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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Vol. 4 > Researching the Facts, Writing the Fiction: A Creative Writing Practice Study - Herself Alone in Orange Rain
Researching the Facts, Writing the Fiction: A Creative Writing Practice Study - Herself Alone in Orange Rain
Author: Tracey Iceton
Tracey Iceton examines her approach to a creative writing project firmly rooted in reality.


Writing a novel about recent controversial and tragic events is a difficult, even potentially daunting challenge, for an author. The ethical considerations of including such facts in fiction often result in writers adopting the approach of applying a paper thin veneer of fiction to real events and people. In this article, novelist Tracey Iceton examines her approach to a creative writing project firmly rooted in reality, part two of her Celtic Colours Trilogy, the novel entitled Herself Alone in Orange Rain. The novel, which deals with real events from the Provisional IRA’s 1980s campaign and employs real people as characters, was the creative component of Iceton’s Creative Writing PhD thesis. Explaining both her decision to include real events and people in her novel and the research methods and writing practice used to construct a fictional text from factual accounts, Iceton exemplifies how she addressed both ethical and creative considerations in the writing of this novel. Drawing on the ideas of creative writing scholars (including, among others, De Groot, White, Watt, Neale, Steel and Southgate) particularly in relation to historical fiction, realism and representation, Iceton argues that, while such writing projects may always becontroversial to some readers, they are not inherently unethical as long as the writer is prepared to take responsibility for their creative production.


Keywords: Herself Alone in Orange Rain, IRA Women, Historical Fiction, Mairead Farrell, Brighton Bombing, Troubles Fiction


In 2010 I embarked upon my most ambitious creative writing project: a trilogy of novels about the Troubles in Ireland. The plan was for three books that would span 100 years of conflict in Ireland: part one would deal with the years leading up to and including 1916 Easter Rising; part two would encompass the principle Troubles events of the 1980s; part three would bring the story into the present day, exploring the Good Friday Agreement and culminating in the 2016 commemorations of the Easter Rising.

The first book in what has become my Celtic Colours Trilogy was inspired by a visit, in 2003, to Dublin and in particular, to Kilmainham Gaol. Taking a tour of this historic gaol, holiday-makers learn of the Easter Rising and the execution, in the stonebreaker’s yard, of the leaders of the Rising. What others make of that experience I can only speculate but I saw immediately a story more than worthy of a fictional presentation. From that came Green Dawn at St Enda’s, a novel which tells the Easter Rising story from the perspective of a fictional schoolboy, Finn Devoy. Finn attends St Enda’s, the school ran by one of the Rising’s leaders, Patrick Pearse, and the adolescent protagonist subsequently becomes embroiled in the chaotic and tragic events of Easter week 1916. The novel’s plot and characters are, in the main, fictional presentations of real events and people as explained in my Author’s Note to the text:

Green Dawn doesn’t stray far from the facts as found in scholarly works. Actually, it uses as many of them as I plausibly could, including, in places, the actual words attributed to or written by those for whom the Easter Rising was not a story to be told but a life to be lived […] Green Dawn, in the main, tells it as it was […]

          On Green Dawn’s cast list, all the boys at my St Enda’s are fictional characters. The adults, with the exception of Finn’s parents and a few minor players, are all men and women who really lived and died, written as I imagined them from what I have read of their lives and transformed here into literary characters.

Before exploring further my approach to writing a fact-based fiction I shall pause here to outline what I viewed the ethical issues of writing about real people and events to be. I feel writers of fictional works that draw heavily on reality have an ethical responsibility to present that reality as accurately as possible. To me this requires not changing known facts, facts that are in the public domain and generally accepted as accurate information about a given event. Likewise, when creating characters that are fictional representations of real people those characters should resemble their real-life counterparts as closely as possible. The scope for creativity lies in using fiction to supplement the known details with imagined ones, but ones that could have happened or would be plausible in light of the known information. This definition of ethical considerations is one I would apply irrespective of the historical period in which the work of fiction is set. Obviously less may be known and knowable about real events and people from centuries past but I would still consider it my responsibility to uncover whatever facts are recorded and be faithful to them in my fictionalised retelling.

Given the above personal definition of the ethical issues of writing fact-based fiction in writing such a novel as Green Dawn, I foresaw no conflict between the ethical issues of writing about real people and events and the creative considerations of producing such a text. This was because I strove, through extensive research, to create fictional versions of those real people that as closely as possible resembled what appeared to be the reality of who they were. Likewise with actual historical events I sought to adhere strictly to the real life facts, ensuring that the events of my Easter Rising story unfolded in the same manner as those of the historical Easter Rising, as recorded in factual accounts of the rebellion. My creative intervention in the narrative was centred on my fictional characters (Finn and his friends and family) and imaginatively writing into the historical gaps. Green Dawn thus set out the creative parameters of my Celtic Colours Trilogy and it was with this precedent that I began working on part two of the trilogy, Herself Alone in Orange Rain.

This novel tells the story of Caoilainn Devoy, a descendant of Finn’s, who becomes an active service volunteer operating for the Provisional Irish Republican Army during the 1980s. The novel sees her participate in some of the key IRA operations of that decade: the 1982 Hyde Park/Regent’s Park bombing; the Christmas 1983 Harrods attack, the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton; the 1988 incident on Gibraltar that resulted in the deaths of three unarmed IRA volunteers and the subsequent atrocities that occurred during the Republican funerals that followed. During the course of the novel Caoilainn operates with or encounters real life IRA activists, specifically Patrick Magee, convicted of the Brighton Bombing in 1985, Brendan Hughes, who was Operations Officer for the IRA during the 1980s, and Mairead Farrell, probably the most well-known female IRA activist of this period. (Farrell was one of the three killed on Gibraltar.)  I account for my inclusion of real events and people in the novel in my Author’s Note:

In common with Green Dawn, Herself Alone also recounts real events, although this time they are far more recent, occurring between 1966-1988. Where facts were known I used them as accurately as possible within the scope of a fictional work. Where gaps existed I filled them with what I felt could/might have happened. Some events are entirely fictional as specific incidents but drawn, to greater or lesser degree, from similar incidents which did occur. Anything anachronistic is intentional and in response to the constraints of a fictional narrative.

          Real people feature here but not as extensively as in Green Dawn. Caoilainn, the O’Neills, the senior IRA figures she meets (excepting Mairead Farrell and Brendan Hughes), Patrick Duffy and those she serves with in England and Ireland (except Patrick Magee), are fictional. Where there remains uncertainty over who did what the characters involved are entirely invented and not intended to suggest any persons living or dead. Where there is demonstrable evidence of a person’s involvement with a particular incident I have written it as such. When a real person is characterised I remind readers they are written as I imagined them from what I have learnt of their lives, transforming them from themselves into literary characters.

As the above note suggests, I was, from the outset, conscious that the more recent nature of the events recounted and the fact that one real person (Magee) was still living meant there was potentially more of a conflict between ethical issues and creative considerations for the writing of this book.

I should say at this point that Herself Alone was written under conditions differing significantly from those pertaining to Green Dawn. Green Dawn was a private undertaking, a creative writing project that I worked on alone until the manuscript was of sufficient standard to attract the attention of Cinnamon Press, who undertook to work with me on editing the novel, a process that largely entailed tightening what had become an unfeasibly long text. I was lucky in that Jan Fortune at Cinnamon shared my vision for the novel and the editing mainly sought to improve the quality of my writing, not to consider my use of real people and events, which was accepted without question. The novel was published by Cinnamon in March 2016, Jan having committed long before I had even begun writing part two, to release the entire trilogy.

By the time I did begin writing Herself Alone I had been accepted onto a Creative Writing PhD programme at Northumbria University and the novel was set to become the creative component of my doctoral thesis. One immediate consequence of this was the need to obtain ethical clearance for the project. Ethical clearance of this kind relates primarily to the methods of research, specially gathering data and disseminating findings; I was intending only to research from secondary sources (as I had with part one) all of which were in the public domain, so the project was deemed to be of low risk ethically and clearance granted. The content of the novel i.e. its inclusion of real people and events, was not a matter for consideration by the ethics committee. I remained, however, aware of my own personal ethical standpoint regarding my intended content and adopted, as I had with Green Dawn, the approach of researching extensively to ensure my fictional representations were, as far as possible, accurate reflections of what appeared to be the reality. This was something which, following my literary review of existent works, I found Troubles fiction had, in the main, failed to do.

Troubles novels generally portray IRA women as one of several narrow stereotyped caricatures e.g. the honey-trap (Liam Murray Bell’s Cassie in So It Is), the ice-maiden assassin (Douglas Hurd’s Clarissa in Vote to Kill), the naïve girl terrorist (unnamed girl in G. W. Target’s The Patriot). A detailed exploration of reasons for the frequent recourse to such stereotypes is beyond the scope of this article but Helen Birch notes “the idea that women are capable of extreme violence is anathema to most of us.” (5). Given this it is possible that previous authors of Troubles fiction had felt it necessary to depict female paramilitary combatants in the stereotypes noted above to explain away their actions by suggestion such women are not normal.

As the focus of my academic project was writing a novel that challenged fictional misrepresentations of IRA women by presenting a realistic and credible portrayal of the lived experience of being a woman in the IRA, I needed a suitable approach. The academic rigors of a Creative Writing PhD presented one, requiring me to write in response to thorough, scholarly research with my creative practice being developed and supported by the supervision process of a PhD to ensure that my novel would successfully navigate any potential conflict between ethical and creative considerations.

My research and writing practice therefore strove to address any ethical issues appropriately by ensuring my fictional representations resembled what research suggested was the reality of both female IRA volunteers generally and Mairead Farrell specifically. The practice-led nature of the project ensured that creative considerations (e.g. plot structure, characterisation, narrative perspective, writing styles) important to the writing of an engaging narrative were fully addressed.

Like much historical fiction, the inventions in Herself Alone are rooted in historical facts and actual events with fictional characters living alongside fictionalised versions of real people. While this writing strategy is frequently employed in historical fiction set fifty or more years ago it is less common in popular novels set, as much Troubles fiction is, in the recent past. To evidence this, of the 50-plus works of Troubles fiction reviewed for my PhD, only Roddy Doyle’s The Dead Republic and 1972 and 1999 of Morgan Llywelyn’s five-book series The Irish Century make significant reference to real events and people from the 1970s onwards and even in these texts the reality is kept at a remove, with the main characters all being fictional, an approach different to the one I adopted for Herself Alone.

Having incorporated facts into Green Dawn, I felt that, in order to maintain consistency across the other parts of the trilogy whilst also developing a narrative that conveyed the lived experience of IRA women, it was necessary to involve my character extensively in actual IRA missions, fictionalising the facts in my narrative, and to draw on factual accounts about the experiences of being an IRA woman when writing the novel.

By researching as many accounts as I could find of women who were IRA activists I gained some understanding of their experiences. These real life experiences then informed representations in my novel, helping ensure my writing reflected the uncovered reality rather than repeating fictional misrepresentations of women combatants commonly found in Troubles literature.

It should be noted, however, that the accounts of IRA women are stories in themselves; they are narrated experiences. This raises the issue that fact and fiction are not unproblematic binaries; both are constructions. Indeed, all histories are stories constructed by the tellers of them.  As the well-known adage of history being written by the victors acknowledges, this gives rise to a potential bias, holding writers and readers to a particular version of facts.  Throughout my research I remained conscious of the potential authorial bias arising from the fictive nature of factual accounts, to ensure I was not merely repeating misrepresentations, either positive or negative, of IRA women. I used multiple sources to cross-reference, where possible, to uncover a balanced understanding of their experiences.

The women in the texts I researched from tell their lived experiences through vocabulary, structures and styles chosen, consciously or not, by them. In using these accounts to inform my story I drew on both the facts of their lives and the ways they told their stories. Where information was in the public domain and accepted as accurate (e.g. dates, times, locations, people involved in IRA operations) I stuck to it. My sources included scholarly academic texts, journalistic accounts and autobiographies. Some were by women volunteers themselves. Others comprised interviews given by women volunteers.

My fictional narrative was based on this research. However, Herself Alone is not to be read as a biographic account of what being an IRA woman was like. It is a novel, a fictional story, informed by facts but constructed creatively. This creative construction was driven, but not limited, by the facts I uncovered. As Hayden White (1978) notes, novelists are not restricted to “propositions which are supposed to correspond point by point to some extra-textual domain of occurrence or happening” (122). White’s description here of the novelist’s methodology for writing about the past is demonstrated, for example, during the Harrods bombing scene in Herself Alone. I was faithful to the actual length of time given between warning and explosion but invented the reason why the warning was shorter than the IRA usually stipulate. The invention, the sudden arrival of one character with news of another character’s death, was in response to factual research that uncovered an SAS shooting at an IRA arms dump just days before the Harrods attack. Those killed at the real life scene, Brian Campbell and Colm McGirr, were actual IRA members. Reports of this real life event included reference to a third volunteer who fled the scene. This, in my fictional reworking, became the character of Aiden, Caoilainn’s husband, who subsequently dies of his wounds. This example demonstrates how I took found facts and developed them into a fictional story, as, White notes, novelists do.

De Groot (2010) develops this view, commenting that historical novelists “take dry facts and […] invest them with fictional life” (103). In this quotation he notes how fiction writers go beyond narrating strictly factual accounts in order to “attempt to communicate what the past was like” (italics original) (103). I wanted Herself Alone to communicate my sense of what the past was like by investing actual historical events and people with fictional life. Fictional presentations of the1984 Brighton bombing[i] and the 1988 Gibraltar mission[ii] provided opportunities for my creative practice to do just this and I felt that, despite potential ethical issues, I must include these significant events in the novel. Both offered opportunities to explore the experiences of volunteers carrying out high profile missions as well as allowing me chance to fill in factual blanks with fictional imaginings. Southgate argues “narratives are imaginative constructions imposed upon, rather than discovered within, the data” (175). The Brighton bombing scene demonstrates this ‘imposing upon’ clearly. Many details are publicly available[iii] but gaps remain and aspects of the attack are unknown and unknowable e.g. what Magee and his unidentified accomplice did while in Brighton and their feelings about the attack. Here my creative writing practice could invent and imagine. Because my work is fiction, rather than leaving gaps in the narrative because I did not know these details, I was able to imaginatively construct what they might have done/felt and present this as though it was what happened.

As a novelist, I was able to invent in order to explore the unknowable, filling the gaps of recorded history with creative imaginings. Neale comments that “Imagination is a way of exploring possibilities” (Come to Know 64) and this is what I do in the Brighton bombing scene when I explore how Magee and his accomplice possibly filled their days at the seaside resort and their possible feelings about planting the bomb. Because my readers know they are reading fiction, my contract with them allows me to present fictional events or invented elements of the text without the caveats (e.g. “this is how it might have been”) that non-fiction writers may need to include. So where information was not available I wrote between the gaps to join the dots. I left the dots themselves unchanged. The documentary Brighton Bomb stated “Magee and a female accomplice travelled to England as a couple in September 1984 […] they took room 629 [in the Grand Hotel]” (10.49-11.12). Although other sources suggest Magee’s accomplice may have been male, given that Marie McGuire, a female IRA volunteer, was told by a male comrade that “being with a girl would enable him to move around less conspicuously” (42) I judged it plausible to insert Caoilainn as the unidentified Brighton accomplice. Similarly, with the Gibraltar incident Williams refers to a “mystery bomber” (34), never identified, who was part of the planned IRA operation. Media speculations named several suspects, including two women. This is corroborated by Taylor’s statement that “at least two other IRA members were also involved [in Gibraltar] but were never captured. One of them was a woman operating under the false identity of ‘Mary Parkin’” (280). Southgate argues “it is the function of art to […] introduce us to other possibilities” (81). For me creative writing presents the opportunity to create, exploring other possibilities, while the contract between novelist and reader acknowledges that they are just possibilities. I felt confident in making Caoilainn the unknown comrade in Brighton and Gibraltar because doing so turned a real possibility into a fictional certainty. In the world of Herself Alone Caoilainn is the “mystery bomber”. Ethically, to me, this is acceptable because there is no available truth about who was involved in these attacks for me to write; if I want to write about such unknowns I have no choice but to invent.

As a novelist working in the realist mode, I brought to life the historical stories behind Herself Alone by presenting the made-up as though it really happened. I maintained my sense of ethical responsibility, as outlined in my personal definition of the ethical considerations for writing fact-based fiction above, by using those existent facts pertaining to this incident accurately. These facts are public property and readers would only need to access newspaper archives to uncover them; I am not exposing readers to anything they could not access elsewhere. I did not alter them in any way or give any kind of false account of the horrific attacks the novel recounts. My creative approach merely allowed readers to see such incidents from an alternative perspective than that provided by non-fiction texts.

It was suggested to me that rather than including real incidents, my creative practice would have been better served by disguising real events as fictional ones – the Bridlington Bombing, perhaps? Perpetrated by Patrick Maguire? I can and do appreciate that for other writers there are sound reasons (greater creative freedom and circumnavigating ethical concerns) for deviating from the facts but I would hope they seek to do so with more substantial, imaginative fictionalising. My personal view on the tactic of facts dressed up to masquerade as fiction is that it is a less ethical approach than accurately and openly using known facts within the fiction. While such masking (name changing etc.) might allow the writer to profess, falsely in my opinion, that their creations are entirely fictional, readers will quickly see through flimsy fictionalising.

Discussing examples of historical fiction, Keen (2006) comments on how such texts “aspire to historical accuracy” (176) and “aim for a high degree of verisimilitude” (179).  These statements apply generally to popular realism and to Herself Alone specifically and explain how my approach addressed both ethical and creative considerations. My extensive content research and determination to ensure the novel was as accurate as is practicable for a work of fiction enabled me to attain the accuracy and verisimilitude Keen mentions. This is particularly relevant to my fictionalising of Mairead Farrell.

Historical novelists have long since established the convention of using real people as characters. Generally credited with developing the modern historical novel, Sir Walter Scott, for example, intertwined real historical figures with fictional characters, creating a sense of veracity in his works. Aiming to offer a realistic fictional representation of the lived experience of IRA women therefore raised the issue of whether Herself Alone would include fictionalised versions of actual Republican women, something that, from my PhD review of Troubles fiction, did not appear to have been done before. Real people, mostly male but both dead and still living, have featured as characters in other examples of Troubles fiction[iv]. However, employing real people as characters, particularly when they, their direct descendants or close friends are living at the time of publication, is not unproblematic. De Groot (2010) specifically raises “issues of good taste and libel, as well as authenticity” and, with the exception of libel (the dead cannot sue) I considered such ethical concerns in relation to including Mairead Farrell as a character. I needed to ensure her fictionalised representation was authentic, true, to the real Farrell. I also asked myself to what extent including Farrell might offend (be in poor taste). I judged that not including her would be less ethical as doing so would go against my belief that fact-based fiction has a responsibility to represent reality as accurately as possible. Farrell was too important an exponent of the IRA woman’s lived experience to be excluded. De Groot ultimately concludes that novelists should “negotiate their own position as regards their ‘duty’ to history, veracity and the various figures involved” (10) and, having done so, I felt that measured use of Farrell as a character was appropriate.

The depictions of real people in Herself Alone should be read as fictional, not biographical, narratives. I constructed versions of those people from other constructions in interviews, (auto)biographical accounts., characterising them in ways that served my fiction. Doing this, I attempted to capture what appeared to me to be that person’s essence, accessing several sources and synthesising them. My representations are as they genuinely seemed to be to me. I did not characterise them in ways counter to their representations in my sources. I decided who I thought they were, based on what I learned about them, and wrote accordingly. I acknowledge the possibility that readers may challenge my depictions but, having done my best to be fair and faithful in my representations, I would repeat that these are my fictional constructions of Brendan Hughes, Patrick Magee and Mairead Farrell and I am happy to stand by them as my creations. Additionally, for both moral and legal reasons, I only referred to real people in connection with specific IRA operations where conclusive evidence of their involvement is in the public domain[v] and I did not deviate from known facts. However, given the novel’s focus on exploring the experience of being a woman in the IRA, I felt I had to include the most prominent female Republican of the period -Mairead Farrell[vi]  - despite any ethical issues doing so might raise because to not include her would be, in my opinion, less ethical as it would amount to writing her out of the historical narrative Herself Alone strove to fictionalize and thereby engage readers with.

Frey (1987) notes the distinction between a real person and a fictional character, who he terms “homo fictus”: “an abstraction meant to project the essence, but not the totality, of homo sapiens” (italics original) (2). This distinction is particularly important when the character is based on a real person. The Farrell in Herself Alone is not a real person; she is a fictionalized version of a real person, made of words and phrases, not flesh and blood. Researching through archive documentary footage of Farrell and interviews given by her and her comrades, I established who my character would be, as opposed to who Farrell herself was, and wrote accordingly.

Síle Darragh[vii] (2010) described Farrell in ways suggesting she was a strong, determined person, capable of anger, control and compassion. During the violence in Armagh jail that sparked the no-wash protest, Darragh reports “She [Farrell] practically ran to the Class Office absolutely livid […] She raged at him [the prison governor] for his behaviour” (59-60). Darragh also tells of how Farrell and her two comrades on the 1980 hunger strike spent time “talking to their friends and comrades, reassuring them and trying to lift their spirits” (104). Farrell’s attempts to bolster the morale of others when she was facing possible death suggested, to me, stoicism and a positive outlook. Referring to the second hunger strike in 1981 Darragh notes Farrell felt she “had let everyone down” (116) when she decided not to participate. This, for me, highlighted her commitment whilst humanising her as someone capable of self-reproach, even guilt. Darragh’s book also depicts a caring Farrell, recounting meetings where they discussed the women prisoners’ welfare. Sinead Moore’s[viii] remark that Farrell “was always a leader” (Mairead Farrell: An Unfinished Conversation 22.53) and Mary Doyle’s[ix] statement that Farrell was “Good natured, good-humoured, a very caring person. If you had any problems you went to her with them. She was a very committed Republican” (MacDonald 157) also contributed to my sense of her and how I wrote into being my Farrell.

My understanding of Farrell’s political conviction came from her on-record views about Republicanism and feminism e.g. “I’m oppressed as a woman but I am also oppressed because I’m Irish” (McAuley 47) and “I am a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army and I am a political prisoner in Armagh jail” (Fairweather, MacDonough and McFadyean 229). Farrell once called for Mother Ireland to “get off our backs” (McIntosh and Urquhart 189), rejecting traditional notions of Irish womanhood. Aretxaga calls Farrell “the model of a new female nationalist hero […] for not only her leadership qualities but also her open rejection of traditional female images of nationality” adding “she is remembered and mourned more as lost leader than as martyr” (168-9). The gravity of Farrell’s political beliefs was noted by friend Geraldine Holland who cited Farrell’s “wall to wall credibility within the Republican movement” (Mairead Farrell: An Unfinished Conversation 34.34). However, other sources depicted a light-hearted side. Bríona Nic Dhiarmada says she was “full of life”(Mairead Farrell: An Unfinished Conversation 4.47) while brother, Niall, discussing Farrell after her release from jail, reveals she “was into high heels, fancy clothes, disco dancing, earrings, perfume, hair perms and really loved life” (Death of a Terrorist 36.04). Nic Dhiarmada also claimed Farrell was “actually wearing a pair of platform shoes […] which meant she couldn’t run very fast” (Death of a Terrorist 24.58) during the Conway Hotel bombing, resulting in her arrest. It was 1976 and Farrell was 19; what else would she wear?  This combination of the light-hearted and the serious is repeated in Scott Graham’s account of his claimed relationship with Farrell[x]. Describing 17 year old Farrell, Graham says they played drunken card games resulting in “Mairead dressed only in stockings and a suspender belt” but notes “life wasn’t always fun for Mairead, who sometimes revealed a very serious side to her nature” (65).

Researching Farrell’s biography and developing my fictional Farrell, I was conscious of the need to establish a balance between using recorded details about real Farrell and creating a character that readers would accept as plausible in a novel. Steel (2007) notes the “plausibility of fictional characters depends on their adherence to narrative conventions” (22). Steel suggests that, for characters to be believable, it is not enough for them to simply imitate real people; they must also, at least partially, imitate other fictional characters whose portrayals have, collectively, established certain novelistic conventions and reader expectations. My aim when characterising Farrell was to create a believable protagonist who closely resembled the real Farrell thus addressing both ethical and creative considerations. This required using facts about Farrell to create a character who imitated her while adopting some of the writing methods conventionally used to develop fictional characters. One example of this is the way I used Niall Farrell’s information about his sister to write descriptions of my fictional Farrell. She appears in “a flurry of colour and a cloud of fragrance” the words “flurry” and “cloud” suggesting her vivacity. Her hair has been “bobbed and permed” as it appears in post-jail photographs of Farrell while colours litter the description: “Her smile is cherry-red and her clothes green, white and purple; a swirling print jumper and co-ordinated skirt”, creating a bright, vibrant appearance. But I did not want readers to forget the Farrell who lived in squalid jail conditions so, through Caoilainn, the reader receives a poignant reminder: “Seeing her smile, hearing the jangle of her bracelets, smelling the floral aroma of her perfume, you’d never guess she spent ten years in jail”. The list of clauses builds up to develop a positive image which is then juxtaposed by the sentence’s negative concluding phrase.

Another technique was using Farrell’s actual words as dialogue. In a 1987 interview Farrell said “Your mind’s your strongest weapon and that’s how we’ll always counteract what they do because they can’t control your mind and they can’t get inside them and that’s their failure” (Death of a Terrorist 32.27). This appears verbatim as Farrell’s advice to Caoilainn. Julia Bell notes that “It is the way they talk and think […] that gives your characters life” (98) and I felt it was important when characterising a real person to ensure the dialogue contributed to an accurate representation. This is not because realism necessarily requires accuracy. In fact, as Watt notes, “there is no reason why the report on human life which is presented by it should be in fact any truer than those presented through the very different conventions of other literary genres” (32). Rather I wanted my fictional Farrell’s dialogue to be faithful to the real Farrell because, given that my aim was to offer an accurate representation of IRA women, I did not want to misrepresent the real Farrell in my fictional portrayal.

Alongside factual details, fictional Farrell is created through imagined moments, based on accounts about real Farrell, that portray a strong, intelligent, compassionateand committed Republican activist. This representation develops through her actions and speech and Caoilainn’s opinions of Farrell e.g. “Mairead sits on the bunk beside me, holds my hand and makes a confession of her own”; “‘In here’s just a smaller version of out there.’  She gestures to the tiny window high up in the cell wall. ‘You’ve to learn when to be reasonable. Save something for when you get out’” and “Mairead’s smarter than I’ll ever be about these things”. By combining the imagined with the reported I felt I was able to develop a faithful fictional representation of Farrell that both addressed any ethical issues about the inclusion of a real person in a fictional narrative and demonstrated good creative writing practice in relation to characterization.

Below is an extract from the novel that includes the character of Mairead Farrell and demonstrates my creative approach to fictionalising this real life person. In this scene the novel’s protagonist, Caoilainn, and a (fictional) comrade, Tommy, have been in Spain, working at an ETA safe house on a bomb that they are now delivering to Farrell for use in the planned Gibraltar attack. Caoilainn is unwell on the journey.

The drive to Marbella, where we’re meeting Mairead, is four hundred miles through Spain’s arid interior. On the resort’s outskirts, sheltering in a national park, we’ll transfer the bomb to her hired car. As we cruise down the A-4, the sun roasting us inside the car, my stomach twists and churns. Sweat beads on my forehead and under my arms. My mouth dries up; the taste of soured milk coats my tongue.

          We’ve done a quarter of the distance, the road a stretching black snake slithering across the scrubland, when I first feel it: a drifting, moving outside myself, sidestepping my body. I blink. The doubled yellow lines settle into singles again. My stomach lurches. My mouth fills up with saliva. My heart stops then restarts in double-time.

          “You O.K.?” Tommy asks.


          “You’ve gone a wee bit pale, so you have.”

          “I’m bloody fine,” I lie, dismissing the shivering as nerves.

          Road signs count down in kilometres. My stomach knots around itself, coiling and flexing. Heat burns my cheeks but I shudder with a bone-deep cold. The road swings out of focus. A horn screams at us. I feel the car jerk, see Tommy’s hand, knuckles white, gripping the steering wheel.

          “Fuck sake, pull over,” he gasps.

          I drag the car to the verge, swerving to a stop, open the door, step out and am immediately sick, splashing the coarse grass with the remnants of breakfast: pastries and coffee. I puke, my stomach clenching and heaving, turning inside out until there’s nothing left. I sink to the grass.


          I feel a hand on my neck, beneath hair still bobbed and brown.

          “I’m O.K. Give me a cigarette, will you.”

          Tommy hands me one, lit. I take a puff and retch again.

          “I’ll drive,” he offers. “Do you want a few minutes?”

          “We can’t be late.”

          I let him help me up. We swap places and continue, waves of nausea swelling in my stomach, splashing into my throat. I keep the window down but the dry Spanish air is stagnant, flushing my face with dizzying heat, filling my nose with sickly fragrances: patchouli, thyme, jasmine. Tommy keeps glancing over but says nothing. I daren’t eat the lunch Alazne made and make do with sipping water. We have to stop twice more for me to vomit the mouthfuls of clear liquid, turned cloudy by stomach acid that burns my chin as it dribbles down. We reach Marbella half an hour late.


“Is everything alright?” Mairead rushes across as I scramble from the car, heaving up bile.

          “She’s been like this the whole way,” Tommy explains.

          I lean against the car, rinse my mouth with water.

          “I’m fine.”

          “You look terrible,” Mairead croons, her hand cool on my cheek. “You’re burning.”

          “It’s 40 degrees in the car,” I snap.

          “Was it something you ate?” she presses.

          “We’ve eaten the same,” Tommy says.

          “I’ve said, I’m fine. Let’s not hang about here.”  I glance at the scrubby trees, their leaves blue-green shards that flicker in the evening breeze. The road is hidden by their spindly silver trunks but the thunder of traffic penetrates the grove threateningly.

          With a sigh Mairead skips back to the hired Ford Fiesta; against nature’s muted colours its red paint bellows a warning. Tommy opens the boot of our Fiat. I stand shakily, steadying my balance, then join them, helping to transfer the crates, the urge to gag caught in my throat.

          When everything is loaded and Tommy’s been over the detonation procedure with her, Mairead comes to where I’m lying in the cool grass, shadows lengthening across me. She crouches down.

          “How’re you feeling?”

          I sit up. “Better. Fine. Is everything ready?”

          “Aye. We’ll go into Gibraltar tomorrow, have a final recce and be ready for Tuesday.”

          “The lads you’ve got, they’re O.K.?”

          “Dead on.”

          “And you’ve not seen any trouble?”

          “I haven’t, and I’ve had a bloody good look,” she says.

          “Keep looking.”

          “I will.”

          “You shouldn’t be doing this,” I tell her. “You’re too well-known now.”

          “Not out here,” she insists.

          I hope she’s right. “I wish you’d had a timer. Then you’d be on your way home before…”

          “I’ll not be happy unless I trigger it myself, to be sure we’ve no civilian casualties.”

          “We should’ve brought you guns,” I say. “ETA had some for us.”

          “There’s no need. Sure, this is as easy as it comes.” She takes my elbow, helps me up.

          I brush dry grass from my jeans. We hug and whisper lucky wishes to each other. She shakes Tommy’s hand.

          “See yous in Dublin in a few days,” she calls as she gets into the Fiesta, her brown curls flecked with gold in the sun’s low-slung rays, life dancing in her eyes.

          We wave her off as she steers out of the clearing. Our car radio plays ‘Days’ the new Kirsty McColl version.


Writing a novel with a plot rooted in factual events from the recent past and characters who are fictionalised versions of real people either still living or only recently deceased, is a creative enterprise potentially fraught with ethical and creative challenges, particularly when the subject matter is one as controversial as the IRA. But by including well-researched actual events and real historical figures I felt my creative practice was responding more ethically to the narrative I wanted to tell than if I had simply made up IRA attacks thereby ignoring the reality of the Troubles and, in my view, shirking my responsibility to both my fictional and the real life narratives. Doing so also presented me with the opportunity to expand my creative practice, developing strategies that helped ensure I was writing a novel capable of engaging readers with a real life story told through a fictionalised perspective that granted a somewhat privileged, “inside” vantage point from which readers could access the story. I can only speculate on how readers will receive the book and in particular, its inclusion of real events and people. Undoubtedly some readers will appreciate the approach rooted in research while others will revile it. But as authors I do not think it is appropriate to speculate on the reactions of readers to our creative practice. Rather it is for us to find the creative methods most suited to telling the story we want to tell and to tell those stories in ways that reflect the responsibility we, as creators of those narratives, owe to our creative practice.  

[i] Arrested in 1985 for his part in other IRA activities, Patrick Magee was subsequently charged with and convicted of bombing the Grand Hotel, Brighton in October 1984. He was released under the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

[ii].Mairead Farrell, along with Daniel McCann and Sean Savage, were shot dead by members of the SAS on the streets of Gibraltar while they were on a reconnaissance mission for the IRA in March 1988. It was later revealed that, at the time of the shooting, all three were unarmed and no bomb had been planted.

[iii] For example: date the bomb was planted, room number it was planted in, identity of one bomber (Patrick Magee, convicted for the attack), alias Magee used, length of time Magee stayed at the Grand Hotel.

[iv] For example Roddy Doyle and Alan Monaghan who include the long-since deceased Michael Collins in A Star Called Henry and A Soldier’s Song. Doyle also includes the very much living Gerry Adams in The Dead Republic, having Adams meet the novel’s fictional protagonists, Henry Smart. Morgan Llywelyn does likewise, incorporating Gerry Adams in 1999 as a character who meets her fictional protagonist, Barry.

[v] i.e. They had been convicted of the offence in question

[vi] Farrell was convicted for the 1976 Conway Hotel bombing and served ten years in Armagh jail where she took part in the no-wash protests and spent 18 days on hunger strike in December 1980. After her release she returned to the Republican movement, taking a more public role in the political sphere. In March 1988 she, along with two male comrades, were shot dead by the SAS on Gibraltar.

[vii] Darragh and Farrell were imprisoned together in Armagh for a number of years. Farrell was the Officer Commanding (OC) of the jail’s IRA A company and Darragh, at one time, was her adjutant.

[viii] Moore and Farrell were cellmates for some of the time they were in prison together.

[ix] Doyle, a former Republican prisoner, took part in the 1980 hunger strike that Farrell led.

[x] There is some debate over the authenticity of this book. While it is described on the cover as “The true story of an SAS hero’s love for an IRA killer” my PhD research did not reveal any corroborating evidence for Graham’s claimed relationship with Farrell in the years prior to her arrest for the Conway bombing.



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Tracey Iceton is an author and creative writing tutor from Teesside. Recently awarded her doctorate in creative writing from Northumbria University, she is a qualified English teacher experienced in delivering creating writing courses and workshops. She won the 2013 HISSAC short story prize for ‘Butterfly Wings’, was runner up in the 2013 and 2014 Cinnamon Press short story competitions with ‘Slag’ and ‘As the world (re)turns’ which appear in the anthologies Journey Planner and Patria. She also won the 2011 Writers Block NE Home Tomorrow Short Story Competition and has been shortlisted for the 2012 Bristol Short Story Competition with ‘Apple Shot’ and the 2015 Mslexia Women’s Short Story Competition for ‘Ask Not’. Green Dawn at St Enda’s, her debut novel and part one of her Celtic Colours Trilogy, was published by Cinnamon Press in 2016. Part two, Herself Alone in Orange Rain, will be released in October 2017 with part three following in 2019 and plans for a fourth novel, Rock God Complex: The Mickey Hunter Story, to appear in 2020. She regularly reads her work at literary events. Her stories have appeared in; Prole, Litro, Neon, Tears in the Fence, The Momaya Annual Review, The Yellow Room and Writer’s Muse. Her PhD research, entitled Troubles Women, is a practice-led project exploring the portrayal of female paramilitary protagonists in Troubles fiction.