- 15 Mar 21
The War At Home And Abroad
You might, if you walked passed Ciarán McMenamin in the street, nudge your mate and say something like, “is that yer man from Primeval?” but the Fermanagh-born actor turned writer might well be deserving of more recognition for his work sat typing at a screen than his thespianism on one. His first novel, 2017’s Skintown, formed a snapshot of Northern Ireland in the 1990s through the ecstasy-hawking Vauxhall Nova piloting exploits of Vincent Patrick Duffy, and McMenamin provided a pretty handy soundtrack list at the end of the book too. The book was well received, and quite rightly too, but The Sunken Road is in a different league altogether.
An engine’s roar disturbs early morning Fermanagh in 1922 and police boots remove a door from its hinges. They’re looking for Francie Leonard, an IRA man with a reputation thanks to two dead coppers in Belfast and two more outside a pub in Tyrone. They’ve just missed him; he’s vaulted the gate and lit out, but not before hearing District Inspector Peter Crozier vow to skin him alive.
Francie takes refuge in a near-by barn and gets some sleep before waking to the sound of Annie Johnston’s foot on the ladder. She’s been waiting for him for six years. Francie, Annie, and her brother Archie grew up together, he a catholic, they protestants. The two boys are best friends and sign-up for the war in France, despite the warning of Francie’s father. “Don’t take the king’s shilling, son. Let Archie and his Orange friends make their own beds.” Francie had promised his love Annie that he would keep her brother safe, a promise he was not able to keep.
Annie accompanies Francie - despite having heard the story of the shooting of inspector Drake through his pregnant wife - as he makes his way towards the Free State border, trying to stay one step ahead of the particularly well-drawn and despicably bigoted bastard Crozier, a man who was demoted for drinking on duty while serving in the Boer War. He tormented Francie as his commanding officer in France, and now hunts him down as a member of the B-Specials – and that B might refer to ‘bastard’ too, for Crozier shows no hesitation in punishing an old man who helps the couple, explaining to his men that the only thing better than a village with one catholic in it is a village with none.
This gripping novel shifts between this race to the south and a slow reveal of what happened between the three men on the Western Front. At the training camp, Crozier’s bitterness is given some explanation – he stayed while his brother went to America and “behind his back, Britain made promises to Dublin and papists were joining his beloved army because they had been promised home rule when it ended”. Leonard is merely a convenient scapegoat for his anger. The horror of The Somme is revealed in all its gory, rats crawl out of dead bodies, a solider is pummelled to death with a trench club and, when it matters most, Crozier’s true nature is revealed.
Back in Ireland, Francie and Annie are aided by salmon-poaching priest, ministering out of the “pope’s dream factory” beside the alleged entrance to the underworld, although Francie knows he saw the real one in France. They make it to Pettigo, the village split between the two states on the Donegal border, where disguised as a priest, Francie meets up with his old IRA colleague, the American Molloy, who now wears the dark green uniform of a free state soldier. Against the backdrop of the largest military clash between Irish and British forces since the Easter Rising, they plot a future.
McMenamin never puts a foot wrong here, expertly interweaving the historical and the imagined, right up to his masterly denouement. If he should decide to neglect his equity dues in order to produce more writing as accomplished as this, then fair play to him.