Discussing the creative response to historical events in early 20th century Ireland

I recently gave a paper at the inaugural Association of Writing Programmes Ireland conference at University College Dublin about the challenges of writing historical fiction - I was part of a panel with novelist Mary O'Donnell, who discussed the writing of her recent short fiction collection, Empire (Arlen House 2018). There was some fascinating discussion afterwards so I'm posting my paper here:



As our abstract has suggested, the current Decade of Commemoration has brought into the open many stories previously hidden from the narrative mainstream of received history. In my presentation I am focussing on the creative response to the convulsive events of the first quarter of the 20th century, namely World War I, the Rising and War of Independence and Civil War, using my own experiences as a creative writer as the main basis of discussion, and seeking to place that practice in the tradition of how others have responded imaginatively to the period.

In this presentation, I’ll consider the issues around the creative response to factual events in the first quarter of the 20th century, before focussing on my own experience of writing the first novel in a trilogy exploring the experiences of an ex-army turned policeman in the Irish Free State. When I began this paper, I had a fairly clear outline of what I intended to cover. But that was before the events in Derry last week when journalist and writer Lyra McKee was shot dead during rioting in the Creggan, when a paramilitary took aim at police and killed her instead. That event reminded me that politically-inspired violence in Ireland is not confined to history, and that writers continue to have to grapple with the legacy of our confused and contested past. I’ll return to that point at the end of this paper.

Understanding the past is crucial, and when you begin to write historical fiction, you quickly realise the limits to your knowledge of history. I was speaking to another writer recently about how we were taught the subject. She, a generation ahead of me, mentioned that secondary school history had stopped at the Tudors. In a brief addendum, the 1916 Rising was mentioned as having taken place, but no future details were provided. This was in the 1960s, when the events at the GPO and elsewhere were not even half a century old. I studied history at school in the 1970s, and took it as a subject at university here in Belfield in the early 80s. By that stage, there were plenty of accounts of the Easter Rising, and whole text books consisted of a chronology of rebellions from the Flight of the Earls to Soloheadbeg, that suggested the only possible relationship between Ireland and England was a dysfunctional one, with uprisings the inevitable and sole solution. This kind of history focussed on the minority of men and women involved in the planning of those uprisings; little account was taken of the majority of the population whose lives were of course affected by political events but who went on with their day to day routines as best they could – the one exception were the lectures of Mary Daly, who crucially conveyed the social history in an admirably compelling way. But, by and large, the stories of everyday men and women of the period remained untold.

By the historians, that is.

Writers were a different matter, and although literature of the political unrest was not numerous during the early decades of the 20th century, there were notable exceptions. Yeats, of course, gave us his own idiosyncratic take on violent nationalism. Sean O’Casey’s plays represented ordinary men and women caught up in extraordinary events. Juno and the Paycock tackled the harsh brutalities of life during the Civil War – his Shadow of a Gunman attracted enormous contemporary criticism for its unvarnished depiction of both revolutionaries and Dubliners. Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer, published in 1925, won the James Tait Black Memoiral Prize that year for his depiction of Gypo Nolan, the eponymous informer who goes on the run in the Civil War. In 1929, Elizabeth Bowen published The Last September, which told the story of the Anglo-Irish family The Naylors against a backdrop of the War of Independence. In 1931, Frank O’Connor published his short story “Guests of the Nation,” in a collection of the same name. For many years this was considered the seminal story of the War of Independence, telling as it did the story of two British soldiers shot dead by the Irish Volunteers during the War of Independence. It was certainly the only story dealing with the period that was on the curriculum when I was at school.

But in the 30s, it seemed to go silent. Scholars will have their theories about why the period between 1930 and 1970 did not produce more writing about the bloody events that had given birth to the Irish Free State and then Republic. De Valera’s Ireland did not encourage much self-reflection or social scrutiny so writers may have preferred to cast their nets elsewhere – one thinks of the surreal satire of Flann O’Brien, or the medieval monastic whimsy of Mervyn Wall’s Unfortunate Fursey.

It’s certainly possible that the Censorship Board, established in 1929, might also have had something to do with. Although its remit was the safeguarding of ‘public morality’ through the banning of obscene literature, it soon became clear that the Censor took a very broad view of what constituted ‘obscene’ and soon was banning anything that might challenge a very narrow public consensus. In such a climate, it was hardly likely that Irish writers would seek to challenge political orthodoxies.

And so it remained until the mid-60s, when the social climate began to change and slowly, gradually, people began to challenge nationalist pieties in a way that would have been unthinkable previously. The historians may have started writers rethinking their approach – when I studied history here at UCD in the early 1980s, revisionism was only beginning to make itself felt, and early work by Ruth Dudley Edwards, amongst others, began to suggest that we might find other ways of looking at long-held truths, though that was not the consensus view by any means. Creative writers may have been emboldened by that revision.

But it was an uncomfortable time to be doing so. The Northern Ireland Troubles were under way, and from my very youthful perspective at the time, it felt like there were divided loyalties in the Republic. We still liked to cheer whenever the British got beaten in any sport, but, depending on your viewpoint, honouring our Fenian Dead could be seen as acknowledging a link between them and the current breed of paramilitaries responsible for such carnage on both islands. How to reconcile that sort of cultural ambivalence, and how to write about it creatively?

I don’t have the scope in this paper to discuss the literature of the Northern Irish Troubles. Given that my own creative focus has been on the first quarter of the 20th century, since I began to explore in fiction the lives of the men and women caught up in the various conflicts of that period, that’s what I want to discuss now.

Julian Gough once courted controversy by stating that Irish novelists were obsessed with the past. Writing in his blog in 2010, he said: The older, more sophisticated Irish writers that want to be Nabokov give me the yellow squirts and a scaldy hole. If there is a movement in Ireland, it is backwards. Novel after novel set in the nineteen seventies, sixties, fifties. Reading award-winning Irish literary fiction, you wouldn't know television had been invented. Indeed, they seem apologetic about acknowledging electricity.” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/11/julian-gough-irish-novlists-priestly-caste accessed 18/4/19)

Gough rowed back on his comments a little later, but it’s interesting to consider, even in his commentary, the lack of focus on the earlier part of the 20th century. Where were the contemporary novelists who were writing about that period (Apart from Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon, published in 1974 and still one of the finest Irish novels about the Great War)?

The decade of commemoration acted as a galvanising force, it would seem. Two things were going on here. Firstly, the more the public discourse turned to considering and reconsidering the events of 100 years ago, the more writers began to explore that world imaginatively. Secondly, I’m sure there was a commercial imperative. Publishers are quick to see the attractions of anniversary-themed books (think how many books came out this year around the theme of female suffrage and forgotten women) so they may have been more open to proposals around historic themes. It can be no coincidence that over the past two decades we’ve seen books by Roddy Doyle (His The Last Roundup Trilogy which began with A Star Called Henry, 1999), Lia Mills (Fallen), Sebastian Barry (A Long, Long Way), Mary Morrissy (The Rising of Bella Casey) and, in the crime/thriller field, series by Kevin McCarthy and Joe Joyce among others. Nicola Pierce and Sheena Wilkinson have been exploring the period for children and young adult fiction.

For me as a poet and novelist, it seemed inevitable that I would be drawn to the period. I grew up hearing about the adventures of men and women in that period of time. My mother is a terrific storyteller and my childhood was filled with accounts of my grandfather’s exploits in the War of Independence, and the Civil War. When I began to write, I quickly found that family history was an important subject matter for me. But there were gaps in my knowledge. Family history is never complete, particularly when reticence is part of the mix.

It was only when I began, five years ago, to professionally research the life of my grandfather, Michael McCann, that I discovered that there was considerably more to him than family history had told. Not surprisingly, those family stories had centred on his role as a Volunteer during the War of Independence, though details were sketchy even there, and as a Commandant in the Free State Army during the Civil War. There was practically no mention of the fact that he’d fought on the Somme in World War I – that part of his backstory had been carefully elided. But as we approached the centenary of the start of the First World War, I was anxious to fill in the gaps and, with the help of my surviving uncle, Liam McCann, who was in possession of Granddad’s soldier’s pocketbook, which gave his medal number, I was able to track down a fuller account of his involvement. He enlisted in 1915, joined the Royal Munster Fusiliers, and spent 1916 and part of 1917 on the Western Front, in particular the Somme. He was injured by shrapnel, and invalided out in late 1917. It was then that he moved to North East England, and joined a faction of the Irish Volunteers.

I had written about his Civil War activities in my second poetry collection (Trapping a Ghost, bluechrome 2005), but I’d never written about his First World War activities. Now, with the additional information I’d gained through research, I was able to write a series of poems that charted his progress through the war, and the legacy of injury it had left. Those poems appeared in my 2014 collection, Her Father’s Daughter; I used as the cover photo a snap of my grandfather in his Royal Munster Fusilier’s uniform. I’d not been aware of the photograph’s existence, nor had my mother, but was sent it by a second cousin I uncovered during online research into my grandfather’s family. On the night of the launch, I discovered that choice was not entirely uncontroversial. At the end of the evening, an aunt approached me, wondering why I hadn’t, instead, used one of the many photographs of Granddad in his Free State Army uniform. The family was not universally ready to accept the many-faceted nature of my grandfather’s history, it would seem.

And yet, that was precisely the point of writing those poems, and making use of that photo. My grandfather had not spoken at all about his First World War record, in common with the thousands of Irishmen and women who’d survived that bloody conflict, and who had come home to an Ireland ‘changed utterly’ and utterly unreceptive to their plight. If they did talk about it, they could be a target for political nationalists. So the safest thing to do was to stay quiet. I was convinced of the need to to reinstitute at least one of those voices, to claim that covert experience fighting for Britain as every bit as valid and worthy of writing about as the more politically acceptable activities that followed it.

The choice of my next book, a crime novel inspired by my grandfather’s 20-year career in An Garda Siochána, seemed a less controversial choice. There was more family anecdotal evidence to draw upon, as my mother and her siblings were around for most of it, but there were still gaps in their knowledge, stories half-remembered or conflated. And when I approached the Garda Archive in Dublin Castle to see if they had further information, they sent by return of email an A4 document that provided the bare minimum: his badge number, date of birth, date of appointment (28 March 1925), the stations and divisions where he served, monetary awards received (for good police duty) and date of discharge (29 March 1945). Oh, and the final entry, was a description of his total service as ‘Exemplary’. That could have covered a multitude.

As you know, 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 of the background, from local newspaper reports and historical accounts, 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 after the ending of the Civil War. It was a society I was deeply curious about, but one that I had rarely if ever read about. Thus it was one I wanted explore in fiction.

The background to the Special Branch that my Grandfather joined, and which is the subject of my novel, The Branchman, is as follows. In the period immediately after the end of the Civil War, Minister for Home Affairs Kevin O’Higgins and Garda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy decided that a restructuring of the police force 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.

My grandfather, Michael McCann, was appointed as a member of the Garda Síochána of 28th March, 1925, 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.

My fictional hero, Michael Mackey, was also appointed to the Special Branch in 1925, although he went straight to Ballinasloe to conduct his investigations into suspected subversives in the area. Although the plot is highly fictionalized, I did draw on actual events. For example, I’d read an article in the Irish Times archives that cached ammunition left over from the Civil War regularly caused security problems in small Irish towns. For example, 1st March, 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”. I took the kernel of this event for the novel, and an early incident involves Mackey discovering a cache of weapons in the murder victim’s coal shed, and engaging in a shoot-out with one of the subversives.

Another plot twist inspired by actual events came courtesy of my uncle, Liam McCann (now dead), who 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. In the novel, this gets translated into a major grudge match between two arch rival teams in a county final that occurs on the same day as a visit to Ballinasloe by Minister Kevin O’Higgins. The fans have been infiltrated by subversives who incite a riot that spills out into the official visit, with fatal consequences.

By the way, I am only too aware that my choice of terminology – of subversives and Irregulars – might seem to nail my political allegiances to the mast. The Free State authorities coined the phrase ‘Irregular’ for those men who were against the Treaty and formed their own military opposition to it. Those who grew up in that Anti-Treaty tradition would more likely refer to them as Volunteers, or Republicans, phrases that are as loaded today as they were then – the initial statement commenting on Lyra McKee’s death was attributed to Volunteers. But although my protagonist Michael Mackey might be in no doubt about who the ‘baddies’ were in 1925, the reader will gradually discover that things in the new Free State are not quite that black and white. People on all sides of the divide are forced to compromise morals and integrity on a regular basis; my choice of the crime genre provided me with a useful framework for such an exploration. Crime readers are used to depictions of corrupt societies where nobody is beyond suspicion; my use of a small Irish town as a microcosm for larger dark forces at play in a riven Irish society would not shock anybody familiar with those tropes. Indeed, a recent review of the book by novelist Pauline Hall recognized those similarities:

"The originality of this novel lies in O’Mahony’s treating of dirty work in Co Galway in 1925 within many of the conventions of American private eye fiction. I suspect that Nessa is, like myself, a fan of the peerless Raymond Chandler. Her hero, Michael Mackey – the Branchman – has to go down mean streets, without being mean himself. Like Philip Marlowe, he can exchange blows and shots when required, but he resembles Marlowe also in his stubborn principles and his romantic attachment to a tough broad."

But does writing in a recognizable tradition such as the crime thriller allow one license to mix fact and fiction in such a way? I would argue yes, although I’m aware that more than one reader (with connections to the town) has complained about the depiction of Ballinasloe people in the novel, although others had no such problem. I’d claim that novelists must engage with the past through their own imaginative filter. My protagonist 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 in the novel. But isn’t 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.

Or so I thought before the events of last week in Derry City. Now I wonder whether writers have a duty to the past, to recognize that what might be considered finished business in some eyes is still very much alive and current and thus must be handled with greater care and attention. Might that explain the silence that descended upon Irish writers in the decades after the cessation of the Civil War, a reluctance to deal with what was very much still a source of live debate and dissention? Was it the ending of the Northern Irish Troubles in 1997 that freed up creative writers to tackle these subjects again? And will the arrival onto the scene of a new generation of paramilitaries still trying, in the words of Paul Brady, to ‘carve tomorrow from a tombstone?’ make us more hesitant to write about those events of 100 years ago?

I don’t have any answers to this. I know that as this decade of commemoration advances, more and more stories will be unearthed about the unstable society that the new Free State attempted to pacify in the aftermath of Civil War. It remains a rich subject for fiction; I hope I hold my courage to continue that imaginative exploration.

Thank you