History can and should be researched, interpreted, discussed, argued and used for lessons on current questions and projections into the future. It can also be used in fiction: as the backdrop for a novel; as a way of bringing historical events to life; as a what-if speculative story.
James Plunkett (21 May 1920 – 28 May 2003) used the Dublin Lockout as a backdrop for his Strumpet City and did it wonderfully well; Walter Macken (3 May 1915 – 22 April 1967) wrote a fictionalised account of brothers in the War of Independence and the Civil War in The Scorching Wind and also did it well1. Roddy Doyle did NOT do it well at all in his historical novel (A Star Called Henry) and sadly nor did Darran McCann in “After the Lockout”. Interestingly, the central characters in both latter books were what one might call “Left critics” of the leaders of the struggle and one is tempted to conclude that the attitudes of the central characters mirror those of their creators.
It seems fair enough that we can play with history in fiction but, when using it as a backdrop for a story, it should be accurately represented – otherwise, surely one should invent something else entirely?
Doyle did some reading on the GPO garrison’s struggle for the background of his “A Star Called Henry” but seemed to have done none for the War of Independence, in which he had his hero and heroine like a kind of Republican Bonny and Clyde living in ditches and shooting up the Free State forces. McCann seems to have done hardly any reading on the Lockout (and not that much on the GPO garrison’s fight either). Having Jim Larkin give a speech from the restaurant in Murphy’s Imperial Hotel restaurant window is bad enough – when we know he only got to say a few sentences before the Dublin Metropolitan Police ran in to arrest him – but having him then shin down a rope and get away is absolutely ridiculous.
McCann set the story of his central character, Victor Lennon, in between the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence and it has many of the elements of the story of James Gralton (17 April 1886 – 29 December 1945), the only Irish person to have been officially exiled from Ireland by an Irish government (in 1933).
McCann’s Victor Lennon, a communist and member of the Irish Citizen Army, gets people in his home town to build a dance hall in opposition to the local Bishop, which a mob then burns down. Gralton, a communist also, did that too, in Leitrim; however, he ran dances there and also gave talks – it was a success, to a considerable degree. The Irish Catholic Church vehemently opposed Gralton and in McCann’s novel the Bishop and local supporters also mobilise against Victor: the hall is burned down before any dance is held in it. Like Gralton’s story, there is a shooting incident around the dance hall too – a fatal one, in which Victor’s father and two IRA men are killed. But instead of being deported from Ireland, as Gralton was (illegally) by an Irish Government, which in McCann’s story had not yet come into existence, Victor heads off for Dublin to join the Volunteers in what will become the IRA and the War of Independence.
Roddy Doyle wrote very disrespectfully about Volunteers, Pearse and a number of other leaders and even salaciously about anonymous wives of martyred men. He did so by placing those words and thoughts in the mouth and mind of his central character, Henry Smart. McCann does somewhat the same but to nowhere near the same extent as did Doyle.
I admit to finding that lack of respect extremely distasteful but also from a historical point of view I see it as anachronistic. I find it hard to believe that those who took part in the Rising despised those who fought alongside them, no matter the difference in ideology – or that they spoke so contemptuously of their leaders, martyred or not. Disagreed, certainly – disagreed strongly, probably. But disrespect and contempt? No, that is attaching a post-Free State intellectual revisionist attitude on to participants in the Rising and in the War of Independence. Later, there would be fear and hatred, during the Civil War, but even then, none of that contemptuous and dismissive attitude.
I am not the only critic from a historical perspective, as I see from a quick Googling. Reviewing the book for the Irish Independent in 2012, Pat Hunt had this to say:
“The opening section set in Dublin reads more like a 1917 Thom’s Street Directory and a survey of political events and personalities of the time. The seediness of the red-light Monto district in the inner city does not ring true. The period feel of the city of Armagh is much better realised.
“The author’s editor has done him no favours. It was never possible to hop on a train at Amiens Street and hop off at Harcourt Street station (not unless one took a scenic route via Bray).
“The Big Wind of 1839 occurred on the Feast of the Epiphany, not Pentecost. Forecasts of wine lakes and butter mountains (concepts that emerged with the EEC and its common agricultural policy) could not have been envisioned by even the most ardent socialist in 1917.”
Hilary Mantel, who writes historical fiction, praised McCann’s book and I can only assume that she knows very little of Irish history, nor indeed should we expect that she should – her background is not Irish. Glen Patterson, novelist from the Six Counties, praised it highly too and I assume did so on the composition of the writing, turn of phrase, story-telling etc – but I sincerely hope he did not do so on a historical basis.
After the Lockout, Darran McCann, Harper Collins 2012.
1 Though not perhaps as well as the other two books in the trilogy, those dealing with the Cromwellian war and Great Hunger periods: Seek the Fair Land and The Silent People)