(Editor’s note: This 14th installment of our “Story Behind the Story” series takes us back in time and across the Atlantic Ocean, to the remarkably dangerous Ireland of 1920. Our guide is Irish writer Kevin McCarthy, author of the recently released novel Peeler [Mercier Press], which the Belfast Telegraph called a “multi-layered, morally complex masterpiece,” and The Irish Times said is “strong on historical detail and assured in its plotting.” Readers who have already enjoyed that book and its protagonist, cop Sean O’Keefe, will be pleased to hear from the author that “I’m currently working on a sequel to Peeler, tentatively titled Irregulars and set during the [Irish] Civil War. I plan a series of O’Keefe novels charting the foundation of the Irish Free State from the bottom up. Kind of a revisionist look at Irish independence and nationhood from the perspective of a serving police constable/detective.” Below, McCarthy recounts how he came to pen his debut historical crime novel.)
The first thing, inevitably, your friends--or anyone, for that matter--asks when they discover you’ve written a novel that is about to be published is: “What’s it about?” To this, over time, you come up with a summary of sorts, reducing three years of work to a pitch line straight out of Robert Altman’s The Player. “It’s called Peeler. It’s about the brutal murder of a woman during the Irish War of Independence. A good cop, an RIC--Royal Irish Constabulary--man, a wounded veteran of the Great War, investigates the murder while the Irish Republican Army (IRA) investigates it from their side.”
“Sounds cool,” your friend says. “I didn’t know you studied Irish history.”
I didn’t. But I did to write this book. Researching a historical novel is the fun part. It is where you take your general knowledge of a time and place in history, and read out from there and then, read in--primary sources, first-hand accounts, police reports, diaries, letters--narrowing the focus until you get inside the heads and the hearts of the men and women who were living through it. How they acted. Why they acted. What they felt. In this, you get beneath the skin of the accepted versions we’re taught in school. Get to the underbelly, so to speak.
The accepted version is what you are, in essence, reading against and if you read enough, you find that this version merely skims the surface of the truth of Irish history at best. Skims the surface wielding a large brush and bucket of green paint at worst. The interesting thing for me has always been the parts that this conventional, accepted history leaves out.
J.G. Farrell, the Liverpool-Irish novelist, renowned for his historical fictions, who died in 1979, too young, only a few miles from where I set Peeler in West Cork, wrote: “History leaves so much out … It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like.” The best historical fiction strives to rectify this--filling the gaps in “history” with the imagined motives and passions of ordinary men and women in times distant from our own but similarly human. From Robert Graves to Stephen Crane to James Ellroy to Alan Furst--all of these writers scour the margins, scrape and prod at the underbelly of the time and place and characters they’ve used and invented to re-create the “detail of what being alive is like”--in Imperial Rome or a Civil War battlefield or wartime Los Angeles or wartime Bulgaria. With the exception of Graves, they write about the bit players in the larger historical dramas as if they were the grandest players on the stage of history, and this is exactly how it should be, because this is how history is to every one of us as we are living through it.
Get beyond the accepted version--seek the detail of what being alive (or dead) was like--and the War of Independence in Ireland (1919-1921) becomes one fought at close range. More men were killed with revolvers than any other type of weapon. Shotguns were often used, again at close quarters. More often than not, killers knew their victims personally. It was a gangland-style war, with tit-for-tat murders rather than pitched battles. A war of hit men and death squads on both sides, hunting marked targets and targets of opportunity.
The version that Irish children are taught in school is one of set-piece battles and masterfully planned ambushes; of outnumbered Irish Flying Columns sending hardened British Army troops fleeing in retreat. These things happened, you learn, but rarely. More often, the violence took place in fetid alleys and darkened lanes. Assassinations were spawned in brothels used by Crown troops, whores touting to rebel gunmen and “donating” money to the IRA arms fund.
It was in this underbelly of society where Irish rebels fought their War of Independence against the British government. It is also in that underbelly where crime novels are generally set. So it seemed only natural that Peeler should take the form of a crime novel. A police procedural, but one fraught with the ambiguities and depravity of a guerrilla war waged in the long shadow of the Great War in Europe and 800 years of foreign occupation. Ambiguities such as: Charged with enforcing law and order under the Crown, most Peelers--Catholic and Protestant alike--desired independence for Ireland. They were rightly terrified by the campaign of murder being waged against them by the IRA, and yet felt only disgust for most of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries brought to Ireland to help with “policing.” Brilliant contradictions that are so human you can’t not write about them.
And life outside--the details of my living--intervenes to shape a novel. As I sit here, now, typing this, I can hear the burping rattle of light and heavy machine guns from a live firing exercise at Gormanstown Army barracks, a couple of miles north of my home on the east coast of Ireland. Throughout the writing of Peeler, this was often the case and oddly appropriate, given the subject matter of my book. There is one line in the novel, in fact, that I wrote--not an important one, but a small line of atmospheric detail--just because I happened to hear the gunnery exercise that day when I was writing the scene. It involves a post-curfew prowl through the war-ravaged streets of Cork city by the protagonist, RIC Sergeant Séan O’Keefe, who “made it back to the Daly house without seeing another soul in the streets, sticking to the shadows, using alleys and laneways when he could. Damp pavements. Shot out streetlamps. The distant roar of revving engines, bursts of machine-gun fire.” Of course, I have taken my description of wartime Cork from any number of contemporary accounts, but I’m not sure if I would have included that last bit, the “bursts of machine-gun fire,” had I not heard, just then from outside my window, the sustained, mechanical pop-pop-pop, stu-tt-tt-tter of the gunners in Gormanstown. The outside world intruding, living detail.
Like all novels, I imagine, Peeler came from a serendipitous convergence of sensations and objects and events. For me: books stumbled upon, snippets of conversation, a plaque on a bridge.
With Peeler, I chanced upon Myles Dungan’s Irish Voices from the Great War (1995) in the local library returned books stack. Entering the library, I always make my way to this pile first for some reason, and always have since I was a child, anxious to see what others have been reading. More often than not, it’s self-help and the driver’s theory test or Harry Potter novels, but the odd time, a gem like this one reveals itself. Halfway through the reading of Irish Voices--first-hand accounts of World War I on all its fronts from the diaries and letters of Irishmen who fought, brilliantly compiled and contextualised--it occurred to me to write a fictional account of the bloody, 1915 assault on V Beach by the Dublin and Munster Fusiliers in the Dardanelles, at which more than 1,000 Irishmen died in a single morning. Fortunately, I didn’t write it, as the book I outlined on the back of an envelope was strikingly similar to Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way, which was published halfway through my second draft of Peeler. But a seed was planted.
Luck would have it, however, that a second book landed in front of me at roughly the same time, courtesy of my mother-in-law’s research into her own father’s service in the Royal Irish Constabulary. (“Your father was an RIC man? I thought he owned a shop?” “He did, after he retired from the Peelers … He’s listed here, in this book …”)
Jim Herlihy’s The Royal Irish Constabulary: A Short History and Geneaological Guide (1997) is a fantastic history and compendium of the names and details of service of virtually every man who once served in the RIC, researched and written by a serving member of the Garda Síochána (the police force of the Republic of Ireland). Reading this, I discovered that many RIC men had volunteered to serve in the Great War and returned--if they returned at all--to another, more personalized sort of warfare in Ireland in which they had become the primary targets of the IRA campaign for independence. The story in my head began to slowly shift and reshape itself. Questions arising, conflicting with my previous assumptions. Irish men killing other Irish men for the sake of Irish Independence? That was the Irish Civil War, wasn’t it? No, not yet. It wasn’t just the IRA vs. brutal Black and Tans and the British Army? No. Yes. There is more to this, I felt. Dig deeper, go wider to the margins and then hone in, find the detail of what being a copper, a gunman, a Black and Tan was like.
Then, there is the plaque on the small bridge in my town. It is outside of a pub I drink in, and I pass it every time I enter the pub. It reads: “Near this spot Seamus Lawless and Sean Gibbons were Brutally Done to Death by British Forces while in their custody. September 20, 1920. Ar dheis De go raib a n-anam.” (May their souls be at the right hand of God.)
It is well-known locally, that these Occupying Forces were trainee members of the Black and Tans based at the training depot at Gormanstown Aerodrome--now home to the Irish Army and the live firing exercises I can hear from my room--who sacked the town in revenge for the killing of an RIC man who had just been promoted to district inspector. This RIC man had been drinking in a local bar with his brother, also an RIC man, to celebrate the promotion, when they became involved in an argument--about politics, no doubt--with some members of the local IRA company. Drink had been taken, so the story goes--as do most of the crime reports from the local newspaper today--and a pistol was produced, a man shot dead, the town burnt to the ground and two men tortured, then bayoneted to death and left in the middle of the road at dawn amidst the smoldering ruins. What, I couldn’t help but think, were two armed policemen--men with a bounty on their heads throughout the country--doing drinking in a bar with armed republicans? What was it like living, drinking, working in a town, a nation, where virtually anybody could be armed and there were more police per capita than almost any country in the world at the time and yet, common crime was rampant? What kind of war was the War of Independence?
It was the kind of war, I discovered, in which the most violent and bloody killings were carried out by men who then organized ceasefires for race meetings and market days. It was a war during which women were targeted, tarred and feathered, stripped and raped and daubed with red and blue paint and sometimes murdered for associating with members of the Crown forces. It was a place where innocent men were dragged out of bed by members of an occupying army and shot dead “while trying to escape.” It was a war fought by damaged men fresh from the slaughterhouse of the Great War unleashed at a pound a day upon the people of Ireland. It was a war fought by brave, idealistic, articulate and intelligent men on both sides; men who hated war fighting and policing alongside other men who weren’t living unless they were killing.
Plumbing this, prodding the underbelly, searching for the details of what being alive was like during this period of bloody tumult. This, really, is what Peeler is about.
(A version of this essay appeared originally in Crime Always Pays.)