It’s always a pleasure to welcome a fellow 17th century enthusiast to my blog, especially an author whose literary interests mirror my own. Nancy Blanton is the author of four novels set in 17th century Ireland, and she delivers an evocative setting, exceptional dialogue, rich characterization and a story laced with adventure and romance. It’s not hard to see why I’m a huge fan of her work.
Her latest is When Starlings Fly as One, is set during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. The historical and political events are complex, but Nancy weaves them effortlessly into the story of a young woman coming into her own. The novel is beautifully written and taut with emotion. The characters are realistically drawn, caught between two starkly opposing positions. Loyalty and choices are neither black and white, but instead are complicated shades of grey.
I’ve invited Nancy to chat about her inspirations and her latest novel. Welcome, Nancy! Let’s get started . . .
What inspired you to write When Starlings Fly as One?
After completing The Earl in Black Armor in 2019, I was looking for a story that would logically follow for my next book. It brought me to the Great Irish Rebellion of 1641, an event I’d avoided because of the tales of atrocities on both sides—not something I was eager to write about, and things didn’t turn out well for Ireland. As we know, the victor writes the history, but I was encouraged by new books and essays by historians who were exposing Irish perspectives buried for centuries. During my research, I came across Sir Arthur Freke’s personal account of the siege of Rathbarry Castle in 1642—known as Ireland’s longest siege. Yes, he was English, but it is rare to find such a detailed narrative. Plus, I had been there, had taken pictures of the ruins, had even talked to a historian about Rathbarry, though nothing had been mentioned about this siege. As I read the account, it took hold of me and I began to see scenes in every sentence. I knew it would be a challenge but, well, you know how it is. Nothing could keep me from it
I love your title. Birds have always inspired me and end up in my fiction. How did you come up with your title and can you give us insight into its meaning in your story?
Yes, I liked the images of the magpies in your Rebel’s Knot! I cannot remember the exact moment ‘When Starlings Fly as One’ lodged in my mind, but it stems from a bittersweet story. A very special friend named Bonnie O’Keeffe was under hospice care for respiratory disease. I and my friend Andrea were taking turns visiting her before she passed away. During the drive to her home, we both saw starling murmurations at different times but at one section of the highway. Murmuration is believed to provide protection from predators. It was quite an unusual sight, so we thought of it as an omen for Bonnie, a sign of safety, that she was loved and protected. I was dedicating the book to her because, with her warmth and wry humor, she brought joy to everyone she knew and there is certainly joy in seeing these birds in synchronized flight. At the same time, I was learning more about the Irish rebellion, and it seemed to be the first time in Ireland’s history that the clans truly united across the country, north and south, to fight their common enemy rather than allowing the English to pit clan against clan and then collect the spoils. The title just settled into place.
[My condolences for your loss, Nancy. What a beautiful tribute. I’m sure that memory has been a comfort to you.]
All your novels take place in 17th century Ireland. What has drawn you to this place and time?
When I knew I was ready to write my own novel, I also knew I didn’t want it set in Tudor times. I had read many Tudor-based books, and yet the same stories were being published year after year. Did you know there are at least 62 published books about Anne Boleyn? I wanted to tell stories that weren’t often told, and I wanted to write about Ireland because I had been there several times and loved it. My grandmother was Irish, my father was exceedingly proud of this heritage, and I knew of no better way to make him proud of me. But even more than that, when I first started researching, I came upon a story of the massacre at Smerwick during the Desmond Rebellions. I had been there on Dingle peninsula, but had never learned this history. I also knew a little about Cromwell’s invasion and started learning about the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford. By then I couldn’t stop, there were so many stories to tell. My area of work became quite clear to me. I set a goal to create a body of work that spans the century, should I live long enough to do it!
What surprised you about your research? Did anything change your perspective?
I began When Starlings Fly as One with the expectation that I’d write strictly from the Irish perspective, that being my natural passion. But as I studied Sir Arthur Freke’s account, I began to see his transition from an arrogant and powerful landowner to a man with a family to protect, a man with humility fighting for his life. In the broadest sense, I believe the Irish fought with greatest spirit, the highest purpose, but in this microcosm of the rebellion there were clearly two sides. Both fought bravely, both suffered, both seemed to misunderstand the other, and both refused to back down. Though convention would have me establish one side for the reader to root for, I presented both sides honestly. I’ll let the reader decide. The hero to root for is the protagonist: innocent, impartial, insightful, and caught in the crossfire.
What was the most challenging aspect of this history?
Despite all of the new material about the Irish side in this rebellion, I still struggled to get a clear picture of Irish leaders like Tadhg an Duna Mac Carthaigh and Cormac Mac Carthaigh Reagh, both powerful leaders of the Irish forces leaving little trace of their true selves. I was more successful finding descriptions of battles, debunking English reports that obviously exaggerated their successes to impress leaders. One Irish historian’s account allowed me to reduce the overstatement of the death toll at Clonakilty from 600 to a more reasonable and believable 30.
If you weren’t writing historical fiction, what would you be writing?
It is hard to imagine not writing historical fiction, but years ago I wrote a children’s book, an animal adventure starring my love—a Labrador retriever named Roodle Jones. I wrote and illustrated it to celebrate the birth of my niece’s daughter. I’m a journalist with no children and no credentials in the field of education, so I never sought traditional publication in that highly competitive field, but it is on Amazon. Mostly I’ve given it as gifts to kids at book festivals. It was fun to do, and I’ve been urged to do more in that field. So, someday maybe.
What are your literary influences?
I have loved reading historical novels since I was in high school. At that time, most of them were period romances passed to me by my mother. When I tired of those I gravitated toward historical adventures, my favorite being The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. And then read I all about the Tudors, especially Margaret George, such as The Autobiography of Henry VIII , and Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles. I’m amazed by Hilary Mantel with her Wolf Hall series—her dispatch of conventional style and punctuation, and her deep point of view with Thomas Cromwell. I admire Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, especially her character development, her way with dialogue, and how she selected a time and place and made it her own. There have been so many others as well. I wish most of all that I could write a book like A Gentleman of Moscow by Amor Towles. Absolutely charming.
Thank you so much for the interview and the opportunity to share this information, and especially the chance to interact with you, since we share a love for all things 17th century.
Nancy Blanton is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the Florida Writers Association, and the Independent Book Publishers Association. She is co-founder of Amelia Indie Authors, and is a past board member for the Amelia Island Book Festival.
About When Starlings Fly as One
Based on a true story of the 1641 Rebellion and Ireland’s longest siege, When Starlings Fly as One is not a classic hero’s journey, but a story of war, struggle, spirit, and survival—a story of two sides.Secretive and often bold, Merel de Vries seeks only escape from the English nobility she serves.
When Rathbarry Castle is besieged by rising Irish clans, she faces an impossible choice: allegiance to owner Sir Arthur Freke, loyalty to new-found love Tynan O’Daly, and inner yearnings belonging to her alone. On the wind-swept coast near the village of Ross, the English settlers hoping to build a new life now seek shelter within the castle. Rathbarry’s former owners, the MacCarthy clan and its followers, have brought their armies to take it all back. To Merel, a Dutch orphan, both sides are heroic and both sides seem unspeakably cruel. Worse still, the people she loves are on different ends of the struggle.
With no access to food or supplies, the castle residents face starvation, disease, and the constant fear of death. Sir Arthur is desperate to find a solution for rescue. Merel insists she can help—but no one will listen.
When opportunity comes, can she truly do what her spirit urges? Or, will a sudden betrayal change everything?
Castlefreke’s dune system, behind Long Strand beach, by Caitlin Ferguson-Mir, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons