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Holding out for 100 days

February 2, 2016

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Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermot

It may have been one of history’s strangest invasions, but it is also, according to author Des Ekin, one of its greatest adventure stories.

“Battered by punishing storms and towering waves, it had lost contact with its best ships, most of its troops and some of its most important supplies,” Ekin writes in the preface to “The Last Armada” about the invading Spanish force that sailed into Kinsale, Cork, on Sept. 21, 1601.

“As the boats dislodged the 1,700 weary troops and the seasick civilians onto shore,” he continues, “the open-mouthed townspeople also saw a gaggle of nuns in their wimples and veils (and perhaps an occasional starched cornette) trip delicately across the rock and shingle.”

There was also there a “much-feared Jesuit secret agent,” wanted for an alleged murder plot against Queen Elizabeth, a Franciscan friar, who’d been appointed archbishop of Dublin, a place he’d never get to visit, and several other clerics, who collectively tried to assert control over the troops. “Even when it came to military matters, they felt they knew best,” the author says.

Ekin told the Echo: “I was intrigued when I found out how the Spaniards, although pinned down in an indefensible town and hopelessly outnumbered by the besieging English, held on heroically for 100 days through one of the worst winters in memory before finally leaving undefeated.”

The reviewer in the Irish Catholic newspaper in Dublin commented: “The intrigues, the siege, the battle and the aftermath are brilliantly realized by the author.”

“Lovely and enthralling,” added the Sunday Times of London. “Ekin is a wonderful guide through this engrossing tale.”

Kirkus Reviews, here in the U.S., has given it an advance starred review. “A fantastic book,” it said.

Naturally, when Ekin is not writing books himself, he’s reading them: “history, travel, biography, espionage novels, William Gibson cyberpunk.” His other hobbies are “cinema, good food, hiking in the County Wicklow hills, and, afterwards, the delights of a cool Guinness in Johnnie Fox’s mountaintop pub at Glencullen.”

 

Des Ekin

Place of birth: Ards, Co. Down.

Spouse: Sally.

Children: One son, Chris; two daughters, Sarah and Gráinne, all now adults.

Residence: Dublin.

Published works: Two crime thrillers, “Stone Heart” and “Single Obsession.” And two nonfiction history books, “The Stolen Village” and, most recently, “The Last Armada.”

des ekin

Des Ekin.

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

As an old-school newspaperman, I always wrote best amid chaos: clattering typewriters, loudly ringing phones, a deafening cacophony of shouts. One of the reasons I left journalism was that newspaper rooms were becoming as hushed as insurance offices. Today, the nearest equivalent I can find is a noisy café.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

From legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin. I can’t remember the exact quote, but it was something like: “The secret of writing is Ass Power. Don’t talk about how hard it is – just sit down on your ass and write it.”

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

“A Perfect Spy,” by John le Carré; “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan,” by Aldous Huxley; “At Home,” by Bill Bryson.

What book are you currently reading?

“An Officer and A Spy,” Robert Harris’s novel on the Dreyfus affair – compelling reading.

Is there a book you wish you had written?

“Stalingrad,” by Antony Beevor. It showed me that the experiences of ordinary people on the front line of conflict are often more interesting than the diaries of statesmen and generals. It was my touchstone of inspiration for “The Last Armada.”

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.

“The Time Traveller’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger. I thought it might be overly romantic, but it was a totally engrossing time-traveling tour-de-force.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

Bob Dylan, author of “Chronicles Vol. 1,” and also, I believe, a singer and songwriter. No one outside my family has had a greater impact on my life. But they say you should never meet your heroes.

What book changed your life?

“Nathaniel’s Nutmeg,” by Giles Milton: the fascinating story of how trade wars over Asia’s Spice Islands in the 1600s led directly to the rise of New York City. Using impeccable research, Milton showed that a nonfiction history book could still read like a gripping novel. It inspired me to take the same approach – rigorous research combined with an easy-to-read style – when I wrote about the 1631 slave raid by North African pirates on Baltimore in Cork. The resulting book, “The Stolen Village,” became a commercial success and changed my life.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

Besides my birthplace of the beautiful Ards Peninsula, I would nominate Baltimore in Cork. A tranquil seaside village steeped in colorful history, it lies at the extreme south of Ireland and points towards three islands that seem to retreat, like an ellipsis in an unfinished sentence, into the mists of another, more ancient, world.

You’re Irish if…

This is from a history writer’s perspective: You’re Irish if you refer to World War II as “The Emergency,” putting humanity’s most catastrophic experience on a par with something like a domestic plumbing problem. And you’re Irish if you can vividly remember “800 years of English misrule” but can’t remember where you left your car keys this morning.

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