Charles Haughey’s life to be dramatised in a new miniseries
The six-part series will be based on Peter Cunningham’s novel ‘The Taoiseach’
Charles Haughey at a press conference in Dublin, following his acquittal in the Arms Trial in October 1970
“It’s a sensational story,” says novelist Peter Cunningham. A fictionalised version of Charles J Haughey’s life, based on Cunningham’s novel The Taoiseach, is being developed as a six-hour mini-series for streaming and secondary distribution on terrestrial channels.
“The producers see this as a bigger story than just an Irish story. They see it as a morality tale,” says Peter Cunningham. London-based production company, Qwerty Media confirmed that plans for the television series are well advanced and the series’ executive producer Cameron Maxwell-Lewis said discussions were under way with three major Hollywood digital streaming platforms to bring it to the screen in 2019.
The 2003 best-selling novel, and now the miniseries, are about “someone who is not Haughey but might well have resembled Haughey,” says Cunningham. The fictional story is set against the backdrop of real events in Ireland in the second half of the 20th century.
Haughey-esque figures have previously appeared on stage, for example controversially in Sebastian Barry’s Hinterland at the Abbey Theatre in 2002, and in the three-part RTÉ drama series Charlie, broadcast in 2015, with Aidan Gillen as Haughey.
For Cunningham, Haughey “seems to have been there, not all my life, but I’ve written about him frequently.”
Whereas a fictional version of Charles Haughey, called Harry Messenger, is at the centre of Cunningham’s 2003 novel The Taoiseach, in his new novel, Acts of Allegiance, Haughey appears as a real character. Cunningham believes his novels are the first time these events have been written about in fiction.
“I guess the job of novelist is to imagine things and to flesh out what we don’t know. That is what I try to do in both novels.”
Though he never met Haughey, Cunningham recalls the Arms Trail period well. “When the real events were happening, in 1969-1970, I was transfixed. The Minister for Finance and the Minister for Agriculture were arrested and faced trial for importing arms for terrorists. It’s a sensational story.”
Charges against Neil Blaney were dropped, and Haughey was found not guilty.
Cunningham was in UCD and as part of the widespread anger and revulsion after Bloody Sunday , marched on the British embassy in protest. “I wasn’t at the front, I was a bystander. I was a kid. I remember we marched from the GPO. When we heard about the trouble [the embassy was burned down], we went back to Hartigan’s.”
Cunningham’s novel also threads though the other elements of Haughey’s life – “building up his accountancy firm, the money, his fall from power and how he eventually came back”.
“Haughey was by far the most interesting politician of the past 50 years in Ireland. He was a conflicted character. Irish people have a complex relationship with him. People deplored him, and on the other hand people were proud of the majestic way he behaved, especially with the British government and standing up to Thatcher. But there’s also the dark side of Haughey.”
“In fiction, he is a very dominant character. When he comes into the action he has a habit of taking over the narrative while he is there.”
Cunningham’s 2017 novel Acts of Allegiance is about a seemingly quiet civil servant sucked into a world of espionage that escalates into deadly action and betrayal.
It features Charles Haughey as a shadowy provocateur forging links with republicans at the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969.
The novel includes fictionalised scenes at St Cloud racecourse near Paris. Cunningham is not sure if Haughey was ever at St Cloud – though he visited many other racecourses. But Cunningham himself was there, as a child, oddly enough with former Taoiseach and Haughey’s father-in-law, Sean Lemass.
“I did his bets.” It was just after he had retired as Taoiseach, Cunningham was a kid, and “he drank with my old man”, while young Peter ran to place bets for them.
The TV series script based on The Taoiseach was written by Bafta-winning writer and director Graham Baker, who has directed Hollywood films including The Omen: The Final Conflict and the cult movie Alien Nation.
Cunningham has seen the first script, and says “it’s very true to the book”. Casting for the major roles begins in autumn, handled by Hollywood agency ICM Partners, production will start in the second half of 2018, and the miniseries will be shot entirely on location in Ireland. Preliminary location scouting has started, and the series will be completed by mid-2019.
“We are very excited by this project,” said Qwerty’s Maxwell-Lewis. “Peter Cunningham’s wonderful novel has inspired us to make this series, and we aim to do justice to the powerful story he told and the rich and complex characters he created.
“We are negotiating with major US digital platforms to stream the series, and expect to be distributing worldwide to secondary platforms and terrestrial television through well-known London-based indie distributor Indigo.”