- 21 Jan 22
Luke Cassidy’s debut novel Iron Annie tells a story of Dundalk drug dealing and ill-fated love. “I never could have anticipated that I'd be back here writing,” he tells Pat Carty.
“It’s the biggest town in the country, haigh,” my mate Kenny used to tell me when describing his native Dundalk and now the town has a book to immortalise it, or at least one version of it. With Iron Annie, Luke Cassidy has fashioned a Louth underworld peopled with characters like The Rat King, Shamey, and our narrator Aoife, who falls for Annie and takes off with her on a drug-selling road trip. Cassidy, it turns out, is no stranger to the road himself.
“I went to slightly unusual places,” he explains. “I wasn't going to New York or Sydney or whatever. Immediately after college, in the midst of the financial crisis, I moved to Japan. And then after that I was living in Paris for several years, and most recently, I've been kind of based out of Slovenia, which is a very unusual choice for an Irishman.”
Another unusual choice is coming home to write rather than going away to do it.
“That is very much the standard narrative, you have to go to London, typically, and then you have this sort of liberty and you can express yourself, etc, etc. That wasn't really my experience. I was in a very particular section of Parisian life, which, without being uncharitable, was self-obsessed. You always had this sense that the glory days were behind us and everything has already been done, so all we can do is pay homage to that. Whereas in a place like Dundalk, you really don't have that. I think part of the reason that Dundalk is as fecund as it is today is down to the fact that we are not burdened by precedents in that sense.”
“We don't have this feeling of ‘I'll never write as well as James Joyce’; you don't even think about it in the moment of writing .There’s a willingness to take risks and to fail. My experience in Paris was that people were terrified to take any kind of risk. Dundalk is similar to many smaller towns; when you're a teenager, the main thing you consider is leaving. I promptly did as soon as I had my leaving cert and I thought that was a permanent. I never could have anticipated that I'd be back here writing.”
Iron Annie is not his first try either, there were a couple of earlier efforts.
“I wrote one novel when I was twenty-one, which is an age when nobody should, which I think will definitely stay cloistered for the good of mankind,” he admits. “With Iron Annie, I was encouraged during a workshop to approach writing from a different, more spontaneous perspective. The first episode of the book, 'The Swell 'A The Night’, was the first page I wrote, and within six months, of just writing every day, I had it together. I'm just finishing off another novel and it's been a slightly different process, combining the two approaches. Being spontaneous, but also thinking more about plot and structure.”
The next one will concentrate on his French-speaking, drug-peddling Rat King.
“I had this idea to do a sort of a Dundalk trilogy, a little bit like The Barrytown Trilogy, to develop characters within that world.”
Sound Of The Town
The dialogue of those characters is heavily accented with that local brogue, although Cassidy doesn’t seem to really have it himself.
“I think that it’s there,” he reckons, in perfectly understandable syllables, “but I’ve spent that much time living outside the town. I’m a little bit like a chameleon in that sense. Imagine taking a Dundalk accent to Tokyo, it’s not going to get you very far. I speak six languages, and this vernacular of Dundalk is almost like a language within a language, if that makes sense. I was very conscious of giving it all the linguistic structures that a language will need. By a couple of chapters, you're in the flow, and I think that's how language acquisition works for anyone. I didn't speak Japanese when I went to live in Japan, I just kind of put myself in the context. It's like rock climbing, you grab onto one rock, and you pull yourself up, and you're searching for another and it might take a minute, but then you get it, the next word that you're going to use in the conversation and, pretty soon, you're on your way.”
He gets back to Dundalk
“When I'm in the town, I slip right back into it, but I wouldn't necessarily have as heavy an accent as Aoife, because that's her entire world. I wanted to write a character who was quite different from me. When she goes on the trip to England, she wants to get back to the town. She can't fathom why Annie would ever want to leave. There are people here who lead very rich and meaningful lives who've never considered living anywhere else. You're fed this idea that you have to go to Dublin, or somewhere bigger, in order to have this true experience of life, but it's just not the case. As somebody who went in search of things elsewhere, I was very struck by that.”
Is Iron Annie then a love letter to the town?
“It was never my intention, and I think you're going to be interested to see how the next book will develop that, because the Rat King has a very different love/hate relationship to the town. Aoife is different, although she does see, and that is articulated, that the town is a bit of a hole, but she also can't imagine being anywhere else. It’s less a love letter to the town, more my attempt to grapple with this type of person who is very geolocalised. To give you an example of what I mean, Parisians are very strange creatures. If you take them outside of Paris, they can seem like arrogant arseholes, but in the internal logic of the geolocalised culture of Paris, it works. You know what I mean?"
I’ve certainly know what he means about Parisian arseholes, but that’s another day’s story.
“In that sense, Aoife is very well set up to function as an important character in the context of Dundalk, or at least the Dundalk that I've created.”
There is a line that refers to Dundalk as “a safety valve for the rest ‘a the country”. I’m unsure as to what this means.
“That’s me crafting her character. Aoife needs to see Dundalk as an important place in order to see her role as important because everybody functions on that basis. Everyone, in order to have a meaningful life, need to have a sense of importance. Now, in reality, there's probably loads of places around the country that have that small time drug dealer scene, but in Aoife's internal monologue, this is important, it serves a purpose, and it has an ethical fabric.”
When Aoife and Annie’s adventures take them to England, we’re presented with two views of the place. David talks of how England welcomed his Jewish immigrant grandparents., and on the other hand, there’s mention of the Brexit time machine trying to drag them all back to the past. Is Cassidy telling us that England is not all bad?
“I would say that there's more than two views,” he counters. “Annie wants to take the money and run. This is predicated on her vision, the standard vision of the streets of London being paved with gold. Aoife obviously doesn't have that vision, but I did want to balance it out, contemporary Britain is not the Britain of Aoife's imagination, and that's something that she has to grapple with. If you grew up on the border, it's hard to have a really rosy vision of the UK and the force that they've been in local conditions. But if you go to the UK, you can't help but confront the fact that it's just a place where lots of decent people live.”
While there’s violence throughout the book, it does get heavier and more affecting towards the end.
“It is heavier. The writing takes its own logic, and certain things have to happen for the narrative to work,” he explains. “What happens had to happen for emotional impact, and it would be silly to have Aoife go to London with a load of drugs, no contacts, and no idea what she's doing and for nothing to go wrong. I think the job of the novelist is to have a promise with the reader. You know that this is fiction, but I'm going to make this fiction good enough that you won't stop suspending your disbelief throughout the process. Unless you're trying to do some kind of postmodernist thing, which I wouldn't personally be too interested in, the punch is more in the emotion of a book.”
Aoife reaches a kind of happiness when she allows herself to be embraced again by the Dundalkness.
“Yeah, definitely. I think Iron Annie is a story about relationships, friendships and resilience, Aoife will continue functioning in the same way that everyone continues functioning after something really heavy hits them, and to do that they're reliant on these relationships. And in the case of Aoife, this help comes perhaps slightly unexpectedly, because I think the Rat King is a more dubious character; you always have the sense that he's looking for something too but it's thanks to him that she's able to stand back on her own feet.”
Cassidy mentioned that you didn't have to follow in Joyce's footsteps, but is the last line "An I saysta him, I says I will. I will so I will. I fucking will" in the same ballpark as "yes I said yes I will Yes."?
“I never even thought of that. Yeah. It's certainly an affirmation - 'I will, I will so I will, I fucking will.' I knew once I had those words, I would be able to reverse engineer that entire section of the book. It's an affirmation. She was getting back on our feet, but I definitely didn't look at Ulysses and say, Yeah, this is it!”
So it's not – I said no it isn’t No - what Molly would have said if she’d hailed from Dundalk rather than Gibraltar? Cassidy laughs this off.
As if a novel wasn’t enough to be going on with, Cassidy has also adapted Iron Annie as a theatre piece.
“It's a one woman show but it also involves six musicians. It's not a musical, you can understand it as a piece of theatre in which there two gigs going on, alternating between a hard rock band, and something that sounds more melodic and folky. It's the emotional tone of what she's going through. I really honed in on one part of the book, which is the story of Aoife falling in love with Annie, but it ends up where she's looking at Annie singing on the stage and realises that 'Jesus, I fucking love this woman'. You get the sense in the play as well, that this is a doomed love, Aoife’s in love with someone that she probably shouldn't be, and I think that is quite a common human experience. “
A book and a play are only part of it.
“This is a novel: does this makes me a novelist?” he asks. “I've always thought of myself as a writer, I'm very interested in the different forms. It's being developed for a TV series and I'm also the person writing that for World Productions, the people who made things like Bodyguard and Line Of Duty. It's a very interesting process in terms of how you tell a story. It's different in each case; when you're writing a book, you can go really deep into internal monologue and description, whereas when you're writing for screen, it's much more pared-down, but on the other hand you have the visual language of cinema. And theatre is a different thing again. I’m very interested in exploring these different forms and seeing what you can pull out.”
The hope is that this will give Cassidy a springboard from which to try other things.
“I've a heap of other ideas for projects, specifically TV shows, that I would like to develop down the line. I think that'll be a lot easier if this gets made.”
Cassidy goes on to praise the work of actor Eleanor McLoughlin, who plays Aoife on stage and has recorded the audiobook. Might this be an option for people who find the accent hard to get their head around?
“I'd be quite hopeful that people will buy the book!” Cassidy laughs. “I confess that I'm very much a reader, so I've only listened to snippets of the audio book, though I've read the book about one-hundred times at this stage. I would hope that the prose isn't off-puttingly dense. I think the fact that it's been also picked up for publication in North American by Vintage in January is a very encouraging sign that even though it's in this strong, vernacular accent, people will be interested, even from quite different cultural contexts. What I'd really love to see would be teenagers in Seattle mimicking phrases from Dundalk in the way that teenagers in Dundalk mimic kids from Seattle. If even one person gets on to me and says, ‘Yeah, my kids been saying, ‘Shut up, you cunt ya!’ that'd be great!”