Rebel Sisters by Marita Conlon-McKenna

Being an Indian, I have a lot of things that I can relate to in Ireland. The tricolor flag and the fight for freedom from the British being two of them. Naturally, I was thrilled when I was offered an advance copy of Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Rebel Sisters by TLC Book Tours to review (thanks for that!). I had read about the events of 1916 (it’s hard to escape it being in Dublin) and was really interested when the book promised to give me the story of three of the most influential women in the 1916 Rebellion.

Rebel Sisters pans out through the stories of the three Gifford sisters – Grace, Muriel and Nellie. The book begins 16 years before the Rising with domestic scenes from Isabella and Frederick Gifford’s large family comprising 12 children. Well, 11, considering that one of them was away at sea and makes an appearance only much later.

Frederick Gifford is a solicitor and hence his family is able to afford luxuries like a nanny for the children, holidays by the sea, cakes for dessert, and new and expensive dresses for the girls as they attend parties in the upper echelons of society. After the initial introduction to some of the members of the household, our focus is drawn chiefly to the lives of Nellie, Muriel, and Grace with Sidney slipping in between. Through them, we get to see an Ireland that is experiencing its first stirrings of nationalism. People were considering and envisioning a government of their own, and decisions that could be made of their own volition. But there were still a lot of people like Frederick and Isabella who considered the Crown as their leader. Speaking Gaelic was something of an abnormality and for Isabella, it signaled a different level of standing in the society. When she hears of Patrick Pearse’s ‘St Enda’s School’ for boys she is filled with disgust.

“Mother considered it a nest of vipers, a school full of nationalists and Sinn Feiners and Gaelic Leaguers. ‘They speak Gaelic and have no business opening such a school in a good area like Ranelagh,’ she complained.” I was fascinated by this particular point because it speaks volumes about the sea change that Ireland has undergone over the past few decades.

I was fascinated by this particular point because it speaks volumes about the sea change that Ireland has undergone over the past few decades. To the consternation of their mother, each of her girls turns out to be different from her with a mind of their own. Not only do they follow careers of their own and move out of the house, they also get drawn into the brewing revolution in various ways. Muriel trains to be a nurse, Grace goes to art school, eventually turning out to be a great illustrator, Sidney becomes a respected journalist under the pen name of ‘John Brennan’ and Nellie becomes a cooking instructor. To top it all, Muriel gets married to Thomas MacDonagh and Grace falls in love with Joe Plunkett, two nationalists, and key leaders of the 1916 uprising.

I liked reading about the imagined, day-to-day lives of these women, no doubt put together through painstaking research. But there were many details that weren’t really required. Mostly, overwrought sentences that had superfluous adjectives and explanations. People are reading or sitting “quietly” or men are talking or escorting women “politely” all the time. Sample these sentences –

“‘You are very welcome to bring a sister or a friend along,’ he added politely.”

“‘You look divine,’ John promised as they walked to the nearby tram stop.”

“With his ring on her finger, the two of them were now linked forever.”

They just don’t evoke the emotions they intend to and the feelings fall flat. We know a lot about the sisters, their professions and their love lives but we don’t go under the skin of the characters, empathizing with them, understanding them, or sharing moments with them. There were some parts that did require a little more fleshing out. Like Sidney’s penchant for being called by her nickname ‘John’ inside the house as well. I found the usage of ‘John’ to refer to ‘Sidney’ quite disconcerting because of the lack of a solid explanation.

For me, the most honest parts of the book are towards the end, when the rising gathers steam. I particularly liked the moments when Muriel and Grace know that Thomas and Joe had been given the death sentence. There is a bit of poignancy and feeling that is absent in the rest of the book.

“A soldier came and knocked on their front door. Three-year-old Don ran ahead of her as she went to open it.

‘Where is my dada?’ he demanded, seeing the man’s army uniform.

‘Your father is to be shot,’ the man said coldly and her little boy, scared and hysterical, ran back into her arms.

Muriel began to shake.

‘Mrs. Muriel MacDonagh, it has been ordered that Mr. Thomas MacDonagh, who is convicted of treason, is to be executed at Kilmainham Jail tomorrow…’

Execution…execution…The very words made her feel weak and she tried to steady herself.”

Spare and to the point, I felt Muriel’s shock as I read it.

In addition to the personal lives of the Giffords, I would have also loved to know a little more about the Cumann na mBan, the Irish Volunteers, and some more details about the events that led up to the Rising. I appreciate the research and the effort that Conlon-McKenna has already poured into this book, and the stories of the Gifford sisters are meant to be told. I just wish they had more life in them than being mere words in a book.

Verdict: Strictly ok

Rating: 3/5

Thanks again to TLC for sending me this copy to review!

3 thoughts on “Rebel Sisters by Marita Conlon-McKenna

    1. Thanks for the opportunity to review this book Lisa! 🙂

Share your thoughts!