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.”

And the moral of the story? “It’s not for the novel to give a conclusion,” says Mulholland. “It’s for the reader to do that.”

It will be interesting to see whether the novel finds an audience in Ireland. Its painful topic is one that many people here would rather not face, our excuse being that the fallout from the Troubles is still too raw to be properly processed.

Published by the independent Australian company Scribe, which focuses on emerging young writers, A Mad and Wonderful Thing has been well received down under, where the Age newspaper, in Sydney, described it as “thrilling, appalling, and marvellously resolved”.

No-brainer

As for whether a novel is an appropriate forum for a discussion of the most divisive and distressing issues of our times, Mulholland says it’s a no-brainer.

“In normal life we have a shield around us to protect us. Otherwise how could you sit down and watch the six o’clock news and then go and have your dinner? We have evolved to protect ourselves.

“But storytelling comes from a different place, I think. It comes at us sideways. It pulls you in quickly behind the shield, and it can force us to think. It  doesn’t always, but it can force us to think again about things, give us a chance to reflect on things. I think storytelling has done that since the beginning of time.”

Part fable, part thriller, A Mad and Wonderful Thing can be read as a modern take on the story of Cú Chulainn.

“A young boy takes on the invading armies of Ulster with a magic weapon – now, his magic weapon is a Barrett M .50 – meets a beautiful girl, and the whole thing goes horribly wrong at the end,” says Mulholland.

For the author, the publication of the book is not an end but a beginning. “There’s loads of stories that I want to write – and it’s not just stories for stories’ sake,” he says. “I have something to say on the history of Ireland and that terrible conflict.” His next novel will, he says, be about greed in the Celtic Tiger era.

“But just as this one is not the Northern Ireland story you might be expecting, the new one won’t be the Celtic Tiger story you might be expecting. It will be about communal greed, and how bad things can happen to good people when we get caught in collective euphoria. And then the next one will be about hope.”

A Mad and Wonderful Thing is published by Scribe

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