Rave Reviews: Ciarán McMenamin

With its dark humour and '90s hedonism, the Fermanagh actor's first novel is like Trainspotting during the Troubles. Before opening the Belfast Book Festival, he talks about the positive reception and bringing Skintown to the big screen

If you’re a fan of '90s nostalgia, Trainspotting, and enjoy a darkly comic read riddled with Norn Iron humour, then consider Skintown by established actor – and now novelist - Ciarán McMenamin. Described by Penguin Books as a ‘drink-and-drug-fueled odyssey through fighting, fishing, rioting, romance, reconciliation and acid house… this superb debut is a wild ride.’

Critics are also heralding the book - which is McMenamin’s first and is already being likened to Irvine Welsh’s generation-defining novel - as a ‘compulsive read’; ‘hugely immersive’ and brilliantly written.

McMenamin, who grew up in Enniskillen – nicknamed 'Skin town' – is currently appearing in BBC2’s edgy three-part drama, Paula, and is the opening act for this year’s Belfast Book Festival on June 7. He’ll subsequently join Belfast novelist Paul McVeigh for a bookish discussion, which he says he’s 'really looking forward to.'

'I feel really at home in Belfast,' says the London-based author. 'And a lot of the book’s soul is Belfast - the kids’ goal is to get to Belfast and the end of the novel is set there.'

Skintown tells the story of protagonist Vinny Duffy, an 18-year-old living in Enniskillen in the 1990s who’s stuck in a dead-end job and lives only for the weekend – in other words raves, drink and drugs. He then develops an unlikely friendship with a couple of local lads one particular night, leading to a business offer which just might offer him the escape he craves…

Having carved out a successful acting career over the past 20 years – including roles in Titanic Town, David Copperfield, Primeval and The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce - McMenamin’s move to fiction is not quite as unusual as it may seem. Indeed, English was his best subject at school and he’s always harboured a passion to write a novel, with various short films and stories penned over the years.

'When I was at school the only thing I had an aptitude for was creative writing, but that got sidelined by the acting,' he says. 'I think as a younger man I didn’t have the patience to write - I was a bit fractious. I had this burning urge to write a book but I had the fear of the scale of what that meant - about the size of the project and being able to do it.'

Now older, however, and more receptive to sitting alone and writing, McMenamin, who wed fellow actor, Annabel Scholey, earlier in May, has at last accomplished his writing goal. To help get the project off the ground he enjoyed a few weeks writing at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig – a residential workplace for artists of any discipline.

Skintown Cover

'I then chipped away at the book for a year or so, in between acting jobs,' he says. 'It all became apparent as I wrote.'

With a loose idea of what he wanted to write, McMenamin found that Vinny’s voice came to him quickly and it was one he immediately liked.

'I realised there was something very interesting in the voice of this articulate teen in Northern Ireland who is no more interested in sides,' he says. 'That was my experience of growing up in Northern Ireland, and most of my friends'.'

The book opens with an episode which McMenamin once experienced himself – where Catholic Vinny finds himself, after an act of chivalry, in a car with two rather intimidating Protestants. It reflects very well, he says, the 'darkly comic microcosm of home.'

'They end up bonding because of the shared experience of a crash. The minute there’s a shared problem you’re just three blokes together.

Vinny from Skintown's mixtape

'I had no intentions of writing a ‘Troubles book’ – I wanted to write about young people in the '90s and that just happened to be the backdrop of their life. I wanted to write about joy and passion and sex and fun. I didn’t realise though, until I started to write, that there was a lot to be said about Northern Irish identity and what it means to have grown up in the shadow of that.'

Feedback from critics and regular readers has been very positive to date, he adds, while there is, of course, that Trainspotting comparison…

'That made me very nervous at first, in case some people thought I was making the comparison!' he says. 'But it’s a lovely compliment.

'One woman said it was amazing and that she learned a lot about Northern Ireland from it. My wife is a good reference as well. I would have thought it would have gone totally over her head but she got stuff and learned things about where I’m from.'

Back in Belfast now to film Grace and Goliath with Cinemagic, McMenamin will next 'sit down to hammer out the script' for Skintown, which will be developed by Dublin’s Blinder Films.

Danny Boyle's long-awaited follow-up to Trainspotting arrived in cinemas at the beginning of the year

'I didn’t have any idea the book could be a film,' he admits. 'I think I kind of had a barrier up about that in case people thought that was what I’d intended. It will be amazing though. I think it’s a wonderfully Northern Irish thing. I’m really proud of that and am intrigued to find the young people to play those roles and to try and get that comic sense in it.'

Already underway with his second novel, McMenamin’s next literary venture will be an historical work loosely inspired by his maternal grandfather’s experiences in the early Twenties.

'He ended up fighting the British in the Battle of Pettigo (and Belleek) in Fermanagh,' explains the writer. 'The story’s going to culminate there and the rest is made up. It’s about a couple of fellas from the 36th Ulster Division who come back from the Somme and end up in another war, which is something I’ve always been fascinated with. It’s completely different and will be written in a different tense.'

For all those Vinny fans, however, McMenamin does hope to revisit the character in the future, perhaps with Vinny in a post-Brexit Britain. And with Vinny, that could mean anything…

Skintown is published by Penguin Random House and is now available to buy. Ciarán McMenamin will appear on the opening day of the Belfast Book Festival on Wednesday, June 7. For more details and to book tickets, visit www.belfastbookfestival.com.