Bernie McGill was born in Lavey in County Derry in Northern Ireland. She studied English and Italian at Queen’s University, Belfast and graduated with a Masters degree in Irish Writing. She has written for the theatre (The Weather Watchers, The Haunting of Helena Blunden), the novel, The Butterfly Cabinet and a short story collection, Sleepwalkers. Her short fiction has been nominated for numerous awards and in 2008 she won the Zoetrope:All-Story Short Fiction Award in the US. She is a recipient of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's inaugural ACES (Artists' Career Enhancement Scheme) Award in association with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University, Belfast. She lives in Portstewart in Northern Ireland with her family and works as a Creative Writing facilitator.
It’s quiet, isn’t it? If you listen carefully to this picture, you can hear the frost thawing on the leaves. Think of it as the equivalent of the 1970’s BBC test card, but without the scary clown face. There are no broadcasts. There is writing going on. I’ll be back when normal services resume. Thank you for your patience.
At 11.30am on Saturday 31st August 2013, you will find me up Pogue’s Entry (no nonsense out of you Irish speakers) where I will be ensconced in the chimney corner in the birthplace of Alexander Irvine, reading from his much-loved book, My Lady of the Chimney Corner.
The reason for this is that Antrim Borough Council is currently celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of its most famous sons. I didn’t know much about Alexander Irvine, but I’ve been reading Alistair J. Smyth’s introduction to the book and I like what I hear about him. Born in Antrim town on 19th January 1863, Alexander was the ninth child of Anna and Jamie Irvine. His father was a shoe-maker, poor and illiterate. His mother had been educated, was destined before her marriage to become a teacher and was a sincere devotee of the Church, but her love for Jamie led her to leave her home in Crumlin and to set up house with him in Antrim to a life of severe poverty and hardship. Despite their difficulties, she is portrayed by Irvine as a beacon of wisdom and hope to her family always and as a profound inspiration to her youngest son.*
As a youngster Alexander worked as a barefoot paperboy and then as stableboy to the local landlord. He laboured as a miner’s mucker in the coalmines of Scotland before joining the Royal Marine Corp where he finally got the education he’d missed out on as a child. After spending some time at Oxford University, he emigrated to the United States where he began his ministry in the New York Bowery slums. In 1903 he took his doctorate in theology from the University of Yale. He was a YMCA padre in the trenches during the First World War; he was invited by Lloyd George to address the miners of Britain who refused to return to work after the General Strike; he was later elected to the National Executive of the American Socialist Party. Wherever he went and whoever he met, he never forgot where he came from. He had an abiding affinity with the working classes and he accredited his philosophy on life to the woman who taught him so well as a child. ‘Sunk in direst poverty all her life,’ he wrote, ‘my mother in her chimney corner was a minister of light. Her sayings came to me with fresh meaning: “There’s only one kind of poverty, and that’s to have no love in the heart.” … In the face of poverty, when food was poor and scanty and our clothes in rags, my mother, in every respect but the material one, was a lady…’ My Lady of the Chimney Corner is a fascinating social history of late nineteenth century Ireland and a heart-warming, often humorous, and moving tribute to the mother who had such a profound influence on the man.
Admission to the reading is free - you’ll find directions to the Irvine cottage here. I’ll be reading a chapter from Alexander Irvine’s book and an extract or two from The Butterfly Cabinet as well. The life that Anna Gilmore Irvine led in reality seems not that far removed from the life that Maddie McGlade’s mother would have lived in fiction. I wish I’d known about her before. The Irvine celebrations include a lecture by Alastair J. Smyth and continue into September of this year so come along if you get the chance. I guarantee that by the end of it, you'll be as transfixed as was Hughie Thornton in Irvine's book, with your blood frozen like the icicles hanging from the thatch and the hair standing on you like the bristles in O'Hara's bog.
Praise for The Butterfly Cabinet
Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, writing in The Guardian: 'McGill has the ability to enter into the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor.'
Eugene McCabe, author of Death and Nightingales: 'Bernie McGill's rare, hypnotic gift for writing fills every page of The Butterfly Cabinet. [It] contains no end of apparently throwaway sentences you want to remember'
Rachel Hore, author of A Place of Secrets and The Glass Painter's Daughter: 'A haunting, often lyrical tale of quiet, mesmerising power about the dangerous borders of maternal love'
USA Today: 'This is a fantastic novel. It drenches us in gothic sensibilities as it haunts us with uncomfortable reminders of recent sensational events.'
Marie Claire: ‘An utterly compelling tale of hidden secrets and culture clashes played out against the backdrop of a large country house in Northern Ireland... it's a haunted tale, eerie with recrimination, illicit passion and frustrated motherhood. Pitch-perfect in tone, McGill captures, in counterpoint, the voices of two women as they declaim a melancholy murder ballad.’
Financial Times: 'Bernie McGill's assured debut is an intense exploration of maternal love and guilt. What also distinguishes it is its delicate portrait of a society that, within one lifetime, would face unimaginable change.'
Kirkus Reviews: ‘An emotionally bracing, refreshingly intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking story.’
Daily Mail: ‘Beautifully done and thoroughly absorbing.’
Publishers Weekly: ‘An exquisite series of painful revelations… McGill easily recreates the lives of the Castle's owners and servants and the intricate connections between them. As both Harriet and Maddie's stories emerge, the tale becomes a powder keg of domestic suspense that threatens to explode as long-kept secrets surrounding Charlotte's death are teased out.’
The Guardian: 'Defining moments of Irish history form the backdrop to each woman's narrative...The decades of complicity that follow Charlotte’s death unfold with forceful drama...'
Minneapolis Star Tribune: 'McGill employs an ingenious counterpoint technique to give her convincing fictional version of the tragedy. The interplay of the voices of two exceptionally different personalities is perhaps the book's major achievement.'
Woman & Home: ‘An absorbing story of marriage, motherhood and murder.’
New Zealand Herald: 'McGill's real triumph with this novel is how successfully she manipulates the way we feel aout her two main characters... the prose is elegant and assured.'
Good Housekeeping: ‘A dramatic and haunting novel... this is an enthralling and beautifully written debut.’
Huffington Post: 'Where McGill succeeds so well is in her language, beautiful and languorous and wild.'
Sydney Morning Herald: 'McGill's complex portrait of an unmotherly mother is as skilful and unusual as Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin.'
Verbal: ‘A gripping novel... Disturbing and thought-provoking... an examination of how to deal with the past in the midst of hope for the future... a truly absorbing and cleverly written tale that will send a shiver down your spine.’
Irish World: ‘The Butterfly Cabinet deserves to be celebrated for its ability to alter the reader’s perspective of the world... its characters leap from the page with profound and contemporary truth... Bernie McGill has achieved an incredible feat.’
Ulster Tatler: ‘The Butterfly Cabinet is an exceptionally accomplished novel... [McGill’s] prose is lyrical and beautifully composed, her characters are crafted and honed with an inherent talent and skill... writing of this calibre does not come along often.’
Sunday Tribune: ‘This is a truly convincing retelling of a true story, richly realised on every level from a writer to watch out for.’
Listen to the author read an extract
or read the first chapter.
Watch the book trailer (US)
Watch the UK version.
You had a story for me... I wasn't ready to hear it before but I'll hear it now.
When Maddie McGlade, a former nanny, receives a letter from Anna, the last of her charges and now a married woman, she realises that the time has come to unburden herself of a secret that has gnawed at her for over seventy years. It is the story of the last day in the life of Charlotte Ormond, the four-year-old only daughter of the big house where Maddie was employed as a young girl. The Butterfly Cabinet also reveals the private thoughts of Charlotte's mother, Harriet. A proud, uncompromising woman, Harriet's great passion is collecting butterflies and pinning them into her cabinet; motherhood comes no more easily to her than does her role as mistress of a far-flung Irish estate. When her daughter dies, her community is quick to condemn her. At last Maddie, and Harriet’s prison diaries that Maddie has kept hidden under lock and key in the cabinet she has inherited, will reveal a more complex truth.