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Excerpts from ‘A Wistful Eye – The Tragedy of a Titanic Shipwright’ by DJ Kelly

A Wistful Eye  [setting: Belfast 1910]


“The spring of nineteen ten was a long time coming to Northern Ireland.  Winter had been slow to relinquish its iron grip on the land and reluctant daffodils were still in the green out around the fine gardens of the suburbs.  In the crowded working class districts of Belfast however there were few flowers to herald the changing of the seasons.  Here, it was the gradually increasing daylight and the lessening of evening chills which were intrerpreted as a precursor of spring. As March gusted into April, the trees along Duncairn Gardens grudgingly opened their pink and white blossom, lifting the spirits of passers-by and providing free confetti for weddings at the church of St Barnabus.


The middle-aged couple trundled the hired handcart, laden with their furniture and cooking utensils, past the church and over the New Lodge Road, leaving early morning tracks on the damp, petal-strewn pavements. They had been up since early on, unable to sleep for the prospect of all they had to do for their latest house move….


…The new house was not new at all, of course. There were no new houses in the New Lodge area, contrary to what the name might suggest, and nor were there any in Tiger’s Bay, whence they had come.  Of course there were no tigers their either.  Belfast was a place of contradictions, right enough.  Sailortown, however, where the couple had started their married life more than thity years earlier, was indeed home to sailors and their families as well as to those who supported the city’s great maritime tradition – the shipwrights, the ropemakers, the engine makers, the dockers and carters. 


All Belfast’s working class neighbourhoods shared a dowdy and close-knit character. William Henry thought that maybe the people did too.  One little street looked much like the next one and one working class family looked much like another.  The little red-bricked dwellings had been hastily constructed, to a mean specification, almost a century earlier, to accommodate the many wrokers needed to support Belfast’s rapidly developing industries.  On slob lands, wehre once the curlew swooped and the oyster-catcher stooped, slate-roofed terraces had sprouted and had spread upwards, in tightly packed rows, radiating outwards from the docks, around the shipyards, warehouses and factories.  Where purple sea fog had once rolled in unimpeded, now grey smoke curled skywards from chimneys, both tall and small…    


.. Belle stoked up the fire.  The glow from the hearth filled the void in the room left by son Billy’s departure, and made her feel a little cheerier. William Henry chided her for being so profligate with the fuel, when there would be just the two of them at home on this mild spring afternoon.  He did not understand the importance to her of warmth and light, and indeed she had not the words to explain it.


Whilst the children were still young, Belle had been busy enough to ignore her depressive feelings – mostly.  However, now that the children had all left home and William Henry was out of the house for ten hours or more each day, it would not take her long to tend this small and empty house.  Now she feared she would have too much time to reflect, to dwell on her loneliness. 


She gazed around the little kitchen, which was indeed tiny but which nonetheless accommodated their little wooden table and two chairs and a little sofa.  The iron range was the same as the one in their previous house and the tiny scullery, with its large sink, single cold water tap and old iron mangle, was similarly appointed to the Collyer Street scullery.  Their former house had boasted a larger front parlour, which they had converted into a little grocery shop, but Belle thought the Shandon Street parlour ample space for the two of them now.  They would see out their declining years together comfortably enough in this little house. 


Although she had enjoyed chatting with the locals who came into the Collyer Street shop for their messages, there were mornings when, William Henry having departed for the yards, her depression would not let her get out of bed.  Unconcerned that customers were knocking,  she would only rouse herself when prompted by hunger.  A pot of tea might have cheered her, but she would have had to light a fire to boil the water and somehow she could not raise the energy or enthusiasm for that.  Staring into the blackness of the grate, its dead ashes awaiting removal to the earth closet down the yard, she would instead succumb to inertia…”  



It was a warm and slightly windy day, as William Henry climbed up the staging to a narrow platform, some seventy feet above the ground, whence he might observe the water rising to the desired level. He set his piece and his billy securely on the platform beside him, for a billy can falling seventy feet could easily concuss a man below.  He settled back as comfortably as he could and filled and lit his pipe again.  He now had a great view of the Queen’s Yard, and indeed of most of Belfast and the beautiful surrounding countryside.  What was more, he would have several hours to enjoy it. Of course he could still hear, from around the yards, the ear-splitting clangour of the riveters’ hammers as they struck, each pair in unison, compacting rivet into steel plate and working with methodical precision.


He … knocked his pipe out against the staging.  He now took out his piece of bread and jam  and, pouring some tea into the lid of his billy, he sat back to enjoy his breakfast. Food, no matter how modest, always tasted better in the open air, he thought. Although no longer hot, the sweet milky tea refreshed and sustained him. His eyes narrowed in the reflected glare of the sun, as it now rose over the Lagan water, and he marvelled at the beauty of the green landscape which encircled the industrial city.  Gulls were now circling and screeching overhead, so he guessed the fishing boats must be in harbour after a night spent out at sea.  There were far worse jobs than shipbuilding, he mused.




Once the hull and the metal decks were fully caulked, the caulking squads would turn their attention next to Titanic‘s sixteen lifeboats. Hughie had said Mr Andrews’ original design for Titanic had included twenty lifeboats, but that this number had exceeded the minimum recommendations of the British Board of Trade, and the Harland and Wolff management had decided to reduce the number.  According to what Hughie had heard, Mr Ismay felt that too many lifeboats hanging from their enormous davits would be off putting to passengers and would also reduce the amount of deck space available for leisure activities.  That seemed an odd decision to William Henry.  Surely, you either needed lifeboats for everyone or none at all?  He bet Hughie that it was done to save money, for rumour had it that Ismay was ‘as tight as a crab’s arse’.” 




“…..William Henry’s protests were silenced by a fist in his face.  Suddenly, he was on the ground and his assailant was kicking him in the stomach and ribs.  He turned onto his side and rolled himself into a ball in a vain attempt to make himself a smaller target, but every kick hit home, and one got him in the head.  The screams and shouts around him seemed to be receding and he feared he was losing consciousness.  His attacker was shouting abuse about killing all the socialists too, when Johnnie Beasant, his nose and mouth pouring with blood, caught the man from behind, swung him around and, with one blow, laid him out.  Johnnie now had William Henry on his feet and the pair were running along towards the river.  Various sharp missiles rained down upon them as they reached the edge of the quay and continued to strike them as they entered the water …. “

What or who sparked your love of reading?

So what was it that set the young you on your inspired way down that star-spangled road to reading heaven?  In my case, it was my armchair-adventurer father.  Here’s a bit of doggerel which explains how it all began for me … 


It came once a week to the end of our road

At six pm prompt every Friday

A blue and white caravan carefully towed

Manchester Corporation’s Mobile Library


So on Fridays, my book-loving, Ulsterman Dad,

Released from the factory noises       

Would put his six books in a carrier bag

And go to make new reading choices


Then all weekend long my thrill-seeking Dad

With his books and his tea would retire

By sea to Shanghai or train to Leningrad

And all from his chair by the fire


A cool High Plains Drifter, so lean and so true 

An iron-masked prisoner of Zenda

Whilst facing the Hun, the Zulu, the Sioux

His slippered feet on the fender


He craved only peace to enjoy a good read

As armchair adventurers do

But the three-year-old me would pester and plead

“Daddy PLEASE, read ME a story, too!”


Though engrossed in his reading, ‘twas clear he had heard,

For, on return from his factory endeavour,

He now taught me each evening the written word,

Just to prove his wee daughter quite clever


Then, one rainy Friday, for literary leisure

We both went to library heaven

But to sample those wonderful, tax-funded treasures

It turns out, alas, I must be seven


“Thiz no way she’s seven” says library lady

“Well, that’ll do me,” explodes Dad

 “Though slow to grow, aye, she may be,

 To ban her from readin’s too bad!”


 “Denyin’ her access to books, cos she’s wee

Is unforgivable, prejudiced, unfair

Tho’ undersized for her age, can’t ye see

In her smart little head, she’s all there.”


“Tho wee, for her age,” he lied, “she’s bright for a wain,

Cud ye not be more egalitarian?

For many a wee body belies a big brain,”

Says my dad to the red-faced librarian


“Tho her legs mebbe short, her interest’s not

“Gi’ her books and her mind’ll grow bigger”

I stood on tiptoe, undeniably a tot,

But I tried my real best to look bigger


Incensed readers gathered defensively by us,   

Most of them fathers and mothers,

“What’s all this fuss on the library bus?

T’kid deserves same chance as t’others”


“She’s a right to enjoy literature, just as we do

Regardless of *clemmin’ an’ rickets!”

The librarian wilts, midst the hullaballo

And writes me out 2 library tickets


Antrim Dad directs me to the junior confines

The corner that’s kids’ reading heaven

“Don’t forget, pet,” he winks and reminds,

“If anyone asks, then yer seven.”


The shelves bore every conceivable tome

Of imaginative children’s writing

And, joy, I could now take some of them home

Edward Lear, Eleanor Farjeon, Enid Blyton


The lie that secured me early library access  

Was the spark that kindled a flame

Which no corporation Jobsworth could  suppress

And now, at fifty, I still retain


The lesson I learned from my Dad’s fierce attack

The day the librarian came a cropper

That whenever bureaucracy’s holding you back

Just speak out, and tell them a whopper!


[*clemmin – Mancunian term for starvation]



  •       Have promotional flyers or postcards made up with your book’s cover image on one side and your book synopsis and short review quotes*, ISBN and availability etc on the reverse [try Vistaprint].
  •       Always carry a copy of your book with you and be seen reading and enjoying it on the train or bus, at the hairdressers or doctor’s waiting room etc.  If anyone asks if it’s good, tell them it’s wonderful and give them the promotional postcard which ‘came with the book’ (it’s not a fib – you brought it along with the book).
  •       Spend time visiting bookshops wherever you go, finding books on similar themes to yours, then produce your cards or flyers from your pocket and slip them snugly inside near the end of each book (so check out staff won’t see and remove them – they will do this, which is why bookmarks, which cost more anyway and protrude  noticeably, are not so successful).
  •       Find out who your target audience is; work out where they go and distribute your promo materials in those places (museum coffee shops, mother and toddler groups, clubs, etc)
  •       Identify social networking sites’ pages relevant to the topic of your book and post informed comment  on there, eventually and gradually introducing a link to your book (do not be too hasty or obvious lest you cause annoyance and be blocked).
  •       Identify appropriate interest groups whose interests are linked to the theme of your book and approach their in-house ‘expert’ to offer a complimentary copy in return for a short review*. If you are happy with the results, you can quote short excerpts from their reviews in your Amazon book description, on your website and on your promo cards etc.
  •       Ask appropriate interest groups if they would like an author talk from you.  Many groups own a data projector, so consider preparing a power point slideshow presentation to illustrate your talk.  Providing wine and nibbles too might put your audience in a relaxed, book-buying mood.
  •       If you can write a whole book, writing an article should not be too challenging.  Write a series of articles, each from a different angle, on the interesting theme of your book, or on how you came to write it, and send these to different newspapers and magazines.  Do not send the exact same article to 2 different publications however. They like ‘exclusivity’.
  •       Consider having some cheap mugs printed up with your book cover image etc (Vistaprint also do these) and present them to the staff at your local bookshop or library.  Even if they don’t sit drinking from them by the cashpoint or checkout desk (which they usually do) they can use them for displaying their free bookmarks.  Likewise an inexpensive printed canvas bag for toting books or shopping, when draped from your shoulder as you walk around town, will provide free advertising (and is a lot lighter than a sandwich board!). Car door magnets emblazoned with your book image too can be effective advertising (get to the mall early to park your car right outside the bookshop entrance). 
  •       Don’t be aggressive in your promotion but equally don’t be shy, and above all, have FUN.  

Come Over to the Indie Side – we have cake!

Many will have read Writer-ly’s recent blog on the top 5 reasons to publish independently: and their reasoning certainly rings my chimes.

Rather like the tobacco companies, whose drives to recruit new smokers become increasingly desperate as their product kills off existing customers, traditional publishers are losing not only their customers and their outlets but, more importantly, their product (as supplied by us writers).  They do not however see the folly of killing off the goose before she has even laid that golden egg for the pancake batter. 

The ‘trad’ publishers blame both online retailer Amazon and the advent of e-books and e-readers as they weepily watch bookstore chains fold and their own profits shrink. Meanwhile, in Amazon’s shiny windows, a growing patisserie of Indie goodies sits alongside the shrinking  selection of trad-pub lardie cakes.  On that particular bring-and-buy cake stall, no big bakery has total control.  And the public like having a wide and varied choice of goods. 

In the current climate, the Trad publishers restrict their lists to demonstrably ‘highly sellable’ authors, thereby rejecting many writers of great future potential. They no longer offer big advances and insist on submissions being accompanied by a list of ‘5 big sellers which are just like your book’. Frequently, they throw out the baby and the bathwater. They are not encouraging innovation or fresh thinking. Perhaps this is necessary to fund those big, plush offices and big-lunching editorial staff.  So where is a writer of great potential to go?

Coincidentally, self publishing has never been easier nor the retail market more accessible – the non bookstore chain market, that is.  Those writers of future potential are now left with no option but to self publish and, once they taste the honeyed cake of self-determination and achieve sales solely through the quality of their product, they are unlikely to be attracted by the paltry biscuits on offer with the declining publishing houses. Literary luminaries such as Shakespeare, Twain and Hemingway historically chose to self publish and now we hear of modern giants such as JK Rowling forsaking the big publishing house and coming over to the ‘Indie side’.

Food for thought, eh?  Oh, by the way, if those guys at HyperPressTransCosmos Publishing are reading this, I’m just kidding, okay?  Oh, and that victoria sponge I included with my latest submission – you know the one that’s currently in your slush pile – is going to attract mice if you don’t open it soon!


RUNNING WITH CROWS – The Life and Death of a Black and Tan

It is 1921. In Ireland a war of bloody reprisals wages between Republican volunteers and Royal Irish Constabulary. Outrages are perpetrated by both sides in this bitter struggle for an independent Ireland. Meanwhile, in Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol, Constable William Mitchell awaits execution for the murder of magistrate Robert Dixon. Who is Mitchell? Did he really kill the magistrate? What dirty political manoeuvring makes his execution inevitable? And who is the sinister and brutal, square-jawed man, whose life runs in parallel to Mitchell’s and whose path briefly crosses his – with the most tragic consequences?

‘Running with Crows – The Life and Death of a Black and Tan’ is my latest fact-based novel which recounts the true and tragic, but hitherto untold story of this forgotten man – the only member of the British Crown Forces to have been hanged for murder during the Irish War of Independence. Why has no-one told Mitchell’s story until now? Why were the official case papers so difficult to find? Why did so many murders, committed mainly by the Black and Tan auxiliaries, go unavenged? Is it possible this 33 year old Irishman was executed for a murder he did not commit? Did justice fail him?

This is the story they did not want you to hear. What became of Mitchell’s young wife, Alice, and his seven week old baby Kitty? Mitchell’s remains still lie in unconsecrated ground within the precincts of Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol. Not for him reinterment and a Christian burial. Not for him a flag-draped coffin and a hero’s funeral. This man’s fate was destined to be consigned to history … until now.

The Joy of Self publishing

There has been much controversy lately over the self-publishing vs traditional or legacy publishing, with some surprising moves by best selling authors into the self-pub world.  Of course, Stephen King and JK Rowling are not perhaps as groundbreaking as one would think.  Mark Twain and many other distinguished authors chose to self publish. One wonders why.

I greatly enjoy research and I write and self publish popular local history books and also historical fiction novels.  A  major Irish publishing house was unable to take on a book about my Titanic shipwright great grandfather in time for last year’s centenary commemorations as, they explained, these days they can only publish 6 books a year and have a 2 year lead-in period. I would therefore have missed the boat, so to speak. I was amazed, since I personally have researched, wrtten and self published 4 books in the past 12 months. One wonders what these fully-staffed publishing houses actually do in their working day to achieve so much less than a busy working (as I then was) housewife and mother can.

I ran my 2nd novel past another major publishing house, whose recent publicity had proclaimed: ‘you should go with us rather than self publishing as we have the connections to get your book OUT THERE’.  They seemed to like my work and sent me a questionnaire asking such questions as: ‘Do you have any press contacts who could publicise your book for you?’ and ‘Do you know of any events at which you might promote your book?’  Was it really necessary for me to remind them of the annual literary festival which takes place just a few hundred yards from their offices?  Apparently so.

The real joy of self publishing is the feeling of total control over one’s project. I control the timing and the appearance of my work.  I control how, where and when it is presented to the world.  I have a great cover designer who shares my vision and produces exactly what I want.  I choose and pursue the venues I like for author events and I go out there and ‘sell’ a product in which I have total faith and confidence. Nobody else could promote my work as well as I do, since nobody else knows it as well as I.

Yes, it is disheartening to have book reviewing journalists tell you they work only on commission from editors of major publishing houses.  However, only a fool or an optimist would fail to realise it is the piper who calls the tune and that such reviews are unlikely to be wholly honest ones. When I achieve a good review, whether from a journal, an historical society or an Amazon reader, I can rejoice in the knowledge that it has been earned and not bought.

I could tell you sad tales of a writing chum who had such an inappropriate cover image forced on him by a publisher that he received abusive feedback, or of another whose publisher failed to launch his book in time for the major national event it was intended to target, or of yet another who was offered  payment for film rights but had to wait several years until his contract with his publisher expired or the fee would have gone to the publisher. However, I would rather tell you of the enormous sense of achievement and self satisfaction one feels on gazing at one’s own book in a bookshop window and thinking ‘I did that – all of that’.

Magnetic North – The Relentless Attraction of Antrim

Growing up in a grimy, industrial English town, in circumstances sufficiently modest as to preclude any introduction to my Irish roots until I was old enough to appreciate them, I drew my Irish influences from my Antrim father’s many fanciful stories and from the annual gift calendar portraying the causeway in all lights and seasons. It wasn’t however until I reached comfortable middle age that I began my own Ulster odyssey. Curiosity and a desire to trace those elusive roots led me back along the path of my father’s migration, to visit the scenes of his boyhood in the land of legends and giants. To gaze admiringly upwards at the white magnificence of City Hall’s Portland stone dome as it pierces the blue Belfast skies, to sense the saudade for ancestral Scotland upon the ancient battlements of Carrickfergus’s craggy castle, and to stand barefoot upon the jostling basalt fingertips of Finn McCool’s causeway, re-connecting the ley lines of my soul, nowadays gives me immeasurable joy. What is it, I wonder, about Belfast, the unlikely city on the spoil, floating in the swampy mouth of the Lagan, its battle scars slowly healing, where everyone has an opinion and everyone’s a writer, poet or comedian, which draws me back time and again? Is it the rugged resilience, immediate friendliness and lyrical speech of these stoic people; the impossibly beautiful glens and stony shores, or perhaps the capricious island weather which awakes in me inherited memories and a blood connection with the land of my fathers? What e’er the cause of it, to return year after year to this magnetic place, where sudden sea squalls are soothed by strong tea and buttermilk scones, and where the mossy giant lies atop Cave Hill, as a sleeping sentinel to ceaseless history, is enough to delight this diasporadic Ulster heart.

Another positive review for ‘A Wistful Eye’ received today

The Chairman of the Belfast Titanic Society today published, in the society’s journal CQD, a review of my first novel: ‘A Wistful Eye – The Tragedy of a Titanic Shipwright’. Here are some of the reviews received to date:


‘This book is very well written and evokes many memories of what life would have been like in that period of time. It is written with humour and the passion of one who was touched by the sadness of the story. With its look at an early Belfast, it is highly recommended.’ [Stephen Cameron, Chairman].


‘A professionally produced book, A Wistful Eye is a fascinating and enjoyable story …The story was engaging … this was a thoroughly enjoyable read, with some facts about Irish history that I was not aware of.’ [August 2012]


‘A fact-based story of love, loss and injustice, in which the author brings her ancestors and the poor districts of Belfast to life, complete with speech in wonderful local dialect. Kelly’s well researched and fictionalized account of her family history is a Mighty Fine Achievement.’ [April 2012]

SAM McAUGHTRY [‘Sodabread Sam’], writer, journalist and Broadcaster, BBC Radio Ulster:
‘A lovely Read. Well done, you’ve captured the time and place.’




The Next Big Thing is a blog hop interview, giving authors from around the world the chance to answer 10 questions about their new book, and at the same time introducing the writer who tagged them and adding up to 5 more writers who then repeat the process … simple!

Alrene Hughes,  author of Martha’s Girls, tagged me in The Next Big Thing blog hop. Martha’s Girls, a family saga set in Belfast in WWII, is her debut novel, published by Matador and available as a paperback and an e book. You can read Alrene’s Next Big Thing blog post here:-

Now it’s my turn at interview:

1)      What is the title of your next book?  ‘Running with Crows – The Life and Death of a Black and Tan’

2)      Where did the idea come from for the book? A cousin asked me to research the truth of her late father’s claim to be related to a man who was hanged for murder – a Black and Tan.  As yet, I have found no proof that she and her father are related to the man, but the truth behind the incident was a very compelling story and one which has never before been told.

3)      What genre does your book fall under?   I would describe it as a literary work of historical fiction.

4)      What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?  I think Owen McDonnell [who starred as Garda Sergeant Jack Driscoll in RTE Television series ‘Single-Handed’] would be perfect in the lead rôle.  He was a very credible policeman in ‘Single-Handed’ but the role of William Mitchell, soldier and policeman, would challenge his linguistic and emotional acting skills to good effect.    

5)      What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?  This is a research-based novel telling the forgotten story of a tragic man – the only member of the British Crown Forces to be executed for murder during the Irish War of Independence

6)      Will your book be self published or represented by an agency?  It will be self published initially at least, because the lead-in time taken by traditional publishing processes is far too long and life is too short.

7)      How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? The research took around two years but I completed the first draft in around six months.

8)      What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?  It would perhaps stand comparison to Kevin McCarthy’s novel ‘Peeler’, or to Paul Laverty’s script for the film ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’, though my story is not purely fiction but is closely based on true and tragic events. Remarkably little fiction has been set in this tense and pivotal area of British and Irish history.

9)    Who or what inspired you to write this book?  I was inspired firstly by having, with great difficulty and after a long search, uncovered  official papers which suggest a possible miscarriage of justice in the Mitchell case, and secondly by the fact that no-one has ever told the unique story of this tragic man who was hanged for murder in 1921.

10)   What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?  I do not write about Tudor Queens or Roman gladiators.  My urge is to write about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Mitchell was a helpless pawn in a dirty political game and the outcome of Mitchell’s trial was apparently decided before it had even begun. My book reveals why…

Running with Crows is due to be published on 1 March 2013 and will be available in both paperback and kindle editions.   Now let me introduce some writers who will be posting their Next Big Thing blogs on Weds 30 January:  author of Saxon’s Bane:

Geoff Gudgion is a serviceman turned businessman turned author, and he writes novels about present-day people whose lives are affected by the past.  His plots tend to have an ethereal dimension, perhaps a scent of an ‘otherness’, and be grounded in the history and landscape of England.  His début novel, ‘Saxon’s Bane’, is set in the present day but has at its heart a Saxon legend. It will be released by Solaris Books in September 2013.

William V. Kelly is an ex-Royal Navy man turned marine engineer turned novelist, whose début novel recounts the adventures of self-driven, high living, well-travelled and good-humoured Irishman Mike Ballantyne. Until The Fat Man Sings is about to be published in kindle edition.

Richard Walmsley lived in Puglia (Southern Italy) for eight years, teaching English as a foreign language at the University of Lecce. His two novels – soon to be three – breathe the atmosphere of this part of the Italian peninsular. He writes about romance, intrigue and the ever present tentacles of the mafia. A recurring theme in his books is the “duality” of Italian life experienced by this ancient people. Things are rarely as they appear to be on the surface as the inhabitants live 21st century lives in the shadow of strong family ties and beliefs, which often appear to exert a greater influence than modernity. His novels are laced with humour as he follows the many twists and turns in the story line.

His first novel, Dancing to the Pizzica :

has recently been followed by a second: The Demise of Judge Grassi: