The Irish spy novel comes in from the cold
Andrew Hughes’s debut is based on a true story of murder, betrayal and double-dealing in Victorian Dublin
Andrew Hughes, whose historical novel The Convictions of John Delahunt focuses on an informer who ends up being hanged, and is based on real 19th-century people. Photograph: Alan Betson
Who knows what historical horrors lurk behind our elegant Georgian facades? Andrew Hughes, for one. An archivist by training, his social history of Fitzwilliam Square, Lives Less Ordinary, was published in 2011. Now he has written a historical novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt, set in Dublin in the 1840s and based on the true story of the murder of a child.
Hughes was a reluctant novelist. “I had no real notion of writing a novel,” he says. “I stumbled across this story when I read something Daniel O’Connell said during his trial in 1894. The jury was packed with Protestants in order to ensure a conviction, and, when the guilty verdict was delivered, he said to one of his co-defendants, ‘That jury would have convicted us of the murder of the Italian boy’.”
Who was John Delahunt?
Intrigued by this casual reference to what was obviously a well-known news story of the day, Hughes began to dig deeper. “John Delahunt was a crown witness in the murder of the Italian boy. The more I read up on him, the more cases I found that he had been involved in.”
It seemed the ideal subject for a Suspicions of Mr Whicher-type book; part documentary, part fiction.
Then Hughes mentioned to his publisher – David Givens of Liffey Press – that he was thinking of trying his hand at historical fiction. “He said his brother John happened to be running a historical fiction workshop at the Irish Writers’ Centre.”
The workshop was a life-changer. Even so, Hughes was wary of committing himself to fiction. “After a couple of weeks I still hadn’t produced anything. Then John said, ‘You know, if you’re going to get value out of this course, you have to submit something so we can comment on it’. And so I wrote the first few pages of The Convictions.”
Those pages take the reader right into the condemned man’s cell at Kilmainham Gaol, where Delahunt is musing on his forthcoming execution. “Most likely I’ll end up in some forsaken corner of Kilmainham’s grounds. Pitched in with my peers. Lying at odd angles and uneven depths, depending on the diligence of the digger. Quicklime poured in to hasten the process. And unmarked, save a scrawled entry in a spineless ledger, to be shelved and forgotten, filthy with dust.”
It’s a vivid piece of writing, which brings to mind Andrew Miller’s Costa-winning novel, Pure. “Beginners’ luck,” declares Hughes, with a grin.
He found an in-depth report by a phrenologist who had “examined” Delahunt’s skull in a journal dating from 1842. “It was an ideal way of getting a sideways look at Delahunt’s society, and establishing his character,” he says.
The challenge was to keep the momentum going. “The weekly workshop process was almost like a serialisation,” Hughes says. “Every week I tried to have some little thing happen: a plot point resolved, or a mystery introduced, or a little bit of action to help maintain the pace.”
Hughes’s expertise in social history ensures that the book is full of fascinating vignettes of Dublin life, from the houses of the gentry to the tenement where Delahunt and his wife, Helen, fetch up, from student brawls through posh parties to blood sports – rat-killing – in backstreet pubs.
But the nub of the novel is the focus on the character of Delahunt. First-person historical spy novels are few and far between, probably because the informer has been such a despised figure in Irish culture. “I think it must be because Irish freedom movements were so often thwarted by informers,” Hughes says. “They became figures that just couldn’t be tolerated, really – right up as far as the Troubles that’s the case. There’s a zero-tolerance approach to informers.”