Hot Press meets Irish novelist Ciaran Collins

The shadowy side of rural life is evoked in the stunning debut from Ciaran Collins. Here, he discusses his complex feelings towards the countryside and the tradition of grisly novels set in the Irish sticks...

A dark tale of Irish provincial life reminiscent of The Butcher Boy, Cork author Ciaran Collins’ debut novel The Gamal has already generated a bit of a buzz, with the likes of Edna O’Brien and Colum McCann among those to have offered their endorsements so far. Narrated by puckish young Charlie, who is writing the tale as a form of therapy, The Gamal concerns star-crossed young couple Sinead and James, who run into tragedy when a dark fate befalls Sinead late one night.

“Charlie is very much the fly-on-the-wall that no one takes any notice of,” notes Collins. “He’s the witness of this stuff; his psychiatrist tells him to write his story as a form of therapy and that’s where the prose comes from.”

Collins also observes that Charlie is dismissed as the town fool, something which actually gives him more access to more information than he might otherwise have. The author was clearly intrigued by the idea – did he know people such as Charlie growing up?

“Obviously The Butcher Boy was an element of it,” responds Collins. “Although everyone kind of knows Francie Brady, there isn’t really two sides to him in the village. People kind of know he’s a bit off, whereas Charlie is written off, but he’s much smarter than anyone thinks. The only place I’d come across something like that was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, specifically the book. I think I’d seen the film before I read the book. Now, both are brilliant, but it’s really interesting in the book, where it’s written from the point of view of the character McMurphy calls the Big Dumb Indian.

“He sees this guy who seems incapable of speech, and everybody just completely ignores him, but he takes it all in. And of course he’s very smart. So if the idea was stolen from anywhere, that was it (laughs). Obviously, the idea of the village idiot is very strong traditionally in Ireland, so I thought it would be interesting to do something with that anyway.”

Interestingly, The Gamal – its title coming from the Irish word gamalóg – has similarities with Enda Walsh’s play Disco Pigs (also made into a fine film by Kirsten Sheridan, featuring Cillian Murphy and Elaine Cassidy), in that both are Corkonian stories about doomed romance, with shades of Romeo & Juliet.

“It’s interesting actually, I read the play although I didn’t see it, and I did see the film,” says Ciaran. “You know, I never made that connection myself, but maybe subconsciously there is an element of it, because certainly I loved the play. I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing it ever, but the text of it I thought was outstanding, just the energy of it and the language. Obviously he’s a very dark character as well, and there’s a love element, and obsession – Charlie is a little bit obsessed too.”

There seems to be a lot of jealousy and obsession in Cork.

“There must be,” laughs Collins. “We’re well balanced – we have a chip on both shoulders!”

Sinead is also an interesting, damaged kind of character.

“I suppose the way I saw her was that she was an artist in the making, and she had her own story and troubles,” reflects Ciaran. “That was probably necessary to create the tragedy in the story. But she is a kind of maverick, brilliant, musically gifted person. I would have been inspired by any female vocalists I’ve ever listened to a lot, from Billie Holiday and Nina Simone to Adele or whoever. Just trying to imagine someone like that, discovering their own talent and almost being afraid of their own talent. That fear that people with incredible talent must feel at times, because it does set them apart, and it’s probably a lonely place to be. And it can lead to being victimised as well, which she is.”

Similarly to the aforementioned The Butcher Boy – and following a well-established dynamic prevalent in everything from Twin Peaks to The League Of Gentlemen – The Gamal hints at the latent darkness in small-town life, although Collins himself grew up in a small town and says he has fond memories of it.

“Honestly, I think I liked it,” he acknowledges. “I still live quite close to it, seven miles away. I worked as a petrol pump attendant during most of my teenage years in the garage, so I’d have seen the village come and go, and the pulse of the place might have rubbed off on me a bit. I think it’s healthy to go away, in terms of college or working somewhere else, but sometimes you kind of end up going back, in your thirties or whatever.

“Obviously, some people like Sinead and James, who are into music and so on, they would be lonely in a place like that, there’s no doubt about it. Just because of sheer lack of numbers I guess.”

One wonders if the internet, with all the potential it offers to communicate with those with similar interests, has actually softened the ennui of small-town alienation.

“It probably does,” muses Collins. “You’d certainly hope so, wouldn’t you? With all the negatives, there are definitely some positives out there.”

With a buzzed-about debut novel out, Collins has achieved what many aspiring authors yearn for, although he continues to teach in West Cork and says making a living as an author may not be feasible in the forseeable future, “unless Stephen Spielberg gets in contact”. He loves teaching and coaches hurling in the school – GAA is actually touched upon in the novel – and he is a very knowledgeable commentator on Gaelic games. When I put it to him there must be a novel or a film in the GAA he says, “Definitely. Or a play.”

Notably, Collins refers several times throughout the interview to reading plays – perhaps not something a lot of authors or readers do, but something he clearly enjoys.

“I don’t even know why that is,” he admits. “Probably going way back, we had Sean O’Casey collections in the house, which my mother and father would read a lot. Maybe because they were a little bit more concise in terms of action as well. Definitely I still enjoy reading a good play. I’d always keep an eye on what wins Tony Awards or the Pulitzer Prize. Sometimes I’m blown away and sometimes I’m disappointed. I’ve written a full-length play, although it probably needs a bit of reworking. But it’s something I do have an interest in.”

The Gamal is out now, published by Bloomsbury.

 

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