A Mad and Wonderful Thing: A brother, the Real IRA and a Troubles fable

Mark Mulholland’s debut novel, set in the North, has a remarkable real-life parallel

Open-minded: “It’s not for the novel to give a conclusion. It’s for the reader to do that,” says Mark Mulholland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Open-minded: “It’s not for the novel to give a conclusion. It’s for the reader to do that,” says Mark Mulholland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sat, Jun 14, 2014, 01:00

“A book should have something to say,” declares Mark Mulholland. “Or else what’s the point?”

Mulholland’s debut novel, A Mad and Wonderful Thing, has plenty to say. So, for that matter, does its author, a chatty, charismatic, opinionated Dundalk man whose life would make a novel all by itself.

After leaving school at 15, Mulholland swept floors at an engineering firm. He worked through the ranks to become a manager, went to Germany, came home, and ran one of the Border town’s best-known watering holes, the Spirit Store.

Ten years ago he sold the pub and moved to the south of France, where he lives in a rambling house that he restored himself – and that he occasionally rents out to holidaymakers – with his wife, four children and huge numbers of second-hand books.

It sounds like a fairy tale. But as Mulholland is quick to point out, real life is no picnic. “Everything in life is hard work,” he says. “I started on the factory floor. I worked in factories in Germany. It’s all hard work. Raising a family, moving to France. I build gardens. People say, ‘Oh, that’s very therapeutic.’ No it’s not. It’s hard work.”

He doesn’t find writing to be therapeutic either, he adds. “But I’ve wanted to write this story for as long as I can remember. It’s about why boys go to war – and it is invariably boys. For Ireland read Syria, read Mali, read Afghanistan. Or go back 10 years and it’s another set of countries.”

The novel is narrated by a young man named Johnny Donnelly, who falls in love with a girl called Cora – the “mad and wonderful thing” of the title. Johnny is charming, funny and eloquent. He is also an IRA sniper.

And here is where the blurry messiness of real life gets into the picture. “When I wrote the opening scene, in 1991, I invented Johnny Donnelly,” says Mulholland. “Then my brother actually became a Johnny Donnelly. Not really, but kind of. He caught me blindsided. So there you go. What does anybody know about anybody?”

In 1999 Mulholland’s youngest brother, Darren, was studying theoretical physics at Queen’s University Belfast. He was arrested along with two fellow members of the Real IRA, charged with conspiracy to cause explosions in London and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

“Brilliant student, 19 years of age, has the world at his feet,” says Mulholland. He loves his brother but still doesn’t understand what motivated his decision to get involved in violence.

Writing the book allowed Mulholland to examine this kind of motivation and put forward both sides of the argument. But it is, he stresses, a work of fiction. “I just wanted to hang the story of Ireland on the story of a boy,” he says. “I know he’s extreme, but he has to be. He has to carry the reader through. That’s why Johnny Donnelly has to be a sniper. Because, as a sniper, everything goes through his head. His head is the debate.”

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