Thought bubble

01.06.2011

Location, location, location.

Stairwell in O'Hara Castle, Portstewart

This is a picture of a spiral staircase in O’Hara Castle, now part of the Dominican College, Portstewart, and the fictional setting for The Butterfly Cabinet. The question I am often asked when I give a reading from the book or a talk to a group, is, ‘Why did you change the location of the story?’ I understand why readers are perturbed by this apparent contrariness on my part. The incident that inspired the book (the death of the young daughter of an aristocratic family in Portstewart in 1892) actually happened at Cromore House, about a mile inland from O’Hara Castle. But I was very clear when I started to write the story that what I was writing was a fiction, inspired, but not dictated, by this singular tragic event. The biographical detail was fascinating in itself: the mother of the family, well-connected, married to the local landlord and justice of the peace, was accused and subsequently found guilty of the killing of her only daughter. The newspapers reported that, as a punishment, she tied the child up in a wardrobe room and that when she returned some hours later, found her strangled. They made much of the fact that, at the time of her imprisonment, the mother was pregnant with her ninth child. I was conscious, however, that what I was writing was an imagined account, and not an historical report. I needed space in which to imagine. I needed to do what John McGahern has written about: to dislocate the story from its origins; to create some distance between me, and the recorded detail. I needed to come at it, not head-on, but ‘slant’. I looked at O’Hara Castle, at that imposing, battlemented structure that still stands on the headland overlooking the Atlantic and thought – where else would you go for a setting?