Uncategorized

The Branchman debuts at Dublin’s Brand New Crime Writing Festival

Dublin has a brand new crime writing festival. Murder One takes place over the weekend of 2nd-4th November, at the Smock Alley theatre, and features some of the leading crime writers from Ireland and abroad. Headliners are Michael Connelly (whose show is now sold out), Lynda La Plante and Peter James, but there’s plenty of home-grown talent too. I’m delighted to say I’ll be reading as part of the Speakers Corner sessions that take place throughout the weekend. I’m up first on the Saturday morning, at 11am, and will be reading from The Branchman, my new crime novel. http://www.murderone.ie/author-programme/free-readings-in-the-banquet-hall/

This is the first time an event like this has ever happened in Dublin and we’d all love your support to make it into an annual festival – do come if you can and tell your friends! Book now at www.murderone.ie

 

Blog, Features, Uncategorized

The man behind the Branchman – Michael McCann

(A version of this article first appeared in the Irish Times on 19th September)

Five years ago I began to research the life of my grandfather, Michael McCann, a man who has haunted much of my creative writing since I first heard my mother’s stories about his exploits during the War of Independence and Civil War, not to mention the first World War. I’d written about his war record in two poetry collections, but now I wanted to explore his fictional potential for a piece of crime fiction, and so honed in on his experiences as a policeman in newly independent Ireland.

Granddad left the National Army in 1924 and, like many other ex-soldiers, joined the nascent Garda Síochána. To get further background on that part of his career, I contacted the Garda Archive in Dublin Castle to ask if they had a record of him. By return of email came an A4 document that provided the bare minimum: his badge number, date of birth, date of appointment (March 28th, 1925), the stations and divisions where he served, monetary awards received (for good police duty) and date of discharge (March 29th, 1945).

The final entry related to his total service (some 20 years and two days), and the statement “Exemplary Service”. Never have two words been more frustrating; I wanted to hear the details of that service, the cases he’d investigated, the turmoil he’d witnessed in the early years of the new Free State. But if those records were still held anywhere, I wasn’t getting access to them.

There’s nothing a writer likes more than a vacuum, because that’s what frees up the imagination and allows us to invent. I became convinced that if officialdom couldn’t give me the facts, some imagination backed up by historical research might help fill in the gaps. The more I read, the more it became clear that the new police force Michael McCann joined had been thrown into the deep end of an Irish society still deeply divided and lawless. What a perfect scenario for the fictional hero I was beginning to envisage.

Given the breadth of those divisions, the nature of the force tasked with guarding the peace was hugely important. In 1922, Gen Eoin O’Duffy and Kevin O’Higgins planned to establish a Civic Guard, or Garda Síochána, to replace the Royal Irish Constabulary. This force was to be unarmed and politically neutral, though answerable to the Government Minister responsible for their administration. By the end of 1924 and the beginning of 1925, with the Army scaling back (some 30,000 soldiers were made redundant and few had jobs to go back to), it was clear that this new unarmed police force might need strengthened resources.

As Conor Brady puts it in Guardians of the Peace, his history of the Garda Síochána, “some districts remained peaceful after the military had been withdrawn … huge areas of Cork, Kerry, Tipperary, Clare and the Border country immediately became open territory not only for the remaining active bands of Republicans who could find very good reason to rob banks on behalf of the Republic but also groups of ordinary armed bandits. There was, furthermore, a mushrooming problem of disbanded Free State troops turning to violent crime.”

O’Higgins and O’Duffy decided that a restructuring would be required to provide the sort of policing needed in a still highly unstable situation. So in 1925, the Garda Síochána and the Dublin Metropolitan Police were amalgamated and, as part of this newly unified body, a new entity was created, the ‘Special Branch’. The leader of this new outfit was to be David Neligan, one of Michael Collins’s original secret service agents and now a colonel in the Free State Army.

O’Higgins stipulated that members of the new armed detective team should be recruited from the Civic Guards and from the Free State Army Office corps. There were to be about 200 men in this new unit, divided between Dublin and 20 Garda divisions around the country. They were to be given six months of training in areas such as criminal law, police procedure, ballistic and forensic evidence and the use of firearms and self-defense.

My grandfather was appointed as a member of the Garda Síochána and joined the Special Branch on its formation shortly afterwards. He was stationed first in Letterkenny, before being moved to Ballinasloe in 1929, where he spent the majority of his career.

Although the Civil War had been over for several years, the Galway region was still pretty unsettled when my grandfather was transferred there. Ammunition left over from the conflict could cause security problems. On March 1st, 1930, there was a major blast at the back of Society Street in Ballinasloe, which led to the demolition of some shop fronts and the destruction of the offices of the local newspaper, The East Galway Democrat. As The Irish Times reported, “investigations were made by the Civic Guards, and it is thought that a land mine, which was probably hidden by someone who wanted to get rid of it in an ash pit or somewhere behind Society Street, was accidentally exploded”. Later that year, an Irish Omnibus Company vehicle travelling from Galway to Athlone was fired upon from a field on the Athenry to Ballinasloe road. And in September 1931, the Civic Guard barrack at nearby Kilreekil was blown up.

Nessa O’Mahony: The more I read, the more it became clear that the new police force Michael McCann joined had been thrown into the deep end of an Irish society still deeply divided and lawless
Nessa O’Mahony: The more I read, the more it became clear that the new police force Michael McCann joined had been thrown into the deep end of an Irish society still deeply divided and lawless
Trouble never seemed too far away in Ballinasloe in those days. In April 1935, The Irish Times reported that that three shots had been fired into the house of Michael Killeen, Brackernagh. Mrs Killeen, who had been sitting near the sitting-room window, narrowly avoided injury. At a military tribunal the following month, John Keogh of Deerpark, Ballinalsoe, was tried and sentenced to two years in prison for the attack on Killeen, who had been secretary of the Poolboy and Kellysgrove Peat Development Association. In 1941, my grandfather gave evidence in a court case involving a husband and wife in whose house guards had discovered a cache of ammunition and bank notes. According to press reports, Michael had been part of a group searching the house and had discovered the cache “in a groove cut out of the leg of the table”.

My uncle, Liam McCann, (now deceased) also remembered an event from the early 1930s. There had been a hurling match in Duggan Park in Ballinasloe. It got out of hand and my grandfather arrested a man and brought him down to the barracks. A mob came down to try and storm the barracks and Granddad had to fire a gun over their heads to disperse the crowd.

So there was no shortage of incidents that could fuel the fiction I was planning to write. My novel, titled The Branchman and published this month by Arlen House, incorporates some of them and invents many others. It features a newly appointed Special Branch Detective called Michael Mackey, assigned to the Ballinasloe police barracks with the task of discovering the subversives at work there. Of course he bears more than a passing resemblance to my grandfather but, as with many fictional heroes, has his own characteristics, flaws and plot points, which almost certainly never happened in real life, or at least not in the way I tell them here. But that is the joy of historical fiction; it presents an alternative reality. If the writer can make the reader believe in that reality, at least from the first page to the last, she has succeeded in her task.

As this decade of commemoration advances, more and more stories are being unearthed about the unstable society that the new Free State attempted to pacify in the aftermath of Civil War. It’s a rich subject for fiction; I look forward to reading the many imaginative responses that will undoubtedly follow.

Blog, Features

A novel new experience

Although I’ve focussed on poetry throughout my writing career, I’ve always been an avid reader of fiction, and much of my poetry has tended towards the narrative. So it was only a matter of time before I ventured into the brave new world of fiction writing. That I should want to write crime came as no surprise to me; my earliest reading as a young teenager was the novels of Agatha Christie; I worked my way through P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and though I never read Colin Dexter’s novels, I became addicted to the TV adaptation of his Chief Inspector Morse (and the sequels and prequels that followed).

I’ve always believed that we should write what we enjoy reading, so in 2015 I took my courage in my

The cover of The Branchman,

hands and signed up for a course in crime fiction with Irish thriller-writer, Louise Phillips. In an incredibly instructive 10 weeks, Louise took us through the intricacies of structure, suspense, hooks and dialogue. Her first piece of advice was the most crucial; she pointed out that if you wrote 500 words a day, you’d have a full-length novel within the year. She encouraged us to email her our weekly word count, and even provided a handy grid so that we could fill out our daily rate. I got up at 5.30am and wrote until 7am every morning that course ran, and had the best part of 20,000 words written before it had ended. It took me another two years to complete the remaining 60,000 and another year again to edit, refine, edit again to the point that I was ready to send it out.

So i was thrilled when Irish publisher Alan Hayes of Arlen House said he’d like to publish the book, The Branchman, which is soon to make its first appearance in the world.

So what’s it about? It’s about a Special Branch Detective, Michael Mackey, who is sent to a small East Galway town to uncover a nest of subversives and a possible traitor within the police station to which he has been assigned. It’s about the utterly lawless world of post Civil War Ireland, where nearly everyone had a gun, or a secret, or both. It’s about murder and love and jealousy.

I enjoyed writing it enormously, wanting above anything else to create a story that people would want to finish, pages they’d want to turn and characters they’d come to care about. I hope you enjoy The Branchman. There’s more where that came from.

The Branchman will be launched by novelist Catherine Dunne at 6.30pm on Tuesday 18th September, alongside new work by Mary O’Donnell and Sophia Hillan, at the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin 1.

 

Poems

For Mother’s Day

Mammy at Masada

If I were to remember you anywhere
it would be here, cliff-top,
59 metres above Dead Sea-level,
seated on rock, light bouncing off
the white glare of your sun-hat,
breath spasming in your 85th year
of brooking no obstacles.
We’d heard the foundation myth
on the way up: the no surrender,
the 960 men, women and children
opting for glorious death. You opt
for glorious life, gasp the thin air
left in your body, grasp the chance
to rise, resume the tour, run upstream
of tourists swarming the citadel.

Blog, Features, Workshops

What we remember, what we choose to forget

Cork reading posterOn Easter Monday 24th April, 1916, a group of some 1,000 Irishmen and women came into Dublin and occupied a series of buildings around the city. Their aim was to overthrow the British Government in Ireland by military force and to proclaim an Irish Republic. Over the next seven days, over 450 people died, 2,000 were wounded and the centre of Dublin largely destroyed by shelling. 15 of the leaders of the uprising were executed; a 16th was executed later that summer.

On the same day in April 1916, the second Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers was stationed in France, awaiting orders for the next big push that was to become the Battle of the Somme later that summer.

There’s no real information about how soon the news of events in Dublin filtered through to Irish troops serving in France, or what impact it might have had on their mood. There are few reports of mutinies in the weeks that followed the Easter Rising; indeed the first that Irish soldiers may have been aware of the changed sentiment at home that followed the mass executions and internment was during their next leave home. Writers such as Sebastian Barry (in novels such as A Long Long Way) have vividly evoked that change in sentiment, as men who’d left Ireland as heroes returned to a hostile and embittered response.

Included in their numbers was my grandfather, Michael McCann, who had enlisted in the British Army in November 1915 and who had transferred to France some time in April 2016. It’s probable that he had been put to work as part of the Pioneer Battalion of the Munsters, providing the hard labour that created roads, tracks, emplacements and dugouts in the Loos-Marzingarbe-Les Brébas area (source Fourteeneighten Research). But by July he had been involved in the action that became the Battle of the Somme, one of the Great War’s bloodiest conflicts.

Afterwards, hundreds if not thousands of returning Irish soldiers left the British Army and joined the ranks of the Irish Republican Army where they became active in a campaign against a Crown that they’d been defending only months before. My grandfather was one such; he discharged from the British Army in March 1918 (he’d been treated for shrapnel injuries in 1917) but joined the IRA in England in October 1917, possibly having first joined an organisation such as the Irish Self Determination League or the Irish Labour Party. By 1919 he was on active duty with the IRA, taking part in arson attacks and munitions raids; by 1921 he was arrested during an attempted raid on an explosives magazine in Middlesbrough, and sentenced to five years penal servitude in Parkhurst. The subsequent Treaty and amnesty led to his release and return to Ireland in early 1922, just in time for the Civil War where he fought as a Free State Army commandant.

The Civil War had its own share of atrocities, but here too we’ll never know how battle-hardened veterans like my grandfather reacted to them. He kept it bottled up; even his own children knew little of his exploits, other than those reported on by a frequently partisan press. My aunts and uncles described him as a ‘quiet man’ who kept his thoughts to himself. Fragments of his story came down from my grandmother; over the last few years I’ve tried to research to fill the gaps. My collections Trapping a Ghost and Her Father’s Daughter (Salmon Poetry 2014) include some of the poems that resulted.

It’s clear that my grandfather was typical of a whole generation of Irishmen who experienced utter horror and were unable to find an outlet for those experiences. Irish society had embraced another mythology; the narrative of Irish nationalism left no space for other Irishmen who also believed they were fighting for their country.

One of the best elements of this current decade of commemoration has been the re-emergence of their stories. Works like Lia Mills’s marvellous novel, Fallen (which will be the Belfast-Dublin Two Cities One Book choice from April) are exploring the reality of lives for the thousands of individuals and families whose lives were transformed for ever, both by violence at home, and violence on those distant green fields.

I’m incredibly lucky to be reading alongside Lia, and the marvellous Mary Morrissy, whose own novel The Rising of Bella Casey captured that tumultuous period of Irish history so well, as part of The Women and the Rising series at University College Cork on Thursday 3rd March. Further details on http://creativewritingucc.com/www/women-writers-remember-the-rising/.

I’ll also be leading a free creative writing workshop for the Open University on exploring family history  at Castletown House in Celbridge, Co. Kildare, in late April. Details on how to book a place are on http://www.open.ac.uk/republic-of-ireland/events

Blog, Reviews, Uncategorized

Ink Pantry review of Her Father’s Daughter

Natalie Denny of Ink Pantry has reviewed Her Father’s Daughter for the Poetry Drawer section of the website.

‘My page has been empty for months. Forgive me for filling it.’

Nessa O’Mahony’s ‘My Father’s Daughter’ explores the nature of the imperishable and pronounced bonds between fathers and daughters. We embark upon a poetical journey, combining the autobiographical with the historical through two father-daughter relationships spanning two different periods of Irish history.

Nessa’s poetry is a raw and at times a painfully honest depiction of her family life, especially those memories surrounding her father and grandfather. The finished article is a commentary on love and loss including the reconstructive and subjective power of memory.

From ‘His Master’s Voice’ that looks at life through the eyes of the family pet to the powerful ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Father’ which is a personal invite to observing a dying man, Nessa holds little back in creating her images and exhuming her past.

The poem I identified most with was ‘Those Of Us Left’ which comments on the turbulent aftermath proceeding the death of a loved one. It resonates as it accurately portrays the confusion and stark anger which is very typical of grief but not as often spoken about. The gritty realism in the words leave you uncomfortable but enlightened.

The collection is split into five sections, each focusing on a different area. There is a whole part which utilises nature, weaving rich imagery and juxtaposition to refresh how we perceive sentient beings. There’s a particular reference used to different birds of prey which compares relationships with nature, providing interesting contrasts.

Nessa explores the idea of her own immortality in ‘Walking Stick’ when she details adopting the walking aid that was previously her father’s.The cyclical process of life is a running theme, particularly the role reversal of child to an adult in a parent’s latter stages of life. This is a experience many people have with their elderly parents which Nessa captures beautifully.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ explores illness in ‘Waiting Room’ and the failing of mind and body while exploring the impact on relationships. It is a body of work that can transcend the ages and has something within that would resonate with many.

Overall the collection is a heartfelt, vivid and moving tribute.

http://nessaomahony.com/?cat=4

https://twitter.com/Nessao

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Her-Fathers-Daughter-Nessa-OMahony/dp/1908836857/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1453651415&sr=8-1&keywords=her+fathers+daughter+nessa

Reviews, Uncategorized

John O’Donnell reviews Her Father’s Daughter

Extract from ‘Postcards from the Edge’ by John O’Donnell, Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 117, December 2015

The heart of Nessa O’Mahony’s collection, Her Father’s Daughter, is a poignant and affecting series of reflections on the death of her own father. The book opens with ‘Giving Me Away’, an uneasy father and daughter road-trip which O’Mahony views initially as a sort of atonement by her father – ‘Because you had never walked me down the aisle / you sit 330 miles in the passenger seat, / watching the speed-dial, / miming brakes’ – as they head towards her ‘new start’ in Britain. However the tell-tale signs O’Mahony observes along the way reveal her father’s decline: ‘I know you’ve already /left me on this trip, / at Holyhead, at Dublin Port / before the ship embarked.’ Later we are shown the agony – for relatives – of the slow death of a loved one: ‘It has been a year / since you left / the hospital whites, / and were swalled up / by your own chair’ (‘The Long Goodbye’). Elsewhere O’Mahony looks further back; in ‘Walking Stick’ the story of her grandfather’s life is told by reference to his stick: ‘An honest thing: / ash shaft, plain, / crook smooth’ which has been ‘Crafted to bear weight, / the tonnage of trench-foot’, before being ‘Decommissioned once again / into night-watchman jobs / in Coventry, in Cricklewood.’ A case is visible on the striking cover of the same grandfather ‘kitted out as the pride / of the Munster Fusiliers’ (‘Casting Lots’), in which poem O’Mahony also hints intriguingly at the choice facing her grandfather and his brother: ‘who’d go, / who’d return / to farm and family.’ At times O’Mahony feels guilty writing about the illnesses and deaths of loved ones. In ‘Her Master’s Voice’, dedicated to the late James Simmons, she considers Simmons’s elderly dog Charlie on the day his master’s coffin is carried out: ‘He can’t know that a stranger / will come soon, tidying, / sweeping up, thieving a poem / like a starving cur grabs a bone / where she finds it.’

 

‘Portrait of the Artist’s Father’ is really a portrait of the arist writing about her father’s illness: ‘I trawl for metaphors, / imagine corollaries / for the fluid filling your lungs’, before acknowledging the perceived impropriety of so doing:

 

My page
has been empty
for months.
Forgive me
for filling it.

 

O’Mahony should not reproach herself: Graham Greene’s famous insight that there is ‘a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer’ came to him in hospital, as he listened to and watched from a nearby bed the tears and cries of a mother whose son had just died, thinking: ‘This is something which one day I might need.’ A writer does need a good editor, howerver, and there are a couple of curious glitches in an otherwise attractive presentation. A more ruthless editor might also have advised against the inclusion of one or two less successful pieces. At its best, though, O’Mahony’s forthright, heartfelt style is affecting, and further exploration of her family hinterland will no doubt yield up other secrets.