Debut novel recalls a Roscommon tragedy in Alabama, 100 years ago

Roscommon-born author Sheila Killian’s debut novel, ‘Something Bigger’, tells the story of an almost forgotten incident in Irish-American history in which a brother and sister from South Roscommon found themselves in conflict with the KKK in Alabama, 100 years ago.

The novel is told from the perspective of Marcella Coyle, grand-aunt of the author, who emigrated alone from Drum outside Athlone to Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of only fourteen to live with her brother Fr. Jimmy Coyle, with no idea of the tragedy that lay ahead. Though the novel is fiction, it centres on a famous marriage and murder in Birmingham, in which the Coyles changed history, but at some cost. The novel can be obtained in all good bookshops.

The true story behind the novel is an incredible one, resulting in Sheila Killian’s grand-uncle paying the ultimate price for his convictions with regard to racial equality.

  “Jimmy was an amazing man,” Killian said. “In many ways he was far ahead of his time, with a real focus on human rights. I was fortunate enough to get the chance a few years ago to visit Birmingham in Alabama, where he lived and died, and it really didn’t seem as though almost a hundred years had passed since he was there.

“People in bookshops and libraries knew his story. In the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, there are only two Irish men remembered. One is the infamous police chief who presided over the civil rights protests in the 1960s. The other, on the better side of history, is Jimmy”.

Far from being a dry historical account, Something Bigger is a work of literary fiction: “The novel is completely fiction, even though it’s based, closely at times, on real events,” said Killian.

“I did a huge amount of research but there comes a time when you move past that, and the characters take on their own lives. That’s what makes it work as a story, not just as history. It also needs to entertain, to make people feel something as well as make them think”.

Based on the glowing reviews the novel has already received from other Irish authors, the book certainly does all of that. Something Bigger is described by author Niamh Boyce as being “beautifully written and full of heart”. Donal Ryan has said, “Something Bigger is a stunning, intensely engaging novel by a consummate storyteller. It’s tense and gripping and beautifully written in restrained, elegant, crystalline prose. This is a book that I would eagerly recommend to any reader, anywhere”. Liz Nugent called it “compelling, intriguing and skilful”, and Dan Mooney called it “a stunning reach into the past to explore moments we’re living through in the present”.

Something Bigger came out on July 20th. Find out where you can order your copy at