Not too many people can claim a particular teacher inspired them to follow an amazing future - I know I can’t, but Anne Madden can. She was a pupil at Belfast Royal Academy where her history teacher made a lasting impression as he brought the subject to life and Mr Eddie McCamley is proud of his pupil.
Through his teaching she became fascinated with American history and at university her specialist subject was the American Civil War and now she has written a book which I couldn’t put down. I just wanted to keep reading as the story unfolded; for me every time the phone rang or I was offered a cup of tea, I wanted to shout, ‘Leave me alone’.
The Wilderness Way caught my attention and kept me glued to the page. I was immersed in the story, from those happy days of living in a village of white painted stone cottages, digging turf and making poteen; I despised murderous landlord John Adair whose ambition was realised when he built his castle on Glenveagh estate. I felt I knew young Declan Conaghan; I’d given him a voice, I’ve stood on the pier his father helped to build and I’d often visited the town’s workhouse.
I know Portnablagh. One of my memories is early morning, standing on the pier and hearing someone hammering nails into wood on the far side of the bay, I love that sound, something in my childhood that was important.
And this book is important, it introduced me to events I scarcely knew, specifically the eviction of families by landlords in 1860s Donegal and the American Civil War of 1861.
Anne Madden has written a book based on past events and embroidered with imagination to create a family going through torture as they were brutally treated, their little cottages razed to the ground by Adair’s men and divided by emigration.
Adair was indeed the landlord at Glenveagh in 1858 and that castle is now a major tourist attraction at the heart of Glenveagh National Park. He was responsible for evictions of 244 tenants, including 159 children. He married Cornelia Wadsworth Richie whose father was a general in the Civil War and she spent much of her time working with the local people in and around Glenveagh. There was indeed a family called Conaghan and Anne brought them to life in a work of fascinating fact and fiction.
The American Civil War years were obviously researched thoroughly. Descriptions of trauma experienced by Declan and his brother Michael were at times difficult to read; when they were hurt I was hurt. Michael died of his injuries cradled in his brother’s arms, Declan was taken prisoner. On his way into Salisbury prison he passed a wagon with arms and legs of corpses jutting out. He was told: “We had to dig a new burial pit, the last five have filled up that fast.”
After the war, back home in Derry he makes for a pub, a drink and a turf fire. Joe the barman makes him welcome: “Seems that war ended the fairytale of the New World.” Declan begins to relax this was how he remembered home, falling into conversation with complete strangers.
But there was a lot more to come - back to reap revenge on Adair, find a wife, find work and come to terms with what had gone before.
Heading back to Dunfanaghy, the golden yellow gorse along the hedgerows seemed to light up his path home after the hell of the Battle of the Wilderness, dark hours lying face down in muddy ditches with bullets flying overhead thinking he’s never getting out alive. Anne Madden paints a picture you walk into and live with the man she has created.
Anne is a journalist who worked in this newspaper and is now with Sustrans, a charity that works to improve walking and cycling routes across Britain and Ireland. She also spent time as press officer with the Lyric Theatre where she met writers and actors who inspired her, especially Rosemary Jenkinson who advised her to consider a full-time career in writing. She considered it but instead continued with her day-to-day work so it took 10 years to research, write and complete The Wilderness Way.
Descriptions of trauma experienced by Declan and his brother Michael were at times difficult to read; when they were hurt I was hurt
What’s next? She has a wide interest in history in general; one day meeting Auschwitz survivor Helen Lewis on the bus, she made sure they got talking and Helen invited the young woman to tea and cake - an example of her thirst for knowledge.
Anne Madden is determined to bring history to life just as she was taught. “I want to awaken the past as I’ve done with the evictions in Donegal, also the Irish Famine, the biggest thing in Irish history, a seismic event which should be taught in every school.”