A novel by Marita Conlon-Kenna

Safe Harbour is a book about two children called Sophie and Hugh, who are trying to escape from the blitz during World War II. Their Dad is away fighting the war. Their mum is in hospital recovering from serious injuries after their house had been bombed. All alone they travel to Greystones in Ireland to stay with their Grandfather whom they had never met. At first he appeared a strict, grumpy old man with lots of rules. In Greystones they also meet their great aunts Dolly and Maud, from whom they discover more about their relations in Greystones.

Their Grandfather introduces them to swimming but Hugh nearly drowns in the harbour while playing with his friend. This makes their Grandfather really angry and upset with Sophie who was supposed to be minding Hugh. Sophie later realises that his anger springs from the memory of the death of his own son Peter, who was drowned in a similar accident many years ago. Some time afterwards their Grandfather decides to buy Hugh and Sophie a little rowing boat called the "Londoner". The children consider this a peace offering. The children had great fun messing about in the "Londoner".

One day towards the end of the war a German bomber mistook Dublin for an English city and bombed it. The plane crashed into Greystones harbour shortly afterwards. Grandfather and Sophie rushed to save the German crew in their little rowing boat. They managed to save two of the three crewmembers. Afterwards Grandfather and Sophie came to understand that they were very alike and the book ends on a note of hope for the future.

Joint Reading Project

6th class from St. Mary's National School, Ballygunner, Waterford, Ireland and Grade 6 from St. Patrick's Elementary School, Bay Bulls, Newfoundland, Canada, cooperated on a joint reading project, which required both classes to read Marita Conlon McKenna's novel "Safe Harbour".

The Teleconference

On the 26th April 2001 Marita visited St. Mary's. During the daylong visit, 6th class students and Marita travelled to the Waterford Institute of Technology's auditorium where they teleconferenced with their colleagues in Bay Bulls, Newfoundland.

The following is an account of the discussion that took place between Marita and the students on both sides of the Atlantic.


By way of an introduction students from St. Mary's played a traditional Irish tune on their tin whistles called "The Boys of Blue Hill". Students in Newfoundland sang their school song with accompanying actions.

Background Information From The Author

Marita told us that Greystones was her favourite place in the whole world. When she was growing up she spent half the year in Dublin and half the year in Greystones. She was allowed run riot and to do what she wanted in Greystones. When it came time to write a book about WWII she decided to place the evacuees where Marita herself always felt safe and enjoyed; Greystones.

Marita has always been very interested in WWII. When Marita was growing up in Greystones there was a pier that was supposed to have been bombed during the war even though Ireland was neutral. Many Irish people had relations in the war. Marita's own uncle was a sailor on a submarine that was torpedoed. He was in the water for days and as a result got a lung infection from which he never fully recovered and subsequently died. She said she grew up with stories about WWII.

When Marita was young the farmers around Greystones used burn gorse on the surrounding hillsides during the summer. An old WWII siren would summon a volunteer fire crew if the fires got out of control. During the war the same siren would have alerted people to run to the bomb shelters. Marita always found the siren scary and it left her with a sinking feeling.

Marita remembers the film "Blue Max" being shot in Greystones. The cameras were set up on the pier from where they filmed the planes being shot down and crashing in flames into the water. As Marita lived beside the harbour and she had a bird's eye view of all the proceedings.

Marita mentioned she likes to control things. In her novels she likes to place children in situations of change. Sophie is a control freak; she wants everything to be perfect. Even when war is declared and Hitler is bombing London, Sophie wants to do her homework and have the teacher correct it. One evening when they have to go to the bomb shelter her friends see it as a great excuse for not doing their homework while Sophie does here homework by torchlight. Afterwards Sophie gets really annoyed when her teacher doesn't care about the homework.

Marita thought that a person like Sophie would do very badly in a war situation because she is not good at adapting to a situation she can't control. She decided to send Sophie to a place where she would have to change, to a looser more unstructured place like Greystones. She decided to send her to a person very like herself, so created a new character, her Grandfather. She wanted to see the interaction of age and of two people who were very alike. So Marita sent Sophie to her Grandfather, watched how the war broke out between them and how they would solve their differences.

Marita said it was a super book to write and a fun book to research. She hoped people enjoyed it.

Questions from the students.

Students from both Newfoundland and Canada then asked her questions about her novel "Safe Harbour".

Do you find that you have to be in a certain place to write certain parts of your books?
The research helps a lot with writing the book, it helps to place it. In "Safe Harbour" I knew Greystones really well, I knew every shop, I knew the houses they would go to, I knew the rock that Sophie would run to when she was scared and upset with her Grandfather. I went over to London and saw where she would be in London. You have to imagine stuff as well, for example I wasn't on a boat but I have been sea sick before. To get into the period I bought all these tapes of WWII songs and in the book Sophie is all ways singing. It took about a year between researching and writing the book and I used to play these tapes in my car wherever I would go. It used to drive my children crazy but I would say to leave them on because when I wasn't being mum, I was in WWII being Sophie. I needed to be Sophie for a lot of the time that I was writing the book. You have to combine research and jumping into your imagination when you are writing a book.

Who was your favourite character in "Safe Harbour" and why?
I have to admit that Sophie was my favourite character, she was my main character. I suppose in a vague way she reminded me of myself, she has all my good traits and some of my bad traits as well. She is a very interesting character. Probably of all the characters in my books she is the most intelligent. She hated what was happening and she didn't understand it herself. She needed help but she found it hard to ask for help. In the book near the end when she hears that Dublin has been bombed and she reads about it in her Grandfathers newspaper, she gets very angry and very scared because she thinks that she has left England and left her mum to be safe and now she thinks Ireland is going to be bombed and she is going to be killed in Ireland. I researched when Dublin was bombed by accident and the papers of the time said very little about the people who were killed. Instead they talked about Dublin zoo and how the buffalos stampeded, the monkeys screeched and the elephant toppled over. I was Sophie when I read it. I got really angry because people died, people's houses were blown to bits and people thought that Hitler was going to march in here. I got really confused, scared and angry when I read the old newspaper. In this book the elephant toppling over, I think was a very good thing because it was really Sophie toppling over. She realises she needs help and she needs to be closer to her Grandfather. She can't control what's going on so she has to accept that she is alive and safe in Ireland.

Are the characters in your book based on family members or close relatives?
Generally no, my friends would get angry if I made them bad or if they did something terrible in the book. I try to make them up. It would be unfair on my family. The characters create themselves.

Would Marita like to make a film out of "Safe Harbour"?
I would actually love there to be a film of "Safe Harbour". In my head I can see the whole book been filmed. I would love to go down to Greystones, get out a chair and watch them filming it. It would be one set I would love to go on.

If you were in Sophie's shoes would you react the same?
I'd act even worse, I'd be terrible, I'd be very bad. I don't take change easily. I think I'd be very like Sophie, I'd be scared, I'm a real scaredy cat. In situations of terror and horror I'd probably let myself down. I'd be screaming all over the place and hysterical. I'd be even more of a disaster than Sophie. Sophie is like me without the calmness. Sophie would be a better person in a war situation than me. She would react better, definitely.

Are you writing any books at the moment?
I'm writing loads of books. I'm finishing an adult book called "Miracle Woman", which hopefully will be out shortly. Next I'll be doing a children's book. I'm going to be doing a follow up to "Deep Dark Wood", one of my other novels, which will be called "Me and the Magician".

Do you think that the Grandfather needed a wooden leg in "Safe Harbour"?
That's a very funny story. About nine years ago we were looking at an old house in the Burnaby in Greystones that we were considering buying. An old colonel owned it. It was a rainy wet day that we met the auctioneer. My husband and children were there. We were downstairs talking with the auctioneer while my children were looking around upstairs. Suddenly we heard a thumping noise. When I looked up my two younger children were standing at the top of the staircase with two wooden legs saying, "look what we found". They had opened a wardrobe and taken out somebody's wooden legs. I said "where did you get those, put those legs back, they're not your legs", and of course everybody just burst out laughing. It turned out the colonel had a load of wooden legs so I said it just had to go in the book. It's also on a very wet day when Sophie and Hugh are bored that they find the legs and discover their grandfather has a wooden leg. When you're a child you like to be polite and you don't like to ask. You can never be really sure if somebody has a wooden leg. So I had to put that in the book, I just couldn't resist it.

Was you Grandfather like Hugh's and Sophie's Grandfather?
Actually no, I never had a grandparent because all my grandparents were dead before I was born. I'd have loved to have had grandparents. I think it's a very special relationship.

What encourages you to write more novels?
I love writing. Whether a book gets published or not is beside the point. I get a story in my head and I write it down. I hope the publishers will like it. That's the way I work. It's given me great freedom to write different kinds of books and I've a great publisher, he just goes along with everything. I'm a curiosity box, a bit of a nosey parker and I like to find out about things and research things. I talk too much. When I ring up people and ask them to tell me something and I say I'm a writer, then everybody wants to help. It's a great way to find out stuff.

Will there be a sequel to "Safe Harbour" and if so when will it be published?
It's kind of strange. Every book I write people want a sequel. Usually they want it the week after they've read the book. I don't know why but the books I write tend to be open ended. I just never put a pink ribbon on a story and put it in a box. I think because I do it this way you tend to remember Sophie, to remember Hugh. You haven't been given a one hundred per cent happy ending, you don't know what's going to happen to them so they actually live a little bit inside you, you're thinking about them. After "Safe Harbour" I was thinking of doing a book about the end of the war, when their father would come home after WWII. When the dads did come home from WWII, some of them came home maimed and injured. Some of them never came home at all. Some of them looked normal, they weren't maimed and injured but they weren't normal at all. They had been very affected by what they had experienced. It was very hard for them to settle back into a normal life with their wife and children. I probably would have looked at it from that end. I don't have any plans to do a follow up. I'm not saying, "never say never". I love Sophie and Hugh I'd love to come back to them but not for the moment.

Apart from writing what are your other interests?
I like art and painting. I'm a terrible chatterbox so I have oodles of friends and I spend lots of time talking to them on the phone and meeting them. At the moment I'm finishing a book so I've barred myself from seeing them because I've got to concentrate. I've got a dog that I bring for walks and I've brilliant family and a really nice life. I've loads of friends. So friends, family, art, painting, theatre, films are all things I love and my dog and the garden. I'm not bad at gardening either. I should be out working in the garden at the moment. The dandelions are taking over but they'd better watch out because I'll be back out in the garden next week when my current book is finished.

Ms. Whittle's 6th Class,
St. Mary's National School,

We would like to thank Marita Conlon McKenna for visiting our school and also the Waterford Institute of Technology for the use of their auditorium to teleconference with our friends in Newfoundland.

And a big "hi" to our friends in Canada.