The following interview was conducted by Martin Russell, Books Editor of the Irish-American Post, and appeared in March 2020, coinciding with the launch of ‘Ireland’s Forgotten past’ (and the arrival of a certain irksome virus …). The introduction referred to him ‘as a real Man About Ireland and Raconteur Extraordinaire’.
How did ‘Turtle’ evolve from James Alexander Hugh McClintock-Bunbury?
I often forget what a nuts name I have. Sometimes I tell people it was because there was a turtle in the font when I was christened, or that my parents were surf dudes, or that my mum was swimming was out at sea while pregnant with me and got in trouble in the water but then a giant turtle came and saved her, so she named me in its honour. In truth, I am the third son and my father liked his Latin. When food was on the table, he’d count us into the kitchen … primus, secundus, tertius … I was generally crawling on my hands and feet behind my older brothers who thus crowned me Turtle.
You have quite a lineage; are the spirits of those ancestors hanging out around the house, looking over your shoulders as you write, commenting whether you are putting the correct spin on history?
Sometimes I do get that sensation although I have just as frequently sensed people who are not related to me looking over my shoulder. I am slightly anticipating a box on my noggin from a few people when I enter the next world for nosing about in all these lives that were once so private and drawing conclusions that are inevitably going to be wrong from time to time. I try not to be too judgmental about those who have gone before but there is always an element of duplicity about being a historian. We can never know the absolute truth and thus what we write can only ever be our best guess. When all is said and done, any history we produce is blurb, like the blurb you get on the back of the book – the content, the true account of what really happened, is beyond us.
How did you first get into writing?
I started writing a diary when I was ten. By the time I was a teenager, it had evolved into a journal for my friends to read. It became a chronicle of debauchery in my twenties but I calmed down with the welcome responsibility of marriage and parenthood. For the past decade I’ve recorded my diaries on my Iphone instead of writing, which suits me just as well. I might have them transcribed someday. After reading history at Trinity College Dublin, I moved to Hong Kong and started dabbling in journalism. I then became a travel writer because I realized that while it didn’t pay much, it got my eyes in front of new sights and sounds all the time.
Are there any other authors/artistic types in your family?
My father’s mum was from a very artistic and mechanically minded family. My siblings seem to have followed suit. My oldest brother William is a songwriter in his spare time, my next broter Andrew is a landscape architect and my sister Sasha Sykes is a creative artist. I think any scribbling genes I have are more likely to come from my mother’s side. Her uncle was the essayist Hubert Butler while the novelist Elizabeth Bowen was a cousin and close friend to the family. There are also spurious links to Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde, while my wife Ally has a neat kinship with the Bronte sisters.
Do you still live in Rathvilly?
Yes, or close to it. I left home aged 18 but returned in 2007 after long stints in Dublin, Hong Kong, Holland and elsewhere. After our marriage, Ally and I built a ‘farmhouse’ style home about 6km south of Rathvilly, on the edge of the family land at Lisnavagh.
Tell our readers more about the Past Tracks program, how are you collecting material for the displays? Are you still working with Irish Rail on the project?
I am delighted to say that Past Tracks is very much an ongoing project. The concept came to me when I was standing in a platform early one morning, waiting for a train, with drizzle coming down my neck and nothing to alleviate the boredom. I proposed to Irish Rail that each platform should have a panel telling a handful of uplifting or fascinating historical tales connected to each station area and they brilliantly agreed. The first phase, which was sponsored by Flahavan’s Oats, saw panels go up in 10 stations – Dublin Heuston, Dublin Connolly, Limerick, Waterford, Sligo, Dundalk, Naas/Sallins, Athy, Malahide and Dun Laoghaire. I’m presently working on forty more panels with the illustrator Derry Dillon; these will go up in 2021.
Who did you work with in co-founding the History Festival of Ireland? Is it still on for 2020, despite the pandemic?
I co-founded the festival with my good friend Hugo Jellett. I loved the whole thing but it was an awful lot of work organizing it. It was later kind of incorporated into the excellent Festival of Writing and Ideas that Hugo now runs from Borris House, County Carlow.
How was it collaborating with photographer James Fennell? How did you hook up for the Vanishing Ireland books? Had you worked on other projects together? Have you known each other for a long time? Did the verbiage come first or the photographs?
James Fennell is another old friend. Our parents were pals also, and we were at school together from the age of eight. In 2000 we headed off to Zimbabwe and South Africa for 6 weeks. James brought his camera and photographed the interiors of a dozen really interesting houses while I wrote a story to accompany his photos. We sold our combined efforts to enough magazines to cover the cost of our trip. And then we did it again, going to places like Mexico and in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, I’d started interviewing old timers around where I live in Ireland. One day, James came along to photograph some of them and we realized immediately that a collaboration of portrait photos and words would be the ideal way to convey the essence of what Vanishing Ireland was about.
How did you and Ally meet?
It was a set-up. A mutual friend got us both around for dinner. I took a shine to Ally straightaway and we were dating within a few weeks. It turned out we’d sat next to each other at a wedding ten years earlier. It was a pretty boozy party and neither of us could recall meeting but when I checked my diary, I was elated to see the words: ‘I sat next to the beautiful Ally Moore.’
Do you edit each other’s copy? How is it have two writers in the same household??
When it comes to writing, we do help each other out quite a lot. Ally will talk through plots for her novels with me and I’ll check in with her to see if my historical rambles are too off the wall.
Do you have any kids, dogs, goldfish …
We have two daughters, aged 11 and 12, who both write diaries diligently every night so, who knows, maybe they’ll live by then pen too in decades to come. We also have a terrier called Dilly, two guinea pigs, a hamster called Colonel Cupcake, a rooster and a brace of hens. They all write diaries too.
How did you go about collecting tales for ‘Ireland’s Forgotten Past’? Do you have vast files of such lore, tucked into your garage or attic? Was it a challenge to filter out the selected stories from your trove of tidbits?
Yes, I have a huge volume of stories to work with but thankfully I am always learning more and more. It’s always refreshing to take on something new. With ‘Ireland’s Forgotten Past’, I seized the opportunity to try and make sense of some of the eras I hadn’t quite grappled with properly before that – the Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures that built the passage graves and dolmens, the Celtic warriors who raced around in chariots, the Romans who traded along the east coast – but I also wanted to bring in lesser known stories like Operation Shamrock, a humanitarian mission organized by the Irish Red Cross to look after orphaned German children after the Second World War.
Do you have an office, secreted away in a windowless garret, compose on the kitchen table or elsewhere?
I used to work in a windowless garret but everything changed in February 2020 when the electrician flicked a switch and so powered up my new office – a timber studio in our garden, made out of Siberian pine, painted ash black, with a view straight onto the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. The timing could not have been better. We were on lockdown within a few weeks and I think our family’s sanity was saved by the fact I had my man cave to flee to. Ally has an astounding ability to be able to write a novel with a radio playing and the children and hamsters sitting on her head. I need complete tranquility to focus.
Are piles of documents arrayed around your office when doing your historical books; how do you organize your thoughts, especially with so much material you can tackle?
I do have a ridiculous number of books. I used to be a book reviewer, and I’ve also inherited a mass of ‘historical’ books from three beloved souls, now passed on. That said, my desk is relatively clear. I think the key to order is to have control of the Finder Box on your laptop, to have sensibly named Folders and Sub-Folders. I have a magic black box to stick all the bigger, weightier files. I also whack a bunch of my stuff up on turtlebunbury.com, one of my two websites, so that whatever data I have gathered is available to the wider world online. Frankly I need to start the whole website all over again to make it more user-friendly but finding time to do that would be a challenge indeed.
How do you kickstart such a project; did a publisher contact you or did you do some door-knocking?
I was contacted by Thames & Hudson. I’d worked with them before on two books, both with James Fennell. The first was ‘Living in Sri Lanka’ about some amazing villas we saw over there. The second was ‘The Irish Pub’, an ode to endangered genius of that much-loved concept. In fact, I am working on a fourth book for Thames & Hudson for 2021, about Irish men and women who have made their mark on the world beyond Ireland in centuries past.
What was the time frame for “Forgotten” from idea to publication? Ever get bogged down and need the faeries to help get the words flowing again?
‘Forgotten’ was commissioned in January 2018 and I think the manuscript went through its final edit phase in March 2019. I never need the faeries to write history but I do sometimes need them to come up with a catchy book title. And I certainly rely on their assistance whenever I take a leap into the world of fiction, a genre I’d love to have a proper crack at some day.
What is fun about being a historian, especially with so much to write about?
As I say in the introduction to ‘Forgotten’, you’re basically dealing with the juiciest plots, the greatest twists, the richest characters, the best lines, running back through countless generations of everyone who has ever lived. My aim is to be a kind of translator, to help people who don’t necessarily read history to get an insight into the nuances of it all. I don’t mind sifting through the archives and heavy-duty academic stuff but the part that gives me a kick is turning that into words that a contemporary audience can understand. The goal is to encourage the reader to reevaluate the streets and landscape around them, and to maybe look again at their own family ancestry and how it fits into the narrative. It’s by no means easy because obviously a lot of Irish history is riddled with bitterness and tragedy and deceit which still generates considerable anger today. I urge people to try not to judge people from the past too harshly, on the basis that that was then and this is now, .
Do you have a personal favorite book from your own collection?
It has been extraordinary to gather so many wonderful souls into the Vanishing Ireland series and that project was undoubtedly the most important one I’ve worked on. Researching ‘The Irish Pub’ was a tremendous fun. I adored putting the stories together for my book on ‘1847’ because that involved looking at the history of people and places that had nothing to do with Ireland like the Comanche of Texas, the Emperor of Vietnam, the birth of Salt Lake City … my historical fascination runs far beyond the borders of Ireland!
Are kids interested in learning history these days? Is there a strong crop of new, young historians coming up through the ranks?
Yes, I received lovely emails from people, known and unknown to me, who tell me their children are hooked on history. I’m not convinced either of my daughters have the bug but I’ll gently work on it. They’re past the age where you can railroad them into visiting endless castles and museums – I never did actually – but when we do occasionally “drop in” to a historical place, I know they secretly rather enjoy it. The internet is so incredibly useful for teaching history to children. You can see the pictures, hear the voices, watch the film clips … the main thing to keep a watch on is who is directing the narrative of what the kids are learning. Are they being taught how to question facts and gather evidence? That is fundamental stuff. And yet, it wouldn’t surprise me for now if in a thousand years’ time, kids are being taught that Luke Skywalker was a Buddhist monk who lived on the Skellig Islands and made all the Irish give up smoking.
How does a historian get folks to become interested in history?
It’s got to be about the people, making them come to life as villains, as heroes, as human beings they can relate to. I used to think of my grandfather and how the world was when he was my age. So suddenly I realized that he was 19 when Wall Street crashed, 29 when the Second World War began and 59 when man landed on the moon. Just like that, my perspective on the man changed.
What are three concepts that make a good history book?
Like any good book, you want unexpected plot twists because that is what history is all about. I mean, when Marie Antoinette skipped up the aisle to marry Louis XVI in 1770, nobody could have predicted that both of them would be guillotined a couple of decades later.
I think breaking up the text with images or smaller section breaks is also key because it gives the reader a chance to breathe.
And thirdly I’m a sucker for trivia. My ‘1847’ book is full of useless information which I loved digging up.
What does a historian do to relax?
I’m a family man, so we unwind together, walking the fields when weather permits, with a table tennis table in a farm-shed as our present destination of choice. I also love having a few pints with old pals in a lovely atmospheric pub. It’s a rarity these days but the banter over pints is something I’ve always adored.
Who would you invite from Irish history to drop by your local for a round of pints? Can you select 5-6 women and men who would be a good chat? Why select this crowd?
- A Neolithic wizard to reveal the secret of who they really built Newgrange, Stonehenge and all those mysteries. I’d be extra thrilled if it could be one of my own direct ancestors, ideally a woman, on condition that she understands I am her descendant from the future and does not try to cook me.
- Isabel de Clare, the daughter of Strongbow and Aoife, wife to the great knight William Marshall, who could give me her thoughts on Norman rabbits, the Knights Templar and what the deal with her parents was really about.
- Hercules Mulligan, the fun-loving New York tailor who spied for George Washington, not just for his insights into Georgian fashion and the America revolution but also because his name is just so cool.
- Lola Montez to perform her exotic tarantula dance although we might need to arrange a carriage to take her away if she starts getting out of hand.
- Sir Richard Burton for after dinner speeches – he was an explorer who translated the Kama Sutra into English and once had a harem of forty pet monkeys.
- Christy Moore to stitch it all together into a gorgeous, laugh-along-lullaby.
What does being Irish mean to you?
I’ve always considered myself Irish but I have to fight my corner a bit. My ancestry is a mish-mash of Norman, Scot, English and Irish but the fact I am from a Protestant ascendancy background understandably puts me in a narrower category for some people. I’m not a big fan of categorization though. I think it would be healthier for our daughters to simply see themselves as human beings who have the immense fortune to grow up on a lovely farm in a beautiful country called Ireland. It’s idealist, I know, but I also urge them to appreciate that we in Ireland are blessed to live in a democracy in which the vast majority of us do not believe humans should be judged on the basis of their sex, sexuality, caste, colour, creed or ancestry.