A journalist’s novel move from news
He has covered three tribunals, but now Colm Keena has written a book about what happens to a bishop when he tells the truth, writes Arminta Wallace
Colm Keena. Photograph: Alan Betson
As a schoolboy, he wrote cowboy stories. As this newspaper’s Public Affairs Correspondent he has written about pretty much everything, from Exchequer returns to Apple’s offshore tax arrangements. Now Colm Keena is about to publish his debut novel, Bishop’s Move.
It’s the tale of a priest who, on his appointment as bishop, gets into trouble with the hierarchy for telling the truth. Not such a surprising choice, perhaps, for a journalist.
Keena has had his own struggles with the powers-that-be, in the shape of the Mahon Tribunal. After rejecting a High Court order to reveal his source for a 2006 news story on an investigation into government corruption, he had to live through the lengthy and tortuous process of a Supreme Court appeal – from which he finally emerged, victorious, in 2009.
It’s not Keena’s first attempt at fiction. There were those cowboy stories. And in the early 1990s, a short story he wrote for The Sunday Tribune earned him a Hennessy award.
The book begins when a book-keeping, music-loving Catholic priest is – through no effort or ambition of his own – ordained a bishop. The unworldly bishop Christopher realises that he has moved into shark-infested waters at his ordination party, which is being paid for by a property developer named Buzzie Hogan. Taoiseach Philip Brady is in attendance; and so is the finance expert Michael O’Mahoney and his beautiful, troubled wife.
When the bishop is interviewed on the radio, the subject of a massive development involving a transfer of church property to the same Buzzie comes up – and the proverbial soft stuff hits the fan. Or, as one character puts it, “It’s all over the news. Everyone’s going crazy . . .”
Keena, who describes himself as “a complete atheist”, says he is fascinated by the decline of religious faith in Ireland in recent decades.
“People have been reflecting on what Jesus said for 2,000 years. It’s a bit shocking to think of children growing up knowing nothing about it at all. If humanity invented God, then we did it for big reasons. Important reasons. So what happens when you take God away?”
The story takes place at the height of the Irish property boom, and part of the fun for the reader will be in trying to identify the “real” people behind Keena’s rogue’s gallery. Besides covering three tribunals – Mahon, Moriarty and McCracken – he is the author of books on Bertie Ahern, Charles J Haughey and Gerry Adams; but he insists the characters in Bishop’s Move are composites, not clones.
What, even Taoiseach Philip Brady, who roams the country deliberately bumping into members of the public so that they will “speak fondly of him and spread the myth of his ordinariness and good nature” . . . ?
Now who could that be based on? Keena grins. “People will say it’s gotta be Bertie, and I understand that,” he concedes.
A major theme of Bishop’s Move is how we relate to the built environment. Keena gives us tours of contrasting interiors – the bishop’s two-bedroomed terraced house, the offices of the property developer, the financier’s Foxrock mansion – in order to entertain and, also, to make a moral point.
“Think of a religious mindset, and the enormous spiritual and metaphysical points they’re making,” he says.
“You could have a life lived on that level – or you could be obsessed with having a nice house. The contrast is worth considering. Some people are going around trying to help people and live a good life, and other people are going around trying to amass property. I think it’s fair to say you can’t do both.”
There is, at the centre of the novel, a scene in which bishop Christopher gets up close and personal with a woman. It’s not really a sex scene – but still. Will people be shocked?
“I hope not,” Keena says. “I don’t see why anybody should be shocked about anything bishops get up to.”
Bishop’s Move, by Colm Keena, is published by
Somerville Press at €14.99