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.”
Hughes aims to make Delahunt a reasonably sympathetic figure, without shying away from the dark consequences of his actions. “We can see how he has got into these situations,” says Hughes. “We may not agree with his decisions, but we can kind of see how he got there – just by being caught up in one brawl on the street. If circumstances had been different, he’d have got a civil-service job and lived a very conventional Victorian life.”
The most unconventional character in the story is the enigmatic Thomas Sibthorpe, a sort of George Smiley figure who floats under the official Dublin Castle radar but always turns up when there’s trouble. Is he, like so much of the book, based on a real historical person?
“There was a guy called Robert Anderson who, when the Fenians were starting to cause trouble in the 1840s and 1850s, was charged with going through all the records in Dublin Castle,” says Hughes. “His job was to sort out all these reports that had been submitted by agents throughout the country and find patterns to combat the Fenian threat. But the fact that those reports even existed got me thinking: how did they get started?” So he created the fictional Sibthorpe and his secret agents.
Hughes is now working on a second novel. "It's set in Dublin in 1816, which was called the year without a summer – there was an earthquake in the East Indies, and a dust cloud formed over north Europe. So it's a great noirish setting. It's also the year Frankenstein was written, so you have Mary Shelley and the Vindication of the Rights of Women and all that."
And he has a suitably liberated central character. “Her name is Abigail Lawless and she’s the daughter of the coroner. She’s pretty unconventional. Not a savant, exactly, but she soaks up information and reads up on the latest science – the weird, pre-forensic science of the early 19th century, when they were fascinated by things like electricity and automatons.”
Do I detect a series coming on? Hughes grins. “That’s a distinct possibility, isn’t it?”
The Convictions of John Delahunt is published by Doubleday Ireland, €12.99
I don't spy: Where are the Irish spook books?
Irish historical novelists appear to have avoided the topic of real-life double-dealing. John Boyne has written a ton of historical novels based on real historical figures, but they are all set abroad. Roddy Doyle did his Star Called Henry trilogy, but Henry Smart is as honest as the day is long. Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands is often called the first espionage novel, but its heroes are, well, heroes. We've struggled to come up with this short list of recommended spook(ish) reading.
The Informer Liam O'Flaherty (1925)
The tale of Gypo Nolan, who sells his friend for cash and suffers a terrible retribution, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was made into a film by John Ford – but it is now largely forgotten.
Death and Nightingales Eugene McCabe (1992)
This book is set near the Border in 1883 in the aftermath of the murder of a real-life government minister, Lord Frederick Cavendish. McCabe uses a family dispute to explore themes of identity and betrayal.
The Last September Elizabeth Bowen (1929)
Okay, this isn't really a spy novel.
But Bowen was a spy.