A Love Story across the Class Divide - Susie Murphy on her A Matter of Class Series

Posted by Susie Murphy on 13th Mar 2023

As an Irish historical fiction author, I feel very lucky that I hardly need to look beyond my own doorstep to find a wealth of inspiration for my novels. I have always been fascinated by Ireland’s history, which has been turbulent to say the least. 

Ireland suffered occupation by the British for hundreds of years, beginning with the Norman invasions in the 12th century,  followed by the Tudor conquest of the 1500s, during which Henry VIII proclaimed himself King of Ireland. Then there were the plantations of the 17th and 18th centuries where the land was taken from Catholic Irish landowners and given to English and Scottish Protestant settlers, generating a deep-seated resentment among the native people caused by British rule on Irish soil. 

In 1798, the Society of United Irishmen rose up against the British with the aim of gaining independence for Ireland. The rebellion failed and in 1800 the Act of Union was passed which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, giving Britain even more control over its small island neighbour. This tumultuous, often-bloody past created a dichotomy in our population: the upper class, wealthy, Protestant English landlords versus the lower class, poor, Catholic Irish tenants. Over the centuries, the gap between the classes grew ever wider. 

What a treasure chest for an author, right? 

For me, it’s not the violent risings nor the political machinations that intrigue me. It’s the individual people, the human stories behind the hard facts. So, instead of speculating on the politics that dragged Ireland through some of its darkest periods in history, I wondered about the people for whom that dark period was the reality of their lives. What impact would the fallout from the 1798 rebellion have had on a tenant family working on land owned by English people? Would their children have been raised to tolerate or hate the landowners? How might their children have behaved towards the landowners’ children?

And what, the hopeless romantic in me wondered, might have happened if two people on opposite sides of that class divide fell in love? Thus, the characters of Bridget and Cormac slipped into my mind. They were fictional but they took hold so strongly that they felt like real people to me and I was compelled to tell their story. A Class Apart is the first book in my series A Matter of Class. I set it in 1828, just thirty years after 1798, so that the rebellion would still be fresh in my characters’ minds. It takes place at Oakleigh Manor, a grand country house in Co Carlow. Miss Bridget Muldowney is Anglo-Irish, heiress to Oakleigh Manor. The Anglo-Irish were descendants of the settlers from the plantations of the 1600s–1700s who, over the generations, began to identify as Irish while retaining English customs. The phrase ‘English in Ireland, Irish in England’ is credited to the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, indicating that the Anglo-Irish people didn’t feel like they belonged to either nation. So how might Bridget feel growing up on Irish land and making friends with the son of a tenant? 

Cormac McGovern is Irish, a Catholic tenant working as a stable hand on Bridget’s father’s estate. His grandparents were involved in the 1798 rebellion and his family still retains painful memories from that time. How might he feel about making friends with the wealthy daughter of an Anglo-Irish landowner? These questions demanded answers and Bridget and Cormac’s story gradually took shape. It eventually became apparent to me, however, that this was more than one book. A Class Entwined became the second instalment in the series, followed by A Class Forsaken, A Class Coveted and A Class Reunited. But with the rich historical backdrop yet to come further into the 19th century, there is still so much to tell. In fact, I now know that it’s going to take at least eight books to complete this saga (if it will even be finished at that!). 

I have tried to bring as much authenticity as I can to the settings of my books. I am fortunate in that I spent so many summer holidays staying at my grandparents’ cottage in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare. Stepping into the cottage was like stepping back in time. In particular, I remember the fireplace: the fire crackling in the hearth, my grandfather dropping turf onto it, the distinctive smell of the burning turf, so earthy and satisfying. I imagine this must have been very much like the hearth in Cormac’s family’s small cottage and I’ve added such details to draw readers into his home. I am also lucky to have had the opportunity to visit places like Bunratty Castle & Folk Park in Co Clare and Palmerstown House in Co Kildare. To step across old floorboards and hear how they sound when they creak, to walk through the big halls of the main house and to climb the narrow servants’ staircases – I’ve used these experiences to help bring Oakleigh Manor to life and give readers an insight into the upstairs-downstairs culture of the time. The class struggle has played a huge role in Ireland’s history and is a prominent feature of my historical fiction series.

Above all though, A Matter of Class remains at its core a love story.

( All the books published so far are available now at the following link- https://thebookshop.ie/susie-murphy/

( The books are available singly, or as a lot of all 5 ( saving on €) . All books are brand new & signed by the author ) 

Books 1-3 are also available as a single volume omnibus edition.  

(Many thanks to Susie ! )