In 2007, having previously published two gay-themed novels, I applied for a modest Arts Council literature bursary, and began working on a literary thriller set in south Armagh. I felt that I’d said all I had to say, for the time being, about the gay male experience of my peers.
My first novel, Snapshots, explored the doomed erotic obsession of a student for the closeted object of his affections, against the backdrop of the Troubles. My second novel, G.A.A.Y One Hundred Ways to Love a Beautiful Loser, was a romantic comedy about an inner-city Dublin boy-band wannabe who falls for his sister’s ambiguously bisexual English Muslim boyfriend. Popular culture was catching up with lived experience, and the representations of LGBT characters in fiction, on television, and online were exploding and becoming more complex and nuanced. Crucial to this was the increasing number of people, particularly younger people, coming out and demanding to have their voices heard.
I had, in my own small way, added some gay representation to Irish fiction. Oisin and Jude in Snapshots were ordinary and laddish, their problems a reflection of the repressed and violent society they grew up in. Anto in G.A.A.Y was working-class, cute, and confident, a character with many stereotypically gay traits, but with the crucial difference of having an inner life, and not being merely the Gay Best Friend of a straight girl looking for a boyfriend. He was in love with a black, foreign religious minority. He turned the tables on his bullies. He got a happy ending – not something which happens often in fiction, even now.
Gay duty done, I was interested in exploring the dramatic possibilities of a fictional family who run a smuggling business in my native Crossmaglen. We read a lot of journalism about organised crime in south Armagh. The facts and figures are a matter of public record. But why not use the borderlands as the backdrop for a family drama? I began with something elemental, classic – the prodigal son returning home after a long absence, a wealthy but dangerous father who offers him one shot at redemption, a betrayal – knowing that I’d like to take the characters on a journey through the fallout of economic corruption, to an unexpected twist at the end. And then a strange thing happened right at the time I sat down to begin work on The Organised Criminal: the recession.
One of the truisms being bandied about at the time was that books were recession-proof. It soon became apparent to anyone working in a bookshop or a publishing house that this was not true. The simple fact was that books, to most people struggling through the unexpected financial meltdown, were a luxury which they could live without, get for free from their local library, or buy second-hand online for a few cent (although the cost of postage and packaging has, predictably, increased hugely in recent years).
I was fortunate enough to keep my job in the independent Chapters Bookstore, while chainstores such as Waterstone’s closed their doors in Dublin. On the other hand, it soon became clear that the book I’d written during the first throes of the recession was not a fashionable commodity. It was too political. It was too depressing. It was too Northern Irish. Readers wanted escapism. Publishers were not taking risks on edgy fiction. Publishers, it seemed for a very long time, were not taking anything – until the wealth of issues thrown up by our post-Celtic Tiger reality became the very lifeblood of our current literary renaissance.
Interestingly, it has been the independent publishers such as Lilliput, Liberties and Tramp who have relished the challenge of finding books which best express how we live now. After what seemed like an inordinately long time, but was actually the new average for an industry weathering the financial storm, Liberties offered to publish my novel and, as I sat down once again to edit it before a final submission, I asked myself if the book still had contemporary relevance.
Luckily, I felt that it did. While many new novels had tackled the recession as it affected the Republic of Ireland, this was very much a story of economic corruption in Northern Ireland, which, thanks in part to television shows like The Fall and Game of Thrones, has become slightly less uncool than it used to be. What struck me most upon rereading it, however, was a human aspect of the story which had grown organically as I wrote it, becoming an integral part of the tale without my consciously engineering it so.
At the heart of the book is the friendship between Jay O’Reilly, the narrator, a straight university student whose father is the most successful smuggler in south Armagh, and Martin Furey, his slightly younger friend, a tradesman who happens to be gay. The sexualities of these friends is wholly incidental to the plot. There are no love interests and no sex scenes – the book does not require them. Their sexualities are a subject of banter between them, a part of who each man is, but largely irrelevant to their friendship.
It came as a shock, even to me, to realise that to write about a friendship like this would not have been wholly credible 10 or 15 years ago – but it is now. Boom and bust aside, one major social change which has happened in that time is the almost total sweeping aside of casual homophobia amongst the younger generation. You need only look as far as the current marriage equality movement to see how far we have come since homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993. Record numbers of young voters have found an issue they passionately support. DCU and Cork Institute of Technology have suspended exams for the afternoon of May 22nd to allow students the chance to vote, while Trinity is holding only one exam, for fewer than 10 students. It seems the vast majority of students have pledged to vote Yes in favour of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. USI president Laura Harmon has said that “polls consistently show that the large majority of young people are in favour of marriage equality in Ireland and the student vote cannot be underestimated”.
The most heart-warming aspect of the LGBT Pride parade in recent years has been the incredible upswell of support it has enjoyed from younger people, of all sexualities and gender identities. The labels which once separated us are still meaningful, but no longer mean that we can’t be friends. It’s rapidly becoming the norm that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans is not a barrier to staying friends with the straight pals you might once have frightened off by coming out – and that’s great for everyone.