The ‘filmic’ life of Daniel O’Connell: a storybook success

Jody Moylan’s fascination with the life of the Liberator resulted in a biography illustrated by Mateusz Nowakowski, whose images bring to life one of the greats of Irish history


While this, my first book, has not been my life’s work, the whole project has spanned about four years, from the germ of an idea to publication.

I’d been doing some freelance journalism, at the National Library mostly. It was here that I began to explore the history of my own community in Co Roscommon, with a particular interest in the late nineteenth century.

I got so caught up in it that I took an extramural course at Trinity College (Ireland Under the Union: 1801-1922) to get a greater grasp of the national world that surrounded rural life at that time.

It was then, really, that Daniel O’Connell came out of the shadows and into my world. And truthfully, he’s probably been the one person that’s been on my mind more than any other, ever since.

Anyone with a brief familiarity with O’Connell tends to think of Catholic Emancipation. It’s like the box that he goes into. And it’s great, and fitting, that he should be remembered for his finest achievement.

But Dan’s life was so much more than just that alone. It was epic, from his birth to his death. It was what I would call “filmic” in its richness. It was from the Trinity College lectures that I began to visualise everything I was hearing. And what I found most interesting, when you get to the nuts and bolts of O’Connell, is that his life was not overly complex, and it could be told in a simple way. And that’s how my own book happened.

While reading one of Dan’s biographies I thought to myself that while I didn’t have the money to make a film, I could make a book, or at least give it a good shot. And the word “make” is key, because although I would write it, I felt the use of original images could elevate it into something fresh and exciting. The images would be used to draw the reader some distance into the text. And because the text would not be saturated with images, I felt it could all be done in a subtle way. The original Sherlock Holmes books by Arthur Conan Doyle sprang immediately to mind, with Holmes, Watson or some protagonist occupying a space in the corner of the page, and capturing the reader’s imagination.

I thought it was the perfect way for the general reader to learn about O’Connell – omnipresent in Irish life by way of street names, monuments and such, and yet somehow overshadowed too, by figures who may not have been half as great. And I wanted to stick to the coda of keeping the word count at 60,000 or less (the ideal for a young adult novel), which it just comes in at.

After some research I found the artist to work with, Mateusz Nowakowski, with help from the art faculty at IADT. I had written an email to be circulated among art students who might be interested in working on a book submission.

I got great feedback from but the work of Mateusz stood out. I loved the style and detail in his portfolio and in the end it was a simple decision to collaborate. Both of us were confident that the idea was good.

As I wrote each chapter I zoomed in on what we could do for imagery, and then got the ideas down in text for Mat to work on. He’d jot down a quick sketch and more often than not it was signed off on immediately. It was a great collaboration artistically as we were on the same page when it came to visualising an incident or moment.

What’s great with illustration, especially with a factual book, is that you can make things happen while still remaining true to the facts. For instance, my favourite image of the whole book is Dan beside George III and Napoleon Bonaparte. It never actually happened, of course, but we thought, “If there was a film about this moment in the book, how would the poster look?”

The image of Dan and his brother Maurice in front of St Peter’s Cathedral in Louvain is also fantastic, I think. We know the two lads were in the city in their youth, and we know the cathedral in the town centre was built many years before they arrived, so we just put them together. So much of the book was hard work, and yet so much of it was a complete joy. But it was receiving the finished images that was the greatest thrill. For me at least, it was these moments that were finally bringing Daniel O’Connell to life.

Daniel O’Connell: A Graphic Life by Jody Moylan, illustrated by Mateusz Nowakowski, is published by Collins Press, €9.99

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