The Irish spy novel comes in from the cold

Given our history of colonisation, it’s no surprise that Irish writers should balk at celebrating the spy as hero

Brinsley McNamara always claimed that Garradrimna, the village which provides the setting for The Valley of the Squinting Windows, could have been any village in Ireland. Published in 1918, the novel can be read as an expression of a kind of colonial pathology, as the population of Garradrimna engage in constant mutual surveillance, monitoring one another's weaknesses and ferreting out secrets in order to accrue what passes for power among the powerless.

Naturally, any of Garradrimna’s upstanding citizens would take mortal offence at being called a spy. To the coloniser, every native is suspect until proven otherwise, and the only way to prove this logically fallacious gambit is to maintain a relentless scrutiny. Spied upon for generations, the colonised learn to abhor the spies, even as they absorb the tradecraft; it’s no coincidence that there are few Irish insults worse than that of tout, or informer.

Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why, despite the recent upsurge in Irish crime fiction, the Irish spy novel is notable by its absence. There is no Irish equivalent to Ian Fleming, for example, who served with British naval intelligence during the second World War, or John le Carré, Somerset Maugham (Ashenden) and Graham Greene, all of whom worked with British intelligence before going on to write spy fiction. The archetypal heroes of modern spy fiction were written from the perspective of the coloniser and empire builder; the methods employed by their protagonists may be less than savoury, of course, but the intelligent reader understands the realpolitik that means some eggs are destined for omelettes.

In that context, and given Ireland's history of colonisation, it should come as no great surprise that Irish writers should baulk at celebrating the spy as hero. Erskine Childers was a committed British empire-builder when he published The Riddle of the Sands in 1903, two years after Rudyard Kipling - another ardent empire apologist - published the first great spy adventure, Kim. The tone of The Riddle of the Sands, its clandestine surveillance of the German naval fleet notwithstanding, is in the grand tradition of the sea-faring adventure, and stands in stark contrast with Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer (1925), a claustrophobic tale in which the eponymous anti-hero, Gypo Nolan, is an ex-policeman turned revolutionary who betrays his comrade Frankie McPhillip and finds himself hunted through the streets of Dublin.


Harry's Game (1975), the bestselling spy thriller published during the Troubles, was written by British author Gerald Seymour, and offered British Army officer Harry Brown as its hero as he pursues the IRA assassin of a British government cabinet minister through Belfast's labyrinthine streets.

Historically, then, Irish writers have for the most part shied away from presenting the spy as hero, at least while the spy, or the setting, is Irish. And yet the form itself is deliciously tempting, with all its double- and triple-crosses, its exotic locations, and the fun of rummaging through the lexicon of lamplighters and walk-ins, swallows and ravens, blowbacks, dead drops and moles.

The solution? Borrow the cloak, take up the dagger, and leap into the Great Game (always abiding, of course, by Moscow Rules).

John Creed's trilogy of novels - The Sirius Crossing, The Day of the Dead and Black Cat, Black Dog - feature Jack Valentine of British intelligence, although Valentine works for the ultra-secret MRU, an agency specialising in activities so illegal as to ensure that the MRU, were it to officially exist, would be immediately disbanded. Boasting a legend that declares him a travel reporter, Jack Valentine globe-trots on his Majesty's service, meting out swift justice. John Creed is a pseudonym adopted by Eoin McNamee, yet Jack Valentine's exploits are a world removed from the experience of Capt Robert Nairac, the real-life British Special Forces operative who disappeared in Northern Ireland in 1977, never to be seen again, and who is the focus of McNamee's novel The Ultras (2004).

Philip Davison is another Irish writer to pen spy novels in which the hero is a member of British intelligence. In Crooked Man (1997), McKenzie's Friend (2000), The Long Suit (2003) and A Burnable Town (2006), Davison writes about the laconic Harry Fielding, an 'understrapper' for MI5, in a criminally neglected quartet that can bear comparison with any spy fiction published in the past three decades.

If you're an Irish author who wants to write a spy novel, the trick is to set the story in an exotic location decades ago

Joseph Hone's spy novels, featuring British intelligence agent Peter Marlow, include The Private Sector (1971), The Sixth Directorate (1975), The Paris Trap (1977) and The Flowers of the Forest (1980). Hone, who died last year, taught at Drogheda Grammar School, and later with the Egyptian ministry of education in Cairo; Hone always denied that he had worked in intelligence, but allowed that he had "worked with and met with such people" while teaching in Egypt and New York.

John Banville has been writing crime fiction as Benjamin Black since 2006, of course, but The Untouchable (1997) is a spy novel to rival John le Carré's A Perfect Spy in its nuanced exploration of a spy's motives and character as Banville teases out the flaws and failings of Victor Maskell, a thinly-veiled portrait of Anthony Blunt, the so-called 'fourth man' who was outed by Margaret Thatcher as one of the infamous group of Cambridge spies that included Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.

Set in Brandenburg in 1993, Kevin Brophy's The Berlin Crossing (2012) is firmly rooted in the Cold War, as teacher Michael Ritter embarks on a quest for truth that takes the reader back to 1962 and the Berlin Wall, where - as we learn in the novel's prologue - a man is shot dead attempting to escape from east to west Berlin. In Brophy's Another Kind of Country (2013), Englishman Patrick Miller works in the east Berlin office of the Secretariat for Socialist Correctness in Publishing, where he meets Rosa, a refugee from South America who was rescued by a Stasi spy.

Meanwhile, the Cold War doesn't get much colder than in Stephen Burke's second novel, The Reluctant Contact, which is set in 1977 in the Svalbard Archipelago - roughly halfway between northern Norway and the North Pole - and features for its main protagonist a Russian engineer, Yuri, for whom 'the old gulag-avoidance rules still applied.'

If you're an Irish author who wants to write a spy novel, then, the trick is to set the story in an exotic location some decades ago. There are, however, some writers who set their spy novels in that foreign country known as the past, where things are done just that little bit differently. Set in 1840s Dublin, Andrew Hughes's The Convictions of John Delahunt is a haunting last testament from a self-confessed spy. Joe Joyce's Echoland, published in 2013 and chosen as this year's Dublin: One City, One Book, opens in Dublin in 1940, where callow young lieutenant Paul Duggan of G2, the army's intelligence division, is given the job of shadowing a suspected German spy.

Duggan returns in Echobeat (2014) and Echowave (2015), and may well one day bump into Michael Russell's Inspector Stefan Gillespie on the streets of Emergency-era Dublin. A Special Branch detective by trade, Gillespie's German-Irish heritage nonetheless ensures that he is much in demand by various intelligence-gathering agencies. Since his first appearance in The City of Shadows (2013), Gillespie's exploits during the turbulent years leading up to the outbreak of the second World War have found him visiting Danzig, New York, Madrid and - in this year's offering, The City of Lies - Berlin. The Emergency also provides the backdrop to Rough Magic's espionage romp Improbable Frequency, written by Arthur Riordan and described in these pages as a "historical-political-literary-scientific-musical satire", which features the unlikely trio of Myles na gCopaleen, John Betjeman and Erwin Schrödinger.

Stuart Neville's Ratlines (2013) is another historical spy novel to feature G2. Set in 1963, with Ireland preparing to welcome John F Kennedy, Lieut Albert Ryan is charged by Minister for Justice Charles Haughey to investigate the murder of three German businessmen, all of whom were former Nazis granted asylum by the Irish government, and to protect Otto Skorzeny, currently residing in Co Kildare but formerly Adolf Hitler's favourite commando.

All of which suggests the Irish spy novel isn’t so much notable by its absence as simply lurking in the shadows of Irish literature, maintaining a covert presence, as per Moscow Rules. It’s a sub-genre of Irish crime fiction which a canny publisher might do well to drag into the spotlight; republishing Philip Davison’s Harry Fielding quartet would be a good place to start.

Declan Burke’s spy novel The Lost and the Blind (2015) is published by Severn House