My novel, NELL, is the story of the Geraldines or, more familiarly, the Fitzgeralds of Munster, “a family so wealthy and powerful they were called the uncrowned kings of Ireland. Their lands encompassed Desmond and South Munster and nearly all the counties of Kildare, Meath, Dublin and Carlow. Fitzgerald Castles stretched beyond Strangford Lough on the coast of Down to Adare, and the Fitzgerald fleet patrolled the Irish seas.”
NELL is also the story of a family, all five heirs, taken down in one fell swoop, hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn by order of Henry Tudor, a king desperate to establish a dynasty, a man afraid of the might of his cousins, the Geraldines. What Henry passed over, disregarded, refused to consider, was that a kingdom might be ruled by a woman, Elizabeth, and a family saved by another, Eleanor…Nell.
NELL begins with the execution of five men. Only Gerald, a boy of 12, is spared. He is hidden away in a remote castle, cared for by his sister, Nell, the betrothed of an Irish chieftain from the West. Through the forests and bogs of Ireland, at the court of the king who killed her family, Nell, aided by a strange vision from the future, struggles to keep the only remaining Fitzgerald heir alive.
We writers who attempt to create characters and a world both sympathetic and realistic to our readers frequently are caught up in the lives of the people we create. Imagine my excitement when I came upon the site of the beheading of the last Fitzgerald heir, the Earl of Desmond, the boy, Gerald, from my story, now a man who in the end lost his fight against the English. When I learned that his body (what was left of it) was interred in the ruins of a small church attached to a tiny cemetery, I was determined to find it, with Tommy, my fiance, an incredibly good sport, in tow.
Our first stop was the tourist office in Tralee. The friendly ladies manning the office knew nothing about the burial spot, but they were game to try. Success came no more than 20 minutes later. The Earl was buried in 1583 near the tiny village of Cordal in a place called Ardnagragh. The ruins of the Desmond chapel were in a burial ground with an unpronounceable name, Kilnananima.
Finding the location was difficult. There are no markers or signposts on the tiniest of Ireland’s roads and this was one of them. Tommy stopped at a small post office in Cordal to ask directions. In true Irish fashion, a woman posting a letter offered to take us there. Minutes later, we were climbing over the fence and peering at the graves, all Fitzgerald, in the overgrown grass. It was remote, it was lovely, it was historically fascinating, but the grave I’d come to find wasn’t there.
Then, Tommy noticed the foundations of a ruin and began pulling away decades of lichen, ivy, undergrowth, uncovering an enormous slab. Climbing through the thick flora, he began scraping away the mud. Letters appeared. Excited and hopeful, I climbed in, too, and continued to scrape while he left to find the bucket of rainwater he’d noticed earlier. We scraped and poured until the name and date were evident, Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Desmond, 1583. I could only stare, not speaking, at this evidence of a man to whom I’d given conversation and personality. He’d lived, walked the earth and died a horrible death. And here I am, 500 years later, intrigued enough with his story to resurrect him for my readers.