Spooks, stored their ill-gotten gains. There was the Debtors’ Prison where, in a pre-MABS 1858, people who owed money were locked up – we could have a jailbreak there. There was Smithfield Market, the site of a monthly horse fair and carnival. Maybe there would be sideshows at the carnival with strongmen, dog-faced boys and, oooh, fortune tellers!

The only location that ended up featuring heavily in the book but doesn’t exist today is the much-missed Nelson’s Pillar – in its place in O’Connell/Sackville Street now stands the Dublin Spire – but my Granny had told me enough stories about climbing the 168 steps to the viewing platform under Admiral Horatio Nelson’s imposing statue, and the amazing views over the rooftops of Dublin and out into the bay, that I felt I could bring it to life.

But every story needs a villain – who might the villain of The Sackville Street Caper be? Who would be capable of terrifying and terrorizing the master of macabre himself, the great Bram Stoker? Well, maybe a Transylvanian Count might do the trick. A creepy Count might also inspire the 11 year old wannabe author in my book to write his greatest work! So, Count Vladimir was added to the Sackville stew; a hissing, covetous, Scrooge-like old sinner, intent on stealing the Irish Crown Jewels from Dublin Castle, and desperate to recruit the best sneak thief in Dublin to help him do it. Will his evil plan succeed, or will Bram, Molly and the Sackville Street Spooks thwart his wicked scheme? Weee-eeell … the book is now available in bookshops, libraries and from www.obrien.ie, so yiz can all find out for yizzerselves!

This book, from start to finish, has been a joy to work on, being so rooted in the books of my childhood, and in the history of my home city of Dublin; I loved working again with my amazing editor Helen Carr; I treasured every trip I made and every precious page of research I pored over.

And I have my Granny, Nanny Gigg, and her good aim to thank for it.

Gerry Hunt: an appreciation

All of us at The O’Brien Press were saddened to learn of the death of author Gerry Hunt on Friday 29 June 2018.

Gerry was an architect who worked with the IDA for eighteen years. He took early retirement in 1986 to give more time to his beloved drawing. His first, self-produced, comic was a rhyming, Spanish-language work that he gave away to friends. In 2003 he created a short series of inner-city Dublin fables told in rhyme called In Dublin City, followed by his crime graphic novel, Streets of Dublin; Streets of Dublin was later included in an exhibition entitled ‘Artist’s Books’ in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Blood Upon the Rose
Blood Upon the Rose: Gerry’s first graphic novel with O’Brien Press

The first book that Gerry published with The O’Brien Press was his landmark graphic novel, Blood Upon The Rose: Easter 1916 – The Rebellion That Set Ireland Free. Gerry’s skills and heritage shone through his graphic art and his ground-breaking historical graphic novel brought the Easter Rising vividly to life in words and pictures. It was followed by the graphic novels 1913: Larkin’s Labour War (about the 1913 lockout), At War With The Empire: Ireland’s Fight for Independence (about the Irish War of Independence) and Bobby Sands: Freedom Fighter (the life story of hunger striker Bobby Sands).Gerry’s books were a labour of love, and in this spirit, he donated all his royalties to Smile Train, a charity for children born with cleft lip and palate, and to St Vincent de Paul. Continue reading “Gerry Hunt: an appreciation”

Our visitors from the East!

Russian visitors
Our visitors from Khabarovsk with author Nicola Pierce (centre) and Peter Heaney (second from left)

On Monday we had a truly original set of visitors to the office: a school group from the Russian city of Khabarovsk. These students, growing up a stone’s throw from China and about as far east as you can go before hitting the Pacific Ocean, have struck up a remarkable interest in Ireland and all things Irish. One of them is even learning Irish dancing. So how did this happen?

Peter Heaney, a wonderful (former) teacher and great friend to The O’Brien Press, has been working on clever multinational education projects for years: he also set up a collaboration between schools in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and South Africa to explore Aubrey Flegg‘s book The Cinnamon Tree. This work has all been supported by The Pushkin Trust, which has been promoting all-Ireland collaboration through the arts for children for twenty-five years. The Russian connection was a remote one until the growth of the internet: there are now nine schools from Northern Ireland, eight from Russia and two from the Republic of Ireland involved in regular online collaboration. Modern technology can facilitate so much that would have been a dream previously!

Peter has been working with the Polytechnical Lyceum Khabarovsk for three years now, from his home in Derry. A year ago he called me and told me that the class were particularly interested in Nicola Pierce‘s remarkable novel Spirit of the Titanic – they had even translated chapters into Russian and entered these translations into Russian national competitions! Of course, at that point Peter did not know that our next book with Nicola, City of Fate, was set during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II (or The Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia). The coincidence of their favourite author writing a novel that was set in their own country was simply too much; they had to visit!

CityofFateAnd so today a tour of the office, interspersed with many questions, was followed by a presentation by Nicola about City of Fate; she undertook a huge amount of research when writing the book and now spends a lot of time in schools and libraries showing children the world of Stalingrad that inspired it. We also showed our visitors the wide range of our books that have been translated into other languages. They were impressed, but much more interested in reading books in the original English, a result of their inspirational teacher Olga’s belief that no translation (and particularly not dumbed-down educational adaptations) can capture the spirit of a real book!

Clearly all book lovers to their fingertips, these remarkable young people are an example of how children’s books truly can unite people across the world.

Thanks to Peter Heaney, author Nicola Pierce, teacher Olga Ilina and all the students for an amazing day!

Spirit of the Titanic: virtual classroom

Nicola Pierce being interviewed, while the school children look on

I had the great privilege of being a ‘fly on the wall’ at one of the most interesting school events I have ever seen in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum last week. It was a real showcase for what imagination, flexibility and working together can achieve, and the educational value has to be absolutely huge.

For about six weeks classes in four schools from across Northern Ireland had been doing project work on the subject of the Titanic which was, of course, built in Belfast in the famous Harland and Wolff shipyards. As the centenary of the sinking is in 2012, it is a very timely subject. As part of their work (and this is where O’Brien Press come in) they have been reading Spirit of the Titanic by Nicola Pierce, a novel which captures a huge amount of information, history and atmosphere from this most famous of ocean liners.

As the culmination of this work, a two-hour-long live internet broadcast was run from the museum (incidentally, if you have never been to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, I would heartily recommend you go – it captures the spirit and atmosphere of a bygone time exceptionally well, and is run by very enthusiastic and knowledgeable people). There was a TV-style outside broadcast truck with all the mixing desks you could want, as well as a satellite uplink! The real magic was that it was a live, two-way event, with the schools also broadcasting a view of the children, who were fascinated throughout.

It started in the print works, where we learned about printing tickets for the ship and where Nicola was interviewed about her book; moved to the post office and finally to an interview with an actor talking about riveting the ship together for a living! The students asked some great questions and a recording of the event will be available to all schools in Northern Ireland through their IT system.

All of which proves that cooperation and thinking outside the box can create some of the most memorable occasions: everybody involved was totally passionate about education, and it showed in the quality of the whole event, which really made history live.


One Liberties One Book Literary Festival is a brilliant spin-off of the Department of Education’s Home School Liaison programme. The festival was celebrated in style in historic St. Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street where Robert Emmett was executed. Children from 10 schools from the Liberties Medieval Dublin districts packed in to hear the North Strand Klezmer Band playing Jewish soul music, an exciting blend of jazz and oriental dance music, and then to listen to Marilyn Taylor talk about her novel 17 Martin Street, the chosen book for the school project. The book features a Jewish immigrant family and how they related to their Christian neighbours during World War II. Each school developed creative projects based on the book, including the poster (left) illustrated by Yana Kulizhskaya, a local school pupil.

Denis McCarthy, head of the Home School Liaison programme, told how 400 teachers across Ireland have devised programmes locally, often based on books, to promote reading in the home and in school. Marilyn Taylor’s Faraway Home has also been used for a major One Ballymun One Book project with Our Lady of Victories BNS.

Steve MacDonogh: an appreciation

I first met Steve MacDonogh in 1974, when I started The O’Brien Press. During the 1960s, Steve was a key player in the founding of the Irish Writers Co-op, who first published the fiction of Neil Jordan, Robert Hogan, Leland Bandwell and other emerging talents. As new Irish publishing sprang up in the 1970s, Steve was like a mature tree in the forest of saplings. His brilliant publishing philosophy was put into action with Brandon Books, based in his beloved Dingle in Kerry; diverse, ethical and innovative, Brandon published Alice Taylor’s childhood memoirs, Gerry Adams’ fiction and radical literature, and Ken Bruen’s brilliant noir fiction – all to international acclaim.

I met Steve twice in the last month of his life, and each event exemplified his brilliance. At our Publishing Ireland International Committee meeting he explained his ideas on developing new markets in Asia (Korea, China and India) and shared his extensive knowledge of European and American publishing, where he had many friends. The other event was the launch of Joel Hynes’ novel in Dublin’s Gutter Bookshop, where Joel, like a young Brendan Behan, read his brilliantly brutal fiction. Steve had brought the award-winning Newfoundland writer to Ireland for a promotional tour. When I asked Steve why he published writing talent from the edges of the world, and in translation too, he simply said ‘It’s really important. Someone has to do it.’

In Frankfurt last month, Steve invited some publishing colleagues for a drink on the hotel ship on the Main. He was so happy to show us photos of his beautiful little daughter Lilya and his wife Meryem and her extended family in Morocco.

Steve’s sudden death on 17 November, at the age of just sixty-two, is a terrible, sad loss. It’s impossible to describe how much we will all miss you, Steve. Your wonderful publishing legacy lives on in your books like a great Arbutus tree, the native strawberry tree of Kerry – forever green.

Michael O’Brien
The O’Brien Press, Dublin

20 Years of Children’s Publishing

O’Brien Press threw a celebratory party last night, marking 20 years since the publication of the book that really kick-started our entry into the world of children’s books, Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna. While we had done a range of books before that, there had been no coherent vision of what we were trying to achieve — once we took the decision to publish a book for children about the great Irish famine, which included death, hardship and pain we realised that our country lacked a real literature about itself for children. And we decided that it would be O’Brien Press’ mission to provide it.

We also decided (and by ‘we’ I really mean our publisher Michael O’Brien and then editorial director Ide ní Laoghaire) that we would always aim to produce books to the best international standards, and would back this up by selling them into international markets: the fact that Under the Hawthorn Tree won the prestigious International Reading Association award showed that these targets were achievable.

It has been a long journey to here: we have published over 500 books for young people, which have been translated into over 30 languages worldwide, created some great series (such as the Pandas) and discovered and nurtured some outstanding writers for children (Eoin Colfer, Siobhán Parkinson, Aubrey Flegg, Conor Kostick, Judi Curtin, Celine Kiernan …), while always trying to innovate through major projects such as The Story of Ireland and Something Beginning with P. It is interesting that in this anniversary year some of our authors have come around full circle. Our first EVER children’s book was a picture book (King Longbeard) and it’s an area we have not really ventured into much since, but Nita Fitzgerald’s It’s Great Being Little is aimed right at this market. The initial burst of historical fiction gave way for a while to contemporary (this year we have Dancing in the Dark and Eva’s Journey) and fantasy fiction (The Rebel Prince), but we have two major historical novels this autumn in Across the Divide and Fugitives. And innovation? we have just produced our first ever cookbook for kids: Alice and Megan’s Cookbook!

We would like to thank everybody who joined us for this special celebration, and most particularly all the authors and staff who make it possible, and look forward to the next 20 years and beyond in the wonderful world of children’s books.


Two new arrivals from Croatia

It’s foreign edition time again: we had two new arrivals from Croatia today: our first books to hit the market there. It’s interesting to see how a new territory opens up over time, and they all do it differently. The normal pattern is for the initial sales to be of fiction that has done well in translation in other markets — mass-market fiction (The Mammy by Brendan O’Carroll: now in an impressive 14 foreign editions) and children’s fiction (Sisters … No Way! by Children’s Laureate Siobhán Parkinson: 11 languages to choose from) would usually break the market, and then the non-fiction comes into play.

Eastern Europe can have a differnt pattern, however, and Croatia is following this trend. Our first books in translation are two non-fiction titles — The General by Paul Williams, made into an excellent film by John Boorman, and Joe Cahill by Brendan Anderson, the biography of a life-long IRA activist.

So what’s next? Place your bets …


Death on the Hill

The trial of Eamonn Lillis for the murder of Celine Cawley was one of the most-followed in recent memory: author Abigail Rieley talks about the trial and the media circus it generated, as well as about writing her book.

Guest blog from Conor Kostick

The library in Farmleigh House, DublinI’m delighted to learn that I shall be taking up the Farmleigh writers residency this summer. It’s a beautiful house set in acres of garden and the atmosphere there is perfect for writing. When I was shown around the building the librarian, Julia Cummins, introduced me to the book collection that Benjamin Guinness (1937-1992) gathered. It is incredible. First editions abound, including Ulysses and collections of poems by Yeats, with annotations in his own hand. But what excited me most of all was a thirteenth century manuscript by Gerald of Wales. By happy co-incidence this is one of the major sources for the impact of the Normans on Ireland, something which is very relevant to my writing plans. As well as working on a series of stories based on a group of hedonistic self-aware avatars in a virtual world, I’m going to write a book for the O’Brien Press on the coming of the Normans. It’s a great story, full of drama, and deserves to be looked at again in the light of modern scholarship.

Farmleigh House viewed from the fountainWhile at Farmleigh I shall organise a few events related to children’s literature. I’m going to invite a prominent children’s writer to give a public talk. I’m also going to show local schools around the house and give them a reading from my own books. Included in these trips is St Joseph’s School for the Visually Impaired.  My baby daughter Maya attends their pre-school and they’ve been brilliant with her, so I’m really pleased to be able to offer them something in return. I’m hoping – though she might not know it yet! – that the new children’s laureate, Siobhán Parkinson will be involved in that event.

In August I will be giving two creative writing workshops for writers of children’s literature. Places will be limited but anyone interested can send 1,000 words of their work in progress to farmleighinfo@opw.ie and we’ll get back to them.

Conor Kostick