The brand new Irish period drama Death and Nightingales debuts this week on BBC Two, and tells the story of Beth Winters, a young woman who decides to escape from her current life. The show's cast includes the likes of Fifty Shades actor Jamie Dornan, but is Death and Nightingales based on a true story? Well, not quite, but is does draw heavily on a very real period of history.
The plot of the new series, which begins on BBC Two at 9 p.m. on Wednesday 27 November, is actually based on the 1992 novel of the same name, penned by Irish author Eugene McCabe. The book is considered by many to be an Irish literary classic, and is in fact McCabe's only novel, despite being well known for his plays and short stories.
Death and Nightingales is described as a "riveting story of love, betrayal, deception and revenge, set in the beautiful haunting countryside of Fermanagh [now Northern Ireland] in 1885 when all of the country is an undivided province of the British Empire" reports the Express. The entirety of the plot is set over an intense 24 hours, which happens to be Beth Winters' (Ann Skelly) 25th birthday. On her birthday, Winters decides to join Liam Ward (Jamie Dornan) and run from her current situation, including her complicated relationship with her stepfather.
While the characters might not be real people, the conflict experienced by Beth, is based on a very real period of history. Born to a Catholic mother, Beth was raised by her landowning Protestant stepfather who unwittingly married her mother when she was already pregnant. Beth then falls for a Catholic lover, adding to the complexity of the situation. The drama unfolds in 1883, the year after the Phoenix Park Murders of the chief secretary of Ireland and his undersecretary. Creator Alan Cubitt describes the era as "the start of modern terrorism, terrorism as we know it,” reports the Radio Times, adding that a 1987 bombing in Enniskillen, where the novel is set, “must have been part of [McCabe’s] thinking” when he penned the text.
The Irish Times has also previously reported that while McCabe was born in 1930 in Glasgow, his parents "originally came from the Border counties of Fermanagh and Monaghan," a region the family returned to after the outbreak of World War One. Citing a 1977 interview with Northern Standard, McCabe previously explained:
"In recent times, since the outbreak of the Troubles in the North, I am very conscious that I am a writer living on the border. There is no way a writer can turn his back on what is happening around him. All other themes seem trivial to what is happening around us."
In addition to Kelly and Dornan, the BBC drama also stars Matthew Rhys, who has previously appeared in television show's including The Americans and Brothers & Sisters. Series creator Cubitt is known for his work on The Fall, and wanted to adapt this classic story for the small screen after admiring the work of author, McCabe.
When speaking to the Express about the novel, Cubitt said "It’s a book, that once I read it I really felt it's power and potency. It intrigued me and excited and interested me," and continued "It’s really the power of Eugene’s writing, the potency that kept me committed to the material over the years and has resulted in producing it and offering it for people to have a look at." The Death and Nightingales series creator also opened up about the difficulty he experienced adapting the original tale into a television series.
"There are all kinds of things that the cast will be reeling from being cut, but that’s always the process. If you lose good material so be it, hopefully, what remains is strong and powerful. Even with three hours at my disposal I couldn’t do everything that’s in the book — despite the fact that it’s not a long novel."
Further discussing the creative process behind his new BBC series, Cubitt said "But once you start to explore it, it’s immensely dense and so much of the material is in the form of flashbacks that the challenge for a dramatised versions as how to render those in a way that keeps the forward momentum of the story and yet contextualises this 24 to 36 hour period when it’s Beth’s birthday and the plan is in action," and added "The challenge in a way is to portray that backstory but not lose the forward momentum as well."
Cubitt has also pointed out that the story has relevance to the current political conversation, thanks to Brexit. "Representing how divided things were back then is a reminder we can't let that divide reassert itself," he told the BBC. This was echoed by Dornan, who explained that growing up in Northern Ireland left him with a familiarity of The Troubles. "I have a very good understanding of it," he explained of the Protestant-Catholic conflict represented in the show. "I could relate to it in my own way because I definitely experienced it."
Death and Nightingales starts on Wednesday 28 November at 9 p.m. on BBC Two.