Sunday, 7 February 2016

Book Review - "Rebel Sisters" by Marita Conlon-McKenna.

I received a copy of this title, via Gill Hess, is return for an honest review...

The Easter Rising, Dublin 1916.  Lives are lost, a city is destroyed and for some the results of that fateful weekend are to linger for the rest of their days.  The Gifford Sisters; Grace, Muriel and Nellie, have been part of something that can never be forgotten.  These women are feisty, independent and strong-willed.  But is their desire for equality and freedom enough?  Will their personal rebellions be their downfall? 
 Based on true stories of the friends and family of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, Marita Conlon-McKenna gives and alternative view to this well discussed period of time in Ireland's History. 

Most of us are familiar with the details of Easter Monday 1916, the main characters involved and their legacies, but not many of us would have a complete picture of the others involved during this period.  The non-political figures, the ordinary people who were (unwittingly or otherwise) a part of creating a new nation, free from British Rule.  This concept is one coming to the foreground in the lead-up to the centenary of this major event.  The newspapers are full of articles celebrating the Rising, TV shows (see Rebellion on RTÉ), are bringing Dublin's History back to life for a whole new generation.  People who have read nothing about the Rising since they were forced to study (a very staid version) as part of their secondary education are now fascinated with the stories.  Children are lucky to have some wonderful fiction titles available to them, all age appropriate and encouraging them to move on to reading about the War of Independence.  But, what about the adult readers? 
 There are literally hundreds of non-fiction titles about this subject, varying from academic tomes to stunning coffee table books (See Diarmuid Ferriter and Shane Hegarty for two of my favourites).  There are also middle of the road, complete fiction titles, with very little historical content and lots of romance instead.  Rebel Sisters is at the more accessible scale.  A factual based story, interlaced with fictional elements, means that readers are getting the best of both book-worlds.
The Gifford Sisters were from a large, well appointed, Protestant family and, as children, mixed in very different circles to the Rebels.  However, when Muriel meets Thomas MacDonagh, her life takes a dramatic turn.  Grace meets Joe Plunkett and sees how the passion he feels for his cause is something worth fighting for.  Meanwhile, Nellie feels strongly about equality for all, regardless of sex or religion, and joins Countess Markievicz in the Irish Citizen Army.  Three women, three powerful personalities, ahead of their time and despairing of their country's circumstances.  
What the author has managed to produce is a novel of truth and belief.  Years of research can be seen as the reader turns to the next chapter.  Starting with the Gifford's mother, Isabella, in 1901 we are then brought on the girl's journey through childhood, adolescence and into womanhood.  The people they meet along the way are real.  The city they fight for is real.  The world they foresee for their children and grandchildren is also real.  There are facts aplenty among the titled chapters, with mentions of  1913 Lockout, Erskine Childers' gun-running, Bloody Sunday, the taking of the Dublin Garrisons and the executions at Kilmainham Gaol.  The thing that makes this book more suitable to the mainstream reader, rather than History buffs, are the personal tales.  Learning that one of our Rebel leaders was a roller-skating legend, reading about the many plays being held in various theatres around the city or knowing how much the Gifford girls had to sacrifice to be as devoted as they were; these are the heartbeats of the book.  Mixed in with detailed descriptions of our beautiful city, and how it crumbled over a week of confusion and fear, whilst also being treated to extra locations like Liberty Hall, St.Enda's and Larkfield, means that we can picture the movements of the supporters of the Rebellion.  We can be observers to a great, political and personal movement that helped shape who we are today. And all this without a text book in sight!  

 The gentle prose is trademark Conlon-McKenna, who moved so many of us with her Under The Hawthorn Tree children's books while bringing life to the inmates of the church run institutions in The Magdalen.  
 This is an ideal read for those who want to read more about Ireland's Modern History, but want it in a relaxed and enjoyable way. 
 Perfect for fans of RTÉ's Rebellion...

Rebel Sisters is published by Transworld Ireland and is available in TPB and ebook format.  


  1. Irish modern history? Yes, please! All your fault, Margaret..all your fault! You & your #IrishFictionForthnight :)

  2. Irish history is a bit missed out on this side of the water, so yes, please, enter my name :)

  3. This looks really good. Great review!


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