W.C. Ryan on The Winter Guest.

The Winter Guest is set in early 1921, at the height of The War of Independence-  a messy, brutal war with no front lines, that often placed Irishman against Irishman. The novel begins with an IRA ambush which leaves a young woman called Maud Prendeville dead, despite her having been a hero of the Easter Rising. Tom Harkin, a captain in the British Army during the First World War and now an IRA intelligence officer, is sent from Dublin to find out what happened.

The ambush is based, in part on the May 1921 Coolboreen Ambush in which Winifred Barrington, 23 years old, was killed, probably by mistake, while travelling with a police District Inspector, only a few weeks before the truce that ended the war. The Barrington family; prosperous, liberal Limerick merchants and founders of Barrington’s hospital, had come to Ireland in the seventeenth century.  They considered themselves to be Irish and were supporters of Daniel O’Connell but were probably also loyal to King and Empire. They left Ireland shortly after Winifred’s death; selling Glenstal, a large Victorian reinterpretation of a Norman Castle, to the Catholic church. The castle was lucky to survive the conflict – nearly 300 similar Big Houses were burned down by the IRA between 1919 and 1923. Sometimes there were military reasons for the destruction but, often as not, the houses were burned because they represented a landowning class that dominated the countryside at the expense of an often landless Catholic majority. The house survived, however, and became a boarding school where I spent five very cold and damp years.

It’s a curious thing just how many of the Irish Big Houses are said to be haunted, and Kilcolgan is no exception…

The Prendeville family in The Winter Guest live in Kilcolgan House which stands overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a curious thing just how many of the Irish Big Houses are said to be haunted, and Kilcolgan is no exception. Kilcolgan, and the Prendeville family, have seen better days and find themselves, like the Barringtons, unwelcome in a place they think of as home. Tom Harkin has to follow the trail of the killer, revealing secrets which cause still further violence and destruction. He too has conflicting loyalties, being Maud’s former lover and her brother’s best friend, and brings with him his own ghosts from the trenches. Although Harkin’s path is full of danger, there is also the prospect of redemption in Moira Wilson, a woman who also finds herself caught between two conflicting worlds.

The Winter Guest is, I hope, a rattling good read, as that’s the kind of novel I like to write, and it has murders, ghosts, spies and romance.  While The Winter Guest is a work of fiction, its places and characters all have their origins in reality; although they have been altered, combined and reshaped to form the story you’ll find within its pages.

I suppose I’ve been gathering together its elements ever since I first heard of Winifred Barrington’s tragic death when I was 13 years old.

William Ryan is the author of six novels, including the Captain Korolev series set in 1930s Moscow and The Constant Soldier. They have been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Irish Fiction Award, the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year and the Crime Writer Association’s Steel, Historical and New Blood Daggers. 

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