Escaping to 1930s Ireland

An Irishman’s Diary: ‘I believed the age-old tradition of forced emigration was behind us’

‘Danes were curious about what motivated an apparently normal human being to spend three years writing a novel about 1930s Ireland. I was never able to come up with a convincing answer. In hindsight I think that researching the book provided an antidote to both the cold rationalism of Danish society and the white-hot changes going on at home when the Celtic tiger was in hyperdrive.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

‘Danes were curious about what motivated an apparently normal human being to spend three years writing a novel about 1930s Ireland. I was never able to come up with a convincing answer. In hindsight I think that researching the book provided an antidote to both the cold rationalism of Danish society and the white-hot changes going on at home when the Celtic tiger was in hyperdrive.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Tue, Jun 4, 2013, 00:01

Hungarian writer, Arthur Koestler, once quipped that it was only after amassing 22 pages of notes on Roman underwear that he realised it was time to abandon the library and start writing The Gladiators, his epic 1939 work on the Spartacus revolt. I didn’t get quite that bogged down in detail before sitting down to write my own historical novel, but I know how he felt. When this project kicked off I was living in Copenhagen and Danes were curious about what motivated an apparently normal human being to spend three years writing a novel about 1930s Ireland. I was never able to come up with a convincing answer. In hindsight I think that researching the book provided an antidote to both the cold rationalism of Danish society and the white-hot changes going on at home when the Celtic tiger was in hyperdrive. 1930s Ireland became my spiritual oasis and studying the minutae of everyday life back then simply made it more real.

I enjoyed discovering mundane everyday stuff like the cost a new bicycle in the mid-1930s (answer: £5); or the price of beer; 11 pence for a pint of porter. Some research was more directly related to the novel’s plot. By consulting a vintage car expert I learned how you could quickly disable a 1930s engine (you open the hood and pull out the distribution cap), and that improperly meshing gears was a major cause of grief for pre-war motorists.

Unlike Koestler, I was fortunate enough to have the Internet at my disposal. Thanks to rail, tram and gun aficionados, finding relevant information on 1930s railway lines, the names of stations and tram routes in Dublin, and how to disassemble a Parabellum pistol was child’s play. Other facts could be gleaned from biographies, periodicals, novels and old films. Some research, though, required a hands-on approach.

My main character was an IRA activist, so I took shooting lessons and banged away at targets on a Copenhagen firing range. Coming from Ireland, it surprised me that any sane person would hand over a semi-automatic pistol and a magazine full of bullets to a stranger who had just walked in off the street. But this was before the Muhammad cartoon crisis brought Denmark on a collision course with the Muslim world, when Danes still believed that international terrorists targeted only countries like the US and Britain.

However, all this hunting down of obscure facts did not quite drown out the familiarity of some aspects of life in the 1930s. One episode in the novel stands out because it required virtually no research on my part. While I sometimes found it tough to imagine creaky tram lines, antique motor cars, and street battles between Republicans and Blueshirts, I was able to describe emigrants arriving at Holyhead almost without effort. In this instance it didn’t feel as though I was depicting a historical event at all. The emigrants standing in line to have their luggage searched were not part of a world that had disappeared along with vintage wireless sets and Tilley lamps. Like so many of my generation it was a part of my own life experience.

In 1986 I took the ferry to the exact same place, clutching not a cheap cardboard suitcase as my predecessors would have but an electric blue rucksack. And like them I was closely observed – the IRA being active at this time too – by a similarly beady-eyed British official in civilian clothes as I walked through customs. When I wrote this emigration scene I had, like many others, believed that the age-old tradition of forced emigration was finally behind us. I had no inkling that the gears powering Ireland’s economic motor would suddenly improperly mesh up and send a new generation of fresh-faced emigrants abroad in search of a better life.

Back in the mid-Noughties I found the world of the 1930s the perfect setting for an escapist noirish fantasy. But now, with Ireland once again sloughing off her excess population and Europe experiencing rising poverty levels as well as a resurgence of far-right parties, it feels like the distance that divides us from this period has narrowed. Koestler, who had first-hand experience of Nazi Germany and Soviet communism, used his Spartacus novel to explore the utopian agendas and political violence of his own day. If he were alive now, I fear he would find it considerably easier to point out the unsettling parallels between his own turbulent time and ours.

Once in Another World, by Brendan Sweeney, is published by New Island