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The Conflicting Attitudes in Irish History - an Editorial Review of "Bittersweet Tapestry"

Book Blurb:

A decade has passed since a sixteen-year-old Eileen O’Connell first departed her family’s sanctuary at remote Derrynane on the Kerry coast to become the wife of one of the wealthiest men in Ireland and the mistress of John O’Connor’s Ballyhar – only to have her elderly husband die within months of the marriage.Unhappily returned to Derrynane, within a year, under the auspices of their uncle, a general in the armies of Maria Theresa, Eileen and her sister, Abigail set off for Vienna and a life neither could have ever imagined – one at the dizzying heights of the Hapsburg empire and court, where Abigail ultimately became principal lady-in-waiting to the Empress herself, whilst Eileen for nine years served as governess to the Empress’s youngest daughter – during which time Maria Antonia, whom Eileen still calls ‘my wee little archduchess’, has become Marie Antoinette, dauphine of France, though she continues to refer to her beloved governess as “Mama”.As Bittersweet Tapestry begins, in the high Summer of 1770, having escorted the future Queen of France from Vienna to her new life, Eileen and her husband, Captain Arthur O’Leary of the Hungarian Hussars, along with their little boy and Eileen’s treasured friend (and former servant) Anna Pfeffer are establishing themselves in Ireland.Their ties to Catholic Europe remain close; in addition to Abigail and her O’Sullivan family and General O’Connell and his in Vienna, brother Daniel is an officer in the Irish Brigade of the armies of Louis XV, whilst their youngest brother, Hugh, is studying at École Militaire in Paris, his path to a commission in the Dillons’ Regiment of the Brigade. His gentle Austrian friendship with Maria Antonia having inevitably waned, Hugh’s relationship with the strikingly-beautiful young widowed Princess Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy is blossoming.Though happily ensconced at Rathleigh House, the O’Leary family estate in County Cork, being prominent amongst those families which are the remnants of the old Gaelic order in the area, Eileen and Art find that the dark cloud of the Protestant Ascendancy hovers heavily, at times threateningly, over them.Bittersweet Tapestry is a tale of stark contrasts – between Hugh’s life of increasing prominence amidst the glitter and intrigue of the French court and Art and Eileen’s in English-occupied Ireland – especially as the latter progresses into a dark, violent and bloody tale . . . ultimately involving an epic tragedy, which, along with the events leading up to it and those occurring in its dramatic wake, will permanently impact the O’Learys – and their far-flung circle of family and friends in Ireland across Europe. With his uniquely-descriptive prose, Kevin O'Connell again deftly weaves threads of historical fact and fancy to create a colourful fabric affording unique insights into the courts of eighteenth-century Catholic Europe as well as English-ruled Ireland. As the epic unfolds amongst the O’Learys, the O'Connells, their friends and enemies, the tumultuously-dangerous worlds in which they dwell will continue to gradually – but inexorably – become even more so.Bittersweet Tapestry joins O’Connell’s well-received Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home as The Derrynane Saga continues – an enthralling epic, presenting a sweeping chronicle, set against the larger drama of Europe in the early stages of significant – and, in the case of France – violent change

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Author Bio:

Kevin O'Connell is a native of New York City, the descendant of a young officer of the Irish Brigade of the French army. He holds both Irish and American citizenship.

Mr. O’Connell began the Derrynane Saga in 2014. His first book, Beyond

Derrynane: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe, was published in July 2016,

whilst the second, Two Journeys Home: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe was

released in November 2017. Both are in global circulation and have received

a range of positive critical reviews, in the United States, the United

Kingdom and Europe. Bittersweet Tapestry is the third of four projected


Editorial Review:

'' I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands with so much innocent blood; and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions which cannot otherwise but work remorse and regret.'' [Oliver Cromwell, writing of the massacre at Drogheda in 1649]

''From my earliest youth I have regarded the connection between Ireland and Great Britain as the curse of the Irish Nation, and felt convinced, that while it lasted this country would never be free or happy.'' [Wolfe Tone: Protestant radical and revolutionary]

These two quotations, the first from that classic 'bogeyman' of Irish popular history, Oliver Cromwell, and the second from a Protestant radical revolutionary, more than amply Illustrate the conflicting attitudes regarding Ireland throughout the period of this book and well into this present century; the dichotomy of views between Protestants and Catholics. Bittersweet Tapestry by Kevin O'Connell, holds up a mirror to a time and place when the values of an empowered minority, the descendants of militant Cromwellians and ultra Protestants are facing an embittered and resentful Gaelic Catholic Aristocracy, with little mention of or reference to the bulk of the Irish population - be they the labouring poor or the destitute. A considerable amount of time, research and creative effort has clearly gone into this creation of a long family saga set primarily in Ireland, but with occasional events recounted that take place in Vienna and in Paris and Versailles. Taken as a whole, Bittersweet Tapestry is absorbing and very well written and full of fascinating supplementary details of life in Ireland and in highly elevated circles in Vienna and Versailles. It is, in short, a very enjoyable read! This review, however, does offer a note of caution to the new reader: The book is the third in a trilogy [preceded by Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home] and is designed to be followed by a fourth book. The complete set of books, therefore, contains a veritable host of characters and previous events which are frequently alluded to and of which the newly arrived reader has no prior knowledge. The obvious answer to this problem, of course, would be to first read the previous two books in the series. Failing that, readers need to be more or less constantly on their guard as they are confronted with frequent references to a wholly new person or allusion to a previous event. It would also be very useful indeed to be perhaps provided with a genealogy of the two principal characters - and what compelling and attractive beings they are! - and perhaps an introductory brief synopsis of previous events. Without these, readers will need often to rely on their powers of inference.

In his notes at the end of the book, the author states that this, as with his first two books in the family saga, is fictional. A certain amount of research, however, will reveal some of the actual facts behind the books. The effort of looking into this will be well worth the effort. They will learn, for example, that the principal character, Eileen, was a well known and respected poet and that her family was huge, even by the standards of the day. The dashing Arthur O'Leary, too, is well known to history. The scenes and depictions of events in Paris and in Versailles are depicted with a craftsman's eye and are truly fascinating. Here the plot largely revolves around the three figures of the young and unhappy Marie Antoinette, a pawn in the much sought after diplomatic alliance between the French Crown and the Holy Roman Empire, the striking figure of her chief Lady in Waiting, the recently widowed Marie Thèrese Louise de Savoy, the Princess de Lambelle and Hugh O'Connell, younger brother of Eileen, a young Cadet in training for Dillon's Regiment of the Irish Brigade in the service of the King of France. Once, Marie Antoinette and Hugh had been inseparable companions in Vienna. Now, to Marie Antoinette's great jealousy and disappointment, the young man and the beautiful Princess de Lamballe grow very close and fall in love. The reader is taken back occasionally to observe their love affair and the early days of their marriage. These occasional glimpses of life within ''L'Ancien Régime' of Vienna and Versailles are fascinating vignettes, but Bittersweet Tapestry is confined largely to events in the religiously and politically divided country of Ireland. The book is dominated by the two figures of Captain Arthur O'Leary and his wife, Eileen, and those - friends, family and enemies - who impact upon their lives. The book opens on the estate of Rathleigh House in County Cork in Ireland in the spring of 1770. Eileen O'Leary, the young wife of Arthur O'Leary, a dashing and strikingly handsome officer presently on leave from the Hungarian Hussars, has just arrived, fresh from a long period abroad at the Court of the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, Maria Theresa, also Arch Duchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary. After many years abroad, 'Eibhlin Dhubb' ['dark Eileen'], daughter of Donál MórO' Connail of Derrynane , County Kerry, the presiding head of a powerful clan enriched by smuggling, is a highly sophisticated and experienced young woman of striking beauty and impressive appearance and with a young child and heir. She is an accomplished horse woman and an expert in their breeding and lineage. The little boy, Conor, is nearly two. With her sundry many goods and chattels and her long standing Austrian friend and confidant, Anna Pfeffer, she has recently arrived at the house of her husband's father.

Thus they arrive back in their native country of Ireland. Eileen has been away for a decade. The whole country is under the control of an English and Protestant elite, ruled indirectly from England. The Protestant Church of Ireland dominates over the bulk of the Catholic population and Protestants, many of them descendants of Cromwell's army of Invasion of the previous century, occupy the chief posts in government and the Judiciary under the supervision of the Westminster appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the native Irish aristocracy and the ordinary people struggle against all the prohibitions they are placed under. Captain Arthur O'Leary, polygot and highly educated and experienced traveller with more than a little arrogance about him, and his family are a mirror of the many tragedies inflicted upon the country. He is soon to find himself enmeshed in a bitter conflict with a truly despicable representative of the ruling classes, Abraham Morris, the all but universally loathed Protestant High Sherriff of Cork. a man who already holds a grudge against O'Leary and will pursue this with murderous intent to the very end of the book. Abraham Morris, odious, cowardly, murderous and cruel, makes for a splendid villain indeed, straight from Central Casting!

It doesn't take long, or much, for these two different worlds and societies to collide. Very soon, Arthur O'Leary is back, comfortably ensconced within his own milieu and soon making provocative statements that cannot fail to attract notice, and enemies. He was in the habit of frequently riding to the nearby town of Macroom and to meet friends, and of making incautious remarks and comments:

''There will come in Ireland the time when the 'Sassenach' [Gaelic term of abuse for the English and Lowland Scots] shall find themselves compelled to leave, whether it be by force of arms, and then whether domestically or by invasion.....or by some grand scheme of peaceful, diplomatic resolution, the precise source of which I cannot now imagine.......tis to Catholic Europe that Catholic Ireland must, eventually, I strongly believe, look for succour and aid........'' Such treasonous talk, when spoken loudly and freely in pubs and taverns, is bound to be overheard and reported. O'Leary's friends and associates, principally Dr Baldwin, the husband of Eileen's estranged sister Mary and Squire John Collins, suitor and soon to be husband of Eileen's close friend, the Austrian, Anna, beg him to be more circumspect in his public statements. After all, he also has a wife and young son; he must consider their health and safety as well. The damage, unfortunately, has been done.

The opening salvo in this bitter war takes place at a grand party and Christmas celebration attended by the local aristocracy, both Gaelic Catholic and Protestant alike. It is held on Saint Stephen's Day [Boxing Day] and is held in 'The Space' in Macroom, suitably transformed for the occasion. As the party progresses, Morris grows increasingly more drunk and begins to insult Eileen to her face; ''Romish slut'' and ''Papist bitch'' being two of his insults. She soundly slaps him and calls him a repulsive little man. She tells him that if ever she hears he has been insulting her ever again then she will kill him! Her husband intervenes and forcibly brings Morris to his knees and then to the ground. Further escalation in this feud thus becomes inevitable. Shortly after, Captain O'Leary returns to active service, In the Spring of 1771 Anna becomes the bride of John Collins and Eileen resumes her taste for correspondence with her many friends and relatives abroad. She writes to tell her ''darling horseman of the bright eyes'' that she is expecting their second child. She receives a regular stream of letters in reply. It is her sister's husband, Dr Baldwin who brings her the news that her mail is being regularly intercepted and read - by Morris, of course. Her response is to bring the matter to the attention of King George III himself and she thoroughly denounces the despicable Morris! ''Sadly, it appears that a number of the King's servants, here in Cork in 1771, are of a nature and character far different from those in Kerry of years past. Here and now, they are for the most part, small, crude men, patently ill bred, seemingly ill educated and lacking in even the most basic of social graces......'' The letter is long and eloquent, expressing loyalty to the Hanoverian monarch and demanding justice. ....''The most basic of rights belonging to a British subject have, unbeknownst to the King, in your Majesty's name, been violated in an utter and incomprehensible disregard for the rule of Law by the King's servants here in Ireland. Whilst they have caused a grave injustice to be done to me, in serving your Majesty so poorly, they have done to the King a far greater one.....''

The King is of a curious and intelligent nature and carries out his own research into this highly literate Irishwoman who has petitioned him. The instruction is sent to his Lord Lieutenant at Dublin Castle to investigate this grave matter of the interception of the King's Royal Mail. Morris is summoned to Dublin Castle where he is formally impeached and removed of his title of High Sherriff of Cork and the news of his humiliation made publically known. The King also has the courtesy of replying to her directly. For the time being, it seems, Morris has been muzzled. Shortly after this incident, Eileen is delivered of a second son, Fiach. In February 1772, O'Leary, accompanied by Banrían [Empress], a beautiful mare gifted him by the Empress, returns home to an emotional and very physical reunion with Eileen and attempts to resume his former life as a county Squire and Eileen takes equal delight in being Eileen O'Leary, Mistress of Rathleigh. They socialise and attend fashionable parties and are very well regarded in the community. O'Leary takes pleasure in hard, physical work upon the Estate and on riding to Macroom, often in full uniform, to carry out business and socialise over drinks with his friends. He has become close to John Collins, now a proud father, who advises him to seek a rapprochement with Abraham Morris, now reinstated as a Magistrate and a founder member of the predictably ultra reactionary 'Muskerry Constitutional Society''. After telling Eileen the truth of his original quarrel with the man [rivalry over a local girl - a contest that Morris had lost], he announces his intention to seek a peace: ''As a gentleman, an officer, and because we reside here now, because should I may be compelled to return to full time active service, you and the children would be here alone....and, perhaps most significantly, because this is our home.... I believe I must, and I shall attempt to speak with the man....No matter the outcome, I nevertheless believe tis the correct, the proper thing to be done.''

This decision will lead to an even more deadly episode in the long standing quarrel. Arriving at an appointed time at Morris's home, Hanover House, O'Leary's well intended attempt at reconciliation soon deteriorates to abusive exchanges and a slanging match. An already inebriated Morris attempts to shoot O'Leary. Contemptuously disarmed, he goes back into his house and, returning with a larger pistol, shoots O'Leary in the right arm. His wound treated by Dr Baldwin back at Rathleigh House, he declines to press charges, preferring instead to wait upon events. In August of that year, whilst convalescing,

he is visited by Collins and a young Protestant Magistrate named Andrew Baggott, who strongly recommends recourse to law. O'Leary provides him with a full account of the incident, but decides to wait. Within a short time, Morris has issued a counter claim of attempted murder! O'Leary resorts to print, placing an article in the local 'Corke Evening Press' stating once again his innocence and offering himself for trial at the next County Assizes. Taking advantage of the absence of both Baggot and a fellow sympathetic Magistrate, Alexander Cameron, the 'Muskerry Constitutional Society' convenes once more and declares O'Leary guilty of 'multiple demeanours' and declares him to be an outlaw, placing a reward of twenty Guineas on his head - dead or alive. Morris is subsequently provided with an armed guard, a posse, in effect, of royalist troops. There can henceforth be no way back from this state of affairs!

In a family saga of this type, length and breadth it is naturally a temptation for the reviewer to become lost in the minutiae of the scenes and the chronology of the action. Attempting to avoid this is always difficult because the book is rich in such detail and made absorbing because of it. Bittersweet Tapestry is indeed a fine and compelling read. By now the reader is probably aware of the fatal kernel of inevitability in the book. The whole lengthy sequence of how Eileen first deals with the tragedy in her life and then the means by which she exacts her meticulous revenge, calling on family and friends and the Crown itself, is dealt with by Kevin O'Connell in a truly masterful fashion. Her anger is icy and determined, and 'Eibhlin Dubh', 'Eileen of the Raven Locks', the Poetess, expresses herself in the Gaelic language to express her sorrow, her grief and determination for revenge. Shortly after, she is to lose her third child through miscarriage:

''Grief on you, Morris!

Heart's blood and bowel's blood!

May your eyes go blind

And your knees be broken!

You killed my darling

And no man in Ireland

Will fire the shot at you.''

In accordance with Eileen's wishes, Morris is subjected to terrible injuries that will ultimately kill him; but a death that will be painful and lingering. His agent of the cause of O'Leary's death is dealt with far more summarily, and his epitaph spoken in a cold and spine chilling fury: ''May you burn in Hell. May the fires never consume you and never be quenched....for all eternity.'' Eileen, a frequent visitor at her husband's grave, provides him with an up to date 'situation report: ''I promised you, my darling Horseman of the Bright Eyes, that I would pursue and attain very public vengeance and retribution, both accomplished by violence and in a fury....As it has begun, so it shall continue until all who were in any way responsible for your murder shall forfeiture of their own wretched lives, and beyond by an eternity spent in the flames of the deepest nether reaches of Satan's Hell.'' These are the words of a capable, determined and powerful woman. Such is her determination that she gains a meeting with the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the King's own representative in Ireland. He is intrigued by and attracted to this impressive woman, [''no simply resentful Gaelic Irish countrywoman, this''] and her story and gains her sympathy. Listening to her, the Lord Lieutenant begins to entertain revolutionary ideas both unfitting to him and the position that he occupies. Listening to her story of Morris, he thinks: ''Low bred Cromwellian spawn, as so many of his [Morris's] ilk are; stupidly, for no rational reason, they loathe what little remains of the old Gaelic order, knowing full well that only their Protestant religion and the positions they occupy as a direct result render them superior to people like this woman.'' Through this meeting between the Lady Eileen of Rathleigh and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland much more has been achieved for a reconciliation between the two factions in Ireland than either of them could have imagined.

Once again, it needs to be said that Bittersweet Tapestry is a thoroughly enjoyable and gripping family saga, despite the difficulties that do arise in reading caused by the many gaps in information that arise from time to time. There is the strong recommendation that readers should also tackle the previous two books in the series in order to prepare for the fourth.


Bittersweet Tapestry by Kevin O'Connell receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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