AUTHOR OF THE DEVIL'S RIBBON

I can see my Grandad now, his hair like a lopsided thatch, leaning forward, crooking a finger at me, his nails encrusted with mud from all that spud digging, and telling my seven year old self, “Come closer, for I’ve a story to tell.” My God, I was mad for those yarns back then, hanging onto his every word, the soft Irish rain falling like steel outside. There’d be tea on the stove, a slice of buttery soda bread melting in that greedy mouth of mine, and the old sheep dog, Rover would be lolling on the porch, yawning, showing off his liver spotted gums, knowing if he ventured any further in and out of the rain, my Granny would take her broom to him, with a harsh, “Get out, Rover. Get out now, dog...” Meanwhile, I’d remain with bated breath, wanting only one sort of story .

A fairy story.

But it was nothing to do with those flittering Tinkerbell types who gave you three wishes or left money for your milk teeth, because I was a melancholic child, a lover of banshees, devils and ghosts. And Irish fairies were irksome, wicked types, who’d sour the milk, stop the hens from laying, even lame a farmer’s cattle and if they were feeling very malevolent, they’d replace your baby with a changeling. Fays and shape shifters who’d creep into the farmhouse, upturn a pail, kick over some pans for good measure and then sneaking up to a crib, peel back the covers and take the child, leaving something evil behind. Sure, it’d looked like your own but it was a horrible, evil creature who’d bring nothing but bad luck. 

An Arthur Rackam illustration for Irish Fairy Tales

When I was a little girl, I believed in fairies. I’d spend all day up at the fairy fort in the shadow of the Cuilcagh Mountains, watching and waiting but keeping my head down, lest they see me because God knows if I was to cross them, I’d be dragged down into the Fay World forever. So no surprises then when my Grandad started up with, “Are you a witch or are you a fairy? Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?” that my mouth was agape and you could have heard a pin drop.

Once Upon A Time... 

Young Irish women in their hooded cloaks

There was a fine looking woman called Bridget Clearly who came from a town called Ballyvadlea. She was seamstress who wore velvet skirts and feathers in her bonnet, turning many a man’s head with her graceful figure. And like most country woman, Bridget kept hens and could often be seen wandering with a wicker basket full of fresh eggs for her friends and neighbours, crooked over her arm and taking the long route around the town, across verdant fields and up past the fairy fort on the Kylenagranagh Hill.

It was 1895 and it had been a long, cold winter, the coldest on record and after one of her jaunts, just a few days before St Patrick’s Day, poor Bridget must have caught a chill in that blustery, freezing weather because she was taken very ill. Her husband, Michael Clearly who was cooper, made her a pot of tea when she finally got home and to told her she should take to her bed. But still she shivered, tossed and turned and the next day, Bridget complained of the most violent headache. She grew worse and developed such a raging temperature, she didn’t know where she was. 

Bridget Clearly and her husband

And as the week wore on and his wife became sicker, Michael Clearly summoned a doctor but for whatever reason, “yer man” didn’t come. Meanwhile, neighbours came and went to the cooper’s cottage, bringing with them food, good intentions and prayers. But all this time, Bridget didn’t improve but stayed her in bed, oblivious. Michael meanwhile, watched his wife getting sicker and sicker, more and more feverish by the minute. She was delirious, speaking in strange tongues and not knowing her own name. He feared for the worst, but then his cousins suggested he neededanother kind of doctor, altogether. They gave him the name of a man called Jack Dunne who they said was, “a miracle worker.”Others in the town called this old boy a “fairy doctor.” Jack Dunne was a weaver of spells, also known as a “shanachie” (a storyteller) and when he arrived at the cooper’s cottage, he asked to be taken to the sick woman’s bedroom, immediately.

His eyes were weak and though he’d never met the woman before, claimed he could see at once that Bridget Cleary was “not herself.” He’d heard, of course, that she was a well dressed woman but this creature was a terrible mess, with hair all over the place like some sort of banshee. So he told the husband, “Your wife’s not herself today. But I’ve something that will bring her back. Don’t you worry,” he said, because he knew the truth of her illness and this wasn’t Bridget Clearly at all.

She was gone, he said, “away with the fairies” and this creature, sweating and rambling before them, was a changeling.

Michael Clearly was beside himself and by now there was a crowd of men in the house, all chanting and swearing. Jack Dunne told the gathering to be quick and make a mixture of herbs and new milk, known as the “beestings” but Bridget wouldn’t drink it. Instead she screamed and she struggled.

“I want my wife back. Bring her back,” said the husband.

“I’ll bring her back alright,” said Jack Dunne, telling those gathered to make a fire in the kitchen, whilst instructing another heavier one to sit on her legs, so that her husband could yank open her mouth and tip the medicine down, whether she liked it or not.

“Take that, you rap!” said Jack Dunne.

While another shouted, “ Take it your old bitch or we’ll kill you!”

And the fairy doctor wailed incantations, as Bridget tried to fight and Jack Dunne insisted, “Away she go! Away she go!”

But none of it was working, so they dragged the poor woman into her kitchen, threw a bed pan of urine over her with, “Away with you. Away with you...” and then they slapped her really hard to drive the changeling out. “Who are you?” they screamed in her face but Bridget just sobbed and still didn’t know her name.

So, only one thing for it. Fire.

Fire would drive the fairy out and so Bridget was dragged towards a red hot poker which was burning in a grate.

“Away she go! Away she go!”

“Come home, Bridget in the name of God,” somebody cried, as they held her near the fire.

What happened next, nobody seems to know but Michael Clearly was found by a priest in the local church, a day or so later, kneeling in front of the alter, praying like a mad man and when the Father asked , “Is your wife alright, now? I heard she’d been sick,” Michael turned around with a wild look in his eyes, saying , “I had a very bad night, Father and when I woke up, my wife was gone. I’m think the fairies have taken her.”

But the Father wasn’t having any of this fairy nonsense and he called the police. And on that day, 22nd March 1895, the charred and mutilated body of Bridget Clearly was found nearby the fairy fort in a makeshift grave.


Michael Clearly and eight other people were charged with Bridget Cleary’s murder. The coroner confirmed death by burning, but also detected signs of previous abuse. There were rumours that this strong and independently minded woman had been meeting a lover up near the fairy fort, and that Michael Clearly had used this opportunity with his spurious claims of fairies, to get rid of troublesome wife who, after nine years of marriage, hadn’t even born him any children. Michael Clearly denied having murdered his wife, although he did admit to “driving out the fairy.” The real Bridget, he said, would soon be found at a nearby fairy ring riding a white horse, where he would be waiting to bring her home.

The ensuing investigation, legal battle and public scandal surrounding the case sparked a national furore at a time when Ireland’s ability to self-rule was being hotly contested. How, asked the English, could people who still believed in fairies be trusted to govern themselves ?

Luckily for Cleary, he met a lenient judge and although he burned his wife alive, he was convicted not of murder which carried the death sentence, but of the lesser sentence of manslaughter. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison. On receiving his sentence, it was reported that Michael Clearly wept bitterly, shouting from the dock, that he was innocent.

For more about this notorious case please see here, or read about the story in The Burning of Bridget Cleary. 

D E Meredith also features in:






One of the exhibits at the Great Exhibition of 1851 that caused the VV most amusement was the invention of an alarm clock bed, created by Mr Theophilus Carter (the very same inventor and furniture dealer who was said to have inspired Tenniel when the artist created his illustrations for the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

Sadly the VV can find no illustration to show such an intriguing mechanism. The closest example is shown below - a combination cot and step ladder - the explanatory details of which have been taken from the sections on INVENTION AND DISCOVERY in The Great Round The World And What Is Going On In It magazine of 1897 -

Combination Cot And Step-Ladder.—We have had lots of clever inventions for saving room in small houses, but the most original is certainly this combination of a bed and a step-ladder. It should prove a very useful article where the occupant of the bed is a light sleeper and doesn't mind having to get up when the step-ladder is needed. It might also be useful in very large families where chairs were scarce. By day it could be stood upright, and the children roosted on its various steps. By night the little brood could come down from their perches, the steps be laid lengthwise, and the family put to bed on the cot. With the addition of a strong wire spring attached to an alarm clock, it should also make an excellent servants' bed. At 6:30 every morning the alarm would work the spring, and the bed immediately be transformed into a pair of steps. This would promote habits of punctuality and early rising in domestic servants that would be invaluable to them.

It is true that they might resent the invention, and leave the situation, but the mistress would still have the combination bed for the newcomer.

It would be an invaluable article for house decorators and paper-hangers. They could use it as a step-ladder until they got tired of working, and then turn it over and sleep on it until they were rested.

In fact, the uses of this combination cot and step-ladder are infinite. It seems to be an article that no well-regulated family can do without.

Perhaps, much like this invention, it really is little wonder that Mr Carter’s bed was not an overnight success, being no doubt considered by some as the height of sheer insanity - for at the appointed hour of alarm, after the sound of ringing bells to wake the 'modern' sleeper, an automated mattress tipped and flung the poor wretch from his bed to a bath of cold water  - supposedly refreshed and restored for the brand new day ahead! Even so, the Hyde Park demonstrations proved to be very popular, resulting in much laughter – and one very wet, cold and miserable man who’d been employed to show ‘the works’.

Another Victorian bath time invention advertised the stated intention of increasing the health of invalids: not forgetting children of fragile constitutions. And no doubt it was the children who fully appreciated the thrill of the Niagara rocking bath. Then again it might have come in rather handy if used for training purposes by those brave Victorian adventurers who careered over waterfalls in barrels. The VV simply cannot understand how such a remarkable enterprise failed to win over English hearts and minds - for who could fail to be enticed by the prospect of having a Seaside At Home, when the “NIAGARA” WAVE AND ROCKING BATH promised the following –

A TREAT never experienced before. Gives the FULLEST ILLUSION of a Sea or River Bath. ABSOLUTELY no water splashing in the room. ONLY 3 pails of hot or cold water required. Keeps the blood in ACTIVE circulation. STRONGLY made of tinned steel, and ARTISTICALLY enamelled. Will last a lifetime. 

And should that model not appeal, appearing a little too masculine, then why not send off for this version instead which went by the name of THE NAUTILUS, though - and the reason eludes the VV, who cannot differentiate between the two illustrations shown - it does come with a heftier price tag.

With thanks to Lee Jackson of VictorianLondon.org for these wonderful NAUTILUS advertisements - and for making the VV smile.



This is the cover of a royal journal which is now published online. It chronicles a tour made by Prince 'Bertie', then the Prince of Wales, when he travelled through Europe and the Middle East in the year that followed his father's death - and that at a time when the widowed Queen was still less than well disposed to the son who she partly blamed for the stress that had led to Prince Albert's death.

Queen Victoria may have coped with grief by retreating from society and mourning for the rest of her life, but the twenty-year old Prince seemed set on having a 'high old time' of it. 

In Damascus his journal details a meeting with a Mrs Digby - once Lady Ellenborough - who had divorced her English husband to marry a sheikh who was very much younger - 'We visited the house of Mrs Digby...once very handsome and still very good looking. 

At the house of another lady, named Souraya Pasha -  'she gave us an excellent luncheon, or rather dinner, and 62 dishes were handed round! including dessert.' 

It had been ten days before that diary entry when the Prince recorded another such feast, after which - and who knows what state he was in - but it led to this subsequent announcement - 'I was...tattooed by a native.'

It is highly likely that, at some time, Queen Victoria would have been privy to the contents of this journal, and as such it is highly likely that the full extent of activities would have been tactfully watered down. 

But how to explain the royal tattoo - the sort of adornment commonly found only on the lower classes and seamen? However, that was soon to change. The prince's inking was to start quite a craze with the aristocracy.

The Duke of York's tattoo design

We have no photographic evidence but the prince's tattoo, created by a man called Francois Souwan, was said to be a Jerusalem Cross. What's more it was also said to be the first of many more to come - and it led to a family tradition. 

In later years, when Edward was king, his sons - the Duke of Clarence, and the Duke of York - were  tattooed by the Japanese Hoti Chiyo. Afterwards, the Duke of York wrote in a letter - '...we have been tattooed by the same old man who tattooed papa, and the same thing too, five crosses. You ask Papa to show you his arm.'

An artist's impression of the Duke of York having his tattoo

Whatever his papa's other tattoos, on his arms or other parts of his body, George Burchett, a well known artist who began his trade in the Victorian era, did write of the king in his memoirs, saying that - '...had his mother, Queen Victoria seen some of the designs, I feel certain she would not have been amused.' 

George Burchett (1872 - 1953) as a young man

The VV wonders what Victoria would have thought when, following her death in 1901, Burchett also wrote - ' When the Queen died on January 22... I had to work until midnight and every Sunday for several weeks executing tattoos, In Memory of Our Queen.'

The following extract - an advertisement feature - is produced in the form of an article entitled TATTOOED ROYALTY. Queer Stories of a Queer Craze - by R J Stephen - published in The Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine: Volume 1 1898

When royalty hangs onto a craze, you may be assured that the rest of the exclusive world of wealth and power soon follow in the same path, and annex the peculiarities of the pleasures of which have given amusement to their heroes born in the purple.

What wonder, then, that tattooing is just now the popular pastime of the leisured world? For one of the best-known men in high European circles, the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, is most elaborately tattooed. And Prince and Princess Waldemar of Denmark, Queen Olga of Greece, King Oscar of Sweden, the Duke of York, the Grand Duke Constantine, Lady Randolph Churchill, with many others of royal and distinguished rank, have submitted themselves to the tickling, but painless and albeit pleasant, sensation afforded by the improved tattooing needle, which is nowadays worked on a simple plan, aided by the galvanic current, the genius of the artist supplying the rest of the operation.

The Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, like his cousin Alexis of Russia is another elaborately - tattooed man; but even his decorations, and those of other profusely-tattooed men, fall short in point of quantity when compared with those marks upon the body of that Greek gentleman who was exhibited not long ago at the Royal Aquarium, whose body was completely covered with fine tattoo work, every square inch of it.

Anyone meeting the Duke of Newcastle, or the Earl of Portarlington, or Sir Edmund Lechmere, in the street, would hardly realize the fact that these gentlemen are proud wearers of tattoo marks - very much so.

We are able to give facsimilies of the designs which have been tattooed on the Duke of York, Prince Francis of Teck, Prince George of Greece, together with other examples of the art.

Professor Riley's work is pronounced to be, by no less that a celebrated Royal Academician, who takes considerable interest in tattoo work, the finest in the world.

The present fancy for being tattooed, according to Professor Riley - than whom an artist has tattooed more distinguished people - mainly exists among men who have travelled much; while ladies have also taken a strong liking to this form of personal decoration, which, from a woman's point of view, is about as expensive as a dress, but not so costly as good jewellery. In place of spending her spare time posing in front of the camera, or reclining her head in the dentist's chair, or placing herself resignedly in the hands of her coiffeur for something better to do, or for the purpose of passing her time in the "off" season, the lady about town now consents to be pricked by the tattoo artist's operating needle, and to have her forearm or shoulder adorned with perhaps such a mark as this - a serpent holding it's tail in its mouth - a symbol representing eternity.

In order to form an idea of the kind of work that is wanted by those who give their patronage to this specific class of fine art, a close examination of these illustrations will assist you. The skill of the tattoo artist, to be realized properly and fairly, must be seen in beautiful colours on a white skin - work which is amazing. The sketches he employs are made in various coloured inks. His great skill is in the faithful reproduction of any symbol or picture desired by the sitter. These designs vary in size from a small fly, or bee, to that of an immense Chinese dragon, occupying the whole space offered by the back or chest, or a huge snake many inches in thickness coiling round the body from the knees to the shoulders.

Tattooing has its humorous side, as well as its serious. A lover whose heart was once melted away in a soft, sweet, passionate love, got the artist to imprint in indelible inks, over the region of his heart, a single heart of charming and delicate outline, coloured, as it should be, in all the blushing tints, with the name of his loved one stamped thereon. Three years afterwards he followed the artist to London, and, seeking him out, with face pallid, the light of his eye almost gone out, and looking utterly miserable and care-worn, he requested that the tattooer to imprint under that same symbol, in bold, big letters, the work "deceived".

A well known army officer had tattooed over his heart the simple name of "Mary" with a lover's knot, but six months afterwards the same gentleman had the uncanny work "traitress" tattooed underneath.

An English actress had a butterfly tattooed on her fair shoulder, the initials of her fiance, "F.V." being placed underneath. Not long afterwards she also came back and had the "F" converted into "E" and the "V" into "W", the letters reading "E.W." She eventually married "E.W." and to this day "E.W" thinks his initials were the first tattooed on her arm.

Colonials visiting England usually return home bearing on some part of their body an emblem of some national importance. This takes the shape of a portrait of the Queen, or the Standard, the Union Jack also not being despised.

A man may admire a favourite picture and desire a reproduction of it tattooed on his back, or upon his chest. Professor Riley is at the present time engaged "etching" on a mans back Landseer's famous picture "Dignity and Impudence" and when finished it will measure 12 by 9 inches. The same artist is also outlining on the chest of a Scotch baron a copy of Constable's famous etching, "Mrs. Pelham," after Sir Joshua Reynolds, the original etching of which fetched, in June last, at Christie's, the record sum of 425 pounds.

While most people are pleased to go through the performance of being tattooed just for the fun of the thing, as it were, many, on the other hand, approach the tattooer with a serious object in view. Eschewing all fancy designs, they choose frequently their own name and address as an aid to identification in case of accident, or, as has been the case recently, a wife may induce her husband to have her name tattooed on his arm, as a guarantee of good faith.

An official connected with one of our leading railways has had tattooed round his arm, in snake fashion, a train going at full speed. The scene is laid at night. The shades of evening envelop the snorting locomotive and flying carriages, while the rays of light proceeding from the open furnace of the locomotive are effectively shown lighting up the cars. There are lights, two, issuing from the carriages, showing how the passengers inside are passing away the time. Some of them are reading, some sleeping, some talking, some sullenly looking out of the windows. A darkened portion of the train is passing the signal box, and the dim light there from faintly lights up that part of the train. The picture is a perfect ideal of the tattooer's art, and shows the great advance tattooing has made during recent years.

Professor Riley has never done anything more striking or effective, if perhaps we accept the large snake he tattooed all around the body of a certain popular member of the Royal family, which is an extremely life like reptile.

As there are over one hundred thousand people in London alone who bear on some part of their anatomy evidence of the tattooing needle, it is obviously an impossible task to attempt to emmunerate, with fidelity to truth, the designs most favour by patient disciples, but these are many and various.

As regards the time usually taken to imprint marks on the body one may hazard a correct opinion. To work, say, a little house fly on your arm takes about fifteen minutes; but when you require an elaborate presentation done, comprising the reproduction of perhaps a celebrated picture, that, of course, would take time and cost you money. In a case like this the artist would "give you the needle" for a period extending to eighty hours divided into ten or twelve sittings, each sitting costing you perhaps a couple of guineas or more.

The cost of a fiercely-bearded ferocious-looking Japanese dragon, or a pretty Jap girl draped in all the finery of the coming Oriental nation, or a snake coiling around your body, would, of course, depend on how it was done - lavishly or otherwise - and wether the artist worked from some special directions.

Some people have tougher skins than the meat of their fellow creatures, and here the artist has to make his calculations as to time - the tough-skinned gentlemen presenting difficulties not to be taken into account when reckoning up the finer-skinned man. But a sitting does not last more than two hours.

Of all the classes of people who patronize the art, the worst to operate upon, singular to say, are medical men. An artist of the brush will sit patiently and direct operations in a way by suggesting little ideas which the genuine tattooer is not slow to act upon, but the medico fidgets dreadfully, and persists in wanting to know things - such as, for instance, to what depth the needle penetrates the skin, of what the pigment used are made, and if the tattooer has had or heard of any blood poisoning resulting from the operation of being tattooed; also what effect sitting so long and bending so much has on the operators chest - interesting questions, but problematical to the tattooer. The skull and bones symbol is the favorite one among medical men.

There are about twenty tattoo artists in London, some good, some very bad, some very indifferent.

Professor Riley is among the best.



The Princess Gowramma of Coorg: a steel engraving by Winterhalter and Grave 

In the Victorian era, with the expansion of The Empire and the annexation of many India states, several of the Indian aristocracy found themselves to be deposed - and some of them travelled to England where they were made welcome by the Queen who indulged and entertained them.

Winterhalter's oil painting of the Princess Gowramma

Princess Gowramma was the favourite daughter of Chikka Veerarajendra, the last king of Coorg. He was exiled to Benares after being dethroned by the British in 1834. There, in 1841, the Princess Gowramma was born. However, by the time of her death, as early as 1864, she was living in England, and there she remains, in London's Brompton Cemetery.

Chikka Veerararenjda - the last King of Coorg, and his daughter, Princess Gowramma

In 1852, Gowramma and her father were the very first Indian royals to travel to England - permitted to do so on the grounds that Gowramma's father, the raja, wished his daughter to be raised as a Christian, and to have a Western education. 

The princess was eleven years old when presented to Queen Victoria, who immediately grew very fond of the girl, not only encouraging her baptism but also becoming her godmother and endowing the girl with her own name - Victoria Gowramma.

Gowramma was invited to Osborne House to share the Queen's family holidays. Victoria also commissioned a marble bust to be sculpted by Baron Carlo Marochetti, which was painted to show the princess's face as if a life-like image. 

But Gowramma was not the only Indian royal to become a firm favourite with the Queen. Another very frequent guest at all the royal palaces was the glamorous Duleep Singh, the deposed Maharajah of Punjab - who Victoria called her 'beautiful boy'.

Duleep Singh, deposed Maharajah of the Punjab, also painted by Winterhalter

With both of the young Indians having converted to Christianity, and with any offspring they might then produce most likely to be Christians themselves, Victoria saw it as her mission to join the pair in matrimony - hoping that this might be the start of the spreading of the Christian faith throughout the whole of the India. 

Duleep Singh

However, there is a saying that man may plan but God unplans. End even the plans of a Queen may fail when it comes to matters of matchmaking. Whether or not Gowramma was attracted to Duleep (she was known to be an atrocious flirt, even making eyes at the Prince of Wales, and then discovered in an affair with one of her guardian's stable boys) the handsome young prince could not be convinced to wed his fellow Indian. 

Ironically, it is said that Duleep himself encouraged a relationship between Gowramma and the fifty year old Col. John Campbell; a handsome, blue-eyed gentleman who had served in the army in India. But, sadly for Gowramma,  Campbell was a notorious gambler who only desired her for her wealth. When her father lost a legal case brought against the East India Company, in which he had hoped to claim interest on what had once been his national wealth, Campbell began to neglect the wife who was no longer quite as rich as her gold-digging husband had presumed. 

Gowramma had a daughter, Edith Victoria Gowramma who was barely more than a toddler when her mother died of tuberculosis - though rumour was rife at the time of her death that the cause had not been natural.The princess was twenty-three years old, and in the days following her death the Coorg crown jewels (then in her possession) mysteriously disappeared - as did her husband. 

As to Duleep Singh, his wife was met in Cairo when he travelled back to India, on a journey to scatter his mother's remains in the country of her birth.

 Bamba Muller, the wife of Duleep Singh

Bamba was the illegitimate daughter of a German merchant banker and his mistress of Abyssinian descent. She was raised in a Christian mission school and succeeded in so beguiling Duleep that he brought her back to England where the newly-wed couple made their home at Elvedon Hall in Suffolk. 

Whatever she thought in private, Queen Victoria continued to welcome Duleep into her home and family, even going so far as to host the Christening of Duleep's son. The child was brought to Windsor and baptized in the Queen's private chapel, with Victoria acting as godmother for Prince Victor.

Duleep Singh features in the VV's gothic Victorian novel, The Goddess and the Thief.



The Irish Potato Famine - 1847

They are going, going, going from the valleys and the hills,
They are leaving far behind them the heathery moor and mountain rills,
All the wealth of hawthorn hedges where the brown thrush sways and thrills.
They are going, shy-eyed cailins, and lads so straight and tall, From the purple peaks of Kerry, from the crags of wild Imaal, From the greening plains of Mayo, and the glens of Donegal.
They are going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay,
Their fields are now the strangers, where the strangers’ cattle stray, Oh! Kathaleen Ni Houlihan, your way’s a thorny way

(The Passing Of The Gael.)

During the 19th century, when my new novel ‘The Devil’s Ribbon’ is set, the Irish population in London grew rapidly, the result of forced migration and poverty following the devastating Irish famine in the 1840s, which saw a million Irish die and another million leave their homeland forever. The Irish born population of London reached its peak around 1851, when the census counted their number at over a hundred thousand. This large population, in combination with London’s role as the centre of British politics (and hence, in the 19th century, of Irish politics), ensured that the city was a tinder box for both Fenian political agitation and violence. The memories of the famine with all its pain and suffering was burnt into their memories and passed on as nationalist fervour from one generation to the next. Meanwhile for those who set sail for the shores of North America, Irishmen shook off their colonial shackles and found a new found sense of Irish pride and above all, freedom. These men – the Irish had always been excellent soldiers - fought in the American Civil War and later, in the 1860s, 70s and 80s would use their new found military skills and growing influence and wealth in the “New World” to bring terror to the streets of the Old World and their enemies in London – the dirty British.

Aftermath of the Clerkenwell bombing

The Nineteenth Century saw the beginning of the Irish National Brotherhood who would later become the IRA. Almost all of the bombs that exploded in London over the course of the next twenty years (starting in the 1860s with the Clerkenwell bombing) can be traced back to America, where Fenians plotted revolution in safe havens like Boston, New York and Chicago. No surprises then, that it was during this time that we also saw the rise of what would become the British Secret Service, and the beginning of the first covert war waged between a standing government and a terrorist organization.

But what about the Irish back in Victorian London? Many of these Irish were the poorest of the poor. They lived in squalor and rat infested tenement blocks in the rookeries (slums) of London. They worked as casual labourers and costers in places like St Giles in the Fields – a sprawling area of blind alleys, narrow streets and passages which ran from The Seven Dials northwards up towards the edges of Warren Street and then onwards to Camden – still a haven for Irish culture today. Back then, the rookeries were stuffed to the gills with Celtic speaking Irish with their own laws and customs. They looked to their church and their Catholic priests for governance, not the Crown and very quickly these desperate Irish ghettoes became no-go areas as far as the police were concerned. Cut off by language, poverty and religion, many of these poor Irish communities lived in a parallel universe to the rest of Victorian Society.

And is it any wonder they didn’t integrate?

A London slum

English attitudes to the Irish during the Victorian period were deeply bigoted and tension was rife. Cartoons of thuggish looking Irish peasants appeared regularly in The Times and Punch magazine and the general view was that the Irish, apart from being Catholic (bad enough in Anglican England), were lazy, feckless and drunk. This little snippet from a book of 1855 looking at the “Wild Tribes of London” and in particular, the Irish:

Turn whichever way you will, the same "wild, Milesian features, looking false ingenuity, restlessness, misery, and mockery, salute you" on every side. Glance down these narrow courts and filthy alleys that open upon you at every step, and again and again you recognise the race; "there abides he in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence, as the ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder."

Or here’s Charles Kingsley writing to his wife on a view many held about the Irish:

I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland] . . . I don't believe they are our fault. . . . But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much. . . ."
This was the period of social Darwinism and the beginnings of ideas about eugenics. The idea that different races had evolved into a hierarchy of intelligence and worth and that the white man (the Englishman in particular but also the Germans) were superior to everybody else. Indeed, in many Victorian articles on the emerging science of anthropology, the Irish were seen at the very bottom of the heap. With their low slung brows and jutting jaws, according to many racial scientists and phrenologists, it was the Irish and not the Negro, who was the missing link between man and ape.

I must own up to a particular interest in what was termed, until very recently, as The Irish Question. I’m half Irish and romantically inclined, as far as the Emerald Isle is concerned. I spent idyllic holidays on my grandparents’ farm in County Cavan when I was a little girl. Hopping over stepping stones across the tawny River Erne, eating wild strawberries from the hedgerows, collecting fresh speckled eggs from underneath hay stacks, walking for miles, across boggy fields of wild flowers, with no adult supervision whatsoever, my early experience of Ireland set my imagination alight. My family, being border people, were highly politicised and I still love to join in singing the old rebel songs whenever I get the chance. It runs in my blood, this nationalist fervour, as it did for the generations of Irish immigrants and their offspring all the way back to the Victorian times. It’s this sense of injustice, romanticism and angry fervour which I wanted to explore in my new book.

Hatton and Roumande ‘s second case – The Devil’s Ribbon – is set in 1858. This is a time when forensic science was in its infancy and in The Devil’s Ribbon Professor Adolphus Hatton and his doughty *assistant* (though he’s far more than that) Monsieur Albert Roumande must track down a ruthless killer, set against the back drop of Irish politics in London. When the novel opens, London has been hit by a cholera epidemic and an Irish girl lies dead on a slab, her waxy form lit by a flickering gas lamp. Minutes later, the foppish Inspector Grey of Scotland Yard arrives with the body of a murder victim,an Irish MP and appeaser to the British, who has a strange calling card in his mouth – a green ribbon. This is the beginning of a case which takes Hatton and Roumande deep into the heart of the Irish community in London, as a radical priest and his band of Fenian followers plan to set city alight with a bombing campaign. The Devils Ribbon has been great fun to write, fascinating to research and has allowed me to explore what it meant to be Irish in the Nineteenth Century, as well as look into my heart and think what it means to have Irish and English blood.

D E Meredith