Novelist Nuala enjoying voyage of self-discovery

Arts Week with Judy Murphy

Nuala O’Connor is never happier than when she’s living in the past, at least when it comes to writing fiction.

“History is so seductive,” she says.

In her latest novel, Seaborne, the Ballinasloe-based author has embraced the 18th century Irish pirate, Anne Bonny, creating a fearless heroine who’s determined to follow her own star, even if that determination brings Anne into conflict with societal norms of the day.

There are very few biographical details available about Anne Bonny, who may have been born in Cork, although Nuala says that has never been verified.

The only factual information comes from a court case in Jamaica in 1720, where Anne Bonny and Mary Read were tried for piracy, as were the ship’s captain, John Rackman, and other crew members – all men

The trial transcript doesn’t mention her birthplace, but says Nuala with a laugh, “Kinsale has claimed her”.

That’s due to a colourful book about piracy, written in the 1720s, that stated she was “born at a town near Cork”. Allegedly the work of a Captain Charles Johnson, this publication became a bible on piracy but, as Nuala points out, nobody knows the author’s real identity and he took great poetic licence. So too did other writers on the topic.

“It’s very hard to get serious books about piracy,” she says.

That makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction, but it’s gift for a novelist like Nuala who began to tease out Anne’s extraordinary life.

“How does a young woman end up on board a pirate ship?” she asks of Anne, who is believed to have been 23 when she was arrested for piracy.

Nuala answers that question in this book, set in a time “when women didn’t own their own futures in the world. But Anne was determined to own hers”.

Dublin-born Nuala has shown similar determination, albeit in a far more low-key way, through her writings in Irish and in English.

Her short stories and her novels have been widely praised and her fifth novel, Nora (2021), based on the life of Nora Barnacle, was shortlisted for various prizes and selected for the Dublin One City One Book in 2022.

Pictured: Writer Nuala O’Connor, captured by her photographer sister, Úna.

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