Armagh Writer Launches New Novel

Darran McCann on the increasing popularity of historical fiction and hearing stories in pubs

A good writer is very often a patient listener. By keeping one’s ears alert in conversation, stories tend to present themselves in the most unlikely of circumstances. A seminal moment came for author Darran McCann when he overheard a local yarn in South Armagh that goes something like this:

As legend has it, sometime after the Easter Rising, a group of locals in the village of Madden went to the parish priest and asked if they could hold a dance in the parochial hall. The priest, a staunch anti- communist, suspected an underground Marxist revolution being planned, and refused.

Undeterred, the group built an alternative venue to the parochial hall and began holding social events there. In an act of defiance, and with tongue firmly in cheek (one would assume) they painted the iconic symbol of communism – a hammer and sickle – on the side of the prefab.

After hearing the unlikely tale in the pub, McCann began to toy with the idea of turning it into a short story. As the manuscript gained momentum, however, the idea eventually snowballed into what became McCann's debut novel, After the Lockout.

'As I began to sketch out some loose ideas, I started to think about the possibility of looking at the way that history has unfolded in Ireland in the 20th century,' recalls McCann, 'particularly at that significant moment when the future of the country was still being forged.'

McCann’s novel is set in South Armagh in 1917. The novel’s main protagonist, Victor Lennon, is a young left wing idealist, who returns home from his time served at Frongoch prison in Wales following his participation in the Easter Rising.

After his homecoming, Victor begins berating his conservative neighbours on a daily basis about the possibility of a Marxist revolution, constantly referencing the Bolshevik experiment happening in Russia. The novel subsequently becomes a battle of ideas fought between the conservative parish priest, Stanislaus Benedict, and the contrarian absolutist, Victor Lennon.

One only has to cast their eye over the various titles in the Irish best sellers list in recent years to see a bucking trend towards historical fiction. Novels such as Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan's Side, are all clear examples of this.

McCann argues that writing about seminal moments in Irish history is not opportunistic, nor, indeed, pandering to the mass audience (though he admits that all writers must earn a living). It is quite the opposite, in fact. For McCann, there is intellectual sustenance behind these historical narratives, and in the questioning of national identity.

'It’s quite natural that Irish writers will go back to particular stages of history,' he says. 'It was in that period [post Easter Rising] that the country was forged, and I think it’s one of the reasons that Irish writers keep returning here to find stories.'

So is McCann in any way a reflection of his troublesome hero? Are we to label him, by proxy, a staunch Trotskyite with a personal vendetta against the Catholic Church? McCann laughs and stresses that the radical politics of Victor Lennon are very far from his own.

What interested McCann to write about the history of the left in Irish politics was not so much 'polemics per se, but the fascinating stories that have almost disappeared from the national historical discourse. Outside of leftist circles, I think very few people would be aware of certain events in Irish history. Very few people would be aware, for example, that Limerick city had experiments in sovietism in 1917/18.

'The reason I chose the title, After the Lockout, is because the event is a very important moment in the history of the labour movement in Ireland. I think it’s something that Irish people are kind of aware of, but I don’t think there is a great understanding of what was at stake, what it meant, and how profoundly important it actually was.'

McCann posits that Irish history – on both the left and the right – is far more complex than it seems at first glance. After the Lockout is purposely set four years before partition in Ireland occurred. The relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church is very different in the years before and after partition, he says.

'After partition, in the North, the Catholic Church became almost a state within a state,' McCann argues. 'While you had much of the same physical and sexual abuses going on that they had in the South, it was also an institution that people looked to as a potentially liberating force, and as an escape from a very hostile British State.

'As late as The Troubles, people were looking to the Catholic Church for political leadership. So I think a northerner will have a slightly more nuanced perspective of the Catholic Church in Ireland than a southerner will, at this particular point in history.'

After the Lockout was written over a three year period, during which time McCann studied as a PhD student at Queen's University. His supervisor at the time was the Belfast novelist, Glenn Patterson, who gave him the space to find his literary voice. A quote from Patterson features on the cover of the book: 'With this one novel Darran McCann succeeds in laying claim to a terrain entirely his own.' High praise indeed.

Patterson encouraged McCann to continue writing period works, and he is currently working on a follow up book set in the 1950s, McCann says that by returning to the past the writer always holds all the cards.

'There aren’t any final verdicts in history, only trends in the discourse,' McCann concludes. 'So I think it’s interesting that writers of historical fiction in recent times have tuned into this concept. A great advantage of historical fiction is that the author knows a lot more about the world they are writing about than the characters do.'